Adrift in Havana (Part I) -Steve Eilenberg

“MY PURSE!!!” “What?!” !” Someone… grabbed my, my purse!!” Four in our group are awakening from a late night suckling pig and Chilean wine haze, but the fifth, Greg, is already in pursuit. Greg, the youngest of us, also has the distinction of being shot at while defiantly taking on a street gang in the mean streets of Lincoln Park in Chicago (his home town).

Like a broken down version of the roadrunner from cartoons, I take pursuit, but slowly enough to bark out “WHAT’D HE GET?!” Marie, becoming more distant, yells, quivering: “PASSPORTS…HE’S GOT OUR PASSPORTS!!!”. This hits me like a kick in my ass and stomach and I start to move, first after Greg and soon, in view of the thief. A quick right down a narrow potholed and trenched road, then another quick right down an even more desperate lane.

Moments into the chase, as I round the first corner, I hear Marie shout “LADRÓN!  LADRÓN!” Up until now, I ‘d never learned the word “thief” in Spanish. Assuming the meaning, Greg and I are now alternately shouting “Ladrón!”  I wheeze down the dark, humid, potted lane. Neither of us are closing the gap and our only hope now is that one of the handful of men “cooling off” on their crumbling front steps of their homes acts. This does not happen.

As I’m running, I have three distinct thoughts. 1. “We are fucked!” 2. “The people on the street look dumbfounded, like this doesn’t happen that often” and 3. “I hope we are pronouncing “LADRÓN” correctly and that it actually means “thief”.

My mind momentarily raced back to the early 1970’s. I am marching with the ACLU in NYC in support of the “boat people” America had largely abandoned to die or be killed after our “tail between our legs” retreat from Vietnam under the tinny moniker of “Peace with Honor”. That demonstration consisted of a crush of recent immigrants and long haired young Americans. We started the perfunctory chant “Save the boat people! Don’t let them drown!” Like the childhood game of telephone, it washed through the clustered refugee contingency, and quickly morphed into “Say the batspeepoos! Dans gets them drunk!”. Over and over, and over again, even with the solemn message, I remembering cracking a half smile, and tucking my long hair behind my ears as we marched and chanted on.

Greg and I silently admitted to ourselves that the chase was over, and we were not getting the purse back. We huffed and ambled to the end of the block for a compulsory look to the left and right, the way you look back fruitlessly at the thing on the sidewalk that tripped you. As we walk back in frustration, we see several young men in various doorways, none panting, none overly sweating on this sweltering night, all guilty, none guilty. We did a cursory survey of our route, hoping to find an abandoned purse, or discarded passports on the road.

We rejoin the group as Marie reenacts the purse snatching. It was to be our last night in Cuba and we were saying our goodbyes to our friends and dive buddies. A young man (that much we know) seemingly appeared from nowhere, grabbed the purse cross strapped to Marie and without misstep, was effortlessly navigating his streets.

The aforementioned purse is a small, soft, zippered, black Baggallini with a thin, apparently breakable strap. As we look for a policeman, Marie and I wonder if a stronger purse strap would have caused her harm, with a non yielding strap sending her to the ground. Alternatively, with an extra second or two from a stronger strap, I might have been able to grab the scum and “taken him out”, Van Damme style!

Exactly how would I do it? A punch to the face, he falls down and Marie looks adoringly at me? I punch him in the stomach, he doubles over, vomits, coughs and hands me the purse. Marie looks adoringly at me. I knuckle drive one to his trachea, his eyes cross, he can’t breath and falls over dead. Marie gives me a look like “Why did you do that, now you’re going to Cuban prison”.

In actuality, most men overestimate their ability to fight…by a lot! A punch to the face, boxer’s fracture. A punch to the stomach, nothing happens and it is his turn. A chop to the Adam’s apple, you miss, hit his chin, break your hand and he is really pissed.

