“Welcome to Cuba!”
With those warm words, my first Cuban contact, a thoroughly competent Havana Approach controller, vectored me for the ILS at Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport. He handed me off with, “Contact tower 118.1, have a good stay.”
Meanwhile, airliners were holding in the clag offshore as five American single-engine airplanes slid down the glide slope on that hard-IFR morning.
Havana Tower’s first words were, “Welcome to Havana. Cleared ILS Runway 6, maintain 2,000 til established.” So much welcome already. I was going to like this place.
I liked it even better when 13,000 feet of runway lights and actual ground appeared out of the gloom at 800 feet. We’d had a heck of an hour-long ride from Key West, with heavy precip and impressive turbulence the whole way.
Pilots ahead of me missed the approach in hard rain, and had to circle around for another try, while avoiding strictly-prohibited airspace just abeam the final approach course.
Havana Tower cheerfully said to the last of his gaggle of little visitors, “Cleared to land.” And then, in droll understatement, offered this: “Caution, runway is wet.”
We got another welcome from the ground controller. She gave directions to the GA parking area, marked by a huge and dilapidated Russian transport. All these communications were conducted in perfect, unaccented English just for me.
We had quite a reception committee, linemen well outnumbered by security people, all standing in the rain, waiting for us to collect our things, button up our airplanes, and be escorted, individually, to Terminal 5. Interesting.
A line of other watchers and minders made sure we didn’t take any wrong turns on our way along the puddled sidewalk to the leaky terminal.
We filled out more forms, and then were each interviewed by an unsmiling young man who took copious notes on scratch paper of our answers to his irrelevant questions.
We then waited in another line to change our Euros into Cuban Convertible Currency (the exchange rate makes it worth your while to use Euros rather than U.S. currency). After we paid the visa fees (CUC$15 each), we made our way through another security checkpoint, out of the initial holding area, through the customs line, and soon were out in the muggy rural countryside west of Havana.
“You are not in Kansas anymore,” warned Galin Hernandez, one of the trip’s organizers. Repeatedly.
This whole adventure was a result my having made some splendid new friends last year on a flight to Puerto Rico, along with my Internet flying buddy and copilot, Dan Figueroa. Caribbean natives and experts, Anthony Perea and Hernandez, had led five previous expeditions island hopping from south Florida, and the prospect of a warming official relationship to our nearby neighbor 90 miles south, led them to investigate the options for leading a trip to Havana.
“Count us in,” Dan and I chorused. My husband agreed to join us, as he noted, “This is probably an opportunity not to be missed.”
Negotiating those perilous bureaucratic straits took the pair months, a couple of exploratory flights, and an unbelievable amount of paperwork.
American customs law now permits expeditions to Cuba under 12 categories, and ours would be a People-to-People Cultural Exchange. To that end, we would spend our days in organized tours, officially and unofficially meeting Cubans, exploring Havana’s lovely old town, Hemingway’s Cuban home, enjoying Cuban cuisine — and liquid refreshment of a dizzying and complimentary variety and, at least in my case, chatting in very broken Spanglish with some of the world’s warmest people.
Five of us squeezed into a tiny black taxi, apparently a Russian knock-off of an elderly Fiat, which whisked us through very light traffic into downtown Havana. We rumbled past pastures, banana plantations, and seemingly defunct factories tagged with inspiring graffiti messages promoting the regime.
Nope. Definitely not Kansas, but fascinating. Oddest to me was the absolute absence of the strip malls and chain restaurants we see near every commercial airport in the United States. One little makeshift roadside taqueria, complete with hens scratching in the muddy parking area, seemed to be the only place to spend a peso along that half-hour drive.
Soon high-rise government office buildings and soaring sculptures commemorating heroes of the revolution rose into view. Che’s stylized iron likeness adorned many stories of one gleaming government building, and another revolutionary hero, Camilo Cienfuegos, loomed from another building.
We’d heard a lot about the old American cars, and there they were: A purple and white Pontiac from my earliest childhood memories, several bright turquoise sedans, and a pink high-finned Plymouth that might have been as recent as 1959.
The American automotive classics from the 1940s and 1950s were very much in gleaming evidence, about a quarter of all the cars, mostly cabs, at my guess. There were scattered late-model Japanese cars, but most of the rest of them were rickety black Russian-built econoboxes, exactly like the one we were riding in. Cozy, noisy, and no seatbelts.
As we neared central Havana, the percentage of classic American cars increased, and the tropical air brought back olfactory memories from my Gulf Coast childhood, the good old days before emissions control and no-smoking areas. A refinery on the edge of town belched black smoke into the air.
