Friday, July 24, 2015
A different flavor of passport nightmare awaited us in Havana. The return trip from Jardines de la Reina was an all day affair, but much more pleasant than going. For starters, we left at a more normal hour. For another, the bus was a comfortable temperature, although this time I was prepared with a jacket, which proved unnecessary. We stopped at a government-run buffet restaurant en route, which had a tasty spread, including grilled pork, Moors and Christians (mixed black beans and rice), a salad of cucumbers, savory mashed plantains, even an interesting candied fruit dessert. Greg and I passed the afternoon watching a horrifying documentary on his laptop, “Merchants of Deceit,” about tactics utilized by those seeking to obscure the dangers of not addressing climate change, modeled after the tobacco industry’s decades long evasion of responsibility for misleading the public about the dangers of cigarettes.
Still, it was a long day, 3 hours in the boat, then 6 plus in the bus. Cindi, Cindy and I did have a brief chance to check out one of the live-aboard options, the Avalon 2, only 1 year old, which appeared to be quite glamorous.
We were happy to be deposited back at the Parque Central, although not as pleased to find we were all booked in the newer section. Steve and I received a corner suite, which was huge and fine, but the Cindi/y/s disliked the carpet on their floor (“as though someone had been murdered there”), and Greg immediately requested a room change due to the overwhelming smell of epoxy on his floor.
We had just enough time to use up our complementary rooftop bar drink vouchers (although we had to settle for caipirinhas, as they were out of mint for mojitos!) before heading the short distance to the Ivan Chef Justo restaurant nearby. It was around the corner from where Greg and I had tried out their new grill venue, Al Carbon, our first night in Havana.
We had a private outdoor roofdeck patio dining spot, enabling us to progressively escalate the noise level without concern for others as the evening proceeded. Most elected the suckling pig for the main course, which was sizable and delectable. Steve and I shared a less substantial suckling pig, as well as a version of arroz negro (black rice and seafood) which we didn’t like as well as other versions sampled during this trip. Greg and Phil got into a passionate economic debate.
As we left, Steve, Greg and I were walking towards the hotel, with Cindy and Cindi, on the darker, east side of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, when suddenly I felt a forceful tug on my small Bagallini travel purse, and it was gone. I had been wearing it cross-body as usual, as well as my camera. I screamed when I realized what had happened. Greg sprinted into pursuit of the assailant, who was already down the block by the time most realized what had happened. Steve and I ran afterwards, me screaming “Ladron! Ladron!” (thieve, thieve!), becoming winded within a few blocks. During the first block or so, people hanging out in the street seemed to indicate the direction to head, but the prompts quickly became less certain.
A young man trying to entice passersby into a restaurant look horrified when I told him what happened and he walked us down the block to a miniature park on Calle Obispo where 2 policemen were keeping a languid eye on the crowd. They offered to send a car to take us to the station to make a statement. By this time, it was nearly midnight. The likelihood of recovering the purse seemed nil, so we declined.
The full horror was now evident. Unlike my usual paranoia, I had become so inured to the neighborhood, in which Greg and I had walked day and night for 3 days, that I hadn’t taken the usual precautions of emptying the passports, extra money and unnecessarys into the room safe. It’s no defense, but my guard most definitely was lowered by already knowing the restaurant and its proximity, just a couple of streets away.
How I was to rue deciding not to take an extra moment to sort through the bulging mini-travel purse. I use it as a largish wallet, filled with travel essentials-phone, passports and documents, money, lip balm, eye mask, now all gone. I had it all packed and organized for our planned departure the following day.
We decided not to go to the police station. Greg thought we could probably still exit the country. We had photocopies of our passports, and even our Global Entry cards. I hadn’t been carrying that much money, it being near the end of the trip and nearly depleted.
We had been planning to head out in the dark at 6:30 am as Greg and I had been doing, to shoot in nice early light, but this plan definitely lost its appeal after this unexpected development.
Around 7 am, the phone rang. It was Greg, who said he’d been thinking about what we should do and thought we should file a police report. In the restless late hours of the night, both Steve and I had drawn the same conclusion. Maybe an affidavit indicating our passports had been stolen and our photocopied passports would be enough to enable us to travel home and then we could worry about replacing passports, my driver’s license, etc. once we were home.