I recall two distant but related life events; first, as an undistinguished right fielder in the Wayne, New Jersey little league, we were sponsored by the Aldon Meat Company and this particular game was the first and only time my father attended. I’m at bat. It’s 3 balls and two strikes. I swing wildly at the next pitch and miraculously connect sending a limp bouncing grounder between second and third base. As I drop the bat, and begin to run, I fall on my face and am thrown out at first base. Humiliation would only have been greater if I kept running.Bea99e61be47684c280d9bd86b6f44c3

My second trip down memory lane brings me back to medical school at GW in Washington, DC. It’s a fall Sunday in 1981. I’m walking with a textbook laden brown, hard-sided Samsonite briefcase from my condo at DuPont Circle to the medical school library at Foggy Bottom. This upscale segment of Northwest DC is known for fewer murders and mugging than elsewhere in the city. 1981 was a banner year for good Samaritans being murdered. At a small triangular street park, across from the Mayflower Wine shop,Screenshot 2015 07 30 18 52 42

I see a gold 1976 Cadillac Eldorado parked askew, engine on and front doors open.

76EldoAmberNearby, adjacent to a low thorny, urine soaked, car fume coated barrier hedge was a towering, muscular black man in his early 30s apparently strangling a petite blonde with perky breasts and tight, white cotton pants. She is forcibly leaned back, onto the thorny hedges and is trying to peel the man’s hands from her throat (or lapels, as it turned out)

There are no cell phones yet, only Sony Walkmans ironically playing songs like: “Urgent” , “While You See A Chance”, “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”, “Don’t Stand So Close To Me”, “Who’s Crying Now”, “Juke Box Hero”, “Tough Guys”, “Mean Streets” and “Trouble”. Yes, it was a different time. Here, at the triangular park, there were bystanders, some returning home with coffee or breakfast, others totting little city dogs with raspy barks and tear stained eyes. It was the early days of the pooper scooper ( credited to Brooke Miller from Anaheim, CA ). As I recall, there were three men nearby, each marking a corner point of the park. To their credit, they did looked concerned and upset by the unfolding diorama. Those holding coffee, heeded this dangerously hot beverage and those with dogs, shielded them from harm (or held them for security). It was fully 13 years before Stella Leibeck burned her lady parts with McDonald’s coffee and won a 2.9 million dollar verdict. In other words, this was the dark ages of the 20th century.

With abandon, I squared myself firmly behind the man and, with years of experience watching TV shows like Mannix and Star Trek, did a windmill swing with my Samsonite. All the might I could muster, and adding my weight into it, the briefcase landed squarely on his mid-back. The Samsonite, with me connected, the man and the girl fall into the thorny hedge. Sandra the prostitute (I later found out) broke our falls and dirtied her pants.

To my horror, the first one up was the man with Sandra still connected. I rose and put his right arm in a lock, behind him. “This is it! I will be dead before he gets Sandra back in his pimpmobile.” Strangely, and slightly insultingly, the man didn’t seem to notice that I “took him out” and had him in a ninja death grip. I was of no consequence, especially as Sandra started kicking and cursing. By now, in the words of George W. Bush, the bystanders had become “emboldened”. George W Stupid

They found safe rests for their hot coffees, then augmented my arm lock. It was time for me to leave, as biochemistry tests don’t study for themselves. My 6 pound copy of Lenninger, along with several other less hefty textbooks let me down. I didn’t hit him with the Samsonite’s edge! I didn’t knock him out! With my back to the three coffee toting heros and more on the way, I hear approaching police sirens and take leave.

In Havana, it is nearly midnight and Greg, Marie and I find two young policeman a few blocks away from the crime scene. If left to me, I would be able to explain with the skill of a 2 year old Cuban child, while wildly pantomiming events of the robbery. Marie, being semi-fluent in Spanish, was able to explain the snatching, aided by well timed gesticulations. Feeling quite impotent, I added my two cents by using my arms to reenactment the purse snatching. We were gesturing in out of sync stereo. I’m a graying, dripping, red-faced, American looking like I’m firing up some pathetic disco dance-floor moves from the 1970s.

