Zurich to Paris
22. March: This is the day we start on our journey.
I had a long night awake packing everything and I decide to go and buy a mosquito net today. It is small and lightweight, but this is one item we won't have used on the entire trip. Later I hand over keys and instructions regarding the flat to Iris and then it's off to the station. Carrying the rucksack is a burden for me, I will take a couple of days for my muscles to adjust to it's weight. I meet Annewien at the airport and after picking up our last voucher (hotel in Caracas) we head to the Air France counter to check in. Apparently there is a strike of air-personnel in Paris and our AF flight is cancelled!
We are rebooked to a Swissair flight later in the day. We wonder whether we'll still be on time to catch our flight to Cuba. What a start!
Once we arrive at Paris we try to find a transit desk for our onward trip to Havana. It's not too easy to find one in the terminal we are in, so to save time, we decide to take the bus to that part of the terminal where our Havana flight is scheduled to leave and try there. The counter has a long line, we jump it (tsk, tsk!) but even so it take ages till we reach an AF agent, even though there is just one person in front of us! I guess this about the worst and slowest service which I've ever experienced, world-wide! They speak in French (what else?). We never found out whether the flight to Havana had already left or been cancelled. They tell us we must go to Havana via Madrid on the next day. I'm very reluctant to go via Madrid since I'd heard all sorts of strange things about flying with Iberia, the Spanish carrier, but we're scheduled to fly with Air Europa, instead. Phew! We get vouchers for a hotel room at Hyatt, near the airport.
We find the bus to Hyatt and check into our room. It is standard 4* fare with all amenities. I couldn't quite believe the room rate posted behind the door, which was something like 300 Euro, but I guess AF had special rates. It's a new hotel, glass and steel, and has a huge airy atrium with flowing water. Going to the top floor and looking down, the voluminous space, glass roof and steel structure were quite impressive. Dinner was included, so eventually we went down and our fellow-AF passengers were seated at large round tables in a segregated room. We got a full menu with red wine, ok but not really fitting to Hyatt standards. We find an Internet cafñ and decide to check our mail and me the stock market. Since it is quite expensive we don't stay long, moreover the PCs and printer have a number of problems (besides the keyboard layout which doesn't match what is displayed on the screen; we'd have this problem so frequently at the many Internet cafes during our trip!!).
We retire to our room, luckily I had taken along some things for the night like my toilet bag and a spare T-shirt and they came in real handy. We're dead tired and go to sleep quickly. Our flight to Madrid is early in the morning so we need to get up accordingly. There is a regular shuttle bus to the airport and we plan to take it.
23. March: Paris to Havana
We get up in time in our room at Hyatt in Paris. The shuttle bus is waiting and ready to go and we still need to check out of the hotel, but there is already one person at the reception. Since Paris lines seem to be s-l-o-w everywhere (from yesterday's experience!) I just dump the room key on the reception counter, say I'm checking out and run to the bus where Annewien is already waiting.
Paris Airport is exceptionally futuristic, glass and steel are omnipresent and in wonderful shapes. The check-in and the flight to Madrid are uneventful.
Madrid has a new, modern airport. We find the Air Europa counter to check in but there they say they don't have us on their passenger list! Some convincing later, we have our boarding passes. The service definitely is so much better than Air France's.
I decide to buy a small cheap travel radio for news and music. We find a small electronics store amongst the "duty free" shops and I buy one of the cheapest, which, I discover later, sounds accordingly, which isn't really very surprising. Next time I'll buy a good radio in advance. I also buy a diary with a colourful cover to keep notes. We have a meal, then board our Airbus to Havana.
I'd never heard of "Air Europa" before, it seems to be a kind of charter airline, since there were quite a few young, joyous and energetic holiday-makers on their way to enjoy their time in Cuba. Service and seats are so-so and nothing to write home about. I can't make out any landscape-details below us and I assume it is mostly sea.
When it starts getting dusk I suddenly discover that there is land below us!
It happened so suddenly! This must be Cuba!
I'm a bit apprehensive about entering Cuba since I've heard a lot about the communist-style interrogation at immigration. There is a huge array of about 20 immigration booths and the passengers distribute themselves in queues so there are no long lines. We must present ourselves at the booth person by person, not collectively, so Annewien and me split. The official takes my passport, asks me from where I have come, with which airline, asks me how long I would stay, and carefully pages through my passport, which he holds beneath the counter, away from my view. A check in the computer seems to be negative and he activates the electric door lock to allow me through. That was quick enough! Luckily, he didn't ask me where I would stay: we'd just booked one night at St. John's hotel and we'd heard all sorts of stories about one requiring a proof of room-reservation of three nights.
We meet again and walk to the luggage-claim area. Eventually our bags appear and they are in one piece. I am relieved that everything's arrived safely. It would have been quite a disaster if our bags had gotten misrouted due to our chaotic flight schedule! Modern airport luggage routing got a mark-up in confidence from me.
We grab our backpacks and leave the airport to find a taxi outside to take us to the hotel. Travel notes had stated we shouldn't pay more than 8 dollars for the ride to Havana, but that seems to be outdated information. They all ask something between 14 and 17 dollars, many being metered. We take one for a flat fee of 15 dollars and he covers up his meter with a towel. The night drive reminds me of night arrival in New Delhi, India, since there were quite a lot of exhaust fumes in the air, particularly diesel. Strange, because there is not too much traffic to be seen.
Eventually we reach our hotel, I hope that our voucher is still valid because we had originally reserved for the previous night. We had been able to send a message to the hotel about our delay via the AF counter in Paris and this message seemed to have actually arrived! Everything's ok, we're shown our room on the 12th floor which supposedly has a magnificent view over the Malecon (Havana's sea-promenade) and the city, but it's dark now. I give the porter a dollar and that seems to be a lot (it is, for Cuban standards!) as he shows us everything there is to know about the room, TV, bath, view.
We knew we weren't at home anymore when we had a shower: there was no shower curtain, the water was cold and the stream of water none too gentle. We're back out to the street for a quick drink and find a cafñ on the corner playing live music. All the tables were already occupied. We get placed by the waiter at the table of a older Cuban couple who had just indicated to us that the seats were not free.
The music was so-so and we have some beers. I hadn't been sure about crime and being able to walk outside after dark and was a bit apprehensive initially. I didn't really know what to do with all of our valuables. I instinctively felt taking all my money on me would be safer than leaving it in the room. We were just a short distance from our hotel, so I somehow felt safe.