Hectic Santa-Free Holidays

The hectic holiday season is here, but for us it has absolutely nothing to do with last minute shopping, thankfully. Our office flooded a couple of weeks ago and we had a big disagreement with the building management, which I’m pretty sure has all but been smoothed over now. But it was touch & go for a few days on finding a new location for January, which had my brother all in a tizzy since we’re in the midst of our bicycle tour season and he just doesn’t have the time for a move/new set-up. While most of our reservations are made far in advance, once the extreme high season dates arrive, there are almost always last minute surprises. They began to roll in on Dec. 20. One client who arrived in Santa Clara has reserved a late model Peugeot vehicle with automatic transmission with Rent Car VIA (who has the lowest rates of the 4 rental companies for extreme high season). When she arrived, they presented her with an older Peugeot automatic model which was a lower category than the one she booked. Right away, she called me and I contacted their operations office who readily recognized the problem which was due to a breakdown in the vehicle they’d assigned to her rental. She opted not to take the downgrade they were offering and later that same day (luckily) they delivered the model she’d prepaid. One down, how many more to go? The next day while we were at our end of the year motorcycle club party, I received a call from a client who’d picked up his VIA automatic transmission Peugeot vehicle in Havana but by the time he’d arrived in Viñales it wouldn´t turn to the right. He also followed instructions and contacted us for advice. I told him to contact the rental company´s 24-hr operations line and ask for the car to be towed, and have the rental company´s functionary corroborate the fact that it was no longer operational. The next day he had a replacement car, despite the fact that when he first contacted them they said they had no automatics remaining. Then I had someone else who was supposed to pick up a Geely CK from Rent Car VIA upon his international arrival in Holguin. He called me the next day mid-morning to advise that they’d delivered a vehicle whose check engine and ABS lights were lit, and the vehicle cut out 3 times before he could even leave the parking lot. The rental counter functionary made note of the technical deficiencies on his contract and told him to go to the Hotel Bosque the next day to try and get another car. For some reason the client was told not to contact us from the airport, that there would be no one working that late at night. Wrong information, but at any rate I was still able to investigate the chain of events, establish with the airport rental counter that the car was definitely not in working order upon delivery (despite conflicting information from the rental company’s operations office), and finally in less than an hour a replacement vehicle was on its way.

In the middle of all the rental car troubleshooting, I received a last minute request from a U.S. group who’d been getting the runaround from the intermediary arranger who’d been trying, unsuccessfully, to book their services for early January. I agreed to take them on, although somewhat against my better judgment this close to departure and during our busiest time of the year. I’ve secured most services but am still waiting for a quotation on their transport/extrahotel package. I was able to do a little investigative work on their booking at the Havanatur 35-year anniversary gala dinner we were invited to on Dec. 19. The intermediary who poses as a “guide” was booking their services through another agency and collecting a big chunk of cash for payment on arrival. Not much security in that modis operandi, and from all accounts the end result was a very inflated package price. Unbeknownst to me at the gala dinner they seated me beside one of the vice presidents of Havanatur where we’ve been represented in the Cuban Chamber of Commerce for over a decade now. After I asked her what department she worked in, and she told me her position I probed a little further and discovered that Havanatur has made cuts and only represents 5 foreign travel agencies now, and only three of us had been invited to their gala dinner. Presumably the other two aren’t producing sufficient sales to justify representation through their organization for much longer. We took home a plaque, a reproduction of a Cecilia Valdes painting, other miscellaneous gifts, and were enriched with a performance by a young opera group called Habana Clasicos. Their regular gig is on Friday nights @ 9 :30 at the Hotel Sevilla for anyone looking to take in some high-level cultural entertainment.