The police might have been more interested in our story if they weren’t talking to a couple of cute young girls, but this is just speculation. They asked where it happened and curiosity satisfied, went on talking to the girls. We interrupted, asking where the police station was.

By 12:30 am, we are back to our 4th floor room, licking our wounds and take inventory. OK, we lost a purse that Marie was thinking of replacing due to a malfunctioning zipper, about $300 dollars (Cubans hate American dollars and insist that we trade them in for tourist “play money” aptly called CUCs, pronounced “cooks”). So there! Try taking those dollars to the bank, you scumbag!

They also got Marie’s iPhone 5 that she was hoping to upgrade to a 6 anyway. An iPhone in Cuba is about as useful as unleaded gas! We were out 2 passports, mine with that new passport smell (another story), Marie’s driver’s license with a flattering picture of her from 1990, various insurance cards, California medical license, an ATM card and 3 credit cards.

American credit and ATM cards are as much valued and used in Cuba as is the capitalism that they represent. They flat out don’t work here and probably won’t for some time. Marie also lost her tinted lip balm and emergency toilet paper. Granted, big score with the toilet paper, as it is rare in Havana and when found, has the texture of crepe paper, except much rougher, easier to “break through”, and harder to tear. Toilet paper is so coveted here that there is a special can next to the seat-less toilets where you save it, after it is used.

Toilet paper in hand, with no ability to call the US, we left our credit cards open, at the mercy of the purse snatcher. Later that night, I eked out a hollow gasp on the Internet from our prepaid card to send a message to our stolen iPhone, along with an order to wipe it clean.
I am rather proud of the message to the thief, so I memorialize it here for you: “You are a worthless piece of shit!”. You may want to write it down and use it, if such a fate befalls you on your travels to Cuba. As I press the send button, I am already regretting not sending the message in Spanish. Dammit, what was I thinking?! Well, it was late and he will never get it connected to the Internet anyway.

Marie, I and Greg (in a different room) were awake around 4am, independently brainstorming on how we were going to fly out of Cuba the next day. Only two feet apart, neither of us knew the other was awake. Before going to bed, Greg had encouraging words for us: “You’re Americans. They have to let you go! You’re not coming to Cuba, you’re leaving! I don’t think it will be a problem!”

It is now 6:30am. Greg is calling to our room: “I’ve been thinking. You guys are screwed. I’d go to the police station as soon as possible. Get a police report. Bring your global entry cards, letter of permission to enter Cuba, and a sprinkling of “We are important American doctors! People will start dying if we are not at work Monday morning! We’ll see! It might work”

We agree and had come to the same conclusion. Within half an hour, we are in front of the Hotel Parque Central with a choice of boring metered yellow Hyundai Excel taxis , a 1957 chartreuse Plymouth, pedicab or a ridiculous PAC-man meets pumpkin 3 wheeled moped called a “Co-co” for its non-resemblance to a coconut. The Coco driver was not wearing her helmet as it is hot and the prewar helmet would likely send oxidized shards into her brain. This wheezing, gutless abomination ambled away, leaving blue smoke in its path. We were following another Coco, in search of its next fume sucking victim. In fairness, drivers in Havana prize their old Chevys and Plymouths, as the fear of wrecking their livelihood and lack of replacement parts means a post-crash life that is not worth living and may lead to a desperate raft trip to Key West.

The first police station we stopped at was not “the right one”. Five minutes beyond, police station number two was closed. Police station number 3 was nested in an ancient stone fortress. We crossed a moat over a converted, now concrete, drawbridge to a central stone courtyard with several smoking young policemen. They were occupied shaking each others hands and making funny noises with their mouths. Like a small invading force, we departed the Coco. We were unnoticed until I struck my head on the gaping mouth of our “Coco”. I don’t know why, but even Jewish people often say “Jesus!” on such occasions. With this they glanced our way, then continued on with their morning. We climbed a few steps to a just opened Cuban police station.

