7 May, 2006

Our boarding passes to Havana, each marked with S's that ensured an extra search. We later found out that everyone on our flight had been so marked.

Our first hazy view of Cuba.

On the taxi ride from the airport, the buildings really stood out in their ornateness and dilapidation.

One of a bunch of high rises.

They really seemed to have a thing for pillars.

One of the many cars from the 40's and 50's drives by the Capitol building in old Havana.

I inadvertently snapped a photo of a cop while trying to take a picture of an old and colorful car. Cops seemed to be on every corner.

A common sight in the streets was a sleeping dog. The heat pretty much knocked these creatures out during daylight hours.

Another common sight was kids playing stickball between two buildings on a street. It's little wonder Cuba's national team has done so well.

I was impressed with how brightly polished these 50 year old cars looked. No signs of rust anywhere. The engines were either converted to diesel or patched together with all sorts of spare parts.

One of many such slogans to be found on walls and billboards.

One of the strangest things I saw on my first day was this tractor trailer bus thing which I later found out is called a camello or "camel" bus (supposedly because it has two humps).

A May Day poster featuring Fidel.

One of the coin-operated payphones commonly found in the streets.

Another model of phone which takes phone cards (not international however). The condition of the handset was fairly typical. (Etecsa is the state-run phone company.)

One of those strange signs that makes you think for a few moments. I believe it meant no trucks can go in that direction but I have no idea why they couldn't make the truck face the right way.

And another sign a few feet away. It took a while for me to realize that was supposed to be a horn.

Not really an ad but more of a reminder that the official voice of Habana could be found at 106.9. (This is not to be confused with shortwave station Radio Habana.)

This kind of a statue outside a church in the States would create all manner of discussion. Not quite sure what the message is but the religious types here seem perfectly OK with it. (Yes, there are plenty of religious types in Cuba.)

I thought I saw guerilla leader Che Guevara's face in a lot of places in the States but that is nothing compared with his image here. You'll find him on buildings, billboards, posters, and of course in every shop that sells shirts or souvenirs. He's even on a coin!

Not much graffiti in Havana but this is what it looks like when you find it.

7 May, 2006

We actually managed to get up a little earlier than we had to, despite the events of last night which didn't get us back to the hotel until around 2:30 am. We got to take advantage of the free continental breakfast that was offered.

I don't want to sound like an ingrate but at what point was it determined that these so-called continental breakfasts had to suck so much? A piece of bread, a greasy donut, and a little box of Fruit Loops was basically it, plus juice and coffee. That's not breakfast by any stretch. It's unadulterated crap. And why does it earn the moniker of "continental?" I always assumed it referred to the continent of Europe for some reason. (I don't know anyone who calls North America the "continent.") Yet every time I stay somewhere in Europe and there's breakfast involved, it's a neverending collection of dishes that can keep you occupied for hours. Eggs, bacon, sausages, a collection of bread, yogurt, gherkins, oatmeal, a whole assortment of cheeses, cold cereal, plus a whole variety of beverages. Why don't we refer to THAT as continental and what they give us here as crap? I'd like that.

I was hoping this would be the height of annoyances for the day. We got to the check-in location on time, a full three hours before our flight. We were expecting an SAT examination of questions and forms to fill out. But it wasn't really bad at all. Apart from the fact that we were standing in an area where there was absolutely no designation or sign of any sort. The only way to find this place was to have someone point it out to you. Everyone here was going to Cuba.

Once we got our boarding passes, we had some time to collect our wits and get a little bit organized. You see, we had a tiny problem. While we had fulfilled all of the requirements on the U.S. side, we hadn't been able to even establish contact on the Cuban side in order to secure a press visa. The U.S. company that had booked our trip gave us tourist visas to use instead. So it might get a little awkward at the Cuban border if they asked us the purpose of our trip. We couldn't say journalism if we didn't have their visas. Cuba was already somewhat suspicious about journalists and it wasn't at all uncommon for accredited journalists to be refused entry. Mostly this was because they were suspected of being spies for the United States government. That's all we needed. The problem with saying we were tourists was that it didn't really make any sense since there's no way we could have gotten on that flight without some sort of special designation. We'd really have to keep our fingers crossed.

I decided it would be wise for us to keep only the most essential of our papers together with our passport. All of the other stuff, including our journalist designation papers issued by the booking company, was put in a different envelope and stuck somewhere in Mike's bags.

