February 20
Dateline: Havana Airport

We returned to the Havana airport to await the arrival of the charter jet that would take us back to the United States. The airport was symbolic of much of what I had found in my 10 days in Cuba. It  was called Jose Marti International. But as I looked out the window in front of me, there was not a plane to be seen. There was only one exit gate, which led out to a pitted tarmac, where we would walk to board the plane that would take off from the airport’s lone runway.

As we had on our arrival, we easily passed through security. After 50 years of reading about Cuba, I had expected visible signs of a police state. The reality was that we would find much more intrusive security screening in one day of D. C. than we had the entire time we had spent in Havana. I could have brought my iPhone; I could have brought my iPad; I could have brought my iAnything. But, to be honest, I was glad I hadn’t. Without my electronics, my travels over the past 10 days somehow seemed more authentic.

The large screen TVs that I had been surprised to find were still at the airport. But the pictures on the screen often faded to fuzzy blurs. That about sums up the state of 21st century technology on the island. It sometimes appeared to be there, but really it wasn’t. The internet at our hotel was painfully slow. Our adopted-for-this-trip daughter Traci had told us she spent two hours one night trying to connect by phone to her boyfriend in California. I wondered how much time we had spent waiting for elevators that never arrived.  Probably much less than all those Cubans in long lines who waited patiently for the buses than ran irregularly when they ran at all.

But what the island lacked in modernity, it more than made up for with simple charm, a commodity long missing from the hustle-bustle pace of much of today’s America. Life in Cuba, even in the large city of Havana, was slower. Much slower. With transportation options limited, people walked more. Without headphones and iPhones, they talked more. It appeared they valued art more, whether that art involved painting or dancing or music. Devoid of the games and gadgets that drive us into solitary isolation, they were more social, more outgoing, indeed more friendly. Provided with a cup of strong Cuban coffee and possibly a cigar, they were ready for hours of chat. As an educator, I kept coming back to one astounding statistic. In a country plagued by shortages and deprivations and hardships, 99 percent of the people were literate. America might have the books, the glossy magazines, the Kindles, and the computers, but Cuba had the readers, even though much of the limited reading material they had access to was dry and dated.

As we continued waiting for the plane, I focused my reflection on two people: one whose presence was everywhere, but whom I had never met and the other, much less famous, but whom I had come to know quite well in 10 days.

The first was Fidel Castro. It’s almost impossible to imagine a Cuba without Castro. But even El Jeffe can’t last forever. He has outlived all the other famous figures of the 1960s, Kennedy, Kruschev, Ho Chi Minh, Mao. The Beatles have broken up and the Berlin Wall has fallen, but Castro’s heart still beats, no matter how faintly. He has given most of his power to his younger brother, 81-year-old Raul. Rumors periodically circulate that he is dead, but then Fidel makes a brief appearance to dispel those reports. He may be failing and no longer able to deliver his fiery five-hour speeches, but he is still a force.

So what will happen when Fidel dies? The answer is cliched, but true. Your guess is as good as mine. Ten days in a country doesn’t make you a political expert, a fact even more true if the country being analyzed is as unique and enigmatic as Cuba. The only certainty is that a post-Fidel Cuba will be different. My guess is it will be more open. With Fidel gone, I would hope the United States would drop its senseless embargo (if it doesn’t do so sooner) and open complete relations with Cuba. But, as we all know, change is not always good. Cuba will gain, but it will also lose.

Remember it was its last encounter with America’s preoccupation with power and greed that led Fidel and his revolutionary brothers to take up arms. And then there was that disturbing question that Tom Miller had posed earlier: Can you imagine Spring Break Havana or Girls Gone Wild, Cuban-edition?

But if Fidel represents the past, the other figure in my reflections, our local guide Luis, stands for Cuba’s  future. Like all younger Cubans, he doesn’t remember anything about the pre-Revolutionary days. He wasn’t alive then.  As a well-educated guide and translator, he knows much more about the world outside of the isolated island than most of his countrymen. He knows there are benefits to his home, but he believes there are great benefits at other places, too.  And he wants a chance to see those other places for himself.  He was offered an opportunity to join the Socialist party, but turned it down. (That was another big surprise to me. I naively assumed that the entire population was Communist, but only about 10 percent of the people at any time actually belong to the Party.).

 “It will never be offered to me again,” he says. “But I believe change is coming. I believe that one day soon I will be able to come to D.C. and you and Judy can show me around. I would like that; I would like that very much.”

Finally, our plane arrived. As we walked toward the jet, I turned for a last look. Whenever Judy and I travel, we put the places we visit in one of two categories. The first we call been-there, done-that. We may  have loved the place or we may have hated it, but if we didn’t feel a need to visit again, it goes there along with Scotland, the South Sea Islands, Monaco, Malyasia, and the rest.

The other category we call we’ll-be-back. Not surprisingly, many of my places to revisit are cities. Barcelona, Bangkok, Bejing. Judy’s usually displays a more natural setting: Africa, Ireland, Italy. So where would we place Cuba? We have other places to visit, but we were certain we would return to Cuba. And it wouldn’t (indeed, it couldn’t, since I doubted I would have enough travel mobility at 109) take me 50 years for a 2nd visit.

Obviously, I found a different Cuba than the one my father and mother frequented 50 years ago. But in some ways – cars and customs, architecture and artifacts – it was almost the same, an island, as Tom Miller termed it, “frozen in  time”.

Relying on his Texas roots, my Dad had a saying whenever he planned to go back to something. “Lord willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be back.” When it comes to Cuba, that sounds about right.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order