In the center of a massive lobby, there was a re-purposed large podium of sorts on which were two police officers. This was the point of intake. Marie recounted the purse snatching details while I dutifully mirrored Marie’s gestures. We were now good at this. I tried, this time, not to look like a graying disco dancer, but instead the supportive husband I was trying so hard to be.

The bored young officer’s uniform had a number in place of a name. It was velcroed above his left breast pocket. Meet officer 002314! He had a holstered gun and I imagined a belt flashlight like the ones we used in summer camp. The chromed ones with a dingy yellow light bulb and containing decaying powdery silver Everready D cell dead batteries.


Officer 002314 had a small stack of yellow sticky notes and jotted a few words along with doodles. Content, he turned us over to the more senior officer 005143. He led us from the entry hall into an office with an oversized bare bladed desk fan. We sat at a worn, brown formica desk on two ripped and slightly sticky linoleum chairs. Officer 005143 sat on a desk chair of sorts, probably stuffed with old kitchen sponges. In front of him was an ancient CRT screen. The computer was beige-ish, turning orange with time, grime and cigar smoke. Behind him was a cheesy photo poster of Fidel and Raúl, both considerably younger and more vital. They looked confident and free of any lingering childhood rivalry. Other than the poster, there was a current 12 month calendar on the opposing wall, meant to complement the baby blue walls and cracked terrazzo floors. He studied the post-up note, asked where the snatching took place and scribbled a few hand written notes on an 8 x 11” copy of some faded official form, then turned us over to officer 009651. He ushered us into a larger common room containing the first and only woman officer we would see. Her desk, like a flower surrounded by hopeful male officers, all shaking hands with each other, hitting each other on the shoulder and fantasizing about taking the woman on her desk. Officer 005143 unbolted the door leading to the adjacent “safe room”. The lock appeared slightly more sturdy than a small sliding bolt lock found in a Tennessee outhouse. Between the two rooms was a large one way mirror, difficult to see through from years of fingerprints, cigar smoke and oxidation of the mirrored film. Were these fingerprints from victims claiming “It was him! He grabbed my tush! Yes, it was him for sure!” Or was it from the officers trying to look casual and sexy to the only woman in the office?

In the safe room, I sat off to the side, in the middle of three torn linoleum chairs. In front and to the right was a worn, painted grey metal and Formica desk, like you would find in a sad used office supply store. Officer 000055 was using it to rest his head on his forearms. He awakened to shake hands, point at and playfully punch what turned into 6 other officers who came in the safe room, probably to ogle the woman officer in the next room, given the one way mirror anonymity.

I was on hand to gesticulate my now well-rehearsed rendition of the snatching, but was a bit anxious as I had not tried this while sitting. Marie was in front of me and to the left, on a chipped gold painted cracked linoleum  chair, adjacent to officer 005143. He was seated in front of a flickering brand-x beige-orange CRT. From the yellow sticky note, and the hand written paper, he started entering the details into a primitive pre-formatted Microsoft Word form. This was a relief, as I was worried that we would leave with a post up note as our official police report, perhaps embellished with an official Cuban cigar ring. As I sat, I was rehearsing what we would say at the embassy or to the airlines. “For god sakes, man! Are you forgetting the 53 year embargo? We! WE! Did this to them! We, not Marie, turned them into criminals!” Oh, the doodles on the sticky pad? “It’s all they have left!”

The following is what I took from the Spanish conversation between Marie and officer 005143:

005143: “So what time did this happen to you?”
Marie: “It was late, maybe 11:30. No, maybe 11:45. Yes, that is what I think.”
005143: “Where were you?”
Marie: “We were a block away from  Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. We were coming back from dinner and almost at our hotel, Parque Central”
005143: “What did you have for dinner?”
Marie: “I had suckling pig and duck ceviche. I ordered black rice and squid for mi esposo, but I don’t think he liked it very much.”
005143: “I love this squid. Do you have any left over?”
Marie: “No, not too much.”
005143: “You don’t like our mojitos?”
Marie: “I love your mojitos, but we were suppose to fly home today, and I didn’t want to get too dehydrated.”
005143: “So this person… you can describe him for me?”

