Isabelle DeSisto, Harvard College Class of 2020, studied abroad in Havana for the Fall 2018 semester through the CASA Cuba program.
My Weekend with Michael: Or, How I Survived a Hurricane on the Isla de la Juventud
By Isabelle DeSisto
January 29, 2019
I encountered the first obstacle of my trip to the Isla de la Juventud before I even left Havana. Since American credit cards don’t work in Cuba, I couldn’t buy my plane tickets online. But that was no problem; all I had to do was bring cash to the corporate office of Cubana de Aviación, the national airline company. When I got to the office, there was no line (a rarity for Cuba). I paid, collected my ticket, and was about to head out the door when it occurred to me to ask: “Is there a phone number I can call to find out if there are any changes with the flight?” The receptionist’s answer was unapologetic: “No, the phone here doesn’t work. But there won’t be any problems.” Perhaps this response should have put me on guard; after all, I had been living in Cuba for over a month, and was well aware that things seldom go off without a hitch. But I simply shrugged, thanked the receptionist, and went on my merry way. Little did I know that I would come to regard this moment as the great irony of my semester in Cuba.
Looking back, I’m not quite sure what motivated me to plan a weekend trip to the Isla de la Juventud, or “Isle of Youth,” the biggest of Cuba’s offshore islands. More than likely, it was the Isla’s fascinating history. Cave paintings on its southern tip suggest that settlers arrived as early as 1000 B.C., far before Christopher Columbus dropped anchor on his second journey to the New World in 1494. In the years that followed, the Isla gained notoriety as a pirate hideaway, supposedly inspiring Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. (Today, the mascot of the Isla’s baseball team is a pirate.) Later it became a place of exile for Cuban national hero José Martí and a detention center for political prisoners including Fidel Castro. After the Revolution, the Cuban government turned the Isla into an education center. As part of its internationalist aspirations, it built dozens of boarding schools where thousands of students from developing countries could come to study--free of charge. These schools gave the Isla de la Juventud its current (and fifth) name; prior to that it had been called Isla de Pinos (“Isle of Pines”).
Nowadays, the Isla is somewhat of a backwater tourist destination. It boasts beautiful beaches, pristine scuba diving sites and a limited-access Southern Military Zone teeming with wildlife. It could be a tourist hotspot, but its infrastructure is underdeveloped and its reputation practically nonexistent outside of Cuba.
I reached the Isla on Friday, October 5th, just as night had fallen. After a harrowing journey from central Havana to the airport--in which the bus was so full that I found myself riding along the highway, clutching desperately onto the man in front of me as I half-dangled out of an open door--a minor flight delay and a bit of a bumpy landing, I made it to Nueva Gerona, the Isla’s capital “city.” As I disembarked from one of Cubana de Aviación’s tiny planes, a nurse in a starched white uniform checked my temperature. Then I squeezed with the other passengers into a rickety shuttle bus, which dropped us off outside Nueva Gerona’s state-run hotel.
When I arrived, three friends from my study abroad program were waiting for me in a park opposite the hotel. They had landed in the morning, since the afternoon flight had run out of space. Our first stop was the casa particular where we would be staying. Cubans have been renting rooms in their homes to tourists since the 90s, when the government legalized some forms of private business to help people survive the economic crisis which had been provoked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s primary trading partner. One of my Cuban classmates had recommended this one to me.
After dropping off my things, we decided to take a walk around Nueva Gerona. Even though it was a Friday night, the sleepy town didn’t show any signs of waking up. While walking along the main cobblestone boulevard we did spy a gaggle of teens crowding around what appeared to be a makeshift nightclub, but none of us was able to sum up the courage to peek inside. We had heard a rumor that sometimes people gather and play music by El Pinero, an abandoned ferry boat, but the place was empty. Oh well. We ended up eating dinner at a local restaurant and heading to bed early. My first evening in the Isla had disappointed me a little. I hoped that the rest of the weekend wouldn’t turn out so, well, boring.
