My first glimpse of Cuba was from the plane. I was flying into Havana from Panama City and was breathless with excitement when the legendary island appeared in a had been a stunning vista. It floated on a sapphire blue ocean rimmed by turquoise water and white reef and collectively, the sight was mind-blowing. The crashing waves near the Panama City airport, from where I boarded the flight for Havana had already put me in a Caribbean vibe and I was raring to beach out. The tarmac mango trees and the airline engineers in singlets resounded reggae beats in my head and I dreamed of handsome Bob Marley’s likes. Excitement made me super restless and by the time the Copa Airlines flight dipped low over the quilted Cuban land, my mind was already racing through what I wanted to do in Havana.
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Tedious immigration hassles welcomed me to Havana
Nothing kills travel buzz or wild thoughts faster than tedious immigration and customs nightmares and Jose Marti International Airport was famous for both. In 2014, the year of my visit, solo travelers, irrespective of nationality were still of deep concern to the Cuban immigration authorities and they did not quite know how to deal with them. Thus, it was at the absolutely vintage and sweaty arrival hall in Havana, that I received my first cultural shock and Cuba indeed welcomed me in the most socialist time warped way. I too was foolish and unprepared enough to declare my profession as a writer which set off the immigration officers in a tizzy. Cuba and writers/other similar professionals (except for Hemmingway) do not share friendly vibes and by declaring to be one I made the passport control process hours long and intimidating for myself.
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The three-hour questioning drama ended as abruptly as it started with a harsh reality check
But it was not only me and the Jose Marti Internation Airport arrival hall in Havana was filled with long queues of solo travelers who were shepherded together for endless questioning. The whole process straight out of a very bad vintage movie and I was too far from home to even feel homesick. We were interrogated for three hours at a stretch by endless poker-faced Cuban officers, who wrote down our replies on different sheets of papers and one even laughed outright at my profession as a lifestyle columnist for an online publication. Writing to an email (his words) meant that I was either lying through my teeth or high on some kind of delusional drug and Cuba frowned on both. It was finally my demand for being given access to my online magazine which made them let me go free. As harassing as the process had been, it’s abrupt ending was more puzzling, until the hard-hitting Cuban fact knocked the wind out of me.
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In 2014, Cuba still had dial-up internet connection accessible only to foreigners
Cuba had very limited internet access in 2014 and Cubans were not permitted to use it without the government permit. For a local, using the internet was a punishable offense and foreigners had to produce their passports to be able to have access to it. After that realization, there was no stopping me and I nearly danced all the way outside to a hot Havana sun. Visiting Cuba was one of my biggest travel dreams come true and it felt absolutely unreal to be actually standing in the world’s most time-warped country. Havana sun was dazzlingly bright and the humidity hung like wet curtains. In seconds my shirt stuck to my back, but it had the sweet feeling of “18 once again” summer sweat. As silly as it sounds, my 1st Havana moment made me feel awfully young, reckless and proud to have traveled to Cuba as a solo woman traveler, all the way from New Delhi in India.
Havana was worth all those long ankle-swelling wallets burning flights
The necessary flights to make this dream come true were long, ankle swelling cross-Atlantic ones and I opted for cheaper hopping modes over the expensive nonstop ones. The result were long flying hours, circuitous flight paths, loitering around at airports with unfamiliar names and being hung in space for days. However, they all seemed worth it and the first sight of Havana made my heart sing with joy. A completely different era existed outside the airport and postcard pretty, quintessential Havana icons met my eyes. Rows of grand old beauties gleamed dully in the sticky sunshine and their retro fittings were straight out of Archie Andrew/vintage Hollywood classics.
Vintage cars and lots of them were my first sight in Havana
Patched up old Soviet trucks rumbled outside on the encircling highway and the whole aura was enough to again set my pulse racing. Taxi drivers approached me, just like anywhere else in the world and I happily jumped into a robin blue vintage Beetle. The sturdy little car despite its age rolled down the smooth roads and Havana suburbs passed by like an album of vintage photos. Really outdated cars zipped all around me and I nearly sprained my neck, trying to keep up with them. Elderly couples on rocking chairs sat motionless on open porches and gargantuan ladies in fancy headscarves fanned themselves furiously. It was all too fantastic to absorb right at that moment and the exhaustion of the jet lag made my mind reel. I was nearly dropping off to a deep sleep in the taxi when finally it stopped in front of an old casa.
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The Caribbean Sea, mango juice, and Havana, were my first Cuban experience
I had pre-booked a sort of homestay through the online Cuba Junky website and from outside, it looked as lovely as in the advertised pictures. The casa was located in the quiet residential area of Miramar and a lovely slice of the sea rolled in front of my balcony. My hostess Mercedez was a warm Cuban lady of advanced years and she welcomed me with a tall sweating glass of thick mango juice. Bone tired and mind-numbed, I sat on the balcony with my beverage and watched the Cuban life winding down for the day. It was my first Havana evening and all I wanted was to savour the incredible moment without any rush. My first Caribbean sunset was not been as glorious as I wanted it to be and the dusk fell fast into the Havana sky. A handful of stars popped out on a dark, clear night and little apartments all around me came alive with the Cubans doing their evening chores. It was a comfortably familiar environment and apart from shrill cries of “Hola”, the entire scene seemed like a suburb in Mumbai.
Cuba forces you to slow down, there is no other option
Mosquitoes too arrived like old foes and forced me into the house, where after a plain dinner of rice, chicken, and potatoes, I watched ancient Russian programs on a box like retro TV. Ballet dancers, Russian circus clips, and quaint Soviet sitcoms entertained me with the only other option being Cuban government controlled agricultural videos. With no publication, apart from a Cuban government-controlled newspaper in Spanish and seriously outdated two TV channels, Mercedez and I celebrated my first Havana night with hefty shots of Cuban rum. It was the first of many on the time-warped island of Cuba and it suddenly dawned upon me that perhaps, it was the boredom which made the Cubans excel in music, dance, and sports. With so much time and so fewer distractions, the Cubans danced, sang, flirted, and play and for the rest of my Cuban days, I did exactly the same.
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