My last day in Cuba was great.
Sunday - February 18
I left my casa around eleven to go have a friendly chat with my original casa (more on this later). Afterwards, I wandered over to a Cubano café and grabbed an espresso for about 5 Aussie cents, then walked around for a bit killing time before meeting up at noon with the two Swiss girls I had met the day before. After about twenty minutes of waiting, I went back to the casa, grabbed my laptop and headed for one of the fancy hotels to do some typing in their café, where me and the laptop wouldn’t stick out as much. I found a spot and began typing away, moving around the room periodically to avoid the Cuban band who were stalking an elderly Canadian couple who were also playing their own version of musical chairs. Seriously, some of these bands in hotel lobbies in Cuba remind me of seagulls fighting over burnt chips. Once I had had my fill of maracas and halitosis, I headed back to the casa to drop my stuff off. On the way there I heard my name being called out from somewhere. Looking around I find the Swiss girls hanging out of a window in a nearby building, waving at me. They had mixed up 11 for 12 and had decided to do a tour of what looks like a deserted building. We arrange to meet up in an hour and then hang out for the afternoon as planned. I return to the hotel lobby, read a little and just as I was about to take my turn on the internet, the girls show up and we go searching for lunch. Hmmm.. Greasy fried rice. Now with more bone and less correct change. We walked over to China town (I only saw one person who vaguely looked as if they had once thought about visiting China.. No actual Chinese people here), and introduced them to Senoritas, my favourite pastry delight in Cuba.
The girls invite me back to their casa, which is a 10 minute drive from the centre. After debating prices with a row of dodgy looking taxis, we decide to change tactics and try our luck at flagging down a random car. In Cuba, there is a culture of ride sharing and isn’t really hitchhiking when it’s done on this scale. It’s simple. If a car is going the same place you want to go and there’s room for you, then jump in. For example, it’s the law that all government cars (the ones with the blue licence plates), have to pick up people. There are even dudes dressed in yellow stationed on major roads keeping track of this. A car stops for us and we stumble through some Spanish to tell the driver where we want to go. The girls cram into the back and I hop into the front seat. Turns out our driver is a dentist and he speaks enough English for me to have a conversation with him. Dr Angel has two daughters, who both live in Florida and he is unhappy with the conditions he must work under. There isn’t enough money for the right equipment and the pay (equal to around $50 Australian a month), is a pittance. He feels change is coming and has been looking forward to the time he is able to travel abroad freely and maybe visit his grandchildren. We didn’t drop the F word, but it was the white elephant sitting on the dashboard keeping watch over the conversation. We get to our destination, give him a couple of CUC for the ride (about 5% of his monthly wage as a dentist), and say our goodbyes. He hands us his card and says that if we ever need help while in Cuba, he’s our man. We walk down to the girl’s casa and the lively Mrs Guevara opens the door and gives me a big hug. I had met her the previous night and we had gotten on really well, considering our lack of a mutual language. She’s in her 50s, rather corpulent and has a laugh like a klaxon (which is accompanied by a hearty slap on the back).
The girls tell Mrs Guevara about the attempted scam of two jinetera (female con artists), who had tried to make the girls pay a ridiculous sum of money for some drinks they didn’t want. This got Mrs Guevara all steamed up and she started educating the Swiss girls on what to do next time they encountered such a scam. This did involve plenty of gesticulating and words like “putana” and “joder”, and even while my grasp on the Spanish tongue isn’t that great, I could tell she was annoyed.
I realised I still had my laptop with me and seeing that the girls had just started their trip and I was just about to finish mine, we went through a few of my photos from the places they were intending to visit. Afterwards, Mrs Guevara offered to make us all hot chocolate. She went and turned on the radio to a local salsa channel and I took the opportunity to practice my dancing with her. Hearty laughs (and back slaps), ensued and the hot chocolate was served, which was much better tasting than the shit they dished out at the chocolate museum. I gave one of the Swiss girls my camera and got her to take some action shots of me and Mrs Guevara dancing. Heart warming stuff.
