If you’ve been in the Havana airport lately, you’ve no doubt heard the legend of the stranded tour group whose travel arrangements were messed up so badly, over and over again, that they were forced to bed down for the night in a bus in the airport parking lot.
Yep, that was us.
Funny thing was, Rich and I joined the tour group because we thought it would prevent these kinds of ghastly snafus.
It all started when some good friends proposed a trip to Cuba this spring so that we could see it before US cruise ships start arriving in May, which many fear will change the country's character. Technically Americans can’t get visas to Cuba unless their purpose for going falls under one of 12 approved exceptions, such as scholastic or business interests. So we signed on with an educational tour operator called Road Scholar. You may remember them by their original name, Elderhostel (apparently the name Penny-pinching Old Farts was already taken); in 2010 cooler heads prevailed and they upgraded their name and image. Road Scholar offered an 11-day “learning adventure” in Cuba, and we signed up with a group that would include 22 veteran travelers.
Organized group tours aren't really my thing, but I have to admit, I loved the people and the camaraderie; I haven’t laughed so much in years. And we did get incredible, behind-the-scenes access. I’ll be writing other posts about what there is to see, do, and watch out for in Cuba. Stay tuned.
Suffice to say we had a grand time — until we attempted to leave the country. That’s when our happy little band found itself re-enacting the existentialist drama No Exit.
At first, we weren’t too worried that our departure time shifted from early morning to 3:00 pm. Having surrendered our visas when we checked in at dawn, we couldn’t leave the airport departure lounge, so we whiled away the day playing dominoes, eating Pringles from the Duty Free shop, and dreaming about such luxuries as wifi and potable tap water. After boarding an Aruba Air flight at 3:15, we sat on the runway for an hour, idly listening to the pilot’s announcements that we were held up by an immigration issue. Imagine our surprise when that turned out to be us! Someone hadn’t done the proper paperwork, and we were hustled off the plane.
“This is humiliating,” muttered one of my travel companions. “I feel like everyone thinks I’m a criminal.”
“We are trying to arrange a rescue plane from Miami,” the airport’s travel services manager announced grandly. Rich turned to me and said, “There’s no rescue plane.” And of course, there wasn’t. For the rest of the very, very long night, we were fed one whopper after another (and I don’t mean hamburgers). I suppose the goal was simply to get us out of the airport so it could close at midnight after the last plane took off without us. Also, it helped wear us down so we’d accept the news that they wanted to put us on a flight to Tampa, not Miami where we’d originated.
Around 10:30 pm we were bussed off to the Tulipan Hotel, but on arrival we learned they’d never heard of us or our alleged reservations and had no available rooms. No one did; Cuba is currently the hottest destination on the planet, and occupancy rates are close to 100%. My travel companions — or as I was now thinking of them, the survivors — remained remarkably calm and cheerful in the face of each dire new development. We snatched a catnap in the Tulipan's lobby, gathered up our bags, and staggered back onto the bus.
“We’re the Flying Dutchman,” I said. “The legendary ghost bus doomed to roam the earth forever…”
Supposedly more rooms had been found, but by now no one even pretended to believe it. After an hour or two on the road, an altercation broke out between our Group Leader and the driver, and the bus stopped in the middle of the highway. It hardly seemed to matter. Ten minutes later the bus started up again, and somewhere around 2:30 in the morning, we found ourselves back at the airport. Earlier our Group Leader had mentioned that we’d need approval for the cost of gas if we were going to spend the night on the bus with the air conditioning running, and I guess that wasn’t forthcoming, because next thing I knew the engine shut off. Instantly the crowded space became hot, damp, and fetid. Rich and I tiptoed outside, and so we missed the snoring, but I heard it was epic.
After a stroll around the parking lot to stretch our legs, Rich and I sat down on hard plastic seats bolted to a concrete slab near the front entrance. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath of the balmy night air. Into the velvety silence came the sound of a couple of young cleaners, chattering and laughing as they swept the gutter, their voices rising and falling like music.
In its own way, it was an absolutely perfect moment. And I was reminded of why I travel: to feel pleasure in things I normally take for granted: fresh air, safe drinking water, a bed. Would I have chosen to be there? No. Did somebody have a lot of ‘splanin’ to do? You bet. But the peace and sweetness of that night are as sharply etched in my memory as the wincing miseries of the day.
Not to keep you in suspense, we did get on that plane to Tampa. Afterwards, Road Scholar showered us with apologies, cash, and a discount on future trips with them (as if!). On our long, complicated journey home through various air transportation hubs, we kept running into people who’d just come from Havana. “You’re the ones who slept in the bus at the airport? We heard about you guys.”
Yep, that was us.
Watch this blog for more Cuba info. And in the meantime, I'd love to hear your stories of crazy twists and turns your journeys have taken.
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Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain and my home state of California.
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