The adventure might as well begin right away.
When I went out to catch my ride to Newark airport for my flight to Cuba, the taxi was stuck in snow from the recent blizzard. The left rear tire was spinning, churning up smoke and stench from burned rubber. The driver tried moving forward and backward and turning his wheel left and right, but nothing was working. It was only getting worse as the car slid further into the snow until it was practically touching a parked car.
I had a plane to catch! It was 8:30 a.m. and the flight was scheduled to depart at 11:10. I needed two hours lead time for an international flight. There wasn’t much time.
I dropped my bags in the snow and climbed onto the rear bumper, hoping my weight would increase traction. It did no good. The wheel kept spinning, throwing up snow, grime and smoke.
Meanwhile, a large delivery truck passed on the right and got stuck too. It couldn’t move forward or backward without scraping parked cars. Now the whole street was blocked and cars started backing up. At the back end of the line came an ambulance with lights flashing and sirens blaring.
I was getting nervous. How was I going to make my flight?
I went around to the front of the taxi and started pushing it in rhythm with the driver as he rocked it back and forth, and suddenly it broke free of the snow. But it was still blocked in front and back by cars and trucks.
Then the truck driver managed to move the truck, leaving a long crease on the side of a white sedan. I felt sorry for the truck driver, but I was elated to be freed to proceed to the airport. Fate had given me a final taste of the Blizzard of ’17 before sending me off to a world that could not have been more different: the warm, crystalline waters of the Caribbean.
My flight on United Airlines would take me directly to Havana—all I had to do was make it onto that plane.
Fortunately, the traffic jam had only cost 15 minutes, and that had been built into my fudge time. I made it to the airport with plenty of time; The angels were with me.
I walked to a remote corner of Newark Airport where I can usually find an open reservations terminal when most of them have lines, and a woman at a podium said, “Are you on the Cuba flight?”
I had fortuitously walked right up to the special area where United processes its Cuba passengers. (Of course, everything is different for Cuba; It is always in a class by itself.) The woman informed me I had to buy a Cuban visa for $75, and then I could get in a short check-in line.
United allows one free checked bag on most international flights, but not for the Caribbean. Fortunately, because of a United credit card, I got one free checked bag anyway. (Whoopee.)
From then on it was a breeze. Even the security routine was as pleasant as such things can be. It was my lucky day.
Soon I was on board and heading to Cuba. The flight was scheduled to arrive in Havana at 2:45, only a three and a half hour flight from Newark. Soon we were there, filing out onto the tarmac of the Jose Marti Havana Airport.
It’s still quite a modest-looking little airport, though now it is getting a number of flights from American carriers. As I filed into line to present my passport to immigration authorities, I saw that the man in front of me was Stephen Colbert, the late-night talk show host. That was one more piece of magic in a very magical day.
I was arriving in Cuba with Stephen Colbert.
After passing through hand luggage scanners, I smiled and gave a discreet wave to Colbert, practically whispering, “Hi, Steve!” as I walked by.
He looked at me puzzled, as if thinking, “Do I know this guy?” He smiled and then slipped into the VIP lounge with his travel companions.
Then began a wait at the baggage carousel that would stretch nearly two hours. The waiting passengers were hanging around together for so long, they started talking, sharing information and behaving like a community of friends. People were asking questions: Is this the right carousel? What does that sign say? Why is it taking so long? Are they searching all the bags?
People were craning their necks to see behind the mysterious curtain where the bags pop through. Only a few had come through and the flow had slowed to a trickle.
Some neglected bags kept coming around again.
One person said the tiny airport was processing five flights at that time. Someone peeked through the curtain and said that, yes, they were scanning the bags. Finally, my bag appeared on the conveyer belt. (Oh joy!)
My new friends were still waiting for theirs; I felt survivor’s guilt leaving them, but had to bid them farewell.
I walked out of the airport to crowds of faces eagerly watching the door for someone to emerge. Many were holding signs with names on them. I found my name on a sign held up by a striking young Cuban woman, who informed me her name was Danita and she was sent to pick me up by Group IST, the tour operator hosting me in Cuba.
We took a taxi to the Havana cruise ship terminal, where I could unload my gear on the Variety Cruises Voyager—the ship that would be my home as I explored Cuba. The cruise ship terminal is across the street from Plaza San Francisco, the gate to Old Havana. The old restored cars seemed flashier and more vibrantly colored than ever before. (They are upping their game.)
It had only begun, but I had made it.