Not wanting to brag, but both of us are radiologists. We make our living seeing the small details. This is is what we do. Combined, we have over 50 years of experience. We don’t miss a trick! My chest slightly puffs with pride.

Marie: “It was dark and it happened so fast. He came out of nowhere. Maybe he was hiding.”
005143: “So this was a man you think, yes?”
Marie: “I think so.”
005143: “Was this a black man or a white man?”

Let me interject. Many Cubans are a mixture of some Spanish and African blood. They are generally handsome, with close cropped curly hair, slender muscular builds and have scars on their heads. They generally wear counterfeit Abercrombie and Fitch T shirts or soccer jerseys. That’s not to say they all look the same; but this is the way it is.

Marie: “I’m really not sure. Steve?”
Steve: “Huh?” Looking at the girl in the next room, through the one way mirror film.
Marie: “Did you get a good look at him?”
Steve: “Um. He was a guy. Young guy, maybe in his early twenties.”
005143: “What was he wearing?”
Marie: “I have no idea. I really didn’t see him and it was dark. Steve, did you see what he was wearing?”
Steve: (At this point, I can recall the road, the buildings, a skinny cat and two scavenging dogs, an old woman in a shower cap and stained nightgown toothlessly chewing the gummy remains of her dinner, but the thief? Nothing! Not wanting to sound like a complete idiot, I thought maybe he had a long sleeve shirt on. I don’t know where this confabulation came from. Nobody in the hot Havana summer wears long sleeve shirts). “I, um, think he had a long sleeve shirt on. He was maybe 5’ 6” and maybe 140 pounds. (2.2 pounds / kilo but it is late…) Um, 70 kilos maybe. Yeah, maybe something like that.”
005143: Loud sigh.

(Lots of typing. What is he typing? He has nothing!).

Two hours have passed since we got to the station. I pray his computer doesn’t crash. To amuse myself, I mentally ask the officer “what are the chances of finding this man, our passports and cracking this intriguing case?”. With our keen powers of observation, hadn’t we pretty much crack this case wide open?

005143: Show me how he took your bag?

I ready myself by taking my hands out of my damp pockets and squaring my feet in front of me.
Marie gesticulates.
Marie: “Mucha fuerza! Much force! He tore the bag from me. It was across my body. Like this.” (She motions, and I nod with quiet yet firm authority).
005143: “How big is this Bugyneenee bag of yours?”
Marie: “Baggallini. It’s Italian, but I was thinking of replacing it with something with a stronger strap.”
005143: So how big this Baloney bag?
Marie: Do you have a ruler?
005143: Sí.
Marie: (just handed a ruler) “It was like this, not quite square, more of a rectangle.”

She points to the ruler and they both study the spot intently.

005143: “What did you have in the Bugatti bag of yours?”
Marie: “Baggallini! Baggallini! Let’s see. I had money. Maybe 200 in euros. About 100 dollars US. And passports. I had our passports. Oh, and the visas but I have another one for me because of a mistake in Cancun. Do you want to hear about it?”
005143: “No”. “What else in this Baddaggy? Did you have other things?”
Marie: “It’s a Baggollini! I had my iPhone. It was a black iPhone 5 in a cracked black case. Is that important?”
Steve: “I think it was an iPhone 5, not the 5S”
Marie: “I don’t know. You bought it! What did you buy me?
Steve: “I bought you the 5 and the 5S for me”.
Marie: “Why did you get the S for you and not me?”
Steve: “Hmm. later, OK?!”
Marie: “This is not over. Do you understand?”

