Deep sigh of relief. I’m writing this just a few moments after boarding the Caribbean Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale to Jamaica. The rest of the passengers are still boarding and I’m comfy, with plenty of leg room in the window seat. It’s 15:46 US time.
This morning I woke up in Havana, Cuba, in a small hotel by the sea on 1st Street, not far from the Russian Embassy. I now feel like a weight’s been lifted, and here’s why. Since my last post, I had experienced the relative luxury of a lovely big hotel in the Dominican Republic. The weather had been overcast but sunny, and the manager Matt spoilt me with great food and a free treatment in the spa.
I was dragged back to reality the morning I left that hotel. I woke up early, at about 06:00, to the sudden panic that I had left my tourist visa for Cuba at home. This was indeed the case. The only visa I needed for the first three months of the trip (a total of 90 in all), and I had left it at home, neatly filed away. Ha, all the planning and one little mistake. Anyway, a few emergency calls to my PA Carla, and Maz from Universal Visa Services (the company looking after all my visa needs), and they emailed me a copy of the visa. I dashed to the hotel front desk, jumped on the designated printer computer and, problem solved… I had my visa. It was a copy, but a visa nonetheless. I thought that this problem had been averted, and in a way it had been, but things didn’t really get better.
When I arrived at Santo Domingo airport, I was ready for a little hassle over my visa for Cuba. I was promptly told to stand in line and that I didn’t need a visa at all, due to being in the country for less than 72 hours. Win – didn’t need one anyway. After about two hours of queuing, though, I had just managed to leave the check-in desk about 15 minutes before my flight was due to depart, and still needed to get through the long queue at security. The only comfort I had was in knowing that half the passengers for the plane were still stuck in the check-in queue.
It’s safe to say that PAWA Dominicana isn’t that bothered about time-keeping. We took off about an hour-and-a-half late, with no mention of the delay, and after a rather frustrating struggle with passport control, which involved me explaining, in English, to a Spanish-speaking immigration officer that I had been told that I wouldn’t need a visa. She called someone on loud speaker… it rang for about 5 minutes as I was ushered to re-join the queue and wait. She proceeded to wave other people through, as I stood there, none the wiser. I approached the desk about four times before she gave up calling, and simply looked at me with disgust, angrily stamped my passport, shoved my documents back in my hand and waved me through. I still didn’t know if I was going to need a visa or not. Annoying considering I actually had one, only it was just 9,000 miles away.
So by now I was tired and a little frustrated, but nothing too bad. I was, however, due to run my Cuba marathon on the same day, and had planned to arrive at the hotel by 12:30 and run until about 18:00 before going to a dinner at the British Embassy.
At José Martí International Airport, Havana, I stood in line at the luggage carousel for some time… my bag nowhere to be seen. Another 30 minutes went by, and still no bag. I asked a few people… and got nowhere. Later my bag was circling the belt, rather lonely. I picked it up and was immediately told to give my passport to an official. I obliged, being the polite British boy I am. “You have a drone in your bag?” “Yes”, I said. I was then told it was illegal to take a drone into Cuba and was hurried off to join a queue of seemingly other ‘naughty’ people. The queue wasn’t moving. Two-and-a-half hours later I got no further, and after several failed attempts at speaking with a ‘supervisor’, I was told to wait. All this time, of course, my passport had been taken off and I had no idea where it was. Not great. Eventually I did manage to find a lady who had my passport… who then grumpily signalled for me to sit down, which I did. I then watched her walk off, handbag over her shoulder, pop my passport into a corner of a busy (and dirty) airport hall… and disappear. I could see my passport getting lost. I wasn’t happy because I had no idea if I’d still be sitting there for the entire evening, or even longer.
There’s no internet virtually anywhere in Cuba, so I got on to Lesley at the British Embassy, my pre-arranged contact. We spent about £10 texting back and forth before she thankfully suggested coming to get me. I felt rather silly, but at the same time I felt I wasn’t being treated particularly well, and needed sleep. Anyway, four hours passed and the drone had been seized with the promise of returning it to me on my departure. A rather lengthy form was completed, and then hand-copied by someone else onto another form. I later found out that the extended delay was due to the lady in charge of confiscating goods being on lunch. So the queue got bigger until she finally appeared and, without a word, processed my ‘illegal’ item while having a good old chat to her mates, none of whom were doing anything other than looking at their nails and pulling their ill-fitting uniforms up, out and down.
Just as an aside, about two hours earlier I had approached a couple of official-looking people, and asked what was going on… one was sitting on the other’s lap in the corner of the airport, snogging. Didn’t even respond to me. Maybe I was I rude to interrupt their ‘alone’ time (in a crowded airport, while on duty)…
Lesley collected me, and drove me to the hotel. I had to decline dinner with the Embassy staff, though, because it was now getting late. I did have time for a quick bite, care of Lesley, in a place near the hotel. It was a lovely evening, but I was shattered, and I had one day left to run and rest before moving on to the next country. I was stressed and tired. Man did I have some weird dreams that night…
To make matters worse I couldn’t say hello to the team at home easily, because the internet in Cuba is so poor, and only available after purchasing a one-hour token for $2, and I wasn’t able to stray too far from the lobby without losing signal. I scratched the token, got online and was then ready for bed.
05:00 alarm, and I was up ready to face Marathon 6. I was still looking forward to running in Cuba, and the weather was great. Not hot and not cold. But I was still shattered, and really wasn’t feeling it. Shoes on, though, and out I went.
26.2 miles later, I had taken in the sights, enjoyed the views of lovely old cars in seemingly pristine condition and others in not such good shape. I also bumped into a guy who used to live just around the corner from me in Bristol. What a small world.
Apart from the cars and the interesting old town, my first impressions of Cuba weren’t great. The contradictions surrounding the trade embargo were confusing – one minute it’s a country with cars form the 1950s and no Wi-Fi, and then there are huge billboards advertising imported products like fizzy drinks, Samsung and other bits and pieces. I need to learn more about the country, but I left, feeling relieved to get back into the land of Wi-Fi.
I think my anxiety was compounded by the fact that I was nervous about running in Jamaica. And just a few hours ago I had been told that I would be able to run around the High Commission’s courtyard, if I wanted. With over 200,000 British tourists visiting the country each year, you’d think things would be safe… but typically not, especially with military action happening in other parts of the country, like Montego Bay. Kingston should be safe enough, but FCO advice is still to stay inside and not leave your hotel, which is something I can’t do. Thanks to my PA Carla and her contacts with the Embassy for arranging a good way forward where I could lap the compound, which is gated and secure. I could also have my water in one place, and just take it easy. Not fun, and rather dull, but my mind was somewhat at rest.
The lesson I have learnt is not to take lovely big hotels with spas for granted just before venturing into a country that offers Wi-Fi by the hour, or where it’s not safe to run out on the streets.
I hope Jamaica is safe and enjoyable, and not too hot. I have an early start tomorrow, being picked up at 07:00 to start the run. Well, that’s the plan anyway.
Don’t get me wrong, Cuba probably wasn’t the problem… Just like a child, I am over-tired, stressed and exhausted. So I need to get back into my rhythm and accept changes better. I have lots of great things to come.
I hope everyone still donates. I need that Just Giving page to be ticking over nicely.