A call to the emergency line of the US embassy (newly reopened 5 days earlier) was not encouraging. The embassy was closed for the weekend. We needed to present ourselves at 8 am on Monday for replacement. No, there were no other provisions for after hours cases like ours. The Marine I spoke with offered to let me speak with his superior, but that just rang without answer. The problem, according to him, was the lack of Cuban visas. Couldn’t we just pay for another? Then I had a momentary flash of hope-while my visa and Steve’s had been in our stolen passports, I had the “extra” visa still, courtesy of the Manuela snafu the prior week.
Most of the group was staying on a day longer than us, so they headed out on a tour Bob had arranged. I was able to exchange Euros for CUCs at the hotel by giving my room number, the passport information already being known by the hotel, but later began to worry how it would go trying to change money without a passport.
We engaged a Coco in front of the hotel to take us to the police station dealing with robberies. Learning which one that was took standing first in line at the front desk to ask, only to be told to go across to the concierge for that information. He wrote down “Estación de policia de Dragones” without the address (which he couldn’t seem to find), and said any cabbie would know where that was.
Our Coco driver was a muy simpatica woman who took us to a station in Barrio Chino, but on approaching it and learning we were going there to report a robbery, said no, there were two, it was the other.
“Está segura? (Are you sure?),” I asked.
“Sí, estoy segura (Yes, I’m sure)”.
On arrival to the second station, she spoke with a guard who indicated, “No, this one is closed for restoration.”
Thus we competed our tour of inspection of Havana police stations at a third station, a most imposing one, built into a stone fort near the Malecón.
Thankfully, the station wasn’t very busy at this hour of the morning. In the room in which we spent the most time, one officer at one of the two desks had his head down over his crossed arms, apparently catching up on shut-eye.
The police station was rather spartan. One officer initially interviewed us, scrutinizing our passport copies, jotting down the pertinent information on a small sheet of white paper.
This was passed to a younger, presumably more junior, officer, who questioned us for particulars of the purse’s contents, what details we could recall of the thief, typing them into a word document along the way. Steve noticed that the computer he used had a floppy disk drive. It was one of few in evidence.
I had never seen the assailant, just felt the forceful tug breaking the thin nylon strap of the bag. I remember seeing purses in a Travel Smith catalog designed to foil such attempts, with steel wire running through the fabric. Steve thought he might well have dragged me through the street if it hadn’t broken.
Steve had only seen his retreating back. It was dark, so we weren’t even sure of his skin tone, never having seen him. That it was a him, and given the rate at which he could run, he was probably fairly young, we were reasonably sure.
The interview went on for quite a while, and included a trip in the back of a squad car to the scene of the crime. The police car was in sad shape, a beater at best. It appeared utterly incapable of a high-speed chase.
As more time passed, I realized our window for going to the airport to make the daily 1:45 afternoon flight was narrowing. After enumerating the passports, phone, and money and estimating their value, it seemed pointless to itemize the lip pencil, tiny flacon of hand lotion, headphones and numerous other contents. I just needed that police report if we were to have any chance of talking our way onto our scheduled flights.
I should mention that this was all conducted in Spanish. I had the distinct impression waiting for a bonafide translator might further delay the proceedings, and they seemed satisfied with my proficiency level.
Police report in hand by 11 am, we decided to go to the airport and take our chances. The same officer accompanied us in the squad car back to the hotel.
Even going to the airport was not without considerable sweat and some pain. Our cabbie was nice enough. He seemed genuinely horrified to hear about the theft. We exchanged enough information that he knew we were Americans, and so never asked which carrier we were taking or where we were flying.
I was surprised when, approaching the airport, he pulled into a parking lot filled with other vintage Chevys and stopped the car. Apparently, cabbies can’t actually do curbside drop-offs, only pick-ups. But, he would help us with the luggage. He loaded 2 dive bags into a carretera. Steve and I each wore a camera and computer backpack, and wheeled a camera case carrying our disassembled underwater cameras. We were glistening, make that dripping, by the time we maneuvered out of the parking lot and starting crossing the street to the terminal. That was when I mentioned Cancun and he said, “You aren’t going to the United States today?”
