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JetBlue Flies Commercial Flight to Cuba, the First in Over 50 Years and I Was Onboard

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It was 11:58 am on Friday morning and I still had to park somewhere near 16th St. The Cuban Embassy, open for official government business only 15 months, closes at noon. I parked, illegally, and ran fast enough to burn off breakfast. I walked up to the gate at 12:02 and anxiously rang the bell. I imagine whomever monitors the security camera must have conjectured I was crazy. I was under tremendous time pressure; and was two minutes late. So, yea, I probably looked every bit of loca. And it was 94F.

I didn’t resolve anything in the 10 minutes I was there but did walk away knowing I require a different journalist visa to cover any news related to the U.S. and Cuba. Those are the rules if you were born on the island and left after 1971.

My media accreditation had not been approved in time to travel with JetBlue Airways last Wednesday, Aug, 31, on their inaugural flight to Santa Clara, Cuba, making them the first American airline to operate a commercial flight into the island in a little over 50 years. My father was only 15 and my mother 13 when the last friendly exchange took place between my two countries.

I traveled with JetBlue to Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday night, however, in anticipation of attending the gate side ceremony. The inviting person guaranteed a unique experience and memorable time. Just my luck, I was seated next to secret service detail, and next to him, Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx. Midway into the quick, 2-hour flight, we touched on the significance of the ensuing trip to Cuba. I shared a bit of my family background and the impact this new development – in large part due to his very own doing – will have on us personally. I also clued him in to the fact I didn’t have my credentials.

He wished me luck and said we’d meet at the gate the following morning. I suggested we drink Cuban café.

I knew I’d be up against a brick wall once I got to the check-in counter. I was already confirmed on the Santa Clara flight, but without proper accreditation, that would be moot. It occurred to me that maybe a way around it would be to buy a round trip fare, using my personal visa. That would allow me on the flight but perhaps not the VIP ribbon cutting ceremony once in Cuba. I was okay with that. I just wanted to get on the flight.

After 30-minutes of back-and-forth and mute crosschecks, I was issued a boarding pass. I was shocked but thrilled. I did a quick Snap, singing my way to TSA Pre-Check, Cuban passport and visa in one hand, boarding pass in the other. I was on my way to Santa Clara, along with the Secretary of Transportation, JetBlue CEO, Robin Hayes, other airline executives and journalists (CNN, NBC, Telemundo, Univision, Fox, etc.).

But I left my suitcase at my brother’s house, just 8 miles away. I called Mami and let her know they were amenable and let me on. All she could say is “okay, mijita.” For a minute I considered Ubering back to my brother’s house to get my luggage. I was in. I could stay in Cuba and get to Havana to see Tia, after all.

Time was against me. I’d risk missing the flight.

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Art display at Fort Lauderdale gateside ceremony; Media at work; Map of Cuba on seat backs; Passengers checking in for Florida at Santa Clara airport; Mint for mojito at VIP reception in Cuba.

Much like I was told (this was my first inaugural flight experience), gateside festivities were every bit of a lo cubano with a live Cuban band playing vintage “Chan-Chan,” shots of espresso or cortados, pastelitos de guyaba, croquetas de jamón, Cuban sandwiches and basic cupcakes idling miniature paper Cuban flags. From my analysis, most of the crowd were media, as flanked on both sides by camera stalls and a step and repeat. Government officials were there, too, following the remarks of Fort Lauderdale’s mayor and the airport’s administrator.

I bumped into Secretary Foxx and only had time to tell him “I got on! Enjoy my island in case I don’t see you again.”

The boarding process was quite colorful and nowhere near tempered by the somewhat casual bystanders, eager to catch a pinch of the unfolding newswire.

I boarded right behind Secretary Foxx, though I was stopped and asked for a live interview by local NBC affiliate (I think – channel 10?) It was in Spanish and I can’t fully remember what he asked me or what I said. I do remember, however, the reporter referring to me as “Cuba!” when he made contact with my slightly tattered fedora. Because how else do you refer to someone whose name you don’t know?

