Why we left too soon for the April Sun in Cuba
“Things won’t get any worse than here, other parts of Cuba will be much more enjoyable.”
“Don’t say that, you’ll jinx it”
Jinx it we did. That night we discovered Gregory. Gregory was our add-on traveller. A frighteningly lumpy-lump where a lump should not be. With a very risky family history of cancer and one family member currently undergoing chemo, it was the kind of scary lumpy thing that required a prompt visit to a doctor to do their doctory stuff and say comforting things before any more travels through Cuba could be endured. (I mean enjoyed, sorry, enjoyed…)
The next morning the first step was to try to get in touch with the insurance company to find out where best to go to a doctor.
In many countries this would be an easy task. In Cuba, not so much.
First up, visit the bank as we really were out of money now. This time it was several hours before closing, so the bank was still open. There was of course a long queue.
Queueing in Cuba is an interesting experience. You simply arrive at a large throng of people standing outside a door. What is required of you at this point is to call ‘Ultimo?’ to the group. The last person in the waiting throng will raise their hand and possibly call ‘Ultimo’ back. Now you know where you are in the queue, when the next person turns up and asks ‘Ultimo?’ You let them know it is you.
What we haven’t figured out, is what you do when your Spanish is lacking and the person in front of you then leaves the queue, how do you know the ultimo before the ultimo before you were ultimo? But apart from that, this system works well.
After an hour or so in the queue, we got to the front and were allowed to enter the bank. Well, again it is Cuba, so only one of us is allowed to enter the bank. The other has to wait outside, just in case we are some sort of Bonnie and Clyde duo out to rob the hapless cashier.
It turned out that the bank is not the place to exchange currency, you can only withdraw it from a teller there and even then, only if you have the right kind of bank card.
We found another small building that offered to exchange money down the other end of the main street. So after queuing a bit longer we got in there and got our hands on some more Cuban Pesos.
Next step was to use that money to get a phone card. In order to phone internationally, you have to buy a phone card and use it in one of the public phone booths located around town.
Outside the phone card retailer? Another queue.
After that queue was navigated, the next step was to find a phone. The phone card lady had told us that there were several on the main street. The other lady had started to tell us about another one a couple of streets back, but the first lady stopped her, possibly believing the directions to be a bit complicated for our meagre grasp of Spanish. Fair call.
The downside about all the phones on the main street was that the fair was in full force. Loud music, screaming children, screeching home-made fairground rides. The chances of hearing anyone on the other end of the line was slim.
After a bit of wandering, we found the other phones on the back road. Still pretty noisy, it would have to do.
After attempting to follow the instructions we had been given, we were rescued by a gentleman in a nearby shop who explained there were a few more stages in the phone menu than we’d been told about and that you had to allow for the ‘machines to talk to each other’ in between key presses. Thanks to this incredibly helpful gentleman, we were connected.
The $10 phone card was the biggest they had. It gave us approximately three or four minutes on the phone to our Australian-based insurance provider. Really only two, if you don’t count navigating the phone menus. We got as far as, yes, we should go back to Havana if we wanted to see a doctor and there were two providers there. “I’ll just list them, do you have a pen there…”
That was it. The time was expired.
Not fancying another wait in the phone card queue, we decided to just head back to Havana and figure it out from there.
We went to change our bus tickets.
Nope, we can’t give you all the money back on your Cienfuegos tickets, but we can give you some back towards the price of your Havana tickets. OK, that will have to do. He tapped away on his calculator and demanded some money, we paid the requested sum, he confiscated our old tickets, tore them up and handed us our new ones. We probably should have paid more attention, but we both feeling pretty out of sorts, so we just took his word for it. Until we got outside.
Hold on, we would have paid the same if we had bought new tickets outright, then we could have sold these other ones to other tourists to get some money back.
What a scumbag.
