We got off the bus, grabbed our suitcases, and entered the Havana with absolutely no issues. Problems only started setting in when we tried to check in for our flight.
Ben's father got through, and then when Kendall was going, there was a problem. She pointed back at our professors, and one of them came forward to talk with the official behind the counter. Then they both went off while the rest of us worriedly watched.
Allie went through, and it was my turn. I went forward, hoping that I wouldn't have any problems. There wasn't, but I soon learned that if I'd wanted to be in the majority, I would have hoped that there had been an issue. More people couldn't check in than could.
After a little hanging around with the people who hadn't gotten through, one of the professors told us that we could pay the 25 CUC. We did, and got our boarding passes stickered. Then we hung around for a bit before being told we could go through the next point, which was the reverse version of the horse stalls we'd been put through to enter the country. We got to give our exit visas to the proper authority, which was one less thing to worry about losing. Just the boarding pass and passport, and the letters saying we were allowed to visit Cuba for legitimate educational reasons.
I went to stand in a line behind other people, but then one of the airport guards pointed me to a new line where I went up right away. This time went smoother. I took off my glasses, stared at what I was supposed to, listened with less trepidation (I've already gotten stamps that said I arrived, so it was better to have stamps saying I left than the alternative) and went through the door when it buzzed.
When I came out, I saw a line for security that had no one I recognized in it.
Is there a non-suspicious way to hang out right outside a security check? I'm not sure, but I was trying to achieve it. I kept making slight steps towards the security check without explicitly commiting myself to the line, because I didn't want to go through another checkpoint without knowing someone else was there. Then Ben's father showed up, so we both went to stand in the line. Ian, Allie, and Ben showed up while we were waiting, and after we got through security (it was much less thorough than at O'Hare or Miami. Just a basic metal detector that didn't even make you take off your shoes) we found chairs to sit down in, and wait.
“What happens if it becomes time to board and no one else has come through?”
“We have two hours. Let's hope that doesn't happen.”
Jake came by just a little after us, but he quickly became distracted by showing his art to someone. Specifically, an airport official who wanted to make sure that it was art, and that it had been paid for. When he couldn't produce the receipts (that the artist had never given him) he needed to pay an extra 3 CUC per painting. (Everyone who came through with paintings on their carry-on needed to.) He didn't have CUC, and the currency exchange was on lunch.
Eventually, people from our group who weren't distracted by paying even more money for art came through. When I asked, they said that they'd been put on the flight list by their mother's maiden name. I showed them where we were sitting, then talked with the other people who had made it through without issue. Ian and I both had our mother's maiden name as our last names, and Allie's mother's maiden name was her middle name. Ben and his father had presumably gotten through because someone could tell they were related, therefore their last name wasn't their mother's maiden name. I don't know.
But more people were getting through, and Jake had the money to pay for his paintings, so I wandered off to spend the 3 CUC I had left. I bought a Cuban soda (my last chance!) and a package of cookies with strawberry yogurt flavor. I ate a few, offered them to the people I was with, then offered them to each additional person who came through with a “congratulations. Have a cookie.”
That, and a couple of almonds, were the only food I had until we were all checked into our next flight at the Miami airport. In retrospect I maybe should have made a better decision about lunch. (In my defense, the airport had terrible lunch options. Cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and hamburgers, none of them tasting very good, apparently.)
Eventually, we were all through and waiting. Our flight was at 3, but I kept an eye on the flight that was supposed to leave at 2:40. I figured that it would give us an indication of what time we should board because, unlike O'Hare, the boarding pass didn't have boarding times listed. There were two times: 3:20 and 2:10. Neither of them were very encouraging.
At 2:10, neither flight was boarding, or even had a gate. (As we'd arrived, I noticed one flight that said it was boarding at gate A. To be honest, I don't think I saw another gate.) Same thing at 2:30. At 2:50, the 2:40 Miami flight still had as its status “on time.” I no longer believed it. And then an announcement came on, the only words of which any students caught were “Miami” and our flight number.
