Total distance travelled: 32,634.6 kilometres (20,269.94 miles)
When you arrive somewhere with certain expectations, it is often difficult for the reality to match the dream.
Beneath grey skies and steady drizzle, that was my big fear as we left Aeropuerto Internacional Jose Marti-Habana, when the most apparent thing to my eyes was the seeming lack of vehicles that could hark back to the 1950’s.
Our morning had started as one full of dread, not for the destination to which we were now headed, but rather as a result of what all of a sudden felt like a distinct lack of preparation.
Would we be able to arrange our tourist cards? Would we be able to find a way to get money (US dollars don’t get exchanged at a 1-1 rate and our travel cards are all Mastercard which purportedly don’t work in Cuba)?
What if they just decided that we couldn’t enter?
With Sarah’s mother set to land in Havana the following afternoon, supposedly to meet us (I say supposedly only as that is dependent on us getting there first), but armed with little Spanish of her own, it suddenly felt more necessary than ever and with more at stake than any normal international voyage!
Intentionally staying nearby the previous night, a short walk from our pay by the hour hotel (don’t judge, they are cheap and clean) got us to our airport shuttle where our 6am departure got us to the airport with a minimum of fuss.
Imagine how our stress levels quickly rose as we stood at the electronic check-in counter, when the polite attendant apologetically advised us that he couldn’t proceed and complete the check-in process, as both of our names were listed as being on stand-by!
Ten minutes in another queue gave us time to let Sarah’s stress levels shoot through the roof, and as we approached the next check-in counter to hopefully sort this business out, it suddenly felt as though neither of us knew anywhere near enough Spanish to sort out this mess…
Thankfully, what we lacked in Spanish, the staff member more than made up for with perfect English, and with little explanation offered, we were quickly issued with our boarding passes, our backpacks were checked in and we were gratefully advised we could purchase our tourist card at the boarding gate!
The ensuing flight was uneventful, and our Tourist Card purchased at the gate was actually much cheaper than anything we’d have arranged from either back in Australia, or even in Mexico!
It was also with some bemusement that we noted that the flight was only half full… leaving us even further perplexed as to why we may have been put on stand-by. We met a Canadian couple who’d endured the same experience (for the same flight), so we took some comfort in that shared experience. At least it wasn’t just us!
Yes, there is something re-assuring when you have shared misery. I guess it suggests that we weren’t specifically targeted for some unknown reason.
In short time, we found ourselves on the tarmac, ready for that final hurdle, Cuban immigration.
I wasn’t truly in fear, however there’s always those few nerves that jangle any time one attempts to enter a foreign country. We had an additional need however.
We’d heard they don’t necessarily stamp foreign passports upon entry and exit, and beyond the normal desire for such as a souvenir, we also had a legitimate want as back home a state election was soon to be held, and these stamps would be our proof that we were out of the country (in Australia, voting is compulsory)!
At this point, Sarah’s nerves again found themselves on edge, but she needn’t have worried.
True to usual form, I approached an official for processing first, and also true to form, she’d been stamped and cleared well before me.
For some reason a good thorough look at all my stamps has been a popular pastime of nearly all border officials as we’ve crossed borders throughout this trip.
The remainder of our experience at Aeropuerto Internacional Jose Marti-Habana was memorable only for a long (I mean ridiculously) wait for all of the bags from our flight to appear, and some amusement as one of the security sniffer dogs cocked its leg ready to pee on an article of luggage (thankfully, it was not one of our bags)!
This was also the first time I’ve been met at the airport (excepting occasions when travelling in China or Bangladesh for work) that there has been someone waiting and clutching a sign! …sadly there was no waiting limousine, but his taxi was welcome enough, and after taking a few minutes to change some money into CUC, the tourist currency, we were on our way into the aforementioned wet and dull looking Havana ( back to where this tale began).
The weather was perhaps fitting, as grey is how as a child, I’d always imagine the socialist/communist world. Grey skies and cities of concrete!
When our taxi deposited us into the heart of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), you’d be forgiven for wondering if we’d entered a city in the midst of an armed conflict.
