Summer Heat, Music & Tramites in Cuba: My Canadian Perspective

If I had my way, I’d spend the entire summer in my home province of Prince Edward Island, Canada. This Cuban heat is insufferable! But due to an unusual set of circumstances entirely beyond my control, that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. So I usually limit myself to a month or a little more of life in the developed world every spring/early summer, surrounded by family and my oldest friends. This year’s highlights were booting around Charlottetown on a Toba electric bike (fun, fast, and affordable), hanging with and catching up with my oldest girlfriends (and especially my hula-hooping/kite-flying bff), Canada Day escapades on her daughters’ electric scooters that we “borrowed” including a perch at the Grand Holman penthouse suite to view the fireworks, and being invited into the delivery room to see my sister give birth to her second daughter. Not having procreated myself, my girlfriends all urged me to accept her invitation, conditional on my not planning on actually ever going through that experience myself. It was worth it, very amazing indeed. The lowlights were watching my parents age before my eyes while my siblings and I struggle with issues of how to manage the next stage of their lives while providing them with all the independence and dignity they deserve. That part makes me tear up a little just thinking about it, maybe because I don’t live or deal with their issues on a daily basis which, admittedly, can be frustrating. Perhaps it’s because I’ve lived in Cuba for so long that I’ve resolved that we should not resort to moving either of them into a care facility until the situation is unmanageable. But I almost went over the edge when my sister suggested a nursing home might be the best thing for my mother. My Cuban sister in law was the one that helped me deal with that blow, also agreeing that between all of us we’ll find a way to manage things for as long as we can. Between the four siblings and our families, and thanks in no small part to my sister, we’ve managed so far but two of us, including my brother and his family who live beside my father in PEI, spend the entire winter in Cuba. We’ve been lucky enough to be able to acquire a property facing our house here in Havana which we’ve been plugging away at turning into the “Old Folks Home” where we hope to be able to provide our elderly family members with a supervised place to stay close to their children, independent to a large extent, but with a support network nearby. That construction project and another one in Old Havana destined for a cooperative my husband has proposed, have been occupying a lot of our time and most of our personal resources over the last year. But more on those in a future post.

Being tied up financially and time-wise, we don’t have a lot going on in our social schedule these days. But we have managed to take in a few memorable activities nonetheless. One was a day trip to visit friends who rent a house with a pool every summer for their family mountain vacation in Soroa. When we got there our host took one look at me and told me “No te hagas la extranjera” (Don’t play the foreigner). Yes, it’s been that long that they even want to strip that away from me. We ended up having to go back a couple of days later with the trailer in tow to rescue a friend’s motorcycle that broke down on his return in La Moka. That ended up being a full-day adventure in itself with a broken wheel bearing in my husband’s car. Light on tools for once in his life, we ended up being incredibly fortunate when we pulled over close to some Pinareños who were prepared for just about anything. And who said that Pinareños were fools?! Several couples in 2 cars and an old truck had intended to spend the day at leisure in Las Terrazas but they arrived late and the visitor capacity was already full, so they just camped out roadside, opened up their cooler, turned up the music and fixed a spread of roast pork and tamales right out of the trunk of their ´57 Chev in the middle of nowhere. Luckily it was in the shade. The inner part of the bearing was stuck on the axle and after much tooling around and more than 2 hours, and several trips by myself and the other girl in our car to ask for one tool or another while my husband and his friend tried every experiment they could think of to loosen the inner part of the bearing, the Pinareño men finally wrenched themselves away from their girlfriends and hammered the old bearing to pieces so we could install the new one and get back on the road. Thank heavens for those resourceful Cubans. They had more tools in the back of their truck than most hardware stores stock in Cuba.

