This is Tom Hoopes, writing from the Quaker Church in Holguin, Cuba. I am happy to let you know that our group arrived here this morning, in good condition and without incident. After a 3 a.m. wake-up call (!?!) this morning in Miami, everything proceeded according to plan. The 14 of us boarded the mini-bus to Miami International Airport, where we passed a perfectly pleasant four hours, getting our tickets and visa information confirmed and our passports verified. The students were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (relatively speaking), and went along with the flow of things quite nicely. We took off from American soil at just about the scheduled hour of 8 a.m., and upon lift-off, a spontaneous applause broke out on the plane! We had to explain to the students that this is customary on flights to and from Cuba. (I am not clear whether this is just an affirmation of life, or whether there is a more specific celebration in mind.) After a quick jump across the Caribbean, soon we were descending through the clouds, passing over miles and miles of farmland en route to Holguin. Another burst of applause announced that we had arrived on Cuban soil.
At the Holguin airport, we walked down the ladder to the tarmac. We were greeted by what felt like sweltering heat and humidity, but we have since learned that the day was just warming up. Inside the airport (air-conditioned), I distributed the passports back to everyone, which I had collected prior to boarding in Miami. (Not taking any chances, thank you very much.) Suddenly a nice-looking man in a uniform approached Fran, and before we had a chance to get worried, he began reading aloud our names in his best English, and handing out to us our actual visas, without which we could not proceed. A clerical error on two of them gave us heart palpitations for a few minutes, but happily our back-up paperwork was in perfect order, and we had the secret weapon: Fran. He was able to talk the officials through that minor mishap in no time at all. Success! Everyone passed through immigration control without a hitch.
On the other side of immigration control, we re-united with our baggage while cute little sniffing dogs walked freely around, patrolling for any whiffs of inappropriate substances. All good. Onward! We were ushered through customs with nary a glance at our carefully-filled-out forms. We were safely on the other side. (Exhale)
On the other side of the airport, Fran received a big, warm greeting from a lovely woman whom the students soon recognized as Maria Yi, the pastor of the Holguin Quaker Church. We then also meet Arnoldo, the professional driver who would be bringing us to the church in the Quakers´ mini-bus. I gave Arnoldo a huge hug, remembering him as a warm, kind fellow who knows how to drive on the Cuban roads, thank goodness. We all piled in, along with our baggage, and off we went! On the 30-minute drive to the church, GS students saw quite a lot out their windows that made an impression on them: numerous political billboards with images of Che Guevarra, Fidel Castro and the Cuban Five; lots of political slogans about the revolution; miles and miles of farmland with various unknown crops, and quite a few cows; hitch-hikers along the highway every quarter mile or so; lots and lots and lots of people on bicycles, whom Arnoldo would pass so closely that a U.S. driver´s Ed instructor would have heart palpitations; myriad one and two-story cinder block and rebar houses and structures, in various states of repair and in most hues of the rainbow; and much more that your children will describe for you in the days ahead.
We arrived at the church in a busy section of downtown Holguin, to be greeted by Alberto (husand of Maria), José (15 year-old member of the Church), Andrés (8 year-old member of the church), Nena (cook extraordinaire of the church), Carlos (church resident and director of the youth program), Lyanis (general helper, and mother of José and Andrés). We were shown to our dormitory spaces, one for girls and Allison, one for boys and Tom, and one special room for Fran (who has been coming for 30 years and deserves every bit of special consideration he has coming to him!). By this time everyone was noticing that they felt hot and tired; no sooner did we turn around than there was a gorgeous snack table set out with fresh mango, pineapple, guayaba and Cuban-brand cola. ¡Delicioso! After that we returned to our rooms to make our beds, change clothes if we were so inclined (most of us were) and take a load off. (Yours truly took an uncharacteristic late-morning nap. Ahhhhhh.)
Maria welcomed the whole group in her very clear Spanish, with introductions of the people named above and translations provided by Allison and helpful commentary from other Spanish-speakers. (Use your imagination here to identify your child.) I want to point out that the non-Spanish-speakers have been getting lots and lots of support and translation from their friends, so I see no evidence of isolation whatsoever. Indeed, people are being great sports about learning new words and phrases.
Lunch at 12:30 consisted of pasta with a choice of grated parmesan cheese, red sauce and small cubes of ham, along with fresh bananas. If you visualized a green cardboard cylinder when I said “grated parmesan cheese,” I will take this opportunity to say that we have seen virtually NO packaging, except for the cola bottle. Every bit of food we eat at the church has been hand-prepared, usually by Nena. They take very good care of us, indeed. At the end of lunch, Fran took the opportunity to give a brief lesson on recent Latin American history, focusing on the U.S. embargo of Cuba, its historical context, current applications and implications. Students asked lots of good questions; it will be interesting to see what various people learn and think in the coming days. We then talked about the Cuban money system and how that may impact our experience here. All in all, a filling lunch in more ways than one!
After lunch 5 students eagerly volunteered to wash dishes, which was perfect. At Desi´s encouragement, I checked in with Maria about the appropriateness – or not – of the students playing cards (given that this is a church). I really appreciated Desi´s consideration in asking that question. Happily the answer was “Fine!” (Early 20th century Philadelphia Quakers would not have been so generous.) So, while Fran and Allison and I met with Maria to map out logistics for the coming 13 days, the students got together and played a vigorous game of cards in the church social hall. Fun! They were joined by 15 year-old Maria Luisa, the niece of a church member whom Fran and I met last year. Wonderful!
So, as I hope you can tell, things have gotten off to a solid start. You may look forward to receiving one new post per day, written by each of the delegation members (14 people, 14 days). Typically it will be written and sent at the end of the day, which is when the computer gets hooked up to the modem and messages and sent and retrieved.
We sent love and good wishes to our friends and family back in the United States.