In April of 2012 I visited Cuba. It was an amazing trip despite missing flights and nights at the police station. Because I am writing this it is obvious that I made it back safely, so since you already know the ending I may as well just start from the beginning.
Cuba has been on my radar for some time. It’s kind of a black hole of sorts and that adds considerably to its mystique. That being said I knew it was a Caribbean island that was the Vegas of its time. Everyone knows that Americans aren’t allowed to go there but that implies that we can and because it is the government that is the one not allowing that kind of made me want to go even more.
Since moving back to Iowa I have been on the ‘three year plan.’ Work really hard for three years and invest the money as wisely as possible. Then, with any luck, travel the world. Whenever I would tell people this plan they would give me a look of surprise but then the first question out of their mouths would inevitably be… “So where are you gonna go first?” It was only two and a half years into the plan that I decided on Cuba: For a lot of reasons but mostly because I felt like the US embargo would be lifted soon and the Cuba, as it is now, the Cuba of the 50s, the Cuba of Communism would be lost forever. Sergio, a regular at a bar I used to work, is a traveler. He said he was planning a trip to Cuba over Christmas break of ’11. Every time he came into the bar I would pounce on him and ask as many questions as I could think of. He had traveled to other countries before and is Mexican-American. His cousin, Cesar, who would be travelling with him, had a cousin in Cuba, Mano, who was going to show them around the island.
Around the time Sergio left I got my passport. By the time he got back I had booked my tickets. I had a bunch of miles from the credit card I’ve been using and that got me a round trip to Cancun. From there I booked tickets through a British company (I had to pay them in British pounds) for a round trip from Cancun to Havana on Cubana Air. I tried to get someone to go with me on this trip but nobody I knew was interested. I figured I would not let that stop me.
Upon Sergio’s return I took him out for lunch and asked him questions for a couple hours while he tried to eat. I’d like to say that I learned a lot from this but in hindsight it was not the case. He did put me in touch with Cesar, in Mexico, who would act as a go between for me to set things up with Mano who was willing to play tour guide for me as well.
The next few months were a blur. I was very busy and Cuba was definitely on my mind but decided that because I was going alone I would just “wing it.” So I didn’t make any plans. I didn’t purchase anything until a week before my flight. It is funny because by this time my realtor, who I am good friends with, had given me a backpack and laundry bag to take down with me plus my good friend Mike (Trucker) from Waterloo gave me a laptop so that I could transfer photos from my camera to a memory stick.
That week was definitely a whirlwind and I didn’t get a lot of sleep. I would love to tell you that I wasn’t the least bit worried about vacationing in a Communist country that didn’t have a US embassy, didn’t accept credit cards and from which I couldn’t get calls out… but I was worried. In the end my confidence in myself got me through. I figured I’d been through some crazy shit before “what’s the worst that could happen?” A few days before my flight I was finally able to get a call from the US to Cuba. Using one of the Mexicans from my work as a translator I was able to confirm with Mano my flight information, he would have a “posada” (small apartment that is rented like a hotel room but considerably cheaper) for me and also find someone to teach me to salsa. I tried to ask him if there was anything he would like me to bring (thinking that because of the embargo he must have a wish list) but all he wanted was a pair of size 9 tennis shoes and some Gillette Mach 3 razor blades.
My flight left Cedar Rapids at around five in the morning. My bag was checked by the TSA because I had some bubble bath in my carry on and he wanted to make sure something….I’m not sure what he wanted to make sure of but he worked for the TSA so I definitely wasn’t arguing. I ate some Dramamine and was in a bit of a fog the whole way to Houston which was a good thing because the plane was a puddle jumper and not the smoothest ride.
