People who have begun anything on April 1 are called great fools. When I think about it, I´ve done pretty crazy things on April 1 as well. I joined my current job last year April 1. I told one of my previous bosses who had his birthday a day before April fools that he shouldve been born a day late and by the time he understood, I fled. Anyway, its the day to do stupid things. But, we did one of the most sensible things this April 1. We left cold and dull London for warm and colourful Cuba.
Early Sunday morning (I don´t think I´d seen 6 am Sunday in ages… early Sunday anyway sounds like an oxymoron), we left for Heathrow with our backpacks and looked like the only eager beavers on the Tube. Till 2 days before, I had no idea whether I was heading to Cuba or not. As normal Indians would have it, I had visa issues till Friday. Cuba was easy. In a day, we had our tourist cards with us. Cuban embassy do not put a stamp on your passport as you can have issues traveling to the United States with a Cuban visa stamp. Instead, they give you a tourist card separately (valid for 30 days). Getting this tourist card was a piece of cake. But, guess where the trouble was? As usual, Europe. We had our flights via Madrid and Spain wanted us to pay 80 Euros for Transit Visa, to spend 2 hours in their lousy airport. With very little time in hand, I had still applied to the Spanish Embassy. (I initially thought about taking the risk and asking for deportation to Cuba incase Spain did not want me in their airport, but then decided to play it safe). Nick of time, Spain gave me a transit visa for exactly the day of travel… stingy bastards.
Landing in Madrid, we were driven from Terminal 4 to 4S by a driver who thought he was Alonso and straight to the gate where our flight to La Habana was. Damn! After all that trouble for transit visa, Immigration didn´t even check it. So much for 80 euros terribly spent. The April fool was on us.
In the few hours in Madrid Airport, with the Iberia flight delayed by an hour or so (we were expecting worse), I just spent the time checking out the kind of people traveling to Cuba. There was a herd of French and Germans (I can sense them from a distance), really old British (a few), huge Spanish families and a lot of Latino looking people from assorted countries. We did not have our boarding passes for the onward flight and we went over to the Iberia counter only to be given a hand written boarding card. Something very rustic about it, isn´t it.
All the wait is worth it when you leave for a holiday. But, when you return, you hate every minute. Once we boarded the flight, I was delighted to find a Cuban guy sitting right next to me. It made up for the fact that there was hardly any in flight entertainment (not like it was a cheap flight). This guy´s mother had moved to Spain as a political refugee ages ago and he had been been living there as long as he could remember. He was traveling back to Cuba with his Spanish passport, as there are many restrictions about Cubans getting back to Cuba. As a fight attendant for LAN airways, he anyways had the opportunity to visit Latin America quite a bit. I loved how chatty he was and the fact that he was multitasking, watching ´We bought a zoo´at the same time 🙂
More than reading the lonely planet, the chat with him gave me such a fantastic insight into the Havana culture. He was headed to Havana for just a day, to meet his boyfriend. Yes, he is gay. And, that´s still quite a closed topic in Cuba. It´s funny how the neighbourhood for Gays in San Fransisco is called Castro Street. Often referred to by Cubans. He mentioned how his boyfriend and he planned to adopt a child with Down Syndrome, as this is common in Cuba. It would be pretty difficult for his boyfriend to leave Cuba and getting married (gay marriage) was a big question. However, he was a theatre artist and very active in the cultural scene in Havana. His story already got me thinking about the situation there and how people think. I couldn´t wait to talk to more people and find out about what was going on. Everything a book tells you about Cuba, outside of Cuba, is only half truth. Anyway, bidding a quick farewell to our Cuban friend, I couldn´t help but remember one of those romantic flicks where Julia Roberts flies all the way to spend just 24 hours with her son. Very romantic indeed. Cubans were already winning my heart.
Reaching Havana, I was giddy with excitement in the hot airport. It looked like a mix between Calcutta Airport (in size) and some other tiny airport (in aesthetics). All in all, the smell of Cuba was quite overpowering. Difficult to describe this smell, but it was a mix of some excited tourist, shrewd immigration, eager taxi drivers and the classic gringos as well. Anyone who looked non gringo was given a suspicious look by the blue t shirt and jeans clad secutrity officer. He had an official badge and that was the only reason I trusted him when he asked to look at our passports. A couple of questions about where we from, what we did for a living, why we were visiting Cuba,, I figured out that there were two reasons he pulled us out of the crowd to question us. Reason 1 – maybe, he´d never seen Indian passports and wanted to just probe. Reason 2 – We looked like Cubans returning to Cuba. For now, I´d love to live with the fact that he took us for locals.
It was 9 pm and we took a taxi straight to the house of Juanita and her son Roberto, who were our hosts in Havana Vieja.
Colourful bedsheet. Fan (London doesn´t have fans). A fantastic welcome from Roberto plus coffee. And, the faint sound of music coming through the slits on the doors. We had reached Cuba. Sleep was the last thing on my mind.
…… but, wait for the next few days. Cuba was a place to spend every minute awake. More to follow in this Cuban diary.