Adrift in Havana (Part III) – Steve Eilenberg

Part III

My iPad alarm clock came to life at 6:15am. Marie got up and immediately issues a low warbly muffled scream (she does this a lot). “There’s water on the floor! What did you do?” I’m yanked out of another bad dream. The night before, I recall seeing some wet streaks darkening the blue wall, under the mini split air conditioner. I told Marie it was probably related. Thinking a few drops, I roll back on the cardboard bed to get another 5 minutes shut-eye before the second alarm clock beckons. The bad dream was still vivid: one of my partners convinced me to take another job in town, a truly horrible job and a terrible departure from my current dream position. I was filled with regret and remorse, but felt that I couldn’t go back on my word.

Four minutes pass and I get up. My bare feet slosh, confirming gallons of water on the ground. The water wicked up our shiny, thin bed cover and the 24 thread count sheets onto the cardboard mattress. The smell of wet dog is developing. Our camera bags were wet. Our luggage was wet. It was the AC. The condensation drainage tubing led to an exterior 5 gallon bucket. The bucket was full and the water took the path of least resistance, dribbling all night long down our baby blue wall. 201507 MT Cuba Sponge 2

I showered with Mr. Dribble’s twin brother, then used both bath towels to clear a path on the ceramic tile floor, moved our bags to higher ground (the floor was not level) and packed again for what we hoped was our departure day. Yani was to have arranged a pick-up from Ernesto at 7:20am. This morning, we would skip breakfast and get to the embassy even earlier. At 7:10 am, we are on Yani’s porch with documents and new passport photos in hand, along with our green unwanted-in-Cuba American dollars. 7:20 comes and goes. At 7:30, Marie is pacing and ringing the bell to the house. No Ernesto and no Yani. Hastily drawn plan B is instituted and we start walking west, towards the embassy, knowing a place a few blocks away where taxis congregate. With each diesel belching car, we  turn, risking an uneven sidewalk segment, only to be disappointed. A few minutes later, an undistinguished Russian taxi comes by and with my outstretched hand, it slows and stops. The front seat had fallen through and Roberto had strapped a lawn chair over it. The colorful vinyl spaghetti straps were sagging. Each time Roberto applied the brake, the rear end of the car wagged like a dog happy to see its master. Half way there, we find ourselves behind a car that looks just like our taxi but is a student driver’s car. The student is a middle aged block of a woman, with both hands dutifully gripping the steering wheel. She is going half the speed limit and dead center in the road. There is no passing her. 5813153e0827b9061fcf86022ea3c901

This ride to the embassy was 3 CUCs, our cheapest to date.

We got to the embassy at 7:40am. Unlike Monday, a line of about 30 people had already formed. I go to the back, thinking we were sunk. Marie noticed that these 30 were pretty thin, and not one had fanny packs or selfie sticks. Surely, she thought, these were not Americans. I hold our place in line, and turn around to see 7 new arrivals.

Marie is now at the main gate and motions me to follow. When I get there, we are ushered through stout iron gates. We have photocopies of our passports and our Global Entry cards. Hiking up my pants over my burgeoning rice and bean stomach, I reach into my fanny pack to get out our ID cards and Marie surrenders her selfie stick to the guard. Our belongings xrayed, we pass through an airport style metal detector and her camera, my iPad and iPhone are confiscated. They notice a 500 Mexican peso bill in the document organizer and a heated discussion ensues between the two guards. Now we’ve done it! But what have we done? Is this how it ends? The commotion abruptly stops and we are ushered through two more sets of exterior doors and are now just outside the building and at the front of the line.

A few minutes before 8:00am, the bulletproof glass doors open and we are escorted deep inside the building, through another security door into a wide corridor with 6 un-torn brown naugahyde chairs, a small 1970s side table with a paperback book of Ansel Adam’s photographs of national parks, a current Esquire magazine, and a Consumer Report issue on best and worst cars. In front of us were 4 wanted by the FBI posters. To my right was a picture of the New York skyline, proudly showing the twin towers beyond the Statue of Liberty, in a cheap black frame, predating the abrupt closure of the Embassy in 1961. There was a large American flag next to Marie (with the correct number of stars) and next to it, pictures of President Obama and another with John Kerry in ill fitting frames. Had they recently replace JFK’s and LBJ’s photos?

Robert Bliss was the American liaison “assigned to our case”. Documents, police report and passport photos were collected. He reappeared a few times to ask for documents we had already submitted. Every so often, for the 2 hours and 14 minutes we were there, the armored door we entered rattled violently. We didn’t dare open it. Maybe it was a test!

