Heading west on one way Calle 17, we pass rows of stately but crumbling and mostly abandoned mansions dating back to the 1930s. Domiciles of American and European mafioso, tree roots new lift long abandoned walkways. Windows are missing and doors rotted off their hinges from humidity and termites. For decades now, Cubans have bypassed these homes in favor of abandoned gas stations. By the time we get to the Calle 14 cross street, we are encouraged to see a few restored mansions, with the crown jewel of the street, Hosteria Cartacuba; a heavily fortified mint green edifice built in 1926 by a Spanish woman with substantial Cuban concerns. Yanila is an affable, bright mother of 7 year Gabrielle, a bespectacled, boy with bangs, who when not playing or in the pool, is spellbound by a creepy cartoon called “Kid versus Kat”. In the style of “Ren and Stimpy,” it involves an oblivious father, innocent young daughter and clever son (the Boy and our hero). The latter suspects that the adopted family cat is actually an evil alien sent to spy on humans with the ultimate goal of world domination. The cat has stashed away death rays and has razor claws. Utterly adorable, it tries in vain to brutally kill the boy who bests him in each episode. When young Gabrielle went to bed, his father continues on watching additional late night episodes.
Our high ceiling bedroom has its original ornamental ceramic tile floor. All doors and windows are either cedar or mahogany, “the only wood to survive this climate” as Yanila puts it. We share a bathroom with the next room, first a pair of Australian men, then a Polish couple.
Our bedroom (one of six, in this 2 story home) was our air conditioned refuge. The shared bathroom was clean and tiled. A children’s toy on a string was the pull to flush this paperless toilet. Paperless, you say? Is that something new? In a word, no! Delicate Cuban plumbing just can’t handle paper. The room temperature shower, which we named “Mister Dribbles” was tolerable if cooling off from the sweltering streets, but a bit of do first thing in the morning.
On our first morning, we waited for breakfast on the back patio, where dinner is served. “Kid vs. Kat” wafts out the adjacent open window. There is a low drone of a large house fan in Yanila’s open Fiat trunk. It will remain so during our stay. Bored, sweating profusely and in need of coffee, I decide to pet the older of the two family dogs, lying at my feet. Having clean hands, I use my foot instead. Moments later, a pile of yellowing/gray wiry hair lay at my feet and reluctantly inspecting Carta, the dog, I see a large bald patch has appeared on its butt, bare skin populated by skin tags and a funny looking mole. I consider putting the hair back on the patch and going back into our air conditioned room, but instead am ushered up an external spiral staircase to the third floor, to an open air dining room. We were treated to warm Cuban coffee, fresh squeezed pineapple and mango juices, succulent mango, and papaya. Given the look and condition of the other offerings, I assume the papaya is wonderful, but, like cilantro, I don’t do papaya. We had warm fresh sweet bread (not sweetbreads) and a freshly baked country loaf. This was followed by an omelet and we were soon on our way. Borrowing Yanila’s cell phone, Marie was able to get through to Emergency Services at the American Embassy in Cuba. Strangely, the call was answered by a man named “Roy” who had a very strong Indian accent. Was this outsourced to India?! Really? Here, I’m thinking Top Gun, Green Berets and Slim Pickens riding the A Bomb and THIS call is outsourced? Roy said “I am sorry, sir, but it quite clear that the embassy is closed until Monday at 8:00am. Thank you, sir, and have a nice day”.
It is now 10:13 am and we are on our way back to familiar Havana Vieja. In a generic taxi, we have a trickle of air conditioning. In celebration, we take stock of our remaining funds. We have $1200 US in our room safe, and $87 Canadian and 237 CUCs with us. With this sum, we are amongst the wealthiest people in Cuba, so why do we feel so poor! We enter the revolving doors of Hotel Parque Central, walk past the guards looking for “non-guests” and take a seat in the large central lounge. It is a nice hotel and more importantly, air conditioned. My arms stick to the chair’s armrests and there is a large greasy circle where one’s head would rest.