After chocolate, the girls and I went dinner hunting, and ended up walking a long way through what looked to be a normal suburb. Trees, driveways, lights. It was all there. We asked a few people where to go for pizza and eventually found a place that would allow us to eat there as long as we didn’t take up any of the tables. While we waited, we sat on a concrete bench, drank our overpriced drinks (from a fridge which had caught fire just as we were being served), and then received our pizzas, which we were handsomely overcharged for. We ate our Cuban Hawaiian pizzas (the least offensive of Cuban pizza), on the restaurant’s front steps, not taking any care with the spillage of pineapple coming out of the end of our taco like pizza. We headed back to the casa, passing a Don Bosco community centre (reminded me of the one on Sydney road in Melbourne), which was hosting the local AA meeting. We flirted with the idea of getting a taxi, which ended up being way too complicated. We got back to the casa and we said our goodbyes. I was on limited time as I had to get back into town to grab my bag and head to the airport before the taxis dried up. I walked back to Dias de Octobre (the main rod heading back into town), and jumped on a local bus. I was quite chuffed with this as I hadn’t ridden in the rickety local buses yet and now that I was just about to leave the country, I had got my chance. The 15 year old driver wrestled with a gear stick which was bigger than him and the guy collecting the fare had already organised piles of peso change and slotted them into the gap in the window.
On the way back into town, I got a little disorientated and finally spotted a landmark I knew, the big modern looking performance space on the Malecon. This space reminds me more of the main mall in Brisbane than it does of anywhere else in Cuba. That said, Brisbane’s version doesn’t have a bunch of black flags and a digital ticker spouting out 50 year old pro-revolutionary slogans. I got a couple of photos of the well lit flags and walked along the deserted Malecon, enjoying the storm tide crashing up against the sea walls. Most of the road had been closed to traffic as there were huge waves spilling over onto the road. The sky was clear so there was no risk of rain, but the mist thrown up by the big waves was refreshing enough. I spotted a little club half full with old Cuban guys kicking back listening to a two piece band banging out a few numbers. It reminded of me of what I had liked about Cuba. Through all the overcharging and the rip offs, Cuba is at it’s heart a place of relaxed living with plenty of spare time to spend with your friends and family. It’ll be a rude shock when that whole dream of capitalism comes true. I continued walking down the Malecon until I reached the road that lead to my casa. I had about 30 minutes until my taxi was due to pick me up and I figured I’d like a sit down before doing the airport thing.
I walked past an outdoor bar which was closing up for the night (with about 5 small dogs helping), and over a street where there was some light traffic was going past. As I crossed the road some young guys called out to me “where you from?”. This is usual fare for a Havana city corner, and I replied “Japan”. I then ducked up another street, which was about 2 streets over from where I was staying. There were some people about and on the corner, a bar had been taken over by a rather exuberant looking game of dominos. I then caught sight of some cock and balls graffiti, something friends back at home were making a collection of. I stopped, turned around and walked a little way back, with two guys walking past me. As I adjusted my pack to get my camera out, I glanced at the corner I had just passed by and there was a small crowd of about 15 – 20 people there, looking in my direction. This I thought was a little odd. Then I turned to see that the two guys who had just passed me had also stopped, one about two metres from me, the other about three. They were looking at one another, so I figured they didn’t want anything to do with me, but their proximity did make me feel uneasy. Then one of them said to the other “¿aqui?” (here?), and before I knew it the guy closest to me was behind me with his arm around me neck while the other guy was busying himself with grabbing my camera. It took a little while for my brain to work out what was going on, but before I could yell or defend myself, the guy in front had got a hold of my camera and was legging it towards the Malecon, through the small crowd looking on in wonder. The guy who had a hold of me then tried to relieve me of my backpack. My brain clicked into gear and I finally worked out what was going on, and used my backpack to pull the guy from behind me to my front, where I began wrestling for control of my bag. One of the straps was still slung over my arm, so I had a good grip on it, but he kept tugging at it with all his weight. The straps gut into my hand, but I was able to pull the bag closer to me and get a better grip on it. This brought him closer and we both ended up on the ground fighting for the bag. He initially fell on me and I yelled in his ear and kicked backwards into what I think was his crotch. Then I just held my bag safe, yelling directly into his ear as loud as I could. After a bit of this, he got up to sprint off, and I tried to grab his leg but he was too quick.