Saturday dawned bright and early. Though the forecast promised rain, we weren’t to be deterred. On a recommendation from my trusty Lonely Planet guide, we decided to hike up the Sierra de las Casas (casually referred to as “La Loma”- or, “The Hill”), which from far away seemed like nothing more than a lush, tree-covered ridge.
In reality, the combination of narrow, sticky mud trails and slick, jagged rocks made this hike more like a obstacle course. As we clambered over the final stretch of boulders, I wondered what would happen if one of us fell and broke her ankle. Weeks of an almost exclusively bean and rice diet hadn’t exactly helped me to tone up my muscles, and I doubted that I’d be able to tow a wounded friend down the face of a mountain. Luckily, my arm strength was never put to the test. When we finally reached the summit, huffing and puffing, we were treated to a breathtaking view of the city below. But we didn’t have long to admire our surroundings. The wind picked up and we could see an ominous gray cloud creeping closer along the horizon. It was time to go back.
When we emerged from the trees at the bottom of the trail, we were a sorry--and soggy--sight. Plastered in mud and coated with leaves, we trekked back into town. On our way back, several pineros (as the Isla’s residents call themselves) poked their heads out of their houses to congratulate us for having survived the journey. They didn’t even have to ask where we had been; it was obvious to everyone.
That evening, as we relaxed in the central park with a peso ice cream cone, I decided to connect to the Wifi to send my parents an update on my whereabouts. As I opened my email, a notification popped up on my screen. It was a tropical cyclone warning.
“Did you guys see this?” I asked my friends, showing them the message. They shook their heads. We hadn’t heard anything from our program director, or our parents. It was probably no big deal.
The next day, the weather was miserable. But it wasn’t hurricane miserable--at least not yet. We gathered our backpacks and checked out of our casa, planning to do some more sightseeing before heading straight from the beach to the airport to catch our afternoon flight. It was at this point that we came up against one of the Isla’s most pressing handicaps: transportation. With a public bus system that’s unreliable at best, most pineros choose one of two options: wobbly horse-drawn carts, or their own two feet. Unfortunately, neither of those was going to work. Since we were going pretty far out of town, we needed a taxi.
It ended up being surprisingly difficult to locate a taxi on the Isla. Even in the so-called “high season” of December to February, tourists are few and far between. But in October, on a Sunday, in the pouring rain… good luck.
And good luck we had: a friendly horse cart driver called his neighbor, who agreed to pick us up. As the rain began to beat harder and harder onto the pavement, a shaky yellow Lada pulled up to where we were standing, huddled under the awning of a corner store. Its owner, Eduardo, opened the door, surprised that we wanted to go anywhere in this weather. He was even more surprised when he learned that our two destinations were: the beach and a prison.
The Presidio Modelo, as it’s called, is undoubtedly the Isla’s most dramatic sight. A massive prison complex built under the repressive presidency of General Gerardo Machado in the late 1920s, it now serves as a museum. The Presidio Modelo’s most famous captive is none other than Fidel Castro, who was imprisoned there in 1953 after his failed assault on the Moncada soldier’s barracks in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second largest city. He was set free only two years later when then-president Fulgencio Batista bowed under international pressure to release political prisoners. From there he fled to Mexico, where he would join forces with Che Guevara to plan the Cuban Revolution.
Today, the Presidio Modelo stands trapped in time. Although the buildings at its entrance have received a fresh coat of jarring yellow paint in recent years, the circular cell blocks behind are derelict and, well, downright creepy. Eduardo drove us slowly around the territory, explaining the significance each of the buildings and retelling the history of Fidel and his comrades. I felt almost uncomfortable climbing out of the car to take a photo in front of the place where thousands of prisoners--many of them political--had been held against their will. As we slid out of the front gate, I took one final look at the imposing facade of the prison headquarters. Rising fearlessly under the gloomy gray sky and surrounded by an expanse of untouched green grass, the building is eerie, but beautiful.
