We had no
money on us, having come to the clinic directly from the beach, so we
were told a clinic rep would meet us at the Cayo Largo airport (which
has a banco, where, unlike a cadeca or money exchange, we can draw
money from a credit card account) to settle that bill. The HolaSun
rep (This won't do. We have to give this good man a name. I choose
Miguel.) picked us up at the resort at the appointed time (about 6
pm) and drove us to the airport.
We were about to learn some home truths
about domestic travel in Cuba.
The airport was where we learned that
AeroCaribbean doesn't accept credit cards and the airfare would have
to be paid in cash, too. We were helped by Miguel and the banco
staffer to figure out how much Cuban money I would need to draw from
my Canadian credit card to purchase the tickets and to settle the
clinic bill. (In retrospect, we should have taken several hundred
more CUCs against the card to assist with other charges and fees that
would be encountered; we were not thinking that far ahead at the
We got all that settled and got checked
in for the flight. Miguel had told us he was handing us off to
another company rep in Havana, Albon. Albon had his hands full with
another client who was having problems so could not meet us in
Havana, but he would call us that night. Not to worry, he assured us.
Albon would take care of us.
Cayo Largo airport isn't
air-conditioned and it was hot and humid. We approached security and
parted ways with Miguel; we were on our own now. We went through
security, which in Cuba (partly because of their experiences with
terrorist attacks) is always stringent. As usual, we basically
unpacked everything to display for them; the female security officer
at the other end of the process looked at my bandaged arm and
carefully repacked my entire carry-on bag for me, then assisted me
with putting the light sweater I was wearing back over my broken
shoulder (it was hot in the airport, but cool outside, not unusual
for Cuba in April). Boarding time for the flight came and went; the
boards began showing a new boarding time which also came and went.
About an hour after our scheduled flight time, a boarding
announcement was made. When I exited the gate and walked onto the
tarmac, an airport worker noticed my condition and took my carry-on
bag from me and took it all the way to the plane; he gave it to a
flight attendant and apparently instructed her to take it right to my
seat and place it in the overhead bin. This was the beginning of my
astonishing experience of Cubans taking care of me and assisting me
at every turn.
The plane was a small turboprop; it
was, in fact, an ATR-42, a plane neither of us had ever flown on
before. It was shabby and tired-looking. The most notable feature of
this plane to me was that there is no cockpit access from the cabin
or vice-versa. The crew enter through a completely different door
than the passengers (passengers enter the plane from the rear). There
could essentially be a massacre occurring in the cabin and the crew
would be completely unaware unless one of the flight attendants or
passengers phoned the cockpit. I decided I was personally not a fan
of this configuration.
Take-off was uneventful. It was well
after dark by now, so we turned on the reading light over my seat.
Which proceeded to flicker on and off for the duration of the 45
minute flight. All sorts of wonderful electrical problems were
running through my head.
A few minutes into the flight the
attendants came by with coffee. I’m not a coffee drinker so I
declined. Husband, very much a coffee drinker, accepted. After a sip
he informed me it had booze in it. I decided I should have become a
In the end we made it there just fine
(as I knew we would), and taxied onto the tarmac at Jose Martí
airport in Havana.
The plane, remarkably, was also not
air-conditioned, and quickly became sweltering. Not a murmer of
complaint. Again, not unusual for Cuba.
We saw some airport workers approach
the plane. Ah! Something's happening. Wait... what? They're all
fleeing for some reason. Is there a bomb on board? And we waited some
more. Then we taxied to another place. And now we were allowed to
Wherever we were, we were so far from
the airport at this point that there was a large city bus waiting for
us to board. Nothing could surprise me at this point – nothing but
the Cubans around me holding bus doors open for me and fussing over
me and insisting I take someone's seat on the crowded bus.
I found myself sitting next to a young
man with a cast on his arm. I gestured to my broken wing. “Did you
do that on Cayo Largo?” I asked. On a nearby cayo, it turns out. He
is Cuban and was working there. He was now coming to Havana for
surgery on it.
We finally reached the airport. Much of
the next few minutes is a blur. With 4 bags and 3 working arms, I
knew we'd need a luggage cart to get our things to a taxi. It
appeared I couldn't get a luggage cart without breaking security. But
could I get back in to Husband with the luggage if I dis so? I
pantomimed all this (with one arm) to a security guard manning the
exit from the secure zone into the public area. Either I conveyed it
or I annoyed her enough for her to say “Go!” I ran out, grabbed a
luggage cart, and went back into the luggage conveyer. We collected
our bags and exited the airport, two naifs in Havana.
Well, not that naive. Miguel had
brilliantly even told us what was a fair taxi fare to our hotel. We
located a cab driver piloting a decrepit Lada and agreed on that
price, and hopped into the cab. It was after 10pm and we were
exhausted, but we were finally one step closer to home.
I rolled my window down. It was a
magical ride into Havana, through it, and to our hotel, the Hotel
Paseo Habana . We'd only been to Havana once before, but we found
ourselves spotting landmarks familiar to us, like Revolution Square
with the great sculptures of Ché Guevera and Camilo Cienfuegos. The
boulevards were wide and breezy and we experienced first-hand that
Havana drivers do not slow down in the least for the many jaywalkers
who amble across them.
We arrived at the hotel to discover (I
admit, to my surprise) that they also did not accept credit cards. We
were about to find ourselves in a small crisis. We had plenty of CAD
on hand, but had exchanged very little CAD into CUC on our arrival at
the hotel in Cayo Largo – it was our first day. We didn't have the
foresight to draw extra money from the credit card at the airport –
simply not thinking (and assuming, as I had used my credit card
successfully many times previously in Cuba, that hotels and airlines
would accept credit).
So we found ourselves quite literally
pulling every CUC note, every CUC coin, from our purses and pockets
to pour on the lobby desk of the hotel to cover the bill for the
night. (One night, remember; we'd have to be somewhere else tomorrow,
as they were fully booked.)
Well we managed to scare up the night's
fee. Relief! Once that was taken care of, the desk clerk (a wonderful
woman who was a former professor of English) gestured to the bellhop
and said, “Would you like him to get you something for your room?
Some cervesas, some wine?”
We laughed out loud. “We have no
money! We have given you every centavo!”
At that moment, a stranger standing
behind us stepped up. He had been waiting behind us to check in to
“Here,” he said, thrusting a $10
CUC note at us. “Get yourselves something. You've had a hard day.”
“Oh no,” Husband said. “We
“Are you kidding me?” I
thought to myself. I grabbed that note. “Thank you, thank you. I
promise we'll pay it forward.” (I meant that, and we did. Remind me
to tell you about that later.)
We were taken upstairs to our room,
which was perfectly acceptable and perfectly absurd. (The lamps had
aspirational paintings of wolves and moons on them.) We begged the
bellhop to bring us a few cans of Cristal beer, pressed the 10CUC
note into his hand, crossed our fingers, and hoped. God bless him, he
was back in 10 minutes and even tried to give us the change. No, sir,
that's your tip for giving us some comfort after the worst day ever.
My next discovery was that I wasn’t
able to lie down and I was going to be spending the night sleeping in
a chair in the room. Albon had called the hotel before we arrived and
left us the message that he would be in touch with us in the morning.
At that moment, we had absolutely no idea if, how or when we would be
able to get home to Canada. We were in Havana, and tomorrow – with
the exception of the knowledge that we needed to get to a cadeca or
bank – was a completely blank slate.