And I was finally in Havana. I’ve been waiting for this moment for about one year. And here I was. Slowly, I left the airplane and walked towards the main hall to get my backpack.The first thing which I felt was the burning and stuffing heat on my skin. Immediately, I started to feel hot but not only because of the sun. I was excited. And scared. Somehow, those immigration checks always scare me a bit. Not that I am hiding anything. But still, it just makes me feel uncomfortable.
We entered the immigration hall and it was an insane scenario. Huge lines with people waiting. And the lines just did not move. For the very first time, I started to make a picture of Cuba. The first thing I noticed was that there were different lines- some for the ”normal” people, and then some for ”officials”. And I recognized quite some old men in military uniforms who just went to the extra line which, of course, was less crowded.
Were those men old, government employees? Maybe. One of them, a super old guy, with a green military uniform, a military hat and some honourings on his uniform who was sitting in a wheelchair got extra priority, of course.
Well, after more than 45 minute waiting time, it was finally my turn to present my visa and my passport at the airport staff. The lady looked as if she was having the worst day off her life. No smile, no nice word. Nothing. She spoke to me in a very broken English, whereas I just kept talking back to her in Spanish- I don’t like to be seen as the cliche tourist that doesn’t even make an effort to speak the language.
She asked me if this was my first trip to Cuba. And where I was staying. Then she looked at me with her angry face for a while, but finally she let me pass.
After the whole procedure, I was just exhausted. The stuffy, hot air in the immigration hall, the nervous atmosphere, loud people and the consequences of the long flight did not really help. I continued walking towards the exit, and at the baggage counter I could then see the actual building of the airport Jose Marti. The entire architecture of the airport is like from the 70’s, retro-style. There are screens for instance, but still I am automatically comparing it to Amsterdam Schiphol or Paris Charles de Gaulle.
And the airport is really small. Even Stuttgart is bigger. I am quite surprised about that. But I keep going, as all I want to do is finally get to my casa particular. I leave the main exit, and here I go. Welcome to Cuba!
I don’t even have the chance to look at the palm trees or the blue sky, because all I can see are masses of men standing in front of me and holding paper signs with names on them or signs with ”Taxi Company”, signs with pictures of apartments, etc. And all I can hear is ”TAXI!TAXI!TAXI!”. I am completely overwhelmed.
Since my friends were so scared and begging me to at least arrange an accomodation for the first night, I booked a room with a taxi pick-up service via the webpage casaparticularcuba.org (This page is also recommendet by Lonely Planet, and I made a really good experience with it as well). So, I blinked a couple of times with my eyes (I couldn’t take the bright sun), and I finally spotted a man with a paper sign in his hands which said ”Cindy Wilhelm”. This was Angel, my taxi driver.
After I changed some money, we started our walk to the taxi. He was very friendly and I did not have a problem to understand his Spanish. I don’t recall where I got the energy in that moment, but my Spanish worked absolutely fine! So, we had a great conversation which somehow turned out to be my first ”interview”:
After some normal points of conversation (Where are you from? Oh, you are travelling alone?Etc.), Angel naturally switched into a conversation about politics!
Me: ”So, how is it like to live in Havana?”
Angel: ”I do not like this country at all! If I could, I would immediately leave!”
Me: ”But don’t you think that Cuba is changing? Are the reforms improving the situation?”
Angel: ”Listen.They say that we are now allowed to travel. We are also allowed to buy houses and cars and we can open restaurants. But the salaries are that low that it is simply not possible. Do you see? All of this is just an illusion!”
Wow. I couldn’t believe it. That was easy! I thought it would be very hard to make Cubans speak critically about the political situation. But it wasn’t hard at all!
While we were driving on the highway towards Cuba, I looked around and tried to breathe in the wind and to catch some impressions. We were driving on the highway, but still people were walking there and you had bikes and many more things that do not usually belong on a highway.
And there I saw them: The beautiful old American cars. I felt like I was in the 50s. Angel did not give me much time to keep staring out of the window, we continued our conversation.
Me: ”Well, if the salaries are that low, how are the prices then? For food, apartments, etc.?
Angel:”Incredibly high! With our salaries it is hard to even survive. Several families and generations have to live together in order to make it.”
Me: ”Well, but there are also things which are good in your country, right? Education and health care is free for example.”
Angel: ”Again, it’s the same. An illusion. You can study for free, but those guys (points with his finger to the ceiling), the government decides what is good and what is bad. So, you cannot study what you want. I have two children. I want that they themselves can decide what they want to study and not the government! Look. With me it is the same. This taxi here is not even mine! It belongs to the government.”