Houston is big. This was the first time I had ever flown by myself(no pressure) and thankfully the Dramamine was still mellowing me out. My bags automatically got transferred to the right plane and after a couple wrong turns I found the gate where I was supposed to be. Now it was just a little wait and then I was off to Cancun. Somehow I wound up flying first class which I’m sure I could’ve or should’ve known in advance but I didn’t. The three extra inches of legroom were a pleasant surprise but they really didn’t make much difference. Thankfully I didn’t have to pay for the upgrade. The stewardess kept offering me drinks but I wasn’t really feeling it. I was afraid that because of the Dramamine it would knock me out and make it hard to focus later. I only had an hour and a half in Cancun between when my flight landed and when I was supposed to be on the next plane. I had no idea how big of a deal it was going to be to find where I was supposed to be. The Houston flight had left fifteen minutes late and all of this was weighing on me.
In Cancun it seemed to take forever for the plane to taxi to the gate and it seemed to take even longer at the baggage carousel for me to get my luggage. Then came customs. Thankfully everyone spoke English. When it was my turn to talk to the guy he took the paperwork I had filled out on the flight and told me to “please push the button.” I was spacing. “Please sir push the button….Sir, please push the button.” He took my hand put it on this little red button, on a metal box, on the desk in front of me. As I pushed I noticed the red and green lights on top. The red light lit up. He directed me to a metal table with some other customs officials, a guy and a girl, who were going to check my bag.
This “was what it was” so I wasn’t mad…just kind of in a hurry (serenity prayer). The guy must have been training the girl so he actually gave a half-assed search of my bag. I joked with him a little about dirty laundry. They talked a little in Spanish. Then he said “she thinks you’re good looking.” “I have a boyfriend” she quickly retorts. Maybe I still get a little nervous talking to people in uniforms so all I could come up with was “tell your boyfriend he’s a very lucky guy.” She blushed, he laughed, the mood lightened and he let me zip my bag up.
Now I’m racing around the airport looking for something that says anything about my flight. A guy in a red uniform, who looks like an airport employee, comes over and asks if I need any help. I told him I needed to find the terminal for Cubana Air. As we are walking outside I asked if there was a bus or tram that could take me to the terminal because I only had forty minutes until my flight. He said that the bus only comes once an hour and I would need a taxi because it was too far to walk. As we walked and he led me to a taxi I realized that he worked for a taxi company. (oh well, serenity prayer)
$20 and a two second taxi ride later I was at the terminal I needed to be. I raced inside and was quickly latched onto by a different taxi employee in a different color uniform. I told him I needed to find the Cubana Air desk in order to check in. He turned me around and there it was right behind me. I walked up to the counter with him at my side, showed them my paperwork and said I was on “flight so and so.” They spoke for a second in Spanish. Then the guy said “sorry but the gate is closed.” I looked at my watch. There was still thirty-five minutes until the flight was scheduled to leave! “Five minutes too late” he says. At this point I was definitely freaking out. I yelled at him as respectfully as I could muster but it was no use. He pointed towards the baggage check for Cubana Air. The lights were off and no one was there. I asked him when the next flight was scheduled. He clicked away on his computer “Umm…Wednesday, no that one is full, umm Saturday.” “Saturday! It’s Monday! I can’t stay in Cancun for a week! This is unacceptable! I have plans!” That conversation went nowhere. My helper from the taxi company suggested I try a different airline. We went down the line to the Aero México desk and the lady there said “yes they had a flight for later that day and yes it had seats empty but no she couldn’t sell me a ticket right there. I would have to go to the Aero México offices.
I’m not saying that my “taxi helper” talking in Spanish to the lady before I had even asked a question had anything to do with her not being able to sell me a ticket but he definitely benefited from my $60 taxi ride to the Aero México offices. Two flights of stairs and three levels of security later I was seated in a small crappy office across from a lady who said “yes” she did take Visa. $250 wasn’t so bad in comparison to me having to stay in Cancun for a week. It did take me a while to convince her to call Mano in Cuba explain what had happened and the details of my new flight. I told her Mano only spoke Spanish and I couldn’t use my phone in Mexico. Finally she did what I requested. Soon I was back in my taxi on my way to the airport. It was only a ten minute ride and the nice (sarcasm) taxi driver gave me half off the fair since he was heading back that way.
