Nothing has smelled sweeter to me or brought back more memories than walking through the security gate to the smoke-hazed Havana airport. Then again, maybe that was the fear seeping in and clouding my judgment.
As the plane approached the runway to land, I felt my heart beating a million miles an hour. Trying to calm myself down I took deep breaths and made myself appreciate the landscape – hell, if they didn’t let me into the country, at least I got to land in it again. As if I were taking a polygraph test, I made myself slow my breathing and heart rate, knowing that the more nervous I looked, the worse off I’d be, so eventually I pushed my way into a group of people deplaning and looked like I knew what I was doing. So far, so good. We line up just like in any other international airport and prepare to have our passports checked. The woman asked me a few questions – had I been to Cuba before? What was the purpose of my visit? – and had me look into the camera at eye level. A smile from her and I got buzzed through the locked door. Section one: complete.
On the other side of the door was a young man checking our passports again and comparing them with a list he held in his hand, and before he handed mine back I got a look up-and-down and was asked to go through the security screening and meet him on the other side. I waited in another line while people unloaded their stuff and passed through a metal detector, but I made it to the other side where a handful of others were also awaiting the return of their passports. So we waited. And waited. Some people got theirs back, others had theirs taken to be checked, but there seemed to be little method to this madness (however since I was now in Cuba, I’m sure they had a system that made sense to them) and I approached the young man holding onto a stack of what seemed to be about 20 passports from various countries. I asked him if I should go get my bags from the belt and he held up his hand for me to wait. Which I did.
After what seemed like an eternity but was probably only about 15 minutes, he corralled 5-6 of us together, asked us to retrieve our bags and meet up with a more official looking man standing off to the side, which we all gladly (and nervously) did. As I pulled my bags off the conveyer belt and walked to where they told me to stand, my heart was palpitating once again when I realized that one gentleman who was in our “group” was having his bag very thoroughly searched on the table next to me. What was I going to say when they found all the copies of passenger lists and maps with the Tucan logo? I had my story already worked out, and hoped that my acting skills weren’t too out of practice to make my story believable.
A young guy dressed in white and full of smiles came up to me with my passport in his hand. Full of smiles was good, I thought, and he doesn’t look too tough. I smiled at him – the most charming smile I could conjure – and he referred to a list of questions he was to ask me and fill out. Name, age, reason for travel. Had I been in Cuba before? Did I like it? How long was I going to stay? How much money was I bringing in? Did I have my return ticket already booked? What hotel was I staying at? In between the official questions were those that, I strongly believe, helped me get through with little hassle: when did you get your tongue pierced? Do you have a Cuban boyfriend? Do you dance salsa? During the “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” of this process, I think I made a good impression and my fears dissipated when, after only about five minutes of questioning, he handed me my passport, gave me a wink, and wished me safe travels and an enjoyable time in his country. My bags were untouched, unopened and safe. I may have done a little dance.
And all of a sudden, there I was, in the reception area of the Havana airport! I almost kissed the ground! I looked around for the taxi driver who was to be there to pick me up and started to worry when I didn’t see him right away, but then there it was: a piece of paper with my name scrawled on it. My cheeks hurt, I was smiling so much, and as I changed Euros into CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos – equivalent to the US dollar approximately, but the dollar has been illegal since 2003) and met Boris, our driver, who helped me with my bags.