Outsider In Cuba: Pre-take off, post-touch down

In October and November 2016 I spent three weeks travelling around Cuba.  I returned home just days before Fidel Castro died.  These posts are written from the scribblings I made in my notebook throughout the trip.

It started at the Cuban Tourist Embassy on High Holborn in Central London. Well, actually, it started with a phone call to a travel agent and then another one and then some internet surfing… but let’s say it started at the Tourist Cuban Embassy; a small, brownish building, quiet and unimpressive, highlighted by a Cuban flag and a little plaque. I’m here for my tourist visa.

I’m buzzed in and feel as if I’ve walked into.. I’m not sure what era, but one before I was born. I wonder if any of this is representative of what lies ahead on my three week trip: brown and cream flock wallpaper of leaves and trees, thin brown carpet, leatherette wine-coloured sofas and armchairs. There is a mild sense of shabbiness and not much light, incongruent with the colourful idea I have of the country.

The uplifting element in the room is the friendly receptionist, who patiently repeats to each tourist-to-be approaching her window: “Do you have your visa form and postal order?”. Postal order?! I’ve managed over 31 years on this planet without procuring such a thing, and thought they were now defunct. Evidently not alone in this thought, there is a constant trail of people back out of the embassy to the post office, which is thankfully close by.

The post office clerk is not surprised by my request. I Imagine that Monday to Thursday morning, the hours visas are processed, at least 50% of this post office’s trade must come from the Embassy. The £17 thirty day visa costs, as a postal order, a random £19.13… There’s no ‘sell’ on currency – they know as well as I do that you can’t get Cuban money outside of Cuba.

Back in the embassy I go past the receptionist’s post to another little shabby waiting room, with three visa processing windows, all occupied by women. In my preparatory reading before heading to Cuba, I’ve been grinding through My Life: 200 hours worth of interviews with Fidel Castro conducted and transcribed by Ignacio Ramonet. Fidel has taught me that women make up to 65% of the Cuban technical and scientific work force. At one point, quotas had to be put in place to ensure enough men were entering university! Having seen only women so far in the Tourist Embassy, it makes me wonder whether they also dominate in civil service roles.

My mind wanders further.. is it considered an immense privilege as a Cuban to work in an Embassy in London? The earnings must be considered eye-watering. It would also be a way out of a somewhat isolated country, even if it’s to immensely uninspiring surroundings with minimal natural light and little real human interaction – stamp stamp, photocopy, process, next please, stamp stamp. Morning after morning after morning.

I will never know the feelings of these women towards the streams of us making our way to their fascinating little island. And, although Fidel has talked of the high levels of political and cultural education of the population, with control over the media and limited internet access, I wonder how enlightened the island’s inhabitants really are – and what they will share with me once there.

***

It’s a week later and I’m on the plane having my second dealing with Cuban bureaucracy; a customs declaration form. It’s been a while since I’ve filled one of these out but it seems that Cuba has some unique customs items concerns: satellite communication equipment, walkie-talkies, pornography(!), and other, simple, miscellaneous articles, like footwear, clothing, toiletries, etc etc. Good quality versions of these latter products are hard to come by in Cuba, so visitors are often encouraged by tour agencies to bring something of the kind as a gift or donation. Looks like the government isn’t quite so encouraging.

In the final part of the declaration, I’m told that if my answers are all ‘no‘ then I am to ‘sing‘ and hand over my form at the customs area. I imagine joyfully singing a tune and salsa-ing through customs celebrating my non-criminal entry into the musical, rhythmic Caribbean island of Cuba! Ah, no – I realise it’s only a typo. They just want me to sign and enter the country with little fuss – I get a “Welcome to Cuba” as my passport is stamped.

I step past the officials, my eyes wide open, devouring the newness of it all. The women look glamorous, if a little tacky, with gold jewellery and glittery eye makeup. Fishnet tights are a thing. I walk past an open office door and catch my first glimpse of the Che Guevara image and another of Fidel Castro. As I wait for my bag a guy by me is collecting first one, two then three squat cylindrical shaped packages off the conveyer. He is patiently awaiting the fourth – a set of tyres, presumably like gold dust in Cuba.

Into arrivals, all red and cream and seventies, a sea of foreign faces, a humid warmth. I find my taxi driver. A friendly handshake, good English. He’s keen to go. I step out to the damp outside. The next three weeks stretch deliciously ahead of me.