About 90 minutes into our visit, the lights went out and we could hear people running behind the door to the left and to the right of our narrow waiting room. Dim emergency lights were activated, we hear a generator whir. A few minutes later, a heavily-armed and nervous American guard came in through the door at the opposite end of the room, insisting that we “leave the building immediately!”. Apparently, there was an alarm, and some smoke. A cold chill goes up my spine. I’m thinking “The Terminator”. The scene when Arnold “came back” and drove a car through the police station entrance and started killing everyone. Moments later, we get an all clear and a “never mind” command.

Apparently, we are the only ones in the locked corridor replacing stolen passports. I had imagined hundreds of foreigners, all recounting and gesticulating “the snatching” event.

1 hour and 39 minutes into it, a muffled call from Mr. Bliss comes through the bulletproof glass window.
Mr. Bliss: “You need to go back outside the building to pay the necessary fees…”
Marie: “Where they took my selfie stick?”
Mr. Bliss: “No, but next to that…”
Marie: “OK…?”
Mr. Bliss: “When you go out of the building, go the the right. There will be another door. They are expecting you. You have the money?”
Marie: “I have 13 CUCs left, but we have American dollars. Does the American Embassy take American dollars?”
Mr. Bliss: “We can, of course, we can do that”.
Marie: “So a right, a left, another right, go out the building, turn right and wait?”
Mr. Bliss: “Exactly”

Marie leaves just as I learn from Consumer Reports that Kia bested BMW in reliability and customer satisfaction last year. Hmmm, imagine that! I savor this moment where first world concerns start creeping back into my life. Not 10 minutes later, Marie is back with a triumphant look. She hands receipts over to Mr. Bliss who says, through the muffling bulletproof glass, that they now have everything they need to start making the passports. START MAKING…?!, I say indignantly (in my head)! It’s now about 10:10am and I bury myself in the Automotive customer satisfaction ratings. I have an Audi…How did Audi do? Am I smart? Did I make a good purchase?

At 10:20am, the passports are ready. They are thin, and feel fake, like a toy cell phone you might give to a spoiled American child to play with.

Mr. Bliss: “These are your temporary passports”
Steve and Marie: “Uh huh”
Mr. Bliss: “They expire in 3 months”
Steve and Marie: “Uh huh”
Mr. Bliss: “You can only use them to return to the United States. You can’t travel outside the US them.”
Steve and Marie: “Uh huh”
Mr. Bliss: “When you get back home, send them in with new photos, D-11 stolen passport forms and they will issue you permanent passports. I’ll give you this form stating that you have already paid for new passports. Do you have any questions for me?”
Marie: “Yes, I don’t like the way my photo came out.”
Steve: “You’re kidding, right?”
Marie: “Yours looks better than mine!”
Steve: “Take mine then.”
Marie: “I can’t do that! That’s of you.”
Steve: “My face looks too long. I think something happened when they scanned it in…”
Marie: “Well, at least you look like you!…”
Steve: “Oh god, I look like this?”
Mr. Bliss: “I’m sorry, is everything OK?
Steve: “Yes, you’ve been a big help! Thanks again!”
Marie: “Do…”
Steve: “Don’t. Just don’t!”

We are buzzed out of the room and go right, take a left, another right, go out the building, and this time turn left to get our belongings and hope to find a taxi.

The line of Cubans has tripled and just outside the embassy security zone, there are hundreds of people just standing around in small clumps. We pass through, tightly clutching our papers and crappy one way passports. As I walk, I have one hand on my left front pocket so no one would know this is where I have my wallet and passport. We make our way to a one way street, going the wrong way and wander back through the crowd to another one way street pointing roughly towards Cartacubana. I flag down what I thought was a taxi, but it was the same steel faced refrigerator of a woman, the student driver in her instructor’s car that slowed us down earlier in the morning.

A young man standing on the corner asks if we need a taxi. Marie asks how much, “A cuanto?” and he says 7 CUC. Marie firmly says “NO” and walks on. I ask “Is this a time to save 3 CUCs?” Marie retorts. “I’m tired of this shit! We don’t have the CUCs to spare!” The young man yells to us “OK, 5 CUCs!” Marie doesn’t even flinch or waste her breath. She holds up four fingers over her head, with the panini burn in plain view. He relents and we are on our way. We pass the student driver at Avenue of the Presidents and 5 minutes later, are at our swampy rented room. We finish packing and pass through the gauntlet of security doors, hopefully for the last time. The door leading from the building to the street has an ingenious addition. Someone on the 4th floor has a string tied to the deadbolt. The string goes up the stairway to her front door. When a friend yells up from the street, she can pull the string to “buzz” him up. I wonder if she makes the buzzing sound herself when she pulls it, or even knows such things exist in the wider world.

