Saturday, June 1, 2013

A foreigner on familiar land

Kaitlin Gillespie,
Reporting from Havana

I’ve never felt more like a stranger than when I was a foreigner in my own country.
As I stepped through the gates of the airport, my ears and eyes tingled with the familiar sound of a foreign language. Announcers shouted instructions over the intercom, first in Spanish, then in English. TSA signs were emblazoned with bold Spanish. It was as though I’d already stepped into Latin America, but I hadn’t. I was still on United States soil, in an airport where my sleep-deprived brain saw it more like Guantanamo Bay by the time our seven-hour delay in Miami was over.

After my group, 20 wide-eyed American students, steps through security, we’re ushered to a cold, dark room that they tell me is a terminal. I don’t know if I believe that. The space is small, dirty and there aren’t enough plug-ins to keep me connected to U.S. comforts. As Americans, we’re a minority here, our charter flight mostly filled by Cubans. The Spanish in the background is a dull roar in my ears as I settle down for what should have been a short delay. Then the call comes.
I don’t know much Spanish, but the words “delay,” and “noche,” are enough to tell me that I’ll be in this dirty prison for far too long.
It seems a grand adventure at first. Cubans with bright green plastic-wrappedd packages mill around the space, seeming more comfortable than we were with our backpacks laden with cameras and laptops. I suspect many of them have been here before. I watch with fascination at the lime-colored plastic wrap cocooning televisions and suitcases. We’re later told at the U.S. Interests Section that many of these packages are remittances: legally imported gifts from Cubans to their families.
It’s a different world in this terminal. Most of the food courts are closed, requiring us to travel across the airport to eat. There are no flight attendants or pilots milling around in pressed shirts and carrying small suitcases. The Internet connection is about as good as what I’ll find on the ground in Havana.
By the end of the day, I’m loopy, swearing excessively and prone to giggling at just about anything. I guess that’s what happens after 36 hours of straight travel from Spokane to Miami. Maybe this is it, I thought, deliriously. Maybe this is actually the end of the journey. Am I supposed to begin reporting here? Will my datelines say Miami International Airport instead of Havana?
I’ve traveled to Morocco and France, and been in airports all over the world, but never have I felt more lost than I do in this dingy airport. The culture shock sets in harder than I ever thought it would—never would I realize that it’s only a taste of what’s to come.
Right as I’m about to start sobbing and laughing hysterically at the same time, the room erupts into cheers. I didn’t understand the announcement that came over the intercom in Spanish, but I do understand the jubilant reaction: We’re on the move.
As I take my seat in the plane, settling down for the journey, I feel as though the trip could be over right now. Little do I know it’s only the beginning to another crazy adventure.

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