Next we asked Eduardo to take us to Playa Bibijagua, in what we assumed would be our last hurrah on the Isla. This beach is a popular spot on the northern coast, thanks to its unusual black sand. When we pulled up, it was completely empty. No wonder--for a Bostonian like me, a little drizzle doesn’t put an end to a beach day, but no self-respecting Cuban would swim on a chilly, cloudy day in October.
As we walked toward the water, a man popped out of what looked like an abandoned snack bar. Grinning ear-to-ear, he approached us eagerly.
“Hello there! I’m Ricky. Ricky cubano, that is. Not Ricky Martin!” he quipped. “What can I do for you ladies today?” he continued energetically, in a way that reminded me of a desperate car salesman.
“We’re just looking for a place to change,” I replied cautiously.
“Right this way!” he cried, gesturing to a room behind the bar. When he opened the door, I expected a bathroom. It was the kitchen.
“Don’t worry, nobody’s going to watch you!” he joked, as I eyed the pig head resting on the counter. “Here, I’ll put on some music for you,” he said, placing a boom box on the table. “Do you ladies like reggaeton?” he asked, blasting the radio at full volume before waiting to hear the answer. He turned as if to leave, then doubled back. “Ok, so before I go, what do you want for lunch?”
There it was.
Launching into a well-rehearsed pitch, Ricky assured us that this would be the best meal of our lives. We shrugged our shoulders and agreed; we were hungry. As I changed into my swimsuit with the pig head staring at me, I wondered if this was a good idea.
After a couple hours of splashing around, Ricky ran over to tell us that the food was ready. Unsurprisingly, he had made a mistake with our orders. In a split second, car salesman Ricky turned into irate Ricky. The customer is always right? Forget about it.
“You’re wrong! I’m right!!” he roared. My friends and I looked at each other warily. It wasn’t worth arguing over a piece of cheese and a fish that had probably been sitting in the back room for days. We paid and split.
That meal had left us unsatisfied, to put it mildly. So we decided to make one more stop at the famous Coppelia ice cream shop before heading to the airport.
Coppelia is Cuba’s legendary state-run ice cream chain. Every sizable city in the country has one. In Cuba, ice cream--like education, health care and baseball--is a right of the people. Prices are one moneda nacional (Cuban national currency) per scoop -- the equivalent of about four cents. The most popular option, and my personal favorite, is what’s called an “ensalada” (salad), which consists of five scoops of ice cream. To get into the Havana shop, you typically have to wait in line for at least an hour, and there are usually only one or two flavors to choose from, regardless of what the sign says outside. But on the Isla de la Juventud in a rainstorm, there was no line; we were ushered right in.
After we ate our ice cream, the waiter struck up a conversation with us. We told him that we were planning on leaving the Isla on the evening flight.
“I heard that flight was canceled,” he said.
“It can’t be,” I replied naively, “The airline company has my phone number, so if there were a problem with the flight, then they would call me.”
“My brother’s wife’s cousin works at the airport,” he insisted, “And she said that all flights were canceled because of the storm.”
That’s how news travels in Cuba. If there’s anything important going on, you probably won’t hear about it on the TV or radio; you’ll hear about it from so-and-so’s uncle’s friend’s nephew’s next-door neighbor. In this case, we tried to call the airport several times, to no avail. It looked like we had to take this guy’s word for it.
Sometimes you just have to roll with the punches. And roll we did, right down the street to Buena Vista, a bar-cum- “Italian” restaurant. This situation called for a piña colada.
A couple piña coladas later, it was time to find a new place to stay. In theory, we could have gone back to the casa particular where we had stayed the past two nights; after all, it was cheap, and we hadn’t brought too much money. But the memories of one defiant cockroach and an uncomfortable bucket shower made us reconsider. We decided to return to Tu Isla, the restaurant where we had eaten dinner the first night, because we knew that they also had a couple rooms to rent.