Since we live outside of town we don´t often take in evening cultural performances, but we have indulged a few times this summer. My favorite was visiting the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (F.A.C.) the night William Vivanco was playing. We arrived on a Saturday just before 8 pm when they open and checked out the various exhibitions of architecture, fashion, and visual art on 2 levels, snacked on octopus, and sipped iced tea while we chatted with friends on the upstairs deck. X Alfonso’s mom was even working helping to set up the upstairs bar when we arrived. She and her husband, from the Cuban group Synthesis, are probably considered among Cuba’s cultural royalty, but as with most Cuban personalities, they take all of that in stride. It’s funny how relatively respectful Cubans are of some of their best-known personalities compared to how celebrities outside of Cuba are often bombarded in public spaces. We stayed long enough to catch just a few songs by one of my favorite Cuban troubadors downstairs before we skipped out to get home at a decent hour. Although it’s open until 4 a.m., we left at around 11:30 and by then the lineup already extended around the corner. This is one fabulous space for adults of various ages.

Less culturally fulfilling for me, but perhaps more amusing in a sense was our first-ever visit to the Maxim Rock theater. A Cuban rock group associated with a motorcycle club my husband is in recently auditioned and were approved by the commission, and was making their professional debut. We sat with a photographer friend of ours who’s also in the club. While I love rock & roll, listening to most Cubans singing it with a Spanish accent and often bad pronunciation is just not my cup of tea. We are da champions my frens. You know. Our friends had (for the first time ever) invited another group to open for them. And the lead singer was actually pretty impressive. Not only because he didn’t massacre the lyrics for me, but because he was also a one-armed guitar player. I’ve never seen anything like that before. His left arm was amputated below the elbow and he had a strap-on pick to strum with. The female backup singers had decent voices, but their English pronunciation was driving me up the wall, so I headed out for a bathroom break before my shoulders adhered to my ears as I listened to them killing Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n Roll”. The Cubans don’t know the difference and seemed to love it, so why ruin it for my husband. Grin & bear it. On the way back in I almost got whipped in the face by one of the dreadlock headbangers. His dreads reached his knees and he was swinging them around in a circle (too close to the door) as I awaited my chance to skip by him. I felt like I was on Frogger waiting for the right moment to step between the buses and cars before getting run over. It wasn’t even a heavy song. But Cuban rock & roll lovers are over the top when it comes to their preferred genre. I wanted to take a picture of all the long-haired people in front of the stage as their locks rose into the air along with the beat, but as soon as I stepped cautiously onto my plastic chair with my camera to get an elevated view, I was promptly extended a hand by the gracious security staff, caught breaking the no standing on the chairs rule. Darn! So I just kept ogling the costumes and funny dancers. Skinny jeans with an oversized belt buckle tucked into cowboy boots on a man. Just Don’t Do It. Guys overindulging in whisky dancing all by themselves like no one was watching in the middle of the room. Me thinking that this is a time warp, but even in the ‘80s when this music was popular people in Canada didn’t dress with that much leather, much less in the year 2014. And our dear photographer friend turned out to be a regular rock & roll encyclopedia. While in high school, I was the only girl in a rock band and at the time I thought those guys (all older than me) knew all kinds of rock history, but they pale in comparison to Jorge the Rock Dictionary. The bass player of a group I used to dabble with here once told me that since when he was growing up they didn’t play rock & roll on the radio in Cuba the only time they could listen to it would be on certain radio frequencies when weather would carry the transmissions from southern Florida to Cuba. As Jorge was rattling off facts to us about different musicians and groups, I was thinking to myself that being deprived of rock & roll at some point in their youth probably only served to fuel his passion. You always want what you don’t have. And I’m glad you’re sitting beside my husband, not me, because I’m trying to take in these videos I haven’t seen since the days of the Canadian show Video Hits.