After a moment he adds: ”And with the health care system it is the same. The government is not going to let you die, but it is still very bad.”
I had no idea that it would be that simple. I was amazed. Apparently, those Cubans seem to wait for the moment to share their anger and disappointment. After about 20 minutes, we seemed to be in a city. I assumed that we were in the suburbs of Havana still a bit away from our final destination. The houses were in a very, very poor state.
I cannot even properly describe it, you just have to see it for yourselves.
I saw an old church, and I asked Angel if people were religious in Cuba. He said, that some are Catholic but that many people don’t really go to church. Then, he mentioned that there are many people here who believe in sort of ”dark African religion”. And he started to talk in a very judging way about it. Angel does not like those kind of people, he says that it is scary and ”disgusting”. This should not be the last time that I would hear Cubans complain about ”those strange Africans with their weird religion”. Interesting.
I still believed that we were in the suburbs of Havana when I finally asked Angel what the name of this ”barrio” was. And he said ”Centro Habana, estamos muy cerca!” Oh wow, so we were in the centre of Havana, really close to my casa. And…it looked like…. THIS. Some houses were completely destroyed, others had collapsed roofs. The colour of the houses was gone, there were many dogs walking on the streets,and it was just very,very old. Pedestrians walked on the streets, even on big ones where cars were driving. And once I managed to get a closer look at those old cars I noticed that most of them were also in a pretty bad state. The stuffy, hot air was not the only thing which made it hard to breath. Those pretty old cars also contributed to an insane amount of pollution in the air.
The view from my room
And we arrived at the street where my casa was supposedly located. I paid Angel his money (of course with a small tip), I paid $20CUC for the pick up service which was a decent price for a 40 minute drive. And poor Angel had to wait for me at the airport.
And so, I arrived at my Casa (Casa Isabelita Balcones,Consulado #152, entre Colon y Trocadero, Centro Habana). I rang the bell, and a key on a rope was thrown out of the window. I had to giggle, then I grabbed the key and opened the door. My casa was on the second floor, and Isabel already waited for me at the door.
She was a small, elderly lady with hair curlers in her hair. Although the house from the outside just looked as scary as all the other houses, the apartment itself was beautiful. Of course, it was pretty grandma-like with a decoration style from the 1950s. But still, I found it really charming.
She led me into my room, and I was amazed. I had my own double bed, with a TV and my own bathroom. Everything was clean and it looked nice. Isabel gave me the keys and asked me what time I wanted to have breakfast. We chatted a bit, but I figured that she was not a very talkative person. It was about 5 pm now, Cuban time. So, 11pm Central European time. I did not feel like sleeping yet, though. So, I grabbed my Lonely Planet, got ready and went on the streets in order to really ”feel” Havana.
On the map, I noticed that I was actually pretty much in the centre. Very close to the Capitolio on one side, and a couple of minutes walking distance to the Malecon- the promenade next to the sea. I was surprised that it was already actually getting dark. So, I started walking. It wasn’t that hot anymore, so it was comfortable. But then, I was shocked. Every single man I crossed on my way to the Malecon tried to hit on me. Either, by making a strange ”TSSSSSSSSS TSSSSSSSS”-sound, or by sending kisses and making kiss-noises or simply by calling me things like ”Linda!” ”Beautiful!”. I have never experienced something like this in my life and I have to say that in this moment, I was just very scared.
I felt like I was in a very dangerous neighbourhood because of the poor-looking houses and because of those strange men. Plus, it was already getting dark. But I kept going, and I reached the Malecon. This was absolutely beautiful of course, and I sat down and started to write in my diary. Regardless of the sound of the waves which hit the rocks, which usually calms me down, I could not relax. Constantly, I had to turn around and see if I was ok and if nobody was following me or staring at me. But at the Malecon, there were mostly couples enjoying the romantic atmosphere.
Additional to my already clashing emotions which I was experiencing in this moment, I started to feel lonely and I especially missed my boyfriend and my friends. Therefore, I decided to try to send a text message to him and I crossed my fingers that he would receive it.
So here I was. Sitting at the beautiful Malecon in the centre of Havana. My dream finally came true. But I was not happy at all. This different city just hit me very hard in my very first day on Cuban soil. In this moment, I just went through the options in my head. I decided, that in case if my whole travel adventure is not going to work out, that I would change my flight and come back earlier. But I was also thinking, that this was probably just my first impression and that it would start to get better once I am getting used to the different lifestyle here.
And with those mixed feelings, I was breathing heavily in the salty air and I watched the waves clash against the rocks and the water wildly jumping off.
I was hoping for the best.