We’d had enough of jerks and dog-throwers, after a bit of general cursing of his name (not that we knew it, so we just called him ‘scammy bus guy’) we went back in to retrieve the money he had procured from us. As soon as we started pointing and explaining in our broken Spanish, he knew he was caught out and sheepishly returned the funds. (Enough for several terrible meals at Tamara’s)
The next morning, after a very bleak breakfast in Tamara’s kitchen as she glared sullenly at us from the next room. Clearly angry at us for not buying any further tours, we were on the bus back to Havana.
Hooray! No wait, we were excited about leaving there a few days ago… well, at least they don’t throw dogs there I guess.
The Casa we had stayed at last time didn’t have an available rooms on our return. We found ourselves only a few blocks down the road from where we had stayed originally, in the welcoming home of Mercy and Laura.
These are two of the nicest people we have ever met. Laura didn’t really speak much. But Mercy patiently chatted to us in clear, simple Spanish. They both made us feel completely welcome at there gorgeous home. There was no pressure to organise tours or meals, although we did accept their offer of a delicious home cooked breakfast each morning we were there. There was no better way to start the day, it was accompanied by some industrial strength Cuban coffee, which always helps improve productivity for the day.
Which was good, because we had a job to get done, we were trying to get Gregory to a doctor. We still had to find one of the hospitals that the insurance company suggested. Only we still didn’t know their names, just that there were two options in Havana.
Not wanting to wait for a million years in a queue for a phone card, only to be cut off again, we made our way to an upscale hotel who had internet access in the lobby. On ageing computers with big clacky keyboards and outdated installations of Internet Explorer. We bought a card to access the internet and found the location of the international clinic that would see travellers in Havana (We were told that foreigners aren’t welcome at Cuban hospitals). We also sent an email to the insurance company to see what their other recommendation had been.
We walked down to the international clinic. When we arrived it was very quiet. Too quiet. The entire hospital was shut.
Not sure what you’d do in an emergency situation?
As we poked hopelessly at the entrance door an apologetic security guard opened the door and told us the hospital was closed for the weekend and we should come back on Monday morning.
In the intervening two days, we investigated changing the date of our flights back to Mexico. We had already used up a lot of our visit with our return to Havana and wouldn’t really have time to see many of the other places we intended to see, we also didn’t fancy waiting out the remaining days before our flights in Havana.
Initially it seemed that we would have to bus out to the airport to enquire, as the information online was vague. It implied we would have to pay for entirely new flights. The people behind the travel desks at the hotels were no help, suggesting a trip to the airport. Then, in a bookshop, we spotted an airline desk there was a lady behind the counter but with a closed sign up. She was surprisingly helpful for someone who wasn’t meant to be working. She told us they would be back in business at 10am Monday.
Well there was nothing for it, we were just going to have to tourist it up in Havana for the weekend.
We spent much of the time on the Malecón enjoying the big waves that had been bought in by the recent bad weather.
We also enjoyed a few nice meals out, because, well, it had been a frustrating few days all up cheering ourselves up with good food was the only proper thing to do.
Finally, Monday rolled around.
We walked down to the hospital bright and early and found the place already thronging with people. When we got to the door, a lady at a desk looked us up and down. “No shorts.” she said. Looking around the waiting room, I could see several locals in shorts.
“No shorts, go back and change. Long pants please.”
Too shocked and confused to respond, or even point out the local ladies in their super short, ‘I’m pretty sure they are swimming togs or undies’ shorts we stumbled back out the door.
We had waited two days for a hospital to open and had now been turned away for inappropriate clothing in a town where mesh shirts and terrifyingly short shorts were frighteningly common on most streets. Seriously, did this hospital turn people away with broken legs for having shorts on? Probably.
It was stupidly hot and we had travelled with carry on only, so we had packed exactly zero trousers. Great. Looks like we would have to go shopping.
We stuck our heads in the first clothing shop we passed, we didn’t go in, because we didn’t want to go through the bag check debacle. But we could see the price on a pair of trousers—$70. That meant they were either really expensive or really cheap. Who knew which currency they were in? Who cared? This was ridiculous.
