Cuban Diary Day 1: Arriving in Cuba

Saturday, 7 May 2016

This post is the first of several documenting our trip to Cuba. We are traveling with CubaExplorer, and this is an educational trip. (See also Eight Days in Cuba: an Introduction.)

For our posts about Cuba, we are blogging as Lazaro and Caridad (Cachita to her friends).

Yesterday we flew to Tampa, Florida, our launching point for the trip. Our hotel was in the airport, so traveling between airport and hotel was a snap!

This morning we got up at 6:30, breakfasted at 8, and by 9:30 were in line for check-in for our flight to Cuba. Our emailed directions were to go to the American Airlines blue counter, but all the counters for American Airlines are blue. After waiting in the American Airlines line for 10 minutes, we were directed around the corner to charter flights. There were three lines for American Airlines in the charter area, so, of course, we got in the longest (third) line. After a few minutes, we were told that one of us could go to the first line for paperwork while the second person stayed in line with the luggage. Caridad went to the paperwork line (line 1) where she soon received immigration and customs forms. Returning to the original line, she filled out the paperwork while the line inched forward, completing it just as we reached the front of the line. Here, our luggage was weighed to see whether it met the carry-on limit of 20 pounds (our bags weighed 16 pounds each) and each bag was tagged as accepted. The clerk took our passports and printed boarding passes and we were directed to line 2. After a few minutes, our passports and new boarding passes were given to us. Since boarding was still 2 hours away, we returned to our room and watched part of a movie.

We arrived at our gate a half hour before boarding time, but boarding was delayed by about a half hour. Since we were in boarding group 4, we just stood aside to wait for the earlier boarding groups. Meanwhile, a queue formed beside us, presumably group 1 passengers. After boarding the wheelchair passengers, the American Airlines representative unexpectedly said “boarding all coach passengers.” The line stood frozen, shocked, until a Spanish-speaking employee motioned evenyone forward. We merged into the line (we had been there longest, after all) and were soon on the plane. Our seats were near the front of the plane and the overhead bin still had space in it. We put our carry-on luggage there and our personal items beneath the seats ahead of us. Our seatmate appeared soon for the window seat. He was a missionary, going to Cuba to help build a house for a minister of his church. After departure, he was excited to see that the plane flew over his neighborhood and place of work.

The flight was not full. The first class seats appeared to be filled on the right side of the plane, but the only “passengers” on the left side were flight attendants. The safety instructions were given in a perfunctory manner. The three women in our row on the other side of the aisle never turned off their phones; the woman in the aisle seat across from us, even though told to turn off her phone, was still taking calls as the aircraft waited at the end of the active runway for takeoff.

As the flight neared Cuba, passengers with window seats on the right side of the airplane called out that they saw a cruise ship on the water below. This would have been the Fathom Cruiselines Adonia, the first cruise ship to travel between the U.S. and Cuba, on its return trip to the U.S.

After arriving at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, we were through immigration and customs fairly quickly, since we had no checked luggage. We met our tour guide and were directed to the bus, where we sat for about an hour until another five tour group members arrived.

Cars in Airport Parking Lot

While we sat in the bus, we saw many old 1950s-vintage cars driving by: Chevys, Fords, Mercurys, and Peugeots. Some cars that we did not recognise were so old that we suspected they were from the 1940s. The newer cars were Hyundais, Kias, and makes we did not recognize. We expect to see many more interesting old cars while we are here.

On the bus to the hotel, the guide gave us basic information we needed about money, tipping, and the tour. At the hotel, we checked in and exchanged 200 euros for 204 CUC. We had bought some euros because the effective exchange rate for US dollars is punishing (87 cents on the dollar). The exchange rate for euros is “on par,” whatever that means.

We did not receive the “private welcome cocktail with hotel staff” mentioned in the itinerary.

