Stranded In Cuba

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.

%Gallery-172016%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.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]