My first glimpse of Havana was a hazy one. Isolated skyscrapers peeped out among smaller buildings, the particulars obscured by distance. But as Fathom Adonia, the first cruise ship from an American cruise line to start regular Cuban itineraries, sailed closer, details began to emerge – a red façade here, a church spire there, a dome encapsulated in scaffolding.
A palpable excitement grew onboard, too. Crew passed out American and Cuban flags; waiters circulated with mimosas. Passengers eager to be among the first Americans to visit Cuba on a cruise ship from Miami in decades lined the rails, smiling and pointing.
But among them were others without smiles. Some held back tears, others let them flow. These travelers, some Cuban born, others born in America to Cuban parents, sailed a different journey than most of the passengers on the ship, for whom curiosity was the main motivator. At least one was at a loss for the words to describe the conflict within: Joy at returning to the motherland, anger for the pain their parents endured all those years ago, anticipation of meeting relatives for the first time.
As Adonia sailed closer to the mouth of Havana Bay, figures emerged along the seawall. Hundreds of Cubans lined the wall and as the ship drew even with the Bay, the sound of shouted welcomes reached our ears. We shouted back, one woman yelling "Hola Cuba" over and over. The further into the Bay we went, the more Cubans we saw waving and shouting, some running to keep up with the ship.
My eyes moistened and, for the first time, I realized this was not just a cruise ship sailing into a new port. What had at first seemed like so much hyperbole took on deeper meaning. For the Cuban people greeting us, we truly were a sea wind of change, from those for whom decades of familial separation were finally coming to an end to those who saw the arrival of the "Americanos" as the beginning of better times ahead.
We – the passengers curious about an island long prohibited, the expatriates returning home and the Cubans shouting joyous greeting – were a snapshot in time, poised on the precipice of change none of us can quite yet comprehend.
Though the crowds along Havana’s Malecon seawall will thin as Adonia’s return to Havana becomes more familiar, though for most Fathom passengers the trip will be another check on their bucket list, each time the ship arrives, it will bring with it the hopes of so many. And that truly does make each visit, whether for Fathom or for future American cruise lines, so much more than just another port of call.