Who can forget when I got scammed twice in one day by the lovely Chinese tea girls? I guess I’ve been scammed by the best of ’em, but I’ve never been so aggressively hustled as when I was in Cuba. Declan O’Malley had to head back to Santa Clara to get his flight home, The Barracuda wanted to go to Cienfuegos, and I wanted to head east to Guantanamo, so we needed to buy tickets from the bus station for foreigners. During my initial taxi ride from the airport I got to talking with the driver about going east. He laughed when I mentioned Baracoa (the eastern most city in Cuba) and told me that it was a 20 hour bus ride. “How about the train?” He laughed again. I told him I had taken 42 hour train rides in China, which are pretty bad. He looked in the rear view mirror, right into my eyes and said, “these are worse”. The Cuban government lets one bus company operate for tourists and government officials, and that means one bus leaves for Baracoa per day. One bus for Cienfuegos and one for Camaguey. Some people might pick it up halfway through, but just one heads out. There’s a whole other bus system for Cubans, but unless we dug deep, I doubt we ever could have accessed it. So the three of us walked into the bus station to find there was a line of at least 25 people. At the back we asked the guy in front of us how long the wait would be to get tickets. “Probably three hours,” he said.
This is how it works at the bus station. There is one teller, the only woman selling tickets to the many foreigners who want to travel throughout the country from the nation’s capital. She is printing tickets on the same printer paper that your elementary school had in computer class in 1993, you know, the one with the extra flaps on the side that you had to peel off. Usually after she sells one or two tickets she sees a friend walking through the station and leaves to go chat with them, usually for 10 – 15 minutes, and then wanders back around to sell some more. All this time, there is a man sitting behind a wooden desk in the corner underneath a timetable for departures who catches your eye and lets you know that he can get you the ticket without you waiting. How much does it cost? Well, that’s up to you, whatever you feel it’s worth. I say an extra 5 CUC (1 CUC is equivalent to $1, a CUC is a separate currency that only foreigners use and is equivalent to 24 of their local currency) and he says great. I hadn’t been traveling for too long and didn’t have my debilitating $30 per day budget so I was feeling liberal with my cash. This guy then goes behind the counter and tells the lady my travel details and that he’ll give her half the cut of the $5 offered, which begs the question, why not just have one more person selling tickets? They’ll earn money without the scam and the line will move twice as quickly. But certainly they get more money this way. The funny thing is, after another hour of waiting, when I only had two more people in front of me, he came and told me that the ticket was no longer available and I was left to deal with the normal ticket booth, so he really had no hookup anyway.
After all those hours waiting in line we wanted to walk back to the main part of the city; I had heard that there was a Chinatown in Havana, and was eager to see it. I felt a burn on my right collarbone and flicked something away. The burn came back again. When was the last time I was stung by a bee? We kept on walking.
“I got stung” I said to the guys.
“Are you allergic?”
“I don’t think so. I can’t remember the last time I got stung, though.”
We continued on and suddenly there was another burning sensation on my right chest. This was more intense, and my sanity started to slip away. Am I allergic? Oh, Jesus Christ. Is this the end for me? The burn on my chest started to pulsate. Oh, god, I’m allergic to bee stings now and this is it. Memories started to flash before my eyes, one in particular of a conversation in Chile where my host family told me that all the rich Chileans with cancer flew to Cuba for treatment. That’s right! Cuba has one of the best medical systems in the world.
We had been sitting on a bench when I stood up and said, “Something’s wrong. This burning is not going away.” And it wasn’t, it was getting much worse.
“Do you want to go to the pharmacy that we passed?” Declan O’Malley said.
The pharmacists quickly told me that I needed to go to a clinic, and that there was a hospital a ten minute walk away. As we crossed the street with my chest on fire, my mind started to panic and I could feel myself start to pass out. This whole time The Barracuda played along, having seen many of these hypochondriac episodes (he lives in the room next to me and has often seen me walking through the living room pontificating about condoms or the overuse of antibiotics) and with his steady walk and straight back, he assured me that bee stings hurt and if I were allergic I would have been down on the floor unable to breath. Was my throat closing up? Oh God!
I wasn’t allergic. After the swelling went down I realized that the hornet had gone into my shirt and stung me a few more times, which explained the burning. But now we were in a whole new section of town. Outside the hospital, which I now didn’t need to go to, there was the only Asian man I ever saw in Cuba, smoking a cigarette. Children just out of school in their uniforms walked by and there was a food market next to us. My near death experience with the hornet had given me such a rush of adrenaline that I felt I could have slept on the sidewalk for a few hours, and food was a good excuse to keep me going. We didn’t have any of the local currency but when I tried to pay for three plates of chicken and rice, they handed me back some of the local money, a lot of it. Normally we had been paying prices equivalent to a town in the U.S, this was about one-fifth of that, and it was delicious. Thank you hornet, thank you.
