How did this happen? How did I end up sitting in front of this Communist official, completely dependent on him – or someone – helping me get back to Varadero?
It’s 1991, in a town several hours from Varadero. I’m sitting on a wood chair in front of a Poder Popular official. I watch him open his desk drawers one after another, riffle through papers and pull out all manner of miscellany. Except for the gas ration coupons I need.
I don’t yet know what “Poder Popular” means. “Popular Power”. Power to do what?
The huge poster of Che Guevara dominates everything in the small, stuffy office.
I’m getting more spooked by the second.
Empty Highways, Almost Empty Gas Tank
I’m hot and thirsty. I’m getting hungry. A weird nervous flutter is going on in my stomach. The fields of sugar cane edging the highway occasionally give way to rows of tobacco plants. There’s not much else to see.
I’ve been driving for hours in a non-air-conditioned Russian-built rental car on what is supposed to be a main highway. I’ve manoeuvred around countless potholes, skirted around horse-drawn buggies, inched behind one farmer determined to keep his tractor in the middle of the road, passed several people on beaten-up bicycles and throughout the trip managed a blistering speed of about 65 kilometres (40 miles) an hour.
There are no restaurants. No tourist information centres. The needle on the gas gauge dips well below the halfway point.
There are no gas stations.
It’s January, 1991. I’m somewhere in Cuba, not exactly sure where I’m going.
And without enough gas to get me back to Varadero.
How It All Began
It started off as a good deed.
“Of course you can come meet my family. No problem at all.”
“And you won’t get in trouble? You’re sure? A tourist can visit you and it’ll be okay?” I had already asked him a few times, but I really need to be certain.
I’m talking to Pablo, a retired Cuban, in Montreal to visit his son who had left Cuba during the 1980s.
Pablo’s wife and younger son had not been allowed to leave the country with him, and that had me just a teensy, weensy bit preoccupied.
I’m a tad paranoid about Cuba. I didn’t think a foreigner could just casually drop in on local families living in out-of-the-way places without raising all kinds of red flags.
But Pablo insisted it was fine.
”In certain areas, yes, it could be a problem. But not the town where I live. I know everyone, they know me. We trust each other.”
Well, that’s all I needed to hear.
I booked the cheapest Cuban hotel I could find in order to get the required tourist visa and off I went – with as much shampoo, soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, aspirin and donated clothing as I could cram into two large suitcases and a carry-on bag.
The mission of mercy had begun.
Blind Leading the Blind
“How long will it take to get to your place?” I ask Pablo.
It’s a Monday morning in Varadero. We’re at an outdoor restaurant that serves both Cubans and tourists, the remains of a rice and bean breakfast on the metal table in front of us.
I had arrived on Saturday and made the mistake of going to the beach before sending a telegram to Pablo and Carmen about my arrival.
Earlier that morning I was knee-deep in Montreal winter snow.
Now I’m hypnotized by Varadero’s stunningly beautiful beach. My toes had never been as happy as when they first curled themselves into its warm, white, powdery sand.
I decided the mission of mercy could begin after a couple of days of strolling along the warm turquoise water, with maybe a mojito or two thrown in for good measure.
Early Monday morning I get a call from the hotel’s front desk.
“Someone’s here for you.”
It can’t be. Please don’t let it be them.
I head to the lobby where the desk clerk points towards the door.
A tall, thin, grey-haired man stands waiting just outside the hotel.
Next to him stands a petite woman with curly greying hair, bloodshot-tired eyes and the warmest smile of anyone I’ve ever met.
He introduces me to his wife Carmen. They were so happy that someone from outside the country wanted to visit them they made sure to give themselves plenty of time to get to Varadero.
From Point A to Point B – Cuban Style
With the ongoing American trade embargo and the recent collapse of the Soviet Union, gas is rationed. Mechanical parts are hard to come by.
Cuba is going through its worst economic crisis and you’re never really sure how long a bus or car trip will take. So Pablo and Carmen left their house Sunday morning, transferred buses three times and arrived in Varadero late Sunday night.
And slept overnight in the bus station until they thought I’d be awake.
My thoughts of relaxing on the beach for a couple of days seem immensely self-indulgent.
I need to get two senior citizen Cubans, my Canadian-pampered self and the contents of my suitcases from here to wherever they live. Part of me wants to hand everything over and send them back on their way.
But that’s impossible.
* Poder Popular: members of the municipal assembly