Wednesday, August 19, 2015

An unexpected journey - Part 2

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 time.)

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 coffee drinker.

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.

And waited.

And waited.

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 disembark.

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 the hotel.

“Here,” he said, thrusting a $10 CUC note at us. “Get yourselves something. You've had a hard day.”

“Oh no,” Husband said. “We couldn't.”

“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.



Sunday, August 02, 2015

An unexpected journey.

So I've been away from this blog for a super-long time this time, which is ironic because I have kind of an interesting story to share on it - but I haven't been able to.

In April, Husband and I went on our usual spring vacation in Cuba. Cayo Largo, to be exact, the tiny key that has become our home away from home after repeated visits. The trip was for two weeks, and it was to be a much, much-needed break after a dreadful winter that saw us pounded and pounded with metres of snow. It was also to be a rest and reprieve for both of us after the devastating unexpected loss in March of my mom-in-law.

We arrived in Cuba on the evening of April 11. We spent the evening greeting staff at the resort, many of whom we've gotten to know over multiple visits. We spent the evening in the lobby bar, retired to bed, and got up excited to begin our two week vacation.

By 3pm, I had fallen and broken my left shoulder.

We went to the clinic in the workers' village on the cayo and were seen by the resident doctor. He x-rayed it using a machine that surely dates to before the revolution. He didn't have a lot of English, but one of the nurses helped, and a little while later our (Cuban, fluent in English) rep from our tour company turned up. (How? The hotel must have phoned him - we didn't even think to do so.)

It was definitely broken and the doctor was pretty certain it was going to need surgery. It was suggested that we might want to go to Havana and have the surgery done there. We considered it, but my past health issues mean any time I go under general anesthesia I am at increased risk, and our very limited Spanish meant we didn't feel we could make informed decisions. So we told the HolaSun rep that we wanted to go home as soon as possible to deal with it here. That distressed him a little; there were no flights out of Cayo Largo for a week, and even if we hopped over to Havana on a plane to try to find from there, all the flights to Canada from Havana were pretty much fully booked. Furthermore, Havana was seeing a significant uptick in bookings due to increased visits by Americans under the relaxed travel restrictions and the city was pretty solidly full. We still said we'd like to at least try.

The clinic visit, x-ray, a shot of morphine, and the bandaging of the arm to my chest for travel resulted in a fee of  $112 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos). That is about $145 CAD or $111 USD today, and our dollar was about 10 cents stronger back then. (The care, while limited, was excellent; when I finally presented myself at an emergency ward in Canada, the examining physician looked at the bandaging and said, "I can't do any better than that. Leave it that way until you see the orthopedic surgeon.")

But now we had to figure out how to get home ASAP. The HolaSun rep was able to arrange for us to get a couple of seats on an AeroCaribbean flight leaving that night for Havana, and was also able to miraculously book us a hotel room in Havana. Everything after that was completely wide open with no guarantees. Well, we thanked him and accepted the plan.

That led to two days of sheer off-the-charts adventure, which I have been dying to tell you all about ever since. But I only got permission to ditch my sling on Thursday; and in the interim I've been typing with one finger. It's kind of a long story to blog with just one finger.

More to come about AeroCaribbean, Havana, an Air Canada office on the Malecón, and the immense and generous kindness of strangers, Cuban and Canadian.