Declan O’Malley had to get back home, so it was just The Barracuda and I until we each left to go solo across the country. It’s Cuba, obviously we were going to buy cigars, but first I wanted to see this “Chinatown” I had heard about. Cuba wasn’t a homogenous looking society like Chile or Eastern China, but other than the doctor outside of the hospital, I hadn’t seen one Asian since I arrived. We sat on a bench in the park next to the capital and a gentleman with acid washed pot leaves on his jeans came over to sit next to us. I went on high alert but at no point did he try to sell us something. We chatted briefly and then he asked where we were from. I decided to lie. I told him we were German, and that we were staying about five blocks from our actual apartment. When he found out that we wanted to buy cigars, he told us a great place near Chinatown to buy quality stuff for a cheap price. Then we went on our way.
“I know you. I know you guys but you don’t know me. I live on 17th between A and B” the man called over to us right underneath a stone archway with Chinese characters. We don’t live on 17th between A and B, I thought, but we were outside a club there last night. Maybe that’s what he’s talking about? So we chatted a bit and he told us to tell our neighbors that he said hello, he knew names. Oh, that cigar place near Chinatown? Sure, he knew it, he could take us there and get us a good deal, no extra charge, just neighbors helping neighbors. We chatted along the walk (all in Spanish) and he said that I have an American accent to my Spanish, I didn’t sound too German. Huh. I guess he could see through that lie. We got to the house which lead to a back room with two Cubans and four foreigners haggling for cigars. They’re my neighbor, give them a good price. We got him down from $180 to $50 for a 20 pack of Obama’s favorites before I realized that I had never told him we were German. And he said that we lived exactly where I told that dude with the acid washed jeans we lived. Fuckin hell, how did this happen again? We booked it out of there, all the while he was asking us to do him a favor because he gets a food voucher if we buy from there. I just wanted to go into Chinatown and away from that mess. So we walked on, deeper and deeper into the city. A few blocks on, an older gentleman in his 70s spotted us and said, “the Germans? Chinatown is two blocks that way”. My lie had gotten from the central park, to the man underneath the Chinese archway, all the way to this old man who had nothing to do with any scam and actually wanted to help us, in a country with virtually no internet access. These guys meant business. Could I have spotted it if I hadn’t lied?
Chinatown was interesting in that there weren’t any Chinese. It seems that all the Chinese who worked the railroads and farms had left Cuba during the revolution, mostly to come to the States. But Cubans with Chinese garb stood outside restaurants pleading with us to come in to try their food. The only legitimate Chinese culture I found was a Confucian center where I was allowed to stand in the lobby and look at pictures of Fidel shaking hands with Hu Jintao, China’a leader from 2002-2012. I chatted briefly with the receptionist, prodding about Chinese interests here in Cuba. The U.S.-China-Taiwan relationship has to be one of the most ridiculous shows of political tightrope walking I’ve ever encountered, and if the U.S. is bound to supply Taiwan with arms to defend itself against mainland China, wouldn’t China aim to have a nice landing pod 90 miles from Miami? My questions went unanswered but the receptionists were lovely and we joked about the lack of Chinese in Chinatown.
Towards the end of the day we walked back through central Havana, and past a doorway in an old building which stopped me in my tracks. Imagine a lunatic librarian who owned a concrete bomb shelter that went through a series of grenade attacks. There was a tv sitting on old vinyl playing scattered, lined images to the left. In the center of the room were piles and piles of old dusty books, arranged in a square formation exactly like a mason would be placing bricks to build a room. To the right was a man in his 60s, long ponytail tied back, barely any teeth, sitting in an old chair reading. He was surrounded by piles of books himself. Behind all this was dark concrete, nothing else. There were no windows. He told me to come in. He lifted his head from his book to acknowledge me, but paid me no more attention. I poked around the vinyl and some books, mostly about Cuban history and poetry. I peaked over the halfway finished wall of books and in the center were broken cinder blocks strewn about with torn apart book pages, all of which were covered in dust. In all my life I had never seen a place like this. It was as inspiring as it was depressing.
The Barracuda and I walked back towards the capital building and passed a band playing traditional music. You know when you pass musicians so good that it literally stops you in your tracks? They were that good. They were old, just a four piece band, playing Guantanamera – Cuba’s famous song based on lyrics by Jose Martí. I looked over and The Barracuda blinked away his watering eyes, the music of his people flowing through him.
*Drawing by Tom Lombardi
**Photo cred – Robert Cernuda