Saturday, April 20, 2013

My Trip to Cuba - Part 1

We all have dreams. Those certain things we want to do in our lives before our time on this earth is done.  Most people call them bucket lists or life goals. Jumping out of an airplane, check. Fishing in various locations around the world, check.  Some; however, are too personable to be a bucket list item. Such is the case with a dream I've had since I was a teenager. A dream of seeing my Father's homeland and of visiting family I've never met. A dream of seeing what shaped my father into the great man he is.

As a child, you often don't realize you’re different than those around you. I never considered myself different. But life is cruel and some people look for reasons to not like you -- reasons to prevent you from dating their daughter, from being your friend or to just be mean.

I'll be the first to admit I was a little naive as a child. I was taught to respect everyone regardless of their skin color or heritage and I just assumed everyone else thought the same way. Unfortunately, I was wrong. They say, “Ignorance is bliss,” but I had a great childhood and feel very blessed for my upbringing.

My parents are both from other countries. My mother is from Colombia, South America. She came to this country with my grandparents at a young age and left a very good, upper-class lifestyle in Colombia. My Grandfather owned several successful restaurants and they had a very good life there. But, my Grandfather had dreams, too. Those dreams brought them to the United States. They struggled, but ultimately persevered through hard work and determination. My Mom has shared stories with me about my grandmother having to sew dresses by hand for them to wear to school, of the difficulties of learning the English language and of the challenges of their family of 7’s survival while my Grandfather worked odd jobs to make ends meet.

At 11 years old, I traveled to Colombia with my family. It was an incredible experience for me. I remember meeting my aunt and uncle and seeing the lifestyle there. They were well off and they took good care of us, but there was poverty everywhere. As we made our way through the mountains to stay at a family farm, I saw poverty like I hadn't seen before. Heck, I didn't even know it existed!  I guess I had been shielded from it while growing up. But a seed was planted and that seed would be constantly watered throughout my teenage years.

As a kid and a teenager, I was heavily involved in baseball. I loved playing baseball! Periodically, I would get heckled about being Hispanic. "Rodriguez, why don't you go back to the country you came from?" I often heard. Sometimes, I wish they had never put our last names on the backs or our shirts. But, I never let it phase me.  It was just fuel to play harder.  Every once in a while, I would let it get to me and say something in return. Usually in Spanish. I even got thrown out of a baseball game for speaking Spanish to the umpire. But, it always left me wondering, where is my family from? What is it like there? I'd already been to Colombia. What is it like where my Father came from?

You see, my Father is from Cuba -- only 90 miles from the United States, but an insurmountable distance for many reasons. My father's story is an incredible one; one he rarely talked about when I was younger.  He had been captured by Castro's troops in the Bay of Pigs, imprisoned and escaped twice to get to The US.  But, that story is for another day.  This story is about my dream to visit Cuba -- to see aunts, uncles and cousins I've never met. To see the land that my father played on as a child, hunted and fished as a young man and escaped from because he had hopes and dreams and wanted freedoms that weren't possible in Cuba - freedoms that are still denied to Cubans to this day.

I could have taken this trip earlier in my life, but life flies by in the blink of an eye. Marriage, kids, careers and the day-to-day challenges of life really make time fly by. Only God knows why I waited till I was 46 years old to go, but I'm glad I went. I was even fortunate enough to take my son with me. I hope that it made as great an impression on him as it did on me.

Cubans are a very passionate people. Just watch us playing dominoes, listening to music or watching a baseball game and you will see what I mean. We're loud, animated and we speak our mind. Sometimes to a fault. In Cuba, I was told on more than one occasion that I could stand to lose a few pounds. Some honesty I could do without!  :)

My journey began well before I stepped off of the plane in the Jose Marti airport in Havana.  It started in Miami. Another trait Cubans are well-known for is our punctuality!  Actually, it’s the lack of it! The agency that gathers all of the required paperwork and airline tickets knows this. They must because they had us show up at the Miami airport at 8:00 a.m. That wouldn't have been too bad if the plane to Cuba didn't leave till 1:00 p.m. But, we were told this was to assure that everyone made it on the plane on time.

You are only allowed to bring 55 pounds per person. Anything over and you pay a certain amount per pound.  I believe it was $7.00 per pound.  Based on what I saw, they turned a profit on that alone!  I saw a 55-inch flat screen TV and several 32-inch flat screens. Later, I found out that, in Cuba, these people will have to pay an import tax to the Cuban government that is usually equivalent to the cost of the item and, sometimes, more. For example, if the large flat screen cost you $1,000.00 in the US, you will pay about the same amount in Cuba to take it into the country. That's a very nice TV to have, especially since the only TV reception is through an antenna on the roof. There is no cable nor satellite dishes in Cuba.

