Leaving the island

I didn’t want to leave Cuba again with that same “Get me the hell outta here” feeling… It was a lot better this time but still I breathed a HUGE sigh of relief when I left. It was a relief but at the same time a strange feeling. I felt good because I COULD leave but bad because 11 million Cubans are stuck there and sense of shame that I lived for 9 days like a king (relative to the rest of the population) and still that drove me crazy!

People in Cuba are REALLY, REALLY poor. The more I spoke to the locals, the more I realised how bad the situation is. Doctors make 40 CUC a month, which is absurd enough but a lot of other people working regular jobs make only 10 CUC a month. Prices in Cuba are cheaper but they’re not THAT cheap… Surviving on 10 CUC a month in Havana is like trying to survive on $100 a month in Sydney. It’s no wonder that everyone is out on the streets hustling.

Cuba has a tourism fuelled economy. There are other industries… Clearly the beer and rum industry is huge… But at times it seems that tourism is the ONLY money spinner and the heat is really on the tourists to support the economy. If you’re the type of person who has a heart in is sensitive to the needs of others, it’s hard not to get affected by it all. One night I gave a guy a few CUCs (in Cuba they pronounce it like “cook”) to buy some food… I bumped into him the next night and he was gushing gratitude because I had done this. I was happy that I could help in a very small way but it makes me sad to think that these people are so desperate that they have to beg strangers for their daily food or to buy them a beer or water or whatever. It’s hard to put it in words but it’s saddening.

I was happy that I could help the people I came across in a small way but at the same time I would be lying if I said it didn’t drive me crazy. It’s not about the money… The money I gave away has no affect on me whatsoever but just to have all these desperate people relentlessly hounding you for something is tough. But of course, it’s tougher for them.

Anyway, finally it was time to leave the island. I had already lined up Lisi’s husband, Ronaldo to take me to the airport. He’s is a nice guy… He also doesn’t have a regular job but is also hustling for work. The flight was in the afternoon, I had packed the night before and I had just the right amount of money for transport and some food and water at the airport, so no dramas there. I just had to wait for Alejandro and Karmin to give them back the keys. They didn’t show up in the end… They sent Karmin’s mother Milagros instead. Milagros means “miracles” in English but the only miracle there is that no-one has ever slapped her (maybe they have?) because she’s a bit of an old grouch. It turns out it’s her apartment.

Ronaldo is not a licensed cab driver… Obviously! I don’t know exactly what the law is there but it seems I couldn’t be seen handing him cash at the airport as I was getting out of his car, so Lisi kept drilling me all morning, “Don’t forget to pay Ronaldo the money BEFORE you get to the airport!” Sure no problem. We were standing out the front waiting for him to come by with the classic American car when Lisi says to me AGAIN, “Don’t forget to pay Ronaldo BEFORE you get to the airport”… So I thought I’d give her the money there and then. “Here it is.” I gave her 30 CUC … 25 CUC is what a taxi would cost plus 5 CUC tip. Suddenly something got lost in translation and she thought it was a personal tip for her. She hugs me and gushes, “Gracias mi amor. Te amo!… Now don’t forget to pay Ronaldo for the transport BEFORE you get to the airport.” Oh Dios! And then Ronaldo arrived with the car. The money wasn’t a problem except that it was all the money that I had and now I had no money to pay Ronaldo for the ride to the airport.

I got in the car and asked Ronaldo to stop at the ATM. There are very few ATMs in Havana but luckily there was one just round the corner from the apartment. There are two machines there… I used it twice and walked past it a few times. Both machines were always functioning and although they were constantly in use there was never more than about one or two people waiting. Of course in situations like this, Murphy’s law always applies. We got there and one machine was out of order and there was a queue for the other one so long it was like Leningrad in the eighties. I begged some of the women to let me queue jump… They were ok with it so I went to use the machine. Just as I’m about to insert my card into the slot a completely psychotic Cuban woman jumps out of the queue and starts screaming hysterically like I had just raped her daughter or something…. “THER’S A QUEUE AND YOU GET TO THE END OF IT”. A bit of a struggle ensued …. I exchanged knowing looks with all the other woman. You know, that look that says, “She’s psycho, right?” Anyway, we let her use the machine and then I used it after her

Back in the car, I paid Ronaldo the money and we were off. Normally it takes about 20 minutes to get to the airport but it took him close to an hour. I don’t know if he was trying to dodge the police or wanted to do a lap of honour but it seems like we drove around most of the island before we go to the airport. Eventually we did get there but time was a little tight now.

I saw the Avianca sign in the distance as I entered the departures area. I rushed up… It was a beacon guiding me to the promised land… I felt like I had been wandering the wilderness for forty days and forty nights and suddenly here was my oasis. It was the most beautiful sight ever. I checked in and then it was off to immigration control.

The scene is Immigration was crowded and chaotic, to say the least. There was an airbus load of hysterical Russian women, running late for their flight Aeroflot flight to Moscow screaming, “Time! Time! Time!” It wasn’t a pretty sight and there must have been a sale on home hair perm solution in Moscow before their trip to Cuba. I like to think of myself as an extremely non-judgemental and unprejudiced individual but the truth is that I am a bit judgemental and prejudiced. Had it been any other nationality wanting to queue jump I wouldn’t have had an issue. Even though I had been in exactly the same situation only an hour beforehand, I couldn’t help but pretend that I didn’t understand what these Russian women were carrying on about and made it a bit difficult for them to get through

All’s well that end’s well… We all made it for our flights. I was the last person to board mine and it was one of those phot finish boardings… I raced up to the gate and straight away they called out, “Are you Martin Koskins?” Anyway, I was through and on my way to the promised land.

It was a long and tiring day but once we touched down in Colombia it was smooth sailing. Colombian people are so nice and even airport staff are really nice and helpful. I’m staying in a gorgeous little cul-de-sac in El Poblado, Medellin just five minutes stroll from Parque Lleras. It feels like Paradise! I never want to leave.

  
The view from my room…

  

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