Dave soaks up the sun in Playas del Este

Cuba week: Last minute acquisitions

An index of the Cuba series appears at the first post.

August 4, 2015

My last day in Cuba dawned with the crowing of roosters. While Playas del Este is not a farming area and I saw no chicken coops there, I had certainly encountered the birds on my walks. I’m always a bit uncomfortable when being examined by the critical eye of a free-range chicken. Dawn is, of course, their time.

For one last time, I put on my beach clothes for a walk down to the sands. I took up my perch on the sand berm so I could stay in the shade of the palms, and I enjoyed watching the kids play on the beach. My experience of the beaches at Destin, FL, is that most people stay on the shore, watching the waves rise and fall with satisfaction. At Playas del Este, though, the great majority of people seem to spend their time in the water. Since the temperature was hovering around 90 degrees with impossibly high humidity, I understand why the water would have such an attraction!

With little time to spare before my flight, I asked Lorenzo if we could attempt to acquire some stamps for a philatelist friend of mine. He found the postal station rapidly, and we stood in a couple of different lines before we found the right counter. In the end, I purchased three different kinds: a 2007 stamp commemorating Jose Marti the poet, a 2012 stamp for the “expo mundial de filateila indonesia,” and a 2014 stamp commemorating the first anniversary of the death of Hugo Chavez.

Image of Cuban stamps

Jose Marti was a Cuban nationalist poet. Chavez was admired in Cuba for his belligerent attitude toward the United States, and who doesn’t love a stamp collector?

Our next stop was an attempt to acquire some cigars for my friends at home (please, don’t smoke!). We attempted to find some “CUP” cigars, intended for purchase by Cuban citizens for use here. These cigars, however, were out of stock, as frequently happens. Lorenzo handled the next step in some secrecy, but he returned with the cigars. He explained that some shop owners will purchase their own stock of frequently out-of-stock items. Then they sell these items at a higher price when they become unavailable everywhere. The normal price for a cigar when it’s in stock is 1 CUP. Lorenzo had found a store owner who would part with his private collection for 2 CUP a cigar, and he bought all thirteen of the available cigars. His total price, 26 CUP, amounts to just over one CUC, so these thirteen cigars cost a total of essentially one U.S. dollar. If I had been present, the store owner would have reasonably demanded a much higher CUC-denominated price.

These cigars were intended for Cuban consumption. The total price for these thirteen was just a bit more than one CUC (essentially a dollar).

These cigars were intended for Cuban consumption. The total price for these thirteen was just a bit more than one CUC (essentially a dollar).

Lorenzo had also acquired three colas for our car ride to the airport. He explained that the Cuban cola’s name was considered offensive by Mexicans. The brand name “tu Kola,” is vulgar slang for “your backside.” We guzzled the drinks in the hot car, and then our driver cheerfully back-handed his empty can out the window. As we merged onto the highway a moment later, a beautiful woman was hitchhiking. He good-naturedly honked his horn as we passed by. Then we stopped for a couple selling mangoes at the side of the road, acquiring around ten. I watched a man wheeling a wheelbarrow across the eight-lane freeway. As we neared the airport in south Havana, we took a little detour to Parque Lenin, the local amusement park. I saw a flume ride, a Ferris wheel, a small roller coaster, and a swinging arm ride. Lorenzo explained that bumper cars were a huge hit in Cuba, recalling his two-hour wait to ride the cars.

The Palacio de los Pioneros, right across the street, is a teaching facility where the Pioneers youth group (K-9th grade) are exposed to potential careers. Lorenzo had been exposed to driving locomotives and meteorology at this center. His boarding high school, also named after Lenin, was nearby. In his time, each student was required to select a scientific or engineering specialty for placement in the school. At last our detour led us to Calabazar, a town named after a field of butternut squash. Lorenzo recalled the good-natured jibes directed by the Havana-born at a college friend from this town.

When we reached the airport terminal, Lorenzo found an inexpensive gift set of cigars at the outer terminal. The little box contained five cigars for 10 CUC, quite a markup from the CUP cigars we had found that morning. We picked these up, as well, thinking that they might be a nicer gift set for my friends.

Leaving Lorenzo and Ramon behind at the airport security desk was a little scary for me. Would I run afoul of a security agent ready to wreck a U.S. citizen’s day? Would I bumble around like an arrogant gringo? Would my 13 CUC be enough to buy me lunch?

