Wednesday, June 6, 2018
Cuban Get Out Games
I have been meaning to write this story down so I don't forget it. I have had some adventures on my travels over the years... but this one may take the prize. It was a whole roller coaster of emotions.
Where do I begin?...
Well, my friend John contacted me about Iceland because he knew I had gone and wanted some advice because he was thinking about going. I asked him if he was going with anyone and he said he didn't have any plans as of yet... so I said I would go with him. I was looking for a spring trip to go on since I already had my fall trip planned. The more we talked about it, the more it didn't seem like Iceland was going to work out, but we still both wanted to go somewhere. I suggested Cuba. Why? Because I had been wanting to go since it opened up to us a couple of years ago. The appeal? I don't know... we weren't always allowed to go there and now we are and I don't know how long it will stay that way. So why not go experience it while I can? Good enough reason for me. John is an easy going dude. Although he had never traveled outside of the country before, he was up for the adventure and we bought tickets to Cuba. He lives in Missouri and I am in Utah, so we met in the Miami airport and we flew over the Havana together.
Before I get into the story, I would like to note that we had no plans for when we got there. Nothing booked. We were just going to wing it. Typically, I am fine with this, but I had done a little research on Cuba before we went and I was made aware how difficult it was to get more money when you run out, so I suggested to John that we try booking things before we went. He said we would be fine winging it and I said ok... we will see what happens. I am sure it will be fine.
So John and I show up in Havana. We only had 4 days in Cuba and wanted to make the most out of it and we both agreed that we wanted to see more of Cuba than just Havana. We both scuba dive and wanted to go scuba diving in Cayo Coco. We had seen pictures of Cayo Coco on Pinterest and it looked pretty so we said... lets go there. ha ha. We knew nothing beyond that in all seriousness. We had mapped out that Cayo Coco was 6 hours away from Havana and then this National Park we wanted to go to was a 4 hours from Cayo Coco and then it would be 3 or so hours back to Havana from there. We wanted to rent a car so we could easily hit up all of these places on our own time, but when we tried renting a car... nobody would rent us one. I can't tell you why nobody would rent us a car, but we went to SEVERAL car rental places and not one would rent us a car. It became quite frustrating. Now what? That was our plan. The taxi driver that picked us up from the airport and was taking us to different car rental places was also frustrated. He was getting upset. We finally gave up and just told him to drop us off and we would wander around Havana and figure out what to do. He ended up giving us his card and asked us where we wanted to go and we told him that we wanted to go to Cayo Coco and he told us that he was take us if we wanted to off the books (not charge the taxi prices) and said he would take us for $50. I would like to add that my Spanish is pretty minimal but John's Spanish is awesome...fluent in fact. He served a Spanish speaking mission, so I trusted him to do all of the communicating for us. However when he told me that he was only going to charge us $50 to drive us 6 hours... I had a hard time believing that and I told him to triple check that is what he actually said. He did and that IS what he said. I was still skeptical because it has to cost more in gas just to get there. John told me we wouldn't find a better deal and that we should just do it. So I gave in. Probably because I was too tired to argue. I had taken a red eye flight the night before and had not slept at all and John slept at the airport waiting for me to get there... so we both were probably not using our best judgement. We both agreed to this arrangement and he came back for us a couple of hours later.
So here we are on a 6 hour road trip across Cuba with our taxi driver that picked us up from the airport. John and I are happy because we are in an air conditioned car (it was SO hot there & humid) and our driver had put on some American classic tunes for us to jam out to and we had found a way to get to Cayo Coco and we were on our way. Things were good. It was probably about half way through the drive that I started getting a really bad feeling about our driver. John didn't tell me this until later (when I told him I had a bad feeling about him) that any time he talked to another local, he would motion to us in the back and said I have American's in the back and would rub his hands together and snicker like he had something planned. I began to notice his short fuse more and more as the drive went on. He was always yelling at other drivers... I kept thinking, he is going to drive us out to the middle of nowhere and murder us and leave us there. I honestly was having these thoughts even though I was 90% sure he wasn't going to hurt us. He stopped for gas and brought us back drinks. Putting on a happy face and acting kind. We said thank you, but I started getting more suspicious. I knew we were going to get scammed from him, I just didn't know how he was going to do it. We later stopped for dinner. John and I thought it was kind of expensive and thought he will expect us to pay for him as well... this is where he will get us. However, we finished dinner and went to pay and he had already paid for us. At this point John and I looked at each other and knew it wasn't good. It was already SO cheap for this drive... there is no way he is doing all of these nice gestures and accept only $50 from us. As we got closer to Cayo Coco (which ended up being a 7 hour drive instead of a 6 hour drive because our driver didn't know how to get there and stopped SEVERAL times to ask directions and blow up and get mad every time he did) we were trying to figure out how much we were going to pay him....
