Nothing like beginning at the end. I am about to tell you the story of my trip home from Cuba. Stories from earlier in the week will be forthcoming...but this is what is the most fresh in my mind.
On Sunday, we got up at 3am Cuba time (which would be 1am Houston time) and left the hotel at 3:45am to head to the airport. We checked in and went through customs. A couple of our people were questioned by the authorities. One girl was interrogated by three Communist officials for about 15 minutes, but they finally let her through. Our plane was supposed to take off at 6:40am, so we had some waiting time ahead of us. We finally boarded the plane...and then we just sat there, and sat there, and sat there. Our flight didn't take off until 9am -- two and a half hours after it was supposed to leave. Turns out some guy got pulled off the plane by Cuba customs and they had to unload all the baggage to find his suitcase and then reload everything.
So we're now on our way to Monterrey...where we have to catch our connecting flight to Houston. We land in Mexico and have 45 minutes to catch our flight. Only problem is, we still have to go through immigration! The line is forever long...they finally pulled us out of the line and moved us up to the front so we could get through. By this point we have about 10 minutes. We are literally running through the airport with all our bags trying to get to the Continental ticketing counter. We rush up, out of breath and terrified that we're too late. About 2/3 of our group gets through with boarding pass in hand. Right as I walk up to the ticketing the counter the agent tells me the plane is full -- there's no more room. What the?!?
Turns out Continental got tired of waiting for our group and gave some of our seats away to stand-by passengers. Now mind you, they knew we were in the building. They knew we were being rushed through immigration. They knew it wasn't our fault that we were late. And they knew that we were doing everything we could to get there in time. But they still gave our seats away. So there I am with eight other people from our group, being told we are stuck in Mexico on stand-by for the next flight to Houston.
At this point the rest of our group is boarding and we are working as quickly as we can to write down names and phone numbers of people back home for them to call when they got to Houston. After the flight left and we were alone in the terminal we went to the gate agent and asked what would happen next. He said there were multiple flights heading to Houston...but they were all overbooked. "You're on stand-by, but you're not getting on a flight to Houston today" he said. "In fact, you're probably not getting on a flight until Tuesday." TUESDAY!!! You've got to be kidding! Every airline was overbooked, even flights to Dallas and Atlanta were full.
Then the agent told us he had an idea. "There is a 4:30pm flight from Laredo to Houston. There are 16 seats available on that flight, so we can get you all on together." So what's the catch? "Laredo is three hours from here...you'll have to figure out a way to drive there." Oh, and by the way, it's 12pm and the flight leaves in 4 and a half hours!
Next thing we know, all nine of us are loading ourselves and all our suitcases into a van with a Mexican driver and driving through the mountains and across the Mexican countryside for three hours. It took an hour to get across the border (yes, there are trucks with soldiers and machine guns). Then we couldn't find the airport and had to stop to ask for directions. We pulled up to the airport at 4pm, ran inside and the people at the counter said "we've heard about you, we've been waiting for you...come on through." The Laredo flight was delayed by about 30 minutes, so we had just enough time to check our bags, take a restroom break and relax for about 20 minutes before we boarded.
Once we got on the plane I began to get nervous. I was reminded of a dream a friend of mine had about a month ago. In that dream, she and I were traveling together (check), got separated (check), took different flights (check) and my plane crashed and I died (gulp). Needless to say I was praying hard. We were just approaching Houston when we hit turbulence. Now I have experienced turbulence many times and it has never really bothered me...but this was unlike anything I've ever felt. The plane literally dropped into what felt like free-fall. People were screaming and clutching one another. It felt like we were on a roller coaster when you go over the edge and your stomach lurches up into your throat. I truly thought the plane was going to fall from the sky and we were going to crash. It was the most horrible moment of my life. It only lasted a few seconds, but it felt like forever. I wasn't comfortable until the plane landed in Houston and I was standing on the ground.
We were finally home. It took them an hour to get our luggage to us. After all that, we thought they had lost it. Finally by 7:15 I walked out of the Houston airport after more than 17 hours of traveling from Cuba to Mexico, through Mexico, across the U.S. border and ending up in the city that I love. It is good to be home.