Life Through a Havana Lens
For the first time since 1963, Cuba has allowed commercial flights from the US across its borders. One of my friends, Andre Martins, was on the second American Airlines flight out, and this is his story, as told to me.
To get to Cuba, I had to first fly to Miami and then board a connecting flight to Cienfuegos. The experience was nerve-wracking from the start. I was very nervous; my heart was beating fast. I was worried-would I be able to get out of Miami, and would I be able to get back from Cuba? I met a gay couple from Miami who were returning to Cuba for the first time since getting married. I asked them a lot of questions. I was sure I annoyed them, but I needed to know logistics. I also met a woman who was returning home for the first time in many years; she was very emotional.
For a moment, once we started the boarding process, I wasn’t sure I’d make the trip. My boarding pass wouldn’t scan, and then the airport staff didn’t know which documents to give us since Cuba requires a visa for travel that the U.S. doesn’t allow.
The flight was only 45 minutes. There was no beverage and snack service. But there were customs forms to fill out which, among many other things, illuminated the fact that it was illegal to bring porn into the country. As we landed, the passengers were clapping, hugging, and overcome with emotion. For many of them, it was their first time back in Cuba after decades away. We waited for 15 minutes to exit the plane. About 20 or so people had come to greet us. I was the first person off the plane.
"As we landed, the passengers were clapping, hugging, and overcome with emotion. For many of them, it was their first time back in Cuba after decades away."
The Cuban airport had some of the best security I’ve seen in any airport. The staff was extremely thorough. I was escorted to customs upon exiting. I had 5 bags with me: one bag of personal items and four bags of items to donate including four bags of condoms, clothes, kids’ toothbrushes, toothpastes, and crayons. I’d brought along items I’d read were in short supply. I had plans to donate the children’s items to a local orphanage.
I declared all of my items and it was a nightmare. The entire process took almost four hours! The customs officer had to open an account for each individual item, counting each box and package’s contents one by one. It was very excruciating. As the process was rolling along, I got frustrated, but tried to maintain my calm. I didn’t want to do something wrong and get thrown in jail or be sent back.
"As I stood there, trying my best to patiently endure the customs check, I noticed a man pacing back and forth outside of the customs office. Little did I know how important he would be."
The other people on the flight were leaving, which was a little disheartening. We’d landed in the middle of nowhere at an airport that literally looked like a house. We were very far outside of Cienfuegos and 3.5 hours from Havana. As I stood there, trying my best to patiently endure the customs check, I noticed a man pacing back and forth outside of the customs office. Little did I know how important he would be.
A Historic Trip On A Whim
One Sunday afternoon, my husband Craig and I were relaxing and reading the newspaper. I had two round trip tickets at my disposal, and I hadn’t booked a trip. I read that American Airlines was starting flights to Cuba. My interest was piqued; I started researching how to get there. There wasn’t a lot of information available on how to travel to Cuba or what to do once you get there. I saw that you could visit the country as long as you met at least one point on a list of criteria. Among the reasons were journalistic activity, professional research, and humanitarian projects. I applied using reason eight-support for the Cuban people. I didn’t think I’d be approved but surprisingly I received an official notification that I could make the trip. I was excited to make this journey that so many people couldn’t make before. And as an added bonus, I’d be able to help the Cuban people.
The Man Outside the Customs Office
Originally, the customs guards wanted to confiscate all of my products. I found out that it was against the law to make personal donations to the Cuban people. I had to go through an official organization. Fortunately, we were able to amend the customs declaration but they still kept one of my bags. The officers gave me a form that the orphanage could use to return to the airport and pick up the products.
Finally, they let me through into Cuba officially. By this time, only two of the hundred customs officials were still working. There was just one traveler besides me-a woman with a lot of electronics who was going through the same lengthy process. When I left the airport, I was in shock. Here I was in Cuba with not a cab or bus in sight. The airport was closed. And to make matters worse, I only had American dollars. What was I going to do? I just stopped for five minutes and stared at the sky.
"When I left the airport, I was in shock. Here I was in Cuba with not a cab or bus in sight. The airport was closed. And to make matters worse, I only had American dollars. What was I going to do?"
I started walking and found a bar nearby. Inside, there were eight men and one woman. When I entered, everyone was staring at me except one guy who was holding a key. I explained my situation to him and told him I needed to get to Havana. He said he too was going to Havana. His brother would be making the trip with him. When his brother walked over, I recognized him as the man pacing outside of the customs office. His wife was still at the airport. His name was Oscar, and he repaired cell phones and technology for a living. His wife had brought spare parts for him to aid his business. I realized his wife was the sole woman left at the customs office.
Once his wife arrived at the bar, I went against everything I’ve ever been taught and everything I’ve taught my children. I jumped in a car with three strangers and made the trek to Havana.
It turns out it was a great decision. They took great care of me. An hour into the trip, they wanted to stop for lunch. Since I only had American dollars, they bought my food and shared Cuban cigars with me. They dropped me off at the hotel, and even came back that night to take me out to restaurants and bars. They came back each day.
