Cuba 2007: Day 1

Here is a link to tomorrow's diary.
Here is a link to yesterday's diary.
Here is a link to the index of the days.

I didn't take any photos today.

It's day 1 of my trip to Cuba. The alarm goes off at 0530 and I'm out of the house by 0615. It's about 1h10m by car to Heathrow. I don't follow the instructions for Courtlands Parking and miss the turn off the Bath Road. It's busy at 0730 in the morning. When I realise I've gone too far, I turn around and whilst driving back, I see it on the right. I have to drive further and then turn back.

It's not so posh an organisation as Courtlands at Gatwick but everything goes OK.

I arrive at Terminal 2. I'm unsure where to go as I have checked in online but I couldn't get a boarding card online for some reason. I try the touch screen terminal but it tells me to go to the checkin desk. I don't want to do that as there's a big queue. A young woman advises me to go to the bag drop-off (which according to the notice says you must have a boarding card).

However, this works and I drop off my luggage and get two boarding cards, one for the flight to Paris and the other for the onward trip to Havana.

It's the usual hassles in security. Some liquids which are in containers of not more than 100 ml are allowed through security provided they are carried through in a separate see-through bag. So I have already sorted out my see-through bag of toiletries. Although the cleansing solution for my contact lens comes in a 60ml container, the wetting solution is in a 120ml container. So the latter has to go in to the hold luggage. (It would be great if BAA and the contact lens solutions suppliers could get coordinated.)

After security, I go to Boots and get some more wetting solution. The idea is to be able to clean my lenses before arriving in Havana. However, my plan is thwarted because the Boots' cashier puts the solutions in a see-through bag which says don't open until you arrive.

I buy three books: a John Grisham book I haven't got (The Last Juror), a book by P.D.James (and I've never read any books by this author) and a copy of the Catcher in the Rye (the book that stars in the film Conspiracy Theory).

Cuba is five hours behind BST. But, even though I'm going westwards, my first flight is to France which is one hour ahead. So first I need to change my watch to go forward one hour and later switch it to go back six hours. On my first trip to Cuba I messed up the timezones, and managed to live my first few days in Cuba one hour adrift of everybody else.

I have to shift from Terminal 2F to Terminal 2A. And I've not much time to do this in. I've yet to understand Charles de Gaulle airport. I know there is a shuttle (a vallette) but I can't find out how to get to it. There's a sign pointing to Terminal 2A and I sort of follow this and go out onto the street. Later I work out that the sign is pointing at the lifts and I have to go up one floor from Arrivals to Departures and the bus leaves on the street outside Departures. When I get to Terminal 2A, the monitor says the the flight is delayed. I have go through security again. I take out my two see-through containers but there are no signs about liquids on this X ray machine.

When I get to the gate, there is a a long queue for the flight and even though the flight is delayed this queue is slowly being processed.

On the plane I find someone sitting in my seat (the aisle seat). There is also a person in the middle seat. I say to the person in the aisle seat that he's in my seat and he asks whether I want to sit by the window. I decline and the other passenger volunteers to move to the window. So he's now in the middle. All this is curious.

When I later get back from the loo, the passenger has called the stewardess and she asks me whether I'm willing to swap seats with the person's wife who is in an emergency aisle seat at the front of Economy. Wow! Yes please.

Not only does this give me a lot of leg room but it also means I will be first off in Economy. If I'm at the front, it may quicker to get through immigration and allegedly there is a money exchange at the baggage reclaim and if I can get there before there's a queue that'll be good too.

The two passengers next door to me are not very communicative. I get most of the way through the John Grisham book. I also watch two movies. One of these is embarrassing; it's a road-trip movie by oldies on bikes called "Wild Hogs". The other is called "Miss Potter" and it's a film depicting the life of Beatrix Potter. Seeing I know little about BP and her books this is entertaining and moving. Very enjoyable.

The heat hits you as soon as you step of the plane at Havana airport. I'm first in the queue for foreigners at immigration. I have to proffer my passport and tourist card. (The tourist card is a sort of visa; they cost 15 UKP; you need to get one before you go; and you can get one from your tour company.) Although it's written in the passport once and on the tourist card twice that my surname is Cornelius, she asks me whether my name is Barry. I try to explain that my surname is Cornelius.

