In search of surrealism in a Cuba Libre

libreI really thought I had jinxed everyone after my last trip to Cuba in July. I came back and wrote in the “Weekly Day Tripper” that if you can get into Havana you ought to go to the new hotspots on the Malecon, Vida Via and Café Neruda.

That suggestion emerged in print just about the time I arrived in Cuba for my second trip this summer, just one step ahead of Hurricane Gustav. When I walked out on the

Malecon on the most recent trip, however, both places I wrote about were empty. I mean stripped clean. All the tables were gone. Even the glass façade from Neruda was gone, sold at a Cuban bankruptcy sale no doubt. Some travel writer I must be I thought. As soon as I write about a place, two places even, they are out of business.

I also promised in last week’s “Tripper” that when I got to Cuba I was going down to Pinar del Rio to visit the Cuban wineries. I had to change that plan, too, however, after the hurricane went through leaving a path of destruction 50 kilometers wide. I thought maybe they aren’t doing wine tours today.

In July, Leydanis’ cousin Yunior drove us around in my car. But this time Yunior disappeared with the car the day of the hurricane. He showed up next day with the car all dented in and covered in mud. I asked Leydanis how it got so messed up. “Just out on the street in Havana during the storm,” she purred. I got in and asked why the full tank of gas was empty. “Just from driving around Havana. That car consume mucho.”  What about the extra thousand kilometers on the odometer?  “I don’t know anything about that. Yunior told me he stayed home all day.”

So after three years with no problems the jinx of this trip hit and she all of the sudden turned aprovechista on me, finally taking advantage. I didn’t have time to go round and round to find out how or why. I just had to leave Leydanis and Yunior in a cloud of dust when I peeled out, but that was tough in all the mud after the hurricane.

It turns out one strange consequence of Yunior’s thousand kilometer joy ride (on a day all the roads were closed because of the hurricane???) is that it passed 40,000 on the odometer. In the strange rental world of Cuba, that means the customer has to find a Cubacar maintenance shop, wherever you may be, and stop to have the oil changed and do other maintenance. It doesn’t cost anything, but if you don’t take the car to their shop and have the maintenance done, you have to pay a $120 fine. In what country on earth does a rental car company ask its customers to take a half day of their time to go and find a maintenance shed on the far side of the city and wait while the oil is changed?
I thought such surrealismo could only occur in Cuba. So I picked up Ariadna, the only person who might find the whole adventure amusing, and we went and found the Cubacar shop.

And when I returned to Havana I found I was not as unlucky as I thought. Café Neruda and Vida Via had not gone out of business. They had only cleared out in advance of the storm. I went to eat there, but this time it was horrible. Leydanis showed up at my house that night to ask me for 50 pesos convertibles for her rent. I gave her the 13 in my pocket just to get rid of her.

The trip back, just ahead of Hurricane Ike, seemed like it was going very smoothly. You go through US customs in Nassau, which is much better than doing it in Atlanta, where they are really rude to you returning from Cuba even if you have a congressional delegation in tow. This time I got through US customs without a hitch. No one so much as asked me if I had a cigar, much less glower and try to intimidate me.

When we got to Atlanta a little Delta employee with a pocket protector would not let us off the plane and onto the concourse. He said we had to go through Customs. Of course, every Delta flight from Nassau, three times a day, goes through Customs in Nassau, but Charles in Charge insisted that was not so and made us go through Customs. So there I was, back at Customs in Atlanta. One of the passengers tried to burst his way through the cordon, insisting, correctly, that we had already been through Customs, and insisting, not so correctly, on his right as an American to go where he pleased.

Maybe the search for surrealism is not so simple. Maybe you don’t even have to go in search of it.