Bailey Combs – I would like to start this blog by thanking Wabash College, Dr. Hollander, Dr. Rogers, Mr. Amidon, and Common Ground for organizing this astounding trip. I haven’t even been in Havana one night yet and I can already tell this is going to be an once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I started to get this once-in-a-lifetime feeling the second we got into line to check our bags at the Miami airport. We seemed out of place with our backpacks and carry-on luggage as the Cuban-Americans in line with us pushed hand-carts piled high with the large luggage and gifts they were taking back to their relatives in Cuba. The biggest difference between our luggage and theirs aside from the size and quantity of luggage was that their luggage was encased in cellophane. I was told by the Miami travel agent working that this was done to prevent theft by the Havana airport workers. Since the cellophane was such an essential part of Cuban-Americans traveling back to Cuba, it came as no surprise that the Miami airport offered a bag wrapping service at a whopping $50 a bag.
The adventure continued as we boarded an all-white airplane with a small American Flag and ID numbers as its only distinguishing marks. In a row of three seats, Adam Alexander, a Fiji at Wabash, and I occupied the two seats closest to the aisle. As we sat there speculating whether or not someone was going to occupy the window-side seat next to us, a woman appeared holding her baby boy. Adam and I tried to get up to let her reach her seat but she cut us off and offered her seat to one of us. We both scooted over but right after we did this she said, “Now you must do something for me.” Adam and I stared at each other wondering what we had just gotten ourselves into when suddenly the little boy was plopped into Adam’s lap. After the woman had situated herself in her seat, we entered into a conversation from her and found out her name was Sandy and her son’s name was Luis. Sandy gave us plenty advice on what to avoid in Cuba, namely drinking the local water, and in exchange we helped her get her baggage off of the plane.
From the airplane, we had to walk across the tarmac to the José Martí International Airport. The terminal was silent despite the large crowd of passengers crowding around the baggage claim. We quietly collected our luggage and headed for a set of automatic, sliding doors which were the exit for the terminal. We were stunned when the doors flashed open and a noisy multitude of Cubans eagerly awaiting their relatives were barely restrained by a rail fence. From the back of the crowd, we could see an elderly man holding up a “Wabash University” sign. This older man was William, our tour guide for the Havana portion of our trip. He used to teach history, French, and several other subjects at all levels of the Cuban education system.
He and his driver took us from the airport to the hotel to drop off our bags before heading out to dinner a restaurant named El Templo. It was here that I benefited the most from Dr. Wilson’s Spanish classes because Patrick Bryant and I spoke with our driver in Spanish the entire time. After topping off dinner with éclairs and chocolate ice cream, William rushed us off to La Cabana fortress, a Spanish installation from the 18th century AD, for a reenacting of the closing of the gate ceremony which involved a cannon being fired.
We retreated from the fort back to the Hotel Plaza, where we were staying, so that William could give us an introductory lesson in Cuban culture, namely the proper way to smoke a Cuban cigar. I learned that the thicker the cigar the better it is, that one should take their time lighting the cigar, and most importantly to never ash your cigar if you can help it.
As the smoke died down from our first day in Havana, I would like to thank and encourage those reading this blog to read my teammate Isaac Taylor’s blog and the forthcoming blogs of the other students on this trip as well. Viva la Bash!