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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2/24/2016 05:35:18 pm
Uh-Oh! We were starting to plan a trip to Cuba with Road Scholar in the fall. :(
2/24/2016 09:07:50 pm
Things are pretty crazy right now in Cuba, Milt. On the one hand, the people and the setting are as fabulous as ever. On the other, the massive hordes of tourists arriving daily are straining resources to the limit, and sometimes beyond the limit. Lots of people have had good luck with Road Scholar in the past (see L B Willard's comment below), but at this point they have so many groups going that I guess some things are falling between the cracks.
L B Willard
2/24/2016 06:08:27 pm
I went to Cuba in 2013 with Road Scholar and was impressed with their efficiency. Plus the tour was marvelous. We learned so much and met so many Cubans. They have been doing Cuba tours for a very long time and this surprises me very much. I do not think your trip represents most people's Road Scholar experience and would love to hear from them what happened.
2/24/2016 09:10:37 pm
We'd heard good things about Road Scholar's trips in the past, which is why we signed up with them. Unfortunately, our experience wasn't so positive. I, too, would love to hear from them what happened; unfortunately they aren't saying anything beyond apologizing. I suspect we will never know why things went so amok.
2/24/2016 06:12:01 pm
Loved the recap. You summed it all up with your perfect writing style...it truly was a trip of a lifetime - for many, many reasons!
2/24/2016 09:12:44 pm
So true, Jill; the trip was memorable on so many levels, not just for the fiasco at the end. We did see great stuff, meet many wonderful Cuban people, and have lots of good times. And as they say, that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger...
2/24/2016 06:23:03 pm
2/24/2016 09:17:25 pm
You're so right, Sandra; it's the bumps in the road that make an ordinary trip into a grand adventure. I'm sure I'll be telling the tale for years. And yes, I love that photo of Rich; kind of says it all...
2/25/2016 02:56:02 am
Have a Cuba trip with Overseas Adventure planned for next January.
2/25/2016 04:19:47 pm
I'm sure you'll have a grand time, Sandy. Cuba is an incredible country, a small island nation with a huge personality. Keep me posted on your adventures there!
2/25/2016 04:40:44 am
Good recap. We do need to avoid letting the last 44 hours of our "special period" override the many great experiences of the prior 10 days. Road Scholar stepped up to cover their errors and it does leave us as part of the legend. I think future Road Scholar tourists to Cuba should have confidence that their trip will be special, it will attract like minded people to share travels, and will be an unforgettable experience. I only hope you have your own "Karen" on the trip.
2/25/2016 04:22:37 pm
You are too kind, Tom. Like you, I loved the overall trip and am very glad I went, despite the occasional bumps in the road. And hey, how often do you get to be part of a legend? My next post is about the things I enjoyed most about Cuba, so stay tuned.
2/25/2016 06:00:25 am
Loved your synopsis and loved the trip. I think the trials and tribulations of the final hours only added to the mystique of our journey. I'm inundating myself with Cuba books--reading Cuba Diaries, recommended by Stephanie, and The Other Side of Paradise. Their everyday lives don't hold a candle to our saga but they take it all in stride.
2/25/2016 04:26:30 pm
The lives of the Cuban people really put things in perspective, don't they, Susan? We complained about a night on the bus, and rightly so, but then I remember some of the trials and tribulations they've suffered — those photos of the near-destitute carbon workers in Bay of Pigs come to mind. And that's when I start to count my blessings.
2/25/2016 11:41:58 am
Karen I can´t wait to hear all the behind-the-scenes, not-blog-appropriate details over tiny beers!!! I feel sad that I didn´t go to Cuba a few years ago before the madness started because it´s not slowing down anytime soon...
2/25/2016 04:30:43 pm
Cuba has become a madhouse, Lindsay, and the presence of a fleet of large modern tour buses disgorging tens of thousands of tourists does little to improve the ambiance. But if you get away from Havana, the changes are much less in-your-face. I believe you can still have a rich, authentic experience there, but you'll have to work a bit harder to get it.
2/26/2016 12:31:47 am
Karen, I want to echo some of your comments...Cuba is an amazing destination, and I am glad I journeyed there. We traveled with a group who were "cool" under some unusual circumstances. There is a large demand for travel to Cuba, and Road Scholar, in my opinion, is meeting that with too many trips. Too many trips lead to inexperienced Tour Leaders and Local Guides, which leads to possible problems. Yes, go to Cuba...I hope to return, but when individual travel is possible.
2/27/2016 03:13:11 pm
You're so right, Martin; going back on an individual basis would be a really rich experience. I thoroughly enjoyed Cuba and found the people to be warm and welcoming. But the current tourist frenzy is overwhelming the resources of Cuba and of the tour companies. Let's hope they get it sorted out soon.
Great recap of our "special period" and how we became part of a legend. In looking back on the trip, it was the people in our group which made it memorable and also the Cuban people that we met. I would hate to think how things will be in a year or so when more people descend on an infrastructure which will not be able to handle them. And to put it all in perspective, our "special period" was nothing compared to what the Cuban people had to bear when the Russians abandoned the island.
2/27/2016 03:20:38 pm
Glad you liked the post, Tom. It was a memorable time on so many levels; next week I'm writing about all the good stuff that made the trip so much fun. As annoying as our last days in the country were, as you so rightly point out, our sufferings were nothing compared to the hardships the Cubans have endured. Their resilience and good humor in the face of hard times is inspiring.
2/27/2016 05:16:59 pm
2/28/2016 11:15:37 pm
"There's no rescue plane." Classic Rich! A friend I were planning a trip to Cuba before the shinola hits, but just couldn't think of a way around the 12 official reasons rule. Wish we'd thought of one of these educational tours. Brilliant!
2/29/2016 04:48:43 pm
There are lots of organizations offering Cuba tours right now. A friend just signed up for a small-group photography tour of Havana that sounds amazing. I think the key now is to seek one that's less of a cookie-cutter experience and one that will let you meet lots of Cuban people, as we did on our trip. Hope you're still planning to go, Traci! You'd love it!
3/15/2016 07:08:04 am
Love this post!! What a great story. I think you proved that the only way to survive is with a sense of humor.
3/16/2016 05:49:06 pm
That's really the only way to survive anywhere, Steve! Glad you liked the post.
5/30/2016 01:26:00 am
I loved every minute of the trip and all of my fellow travelers. Road Scholar did phone me to ask me what I meant in my review that Cuba is not ready for prime time. As your described, it isn't. Sure glad I went when I did.
5/30/2016 02:52:15 pm
You're so right, Marilyn! It was an amazing trip, and despite the glitch at the end, I am so glad I went. I thoroughly enjoyed the people in our group and our zany adventures in Cuba. The fact that the country is still rough around the edges is part of its charm.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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