A Change In the Air

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“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard World Atlantic, Flight 426 to Havana….”  The closest I’ve ever been to Cuba was just over eleven years ago, southbound to over the Caribbean on our way to Honduras. Out our window, 30,000 feet below and a world away, the coastline beckoned, blue to green with a narrow strip of rocky brown. Less than six miles separated us, but back then, Cuba was across the looking glass, so close, yet impossibly far away.

I’ve put ridiculously little thought into expectations for this trip. Vague understanding that we arrive and leave via Havana, and I thought I heard mention of Trinidad, and Cien Fuegos, but have no idea where they are, or what we’ll be doing there. Coming down the jetway, I heard Jeff and Devon discussing the growing econimic tensions of the new trade rules: a tour guide can pull down two or three thousand dollars a month; a top cardiac surgeon makes less than that in an entire year. The Cubans, I’ve been reminded, have grown up without advertising, without billboards telling them how thin and beautiful they should be, what they should be buying, wearing to be cool. And how long, under the new rules, before there’s a Starbucks on every corner? It is a fraught time to be a Cuban, and I’m grateful for the chance to see the country now, before it is completely culturally overrun by its brash northern brother.

I’m looking forward to immersing myself in Havana as it is now, in what has always been portrayed to me as a sort of lost world. Elegant Latin architecture from the 20’s, American cars from the 50’s, timeless music and a fashion sense like New York next week.

And, oh, the language – weaving and bobbing like featherweight boxer, coming at you too fast to catch, let alone understand. There’s a saying from Patton, or someone, that no battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. In that spirit, my experience has again been borne out that no language lessons ever survive first contact with the destination country. Yes, I’ve been listening to my Pimsleur tapes and religiously putting in my twenty minutes a day with Duolingo online. And hey, I’ve traveled in Chile, Barcelona, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Peru. But even in Miami, man, I’m useless. Sure, I’ll catch on, eventually. Maybe by the end of our week and a half in country, if I work at it. Maybe I’ll be able to catch enough to get the gist of things (“Con permiso señora, pero creo que su peluca esta quemando…”) with only a few “mas despacio, por favor”s. But it’ll be fun. I’ve always liked throwing myself into a language in situ.

Ahead, shimmering low on the blue-white horizon, a coastline beckons from behind marching columns of puffy tropical clouds. Our nose dips, almost imperceptibly. Even through the compressed, dehumidified, filtered and reheated vents of the Flight 426’s pressurization system, I can smell a change in the air.

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