8:00 a.m. Departure Lounge, José Marti International Airport, Havana, Cuba
This has been an interesting morning so far.
I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to shower and head out the door to the airport. Last night, my trusty guide Jesus insisted that a friend of his would be at my front door to take me there. Sure enough, Roberto was there at 6 a.m. sharp, and wedged my backpack into the trunk of his car, along with the well-worn spare tire and a freshly filled can of gasoline. I deduced this from the overpowering fumes and the greasy rags which had been used to soak up the puddle. He had yet to say a word to me.
Roberto appeared to be around 70 years old...about the same age as his car. The interior of his ancient automobile was so tiny that even in the fetal position I could barely close the door. When he finally did speak, he sounded as if he had a sock full of gravel in his mouth. Either that or he had just come from the dentist, which seemed unlikely at 6 in the morning. He asked me in Spanish "Which terminal are you going to?” I told him I was on the Cubana Air flight to Santo Domingo.
I then (mis)understood Roberto asking which AIRPORT I wanted to go to … that there were 5 airports in Havana. “That can’t be right! I can’t think of a single city on the planet with 5 international airports!" As the fog began to clear from my sleepy brain, and I remembered that the name of the airport was José Marti. This seemed to satisfy him and off we went.
It suddenly occurred to me that I had agreed to pay him $25 but that I only had five $10 notes, so I asked him if he had smaller bills. He didn’t. We promptly stopped at a roadside eatery and he hopped out to go get change. There were tables outside which were illuminated by harsh fluorescent tubes in the the pitch darkness, and the clientele seemed to consist entirely of prostitutes on their way home from the late shift, or beginning the early shift. Either that or it was “Dress Like a Slut” Thursday at work. There was nobody in line, but it seemed to take Roberto an eternity to get change.
Once again we set off, but it soon became evident that Roberto had never been to the airport in his life. Maybe because aviation was a relatively new invention when he was born, he thought that it was just a passing fad and had lost interest. Each time we’d a approach a road sign, he’d slow down to almost a complete stop to peruse it in a leisurely fashion. At least that's what I thought until I noticed he was squinting and that we probably should have a seeing-eye dog in the car. Pretty soon I decided it would be more efficient for me to read the signs and give him directions. The road was so full of potholes that when he swerved to avoid one we’d jump about a lane and a half to the left or right.
Not only was it dark, but we were heading into a dense fog. When we came upon a sign that said “Aeropuerto 2” with an arrow pointing to the right, I assumed the airport was 2 kilometers away. We pulled up to a mostly dark building with a deserted parking lot and a few silhouetted figures sitting in the dark outside. Roberto was obviously eager to be on his way, but I kept insisting that this was not the right place, so he suggested I go ask for directions. “So let me get this straight” I thought, “You live here, you speak Spanish fluently and I don’t, you’re the one driving, we're running late, we've arrived at this empty building and you want ME to ask for directions?!?!?!"
I saw a staircase with light emanating from the door at the top, so I dashed to the top and walked down a long corridor of dark offices repeating the word “Hola?...Hola?” But to no avail. When I came back downstairs, Roberto was trying to bum a light for his cigar from one of the people sitting in the dark. Thanks pal! Just then I saw a woman in a uniform with her shirt untucked as if she was just finishing the graveyard shift emerge from the shadows and I asked her in Spanish if she knew where the terminal for international departures was. She told me that it was terminal 3 and pointed off into the fog. I could tell that Roberto was really bummed not to be rid of me.
We meandered for a while, but eventually arrived at a large modern building surrounded by lots of cars and activity. I saw some guys in uniform and suggested we stop and ask if this was the place. He rolled down the window and I did all the talking, while Roberto sat there mute. He pulled into the parking lot which was about 1000 yards from the entrance, rather than dropping me off at the front door. Oh…and when he got change earlier, he kept his portion of it, so I wasn’t able to “adjust” his fee. Thanks for everything man!
Inside, the lower floor was dark and deserted…clearly not where the ticket counters were located. I asked for directions and when I eventually arrived at the ticket counter there was already a LOOOONG line. I was relieved to see a beautiful, smiling attendant behind the counter until I put my glasses on and realized that it was a life-sized photograph on the wall.
Instead, the counter was manned by three guys who were not pleased to be working at 6:45 a.m. I have seen glaciers that moved at a faster pace. In addition, the queue resembled a strand of mutating DNA…large groups of people would arrive, greet someone in line and insert themselves ahead of all the passengers behind them. One guy in particular had an entourage larger than Justin Bieber's which kept growing in size with each passing minute.
We had now entered geological time….minutes stretched into eons. By the time I reached the front fo the line, several people had celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and one woman had had a baby. After paying my departure tax and finding my gate, I sat down and finally exhaled. Total time elapsed since arriving at the airport…one and a half hours.
Please don't get me wrong. I absolutely loved my month in Cuba! If only the crumbling walls and flaking paint could speak, what tales they could tell of a man who liked to write and catch big fish named Ernest Hemingway, or the scraggly-bearded but devastatingly handsome revolutionary named Che Guevara, or America's Public Enemy Number One..the flamboyant gangster named Al Capone who played high stakes poker in Havana's casinos while enjoying Cuba's finest rum and cigars and señoritas.
I found almost everyone I encountered to be friendly, helpful and eager to talk to an American who had entered the country illegally through Mexico because our government is still holding a 50 year old grudge and doesn't allow Americans to travel to Cuba without special permission. Many people said "Welcome to Cuba!" to me and treated me like family when I stayed in their homes.
If you ever have the chance to go, jump on it. It won't be long before the Cuba I visited will be taken over by McDonald's and Starbucks and KFC. You'll have a blast...but when you get ready to leave, just make sure you take a map in case your driver is a guy by the name of Roberto.