We were high above the Caribbean, overlooking the passage from Grand Cayman to Havana, when the woman seated next to me asked, “Is this your first time going to Cuba?”
I glanced up from the Lonely Planet guidebook of Cuba that I was reading ferociously, trying to absorb as much information about immigrations and customs as possible. “Yes,” I admitted, slightly nervous about the arrival.
Lisa, as she would introduce herself, was visiting her homeland for the first time in two years. Born outside of Havana, she had emigrated to Miami (much like many other Cuban-born Americans), eventually to become a pediatrician. Lisa’s family sat besides her in our row – including her Mexican-born husband who sat reading a medical text – and two daughters, both of whom were enrolled in reputable east-coast universities, and had both attended Gulliver Prep, a highbrow private high school in Miami. Evidently, life in the United States had proven fortunate.
We chatted for the remainder of the short flight, discussing our planned travel itinerary, some of the restaurants she had been to in Havana, how the water in December was far too cold for her to swim in… At one point, Lisa mentioned with a smile how “everything is complicated in Cuba.” She could sense my angst about that part, and quickly reassured me that we’d be fine, “You’ll have a great time.”
As our flight descended over lush farmlands into Havana’s airport, my excitement reached a climax. Here we were, my sister and I, two Americans traveling on an American-Irish passport combo, touching down into a socialist nation that has somehow managed to survive the economic wrath of a fifty year, American-imposed embargo that has truly frozen a land in time.
While the trip was relatively brief – 5 nights total – it was a magical experience that included highlights such as a Cuban-style Christmas, countless sightings of 1950-era automobiles, a day-trip to a gorgeous beach, a steady intake of mojitos and ropa vieja, a much needed Spanish refresher, a chance encounter with a real North Korean, and above all, quality bonding time with my sister, Deirdre.
Upon landing, we were hastily directed from the plane into the terminal, and passed through immigrations without issue. Flashing an Irish passport, as opposed to a US one, certainly proved its value. The woman at immigrations hardly raised an eyebrow, and the only question she asked me was if I had recently been to an African nation (perhaps I was carrying Ebola?). We eventually collected our baggage, exchanged 100 Euros into local currency, emerging from the terminal, into a mob of Cubans shouting over one another amidst a hellish humidity.
Luckily, through a study-abroad contact Kristen, we had pre-arranged for a ride from my Cuban friend Jose’s brother and sister-in-law, Yaser and Raiza. To my amazement, we immediately spotted a cardboard sign with my name (CONNOR) masted above the yelling mass, which appeared to be held by Yaser. Flagging one another down across the crowd, we embraced, exulting in the joy of our near-perfect arrival at the planned time and location.
We hopped into their gorgeously weathered automobile, and made our way towards our destined casa particular in Havana’s historical neighborhood of Vedado. My eyes raced to take in the landscape. The first billboard you see outside of the airport is that of Fidel Castro proclaiming a revolutionary mantra, “La Revolución Seguirá Adelante.”
We drove past La Plaza de la Revolución, where massive renderings of revolutionaries Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos adorn government buildings, quickly arriving to our casa particular. Our hosts Sara and Mario (Jose and Yaser’s parents) arrived with the keys, and greeted us with mirth and a few cervezas to celebrate our arrival. While enjoying some cold cervezas, paired with crackers and butter, we went through the government-mandated rigamarole of check-in, then talked at length about our travel itinerary, our plans for our stay, and other trip-oriented topics.
Bidding farewell to Yaser and Raiza, Sara and Mario graciously volunteered to take us for a walk in the surrounding neighborhood of Vedado, down the main drag of El Paseo, past dilapidated mansions from the pre-Revolutionary era (one of which is occupied by the North Korean embassy), all the way to the waterfront, where we arrived to a supermercado, Las Galerias del Paseo.
Our primary objective for this shopping expedition was to buy bottled water, as Sara and Mario didn’t recommend drinking from the tap. Though our efforts to purchase other food items for our stay (some fruit, a small portion of cheese, or whole grain bread, perhaps), quickly became too complicated. Cheese was only sold in massive blocks, and there wasn’t any form of fresh fruit being sold in this supermercado. There was, however, an abundance of processed foods and alcohol available for purchase. Nonetheless, Sara raced around the supermarket, talking to employees behind closed doors, asking if they could slice us a smaller portion of cheese. These requests were met with a sense of bewilderment.
“No pasa nada,” I told Sara. “Lo compramos mañana.”
We emerged from the supermarket just after the sun had set, our stomachs growling for nourishment. Bidding thanks and farewell to Sara and Mario, Deirdre and I popped into a French-inspired Cuban restaurant, where we were served our first tasting of ropa vieja. Admittedly, it wasn’t all that tasty, but it’s tough to complain when the entire meal including a round of beers came to $10 USD.
Physically and mentally exhausted from our arrival, we elected to walk back to our casa particular, with our valuable liters of agua embotellada. By the time we had arrived home, it was past 10pm, which meant the running water was now turned off. Unable to brush our teeth, or wash up, we hit the lights and drifted off to sleep.
The extreme heat and humidity, paired with our drastic change in scenery and location, neither of us seemed to take note of the fact that it was Christmas Eve.