Arrival in Cuba

Chapter 2

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Matanzas, Cuba

Our trip had been months in the planning, starting with signing up with Matt Smith and his tour company, Detours with Matt. Matt, from Austin, TX, has traveled extensively in Cuba and has made many friends and contacts over the years, which was to our advantage in experiencing Cuba on a more personal, people to people note. For those traveling to Cuba there are twelve travel categories by which one can pursue a trip there. Ours was “People to People - Educational Travel” and when asked, that was the answer we were to give. Over the weeks prior to our trip, Matt had sent us travel packets that included tips on traveling in Cuba, what to expect, cautions, the money, passports, visa, weather and their sensitive plumbing (a disposal issue to which we are unaccustomed, and which required us to flush our established hygienic habits).

Another pre-trip item to consider was the gesture of offering gifts to Cubans. Many items, some very common and easy to buy in the US, are difficult to procure in that country, and Matt suggested several products that we could bring into the country and not raise suspicions. Toiletries, OTC medications like painkillers, multivitamins, muscle ointments, clothes and shoes, acoustic guitar strings and other music supplies, school or office supplies, useful household items, totes, backpacks and things you might donate to thrift stores. New or lightly used items would also be acceptable. Matt suggested giving gifts only to those people we met and liked, not to random strangers.

With gifts in mind, Mark and I had gone shopping for small things that we could pack and offer after we arrived in Cuba. We brought t-shirts, mine with Route 66 themes, while Mark’s included Arizona themes. Also we brought pencils, small sharpeners, pens, colored markers, toothpastes, toothbrushes, tote bags, and Mark included RainX for auto owners along with micro fibre polishing clothes. For fun, we also bought colorful little wrist bands that we thought the children, especially, would enjoy. We thought about bringing other automotive things, like wrench sets, but considered the weight, cost and possible confiscation and opted out of that idea. I also brought a newer pair of sneakers that I had seldom wore. Upon arriving in Cuba, we let Matt decide how and to whom these gifts might be distributed.

Matt’s travel itinerary for us included visiting two cities, Matanzas and Havana.  

Both are on the northern shore of the island (as marked on the map to the left) and are about two hours apart. Matanzas being to the east was our first destination, flying into Varadero, the airport serving Matanzas. There would be nearly 3 full days in Matanzas and surrounding area, and on the afternoon of the 3rd day we would be driven to Havana. In both cases we were to stay in B&B’s and would be taxied in old vehicles. Additionally, Matt had engaged a local guide, Raul, who was with our group the entire time. His translations and knowledge of the places we visited was extremely helpful, all while being charming and and a fun guy to boot. We all shared a lot of laughs with Raul who had other common interests with us Yankees.

Sunday, February 19, the day of departure had arrived and we were all thrilled to begin our Cuban journey. 

After a restful night, we were up and had enjoyed the Holiday Inn’s breakfast before the Inn’s shuttle returned us to the airport. There we picked up our Cuban visas and proceeded to our departure area. 

Holy Smokes! There were a vast multitude of people awaiting their check in through the TSA lines, that appeared, at first blush, to be time consuming. That, thankfully, was not the case. Many in these lines were going on a cruise (high seas), as Ft. Lauderdale is a major cruise ship port. But those long lines did not hinder our quick movement through the process. At the Southwest Air departure gate, we reconnected with Brenda, and took the hour or so waiting time to complete the several pieces of documents required to enter Cuba. With each other helping understand and clarify how to fill in the information, and especially with Brenda’s help (she has made this trip nearly 6 times), we felt confident that what we would present to Customs Officials was correct and not cause for any delays. As we waited, the remaining duo in our group, father and son, Kevin and Tom from New Hampshire found us and introduced themselves. As we waited, Brenda explained that she also had extra luggage that contained a drum set (disassembled) for one of Matt’s musician friends in Cuba. This had presented no conflict in proceeding through the US security and to the departure gate. Hopefully there would be no “special” searches in Cuba.

The flight to Matanzas, Cuba was barely an hour. All of us sat near the front of the plane, excited to be traveling to this Caribbean nation. Our elated moods were elevated further as we descended and we caught our first glimpses of the island.

This smaller airport was not extremely busy, and we were soon inside the terminal and queued toward the Customs check. Individually, we were called forward and faced a stone faced, serious, unsmiling young Cuban woman who took our papers and checked records from her side of a little booth as we were to look forward at a small camera as she looked over the documents. At one point I had looked over the counter or turned to look around, but she instructed me to look forward at the camera. Well, OK then. I surely was not about to annoy anyone so that they would have reason to detain me. In less than a couple of minutes, I was directed to open the next door as she buzzed me in. This next room was the actual check in of our carry on bags. Our little band of travelers consisted of Mark, John, Kevin and Tom, Brenda and I. 

All of us made it through this process rather quickly and without incident.

Except for Brenda.

The rest of us proceeded to the far side of the room, waiting for our checked luggage at the carousel, a process that was  s—l—o—w as the minutes ticked away and the sporatic conveyor sat idle for long periods of time.

As we waited, there was no sign of Brenda. What had become of her?

After considerable waiting, all of us had finally gathered our luggage, including Brenda’s large suitcase containing the drum set, but we continued to wait for our complete group to gather before proceeding through a final clearance and stepping out of the airport terminal. 

But still, no Brenda.

Now what the heck happened to Brenda?

u © Donald E. Kline 2012