We’re not buying trousers, we’d swim back to Mexico if we had to. Maybe Florida. We hear that’s closer…
Back in the lobby at the upmarket hotel we used their internet to check our email, we found that the other hospital was a health clinic that specialised in alternative medicine out at one of the resorts, a suitably long taxi ride from where we currently were. Sure, there was no shortage of taxis to take us there, but what clothing restrictions would there be? Would the clinic actually be open? Would the taxi ride cost more than flights back to Mexico?
At that point we made the decision that Cuba was a silly place, we were heading back to Mexico.
The airline office was open. The lady was helpful. For a surprisingly small $50 fee each we had changed our tickets for the next available flight. We were done with crazy, expensive, short-wearing, compulsory-trousers, dog-throwing, door-slamming, scamming, begging, touting, horse-crushing, crappy-mural-painting Cuba.
There was one last thing to do on the ‘to-do’ list in Havana. Since day one Emma had been muttering about going on a ride in a pink convertible.
In fact. We had just saved a heap of money on flights and not staying in Cuba. Let’s go enjoy Havana like it is supposed to be enjoyed.
We went to Sloppy Joe’s for expensive sandwiches. Sweet, delicious, expensive, meaty sandwiches.
Next stop was the famous Bodeguita del Medio for a mojito.
Only it was pretty busy, too busy, packed with tourists, probably not worth more queuing just to enjoy a mojito. Back to the craft brewery instead:
We spent some quiet time sitting and contemplating life in the Plaza de Armas. We watched as scammers moved about wrangling money out of travellers. As sellers made sly deals and tricked passers-by into spending money into things they didn’t even want. Some left thinking they’d got a good deal. Some people stormed off angry. Some looked confused as they tried to figure out what had happened and others laughed as they handed over money accepting they’d been caught out and it was easier to pay.
As the afternoon sun began to lose its heat, it was time to head for the row of pink convertibles offering sunset tours of Havana. We handed over our hard-earned cash and hit the road.
A whirlwind drive through the streets of Havana ensued, swinging past all the touristy hot-spots and historical features before finally finishing with a sunset spin along the Malecón. We had blitzed through nearly a week’s budget in a less than a day, but it had been worth it. This is how you are meant to enjoy Havana.
We finally returned to the Casa after a fun-filled day, feeling a lot better about Cuba in general, but still fretting about what the result of a doctor’s visit would be. There was one souvenir we had wanted from Cuba but hadn’t bought at the market. People were selling 3 Peso Moneda Nacional notes depicting Che Guevara (worth about 0.12 CUCs). These were of course going for up to $5 CUCs. On principle alone we didn’t want to buy one, we had hoped to receive one as change when buying a flan, but they had been out of stock, so sadly, no flan was purchased.
Earlier that day we had asked Mercy if she had one, she didn’t, but that evening she handed us a 3 Peso MN coin, which also depicted the famous activist. The perfect souvenir of Cuba for people who live in their truck. We thanked her profusely, she refused to accept any of our change in exchange for the coin, or indeed for her troubles.
She was also kind enough to arrange a not-scammy-at-all taxi driver to pick us up at the door and drive us to the airport bright and early the next morning.
It was with some degree of sadness that we left the home of Mercy and Laura the next morning. With warm departing hugs and friendly goodbyes, we left with a belly full of delicious home-cooked breakfast and hopped in the waiting taxi.
As we drove back through the streets of Havana for the last time, we began to feel a little sad about all we hadn’t seen of Cuba. To wonder if perhaps if things had been different, we would have enjoyed our time more. If we’d had more money, been better at Spanish, hadn’t tried to do the touristy things on a tight budget. If we’d had our own transport. If we hadn’t spent several days just trying to get to a doctor. If we’d made it to the other places we’d planned on visiting. If we hadn’t had the impending question of this mysterious lump named Gregory playing on our minds.
We contemplated why things were how they were in Cuba. It was clear that the scammers, beggars, charlatans and touts all congregated around the tourist areas for one reason and one reason only. Easy money in a difficult country.
