Friday, May 22, 2015

Havana, Cuba - Arrival

The Adventure Begins with the simple idea to travel to Cuba. 

From elementary school, I remember history lessons about Cuba, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Over the years, I have heard stories of Castro, Che, Communism, baseball, music, salsa and beaches. 

In December of 2014, I was talking with a friend about travel and the discussion evolved into a discussion about Cuba. We both agreed that it would be cool to travel to Cuba and see for ourselves what the country was like in it's current state and before it changed. What were the people like? How had the country evolved socially and economically? Was it an island paradise or an island prison?

However, it is not easy for Americans to travel to Cuba because of the cold war politics, lack of diplomatic relations and an economic embargo that has been in effect since 1961.

On December 17, 2014, US President Obama and Cuban President Castro announced the beginning of the process of normalizing the relations between the US and Cuba.
What I discovered was that the process of normalizing relations could take some time… which was both good and bad for me. It was good because it meant that I might be able to travel to Cuba before the relations were normalized, before an influx of tourism and before the culture changed. It was bad because it meant that it would still be difficult to legally travel to Cuba. 

I conducted some research and found out that US citizens can travel to Cuba under two scenarios. 

First, there are organized cultural tours called people to people tours. I've never been a big fan of organized tours. I've always found independent travel more interesting and enjoyable. 

Second, US citizens are able to legally travel to Cuba if they fall under one of twelve categories with examples such as: family visits, government visits, journalism, education, humanitarian projects, professional research and a few other options.

I chose the second option. 

I decided that I would apply from the Department of Treasury for permission to travel for professional research. The objective would be to familiarize myself with the country and see if I could research any interesting stories that could possibly be turned in a full length documentary. I would also be doing some location scouting.

I decided to travel light… a folding bicycle, small backpack and my camera bag.
I flew from Houston to Mexico City, Mexico and spent the night in the airport since my flight was leaving at 6am the next morning. My bicycle folded up nicely and fit into the bag I'm leaning on.
From Mexico City to Havana I was flying on Cubana Airlines… a first for me.
After checking in my baggage, I went to the departure terminal and waited.
Once I boarded the Cubana airplane it appeared like just about any 1990 era airplane.
We flew for about two hours. We seemed to circle part of the island before landing.
Pretty small airport
Inside it appeared modern.

I often get a sense of a city from the first few steps that I take after departing from an airplane. Is it cold, hot, dry or humid? Are the people in a hurry? Are they smiling, laughing or stoic? I expected Havana to be warm and humid since it is a Caribbean island. However, I was surprised that I deboarded into a cool and relatively temperate airport.
I waited for my bag with my bicycle along with all the other people.
It did not show up after about 30 minutes. I was getting a little nervous so I started to ask around.
I discovered that there was another area in the airport for oversize luggage. I wandered around the airport a bit, then eventually found the oversize luggage area just as my bag was exiting the conveyor belt. Yes!
Here's all my gear… bike, backpack and camera bag.
I caught a taxi into the center of town and found my hotel. Really it was a casa particular, something akin to a bed and breakfast called Casa de Don Gregorio.

The owner of the bed and breakfast was an interesting character. It turns out Don Gregorio was an Russian expat that visited Cuba a number of years ago and never left. He did not fit the stereotype of a Russian - tall, stern, serious. He was shorter than 6 feet tall, slender and quite affable. He met a tall slender Cuban lady and married her. Together they acquired an apartment on the sixth floor of a building in central Havana. Speculating that there would soon be a flood of tourists from America washing up on the shores of Cuba, he decided to open a casa particular. 10CUC or US$10 was all that he was charging. I was his first guest.

I was tired from traveling. I took a nap.

I woke up in the afternoon and went for a walk along the Malecon. I was greeted by the ocean, some fishermen and a Caribbean sunset.

The air was warm, but the ocean breeze made it feel cooler than expected. For a big city I felt that it was surprising serene. There was a bustle of people walking on the streets, but there was not much traffic. I would discover that there was not much traffic because honestly there were not many automobiles in Cuba.
Hola Havana

My casa particular was about four blocks from the Malecon - the famous seawall that stretches around the cost of Havana. As I walked along the Malecon there were a number of couples embracing and chatting. There were a number of men fishing. They had handmade wooden spools with fishing line, a weight, a hook and some bait. They would hold the spool in one hand and whirl the fishing line in the other hand and at the right moment they would sling the line into the ocean. When a fish would strike, they would jerk the line then quickly retrieve the line by winding the line around the spool. Simple. Effective.

I walked about a mile or so down the Malecon. I came upon the area known as the American Special Interest Section in Cuba. I peered from a distance, but turned around.

As I was walking back to the my hotel along the Malecon a number of Cubans engaged me in small talk. Some fishermen wanted to know where I was from. Some kids wanted to know where I was staying. Some Jineteras wanted to know if I wanted company. It was all expected and a little of the unexpected.

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