“Yes, we are, but first to Cancun.”
“Lo siento (I’m sorry)!” “But, for that we need to go to the other terminal.”
Back into the parking lot we wheeled, now nearly blinded by sweat, to drive the 1 km distance to the other terminal. Strange that an entire airport terminal is devoted to travel to the US, when that travel is still fairly restricted.
But arrive we did. It did not take a very long discussion at the Cubana desk to ascertain we were not leaving that day. The gate agent took our assembled documents off for discussion with another official, but the word was definitive.
We were able to go to the Cubana desk and notify them we wouldn’t be traveling with them that day. Contacting American Airlines, on which we were scheduled to continue on to the US later that day, would not be so easy, as they have no presence in Cuba. I did succeed in emailing a useless customer service representative whose response a day later informed us that we had missed our flights. Really? An attempt to call connected me to a phone tree for 6 seconds and cost me $20. Cancelling credit cards (useless in Cuba)? That would have to wait until we were back in the world of phone service. Don’t get me wrong, telephone service exists in Cuba, but the US embargo extends to calls as well. So, those collect call numbers on the back of your credit cards? Useless when you don’t have phone service.
Now we had to figure out where to go, not easily accomplished without access to phone service or the Internet. We had inquired on departing the Parque Central if there were rooms available for the evening and been told it was full. At the airport, I stopped at the tourist information desk and after explaining the situation, asked if she had a hotel recommendation for us.
“Would you consider a casa particular?
I had actually wanted to try Cuba’s version of a bed and breakfast, but had deferred it for a future trip. The availability of this option, where Cubans rent out bedrooms or apartments, is a relatively recent development. (When Soviet support of the Cuban economy evaporated after the dissolution of the USSR in 1989, the Cuban economy tanked, with widespread shortages of food. To ease the “Special Period” difficulties, the Cuban government loosened restrictions on Cubans operating small businesses, paving the way for paladares to offer culinary alternatives to state-run restaurants and enabling Cubans with extra bedrooms or apartments to rent them to visitors.)
I was led to another office in which a friendly woman showed me a picture of “ a nice house in Vedado, the best neighborhood in Havana, you’ll be very comfortable.” $35 a night would help stretch out our cash. The difficulty of operating in a strictly cash society (we had no access to ATMs, not having any accounts with non-US banks, and credit cards are almost useless in Cuba) is difficult to comprehend until you do it.
This steer proved to be a sliver of a silver lining. The house was indeed lovely, a tall mint-green historic house built in 1926 for a Spanish woman with a multitude of names. There was a large covered outdoor patio, with attractive and inviting seating areas. A small pool occupied a hole left from a monstrously huge mango tree that had to be removed. Our hostess, Yanila (like vanilla, she introduced herself), voluptuous and friendly with a warm and open manner, described the house as “an old lady with tremendous makeup.”
Breakfast was available for $5 per person, and dinner for $10. Breakfast was a nice array of fruits, including perfectly ripe mango, fresh pineapple and mango juices, eggs to order, breads and sweets. Dinner was typical Cuban, starting with black bean soup with white rice, served in a bowl, followed by a salad (sliced tomatoes, cucumbers and avocados), salted and savory crispy fried plantains, and swordfish.
Sunday, July 26, 2015
The 26th of July is a holiday in Cuba. Actually, the entire weekend is, but not with parades or other clear manifestations. We saw many Cuban flag banners and every restaurant in Havana Vieja had bands playing, but not having been in Havana on a Sunday before, it wasn’t clear to us that this wasn’t usual. Per our hostess, no one worked during this holiday, and there would be salsa concerts at night on the Malecón, the largest in front of the American Embassy.
We took a cab across town to the Parque Central, having taken an intense dislike to the usurious rates for internet and phone at the closest hotel with reliable Wifi (Melia Cohiba). We still had time on our 2-hour card and Steve had never really had a chance to explore Old Havana.