When we get to Cayo Coco we realize that it is a tourist beach town and there were no cheap places to stay. Only fancy resorts. He dropped us off at one of them that was $150 a night. John and I definitely didn't bring enough money to be staying at those kinds of places.We were SO tired though. We both hadn't slept the night before... were going all day and it was already midnight. We didn't want to have to figure out another place to stay in the dark. We just wanted to go to sleep. So we agreed to stay there. I went to hand the driver our money on our way out of the taxi and he told us to wait until we were at the front desk. I thought that was strange... but thought... ok. So we get up to the front desk and look into rooms. We give the driver $75 and he picks it up and counts it and then throws it back and down walks away upset mumbling in Spanish what a rip off that was. The lady at the front desk was trying to figure out what happened. Why he was causing a scene. He tells her that he didn't tell us $50 for the drive here, he told her that he charged us $500!
Another side note in this story. Let's talk about money. There are 2 different currencies in Cuba. One is what the locals use, The Cuban Peso. The other currency is the CUC which was made up for tourists and is equal to the US dollar. After exchanging my money with the terrible exchange rate at the airport... I had about $375 I think. John had $300 maybe. On top of that, Cuba has not always been open to American tourists. Therefore our bank isn't compatible with theirs. We can't use our credit cards there and we can't go to an ATM and get more money... so when you run out, you are out of money. We obviously wouldn't have agreed to paying $500. That was more than our plane ticket to get to Cuba! John questioned his Spanish and that he heard correctly and asked the lady at the desk how to say $500 in Spanish. She told him and he turned to me and said that is not what he said, he said $50. I told him I believed him and that he obviously planned this scam from the beginning including throwing a fit with an audience. The lady looked at us and said only charging $50 would be stupid because it costs more than that in gas just to get here. But I think she also realized that $500 was also a lot to ask for. John and I just stared at each other with a look of panic of what we were going to do. Part of me was mad at myself for agreeing to this because I knew from the start that it wasn't right. John walked over to talk to our driver and ended up giving him $350. This is still an amount that we would have never agreed to, but it was enough to make him happy and leave. John didn't tell me how much he had given him until he was gone. It was still A LOT of money. Especially because we didn't bring that much to begin with and it was only the first day of our trip. We also could no longer afford to stay at this fancy resort that we were standing at with all of our stuff.
The lady at the font desk realized what happened. That we got scammed and that we were very caught off guard. She looked a little bit annoyed, but when she realized we were American's and could't use our credit card to book a room or go to an ATM to get more money... she told us that the cheapest place in town was a motel down the road. It wasn't very nice, but it was cheap and a roof over our head. It was almost 1 in the morning and I was SO tired and really didn't want to go somewhere else, but we didn't really have a choice. She walked us to the local bus that just the workers use to go from hotel to hotel for work. We get on the bus and go to the motel. She was correct and the motel was not great... but we were both so tired that we didn't really care. Plus, it had AC. We both went to bed and said we would talk about what to do when we woke up the next morning.
We slept for a while... boy did we sleep. We were so tired. We pretty much didn't get up until right before checkout (which was 11am). As we were getting ready and packing up our stuff, we were trying to come up with a plan with what we were going to do next. We were pretty much acting like we had no money because we are just hoping that what we have will get us back to Havana. We can't pay another driver... then we would have nothing left. We weren't sure what to do, but we knew that all of the fun plans we had in Cuba were going out the window and now it was just figuring out how to get back to Havana with no Wifi or internet access and no cell service. Thankfully John and I are both easy going ... go with the flow type of people. Neither one of us were freaking out... in fact, John was making me laugh. We started calling our trip The Cuban Get Out Games. You got into the country... lets see you get out. ha ha. As we were talking about our options ... I suggested that we say a prayer. I'm not one to typically suggest this... probably because I don't feel like I have had an answer to prayer in a long time and maybe I have lost a little bit of faith. But I didn't think it would hurt. I asked John if he would say it. I don't remember everything he said in that prayer, but I remember that he asked that we be guided out of our situation and asked that the people would have compassion on us. I remember thinking it was a great prayer and I felt good about it. John did as well. After I said to John that I hope the prayer worked... not only because we needed help out of our situation we landed ourselves in, but also because I could have a faith building experience because I had been struggling with my spirituality and feeling like my prayers are heard and answered. John just looked at me and with complete confidence said, don't you worry, the prayer will be answered. Watch the hands of god at work. I just looked at him and said.. I hope you are right. Then we walked out of the door with our backpacks and started walking the streets of Cayo Coco.
