A warning sign greeted my three traveling companions and me at the Havana airport on the morning of departure from Cuba. Written in Spanish with English translation, it listed the many items that passengers are prohibited from bringing on flights. Among them were “catapults.”
We laughed as we pictured somebody trying to drag one of those massive Roman weapons loaded with boulders into the airport to check it onto a plane. Or struggling to get it into the overhead compartment. The accompanying picture made clear that the appropriate translation would have been “slingshots.”
I was pondering how challenging it is to overcome differences of culture and language as I settled into my window seat on the packed flight to Cancún, Mexico, when an elderly Cuban man took the seat next to mine. He had the creased face and calloused hands of a farmer who had spent a lifetime in the fields. He told me that he was on his way to visit his family in Florida, whom he hadn’t seen in many years. And he had never been on a plane before.
When the flight attendant brought around the customs forms we needed to fill out, my seatmate borrowed my pen, placed my form next to his, and began copying it, beginning with my name. He had grown up in the years before the revolution, when Cuba was a playground for wealthy North Americans, when vast resources were channeled into luxury hotels and gambling casinos, into nightclubs and golf courses, rather than into education for Cuba’s children. I realized that he didn’t know how to read. With me guiding him through the process, he was able to write his name by copying it, letter by painstaking letter, from his passport.