After a one-hour flight from Miami, we arrived at the Jose Marti International Airport. We were the only plane there. During the past 6 hours we had met some of the 21 people who would be traveling with us for the next 10 days. We had also met our National Geographic guide and photographer Hilary Duffy. Hilary had been to Cuba several times before, but this was the 1st time she had flown directly from the United States. It would also be the 1st time she had led a group as a guide.

Carrying our smaller bags, we walked across the tarmac and headed to what in Havana was considered an international terminal. It was a plain, simple structure. I suppose I had imagined that there would be a strong military presence at the airport, but we were greeted by 2 females in matching white tops and blue skirts who directed us inside.  I had assumed that modern conveniences were scarce in Cuba so I was surprised to see two 46-inch flat screen Samsung LCD TVs hanging from the wall. They were displaying a Spanish cartoon, but the picture was extremely fuzzy.

I had also expected, as an American, to get an extreme screening. However, that wasn’t the case. Not a military uniform was to be seen. We entered individual stations where our passport and documents were scrutinized and our picture was taken. We then passed thorough airport scanners and picked up our luggage, which was waiting for us on the floor. We were directed to a final station where our necessary arrival documents were handed over and we walked out the door.

We were in Havana.

Outside, most of the group rushed to photograph the 1950 vintage cars that filled the parking lot. I headed to capture a giant billboard heralding the virtues of Che and socialism.  We all boarded our bus and were introduced to our Cuban guide Luis. As we headed out of the airport, the young woman (Traci, whom in few days we would jokingly be calling our daughter) sitting in the seat to our left, shouted “Look. Out there. At that billboard.” It pictured George W. Bush and proclaimed in Spanish that he was a terrorist to the people of Cuba. The bus was moving too fast to get a picture, but Traci and I both vowed we would get one when we returned to the airport.

We continued through the Havana outskirts, all of us trying to take in what we were seeing. The amateur photographers clicked away. Of course, the most striking sight was the endless parade of old cars. At every bus stop, there were long lines of people waiting for a bus that would be coming sometime; regular schedules simply weren’t part of daily living here. From every balcony of every apartment, drying clothes fluttered in the breeze. As we neared the heart of the city, run-down shacks and stark high-rises were replaced by street upon street of huge, once-stately homes, now fallen victim to years of Caribbean weather and embargoed neglect.

These dwellings reinforced the idea of two distinct Cubas: the Cuba of old, one of the wealthiest places in the hemisphere, and the socialist Cuba of today, where daily living was a constant struggle. The Cubans have a popular phrase to describe life on their island. No es facil, they say. Translated, that means it is not easy. And much of what we were seeing (and indeed would continue to see and experience over the next few days) would reinforce the absolute truth of that motto.

We stopped at an outdoor restaurant for our 1st Cuban food. We had repeatedly been warned by National Geographic not to expect 4-star quality in accommodations or cuisine. We were served tasty stewed chicken. The lunch included some of the best beans and rice I had ever tasted. Traci, our soon-to-be-daughter, proclaimed “Where’s all this bad food they were warning us about?” 

After a few minutes of street exploring and picture taking, we returned to the bus to head to our hotel, which would be our Havana base. We would have some time to unpack and relax before our first Cuban talk by our expert writer-in-residence Tom Miller. 

A typical old Cuban home

To follow our Cuban trip in chronological order