There are people, called mules, who actually make a living taking goods into Cuba. Families in the US will pay per pound to have these mules transport the items into Cuba and deliver it to family members still living there.

Now… take a large group of Cubans, put them in a stressful situation, such as a busy international airport, and you have the makings for great entertainment. I can already see the reality show!
After going through all of the security, customs, baggage check and so forth, it was finally time to board the plane. They called for the first section of seats to start boarding, but it didn't matter. Everybody stood up and got in line regardless of where they were sitting.  Patience is not a Cuban virtue!

My Father did not receive his visa in time for this flight. We were told by the agency that it should be in by Monday, so my son and I boarded the plane without my father. We were going to a country we've never been to, to see family we have never met. That increased the stress factor just a bit!
Once on board, everyone began stuffing the overhead compartments and under the seats with the carryon luggage. It reminds me of trying to stuff a new tent or a sleeping bag back into its original bag. The gentleman next to me needed the room under the seats in front of me and my son.  Four carryons!  Really?  Finally, everyone was seated and we were ready to go.

As we began taxiing to the runway, we were asked to sit down and fasten our seat belts. Children of a certain age or size had to be seated, in their own seats, with their seat belt fastened in order for the plane to take off.  Apparently, someone forgot to tell this sweet little princess or her mother because she wasn't having anything to do with it – she wanted to be on her mother's lap. Oh boy, I had forgotten what a temper tantrum was like!  This was like a warning siren to the other flight attendants and all 3 converged on this mother to try and get this spoiled rotten brat child seated.  Combine that with the plane full of Cubans, who are passionate and honest, and, apparently willing to give free advice on how to handle the situation and you have pandemonium.  In Georgia, there was ‘the switch’ to keep kids straight.  In Hispanic culture, it is called the chancleta, or sandal in English. There were several chancletas offered up!  One guy was yelling to the child "Quit being so spoiled and sit down!"  Another gentleman told her to sit down or they would throw her off the moving airplane. “Man, don't hold back!” I thought.

It took all three flight attendants and the mother to force this screaming, kicking demon child into her seat so we could take off.  I was looking for this child's head to start spinning and her pigtails to turn to horns and, man oh man, could that child scream!  

Finally, we are on our way!

Once we were in the air, it was time for the passengers to give advice to the pilot. “Turn left here!”  “Turn right in five minutes!” One guy even yelled, “Take the turnpike - it's faster!”  Another asked the pilot if he remembered his Sunpass so he wouldn't have to stop and pay tolls. “You just can't pay for entertainment like this,” I thought.

On a plane leaving Miami to Cuba, you would think that they would have Spanish-speaking flight attendants. Out of the three, there was only one. He was your stereotypical male flight attendant with perfect hair and feminine characteristics. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

The lead attendant was a middle-aged woman around 50. After dealing with the demon child, she looked like she was ready to retire!  She had this "I can't believe I'm still doing this" look on her face.  The third flight attendant was quite attractive.  She was of European decent; she had a Russian or Bosnian accent. She had pronounced cheek bones, strong facial lines and big blue-green eyes. I'm not sure my son noticed her eyes once since she had obviously had some work done. You can't be that thin and have that up top!  It just doesn't happen.

About 10 minutes into the staggeringly long 30-minute flight, it was time for drinks. Not sure why they needed drinks on such a short flight, but I had a bit of an upset stomach and I was looking forward to a ginger ale or a sprite. As the attendants began making their way down to us, my son told me to listen to the Russian flight attendant when someone asked for a Coke. “Ummm, ok!”  I thought,  “What is so special about that?”  And then it happened!  Someone just ahead of us asked for a coke.

“One cock coming up!” she answered.

What?  Did I hear that correctly?  It's a good thing I didn't have my soft drink yet or it would have come out of my nose!  She couldn't pronounce coke, but pronounced it cock. “Oh man, awesome!”  I thought.  It was now my turn and she asked me, “What would you like to drink?” I said to myself, “There is no way you can order anything but coke!”  My son and I both ordered cokes. "Two cocks coming right up!" she said back.  To myself, I was thinking it was a good thing they didn't have cherry coke, as they made their way past us.  Just a row or two behind us, they ran out of cokes and she yelled to the flight attendant in the front of the plane, "We need more cocks!!"  Coke burns when it comes out your nose!  Trust me, it does!

We then began our descent into Cuba and this begins my journey, the dream of visiting my father’s homeland.  I'm landing in a country with no phone service, no internet, and no means of communication with anybody in the US. My father isn't with me to guide me and I am with my son who speaks little to no Spanish.  How is my family going to find me in this crazy group of people? Do they know what I look like? All these questions and the anxiety I felt had my stomach churning like a crab boat in the Bering Sea.  Man, I needed to get to a bathroom... and quick!

