Sunday, December 13, 2009
11:30 AM My wife, our three children and I arrived at JFK Airport at 11:30 AM. I was the only one flying to Cuba, but they came anyway. We presumed once my bags were checked, we could enjoy a nice lunch together. My flight was scheduled for 3:00 PM, but the travel agency asked me to be at the airport four hours before the departure… Of course, I didn’t bother to ask why.
As it is customary in trips to Cuba, the first thing I did when I arrived at the airport was to have my bags wrapped in plastic. After that, they looked like huge transgenic potatoes. Why did I do it? I don’t know. When you go to Cuba, you are supposed to become part of the herd. Conservation instinct overcomes any though of common sense or good taste. Everybody wraps his or her bags in plastic, so you do it too. You convince yourself that the trip is going to be even worse than you already expect it to be if you don’t do it.
11:45 AM While I was in the line to wrap my bags, my wife was already in another line to check-in my luggage. There were four clerks at the counter to process two hundred passengers. I never saw more than two of them working at the same time. They would go for a walk, chat with their colleagues, make phone calls… After almost an hour, they finally weighed my bags and checked my traveling papers. Then, they told me to pick up my bags and deliver them to another counter.
12:40 PM This third line was a dream—short and sweet as a beach weekend. I gave my bags to the clerk and asked her if I was ready to board the plane. Unfortunately, she told me I had to make a fourth line in order to pay the airport charge and overweight fee.
I went to the counter she had indicated and realized immediately there wasn’t a waiting line there. It was much worse than that. About a hundred people were waiting by the counter. From time to time, a guy with shiny ridiculous glasses would call a name and a lucky bastard would put on a happy face and go to the counter to get robbed… I mean, a lucky passenger would go to the counter to pay the airport charge and overweight fee. So I had to take off my MP3 player’s earplugs. Up to that moment, Bob Dylan, with his nasal voice, had protected me from the idiotic comments of my fellows travelers. Now, with my ears naked, I really was among my people. There was a fifty-something pachydermatous woman who was talking to everybody and nobody in particular. While waiting to be called, I was destined to learn quite a few details about her utterly uninteresting life. She had gone six times to Cuba since immigrating to the US. She usually was drunk for the length of her stay in the island. In her first trip to Cuba, they didn’t charge her any overweight fees in Havana. Nevertheless, she told her husband—who hadn’t traveled with her—quite a different story in order to keep for herself the $2000 he had given her to bribe Cuba’s custom officers.
Having a loud, garish voice and telling stories nobody wants to hear is not considered a crime in any country. I am a staunch opponent of death penalty. But after listening to that fat lady sing for fifteen minutes, I would have applauded if somebody would have come and given her a lethal injection. Little did I know then that after those unbearable fifteen minutes, I would have to listen to her for two more hours. When they finally called my name, I hated her as if I had known her my whole life.
2:50 PM After that season in hell, the people at the counter told me I had to pay $254.00 ($107 as airport charge and a $147 overweight fee). I had never felt so happy paying money to get nothing in return. At the end of the transaction, the guy who collected the money admonished me: “Hurry up,” he said. “They are boarding the plane in ten minutes.” By the sound of his voice and his body language, you wouldn’t think he and his incompetent, lazy colleagues had made me wait in lines for four hours for no other reason than their infinite disregard for their customers.
I ran to see my wife and kids. In front of the metal detector, we said good-bye. At that moment, I started my fifth waiting line of the day while taking off my wristwatch, belt, shoes and glasses. I looked in vain for a little bit of dignity to take it off too, but none was left. “I am ready to go to Cuba,” I thought.
2:55 PM I arrived at gate B23 panting for air like an alpinist in the oxygen-deprived peaks of the Himalayas. “Are they sending us to Havana in a World War II bombardier?,” I thought when I saw the “B23” sign. The place was deserted. A sixty-something Cuban gentleman—tall, black and elegant, and branding a moustache that would turn Pancho Villa green with envy—was the only person there. He was a charter company clerk and he looked like he had played the maracas for Buena Vista Social Club back in the day. I asked him for information about my flight and he said there was a half an hour delay. “All the other passengers went downstairs to board the plane, but the gates won’t open until 3:30 PM, and the plane will take off at 4:00 PM.” “So you think we are leaving at four o’clock?”, I asked him. “I don’t think anything, mister,—I know”, he replied and it seemed he was terribly offended by my question.
“Splendid”, I thought, “I’ll have time for lunch”. I bought myself a ham and cheese sandwich—wrapped in plastic and as transgenic looking as my bags—and a coffee with cream and no sugar ($11) and sat down like an Assyrian king to read the “Autos” section of my Sunday edition of The New York Times. Finally, I was leaving for Havana, or at least that’s what I thought…
To be continued…