My Love/Hate Relationship with Cuba

There are days when I could just pull my hair out, spinning my wheels which only sink deeper and deeper into Cuban bureaucracy in my efforts to perform sometimes even the simplest of tasks. Cuba can be exhilarating or exasperating, depending on which moment you catch me. Yesterday was an all-time low as my blood pressure soared through the roof as a result of a telephone conversation with the manager at the Xanadu Mansion in Varadero.  I had some clients stay there recently, a very nice Canadian family, and upon their return they sent me a copy of the invoice the hotel presented them, detailing various services consumed locally which they settled by credit card at the end of their stay.

We’d confirmed their hotel stay and paid for their services through our ground handler Havanatur’s voucher system. When the clients arrived, they delivered the hotel voucher to the reception and this voucher included their triple room, breakfast and dinner daily, plus unlimited 18-hole green fees on the Xanadu golf course.  If they’d arrived with no reservation and found space at the hotel, the rack rate would have been $376 CUC per night. Since they paid us in advance they were able to save $50 per night using our agency rates. Most of you realize that hotels will contract their services out to tour operators at preferred rates since the tour operators will deliver them many clients. It’s no secret that agencies charge their clients more than what they have to pay suppliers for contracted services. It’s a simple business principle. Apparently the hotel manager does not have a grasp of even elementary business principles, however.  The hotel reception delivered an invoice to my clients which included the lower net rate that our ground handler Havanatur contracts with them. Even I am not supposed to be privy to that information, much less presenting it in black and white to my clients! I contacted the hotel to make them aware of the problem so that they would correct it if it was an error in their system or a mistake committed by a novice staff member. The questionably-competent manager didn’t seem to follow my reasoning, however, telling me the problem was between me and Havanatur. I insisted that in no uncertain terms, the problem was of Xanadu’s creation and I was looking for the solution he intended to apply so that this would never happen again. Trying to make things simpler for him to understand, I told him that if I went to the Cupet and paid $2 for milk, they wouldn’t include a separate column in my invoice telling me how much the milk cost them. That it was against all business principles to divulge contractual rates to a third party. My wheels were so stuck by then that there was no turning back. Or going forward. He doesn’t get it, and his macho man hackles would not allow him to back down. Wonderful. Customer service is a foreign concept here sometimes. Refunds and comps to rectify errors are unspeakable. If they make a mistake, we (or you) eat it. They’re smiling all the way to the bank while we’re left floundering around trying to explain their flubs to our clients.

So after we finished our little telephone shouting match, I went a little further and vented to our ground handler. Through my communication with the client and a closer inspection of the invoice they forwarded me, I discovered several irregularities going on with the golf rental equipment at the hotel. The flag was raised by the clients because they were charged two different rates on two different days for the same services by the golf club. When I asked them what they were talking about (since the invoice only indicated food & beverage services, no golf or equipment rental), I discovered that the $70 and $80 rates they were quoted for the golf clubs & cart were then translated into $77 and $88 on their invoice, but for Restaurant Beverages. I jokingly told the client that until she clarified to me that those amounts were supposed to be for the golf equipment, I assumed she’d just had a rollicking good time at the bar while on holiday, but was glad to know that she could still remember her holiday. I confronted the hotel with the inconsistencies and they responded to part of the issue, but have not responded (and I suspect will not) to all irregularities.

1. Xanadu claims that all services and merchandise purchased at the golf club are subject to a 10% surcharge. The clients claim they weren´t advised of this when contracting/purchasing the services. At any rate, the 10% price difference was eventually able to be explained to the clients, although they say that the ¨gratuity tax¨ should have been prominently posted in the golf club or included in the published rates, and I have to agree with them on that.
2. The hotel manager claims that due to system deficiencies, all golf club services appear as ¨Restaurant Beverages¨ on hotel guests´ final invoice. For most auditors this would be highly irregular. For me it´s questionable, but hey, if the manager claims he´s aware of it then who am I to question whether it´s legitimate?
3. The other irregularity was that there was a $10 difference between the two days that they contracted golf clubs and a golf cart, and only a one minute difference on the register receipt (both indicate services began after 4 pm which falls into their special twilight rates), and this is an issue to which the hotel has elected not to respond despite my insistence otherwise. That’s Cuba for you. When you don’t have an explanation, just ignore the problem and hope it goes away.
4. As for the question of divulging net rates to our customers, again this was chalked up to a system deficiency which was outside of the manager’s expertise. Last time I checked, they were still working (although I’m not sure how hard) on rectifying this problem too.

Once my blood pressure returned to normal, my love relationship with Cuba began all over again. Another Canadian client of mine, a repeat one who has a terrific sense of humor and unparalleled sense of adventure, sent me an email. She’s taken a leave of absence from her job this winter and is exploring all around Cuba.  We met for lunch in Havana last week and she mentioned she was going to be traveling in Pinar del Rio this week following her favorite baseball team. She’s been sending me updates from all over the place. Here’s her letter from yesterday (published with her permission):

“Here is a story for you……I spent last night at Rancho Charco Azul.  A somewhat charming place, accomodation is six cabinas and 4 rooms in the lodge or converted farmhouse.  I had a pretty nice room in the farmhouse which even had a canopy over the bed.  When I arrived there were only a few Cubans around the bar who had clearly partied all afternoon.  They were a little drunk, but I would never be in a position to criticize anyone for that behaviour.  No other tourists.  In the evening a Florida Cuban showed up with his fiancee. She looked about 16 and he was 41.  He is trying to get her to the USA so they can marry, but says it is expensive and takes time and paperwork.  Who knows what the real truth is…..

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The facility has many horses including two gigantic black persheron horses from Guelph, Ontario.  Clearly the pride of the facility. Around midnight a foal was born.  As big and black as his father.  I think this is why destiny took me to Rancho Charco Azul…….a Canadian needed to be present when the first foal of the Canadian persheron stallion was born…..  It´s a Santeria thing…..I wear the colours of Ellegua….saint of destiny and opener of doors…..

I wanted to suggest they might want to name the foal after me, but figured that might be a little over the top…

Back to Havana today. I just bought a ticket on the Viazul guagua.  I disappointed all the cabbies looking for Havana customers at the bus station.  Their eyes are always bloodshot after a night of partying, they drive like maniacs, and their cars have no airbags.  Thanks, but I will stick with the professional drivers of Viazul.

Over and out from Pinar del Rio city….”

These small-scale and charming Ecotur properties are gems in the rough. They are under-marketed and relatively unknown to most tourists, but often have very decent meal services and feature active outdoor activities such as trekking, horseback riding and more. To counterbalance every negative experience I’ve had in Cuba, I know that I’ve have many more Cubans go out of their way to do something kind for me. So in the end it always balances out and I guess that’s what’s kept me here this long. You take the good with the bad, learn from it all, and hopefully be wiser the next time.

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