Another week in Havana - via TorontoAuthor: RichardNika (More Trip Reviews by RichardNika)
Date of Trip: October 2011
deserted at that hour, then through the harbor tunnel and onto the coastal highway. The sun rose ahead of us. Off to our right was an oil fired flare from a tower atop a hill. There were occasional pedestrians, bicycles, carts and horses. There was one large “Patria o Muerte” billboard. We rode through Matanzas during morning rush hour, and the sidewalks were busy. The sort of crumbling buildings we’d seen along the Malecon was absent. There were shops, schools, government buildings - it could almost have been an American town at the same hour of the day. A young woman ran past us, presumably to get to work on time. At one corner, an attractive young woman in a white top, short blue denim skirt and sunglasses stood next to a four part sign pointing the ways to Bacunayagua, La Habana, Guanabo and the hospital. A blue-capped cop strolled past, his head jerked back, eyeballing her. Next to a long porous wall was a perfectly painted and polished reddish-purple and white 50s Plymouth. A long wall was covered with exquisite marine-themed semi-abstract graffiti. Another perfectly kept bright red 50s buick or Dodge sat next to a railroad track. Leaving Matanzas, we saw an immaculate black Model T Ford.
The entrance hall to Juan Gualberto Gomez - VRA - Veradero airport. It was a couple hours to departure time; unsurprisingly, the Sunwings counter wasn’t yet open. A wall poster showed what seemed to be a nightclub scene and the words “Cuba - Paradise Under the Stars.” Another showed there small children in the water and “Cuba - Find Your Happy Place.” When Sunwings opened, I asked for seats near the front, and this time got them. A flight board showed nonstops to various Cuban cities and to Moscow and Brussels. We paid our 25 CUCs per person departure tax and got our receipts I expected departing passport control to be as routine as it had been five years earlier. It was not.
My wife preceded me to one of the passport inspection booths. It was staffed by a young woman who was chewing gum and could have been just out of high school. She said there were computer problems and apologized for the delay, but then she was finally passed through in about 15 minutes, and the door closed between us. By the time, virtually every other passenger had already gone through.
Once again, I was photographed, and was also told there was a computer problem, but this time, the wait was interminable. The girl just stood there, pretending to fiddle with the computer and with papers, and working on her gum. My wife and I were unable to communicate or even see one another, and after about a half hour, she began to panic. A woman brought her a chair, and I began begging to be able to at least see her. Another woman opened the door, and we had about one minute face to face. She said she’d told my wife that I’d be out soon, and then we were cut off again.
I stood for another 10 minutes, and became more vocal in my complaint over the delay. There were other agents available, and obviously this was more than a computer problem, and had not been dragged out by the gumchewer. Finally, a tall black officer came over and walked me to a different booth. He took my passport with him, asked me to wait, and retreated into a nearby office. The office door was open, and after a few minutes, I walked over and looked in. Six different officers, male and female, were huddled over my passport, examining it. I made sure that they could see me. Minutes later, the tall man returned with my passport, went back behind the booth, fiddled with something for a minute, handed me the passport, and the door opened and I was liberated.
The long four-gate upstairs departure lounge was much as I remembered it, but the stalls selling a wide variety of revolutionary-type books were gone. We were close to running out of CUCs. My wife wanted coffee and that was 2.5 C’s. As we awaited the departure call, we.fell into conversation with an odd young man from Sri Lanka. He had tousled black hair, jeans, an infectious grin and a white t shirt with the classic Che Guevara portrait. His conversation was disjointed and odd, but his English was clear enough. He loved Che and wanted to return.
It seemed absurd to travel three thousand miles to return to our home that was only about 200 miles away. Our flight left on time, and it was full. No landscape had ever seemed greener to me than the land around Veradero. After clearing the Cuban mainland, we crossed a long crooked and disjointed spit of land. As it had been coming down, we flew over the Everglades and then parallel to Florida’s east coast. I recognized many of the towns and landmarks. It was a clear sunny day, and we were served a hot lunch, complete with wine. The final stage, crossing over Lake Ontario and then the downtown Toronto skyline, was very quick. I was concerned that our passports not be stamped there, as otherwise the US border officer would know we had entered Toronto by air and might ask if we had been to any countries other than Canada, and, if so, which ones. In ‘06, I had argued with a Canadian officer for 10 minutes before she finally agreed not to make the stamp. When faced with questioning by a US federal officer, you have three choices. You can refuse to answer, a right guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution. You can tell the truth. Or you can lie. If you lie and the lie is discovered, then you can be charged with a felony. We knew that, under the new administration, we wouldn’t get in trouble for having been to Cuba. We just wanted to make sure some overzealous agent didn’t hold us up, searching and questioning us, and possibly cause us to miss our flight, incurring a night’s hotel bill in Niagara Falls and several hundred dollars in Spirit Airlines change fees.