We drag our bags across the street to the lime green hotel and pass through the security gate. Yani comes through the front door with her hands to her cheeks.
Yani: “I am so sorry, Steven! The Dutch family was up until 1am, Steven. I thought I set the alarm for 6:30 but I woke up at 8:30 and said ‘oh my god, Steven and Marie!’ I never called Ernesto!. I am so sorry!”
Steve: “It’s OK, Yani. We got our passports”
Yani: “Oh, thanks god”.

I thought religion was banned in Cuba, but I was not entirely correct.

Marie: “I don’t like my passport picture…”
Yani: “Can I get you something? Did you have breakfast… some coffee?”
Marie: “We really need to get to the airport. Can you call someone?”
Yani: “Of course! Of course! I’ll do that right now”
Marie: “It’s not Ernesto, is it?”
Yani: “No, he’s fixing his carburetor. I’ll call Rigoberto! He lives just here!”
Yani: (on her cell phone) “Rigoberto, I need a ride from you to the airport. Pronto! Pronto! Rapido! RAPIDO! OK? Bye!”
Yani: “He’ll be here in a minute. Don’t worry!”

Moments later, we double kiss Yani and tell her we will give her a good review on Trip Advisor (and we will). We are off. To amuse myself, I count the number of Cuban men wearing long sleeve shirts, on the 25 minute drive to the airport. Not counting me, there was one old man with a four footed cane shuffling to a bus stand. I assume he was hiding some horrible skin condition. And, no, I don’t think he was our robber.

Unlike our Saturday run to the airport, Rigoberto takes us directly to the international terminal and we are on our way to the Cubana service desk. I want to pretend that everything will be OK, so stay behind with the bags and continue writing this blog. Marie makes a few long mad dashes from one end of the terminal to the other to produce newly exchanged CUCs for our ticket change fees.

As I stand up to head for the check in desk, my wallet falls out of my front pocket and onto the floor. I get an all too familiar look from Marie as I replace it and give her my most adorable “Whaaat!?” The transaction at the gate was smooth, and we now have tickets in hand. Our next stop is immigration. Not wanting to draw any unwanted attention to myself, I stand perfectly planted on the worn red footprint decals on the floor, 12’ from the immigration agent. I am ushered forward and scrutinized by agent Alana Gonzalez and her camera. I think the camera does a biometric check with the passport photo, regarding face shape, interpupillary, and nose to chin distances. In hopes of resembling my distorted toy passport photo, I suck in my cheeks and lengthen my face. I think it is working but Alana sends me back to the decal footprints and another agent comes out of a bulletproof glass room to confer. Marie is also sent back and I hear her explaining “it is not a very good picture of me…”

A few minutes pass and we are in front of the agents for the second time. Alana is more friendly now and asks me to stop making “that face”. I glance over and Marie is jerking her arms, showing how the snatching took place. Relieved, I pass through the security check.

Our underwater cameras are with us in carry-on Porter Cases. Our friend Greg (who was shot at in Chicago) turned us on to these cases. They have a built in luggage cart, theoretically capable of carrying multiple bags with a 200 pound capacity. In reality, it can do this on its maiden journey, becoming less accommodating on future trips. As I convert the rusting utility cart into an inconspicuous carry on, I hear violent commotion behind me. My first thought “Oh god, they’re on to us” and my second thought is the half paid bar bill with the lovely couple and their 2 year old daughter. With one knee on the ground, as I convert the Porter Case to a cart, I crank backwards just in time to see a sweating, fairly heavy black man in full gallop being chased by 3 security guards. Impressively for his size, he hurdles over my bag and just to the right of the body screening gate. While in mid air, I could have tripped him, but not knowing if he was pursuing someone or the pursued, decided not. Just beyond the screening gate were about 5 stairs down. He took them in one stride. This is where he would have died if I had tripped him.

As he passed, they killed the belt on the x ray machine and the screeners beyond the metal detector gate direct us to stop where we are. Armed agents from all directions converged on the big, sweaty man, now at the end of that long corridor. He was escorted out, I’m sure to a Cuban jail, by 15 guards, 10 men and 5 women. I missed my chance to be a hero again.