We had noticed with amusement that our boarding passes each had four big S's on them. That of course meant we were going to get additional scrutiny going through security. I was now two for two on that front. And as we lined up to be scanned for explosives and have all of our bags searched, we realized that our entire flight had been designated with S's. That's right, this was the single most suspicious flight taking off in the United States today. I felt right at home.

We wound up at one of the gates of American Eagle, an offshoot of American Airlines. They were the company that was flying us over there. I'm not sure how they got around the embargo rules in order to do this but I sure wasn't going to complain. They herded us all onto a bus that drove out to a plane that wasn't attached to the terminal like all the other planes were. The bus was filled with excited chattering people speaking Spanish. As we approached our plane, one woman thought it would be a good idea to take a picture. Suddenly this guy with sunglasses and a beard jumped out of the plane and started gesticulating wildly. We all thought he was telling the bus to stop but he was actually flipping out over the poor woman taking a snapshot. He charged onto the bus and started shouting at the woman in Spanish. I thought she was going to be taken away and shot. This was the kind of scene people told me to expect in Cuba, but this guy was an American Airlines employee right here in the States! This trip was already proving to be quite educational.

Anyway, we got past all that and headed onto the tiny propeller plane. I counted just under 40 passengers. Everyone on the plane was totally fluent in Spanish - except for us and one other person: the flight attendant. Brilliant.

Our plane quickly took off and we were airborne, watching Florida slowly disappear. It was less than an hour later that another land mass began to appear. Cuba. Wow.

There's always this feeling of wonder when seeing a new place for the first time. I felt it when I landed in England back in 1989. I felt fear when I passed into Germany since all I knew as a naive American was the past and nothing of the present. And I felt all sorts of confusion going into Russia a few years ago but I'm told that's normal. This however was the first time I had ever gone someplace that I was specifically forbidden from entering by my own government. (Not counting computers, of course.)

As is often the case with prop planes, there can be a fair amount of bumpiness during the ride. In our case it was smooth enough up until we got over land and then it really turned into an amusement park ride. Some of the passengers laughed it up. Others looked a bit terrified. I wondered what the political implications of our crashing into Cuba might be. But the people in front of me had perhaps the most interesting reaction. They started puking like there was no tomorrow.

I actually didn't know what was going on at first. I just saw a bunch of people gesturing wildly at the flight attendant all the way up front who was strapped in and clinging for dear life. (It almost looked as if she was praying.) But apparently this constituted an emergency so she quickly stumbled on back to us where she met with the apparently shocking sight. She asked if anyone had any blankets because whoever was doing the hurling was completely coating their clothes. And as that was going on, more and more people were joining the cookie tossing party. It was easily the most chaotic landing I had ever been through.

Once we were on the ground, I had to be careful not to catch a glimpse of what was still taking place in front of me - or a whiff for that matter. For whatever reason, either of those would have quickly pulled me down the same road. So there I was, on the ground in Cuba for the first time, covering my eyes and holding my breath. Not exactly what I had envisioned when planning this out, but I was happy enough just to have made it this far.

We all got off the plane directly onto the ground and had to walk to the actual airport. Now the fun would begin. Everyone was directed to go to a particular window for passport control. The young woman at mine was quite friendly and asked me only a few questions before stamping my tourist card and sending me through the door. I was disappointed that my actual passport wasn't stamped. Most people don't want a Cuban stamp in their passports as it can lead to all sorts of questions from American border guards. But I would be glad to have one in there since I'm going legitimately and have nothing to hide. Maybe they'll do it on the way out.

I saw that Mike had already made it out from passport control and now we were both ready for the next phase. Believe it or not, we had to go through a metal detector. To get INTO the country we had to be checked for weapons and explosives. Not very typical at all. I can't imagine how anyone could have smuggled something onto that plane with all of the security checks we were forced to submit to. I think maybe the Cuban authorities believe the Americans encourage passengers to bring all sorts of dangerous things to Cuba. It'll be interesting to see if we get the same treatment when we get back into the States.

We made it through the detector without a problem. There was one final customs person to go through. This was it. Mike and I each got separate people asking us a couple of questions. Then Mike got to go outside and I was directed elsewhere. Shit.