How’s the weather this summer? Freaking hot. 30 degrees before the sun comes up practically. And when it rains, it pours. Some sections of town quickly flood due to clogged drains. I purchased a filter for collecting rainwater at our house for the garden (little Ms. Ecological me) but we still haven’t gotten around to finding the right materials to custom-build the gutters since no store here sells pre-fabricated gutters. But I am committed to completing that project before the next rainy season rolls around. I’m really looking forward to the cooler fall weather. We generally avoid the beach in the peak part of the Cuban summer. Too many people, too much noise, too much rum. But at least there’s some wind today which makes life a bit more bearable. And I am completely aware and ever-thankful for a/c in our bedroom and main vehicle. Last year we purchased an a/c unit for our main living area but only rarely turn it on for a short while in the morning to refresh the temperature in the house if it’s especially stuffy, then turn on the fans, open all windows and let the breeze blow through. We’re hoping to take at least 4 or 5 days off in September to get away and explore a bit. There are some great new boutique properties that have opened in Camaguey which I’m eager to see with my own eyes, and checking out a few hostels and restaurants in Cienfuegos is also on my list of things to do. Diving will definitely be tossed in there – my Cuban husband has his navigation authorization all signed/stamped by the Cuban Coast Guard so we’re ready to take the plunge back into the underwater world.

One of the best things that happened to me here all summer so far was the speed of re-registering a vehicle. I normally wake up in the wee hours of the morning to go get in the lineup of cars at motor vehicles when the registration is set to expire each August. Last year I sat for hours with a friend who was on his fourth visit/attempt, and he finally gave up around noon when the system still hadn’t come up. This year when I stopped in mid-morning to verify the amount of stamps I’d require for the renewal they asked why I didn’t just come back before 1 pm and get it over with the same day. Excited at that prospect, I immediately hot-tailed it to the nearest bank to buy the stamps. When I got there I realized it wasn’t my day. The old age pensioners were collecting that day, so the single lineup to get into the bank was at least 2 hours long by my estimation. I marked my place in the line anyway, but decided to check out another branch. The branch by the Tropical had 2 lineups, one for credit applications and another for the counter. I figured the lineup for the counter there would be just about 1 hour, so I marked my place in the line, found out who was in front of the lady before me, called my husband and told him to bring in the work car that I had to have registered since as long as it was there before 1 pm they’d promised same-day service. And then I hauled my trusty abanico (fan) out of my purse and pulled up some shade. The conversation in the lineup focused a lot on complaints about how they talk about all the problems in Cuba on local tv, but nobody gets around to solving them. When the bank staff member assigned to crowd control at the door stepped out for a few minutes to buy snacks, more than a few people snuck in to try their luck at sweetening up somebody in side to make the line shorter. That incenses sweating and elderly Cubans to no end. When you are finally lucky enough to get your foot in the door, it’s to take one of the 20 seats and wait your turn. But at least there’s air conditioning in there. People inside are even smiling and joking around. Until the lady at the door tells all the pensioners in there that she hoped they’d read the sign on the door indicating that they were only doling out pensions of up to 200 Cuban pesos that day. Anyone with a pension larger than that was assigned a different day to collect their money. Uproar by the elderly. What?!?! All this time waiting and NOW you tell us?!?! One man walked out, but came back a few minutes later when he realized he’s misunderstood what she said. None of them had a pension in excess of 200 Cuban pesos, so they were all good to go. One lady with amputated legs was carried to a waiting car (driven presumably a family member) to return home. My husband used to have an authorization to charge his grandmother’s pension on her behalf, but not all of the elderly have/trust someone to do that for them. I don’t know why they don’t just do it by direct deposit, but that might be too easy. In Cuba they like their bureaucracy. There was a big kerfuffle when one grandmother who was surely over 90 fainted outside in the lineup. Everyone inside started yelling for the woman who guarded the door to unlock it, the bank manager came out to tell everyone to quiet down while they seated the abuela inside in the a/c to wait her turn, but in more comfortable conditions. It was a bit of a circus. After 90 minutes I had my $40 in stamps and made a beeline back to the car registry office where I emerged an hour later, good to go for yet another year. This year it took longer to buy the stamps than to get the car’s specs printed by the authorities, have its serial #s and lights inspected, photos of the motor/plates taken, paperwork signed, stamped & verified in the system, and registration issued. It appears that most vehicle owners have already had the new white license plates issued and for the first time ever this tramite was super easy. There are some things to give thanks for, and this is one of them. That’s how it should work every year. But I’m glad that for once in two decades I had a positive experience registering a vehicle here. I even took a picture of the empty waiting room because I’ve never, ever seen it like that before.

