Welcome to Havana

26 Jan

From Havana, Cuba

4 January 2010

Our Aeromexico flight touched down at Havana’s International Airport Jose Marti on a sunny winter’s afternoon in Cuba’s capital city.

I was impressed that after we climbed off the plane we only had to wait for a few minutes in a line two-people deep to be stamped into the country by customs officials.

As we could only approach the row of customs desks one at a time, I passed into Cuba ahead of my friends. As my tourist visa was being stamped and I was welcomed into the country I was required to answer a couple of standard immigration questions such as ‘What is the purpose of your visit to Cuba?’ (tourism) and ‘Do you have travel insurance?’ (of course).

Meanwhile Alex, Isobelle and Michael were approached by another customs agent who subjected them to a whole lot more questions about their recent travels and occupations in Australia. I think it was because our party was planning to travel independently in Cuba as opposed to as part of an organised tour group, and because Michael was outed as a journalist and I as a public servant employee that more than an hour of questioning and luggage-examination proceeded.

Being interrogated by immigration agents is never a completely stress-free experience. I was particularly worried when Alex was led away from our party for questioning. I was concerned that he was going to be subjected to a full-cavity search. Luckily for Alex, he wasn’t.

The customs officials were never aggressive in their questioning of us, but they were certainly thorough and there were moments when I thought I would be back at the Hotel Juarez in Mexico City that night.

Each of us were required to elaborate on the nature of our employment. The Customs officials asked me about the nature of the research that I carry out for the Australian Government. They were particularly interested of course in Michael’s work at the ABC. ‘What kind of news do you cover?’, ‘Who is your employer?’, and ‘Are you sure that you won’t be working in Cuba?’…

We also had to identify all the electronics and ‘technology’ that we were carrying. Between us this totaled 4 cameras, 2 ipods, 2 laptops, and 10 blank CDs. The customs agents were particularly interested in the later, which Isobelle carried to back up the many photos she was planning to capture during her holiday. Blank CDs, very suspicious…

The only other country to give me such a hard time getting through customs was China, whose Officials made me tear apart my Lonely Planet upon entering the country. Alex, on the other hand, has been subjected to ‘random’ interviews on numerous occasions in the past year. I suppose that’s what you get for being a Mustafa almost 10 years on from 9/11/01.

I was mildly amused that the customs agents also paid particular attention to Isobelle and Michael’s recent visit to the US, as though their presence there attested to some kind of untoward political activity. Well, I assume that US Homeland Security will give Isobelle and Michael a hard time if they find out that had been to Cuba before returning to North America on their way home to Australia. So maybe some reciprocal harassment of tourists is justified on these grounds. I suppose that the Cuban Government has reasonable cause to suspect infiltration of CIA sponsored spies working to destroy Cuban socialism. Though I am not sure how effective four young and mostly blond Australians (of whom three don’t speak spanish) would be at undermining the one party state.

Another peculiar aspect of Cuban customs were the sexy uniforms donned by its female staff. Like many of her colleagues, the women who escorted me back and forth between the x-ray machines and corner where I was questioned was clad in a short-sleeved khaki blouse and a matching super-short khaki skirt, very high heels, and some fantastically inappropriate fishnet stockings. Classy!

Alex had in fact suggested that we carry extra pairs of stockings with us into Cuba to use as gifts / bribes if necessary as did the US soldiers when they visited Australia during the Second World War. At the time I ridiculed him saying something like “as if anyone wants to wear stockings in such a tropical climate!” Well, whose laughing now?

After clearing customs we headed straight to the Arrivals Hall ATM and we were pleased to confirm that our visa cards functioned without problems. We only had 100 Euros cash on us combined, so we would have been up shit creek without a paddle if our cards and Cuba’s ATMs decided not to cooperate.

Perhaps because we were tired and still a little highly-strung from the interrogation we’d experienced, Isobelle momentarily forgot her bankcard in the ATM, and it was sucked into the machine. Thanks to good fortune and my language skills, we were able to retrieve it upon presentation of Isobelle’s passport.

Finallly outside of the airport we found a taxi that would take us into the centre of Habana for the set cost of $25 CUC. Although the airport is only 25km or so out of the CBD, we passed through quite a rural area (I’m talking sugar cane crops and horse-drawn carts) for some time before entering the city centre.

By 5.00pm we had finally arrived at our casa particular located in a tall art-deco style apartment building in the centre of Havana. The big windows in the living room and bedrooms afforded a view of the Mallecon and the blue Caribbean sea beyond.

We were warmly welcomed by our host Jose and his son Denis, who was more or less our age. Recognising that we were hungry, our hosts offered us bowls of spagettii for dinner which we accepted. The meal was very simple but satisfied our rumbling bellies. We hadn’t eaten anything since the sweet bread we shared for breakfast in Mexico, and AeroMexico had only given us a snack of peanuts on the plane.

After dinner we we for a walk with our hosts along Havana’s Malecon, or ocean-wall. By this time the sun had set. Denis told us that he had to visit the pharmacy to buy some ‘medicine’, and upon his return he surprised us with a bottle of rum which we sipped as we strolled by the sea. Denis also bought us each a small supply of peanuts to enjoy. As these salty snacks are known in Cuba as ‘mani’ and not the cacuhuates they are called in Mexico, I would have had no idea what the women were selling tightly wrapped up in a paper cone unless our new friend had given us this gift.

Soon we found ourselves in the centre of old Habana. It was still warm so we pulled up a chair at an outdoor Brewery bar/ restaurant set up in and old colonial square. Beers on tap were only $2.00 CUC each. We got to know our hosts a little better as a live band played Cuban salsa music a la La Buena Vista Social Club. Isobelle and I were invited to dance with Jose and Denis, who informed us hat we were shit (literally – meirda!) and that we were in great need of lessons. Well, we had warned them!

After our beer and first miserable attempt at salsa dancing we wandered back to our apartment. Our group was buggered and being so we went to bed and straight to sleep, cooled by the sea breeze and calmed by the knowledge we had finally made it to Cuba while Fidel and Raul were still alive.


One Response to “Welcome to Havana”

  1. theo Bekker January 27, 2011 at 5:22 am #

    Lonely Planet torn up in China – wow – what cheeck!
    When will your travels stop? REALY! – I don’t like feeling jealous!

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