Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Stranded In Cuba

Stranded In Cuba
by Jessica Marati on Nov 28th 2012 at 10:00AM

We were ready to leave Cuba. We had toasted our last mojitos, danced our
last salsa steps and bid farewell to our home-stay hosts with promises
to return.

But Cuba had other plans for us – or rather, Cubana Airlines did.

We arrived at Jose Marti International Airport two hours before
departure. One counter was open, with a line at least one hundred deep.
Yup, we were ready to leave Cuba.

Thirty minutes passed, and the line didn't budge. We decided to buy
postcards. An hour later, the line had moved forward a few feet. I went
for a beer. Two and a half hours later, tensions were high and patience
was thin. My boyfriend and I had spent the last twenty minutes trying to
head off the Italian girls behind us, who were obviously trying to cut
in line. This wasn't the time nor the place for generosity. It was every
man for himself.

We finally reached the counter. I handed off my passport, glaring at the
counter agent who was preoccupied in conversation with a co-worker. Five
minutes later, she hadn't given my passport a glance. Finally, she
looked over my information, checked my name off a list and handed the
passport back to me. "Go outside, the bus will take you to the hotel."

"Hotel?" I sputtered, torn between the urge to burst into tears and
strangle her.

"Yes, the flight has been canceled. You will leave tomorrow," she said,
reaching out her arm for the Italian passports behind us. Nonchalant.
Dismissive. I, on the other hand, was about to lose it.

After ten days in Cuba, I really shouldn't have been surprised. Earlier
in our vacation, we had encountered some of the frustrations of life
here. Internet? That'll be $6 an hour, and only in hotels. But this
hotel's 24-hour cyber café is closed, the next hotel has computers but
no password tarjetas and the next hotel has password tarjetas but no
computers. So you volley between three different hotels until finally
you reach a PC from the 1990s that, after an excruciatingly long wait,
allows you access to the HTML version of Gmail.

"Lo siento," says everyone I encounter along the way. "Es domingo." I'm
sorry, it's Sunday.

But today isn't Sunday. It's Monday, and we have a flight that is
supposed to transport us to Mexico. Instead, we are herded onto an
air-conditioned bus and shuttled to the Hotel Panorama, a 317-room
monstrosity in the affluent Havana suburb of Miramar. It's an odd place,
this Panorama, and as we check in and check out our room, we wonder who
would actually pay to stay here. The air is stale, the decorations
charmless and the paper on the free soap sticks to the bathroom sink – a
sure sign it's been sitting there for a while.

But today, the hotel is bustling as dozens of harpooned travelers occupy
the lobby and common areas. The receptionists are accustomed to dealing
with frustrated travelers; it seems that Cubana Airlines has a
reputation for delaying and sometimes outright canceling its flights,
without rhyme or reason. No one is sure if the delay is due to
maintenance or weather. We could depart this evening, or we could depart
Thursday. When I ask the receptionist if we can leave the hotel, she
smiles apologetically and says that we probably shouldn't, lest the
airline deign to make an official announcement. "We have a swimming
pool," she offers.

And so we head to the swimming pool, and we lie on the pool chairs,
stuck in limbo between work mode and vacation mode, anxiety and
relaxation, the real world and Cuba. There's nothing to do but wait,
swim and avail ourselves of the plentiful, if mediocre, free buffet. All
out of local currency, we opt not to take advantage of the extra night
out. We're in bed by 9 p.m.

The next day, we head to the lobby at 10:30 a.m, the time our bus driver
told us we'd be shuttled back to the airport. But that's not happening.
Reception tells us to check back at noon, then 1, then 3. Powerless at
the hands of Cuban bureaucracy, the travelers begin camping out in the
lobby out of protest, or perhaps just boredom. Friendships are made;
alliances are formed. One German guy breaks out his guitar, and an
international chorus joins him in Bob Marley songs. I'm too frustrated
to join in the camaraderie, so I glare while typing cynical observations
on my laptop.

In time, we make it back to the airport, past security, onto the
airplane and into the sky. When we finally touch down in Cancun, the
plane erupts in cheers. For a while there, we weren't sure we'd ever
make it out.

Cuba is a fascinating country with a rich culture, beautiful scenery and
hospitable people. But it is also a country plagued with bureaucracy and
inefficiency. My frustration with Cubana Airlines is nothing compared to
the frustrations that face many Cubans as they go about their day-to-day
business. The 36 hours we spent stranded was a pain. But perhaps it was
one of the most authentic looks at the reality of life in Cuba, beyond
the mojitos and salsa music."

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