Sitting in this sticky chair, not knowing how long we had to maintain our thinning veil of respectability, I took stock of our appearances. My blue, quick wash travel shirt (Columbia Sportswear) has taken on a strange patina; the body of the shirt was splotchy and matte with a powdery sheen of dried sweat. Arm pits, however, were perfect. Green shorts (Patagonia) with toothpaste splatter marks in front and a vortex shaped drying white salty sweat stain in the back. Exposed arms: Right hand with a healing gash from a recent vacation mishap
and fading red dots from no-see-um bites while administering water to giant, but cute, rat-relative jutias on a small sandy shoreline in “ Gardens of the Queen”. Turns out these rats need actual water like I needed no-see-um bites. They get their water from nuts and fruits. It was, however, amusing to let them drink from our water bottles, as they left traces of diseases for us to discover in the upcoming days. My hair has dulled by the Lava hand soap I am now using, after our 3 ounce shampoo bottle ran out. My face is a mosaic of no-see-um bites, jellyfish stings, splotches of sunburn and brown sun spots (called freckles on younger people). My eyes are bloodshot from lack of sleep and my usually well trimmed beard is now uneven as the trimmer battery died after trimming the left side of my face.
Not pathetic enough, only half my face is sweating profusely. Tired of the river of sweat dripping into my eyes, nose and mouth, I was experimenting by applying dabs of Dry Idea antiperspirant on my face when I’m interrupted mid-application by a screaming Marie. Well, not exactly a scream, more of a loud guttural warble. Let me demonstrate here: “ EEEEuhhuhhheeewaHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!! Hearing this, I put down the antiperspirant and sprang into action.
Steve: “What! …WHAT!” (Not the British “what what?” but just the concerned American kind).
Marie: “Over there!!! It’s over there! Uuuuuhuuuuuhuuuugh”
Expecting a rat or a mouse, I see instead a mortally wounded giant cockroach that had the misfortune to cozy up in Marie’s only shoes last night.
Steve: woozy and slightly nauseous. “Oh god! It’s a cohhhh! (gag), a coohhhhck (gag) a cockroach!!…I think you killed it!”
Marie: “I thought my sock was bunched up and when I took my shoe off, it fell out!”
The cockroach, not quite dead, tries to scurry away but a couple of its six legs had fallen off (still independently twitching). From the abdomen is oozing yellow goo. Is this cockroach blood, eggs, or poop? We don’t know! Marie inspects her socked foot and sees some yellow ooze and one of the twitching amputated legs. I open the door to the hall, hoping balding dog is nearby to clean up the mess. A wave of hot humid air comes in and I quickly close the door. Like a shuffleboard puck, my shod foot sent the cockroach towards a small garbage can. I am distracted and forget I have Dry Idea antiperspirant on only one half of my face.Yes, Dry Idea works on faces.
Back to the inspection. Unlike Marie’s, my socks look clean. However, street dogs seem to be increasingly interested in my feet with each passing day. My glasses are opaque with finger grease and my Patagonia quick drying blue baseball cap is darkly stained from sweat, with white salt crystallizing on the bill.
Marie has fared somewhat better than me. Her no-see-um red bumps are largely hidden by her darker complexion; same for her jellyfish stings. Her gray roots are sprouting like new grass after a good rain. The roots are largely hidden by a saggy, old, wrinkled, vented, grey hat. She insists on traveling with it because “it has a neck strap”. The neck strap comes in handy, especially when it gets tangled with her sunglasses’ Croakies. It is my job, well, one of my jobs, to detangle her and I do so sometimes 5 times a day. Her melasma is returning and, in the absence of lip balm, her lips are peeling. Her clothes have fared better than mine, although she rebuffed my Dry Idea antiperspirant idea and has salt stained pits. Her feet blisters are largely hidden by sandal straps and the bleeding has stopped.