We picked out a young pleasant-looking female agent, who immediately agreed not to stamp our passports, boarded a city bus to the end-of-the-line Kipling station on the east-west subway route, and debarked two blocks from the Coach Canada bus station. Now that we’d cleared Canada customs, which involved simply walking through the “green line,” I was able to seal my two prepaid parcels and dump them into a mailbox. A bus to the Falls was about to leave, we boarded it, then took a local bus to the top of Benders Hill, overlooking the falls, walked down and took the pedestrian entrance to the United States. As before, the view of the falls was stunning. At the end of the bridge, there was a small structure with a counter inside running its length. On one side, there was a large area filled with Asians milling about, presumably waiting to be cleared. To the right was a narrow corridor. A young male officer was at the counter. What he saw and heard was an older American couple carrying small bags, cameras around their necks. He probably thought we were daytrippers who, like most visitors, want to see the falls from both sides. He looked at our passports and waved us through. The same bumpy wooden trackless trolley we had taken at the start of the trip took us back to the Niagara Falls airport, once again open, gleaming new, and totally empty of people. Our flight didn’t leave until well after midnight. We were hungry, and the restaurant was closed - a young Korean student let us use his laptop to locate a nearby pizzeria that delivered, and that provided our dinner. Hours later, the airline people arrived, then the TSA security agents, who ordered their dinner from the same pizzeria. We left for Ft. Lauderdale on time, and by midmorning were home in Miami Beach.
My two trips could hardly have been more different. The first time, I was accompanied by my 36 year old attractive single daughter. I accompanied her to many of Havana’s bars and clubs. Young men doted on her, bought her drinks and perhaps only half-jokingly offered to marry her. We went to two beaches, and she made friends with a local young Cuban man. We stayed with a Cuban family in the heart of the city and haunted the Prado and Malecon at night. People were friendly and open, but what little private enterprise there was was discrete and, in the case of the private restaurants and homestays, well hidden. We’d been short of cash and I hadn’t had the money to visit a single museum.
On this trip, we saw entire portions of the city my daughter and I had missed, but ended up skipping the plaza of the Revolution - which I had seen - and experienced a whole different Cuba, with small private enterprise flourishing. We also missed the beaches, Chinatown, the zoo, the railroad, and Santa Clara.
Our 2006 trip had been conducted in deepest secrecy, with the Bush administration actively seeking out and penalizing “illegal” American visitors. We told very few people about the voyage. Nonetheless, we had encountered a woman from Seattle who had come via Cancun, and, surprisingly, five University of North Carolina exchange students who were there legally - yes, even by Bush standards. After January 20, 2009, it was clear there was no further need for secrecy. And, ironically, on this trip, with the loosening of travel restrictions, we encountered not another single American.
I wondered why the problems about leaving Cuba, but after going through the newspapers that had accumulated at home, I realized that the week we’d been there had been an unusually difficult one for Cuba-US relations for a number of reasons. It also occurred to me that my passport, less than two years old, held stamps from four other Latin American countries - four of them, Uruguay, Argentina, Nicaragua and Costa Rica - and from no other nations.
Canada Post is known more for frequent strikes than for speed and efficiency, but after a month I had both my parcels. Neither had been opened by US customs. I refilled the Cuban beer cans with cold beer - Fosters, this time - and we drank to the political demise of all the anti-Cuba hardliners in Congress. I cooked the biggest, juiciest burgers I’d ever made, and we had our own “Polar Bar.”
A final word. Any American can go to Cuba now. You can go via a third country. No one will care. Or you can take a direct charter flight from any of perhaps 10 American cities, buying the tickets from any of dozens of authorized agents. If you’re questioned by our people - the Cubans couldn’t care less - say it’s family travel and you’re visiting a cousin. Bring as much cash as you can afford and spend it with these new entrepreneurs. Stay in a casa particular - a private home stay. Eat in the private restaurants - the paladores. They’re easy to find now. Patronize the food stands and the little shops. Ride in the collectivo taxis and the bici-taxis. Splurge on a horse and carriage ride. In the news: Cuba now loans money to private businesses, and allows them to rent out government workshops. The US does not allow people to return with Cuban cigars and rum, though I have been told that if a few cigars are declared, the customs officer may simply shrug. There is not and has not been any embargo or restrictions on printed matter, educational materials, books, magazines, newspapers or works of art. Buy some and bring them home. Who knows, you may soon be able to buy your own vacation home or apartment there! These are good people, and after all these decades of inter-government hostility, they nevertheless love us, want to be our friends, and want us to visit.
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