On Dec. 20 we were given Havanatur invitations to the 70th anniversary of the debut of Alicia Alonso as Giselle. The performance was at the National Theatre (the Gran Teatro is still under renovations) and didn’t disappoint. At intermission I couldn’t take my eyes off a fellow outside who may qualify for one of the biggest fashion faux pas I’ve seen to date. Zebra-striped shirt with, get this, matching zebra-striped tight pants. What was he thinking, I wondered to myself as I unsuccessfully tried to force myself to look the other way. I did think of snapping a picture but I just couldn’t do it. Tropicola and fried sweet potato chips and we were back for the second act.

On Dec. 21 my nieces were invited to our house for a sleepover. My brother’s youngest daughter is just 3 and wasn’t in our initial sleepover plans, but she made such a convincing plea that we relented and told her that we’d give it a try. As her mother was pulling her things out of the closet, Amanda instinctively knew her Mom was not altogether comfortable with letting go and she looked at her and said, “Mami, it’s ok. Don’t be scared.” Priceless, especially considering that she was really totally okay with the experience and didn’t cry one bit the whole time. After a hair, makeup & nails session with the girls in the morning we were off to take in the last day of FIART along with my husband’s ex-wife (to whom who he pointedly refers to as the mother of his children and NOT as his ex-wife) and her young son, plus their adult daughter and oldest granddaughter. We all crowded into his Peugeot Partner with the 3 oldest kids in the rear section fighting over who was going to get the stool we brought along and who was relegated to sit on the wheel wells. The kids weren’t the least bit interested in the shopping at FIART but rather dragged my husband and me down to the waterless moats where there were three big inflatable carnival attractions. He bought 5 rounds of 10-minute sessions which meant there were no kids crying to go back & do more (they were pooped and red-faced by the time they got out of there). After some cotton candy treats we called it a day. In the midst of the jumping games we received a call from a motorcycle friend whose Indian had quit in the middle of the highway. So when finally got back home after dropping off the troops, we switched cars, hooked up the trailer and headed out for a 400-km favor to bring our friend, his wife and the Indian back home to Caimito. I don’t know what he was thinking when he left home for a road trip with a Friday the 13th shirt on but both his Canadian riding companion and myself set him straight on the Fri 13/Tue 13 thing and he’s now fully convinced he must turn the shirt into a rag. They tried to force dinner on us when we got there but we still had an hour to go to get back home and had to decline. No rest for the wicked last Sunday.

Monday and Tuesday were cram days, making sure all loose ends were wrapped/tied up before the holidays. Still fielding calls from the US group who thinks I am a miracle worker. I hope I don’t disappoint, but honestly there’s only so much a girl can do with less than 2 weeks to prepare in ultra high season. Am hoping some ball games will come together for them, but still not entirely sure about that yet. One of our neighbors comes in twice a week to make lunch for us and take some of the load off. We saved the gala dinner menu to present to her on Tuesday as if that were our lunch request. She didn’t quite know what to think when my husband handed it over, and after puzzling over it for a minute finally asked us if we were out of our minds. Her speciality is home-cooked Cuban food and she didn’t even know what some of the things described on the gala menu were. Comic relief.

On Tuesday night we were invited to spend

Noche Buena with some friends. Her kids set and decorated the festive holiday table. The cake I decided to bake at the very last minute for the occasion flopped (top layer was too hot and as I was sticking berries into the top to decorate it fell apart) so off we went to our favorite sweet shop, Fontanella. There must’ve been 40 people in line to buy cake, which were dribbling out of the bakery one or two at a time. By some strange stroke of luck no one was looking for their Dulce Tres Leches which were just sitting there on the shelf , so once again the gods were with us and we arrived more or less on time. We feasted on succulent roast pork, yucca con mojo, black beans, rice, tamales, salad, fries, cider, and turron.

And yesterday for Christmas Day we spent most of the day watching the “Kidnapped” series on a bootleg dvd set. My husband made a hearty vegetable soup. Finally, a well-deserved chance to catch up on the rest we didn’t get on Sunday. I think the only person that called to interrupt my lazy day was my brother, and it was only an afterthought to wish him a Merry Christmas. I didn’t even bother hauling my 9” bonsai Xmas tree out of the closet this year.

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