Enough rambling for today though. Over and out probably until after we get to actually take a few days of well-earned vacation for ourselves.

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Cuban Summer Car Rental Adventures

Some people think working as a destination representative for a travel company in Cuba is a dream job. Sometimes it’s great, but mine is a 24/7 job and although I’m very conscientious and extremely detail-oriented, this is Cuba and despite my best efforts, services don’t always go off without a hitch. Alot of our Canadian clients mistakenly assume that Cuba’s tourism industry dies off in the summer when the Canadian geese are happily flying around northern skies. Not so. Cuba has a very large influx of Cuban-American and European visitors in July and August, so much so that the demand for many categories of rental cars is traditionally exceeded by the local supply of vehicles. Man, do we book a lot of car rentals in Cuba for the summer months. Hoping that a rental car of any category will be available last minute during high season in Cuba is a big gamble. A certain

Rental Car

segment of the Cuban-American traveling public is very wary of prepaying services, and we receive numerous messages from them wondering what guarantee they’ll have if they reserve and prepay a car rental only to arrive in Cuba and have the rental company try to pawn off a different category of vehicle or one that’s in rough condition. Some of them even have their local family members act as amateur detectives, calling the rental counters to double-check our work once the service has been confirmed and documents/instructions issued to the client. Unbeknownst to them, this is often a futile attempt to obtain information on their part since bookings and operations are handled through a central reservations office and the actual rental counters don’t usually have information on upcoming rentals until the day prior to the initiation of the service. Funnily (to me anyway), some of them even call us up at the local contact numbers we’ve provided and ask if we’re legitimate. If I were wondering about a company’s credentials and reputation the first person I’d ask probably wouldn’t be the company itself, but maybe they do it just to see if someone actually answers the phone on this end. I’m not really sure. Being one of the few companies that actually publishes unedited and real client feedback (the good, the bad and the ugly), I personally think that’s the best place for any Doubting Tom to begin research on WoWCuba before committing to services. Not only does it give a potential client an idea of what to expect from us as a company, but more importantly to compare experiences of past clients of ours with the various service providers with whom we contract services.

On Sunday morning I was contacted by some clients from New Zealand who’d reserved a 5-passenger vehicle for 4 days to drive from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. The car was reserved for 9 a.m. but still had not appeared at the rental counter by mid-morning. Unbeknownst to the rental counter functionary, the clients found a telephone and contacted me for advice. They were worried that the rental company wasn’t going to deliver the model they’d confirmed since the clients who were ahead of them in the rental contract lineup were upset with the rental counter for delivering a model that wasn’t what they’d reserved. I informed them that this is high season and that from mid-July on some of the rental companies (and particularly the one they selected for their rental) occasionally experience deficits in their rental fleet. It can be due to breakdown, problems with replacement parts supply (which aren’t always sourced in the country), and sometimes is simply the fault of clients who elect to return their rental vehicle after the agreed-upon date and pay a penalty to do so. I advised that if this were the case, then the rental company’s contractual obligation is to replace the vehicle they’d reserved with another of the same category or provide an upgrade. I next contacted the rental company who first indicated the vehicle they reserved was on its way, but immediately thereafter they leaked the bad news that the 5-passenger vehicle was broken and they were offering a smaller economy vehicle as a substitute. It took me just under 3.5 hours of calls back and forth between the rental counter, the rental company’s operations office, their head office, and that of our ground handler until I finally convinced them that all hell would break loose if they didn’t live up to their end of the bargain and deliver a vehicle of the same or superior category. I begged, I pleaded, I explained, and I even got a little mad with the rental company when they kept trying to force the economy car downgrade on my clients. In addition to my elevated stress levels, I probably spent $30 CUC of my cell phone credit on resolving the issue. Which comes straight out of our profits; noone compensates us for the rental company’s inadequacy or poor planning. In the end they did somehow pull a vehicle out of a hat and delivered a car large enough to get the couple and the wife’s parents plus all their luggage across the country without having to tie someone to the roof. When I was finally able to advise the clients that the larger vehicle was on its way, we also agreed that I would begin a claims process with the rental company asking them to consider refunding one of the rental days in exchange for the significant delay in delivering the vehicle. The clients had prepaid for 4 rental days, but since the 4th day was scheduled for an early return, effectively they only were going to be using the vehicle now only for 5 hours on the last day of the rental. I thought that it was reasonable to expect the rental company to extend that refund considering the circumstances, and indicated that I’d be happy to process the claim with our ground handler and the rental company, who can ultimately take up to a month to get back to us on service claims, but I am nothing if not persistent. Pshew. I thought the saga was over and that I could go on enjoying my “day off”.

