My buzzer goes off at 3 a.m. I hop out of bed and into the shower. After dressing, I check my bags once more and it’s off to the airport.
The plane ride is smooth, and I sleep most of the way. I start to get nervous toward the end of the flight. I still can’t believe that it is really going to happen. We touch down on the runway, and all the passengers clap and cheer.
On the bus to the hotel, I notice three things. The first is how run-down the buildings look. Every building we pass needs maintenance. The second is how old the cars are. Old Chevys and Russian Ladas make up the majority, and here we are in a brand new tourist bus. We stick out. The last thing is the busy streets. There’s a constant bustle of people.
Nighttime brings us to a military fort in the harbor, where we see a cannon-shot ceremony. Ernesto, one of the journalism students on our bus, says the shot can be heard throughout Havana. It happens at 9 p.m. every day, and is fired as a reminder of a practice years ago when the shot meant that city entrances would close.
After the ceremony, we have dinner in a restaurant inside the fort. A popular Cuban band plays, and we dance. This is my first experience of Cuban music and dancing. I am surprised at the way they move. I attempt to dance with an older Cuban woman and fail miserably. Ernesto shakes his head and says he will teach me some dance moves another night.
After sleeping late and missing breakfast, we attend church. Father Dease says Mass with a Cuban priest. It’s beautiful, and even though it’s in Spanish I can make out all of the parts. As I leave, I see the old Russian embassy in the distance. It brings me back to reality. I’m confused, thinking about the experience I had in church and the stereotypes I brought with me. They seem so far apart.
After lunch, we head for the beach. The drive gives me time to think. It is hard to imagine living in a country without a democratic and capitalistic system, where I can do and say almost anything I want. Yet the Cuban people we have met seem to be happy with the way they live. I wonder why. If I had been born in Cuba, France, Australia or any other country, I would have grown up with certain rules and cultural norms, just as in the United States. Cuba has its own way of living that I should respect and be careful not to judge. The Cuban people love their country and the way they live, yet the only news we hear in the United States is about Cubans who defect.
Two teammates and I take off with Ernesto to experience the nightlife of Old Havana. We walk main streets and back alleys and ask Ernesto about his life and Cuba in general. It is common for a hustler or prostitute to ask if we want their services. "No gracias!" We end up at a waterfront bar drinking Cokes. Cuba is more Americanized than we thought. Cubans love our culture and history, and it seems like Ernesto knows more about our history than we do.
We practice again in the morning, and in the afternoon we tour the University of Havana and attend a conference on the Cuban economy and social structure. The conference involves two women talking for what seems like an eternity! We are not used to this type of format. We like to get involved with dialogue and questions. I guess that explains why several people fell asleep.
After dinner, we meet our baseball opponents and more students. I am nervous how they will view us, but they end up being some of the nicest people I have ever met. Some of us speak moderate Spanish and have an easy time talking with them. I don’t know any Spanish beyond saying hello and thank you, and I find it difficult but amusing to communicate.
We give them new gloves and other baseball equipment, and end the night with more dancing and celebration. On the way home, my nervousness about the game vanishes. I realize that regardless of the outcome, a bond has been established.
We start with practice at Estadio Latinoamericano, where we will play tomorrow. Equipo Caribe watches our practice and we watch theirs. They are more structured than we are; they wear uniforms, stretch in unison and blow whistles at the beginning of each drill. I feel better now that I have sized up the competition. They look good, but not as good as I thought they would be.
After lunch, we’re off to the university for another lecture. Dr. Roberto Fernandez Retamor reads from his writings. When he was a young journalist, he interviewed Ernest Heming-way. He is not a fan of Hemingway but says he was "a very nice chap." Dr. Retamor talks about the profound links between the United States and Cuba. Besides being geographically close, we both have baseball as our national sport and music (jazz) as a large part of our cultures. He says Cuban culture always has been closer to U.S. culture than to Russian culture.
At night we attend a professional Cuban baseball game: Industriales vs. Pinar del Rio. The crowd makes it quite an experience — take the rowdiest 20,000 fans in the United States and stick them in Estadio Latinoamericano. I learn firsthand why baseball is Cuba’s national sport. I’ve never seen more fire in people. The players show emotion and the fans respond. They cheer at every little episode, heckle the visiting team and even boo their own left fielder for making an error.
Today is the big game. I am surprisingly calm.
We meet in the lobby and find out that Fidel Castro might be coming to the game (he didn’t). Special tags have to be worn to gain entry into the stadium. Coach Denning tells us just to play the game with respect and passion — the way it should be played.
The teams line up for the opening ceremony, and both national anthems are played. I feel awkward. I have always associated national anthems with government, and I wonder what the Cubans think when the "Star Spangled Banner" blasts through the stadium. I remind myself that anthems should be about people, not government. Castro tells the Cuban people to never confuse U.S. citizens with U.S. politics. "The land of the free and the home of the brave" makes me think again. What are the Cubans thinking? Are they envious of us? Do they want to come to the United States and play?
