HE CANCUN AIRPORT is a slick, cavernous affair, a holding space for burnt tourists and nut-brown sorority girls. The marble floors are littered with blonde, corn-rowed girls propped against their boyfriends, sleeping away the layovers between their college campuses and the exotic locales where theyve been vacationing. The ticket desk for flights to Havana is in a corner, next to a closet-sized liquor store, and there is no one in line. The two men who run the desk examine my passport companionably. I have just joined my group and am not on the list of religious visas our government has issued for travel to Cuba. The mens faces are expressionless. I have a letter, I begin, pulling a piece of paper out of my wallet. The men light up at the sight of the folded wad. One puts his hands in the air. Ah! he says, and turns to issue my ticket. Yes.
I am with fifteen people from the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, on what we are calling a work trip. Members of our church have worked on projects in Belize and Guatemala, building churches and schools and working in the communities. We are hoping to establish similar connections with churches in Cuba. I was on the first trip we made, a year ago; as the guests of a Baptist church in Matanzas, we toured hospitals and schools and saw the ocean. Were here for two weeks this time; we have made rough plans with contacts from the Baptist and Presbyterian churches to work on a few local projects. We are not exactly sure what this might entail. We have brought work pants, old T-shirts and sturdy shoes.
In the Havana airport, we stand in line and slide our passports into fluorescent-lit cubicles to serious men in drab uniforms. The airport is new and quite beautiful. Light shines off the polished floors. Customs here is impassive and efficient. We tell them we are going to stay in a hotel in Matanzas, a lie; weve been told it might create problems to tell the truth, that we are being put up in a dormitory at the Baptist church. We are paying our hosts in American dollars to cover expenses, and though it is not unusual for Cuban churches to host foreign visitors, like most non-government forms of commerce, this seems to be kept covert. The customs official gives several of my documents an emphatic stamping. I believe I recognize him from last time.
We step out of the air conditioning into a thick and balmy night. For a capital, the city is surprisingly hushed: The parking lot is empty, and the highway is still. A man bikes past, holding a shirt on a hanger aloft in one hand. Behind us, the lights of the airport go suddenly out, and darkness overturns on us, a silent, velvet bowl.
Our group has at its disposal an old yellow school bus and its two drivers, Otoniel and Rolando, who have bid with the church for the job of driving us around. They take us first to Santa Clara, a fair-sized town in the middle of the island, to work for a few days. It takes two to drive a bus in town: one to throw the bus decisively into a turn and one to stand in the stairwell and watch the corner clear the buildings by inches. In the country, the road is a wide one-lane; we weave at a good clip in and out of a variety of traffic.
I have read that Cuba has 38 motor vehicles for every 1,000 people. On these roads, most people ride on bicycles imported from China or on motorbikes (Russian) or in carts and carriages of their own construction. There are few stop signs and little stopping. Our drivers honk steadily, but solicitously, announcing our progress to the motley procession in our path. And each time, at the last possible moment, the procession opens, the travelers shift indifferently, and we pass at an impossibly narrow breadth, ruffling their hair, bleating our arrival: Here we come. You on the bike, leading your horse at a canter. You two on the motorbike, with a hog upside-down between you. You there, shirtless in the road, bent over the median with a machete, trimming the grass in wide swipes. You, elderly gentleman on a three-wheeled pedal cart, your wife in tow in a wheeled chair. Were right behind you. Here we come.
We are staying in a campamento, a collection of dorms and buildings a few miles from Santa Clara, run by a Presbyterian church in town. (We have contacts with Baptist and Presbyterian churches in several towns, and are passed more or less gracefully between hosts throughout the trip.) Otoniel eases the bus delicately between the red gates at the entrance. A man in a stiff straw hat taps the hindquarters of two oxen ambling down the road behind us. Our first meal is grilled fish, which is hard to come by; the fishing industry is heavily regulated, and most of the fish is reserved for turismo, for restaurants and hotels. We saw it caught this morning, our host says, and holds up two fish from the freezer, fat snapper, in a frozen arch. The oven in the kitchen is as long as a sofa and wood-fed. One of the cooks shows me the fire in the middle, a feverish white blaze, into which they tuck logs at all hours. Our beds in the dormitory are bunks slung low as hammocks, the rough sheets smelling of soap.
We will be working on a finca, a narrow little ranch on the outskirts of town, owned by the local Presbyterian church. There are a couple of houses and a small school on the property, as well as a few fields being cultivated for crops. Our job is to weed a yucca field. We use hoes that they provide; the heads are brand new, perhaps bought for us, the handles have been cut here, from a local tree called the guasime. The wood is light and hard, and the trees are sturdy. During the revolution, people were hanged from them. Find me a guasime tree, people joke, when things get bad.
In limited allotments, hoeing is not difficult work, but it is labor, and the sun is hot. The soil, though full of rocks, is dark and sweet, and the weeds come up easily. We are instructed by a man who lives and works on the finca with his family. He is working in a worn pair of mens dress shoes with no socks, and a loose-collared shirt. He sweats only a little. At the end of the morning, he pours the dust out of his shoes. On the bus, later, with our drivers, the conversation turns to shoes. Because of the shortage of materials, shoes made domestically these days are of dismal quality, and very expensive. At $20 or $30 a pair, they can cost a months wages, and there is no guarantee of quality. Otoniels friend bought his wife a pair for a wedding present, and they fell apart on the third wearing. Another man, he says, bought a pair that broke on the walk home.
Our second day on the finca, Manolo, the pastor of the Baptist church in Santa Clara, asks if we would like to send an e-mail to anyone at home. While Internet access is too expensive to have on a regular basis, he can take a few minutes online to send our letters from the phone connection in one of the houses. We tap our messages on a keyboard jaundiced with age. The screen undulates gently, and the words are indistinct, as though under water. A bumper crop of chicks mills around outside the doorway. On our way out, we thank the occupants of the house, who have been waiting in the yard for us to finish. One, a tiny, wiry woman, holds a fat, naked baby, her grandchild. How old is he? He is two months old. What is his name? She grins and watches us. His name is Elian. There is a pause, and everyone laughs out loud.
CONTINUED . . .
(This article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)