The worn door, its discoloured frame, a quick thud and a metallic click leaves the smiling older woman on the other side; the warm morning, azure skies, cranky, rumbling automobiles, and a loud Spanish street conversation on yours. Your mind races: coffee, cash, cigars and a car.
The heat pretty quickly etches a glaze on your face, the increasing speed of which seems proportional to your accelerating pace. Your burgeoning bag tugs your shoulder as you pass faded pastel façades, soda shacks and rows of classic American cars. Past the split lane road ferrying an endless supply of visiting baby boomers in old convertibles, you slice your way through the shadows of the palm trees, swaying slightly in the weak coastal wind.
The slip of paper with some barely legible scrawl on it is your reference point, not overly helpful in and of itself. You race on foot down one street devoid of cars and take a turn down another; abandoned buildings, construction and brick-laid surfaces blur. A coffee shop should appear at any one of these turns, but no such luck; it often seems expectations are better not expected.
You stop abruptly, finding a wrinkled old man—his skin painted darkly, seemingly permanently, by decades under the direction of the Caribbean climes—with a cane, relaxing in a swath of temporary shade, observing fools like yourself running around under the solar beams. You offer some battered Spanish to him in exchange for a bewildered, somewhat quizzical, look. He opens the paper and starts rambling Spanish, pointing in a direction.
Back the way you came for a couple blocks, turning right and following that several blocks more. An expansive open area springs forth out from the buildings. Tucked in the corner sits what must be the café, teeming with foreigners, thus sipping what must be, in local terms, overpriced coffee outside.
You find that it is quite the traveling norm that when you ask a local for a suggestion, they often give you the place they think you want, not the place they would go. The smiling old lady on the other side of the door that you left this morning certainly does not come here.
You step inside to the dark café, forcing your eyes to reacquaint themselves. Rich in wood and the sounds of coffee: metal spoons clink against glasses, hot milk spews into mugs and the noise with nearly silences all others, the grinder. Somehow it doesn’t matter that this place is devoid of locals, displaced by free–wheeling travelers and greenhorn tourists; it feels like yesteryear; it feels like Cuba.
The coffee grinder is whirring, crushing the fresh roasted beans, the scent of which hangs thick and delicately in the air. You swivel your head around realizing you happen to be third in line. He asks you, in between tending to various duties, what you want. You order a quarter kilo of whole bean and another package ground. You realize after ten minutes or so, that you are still third in line. The first customer merely wants a small bag of ground coffee, and the coffee grinder, like one of those songs that wasn’t ever meant to play on the radio, is still singing its monotonous and never-ending tone.
You decide to wait a little more. “Relax,” you tell yourself, “you are on Cuban time.” The other voice notes that you are also on another time which is the one the airlines use. You check the time again, having pretended to be on Cuban time for a bit longer, and look up at the man grinding the coffee. He is in no rush. Obviously the machine was never meant to be in a rush. The person first in line is in no rush. You spin around looking at the various people enjoying their morning coffees; they clearly are in no rush. Only you are in a rush and no one knows, notices or cares…except for you of course.
The machine, it never ends, it keeps on going. Did he pour a full burlap sack of coffee in that thing? No, just 500 grams or so. You realize it would probably be ground quicker by hand. You are still third in line. There is actually a beautifulness which you can’t help but admire in the slow pace of this classic machine. Then you look at the clock again.
“No ground coffee, all full beans,” you interject while the machine hums and the man whistles while scanning the ceiling, waiting for sweet moments from his imagination to appear.
You have now become, quite magically, first in line, and paying for your several bags of whole bean coffee. You prefer it as whole bean anyways, and the recipients of such will have to make do. With those bags of coffee in tow, you thank the man, ask him where the money exchange office is and push yourself back into the fiery air. Your time is running short.
You need to purchase cigars for friends from the cigar factory. Of course, you need cash to do so because your credit cards do not work in this country. There is a money exchange close to the coffee roaster but that one is closed you are told, so off you go, back into the center of town to get the last one in the area which is open.
Sweat is dripping without qualm from your forehead; your shirt is soaked. You look at the time as you step up to the exchange line. You have some time to spare before it closes. Pretty shortly, the line has dwindled away leaving you next to go into the office, awaiting direction by a security official. The customer at the counter leaves, you start to step forward. Some Spanish and a hand and a shake of the head.
For some reason, never to be understood, the exchange office is now closed. It has nothing to do with the hours posted; it is just closed, leaving you standing out without enough cash to get cigars that everyone would like to try. The time is ticking. You start to head towards the cigar factory, calculating how much a taxi ride to the airport will be, how much you have left and what you can buy. This is most unfortunate.
