2014 Rhythms of Cuba – Day 1

View from hotel room in Cancun

View from hotel room in Cancun

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Our flight isn’t until the afternoon, and I don’t feel compelled to try to squeeze in some sort of excursion, so there’s no particular reason to wake up, but I do. No, it’s still early, I’ll sleep a bit more. Then the alarm on the room clock goes off that must have been left from the last person who stayed here. Still kinda early. Then the next time I wake up well may as well get up.

Clair and I go downstairs to breakfast, it’s nicer outside than inside. We decide on the buffet. Zigy and Brad are wrapping up their breakfast but come over and sit with us. Zigy is excited that one of the items you can get in an omelette or quesadilla is huitlacoche. (Which sounds much nicer than corn smut.) He recommends we try it, apparently it’s a bit rare, I’ve never heard of it. What the heck, who knows when I’ll get another chance. I get a quesadilla, and also one with zucchini blossom. There’s also a tasty special with chicken and zucchini, and posole, which I’m tempted by but pass on. I can’t resist the pastries, some Mexican coffee and then just a spot of hot chocolate. Burp.

Meet most of the others in the group, there’s 10 of us, plus the two leaders, Laura and Andre, who are already in Havana. Everyone else is from Colorado – Boulder/Denver area – some knew each other prior to this trip, and there was also a meeting for this trip before departure, so some met there. Everyone seems very nice, and I don’t get that last to the party feeling. Hang out and chat with Zigy, although after a while the din of jack hammers starts going in the background. The national bird.

Check-in!

Check-in!

Pack – well, to the extent I’ve unpacked – then shuttle to the airport. It seems much closer than last night. Check in goes smoothly, as does security. Oh except I did have another bottle of water, which I’d drank almost all of, and thought the remaining amount of liquid was less than the allowed amount but apparently the screeners didn’t agree. The travel gods really should be happy now.

Shopping, anyone?

Shopping, anyone?

After security it’s the duty-free zone, which is a little disconcerting. Is this a shopping mall or an airport? Someone sees a money exchange, and we debate about changing some money here but decide to just take care of it once we get to Cuba. Again that odd could be anywhere feeling. Someone (not in our group) says they want to get some American food before they go. Go where, I’m not sure.

The flight is “late” – or maybe it’s just Cuba time – schedule said 1505, but we actually board around then. There’s a man in line with two cowboy hats on. I always thought that was just a figure of speech. Another is drinking a can of Tecate Light. Really? They start boarding with first class, someone comments First class? What kind of communists are they? There should only be one class. The two people sitting next to me are travelling together, one jokes that it’s the last chance for free air as he adjusts the vent while we’re sitting on the runway. We leave around 1530, the flight is only about 45 minutes, plus there’s an hour time change.

Cuba!

Cuba!

The man sitting next to me has been before, when I ask why he thinks a moment and says the forbidden fruit with a bit of a laugh. When it gets opened it will just be another Acapulco. I have the window seat, so get to see a bit of the countryside as we fly over. Then I’m right over the cargo compartment, the first things to be disgorged are big flat screen TVs. One of the baggage handlers looks like Obama. Of all the places to be moonlighting…

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Off the plane and in to the terminal. That smell. What’s that smell? Cigars. Oh I think so.

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First up is immigration. I was toward the back of the plane, and so there’s already lines at all the booths. I pick one that seems marginally shorter, then move to another that seems to be moving faster. Almost everyone from the plane has gone through, there are a few that have been to a counter then held back. Not sure what’s hanging them up.

In my case, saying I’ve been to Dallas is the wrong answer. They take my passport and go off for a consult. I wait. One of the Connies and Nancy are in the same situation. Immigration comes back with our passports, take two. Nancy gets through, but the young man processing me is slower, and the procedure changes again so I (and Connie) have to go to the special line at the end of the row.

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Waiting again. Wow, this would be the place if you’re into that women in uniform thing. It probably starts out as regulation, but some have their skirts very short and tight, and apparently there’s no (or loose) standard on legwear, as there’s a wide variety of stockings and shoes. Patterned fishnets are popular, and I see some 3+ inch pumps that I probably wouldn’t be able to walk in for a night out, much less for a day at work.

I don’t do a full count, but it seems to be about 50-50 distribution between women and men, if not more women.

It’s my turn at the special booth, the immigration officer is older and sterner. I can almost understand what she’s asking (in Spanish), but the man who sat next to me on the plane helps translate. We get across that I was just in transit through Dallas and didn’t have any contact with anyone that I might have picked up Ebola. I finally get passed through. He lives in Dallas, I’m not sure what it took for him to get through.