"I went against everything I’ve ever been taught and everything I’ve taught my children. I jumped in a car with three strangers and made the trek to Havana."
We got close enough that they started making fun of me, mainly about my issue with Customs. They assumed Customs tried to confiscate my products because they thought I would sell them. Also, the day I arrived, I was wearing a blue jumpsuit. It turns out Oscar’s brother had spoken to me because he thought I was a construction worker from the airport.
Despite the rocky start to the trip, Oscar and his family’s hospitality was more indicative of how the rest of my week would go.
The People of Havana
The day I arrived, I introduced myself to the hotel staff and security. I wasn’t sure if it’d be dangerous around the city or not. A guy outside of the hotel pretended to be the head of security and show me around. When I’d met him earlier, his name was Marcello. But when he met me again later, his name was Romero. It turns out he just wanted some free drinks. I paid for two and then called his bluff. Even though he tried to scam me for free drinks, he was still friendly and helpful.
During a delicious dinner at La Vitrola, my waiter Rafael was awesome. Like everyone I’d encountered there, he was extremely friendly. Madonna had dined at the restaurant a couple weeks before, and he showed me his personal videos from her visit. He even shared his story with me. He was a marketing executive, but due to the government’s role in placing people in jobs, he ended up at La Vitrola. I also met a cab driver who had an engineering degree.
Overall, the people were all happy and nice. Though Cuba has economic issues, the people were always well put together. They strived to make the best of what they had. Experiencing this made me even happier to give back.
When I decided to locate the orphanage, I needed the help of the locals once again. I went to the address I’d found online for Hogar de niños sin amparo filial on my own, but when I arrived, it wasn’t there. Back at the hotel, I ran into a maid I’d met earlier in the day. I’d given her some clothes for her daughter. I told her about the orphanage, and she offered to take me there after work since she lived nearby. Once I got there, I discovered it wasn’t the version of an orphanage that I had in mind, but I’d found it nonetheless.
I gave the orphanage several of the products as well as the paperwork from customs. The home’s representative told me she wouldn’t have enough money to travel to the Cienfuegos airport to pick up the confiscated bag. So I left money as well.
"Bartering was a legitimate way to stretch my money during the trip. I took watches, earbuds, and other valuables I no longer needed."
On average, the Cuban people make anywhere from $10-$35 each month. People were very appreciative of gifts. Bartering was a legitimate way to stretch my money during the trip. I took watches, earbuds, and other valuables I no longer needed. They led to some memorable experiences including a ride in a 1949 Mercury.
I also kept a bag of toothbrushes and toothpaste to hand out to children as I traveled the city. For the kids, receiving something that would seem so trivial in America, was like Christmas.
Aside from bartering and low pay, some local people received money from their families abroad. Others turned to prostitution, of which males made up the larger portion of the workforce.
Fidel Castro’s daughter, Mariela, founded the Nacional de Educacion Sexual-LGBT CENESEX-Centro to improve the country’s education about LGBT issues. I spent an hour there talking to the foundation’s representative, Xavier. As I walked through Havana, it was common to see younger gay men and women holding hands and expressing PDA. Though it never would have happened in Cuba years ago, it was a sign that the country has come a long way.
Quick Cuba Travel Tips
For those interested in traveling to Cuba, there’s a few basic things you should know before making the trip:
-For the guys, be careful about where you take off your shirt. I took mine off while walking along the port and had to talk my way out of a 100-peso fine. Even shirtless men are considered inappropriate. You can only show skin in your home or if your home is located on the beach. The closest beach to Havana is 45 minutes away.
-If you know how to respect the local culture, you won’t feel restricted.
-Take things with you that are no longer of value to you. It could be anything from a nice pen to a coloring book. It’s currency for you. I don’t wear watches often, but every day, I wore one that I wouldn’t mind departing with. Negotiating was everything. You’ll face an upcharge simply for being an American. Befriend locals that can buy things for you.
-Some hotels don’t have Wi-Fi. But don’t even think about using your data. 1 GB could cost you well over $2,000. Internet outside of hotels is very rare. You’ll be disconnected from the world all day until you get back to your room.
-Every place is cash only. American credit cards don’t work there. Save your money, budget, and plan to barter to make it stretch.
A Noble Way of Life
One of my biggest learnings from this trip was to be more patient, and work with the things I have. For many Cuban people, they’ve grown crafty in accepting the hand they’re dealt. They’ve taken cars from the 1930s and 1950s and, since they can’t take them to a mechanic, have found the spare parts to fix them themselves. Their way of life is helping each other get around. It was so noble for these people to take around a total stranger. But for them, it was just a way of life.
On the way home, the flight was the easiest thing; the complete opposite of my trip over. Overall, the experience left a huge mark on me. I remember studying Cuba as a child. It was every emotional to visit and even to see the American flag flying at the American consulate there. I definitely want to go back.