image of an old car in cuba

I’ve long been a fan of the Caribbean but had never considered Cuba as being a holiday destination. Then an opportunity came our way, a price reduction at a famous hotel brand for adults only. My wife and I grabbed the bull by the horns and took the plunge. That was when things started to go wrong.

We booked our holiday for the summer and were looking forward to visiting somewhere new and different. Little did we know that our pet dog, Sammy, who was getting a little slow in her old age, was developing a tumour. We noticed a lump at her jawline, which was quite pronounced, so we took her down to the vet who did a biopsy. The results came through days later and it was our worst fears realised. Sammy had cancer.

The vet recommended chemo and we bowed to what we assumed was his superior knowledge. To be honest, it didn’t work and with hindsight we would have been better advised to put her to sleep. We had been getting ready to cancel the holiday in favour of looking after Sammy when fate took a hand and her condition suddenly deteriorated. In the end, we had to stop her suffering and she passed away just before we were due to go on holiday.

To say we were devastated would be an understatement and the last thing we wanted was a holiday. But in situations like this you have to use a degree of logic or it will cost money and I’m afraid we aren’t rich and every penny counts.

Three days later we were on our way to the airport, feeling miserable, sad and a little angry too. We couldn’t quite understand the vet insisting he could save Sammy when it was obvious, with hindsight, he couldn’t. Plus the fact even at the last minute, he insisted he could give her some sort of booster shot, but that it may give her a heart attack! Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but we were now feeling angry and guilty about Sammy, feeling that the vet may have simply been prolonging Sammy’s agony for the money.

With this backdrop we sat in the airport lounge not wanting to board the aircraft, but we did, with heavy hearts.

The flight was from Heathrow with Air Jamaica with a stop in Jamaica and then onto Havana. What stood out with the flight attendants was that they were taking no prisoners. We all had to do exercises in our seats, something I had never done before or since. On landing at Jamaica a couple of people were getting off and did the usual standing up and grabbing bags as the aircraft taxied.

“SIT DOWN!”

That was the lead flight attendant and her voice and glaring eyes made sure the passengers complied, with sheepish sideways looks at fellow passengers. Nobody moved until the aircraft had stopped and permission was given for those departing to collect their belongings.

It was a short stopover and we were soon on our way to Havana. As we reached cruising speed and altitude the flight attendants handed out visa forms we had to fill in. This was the moment, this was when my Cuba Crisis started. Jo and I filled the forms in and we were told to hand them in at immigration.

We departed the aircraft on landing and made our way into a large hall that comprised of a queue of passengers controlled by an armed guard. We were facing a row of wooden doors that looked as though they had been made from old tomato trays. This was the Cuban immigration service. Someone behind me said, “We have to go in one at a time. It’s a tiny cubicle and if they don’t like what they see, they will refuse you entry.”

Okay, I thought, no problem, I told myself and nonchalantly looked at my visa form. It hit me like a bolt out of the blue… I had misspelled my name! Suddenly Jo was at the front of the queue, and now moving into her cubicle. As her door slammed shut I suddenly felt very vulnerable.

I had visions of being refused entry and having to spend two weeks in the airport with no food and water while my wife had a holiday… and then my door opened. The guard urged me forward. I’m not prone to emotion, but I was feeling a little scared as I slowly walked into the cubicle and the door slammed behind me with a pronounced finality.

The immigration officer was a young girl, early twenties who smiled and said hello. I said hello back and smilled. She scanned my passport, stamped the visa form, filed it by dropping it in a box and wished me a good holiday as the door into Cuba opened automatically. Relief? You have no idea.

And so there we stood, looking out onto Cuba proper and the first thing I noticed was all the cars and coaches in the car park were new, not an old American car in sight. Cuba was supposed to be full of old American cars from the forties and fifties, a time capsule of historic vehicles. The reality was slightly adrift from the romantic scenario I had been led to believe in.

As passengers made their way toward Cubans holding signs up for different  tour companies we saw ours, a crumpled man, stood with a thick cigar between his lips standing next to a crumpled old mini-bus. All other transfer buses were new, except ours. And we were with one of the premier holiday companies on the planet.

This was the start of our Cuban adventure and it was soon apparent, as night was falling and the driver pulled away from the airport terminal, Cubans aren’t very good drivers and ours was not only a bad driver, he was very, very tired. But that’s another story, for another time.

Tom Kane © 2018

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