In our current condition, we decide to put on a strong air of respectability. We pass beyond the inner ring of hotel security and ascend the grand central steps to the library, bathroom and business center. On the previous day, Marie bought a wifi card for 4.50 CUCs. Like my dying patients, the WIFI took occasional agonal breaths, allowing us to receive an occasional email, as well as some sorely needed SPAM. This morning, we were hoping to use the hotel’s PC, which in Cuba stands for Piece of Caca. In lieu of a room number, we presented our wifi card of the previous day and requested time on their PC. The computer was a marvel of ancient technology. The brand, I think, was Croatian. It was a darkening beige tower, with a gaping hollow and near empty front. The exposed processor was entombed in gray dusty fur. One click of the brown stained mouse and the monitor slowly came to life, exposing burned in text from decades of use. Our internet card had a scratch-off pewter strip revealing the password number.
I open up Gmail and start writing another SOS to stateside friends and colleagues:
“I’m writing this from the business center at a hotel in Old Havana. Marie’s purse was snatched late last night. She is unharmed but they got our passports and money. We are unable to leave Cuba without passports. Today is Saturday and the American embassy opens Monday. We hope to replace them quickly but don’t know how long this will take. Optimistically, we could be back home late Monday night….”
I break out in a fit of laughter. In the past few years, we have received scam mail that was almost identical to what I was writing. They go something like this:
“I’m writing this with tears in my eyes. Steve and I came to Havana for a quick vacation and unfortunately we were mugged in front of the hotel where we stayed. Our cash, credit card and cell phones were stolen off us, but luckily we still have our passports.
We’ve been to the Embassy and the police, but they’re not helping us at all and our flight leaves in less than 3 hrs. We’re having problems settling the hotel bill and the hotel manager won’t let us leave until we settle up.
Am freaked out at the moment. I Need Your Help Urgently..”
What if I received MY email. Would I believe it, or send it into the SPAM pile? I think the latter.
A few minutes later, a reply from American Airlines about our missed flight out of Cancun pops up. It went something like this:
“Dear valued customer, we at American Airlines were sorry to hear you were mugged in Havana. Unfortunately, we found your e-mail after the departure time of your flight from Cancun to Dallas Fort Worth. If it’s any consolation, we upgraded a couple with Gold Member status from coach to your First Class seats and trust they had a nice experience!
We are sending you a survey to assess your experience with our customer service. Completing the survey makes you eligible for valuable prizes, such as 15 minutes of in flight wifi, or the use of the first class bathroom when traveling in coach. Thank you for being a loyal member of the American Airlines family! We wish you a safe and speedy return to wherever is your final destination.”
Steve: “Well, doesn’t that warm your heart?”
Marie: “Did I read that right?
Steve: “HMMM!” Waddaya want to do now?”
Marie: “Kill myself!… Did I bring my bathing suit? Maybe I can use the pool on the roof deck!”
Steve: “Do you think they’ve closed down breakfast for the hotel guests? They didn’t check our room key when we were staying here- maybe we can get a bite?”
Marie: “Maybe we should put up reward posters in the neighborhood for the return of our passports…”
Steve: “Ya know…We were robbed close by. Maybe he pitched the passports and they’ve been returned to the Hotel…”
Marie: “That’s a thought! Let’s go ask the concierge.”
We headed down past a suspicious guard, towards the front desk, and meet Manuel, the concierge.
Marie: “We were staying here Friday night when we were robbed. They got our passports when they took my purse (arms gesticulate like so). Has anything been turned in?”
Manuel: “You were robbed here? In the hotel?”
Marie: “No, on the next street, by the Museum of Fine Art.”
Manuel: “Madame, will you be able to explain to me the purse? Was it perhaps small and black?”
Marie: “YES YES!! Oh my god, Yes! Small and black! It’s a Baggallini. It’s from Italy!!!”
I’m silent, but my chest puffs ever so slightly with this wave of relief.
Manuel: “Bag of baloney?”
Marie: “No, the bag is called Baggallini!”
Manuel: “This bag…she has a name?”
Marie: “No, it’s just a small black bag… So you found it!”
Manuel: “No, we didn’t have a bag. Jus lots of womens carry small black bags. Thas all. Lo siento! Sorry I can help you!”