After struggling trying to connect to the Wifi, we finally gave up and bought a 2-hour block of time on the hotel’s computers in their business center, with comparatively snappy Internet access. We were all too aware our email to our partners about being mugged, having lost passports, etc, sounded all too close to those email scams ending in “Please send money immediately.” We hoped for an email from the police department, but settled for confirmation that we had successfully notify our co-workers and a plan was in place to cover for us.
While heading back from a meander through the Plazas of Havana Vieja, and exploring restored Mercaderes Street, an attractive couple stopped us in the street and began chatting us up:
“Where are you from?”
One thing led to another and before I knew it, Steve was following the man down the street to where he knew a “great place” with “traditional Cuban music.”
I was suspicious, but followed behind, chatting in Spanish with the woman, who was showing me pictures of her 2 year old son, and talking about the difficulty of obtaining enough milk (it is only available in powdered form, and to children under age 7, that much rang true).
The next thing I knew, a reserved sign was being whisked from a table front and center in front of a band in a bar we had passed earlier. The waiter came around and we were encouraged to try a “Buena Vista Social Club” drink, “like a mojito, only more refreshing.”
Four of these concoctions, with a red layer on top of a white, materialized, as well as a plate of salted fried plantains.
While the bandleader incorporated our names into songs and commentary, the woman was whispering in my ear (in Spanish) something about giving her $15 to buy milk for her son, the store was about to close. I suggested we could go together, and she started to rise.
As this point, the bill arrived. Steve took a look, pulled an expressive face, and pushed it toward me. $39! Not such a tremendous sum, but each drink was 3 times the usual price (even the nicest restaurants charge $3.50 for a mojito). At this point, recognizing a scam, I stood up, leaned over to whisper in Steve’s ear, “We need to go.”
I pulled $20 out of a zippered pocket of my shorts, shoved it into the bill holder and we walked out. Sure enough, the waiter gave chase, catching us outside the restaurant, saying “The bill is $39!.”
“Yes, and that $20 is for our share,” I retorted in Spanish and continued walking.
Greg and I had had a number of encounters like this, some clearly just friendly, but quite a number with an apparent economic agenda. They all began similarly, usually by asking, “Where are you from?” and progressing to trying to show or take us to a restaurant, bar or room to let. The constant hustling was tiring to rebuff and sometimes difficult to distinguish from occasional genuine interest.
Back at Hosteria Cartacuba, we no longer had the energy to go out, so signed up for dinner there. This proved to be a fun, communal and very international affair, the back patio dining table filled on one side with a family of 4 from Warsaw, Poland, on the other side by 4 Italians from Milan (3 female teachers, 2 of whom were sisters, and 1 boyfriend), with us on one short end, and a honeymooning couple from London (she Italian and he English) on the other. In addition to swordfish (Hemingway’s favorite fly fishing target), there was a huge whole red snapper (Hemingway’s favorite to eat), as well as lobster, avocado, the ubiquitous black beans and white rice, and sweet fried plantains.
Monday, July 27, 2015
Our hopes were high for a resolution to our limbo-like state when Monday morning came. We arranged an early breakfast and a taxi timed to have us be the first in line when the US embassy opened at 8 am.
After putting my socks and shoes on, I felt something inside my left shoe. Assuming I had a wrinkle in my sock, I couldn’t completely suppress a scream, potentially waking the quiet, pre-dawn household, when I shook out a sizable crunched cockroach. My training as a homeowner in Sedona, where scorpions are endemic, should have prompted me to always shake out unoccupied shoes, but it was the first I had seen. I should interject that the house was quite clean, but this IS the tropics.
The embassy plaza was completely empty, save for a few lonely sentries at each corner. Despite it not being a US holiday, the embassy was apparently closed for July 26th Cuban holiday, a fact 2 calls over the weekend to the emergency services number of the embassy had not revealed.
We were so deflated by this turn of events, that we took a while to mobilize after returning to Hosteria Cartacuba and regrouping. We had to change rooms, to a one with a private bath across the street, next to the nice Italians.
Walking down to Calle 23 to find a taxi, I tried an experiment, asking the cabbie how much for a ride to Parque Central, as opposed to Hotel Parque Central. I also made a point of asking before entering the cab. The least we had paid for a crosstown trip was 10 CUC or $10. This paid off, with the quoted fare dropping to 7 CUCs.
