I couldn’t believe that it was finally time for me to head home. My week in Cuba was quite literally life-changing. For my first completely solo vacation, it was absolutely amazing. I woke up early, not wanting to risk missing my flight.
See, I had done research. The Internet and countless travel guides told me, “Arrive at the airport at least 3 hours early, as the Havana Airport can be unpredictable.” My flight wasn’t until 11:45, and the airport was only about 35-40 minutes away from my Airbnb. But, being extra cautious, I had my taxi come a bit before 7a.m. Just to be safe.
By 7:30, I was already in line at the airport. I had checked in and gotten my tickets, and was waiting to clear customs. It seemed I had drastically overestimated how much time getting to the gate was going to take. Or had I?
The line wasn’t bad. I waited for about a half an hour, and then I was finally 4 people from the front of the line. This is when it all went horribly wrong. We stood still, not moving, for a long time. Finally, people began to get antsy. Of course, 97% of the people around me only spoke Spanish, so I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening.
People were getting nervous about missing their flights. It was only 9a.m., so I wasn’t panicked yet. However, people began to press and shove forwards. Fortunately, I was up front so I could see what was happening. I was juggling my large shoulder bag and my suitcase, while wearing a jean jacket (because the plane would inevitably be freezing), and people began to surround me on all sides. I started to sweat. It was getting unbearably hot.
With hordes of people surrounding me, and confusion running rampant, I was starting to get nervous. There was no ETECSA, no wi-fi, no cell service. I was completely alone to deal with this situation. We finally were made aware of what was happening. EVERY. SINGLE. COMPUTER. Had shut down. Nothing was working. No one could clear customs. God, what a nightmare. I swear I have PTSD.
Their first plan was insane. People who had imminent flights (as in, departing in less than 30 minutes), were told to pass their PASSPORTS forward through the crowds to officials. They would call out a flight number, and you were to relinquish your passport to strangers while it was passed forward to officials, who would then manually check your information. Your passports were then supposedly returned by officials pacing the length of the crowd yelling, “John Smith?! John Smith?! Passport for John Smith?!” It was insanity. I knew then and there that my passport was not leaving my hands. I can’t believe how many people willingly gave theirs up.
When it became clear that that wasn’t working all too well, they started trying to force people to clump up by flights. I heard the yells for “American!” and hustled over to the far corner, where I was squashed even more by angry crowds. A woman asked me if I was also taking Flight XXX (in Spanish), and I replied to her in broken Spanglish. My mind was in a frenzy, so I told her to give me a second to compose the answer in Spanish. She laughed. She spoke perfect English!
It turned out that she and her husband were not only getting on the same flight to Miami as I was, but they were also later taking the same connection on to Chicago! In the chaos, I decided to stick with them. It was inching closer and closer to time for our flight to depart. Finally, we started being allowed through the gates slowly.
Throughout this whole ordeal, tons of people had been putting their phones up above the crowd, as though at a concert. Videoing the chaos. Naturally, as I run a blog, I decided to do the same! This way, I could show people what the airport might be like, and why you need to arrive early.
I was finally allowed through customs, and entered the area to go through security. I snapped one last video of the masses pushing up against customs, and headed to put my stuff onto the belt. The next thing I know, a man is approaching me, yelling in Spanish. My Spanish is bad? His English was far worse.
Apparently, it’s incredibly frowned upon to take pictures and videos of their airport. Like, DON’T DO THIS. He and a few other officials snatched my passport. Then they demanded to see my phone. I was confused. I didn’t know what was happening. I finally realized they were angry about the videos. I showed them my phone, and they kept saying, “basura, basura.” I know enough Spanish to realize he wanted them thrown out.
I apologized and erased the videos, my hands shaking and my heart racing. They were threatening to not let me board my flight. They were holding onto my passport. I was already dangerously close to missing my flight. God, how had this day gone so wrong? I honestly thought they might try to detain me. I was terrified!
Once I erased the videos and showed him that they were gone, he handed my passport back reluctantly and waved me through. I sighed in relief, and sprinted through security to my gate. Where I realized– my flight (which was supposed to depart in 10 minutes), had been pushed back 20 minutes.
I went up to the gate agent, and she wrote down my name, to track that I had made it through security. We were finally allowed onto the plane, but we had to wait another 40 minutes (causing a total of an hour delay), for other passengers to clear security. What happened to “the train waits for no one?” Apparently, that’s not a thing in Cuba. I swear we waited for every single passenger.
We finally were airborne. I was worried I would miss my connection! The minute we touched down in Miami, I was running. I sprinted through customs (thank God for Global Entry), and rushed into the airport. At customs, I was shocked. The guy didn’t bat an eye at me obviously returning from a Cuban vacation, something Americans aren’t technically supposed to be doing. It made it easy!
Once through customs, I had to go back through Miami Airport security to get into the terminal. With minutes to spare, I sprinted up to the Admirals Lounge, the exclusive lounge for American Airlines frequent flyers and cardholders. I quickly filled up my water and grabbed a few snacks for the road, then cruised down to my gate.
I had made it with 20 minutes to spare. Once on the flight to O’Hare, I finally let myself relax. My first solo vacation was over. I had done it! I hadn’t died. I spent a whole week alone, and learned and grew a lot. I made it. It was truly the best week.