We score in the first inning when Scott Christiansen singles in a run. The next seven innings are the most fun I have had playing baseball. It remains 1-0 until the top of the eighth. The crowd of 6,000 is unbelievably loud and screams at anything. A small group has drums and plays a constant rhythm while the Cubans are at bat, and they go wild before every pitch. At one point I am 20 feet away from Mike Honsa on the mound, screaming at the top of my lungs, and I can’t get his attention.
We break open the game in the eighth inning when Tony Wolverton smacks a ground-rule double. The final score is 7-0. I am disappointed we beat them by that much. After the game, we gather on the field to take pictures, and I don’t want the moment to end. I could stay hours. I feel better when the Cuban third baseman says, "See you tonight, my friend."
We leave in the morning for a visit to the National Botanical Garden. We have lunch there, another lecture and dinner, and then are off to another music and dance occasion.
Everyone is pretty tired and it’s hard to get people onto the dance floor. Four Cuban couples do a circle dance that is directed by Ernesto. I wish I could dance like him! He gives me my first dance lesson, and I steal Luis’ girlfriend to practice with. I’m embarrassed because I have no clue what to do and we are the only three people on the dance floor. Everyone else is watching.
We have a meeting when we get back to the hotel about going to a march at the university. It is an annual march to commemorate the birthday of a national hero, Jose Marti, who fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain. This year the march is dedicated to Elian Gonzalez and his return to Cuba. One player mentions to me that it might not be a good idea to go, but I tell him that it probably will be harmless. We decide to check it out.
When we arrive, thousands of students are packed onto the steps of the university. We are ushered to the front with the Cuban players. It feels like we are taking the spotlight with cameras all around taking pictures of us. I am handed a torch, and look back at the steps to see thousands of torches bobbing up and down. It’s an awesome sight. We walk for a half mile and stop in front of a platform, but we don’t stay for speeches. The Cuban players lead us back to the hotel through the oncoming crowd.
When we get back, I reflect on what had just happened. My fellow player was right. I think we’ll get some flack for participating in the march. No matter what happens, it was still worth it. I would do it again.
We play another game, but it is nowhere near as exciting as the first game. We win 10-1 in front of less than 200 people. More importantly, we gather on the field again after the game and exchange handshakes, hugs and kind words.
Two teammates and I go to Ernesto’s house, which is small but adequate for his family’s needs. We meet Ernesto’s mother, Myra, and his little sister, a Spanish dancer. Myra makes pizza and bread for us while we chat in the living room and watch a television that has only two channels. Ernesto is amazed when we tell him how many channels we have.
His room has two large shelving units full of books. There must be 1,000 books. There are flags on the walls and a bulletin board full of magazine clippings of Cindy Crawford and Madonna. On his bed are gifts to us — three plastic bags with Cuban newspapers, pictures of Hemingway and a book. My book is the diary of Che Guevara, a Cuban revolutionary hero, when he was in Bolivia. I will have to learn Spanish to read it.
Tonight is a parting ceremony at the Hotel National. I am disappointed that Ernesto isn’t invited. Dinner is outside around a pool, and a water dancing show is held. Several couples frolic synchronously in the water to Cuban music. It is humorous yet captivating. After dinner, both presidents of the schools say a few words and the dancing begins again. I’ve never had to dance so much in a single week!
All I can think about is how fast the trip went and how much — and how little — we learned about Cuba and its people. I wish we could experience Cuba for a month. One week doesn’t do it justice.
We are free this morning to do whatever we want. Ernesto, Tom and I go to old Havana to purchase gifts for people back home. I buy two bottles of Havana Club rum, cigars from the Partagas factory and artwork from a market area.
We want to thank Ernesto for his hospitality and friendship, so we give him a care package with a dictionary, t-shirts, pens, notebooks, two team-signed baseballs and $30 (a month’s wages in Cuba). We put it inside a small black Jansport bag and tell him not to open it until we are gone.
Many of the Havana students and players show up at the hotel to see us off. I tell Ernesto I will stop at nothing to get him to Minnesota if the Cubans send a team in the spring. I give him a hug and board the bus for the airport.
I have a lot of time to reflect on the plane ride. Overall, the trip was a tremendous success. Cuba is nothing like I had pictured it. I brought certain stereotypes with me and left them behind. I have a new vision of Cuba. Havana is a center of culture and tradition that resonates a romantic aura. The Cuban people are incredibly generous and kind.
During this trip, we experienced the best of Cuba — but only the tip of the iceberg. There is much more about Cuba that I want to learn. I want to know what everyday life is like for an average citizen. I want to travel to other parts of the island and compare cities and cultures. And I want to experience more music and dancing.
All of these desires fuel my wish to return to Cuba some day.