My long-awaited trip to Havana was the trip of a lifetime. I originally planned to do one long post about the trip, but I decided to break it up into more writer- and reader- friendly segments. First the preparation….
As you may know, even though the US’s relations with Cuba have begun to warm up, travel for the sake of tourism is not yet allowed. There are many sites devoted to providing current and accurate information on how US citizens can get authorization to travel to Cuba. I traveled through a People-to-People trip.
I had to partially break my 2015 goal of traveling with carry on bags only. The charter flight through XAEL Charters via World Atlantic Airline had a 20 lb limit for all carry on bags. The limit for checked bags combined with carry on bags was 44 lbs. (Additional fees at $2 per pound are assessed for bags totaling more than 44 pounds. This is in addition to the fee for checking a bag.) Through an OCD-level of series of packing and unpacking, my bags totaled 35 pounds. I carried both bags on my domestic flight to Miami and checked my backpack from Miami to Havana.
For this trip I chose the Osprey Porter 46. In retrospect, I should have taken the Tortuga (which, instead, I sent with my daughter to overnight camp). The Tortuga’s hip belt is much more cushioned, and it has very conveniently placed pockets on the hip strap. For my personal item, I carried my beloved Stella McCartney hobo bag which I nabbed at a consignment shop. Despite the tackiness of doing so, I added a thick shoulder strap for comfort and placed the whole bag inside of a cloth hobo to protect it from airplane grunge and to reduce the stress on the handles since the bag was not designed for heavy loads. My carryon contained a full change of clothes, makeup, liquids, essential personal items, Kindle, phone, wristlet purse, etc.
The Osprey had plenty of space for my skirts, tops, undergarments, 2 sets of pajamas, robe, bath towel, toiletries, shower shoes/flip flops, sandals, and a boatload of items for donation. (See below for some of the items that were donated. Special shout out to the wonderful women of Handmade Charlotte who provided a host of fun craft supplies.)
Things I’m really glad I brought: a half roll of toilet paper (flattened for easier packing), feminine hygiene products, mesh shower sponge (no washcloths at the hotel), packable sun hat, sarong, emergency kit, Febreeze, castle soap, and duct tape. I also packed items such as insect repellant wipes, sunscreen stick, compact Nikon, and all the other stuff you see in online packing lists.
Bring enough cash to last the whole trip. Cuba is cash-only sort of country. The cash-only system starts at home. Baggage fees and re-entry fees (paid at time of departure) are accepted only in cash (at least for the airline that we were on). Even if you are traveling from a non-US country where credit cards might work in Cuba, you won’t find many place that accept them. I brought $650 and came home with $200. I brought two crisp $100 bills, three crisp $50 bills, and fifteen twenty-dollar bills. I had no problem exchanging the large bills or the less-than-crisp twenties. Since Cuba has a separate economy for tourists and has an exchange penalty for the US dollar, money doesn’t stretch any further in Cuba than it does in the US. Meals ran between $15-25. Shopping provided an opportunity to bargain and get good deals, but don’t expect to score some gorgeous artwork for $10.
THE AIRPORT EXPERIENCE:
All my fretting about going over my 44-lb limit probably shortened my life expectancy by a couple of hours. Once I arrived at the airport, I was no longer concerned about how heavy my bags were. Instead, I was concerned whether or not a plane could become airborne with the amount of baggage that my fellow travelers were checking.
Since many things are impossible to purchase in Cuba, it is common for Cuban-Americans returning home for a visit to bring as much to their friends, families, (and customers) as humanly possible. Take a look at the baggage of just two of the people ahead of us in line. The lines wrapped all around the terminal. I saw lots of packages such as those in the pictures, flat screen TV’s, and every other electronic device one could imagine. Our travel organizer told us that people spend thousands of dollars in baggage fees in order to check all of the items onto the plane. I found that fact astounding- especially considering that our charter airlines accepted only cash for baggage fees.
Needless to say, the check in process was loooonnnnngggg. We arrived at 5:00 am for our 8:00 flight, and didn’t get our bags checked until 7:50 am. The security line was long and slow, but thankfully, the flight was delayed. I’m sure it was due to the sheer volume of checked baggage.
Seating assignment was done at baggage check. There was a glitch with the seating assignment with several members of my group being assigned to row 34 in a plane with only 33 rows. Thankfully, there were some available seats towards the front of the plane. I found the airplane experience to be a great introduction to Cuba. The plane was old. Very old. It made lots of noises, but -by golly- it got us there safely. A lot of things in Cuba are old and appear to be on their last leg. Still, they do what they are supposed to do.
Exiting the airport in Havana was a heady experience. There was a sea of people waiting behind a gated area. The excitement was palpable. People were holding up cameras, phones, and children- eagerly awaiting the first glimpse of their loved ones (and I’m sure all of the treasures that were being brought home).
We stayed at the Quinta Avenida in Miramar, Havana. See my brief TripAdvisor review. Since we were visiting at the same time as the DC Gay Men’s Chorus, we were greeted with the US flag and the rainbow flag.
The rooms were comfortable and brightly decorated. As is the case with all hotels, lighting was dim.
FAST FORWARD TO THE RETURN:
This is probably best told as a timeline. Our flight was scheduled for 10:15 am. Our tickets said that we should arrive at 6:15. Our very wise guide informed us that that was hogwash. As it turns out the gates don’t open until 8:00.
7:45: We arrive at the airport and stand in a very long line. All of the agent’s signs say “Closed.” The flight board shows an 8:15 flight with an “on time” status which, of course, was not gonna happen.
8:30 Bags are checked. Off to border control and security.
10:25 We are patiently awaiting the announcement of our flight. We kill time by comparing passports and deciding which countries are next on our travel lists based on the coolness factor of the passport stamps.
11:15 Our flight is ready to board. We line up. The flight status board still lists our flight as “on time.”
11:34 I head out across the tarmac to my plane.
11:42 I am thrilled to discover that I am in the exit row.
12:45 After heading to the runway, we must return to the gate to get some paperwork. There is no air conditioning. The crew has run out of water because they only had two small bottles of water to pass out to the passengers. They are now passing out sodas. I try not to think about the lack of oxygen in the plane. I must not panic and hyperventilate for I will surely die of asphyxiation. As soon as we head back to the gate, we are informed that the paperwork we are waiting for is the Homeland Security’s ok to land in the US. We are told that we will have to deplane if the clearance is not received in a few minutes. WHAT?!? Why didn’t someone already get clearance to land the plane? I’ve known about this flight for months. This was not a surprise flight.
12:57 I have stripped down to the most modest layer of clothing that I can muster.
1:11 We get off of the plane.
1:24 We are called back to the gate to board the plane.
1:30 Somebody says something in Spanish to a few people in the front of the line, and they all walk away. I don’t know what’s going on, but we are obviously not getting on that plane right now.
2:53 We re-board the plane.
3:15 We finally take off. We land in the US with no problems- except for the fact that we may or may not be able to make our connecting flights.
Thanks to Global Entry, I make it to my 5:45 flight with about 5 minutes to spare before boarding. Had I not checked my backpack in Cuba, I would have had much more time to spare. It took quite some time before my bag got off the plane.
In reality, the travel inconveniences were minor. I’d go through it all over again just to return to Cuba.
To be continued….
Part 2: Architecture, Art, Cars, Food
Part 3: What I Learned About Healthcare in Cuba
Part 4: The Amazing Spirit of the Cuban People, Oh How They Thrive!
Part 5: Why I Want to Return to Cuba