¡ Viva Cuba !

Sunday 3rd January 2010


"Go now before the Americans spoil it" that was the buzz phrase in the travel circles, "Go before there's a McDonalds and a Starbbucks on every corner." So we found ourselves sat on a flight to Havana, getting there before it changes forever.

With a midday flight and a room at the Hilton connected to Gatwick's South Terminal we had a lovely leisurely morning today. We had more time on our hands than normal because we had already checked in our luggage last night, taking advantage of Virgin's Twilight Check-in service. It only took us two minutes to deposit our suitcases, sort out a misspelling of my name and collect our boarding passes. The holiday had officially begun and we celebrated with a mojito in the hotel's lobby bar. Despite being overpriced and not very nice it marked the beginning of our Cuban adventure.

When we walked across the check-in area this morning the queues were horrendous. This flying malarkey isn't getting any easier for Julie and the stress of queuing for hours would have been unbearable for here. It was so wonderful to saunter past the queue with smug little grins on our faces.

Once through the security checks we went straight to the Flying Horse Wetherspoon's pub for one of our favourite Sunday morning rituals, a big breakfast and a good read of the Sunday Times. In fact, everything this morning had been so effortless that it hardly felt like we were going on holiday. Usually by now Julie would have said "we're doomed" or words to that effect at least a dozen times.

She seemed quite calm and unfazed by it all.

Our thoughts eventualy had to turn to our pre-flight routine of buying the champagne with which we would celebrate our safe arrival. Also on our shopping list was a torch having read about Havana's frequent power outages. We did find one, a shocking pink maglite torch. It was the only one they had. Lovely.

The departure had already been pushed back an hour so we had even more time than usual on our hands. Normally having more time is always a good thing but when you're Julie and you're waiting to board a plane the sooner it's over and done with the better before the anxiety completely takes a grip.

The one hour delay turned into a two hour delay and five diazepams later we began to board. As nervous as a cornered rabbit staring up the barrel of a twelve bore shotgun Julie got up and joined the queue.

With our boarding passes in hand I noticed that our seats weren't sequentially numbered, in fact seat 33G and 47J were fourteen rows apart. This was Julie's worse nightmare coming true. I thought about telling her but I just couldn't bring myself to say anything. The fear that today would be the day she couldn't physically board the plane was too much to risk.

My plan was to get her on the plane first then sort it out with the cabin crew once we were on board. As we handed over our boarding passes to be scanned mine beeped like a supermarket till but Julie's made a different noise, a horrible sound of rejection.

"What's wrong?" asked Julie with complete and utter panic in her voice.

"There's been a change to the seat allocation" said the member of staff.

For a few seconds Julie descended into a gibbering wreck before comparing our seat numbers and hers had been changed to 47H, the one next to mine. "That was lucky!" I said. She didn't reply, she just made a noise like muffled swear words just like Muttley from Wacky Races.

Sable Island, Canada

We eventually settled in our seats for the nine and a half our flight over the Atlantic.

It was perfectly uneventful which helped Julie relax a little. The worse thing about the long haul flight was the boredom. At least the individual screens in front of us occupied some of our time. I watched a documentary about the Guitar with Jimmy Page, Jack White and The Edge; and we both watched the Disney film 'Up'.

We missed the end of it as we got distracted by a slither of land in the middle of the ocean. It looked so strange miles away from anywhere. (I later discovered it was called Sable Island, a Canadian outpost with a population of 5 people and 300 horses!)

The sun had lit the sky for most of the journey but with an hour to go the skies began to darken. By the time we were descending into Havana it was too dark to see anything out the window. It was a little turbulent bouncing through the clouds but Julie seemed to cope remarkably well. We both had our heads stuffed in the window excitedly trying to catch our first glimpse of the world's most enigmatic country but our first sight of Cuba were the lights of the runway as we touched down.

It was now 7pm local time; midnight body clock time and we were getting a little tired. At least the queues through immigration were moving quite quickly.

"Look at the staff" Julie pointed.

I looked up to see the strangest of sights. All the staff were wearing masks, surgical masks not rubber ones of Che Guevara, (now that would have been funny!) I presume as protection from the swine flu. It felt more like the admissions ward in a hospital like a surreal a Terry Gilliam film.

The medical theme continued when one immigration officer walked across the front complete with rubber gloves. My buttocks instinctively clenched.

Before anyone was called and asked to bend over we were next in line to hand over our passports. They had been very efficient and definitely not up to the usual miserable international standards, they were too happy in their work. They let themselves down however when they didn't stamp our passports, stamping instead a visa form which we would have to return when we left. No lasting ink mark on the pages of my passport was quite disappointing. Never mind.

We had to go one at a time. Julie went first then disappeared through a green door. I soon followed and joined her. We celebrated with a little "Yey, they've let us in!" Instantly security staff operating some x-ray machines turned around. I feared the rubber glove all over again but all we had to do was to have our hand luggage x-rayed. I guess it was to check for any toasters, irons or other electrical contraband items that you’re not allowed to bring to Cuba.

Luckily we didn't have long to wait for our distinctive bright orange Ventura designer suitcases to come shuffling around the corner. A very smooth reclaim experience.

A Virgin Holidays rep was waiting for us outside the arrivals gate and directed us to the car park to find bus number 9 for a transfer to our hotel. I noticed as I pulled my suitcase across the tarmac that the handle was slightly damaged but thought nothing more of it. I just cursed the British baggage handlers. As I was about to hand it over to the bus driver I noticed a large leather name tag.

"Shit!!! " I shrieked like a foul mouthed five year old girl "This isn't ours!!"

I couldn't believe it! Someone else had an identical suitcase to ours and I had it. What an idiot I felt.