The street was an absolute mess of rubble, slick with mud and water, and it was only fortunate that we had a short distance to walk to the entrance of our casa or else we may have found ourselves and our packs sodden and muddied.
Not possessing any change, our taxi driver was kind enough to allow us to simply give the fare to our host when we had the correct money (they obviously refer business to each other regularly), and we ascended a few flights of stairs to settle ourselves into our first Casa Particular.
Pinching ourselves that we were finally in Cuba, despite the average looking weather, it was time to explore, after of course, sating our appetites!
This was achieved at a barely signed eatery, accessed through a small art shop. The reward for our efforts being worthy, in the form of a couple of cold beers and our first taste of what ultimately would prove our favourite Cuban dish, Ropa Vieja (literally translated as ‘Old Clothes’), something akin to a shredded beef stew.
The advantage we quickly found to wandering the city in such weather? Other than local people of Havana going about their daily lives, there were barely any other tourists sighted!
Former grandeur jumps out at you in abundance in this place and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves on the waterfront, where choppy seas sat beneath a sky that was growing ever more grey.
After the mental ordeals of the morning, there was something liberating about wandering this sea wall, with the imposing Spanish defences of Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña and El Morro filling out the skyline.
Shortly however, we were met by heavy rains, the cold now proving too much even for us (yes, we are that much tougher) that we began to make our way back towards our casa.
I’m sure we were a bedraggled sight, but despite our now damp attire, the rain did cease and when we were approached by a couple of locals intent on conversation and eager for us to join them at a nearby club.
They fed us a story about a celebration of the legacy of the Buena Vista Social Club, which we weren’t too fussed about, but it promised us the chance of a drink and some good Salsa music, so we figured what the hell!
We had a suspicion that our new friends would have an expectation that we’d cover their tab when we ultimately left, but we thought we’d in the interim be able to enjoy some local company, a Mojito or two and then be on our way.
What we didn’t then expect was the staff at the venue to be in on it and to try and hit us with prices three times that of the norm! What they didn’t expect, was us to have as good a grasp of Spanish (I think they’d assumed we were perhaps already drunk as well, possibly due to our crazy decision to walk in the rain)!
Given that our new ‘friends’ had invited us in and had also suggested they’d pay, we baulked at this, only to be threatened by the staff who said they would call the police, an option we encouraged (we figured this wasn’t the time to feel intimidated).
It was also interesting how our new ‘friends’ who’d been conversing with us for over an hour, all of a sudden didn’t have a word of English!
We stood our ground, and despite the exorbitant bill that had been placed before us, insisted we’d pay for our half, but not the whole tab (about $60.00 US they were asking for 8 drinks, steeper prices than at the cities finest hotels).
Perhaps it was our unwillingness to be pressured, bullied, or threatened into unfairly paying, but eventually they reneged, and accepted our payment for only half the bill.
That said, they still made more money than they should have from us!
Were we angry? Possibly a little at the time, but the overwhelming feeling was disappointment.
Disappointment that it wasn’t possible to have a normal friendly encounter, that so many people in this city, unless they’d already made some off you, were only interested in getting some CUC out of you!
Understand it however, that we did to.
You wander the streets for very long, you look in the local shops (not those for the tourists) and you’ll see how little they have, and how little there is available to them (the tourist currency is worth 25 times the local Cuban Peso).
We retired for the night, ready to collect Sarah’s mother from the airport the following afternoon.
* We arranged our Casa Particular in advance through the website My Casa Particular (https://mycasaparticular.com/en/).
* Our tourist card was purchased from the El Salvador airport prior to our departure for $15.00 US per person (don’t make a mistake or else you may need to fork out another $15.00 for a new one).
* We heard the same spiel from so many people in Havana. This is usually along the lines of “You want (insert Cigars, Rum, Buena Vista Social Club here)? I know a place, cheap price” or “special anniversary today only.” Remember, these are a very poor people, so anything they can get from you, is for the betterment of theirs and their families lives.