Celi and ET Now

Celi and ET Now


The mosaic of sounds merged into a symphony loud enough to prevent me from napping.  It was just as well. 

The woman on the balcony to my right shouted something down from the fourth floor, getting involved in an animated conversation a few women on the street had started.  Kids were running after each other and calling out.  A motorbike just did not want to start properly, and a few cars were rolling by.  On almost every balcony on both sides of this narrow street some activity was unfolding:  The laundry was strung over here, a couple was smoking over there.  A plant was watered down below and a floor was swept across the street.  A dog wrestled with some old rag and a rooster was crowing. 

Through the open doors and windows across, the activities of a late afternoon were visible:  a dinner table was set, a baby was rocked, homework was done; music was blasting; a TV announcer tried to cut through.  All the while, several bags were lowered down on ropes from windows and balconies, and filled with soft round rolls by a man with a bicycle who seemed to have been awaited by many:  a baker on wheels.   

The life of all these people seemed like an open book.  I observed it with some amazement.  I was in Cuba!  I was in Havana!  For the next few days I would live in a small flat in the middle of the old city, skin-close to the locals.  As much as I was an outsider, my presence on this fourth-floor balcony made me part of this tapestry of sounds and activities, made me as much an observer as the object of observation.

It slowly sank in:  I was not in Iran as I had so hoped for this sabbatical.  Years of preparation and dreams were shattered when my sabbatical application to spend four months in Iran was vetoed by the WCC president and the school’s legal council.

I was not in China, Tibet or Nepal as I had alternatively proposed in a desperate move not to lose the sabbatical altogether; it is not yet season for travel in Nepal and Tibet and the thought of traveling to China just did not get me “in the mood”. 

Thank goodness, I was not in the hospital.  As if injury had to be added to insult, I caught a bronchitis at the end of last semester that before long had turned into pneumonia, caught just days before hospitalization, according to the Urgent Care physician I finally consulted.  A good dose of antibiotics cured the pneumonia, but strenuous travel alone and too far away, seemed a foolish idea for the time-being.

Cuba — with its warm and sunny climate, with my dear friend Celibeth Donnelly, who not only had the time, the money and the inclination to go, but who speaks Spanish as an extra bonus — seemed the best possible alternative.

And we pulled it off! 

Riding on Obama’s easing of travel restrictions for US citizens, we identified the general license applicable for the two of us:  515.564 (a):  Research and professional meetings.

We did not want to sneak through Canada or Mexico, as Celibeth had done four times in the past.  We were going as officially as possible. 

A call to my local travel agent in Ann Arbor revealed that his agency only one week prior had been authorized to even issue plane tickets to Cuba.  We would be his first Cuba clients!

A good friend, lawyer and Cuba-expert in Ann Arbor, helped us compile some additional paperwork to ease our minds; really, no further papers are required if the statutory general license applies. 

Our discovery of the existence of AirBnB in Cuba had me going for almost two days mapping out a full month’s trip, hitting as many UNESCO sites as possible — following my usual pattern of prioritizing cultural sites.  Booking accommodations with AirBnB, I hoped, would get us in touch with the locals, would allow us up-front payment via credit card or PayPal, and would keep our overall expenses reasonably low. 

Viazul, an overland bus company operating in Cuba, was another discovery.  Viazul connects all major Cuban cities. The system would be perfect if enough buses would operate.  Good for us and just in time, we found out how fast these buses fill up.  More than three weeks in advance, I booked all the buses to get us from one place to the next.  Usually, I show up at the bus station the day of my trips…

All of this pre-planning took out a bit of the spontaneity I like while traveling, but it eased our need to carry too much cash around (ongoing effects of the US embargo) and since we were two on this trip, gave us some structure we both could work with. 

This will be a new experience:  traveling with a companion, but I am looking forward to it.  Celibeth and I have known each other for over 20 years.  There should be few surprises.

But no doubt, we will be in for a lot of wonderful experiences, challenges, encounters, discoveries.  As always, I hope you will join me/us.

Good night.