Please note, I’m starting at the very beginning of my Havana trip, but my Cuba adventure series will be painted in several parts. Bear with me as I have lots of tales to tell, but plan on keeping them short and approachable.
I was freaking out days before my Havana adventure, as I always do before a trip. But the night before, I didn’t sleep all, took a train into the airport at an ungodly early hour, and for whatever reason, I was eerily calm.
Maybe it was all of the Valium I had taken, but I wasn’t the hot mess of panic that I normally am pre-flight. I was meeting my friend Mariska at the airport in Havana, and we came up with a plan to meet at the nearest Caja de Cambios, or currency exchange. Mariska (a friend from back in my days in Australia) is from Amsterdam, but had taken a trip to Miami a week before, so she would be flying in from the states as well.
We are both experienced travelers, so we came up with a plan for every scenario. If there were multiple currency exchanges, we would meet at the one closest to the exit. If we couldn’t connect the notoriously finicky WIFI connection, we could try texting. If that didn’t work and we couldn’t communicate at all, we had each other’s flight info so we could track late flights, and if we couldn’t find each other after an hour and a half (time to get money exchanged and get through customs), we both had the address to the casa particular (this is essentially staying in a room of someone’s home and is kind of like a bed and breakfast, but more on that later) we were staying at, and we would meet there. But that was a last resort.
So when I landed and was ushered through customs quickly and easily, I was shocked not to see her. I stayed calm as I failed to connect to the wifi (which wasn’t shocking), and got in the longest line I’d ever seen to exchange money. You can’t get the Cuban convertible pesos, or CUC’s as they are called, in the US so it all has to be done once I had entered the country. That plus the fact that credit and debit cards don’t work made for carrying around more cash that I’d like to admit, just in case I’d need to be able to cover my ass in an emergency.
After 20 minutes passed I started to panic. I tried to turn on my phone and couldn’t get a signal. I looked at the monitor and couldn’t find her flight listed anywhere. A cold sweat started to form in every pore of my body as I was rifling through every plan more quickly than I had anticipated.
“Pull your shit together,” I thought to myself, trying to maintain the sweat because my friend Rachael had recently told me about how she was watching a show about border police. She had explained that the telltale sign of a drug mule is the full body sweat. “Those people get pulled out of line every time. It’s a giveaway,” she explained. So I stood in line sweating, waiting to be pulled into a back room as surely I was a suspect instead of simply being clammy and nervous.
I started talking to the man in line in front of me to distract me and try to calm down. Instead I spilled how my plan was going to shit and he started looking for Mariska too, suggesting we all share a cab to get to our places that were nearby each other. I told him I couldn’t leave until 7.30pm but didn’t see her flight.
I turned my phone on and suddenly it went from “No Service” to “Cubacel” service, so I did what every rational nearly-30 year old would do and texted my dad in a panic to see if I had communication with the outside world. A simple “can you get a text from me” message. I’m sure he knew it meant,”OH SHIT I CANT FIND MY FRIEND AND I’M SWEATING ENOUGH TO GET THROWN IN JAIL OR HAVE A FULL BODY CAVITY SEARCH,” but I hoped he couldn’t read between the lines. He asked how things were going and I lied to him and said I couldn’t find my friend but things were fine. It was great. I’d be perfect. Not panicking at all.
When he responded, I looked for Mariska’s number, knowing that I had it saved somewhere, just not in my contacts, because that would have made it too easy. Right as I was looking, she texted me that we were in different terminals because she landed in terminal 3. I sighed with relief and texted her back, but never got a response. I exchanged my money and asked where I could get to the next terminal…apparently it’s 3km away and a cab is the only option as they don’t have a shuttle or bus that leads from A to B.
I didn’t believe it the first time a cab driver told me this, offended that he would try and scam me right from the get go, but after I got the same answer from several people, I sighed and prayed that Mariska would stay put as none if my texts seemed to go through to her. I hopped in a cab and scanned the line at the nearest Caja de Cambios, feeling sick to my stomach as I didn’t see my friend anywhere.
I kept walking as men yelled at me “Taxi? Taxi? You need taxi?” as clearly I was the lost American girl. I felt defeated when I saw a sign for another currency exchange and spotted my long lost friend chatting to a Chinese girl. I ran up to her and said, “What is happening?!?” She laughed, and we said hello after a three year hiatus from seeing one another, and I watched as the Chinese girl looked back and forth at us, as we both are blonde and we’re wearing jeans, black tees and leather jackets, as apparently only cool kids like us travel in. I sighed with relief. I knew this was going to be the hardest part of the trip and then we would be fine.
Mariska negotiated the price of the cab down, and we sped through the dark Havana streets, catching up and planning the next steps to our adventure.