The plane arrived on schedule, landing smoothly in Havana after a short flight from Miami. Before hitting the ground, I could see vast farming fields in mismatched patches scattered across the landscape. Although spotted with houses and tiny clusters of dwellings, from a bird’s eye view the coastal region seemed fairly unpopulated and dominated by roughly cut crops. Now, at ground-level, the country hardly looked agricultural. Even from the tiny window I saw tall buildings in the distance, cars, fences, and paved lots. The most striking image was the chain link fence, topped with coils of barbed wire. From what I could see, this fence surrounded every part of the airport, serving the dual purpose of keeping people in but also keeping people out.
Expecting a delay between landing and exiting the plane, I remained seated for a few moments. The Cuban woman to my left – who had prayed quietly for the duration of the trip, her eyes closed and hands clasped – stood up quickly and retrieved her bag from the overhead compartment. She had spoken to me before the flight took off, telling me that I would love Cuba and enjoy the beautiful sights. On my right, the elderly man who had sat silently staring out the window, eagerly moved to stand up but was restricted by his seatbelt. He fumbled with the clasp on the belt, his movements becoming more frantic by the second. With his frail fingers, I suspected it was easy to get the clasp in, but hard to get it out. I gestured to him, smiled, and showed him how to unclasp the belt. He returned a grateful smile and then stared anxiously towards the exit, a look of excitement on his face. I wondered if he was one of the emigrants from the 1960’s or the 1980 Mariel Boatlift, returning to Cuba for the first time in decades.
Once allowed to disembark, the rest of the passengers and I shuffled to the exit at the front of the plane and stepped out into bright sunshine. A flight of moveable stairs led me down to the tarmac and I descended happily, grateful for the slow entrance which allowed me to breathe my first breath of Cuban air. At the bottom of the staircase I expected a crew member to hurry the crowd along, but I did not see anyone offering directions. I simply followed the trail of people towards the concrete building standing before us. I took my time, as did many others, even snapping a few photos of the plane and the surrounding area. Standing outside an airport flashing a camera was a strange action; such tourist behavior would not be permitted in an American airport.
After stepping inside the small building it became clear that I would be waiting for a while. At the front of the room was a line of cubbies, inside which sat customs officials asking for passports and visas. These cubbies were made from a cheap plastic-like material, with an open doorway at the entrance and a closed door on the opposite side, easy to get in but hard to get out. At least a dozen separate lines had already formed before the row of cubbies, as groups of people waited for processing. Some lines consisted of entire families, several older people with a herd of young children bouncing amongst themselves. Randomly dispersed in other lines I could see single travelers, people standing alone, most of whom looked towards the customs booths, seemingly unaffected by the commotion surrounding them.
In the arrival hall I claimed a space among my travel group and took time to notice the smaller details of my surroundings. A small man led a tiny dog up and down the lines of people. At first I was confused; why would a dog be allowed to walk around an airport? The man’s grip on the leash was slack and the dog did not wear a harness or any other paraphernalia signifying a crime fighting dog. Most noticeably, the dog was a rather scruffy mutt of some kind, hardly an intimidating work dog. But after watching the scene for a few moments I noticed that the man was careful to lead the dog up to every large bag or package carried inside by the passengers. The man was not dressed in official looking clothing and his pace was slow and appeared random. The image was a strong contrast to the large, muscular German shepherds and blatantly uniformed police men present in most airports in the United States. While the dog attracted some attention, it may have been due to the peculiarity of seeing a single dog inside a building full of people, rather than anxiety generated by a semi-official search procedure.
Another odd occurrence was the number of Dunkin’ Donuts bags present among the piles of carry-on luggage. I saw several people carrying huge grocery-size bags, at least four or five trays of a dozen donuts each. I recalled the Dunkin’ Donuts in the Miami airport and remembered that a forty-five minute flight was hardly enough time to cause the donuts to go stale. Still, the image of a woman carrying a bag of over forty donuts from one country to another was a bit comical.
The lines were moving quite slowly, which was not a surprise in a small airport. As I neared the entrance of the cubby, I noticed a small boy standing inside one to my left. He was alone, although his mother was issuing instructions from her spot in the line. Finally, it was my turn. I was surprised to see a woman seated at the desk once I entered the cubby. She was young with a funky hairstyle and brightly colored makeup around her eyes. I couldn’t help but notice the bright red bow affixed to her hair, making her look several years younger than her facial features suggested. She spoke to me in English, asked for the necessary paperwork, and took several minutes sorting through the visas and documents that I gave her. She instructed me to stand back and prepare for a picture, taken by the tiny camera hanging from the ceiling. Shortly after, she returned my passport, sliding the return visa, a loose square of paper, into the crease. She also handed me a ticket with a stamp on the bag, meant to act as my health insurance card while I was in Cuba. I noticed that not a single page inside my passport had been stamped. I had no permanent documentation that I had entered the country.
The buzzer rang and I was allowed to step through the exit door. Once through the gate, a wall of people blocked my vision. After weaving through the crowd I saw the conveyor belt carrying the plane’s luggage. Huge, shrink-wrapped packages were pulled along on the conveyor belt. Through the plastic I could identify bicycles, strollers, bed frames, and other similar items. The conveyor belt jutted out to the center of the room in two large loops, creating a bay area in between. This entire area was crammed with people and luggage carts, so tightly packed that there was hardly any space to walk. After waiting at the edge of the crowd and watching the conveyor belt complete one loop, it became clear that my luggage was not on it. Anxiety building, I left my shoulder bag with a friend, making my body more agile, and began to climb across the rows of luggage carts and around the people standing in the crowd. I watched people throw random bags to the side, out of their way as they crossed through the crowd and over the luggage carts. As luck would have it, my pack was against the far wall, discarded in a pile of random luggage. It was easy to get into the fray, but hard to get out with my pack weighing me down. When I finally reached the group, I was the last one to return.
Our guide, a man unknown to me at this time, signaled for the group to follow him. He led us past another security desk where a man collected another form. I focused on fighting through the last fringes of the crowd. Trying to stay with the group took so much effort that I didn’t notice stepping through the exterior doors and emerging outside once again. As soon as the fresh air hit my face I looked up and an involuntary exclamation escaped me; less than ten feet in front of me was a giant wall of people, held back by a fence, yelling and reaching out to other arrivals. The sheer volume of this new crowd projected a mixture of crying, yelling, happy shrieks, and angry tones. Uniformed men patrolled the perimeter, making sure that no one from the crowd crossed the fence. Without pause, our guide led us, a large group of predominantly white North American students, through the one small gap in the fence, pushing against the crowd of people striving to see into the arrival hall.
And with a few more small steps I was in officially and legally in Havana, Cuba, walking across a parking lot filled with 1950’s American cars, heading towards a coach bus that would ferry me around the country for the next seven days. I took a final glance over my shoulder at the crowd waiting to greet arrivals. Some might be waiting for friends or partners. Some of these people, especially the young ones, might be waiting for strangers, relatives they’ve never met in person who left the country years ago and are only recently allowed to return. Although annoying, it was so easy for me to fill out a few forms, check a few boxes, and hop on a flight to Cuba. For others, I suspected it was much harder to get in, and even harder to get out.