So my first idea was to walk to the airport. We knew that Cayo Coco had a tiny airport. In fact... the week before our trip, John had sent me an article about a plane that crashed at that airport. We thought... let's walk to the airport and see when flight back to Havana are. Maybe we have enough money for that. We started walking to the airport when we found out which direction it was. We had NO idea how far away the airport was or how long we would be walking... but like I said, we were acting like we had no money... so we didn't eat any food and we weren't paying for any taxi's. I don't remember how long we walked for or how far we actually went. Seemed like forever in the 80+ degree weather and 90+ percent humidity. When we started getting eaten alive by mosquitoes I had to draw the line. Especially know they have the zika virus there. I was swatting away 20 mosquitoes when I finally yelled to John that we were getting a taxi. I don't care. We flagged down a taxi and convinced him to take us to the airport for 5 pesos. So we finally get to the airport. It is looking very empty. We searched for someone that worked there to see if we could get on the next flight to Havana. We finally find someone. We ask to buy a plane ticket to Havana and asked how much they were. They looked at us and said that we couldn't buy plane tickets there. I replied with... why can't I buy a plane ticket at the airport? And why don't you have a schedule of one the next flight is? I was so confused of why an airport wouldn't have this information. They told us that the tour companies had that information and it was all done through them. We asked where we could find them and they said... back at the resort... you know, where we just were. Feeling very defeated, the man we were talking to could tell and went outside to talk to one of the taxi's. The taxi agreed to take us back to the resort for free. Compassion!
So here we are back at the resort. We go up to the front desk and ask where we can find the tour company agent. They looked at us and said... it's Sunday, they don't work on Sunday. We were then told to come back tomorrow to check. John and I looked at each other again. So much effort to end up back where we started. Now what? John suggested that we might as well go to the beach and hang out. At least until we come up with another plan. Feeling very defeated and stuck... I agreed.
We walked down to the beach that was connected to the resort. The beach was filled with umbrellas with lounge chairs under for the guests to relax at the beach. We of course were not paying to stay at this resort, so we didn't have a wrist band. Therefore we couldn't use them. We parked our stuff down the beach closer to the water. I got my towel out of my bag and took a seat. The beach was gorgeous. The water was clear like pool water. Felt nice too. I kind of wanted to get in, but wasn't in my swim suit and didn't want to leave my stuff unattended either... So John and I just tried to sit back and relax. John took out his Spanish Book of Mormon. It was Sunday after all. So he read a few verses for me. Then... it started to rain. Just a little at first, but then we really started getting wet. It was just one thing after another. I moved me and my stuff under one of the umbrellas onto the lounge chair. I didn't care anymore... someone would have to come and kick me out if they wanted me to leave. Thankfully it was not too crowded there and nobody seemed to care. So even when the rain stopped, I didn't move. I closed my eyes and relaxed. It started to get later in the afternoon. We needed a plan for that night. John suggested we sleep at the beach in the lawn chairs. He for some reason had brought a tarp and in case it rained again... I guess that was the plan. At this point... I'm going with whatever. As we were laying there, a man was cleaning up the beach... putting away chairs. I saw him and thought... dang it, we are going to get kicked out. As he approached us he went up to John and gave him a handful of shells he had collected on the beach to give to me because he thought that I was pretty. So sweet of him. He and John made some small talk (in Spanish) and then he moved on. John then got up to use the receptionist's phone to call the airport to see if they happen to get the schedule for flights back to Havana. While he was gone, the nice man that gave me the shells came back to try and talk to me. I don't really know Spanish and he didn't really know English ... so the only thing he ended up saying to me was that he thought my eyes were really pretty. I said thank you and he moved on.
