Helping out in Cuba’s “Special Period” – Part 2

Even though it’s December, 1991, and I’m in Varadero, Cuba, this won’t be a beach vacation.

I have two suitcases full of clothes, soap, shampoo, aspirin, toothbrushes, toothpaste and sundry other items. Two people in need stand next to me. Only problem: at this time, getting around the island unobtrusively is next to impossible for your average tourist. 

If you missed Part 1, find it here.

The Risk

“We can’t carry packages with us on the bus,” Pablo calmly explains to me.

Since there isn’t much for Cubans to buy on the island, if they are caught transporting lots of items, they can be stopped, questioned, accused of theft, and suffer the consequences.

My previous paranoia now seems well-founded.

Pablo and Carmen are also exhausted, and haven’t had much to eat since yesterday other than our breakfast this morning.

All because they wanted to meet me as soon as possible.

I don’t see any other choice. Miss-I-Hate-To-Drive has to rent a car, a Russian-made Lada.

Lada car in Cuba, 1991

With manual transmission.

I pay for our breakfast and we walk my disappointed toes away from the beach and over to the tourist-only Havanautos rental office.  I hand the required passport and hotel information to the agent.

Gas Ration Coupons

Tourists need to purchase ration coupons for gas.

“How many?” the Havanautos employee asks.

Pablo tells me it’s about three hours to get to their place.

“By car it’s not so bad”.

I find that hard to believe.

I also don’t want to advertise exactly where Pablo and Carmen live.

Just in case.

I decide to err on what I believe to be the side of caution.

“I’ll need coupons for about a five-hour trip – each way.”

Mission of Mercy Heading Nowhere Fast

A few hours after loading the contents of my suitcases into the trunk of the Lada, I’m perspiring in the semi-tropical heat, practically alone on this dusty, bumpy Cuban highway but for a couple of naïve Cubans who – for some inexplicable reason – have put their complete trust in me.

Missions of meVaradero sunsetrcy are for the Red Cross. Or World Vision. Big organizations with helicopters and jeeps and lots of emergency phone numbers. Not me. I want to go back to Varadero, watch the sunset and squish my toes in the sand.

But I can’t get anywhere I want to go.

Not enough bloody gas.

No Bathrooms, No Bribes

”Is there somewhere we can go to the bathroom? Get something to eat?”

I look around the fields. I really need to pee.

I’m tempted to park the car and plow into the sugar canes. The stalks are taller than I am, so there’d be plenty of privacy. Not that there’s anyone around except for us.

Sugar cane field, Cuba

But it would be just my luck to have an angry machete-wielding farmer discover me with my pants down at the edge of his field.

“What about gas stations? Wouldt they take American dollars? I can pay a bit extra.”

I know U.S. dollars are illegal tender here, but surely I can bribe someone with a bit of cold hard cash.

”There are a few factories around here with cafeterias, but only for their workers. And no one will take your dollars.”

Really? What kind of people won’t be bribed?

“Everything is calculated. There has to be the right amount of coupons for how much gas is used up.

But it’s not far. Now.”

I Start to Clue In

We stare at each other.

“You said that almost two hours ago.”

Pablo looks at me sheepishly. Carmen tries to hide a smile.

My brain slipped into gear.

“You’ve never actually travelled from Varadero to your home town non-stop by car, have you?”

They shake their heads.

Of course they hadn’t.

They can’t afford a car, so they couldn’t figure out the time needed to drive, nor how much gas I’d need.

In all good faith, they simply guessed.

And there was nothing I could do but keep on driving.

Gas – At Last

“There’s one.” Pablo points.

Another 45 minutes or so have gone by, but we are finally getting close. The sugar cane fields thin out. A few dilapidated houses come into view.

And a gas station. Or rather, a gas pump. Next to a weather-beaten one-room wood building.

I pull in and roll down the window. An older man wearing faded trousers and shirt takes his time walking over to the car. He silently takes my coupons, counts them and hands a couple back to me after filling the tank.

Back up to a full supply of gas.

I’m relieved.

For about 10 minutes.

‘Cause we’re not quite there yet. And that means using up more fuel, which puts me past the halfway point of the total trip.

Without enough rations to get back to Varadero.

What happens next.

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