Marie scowls at me. I look at the officer, hands up in a surrendering posture. He gently nods in a way that makes me think he understands. “I know. I know, my gringo brother.” Our solidarity evaporates and the interview continues.

005143: “So you have anything else in this purse of yours?”
Marie: “Yes. My lip balm. It was in there too. It was tinted lip balm.”

Marie thinks better of recounting the hand wipes, Kleenex, and lightly used American Airlines issued stubby, gum bleed inducing toothbrush from business class and accompanying small tube of dry pasty toothpaste.

Marie: “Yes. That’s about it. That’s what I had in there, mas o’ minus!”

I’m thinking: “Don’t give him a mas o’ minus! No mas! No MAAAASSS!”

About this time, there was a changing of the guards with three officers leaving our safe room and four new ones taking their place. There was the obligatory hand shakes, laughs, funny noises, fist bumps and shoulder punches. It is 9:18 in the morning and we are still hoping to board our Cubana flight for Cancun at 1:45 pm. After all, we are Americans, doctors for god-sakes, we voted for Obama and our patients are going to start to die!

Now, most eyes were turned to the one way mirror. One of the new arrivals fixed his short cropped hair while the others nervously shifted on their feet, made remarks about the chica in the next room, and adjusted things in their pants.

The time had come to visit the crime scene. A few short minutes of hand bumps, handshakes, man hugs, jokes and strange noises later, we were getting into a re-purposed Russian “squad car”. Various dried fluids stained the torn gray velour back bench seat. The door lever and window crank were removed to prevent escape, but ironically, the door barely held itself shut. They shut us in, while standing outside the open front doors, waiting for some relief from the wilting interior temperature and humidity. After a few windless minutes, some more handshakes and small jokes, they were in, windows down and on our way. The race to the crime scene was punctuated by siren noise and horn honking at the few cars in the way and miscellaneous law abiding pedestrians. There was more pointing and friendly yelling to street vendors and a few passersby. We stopped at ground zero and Marie reenacted the mugging now for the 4th time since visiting the station. Minutes later, we are back in the car. There was no round up of usual suspects or questioning neighborhood regulars. As we pulled away, Marie sees a black object in the middle of a broken road, at the start of the foot chase.

Marie asks them to stop as we race past the only potential turnaround on this one way road. They reluctantly agree to go back. I am not hopeful. In this country, nothing languishes unused. Like ants on a single crumb, a lost purse would already have been sold or re-purposed. The Baggallini would make an excellent satchel for dried rice, black beans or a lunchbox. It would hold literally hundreds of bottle tops and quite a few cigars. This would already be someone’s prized possession. Turns out, the black street object Marie saw was a discarded, reeking piece of a black cloth, just shy of any possible value. Not even worth the sweat of bending over to pick up, this greasy, fecal stained piece of black cloth would remain until some rib showing, sleepy eyed dog came upon it to perfume its neck before picking it up in its mouth like a stinky, worm infested puppy.

Deflated, Marie reluctantly returned to the squad car and we were off. A few minutes later, we ran the all too familiar gauntlet of fist bumps, hand shakes, small jokes and funny noises.
Our departure time closing nearer, we are back in the safe room. Officer 005143 adds important crime scene details to the incident report. Finally, he is ready to print. He places official paper with a single holographic edge into a device that resembles a re-purposed electric typewriter and…nothing. Nothing is happening. It is now 11:26am, time to be heading for the airport with our holographic report and sad faces. I’m thinking how funny it would be to be stuck here because an ink ribbon gave it up. Not funny ha ha, but funny in a sick, helpless, what are we going to do now kind of way. Just then, the printer, one line at a time comes to life and the report is issued in a light black ink. I pretend to read it, nod emphatically and we both sign it. This is the official copy. They then printed our copy. Cuba Police Report

Lighter still, our official report was jerked out for us to sign. It is now 11:39am and we really needed to get back to our hotel, collect our luggage, check out and find a taxi to the airport. We find out that taxis are not permitted to wait at the citadel, and officer 005143 offers us a ride in his squad car. This time, after only two handshakes, one fist bump, and two inane comments to nearby vendors, we were on our way. We exit the squad car and I offer a fist bump to officer 005143. Looking slightly shocked, I am rebuffed but with holographic report in hand, and unusually prompt elevator arrival, we are on our way! Things are looking up!