We are staying at the Hotel ROC Presidente, on the Avenida de los Presidentes in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana. (We think ROC stands for Republic of Cuba, since all hotels are owned by the government.) It is very close to the Malecón, which is a broad roadway, promenade, and seawall stretching 8 kilometers (5 miles) along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico from the Vedado neighborhood to the Havana Harbor in Old Havana.

Our room is quite nice, better than expected. There is a room safe, which we are required to use, but the safe door would not even close. Caridad called the front desk and was told that there is a 2 CUC per day fee to use it (we had not been told that ahead of time). Lazaro went back downstairs to the front desk to arrange for the safe, and the room key was activated to use as the safe key.

"Monument to the Shoes"
Monument to Tomas Estrada Palma, First President of the Republic of Cuba

The monument in front of the hotel is the monument to Tomas Estrada Palma, the first President of the Republic of Cuba, who wanted Cuba to be annexed by the United States. Every trace of the statue except the shoes has been removed, either by a hurricane or otherwise, as well as the inscription on the base.

After this, we headed off down the street to a nearby convenience store where the guide told us we could buy water at a better price than in the hotel. The store had no water. The water here is not potable, although the guide told us we could brush our teeth with us. No thanks. Bottled water for us.

We continued down the street to the seawall and took some interesting pictures of fishermen and waves crashing over the walls, which must be at least 20 feet high on the ocean side (5 feet high on the land side). The top of the wall is broad, about 3 feet wide, and people walk on it and fish from it. The sidewalk is very slippery from the constant water splashing over the wall, so it would be reasonable to expect that the top of the wall is slippery, also.

Local Boys posing on the Malecón promenade

A group of boys posed for pictures, then wanted money. (We didn’t have anything small enough for that, and, anyway, we were advised not to give money to people.) Then another fellow told us some elaborate story about his birthday and his mother living in a house with chickens, but we refused him also. (“Just 5 dollars “) When these con artists learn enough English, then they will be a force for future tourists to reckon with.

Where the Avenida de los Presidentes joins the Malecón roadway is a statue to honor Calixto García Iñiguez, a famous Cuban general. This is the Garcia of the essay “A Message to Garcia” written by Elbert Hubbart, which was made into two different American films of the same name in 1916 and 1936.

Back at the hotel, we had dinner in the buffet, paid for as part of the tour. There was a made-to-order noodle chef, which seemed odd. The noodles were pre-cooked and the “chef” merely fried them with what appeared to be omelet ingredients.

After this, we walked up the wide avenue to 23th Street, which the guide said was the happening place. Nothing was happening. A few blocks down was what seemed to be an amusement park. When we tried to walk in, a guide stopped us. When we said “English?” he directed us in another direction, to a fast food window. Serendipity. They sold water, and soon we had two large bottles at a cheaper price than the guide had quoted for the store with no water. Only 70 cents (0.70 CUC) for each 1.5 liter bottle. Caridad believes the guide said the nearby store charges 2.70 CUC per large bottle. The price at the hotel is 3 CUC per 1.5 liter bottle (although that is a guess, because the price is actually listed as 3 CUC per 1.5 mL.)

We then walked back to our hotel, back down the wide avenue past interesting statues that we would like to see in the daylight.

Blogging Setup

Because we do not expect internet/wifi to be available and/or reliable, we plan to document each day like a diary and then convert the diary contents to blog posts when we get back home. Our blogging setup consists of a Kindle Fire HD 6 Inch notebook, an AmazonBasics Bluetooth Keyboard, and an AmazonBasics Adjustable Tablet Stand. (This is the same setup we used in Southeast Asia, except that wifi was readily available there in most places that we stayed.) The electrical power available in the room is 220 volts; the outlets are a mixture of U.S. and European style outlets. We have dual-voltage USB power supplies, so we will use an OREI Grounded Universal 2 in 1 Schuko Plug Adapter Type E/F in one outlet, while the other outlet accepts the usual U.S. Type A plug.

Tomorrow we meet the guide at 9:30 for our first real day of touring.

Stay tuned for more of our Cuban diary.