The staff of Tu Isla were only too happy to accomodate us. They set us up in two comfortable nautical-themed guest rooms and then confirmed that our waiter in Coppelia was right: there would be no flight out that night, and probably not the next day either. But they had contacts in the airport who would send them updates, and they would keep us apprised. We were grateful, but also a little wary--and not because we would have to miss class. We had only budgeted for three days on the Isla, and with a tropical cyclone about to hit the eastern provinces, there was no telling when we might be able to get back to the mainland. In Cuba, American credit cards don’t work, and foreigners can’t receive money through Western Union. If we ran out of money, we weren’t sure what we would do. But we tried to push that thought out of our mind for the time being; after all, the storm hadn’t even hit yet.
That evening, we learned that there was one more traveler staying at Tu Isla: a German woman, whose name we never actually learned. She was planning on leaving on the Monday morning flight, but that one had also been canceled. This woman had arrived by boat the day before (a harrowing journey), for the express purpose of flying back to Havana on Cubana de Aviación. As she explained to us, her hobby was testing out different airline companies. Since she had already flown on the major airlines, now she was knocking more obscure ones off her bucket list. She could name the model of each of Cubana’s handful of old planes, and couldn’t wait to try them out. Unfortunately, she had not bargained for a hurricane, especially because she was supposed to fly back to Germany later that very same day. I expressed my sympathy, but secretly wondered what she expected to happen when choosing to fly with some of the smallest, least popular airline companies in the world.
“Do you speak any Spanish?” we asked, almost certain that she was the only other foreigner on the Isla.
“Pequeño,” she replied.
On Monday, we spent most of the day cooped up in the living room below the Tu Isla restaurant. Hurricane Michael had arrived, and brought with him mighty winds and torrential rain. I quickly finished the book I brought with me, but luckily there was an extra one sitting on the coffee table for guests to peruse: Hasta Siempre Fidel, a 500+ page photo book chronicling the events that were organized to commemorate El Comandante’s death in 2016. As the wind whipped through the palm trees outside, I dug in.
When the rain had finally abated, we emerged to find the city bruised but not destroyed. In fact, we were lucky; though there was some damage to trees and buildings, it was pretty minor, all things considered. The streets were mostly empty, and stores closed. A couple bodegas remained open, and huge crowds of people gathered around them to stock up on provisions in the event that the bad weather were to continue. In general, we noticed that the shops in Nueva Gerona were better stocked than the ones in Havana. The range of products was still pretty limited, but shelves were consistently full.
Back at Tu Isla, the manager called his contacts at the airport. No luck; no flights would leave Monday or Tuesday. Our German companion sighed; she had lost her $500 ticket back to Dusseldorf too. When we called our program director, he urged us to keep our spirits up; there was only so much he could do. His wife, a strong-willed Cuban actress, had a different idea: “Go to the Party!”
Tuesday was when tensions really began to rise. The staff at Tu Isla were kind and attentive, we had beds to sleep in and food to eat, and we had each other. So what if I was sporting the same striped shirt for the fourth day in a row? The only problem was money, or lack thereof. My friends were almost completely out of cash. I had brought extra on the off-chance that I would be able to organize a scuba diving trip, but it would only support us for another day or two at most.
In our desperation, we decided to economize. We could no longer afford to dine at the Tu Isla restaurant for every meal, even if portions were only $5. Coppelia, on the other hand, was open despite the storm… And that’s how I ended up eating a lot of ensaladas on the Isla--ice cream salads, that is.
With the temporary rush of energy our sugary lunch had provided, we decided that it wouldn’t hurt to follow the advice of our program director’s wife. Feigning confidence, we marched into the office of the Municipal Assembly of the People’s Power to plead our case. The obvious jefa of the place was a woman named Cheyla. She had no more information than we did, but she assured us that everything would be O.K. “If need be, you can stay at my house,” she offered generously, “We won’t let you go hungry!” In what was starting to become a pattern, Cheyla also had a relative who worked at the airport, whom she promised to call. She gave us her personal cell phone number, pledging to do her best to help us.
