Cubans are not allowed on the best beaches, hotels, resorts or restaurants of their country. My friend Jose tells me, “in this country WE are the extranjeros (the foreigners).” My rule is that I never go anywhere where the Cuban people are not welcome. The law was in place “for the protection of the tourists.” But everyone knows the truth, Cubans comingling with tourists could lead to anti-government sentiments. So, last year when I stopped in a small town where I knew the local priest, I offered to take him and a few of his friends to a beach on the north shore. He had put me up for a couple nights on a previous trip, so I was trying to return the favor. I had a rented van that held 11 people, and there were only 7 of us Americans. So we crammed Father Miguel, three women from the church and their three little boys into the “gua gua.” None of the children had ever even seen the beach before.
The women offered to pack lunches, but I insisted on taking care of the food. We packed only water and thermoses of café Cubano. In the states I drink my coffee black and mild, but in Cuba I drink it the way the Cubans drink it: Sickening sweet and thick as sludge from the Exxon Valdez.
I assured my guests that I had been to this beach before and that there was an open-air thatched-roof restaurant where I would buy them all lunch. It wasn’t a “tourist” resort, so Cubans were permitted. After an hour and a half drive we came to the road that leads to the beach. We were stopped by a soldier who checked our documents. He carefully noted in his book how many Cubans and how many Americans were in the van. A little further down the road we were stopped again. A government worker made us pay an entrance fee before raising the gate. A few centavos each for the Cubans and ten bucks each for the Americanos. Another mile and we pulled into the familiar parking lot on the beach. Well, it was half familiar – the other half of the lot along with the restaurant, bathrooms and changing rooms had washed into the ocean during the last hurricane. All that was left was a small stand that sold beer, soda and water. No food. I decided we’d figure out the food later. Let’s get these kids on the beach!
For a song you could rent snorkel gear, umbrellas, or a small paddleboat. For a few more chavitos, the Cuban tourist currency, you could actually rent a small speed boat, although Father Miguel tells me it only has a one-gallon gas tank. The water was crystal clear and the sun sizzled above it as it broiled any skin left unprotected. Once everyone had what he or she needed I looked for Miguel and saw him talking to the guy at the stand. I joined him and relieved the guy of his entire supply of water and soda. If Father Miguel hadn’t been there, I’d have taken a few beers too.
I suggested that he stay with the others while I drive back to the nearest town and find some food.
“You can’t do that,” he said.
“You came into the park with 7 Cubans, they won’t let you leave without 7 Cubans.”
When he said this he turned and looked north toward Miami, only 90 miles over the horizon. That was the reason they counted the Cubans. That was the reason for the one-gallon gas tank.
As I contemplated this, the man from the stand ran up and said to Miguel, “He agreed to show you.”
Father Miguel told the guy he’d be right there and pulled me aside.
“Que pasa?” I asked. “What’s up?
Miguel explained that he had talked to the man while I was getting the group organized on the beach and he knew of another man who could get us dinner – a man that has a “business.” I was familiar with the casa particulares, home businesses. Some were legal and pay high fees and taxes for the privilege of operating their trade. Others were not legal, part of the mercado negro. These pay their fees, if any, in the form of bribes. This was very common, but Miguel was very cautious, very protective.
“I will go and check it out,” he said.
He walked toward the parking lot as I ran to kids who were splashing and calling for me to get in the water. A while later Miguel returned and yelled for me to join him away from the others.
“I went to the place where they will feed us,” he said. “It’s OK. It’s clean and the food looks fresh. Each person will get grilled white fish or grilled lobster, some salad, rice and bread.”
At this point I was sure it was not a “legal” business. Lobster is only allowed to be caught and cooked in state-run restaurants or for export.
“They can only handle 7 at a time,” he said, “so we will have to eat in shifts. The Americans will go first. It will cost 5 U.S dollars each.”
“$5.00?” I said, “for lobster?”
“Si!” he said smiling.
“Great!” I said, “but you’re taking the Cuban families first.”
“No, no . . . ”
He started to argue, but I stopped him.
“It’s not negotiable,” I said. “These women and kids haven’t eaten since early this morning. My team, on the other hand, can easily live off the fat of the land for another hour.”
As Father Miguel led them back toward the parking lot, I went back into the water to inform my troops. Each of them chose the lobster without hesitation.
By the time our Cuban friends returned from lunch they looked happy and satisfied.
“Follow me,” Miguel said.
We followed him through the parking lot and past the cars. There, two men joined us and led us down a different part of the beach for a few minutes, and then onto a trail into the woods. I looked through the trees for the house where we would eat, but saw nothing. In a small clearing, Miguel said, “Here!” I was a little bewildered at first, until I saw the small fire, with lobsters grilling, another fire with a pot of rice, and a piece of wood with plates and flatware stacked neatly on a cloth.
We ate salads and rice and bread first as the two men grilled the lobster and plopped them one at a time onto our plates. Most of us were standing, so maneuvering a fork to pull meat out of the shell required a bit of a learning curve. Eventually we did learn – it couldn’t be done. So there we stood holding the shells up to our faces and sucking out this charred delicacy made of equal parts adventure, ambience and hunger.
When we had devoured every last morsel, it was time to pay up. This is never comfortable in Cuba. It’s one of those events where cultures clash. Miguel saw me reaching for my wallet and he approached.
“Give me the money and I will pay him,” said the good father.
“No, no, I can handle it.” I assured him.
I calculated in my head: 14 people, 5 bucks each, a generous tip for risking their freedom to feed us. No problem. I’ll make it 7 bucks each. I counted out the money and handed it to the man who seemed to be in charge.
“It’s good,” I said handing him the money, “no change.”
On the trail back to the beach I saw Father Miquel ahead talking to Andy, my best Spanish speaker. Miguel seemed rather agitated, but Andy appeared to be amused.
“Hey,” I yelled, “what’s going on up there?”
Andy turned and laughed. “Father Miguel is not happy with you,” he said.
Miguel grabbed him by the arm and hurried him forward to stop the conversation, but I caught up with them.
“What is it, Father?”
But Andy looked over at me and said, “It seems our hosts originally wanted $7 per person and Father Miguel here spent 20 minutes talking them down to $5.”
“Ah, but Miguel,” I said, “it is a good thing that you did that for me, otherwise those $7 lobsters would have cost me $9.”