My chest ever so slightly deflates as a wave of despair washes over.
We are back in the sticky chairs. I revisit Marie’s idea of posting reward flyers.
Steve: “I don’t think we can post reward flyers.”
Marie: “Why not?”
Steve: “Have you seen any flyers on the streets? I haven’t. Well, just a few with pictures of Che’.”
Marie: “Maybe we can put Che’s picture on the flyer and the text below. You know, to get their attention. We could write something like “Lost near Hotel Parque Central. Two American passports. Lovely Japanese American girl and funny looking old guy. No questions asked. Contact front desk at Parque Central. 100 CUC reward.”
Steve: “I guess I could make fliers on my laptop and print them out at the business center. Do they even have staples in Cuba?”
Marie: “Staples, the office supply store?”
Steve: “No, staples, the metal wire thing. Oh crap! The telephone poles here are made of concrete…staples won’t work!”
Steve: “So, we hand over 100 CUC to the front desk and when the criminal comes in, they make the exchange?”
Marie: “Something like that”
Steve: “I’ve got an idea. What if I make a sandwich board with a picture of Che’ on the back and your text in front. You know… something like: Criminals and purse snatchers! Listen up! 100 CUC reward in my right front pocket. Take the money and leave the passports. No preguntas!. I’ll have my eyes closed and march back and forth down the Prado.”
Marie: “That’s not helpful and you’re being an ass!”
Steve: “Do we have enough money for two mojitos?”
Marie: “I think so. Do you want to have them here, or at El Floridita?”
Steve: “Where are they cheaper?”
Sunday came early. I couldn’t sleep past 4:40am. Marie was tossing, twitching and snoring all night. This might be our last night in the mansion with the air conditioner and Mr. Dribbles. We meet up with Yanila for an 8:15 am breakfast and she was going to check, but thought she was full for the following evening. We pass the TV, tuned as always to a “Kid versus Kat” episode. Carta, their elderly dog, was sporting a large bald patch on her butt. Yanila took note with wide eyes and an “O” shaped mouth. I nod my head back and to the right, pointing at the room of the lovely Polish family of 4 that arrived the evening before. She acknowledged with a slight nod of her own. With that, I was off in search of mango and coffee.
Marie and I were already soaked with sweat and it was not yet 9:00 am. With our energy plug pulled, we were disinclined to be tourists, but forced ourselves to visit the old city, and our cool, sticky-chaired hotel refuge with Internet, swimming pool and the possibility of free food. It was pretty much a repeat of Saturday, except we looked more haggard, and less like legitimate hotel guests. We got wet towels out and start blotting each others’ stains and spills. There are dog hairs, and Marie seems to be shedding a bit too. In the business center, we fire up “Hollow-man”, our favorite PC, and find some comforting emails from friends, but nothing that is going to get us home. I retreat to the library, this time to a sofa, and continue typing our story on the Macbook.
Past the heat of the day, we now have some small cloud cover and use this opportunity to photograph the iconic old Chevys, Buicks, Fords and Mercuries. Those near the hotel are generally more tricked out than at lesser hotels. Pink, chartreuse, purple hulks with bubbling paint, bondo patches, cheap rims, and tacky steering wheels are all in line now. Windshields are cracked, windows no longer open and the floors are replaced, either painted, or covered with some silver tin foil-like material generally used to insulate a water heater. The most outrageous cars have not one, but two hood ornaments, like confused animals, a swan ornament having sex with an underlying airplane. Some hopelessly broken tail lights have been abandoned and replaced, farther up on the rear fenders with Lada, Fiat, or third party tail lights screwed into the sheet metal. Most side view mirrors have been replaced or are missing. The original gas engines are long gone, replaced by black smoke belching diesel truck engines. I found it interesting to learn that in the day of metal dashboards, non-crumpling bumpers, stiff car bodies, no seat-belts and hood ornaments, that these very same hood ornaments seen here killed, or contributed to killing more pedestrians than tornados, rabies, sharks and errant golf balls combined.
