“Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to Havana”
You may be the most indifferent-to-government, anti-nationalist kind of American. You may have been born long after 1962 and not give two shakes about the Cuban Missile…whatever. For all you know, the Bay Of Pigs is a barbecue joint. You didn’t hide under desks or wet newspaper. What do you care if Fidel Castro is still alive?
I’m not here to stand for or against any particular agenda or outlook. I didn’t come to argue ideologies. All I’m saying is that when your plane lands and the flight attendant chimes in with those six words, you feel it. Just like hearing “I love you” for the first time, you can’t explain why the particular arrangement of syllables affects you. They just do. Things are going to be different now.
That’s how it went down for photographer Jenelle Kappe and I when we landed in Cuba. The plane hit the tarmac, the passengers clapped, the flight attendant spoke, and our lives changed.
The seed for this trip was planted back in grade school, after hearing my fifth-period history teacher vaguely brush over our nation’s turbulent relationship with the Pearl of the Antilles. I asked her “Why can’t I go there?” but was dismissed with a casual, “You just can’t.” The more I pressed, the harder the teacher pushed back, “You just can’t. Drop it, Parker.”
That “you just can’t,” has lingered with me for almost 15 years. My particular brand of wanderlust is highly motivated by what people say I can’t do, and I never accepted my teacher’s answer for a second. Back then, I was too young to go alone, and my dad — a law abiding witness to the missile crisis — laughed at the idea of sneaking into a communist country. In high school, I dreamed of ditching our Key West vacations to check out the island nation 90 miles south but decided I needed to learn salsa first. After that came college, and work, and obligations. I got a little better at dancing salsa but shelved plans are hard to reignite. I was never quite ready. Other adventures were arguably less exciting, but easier to access.
Until one day they weren’t. The stars aligned, the numbers crunched, and the tickets were booked.
Interestingly — considering that I’d fixated so intensely on getting to Cuba — I never actually made any plan for once we were there. Jenelle and I had researched a bit and booked our casa particular but we didn’t have a set agenda. We wanted to roam and wander. We’d heard so many wistful romantic renditions of what the country was, frozen in time and free of capitalist interest, that we just wanted to discover “our” version of the place.