The taxi guy offered to take me to a hotel because my flight didn’t leave for nine more hours. I told him I would just wait in the airport. I didn’t know that Aero México wasn’t letting people check in for another six hours but was better than paying for a hotel. I stopped at the little airport restaurant. The waitress was nice but disappeared for a half hour after I got my food. When she gave me the ticket I saw that she had written “Tip Not Included” on the bottom. However when I went with her to the register and she was about to run my card I saw that she had punched in a number that was bigger than what I though my bill should have been. Five minutes of talking to her the light bulb finally comes on. “Oh…the service.” “The service…what do you mean ‘the service’ I ask. Then she showed me on the calculator how she had tacked an extra twenty percent gratuity onto my tab for “the service.” (serenity prayer) I signed my credit card receipt but did not give her an additional tip.
Finally eight o’clock rolls around and it was time for me to check in. I rolled over to the Aero México counter and was at the end of a huge line of people. Pretty much everyone else who was gonna be on that flight was in front of me. Cubans have a bad reputation for being loud and obnoxious. In my experience Cubans from Miami are but Cubans in Cuba are not. The people in front of me were all Cubans from Miami. In addition to that they all had a tremendous amount of luggage to check. On my United flight in the States I was allowed one fifty pound checked bag. On this Aero México flight everybody was allowed something like four 75 pound checked bags. These guys had whole sets of tires, rims, flat screen TVs, mini fridges, air conditioners and anything else you can imagine that is about the size of a suitcase.
At this point I had been awake far too long on too little sleep. I was definitely a little punch drunk. I was listening to my iPod and a song came on. I thought to myself “wow…I like this song I wonder who it is?” When I looked down at my IPod I realized it was a song I should have known by my favorite band.
On the flight it was almost all obnoxious Cubans. They spoke loudly across the plane, got up moved all around and congregated in the aisle. Under normal circumstances I probably could have been happy for them. After all they were returning on a pilgrimage to their homeland accordingly festive and excited. Unfortunately my excitement had long ago waned and my batteries needed to be recharged. When the flight landed the stewardess announced over the speaker something that I didn’t totally understand but the gist was that she had to do ‘something’ because of the local laws. She proceeded to take out some aerosol can that looked like bug spray and walk through the cabin a couple times spraying it into the air until the can was empty. I still don’t know what the stuff was. It had a fake smell. Maybe they were infecting us with some terrible biological weapon but that didn’t make sense they would do that right before we entering their country. Nobody else seemed to notice so I let it recede from my mind.
The airport looked cheap and kind of run down. On the screens I could tell they were using an old version of Windows. I’m guessing they didn’t have permission from Microsoft to use it. The baggage carousel was as crazy as you’d expect considering the crazy shit that everyone had brought with them. All the men were shoulder to shoulder grabbing all the bags. Then they passed them to their wives or girlfriends who had the luggage carts behind them. When my bag came down the shoot I tried to squeeze my way to the front but they weren’t feeling it. It passed me and I called out to the people ahead of me for help. Finally someone grabbed it before it went back through.
Since I only had one bag as soon as I got it I was ready to go while everyone else still waited at the terminal. I eyed the military looking officials wearing the green uniforms and strolled through the lane under the sign that read ‘Nothing To Declare.’ Out in the lobby there were a bunch of people waiting expectantly for their relatives and all the things they had brought for them. I scanned the crowd and spotted the red Chives’ soccer jersey Mano said he would be wearing. I went up and almost hugged him I was so thankful to finally be in Cuba and back on the track that was set up for me. I shook Manos’ hand; he gave a good handshake in return. Then he turned to the young, wimpy looking guy with a ponytail beside him and said “Carlos.” I shook Carlos’s hand to acknowledge the introduction but I got a cold fish in return.
We walked out to the parking lot. There were a bunch of old American cars from the 50s. Then there was this little red Daewoo that was about the size of a VW Bug but it had four doors (at one point we had nine people in it but that is a story for later). Mano explained through Carlos that this car was better and more economical. Truth be told I was hoping for an old American car but at this point I was just happy to be alive, in Cuba and I just didn’t care. We put my luggage in the back seat with Carlos. I rolled down my window because it was so nice outside.
