Waylaid in Mexico

Friday, 1 May 2015

After 3½ hours we touched down at Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City. As was the case in Los Angeles, we faced a long queue. It seems that there is no such thing as “transit” any more: we had to pass through customs and immigration each time we passed through an airport, and this added many hours of hassle and boredom to the journey.

We caught the air train that connects the terminals at Mexico’s vast airport complex, and we made our way directly to Hall F3 in Terminal 2. As we expected, we had to pay for a tourist card to enter Cuba, but we did not expect to have to pay for it in Mexican pesos. So we left the queue to change enough Euros to cover the tourist card and a departure tax (which we later discovered was not required).

We returned to the Cubana counter, and as we arrived at the front of the queue, a man in a uniform slid a black sash across our path and informed us that the flight was full. Even though we had confirmed tickets on Cubana Flight 131 to Havana at 8:45 a.m., we would have to wait 24 hours for the next flight. In industry jargon, the flight was “overbooked” (sobreventa).

At length we were handed a card with the name of a hotel on it, and we were told that Air Cubana would pay for our accommodation and meals in a hotel next to the airport. Reluctantly we accepted. At that moment we had no idea of the consequences that our late arrival would have six weeks later when we tried to leave Havana, but that is a story for another blog entry.

Our hotel room was decorated 1990s-style in shades of turquoise, bronze and salmon pink. It even had a view of the tarmac. We ate a big breakfast in the hotel restaurant and commiserated with a gay couple who had been bumped off the same flight. They were furious because they had planned to visit Cuba for only five days, so 20% of their holiday had been wiped out by dubious ticketing practices.

It had been 29 years since Susie and I were last in Mexico City. We spent far too much time there in 1986 and 1987 because we loved it to pieces. Now we were stuck there for 24 hours, so we decided to make the most of it by re-visiting some old haunts.

As we tried to plumb the mysteries of a machine that sold bus tickets, an elderly Mexican couple came to our assistance. We ended up chatting to them on the ride into the old part of Mexico City, and they told us where to alight in order to reach the Zocalo. This was a reminder of how affable Mexican people can be, and of how their Spanish is so clear.

When we had first arrived at the Zocalo in December 1986, more than a million Mexicans had crammed into it to welcome their President back from a trip to China. This time, there were half a million people there, most of them unionists who had gathered to celebrate May Day. An endless procession of groups carrying political banners and matching T-shirts paraded into the square and, in a mass circular motion, filed past an elevated platform where dignitaries gave their blessing.

Mayday in the Zocalo
Mayday in the Zocalo, Mexico City

As we passed through the back streets, we spied groups of riot police lurking like robotic rats with riot shields and black uniforms. We found Hotel Moneda where three decades previously we had stayed for almost 4 weeks, and we loitered around letting fond memories wash over us like the afternoon light.

We walked around the Alameda, found a cervezería, and drank some Mexican beer. Being late for Havana no longer seemed like such a hassle.

Hola Mexico!
Hola Mexico!

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