A surprising number of taxi drivers spoke a bit of English and were happy to tell us about their cars, their families, Cuban economics, local landmarks and history. We would soon learn that taxi-driving beats practicing medicine in Havana by a good margin, as one of the drivers gave up endocrinology’s privations in favor of driving an old American car. Tips supplement the $15 to $35 a month government salaries provide for such jobs, in addition to monthly allotments of staple groceries.
Multilingual young people find coveted post-university work as tour guides and hotel clerks, and make out better than most, interacting with foreigners.
We fetched up at a rather dilapidated but well-situated hotel, obviously undergoing renovation, only to find plumbing problems had canceled our reservations. Much rapid-fire Spanish, arm-waving, waiting, and phone-calling ensued, and we were eventually back in cabs headed for another unprepossessing hotel nowhere near the nightlife of Old Town.
Many more luxurious and more expensive lodging options are available, including AirBnB.com, but for our group, this European-style hotel filled the bill — safe, economical, with space for us all. To celebrate our arrival, the tiny bar provided a glass of Cuban hospitality, rum and Coke for all, as we swarmed the front desk.
We finally made it through the cumbersome check-in process, again much of it involving paper, pencil, and calculator, accepted the single key, dumped our belongings upstairs, and headed out to find another cab.
The rain had mostly quit, and by that time it was time to go meet with the chief of Cuba’s Civil Aviation planning office, a gracious man who seemed, on one hand, to sincerely welcome us and other American pilots who would surely follow, but on the other, not quite sure what to do with us once he had us. It seemed complicated on so many levels. (See accompanying story here.)
Our group split up, with several different errands to accomplish, and we spent the evening walking around the old town’s quiet cobblestone streets, along El Malecon, a seawall with a wide promenade stretching along five miles of Havana’s north coast. We admired ornate Spanish Colonial architecture, enjoyed street musicians, and watched those American land-yachts from the mid-20th century cruise by, trolling for tourists.
We enjoyed a charming meal at patio tables in a tiny alley just off the Plaza Cathedral, to wind up our first day in Cuba, at one of Havana’s paladares. These privately owned tiny restaurants have sprung up all over the island, we are told, often in people’s homes. This is the result of the Cuban government’s recently enacted economic reforms allowing private ownership of businesses. We would find during our stay, that what these home-grown chefs may lack in sophisticated, subtly-flavored sauces and luxurious prime cuts, they make up for in artistic presentation, and a thoroughly reasonable tab.
The next morning we assembled in the hotel lobby for a bus tour to Ernest Hemingway’s simply elegant pied-a-terre, in the lush hills overlooking Havana. During the tour our guide repeatedly and tactfully steered the conversation back to Hemingway, from attempts to understand Cuban politics and economics.
After we had imagined what it was like to be Ernest Hemingway during his Cuba years, we were offered midday refreshments, featuring fresh-squeezed sugar cane and, of course, rum. A craftsman sold carved wooden cars, local souvenirs, signs and paintings.
Down the tiny road, and even more appealing, a vendor artistically arranged vegetables and fruit in his push cart. Very likely they were from his own and his neighbors’ gardens.
In order to understand Hemingway’s fascination with the sea, we piled back in the bus to travel to his favorite fishing village down the hill a few miles. This, of course, meant a stop in a handsome bar overlooking the harbor. There were, of course, again, drinks for all. This time it was something alarmingly blue in stemware, possibly to match the paint seen all over old-town Havana on cars and buildings.
A trio of musicians showed up to sing traditional Cuban folk songs, and Galin, our ebullient group leader, helped himself to a spare guitar. Soon he and his wife, Millie, had joined in the familiar (to them) songs.
Lunch ensued in a paladar nearby, with yet more rum drinks on the house, as we dug into seafood caught not far away and not long ago. The tiny village overlooked a small Spanish fortress out in the water, and a number of locals had turned their front porches into tiny art galleries and souvenir shops. What we lacked in language skills to reach out to these nice people, we made up for in returned smiles and waves.
By now it was late afternoon, and some of our number headed upstairs for a nap. Others of us decided to find an exchange bureau to find some more CUCs (pronounced “kooks”), now that we had an idea how far our Euros would go.
Much walking ensued and my smartphone took pains to congratulate me on the distance I’d covered that day. My feet, wearing the only comfortable women’s shoes in that entire city, confirmed the distance.