On the little road leading out of the airport there was a cop pulled over. He was out of his car waving around a flashlight that had a little white plastic piece on the end that made it look like a mini light saber. Apparently that was the signal to pull over because that’s what Mano did. Mano said something to Carlos quickly and hopped out of the car. Carlos looked at me and said “Don’t say anything.” I’m thinking ‘Ok, no problem. The cop is gonna ask me a question and I’m just not gonna say anything? Yeah right. We’ll see how well that works.’ It was then I realized Mano had just gotten pulled over, stepped out of his vehicle to go talk to the cop. Take a second and think of what would happen if we were in the States got pulled over, hopped out of the car and ran back towards the cop. I’m not exactly sure what would happen in the States because nobody I know has ever been crazy enough to try it. I just know it would be bad. I hadn’t been in Cuba for even an hour but all I could do was compare this to back home.
Of course Carlos started talking to me right away. Granted it was in hushed tones but I still found it amusing since it was him who had just told me not to say anything. At this point I should probably explain that Carlos is the type of guy who can talk for a long time but never really say anything. It almost seemed like he was talking just for the sake of practicing his English. I peeked into the side mirror and was surprised to see Mano using very animated hand gestures as he talked to the cop who was not only shorter than him but also standing within arms reach. Also not something that would go over well in the States.
Right on cue the cop came to the car and asked me for my “pass-a-port-ay” and motioned for me to get out of the car. I must say this cop was definitely short and looked like he was about twelve but the pistol on his hip looked pretty real. We stood in front of the car so he could use the car headlights to copy down information from my passport into a little notebook he had with him. After he was done with that he started asking me questions. The only problem was that this guy spoke absolutely no English. Not a word. I picked up the name ‘Mano’ in his questions and I responded “Mano si (yes).” He nodded and asked another question. The only word I understood was “hotel” to which I replied “posada” which was the word they use for an apartment that rents by the day. I hoped this was the type of place Mano had set up for me to stay. The cop then asked another question that contained no words that I knew. I responded with my standard “no compendia.” He gave a little grunt of acknowledgement before he tried again using different words that I also didn’t know. I said a few words in Spanish trying to explain that I didn’t really know much Spanish. Then I got frustrated wracking my brain looking for words that just weren’t there. I said simply in English “I don’t know what you are asking me.” It felt good to express a complete thought even though I knew that it had no chance of being understood. Then the cop put his hands in front of him palms together as though he were praying extended one hand towards me, palm down, as he asked another question.
I repeated the same phrase in English but this time he didn’t let me finish. He extended his hand towards me palm out implying ‘stop’ as he gave a “hup.” I stopped mid-sentence, paused, tried again but as soon as the first English word came out of my mouth he gave me another “hup” with the ‘stop’ hand gesture. I said “fine” and he “hupped.” Finally I made the motion of zipping my lips just listened to him talk and said “no compendia” after every pause. This was when I realized just how little Spanish I really knew and that realization crashed over me like a tidal wave. I was in a country where I couldn’t communicate with the police, no US embassy, no way of calling home plus all the money I had, 20 hundred dollar bills, was pinned in a small coin purse to the inside of my shorts.
Finally the cop led me back to the car. As soon as I got in I turned to Carlos to ask “what the hell was going on?” That was when backup arrived. One cop had walked over from somewhere and a car pulled up with three more cops in it. Two got out. They looked to be in their twenties so they must have outranked the baby I had just been talking to. The driver of the car who looked like a teenage girl, upon bringing the car to a halt, promptly laid her seat back and went to sleep. “Well” I thought “they must not be counting on her to contribute to this situation.”
Now we are all out of the car. Mano is freaking out and still talking with his hands to the 4 cops in front of him. I had no idea what they were saying. I tried to ask if any of them knew English and generally interject myself into what was going on. I turned to ask Carlos to translate only to find him examining his shoes. I yelled at him to translate but he didn’t budge. He stuck staring at those shoes.
