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Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

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.

“Why not?”

“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.”

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I met a guy who knew a guy who knew another guy.  That’s how things are done in Cuba.  I was visiting Maria la Gorda, the beach at the western tip of Cuba, and looking for transportation east to the historic, architecturally rich city of Trinidad.  The bus seemed too touristy and I had already experienced the adventure of the country’s slow, undependable, and completely lackluster train system.  So it was that I became a botella.  In Spanish, the word “botella” means bottle, but in Cuba, it also means hitchhiker.  And the botellas are everywhere.  They gather under every overpass for shade waiting for a government truck to stop and cram a few more into the stake-racked flatbeds or for a private car with a generous driver.  When too large a crowd of botellas forms, you might see a policeman stopping cars and forcing less generous drivers to fill their empty seats.  In fairness, he may also require the botella to pay the driver a few pesos for his fuel and trouble.  Either way, the driver doesn’t complain.  He knows that the officer could easily ticket him for something;  a missing tail light, expired documents.  There are so many rules that only the rarest of Cuban drivers would be in total compliance, giving officers leverage to ask for just about anything.

Fortunately, my days as a botella came not from standing in the heat, but from sitting at a bar talking to a guy who knew a guy who heard that a guy was driving toward Trinidad the following day.

I met Emanuel early the next morning to begin our journey.  I offered him forty U.S. dollars to take me all the way to Trinidad, just an hour past his planned destination.  He agreed so quickly that I knew a had overbid.  We got on the road and Emanuel began to explain the rules of driving in Cuba.  First, he told me, it is more important that your horn works than to have brakes.  He honked at every car, cow, bike, and chicken to warn of his approach.  Second, you must slow down to 40 kph when approaching an overpass.  It’s for the safety of the botellas.  And you must slow to 20 kph as you pass a Punto de Control; police stations where you can be randomly pulled over, searched, or generally harassed.  I asked why some of these rules were marked with relative clarity and others not.  Emanuel said, we must follow these rules whether or not they are posted.  Many of the signs have been stolen.  The metal is pounded into pots for cooking or used to make car parts.  “Que Pais!” he said.  What a country! 

In Cuba, he told me, the police are not respected.  Often they are “orientales,” from the far eastern provinces of the country.  There are many jokes told about them, he said, that they are not very smart and speak very poor Spanish – mispronouncing their R’s and dropping their S’s.   Some people, he told me, call them “hijos de putas,” – sons of whores.  He assured me that he would never use such language, but other people often do.

“Is it the same in your country?” he asked.  “Do you have a similar name?”

“We do have a similar term,” I told him, adding that only occasionally is it aimed at our police officers who we generally respect.  That wasn’t good enough.  He wanted to learn the phrase.  “Son of a bitch,”  I told him. 

“Soonafabeech?

“Son of a bitch.”

“Soonafabeech!” he said smiling. “Soonafabeech!.”

For the next two hours, every officer or Point of Control we passed caused Emanuel to point and blurt out his newfound word which didn’t seem so inappropriate to say in another language.

With tedious attention to his best Spanish and brain-stretching focus on my fledgling vocabulary we talked about everything from politics to cars, seasonal fruit to baseball.  During a lull in the conversation he told me, “your Spanish is very good, but very small.”

Just east of Havana he announced that we would be stopping at his parents house in Matanzas, and spending the night.  He told me this as if confirming that it was part of our previously agreed upon plan.  It wasn’t. 

As we approached Matanzas, Emanuel told me about his parents and their tiny house where he grew up.  “They live next to a policeman,” he told me.  “The soonafabeech is a member of the communist party.  Whenever he smells my mother’s coffee he comes over and expects a cup,” Emanuel complained.   “They give it to him because they want no trouble, and maybe he’ll not look for reasons to cause them any,” he said.  “I hate him,” he added.

When we arrived his mother greeted me warmly before smothering her son with kisses and hugs,  a scene that was repeated a few moments later when his father came in from behind the house.  She put on a pot of coffee and before it was done brewing, the uniformed neighbor showed up, uninvited.  Emanuel courteously introduced the officer to me and then stood behind him scowling as I chatted with him. 

“Where are you from,” he asked in an accent that was new to me. 

“The U.S.”  I told him. 

“Your first time in Cuba?”  he asked? 

“Yes,”  I lied. 

“What about you?’ I asked.  “Did you grow up here in Matanzas?”

I could now see Emanuel’s mother calming him from his anger at the uninvited stranger horning in on the precious time he had to visit his family.

“No,” he said, “I am from Holguin.  It is at the far east of Cuba.” 

“I see.  Do you speak any English?” I asked. 

“No, none.” he said. 

“Not even a little bit?” I persisted. 

“No, None at all.” he said. 

“Well then,” I said switching to English,  “it’s nice to meet you, you son of a bitch!”

The officer smiled and took my outstretched hand as Emanuel blew coffee out his nose and hid his laughing spell with coughing and  choking.

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