Most transactions, coupled with tourist inattention, were rife with the opportunity to skim a bit off the unknowing. Buying a large bottle of water at a window offering a few sandwiches and drinks, no price was posted for water. I should have asked, but didn’t. I handed the woman a 10 CUC bill, and when handed back a 5 CUC bill and two 50 centavo coins change, looked at her askance and said “4 CUCs for water?!” At that point, another 1 CUC coin was coughed up, bringing it to a more reasonable 3 CUC. Steve suggested the choice to give me two 50 centavo coins probably was deliberate, to mislead me into thinking I had been given two 1 CUC coins. Indeed, most tourists (including me up to that point) would have just pocketed the change without counting it.
Back into the Hotel Parque Central and our new favorite haunt, the business center computer room. We had had it with Wifi, which fluctuated wildly and often didn’t work at all. Gmail would start to load, getting our hopes up, only to go nowhere.
It was tricky continuing to access services at the hotel. Buying a new card to use the computer led to the inevitable question: “Your room number?” The first time, I used our prior room number. Caught out, I then had to clarify, explaining we had been staying in the hotel last week, our passports were stolen, etc. I was getting a lot of practice explaining this in Spanish.
It was the same with changing money, an elaborate dance of explanations, hoping the person would go along, which they usually did. But, I could sense the increasing peril of our situation should it go on much longer.
At least we still had a fair amount of cash ($1200 US), but not knowing when we would be able to leave and what the change fees would be to rebook our departure, we had no idea how long we had to make it last. One day, two days, three days, or perish the thought, more? If we ran out, getting more money was not going to be easy. Credit cards? Not an option. ATMs? Not for US banks. Our friends offered to wire money. Thankfully, it never came to that, as I’m not even sure what the mechanics of that would have entailed.
We waited out the heat in the “library” on the mezzanine of the hotel (there were a few volumes on the shelves). Eventually, we launched ourselves out into the heat, in search of Callejón de Hamel, a street-long neighborhood open-air Afro-Cuban art installation of painted murals, sculptures and mosaics, the brain child of an artist, Salvador González Escalona, who signs his work “Salvador.” He has described it as a “result of a conversation with the orishas over a period of many years.”
The usual pitch to buy a $10 CD to benefit the children of the neighborhood fell on deaf ears, so focused was I at this point on conserving money.
Of course, one has to have some treats. By the time we dragged ourselves up the long driveway of the Hotel Nacional and flopped into chairs on the lawn, we were limp with heat. Nothing could have prevented me from ordering a mojito, even if they were 5 CUCs. Peacocks wandered the manicured lawn and ocean breezes wafted up. A band played and we chatted with an Englishman living in British Columbia, now married to a retired Cuban physician.
What a transformation, from marveling earlier in the trip how cheap the drinks were to worrying about overspending our finite and nonreplenishable funds. We averaged out this extravagance by walking across Vedado to home.
Tuesday, July 28, 2015
For the second morning in a row, I felt something unfamiliar with my foot. This time, as I swung out of bed, my foot landed in a pool of water. What?? By now, our dive gear, initially damp around the edges, had largely dried out.
No, the pool of water at my feet was the tip of a melting iceberg, with a river of water leading away from the bed, and streams streaking down the wall from the mini-split air conditioner. Steve made the diagnosis soon enough, finding an overflowing condensate bucket on the balcony outside.
We headed to the US Embassy for the second morning in a row, hoping it would not be an episode of “Ground Hog Day.”
We had arranged with Yani the night before for Ernesto the neighboring cabbie to collect us again at 7:20 am. This came and went. I rang the bell at Hosteria Cartacuba several times as well, to no avail. Time to formulate Plan B, namely finding a cab, any cab.
By now, we were pros.
We gasped in dismay on exiting the rattling claptrap vehicle at the sight of a formidable line already formed at the side of the Embassy. However, I’m a firm believer in confirming that a line is applicable before standing in it. Leaving Steve at the back of it, just in case, I marched up to the gate. Turning around, it was obvious the queue were Cubans seeking visas. I always say, never overlook the obvious (one clue was a sign above their heads). I waved frantically at Steve to come up to the gate, through which we were ushered immediately.