The Cubans are a very enterprising bunch, and of course there is a twenty-something year old observing this whole series of events. He steps forward and in a hush voice asks how much you want to exchange. Is this a con job? Is it legal? You waive him off and start walking. He walks after you. He is determined but not overly aggressive. This works to his favour.
You tell him what you can exchange and he offers a price in Cuban pesos. You tell him its no good, you don’t need the money; you clearly do. You start walking, piling up all the thoughts in your head. What is the worst that happens you think? There is no other way to get money. You are all the way down in Cuba and when will you have the opportunity again? Maybe it’s worth taking a gamble, sometimes you just have to say yes.
If he gives you counterfeit money, you are out some cash. If you don’t do the transaction, you are out the experience of trying. Why not try? But you are walking away from him saying his offer is no good. Is his offer no good? Who knows – you don’t have time to figure that out.
He races back after you with a counteroffer. By this point, you have decided to do the transaction. It’s the only game in town and you have negotiated through your indecisiveness. You ask to see the bills first, as if you know what you are looking at. He produces them and waits patiently. You like the feel of this, he isn’t being the least bit sketchy; it all seems legit. The transaction goes down, you thank him and you are off. Time is ticking.
Into the cigar factory you go, welcoming the cool temperature and the absence of artificial light. You’d done your reconnaissance the day before and wait for the people in front of you. They are learning they can’t use a credit card. You meanwhile are putting together your order; you must leave enough money for a taxi ride to the airport.
With a package of cigars in hand, a wet shirt, some wet jeans, a shoulder bag getting heavier each stop and a clock ticking down, you race back outside towards a line-up of classic cars. You have been told what they charge for a ride to the airport and that is all you have left.
You inquire, and the rate is double. “For that much, not these,” he says. “These cars are special.” The translation really is, you’ve hit the tourist trap on the head in this location and you should have known better. Fair enough, you don’t have time to fool around finding a polished classic convertible and so off to a rusty green 1951 Dodge you go, jumping in the steel can and pulling the thick door shut with a thunderous and chunky thud. This is a much better choice, the interior straight out of 1951, replete with an old, rickety fan blowing from the dashboard. At the stoplights, the car shudders violently. This, you find, is quite the nice touch.
You will just make it to the airport in time, and you will end with just a few Cuban pesos (CUCs) left. You check the map, and see you are making steady progress until the event.
The event is the point in time when the shuddering gets more angry and when the car becomes petulant. The driver orders the car to move, but the car is lacking in effort. It is almost giving up. He tries shutting the car off and turning it on while moving; a jumpstart of sorts. The car has lost its responsiveness. He doesn’t seem too concerned.
With the momentum you have going, he rolls into a dusty, overgrown weed covered lot. “Problema.”
In the middle of nowhere sitting in a green 1951 Dodge. Your flight is taking off shortly, although you did get the coffee beans and cigars. You have less than $5USD to your person and enough Spanish to perhaps find a restroom or a supermarket.
Another car pulls in. You have no idea what kind of car this one is, but it is just as old if not older. If they made a minivan back in those days, this is what it would look like: a long, extended van of sorts with chopped headroom. They exchange some commentary.
He tells you to give him 70% of the fare and give this new driver the remaining 30% of the fare and he wishes you well. You open the heavy door, thank him for this much of the ride and jump into your connection. It was almost as if it was planned, but you also realize cars breaking down must happen quite often. If there is money to be made, an industrious Cuban will be there in no time.
Maybe ten minutes later, the airport comes into view as you rumble down, what can be most easily described as a highway. The signs say to take the exit for the airport, and he blows on by it. Where are you going? Surely he knows you are going to the airport, right?
Then he hooks a U-Turn up the on-ramp, against traffic. At the end of the ramp, he turns this way and that, and ignored the signs for the departures driving you instead into a hidden lot off to the left of the airport. He stops the car and nods. This is your destination.
It is then that you realize he has bypassed any tolls or other mechanisms by going up the on-ramp and diverting away from the normal taxi path. You thank him for the ride and get back out into the heat for your final walk towards the terminal building. It feels much better to be dropped off here.
The upstairs of the airport is pretty jammed. You head down a staircase and find an empty waiting room with a small fast food restaurant of sorts. You amble up to the counter and get the attention of the lone woman setting up for the day ahead. You ask, in your best Spanish, what she has and how much it is. You only have enough for a ham and cheese sandwich.
“Do you want a drink?” she asks.
“I don’t have enough money,” you say. “This is all I have,” putting the loose change on the table.
Your Cuban sandwich comes out from the panini press. It is one of those special moments, sitting in the basement of the airport speaking broken Spanish enjoying a sandwich, rudimentary as it may be.
And then a soda slides in front of you. You look up, as you clearly do not have money for this. She winks at you and smiles.
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