Early in 1999 I ask Annette whether she might take a couple of weeks off at the end of the year for a trip to mark our thirtieth wedding anniversary which falls on December 3. I propose to take her somewhere she has never previously visited, a place which she has always wanted to see. She will need her passport and her sunglasses, and she will discover the name of her destination as she boards the plane on December 1.
Surprises have littered the twisting path of our three decades of marriage, and frequently enough they have caused one or other of us to stumble. Generally I have created the surprises and as time has passed Annette has become nervous of them.So it is with our surprise anniversary destination: Annette becomes nervous, then edgy then agitated. Soon the surprise raises serious doubt whether we will reach that milestone as man and wife. So I tell Annette it is to be Cuba.
Annette is immediately enthused and sets about refreshing her Spanish and buying and playing every Cuban CD available in Australia. At the Melbourne Writers’ Festival she bails up the great Oscar Hijuelos and asks him for a reading list so she can prepare for our visit his homeland. As Annette is the only gringa in Australia who can pronounce Hijuelos, Oscar does her will.
On December 1, 1999, Annette sets out with her passport, her sunglasses and an English-Spanish dictionary. I accompany her and keep the journal that follows.
DECEMBER 1, 1999.
We check in at the United Airlines desk at the airport. The lady behind the computer directs us to the Red Carpet lounge, an exclusive little xanadu for the well-to-do. The lady has not let on to Annette that we have been upgraded to Business Class because the screen tells her that the upgrade is to remain a SURPRISE for her anniversary.
In the Red Carpet Blue Rinse Silver Spoon lounge we do nothing for the period of necessary delay between our arrival and the plane’s departure. We do nothing very comfortably in these expensive surroundings and in expensive company. We watch our expensive companions eat non-kosher food and we contemplate the available kosher items. Annette chooses camomille tea and I choose not to drink the coffee which looks depressing. Instead I sneak out the door and up the stairs where I buy peasant coffee from the Italian coffee bar, and soon my taste buds are travelling first class.
Among our companions is a young man drinking Coke from a bottle. This and his bushy facial hair hint at Lubavitch lineage. He is travelling with his attractive slim wife whose ripening bosoms and swelling tummy hint at the presence in-utero of a non-fare paying passenger. Junior Lubavitchers usually travel Economy, but this one is a Gutnick. It turns out that we met some years ago at Doncaster Shule.
We board and are directed to our seats in Tycoon Class, where Annette is pleasantly surprised and very comfortable. In no time we are in Los Angeles, where we eat some melatonin and look for coffee.
America is famous for spoiling good food and good coffee, so I am pleasantly surprised to find a respectable espresso at LAX. I am not surprised however, to eat an excellent kosher pizza at The Milky Way, where Stephen Speilberg’s mum, a vivacious octogenarian, is our hostess. The old lady dresses like my daughters in a cling-to-your-body little shirt and a short little skirt. She wears quite a bit of face paint too. She dances to the tables, entertains her happy fressers with her exuberance and energy. She is full of charm and fun. Before we leave, she urges us to take a walk down the corridor that leads to the toilets, not for excretion but for edification: there on the walls are posters from each of her son’s movies. When we admire them she beams with pride.
At the Museum of Tolerance we play Speed Museum, a sort of extended sprint in which you run from this item to that exhibit to the other interactive experience, in an attempt to catch the meaning while avoiding the experience of the whole enterprise. It is an expensive, elite sport, costing more per minute (if you include taxi fares both ways) than the flight to Los Angeles. I think I’d like to come back and play Slow Museum next time I’m in L.A.
We board a United Airlines flight to Mexico City, this time in the depths of Economy. The plane is full and we discover that our in-flight entertainment system doesn’t work. We call a flight attendant who presses all the right buttons and confirms that it’s not working. She calls a colleague who smiles when he hears the story, then has a go himself. Nothing happens. His smile broadens, inviting the first attendant to enjoy the joke with him, then both laugh as they inform us we are seated in the Bermuda Triangle. The Triangle, they explain, is where lots of movies and audio have disappeared without trace. Welcome to Economy Class.
We arrive in Mexico City late at night and find an airport in chaos. We are booked into an airport hotel which ought to be located hereabouts – but where? Here is a booth with a sign which reads INFORMACION, with the helpful English translation INFORMATION. There is a man in the booth. We ask for directions to the AEROPUERTO PLAZA HOTEL. He shrugs and replies to our broken Spanish in broken broken English: “It must be close, senor”, and looks to a companion for confirmation. He too nods, then shrugs, then looks to a third man to settle the details. We leave the three, nodding and shrugging diligently, content to have been of service to the visitors.
It is Annette who locates the courtesy coach that takes us to our hotel that gives us has a phone that doesn’t work. But it does have a helpful person with a fine Zapata moustache in RECEPCION who is happy to be of service when I descend and explain our difficulty. The receptionista has pretty dimples which dance when she smiles. She smiles and the dimples dance as I fracture the Spanish language and she gives us another room. Here the phone works and we book a wake-up call for our early flight.
We get up about four hours before our short flight to Cuba, because it is necessary for me to pray before the flight. It is also necessary for Annette to wash and dry her hair, a morning ritual by which she transforms her lovely head of curls into – curls. This requires the use of a hairdryer which shrieks matutinally into her ears, turning her prematurely deaf. The Hotel Aeropuerto Plaza has a Directorio of Servicios in which Annette reads that the management will gladly lend a dryer to guests upon request. Annette duly requests and an elegant Zapatista in a suit delivers the dryer. Soon I am worshipping and the hairdryer is screaming and all is normal until I hear a human scream from the bathroom, followed by a bang, then silence.
I race to the bathroom where the dryer lies on the floor, and my freshly electrocuted wife dances in pain, clutching her burned fingers. Her hair looks lovely.
We descend to breakfast with high hopes of good coffee: we are, after all, in Central America. Well the coffee is black and strong and it blackens the name of the Mexican Republic considerably. We leave the Hotel Aeropuerto Plaza without regret, board a Mexican plane and fly to Cuba.