Going To Cuba With God (Part 1)
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” -Aldous Huxley
My daughter’s tap company was invited to perform at a reception for the Cuban Ballet in Los Angeles. The director of the company, Prima Ballerina Alicia Alonso is blind. When she listened to the kids dance, her face lit up. She liked what she heard and invited the Kennedy Tap Kids ( fifteen children ages 10-15) to perform at the world renowned Cuban Ballet Festival. They were the first American children to perform at this Festival in twenty years.
This was fourteen years ago. Getting a visa for Cuba at that time was very difficult. We applied and while we we waited, we raised the money for the airfare. The Cuban government would pay for everything in Cuba. As Americans, you were not allowed to spend money in Cuba. You could not use a credit card . There was no cell phone service, internet or atms. We didn’t get any information about lodging, meals, performance schedule or our itinerary beforehand. We did know to bring every medical supply we could think of. The visas did not arrive until the day before. It was very stressful. I had a lot of anxiety about going.
My mother was legally blind and loved ballet , opera and theatre. I was raised hearing stories of Alicia Alonso, the blind ballerina. I had seen her dance when I was young and my daughter had done a book report on her the year before. I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to go if hadn’t been for her. I had grown up with her story.
In case I wasn’t nervous enough, Hurricane Mitch ( the deadliest hurricane since 1780) was in Cancun at the time we were leaving. We had decided to fly into Cancun because they didn’t want the kids to go past the picket signs in Miami. For the last few days, the news would show empty Cancun airport and a city ravaged by the storm. We were still going. I was preparing, convinced we would be staying in a storm shelter if we even made it to Cancun. I packed lanterns, flashlights , my earthquake blankets and water. The night before I was having a panic attack.
I called one of the moms. What are you doing about the storm Valerie? What are you bringing?. Her response was “I’m praying.” “You’re praying?” I try to keep the hysterical edge out of my voice. “ Yes”, she replied. I could see that she wasn’t going to be any help.
I was so nervous that I didn’t sleep. I was still deciding whether or not we should go at the airport in the morning. When we arrived at the airport , the teachers and students were in a circle praying for the safety of the journey . Really? In the middle of the airport? This was a devout group. They practically pushed me on the plane. The plane was empty . The media had done an excellent job. We can each have our own row in coach.
The flight is relatively smooth. We land in the empty Cancun airport. It is sunny. Valerie looks at me. I don’t say anything. Fifty skycaps come running toward us ( the only people around) with their carts. Sorry, we are just changing planes.. We take pictures near the broken glass and blown out windows .
We move on to my next fear. It is the very small plane that is taking us to Havana. I have a fear of small and very small planes. I sit with Arlene Kennedy on the plane. Arlene and Paul Kennedy ran the Kennedy Dance School and Tap Company. Many famous tap dancers have come out of this school. Arlene Kennedy had danced around the world and had seen it all . She dealt with all the chaos at the Kennedy School with a quiet strength. On the plane, she acted like we were sitting in the Chinese restaurant next door to the school having a chat. It was exactly what I needed.
I didn’t have to worry. When the turbulence started, the Mormon missionaries sitting behind us started to sing and pray. We finally landed.
Landing in a Communist or Military oppressed country always feels different . There is a lot of security and people with guns around. (It was pre 9/11). It is quieter. The air smelled thick with smoke. It was about three o clock in the morning for us. We waited on line for a while . They didn’t stamp our passports, but stamped a separate piece of paper. At that time it was better not to have a Cuba stamp on your passport. There were no stores in the airport. We were taken to a bus and driven away in the dark.
We were going to our first destination, Varedero, a beautiful resort city about a two hour drive from Havana. We were told that we would be in a five star hotel. It didn’t look like a hotel – it looked like a camp. It smelled like a tropical island. It was very dark and there were dim or no street lights so we couldn’t see where we were. The kids were brought into the dining room. All they wanted to do was go to sleep. They were exhausted. Someone brought out vanilla ice cream for everyone. They didn’t want it. They were American kids. They could have ice cream any time they wanted. ( for dessert only) I had to tell each one of them quietly that they had to eat the ice cream . It was a special treat that they had prepared for us. (when was the last time you forced a kid to eat ice cream?) At the end of our trip in Santa Clara, we saw a line that stretched out over many blocks. We looked to see what they were lined up for. It was an ice cream cart. They understood.
We were then taken to another building. We had to climb two flights of stairs with our suitcases. I don’t travel lightly. In addition to my regular packing, there were costumes, dance shoes, extra food, medical and storm supplies. Thank you Tony Nicholas for carrying my suitcase up the stairs that night. Our room has a big hole in the screen ( the size of my head). My daughter is allergic to mosquitos and I read that they were there. ( I never saw them). We moved into a big dorm room with all the kids. My daughter and I shared a twin bed . Luckily I brought a pillow as there weren’t any. The kids were now hopped up on sugar from the ice cream and jet lag. There was a woman I didn’t know in the bed next to us. My daughter did not look happy. I tried not to cry. Things were not off to a good start.
Viaje Con Cuidado,