(Warning for those with limited attention spans: This is a long tale, with many twists and turns, but for those who care to follow it, reading between the lines will reveal much of the reality of today’s Cuba, poised on the cusp of awakening from a long slumber of making do, deferred maintenance, and the cumulative effect on the collective psyche of scraping by economically.)
We passed a small but memorable portion of time on our recent trip to Cuba in the back of a dilapidated police squad car in Havana. This was but one of the many conveyances we sampled in use as transportation in today’s Cuba, from remarkably spiffy and iconic 50-plus year old vintage American cars, to basic-box-transportation-even-when-new Russian Ladas from the 1970s, to the skankiest, one pothole-away-from-being-shaken apart beaters you could imagine.
We were in trouble, but not the kind that usually lands one in the back of a police car.
Our trouble was of a more existential form, finding ourselves in a state of being nearly completely unmoored and adrift from our usual support structure of identity, family, friends, money and credit.
Even before departure, I had cause to give a lot of thought to the many meanings of the word “state.”
State can, of course, refer to a big geographic entity (the US), a smaller geographic division (California), a construct (the government) or a condition (e.g. state of being).
Preparing for this trip, we had more contact with the State Department than ever before, and passed through emotional states ranging from fury, to helplessness, to resignation, interspersed with occasional rays of hope.
We had been interested in visiting Cuba for years, and had missed multiple art museum and photography school sanctioned opportunities to go.
Why not? A historic place, an island shrouded in mystery, so close to Florida, so long off limits to Americans, a country stuck in time. Coupled with diving reputed to be “excellent, in an area…protected for many years. Lots of sharks, goliath groupers and even crocodiles,” it was intriguing.
Travel restrictions for Americans seemed on the verge of loosening enough that we ran the risk of discovering Cuba “too late”. In December 2014, the historic joint announcement by President Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro that travel restrictions would be relaxed and diplomatic relations re-established heralded the advent of a new era.
Touching down in Houston in February after a long flight from Chile, I turned my phone on for the first time after 2 glorious weeks in Antarctica and Patagonia to find a timely and suggestive text from our friend Bob. He is a forensics captain in the NYC police force, who lives and works to dive, the more exciting, the better. He had just booked a berth to dive in Cuba for July in Jardines de la Reina (Gardens of the Queen), along with a mutual friend, dive travel organizer, Cindi Laraia of Dive Discovery, who would be checking it out herself for future clients.
This peaked our interest, enough to call Cindi. She mentioned another client, an avid diver who had been “everywhere,” who had gone the prior year and returned “raving.” Like Cindi, we had essentially stopped diving the Caribbean years ago, preferring the biodiversity and pristine reefs of Indonesia. Now, even she was going again!
We signed on, as did Greg, our frequent dive and travel companion, sometimes actor, former chocolatier, and occasional bat murderer. It wasn’t clear whether we would have official sanctioned status or not by the time the trip was underway, but it seemed likely. We made air arrangements to travel through Cancun and assumed the legal imprimateur would probably be worked out by then. We decided to add on 3 days in Havana at the front end of the trip, to allow for baggage mishaps and to get a feel for Cuban culture.
By late April, arrangements had been made for us to make a $500 per person tax-deductible donation to Cuba Marine Research and Conservation, a project of the Oceans Foundation, thereby sanctioning us as an official People to People “educational exchange.” This liberated me from the feeling that I should censor my emails from any mentions of Cuba or Havana. Up to this point, the arrangements had felt like a covert operation, requiring wiring money in Euros, and following instructions like “my operator says when you wire the money for the flights, please ONLY write in the reference for the wire your name and flight reservation July 14.”
As the months leading up to July passed, an unexpected complication developed. The leaders of our October Indonesia diving trip were after me to renew Steve’s passport in order to issue our internal flights. Although his passport wasn’t due to expire until February 2016, that didn’t allow for the mandatory 6 months beyond our stay required by Indonesia. But for this, I wouldn’t have started the renewal process until after the Cuba trip.
We thought we started in plenty of time. The first week of May, we took a head shot workshop. Using one of these shots for Steve’s passport photo, the application was sent off shortly after.
Two months passed before word came that the passport photo was rejected. Was the submitted photo not the right dimensions, 5 % off full frontal? Whatever, we took another set of photos and sent them off. With one month to go, we were a little worried, but not really concerned. “Plenty of time still,” we thought, “Still a month to go.”
With 10 days to go and no update, low-level panic set in.
“I think we better start calling the State department.”
Unfortunately, our first attempt was late on a Friday, and it was just after closing on the East coast. So, the next Monday, one week prior to departure, found us at work in offices a few doors apart, frantically trying the State department again and again. Most calls went nowhere, starting in a phone tree and ending in a busy signal. Finally, late morning, I heard an encouraging message:
“Your call will be answered in approximately 5-10 minutes.”
And then: “Your call will be answered in approximately 2-5 minutes.”
Knowing they would only speak to the applicant, I emailed Steve: Get down here, now!
The State department employee listened to Steve’s story, and took his contact information. This resulted in a different employee calling Steve the next day saying his second set of photos was in Virginia going through security, and suggesting that he send a 3rd photo electronically. Which he did, an Iphone selfie, looking most unhappy (Steve interjecting here: “It was my first selfie!”).
We felt cautiously optimistic. Daily calls and logging on to the State department website only yielded the same result: No, it hasn’t been sent out yet.