Everything went quite.
Covered in mud from rolling around on the ground, I stood up and looked around for any sign of the perps. Nothing. The small crowd which had formed at the nearby corner had begun to disperse and the surrounds were returning to the usual lethargic weight found on Cuban streets. I shouted “I can’t believe this country. You all just stood there and did nothing. Fuck you all.” I was so angry with Cuba, with it’s people, with me being a tourist, with the dumb fuck running off with a camera he’d struggle to find a charger for. I walked into the dominos place, where the game had resumed, as if oblivious to the commotion outside. All I got was a couple of blank stares. I walked out into the street again, up to where it had all happened. This place was well lit, there were people about. I kept thinking to myself, “these aren’t the conditions for a mugging”. I walked up to a couple who were entering their house. I asked them to use their telephone. The guys said to me in English, “Just go home. Just go home”. I said, “I can’t”. I asked him if he saw what happened. He said “so so”. I asked if he knew who did it. He said, “maybe”. I said, “look, they can keep the camera, all I want is the lens and the card.” He gave this some thought. It looked as if he would be able to do this for me. As he was about to tell me what he could work out for me, two police cars showed up at the opposite corner to where the crowd had been. He said no. I walked up to the police, and used what Spanish I knew to get help. I pointed at the guy and his girlfriend walking away, gesturing to the police to indicate that the couple had seen it happen. I pointed to the guy walking away and said to the police “Hombre Amigo Ladron” or quite simply “that guy’s mate is the thief”. While I was led into the police car, I caught sight of the couple who saw it all get put into another car. We drove past people standing on the streets, the car would slow and the cop sitting in the front seat would turned and point at his eyes, indicating that I should carefully look these people standing in the shadows up and down. We stopped once, but the Cuban guys standing on the corner looked like any Cuban guys standing on any corner. I was in a bit of a daze and the immediate events became a little vague.
The back seat of the police car was a single piece of moulded plastic, which I thought would have been an interesting custom fit for these Ladas. No door handles or armrests though. The seat feels a bit like the chairs you sit on to play video games. I remember a night 5 years ago in Adelaide when Fish gave me a funny coloured pill and I sat down at the table top arcade machine in Mojos for an hour playing Donkey Kong, fascinated more with the lights than with the game play. I did quite well from what I can remember. A great night with a small group of close friends and a spa to help ring in the new day.
I tried to sneak a peak at my laptop, which I was sure had been smashed in the struggle, but was unable to get a good look at it. At least I still had it, smashed or not. We got to the station and the car I was in pulled up next to the car the couple had ridden in. The guy’s door was open and he was sitting inside waiting for the police to tell him what to do. I knelt down and said to him “look, I know you have to live in that neighbourhood, but you know those guys. All I want is the card and lens back. The camera is theirs. If we do this, then I can explain to the police now that you had nothing to do with it.” He said, “we’ll see” and left it at that.
As I went in to the station, I noticed my hand was bleeding around the same time I started to feel my left knee. One of the police officers pointed out that I was bleeding from the head, but was unable to direct me to a mirror or first aid kit for me to fix it. I headed to the toilet to check on my computer. Something I rarely carried with me, my computer has every photo from my trip in Cuba, apart from the ones I had taken that day. I fired it up and everything worked fine. My ID and tickets were still ok, but I had missed my taxi to the airport.
I was put into an interview room and asked to wait. My knee was hurting and my hand was bleeding a bit. The room was lit by a single fluro globe, hanging precariously from the roof by a couple of wires. The light switch consisted of a hole in the wall with two wires with hooks in the end, looped together. I played with this for a while, turning the light on and off. I got the attention of an officer and asked him in Spanish if there was a first aid kit I could use. He said they didn’t have one in the station.