As I stepped off of the plane, I couldn't help but to notice how small the airport was. To go from Atlanta's airport, the largest in the world, to this, was hilarious. There are some Super Wal-marts bigger than this airport. It didn't matter to me though; I just hoped they had a bathroom!

I couldn't get through customs or the airport securities two scanners quick enough. Once through, there were only two baggage carousels. Before I could get a single word out, my son looked at me and said "Dad, I've gotta go to the bathroom!"

What! You've got to be kidding me. “Hurry up!”  I said, “Please hurry up!”  I was suddenly stricken with the thought of what would happen to my son if we were separated.  He speaks very limited Spanish and doesn't even know any of the names of our family members. This thought was quickly gone when the stomach cramps began. I saw him come out of the bathroom and I quickly made my way there.

The bathroom sign shone like a full moon on a pitch black night. Beckoning to me. I swear the sign had an aura around it. As I got within a few feet of the bathroom, I noticed a lady in uniform standing in front of the door. I glanced around her and noticed the universal sign for male. I knew I was in the right place. Before I could say anything, she stepped to the side and informed me that I could use the bathroom, and that today, they had paper. Then, I remembered there isn't always toilet paper in Cuba. It is somewhat of a luxury. Just before I left Miami, my mom recounted a story of a bathroom attendant, or security guard as I called them, handing her two squares the last time she visited Cuba. They actually ration toilet paper. I felt relief that they had paper today because I was surely going to need it!

If you are easily grossed out, you can skip this paragraph! There is no pretty way to write this next experience. There were two toilet stalls, so I made my way to the first one. As I opened the door, two things were immediately apparent. There wasn’t a toilet seat and there was no roll of paper. “No problem,” I thought, “I'll just use the other one.”  Well, that was the wrong choice. The other toilet was not only was missing the seat, but it also looked like somebody just died, and.... there was no toilet paper.  I slip into panic mode, beads of sweat were forming on my forehead and I began looking for a plant or something, anything I can use to replace toilet paper. Then I thought, “Maybe she was saying there was paper to dry my hands.”  Yea, that's it!  On the wall next to the sink, I see it.  Hanging on the wall, enclosed in a see-through and locked case was a half roll of toilet paper. Seriously, you have got to be kidding me!  I quickly rip off a few feet!  I even got extra, as the thought of me running out and having to waddle over to the wall for more was not a pretty vision. I walked… no, I sprinted… over to the toilet and began my business. In the middle of what was major decompression, I simultaneously saw a pair of women's shoes in front of my stall and a female voice asked me if I had enough paper. What the hell? "Yes ma'am, thank you!" I reply. If I thought she had watched Seinfeld, I would have asked her for a square, but I laughed to myself and finished my business. I couldn't walk by her fast enough as I left the bathroom. “Have a nice day!” she says as I walked by. “Lady, I'm probably going to have nightmares, but thanks for making sure I was taken care of,” I thought to myself.  I made a mental note to buy toilet paper if I could find some and carry it around with me.

As I walked up to my son, our luggage was there, so I grabbed it and we began to leave the airport.  What awaited us outside the doors was pure chaos. Everyone was crowded around barriers, holding up signs. It looked like the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Luckily for me, there weren't many 6-foot, 1-inch, bald-headed Cubans, and my cousin, Loli, noticed me right away from the pictures that my parents had sent. “Thank God for small miracles!”  I had no idea who to look for or if they knew what I looked like, since my Dad wasn't with me.

All of this and I hadn’t even been in the country for 1 hour.

I will be posting pictures soon and will continue writing of my experiences in Cuba. Until my next post, God bless and have a great day!


  1. Can't wait for the next installment! You are a talented man Jorge!!

  2. Awesome Reading!!!!My Pediatrician I Had Growing Up Used To Tell Us Of Her Stories And How She Came To America And Growing Up In Cuba....She Was an Amazing Woman...Can't Wait Too Read Your Next Story..
    Michelle Phillips

  3. I am very proud of my son and gran son , I trusted my family with their care , but I did not trust the Cuban goberment for their wellbeen , in Cuba the comunist do not respect a human been rights and the security forces sees enemies in every corner , one little mistake and they treat you like a criminal , a this moment april 22 mi visa has not come yet and they have not send a rejection note or my monney for the visa and the aeroplane ticket back to me . to my son Jorge , good job son , love you very much .

  4. Great reading. Such detail, I enjoyed reading it. Going to have my sons read it when they get home from school. Look forward to the next post. Carl Bowling