We pre-packed so were out on the street in 7 minutes and in a taxi in another 3. There are few cars here, so traffic is not a big problem yet. Our 1957 Chevy taxi had been spray painted midnight blue and the driver, Andrew, a strapping black man, was very friendly. 1957 is my birth year. Surely this has some significance. 25 minutes later, he parked in a Chevy laden car lot outside of the terminal and found us a luggage cart. The parking lot was so pitted and rutted that our 6 heavy bags kept sliding off the cart. He was the motor and I was the aimless director. Upon approaching the terminal, Marie asks Andrew where Cubana is. His mouth drops open and he says this terminal is only for the United States. “Isn’t that where you are going?”. “Yes”, Marie says, “but through Cancun!” Andrew assures us that the international terminal is next door. As it turned out, next door is like Havana is to Key Largo. Dressed in our travel “I hope the plane isn’t too cold” clothes, we navigate back to the lot.

We are back in the 1957 Chevy, my eyes closed now not from despair, but from the painful combination of sweat-laden Rogaine mixed with sunscreen, drowning my eyes. Through my squinting eyes, I take myself in. 95% sweat soaked clothes minus armpits which are bone dry from my double application of “Dry Idea” antiperspirant. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone with reverse pit stains and crack another left-sided smile. These older cars have no air conditioning and are generally perfumed by diesel oil fumes mixed with sweet green antifreeze essence. The Naugahyde bench seat back seems to ever so slightly swell with my back sweat. We continued on to the international terminal and were reassured by the Cubana sign. Again, we park in a distant lot and, with no cart in sight, all head off with our six bags, two of which now have gently protesting wheels. We soldier on, enter a deliciously cool airport and head upstairs. Andrew turns over our bags and after hearing our sad story, wishes us good look.

We put on our sad doctor faces and eventually make it to a gate agent and produce photocopies of our passports, a single visa card, global entry cards, my driver’s license, our educational travel license,  our itinerary and the police report. Marie recounts the mugging, the closed embassy and the fact that people WILL start dying if we don’t get back to the United States. I refrain from demonstrating the purse snatching and we glance towards each other knowing that we did all we could do. The gate agent walked onto the scale, returning our first dive bag to us and sincerely apologized, telling us that travel from Cuba was not possible a without valid passport. I searched his face, then his hands for any indication that a bribe might get us underway. Like a zoo monkey studying a visitor for peanuts, I saw no indication that a bribe would help. Slightly whiny, we trudge across the room to the Cubana window, telling them of the robbery, lack of passports, dying patients, and the need to cancel our reservations for now.

We quickly regroup. We need passport photos. I think I saw a photo kiosk in the terminal and we should get photos now. Marie has me scouting. I’m thinking “we have our bags, the traveler diarrhea is down to a trickle, and the hotel we checked out from has no rooms for us. In this airport, I see bathrooms, air conditioning, soft chairs with torn Naugahyde, a seafood fritter kiosk, a glass fronted dripping refrigerator holding Ciego Montero (Cuba’s #1 bottled water!) and Kristal, a drinkable Cuban beer. Maybe we could use this as our home base until we get our passports Monday morning”. I pass the photo store and see that they are selling a few ergonomically awkward brand X film cameras and low capacity SD data cards. The cameras aren’t the hipster cool Diana models favored by pierced college students trying to be ironic or appear interesting. No, they instead have the charm of the Russian Yugo car. Dead plastic, smudged plastic lenses and cracked naugahyde cases. There was dust on their boxes, in the display cases. There was also an assortment of dead flies in these very same cases. The kiosk’s attendant (I guess we might call her a saleswoman) was wrestling a ripe left cheek pimple. By the way it was going, I’d wager on the pimple. I wondered: did a Cuban shoe box containing miscellaneous careers appear towards the end of secondary school? Would she reach in with her polychromatic nail polish, grab a torn piece of official paper, unfold it and let out a shriek: “Dios mios! I’m going to work in an airport kiosk for the rest of my life! Que bien suerte!”? She was in luck as the next torn piece of paper might say “Veterinary assistant, anal gland cleaner”.

