Friday, 22 March 2013

The start of my journey to Cuba

This trip to Cuba has been really all about whether it will materialise as there were so many uncertainties. It was 2am in the morning when I woke up to know if it will either fall into place or not. I had to be at the airport at 3am as the flight departs at 5.20am.

Everyone I spoke to up until now told me that buying one ticket all the way from the US to Cuba was not a good idea as it was against the US laws and I will not be able to make my trip to Cuba. Then there is the local Cuban agent I was communicating with called Jorge. He was introduced by the folks from The Lonely Planet forum. He has a website but do not have a face, so I have never seen him. People on the forum seem to think he is great. I booked a pick up at the airport to the casa (home stay) in Havana. The reason I booked a pick up is because the flight from the US to Havana via Panama will be arriving pretty late, 7ish (if it arrives on time). Not sure how punctual flights are in these parts of the world.

Since the Intrepid part of my trip will not start for another 3 days, I also booked accommodation for 3 nights. Intrepid quoted NZ$150 per night which I thought was expensive so again, took the advise from other fellow travellers on the Lonely Planet forum and decided to stay at a casa. As internet access is very limited at best in Cuba, not many casas have a website. So, my new good friend, Jorge, found me a place to stay for the three nights for CUC30 per night. I thought it will be great to be able to live with a local family while I am in Cuba. 

With this, two more uncertainties poped up. One, no money has exchanged hands yet and so am a little nervous if the accommodation will be there when I arrive. Jorge says he has booked it. For my visa, he even got me a confirmation from the casa owner. I got my visa with that confirmation. The next uncertainty is how I am going to communicate with these people when I get there as I do not speak a word in Spanish and they apparently don't speak a word in English. One part of me can already picture this going wrong but the other part of me says, how bad can it be? I have travelled to places much worse and survived.

I've also got Jorge to help me arrange a trip on the Hershey train. Will explain what the Hershey train is all about later.

The final (I hope there are no more surprises) complication is returning to the US to catch my flight home. Again, showing Cuba on the ticket is apparently a bad idea. Then, anything you buy which is not educational is considered a contraband by US customs, so will be confiscated - this includes souvenirs as well.

Did I mention that the Cubans have come up with a brilliant way to deceive the US. In order to get US citizens to visit Cuba (by law US citizens and residents are not permitted to visit Cuba), the Cuban government issues visas which are not attached to your passport. In order to simplify the process, this applies to anyone entering Cuba. So, my visa is a piece of paper which is not attached to my passport, like all other visas. I was told that they don't stamp your passport either. When one enters US, there is nothing in your passport to say that you actually have entered Cuba. As there are no direct flights to Cuba from the US or back (US carriers are not allowed to have scheduled flights to Cuba), you can say you were arriving from the country where you stopped over. 

On reentry to the US, I can choose not to declare that I have been to Cuba so as not to cause any problems, as there will be nothing to show my entry into Cuba. But then there is the US customs form where I have to declare where I have been to in the last 30 days. Not stating Cuba on the form is a felony and can be prosecuted or blacklisted. If I did declare, I may get into all sorts of complications and possibly delay my entry and miss my flight back home. A simple case of "die if you do, die if you don't". All these are in my mind while I wait to check in at 3am. 

I guess I was lucky that at least one of the many complications got sorted. I was given a boarding pass and my backpack was checked through all the way to Havana. The first leg to Panama City was six and half hours and I napped pretty much most of the way. When I woke up I started thinking about what else could possibly go wrong as I flew past the Caribbean into Panama City, my stop over point into Cuba.

We  arrived in Panama City at 3.15pm with a short stop before hopping onto another plane bound for Havana. Here is a little introduction to Panama City, which  gathered from guide books and the inflight magazine. It is the largest city of the Republic of Panama. It has a population of just under 900,000 and is located at the entrance of the Pacific side of the world famous Panama Canal. The city is the political and administrative centre of the country as well as the hub for international banking and commerce. I was sitting next to an elderly American couple who have retired and are now living in Panama and the husband tells me that there are many Americans and other people from around the world who have retired in Panama. Main attraction is the climate and the idyllic pace of life.