I had no time to waste, I had to run back to the terminal. When I got there I soon realised that I had already cleared customs and so I had to negotiate my way back through to baggage reclaim. Once again the staff were very professional and pleasant in equal measures. I was escorted to the lost & found to hand over the suitcase and check if anyone had returned ours. They hadn't.

"Perhaps it is still going around and around" said the unmasked customs officer. I returned to the carousel. There wasn't one piece of luggage left on the conveyor belt but I was so relieved to see a young couple standing next to a very distinctive orange suitcase looking very concerned.

"Aha" I said.

"You are Colin Owen" answered the tall pissed off young man.

"Oh, I'm so sorry" I apologised "but your suitcase is exactly the same as mine"

"You should always check the luggage tag!" he added. I didn't have anything to say to that and stood there with a sheepish grin on my face. (Julie affectionally calls it my Stan Laurel face "that's another fine mess" .)

"You have ours? That's OK. It's a fine. We're happy you came back" said the little more understanding girlfriend. "It could have been terrible" she continued, overcome with relief.

"Yes, you wouldn't have looked good in her bikini" he chipped in.

Suitably embarrassed we finally exchanged suitcases, wished each other a good holiday and I then ran away as quick as I could without raising alarm. Meanwhile, back at the bus Julie was waiting for me, still outside on the tarmac. She hadn't dared get on the bus in case they drove off without me.

We eventually sat at the back of the tourist bus and sighed with relief as we rolled out of José Martí International Airport towards Havana city centre. There was no denying that we were in Cuba. Within minutes we had already seen several classic 50s car and a billboard with "Commandante Che Amigo!" I was so excited.

We entered the dimly lit centre of the city and dropped off a few people at Hotel Sevilla. Our hotel was the next delivery point but because it was in the middle of the old historic town the coach was unable to take us all the way to the door. We pulled up outside a fort called Castillo de la Real Fuerta and got off the bus with another couple and a family of four. The Virgin rep gave us vague directions, a wave of the arm and a "It's down there two blocks". Fortunately I knew exactly where Hotel Ambos Mundos was and walked across the Plaza de Armas square and down Calle Obispo to the corner of Mercaderes.

I'm secretively very competitive and our walk across the old town suddenly became a race which of course we won, leaving the others behind still rummaging for their maps. We were the first to check-in, I actually don't know if the others made it!

The lobby was wonderfully charming and exactly as I imagined, whirring fans, dark wood bar, ancient cage elevator and plenty of Hemmingway memorabilia. The Ernest connection was the main reason why we chose Hotel Ambos Mundos.
Hotel Ambos Mundos, Havana

Of all the places in the world which claim a piece of his limelight this hotel has the most right.

Between 1932 and 1939 it was his home in Cuba.

A porter wheeled our suitcases into the lift and we followed squeezing inside the rickety cage. He showed us to our room, no.404, and was very informative about the amenities. He pointed out the mini bar, showed us how to switch the TV on and before he left he proudly told us that the bathroom came with both "hot and cold water".

We didn't stay in our room for long. It was 10pm or 3am body clock time and despite having eaten all day, both my airplane food and Julie's, I was strangely starving.

The nearest restaurant I found was an Italian called La Domenica just a few short steps up Mercarderes where Calle O'Relly crossed.

We weren't too sure what to expect. Cuba has a terrible culinary reputation but surely we should be safe with Italian.

The menu looked the business as we ordered bruschetta and an insalata de vegetales to start and a spaghetti al pomodoro and pesce arrosto to follow.

A few minutes later Julie and I sat in stunned open-mouthed silence when a plate of cheese on toast and a mound of shredded raw cabbage was placed in front of us.

As I stared in disbelief at my pile of rabbit food the resident band burst into "Guantanamero".

I took one look at Julie and we both cracked up with laughter. It was a priceless moment, one from which we almost didn't recover. We just couldn't stop laughing. "Over tired" I said in a broad Yorkshire accent mimicking a TV advert.

We eventually regained our composure enough to eat. My mountain of white and red cabbage and carrots was quite an ordeal but I did finish it.

The main courses were less comical but were equally lacking in detail.

It wasn't that they were inedible just not quite reaching we expected. The sauce on my soggy pasta was more like ketchup and Julie's fish was a bit bland, not even the serrated potato slices could liven the dish up.

The bill came to 30 convertible Cuban pesos or CUC or dollars ($) even as was displayed on the menu. We had exchanged some cash earlier at the hotel. It was interesting to hear that it didn't matter where you changed your money, you'd get exactly the same rate and surcharges. We were also told that we didn't have to worry about Cuba's dual currency as we probably won't come in contact with it.

It was also telling that most of the restaurants in the old town were ran by the government company Habaguanex and the lack of competition was probably reflected in the low standard. At least most of the money we spent was going into restoring this part of the city. It felt almost like a charitable donation.

We were fastly approaching 24 hours of being awake so a night of partying to thumping salsa music (not that we could hear any)was not on the cards. It was seriously time for bed so we returned to the Hotel Ambos Mundos.

With Julie's confidence in the hotel's elevator probably lower than her confidence in flying in a paper plane we walked up to our room on the fourth floor.

We got into bed; then both involuntarily rolled into the middle. It wasn't our intention, we had no choice in the matter. Despite being shattered I had to get out of bed and investigate why we were lying slumped in bed.

It was clear to see that the bed had collapsed. I have to say that it wasn't us! We didn't break the bed, it was definitely sagging when we got in.

Even though it felt like our bums were on the floor and our legs were higher than our heads the awkward sleeping position didn't keep us awake. We weren't long before we nodded off.
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