Well I have finally managed to work out how to make my Flickr account visible so that you can all see the slideshow. You will see the first slideshow above this post! As mentioned in an earlier post, there will be MANY Cuba Trek 2009 updates for you to plough your way through, but don't worry - I won't do them all at once! Here is Cuba Take One: Flight of Miracles (and Bus of Despair).
Day one: Wednesday 18th February, 2009.
Clare and I have stayed in a hotel right next to Heathrow airport. It has the slowest service in the world and the coldest air conditioning in the room that I have ever encountered. However, thanks to the best plexi-glass double-glazing we heard nary a plane the whole night through. That cold morning, donning our MIND t-shirts of the brightest blue (using the left-over colourant from the old artificially blue Smarties that used to render our tongues an alarming shade of turquoise and send us children skittling off the ceiling), we headed to the airport to meet the rest of the MIND team.
I'll be honest. Things did not look good at the start. But before explaining why, let's introduce the team.
When Clare and I arrived, at the unearthly hour of 5:15am, we were met by a tanned young lady from Mind, to whom the word 'svelte' applied most aptly. This would be RT, who had organised the trip. We were joined by a young woman called JK, who seemed very quiet and who hails from South London.
Two ladies in their mid-40s (so we thought - they were actually in their 50s but looked AMAZING) came shining up, smiles and song, while a few of us drabbed around, cold and still tired. Instantly we forgot which one was Mary and which one was Sally. Eventually, thanks to me not thinking before speaking, I nicknamed them the Golden Girls, and the name stuck.
A young, tall man came gangling up at this point, bags all askew and dropping items out of his pockets/everywhere. This was RP, whose penchant from losing/dropping/misplacing or just taking off his trousers and shoes to go for a swim and leaving them on the forest floor, on the stairs of a hotel, right in front of where you were standing or, indeed, anywhere where they would be in the way/get lost was remarkable.
Another tall chap with a long black beard and glittering eye, and a lucky pink scarf, joined us. Thanks to the modus networkandi that is Facebook, we knew him to be Dave, aka 'Boomerang Jones'.
An older couple (Mary and Richard) appeared and stood quietly in group with Ron White (Ron Bianco) talking doctory stuff, while RH, known to us through Facebook, got together with an Essex chick called Liz, who declared: "I haven't trained since last year. I've not been to the Gym for three months. I need a fag." And they trotted off to partake of the nicotine stuff before the ten-hour flight precluded them from indulging in the New World leaf.
It was at this point, while waiting for Grace and Emma, the remaining two members of the team to arrive, that Libby the tour leader appeared, ethnic silver jewellery and glam hair-do included. Immediately I rued listening to Clare who had dug me gently about putting my make-up on that morning, so that I had neglected my eyeliner. I fished it out of my bag.
But the eyeliner was not to be lined on my eye, at least not yet. For Christianly Action would soon need to be called on. And this was made evident by young RP informing us loudly that 'We are not booked on the flight'. Let me explain a little about him. He is a super chap, and has a certain condition (more of that later) which can mean he sometimes finds it hard because of the condition to adapt to sudden or unexpected changes in the situation. This is made worse if the times that he takes his medication are altered for reasons of time-difference or illness.
Libby took him off to one side to deal with the situation. And returned to tell us that indeed, KLM had informed us that there was NO FLIGHT TO CUBA FROM AMSTERDAM THAT DAY.
Which was impossible, our tickets had been booked since the previous July.
No, said KLM. We do not fly to Havana on Wednesdays from Amsterdam.
This is when Christian Action kicked in. I texted some people at church and asked them to pray. I then told the group: 'WE will get to Havana today. My church is praying." They looked. What they thought of me at that moment I dare not ask. But Emma moved away a little and a group of them went off for another fag.
Half an hour and much waiting around while all we could hear was the irritating whizz-whirr of the electric advert spinning around in its infinitely rage-inducing loop, we were informed:
"Oh, actually, we ARE going to Havana today. KLM made a mistake." Evidently, as we were flying MartinAir to Havana, not KLM, which, had the assistant noticed at the first, would have prevented a panic attack.
BUT things were not to be so smooth.
Clare, who had arranged to travel straight back to Leeds, had not been registered on the flight out at all. So she had to be booked on which took nearly forever.
FINALLY we managed to get 15 minutes to get through security and buy some breakfast before rushing into the departure lounge for a flight that was an HOUR later than the one originally booked, thanks to KLM's stupendous mistake.
Then: 'LADIES AND GENTLEMEN WE ARE SORRY TO ANNOUNCE THAT THE 9am FLIGHT TO AMSTERDAM HAS BEEN CANCELLED OWING TO A FAULTY ENGINE"
This caused consternation, but Libby was wonderful - she made us all sit together in our Mind shirts (16 fruit loops rocking to and fro without a flight could be dangerous, as RH whispered to me), while going to the information desk on our behalf and trying to sort out whether we could all get on the next flight out - the one at 10.
While she was there, I got out my moby again. I texted the prayer team. 'Flight to Amsterdam cancelled. Hundreds of people vying to get on next flight at 10. Please pray that we can all get on that one.'
Libby returned. We can all get on the 10am flight. HOORAH!
But we will miss the 11:45 plane to Havana (boo).