It momentarily rained just before 4pm and evaporated just as quickly. It left a cloud cover which took the edge off the heat and kept us exploring the streets. After two mojitos at La Floridita, we counted our money and Marie calculated that if we got out on Wednesday we would have about 10 CUCs left to our name, and a small pile of US dollars which we could no longer exchange. She became hyper-frugal from that moment on and I’ll give you some examples.
1. We approach a panini food stand. They are preparing ham and cheese, egg sandwiches and hotdogs on very yellow buns. She orders a large bottle of water, hands over a 10 CUC note for a 3 CUC bottle. She is handed back 6 CUC. With a steely stare, Marie gestures palm up over the counter. Her fingers rhythmically contract in a “hand it over, you bitch” sort of way. I’ve never seen her do this before. My admiration is interrupted by a loud yelp. Did this woman stab her with a toothpick, or was someone grabbing at her camera? Turns out her outstretched hand brushed the hot panini press. I think the hand gesture and her primal scream caused the cashier to hand over the 1 CUC she was palming for herself.
2. Revived by the water, which she is using to cool her burn, we photograph some children and puppies. A very attractive well dressed black couple, in their late 30s, approach us. He asks: where are we from? I can now proudly say “the United States” and then “California”. He says “What a beautiful couple! Obama! We love Obama! We love that you are here!” Small talk ensues, as we walk together, the doctors and our new Cuban friends. “Do you have any children?”, he asks. I say no (didn’t mention that I didn’t like the smell or the noise) and he answers that he has “a girl, two years old! She is beautiful” “Where are you going?” he asks. I answer that we are “meeting friends for dinner (actually, the other guests including the Polish couple I implicated and an English/Italian couple at Cartacubana). “You like Cuban music?” he asks. “Me gusta mucho,” I answer. “You like mojitos, my friend?” “Si, como no!” I answer. “Let me show you the best music, the best mojitos in all of Havana. Come! Come! It costs you nothing!” I’m in need of an afternoon story to write about, so we go together, a few blocks away to an open walled bar. He and his lovely wife with the beatific smile are in front of us, and usher us to a reserved table front and center of the Cuban band. The table has a folded white “reserved” card on it which he tosses on the ground “for his American friends”. A waiter instantly appears to take our drink orders. No menus in sight, our BFF Cuban friends order for us. The drinks soon follow with a plate of soggy fried plantains. The band leader is now interested in these sweating, red-faced VIP’s.
Bandleader: “Where are you from?”
Steve: “United States, California”
Bandleader: “Oh my god! Like a visit from Jesus Christ!” “Thank you, my friends! What is your names?”
Steve: “Thanks, Marie! Jesus thanks you!”
Marie: “Oh shut up! Me llamo Marie”
Bandleader: “You know how to sing, Esteban?”
Steve: thinking to himself. “I was Godzilla in a karaoke bar in Nagoya, Japan! Watch what you ask for!” and shake my head “No!”
Bandleader: “You know how to dance?”
Steve: Doing my best in-seat white man’s overbite with closed fingers, thumbs rhythmically rotating towards my chest.
Bandleader: now in full retreat, starts up again.
I try my drink. Dirty glass, homemade ice cubes, Sprite, a spit of bad rum, a dash of grenadine, and a few wilted mint leaves. I glance over at Marie. She is waiting for our Cuban best friends to drink their drinks first. They do, she tastes hers and puts it down. She told me later that she feared they were going to drug us and that’s why she held off; then, when she tasted it, she held off because it was vile.
