We arrived in Havana, Cuba, after a short, uneventful journey.
How I wish that were true!
A group of 7 half-asleep young people and 2 very asleep ‘guardians’ from around the United Reformed Church Synod of Scotland gathered in the middle of the night to set off on a week-long trip to Cuba to visit our partners in the Presbyterian Reformed Church of Cuba. The journey is long. An hour and 10 minutes with BA to London then a 9.5 hour Virgin Atlantic flight from Gatwick to Havana. But before that we need to check in.
It should be simple, but then life never is! Use the self-service check in. It makes life easier. Two of the group get checked in. Seven don’t. Simple.
We head for the desk to discover that changing Erik’s name to the correct spelling last week has caused some kind of problem in the system. ‘Computer says ‘duh”. It takes a while but the check-in lady fixes us up and checks our bags through to Havana. I wonder if we will ever see them again!
In the departure lounge we decide the play it cool, waiting for the line to go down before boarding. It turns out to be both a good and bad plan. Whatever the check-in lady did has messed up our bag references so they all need to be re-entered. It’s good we waited because we aren’t holding anyone up at the gate but bad… we’re holding up an entire plane full of people instead. We board, eventually, and arrive in London Gatwick without further incident.
Negotiating ‘Flight Transfers’ is always fun, especially when you have to change terminal but we seem to end up in the right place, a Virgin desk where a lady re-enters all our details as a massive queue forms behind us. Visas? Em… not exactly. We’re travelling on religious visas which were only issued a couple of days ago so we only have colour copies. The visas are waiting for us in Havana. Hmm… A phone call later and we’re on our way, meeting Angela and Shona who flew from Inverness last night.
Our out bound flight is delayed by an hour or so (more about why that might have been later) but it’s a Jumbo with only 140 people on board so we have loads of room for the outbound flight.
Arriving in Havana
Anyone who has travelled somewhere hot will know the feeling of stepping off an air-conditioned plane through a wall of heat.
Welcome to Havana!
It’s 35C and a thunderstorm is crashing off towards the coast. It’s unbelievably humid. So much so that my glasses and camera lens steamed up when we stepped out of the airport.
There were familiar friendly faces to meet us and the usual problems with Scottish money (they don’t take it).
Outside our bus soon pulled up… with Luis, our driver, at the wheel. And what a bus it was. An old skool Toyota mini-bus with leather seats, sliding windows, fold-down centre seats, no air conditioning but a whole lot of character.
You could tell this week was going to be ‘different’ when the cases were loaded through the side window at the back and we climbed aboard for the trip to our home for the week, Luyano Presbyterian Reformed Church in Havana.
Cuba is like stepping back in time. There are old cars, horses and carts, the roads are terrible. But the thing that we all noticed first was the complete absence of adverts. There are no billboards advertising Coke, McDonalds or whatever. Instead the advertising hoardings proclaim the 50th Anniversary of the Revolution. There are slogans everywhere. Pictures of Che Guevara, Fidel and the other heroes of the Revolution. The heat is overpowering. The smell of petrol fumes wafts in the wide open windows. Cars swerve to avoid the potholes and horns honk to encourage people to move over just a little bit more, people cling to the back of trucks and crowd onto buses.
As we start to drive past houses the scale of the delapidation becomes obvious. The houses are falling apart. Crumbling through time, weather and poverty on a scale that is hard to imagine. The excited chatter on the bus dies away as we come face to face with real life in Cuba.
This is our street, our home for a week. This is the view from our window. It’s not hard to imagine the former glory of these once beautiful buildings. The columns and cornices are crumbling reminders of what once was.
It would be easy to complain about our rooms. The beds were boards with a thin mattress, the shower was a choice between cold and electrocution, the air-conditioning was noisier than a jet engine. But looking out the window makes those kind of complaints seem petty and selfish.
Dinner was another reminder of how lucky we are. Rice, beans, avocado and some kind of meat. For the next week we had rice, beans, avocado and a little meat for lunch and dinner. Every day. The beans varied, the meat changed, but it was basically the same meal. And this was a feast.
Our evening ended with a meeting to talk about our programme for the week. But more about that as we go on…
Then it was off to bed for the most uncomfortable and noisy night’s sleep I’ve had in ages. But then, this is Cuba.