Before I begin writing about all of the exciting adventures and experiences I am getting to enjoy. I need to say thank you. Thank you to Volunteer Aid for their graciousness displayed towards me throughout each stage of this trip. Thank you to the Tennant Scholarship Foundation for believing in my future as a senior in high school, and allowing me to bank the scholarship received from you to be used towards this incredible opportunity. Finally, thank you to my friends and family for encouraging me to follow my dreams, and then helping me to make them possible.
Thursday, December 14
My flight itinerary beginning on Thursday, December 15th:
- Depart from RDU (Raleigh Durham International Airport) at 9:05 am
- Depart from FLL (Fort Lauderdale International Airport) at 11:40 am
- Arrive at HAV (Havana, Cuba International Airport) at 1:00pm
- Depart for Lima, Peru at 11:00 pm (9 hour layover)
- Arrive in Lima, Peru at 5:00 a
I am not sure why seeing a stop in Cuba on my flight itinerary did not cause me to research the status of the airport or the requirements for being in transit in Cuba. Unfortunately, not doing proper research cost me $50 and a lot of unnecessary stress during my travels. The stress began when I was urgently removed from the airplane in FLL and called to the front desk. The plane was still being boarded when my name was called over the loudspeaker to exit, so I was not able to get to the front desk in a timely manner. As soon as the Cuban officials in FLL saw me coming, they began screaming at me to “hurry up”. As soon as I arrived at their desk, breathless, they said, “You need Cuban visa, $50. Now!” I tried my best to explain that I would only be in Cuba in transit and that I would not be entering their country. I asked the officials why nobody had warned me of this prior to purchasing a plane ticket that stopped in Cuba. Their only response was “I don’t know. Give us money now.” I paid for the Visa, and went back on the plane, thinking all problems had been solved.
When I arrived in Cuba, I quickly realized I had arrived in a nation very different than one I had ever been in before. Nobody seemed to understand how I was in transit. I was told to go through customs, although I was not leaving the airport. After waiting in a customs line for close to one hour (there were 3 black outs during this time in which the airport’s power went out) I was told to give the receptionist all of my documents and go sit on a bench. I was mortified. My passport was my life at this point, and I was having to hand that over to guards that immediately walked away with it and went into a room and shut the door behind them. I went and sat on a bench, fighting back tears. I cannot speak Spanish, and they could not speak English, I felt hopeless.
Beside me sat a girl that appeared to be in her mid twenties (I later found out that this approximation was correct). She saw my distress and kindly asked if I was also in transit. I confirmed that I was in the same situation as she. She is getting her Master’s Degree in Architecture Design at Harvard in Massachusetts. Her home country is Peru, and she had the same flight itinerary as I did, except her journey began in Boston. I felt better to know I was not being targeted due to being an American; this was simply the Cuban policy for all foreigners in transit to another country with a stop in Cuba. Janet is bilingual, so she communicated with all of the authorities in the airport. From the moment I met Janet, moving forward, I never left her side. I followed her around from each guard station she went to. Janet finally convinced one airport official to allow us to go into the waiting area. The airport official seemed annoyed with the airport’s policies, and the fact that the power continued to go in and out. The lady took our passports from the guards, and then gave us blue passes that stated “BOARDING PASS”. She told us she would have to take our passports and all other travel documents until it was time for us to board the plane. Although we did not understand this, we did not argue. We simply thanked her, and headed to get something to eat.
Lunch was a bag of green olives and some sweet bread. A good friend of mine from school, Hasmik, had packed me a bag full of goodies. I could not have been more thankful for her provision and care. Janet and I chatted over lunch and throughout our entire time in the airport. In addition to chatting, we both had schoolwork that we had planned to accomplish during the layover. Unfortunately, there was not any Wi-Fi in the airport, so we did the best we could to accommodate. I finished my philosophy paper and prayed I would have enough Wi-Fi at some point to be able to submit it online prior to its due date. Janet and I also took turns watching one another’s belongings while the other one slept. Dinner was delicious: Janet and I shared a ham and cheese sandwich. Dinner was my treat; I hoped that it showed her my appreciation for how kind she was to take me under her wing. She was stressed too, finished with her first semester abroad in an Ivey League’s master program. She was dying to get home to her family. It would have been easier for her to navigate the airport without me trailing her, but instead she had compassion on me.
Finally, the time came to board the plane for Peru. Janet and I were so happy that the flight was on time. To our dismay, the minutes to departure were narrowing down, and the boarding guards did not have an answer as to where our passports were. All we had were our blue slips of paper. Janet worked magic, and eventually, with 5 minutes to spare, a few security guards approached us with our passports and travel documents in hand.
Arriving in Lima
Upon arriving in Lima, Peru at 4:55 am, I was so excited. I had made it! I quickly connected to the airport’s Wi-Fi and submitted my philosophy final essay, as well as let my family and friends know that I was safe! Nobody had heard from me since I left Florida at 11am the day before. I found my ride to the hostel, Rosenberg. He was waiting for me with a sign with my name on it. He and I were fast friends. He took me on a route that I was able to see the coast on. It was beautiful; I fell in love with Lima at first sight. Arriving at the hostel, I met Piero. Again, fast friends. He was exhausted, but I was filled with energy and excitement! He showed me where my bed was and told me to have some rest until it was time for breakfast at 10:00am. Due to my laughter and excitement, I woke up my other team member that had arrived before me. He sheepishly said “Hi. I am Brian”. I decided I needed to try to get sleep as well.