Cuba Day 1

I arrived at O’Hare International Airport by 10:50a.m., driven by my mom. I didn’t mind being so early to my 1:30p.m. flight because I was flying out of Terminal 3, American Airlines. Why is this a perk? As an authorized user on a AAdvantage credit card, I’m able to get into the Admirals Club, American’s lounge. They don’t have a lounge in the international terminal, so flying out of Terminal 3 is always my preference! It’s pretty amazing. I breezed through security and wandered up to sit and work.

I worked for about an hour, and then at noon I got up to get lunch. They provide complimentary food and drinks, so I indulged with pita chips and hummus, followed by chocolate chip cookies. After that, it was time to board my flight! I headed to Gate H17, where boarding took no time at all! I was super impressed.

I couldn’t believe my luck when I realized that no one was sitting in the middle seat of my row! This allowed me to stash my super over-sized personal item under the empty seat, giving me plenty of legroom. I appreciated that, a lot.

However, it took AGES to get off the ground due to the lovely de-icing process the Chicago winter requires. When we were finally in the air, I napped for the first 40 minutes, and then woke up and read several books on my Kindle.

Once we’d reached altitude, I tried to take a sip from my LifeStraw bottle which I had filled before takeoff. Bad call. The water bottle had pressurized as we ascended and when I opened the straw, water came gushing out like a geyser. I was extremely grateful that no one was next to me. It was a long, wet flight to Miami.

As we touched down in Miami, it started to downpour, delaying us even further. I began to panic, thinking I would miss my connection. I finally got off the plane at 6:20p.m., with gates slated to close for my flight to Havana at 6:44p.m.

My arrival gate was E30, and my departure was at E5. I assumed it would be easy. No such luck! E30 is in Miami’s satellite terminal. However, some luck was with me, as the minute I reached the shuttle, it was arriving. I scurried through the station at the main terminal to find that, for once in my life, I was lucky! E5 was the VERY FIRST gate. The line to board was massive, even at 6:35, ten minutes til doors closing.

I stood in line for a period, but then realized I needed to go to a separate counter to get my Visa! I hustled up to do that. I was really bummed when, instead of the $85 price advertised by American for Visas, I was charged $100! Granted, it’s only a $15 difference, but it was still more than I was expecting to pay. Irritating. However, the process was so easy. I simply handed over my passport and then the credit card, and I was ready to fly.

This was the point when I started to have a nervous breakdown. I was heading to a foreign country, where I did not speak the language, where I knew NO ONE, where they had no cell service, to spend one week alone. Who let me do this?! Why was I here? Panic was setting in and tears were welling in my eyes.

I couldn’t admit my weakness to my parents. They hadn’t wanted me to go in the first place! As I boarded, I texted my sister, “Freaking out a bit. Who the heck decided I could go to Cuba alone for a week?” Good sister that she is, she had no idea I was Cuba bound and offered no helpful advice. So much for her making me feel better.

I was trying not to let the tears fall. I could do this. No, I couldn’t. I texted my last resort. Polly. The older sister I never had. She immediately responded and reassured me that everything would be fine, which was exactly what I needed to hear. I let a few tears fall, but then sucked it up, deciding I would not let myself cry again until I arrived at my destination. And I didn’t.

Visa in hand, I jumped back over to the boarding line and boarded JUST before they ran out of overhead space (lucky me!). The flight was honestly, the worst flight of my life. I was miserable. My stomach was all wonky, and I don’t normally get motion sickness on flights! And the flight was SUPER turbulent. It was a nightmare. I downed some Advil and forced myself to eat some fruit leather, thinking it was maybe due to the fact that I hadn’t eaten much all day.

When I got off the plane I was feeling slightly better, but still not 100%. I was exhausted. And I still had to clear customs. I followed the signs and all the people into the absolute CHAOS that is the Havana Airport. When I say chaos, I mean CHAOS. It’s a nightmare. And I thought going into the country was bad? Wait until you hear about my departure.

Unlike organized customs at any other country, there are no roped off lanes. You just walk to wherever the heck you want and wait for an agent to call you. Then, you’re lucky if they speak a lick of English! Despite what I had read about them asking if you wanted your visa or your passport stamped, she didn’t ask me and simply stamped both.

Once through customs, you go BACK through security. Convoluted, right? You’re required to empty your pockets/take off your belts and jackets, but thankfully shoes can stay on. I passed through security where I was stopped by yet ANOTHER checkpoint.

Although, I believe this one is temporary. Upon receiving my visa in the US, I was given a form from the Cuban department of health to fill out, questioning what symptoms, if any, I had felt in the past 15 days. This was, I believe, due to the coronavirus. We had to stand in line AGAIN to hand over our health forms! Nothing complicated was required, at least from me. I simply handed her my form and kept moving. I did see some people get stopped though!

