At check-in in Miami, the plastic wrapping machine works overtime to protect enormous bags stuffed full. The Cayman Airways counter is lined with passengers nudging along their heavily laden trolleys.
My eyes bulge as a huge 37 inch LCD TV, new tyres and wheel rims, toys spilling over the top of backpacks, trundle past to check in. It is only when I observe the pandemonium from the back of the plane that I realise: they are all Cubans. Either living in Miami (the US used to grant residency to all Cubans who arrive on its shores) or wealthy Cubans returning from their shopping trip in Miami. Not being able to source a great many things, Cubans have been forced to recycle endlessly in order to keep the old moving (hence the enormous amount of 1950’s American cars and 1970’s Soviet era trucks that remain on Cuba’s roads).
A man desperately separates the small LCD screen and some speakers that he wrapped together to carry, and hunts out space in the lockers. Another, more confused looking, ponders the task of fitting a large basket with a handle into lockers that don’t conform no matter how he twists and turns it. The man across the aisle from me carefully nurses a santa toy on his lap.
The US embargo of Cuba began around 50 years ago and has been lifted or tightened in varying degrees since then; every year the UN passes a resolution seeking its lifting and every year the US doesn’t do as they are asked. It’s hard to find many people who think it’s still a good idea and it seems to only harm the people of Cuba and provide someone for the Castros to blame all of Cuba’s woes on. So far, the influential Cuban lobby in Miami has triumphed and Cuba remains under embargo: the massive United States picking on a relatively tiny nation, no longer backed by a powerful Soviet friend.
In one way, this is one reason I so longed to visit. Not only the appeal of the place itself, but one day things will open up and Americans will flood in. As Anthony Bourdain has said, Cuba will be destined to become Miami South. As much as I like a great number of Americans, they tend to have a terrible effect on places they descend upon, and feel an overwhelming urge to reproduce far too much of themselves wherever they go. Plus, let’s face it, you can tell them a mile away.
We arrive in Grand Cayman to change planes: the embargo means that commercial flights cannot leave the US destined for Cuba and even flights passing through another non-US port must be checked only to their first destination.
On arrival in Grand Cayman, we must pass through immigration and customs, and check in for the Havana leg. It’s the latter that is the death of us today: the Cayman check-in system is down. A planeload of dejected Cubans plus assorted extras sigh as the line fails to progress. An hour later, the flight is called, yet we have not moved. It’s another half hour before we are moving: I buy my Cuban “tourist card” for US$20 (a piece of paper on which I write my name, passport details, date of birth and nationality in duplicate. It must be kept to show my hotel, and handed back when I leave.
As I head through the rather odd Cuban immigration area (like a series of tunnels with a door that only opens to officially deposit you in Cuba once you are cleared). I ask the officer to stamp my passport. “Really?” she asks. Yes, I reply, I am not an American. (On my way out of the country, I ask for another stamp, and this time ask the officer to place it next to my Iranian visa, on the same page as a US entry stamp. Oh yes, what a rebel).
Heading into the dimly lit baggage claim area, workers sit chatting on a motionless carousel. Plastic-wrapped bags line up around it (the Cuban airport staff are notorious for helping themselves to goods they covet). Our luggage starts appearing, and my bag is one of the first to arrive. As I pass through to the public area, a throng awaits the passengers on our plane – easily 3 times as many families stand at the gate as passengers on the plane, and I must push through them to the currency exchange desk. A revolving light message informs that an additional 10% tax applies to anyone changing US dollars; I have brought Euros, half of which are from St Martin and the other half bought at Miami airport. The surprisingly efficient system spews me out of the airport, Cuban convertible pesos in hand just 35 mins after landing.
I wonder fleetingly if the huge LCD TV will make it.