Actually, my plans for Sunday morning included meeting a group of U.S. graduate students that I’d organized to visit a local agricultural cooperative. I really wanted to get some pictures of their experience there and also to say hi to their tour organizer who I’d met previously here at a Sustainable Tourism conference. While I did get the visit to the “farm” in, it was much briefer than I’d have liked and I was worried the whole time about trying to offer a viable solution to the New Zealanders transportation problem. When the clients finally were completing the rental contract, they called me back to see if the rental company couldn’t throw in the extra driver fee ($30 CUC each) for 2 additional drivers to compensate for their almost 5-hour delay in delivering the vehicle. While I totally understood that they were hot & bothered by that point, I think they were under the mistaken impression that the rental car company and myself actually have the authority to make that kind of decision, which absolutely isn’t the case. There are so many layers of bureaucracy here that sometimes it’s hard to see your way to the end of the tunnel. They called me back while I was just about to have lunch to question the rental company’s local dropoff fees, which are clearly published on our website and coincided 100% with what the rental car functionary was charging on their contract. But apparently they had misunderstood the calculation and wanted us to pay for almost half of the local fee, which definitely wasn’t part of our deal. At that point they were implying that OUR customer service was deficient and that they were going to make it known on Trip Advisor upon completion of their holiday. Sheesh. I was thinking to myself at that point that I should have just told them to accept the smaller vehicle from the get-go, that it was out of my hands, and gone on my merry way. I was speechless when I got off the phone and when I finally tried to tell my husband that they implied I’d been less than professional when I’d just dedicated half of the day to going to bat for them, I simply broke down in tears and told him that some days this job is a thankless one.

But then the very next day I received a call from a repeat Spanish gentleman who comes here year after year and stays for an extended period each time and always reserves his car rental with my husband. After a month in Cuba, he was scheduled to leave the country that night. But before he flew out he wanted to meet with Abel. When he stopped by in the afternoon he mentioned his vehicle had been vandalized while parked overnight at the private house where he was staying and that Abel had intervened on his behalf to have it replaced with a different model. After he completed the police report, the insurance covered all the damages sustained to the vehicle. He was totally thoughtful and brought a bottle of rum as a gift and (more importantly) expressed his thanks for our work on his behalf. I almost started crying again because not many people realize how many hoops we actually have to jump through to make things happen on this end. I think that the very fact that he’s visited here as often as he has in the past has made him more appreciative of the small things. And knowing that he has someone here that is looking out for his best interests is also very comforting. For me, having someone actually express that to us and take the time to personally do so meant more than he probably knows.

Beached-Whale

If anyone tries to tell you that everything always goes smoothly in Cuba, they’re either lying or very naive. But having experienced and honest intermediaries on your side to defend your interests when you most need them is a good thing. It could mean the difference between driving across Cuba in air-conditioned style or improvising in one of those Chevy Chase-style family vacations with everything but the kitchen sink tied to the roof of your rattle-trap rental car.