When the wheels of the plane touched the runway of Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, I immediately started to cry. I was overwhelmed. It had been a long journey, and every step of the way, I had yearned, for reasons unbeknownst to myself, to go to Cuba. My visa had been denied at the embassy in Kenya, and I had to appeal. A visa denied, as writer Jackson Biko so eloquently put it a couple of years ago, is traumatizing to the soul. It makes you question your worth. It makes you question your bank balance. It makes you question whether you should have worn a dress instead of jeans to go be rejected. Maybe if they had seen flowers, it would have made them a little bit more amenable?
But I got the visa. Then, there was the journey. Six hours to Istanbul, then 14 hours in the now refurbished airport there. Was I supposed to get a hotel? Yes. Did they forget to tell me that I needed a transit visa to access the hotel? Yes. Was it in the terms and conditions for my ticket with the airline? No.
You can tell why I was weeping by the time the plane landed. Because Istanbul to Havana is a 14-hour flight, I had been travelling for 34 hours. My last flight was next to an old lady who I could not bear asking to move so I could go to the bathroom, so I stood up a total of one time to go pee.
Hoping the drama was over, I leapt into immigration joyfully, already approving of the miniskirts and fishnet stockings all the ladies at customs seemed to wear – until the lady who stamped my passport wasn’t stamping my passport, but instead, called over her supervisor.
45 minutes later, after umpteen questions on where I was going, where I was from, who I worked for over there (I was scared to say journalist, but I figured, this is Cuba, they’ll find out anyway), which cities I was planning to visit (Varadero, Cienfuegos, Trinidad de Cuba and Viñales, in no particular order), they finally let me loose. And now I was actually, truly, freely and legally in Havana.
Havana. If that word does not conjure up pictures of dramatic dancing, cigar smoke, a splash of dictatorship and constantly good weather, then I must not have said it loud enough. HAVANA! I just really wanted to go – I just wanted to see what it was like. I was enraptured with the romance of a place I had never seen, but it exceeded my every expectation. I expected it to be good, but not spectacular. Not like this.
The summary is, if you like old cars, good dancing, free spirits and breathtaking architecture, go to Cuba. I remember as soon as I got into the AirBnB, I left again, just so I could walk on the streets and people watch, and figure out where to get Wi-Fi, like the Kenyan I am. Cuba doesn’t have Wi-Fi at every home (Kenyans are so spoilt) – they have it in public parks, and you have to buy a card with minutes on it, like a scratch card, and then go to a park to use it. The cards also run out at a certain point, and expire if you use them in a different city.
After the rest of my travelling party landed, and after they went through their interrogation as well, we set about planning our itinerary for the next two weeks. These are the highlights:
Perfect breakfasts. Dancing in Fabrica* under a full moon with sweaty bodies whose names you don’t know, then buying yet another drink to do it all again. Walking through a hallowed cemetery with such pristinely sculpted tombs that you think there’s no way these people love the dead this much – and then when you pass a 45 metre tall tombstone, you realize they do, and not just because the first president’s parents are buried there. Having a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio – the one in Trinidad, because the one in Havana is a tourist trap – and writing your name on the visitor’s wall, next to the portraits of all the famous people. Being surrounded by art on walls from a revolution that has passed, and from one still waiting to happen. Riding horses through a tobacco farm, and learning how to roll cigars from a wizened uncle who looks very tired of the fifth group of tourists he’s seen today. More dancing. More rum. A lot of rum. A lot of guavas, and guava juice, squeezed from the juiciest plumpest pinkest guavas you’ve ever had the pleasure to taste.
More dancing – this time in a little town square where everyone and their whole families come to dance too, and reggaeton is blaring from a speaker in the corner as couples salsa, whirring. Strolling along the Malecón – the biggest road in Havana, closest to the Atlantic Ocean, whose address is simply, 1, watching people pour out of their houses to watch the sunset – and use the Wi-Fi spot. Weaving in and out of museums that smell like an age ago, with spirits still there. Climbing to the top of the hill where ‘Cuban Jesus’ overlooks Havana – they call him so, because instead of holding his arms outstretched, one hand looks like it’s holding a cigar, and the other looks like it is holding a glass of Havana Club. Riding in those convertibles you see in the movies, bright pink with leather seats and a driver called Andy, to the revolution square where Castro and Che Guevara’s faces tower above. Having your fortune read by a Santeria holy woman, and attending a religious ceremony unlike anything Christianity has ever seen before.
And more rum. Though if I am being honest, the experience is heady enough for you to not need any more intoxication. At the end of the trip, I was intoxicated enough to swear that I would return to this land. When it was time to leave Havana, when every last penny in my pocket had been claimed by Cuba, including my rent, when I knew that the romance wouldn’t be the same long distance and by the time I came back, something else, something more, would have changed…I cried again.
Photographs: Magunga Williams