Whew, on to the next adventure. Security screening. I’m on my own for the Spanish this time, and the young woman is harder to understand (at the end of a plane load I can almost hear her thinking stupid Americans, not that I blame her), but with some pantomime I get through. I don’t hear a beep going through the arch, but I get wanded. (Is that a verb?)

Pick up my carry-on from the scanner, then over to the luggage carousel. My bag is sitting off to the side. There’s still a few of us trickling through customs, I’m in the green line (nothing to declare). I hand over my form, get The Eye but don’t get stopped.

I am now in Cuba.

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Holy $@#&*, let me just say that again!

I’M IN CUBA!

Again, it’s almost dark, but not nearly as hot and humid as I’d been expecting. That’s a good thing.

Meet Laura and Andre, some folks have already changed money, the rest of us go and get in that line. There’s actually two types of pesos, but I just get the Cuban Convertibles, or CUCs (pronounced kooks). Base rate is equal,  $1US to 1CUC, but besides the exchange fee there’s an extra ding on converting from US currency. Our lodging and most of the food is included in the trip, and what we can (legally) bring back to the US is limited, so there’s not much to need money for. However, credit cards and ATMs aren’t an option, so we’ve had to guesstimate how much cash to bring. Then guess again as to how much to convert. Don’t want to do too much, but then if you run out there’s the hassle of finding a place and another wait in line. I decide on what seems like a good amount, and get a small stack of bills and a few coins. Pick them up, being careful to not drop the coins in the teller’s cleavage.

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Once we’ve all been through the currency exchange we gather up our belongings and cross the street to where our cars are waiting for us. Yes, vintage American cars, like you see in the pictures. This is no picture though, it’s our transportation in to Havana. After a bit of milling around all 12 of us and our luggages are nestled into three cars. I’ve ended up in a 1952 Chevy Deluxe. Amazing how they keep things running. The driver says he has a friend who brings parts from the US.

It’s maybe half an hour drive from the airport to the casas particulares where we are staying in Havana. It’s after dark, so don’t get to see much of the countryside. What glimpses I do have seem much more as if I’m in a foreign country than the little bit of Mexico I saw between the airport and hotel. One obvious difference is no yellow lights in the traffic signals – only red or green, but with countdown timers letting you know how much longer til the light changes.

Plaza de la Revolución - Che on the left, Cienfuegos on the right

Plaza de la Revolución – Che on the left, Cienfuegos on the right

We pass through a roundabout. There’s a man out running, against traffic in the roundabout, which seems a little risky, even if this were a country with pedestrian right of way. Plaza de la Revolución, with the Martí monument on one side and images of Che and Cienfuegos on the other. We’re in to the city now, with street lights and a bit more to see.

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Our casas are in an apartment building, Casa Lilly on the 13th floor and Marta’s on the 14th. We get parcelled out to who’s where and eventually get everyone and their luggages into one or the other of the elevators and to their correct locations. I’m rooming with one of the Connies, and we’re at Lilly’s.

view from the balcony at Lilly's

view from the balcony at Lilly’s

Everyone reconvenes for dinner at Lilly’s. Black beans, white rice, plantain, chicken, salad. Nothing fancy, but fresh, tasty and filling. There’s a bit of an orientation meeting, and discussion about the schedule for tomorrow. Oh and the obligatory introductions.

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Then a few of us walk over to the Hotel Nacional for drinks. It’s a historic site, and they have a bit of a museum – old photographs and what not – which I’m not sure if it was open, we were looking for the music which was outside on the patio. Some of the folks did make it back another day to check out the historical stuff, and there’s also tunnels left over from the Missile Crisis. Anyway, the hotel is on a bit of a hill, and from the back of the grounds you can see out over the ocean (when it’s light.) We found a table back at the patio and ordered mojitos. When they came they had bendy straws, which I found really amusing. The combo played miscellaneous generic Latin lite music.

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Wondered if any of the people were actually staying there or were just popping in for a bit of borrowed glamour. For some that is their Cuban holiday, staying in a luxury hotel and being whisked around in a tourist bus. The meaning of travel. That’s a whole ‘nother discussion.

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Back at our casa I look out over the skyline of Havana. I can pick out one spire of the Nacional, and the third quarter moon shines here, just as it did at home. I’m excited about our first full day in Cuba tomorrow, getting out to see some of the city and having a drum lesson. The urban sounds are unfamiliar, but eventually I fall asleep.

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4 Responses to 2014 Rhythms of Cuba – Day 1

  1. Cat Smith says:

    Hi there! I am eager to read more about Cuba as this is on my bucket list for next year! Have fun!
    http://alonewithacamera.com/

  2. Pingback: 2014 Rhythms of Cuba – Day 2 | 2m2t

  3. Pingback: 2014 Rhythms of Cuba – Day 0 | 2m2t

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