When Obama announced that he was easing travel restrictions to Cuba, I figured I better hop on a plane fast before all the gringos rush over with their Hawaiian print shirts and snotty children. I went to Cuba by way of Mexico City, but I got a taste of Cuba before even landing in Cuba. I arrived early for my 6AM flight to Havana with legañas and sleep still heavy on my eyelids. I had gone three nights straight of dancing salsa and kizomba in Mexico City, and didn’t get any sleep the night before my flight. It was too early for fluorescent lighting, so most of the check-in area was dark. There was a group of Cubans waiting near the Cubana de Aviación ticket counter with luggage, and giant bundles and boxes wrapped in plastic. There were tires stacked on luggage dollies, and people resting on air conditioners and trash bags bulging with clothes. They were bringing items that are hard to find in Cuba because of the embargo. I only brought two backpacks; one with wheels that I used as a nerd in high school, and a smaller one used as a carry on. I was obviously out of place. At that time, I was also the only foreigner waiting in line for a tourist visa to Cuba, which are purchased right next to the check-in counter.
“Excuse me, amiga, I was wondering if you could do me a favor,” said this man, who obviously picked up on my extranjera-ness. He was short and wearing a button down shirt. He didn’t look threatening. “You see it’s hard for us to find a lot of stuff por temas del bloqueo, and I was wondering if you could check in some of my stuff with your luggage. I’ll even show you what’s inside my case.”
“I understand, but I don’t feel comfortable,” I said.
“Okay,” he said. “Piensalo. I’ll come back later to make sure.”
The man left, and came back again a few minutes later. The counter still hadn’t opened for check-in, and there still wasn’t anybody selling tourist visas.
“¿Te vas a Cuba sola?” he asked.
“No, I’m meeting a friend there,” I lied. At first I hoped that maybe he had forgotten about his luggage scheme and was just trying to make small talk.
“Cuba doesn’t have food that you Mexicans are used to,” he said. “I hope you brought your tortillas and salsa picante.”
“Of course,” I replied.
“Amiga, listen, I can introduce you to my friends, they’re on the same flight. Your maleta isn’t even that big. You won’t get in trouble, I promise.” He pointed to two women chatting who didn’t even take any notice of him.
“No. Lo siento,” I said. I gave a smile as if to say, “Don’t take it personal, bro.”
He left. A this point I sat down on one backpack on the airport floor, and positioned my high school nerd backpack under my head. Of course, I didn’t fall asleep because I didn’t want some weirdo to slip my money and passport out of my purse. I tried to find WiFi with my cell phone and took inventory of the foreign otherness I was giving off. My biggest mistake was wearing black MC Hammer pants. The other women were dressed and ready to fly from Mexico City’s crisp high altitude and into Havana’s heat and humidity with beaded leather sandals and bright colored dresses or dark skinny jeans. They also wore neatly applied eyeliner while I had lazily brushed teeth and a messy ponytail. For early morning flights, I am unfortunately a shoe-in for the show What Not to Wear. The man came back.
“Amiga, do you already have a plan of what you want to see in Cuba?”
“Yes,” I said. I was thinking, “Great, now this viejo wants to sell me a tour package.”
“You can’t miss Viñales, and Varadero is a beautiful beach,” he said.
“Yes, I’ve heard,” I said.
“I’m friends with security, so it wouldn’t be a problem for you to carry my stuff.”
I rolled my eyes and gave an exaggerated sigh. I didn’t want to come off as another insensitive foreigner, but it was time for me to sacar pecho and be assertive.
“Señor, I already said no. I’m not taking anything that belongs to you.”
He smiled, thanked me, and walked away. The visa line finally opened, and I was the first foreigner there, so I paid my 25USD and checked in my nerdy backpack. Behind me was a priest, who tapped me on the shoulder to ask if I was in line for a tourist visa as well, and a married couple who spoke neither Spanish or English.
When it was time to board my flight, I didn’t see the man who wanted me to hold his stuff. After takeoff, I managed about an hour of sleep. Another hour later the plane began its descent into what looked like an emerald surrounded by water.