"No we won't" I say. I feel Clare cringing as she knows what's coming next. "We will get to Havana today. I have people praying that we will. So we will." More looks. Richard (p) enjoys my confidence.
Inwardly: 'Ok, God, I'm staking your reputation on this one. Please make good!'
Dave Cook the KLM representative comes over to us again with Libby. "Please rip up your transfer tickets to Havana as you won't be going to Havana today."
"Don't rip them up!" I say. "That plane might be delayed - transatlantic flights often are. Ours might get in early. We still might make it."
Libby looks at me and tells the rest of the group: "Good idea. Don't tear up your tickets just in case."
Dave Cook also looks at me. "You're an optimist aren't you? Well I'm a realist and you know what a realist is? A pessimist with experience." He laughs at his own joke.
I reply, without raising my voice or batting an eyelid: "I am not an optimist. I am a Christian. And I have experience of miracles. We will get to Havana today, we will get on that plane, and when we return, I will find you and take £5 off you."
Dave Cook is taken aback at this assertion. He muntles off (my word for muttering and shuffling off at the same time) and leaves Libby to tell us what our options are when we get to Amsterdam. Apparently she has worked her wiles and got us into the best hotel, with all expenses paid by KLM, plus all travel, and they will have to shell out for the whole group to stay an extra day in Amsterdam.
I could see the £££ signs flickering in KLM's eyes already, not in a good way.
"That's all very well, I mutter to RH, International Woman Of Mystery. "But, we will be flying to Cuba today. I have the prayers of my church backing us up."
"But the next plane to Amsterdam gets us in 10 mins after the Havana Plane is due to leave" says Clare.
Does she know me so well!?
On the flight to Amsterdam I am seated next to a young black woman and to Clare, but Clare and RP swap places half-way through. RP is loving the way I dealt with Paul Cook at Heathrow and is still laughing about it.
"SO you're a christian? What does that mean exactly?" (that's not the first thing RP tells me, the first thing he announces when he sits down is that he has Paranoid Schizophrenia. I am sure there was an intake of breath from some of the passengers around). How little we know about mental illness. This trip is really going to open my mind about a lot of things.
I tell RP about the verse in Matthew's Gospel - "Take no worry for tomorrow"... and speak to him about my faith in this God who knows when the sparrow can take off and fly, and who will make sure we all take off and fly.
I look next to me. The lady has taken out her bible and is looking up the same passage. RP is stunned at the way this lady and I get on although we've never met each other before. She is on her way to her mother's funeral in Uganda. She is praying also for us to get to HAvana! Judging by the two folk in front who are also turning around now and then, they are also christians, and also praying for us. There are now about 20 or more people praying for us to get to Havana.
RP is really heartened by this. As the plane draws into the runway at Amsterdam, all of us MIND people are stuck at the back of the plane. A set of steps are drawn alongside the rear of the plane. A voice comes over the tannoy.
"Will the group going to Havana today please disembark from the back of the plane where you will be taken to your connecting flight."
A shout of joyous disbelief from the Mind team. "We're going to Havana!" The couple in Front and the lady next to me give us smiles and hugs. "I told you so" (I allowed myself a few of these). RP is overjoyed. "Dave Cook is going to be so gutted! You were right and he was wrong". "I told you God would get us there!"
So we get to the embarkation point for our connecting flight with MartinAir. We are told that our luggage will not be arriving that day. "We don't care" is the happy answer. "Our luggage will arrive today" I say, having made ANOTHER hasty text to the prayer warriors at Thornton Heath Evangelical Church.
NOW people are asking me to get prayers for their luggage.... interesting, isn't it?
I suspect another member of the team, Dr Ron, might be praying too. I'll have to ask him if he's one of 'My People'.
We get on the flight. Our seats have been changed. Instead of being booked onto the flight, they took us off it and gave our Standard Class seats to some other people instead.
So the only option is for them to give us... FIRST CLASS CABIN SEATS!!!!
GET IN THERE MY SON!
We are travelling in Luxury on a flight they said we would never get, on the day they said there were no flights.
HAHAHAHAHA. My God is a Great Big God. He did not want a group of charity workers stashed in the cramped cabins at the back, but arranged all the flight worries so that we could all have two or three seats each in first class. Don't tell me I don't get Romans 8:28. YEAH BABY!
This isn't the end. As we wait for our luggage at Havana Airport, it becomes increasingly obvious that there is nothing coming around the carousel. Even my optimism is waning but I can't believe that God will let me down now, especially as I staked His reputation on the line. Emma says: "Even your optimism must be running low - we're not going to get our bags." I am about to doubtfully agree with some compromising platitude, when one of the Golden Girls cry out...
Our bags are here!
They have been lined up along the wall, sent 'Special delivery.' It seems our bags, by some miracle, have got to Havana before us... not a single piece of luggage is missing or ruined.
Now that is a flight of miracles.
JK (and others) come up to me. "Please thank your church for praying that we will get here." RP is still on a high about the look on Dave Cook's face when I demand that £5. The power of prayer has got us to Cuba in the face of obstacles, and the trek itself is going to be a FANTASTIC TREK, full of more miracles, self-revelation, breaking through fear barriers and meeting amazing people....