I stare at Che. The iconic poster hangs on the wall behind the official’s desk. It’s hot and stuffy in the office; air-conditioning hasn’t hit this part of Cuba. Was I insane, or just stupidly naive about my hare-brained scheme?
The Poder Popular fellow stops his search. He sits back and looks at me.
“Maybe you’ll have to stay here in Cuba.”
He laughs. “I can’t find the gas ration coupons.”
(To read the previous post, click here)
I suddenly think about my passport. I feel my blood pressure rise and try to hold back the fear popping out of my eyeballs.
Control of Tourists
What frazzles me most here is not the driving on empty roads, gas rations, lack of service stations or public places to eat. I hate my passport being left at the hotel – “for safeguarding”.
I’d much rather safeguard my own passport.
The official sees by my reaction that I don’t consider his attempt at humour to be funny. I’m sure he doesn’t want a panic-stricken tourist fainting in an emotional heap on his office floor.
“Okay,” he gets serious, “so what you can do is go back to Hotel ________, that’s where you’re staying, right?”
So, he knows where I’m staying. Naturally. He probably also knows my favourite colour, my social insurance number and my shoe size.
Could I have been more conspicuous? Other than a military van, the Lada was the only freaking car on the street, and apparently the only post-1959 car in the whole bloody town. Why not just tattoo “Dumb Tourist” on my forehead and formally introduce myself to the CDR ladies we passed on the way in?
What the hell had I been thinking?
Does it matter that I don’t have anything anti-Communist with me? – unless soap and shampoo are on a list somewhere of counter-revolutionary items that could get a person immediately kicked out of the country – or worse.
A Helping Hand
Mr. Poder Popular picks up the telephone (the only one I’ve seen outside of a hotel) and chats with someone at the other end.
Bonos. Canadiense. Petroleo.
Coupons. Canadian. Gas.
My inner ranting abruptly ends. My pulse slows down.
He’s trying to help me.
“The hotel manager has some coupons. I’ve authorized him to exchange enough to get you back to Varadero.”
I smile. And breathe more easily. For the first time since Pablo was told to visit the police station that morning.
The Watchful Eye of Committees for the Defense of the Revolution
When we returned to their house from the aggravating tourist store trip earlier in the day, Carmen started preparing the rice and beans for lunch. Now at least I can contribute cooking oil, extra rice and a few canned goods towards the meal thanks to our shopping adventure.
I want to help but get shooed away and soon people start arriving with their share of the food.
I’m baffled by how they communicate so efficiently without telephones. They can’t all live within visual distance of the damn car.
In typical warm Latino fashion, it takes some time to say hello because everyone has to greet everyone else with a kiss on the cheek.
I’m shown a fish caught earlier that day, the fisherman smiling and proud to have something to share on this “special occasion”.
I am touched beyond words.
David has a map of Cuba and we start calculating how far the next Havanautos rental agency is so that I can buy more gas coupons. The town we’re in is too small and doesn’t have enough tourists to merit car rentals. Problem is, I’d have to drive two hours in the opposite direction, with a resulting 8-hour trip back to Varadero. Will the place even have enough coupons for me?
I’m left without much of a solution, since nobody here has ever dealt with this kind of predicament.
Lunch is put on the table. Maybe a full stomach will jumpstart more ideas about gas acquisition.
“Aren’t we going to wait for Pablo?” I ask.
I ask again.
No one answers.
I get a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“Don’t worry. Everything’s okay.”
I hate it when people say things like that. Obviously things are not okay if they think it’s necessary to reassure me about – whatever it is they don’t want to mention.
“Where is he?”
Carmen tries to smile. No one looks at me.
My heart starts pounding.
I insist. And insist.
Carmen finally tells me that the police visited the house that morning and told Pablo to go down to the station.
“Why? What do they want to know?”
“Don’t worry, we’re sure everything will be okay.”
“Should I go down there to talk to them myself?”
“No!” The response is quick and vehement. Whether they were trying to protect me or whether my presence would just complicate things, they won’t say.
I feel sick to my stomach.
“But he told me back in Canada my coming here would be okay!”
“That’s just the way he is.”
“Did you know this while we were at the store?” I ask.
Carmen’s nephew shrugs his shoulders. A lump forms in my throat.
Dear God – what have I done?
“Do you think the police will be back here? Will they search for American dollars or drugs or something?”
“Not as long as you’re here,” someone says.
Gas rations are no longer my biggest concern. How long could I stay? Will it just make things worse? I haven’t even been in town for a full 24-hours and people are getting carted off to the police.
We forget about lunch and drift into the living room. David and Luis make a few half-hearted attempts to distract me with the map and which towns I might visit to look for gas.
Tension settles in.
We try to make small talk.
After the longest hour I’ve ever sat through, the door opens.
Pablo saunters in.
Suddenly everyone is on their smiling, shaking his hand and laughing in relief. I want to give him a big hug. Carmen looks several years younger.
Pablo is perplexed at the commotion.
“They just wanted to tell me no black market trading of U.S. dollars, no counter-revolutionary material, nothing illegal,” he calmly tells us.
“I told the sergeant that he and I have known each other for a long time and he should know I wouldn’t do anything like that. And besides, I solved your gas problem,” Pablo looks over and smiles at me.
“The gas problem? What do you mean?” I’m puzzled by his nonchalance and still upset about his disappearance. There must have been a good reason everyone was so frightened by his summons to the police station.
“When the sergeant said he was finished and that I could leave, I told him to wait a minute. I tell him you need more gas coupons, so he tells me the Poder Popular is where you have to go. He authorizes them to get you more coupons. Like I said, everything’s okay now.”
I can’t believe my ears. Had it been me at that station, the second I’m told to leave I’d be out of there as fast as my legs could carry me.
I look at this kindly, grey-haired man, totally guileless, so proud of himself for helping me out.
Maybe this really is no big deal for him. He’s lived for decades either under the corrupt military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista or now Fidel’s Communist Party rule.
A summons to a police station wasn’t about to bother him.
But I’m on edge exhausted. I just want to get myself someplace where I won’t endanger anybody. Lunch is reheated, the fish gets center spot again in the middle of the table and Pablo has his meal. My energy’s sapped from all the emotion, and I only hope that this time, at least, Pablo’s definition of “everything will be fine” is the same as mine.
Gratefully, happily, it does end up being “fine”.
The Poder Popular official sends me on my way, and when I leave his office I spot Pablo standing beside the Lada.
He wants me to take his picture next to the “modern car”.
For goodness sake.
Why don’t I invite the police sergeant and Poder Popular guy for their photos also?
It’s mid-afternoon by the time I get to the hotel, where the manager has the coupons ready. I hate the thought of driving all the way back to Varadero, and I’m grateful to have David and his brother to help me with the drive back.
I check out of the hotel with nothing to carry but a change of clothes and a few toiletry items. The clerk gives me back my passport.
My beautiful, freedom-filled passport.
As I say goodbye Pablo, Carmen and the others, I burst into tears. Sure, why not draw even more attention to myself and my friends?
Will I ever see Carmen, Pablo and the others again? **
The Havanautos employee does a double take when he sees the mileage on the odometer. Then I hand him back a couple of extra gas coupons to refund.
“Where on earth did you go? And you still have coupons?”
“If you only knew,” I think.
“I just drove around. Here and there.”
About a year later I find out that Pablo and his family were preparing to leave Cuba for the United States, sponsored by Pablo’s oldest son, who was in the U.S. by that time. Our paths never crossed again.
A less hair-raising but no less interesting trip happened the following year. Read about it here.