HAVANA TIMES — We bought the tickets from Cuba’s airline company, Cubana de Aviacion.
A friend forewarned us: if you don’t want to spend a few days at the airport, try to get there by 5 or 6 in the morning, even if your plane leaves at 3 in the afternoon. The reason? They say Cubana sells seats above its real capacity, and that this is coupled with the extra passengers from medical and other missions in the country, who are also squeezed on to regular flights.
After a sleepless night of weighing luggage and drinking tea to relax some, we arrived at Maiquetia (the main Caracas airport) a little before 6 in the morning. We found a small line of people. There were some Cubans, but most people in line were Venezuelan.
I was less on edge after ensuring neither of my two suitcases were close to the feared 30 kilos. Every Cuban (and non-Cuban) knows how traumatic going through the island’s customs can be. At 10:30 in the morning, however, when they announced the flight would be delayed some and they would take us to a hotel, we came upon a small detail that could made my trip to Cuba impossible.
It wasn’t me who noticed the problem but the man tasked with pre-checking our passports. My passport wasn’t missing, not the feared stamp authorizing me to visit my country – after I was declared an immigrant – but something far simpler, and therefore more absurd: another extension.
Though holding a passport for anyone with a nationality that isn’t Cuban means paying for the document once, for a Cuban, the transaction involves paying many times for the same document and also keeping tabs on all these annoying stamps and their expiration dates.
Yes, I know. I was about to travel and I should have checked to see if these stamps were in order. But I’d already extended the passport several times and the idea I was up-to-date with this had gotten into my head. I also know I’m not here to “think.”
Thus, while my partner was having a heart attack, saying she’d known “something would prevent us from traveling to Cuba,” I dashed off for the consulate, taking advantage of the delay in the plane’s departure. I was determined not to miss an opportunity to travel to Cuba after 4 years away.
However, “dashing off” is a rather romantic way of putting it. Another small detail made this difficult: I didn’t have any cash on me.
In fact, I didn’t have much money left in the bank either. We had spent nearly everything. There was still some left, however, so I ran off in search of an ATM.
The 30 or so people ahead of me at the ATM machine gave me some time to plan how I would make it to Caracas before noon (which is when the consulate closes), as the trip from the airport to Caracas is approximately an hour and the Cuban consulate is at the other end of the city.
While standing in line, I also had time to think what expression I’d use to persuade the driver to take me there for less than the 2,000 Bolivars that this trip generally cost, and where I would come up with the 1,000 Bolivars for the blessed extension. I didn’t have more than 2,500 Bolivars in my account.
I withdrew 1,400 from my Bank of Venezuelan account, which is all I had left because, some days before, the bank had charged me double for a purchase and still hadn’t returned the money (something which is becoming customary in Venezuela). From my Banco del Tesoro account, I took out an extra 600. When I tried to take out a little bit more cash, the ATM rejected the transaction, telling me that I had exceeded my daily withdrawal limit or something along those lines.
With only 2,000 Bolivars on me, I ran out of the airport (now I was actually running) and covered almost an entire kilometer trying to find a motorcycle taxi willing to take me to Caracas.
Under a bridge I found a cabbie drinking chichi. “Can you take me to Caracas?” The man agreed and, to my surprise, only charged me 1,500 Bolivars. So I rang a Cuban friend so she would run to the consulate to lend me the rest of the money I needed to get my passport extended.
The uphill journey was longer than I’d imagined. The motorcycle was not the most powerful in Venezuela and all four and two-wheeled vehicles were darting past us, while I glanced anxiously at the driver’s watch. I prayed the noisy bike didn’t die on us on the desolate road, or for the many pot-holes not to take us out of circulation definitively.
At 12:05, we passed by Plaza Venezuela. The big clock above told me that only a miracle would get me into the consulate, but I didn’t lose faith. As you know, faith is the last thing we lose.
At 12:15, I was already at the consulate. I almost smothered the cabbie with kisses and, to this day, I send him all of my positive energy so he will never be short on passengers and find the spare pieces for his bike easily.
My friend was already waiting, money in hand, and, through the intercom, I managed to blurt out the word airport. They immediately let me in, even though they were about to go out for lunch and they’d closed the registry. I was there for less than 5 minutes. I left promising I would keep a closer watch on all the stamps, even if they didn’t seem that important, and I made it back to the airport with more than enough time for the check in.
We didn’t run into any problems at the airport immigration security check point and I was almost feeling like I’d made it to Cuba. It was 6 in the afternoon and they’d announced we’d leave at 8 at night. Then came 9, 10, 11 and 12 pm…and then 1 am. The large crowd of Cubans and Venezuelans waited on foot or sitting, sprawled across the floor, waiting for the plane to let us board. I say “plane” because I find it hard to believe a reasonable human being would leave so many people there, waiting, without offering them a single explanation.
It was already 2 in the morning when we took off, irritated, sleepy and nervous that, mid-flight, they should decide to head back to Caracas, what with how things are right now.
We arrived in Havana at around 5 in the morning. My friends had been waiting for us since the night before, so, they hadn’t had a better time than us. Cuban immigration was again a breeze. This time around, they didn’t even ask me what I’d come to Cuba for, as they did the first time I came back after a year away. I picked up my backpack, we went up to the customs official and, just when I thought I would be put through the humiliating process of having my luggage weighed and being interrogated about its contents, they opened the doors and I was free once again.
Days later, I’m still shocked I went through Cuban customs so easily. I don’t know whether, because I came with my Venezuelan partner, they thought I was also Venezuelan, or whether they had their hands full with so many Cuban medical personnel arriving with us. I only know that I know nothing, that’s all I can say. I don’t think it’s usually to pass through customs that easily.
After all, it seems that the 12-hour delay of our Cubana flight actually had some benefits.