I didn’t really lose hope until Saturday came and went with no passport. Although we hadn’t paid for expedited processing at the initial application (mistake!), we paid for expedited mailing once contact was made with the State Department.
Resigned, we executed Plan B, pushing back Steve’s departure 3 days, the latest possible departure enabling him to make it to the boat in time. Steve, the street photography enthusiast, was shut out of our planned 3-day stay in Havana.
I left on Monday, July 13th, as planned, rendezvousing with our friend Greg in Cancun late that night. On Tuesday morning, after still no word from the State Department, Steve headed to the San Diego office without an appointment, with birth certificate and passport photos. Even that was not without mishap. With no appointment, Steve was resigned to the D group (think Southwest Airlines). An hour and a half passed before any D number was called. When he finally had an audience with a sympathetic official, he opened his folder of documents only to find NO PHOTOS! Returning to the parking lot, supposing they had slipped out of the folder onto the floor of the car, imagine his surprise to find them under the windshield wiper, where some Good Samaritan had placed them.
Wednesday afternoon at 4 pm (the office closes at 4 pm), he had a passport in hand, just in time to depart Thursday morning. Most of the group was also traveling this day, so he was able to meet up with them in Cancun that night.
Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Back at the Cancun airport, Greg and I inadvertently caused an international incident, about which we learned only after landing in Havana and reconnecting to the world through Wifi.
Our instructions were to meet a Manuela at the airport at noon, in front of the Cubana desk, and pay her $25 for our visas. We were a few minutes early, and went to the Cubana desk, the one where you go to resolve problems, not the check-in desk (which one was never specified). While waiting in line there, they called out Greg’s name. We stepped up and they said, “We have visas for you. No, you don’t need to pay, it’s included.” I asked the woman helping us if she was Manuela. She replied no, so I figured Manuela had sent someone else in her stead. Visas in hand, we headed to the check-in desk opposite. Just as I was handing over my passport, a man and woman approached us. She was Manuela. I had actually noticed her earlier, bearing a sign saying “Avalon.” I even commented to Greg, that Avalon was the name of the dive operator parent company, news to him. She didn’t approach us and I had assumed she was there for someone else (the company has 6 boats in Jardines de la Reina). They were surprised we already had visas, and seemed relieved that we hadn’t paid for them again. In the confusion, Greg and I didn’t remember that we were supposed to pay Manuela, nor did she ask for payment. They handed us the second set of visas and off we went through security.
Imagine our surprise to read this email to poor Cindi later:
“Yesterday your clients didn’t pay the 25$ each to Manuela…as agreed….
“The meeting point was at Cubana Desk at 12: they arrived before, buyed another Visa …Manuela was there , as I / she explained with a Sign…..and Manu waited for them and nobody came…When finally she started to ask to all people there if they were your clients, the client finally answered and told her , she didn’t knew Manuela was waiting for her, didn’t payed…. that’s all.
“On 17Th Please PAY MNUELA also for yesterday’s clients….We offer the service paying the 25$… p.p. Not only, Manuela helped Gilberto with the new ticket for Steven (reticketing Steve for a later departure, for which he had to wire additional funds)…because Gilberto was on holiday…..and she payed the ticket in advance for him, because the money wasn’t yet on the account….and till now…isn’t…..So if the money for Steven’s ticket hasn’t yet arrived on 17th, please pay her also the 159$, or we will have to cancel the ticket…It is not correct this behavior….
We will calculate the 159 in our spreadsheet / debt – commissions….It has been really unfair with Manuela…you sent her so many mails…..and then people doesn’t pay
Cindi, you organized with Manuela the meeting…I told you that in general is 3 hours before the flight at Cubana check in desk….Clients must wait there ….and you were in contact with Manuela….YOU SHOULD KNOW perfectly that they had to meet Manuela for receiving the documents…Manuela had Visas and insurance and was near the check in with the shield, but she doesn’t know the clients, The clients must recognize her…..and if they pay twice the visa, is their problem…Manuela must be anyway payed….You were informed….I wrote you a lot of times that you had to pay to Manuela the 25$ each…..I am not in contact with the clients, except for payments.
Manuela MUST BE PAYED….and she has also been so helpful with Steven ticket….She must have the money back in case the money is not yet on Gilberto account…..She gave Gilberto the money to help your clients, otherwise was not possible to pay the change……”
We suggested that in the future, they should either inform the clients they were to look for a woman with an “Avalon” sign, or better yet, have a sign with the client’s names on it.
I should say, it was a pleasant surprise to finally reach the hotel and to have Internet access, except for the email accusation of incorrect behavior. My sister visited Cuba 3 years ago and had warned me “my Blackberry was useless as soon we entered Cuba’s airspace, and only came to life again on the flight back to Miami. Not one person in our group was able to use any computer or device during the whole trip. I’m sure this will change, but I would still bet on spotty/inconsistent WiFi.” This was certainly our experience, but we were amazed to even have it (fluctuently, to be sure) on the boat, 3 hours from shore!
Part 2 (Havana) can be found here: https://aperturephotoarts.com/la-habana-cuba-july-2015-part-2/
Part 3 (Diving Jardines de la Reina) is here: https://aperturephotoarts.com/scuba-in-cuba-july-2015-jardines-de-la-reina-part-3/
Part 4 (Down and Out in Havana) is here: https://aperturephotoarts.com/down-and-out-in-havana-part-4-july-2015/
Part 5 (Epilogue) is here: https://aperturephotoarts.com/cuban-crisis-reflections-epilogue-july-2015/