Several years ago, I was a delegate on a cultural exchange mission to Cuba. My area of expertise was film and television. Translation: I write family movies. With me was my husband, Gary Rosen, who also writes for film and television.
Along with 60 other Californians (representing commercial interests such as California cheese production, California wineries and California rice growers), we traveled, with government approved visas, from Los Angeles to Havana on a flight that left once a week from LAX on Fridays, operated by Cubana de Aviación (Cuban Airlines).
You didn’t know that a flight left once a week from Los Angeles and flew directly to Havana? Neither did I until I was onboard.
With Cuba in the headlines now because President Obama has relaxed the U.S.’s restrictive travel policy — one that has been in place, in one form or another, for nearly 50 years — it would seem that this would be a good time to write about Cuba and my trip there.
I could write about the country’s beauty. I could write about the speech by Fidel Castro to our delegation, about the dinner of roast pork and lobster we had with him afterwards. I could write about a city with a disproportionate number of artists and musicians, a country where people are very well educated, and deeply conflicted about their leader and the country that they so obviously love.
But I chose, instead, to write about my airplane flight.
We were told that we needed to be at LAX five hours in advance. And when traveling to a country run by a man who, according to his own sister, has made his nation into “an enormous prison surrounded by water," you listen.
So we got there five hours early. We went through a very elaborate security procedure, which was notable only for taking away people’s vitamins and bottled water.
We then sat in a waiting room for five hours. If we had to go to the bathroom, an employee of Cuban Airlines escorted us.
So why the five hour wait? Were they watching us? Was it strictly to begin the journey with a show of who was in charge? Was it to go through our luggage behind the scenes in ways we could not have known? Was the wait the idea of the Cubans, or was this imposed by the American government?
Who knows? But after five hours, we finally boarded. The stewards and stewardesses were friendly, attractive and seemed to know what they were doing. They passed out blue blankets, and we were soon in the air.
After about an hour, the beverage cart appeared, and I asked for glass of water. The stewardess told me she would get back to me, and continued down the aisle. I was starting to get thirsty, so after about 20 minutes, I got up, went to the back of the plane, and again asked for water. The stewardess told me they had no water. I returned to my seat.
What kind of airplane has no water? I got up again to ask for a coke. Bad news. They were also out of soda. What did they have left to drink? Only beer and wine. I know that in ads on television they make drinking a beer look like a real thirst-quencher, but when you’re 30,000 feet up in the air and you want a glass of water, it doesn’t feel like the same thing.
I didn’t believe that there wasn’t any water. So I pressed the stewardess and she finally explained that they couldn’t load American beverages from LAX onto the plane. They’d given out too much water and soda flying from Havana to Los Angeles, and now, well, we’d all just have to wait until we got to Havana.
I want to look at that logic. They could pick us up and transport 60 Americans and all of our luggage to Cuba, but because of our embargo, no Arrowhead spring water.
Cutting off a country, or a person, is a complicated business. And it usually takes two sides to keep the arrangement going. I am very happy, very optimistic, very encouraged that one side, now living in Washington, wants to open the door and talk to the person on the other side.
I want to return to Cuba, and while I don’t want American commercial interests to ruin an island nation that has no high-rise hotels, no casinos, no ugly excess of our particular brand of in-your-face capitalism, I think water is like free thought — it should flow.