On John's way back to me and our spot, he ran into the sweet man cleaning up the beach. They started talking again. The man asked John how he knows Spanish so well. John told him that he served a 2 year mission for his church and learned on his mission. The man was blown away that someone as young as John would dedicate 2 years of his life to his church. This excited him and he wanted to know more. He told John that he had gone to school to be a priest, but then he met his wife and they had kids and so it obviously didn't work out... but that they were very religious. John ended up bringing him back to where we were sitting. He took out his Spanish Book of Mormon and started tell him more about our church and what we believe. After talking to him a little bit about it, he told him that he could have his copy of the Book of Mormon to keep and read. The man thought this was too generous. After John insisted, the man thanked him and held on to his special new book. He wanted to talk more about it... but still had to finish cleaning up the beach and said he would come back to find out if we could get together tomorrow for dinner or something. After he left I asked John about everything they were talking about. "Did you tell him that we don't have a place to sleep?" I said. He didn't. I can of course see why. You don't want to share the gospel with someone in hopes that you are going to get a favor in return, that isn't what it is about. However, I told him when he comes back, if it gets brought up that he should tell him our situation. It can't hurt. Maybe he knows someone that could help us. You never know. He finished up and came back to find us. He asked us to have dinner with his family the next day, he wanted to talk more religion. He asked us when we were leaving... if he could meet us the next morning. We told him that we were trying to leave the next morning. He asked us if we were staying at that hotel. We said no... we didn't have a place to stay and we were thinking of just sleeping at the beach that night. His eyes got wide and said we couldn't sleep on the beach. Not that we were not allowed to, but he told us it rains so hard every night and then the mosquitoes come out in full force. He told us we would get SO sick and he just couldn't allow that. He told us we could stay with him that night. We asked him if he was sure, he said yes... so we went with him.
So the sweet man takes my backpack to carry himself and we walk with him after he is done working to catch a bus to the city he lives in... Moron. We got a late start and I am a slow walker apparently ... so we missed the bus. Yet another failed attempt for the day. When he realized that we missed the bus, he started to flag down taxi drivers. Some of them wouldn't stop. One stopped but wouldn't really listen to what he had to stay. Then the next one stopped and listened to him. He overheard him telling the taxi driver that he was going to take us home to stay with him because we didn't have anywhere to go and that we were missionaries with the church. John and I looked at each other... sure, we can be considered missionaries. We prayed for help... we gave him a book of Mormon. Why not? So we went with it. Anyway... this taxi driver worked with tourists a lot and knew English very well (which was refreshing for me) he told us that he would drive us to try and catch the bus... but even though the man was trying to be nice to offer us a place to stay... that we couldn't stay with him. He told us that if we got caught and anyone found out that we were there, he could get in big trouble with the government and get kicked out of his house. We had NO idea that was a possibility. Guess we forgot we were in a communist country where the government controls everything... even who comes to your home. When we found this out we told the nice man we DID NOT want to get him in trouble and that we would find another way. The taxi driver spoke up and told us that if we were trying to get back to Havana... if we could get to the city right next to Moron, then there was a bus leaving at 12:30am to Havana for $30 each! We could definitely afford that! So we told the man helping us that we were just going to do that but thank you for offering. He insisted that he at least have us come to his home to feed us dinner. We told him again that we didn't want to get him in trouble. He looked at us with complete sincerity and said I would rather be right with God, come to my house and let me feed you. (this of course is all being translated to me by John. We were so humbled by this sweet man that was willing to risk a lot just to serve us a meal. How could we refuse. We told him we would go with him.
We ended up catching a taxi to his city, Moron, because now we knew we could get back to Havana for $30 each... we knew we could spend a little bit of money. We hadn't eaten all day or even bought any water to drive all day because we weren't sure we had money to spend. So the offer for dinner was such a huge blessing. Now that we had an affordable plan of how to get back to Havana, John and I were a lot more relaxed and super excited for the adventure that we were on. We had a beautiful sunset we watched from the car and had some fun music that we were singing a long to in the back. Life was good.