I tried to tell the cops “I need talk boss with English.” That was the best sentence I could string together. They barely paused to acknowledge my existence. Mano would get wound up and loud. Then one of the cops would yell something at him and he would get quiet for a few seconds while they talked. Then his forced silence would become uncontrollable and he would interject again as animated as before only to be put on quiet time again.
I’m not sure how long this went on. Finally after screaming at Carlos for a while he said that the cops were gonna take Mano to jail. ‘Fine’ I reasoned. ‘There are four of them here and you’re telling me they are taking Mano to jail. I believe you.’ Then I asked Carols what was going to happen with the car thinking that in the States if you get a DUI a sober passenger is allowed to take the car home for you. Unfortunately…Carlos explained “Mano was going to take the car to jail.” I didn’t really understand what that meant but ‘fine’ we weren’t going to have the car. So I asked him what was going to happen to us. Carols said they ‘want’ us to go in a taxi. Which implied that somehow we ‘didn’t’ want to go in a taxi. Just as I was about to ask for more details a cab pulled up, the driving got out and his voice was added to the mix of voices that were already competing for everyone’s attention.
This whole situation seemed like a lost cause to me. The baby cop had made a judgment call of some sort. When questioned he had called his boss who had to back him up. The cops said they were gonna take Mano to jail. I hate to again compare apples to oranges but in the States if the cop says ‘you’re going to jail’ there really isn’t much more to talk about. So I figured maybe Mano had some unpaid parking tickets or something. Mano would spend the night in jail we would bail him out in the morning and everything would be fine. So I told them “fine” but all I had to pay the cab driver was dollars because I hadn’t had a chance to exchange my money. I knew from talking to Sergio and from articles that I had read the locals weren’t supposed to have American money. I wasn’t sure what else they wanted me to do in the middle of the night. Carlos translated a little. I showed them the few bills that I had in my pocket to illustrate the point further. They spoke briefly amongst themselves then one cop replied in Spanish something to the effect of “I know it’s illegal for this guy, the cab driver, to have American money but this one time we are gonna give him a pass.” It would be like if in the US you went to the courthouse to pay a fine and told the clerk “I know I owe you this fine but all I have right now is this bag of cocaine. Is it ok if just this one time I pay you in cocaine?”
I went to our Daewoo retrieved my luggage and took it towards the taxi. Suddenly the cab driver remembered it was his job to move the bags so he hurried over to try and help. He had seemed like he was on the ‘cops’ side in the previous situation so I wasn’t really trying to be too friendly with him. I kind of let him know it. So Carlos, the taxi driver and I take off in the cab towards… I guess I really didn’t have any idea where we were supposed to be going only that the cops wanted us to go. All of a sudden Carlos comes alive again and starts explaining what was going on. Apparently the cops had thought that Mano was a bootleg taxi driver. You see in Cuba there are two different economies: the ‘peoples’ economy and the ‘tourists’ economy. Each has its own currency “pesos cubanos” and “C.U.C.s” respectively. Any person or business that is at all likely to do business with tourists must charge them in CUCs. They must also keep very detailed logs of how much they are taking in and off the top 95%+ of that money goes straight to the government. Cubans make about $10 a month so one $30 bootleg cab ride would be more money than that person would make in months.
So now I understood what all the excitement was about. It’s too bad Carlos had checked out earlier. He could have explained this to me then I could have explained everything to them and it would have been no big deal. I asked “what now? What was going to happen to Mano?” Carlos said it was bad. The cops were going to give him a ticket or fine. Then they were also gonna put a fine on the car. If that car was ever at the airport again they would confiscate it. Because the car had been borrowed/rented from a friend or acquaintance it would be really bad to give it back with a ticket on its record. Now I was feeling bad. I had wanted Mano to get a car. Carlos had ‘kind of’ tried to influence me to not get into the taxi. Now bad things were happening.