Eventually they let me walk around the station. I found the couple sitting in the reception area, waiting for the police. I sat down next to the guy and began chatting.
Me: I understand your position. You know who did it but because you live in that neighbourhood, you don’t want to point the finger.. am I right?
Guy: Maybe. Do you do sport?
Me: What do you mean? I ride bikes.
Guy: No. like fighting, boxing. To defend yourself.
Me: No. Do you?
Me: Then why didn’t you help me?
Guy: You’re a tourist.
Me: Forget that. For a minute, forget you are Cuban and that I’m Australian.
Me: Forget it. You not Cuban, me not Australian. We are both Human. Comprende? Why didn’t you help?
This worked. Years of Catholic guilt training and I managed to get this guy where it mattered. A look of total self disgust crossed his face.
Guy: I’m sorry.
Me: Yeah. Thanks. Whatever.
The interview with the police lasted for about 40 minutes, and involved me writing the police report and royally screwing the guy who maybe didn't see anything. I kept saying: "Hombre amigos ladron", referring to the guy who had witnessed it. Fuck him. He could spend the rest of the night with the police explaining the actions of his maybe friends. When I got up to leave, the cops asked “Amigo Joshua?” I had no idea what they were on about. And they repeated their question “Amigo Joshua? Australiano” I realised they were referring to Josh, the Australian guy I had travelled with for a few days with in Eastern Cuba. “err.. Amigo Vamos Mexcio –complex hand gesture to indicate last week-”
Then they started listing off the other people I had travelled with.
“Pawel - Polanco? Collin - Canadian? You gay? Maria – Austrian. Sylbia – Swiss? Eh? You errr –complex hand gesture to indicate fornication- with Chikas?”
As they led me out, we past a guy who looked pretty fucked up. Blood running down his face and his clothes torn up, he was in a pretty bad way. I felt better about my situation because at least I wasn’t that bad. The cops pointed at him, laughed and said “he’s a gay”, as if that explained away the fact he had been savagely bashed. I managed to get a ride back to my casa with the cops and they dropped me at the door. I woke up the owner, explained in broken Spanish and charades what had happened that night and why I was so late in picking up my bags. She gave me a big hug and it was the best thing she could have done. I felt like crying. I was hurt, tired and totally over Cuba. I left my bags in the casa and went out to see about getting a taxi. It was 2:30am and I didn’t like my chances, however as if by magic a nice Peugeot taxi drove by just as I exited the building. I flagged him down, collected my bags and got in. As we drove around a few corners, the headlights fell on to a Cuban man and a woman having a struggle. The guy was pulling at her bag (or maybe her arm), and she was screaming, trying to get away. I asked the driver to stop so we could help her, but he just said “no” and kept driving.
Talk about losing faith with humanity.
I’ll write about the next 24 hours later, but they occurred with no sleep in between.
My final day in Cuba really sapped my energy and confidence for solo travel. In the last couple of days I’ve really started missing home, friends and family. Clair from Ireland sent me a Ben Fold’s video featuring Adelaide and news of Jo and Craig’s good news has lifted my spirits. Pictures of Pippa getting back into A-town has made me appreciate the good stuff we had together, and I wish her the best, regardless of the mess we made for each other last year. Violeta, the Couchsurfer I’m staying with has been awesome, so have her mates. Sara, Josh and Gus (the other travellers I’ve been hanging out with for the last week), have also been great to hang with.
I did like Cuba, and thankfully I’ve still got my laptop with the photos of the good stuff I saw to remind me that it wasn’t all shit. I hope you're liking them.
Mexico City is tops. I’m loving it. Food, culture, history, people, art – all good. While capitalism isn't the answer, Fidel's "untopia" certainly isn't. Mexico is a stark contrast to Cuba with elements of China’s ultra form of capitalism mixing it up with Latin American and Euro influnces, popping up on every Mexican city corner. Pity I don’t have my camera to capture it. Well, not until I visit Andy and Laurie in California next week where my replacement cam will be waiting for me.