Bit On The Side

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Take me to the April sun in Cuba – be prepared but don’t judge a book by it’s cover

On multiple occasions, whether it was a casa or a paladar, places we visited would look not very nice from the outside which completely belied the ‘amazingness’ of inside. At the end of our tour when the coach dropped us at our casas in central Havana (on the border with old town) people from the group looked pretty unsure with their surroundings. I don’t know how to describe the area we were staying in but it was noisy, smelly, dirty and very busy. As soon as you stepped off the street however we were in a modern, clean, well-furnished casa with a HUGE bathroom. So, nothing to complain about there! Even the La Guarida restaurant was slightly hard to find as it’s within a building that looks like it might be part way through a renovation, with a staircase out of action, on the top floor so you walk past a lot of people’s apartments (trying to avoid their nice clean white washing) before finding it. Of course, the restaurant itself was lovely and the bathrooms incredibly fancy.

I think in general people often have thoughts about Cuba, pre-conceived notions about what a Communist country would be like after years of embargoes and difficult relationships with other countries. However, I think it was helpful for me to go without knowing too much about what it would be like. I learnt a lot out there, I observed some amazing places and met some wonderful people. It is definitely changing so I’m glad we went when we did and got to have a fantastic time.

My last thought relates to the fact that I started to panic on the plane between Toronto and Havana as I found out that we were supposed to arrive with certain paperwork – copies of your passport (we only had the actual thing), information about your medical insurance (this I did have) and paperwork relating to our return flights out of the country (this I did not have). Upon arriving in Canada, a place for which we had purchased ESTA visas knowing that we would leave the airport – just to sleep for a few hours in a hotel – we got quite a lot of hassle in customs as we didn’t have any proof of our flight out of the country. So, when I heard that we needed it for Cuba I was worried and expected that we might have some hassle getting in. I couldn’t have been more wrong, we sailed through customs in a matter of seconds, our arrival into the country was seamless. Our exit however was a whole different story.

It was such a long and stressful experience that I don’t even want to go to the effort of writing about it in detail, as I think it will exhaust me all over again! However, the issue arose when we went to check in for our flight home, flying via Newark airport, and were advised that we needed ESTA’s for the US in order to do so. Usually, this would be no big deal, you just go online, fill out the details, pay about $14 and the ESTA is automatically linked to your passport. But what do you do in a country with no internet? Initially both airport and airline staff were not very helpful and we attempted to get online multiple times against a wall in the airport where “there might be Wi-Fi signal” to no avail. Instead we paid huge fees to call the UK and get my sister to do the application for us. We then waited for about an hour (as we were told it might take this long to show on the passport) before attempting to check in again. Still no ESTA. A lovely lady from the airport took pity on us and took me to their office upstairs where she wanted me to check my email for any sort of confirmation. So, using her roaming internet from the US, I did the application again. Of course, I had no money with me and Jimmy had no idea where I was so this was not a simple procedure. In the end the correct ESTA did show on our passports immediately (they were able to check from the back-end where we were in that office) and we then helped a Greek lady who was in the same predicament. After being able to confirm the ESTAs, get assigned seats and help others we left the office to check our bags before queuing for customs, security, duty free and eventually the plane (did I mention Cuba like’s queues?)! It was a very expensive lesson to learn that even if you are simply transferring through the US you are still required to have a visa and/or ESTA.

Obviously, this is different to pretty much everywhere else I have ever transferred – Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Hong Kong etc. It was also an expensive lesson to learn that Kathy didn’t realise she had clicked an ad at the top of the Google results, rather than the US government website, and therefore paid £94 each for ESTA’s that I only received an email about after we were back in the UK. And actually, from that site Jimmy’s was rejected! It wouldn’t have been such an issue except that we were in a country with minimal internet. You live and you learn and perhaps for others this really isn’t news, requiring a visa for the US is not news to them, but of course if anyone is reading this and planning a trip to Cuba that involves transferring, or spending time in the US, make sure you have your ESTA sorted before you go.

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