Finally I was into baggage claim. I’ve never been so glad that I did NOT check a bag… This looked like an absolute nightmare. Nothing in Cuba is automated, so bags are manually unloaded from the plane, which takes ages. I was so glad I didn’t check one! I followed the signs for “nothing to declare” and in front of the exit sign, a girl in a military uniform stopped me.

She asked something in rapid Spanish, and I did not catch it. I simply said, “I’m sorry, I…” and she cut me off with a laugh and waved me through. And I was in Cuba!

And here was where the madness truly began. Hundreds of people crammed into the smallest area, waving signs and ready to welcome family members. I saw a sign for “cadeca,” which I believed to be a place where I could exchange money. I brushed through several groups of people and asked the security guard if I could exchange my money. He shook his head and said to go outside and to the right. As I turned to go, I was stopped by a man wearing a yellow shirt  who was asking me questions in Spanish. I said that I spoke no spanish, and apologized. He asked in English if I needed a cab.

I replied, yes, but I first need to exchange my money. He took me outside to the left, to the exchange place, and told me he would be waiting down the street. Strange, but okay. Maybe this was how Cuba worked?

The nicest woman and her husband and child were in front of me in the slow moving line. I was approached by a man wearing a yellow “taxi” vest, who spoke little to no English. Upon realizing our conundrum, she stepped up and helped translate for me and him! With their help, I realized the man who had spoken to me earlier offering me a cab, was NOT an official taxi driver. They told me to make sure I got a cab from someone official, and that it would cost $30 to get from Havana Airport to Centro, where I was staying.

I finally exchanged my money and headed over to what I thought was a place where I could buy wi-fi cards. I had been told to buy them at the airport! However, the place was not what I thought. I went inside to ask. At this point, my yellow shirted taxi man approached and was like, “I thought you needed a cab and were going to come with me!” And I told him, “Sorry, I need to do some stuff first.” He followed me around as I queried different airport employees about ETECSA.

Finding out I could not get it at the airport, I was bummed. I decided to try to text my parents and let them know I was alive. I wanted to reach them and let them know I was okay!

However, my phone had no service. Defeated, I approached a lady in a yellow vest to ask for an official taxi. I told my yellow shirted follower that I was going to get a cab from her, and was stunned when he backed off with no argument. I was expecting him to be way pushier, and am so grateful that he was not.

While trying to get to the woman, another young man came up and was like, “Do you need a taxi? Can I help you? Are you meeting someone?” After many “No, thank yous!” I finally reached the taxi lady. I did not want to trust anyone who was not official.

I felt like such a jerk when I realized he was an official driver who was helping her out. She took my address and helped me into a cab with a great driver! We set off for Centro Havana. I don’t know why I had forgotten this wasn’t America so quickly…

I forgot that most people and places drive manual transmissions, something that makes me incredibly motion sickn due to the slightly more jarring motions than those of an automatic. Especially city driving. It was another miserable section of travel.

I inquired if there was a place to stop for ETECSA on the way to my apartment, but he told me that everything except ETECSA in hotel lobbies would be closed. When I followed up asking if there was a hotel on the way, he sadly told me no. I was resigned to the fact that my parents wouldn’t hear from me, and just hoped they’d believe I was OK.

While in the cab, I counted the money I had been given at the money exchange. I was HORRIFIED to find out that the exchange rate was even worse than I thought! I had been told 1CUC=.87USD. and was expecting a similar conversion. I took the stack of bills I was offered without counting them then and there, a rookie mistake.

I counted my bills in the cab and found that I had only been given 240CUC for the 300USD I had converted. I wanted to cry because I assumed the exchange rate was worse than I thought. I was going to have to forgo many meals. However, upon arriving in my Airbnb I would find that this was not, in fact, the case.

The exchange rate wasn’t bad, it was exactly what I thought it was. I was meant to receive 260CUC. The girl had miscounted. And this is how I lost $20 on my first day out.

Anyways, back to the cab ride. He brought me straight to my Airbnb, where I stood for several moments, trying to get in. I started to panic thinking no one was home and I had no way in and no way to contact anyone! However, after I rang the bell two times more, someone came to the door!
I was greeted by Rafael, a friend of my Airbnb host who was out of town (and had warned me of this beforehand). He carried my suitcase upstairs for me and showed me to my room. I then went out to chat with him and the other host, Claudia.

They had me sign in and took my info, and told me a bit about the area. When I asked about the internet and if ETECSA places would be open in the morning, Rafael was curious as to why. I explained that my parents would be freaking out because I did not contact them and tell them I was okay.

The next thing you know, he and Claudia are lending me their phones to communicate with my Mom. They even allowed me to call and speak with her instead of just sending a “Hey, it’s Maysie, I’m alive” text. And with that, a giant weight was lifted off of me. They knew I was safe.

It was time for bed. I had to be up early in the morning to find ETECSA! And so ended my first day of solo travel.