The first of these questions was swiftly answered at the Bella Isla “fast food” restaurant, apparently the only one in the security area of the terminal. I said three words to order: “hamburger, fries, malta.” I had grown very fond of the latter drink during my travels. My total bill came to 8.05 CUC, so my supply of change in CUC grew considerably. She handed me a can of malta. When I asked about “frijo,” she replied with something complex, presumably that the cold one cost extra. My short-order was ready in a minute, and it was pretty tasty. The burger was a little gristly, but onions were cooked into the mix. It featured no condiments, lettuce, pickle, or tomato. The fries were quite nice, though not piping hot, and I couldn’t find any ketchup. So far so good.

As for my worries about being the gringo of gate B-12, I soon saw that the job was already taken. An American was pacing impatiently in line. He fussed at the poor exchange rate his U.S. dollars would receive at the restaurant, and he yawned hugely at the delay. That said, his Spanish was much better than mine. I thought of the Maurice Switzer proverb that “It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.” In the end, the American barged backward in line to place his order, tapping on the glass by the food item he wanted. I note that he, however, was able to acquire ketchup where I had failed!

This terminal, one of two, was not a busy one. At the moment, the board reported only flights to Cancun, central Mexico, and Panama. Departure times were 13:42, 15:20, 15:40, 15:50, and 16:15 (my flight). It seemed pretty clear that almost no Cubans ever get the chance to see the tops of the clouds, though I’d get a better idea of that at the other terminal (which handles flights from Miami). At the moment I was relieved to see that the toilets include seats.

To pass the time at the airport, I read a very large poster dedicated to five “Cuban heroes” jailed in the United States. It claimed that they “devoted their lives… to fight against terrorism in the city of Miami, the hub of most aggressions against Cuba.” Their sentences were a minimum of fifteen years up to two life terms plus fifteen years. The poster asserts that “The five men were put on a manipulated trial in Miami, a completely hostile city dominated by a Cuban-origin mafia, where no fair and impartial trial was possible in keeping with U.S. and international laws.” I resolved to look it up when I returned home. This sympathetic opinion from a Canadian journalist might cause us to think twice about these convictions, contending that these intelligence agents were working on U.S. soil, but their mission was to protect Cubans against groups in Miami that were actively plotting to kill people in Cuba or attempting to travel there. Ironically, I saw the poster after its main charge had become moot; two of the “Cuban Five” had been released after completing their sentences, and the other three were returned in a prisoner exchange at the end of 2014.

My flight back to Cancun from Havana was uneventful. I remember how strange the Cancun airport had seemed to me before, with everyone speaking a different language and exchanging in a different currency, but now it seemed much more like home. I took the shuttle bus (with seat belt! with more seats than passengers! without the need to rev the engine when climbing a minor slope!) to my hotel and checked in. I didn’t spend much time in my hotel room upstairs (featuring a toilet with a seat!) before I headed downstairs to grab a bite to eat for dinner. As I passed through the lobby, though, I saw a nice couple from Barcelona that I’d met on the airport shuttle, now with downcast faces. Their hotel reservation was nowhere to be found, and the hotel had filled up. On a whim, I volunteered the second bed of my hotel room. It took the hotel a few minutes to make the change, but the beaming smiles on their faces made me feel I had done the right thing. They headed upstairs to use the shower while I headed out. Could they have robbed me blind? Sure, but if they were part of a scam I think they’d want a better chance of scoring a victim.

I headed over to Burger King, not realizing until later that I was eating my second burger of the day. The clerk was not capable of English, but we made it work since the sequence of questions in American restaurants is essentially the same. I decided to branch out to try a Manzanita Sol soft drink. Sure enough, it was something akin to fizzy apple cider. I was feeling punchy, so I tried to communicate that I wanted my french fries without added salt. Success!

Some Irish gals on holiday in Belize and Mexico came over from the hotel, as well. They asked about my experiences in Cuba. We talked about toilet seats as a basic human right. After a while, my new friends from Barcelona came to the restaurant, as well. They seemed happy. Soon enough we were all back in the room, and everyone seemed inclined to an early night of sleep. I drifted off to dreamland right away.

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2 thoughts on “Cuba week: Last minute acquisitions

  1. Pingback: Cuba week: Arriving in a different world | Picking Up The Tabb

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