The first day in Cuba was not particularly eventful, but it was an introduction to the slow lifestyle there, and a first hint that all the things I can buy in shops in Europe, might not be that readily available in Cuba.
I don’t remember that well how it looked from the plane when we landed, but I do remember the first impression in Dominican Republic. It was evening, and the entire landscape was filled with vegetation, and the sun was bright colors of red, pink, purple, orange. The colors you get on hot days. In Cuba we landed during the day, so everything was more bright, more uniformly scorched yellow, and the landscape looked more arid. There were palm trees though. Sign you’re on vacation.
Before collecting our luggage, we had to pass customs, where a lady asked me if I recently visited any country in Africa, and why do I live in Netherlands, but I took the plane from Berlin. The answer to the second question is simple: last minute planning; we bought the tickets late, and all the direct flights from Amsterdam were sold out by that time.
Waiting for the luggage was a slow process, without clear signs where the suitcases might come from. I was patiently waiting for the luggage, Cristina was taking some photos. At one point the band where we were waiting stopped. No more luggage. It looked like people were moving to wait at another band. I concluded the luggage might come on another band. We waited some more, took more pictures. Asked some people if this is where the luggage is going to come. Yes, this should be the place. After half an our or more we got our suitcases.
I can keep on claiming my luggage never got lost since I first started traveling by plane (fingers crossed).
We get into the actual airport (Varadero in case I forgot to mention), and my first thought is to buy sun screen and a map. “Arrivals” is a vast area, looking quite empty but spacious. There is an exchange kiosk, a place to pay the visa fee, but nothing else. A bit confused that my expectations to find a shop were proved completely wrong, we decide to find the car rental place. I think we ask where it is, and we are indicated to exit the building and turn right. It is sunny outside, not unbearably hot, and we are slowly dragging our suitcases. There is a wall so we cannot see around the corner, but after 5 min of walking we see a big parking lot with many, new looking European cars parked, and on the side of the parking lot a place to buy snacks. Like many other food places, this “snack shop” consists of a bar where you can order drinks or food (a bit like the stands at festivals in Europe), and in front of the bar tables and chairs to sit. There are some people sitting there, they look at us passing by and wave.
The car rental place is a series of rooms built bungalow style, one room next to each other, each room hosting the office of a different rental company. The building is very simple. Straight concrete walls painted white or bright blue. At the end we find our agency, signaled with a sign printed on paper in the window. The office reminded me of the time when my dad was working in a communist agriculture cooperation in Romania, and was in charge of a farm and the planting, growing and harvesting of a number of cereals. The farm my dad managed had a number of house-like buildings, one for the office, one for the tractor drivers, one for the night watch to sleep in. The buildings was just the ground floor, built very simply, namely four walls, floor, ceiling, painted white, with a desk and chairs in the office. The whole setup was anything but glamorous, simply practical and not made for the comfort or enjoyment of the people working there. The car rental office was more or less the same, one small room with a desk and a chair, an old lady with poofed hair that was looking for our booking in a huge A5 registry, and one of those calendars with naked women you hang by a nail. An older guy that seemed to be between my dad’s and my grandfather’s age appeared to be in charge.
Initially they could not find our reservation in the registry, so they told us to wait outside while they call the central. It will only take half an hour.
So we move outside; there is a chair right next to the entrance, Cristina and me take turns sitting down. We eat some crackers she has, the sun starts to seem strong so I get my sunglasses. We can see taxis driving up to the front of the airport, picking up people with luggage. Outside the car rental some more people seem to be waiting for their cars and discussing with the people working there.
Half an hour later we go back in; the car is still not to be found. Despite speaking Spanish, the communication is a bit lost in translation. Between me and Cristina we figure out our car is actually in Varadero, and that we need to pay extra to bring it here. The parking was full of cars, so I was wondering why our car was somehow earmarked and got lost in Varadero. In the end we explained that we booked the car from the airport and that we’re not paying any extra fee. After a bit more discussing we were informed the car is on it’s way, and the lady with poofy hair told me the driver is really cute. I smiled not knowing how to reply and resumed my waiting outside.
The other people waiting for their cars were already packed and left. One by one, we were the only ones still waiting. The sun was getting milder and the place was keeping its general sense of tranquility and lack of a need to rush.
Eventually the car arrived, dusty and a bit scratched. When the driver came inside the office to hand over the keys, the lady teased me again that “isn’t the driver cute?”. The car was washed, we marked all the dents on a piece of paper, and they made a copy of my credit card by pressing a paper with indigo on the other side against the embossed letters. I was asking where we can buy a map of the country, and the old man working there gave us a book with fold out maps inside; every location in Cuba could be found in the index at the end. Varadero was one of the few cities to have it’s own detailed map, and the lady with permed hair explained where our hotel is and marked it on the map with a pen.
The drive to the hotel was quick and pretty straight forward. By the time we got there the sun started to go down, but the moon was already up. We had been up for a long time. Time to sleep.