The jumbo jet was quickly filling up. In all of the flights I’ve taken, private, commercial, business, first, economy, etc., I’ve never seen such jovial cooperation amongst passengers. Absent was the pushing, the side-eyes, the rookie traveler gesture, a la “please move out the aisle” or “that’s my seat.” None of that was present. And if by slight chance it was lingering, it was dutifully dwarfed by the sounds of Cuban-Americans answering reporters’ questions about their trip’s purpose; who where they going to see; was it their first time visiting; or how long had it been since they’d visited. While the bilingual communication was omnipresent, the collective energy was stronger. Every one was anxious and excited to be going to Cuba on this first and epic flight.

I made my way to my middle seat and called my mother – again – letting her now I was on board. Next to me sat a woman who was decked out in shiny NYC street-corner Chanel jewelry. She was quietly sobbing while her eyes were fixed on the window. I asked her if she was okay an offered her tissue. She said she was leaving behind her family but was excited to see her 5-year-old son she’d left behind in Oriente, 4 years earlier. I couldn’t fathom what she was telling me so I simply congratulated her for finding the right time to go back. I empathized, though. My mom was also separated from her parents when we left Cuba in the 70s and my father from his when my abuelos left in the late 60s.

On my other side was a JetBlue employee, working in international finance. She was Dominican and understood the surreal joy I was sharing in visiting “home” for the first time in 17 years — plenty of selfies, IG stories and Snaps for the recored. Only, she goes back often and doesn’t allow time to lapse. I could only explain to her the reason for my overdue visit: an almost inexplicable matter of self-preservation and subconsciously unaware pity.

I’ll reserve expounding on that ideal until a later time.

A few official remarks made the flight official business.

“We are proud to be the first U.S. airline to serve Cuba, but our focus is on being the best airline serving Cuba.This historic flight symbolizes our long-term commitment to provide affordable, award-winning service between Cuba and the U.S. For the first time in decades, families separated by only a short stretch of water can easily and affordably visit a loved one, attend an important occasion or visit a special place – and the role we play speaks directly to our mission of inspiring humanity.”  Robin Hayes, JetBlue CEO

He was spot on, I later determined for myself.

Secretary Foxx took a much more subdued position and simply thanked everyone on behalf of his department and president Obama, for joining and supporting the efforts to stabilize relationships with the Communist country, this flight being their first vital measure. I recorded lots and lots of applause.

My tattered fedora paired with a turquoise paper bag skirt garnered the compliments of CNN en Español, who asked for an interview. I would have rather not, but something in the ethos told me to do it. The reporter, stabilizing herself with a wide foot stance and holding on to my seatback, swiftly introduced her segment with a precursor of the historic nature of the flight. The cameraman zoomed in on me and I went in. I seem to have lost sense of reality for the better half of 30 seconds. That, or she threw me a curveball asking if I was going back to Cuba as a tourist or as a journalist. I regret saying both. The latter being true, the former reducing my intimate connection to my birth place to that of a young college student visiting Paris for the first time – exotic, enigmatic, and romantic – two of which I don’t regard Cuba.

I was happy to share with CNN’s viewers how I was looking forward to the changes Obama has initiated with Cuba. That perhaps it represented in shift in ideology on both coasts, but also that perhaps my aunt could finally be approved to visit us in Washington. I can go in and out of Cuba, indefinitely. She cannot.

The short flight took all of 54 minutes from wheels up to touch down.

We were directed by the 5-head crew, all Cuban,  to wave our mini Cuban flags and cheer on as we landed – very much in keeping with other non-US carrier flights. Our approach to the super small runway was steady and jarring. I could only see past my Cuban seat neighbor’s uber black hair, as she continued to press through the window, a line up of people. She leaned back a bit, giving me room to take a quick snap on my phone. And then I saw two flags: the American and the Cuban, held side by side as Cuban media were standing in a row, ready to document every single second of the arrival.

Just as I started to make out the letters of the airport’s name – Abel Santa Maria Santa Clara – the water cannon blessing erupted, clouding the windows even more with teardrops of chilled water.

The rest happened really fast. We all deplaned and were greeted with loud cheers. It was organized mayhem in directing media to our area and general visitors in through customs at its finest.

It was a picture perfect day.

I was “home.”

