Wednesday, October 28, 2015

An unexpected journey - Part 3

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 Albon’s call.

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 ostentatious driver. 

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.

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 grateful.

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 commend them.)

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 limo.

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 flights. 

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 outside. 

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 sees you.”

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 bad break.

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.



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.



Friday, January 02, 2015

Every New Year. Let the Good Guys Win.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Quest for... oh, god.

Kate, the PT Cruiser, has died. We took her to two different garages, an "emergency" one when she overheated on the way to brunch last Saturday, and "our guys" a couple of days later. Estimates for repairs range from $1500 to $3000. (It's almost certainly a cracked head gasket.) She's 14 years old, has a host of other problems anyway (the AC and radio/cd player both quit some time ago), and it's time to say goodbye.

The last time we bought a car it was fun, 'cause it was our decision and we still had a functioning vehicle to use while checking out other cars. This time, we're under the gun and will need to rent while we're shopping. We have a pretty clear idea of where we want to go this time, but nevertheless, it's going to be expensive and stressful compared to that experience.

Husband put it best when he said, as we cleaned her out for the salvage company to take her away, "the end of a car is the end of an era in your lives". Certainly true if you keep your cars as long as we do. We've had Kate since 2008 and enjoyed her all that time. She got us through my 6 months of commuting weekly to Moncton in a horrible winter in fine fashion (I used to say taking her on long drives was like "driving a sofa", she was so comfortable). She took us on innumerable shopping trips to Saint John and Moncton, and on vacations to Halifax and PEI multiple times (and I believe we were in her when we went on a tour of the French east coast of NB). Lot of memories tied up in ol' Kate.

We are incredibly lucky in a lot of ways. We both work within walking distance from our house so we weren't faced with an immediate crisis and need to rent or take taxis. It gave us some breathing room to figure out what to do. We live downtown with grocery stores and a pharmacy and everything else we need within walking distance, so ditto. And I've had my bike out, outfitted with a basket and a big old pair of pannieres all summer, so ditto again.

We also have options because we are both pretty well employed. These days I often think of when we were completely broke and scraping by, as so many around us still are, and how much more terrifying something like this would be if we still were. With a provincial election looming, it reminds me it's always, always important to support parties that are working to making things better for people who have fewer options than we do.

Anyway, next: Quest for Something.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Diefenbunker

Earlier this month, Husband and I took a mini-vacation to Ottawa to celebrate his birthday. We are both in Ottawa all the time for work and meetings, but we never get to really enjoy the city. Besides, there was something there (well, near there, in Carp, ON, the point kind of being to get out of Ottawa) that we'd both wanted to see for a very long time: The Diefenbunker.

To quote from its website, The Diefenbunker is "a four-story, 300 room, 100,000 square foot underground bunker, and was meant to house 535 Canadian government officials and military officers in the event of a nuclear war. Shrouded in mystery, the Diefenbunker, nicknamed after then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, was designed and built in secrecy during the crest of Cold War fear, between 1959 and 1961."

The Diefenbunker was fully operational until 1994, when it was decommissioned. In  1997, work began on turning the installation into a museum. What cold war buff could resist a glimpse into what a government - their government - living under nuclear lockdown would have looked like?

Because of the problems posting photos to blogger, I've uploaded some to Flickr, which I hope will make for a better experience for us both. You can see them here.

We also visited the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, the Canadian Museum of History, and Parliament Hill. I'll be posting some photos of those visits later. I also tweeted the trip with the hashtag #GeekiestVacayEver, because, well, wasn't it?


Friday, August 01, 2014

Patio Day