My son Zak and I departed Champaign on Tuesday evening for a 21/2-hour trip to Chicago to stay with family as we knocked off the first leg of our trip.
After a good night’s sleep, we woke up at 5:30 a.m. to shower and head to O’Hare International Airport’s Terminal 5. Traffic was steady, yet an uneventful and nonstop trip was welcomed.
As we arrived at the Copa Airlines desk to check in for a full flight to Panama City, Panama, we were greeted by two smiling bilingual desk agents. As Zak and I began to check in, we realized our agent was training and our international check-in process may take a few extra minutes. Both agents were very pleasant and helpful as we checked our four bags — our personal luggage in two bags and two very large bags of used baseball gear.
After clearing security, we sat down for a small breakfast across from Gate 11, a short distance from our departure gate. When breakfast was finished and water and newspapers purchased, we decided to walk Terminal 5 to waste time. On the second portion of our walk toward gates M 1-4, we were asked by a security guard if we could be helped. After indicating we were taking a walk to waste time, we were informed we could not enter that wing of the terminal because there was a filming session taking place at one of the further gates. We turned and proceeded to our gate and boarded our aircraft a short time later.
After securing our seats 20 minutes prior to our 9:06 a.m. departure, we waited as a last-minute group boarded. We were told the group was held up because there was some type of documentation problem. The group traveled in royal blue sweatpants and red polo shirts with a logo of “Team Baseball Cuba.” The plane was held for a little over 30 minutes as members of the Cuban National Team filed onto the plane.
As Zak and I watched the team board, we counted eight brand-new televisions and one photo-quality computer desk printer being carried on and stuffed into the overhead bins.
Takeoff was smooth, and a nap followed. Zak continued to burn up his iPod battery by playing multiple games to pass the time. Zak was surprised when lunch was served without handing over a credit card. I was surprised when I opened the napkin to find metal silverware.
Shortly after lunch, our flight path took us over the ocean on a beautiful sunny day. As we proceeded, we flew directly over the western third of Cuba, followed shortly by a trip over the Cayman Islands.
After a short, one-sided conversation with a Cuban team member — he did not speak English — we found that one of the travel party members sitting behind us spoke fluent English. He indicated the team was returning from a 10-day trip to Cary, N.C., and had not fared well against Team USA. Zak was excited as the Cuban Team member sitting next to him pulled out a baseball and signed it for him to keep. An exchange of thank-yous led to the emptying of my 1992 Illinois baseball valuable bag for Zak to exchange with Cuban Team member No. 9.
The flight into Panama City revealed a large coastal city with many skyscrapers. There were 30-plus tankers and cargo ships waiting for access to the city.
After deplaning at Panama City airport, or the “Hub of Americas,” Zak secured most of the Cuban team’s signatures on the baseball.
After a short layover that included a dry sandwich paid for with U.S. currency (Panama’s currency is the U.S. dollar) and a short walk, we boarded another Copa Airlines plane headed for Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.
Ten hours later we finally landed in Santo Domingo. We proceeded to immigration, where we were required to purchase a $10 visitor’s pass. Upon clearing immigration, we proceeded to the local authorities, who asked a one-word question. Baseball? A quick “yes” gave us instant access to the public portion of the terminal, where there were at least 100 native Dominicans waiting for family and friends, with another 40-plus taxi drivers searching for business.
A short drive to the east to Boca Chica with camp director Sam LeBeau yielded a quick verbal itinerary for the week. A quick dinner at the cafeteria, a meeting with campers and staff, a cold shower (not by choice) and an organization of our room brought Day 1 to an end.
The alarm was set for 6:15 a.m., with a daily Dominican baseball beach workout on tap!