We had a good five minutes of music wash over us when our friend asks me: “You want to see my beautiful daughter?” What am I going to say? “Hell yeah!”. He produces a photo of some young girl, sitting on a old rug in someone’s depressing living room. The photo is more an irregular shaped fragment with the upper corner and right half torn away. There were no adults to be seen. Where were our new friends in this picture? Did he cut out the real parents, or just worn away from showing his pride and joy off to tourists? We will never know. He says: “Steve, my friend, do children in America have problems?” I’m about to describe time outs, piano lessons, soccer games and parental blocking of certain Internet sites, but instead say “no”. He tells me that children in Cuba have lots of problems. As the men talk, I find out later that his beautiful wife is asking Marie to give her 15 CUC to get powdered milk for her 2 year old daughter who otherwise will get rickets and be sold to the circus in Columbia as a side show freak. Marie tells her she will accompany her to the distribution store, but not just hand over money. The beautiful wife is now quiet and not quite so beautiful. Meanwhile, my friend waves his hand and a bill appears in front of me. I dare to peak and see 39 CUC at the bottom line. A wonderful mojito in the best hotel may be 5 CUCs max. These horrid things would be -2 CUCs, tops, and the fried plantain was taken from another table, earlier in the afternoon. I push the bill towards Marie. New BFF eyes his wife. Marie looks down and I point to my eye. She opens it. There is a chill at the table. She takes out a wad of money. I’m thinking, is 39 CUC worth this sad and pathetic story? Maybe. We get up, take our cameras and what is left of our dignity and leave mid-song. In the distance, I hear, “Goodbye, my friend”. I walk out with a pointless smirk and our waiter grabs me. “The bill is 39 CUC. You only paid 20!” Marie retorts “Yeah, the rest of the bill is theirs!”, turns on her blistered heel and leaves. My chest heaves ever so slightly. Even so, the beautiful couple probably got half of that bill for bringing us in. We go home with a small triumph and a few more CUCs in our wallet than we otherwise would have had.
Yani (we are now good friends) has our old room for us. I’m thinking our last night in comfort under her roof sounds good to me. I had horrible dreams of my dying father, but woke up early Monday morning. Marie, let’s get our passports and get out of this place! We had warm black coffee and slightly overripe mango. Sated and hopeful, we entered Enrique’s cab (a neighbor and family friend of Yani). For a good price of 4 CUCs, he drove us to the newly opened American embassy. Flags were waving, tall gates and guards were in front of us. Monday morning, 7:45am, we were the only visitors there! First in line, baby! A Cuban guard with unintelligible Spanish confronted us with a machine gun. We figured he wanted to know what we wanted. We are Americans! We were robbed! We have no passports! We want to leave this wonderful country as soon as possible! He tells us “Embassy closed today. Get off the sidewalk. Go across the road. Don’t come here today. It Revolution today.” With no Americans in sight, the building dark, we suspect that something happened over the weekend. Perhaps Donald Trump “fired” Raúl Castro and this was a bloodless retaliation. Embassy closed days after it reopened. Does Raúl get accurate news reports? Does he know that the CNN’s “Ahead in the polls” headline means nothing?
The rest of Monday was spent in quiet desperation. Now sneaking into Hotel Parque Central this time, we used the last 8 minutes on our internet card to tell our medical group that we weren’t coming back that day. 5-4-3-2-1, our session closed and with it, our tie to home.
Steve: “Marie, I’m still lugging around your bathing suit. Do you want to swim on the roof deck?”
Marie: “What for?”
Marie: “Will you come with me?”
Steve: “Look at me! Would you let me in?” Silence.
We retreat back to the balding dog and Cartacubana and Yani gives us the first good news we’ve had all day, she moved some people around and has a room for us up and to the front. What she didn’t mention is that up in front was down the road and on the third floor of a building that she owns two additional rooms in. She takes us and 4 of our six bags across the street. There are 4 keys on our ring, two ancient worn brass ones and two old chrome keys. Each lock has its own bad personality. The last one is for show only, with the handset locking but the door still opens with a slight breeze. As luck would have it, there were no breezes on this sweltering Monday night. We fired up the AC, baby blue powdery cement wall below it stained. She fired up Mr. Dribble’s cousin and was off. The room’s light switch was down the hall. Yani: “Our electrician is really just a bad plumber. He no listen”. The bed felt like a stack of cardboard and the pillow was moldy. This was a particularly still, hot and humid evening and Marie permitted me to take the AC controller to 24 degrees, otherwise unheard of territory for my cold little sleeper.
To be continued…