Women, often in pairs, smartly made-up, wearing very snug and very short skirts, eye-popping costume jewelry, patterned hosiery, and blouses that barely buttoned, tottered along the cobblestone streets on excruciatingly high heels, loitered on corners for a smoke. Oh, yes. Private enterprise is evidently alive and well in old Havana!
There in the town squares, there were older women in bright ruffled traditional costumes, their heads wrapped in matching scarves. Some of them were flaunting those famous big Cuban stogies.
Some sold handmade rag dolls and flowers. One such senior lady, maybe my age, with huge earrings, glistening blue eyeshadow, and long, gaudy fingernails, smiled brightly and offered to read my fortune for me. I confessed to not speaking enough Spanish to understand, and she allowed as how she speak a little English just for me.
Tempting, but we had a nice, if halting, little conversation instead. She showed me the window of her apartment high over one of the alley paradares, and promised when, not if, we returned, she would read my Tarot cards. “It is very good,” she assured.
Oh, the sights, there in Havana’s main commercial district. Wrought iron balconies, and elaborate plasterwork adorned ancient stucco buildings, windows with beautiful shutters, fine gates inviting breezes into courtyards, centuries-old churches, were juxtaposed helter-skelter with soulless Soviet-era high-rise apartment blocks. Windows, both very old and not-so-old, typically had laundry fluttering in the breeze.
The apartments, often tiny, were privately owned, we were told, made affordable by sharing with extended family, and by eking out an existence on basic government rations (rice, eggs, flour, and beans), very low government wages, and what could be earned from tips and black-market transactions.
Out in the suburbs, our taxi drivers assured us that what appeared to be nicely-kept single-family homes, were, in fact, occupied by several families. Beggars were few, street musicians more common, and abject hopeless poverty not really much in evidence. I, obviously an American tourist, and therefore wealthy by definition, felt not the least unease walking alone at night.
I was almost lulled into the mirage that Cuba had become the easy Western paradise it had seemed so many decades ago, but we were reminded every so often, that, as Galin kept saying, “this is NOT Kansas.”
There were Cuban soldiers keeping desultory watch over many urban street corners. What or whom they were watching was unclear, but their presence was a sobering reminder.
Less sobering, but a reminder still, was the phalanx of empty flag poles standing between a public park where Fidel used to give his famed long speeches, and the American embassy. Seems the American ambassador had the bright idea of scrolling U.S. propaganda on a big lighted sign on the fifth story of the big modern waterfront building, ever so visible to Fidel’s followers.
The messages were not well received by the Cuban president, and those flag poles, allegedly commemorating Cuban martyrs, sprang up almost overnight. Whenever the ambassador had something to say, a hundred black flags were raised on those towering poles, and the American message was quite effectively blocked. Our guide and several taxistas chuckled at the clever maneuver.
I am told by Americans who traveled to Cuba in Canadian tours 10 or 15 years ago, that there is a startling sea-change, though, in today’s Cuban economic policy, and enforcement. Even in the 1990s, Cuban citizens not involved in the coveted tourist jobs were strictly forbidden to talk to Americans or other outsiders, and could get in serious trouble if they did.
There were two separate worlds, and tourists were not nearly as free to wander as they pleased. Hotels, restaurants, and stores were all government-owned, and workers were carefully screened and watched.
Nowadays, the cops and soldiers are still a little taciturn, but the ordinary Cuban seems very warm and outgoing. He wants to tell you about his uncle in Miami, his nephew who came to visit recently. The waitress dreams aloud of the day she will be permitted to vacation with her family just 100 miles north.
Imagine a city with more than 2 million people, with little traffic, no billboards, hardly any horns, no rushed and brusque crowds jostling to get where they needed to go. What traffic there was seemed to be nearly all cabs and buses.
Never during that long weekend did we see anything like a traffic jam, and privately owned cars were quite rare. It seemed a good thing, because I never saw a parking lot, except for cab stands, which were plentiful. Gas, we were told, was about $1.25 per liter.
In contrast to U.S. cities of similar size, there seemed to be few stores, relatively few pedestrians, and except for flower vendors and fruit carts, not much in the way of commerce. There were a few designer leather goods stores featuring bags from Europe, a few boutique clothing shops, a perfectly wonderful old bookstore, and one deserted-looking department store. A few souvenir and T-shirt shops shared the street with the exchange bureau, but nothing like the wall-to-wall emporia in other capital cities.
Island time is a reality here. This was a little frustrating while waiting in interminable queues for bureaucratic wheels to mesh, but truly refreshing in quiet restaurants where the staff had time to chat, where patrons were content to spend a pleasant evening watching the passing scene and drinking local beer.