Tuesday night we sat vigil on the Tu Isla terrace while the manager made calls to find out if there would be a flight on Wednesday morning. When midnight rolled around, he told us that there would likely be a flight. Although it wouldn’t leave until 7am, we had better get there by 5am at the latest, because there would be a lot of people trying to get out of the Isla. We passed along the info to the German woman, who had been holed up in her room the entire day trying to figure out how to get back to Germany.
“Be ready for battle,” I joked, not realizing how much the airport would come to resemble a battlefield the next morning.
At 4:15am on Wednesday, we woke up to a text from Cheyla: “Good luck, ladies.” By 4:30am were outside and ready to go. Ever-reliable Eduardo showed up right on time, and drove us directly to the Isla’s single terminal. We got out of the taxi, swung our backpacks onto our shoulders and entered the building.
Inside the airport my eyes met a scene I can only describe with one word: chaos. It might have been early, but at least 100 people were crowded into the small waiting area, with a steady stream still trickling in. The loudspeaker was blaring instructions, families were camped out with their luggage, and harried airport workers were scurrying to and fro, mumbling into their walkie talkies.
We barely had time to approach the help desk before the Cubana employee blurted out her pre-prepared speech: “Passengers who have tickets for the Wednesday morning flight have priority. If there is space left over, we will let you know.” But I wasn’t to be dissuaded that easily.
“We’re foreign students,” I began, infusing my voice with the desperation I was beginning to feel, “And we need to get back to Havana. We don’t have any family or friends here, and we are running out of money. Please help us!”
The woman was not impressed. “Excuse me, but everyone here needs to get back to Havana,” she replied curtly. “I can’t help you.”
It was no use trying to reason with her. After all, she was right: everyone had a valid reason to get on the plane. It didn’t matter that we had paid 25 times the amount that the other passengers had; we were all equal here.
Discouraged--and hungry--, we called our program director. His wife picked up.
“Scream and cry, if you have to. Demand that they give you water. Tell them that you won’t leave that airport until the police take you out!” she cried, with her usual dramatic flare. I shrugged my shoulders; it was worth a shot.
My teary-eyed plea for water was met with indifference. “Next time, bring a credit card,” said the airport director, apparently unaware that the U.S.-imposed economic embargo made this useless.
And so we waited. Our German friend stood with us, her face marred with a look of despair and utter confusion. After an hour or so, one of the airport attendants ordered those with tickets on the Wednesday morning flight to board the plane. Then she told those of us whose flight had been canceled on Sunday to get in a line, because there were a few extra spots. Overwhelmed by the onslaught of desperate travelers, I was swept to the back. As the people around me jostled each other to get a better place in line, the attendant made an announcement.
“It doesn’t matter where you are in the line,” she said firmly. “I’m going to listen to everyone’s reason.” Then she pointed to me and my three friends. “These girls will go first,” she began. My heart skipped a beat. People began to murmur angrily. “Listen,” she continued, “These four girls are foreign students. They don’t have money or housing, so they need to be on the plane.”
The other passengers looked annoyed, but nobody protested. We elbowed our way to the front of the line and snatched the tickets that were offered to us before she could change her mind. I threw a fleeting glance at the German woman. Her flight had been canceled on Monday, so she wasn’t eligible to get on the plane. And it was no use anway; we had the last four tickets. I quickly pointed out some Cuban-Americans from Miami who spoke English and could help her, but I still felt guilty. As we sprinted to the security check, she stared back at as if she had been betrayed. I hope she got back to Dusseldorf.
When the plane touched down in Havana, I was ready to kiss the tarmac. After five days on the Isla, my friends and I were not in the best of spirits, but not one of us regretted the trip. We had survived Hurricane Michael with the help of many kind pineros, eaten our body weight in ice cream, and gotten to know a unique and beautiful part of Cuba that few Cubans--not to mention tourists--have been fortunate enough to visit. I will admit that I was a little put off when I found out several days later that the Cubana airline is obligated to pay the room and board of passengers whose flights are canceled, but by that point it was too late anyway. If I learned one thing from my semester in Cuba, it’s that every day is an adventure… though some more so than others!