HOUSTON – I'm writing this as I sit in the Havana airport. The terminal is not large. The departures area is sandwiched between the customs and immigration areas on both ends of the airport.
The airport, in many ways, reminds me of the small airport in Key West. It's small, but it gets the job done.
We flew into Havana on the first United Airlines flight out of Houston on Saturday. The Houston Airport Authority told me it was the first commercial flight on that route in more than 50 years.
It was a big deal for Houston, even Mayor Sylvester Turner and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee were at the gate to see the flight-off.
At the gate, I saw free breakfast for the passengers. If you've flown lately, on any airline, you know there are rarely free meals!
Passengers applauded as our flight landed in Havana. It was nervous energy and excitement in the atmosphere. For some, it was their first trip home to see family in Cuba. For others, it was an exciting vacation!
We were here to work.
We booked the flight in September to cover the new flight out of Houston's Intercontinental Airport. When former Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro died shortly before our trip, it threw many things into question. That included our ability to get permission from the government to work as journalists in Cuba.
It all worked out and we took off on a less-than full United Airline flight 1506.
Customs and immigration offered a unique challenge.
The security officers apparently thought the battery charger for our camera batteries was a video game. We are not sure of why, but this presented a problem. We finally cleared and were released from the airport.
Our driver, Jose, met us just outside the airport. This was good since there was limited ability to communicate with cellphones, depending on your provider.
We were able to call and text the U.S. as well as some Cuban numbers with our Verizon cellphones. However, it was impossible to text pictures or to open any app requiring data.
Taxis and cabs are readily available around the city, but we were told that only a few were available, especially when Castro memorials were being held in Havana early in the week.
The funeral activities moved east to Santiago de Cuba on Sunday.
All around town you could find taxis in the form of classic American cars and they are still running!
Americans flocked towards those cars.
In Cuba, they were on the road helping the drivers earn a living. I did wonder how they got the parts to keep their cars rolling, but then I saw a man bringing custom rims after our flight. I have a feeling the new car parts are still finding their way here somehow.
The nights were quiet as the Cubans observed a nine day period of mourning. That meant no bars or dance clubs were open.
We noticed that all alcohol was pulled off of the shelves of a store in our hotel, but the bars in the major hotels catered to tourists only.
One Houstonian, with ties to Cuba, said this government-imposed nine days of mourning was another way of Cuba controlling the people of this island. For many Cubans, Monday, the day after the nine day period could not come soon enough. Instead of going to bars and clubs, many Cubans and tourists gathered along the seawall along the Atlantic each night.
If you ever think of going to Cuba, PLEASE READ THIS:
The U.S. Dollar will not help you with the stores, hotels or services in Cuba! Your credit cards from the U.S. will not help you. They are not accepted. That means it can be difficult to prepay for a hotel reservation because U.S. Banks are not set up to talk to Cuban banks. You must bring cash (to convert) to pay for everything. The exchange rate is high. At one location, we paid an exchange rate of 14%. That meant for every dollar we exchanged, we got 85-cents back! But you don't have a choice.
And, oh, there is also a fee to pay to exchange the Cuban currency, the CUC, back into dollars. Fortunately that fee is not as steep. At a market, we were told “there are no taxes in Cuba!” Um, well, that's not quite right. Just take a look at the exchange fees!
Throughout Havana, there were signs of Castro. Giant billboard-sized signs on some government buildings showed the leader in his younger, much stronger days. Throughout the city, you could also find smaller, individual signs. Some had photos of the former leader. Others simply had the date of Castro's major battle in Santiago de Cuba. In the streets, we heard little talk about Castro's death.
His burial was in Santiago de Cuba. That is about 550 miles from Havana. We were told that drive could be from 12 to 15 hours. A cross-country flight would be much faster. Earlier in the week, his ashes were pulled on an army-green trailer behind a military truck. The path retraced, in reverse, the trek he took across the country marching towards Havana.
If you go to Cuba, everyone will ask that you bring cigars back. For a non-smoker, this was a confusing task. I wrongly assumed that all Cuban cigars were created equally. Not true!
An acquaintance sent us to a reputable store near the capitol. As we approached, a man came up trying to get in our taxi to take us to a back alley to buy his “Cuban” cigars! Others told us that the reputable store we were approaching was “closed” and we needed to come to their businesses.
Our driver told us no and we quickly went inside the store as several more men tried to get us to shop elsewhere. The cost can range from a few dollars up to $25 and beyond.
There are also many different brands and sizes. So, ask your friends specifically what they want. And make sure they send cash!
The people of Cuba are kind and see open to the Americans visiting. We stayed at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. It is a beautiful hotel. Many presidents, world leaders and celebrities have stayed there. It was built in 1930. While it is not new, it was clean and very well maintained. It is across a highway from the ocean but there is not a beach nearby. We were told that the nearest beach was about 30 minutes away. The hotel had two swimming pools and several restaurants.
There was also a bank where we could exchange money. Some told us that it was the nicest hotel on the island. I tend to believe it. The staff was courteous. We always felt safe. And the hotel's backyard (complete with peacocks) had an amazing view of the Atlantic. My photographer asked me if it's a place I would come back to visit. I replied, “yes!”
With Castro's death, there are many questions about what will come next for this island nation. Will his brother, Raul Castro, further open trade with the United States? What will a new Trump administration mean for the relationship with this country just 90 miles from Florida and 900 miles from Houston? Those answers will come in time. For now, the Cuban people appear to welcome the people of the United States. But if you come here, expect to visit a country that is, for the most part, stuck decades in the past. This is not necessarily a bad thing! It's a great time to unplug (limited WiFi or connectivity).
It is also a great time to pack a travel guide and map. I know it sounds old school but it can be a big help when you land in a foreign country. We found many people in the tourist areas speak English. That was true in a large souvenir flea market near the port. A man came up, asked where we were from and explained that his brother recently moved to Houston. The man said he might also move to the U.S. one day.
For me, Cuba reminds me of other Caribbean islands, where you also see poverty and difficult living conditions. It, too, is a tropical island with the beautiful turquoise water. The lack of modern American made cars quickly show the lack of trade between the U.S. and Cuba. There are modern cars manufactured by other companies on the road now in Cuba. That includes an Audi I saw that served as a taxi!
When I was a kid, I remember sailing, with my family, on cruises and looking over and seeing Cuba. Because of restrictions, we could only get so close. Now this has changed. I had the opportunity to see this mysterious island.
Hopefully through this writing, our video and pictures, you have too!