I made it to the passenger lounge of the airport in Nassau Bahamas. The new terminal was for passengers bound for the USA. This older terminal was for the rest of the world. There was a sea of Europeans returning to other places around the world. I happened to notice that more often than not mother, father and child was either reading something or using a computer.
I heard "Last call for Cubana Airlines". My heart dropped as I thought that I was about to miss my flight. The long line of people going to Amsterdam blocked my view of the shorter line that was going to Cuba.
Finally I was allowed to board the Cubana Airlines turbo prop plane into Cuba.
(Note to self: There were two Black lesbians two seats in front of me. They were nice people.)
We landed in Cuba.
I observed an airport with the standard runway markings and signage as expected in the United States. These are international aviation standards so Cuba's relative isolation to the United States had no bearing upon these standards.
We deplaned and there was an array of Cuban personnel who directed us toward the shuttle bus that was waiting for us. We were driven to the main terminal.
My stereotypes of Cuba put me on full alert. First there was an immigration agent who inspected my passport and boarding pass. They spoke English. I told them "no stamp on the passport". They gave me a visa card instead.
My passport was retained and I was asked to pass through a door that had an electric lock. Another woman who was standing on the other side of the door directed me to the luggage scanner and metal detector. She held onto my passport.
The lobby was dark. Instead of the large florescent lights and/or open air windows that you might see at an American airport - this area had circular lights which barely illuminated the area and cameras dangling from the ceiling.
Why are you all holding onto my passport?
I was told to move to the right. I had to hand in my "H1N1" form to a row of nurses that were waiting for me. I asked one female passenger who was on my plane if they had taken her passport? She did not speak English. Another woman overheard my question and said "Yes. You have to go through an interview".
I retrieved my duffel bag from the luggage conveyor. The thing was loud and squeaky as it rubbled round and a round.
I walked through the lobby about to exit through a final set of metal detectors as I asked the guard where I could exchange my money. Then a young male customs agent tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to come with him.
- Why are you in Cuba? Vacation
- Where are you staying? El Presidente Hotel
- What do you do in America? I am a consultant for cellphones
- How long are you staying in Cuba? For 3 days
- Do you have a computer with you? No
- Do you have a camera? Yes - its in my bag
- Do you have any family in Cuba? No
- Have you ever been to Cuba before? No
Then he took me over to a metal table where he ruffled through my duffel bag and my backpack. I had a bunch of magazines and newspapers. I wondered if he thought that I was an insurgent who was smuggling news from the outside world into the county.
Throughout the interview process he went over to his supervisor at least 4 times, seeking his council.
Finally after the last discussion with this other guy he waved me along.
As soon as I set foot into the terminal a lady who was a hospitality agent engaged me. She took me to the currency exchange. What? The Cuban Peso is equal to the US dollar with a 20% hit? The Euro doesn't have the same 20% penalty. It appears to be traded at market rates.
The hospitality agent got me a cab and sent me onto my hotel. I gave her a $5 peso tip. The first thing that I realized I needed to figure out is the proper index for tipping. Even though they make the peso nearly equal to the dollar the Cuban wage rates are not equal to that of the American worker. If the average wage is about $30 per month then a $5 tip from one passenger is a goldmine in relative terms.
The Cuban taxi driver was European in ancestry. He didn't say a word throughout the trip. I was amazed as I passed through large cement apartment buildings with the same water storage containers on the roof that I am used to seeing in Jamaica. I also noticed that each had window unit air conditioners dangling from them - a sign of no central HVAC system within.
There was some type of old manufacturing plant near the airport that was shut down. The large buildings were still present but grass and weeds had taken over where work used to be conducted.
The streets were abuzz with human activity. There were masses of people waiting for buses. I swore that my driver was going to hit someone. As a person crossed the street while he decelerated at a red light he never yielded to allow them to pass in front of his car. They had to walk behind. Finally we arrived at the El Presidente Hotel. It took my bag out of the minivan and I gave him a $5 peso tip.
I entered the lobby of the hotel to check in. They asked for my passport.
I told them that my friend had arrived the day before and that I needed to check into the same room. The lady remembered: "Ahh you are the one who he told us about. You'll have to sign this as evidence that we gave you a key to the room".
As I stood at the front desk the "lobby man" came over to me as said "Please sir, have a seat on the couch. She will be with you in a minute". (WHERE IS MY PASSPORT? Why do you all keep taking my passport in Cuba?)
I noticed that there was a man standing at the doorway at all times. He was there to keep an eye out on those who entered the lobby. No native Cuban was allowed into the hotel unless they had official business with the hotel or was escorted by a guest.
I noticed that there was a restaurant on both ends of the lobby. There was an Internet cafe there (cool). There was a bar on the other side of the check in desk.
Finally I was given the key and told to go to my room. The bellhop would bring me my bags.
I went to my room. About 10 minutes later my bag arrived. The bellhop asked if there was anything else that he could do for me. He waited for me to tip him. I gave him a $3 peso and he left.
I browsed the television channels and relaxed.
I wondered where my crazy friend was at the time.
I had no means of contacting him. The Cubacel cellphone network does not have a roaming agreement with any American telecom carriers thus none of our phones work there unless we get a Cuban SIM card.