We were awakened the next morning by a
rooster crowing (a not-terribly unusual sound in Cuba's capital
city). We had breakfast at the hotel (included in the price of the
room). Our fellow guests appeared mostly to be European tourists,
most in their 20s and 30s. After breakfast we waited anxiously for
Along the way we met our benefactor
from the night before, who turned out to be a Canadian named Doug who
was on his first visit to Cuba, solo, as sort of a bucket-list thing.
He was a very pleasant guy and we took his email and promised to let
him know when we paid his good gesture forward.
When Albon did call, he had some good
news; he had found two seats on an Air Canada flight out the next
day at a cost of about $1800CAD apiece. We had to get ourselves down
to the Air Canada office on the Malecón and pony up for them.
We asked the front desk to call us a
cab and walked from the cool hotel veranda with its rocking chairs
down to the sidewalk. In a few minutes, here came our cab – the
single most battered and decrepit Lada I have ever seen or possibly
ever will. The lining of the rear doors was missing completely. I
don’t recall if it had seat belts or not, but since so far no Cuban
car I had ever been in had, I doubt it. But we agreed on a price and
he whisked us a dozen or so blocks to the Malecón and pointed us to
an office building where he assured us we would find Air Canada.
We wandered through the dark building
for a little bit before finding the Air Canada agent. I have never,
ever in my life been so relieved to see a maple leaf. When we entered
the tiny office, the ticket agent was deep in negotiations with an
older gentleman who was apparently arranging to visit someone in
Canada. It took a long time to work out the details so we sat and
waited while the man finally paid for his flight with a large fistful
of small Cuban notes. With him taken care of, it was our turn.
This guy, as it turns out, is the
single greatest Air Canada agent in the world. Not only did he
significantly reduce the cost of the flights from the original
estimate, he was able to book us straight through Toronto and on a
connecting flight to Fredericton.
(A note on that: when we were told by
Albon that he had found two seats to Canada, we didn't even ask him
where to and we didn't know until we got to the AC office. That’s
how badly we wanted to be back in Canada. Could've been Edmonton,
Vancouver. At that point we would have taken it, so great is your
yearning for home when everything has gone pear-shaped.)
With flight booked (they took
credit cards thank heavens), we headed to the busy street outside to
see if we could hail a cab. And what a cab we hailed (probably bolsa negro), with an equally
He took us back to the Hotel Paseo, where we now
faced a couple of lingering dilemmas: we desperately needed to get
our hands on some Cuban money to get us through the day and into the
early hours of tomorrow when our flight would leave; and in the hotel
crunch, we had nowhere at the moment to stay for the night as the
Paseo was booked up.
No problemo to solve the first problem,
the hotel staff told us; there was a cadeca (money exchange) just one
block up and one block over. We set out for it and it didn't take
long to note what an absolute scorcher of a day it was walking on the
concrete sidewalks. (Remember I had my left arm tightly bandaged to
my chest, which didn't help any.) When we got to the appointed area
we could find no sign of a cadeca, and our attempts to get
information from the workers at a nearby market stall weren't going
well. Just then, I spotted the cadeca window – closed. “It’s
closed on Mondays,” I said, reading the hours notice. What now?
We headed back to the hotel and just as
we entered the lobby Albon called. Good timing and good news: he had
found us a room for the night. As for the money dilemma, he told us
to call a cab and have it take us to a full-service bank, which would
be open on a Monday. He told us the name of the hotel and wished us
Well, who should our cabbie be but Mr.
Lada? He took us a few blocks to a bank and agreed to wait while we
took care of the transaction. I told him he’d better because at the
moment we didn't have any Cuban money to pay him with!
As we approached the bank I saw a line
coming out of the door. A very young security guard was standing on
the steps. “This the cola?” I asked. “Yes,” and he
guided us to a place at the end of it. The line moved surprisingly
fast (for Cuba) and it wasn't too long before we were in the shade
of the porch and then inside the door. As we progressed, we reached a
table where a bank worker asked us what transaction we were here to
do. When we told her we were here to exchange money, she gave us a
ticket with a number and a letter on it.
The bank was set up like many service
centers are: a series of numbered booths and a large number of chairs in the middle for clients awaiting their turn. Above all was a big screen onto which the next
customer number was displayed, along with the number of the booth to
which the customer with that number should proceed.
Husband sat down. I was too anxious to
sit still and stood watching the activity buzzing around me. The
young security guard approached me and urged me to sit. No, I was
fine, I said. He was extremely shy but also extremely anxious to
practice his English, so we chatted a little while we stood there.
When I said I was from Canada he said “Toronto?” We talked about
my accident and my route home to Canada. He really was a lovely young
man and embarrassingly concerned about my comfort.
Finally my number was posted on the big
screen. I was nervous because one of the messages in rotation on that
screen said in Spanish that clients should approach the tellers one
at a time, and I was going to need Husband to help me understand what
was going on (being hearing-impaired wasn't helping any of this by
the way). Oh well, at least I was pretty certain the security guard
wasn't going to tackle me.
The bank teller spoke very serviceable
English which was an extremely pleasant surprise. (This was no cadeca
for tourists. This was a Cuban peoples’ bank.) We were able to
exchange several hundred Canadian dollars into Cuban Convertible
Pesos (CUC) to pay for the hotel, meals, taxis etc. until tomorrow.
Our cab driver was waiting patiently
and we told him the name of the hotel we were headed to next and the
general area. There was a long drive followed by us first not being
able to find the hotel anywhere, then asking for directions, then
ending up at the wrong hotel altogether. A call to Albon from the
lobby of that (wrong) hotel led to clearance of the confusion; we’d
misunderstood the name of the hotel over the phone. With corrected
information in hand we traveled to the Hotel Bella Habana.