I was flying Copa Airline, Panama's flag carrier and as it was descending, I could see how it is the hub for banking and commerce in this part of the world. The city has a dense skyline of many high rise structures similar to what I saw in New York. Unlike New York, there is still much forest surrounding the city. I could also see many cargo ships lining the sea as we approached Panama. It was like a huge car park in the sea, but instead of cars they were ships of all shapes and sizes. The Tocumen International Airport is apparently the largest and the busiest airport in Central America and claims itself as the gateway to the Americas.

The next leg of my flight is a shorter two hour flight from Panama City to Havana. As we took off the pilot spoke and he sounded very much like an American. Interesting, given that Americans are not permitted to enter Cuba. Unlike the earlier leg, this leg of the journey was very bumpy.

After almost an eternity, we finally arrive in Havana. The airport must be the smallest international airport I have ever seen. There must be about 5 or 6 gates and there were two Air France Boeing 777's and a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 parked up. We had to wait for one of the 777 to leave before we could get in. The guy sitting next to me said, "Welcome to Cuban time". I asked him what he meant and he explained that don't expect anything to get going in a hurry.

The passport control was really third world but not like what I experienced in Kathmandu. The immigration officers were in a booth and you go in and after they have cleared you, the door on the other side unlocks. My officer never spoke a word of English as she was rambling on to me in Spanish and I had no idea what she was saying. She must have seen the confused look on my face and smiled and said go.

There was a government money changer as I got out so changed EUR200 to tide me over. That gave me about CUC280, which didn't look like a lot but Cuba is not an expensive country I read. I decided not to change all my money at once since there is no commission charged. Cuba operates on two currencies, CUC (Cuban Convertible) for tourists and Peso (Cuban Pesos) for ordinary Cubans. It is interesting that since the US embargo started after the revolution, US Dollars were used for foreigners but then after 2004, US Dollars were removed and replaced by the CUC but interestingly the CUC is pegged to the US Dollars. CUC1 is approximately 25 Pesos and the currencies look almost alike. The biggest scam, I read was sellers take the convertibles from unwary foreigners and gave you Cuban Pesos for change.

When I got out, I could not see anyone holding out my name. I was starting to get worried. The airport was very crowded as you can imagine with that many aircrafts landing in such a small airport. The flight was already delayed by more than half an hour due to waiting for a gate and there was no sign of Jorge. So instead of wasting any time, I joined a queue to exchange my Euros for Cuban convertibles. After about a quarter of an hour, I got a bit desperate and so was looking for his number when a man came to me and showed me his mobile phone with my name and the address I was going to displayed. I said yes, that's me. I wonder how he found me in that crowd. He immediately carried my bag and took me to his taxi and off we went. He was driving like a mad man weaving through traffic, passing real old cars and trucks billowing black smoke. He had his mobile phone constantly on his hand while he was driving. This is the problem of coming from a developed world I guess, where people are more safety conscious.

We finally arrive at the casa (home stay property). It was a deserted street but was assured that it was safe but it gets deserted at night. He made sure someone was there before he said goodbye, collected his CUC25 and left. The door opened and I could have fainted. Two long narrow flights of stairs no more than two feet wide and steep. Thankfully, the guy who met me downstairs offered to carry my backpack or I would have taken a while to get up. He probably sensed it.

Finally we got to the second floor where the rooms were located. The rooms were small and the doors were even smaller. If I only opened one side of the double door, I had to literally squeeze past sideways, that's how narrow they were. Cubans must be really small. I later found out that this part of Havana is the old Havana where many of the buildings were built like that. The washbasin and showers were all really small and tiny but the room itself was very clean. 

I was not really hungry but did not want to go to bed in an empty stomach so asked Leo (the guy who helped me with bags) if i could get something light to eat. He made some sandwiches and a glass of juice, which was just nice. I was glad that there was someone who spoke some English. After dinner I turned in. The water from the showers were trickling but I still managed to get a hot shower. With this, I washed my clothes, hung them up to dry and called it a day.

Just less than 24 hours ago, I was in a 5 star hotel in a city that didn't sleep and I am now in Cuba in a casa that is as large as the bathroom of the hotel in Vegas, and none of the luxuries. It is going to be a long 10 days.

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