I thought the adventure was supposed to be in Cuba.
Although reflections on my last night in Cuba kept me awake until after 1:30 a.m., my energy was not diminished when I awoke at 6:30 a.m. My friends across the street again agree to heat water for my morning maté, starting the day off on a pleasant note. I did most of my packing last night, and thus have ample time to write a little on the blog and enjoy an unusually large breakfast in view of our day’s schedule and the likelihood of having to forego lunch. We meet in the lobby of Saint John at 10:45 a.m., which gives us some margin before our scheduled 2:30 p.m. departure to Miami.
Saying goodbye to my birding friend Augusto and our helpful translator Yulia proves to be a tender moment for most of us. They have been with us almost from the moment we arrived until we entered the airport to depart. We are thankful that our immersion leader Carlos collected expressions of appreciation to present to our companions on behalf of the entire group. I don’t believe I will ever forget what gracious and thoughtful hosts – and friends – they have been for us.
The Cuban personnel at the airport are polite and efficient, and they wish us well when returning passports after their official review of our documents. The terminal is crowded, but not uncomfortable. I remember terminals like these from the early ’60s. The facility is all on one level at the edge of the tarmac. Passengers pass through glass doors and walk across the tarmac to ascend a rolling staircase/platform that is wheeled up to the aircraft – that is, when the aircraft arrives.
I recall how, when heading to Cuba, our flight was delayed at Miami for more than a half-hour. As we approach that time frame while waiting in the José Martí airport today, Natalia asks Carlos, “What time does our plane for Miami board?” To which Carlos unhesitatingly replies, “Whenever it gets here.” As it happens, it doesn’t “get here” until about 4:30 p.m. – a full two hours behind scheduled departure. It is parked far enough away on the tarmac to warrant buses for ferrying us from the terminal to the rolling stairs/platform. One among us comments that she finds it interesting to observe how the delays all have been related to American and not Cuban arrangements.
The delay means we have eaten away the extra margin of time allotted for today’s travel, resulting in our arrival at Miami on a tight schedule: it is 5:30 p.m. and our next flight is scheduled to depart for Charlotte at 7:15 p.m. From there we are to catch a connecting flight on to Dallas. But we have only begun the day’s adventures.
From our point of arrival at MIA, a seemingly interminable walk through a veritable labyrinth of tunnels finally brings us to the bright and efficient kiosks designed to help travelers get through customs in record time. However, to a person, our expedited arrival is rejected and all of us are selected individually for a personal interview with customs officials. It is not hard to figure out that arriving from Cuba is a red flag apart from any other mitigating issues. But the U.S. customs officers are pleasant and efficient, and we pass through with no searches or further delays. Waiting to pick up our baggage – first at one baggage claim area, then, inexplicably, moved to another – does not take as much time as waiting to pass through one more checkpoint to show our passports. By the time we reach a line of more than 30 people at the U.S. Airways counter, it is 6:45 p.m. Fortunately for us, this domestic flight has been delayed considerably, and we still have hope for checking bags and making the plane.
But the roller-coaster has a few twists and turns still in store. Severe weather has resulted in the cancellation of many flights from Charlotte to connecting cities. The good news is that the delayed departure allows us ample time to make our flight to Charlotte. The bad news is that we will be spending the night in Charlotte and catching a plane to D/FW the next morning. The worse news is that, because the cancellation is weather-related, we will not have lodging provided for us by the airline. Except for those who choose to find a hotel shuttle and pay their own way for a room, we’ll be spending the night in the Charlotte airport. What’s more, we have to check our luggage NOW, leaving us without toiletries and other items we may need in the morning.
Upon hearing this news, I kidnap my bag from the scale where it is being checked at that very moment. As the harried attendant gapes, I proceed to retrieve and lay out on the floor my yerba maté, Bridwell thermos, maté gourd and bombilla, and my bottle of honey. I haven’t eaten since 9:30 a.m. and it is now nearly 8 p.m. My patience is sufficient for all of this. Except… I WILL have my tea in the morning. It is a consolation, so to speak.
The suitcase is noticeably lighter when I return it to the scale. This means, of course, that my carry-on (more accurately, my “carry around”) load is considerably heavier.
Even with a two-hour delay of the flight from Miami to Charlotte, we are left with a tight schedule. I have texted my wife, Nancy, several times while standing in lines. But most of the lines through security checkpoints do not allow use of cell phones, and in any case the crowds on all sides make it impossible to hold a conversation. I have not spoken with her since the day we left Miami for Cuba.
We walk back from the U.S. Airways counter to TSA checkpoint number 3 (Concourse D). For reasons unclear to us, they insist that we must go to security checkpoint number 4 (Concourse E, from which our flight departs). It is a long walk, and I have my computer bag in one hand with the Bridwell thermos under my arm, and the hot water heater in my other hand – its electrical cord trailing beside me like the switching tail of a mutant white rat.
