**NOTE to READERS: The following post describes a trip which took place in March, 2016. I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible, but let’s face it – almost three years have passed! So bear with me.
Saturday, March 26th, 2016.
It’s just after 9 a.m., and I’m outside the Hotel Inglaterra.
No, I’m not staying here. I’m here for a day tour.
I arrived the night before, after about 12 hours of air travel (from Toronto to Montreal, then to Havana – by way of Air China, believe it or not).
As the Rolling Stones played to thousands of people, I spent my first 90 minutes on Cuban soil waiting to see a customs officer, languishing in baggage carousel hell¹, followed by a really confusing trip to the currency exchange kiosk², and then getting some “help” getting a taxi into town.³
After checking in with the nice desk staff at the two-star hotel I was staying at, I rode possibly the smallest elevator on earth up a couple of floors to my room – a small box with curtains … But no window. (It DID have air conditioning, though …)
But, back to the present, and the search for my tour guide.
Actually, he finds me. His name’s Daniel, and he walks me over to my group for the day.
We start with a walking tour, across the street from the hotel in Cuba’s Central Park. It’s a fraction of the size of its New York namesake, but – from what Daniel says – apparently just as lively, depending on what time of day you happen to pass through.
Daniel’s super-informative as he guides us from park to park and square to square.
Initially, I don’t really speak to any of the other folks on our tour – mainly because I’m trying to absorb all the facts Daniel is feeding us.
It’s not until we take our first drink/rest stop – atop the rooftop patio of the Hotel Ambos Mundos, one of Ernest Hemingway’s apparent former haunts – that I get to make some small talk with some of the group.
There’s the cute couple from Ireland; a couple from Connecticut; and the trio of Brits who are in town for work related to the Stones concert, and are enjoying a bit of downtime before leaving. It’s always interesting how guarded folks are until you overcome that first hurdle of exchanging pleasantries.
After our break, we continue our walking tour until about 1 p.m., when part of the group leaves, while the remainder of us grab lunch.
Following our meal, our shrunken group piles into two shiny, old-school convertibles, which drive us over to Revolutionary Square, past neighbourhoods like Chinatown (not a typo; also, no real Chinese community here anymore), Miramar and Vedado.
Driving past the Malecon, we end up at La Torre, a restaurant/bar on the 33rd floor of the Edificio Fosca, which offers spectacular views of the city and the water.
The tour concludes, and I taxi back to my hotel, to collect my backpack and find the meeting point for my tour group.
In the hotel lobby, I have a pleasant chat with the young woman at the front desk, who tells me that her last name … is Campbell.
Not even kidding.
Apparently her grandfather was Jamaican – which, given how close both countries are to one another (plus, one of my half-uncles spent part of his childhood here), doesn’t completely surprise me.
Who knows? Maybe we’re distantly related. Even if we’re not, it’s just further proof that Campbells are everywhere.
My next challenge is finding my way from the hotel to the homestay where I’m meeting my tour group. I sit in the hotel lobby, trying to get my bearings before leaving. The map in my travel guide isn’t useful in this case. I try loading the map onto my phone. No dice.
So I approach my fellow Campbell, and ask her if she’s heard of the street I need to get to. She and another hotel staffer (helpful but permanently unsmiling) try to help and are stumped. Mr. Un-smiley steps outside the hotel and asks someone on the street. Turns out it’s roughly a couple blocks west of where I’m staying, near a church.
I’m directionally challenged, so I rarely get from A to B in one go. When I get near the church, I ask a restaurant doorman (with what little Spanish I know), and his directions are super-clear.
When I arrive at the homestay (or casa particulare), some confusion ensues. My name is on the list of trip-goers expected … but I’ve received a welcome note for another group embarking on a sailing trip. The casa owner’s son hoists my backpack onto his back and we walk down the street and around the corner to another casa, where I speak to the trip leader in charge of the sailing trip.
Turns out my group has been re-located and my trip leader’s busy picking up more people from the airport. Also, that second casa is only the home-base/meeting place for my group. So I move again, to a third casa just down the street. This room’s nice, clean … and again, has no windows. It’s not a big deal, but it throws you off at first. The curtains are a little comforting.
I return to casa #2 in the evening, thinking I’d be early. Several people are already there – two couples from Australia and a woman from Germany.
The German is the only person even remotely near my age – and she’s 28. The Australians are in their 50s, maybe early 60s, if I have to guess. From what little I hear, it seems the group is majority Australians, which makes me the lone Canadian (a label I’m used to).
The German traveller, named Jana, and I make small talk and head out to dinner. She’s from Düsseldorf, is a project manager at some sort of digital company and, it turns out, she’s already been in Cuba for a week – first in Veradero (where she says there actually weren’t that many people), and now Havana. From the sounds of it, she’s ready to hit the road and see some other parts of the country.
Over dinner, Jana relays her experience of how she ended up at the Stones concert (word of mouth apparently goes a long way), as well as how she managed to get back to Havana afterwards. (It involves a car with doors that didn’t close, and an engine that only ran if the car didn’t drive in a straight line.)
I’ve only just met her, and I already admire her ambitious spirit and her thirst for travel.
Let’s see what my fellow travellers are like.
Photos in this post are mine. Please do not re-post without permission.
1 I’m pretty sure our luggage didn’t appear for a good 30-45 minutes. And there were only two carousels, with the tiniest signs, serving hundreds of people.
2 I paced outside for almost 10 minutes trying to figure out what was open, before asking a man (who looked like a tourist operator employee) for help. He talked to someone who worked with security, and was directed to the front of another queue, with a cashier who was clearly over her entire day. She did help me as best she could, though.
3 The kind employee then helped me get a taxi – which meant I had to pay the security guy 40 CUC – and the original guy who helped me 10 CUC – in return for the assistance. (It was 11 p.m. so I wasn’t going to argue with either of them.)