A Traveling Cuban Returns Home

Rogelio Manuel Diaz Moreno

Frente a la catedral de la Ciudad de Panamá.
Our group in front of the Panama City cathedral.

HAVANA TIMES — Though it didn’t happen as quickly as one would like, the planets finally lined up again and made it possible for a certain Cuban to get a breath of fresh air far from his native soil. So, I again had rare experiences that were both agreeable and stressful, some of which may be worth remembering.

I won’t go into all of the details (neither prior nor during the trip). First, it would be to try the patience of our gentle readers, who are easily bored. Second, when one has no intention of reliving certain experiences, a certain degree of discretion is advisable.

The reason for my trip to the outside world was to learn, from a supply company, how to operate complex radiotherapy and radiosurgery planning programs which were being installed in my hospital. The training was to take place in Crawley, south of London, England. Crawley is to the British capital what San Jose de las Lajas is to Havana, the two being separated by several million pounds Sterling.

According to Wikipedia, an average temperature of 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (7 to 8 maximum, 3 to 4 below zero minimum) would await us there. This time around, yours truly would not be alone, as he would be accompanied by a distinguished colleague, another physicist from the Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital and a medical doctor from the Oncology Institute. We left behind a bewildered neurosurgeon, who was to travel with us but suffered an unfortunate accident the day prior to our departure and could not make the trip. Since the Cuban in question is yours truly, I’ll put an end to this silly business of speaking in the third person.

The eventful itinerary began with (yet another) lesson for people like myself, bent on remaining atheists in this country of ours, so real and truly marvelous. Prior to the trip, we had had two months of bad weather, cold fronts, endless showers and even coastal flooding and not one of the sunny days that make us proud down here – at least in tourism ads.

Do you recall how the Catholic Pope, Francis, and the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow decided to have a brief meeting here in Havana, on February 12, at the Jose Marti Airport? Well, the pertinent offices made all the needed arrangements with Cuba’s saints and this historical and religious encounter, which coincided with our departure date, was graced by a clear, sunny sky and a gentle breeze, the sort of weather we hadn’t seen the entire year.

It could be downtown Panama City or Havana.
It could be downtown Panama City or Havana.

We were to make a one-night stopover in Panama. Immediately following take-off, it seemed as though our plane’s pilots didn’t have a very precise idea of where to go. First, the vessel headed decidedly towards the Bermuda Triangle. Then, it seems the pilot thought it over and, perhaps in order to get their bearings using a solid reference, we began to fly over Cuba’s National Highway, also known as 8 Vias, only a lot higher than normal. I have reasons to visit Santa Clara, but I didn’t think I’d be doing so then. When we had almost reached kilometer 259, flying at over 10 kilometers over the ground, the metal eagle finally headed south.

At the opportune moment, the captain announced that we would soon be landing. Almost immediately, we began to feel the tingling sensation in the stomach that comes with a rapid loss of altitude. The divine meteorological protection we enjoyed in Cuba obviously did not reach our first destination. As we descended, a thick layer of dark clouds separated us from the surface. There were reasons to feel a bit nervous. The isthmus is very narrow, and you couldn’t see anything, not a thing. What if, after piercing through the clouds, we discovered we had passed the mark, or hadn’t actually reached it?

Fortunately, our crew had a better sense of orientation here than back on the island. After cutting through the cloud-cover, everything emerged right where it had to be: Panama and its capital, its canal and the bundle of ships floating in line to go through. One of the ships was moving full-steam and looked intent on cutting in line.

We landed. Panama’s airport is large and one has to walk considerable distances. Some of the barriers, those posts joined by belts, created true labyrinths. “Whoops, it looks like we’ve already gone through here.” It felt like a Moebius Strip. “Whoops, I think we’ve gone by here, but now we’re headed in the wrong direction!” Ultimately, walking randomly and following those who seemed to know where they were going, we went through the airport and didn’t get lost.

It took some work to convince the immigration officer to let us through, as the only thing we knew is that a person from the company would be waiting for us outside. We only had a name, no phone or address. Finally, thanks to our letters of recommendation and official documents from the blessed company (without an official address in Panama), official Cuban passports and UK visas, convincingly affixed to these, and following a thorough interrogation, she let us through.

During our brief stopover, as was to be expected, we were barely able to see a few, fleeting images of the country, despite the efforts of our cordial hosts to take us on the most interesting tours they could arrange in such short a time.

We toured Panama’s old town, which resembles that of Havana some. We felt the heat, so reminiscent of Santiago de Cuba. We became convinced its streets are as colorful as those of Camaguey. A Cuban living there could very well feel at home. The doctor and I put our beloved cameras to work left and right. We were able to store, therefore, the images of heritage buildings, churches, craft markets and showy skyscrapers.

At the unavoidable canal, what caught my eye were the funny-looking locomotives that tug the vessels. Since there’s barely enough space to accommodate all the ships, the locomotives do not always work well together, tugging here and there and making the ships bump against one side and then the other…so the poor ships make it to the ocean with more than one dent. I also recall the Casa Margarita Hostal, where they treated us so kindly I would be willing to speak well of them any chance I get.