As they pass, my attention is directed away to a passenger in the screening line, in front of me. He was tall, about 6’ 4” and 260 lbs. He had a bushy mustache and short cropped silvering hair. The back of his T shirt read “USA Proud” and on the front was a picture of a Corvette. He had a big stomach and was fiddling with a large, expensive wrist watch.

Proud American: “I don’t have to take it off, believe me. It’s OK! I travel a lot”
Security agent: “Please if you would to take your watch off”
Proud American: “Look, its titanium! T-I-T-A-N-I-U-M. Titanium! It doesn’t set the machine off. OK?”
Security agent: “Sir, you have to step aside”
Me: (thinking “Can I trip this asshole down the stairs? Will they consider me a hero?”)
Proud American: “Goddamn it! For heaven sake! There! Are you happy?!” The watch comes off.

We pass through security and find a seat at our gate. It is 13:03. The flight is scheduled to leave at 13:45. We have tickets and 5.65 CUCs left. Marie, hell bent on come back with no CUCs, goes out to spend it on Cuban rum. The bottle costs 5.55 CUC, not including the required 1 CUC duty free bag to hold it. She returned with CUCs in hand, tempted to throw them to the floor. While it would have been her personal statement, I don’t think it would have impressed onlookers.

We board the plane at 13:27 and start taxiing at 13:54. As we approach the runway, there is a rhythmic sound and a vibration reminiscent of sneakers turning in a clothes dryer. This continues until takeoff. This sound is replaced by the warbling sound of elevating landing gear. The steward looks like Mary’s boss, Lou, on the Mary Tyler Moore show and the stewardess never removes her orange inflatable vest she used to demonstrate the water evacuation protocol. We are in the air and give each other a subdued “high five” as we at long last exit Cuban air space.

Cubana Il 96 400x252

By popular demand (I wish), I will soon upload an exclusive interview with the author of “Adrift in Havana”. You won’t want to miss it! Subscribe now! Check back often and send a link to friends you don’t particularly like! – Steve

 Epilogue: Several years have passed since the telling of my story. Marie has a new purse and the shock and horror of “the incident” has largely faded. What follows is an intercepted message from “our friend” Greg Rothman. He is truly a heartless bastard!


Gmail <> 8/16/15 … I must confess after Steve and Marie were stranded, I was rather hopeful that they’d be stuck there for at least 5 or 6 months- Enough time for me to plan and return on a second trip. My excitement rose with each passing day! I figured that the next time I went I’d have local guides whom I knew well and they’d speak English! When I suggested they go to the airport Saturday and try and talk their way onto the flight, I knew Cab fare to and from would cost them 50cuc’s. They were short on cash. They’d be looking for employment soon, but with Steve’s talent with balloon animals and Marie’s opportunities to tutor Japanese, they’d be okay until next May. Everything was working as I planned. I even called in a favor from my a fiend in the diplomatic core. He assured me that the state department would not intercede on their behalf without a substantial in cash bribe. Everything was perfect …except for Internet service. The email from my friend to the embassy in Cuba was apparently routed through Hillary’s server (why, I don’t know) which was in process of being shutdown and delivered to the FBI. Hence they were mistakenly issued their temporary passports and the rest is history. Now I just have to figure out what to do with Marie’s purse and both their stupid passports. By the way, Stevie’s photo is ridiculous. Love you all, Gregory

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8 thoughts on “Adrift in Havana (Part III) – Steve Eilenberg

  1. Muchas gracias for sharing the wonderfully awful details of your travel disaster. You two are smart, resourceful, prepared (backup documents, cash stash), and still had lots of unpredictable challenges over several days before getting passport replacements. A well written account of accepting and adapting to life far from the comforts and security of home. Something I would much rather read about and actually experience.

  2. What a read, i am still wondering how 27 count sheets really feel and what is the new traveling plan for keeping passports safe?

  3. If you travel a lot you eventually experience the “trip from hell” – although yours was particularly bad. I recall a trip through Europe where, at the end of two great weeks, Steve gave our luggage to a “porter” to put on our train. The porter spoke no English and I personally didn’t think he was dressed like the other porters, but Steve was in a hurry and thought we were going to miss our train, so what the heck, hand over all the luggage to this seemingly helpful person! The porter and our luggage (which was full of wonderful items we had purchased to remember out trip) were never seen again. We arrived in Vienna with three days before we were to depart with just the clothes on our back and, fortunately, our travel documents and passports. After losing our luggage, along with all the things we had purchased during our trip, I was not in the mood to spend more money except for the bare necessities of clean underwear and toothpaste to last for the remainder of the trip. Not as bad as your experience, but it did, briefly, come close to ending our marriage!

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