The flight is uneventful and takes about 9 hours. We have independent entertainment systems; my viewing choices are Room, Sing Street and Midnight Special and I enjoy all of them. Arrival in Cuba proves to be something of an endurance test – first we queue for ages for immigration, then to scan our hand baggage, then the waits for our baggage to arrive. There’s plenty of time to observe the local airport staff, revealing that a) there are a lot of them b) they each seem to have very little to do and c) the women are all sporting elaborately patterned black fishnets in a wide variety of designs, to complement their uniforms which have very short skirts, for a uniform. We complete a customs declaration then queue again to go through customs clearance. We finally clear the airport around 3 hours after touching down; I’ve lost the will to live and we’re so keen to get away it doesn’t occur to us to try and change money before we identify ourselves to the rep.
We’re shown to a minibus and begin our drive to Havana. It’s hot – really hot – but especially humid. The land is flat and green, dotted with small houses and a rag-tag assortment of vehicles. As we approach Havana the roads get busier and more built up, and the streets get increasingly narrow until finally our small minibus can go no further; the driver pulls up at the corner of a square and gestures that we should continue on foot. We are greeted warmly by our Havana landlady Ines who shows us through a narrow blue door, up some stairs and through what looks like somebody else’s living room into our apartment on the corner of the Plaza Vieja.The apartment has high ceilings, antique furniture and tall windows that open fully, the living room one onto a tiny balcony which has a sideways view of the square and overlooks a derelict and very dilapidated but once beautiful building. Our bedrooms are blissfully, if loudly, air conditioned with old iron bedsteads. Ines speaks a little English and is keen to show us pictures of her children, a girl slightly older and a boy slightly younger than Alex. We help ourselves to a beer from the fridge (these will be a feature of our trip – cold drinks whenever we need them for CUC or two).
Ines has told us where we can find an ATM but when Simon and I venture out after she leaves, we find it’s not working. It’s late, we need dinner and we have no currency. Simon and I find a large map on the street showing locations of money change facilities and set off to look for another ATM. We don’t find one, but we do begin to get a sense of Havana’s personality. Many locals are sitting on the narrow streets chatting, windows and shutters are open giving glimpses into living rooms with TVs or music playing. Some buildings house small independent businesses – cobblers, merchants and mechanics - and what appears to be a falcon sitting on the window frame.
We return to our casa, negotiate the stairgate erected by our neighbours at the top of the staircase for their toddler, pick up some Sterling and change a small amount at a nearby hotel in San Francisco Square. Alex declares himself too tired for dinner so Simon and I go in search of food, settling for a place with a movie theme at the opposite corner of the square and paying CUC25 for beer, mojito and reasonable food. The live band is louder than we would like but the food is welcome. Back at the casa, the faint sound of salsa can be heard from the toilet and the buzz of the city is just discernible over the loud air conditioner in our bedroom, but sleep comes easily.