In a country where the locals now thought nothing of waiting for hours to buy a phone card. Where much of the internet access was still restricted to a few computer terminals shared by thousands of people. Where every day basics were not only expensive, but downright difficult to buy. Where money was clearly visible in the hands of the crowds of tourists, but so obviously lacking in so many other places. Cuba has been through shortages and suffering, faced challenges and problems, been isolated and forgotten, all the while being a destination for outsiders to come and explore at their leisure. As more and more travellers come to explore the country outside the previously popular resort destinations. It is easy to see why with the explosion in tourism and increased tourist dollars flowing in to the country has created chaos.
We had only made it as far as the check-in queue in the airport before the question arose, would we come back one day?
We hadn’t left yet, though, we tried to dismiss the niggling desire to return as being far too early to consider.
Once the check in queue finally opened at the waiting passengers started to shuffle forwards, we were feeling pretty excited about our return to Mexico. We got to the front of the queue handed our newly changed booking information over with our passports.
“Do you have a flight out of Mexico booked?”
“No, no our car is waiting for us in Cancun, we drove in and our car is still there”
“You must have a flight departing Mexico in order to get on this flight, you’ll need to talk to my manager”
The manager confirmed that we needed to pay for a flight from Mexico, to anywhere was fine, but he suggested a return ticket to Cuba was what we would need to purchase. Given the price of a one way flight back to Cuba, we weren’t very excited about this prospect.
“Is this Cuba’s requirement, or Mexico’s? Because they should be OK with it, we entered by a land border initially, they can’t expect us to fly out with our car? We’re happy to take the risk of having problems at their border”
“It is their requirement, but we can’t let you on the plane without it”
We queued up to buy an airline ticket.
The lady at the ticket desk was surprisingly helpful, she said we could book tickets for as far in the future as we wanted, giving plenty of opportunity to refund the purchase. Well, that sounded alright. At least we were getting out of Cuba.
The lady then looked at our booking information. Tutted, shook her head, asked if we’d changed the dates for our flight. Phoned the check-in manager. Gave him a piece of her mind and sent us back to the desk explaining that we didn’t need to buy a ticket, they’d made a mistake because they hadn’t realised our new flights were a date change from our original return flights. Apparently all was now well and we were actually leaving Cuba.
We waited to high-5 each other until after the plane was airborne.
About ten minutes later, we wondered if this had been a little premature. The plane’s engine seemed to falter for a second and a strange noise could now be heard throughout the cabin.
“Hopefully we crash closer to Mexico than Cuba. Either way, I’m swimming for Mexico if we survive the impact.”
Finally, what seemed like a lifetime later (but what was actually only about half an hour) we could see the vast, flat, boring expanse of the Yucatan peninsula spread out below us. What a surprisingly welcome sight!
Then we circled.
Clearly Air Cubana wasn’t top of the list for landing clearance at Cancun airport.
The longer we circled, the more turbulent it got.
The plane was jiggling and jumping about in the air like it was more impatient to land than we were.
We had spent about as long circling as the entire flight from Havana to Cancun had taken when the pilot finally started to descend towards the airport.
The turbulence bounced the plane left and right and up and down. It looked like we were going to be in for a bumpy landing.
Glancing around the cabin, we could see many anxious faces staring solemnly out the window. A nervous silence fell over all the passengers. Anyone who broke the heavy silence spoke briefly in hushed, frightened whispers.
We were remembering the time we had come to a terrifying, screeching, skidding halt at Sihanoukville airport in Cambodia. It certainly hadn’t been this turbulent then.
Just as we started to wonder if the pilot might accidentally park it on the roof, we softly glided in to the most gentle, calm landing you could imagine.
It was one of those landings where people actually clapped.
We silently breathed a sigh of relief. We were home. Not New Zealand home, but back with our truck, in safe, familiar, simple, straightforward Mexico home.
We rolled through Mexican customs, happy to be back, Ben was even happy to be randomly stopped for a bag search, mostly because we could actually understand some of what people were saying around us now.
The first task was to retrieve our home on wheels. We were picked up at the airport by the man who had been storing it for us, a friendly welcome back to a friendly country.
