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.




Blogger Xtreme English said...

Holy cow! it's been far too long since I've checked into your blog! What an inspiring little trooper you are! husband, too! and I doubly wished i could visit Cuba again, even though i have a Cuban friend ("La Cubanita) in Florida who HATES Fidel and Cuba and all they stand for (which is???). It just sounds like a jolly place to me, and what fun if we were there at the same time and could slosh down mojitos together. sigh. not in this lifetime, probably. happy holidays coming you have Thanksgiving at the same time as we do?

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