The hotel is across the street from the
absolutely massive Ministerio de la Agricultura.
It was now late afternoon and still hot
and we were exhausted. In the lobby, surrounded by our luggage, we
discovered this hotel did take credit cards. As I stood there
watching Husband check us in, the hotel manager approached with cold
drinks. I was almost overwhelmed by this small gesture and so
The hotel room was again adequate and
plain and we were very grateful for it. We hadn't eaten since
breakfast and we went to the little cafeteria/bar that seemed to
double as a pub for the area’s locals. We asked to see a menu and
were surprised at the variety of offerings. When we commented on it
to the bartender/server, he grinned and said, “Yes! We have this“
– pointing to the fish – “and this!” – pointing to the
pork chops. I had the fish, Husband had the pork chops.
As we ate, someone approached us. It
was Albon, finally in the flesh. Even though he had taken care of
every detail and we were safely in a hotel for the night and booked
on a flight in the morning, he said he felt he just had to come “see
if [we] were all right”. (The assistance we got from both Hola Sun
representatives in Cuba was so fine we later wrote Hola Sun to
It was after work now and a gaggle of
Cuban workers were enjoying beers at the other end of the bar. One
fellow in particular had had perhaps one too many and was also not
impressed with our presence in his pub, and wasn't afraid to loudly
make the point. His friends shushed him and told him to simmer down.
Eventually his daughter showed up and calmed him down after which we
discovered she wasn't his daughter, she was his wife. Es Cuba.
We had a few Cristals and retired for
the night after asking the front desk to book a cab for us for 3:30
am (our flight was sevenish). Our room overlooked an apartment
building and some embassy or another, which appeared to be having
quite the ‘do, as we watched uniformed guards admit limo after
I spent another night “sleeping”
sitting up (I would for weeks, but I didn't know that then). 3:30
comes early but there was our cab, right on schedule. A very dark
ride to José Marti airport (even in urban areas Cuban roads and
highways are very poorly lit). The cabbie helped us carry our bags
into the terminal (4 bags, 3 arms, right?) and fortunately stuck
around to help us get our bearings as José Marti was a bit of a zoo
that morning. We couldn't see an Air Canada check-in counter
anywhere. There was a massive lineup of people checking in for a
flight to Panama as well as smaller lines for a couple of other
Finally we spotted an Air Canada sign at a deserted counter
at the very end of the row, one lone soul in front of it. It was a
Canadian backpacker headed back after a sojourn in Cuba and she was
on our flight. Well, in that case, we seemed to be in the right place
so our cabbie took his leave of us.
As is often the case in Cuba, things
happen very slowly and then they happen very fast. Within no time we
were at the head of a very substantial lineup for the Air Canada
counter. Eventually, finally, an agent appeared and we began to check
in. After check in we paid the $25CUC airport exit fee (this has
since been absorbed into the cost of the flights themselves and is no
longer a separate transaction) which gave me an opportunity to change
some of those hundreds of CUCs it turns out I didn't need (because the hotel took a
credit card) back into CAD.
After that, security, which is always
very stringent in Cuba (the country has suffered numerous terrorist
attacks) and finally on to the departure lounge, which was garish but
afforded a view of an absolutely spectacular sunrise happening
Our fellow travellers were unremarkable save for the
thirty-something woman who was sitting by herself drinking Cristals
at 7 in the morning with “I just found out my Cuban boyfriend has
several other women in three countries” written All. Over. Her.
The flight home was also unremarkable. As we
navigated Pearson International Airport in Toronto, heading for our
connection, we entered an elevator and as the door closed Husband
said, “You’re in Canada now” and I cried a little.
By 6:30 that afternoon I was in the
emergency room of the Dr. Everett Chalmers Hospital in Fredericton.
When the doctor on call examined me and
my x-rays, he said of the bandaging, “I couldn't do anything
better than that. Leave it like that until the orthopedic surgeon
By midnight I was in my own bed, and
the unexpected journey was over.
Surgery – the
whole purpose of the drive to get back to Canada – turned out not
to be necessary (although it was on the table as an option for many weeks). To come was six months of healing and
physiotherapy. My orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Scott Bowden, is probably
the finest medical practitioner in any field I've ever dealt with.
And now, six months later and with the help of a great
physiotherapist, I have almost full range of motion and about 80%
strength back in the arm, a remarkable outcome for what turned out,
with the help of Canadian hi-def x-ray technology, to be a shockingly
I learned a few things on the
unexpected journey. I learned that the Cuban people are even more
resourceful, kind, and generous than I had thought – and I'd
thought they were a lot. I learned that the key to getting through
something like this is having good people (like 'Miguel' on Cayo
Largo and Albon in Havana) in your corner. And I learned that Husband
is an absolute rock in a crisis. He got us home, in the end. He is a
trooper and a hero.
Oh, remember Doug? The Canadian who
gave us the 10 CUC note so we could get some beers at the end of an
unbelievably long day in Havana? We had promised him we'd pay the
good deed forward. We realized that it would probably be a very long
time, if ever, that we encountered someone in similar circumstances.
So we thought of another place someone might turn if they were short
on cash and in need of sustenance, and we made a donation in his name
to the local food bank. We emailed him as promised to let him know.
He emailed back that his own trip had
turned into something of an unexpected journey: on his last day in
Cuba, he had a heart attack and spent several weeks in hospital
in-country. The care was good, and he is on the mend.
All's well that ends well.