From there it was straight to see a doctor, we picked a hospital with a big international clinic, walked up to reception, asked if we cold get an appointment, were sent straight upstairs to a doctor’s office, immediately let in the door and the consultation was underway in record time.
The doctor quizzed me, poked me prodded me, scanned me, all the while looking increasingly concerned. After a quick check she looked apologetically at me, the bearer of bad news. I’m sorry, but I believe you have a tumour.
Well, that’s not cool.
She forlornly poked at the ultrasound and got it up and running. She half-heartedly ran it over Gregory, then her expression changed, she almost skipped for joy.
Before I’d even had time to form any opinions about the bad news she’d just dropped on me, she was retracting it.
Beaming from ear to ear she said. Looks like we have a cyst. Would you like me to fix it now?
Out came an enormous needle, a cartoon-sized needle, and a quick stab later and it was fixed. Several days of stress and troubles in Cuba, all solved in 15 minutes in Mexico.
I was so glad to be back.
The ongoing treatment?
“Lay off coffee and chocolate.”
Beaming from ear to ear I return to the waiting room.
“Well, it’s bad news, I’m not allowed to eat coffee and chocolate. But otherwise fixed. Let’s go eat!”
Wow what an ordeal! Your narration was so good I could actually feel myself getting frustrated while reading. So glad everything turned out OK with Gregory, but you are going to be sorry about the anti-coffee/chocolate treatment when you hit Colombia… Ps. Whats a yawn?? Another odd kiwi word like jangles?
A yarn? If so, a chit-chat, a bit of a convo.
If you’re just ‘having a yarn’ it is just idle banter.
If you’re ‘spinning a yarn’, it’s clearly lies and subterfuge, or at the bare minimum very poorly concealed exaggeration.
If it’s a ‘sharn’ it means it’s a shit yarn and you just told a pretty rubbish story.
Yes. It is that complicated, but who ever said Kiwis make sense…
Jandals, on the other hand is a far better word than ‘flip-flops’ in our opinion 🙂
Wow great great series of blog posts. It so cool to learn more about Cuba through your experiences, wonderful stories and amazing photos. What a crazy experience, so happy it wasn’t a serious issue, but what a nightmare figuring it all out. Thank you so much for taking the time to narrate this all so well. I really felt I was there with you all.
Thanks, we (possibly unbelievably) hope to go back to Cuba one day and give it a second chance…
oh Emma, you do make me laugh, even when recounting a truly scary and frustrating event! I still think i may want to go to Cuba one day, but one day far, far in the future when the locals might have an easier life, and feel less inclined to take out their frustrations on the poor tourist merely wanting to experience their country.
We think if you showed up on not-too-tight a budget and didn’t plan on spending your time in all the tourist areas your experience in Cuba would be completely different. We think we’ll splash out on a rental car if we get to go back, so that we can head off the beaten track a bit 🙂 Don’t let our failed attempt at visiting Cuba put you off, it is a fascinating and beautiful place. Just frustrating too…
Like Jenine, I too felt your frustration. But, glad to see everything worked and you snapped some great photos along the way!
Thanks, as I’m sure you well know, the best travel stories are the ones that leave you cursing and wondering why you even left the house in the first place. 🙂
Fred and Elisabeth
What an amazing story. Thank you for sharing this. It would be still very interesting to go and visit Cuba.
Believe it or not, we’d still recommend it. It is a fascinating place and I think with the right approach you could really enjoy a trip there. We think having a bit of money to spend and you’re own transport would really help.
Glad all is well. At least they didn’t say you couldn’t have beer! 🙂
That would have been a true disaster! Can’t say I’ve fully laid off the coffee or chocolate either… but I’m sure cutting back a little counts…right? Anyway, there’s always beer!
Ahhhh, travel. It’s just so FUN sometimes, ain’t it? Glad you’re back in the rig and heading north. If you get to Portland, Oregon (and we’re around), we’d be happy to host you!
Haha, thanks, yep, it’s never all sunshine and unicorn farts! Only a little bit north, the goal now is to make our way south—slowly, but one day we hope to get the chance to return to Portland… for the beer and a chance to properly explore the Pacific Northwest!