Log Cabin Chronicles

Leo

A Canuck in the land of Castro

PART 2
LEO GERVAIS
Montreal
Posted 01.16.06

I arrived in Manzanillo, Cuba, on December 22, after a four-hour flight from Montreal.

Two incidents worth mentioning before my arrival: A whole family of people going to Cuba were refused entry on the plane because their passports were going to expire within six months. So if you are going to travel, make sure you have your passport in order.

And while waiting in line to check in at Pierre-Trudeau International Airport, a sign flashed on the screen at our Westjet counter: Check-in for Manzanillo, Mexico. The small wave of panic that flowed through the line ebbed when they quickly announced it really was Cuba we were flying to, not Mexico.

I chuckled as I've never been to Mexico either so I figured it was just another part of this southern adventure.

We arrived about 8:30 p.m. Cuban time, which is an hour ahead of Montreal, in a torrential downpour. It was pitch black and I could only see the small two-story terminal building. I started to notice a few things were different right away.

First, none of the crew left the plane.

Second, there were a half dozen armed security people on the tarmac, presumably watching for people who might try to stow away in the cargo compartment.

Cubans, if you do not know, are not allowed to leave their country unless officially sanctioned by the Castro government. And most can't afford a flight anyway, as we will see.

Customs people kindly came out with umbrellas to greet us and make the 50-yard walk to the terminal. It was really coming down, but it was 24 degrees Celsius, which more than made up for the rain.

They spoke to us in English and Spanish, so I had to translate their commands of "Over to this line" "Through this door" and "Have your paperwork ready" to some French-speaking Quebecers who spoke neither.

When it was my turn, a door opened and I walked into a narrow ten-foot long hallway and the door closed behind me. On my left was a border guard behind a thick plexiglass window. At the other end of the hallway was a locked door. The border guard was friendly and asked what I did for a living.

"I am a teacher," I replied.

"What do you teach?"

"Computers."

I made it to the metal detectors and baggage check, and was amazed as I went through with no hassles at how many seniors (or people at least 50 or above) were pulled aside to have their bags checked. Apparently, older people are ideal mules, travelers used by drug smugglers because they won't arise suspicion.

The Cuban officials in khaki green uniforms were on to that idea in a big way as at least a dozen people were forced to have their underwear and personal effects rifled through.

Probably best that I didn't mention I taught journalism after all…

As you might expect, the building was a bit drab, and the mechanical equipment and baggage carrousel looked several decades old. Cuba, in many ways, is not much different than when Castro took power on January1, 1959 after the ill-fated Fulgencio Batista regime and the infamous Bay of Pigs fiasco helped bring on the revolution.

What was once the playground for rich Americans has become a third-world country isolated, technologically and in other ways, from the non-communist Western world.

After a seemingly interminable two hours waiting for all the Canadian tourists to run the gauntlet of the baggage retrieval and inspection, our Tours Mont-Royal (the official trip operator) informed us we could board the coach bus to the resort. I looked forward to a short trip to the hotel and a strong rum cocktail of any kind.

"How long to the resort?" someone asked excitedly as the din began to rise in the bus from excited travelers starting a vacation.

"Well, we have to travel through La Sierra Maestra mountains, so we'll be there in about an hour and a half," replied the tour operator.

The groans could probably be heard in Marea Del Portillo as the bus pulled out for the journey through the dark countryside to the resort ninety minutes south of Manzanillo on the southern coast of Cuba…

To be continued…
To Part One | To Part Three

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