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Thursday, January 22, 2015

In Cuba and Back in Time

It's late Friday night and I'm about to spend two hours trying to get through Cuban immigration.  There are 30 counters all with officials working but there are literally 400 people waiting in various lines.  Apparently 7pm is when all the European flights get in as well.  I pick one that looks shorter but after waiting 20 minutes and literally not moving, I pick another.  And then another.  This last one turned out to be the winner, but when each person takes two to five minutes at the counter I did the math and settled in to wait.  I chatted with the two men behind me in line who were on my flight from Mexico City.  One is an attorney for casinos and the other is in marketing.  They are here for a bachelor party, only the bachelor missed his flight.  Mexicans come to Havana to party.  It is to them, what Cancun is to Americans, but without Americans.  The attorney's son was born in Dallas and he speaks about his many ski trips to the U.S., including several weeks he spent in Telluride.  We then talk football; the American kind.  He's a huge Raiders fan.  I apologize.

I finally get to the front of the line and it's my turn to play 20 questions with the officer.  Where are you from?  What is your flight number?  Have you recently been to Africa?  I....wait, what?  Africa?  Have any of your family members recently been to Africa?  Cuba takes the Ebola threat quite seriously.  Do you have health insurance?  Show me.  She finishes and unlocks the gate to let me pass.  I go though X-ray and then on to baggage claim.  Since it's been two hours, our luggage has already been offloaded.  I find my suitcase.  It's missing the brand new REI luggage tag I just bought.  Maybe it got ripped off.  Where are the bicycles?  I ask some official looking person in Spanish.  He rattles something off that I don't understand.  I ask him to speak slower.  They are in the corner.  I find my bike box and it, too, is missing it's luggage tag.  They were ripped off all right.

Exiting baggage claim and into the terminal, I'm met by hundreds of people all waiting for someone or something to go through those doors.  They all stare at me.  After all, I have a massive box on wheels.  I push it around the terminal looking for cambio, change, where I can get some CUCs, convertible Cuban pesos.  Cuba has two currencies:  the CUC which is used by foreigners and tourists, and the Cuban peso which is not.  In reality however, it seems like everyone uses the CUC.  The CUC is pegged at 1:1 to the American dollar, but there is a 10% penalty for converting dollars to CUCs so I brought Canadian dollars, which have no such penalty.  I was told that it wasn't all that long ago that locals would be arrested and thrown in jail if they were caught with American dollars.  Wow.

After wandering around for a few minutes, a cabbie walks up to me and asks if I need a taxi.  I say, si, pero tango no Pesos.  Yes, but I have no Pesos.  He shows me to the second floor where I make change.  I ask about Cubacel, the national cellular carrier.  He says they are closed.  There will be no phone calls tonight.

We go outside to his cab and along with only one working headlight, his cab held together by will alone.  We barrel along on pitch black streets at speeds your mother told you never to drive, barely missing cyclists who wear no lights or helmets.  Everything is old.  Everything is run down.  Think of it as buying a brand new house and car in the 1950s and then just letting them sit.

I get to my hotel and check in.  They have no WiFi.  It dawns on me that I cannot contact my wife at all and tell her I made it and I'm ok.  I get to my room on the 12th floor and my first thought was "Oh.  Hell no."  All the reviews I'd read online and ignored were right.  It was a two star hotel.  I changed into some warm weather clothes and took a taxi to the National Hotel which I knew had WiFi because some of the other athletes had posted.  Not only were they fully booked, the business center which sells the WiFi cards was closed.  I tried to make change at the change counter but was told it was for guests only.  I took a cab back to my hotel and nearly lost it and broke down.

Completely disconnected.  Alone.  Exhausted.  A stranger in a strange land.


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