Island time and island hospitality included offers of more rum and fruit juice than I’d consumed in the previous year or three. Island time offered smiles and waves, seemingly just because, not to beg for tips or hoping to inveigle some ill-advised purchase.
Our Sunday people-to-people cultural exchange tour featured an excellent and well-informed guided walk all over old Havana. The day also included a ride all over Havana in Easter-egg-colored American classic convertibles, which was a total hoot.
Along with historical notes, landmark identification, architectural explanations, and entertaining bits of trivia, our multilingual guide was persuaded to divulge some of his own personal stories, and a great deal of honest, pragmatic, yet uncritical, description of Cuba’s current situation, its policies, and hopes for the future, a future in which many thousands more visitors from all over the world will be welcomed, housed, fed, and entertained each day.
The infrastructure isn’t there yet, but signs are everywhere of the tourism-based economy to come. Many 19th century stucco Colonial facades are propped up with scaffolding as the old buildings behind them have been razed to make room for the luxurious and pricey multinational hotels to be built behind those old fronts. One suspects that they will part with Cuban tradition, and feature king-sized beds, central air-conditioning, and windows that don’t leak, but who knows?
The changes are coming, our guide assured us. Visitors to Havana still won’t wonder if they are still in Kansas, but the line might be a little smudged.
Monday, our departure day, dawned overcast, but at least not pouring rain. We once again headed in the ubiquitous Russian mini-junkers to the airport, in hopes of touring the air traffic control center. As we waited, our designated “handler” passed around folders of printed weather briefing information. How long has it been since you had in your hands copies of several different thermofaxed weather charts and pages of undecoded Metars?
“PICs only, load up, pay up, we’re going to see the control tower.” A cordial facility manager met us in the lobby of his approach control building, a few hundred meters from the tower, and explained why even a short peek upstairs wouldn’t be possible. It seemed they’d had a leak, and things were a little out of order.
But he chatted with us, told us a little of his facility, pointed to walls of photos, and proudly told how well his controllers functioned with those of his neighboring nations. We told him how impressed we had been at the calm professionalism and warm welcome we’d encountered on that previous miserable Friday.
Back in the van, back to the waiting area, more waiting, more lines, then PICs were summoned to pile in the van again to go pay fees in the main commercial terminal. That cost was very high, even by American big-city standards, but pretty much as predicted.
Things finally sorted themselves out, and back to Terminal 5 to gather our belongings, our passengers, and pass through departure control, more x-ray machines, more passport examinations, and then we were all escorted, PICs first, one at a time, out to the GA ramp.
Guards were everywhere. My personal guard, a petite young woman, glared at me when I smiled at her. She was all business. “Joo piloto? Jour airplane?”
I nodded assent. Her eyes widened, as so many others had. Imagine that: A grandma flying her own airplane all by herself, wherever and whenever she wanted to go. It was unheard of.
This should have not been so surprising after all, though, considering four of our five airplanes, including my M20T, were, according to the lady who keeps track for the government of such things, the first of their respective makes and models ever to land on Cuban soil.
Another guard was watching my watcher. There were guards and guard-watchers for each of the other four airplanes as well, and a police van idled between us and the taxiway. As I opened the baggage hatch and climbed up on the wing, she strode over and peered in the windows. She watched every step of the preflight process, observed as I added a bit of oil, as my copilot removed giant chocks worthy of a 737, made sure that my tank-sumping was performed correctly, watched the three of us load our three small suitcases. It seemed as if she was never more than about 20 feet from my elbow.
I would be last in line to leave, so we eventually climbed aboard, and donned our inflatable lifejackets. I picked up my camera and waved cheerily to her, thanked her for the hospitality, and made to take a quick snapshot. “NO,” she ordered. “NO PHOTO!”
“OK, sorry,” I said. She wagged an admonishing finger at me, and turned her back, facing her own minder, then looked over one shoulder at me, and gave a huge wink and a smile.
So, we were not in Kansas, but maybe not so far from there as we once were.
We waited a long time for our clearance, waited another long time for permission to taxi, and finally we were off, headed north. My back-seat passenger watched as our police van escort made sure we made it to the runway without picking up any stray Cubans, and followed alongside us as we picked up speed on takeoff. Adios, lovely Cuba, and thanks!
We plowed into the clouds, soon emerged on top at 7,000. Before long, we were handed off to Miami Center, to hear in response to my check-in, “Roger, November 58H, cleared direct Key West. Welcome home!”
See the related story on tips to making your trip to Cuba easier here.