After immigration I follow the signs to the baggage reclaim. I also see the money exchange counter in the corner. So I go there. I only have to wait for the completion of the previous customer and then it's my turn. I get 100 euros changed at a rate of about 1.2 which gives me about 120 CUC (which is worth about 66 UKP).

I will need to use this money for the restaurant tonight. I think there is a Cadeca (money exchange place) in a street in Havana called Obispo that's open until 2200 and so that's Plan B if this place were not open.

Picking up the baggage is a bit of a problem as they are using two baggage carousels for this. It's hard to check two carousels at once. I stand nearby the chute for one of these and when that is not being used I check the baggage moving near to me on the other carousel. There are few places where you can stand to do this. I guess that many passengers are just checking the first carousel they came too. And so a lot of baggage is building up on the second. Eventually I see my suitcase in the middle of about nine pieces of luggage all jammed together.

Outside there are a lot of people waiting for passengers on the flight. I ask a rep for a rival company as to where Havantur are and she points out their stand which is behind the waiting throng. At the stand I speak to a woman and we swap vouchers from Havanatour UK for ones from Havanatur Cuba.

She tells me the transfer from the hotel to the airport on Friday will be at 0500 from the hotel's reception and, as the flight is at 0700, I query whether that's a bit late but she doesn't understand my English.

The transfer bus to the hotel is outside in the car park. I eventually find it and I'm the first passenger. Later, four other groups (including the two passengers sat next to me on the flight) arrive. I have had to wait for about 30 minutes. On my first trip to Cuba I had a taxi to my hotel and this was easy to do and costs about the same.

Whilst sitting there waiting for the other passengers I look at the Havanatur Cuba vouchers. I get very disappointed as the voucher for my hotel in Baracoa mentions "Porto Santo". On my first trip to Cuba I had a voucher saying El Castillo but when I got to El Castillo they said I was staying in Porto Santo. This is about 3 to 4 K outside Baracoa and is inconvenient if you want to spend time in Baracoa. Last time, I went and found another hotel, the La Habanera, and this was right in the centre of Baracoa. It was excellent. However, for some reason it is currently not accepting bookings. This time I had insisted to Havanatour UK that I wanted El Castillo and not Porto Santo and they said they had explained that to their local reps (Habanatur Cuba). This voucher was a big disappointment.

Havantur Cuba has also given me a printout listing how to contact them if there are difficulties. It also gives times of visits to hotels and the visit to the nearest hotel to mine would be at 1045 tomorrow morning. I plan to sort things out there.

I watch the route from the airport to the hotel. The first part of this route may be useful to me later as it goes from the airport to the Pinar Del Rio Autopista: I will need to do this next week. Most of the second part of the route to the old town of Havana I ran in the Cuba Half Marathon the last time I was here and so I was watching this part with nostalgia. Although it only covered the last 7K of the half marathon it looked an awful long way.

After dropping off a few other passengers, I reached my hotel, the Hostal Valencia.

When I got to my room, it smelt smelly. I think this was commented by one visitor on Trip Advisor. Maybe I'm staying in the same room as they did. I was too tired and I was only here until first thing the day after tomorrow and so I didn't care.

For food that evening, having come across a restaurant called La Mina, I decide to eat there as the place is mentioned in the guidebooks and it had a band playing. I had a set menu described as typical Cuban cuisine which turns out to be pork and congri (rice with black beans) followed by a sweet. I had a couple of mohitos to accompany this. After the band had played a bit, one of them came round and I bought their CD. (CDs usually cost 10 CUCs which is about 5.50 UKP.) The band is called Los Galanes.

The member of the band asked me what track I liked on the CD and only recognising Chan Chan I chose that. Shortly afterwards the band played that song.

Later I went to another bar where another band were playing. This time there was a sax player and I like bands with brass instruments. Again after another mohito I bought a CD. This band is called Corazones de Fuego.

It had been a long day but it had been a successful day: I had already heard good bands and this was the main aim of the trip.

I didn't take any photos today.

Here is a link to tomorrow's diary.
Here is a link to yesterday's diary.
Here is a link to the index of the days.