The guy started to ask me the questions I had been dreading. I told him the purpose of my trip was tourism and education. I couldn't be honest and say journalism because we couldn't get the press visas, thanks to the people who never answer their phones. I knew exactly what the guy was thinking. This made no sense. An American coming over from Florida with a tourist card. They'd probably peg me for a spy and not a very bright one at that. So he asked me what I did for a living. Well, I couldn't exactly say I was a writer/editor for a magazine and a broadcaster on the radio since that sort of implied journalism. So I kind of shaped the truth a little bit to fit the desired answer. I worked in technical editing in the telecommunications field. "Engineer?" the guy asked. Sure, why not. Although honestly my neighbor's dog is more of an engineer than I am. It just kept spiraling from there. I felt awful not being able to tell them the truth. But I wound up being a technical researcher and telecom engineer who was there for educational purposes. A company name like 2600 Enterprises is handy in that regard as it could mean just about anything. And luckily I had a credit card with my name and the company name on the front which was at least some verification of what I said.

But the question that kept coming up was where was my license from the United States? So I tried to explain the concept of the General License, which didn't require approval for certain categories, none of which were remotely similar to what I was describing to them. My only hope was to appear confident and nonchalant enough to not cause any further suspicion. And for this I have to extend a sincere thanks to the U.S. Customs people who have habitually searched and harassed me in the past. It's because of you guys I learned how to keep a cool head and remain confident, knowing there was nothing you could ever get on me. All I had to do here was imagine myself back home instead of here in Cuba trying to get in without the proper documents. I had been well trained.

Now it was time to search my bags. He went through everything, even unintentionally helping me track down a missing hair brush. At least I would have that if nothing else worked. He examined all of the papers that were in my two bags. I was so incredibly happy I had stashed the other paperwork in Mike's envelope because those papers clearly said we were in the country for journalistic purposes and if the guy had seen that, I'm sure I would have been refused entry or at least detained for quite a while. Of course, it could have easily gone the other way and Mike could be the one getting searched right now. Luck really ought to be a religion.

The guy was friendly enough but I could tell he wasn't satisfied. And if this got escalated to someone with real authority, I wasn't going to be getting out of there. Right about then, Mike had met up with a tourist guide who apparently had been expecting us. I saw them waiting expectantly by the exit. I think having the two of them standing there waiting for me may have been what finally got the guy to decide not to pursue this any further. I was elated but I really wanted to get the hell out of there before anyone changed their mind.

Our guide was very friendly and fluent in English. She first took us to the window to exchange money, the second time I would be doing this today with the same money. (Since Cuba no longer takes American dollars, I had to change those in Miami for euros and now I would be changing the euros into Cuban pesos.) Next we were taken to a cab which was instructed to drive us to the hotel we were staying in. It was in the old part of the city, which wasn't nearby.

But taking a taxi in this case was an excellent crash course in the sights of Cuba. I expected to see some old cars from the 1950s but I was pretty quickly blown away by the sheer numbers. They were everywhere! Along with all sorts of weird scooter, motorcycle, and bicycle vehicles, all crowding the streets and somehow getting by. But the weirdest vehicle of them all had to be this massive bus-like thing that was actually being pulled by a tractor trailer cab. It was as if a truck and a bus had mated. And I thought Mexico did weird things with buses.

It was very strange to see such an active and populated area with virtually no commercialization of any sort. There were all sorts of slogans about solidarity and socialism with pictures of Fidel and Che all over the place. But this is a country where you won't find Coke billboards or any of the other staples of most cities in the world. This was like being in a whole other time.

The buildings too were so very different from anyplace else I'd seen. Many of them were old and dilapidated but they also looked very strong and large. As we got closer to our hotel, we noticed that there were lots of cops on the streets and shirtless kids playing stickball on nearly every block. A better description of it would have been "wall ball," as it was being played on narrow streets with large walls in front of and behind the batter. There were also dogs everywhere, mostly small ones, and they seemed a lot less timid than the ones in Mexico.

When we arrived at our hotel, the driver announced that the ride cost $50 (the Cuban peso is valued almost equal to the American dollar so it's not too hard to know what's cheap and what's not). And since I had read that tips are expected here, I suggested we add an appropriate amount. It would be a bit later when we found out that we had been charged about three times the normal rate. What did I say about taxis?

Mike and I spent several hours just walking around and trying to take it all in. The place was really hot but we almost didn't notice in those first hours. Every street had something strange on it - weird food items, different looking people, unusual types of dogs, and payphones that we both took a keen interest in. And of course, those old vehicles.

I've been to a lot of places and this one just felt so bizarre. I was so happy to be here and felt strangely comfortable in the weirdness. But I knew this was only the beginning.