After going through security and relinquishing our electronics, as well as a lone 500 Mexican peso bill in my organizer (still not sure why that didn’t make the cut), we were inside, in a long hall decorated with FBI wanted posters and pictures of Barack Obama and John Kerry.
The first words we heard were music: “We’ll have you out of here later this morning, in time for the afternoon flight to Cancun.” If we had known that beforehand, we might have been able to enjoy ourselves during our unexpected 3 day extension in Havana. Up to that point, we had no idea whether we would be picking up passports the same day we applied, the next day or possibly longer.
Two hours and 15 minutes later, we had new, temporary, one-way passports, good only for returning to the US.
Of course there had been hiccups along the way. At one point, nearly 10 am, an official poked his head into the waiting area and said pointedly “What are you folks here for?”
Shortly afterward, the man assisting us came to the window and said: “We’re about 10 minutes away from finishing your passports, BUT….we’re going to have to evacuate the building…reports of smoke. You’re going to have to exit…I’ll come find you when it’s clear…”
Nooooo! Just as we rose resignedly to our feet, a security guard poked his head in from the other side and gave the “All clear.”
Whew! We sat down again, and gave up all pretense of interest in the limited magazine selection.
Walking out, our focus was on locating a cab as fast as possible. However, having just ridden over for 3 CUC, I couldn’t accept the extortion fee offered by one would-be cabbie of 5 CUC.
“Quizas, 4,” I tossed back at him.
We were largely packed, and quickly settled up and said goodbye to fairy godmother Yani before setting out for the airport.
Having had the disaster dress rehearsal on Saturday, there were no missteps this time. Straight to the correct terminal we went and into a series of negotiations with Cubana, then immigration, and finally to check in.
I was under no illusions Cubana would feel sorry for us, police report or no, and not charge us a change fee. 50 CUC/USD sounded reasonable. Off I trotted to the money exchange window.
Oh, that was 50 CUC/USD per person? Back to exchange more USD for CUCs.
At least there were seats on the plane for us. Now, it was on to immigration. The embassy officer had warned us to go first, before trying to check in, since our Cuban visas were MIA with the ill-fated passports. Up I stepped to the wait-here red line, before being summoned by a young woman. Hearing the story, she summoned another woman. Both were smartly dressed in official-looking uniforms. This official called el jefe on a walkie talkie, and brought me aside where I waited. And waited. Eventually, el jefe, a young man clad in jeans and white sneakers materialized, so I had a 3rd chance to deliver my now well-rehearsed speech in Spanish. He shook his head, not I think at my Spanish, but presumably at the conduct of his countryman, and disappeared into the office outside of which I stood. He emerged with two pieces of essential paper, hand written versions of substitute Cuban visas.
With these in hand, back to collect Steve with the luggage, and finally we checked in.
While making our way through security, having finally made it through the immigration gauntlet, there was a tumult behind us and a scuffle, as a huge dark man hurdled passed a phalanx of security personnel, vaulted down a short flight of stairs and sprinted full speed down into the terminal.
“Great,” I thought, “That’s all we need, for the terminal to be locked down with a crazy on the loose.”
But, by the time we were descending the same stairs ourselves a few minutes later, order had been restored, with the same man being escorted up the stairs by a sizable contingent.
It had been a long time since the last time I scurried around a terminal, trying to spend the last few rupias, baht or whatever not-likely-to-be-needed-in-the-foreseeable-future currency remained. In this case, I was particularly sure I wouldn’t be returning very soon, so I took stock: 5.65 CUCs left. Perfect, there was a bottle of white rum, suitable for mojito making, for 5.55 CUC. Sold!
Not so fast, that’s 5.55 CUC, PLUS 1 CUC for the required special duty free bag. I couldn’t bring myself to change any more dollars to CUCs, so I let it go, reluctantly.
I did buy one half hour of Wifi time for 2 CUCs, just in time to hear the first boarding call. Never mind sending emails, time to board Cubana 152, bound for Cancun, the first leg of the journey leading back to the world we know.
Steve’s version of these events is highly entertaining, so funny it hurts! Follow these links when you need someone else’s misfortunes to feel better!