I missed much of the VIP ribbon-cutting ceremony, largely due to missing credentials. Cuban law still dictates I enter the country with my Cuban passport and Cuban visa. I had to go through that process, on that side, wondering if that relinquishes my American citizenship, even if only for ten minutes.

No less, JetBlue’s general manager in Santa Clara, a well-poised, very generous man, escorted me back through check-in and into the VIP lounge for the ceremony. By then, most of the pomp and circumstance had wrapped. I mused my way to the bar and panned the finger offerings: cocktail onions, folded slices of ham, chopped up cucumber, rail drinks and watered-down mojitos. I passed on all but a decent shot of Cuban espresso – my first in 17 years. It was more about doing the deed than enjoying a robust sip of decadent essence. It, too, was watered down.

I struck a conversation with two women with whom I should have connected in Florida – savvy New Yorkers going along for the ride. They were in Cuba for the first time and visibly excited about heading to Havana for two nights. After pitying myself for being empty-handed, they offered to roll with them in the true spirit of a Cuban: “We’ll figure it out! We’ll find panties and clothes along the way. You can’t go back.” I put down my fabulously extra big, Italian leather carry all – which was half-full of nothing – and mentally blasted myself for not having a more unscripted temper.

Retrospectively, I should have stayed. My Tia would have figured it out. I would have figured it out.

I gathered my ego, took off my heels and slipped into snakeskin flats. I boarded the plane – the very plane we had deplaned just three hours prior – after standing very little in front of the aircraft. It was surreal. A jumbo American airliner had just landed in Cuba on official business, as it would to any other destination. Almost. There was nothing typical about this flight.

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On way to depart for Florida.

The vibe was a noticeably different now. Fewer people, mostly JetBlue staff, a handful of Cubans visiting the U.S., other globalists (I meat a really nice French couple with two young toddlers inside the waiting area who just could not stop boasting on their new-found Caribbean spot) and most media, took our seats and stared out the windows. The Italian man — born and raised in Venezuela – next to me, shared his views on the experience. He was honored to be there, to say the least. We both relished in the poem read by the lead flight attendant, a Cuban man living in Miami. In his thick Spanish accent he read to us these poignant words by Cuban poetess Gertrude Gómez de Avellaneda:

Al Partir

On Leaving

Pearl of the sea! Star of the Occident!

Beautiful Cuba! Night’s murky veil

Is drawn across the sky’s refulgent trail,

And I succumb to sorrow’s ravishment.

Now I depart! …As to their labors bent,

The crewmen now their tasks assail,

To wrest me from my home, they hoist the sail

To catch the ardent winds that you have sent.

Farewell, my Eden, land so dear!

Whatever in its furor fate now sends,

Your cherished name will grace my ear!

Farewell!… The anchor from the sea ascends,

The sails are full…. The ship breaks clear,

And with soft quiet motion, wave and water fends.

Did he know I’d be sitting in the first seat, on the first row, inescapably 1 foot away from him? It was as if.

We took off, windows now fully dried and the view crystal clear.

I was on my way back to Florida on the first official flight to the U.S. from Cuba in over 50 years.

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Moi on plane to Cuba; Cafécito; JetBlue CEO, Robin Hayes, and me on return flight.

Tia called my mother later that evening, crying, telling her she was expecting to get a call from me at some point asking her to pick me up from some drop-off point in Havana, until she saw the CNN interview and realized I wasn’t staying. She was happy I was on the flight, and that she got to “see” me, but emphasized she expects to pick me up at José Martí airport when JetBlue flies to Havana, later this year, as I was told by Mr. Hayes himself. A casual 10-minute conversation near the cockpit provided insight on the massive undertaking this historic change has been for the airline and those following suit. He was excited.

My visa is still being processed.

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JetBlue is offering direct flights to Santa Clara, Camagüey, and Holguín, starting at $99.00, one-way from Fort Lauderdale. Flights to Havana are awaiting approval from both the U.S. and Cuban governments. If you’re interested in learning more details on how to travel to Cuba on JetBlue, visit their site, or check out this article.

Eat well, love unapologetically, pray with true intention, and take care of yourself.

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