Leaving Mexico for Cuba – June 2009

– After 18 long days in Cuba, I’m finally back in a civilized country and can use the Internet to update my website and add photos. Overall, I have many thoughts and feelings about Cuba and will try to share those with stories that kept me sane and almost drove me insane!

LEAVING MEXICO

– I don’t know why this always happens, but leaving one country tends to be one of the more stressful things. I woke up in Playa de Carmen, Mexico with plenty of time to spare, but then had all these errands I had to do. Such as finding a book exchange that morning to exchange the last of my books. I was worried I would not be able to find books in Cuba and would have a lot of down time and would want to read. Lucky for me, the book exchange store was open and mission was accomplished. Next I was off to Starbucks as I had to get one more latte before I left as I thought it would be a long time before I saw this. Finally, I had two more postcards to send and I knew I had seen a post box somewhere so I was trying to find it again. Seems easy, but all these things ate up my time. I finally thought, I could get online quickly and make a few calls to try to book a hotel in Cuba. This ate all my time up as I tried and tried with finally got through to a Cuba hotel to make a reservation. I finally reached someone at the hotel and found out the price and had no idea if they were full or not. Oh well…at least I spoke to someone and knew there were open for business and I knew the price and I knew where I would go once I landed.

– At that moment, I looked at the time and realized the airport bus was leaving in 15 minutes and I was way later than I wanted to. Panicked…I ran back to the hostel, threw money onto the counter to pay for my night and ran with my bag down the street. It was about 10am at this point and already so hot, so by the time I reached the bus station, I was hot, sweating and so out of breath. The ticket woman must have thought I was crazy but I was able to get a ticket to the airport and had five minutes to spare. Lucky me. In that last five minutes, I was able to clean out my bank account and take all the remaining cash I had in Mexican Peso’s just in case I needed more. Whew…made it and was hoping the rest of my journey would be a little less stressful.

– At the airport, I was so excited to see a TGIF as I could order normal food and thought I better have a big meal as I heard Cuban food was pretty bad. So all was well until the bill came. I pulled out my trusty credit card and when the waitress swiped it, she loudly announced, “no dinero!” I was shocked as I hadn’t used the credit card much and knew I had plenty of credit. I figured my credit card people were blocking me due to travel or something. So I paid with another card and got on the phone to call. Ends up the credit card company was worried I had more fraud problems (as I got to talk to the fraud department once again). Since I changed my billing address to Canada a few weeks ago (so I could legally purchase my ticket on Air Canada out of Cuba) and was now using my credit card in Mexico, they thought there was a problem. I got it all squared away and was off to the gate.

GETTING TO CUBA

– After all these issues getting to the airport and departure gate, I just wanted to get on the plane and head off to Cuba. We had to board a little shuttle bus to get to the aircraft, and like always…the locals rush the doors and run to the airplane stairs to get on first. I didn’t want to stand out in the hot sun, so I sat on the bus longer (well until the driver walked through and made me get off). At this point, I met Julian and Gus. They are two American guys, from New York no less, that were off to Cuba for six days. Julian didn’t look normal to me and the best way I would describe it is he looked hungover. He also just wanted to sit on the bus with me longer and when we were both kicked off, he was trying to find somewhere to sit, and the guards kept making him stand out. Normally it wouldn’t be a long wait to get on the plane, but this should have been my first lesson in what is normal in Cuba. We stood outside the plane for about 15 minutes in over 100 degree heat. Why…I have no idea.

– After getting onto the sketchy Cubana airplane (no leg room at all and I mean my knees were jammed into the back of the seat and the lady in front of me kept turning behind to yell at me if I moved as it dug into her, but I couldn’t do anything there). As we were sitting on the plane, there was no air conditioning and it was so hot we were all sweating and fanning ourselves. I was not happy about this upcoming 90 minute flight. We started to taxi and Julian was a row in front of me. He didn’t seem well and during the safety announcement, he tried to go to the bathroom to be sick, but the doors were locked and the flight attendant finally gave him a bag.

– He continued to get worse and as after we taxied to the runway and were about to take off, they turned the plane around and made an announcement that we had to return to the gate to disembark a passenger. So they made Julian and Gus get off the plane as they were convinced they had swine flu. It was a mess and we waited for them to be taken away in an ambulance.

This was the Ambulance that came to take the guys off our plane (as they MAY have swine flu).  I knew they were just hungover!

This was the Ambulance that came to take the guys off our plane (as they MAY have swine flu). I knew they were just hungover!

– They really thought it was food poisoning as they ate some questionable food the night before, but the airline would not take them as Swine Flu was such a worry still. So finally two hours after our scheduled departure, we were in the air to Cuba.

– Once I landed in Cuba, I knew it would be an interesting immigration process. We landed at a scary looking airport hanger and I didn’t think it was the normal airport. I later found out I was right. It was a cargo airport that was being used temporarily for any Mexican flights as they wanted to separate any cases of swine. So I had to wait in line to meet health officials. There were about five doctors that were looking at all passengers and selecting some to go back behind a curtain to see another doctor. At this point, I still had a really bad cough and I didn’t want them to think I had swine so I was trying my best to hold in any cough and not look sick. It worked as I breezed through immigration and was on to the luggage area.

– This luggage area was a circus. There were so many people that were trying to get their 60 inch TV’s, huge electronics and countless bags. The items people checked were so big and heavy, it broke the luggage belt a couple of times. I couldn’t believe how much stuff people were bringing in to the country and then there was me…with my little bag (well little compared to all he stuff they were all bringing in).

– Since this wasn’t a normal airport, there were no currency exchanges or bank machines and I was worried…how would I get from the airport as I had no Cuban money (as you can’t get it before you land in Cuba). After asking around, I was told there was a man in the departure hall that could exchange money for me. Why would they have a man to exchange money in the departure hall and not the arrival hall makes no sense to me, but many things in Cuba make no sense (that will be a theme for my time in Cuba)

– So I was set with a little bit of cash (as the exchange rate was horrible and worse than normal bad airport exchanges). Its so bad as they know tourists are stuck and have to exchange something to get in a taxi out of there.

– Next headache was all the taxi drivers that were trying to get me to go with them, since I was one of the few tourists on the flight and didn’t have anyone meeting me at the airport. I knew the price should be 17-20 CUC’s and all the drivers were telling me 30, which made me laugh. They all finally settled on 25 and I still said no and walked away. I was worried I was getting blackballed as the last driver started to tell someone else in Spanish something about me. I finally got one of the first guys that approached me to take me to the city for 20 CUC ($25 US) and was off. I finally reached my hotel at 7:30pm and was exhausted.

– For what should have been a simple one hour ride to the airport, 90 minute flight and 20 minute taxi ride (3 hours in total), it was another long and stressful day getting to Cuba.

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