Sitting in our tree-house in Le Perche region of France as I write this, quite kicked about the fact that I’m back in France for Easter break exactly 9 years after I first backpacked here. Anyone who knows me well knows how besotted I used to be by France, the language, and lots of things French until few years ago. But instead of feeling excited I can (albeit limited) converse with the French in their own language this time, I feel sad I didn’t know a word of Spanish before I went to Cuba. The interesting thing is I find myself ‘si’ing and ‘gracias’ing instead of ‘oui’ing and ‘merci’ing. A good start!
I’ve been spoken to in Spanish before – the first time being in Venice, when a Spanish tourist approached me and asked if I spoke the language – so I wasn’t completely surprised when the flight attendant on Virgin, an English bloke, greeted and directed Hitesh to his seat in English while instantaneously switching to Spanish for me. We were both quite amused then, but little did I know that Spanish would be assumed to be my first language by default for the next 12 days (absolutely no exaggeration there). Each and every place we went to, Hitesh got asked, “Español?? Inglesa??” and the minute he said “No Español” they’d turn to me and give me the “Arre tu to Spanish bolti hi hogi (surely you must speak Spanish)” look couple of times until I somehow managed to convince them, every time, that I don’t. One Cuban woman, and subsequently many other Cubanos, we had a drink with insisted, “Tu similare... fisico... Cubano” (I figured she was trying to say you look Cuban). I must admit I was quite flattered the first few times. Not least ‘cause I think Latin Americans in general, and Cubans in particular, are a cool people. But there isn’t another country in the world where people haven’t guessed my ethnicity, so the truth really is that the Cubans aren’t exposed to as many Indians to be able to tell!
So we landed in Havana after a 10 hour flight, to be greeted by an old Bombay airport style Jose Martí airport; our bags were to arrive on carousel number 5 but after a 30 minute wait we found them doing the rounds on carousel number 8 without any notice; about 15% of the lights in the baggage area didn’t work and of the ones that did 5% flickered; as soon as we exited the airport we were surrounded by loads of touts trying to convince us to ride their taxi. I was already beginning to feel at home in this place.
As a rule, Cuban Immigrations don’t stamp your passport – they only stamp the “Tourist Card” which is somewhat like a visa but not attached to your passport. I don’t know the official reasons behind this, but I’d guess it has something to do with Cuba’s attempt to attract tourists despite it being officially banned for travel by non-Cuban Americans. But how can you come to Cuba and not have any evidence of it on your passport? So I am the proud owner of a passport with a Jose Martí arrival stamp on it. And for anyone who is wondering, I did travel to the US few weeks after returning from Cuba - they didn't seem to care.
We shopped around for a cheap taxi, and agreed to go with the next one as the fares were fairly standard, as I saw with a lot of other things later during our trip. It was only once we got to our taxi that I realized what Hitesh had been talking about when he kept insisting our trip to Cuba would transport us to life back in the 1950s. So here we were, just about to ride a vintage Chevvy from the airport to our hotel and see hundreds of others along the way. Instead of helping the driver load my heavy bag onto the car, I was totally consumed by taking pictures, quite excited about what the next 10 days had in store for me.
We stayed the night at the Oasis Panorama Hotel in Miramar, Havana, for the first night. Rated as #2 on Tripadvisor, but definitely one of those that got truly lucky. It was clean and cheap, and served our purpose of being reasonably close to the airport – just right for us to be back to the airport the next morning.
I still remember the time, back in 2003, when I’d wonder why my Brazilian colleague and good friend, Eduardo, complained about the Caipirinhas and Caipiroscas in Bombay regardless of how good the bar we went to. It took me all these years, and my first Mojito in Cuba, to really understand where he was coming from. My first sip of a Mojito in Havana, and I knew that Mojitos would never be the same again. There was something about Cuban Mojitos (which is where they originate anyway) that I had never experienced before. And I was determined to take some of this magic back home with me.
We started quite early the next morning, to catch our flight to Santiago. So we were back to the domestic portion of Jose Martí, which was completely like a smaller version of the old Delhi domestic airport. More lights didn’t work this time (surprise...surprise), and there were couple of women doing jhaadu katka (cleaning / mopping the floor). The check in staff didn’t speak a word of English so we just presented our passports and tickets and stood there and watched. And we saw something we haven’t even seen in India before. Our passports were inspected and then a sticker with seat numbers 16A and B were stuck on generic boarding passes. We were checked off as passengers number 39 and 40 on a hand-drawn floorplan of the aircraft. We were then handed counterparts of our baggage tags, which had absolutely no reference to our boarding passes or tickets. Simple and easy. No unnecessary involvement of computers. Complete commitment to confidentiality.
We were hoping to fly one of those old Russian military aircrafts one of Hitesh’s colleagues told us she flew – a 10-seater with metal seats, and ropes in place of seat belts. What we got instead was a Russian aircraft (no Boeings or Airbuses in Cuba) that was exactly like GoAir on the inside. Fifteen minutes after we were seated, and 10 minutes before departure, an announcement was made and we saw everyone evacuating so we followed. Twenty minutes after waiting in the bus we were allowed to board again, and almost ready to take off. “So what exactly is going on? Was there a bomb on the flight? Has it been defused? Are Russian aircrafts safe? Am I going to get to Santiago today? Or ever?” There was no way to find out, but an hour and a little bit later we had safely landed in Santiago.
Santiago airport was a bit like the Udaipur airport I remember. Just one carousel, about 20 feet long in total, so you see the same bags circulating about 5 times in 7 minutes. And I saw something I have never seen before. Not in any airport around the world. Two security men were matching the counterpart of your baggage tag with your baggage tag, and collecting it before you exited. So you could only leave with your own bags. No room for manipulation there.
My holiday in Cuba was finally about to begin!