Havana Surprises and Breaks Through

I pulled over the journal I was keeping while in Havana. Just me documenting the trip and observations with a revelation or two thrown in. It’s very stream of consciousness. I will come back in the next few days and add photos.

This will be posted in several parts over the next week. Just needed to get it started. Keep checking back and refresh the page as I add photos to each story. 

Sunday July 8, 2018

I arrived 3 hours early to the airport thinking that was more than enough time to clear everything needed to get on the plane. Thank God I had, because the typical chaos of the airport in DF was compounded by the significance of where I was going. Cuba. Isolated from much of the world, but so close to the super power of the United States.

Start in the airport. Line of death circling back to the front sliding doors of the airport. I ask several people is this the fila for Havana Cuba? One person in uniform points me to a different line. I stand there for 10 minutes before I suspect this is not the right place. I walk over to the counter and interrupt the guy working there. He points me to another line. I go over there. The person there points me over to another location. There. I go THERE. A guy walks over to tell me I need a visa to go to Cuba. Where does this come from? My fear rising that in some way China cerca 2010 repeats. Do I have the visa? Do I need a different visa? What is visa? How do you get the visa? My head is spinning, but I calmly find my way to the line. I wait 20 minutes and make it to the front of said line. The visa is simple and costs 250 pesos. Ok ok ok…not part of the budget but I can make it up somewhere else. No problem. I am pointed to the end of the long circulating line I was in.

I walk past the people I was standing to when the adventure started. Thankfully they had made good progress, so it was safe to believe so would I. Plenty of time. Half way to the destination the same guy who asked me if I had a visa approached me again. He looks at me like he had not had a conversation with me 20 minutes before. “Do you have a visa?,” he said. Yes yes yes. I have the coveted visa. He points me to another line. What the F&(&*!? Ok ok go with it Micheal. You are probably going to spend a fair amount of time in lines this week. Get used to it. Look at the Cubans in line. They aren’t phased at all.

I finally get my ticket and make my way to the gate for what would be a little more than 2 hours. Yep. All that line and yet I got through the entire process in an hour. The illusion of the line was broken and I felt so lucky I just skipped an smiled through the terminal. I happily sat at the assigned gate waiting for any information while I binged on my last drops of internet for the next 8 days. Good to know nothing important was going to be missed.

My seat on the plane was the very last row and a middle seat. Normally I would try an jockey my way out of that in advance of the flight. This time, no, because I had no extra money for upgrades even if it was 200 pesos. I just dropped 250 pesos for the visa, so I was resigned to living it out with the best attitude possible. I introduce myself to Pedro, the guy sitting in the aisle seat. He was born in 1957, I noted as he filled out his customs forms in advance. His personality was powerful and commanding. He ordered other passengers around and made jokes while doing it. Pedro is a music professor at …shit I forgot to ask. He speaks Spanish so fast, but he slowed down for me when I told him I was learning. Thanks Pedro.

So the doors were moments from closing and no new passengers had entered for a bit. It seemed safe to switch from the center sear to the window seat. I was slightly relieved because I was not really in the mood to talk to Pedro for 2.5 hours. And then it happened. Drama enter stage…stage…in front of me. Without hesitation I shifted my seat back to the center, because it was only one of 2 I could see available on the entire flight, so clearly the universe was unfolding something in front of me. We’ll call her Maria. Only because I could not spot her name later when she was filling out her customs form. She was born in 1976. She was on fire. Something had happened and it was about to unfold for everyone in rows 33 to 28.

She was panting and sighing and panting and sighing. She demanded attention. Waving a piece of flimsy paper to fan herself. I handed her the stiff emergency card from the slot in front of her seat. “Tranquilla, tranquilla. Estàs llegas en tiempo.” She gives me a silent look of “You have no idea.” Correct I don’t and am not exhibiting desire to know. So she pulled in Pedro and unfolded her dirty laundry lamenting her opera. She was sitting at gate 28 not aware the flight was at 22. Yes, true the lady at the ticket counter said gate 28, but she said to sit there and watch the pantalla for information about where the final gate would be. She had not been paying attention clearly. Hard to pay attention and command attention at the same time. Two different skill sets. Two different parts of the brain.

So she had been running to the gate, so I thought. Well yes and no. She had a temporary visa in her hand with her Cuban passport. Oh, I demised, she made the same mistake I had made the first time I traveled with my temporary visa. She did not stop at the migration desk set up right there with a big sign in front of the entrance after the security check point. Sitting at the wrong gate she ran to the correct gate to find out her error. She had to go all the way back to the migration table and get a signature on her entry visa. Without that signature her temporary visa would be voided and she would have to start the entire expensive process of getting a new visa. Oops. Yeah I remember doing that one time. I remember the sprint to and fro, then barely making the flight before the doors closed. I don’t remember spending an hour of the flight dragging every person around me into the drama. But hey, there’s always the potential.

