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To Cuba

Gatwick to Havana, 24 February 1998
We take a Jules Verne package holiday in Cuba, where we’ve never been before. Just a one-week trip, so we only see a snapshot, but it opens up some questions.
First a flight out there on a second-hand aeroplane.
At Gatwick airport the flight is delayed, so we sit with a drink and watch the smiling Brits going on their holidays, plus a group of learning-disability people being looked after by their carers, who had to keep one woman from biting her hands to draw blood, and a man from removing his crash helmet, which he didn’t look at all pleased to be wearing, no doubt feeling rather a chump to be the only person in the departure lounge so attired, but presumably was needed to prevent him bumping into things and damaging his head. Were they going on an aeroplane? No, it transpired (it says in my diary, though what they were doing there if they weren’t, I didn’t record).
Our aeroplane had a peeling Cubana sign on the side, a DC10 which presumably used to belong to Air France, since all the signs were in French first. Cubana is not the world’s best airline, but we got to Havana, at 3.30am our time, 9.30pm Cuban time.
A misfortune at customs.
Then we queued at passport control. This was very slow, for no obvious reason, it just took the lines of officials in the Eastern-European-style cubicles a long time to check everyone’s visa. And why should the Cuban authorities be so concerned? The chance of a British tourist overstaying their visit must be slim, and even if they did, spending ages checking the passport is not going to change it. It does seem to be a rule that, the less likely it is that someone would want to stay in a country, the more convinced the officials are that you might want to.
We were last through because, as is always the case in Sainsbury’s, and Cuba was going to be no different, we had joined the slowest queue at the checkout. Fortunately Cuba had the advantage over Sainsbury’s that we did not have any ice cream in our trolley.
There are not many flights into Havana, only Cubana Airlines it seemed, so maybe the officials need to spin their time out.
Only two of our three bags are on the carousel, oh no.
But then we found the third one, separated from the rest. We were then accosted by the customs official, who required us to open the separated bag. It has obviously been opened by someone already, as a box of Jordan’s muesli bars had been torn open and some were missing; one of those remaining had apparently been half-eaten. But the item that caused the customs man to check us was some apples. He confiscated the apples. Presumably even a hungry Cuban would not stoop to Jordan’s muesli bars.
Eventually we got out of the airport, and there was a man holding a Jules Verne sign. He led us to the bus, where everyone else had been waiting for ages. A modern Volvo bus made in Brazil and delivered, we were told, just two weeks ago – our guide thought in exchange for nickel.
First impressions – protruding legs.
Through the dark we drove into Havana, past unkempt houses, some bars, and old American cars with legs sticking out from underneath, the owners of the legs trying to do some repairs. Everything a bit shelled-out looking.
A sandwich and to bed.
To our hotel, where we could get a sandwich, our guide informed us, since we had missed dinner. We were given an envelope with a key in and we went to our room, not putting our bags in the porter’s trolley as we only carry a little one each.
Downstairs in the bar there was indeed a sandwich waiting for us, on very good bread, and we sat eating it with a beer, $2 a can, noticing that, it being such mild and pleasant weather, the bar was in the well of the building, open to the sky.
Here we are in Cuba. What do we think so far? One of the airline stewards had been chewing gum while he served; our guide had a cartoon Mexican accent and seemed to be working hard for a good tip at the end.
There are two currencies in Cuba, we were told, the peso and the dollar. There was no suggestion we would need any pesos.
It was a warm night.
The story continues with Havana.


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