I can't tell if it's my bad Spanish or just a friendly duh-you-have-an-American-passport-so-of-course-I won't-stamp-it chuckle. Either way, I glide through customs unscathed and unstamped, and quickly pass my duffle through a boxy gray X-ray machine that looks old enough to have been used by Lenin himself.
I walk out of the José Martí terminal into the humid, windy evening, high on the razor-sharp awareness that there is no safety net. One by one my colleagues clear customs and meet me on the other side. Seasoned Cubaphile Pam Yates, later dubbed "Encyclopedia Pam" for her vast knowledge of this country, unshoulders her sound equipment bag and flips her long, dark hair into a ponytail. New York–based cinematographer Cheryl Dunn steps up wearing a smile and a charcoal-colored retro raincoat and has her hand-crank Beaulieu camera tucked under her arm. Seattle-based cameraman Paul Mailman, low-key and talented, gently sets down a giant silver equipment box and runs his hand through a thick crop of what could be Latin hair. Jeannie comes through last, the thrill of having made it over this first hurdle evident in the bounce in her sneakered step. Excitement has won over fatigue and we revel in our success, and in that scary, wonderful state of no return. We are smoke jumpers behind the fire lines; Sally Ride breaching the atmosphere; a teenager who just got laid.
Just then a five-foot six-inch gringa with blue eyes, brownish-blond hair, and a personality I'd come to identify as Woodstock warmth and Harvard brains walks up to us. I know immediately that it is Catherine Murphy.
"Buenas, como están?" she says with the lilt of a compañera. "It's so nice to meet you in person."
Catherine is the rare American who has lived in Cuba for years, and is, as of this moment, our new best friend. We met her through Global Exchange, an organization that fosters cross-cultural communication and leads tours from the United States to other countries -- especially those with whom the United States has "complicated" relationships. Catherine has provided a font of information throughout a series of crackling international calls routed through Mexico City (U.S. phone companies cannot do business with Cuba).
When making a TV show abroad, it is imperative to join forces with someone fluent in the language, as well as in the business of getting things done. Negotiator. Point person. Translator. Person who knows what restaurant serves after midnight, what palms might need greasing, and how to find unfindable people. These are just some of the roles of this critical crew member called, in television's to-the-point vernacular, a "fixer." Catherine, our fixer, is relaxed and moves fluidly in her loose cotton pants and long-sleeved blue shirt. She was raised by her Cuban grandmother in Northern California, and has been living in Cuba for the past several years studying the country's world-renowned organic farming program.