And she did it. She dragged every person she could into her story. The story developed. Apparently she had something of contraband in her luggage and was unsure what the process would be like with customs on the Cuba side. It was theatrical how everyone became engaged. Literally one person pulled another in and suddenly we were surrounded by all these people. Use this acupuncture point. Drink this. Put your head between your legs. It was comical if not for the fact I was fascinated by the interactions of the other passengers. There were no boundaries here. People were hanging on one another – physically and emotionally – feeding into the drama. Everyone walked her through the process of getting past the customs people. It wasn’t enough to calm her. She just pushed through the second act of her play hoping for a Tony award at the end.

She was a triple threat. There was choreography. She was singing. I saw tears and sweat. It’s possible there was a difficult dismount, but the Russian judges were only moderately impressed, but they were engaged. I couldn’t understand a word she said, so I just nodded politely and built the story from body language and what Pedro said in response. Up and down. She kept running to the bathroom. The sky waitress checked in like a tip was involved at the end. Everyone was concerned. No need for inflight movies with this show.

In the end, whatever was happening started to slow down as she munched her way through a torta. She offered a bite to everyone who had helped her. No one accepted, but everyone was pleased with the offer. All seats had forced their air vents towards here. The temperature plummeted and all the clothing she had removed needed to be readdressed. She sighed and huffed and Pedro helped her further.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the Cuban rowing team was aboard the flight. Everything was punctuated by 6 ft tall morenos men with muscles parading up and down the aisles. Everyone was constantly swapping seats to have conversations with one another. Did they all know one another? Not clear, but oh my gosh were those guys super hot. Dear Jesus, before I lay my head down to sleep tonight, I want to make sure to thank you for all the eye candy today.

I think the amazing thing about the entire sequence of events was how helpful and engaged everyone became. Her problems were everyone’s problems. There was a real espirt de corp on the plane. A collectivo of drama. Each person with a part to play and their own drama to add like cherries to a sundae. Where was I headed to? What isle was I landing on? Who needs internet with all this happening. The body language and alcohol consumed. I wasn’t expecting all this on a flight, so my curiosity was peaked.

When I arrived it was another list of long lines. Qué bien. I collected my luggage and made my way outside. I found Victor my host after a few minutes and exchanged my Mexican pesos for the CUC. We walked over to his friend who was driving the taxi. It was a Russian car cerca 1960. I saw no evidence that it was taped together, but the way he talked about getting parts for the automobile it must have been taped somewhere. He told me he traveled to Cancun to find parts, but finding Russian car parts in Cacun isn’t actually a thing one does. We made our way from the airport to my host’s home. He did a great job of giving me bits of history and culture along the way.

When we arrived I paid the taxi driver the equivalent of $25 USD with a small tip and thanked him for his kind nature. There was a classic 1950s automobile at the front steps of the building. Everything was exactly as pictured. Victor showed me around the space. Noted all the eccentricities for foreign travelers, although not all that different than life in Mexico. I had AC and that was the most important innovation I cared about. I gave my host’s wife two bags of Hersey’s kisses. One with almonds and the other filled with leche. She held the bags close to her chest claiming them all for herself. Victor asked if I wanted to go eat something and took me a few blocks away to a 24 hour fonda. At this hour much of what was on the menu was marked with a red dot to indicate they’d run out. Victor explained to me how these smaller cafes worked. I selected the Pechuga Primavera, arroz morro, and refresco nacional. I got friend chicken milenesa, rice made in the juices of black beans, a small boiled potato piece, and some sort of side salad. I made it half way through the dish talking to Victor about his filmmaking. Clearly he was tired and had mentioned earlier that for him this was a normal work week. I asked for a box to carry the remaining food back to the casa since I have a fridge in the space. Victor showed me how to operate the AC and we popped it on high. I said my good night to him and shut the door.

After unpacking my suitcase I dolled out my money for the next 7 full days. My budget of $60USD was going to be interesting to stick to since the CUC was at the same level as the USD. Victor had given me some hints and offered to let me eat some with his family. An offer I am likely to take advantage of on this budget and because they are so patient with my Spanish. The room cooled finally and my typing is growing faint. I have only been here for a few hours and already filled several pages with meandering notes. Time to get some rest so I can enter Monday with a fire in my footsteps. Buenas noches todos.

P.S. I regret having not saved all my research as pdf’s on this computer. The realization that there is no Internet is become more “real”.