We stood up, stood around for a little bit, realized we had nowhere to go, and sat down again. Then someone thought to ask one of our teachers, and he said that our airplane had just arrived. 10 minutes before our scheduled departure and the airplane was already here? Awesome!
The second announcement (also not repeated in English) was apparently our cue to stand up and form a loose line. And then we could stand around in that for a while before boarding the plane.
From there, it was sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight. The plane might have been a bit smaller than normal, but there was a television screen in the middle and the announcements were bland. More or less just a typical flight.
Right off the plane, I saw posters for HSBC. Capitalism!
The teachers gathered us around, made sure we had relevant documents handy (passport, customs form we'd filled out on the plane, and the letter showing we were students) and then told us they'd meet us by baggage claim.
The walk to passport control reminded me just how big the Miami airport was. However much we'd walked to check in to our Cuba fight, we were walking more to get to passport control.
The first part of the passport control was a machine. Ideally, you scanned your passport, said you had nothing to declare, and stared at the camera as it took a picture and printed important information out. Then you took that, added that to your necessary forms, and went to the counter.
Non-ideally, you'd go through all the steps, but when you got the form you'd have an x through it. Then you'd need to stand in a counter for about half an hour.
The worst that happened to me at that stage was that I needed to wait around for about 45 seconds for a machine to become available.
Then we went to the human to check us. Ideally, you show them the passport, printout from the machine, and letter from the university and they'd let you through. Non-ideally, they'd grill you for a while. “Where were you? Cuba? What were you doing there? 'Educational purposes?' Like what? Oh, really? How long were you there? Can I see this letter? Hmmph.”
I went up to the counter, stood there trying to make the same face as I had in the picture a minute before, and went through. I wasn't even asked where I was going, and certainly didn't need to prove it with the letter.
For me, Matt, Adam, and Ben, the process was so smooth that we got to the baggage claim before our bags did. By the time they had come down and were rotating around on the belt, more people had joined us. We got all the luggage and waited around for the final group of people to arrive. (Several people had run into the non-ideal snags, especially with the machine, and others were waiting around for them.)
We regrouped and headed over to Customs and Border control together. From there, we split into the three different lines.
Worst-case scenario: you get an agent who had a really bad day/is convinced that you were smuggling rum or cigarettes in, and he goes through your bags and those of the people you're with, taking anything and everything that doesn't fit the strict definition of “fine art or educational material.” The touristy magnets aren't technically fine art or educational.
Worst-case scenario anyone in our group faced: you get an exiled Cuban-American who is none too happy with where you just came from and questions everything. (“Did you like Cuba? Did you want to stay there?” “No, I want to come home. Why do you think I'm going through customs?”)
The line I was in moved the fastest. When we were almost at the front, we looked back at the other lines and realized the rest of our group had barely moved.
Ian and Wyatt went, and then it was my turn.
“Where were you?”
(Raise of eyebrows.) “What were you doing there?
“How long were you there?”
(Glanced over form, then waved me through.)
Those short exchanges are probably why our line moved so quickly in comparison with the others.
As I was walking, I saw Wyatt and Ian doubling back.
“Where are you two going?”
“Baggage inspection is this way.”
“No. If they wanted to inspect our baggage, they would. Right now, we're following the signs for connecting flights and not questioning the ease of that last step.”
We managed to find a couple of chairs and hung out there waiting for the rest of our group to join. I don't think anyone got their bags thoroughly examined and crafts taken, but I still stand by my decision to not question why everything went so smoothly for me.
It does worry me a little, though. The entire process back was so smooth for me, it seems like my good luck needs to run out soon. Like, the next time I try to re-enter the country when they decide to question every single trip I've made. Hopefully not, though I'm definitely going to carry all the potentially necessary paperwork. Just in case.