“But it’s not my fault I missed the bus, it never came to my hotel this morning,” I tell my Cuban travel minder who just ended another cellphone call. We’re standing in the street in front of a line of cabs in old Havana. “You have to pay the cab driver the $20 fare to the airport,” she tells me. “But I don’t have it,” I exclaim. Through a bit of bad planning and a bunch of plastic cards that are worthless in Cuba, I have exactly one $20 bill left for the airport tax. I can’t quite imagine her letting me miss my plane. Is she really willing to be responsible for a hapless American getting stuck in Cuba? I’m figuring she’s going to relent and get me to the airport somehow. But this friendly negotiation is taking time. She insists that she’s got no available drivers and there is no other way to get there in time now.
In the backseat of the cab I see beautiful old Havana speeding past. Leaving Cuba was hard anyway. I wanted to stay much longer. I was there on a grant studying the potential for sustainable tourism, and that research allowed me to get past U.S. State Department restrictions on traveling alone in Cuba. Veradero Beach, the long stretch of white sand on the northern coast, is a playground to many international travelers, especially Canadians. I was a rare species of lone American. The all-inclusive resort was packed with students on Spring Break drinking mojitos, taking boat rides, and generally living it up.
A colleague had asked me to look up an old friend, a well-known writer on the other side of the island who lived in a town, she assured me, I would really love. I was ready to see the other side of Cuba. Taking a bus down to Trinidad, billed as the most well-preserved colonial town in the Caribbean, I felt like I time-jumped into the 1930s. The cobblestone streets are faced with huge old wooden doors that open onto secret interior courtyards where families chat in gardens and in my case, greet their guests. After getting off the bus, finding which door to knock on was an adventure in itself. I asked a food vendor, the one giving grilled meat to a cowboy who had just gotten off his horse. He directed me up the next street and to the house on the corner of the square. Evenings emitted an atmosphere of people, stone walkways, smoke, outdoor music, and dancing, of course. The steps were classic salsa but the pace twice as fast. Life seemed to have a different purpose here – to take it in through every sense, slowly, relentlessly, and doused in a good deal of sweat.
Musing about my trip in the back of the cab and the struggle I had getting on the island, I hadn’t anticipated that getting off of it would be so difficult. “You can get another foreigner at the airport to give you the twenty dollars for the exit tax,” the driver tells me. I can’t imagine begging for money at the airport, or anyone actually giving it to me. “I can get the money to you right away,” I promise. “I know people coming down next month on a delegation.” He resists that idea with a skeptical shake of his head. We’re halfway to the airport – it’s getting dire.
I study him, wracking my brain. It’s hard to read the face I see in the rear-view mirror with the dark glasses. He’s a thin, dark, handsome man. I see he’s wearing a gold neck chain and get an idea. I reach into the back of the car and struggle with my suitcase, turning it so I can reach the zipper. Once open, I dig through it. “Do you have a girlfriend?” I ask. “No, I have a lot of lady friends,” he says. “Not a favorite one?” I suggest. “Maybe,” he says. “Do you give her presents?” I query tentatively. “No, I don’t need to,” he says. “Well, maybe that’s why you don’t have a girlfriend,” I say boldly. I lean forward and reach my outstretched arm between the seats so he can see my open hand. I ask, “Why don’t you give her a pair of these.”
About five pairs of earrings are tangled in my hand. “Choose a pair you think she’ll like,” I say encouragingly. He looks but hesitates. Undaunted, I continue, “Look, here’s a lovely pair of silver ones I got in New Mexico. They’re made by Native Americans.” His head shakes again, slowly. I realize my mistake but it’s too late.
At the airport I get out of the cab and he comes around to say goodbye. I thank him, and we smile at each other. Five pairs of earrings makes this an expensive ride, but worth it for me. And he won’t have to choose just one girlfriend for a while.