I was wrong. There were no passport photo services in her stall, just flies and the other things I described. I slinked back to Marie and our 6 bags (two of which were smelly dive bags) to sell the idea of living in the airport “Just for a few days, max!”. It seemed like a stupid plan even at the time. After all, we had a little bit of money left ( $85 Canadian, 2 Euros, and $1200 US dollars). The heavily discounted group rate for the Hotel Parque Central was $175 CUC/ night. Maybe we could find something cheaper, off the beaten path, for less. In actuality, we were probably leaving on Monday, so we should be OK. It bears re-mentioning that without passports, one can’t get internet cards, exchange money and US dollars are not accepted here. With a passport, they can be exchanged, for a coming and going 10% penalty.

Marie and I meet up and take the elevator to the first floor. She stops at the information desk and starts up a conversation with Maria Esquella Martinez Escobar de la Roca. I imagine Maria’s elation when she picked her occupation from that shoebox! I see Marie giving Maria that now all too familiar crime reenactment. This time her hands go up in the air and she is shaking them. OK, an internal form of Telephone, I tell myself. I can’t hear what she is saying, but from where I stood, it might look that Marie was showing her some dance moves. Marie and Maria Esquella Martinez Escobar de la Roca walk across to the far end of the cavernous white room and not 10 minutes later, emerge with a plan and a young man named Jorge. He and his partner, Juan Carlos, have an air conditioned taxi, just outside the doors and they will take us to a casa particulare named Hosteria Cartacuba. Jorge assures us the hostess, Yanila, has a beautiful room for us and its only 35 CUC/ night! No, it is not in old Havana, but instead a crumbling formerly American enclave built on a logical grid system, unlike the haphazard, Spanish street maze in Havana Vieja (Old Havana). Jorge is a handsome and charming young man in his early 30s. Marie recounts the mugging to him, well practiced, with barely a stir of her arms. He looks horrified and told us that such crimes are “rare here in Cuba”. He said “They didn’t use a knifes or a guns, like in the USA, did they?” I believe this comment was innocent, but this contrast bares mention.

To be continued….


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12 thoughts on “Adrift in Havana (Part I) -Steve Eilenberg

  1. You better continue! Tell me that Marie saved the day and all is well?
    I think your story is compelling, and bizarrely hysterical. Again, assure me that you and Marie are O.K.

  2. We heard from Bob about your situation, but now anxiously await ” the rest of the story”. Also hope there were some fun times during this trip. The diving looked great from Bob’s images at least.

  3. And just this afternoon, I was happily looking at various tours of Cuba for myself.
    I am holding my breath awaiting parts 2 and 3. Please, go on!

  4. Hi Steve & Marie,
    Soooo sorry to hear of your travails in Habana. I presume that somehow you both made it back to our beloved shores (and did not have to leave one of you behind as hostage/security).
    Waiting with bated breath to tune in for the next exciting episodes in your ESCAPE FROM PARADISE saga but we would love to see you here in CA before you or we fly off to our next destination and perhaps hear some of the sad geschictah with 8×10 glossies and show of scars.
    Give us a call or email to get together soon.
    Empathetic love & regards,

  5. I can’t wait to read the other 2 parts. Things are more interesting when it is someone you know. I do feel bad about what happened to you but you make some Cubans very happy with a new Itialian purse. I wonder how much they got for American passports?
    Hurry and write more soon!

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