Our crazy old green taxi, a 1950s-era Ford with more primer than paint and a diesel engine instead of its original V8, drops us off on the Malecón, the broad seaside avenue where the surf crashes against the thick concrete seawall and arches in salty bursts over the pedestrians and into the street.
We eat a lunch of pork, beans and rice, and plantains, then walk through increasingly rickety streets to ANIPLANT headquarters. Just as we arrive Nora drives up in her tiny Russian car. It rattles and diesels and the door creaks when she opens it. It is decades old and held together with the Cuban equivalent of bondo and an epic layer of rust.
A lot of the vehicles in Havana are like this – determined to persevere, perfectly capable of doing their jobs long after you’d expect a United Statesian car to be in the junkyard or dead on the side of the road.
The car backfires and belches a small cloud of smoke. Havana is a smoky place – cigarettes aren’t anathema here, cigars are sacred, and the old cars fart always.
We are here to tour ANIPLANT, to meet its president, Nora, and the many rascally, four-legged street urchins whom she has saved. We are supposed to be visiting angels bearing boxes and boxes of gifts.
Instead all we have is a fistful of paperwork.
Confiscamos Todos en El Aeropuerto
All the travel blogs tell us to be judicious with jewelry because Cubans, who earn very little each month, can’t afford to accessorize. But in the Havana airport every working millennial has at least one piece of fancy bling – a shiny, oversized wrist watch.
And there are so many of them, young, beautiful, dressed in smartly pressed khaki and black uniforms. I speak to them in my shy, early-in-the-trip Spanish when our checked bags arrive but all three boxes with veterinary supplies are missing.
To get to the lost luggage window we have to tromp back past the table with the health care workers in white coats who are supposed to review us for signs of disease, but who look bored or exhausted as they take the limp papers from travelers without checking to see if they are feverish or even sniffly.
We travel together perfectly, the three of us, and though we are not fluent in Spanish we are all prodigiously hardy and enduringly patient. Landing on Cuban soil, even the unromantic runway asphalt, feels to us like a miracle. We are prepared for bureaucracy and hassle. Officially, the only reason we are here in Havana is to provide humanitarian aid to the Cuban people, and we tell ourselves the bureaucracy of the airport is just part of our charitable adventure.
Four hours later and still in the airport, the 10th person we broken-Spanish-talk-to hands us a hand-written, three-page list of all of our veterinary supplies. We are sure it is accurate because we have watched first one officer and then the next sift through the sutures, medicines, bandages, syringes, dewormers, and each and every box of flea and tick control before passing the boxes and us on to an older, less crisply-dressed superior. Finally we are left with two slow, sweet old men, one fat and one thin, who touch, discuss, stack and restack and re-restack, ask us questions, make phone calls in the abbreviated Cuban Spanish that hurts my brain to try to understand, all before scribbling out the full name and quantity of every single item we brought with us from Florida onto an official form, using old-fashioned carbon paper to make copies for themselves.
“Confiscamos todos,” he says, (we are confiscating everything), but that’s not quite true.
They leave us the stack of children’s books and the tiny stuffed animal shaped like a little brown bat.
Nora Above and Beyond
And at ANIPLANT, Nora is enchanted with the books and especially the bat. She speaks Spanish to us clearly and slowly, patient and unpresuming, two qualities which must make her very good at her job dealing with stray animals, foster parents, a needy human community, and the politics and paperwork of running a modern nonprofit under a communist system.
“It is very important to teach the children how to care for animals. To love them and take care of them. We must teach them young, and prevent the problems we have now.”
And so we get the full honor tour, full of feisty canine love and all manner of liquid blessings. You can read more about that in the earlier post In Cuba We Cannot Be Tourists.
Nora sympathizes with us and assures us she will troop down to the airport on Monday and sort things out. She will get the supplies. Like a mother or a favorite teacher, just being in her presence makes us feel as if everything is already taken care of, as if we have done right, down well, and she loves us.
Even though we do not deliver the supplies to her door, we get all the credit anyway.
And that feels a little bit like communism to me.
Want More Cuba?
In a few weeks I’ll create a third blog post about the magic of Havana and the Cuban serendipity we experienced surrounding this voyage.
Until then if you are looking for more Cuba, check out one of my Facebook photo albums with photographs from our voyage.