It was dark by the time we got to Moron. The taxi parked on the man's street and as we got out of the car... I am not sure what I was expecting his city to look like... but it wasn't what I saw. His city was flooded. Everyone walking through puddles on the streets. These weren't homes... just brick buildings where every family just get's a room. The man told us that his wife was expecting us and that they had kicked out their kids to their grandparents so that we could come over. As we walked to his home... told us to be very quiet so that nobody would catch us there. We walked in his home and met his wife (who also didn't know any English) and their dog. Their home was a brick room. Shelves with all of their stuff was on one side, a long table with a sink and small fridge on another wall, a full bed against the other wall (which took up most of the room) and on the remaining wall was the door, a small card table with 2 chairs and a bathroom with no door. I was just trying to process living like this while I tried to act like it was completely normal. I had not been sitting for very long when he handed me a towel and a bar of soap and said his wife had filled the bucket in the shower with warm water so that we could wash up. I wanted to just say no... but I felt bad saying no to him... so I took the towel and a change of clothes and went into the bathroom with no door and got behind the shower curtain to take off my clothes and "shower". I say "shower" because there was no shower head in the shower... just a cup to scoop up warm water from the bucket to poor over myself. The water was actually quiet refreshing and it did feel really nice to freshen up a little bit since it is so hot and you get so sweaty. I washed up and put on a new change of clothes and came back out and it was John's turn to go. When I came out the man tried giving me deodorant ... I told him I had my own... and he also got out his wife's nice perfume and insisted that he put some on me. His wife just sat back and smiled. They just wanted to give us the best of what they had which was not very much. While John got washed up they pulled out pictures to show me of them when they first got married and of their kids and pulled out their phones to show me video's and pictures from people from their church. It was very sweet. I also showed them pictures of my family. By the time John was done, dinner was ready and they had us sit at the table while they served us rice and meat and some veggies and potatoes and juice. We were so hungry. Everything tasted so good. We told them how delicious it was and how thankful we were for them. They refused to eat with us and made sure we ate seconds. While they sat and watched and said they would eat later (which I hope they did, but I have no idea). It started to get a little late, so we finished up and the man grabbed my backpack once again and we said goodbye to his sweet wife and we left his home.
He let John borrow some sandals to walk through the flooded town. John almost lost one of the sandals in a stream flowing down the street! He guided us through the town and told us he wouldn't leave our side until he knew we were completely taken care of. We got to the outskirts of the town. We waited for a taxi in the dark. We stood and talked for a while, but eventually we got a taxi to take us to the next city over to catch the bus back to Havana. Before we got in the taxi, the man hugged me and kissed me on the check a couple of times, then gave John a big hug goodbye and right before he shut the door, he told us that he would love us forever. He had given us his information in case we were ever back. John and I were still reregistering what happened. We were so touched... John even got tears in his eyes.
We were dropped off at the bus station. There was not a tourist in sight. We were definitely getting the real cultural experience on this trip. We were trying to figure out where to buy the bus tickets when all of the sudden these local guys came up to us and asked us if we were wanting to go to Havana. We said yes and they told us they were going and would take us for $20 each. That was even cheaper than the bus and they were leaving right away. John and I looked at each other and said sure, why not. Not a bad thing to save another $10! So we hopped in an old car with a bunch of locals and headed on the 6 hour road trip back to Havana in the middle of the night. Crowded in the back seat with another local... music blasting. It was one of the most uncomfortable road trips I had ever taken... with lots of smoking breaks a long the way. When we finally got to Havana, we were so relieved. We had made it. The guy that drove us to Havana dropped the others off in a part of town that we didn't want to be in. He asked us where we wanted to be because he assumed it wasn't there. We told him we wanted to stay in a Casa Particular close to downtown. So he drove us to a place he knew. We paid for the next 2 nights at this Casa Particular. It was 6am when we got there and we were SO tired. So we were taken to our room. We counted what money we had left, put the money we needed for the taxi back to the airport and we had just enough for some meals and taxi rides around town in our last couple of days. We had JUST enough money for the rest of our time in Cuba. John looked at me and said "If that isn't an answer to prayer, I don't know what is". He was right. Then we crashed... for hours.
This entire trip, this experience... it wasn't the one we planned (obviously) or necessarily wanted, but it was what we got. John and I talked about everything that happened. Neither one of us was mad at what happened. Sure, it wasn't ideal... but it was an adventure! Not only that, but it was a true cultural experience. I had read online that staying at a Casa Particular was getting the real cultural experience. After what we experienced... we KNOW that is not how most of the people in Cuba live. It is how the rich people live and what the government wants you to think. The Casa Particular was nicer than the motel we stayed at in Cayo Coco. It was still a nice experience to stay there that we don't regret, we just know how most of the people live... and they live like our sweet humble friend that we met on the beach that was willing to give total strangers everything that he had. John and I loved our trip not only because of the adventure and because of the cultural experience, but because it was humbling, it was faith building, it was a missionary opportunity, it was an experience we will never forget. Was it all just an answer to prayer? Did it all happen because John brought a Book of Mormon into a country with no missionaries and the Lord made sure the Book of Mormon went to the right person? Or was it just a series of events? You can decide. I just had to write it all down... every detail... so that I would never forget this incredible experience.