Day one

By Chris Cloonan
January 7, 2012

Rick Ricioppo/JWW

In days preceding our trip to Cuba, I had been nothing but excited to visit the communist nation that is off limits to most Americans. Even during the moments saying goodbye to my parents at the airport, and later on the flight over the eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico, my anticipation never waned.

But as soon as I saw our plane flyover Cuban land, I had an instant panic attack. Images of the brutal treatment political prisoners receive in communist North Korea flashed through my mind. “I’m entering a totalitarian regime!” I remember saying to myself, mid-panic. “What in the world was I thinking?!”

The calm, cool, and collected Chris Cloonan had vanished. Intimidated and scared Chris Cloonan had arrived. It was at this moment, ironically, that I was thankful that I had chosen to go to Cuba. Before college I had planned on not studying abroad; instead spending my money on a trip to North Korea after I graduated. I realized then how badly that could have potentially gone and how unprepared I was to take such an adventure.

I entered airport security with the rest of the group. One by one, we passed through. I was forced to attempt to communicate using my basic Spanish skills, something that only made the situation worse.

After believing I had successfully gotten through screening and am on my way to meet the rest of the group, I was called back.

“Oh my God,” I thought as my face turned ghost white. “My fate is entirely in their hands, out of my control,” I think to myself. I turn around, feeling as if I am walking into a death chamber. “What is your nationality?” the guard asks. “A…A…American,” I reply. And that was it. He thought I looked Cuban and was curious.

I turn around to see the group getting quite the laugh out my situation after seeing my facial reaction, something I would not live down for a couple days.

After leaving the airport, meeting our tour guide (who at the point I was convinced must be Cuban spy or something of that nature because she surely works for the government. Clearly, I am cynical and paranoid), driving to our hotel (a different one than we were told we’d be staying at, mind you) and seeing socialist and Che Guevara propaganda everywhere, we settle in at Hotel Victoria.

After an interesting dinner at the hotel, during which I discovered Tu Kola (the local cola), learned that American products exist in Cuba (in the form of Frank’s Red Hot sauce and Coca-Cola), and struggled to communicate with our waiter (not to mention the broken elevator we encountered after our meal), we headed over to the Hotel Nacional.

It was at this point I was finally able to relax. We went out back to witness a beautiful view of the Gulf of Mexico, palm trees, and thousands of Cubans enjoying the night down on the boardwalk. I enjoyed my first-ever mojito while kicking back with a long-awaited Cuban cigar. The incredible stress of the last couple hours melted away. It was from that moment forward that I enjoyed every second of my trip to Cuba.