There is also the matter of my bottle of honey. It is a 12-oz. bottle, which exceeds the 3-oz. limit for any liquids that must pass through TSA security. As we approach checkpoint number 4, the others move ahead while I stop for a moment to inquire whether the lone vendor in the last available store might have a clear 3-ounce bottle I could purchase, in hopes of transferring sufficient honey for tomorrow’s tea. Alas, she does not. When I walk the last 100 steps to TSA checkpoint number 4 where my colleagues have just passed ahead of me, I am informed that this checkpoint is now closed, and told that I must walk back to TSA checkpoint number 3. In Concourse D. It’s a Very.Long.Walk.
A shoelace has worked loose, and it drags alongside the white rat’s tail. I arrive at TSA checkpoint number 3 to discover an agonizingly slow and Very.Long.Line. The clock is ticking. It will be a Very.Long.Walk. BACK to Concourse E once (if) I ever clear security in Checkpoint 3. With my oversize bottle of honey. I am not surprised to be called aside for questioning about my sweet golden contraband. “You’ll have to check this in your luggage,” I am sternly informed by the uniformed officer with gold badge gleaming in the depressing fluorescent light. I erupt in a babble of explanation – our connecting flight is cancelled, I’ll be sleeping in the Charlotte airport, and… While waiting in the very long line at TSA Security Checkpoint number 3 I have been reading the fine print. About baby bottles. And diabetics. “I need it because of low blood sugar,” I blurt out. Which is true. It is not a medical condition. But it is indubitably correct to say that my blood sugar will be lower tomorrow morning without honey to sweeten my essential morning tea.
The stern face transmogrifies into a gentle smile almost immediately. “Oh, sure,” he says in a kindly tone. “I’ll have to check it out in our machine, but no worries.” By now boarding time is approaching. And before me there remains a Very.Long.Walk. to Concourse E. I still haven’t spoken with my wife. Our last conversation was when I called her from Miami on the morning of our departure more than a week ago. I miss her terribly. She has texted me that she is fighting back tears as she reads my terse messages about our schedule. But with my overstuffed computer bag in one hand and various accoutrements from my luggage in the other, I don’t have a free hand with which to hold the phone even if I could somehow talk while navigating the Very.Long.Walk. to Concourse E. When I finally arrive at the designated gate, I find the flight is only a few minutes from boarding. A desperate run to the closest eatery gives me a small pre-made pizza for temporary sustenance. Then it’s boarding time. I finally call Nancy for a 60-second conversation from inside the plane as it prepares to taxi toward the runway. “I’ll call again when we land in Charlotte,” I promise. ETA 11:15 p.m.
We disembark in Charlotte about 11:30 p.m. All the restaurants and shops close at midnight. There is just enough time to grab a bite. I finally have the first conversation of any substance with my beloved Nancy in 10 days. By 1 a.m., I’ve located an electrical outlet in a nearby terminal where there is a quiet corner and, most importantly, a row of chairs without arms between each seat, thereby allowing room to lay down on something other than the airport floor.
About 2 a.m., after piling miscellaneous items somewhat precariously on the laptop bag at my feet (a sort of improvised security alarm should anything be moved while I’m dozing), I close my eyes and enter into a fitful series of cat naps. Neck aches drive me to wad up my blazer up for a pillow after an hour or so. I wake once-and-for-all at 5:30 a.m.
The electrical outlet doesn’t work. When I locate another, a folksy young fellow traveler with a pronounced Southern drawl approaches to share a socket so that he can charge his phone. When he discovers that his charger has broken, I let him borrow mine. Michael looks young to already have been a professional photographer whose credits include working for People magazine for several years. He is returning from the Nascar races in Orlando and hoping to get back home to Nashville today.
There is a comfortable bond that unites newly-minted veterans of an all-nighter in the airport. Soon Michael and I are joined by Colin, an older gentleman (about my age) who is a medical doctor for the student body at UVA. His phone charger is trapped in his luggage, and he borrows mine after Michael’s phone charges. Colin is hoping to get back to Charlottesville today. And he’s carrying what I soon will discover to be a 1923 Gibson mandolin. It is a beauty, and he pulls it out for a minute to play a lively jig in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.
When Colin discovers I’ve just returned from Cuba, he asks what parts of Cuba we visited. I patiently explain that the town of Matanzas is in an adjoining province of the same name, about 100 kilometers from La Habana, he says to my surprise: “I know it well. That is where my father is from.” His father left Cuba in 1950 to study engineering at the University of Michigan. ¡Increíble!
A thermos of maté followed by a slice of hot pizza (yes, it’s 6 a.m.; but the store just opened and it’s nice and fresh! Besides, I’ve pretty much been up all night.) leaves me ready to face the middle seat on our plane back to Dallas. Everyone else in our group is at the gate when I join them. Departure is delayed only 30 minutes or so, and I’m finally back at my apartment in Dallas about 11:30 a.m.
But not really. My body is home and my heart has never been happier to see Nancy. Yet some ineffable piece of me remains in Cuba. And a great deal of Cuba remains in me.