We almost didn't make it here. You might recall me mentioning plans to go to Cuba after our trip to Guatemala.
In Guatemala we started hearing rumors about how hard it would be to get into Cuba given our nationalities and how impossible it would be to get any documentation allowing us to go to Cuba before our departure. I was traveling with one Zimbabwean, another Kenyan and a Nigerian-American with dual citizenship. Clearly we could not find any information online on how easy or difficult our entry into the country would be and on exactly what we would need.
Why Cuba? Of course I have been fascinated about Cuba most of my life. Firstly for the link between Cuba and Africa - both a historical link via slavery (over 36% of the population is black or mixed race), but also an interest in the country's current engagement with my continent. I recall being in a remote village in Ghana in 2007 and hearing how Cuban doctors were a huge proportion of all the doctors in the region. I also recall being quite surprised when I heard that the Argentinian born Cuban revolutionary - Che Guevara led an unsuccessful revolt in Congo in the 1960s. That was surprising indeed to me. My second region was based on communism - I definitely wanted to visit this island that was always shrouded in mystery. Much has been said about the ills of communism and I wanted to see it all with my own eyes - to form my own opinion of what Cuba really is like (of course still noting that I would be viewing it as an outsider who would be free to leave at any point - a luxury most Cubans don't have.) My third reason was to understand the conflicting accounts coming from the country - no freedom, but a high life expectancy, a very well-educated workforce, strong health systems resulting in low maternal mortality, high life expectancy etc. I wanted to really understand how it all fit together.
We left Guatemala for Cuba via Panama in a state of confusion early in the morning. We had no idea if we would be able to get to the country, but decided to take our chances. We spent a few hours at the airport in Panama city. It was quite an unexpected experience. To be honest, I had expected Panama to be a small country in the middle of a forest. This airport was extremely americanized and everything in it oozed wealth. I found out that Panama was the second largest economy in Central America - right after Guatemala and Panama ranks 5th of Latin American countries in terms of Human Development Index. Yep, not a little forest country. I do recall seeing a lot of security dogs looking through our luggage - which confirmed to me that drug trafficking in the region must be a real concern.
We finally got on the flight to Cuba and when we were about to take off, one of the exit doors rattled. You will not believe this, but one of the air-hostesses ran to the door and closed it well. I was unsettled. What country is this I am traveling to where someone can forget to firmly lock the airplane door? The flight was short. Arrival in Havana was extremely confusing. As soon as we got off the plane, airport security ran straight to us? "Where are you from?" "What is your nationality?" "Are you carrying any porn with you?" Errrrrm, you're looking for porn? Not drugs or weapons....interesting. There were lots of little dogs sniffing our bags. Tiny chihuahua like dogs - only furry. The types of dogs that your cat would laugh at. The types of dogs your cat would even steal food from. Those were their narcotics dogs. They were so cute and tiny. I wondered if they got them on a discount given their size. These dogs would not intimidate any drug trafficker...but I guess their job was not to intimidate, but rather to sniff out drugs..
We finally made it out of the airport and into Havana.