My alarm went off at 3:45am and by 4:30am, I was fully packed and ready to go. At around 5:00am, our group was gathered at the Southwest terminal in Raleigh where we distributed photo and video gear that was to be either checked in or carried onto the plane with us. Luckily, all the gear was well packed and organized so that there were no questions as to where items were or what we were responsible for. Out of the two iMedia groups traveling to Cuba, there were a few who have never travelled out of the country or on a plane before, so this organization was crucial to ensure that the process went smoothly.
After flying to Fort Lauderdale, we had a couple hours to eat something and prep for landing in Havana. Traveling to Cuba requires some extra steps and paperwork, so it was best to be prepared. Professor Piland gave us a rundown of what to expect in the Havana airport and to be ready to answer questions about our purpose for visiting Cuba and the gear we have with us. Ready for anything, we took off from Fort Lauderdale and flew over Miami and The Keys. Before we knew it, we started or descent into Havana; it’s easy to forget how close Cuba is to the United States!
What happened next was honestly surprising. We were expecting a chaotic and possibly stressful customs experience in Cuba, but the place was fairly calm. There weren’t many other flights coming in with us and we were the largest group in the international arrival terminal. We all went to our kiosks to show the attendant our passports and visas. After explaining that we were a group from a university visiting Cuba for educational purposes, my passport was stamped and I walked right in.
Up next was the security scan. Small scanners and security x-ray belts for luggage were lined up in a relatively small room that had two baggage claim carousels. Professor Piland and Dr. Copeland were in front of me and I watched them go through the security scanners and open a box that contained some camera gear and lighting equipment. They explained to the young woman in uniform that there was a group with equipment coming through behind them, so I was ready to open up my own camera bag so they could search what was inside. After going through the scanner, I waited for her to open my bag and begin asking questions. I stood
there waiting, she also seemed to be waiting. After a moment or two she asked if I was going to take my bag or not. Surprised, I grabbed my things, thanked her, and went on my way without being thoroughly searched. The whole process was so easy!
Eventually all of our bags came through the belt and we were officially in Cuba and ready to go. We exchanged our money into CUC’s (the tourist currency in Cuba) and met our guide, Linette. She’s wonderful. We then got a quick bus ride through Havana on our way to Matanzas. Although I was exhausted, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of the Cuban countryside during that ride. We drove past some amazing views and got our first glimpse of life in Cuba. Classic cars are everywhere and primarily used as taxis. In one moment, a 1956 Chevy Bel-Air would zoom past our bus and move around a family in their horse-drawn buggy. If you looked down a side street along the highway, you might see more horse-drawn carriages, classic cars, stray dogs, farmers, houses, and fields. People were collecting fruit from trees or cutting grass with machetes. The countryside was lush with green tropical vegetation and trees with rolling hills in the background. As we entered Matanzas, the sun was setting and we were exhausted. Today was a long day but we are excited to hit the ground running tomorrow!
-Michael Hemstreet, Project Manager for Arte de la Finca