It was a short flight from Cayo Coco to Havana – about an hour plus a flag stop at Las Bruces – but I still managed to make a friend along the way. He helped me with some language challenges at the check-in counter and then sat next to me on board the flight so we chatted about all sorts of things. Local life in Cuba and New York City were part of the conversation as were my plans for the rest of my trip in Havana.
I didn’t have much planned, mostly just the taxi ride into town and then a walkabout for the evening. And that’s where things became a bit challenging. He offered up that a friend would be meeting him to drive back to his hometown but that he could offer me a ride into the city first, instead. After all, we were now friends and I should be able to trust him better than a random taxi driver from the queue. Thus began an incredible couple hours of my visit to Havana.
By every rational measure this was a bad idea. I essentially accepted a gypsy cab solicitation from a stranger in a foreign country. I had zero support infrastructure at my disposal and pretty much all much possessions – cameras, computer, passport, cash, etc. – in a couple suitcases that I loaded in to an impossibly small car. But the three of us, all of my stuff and all of the imports from my travel friend piled in and headed off into town. Their conversation was, unsurprisingly, all in Spanish. I barely speak the language but there are a few words I can understand, like muerte, death. Yeah, that doesn’t really calm the nerves when driving with strangers. It turned out to be harmless, of course, as they were discussing how all the petrol stations in the area had swapped diesel and unleaded and cars were dying on the road. But that was jut one of several bits of the conversation which gave me pause.
Soon thereafter they asked if I wouldn’t mind making a quick stop. It seems my friend needed to visit the bank to have some papers certified to get travel documents and there was a branch along the route. If I wasn’t in too much of a hurry he’d like to make the stop. In for a penny, in for a pound, right? We pulled off the main highway and on to some side streets, eventually stopping in front of the bank. He got out and invited me to join him. In the horror version of the story this is where things go badly. The driver – with all my stuff still in his car – takes off in one direction while the guy runs in the other. I can chase but I stand little chance of catching either. This is the scenario playing out in the back of my mind as I smile and agree that a stop is no inconvenience and I’d enjoy seeing that local culture.
And, of course, mine was a completely normal experience. Or as close a one gets to such in Cuba. He completed his transactions and I then asked him to help me change my tourist pesos into the local ones (exchange rate is 26:1). Having local pesos facilitates shopping at some of the smaller stalls and street vendors. We walked around the corner to the official money changing station and completed the transaction. He helped translate to ensure that I got bills in every denomination as part of the swap so I could see them all. He also made sure I got a snack from a street vendor: fresh churros from a guy nearby. They were delicious.
Eventually we made our way in to the old part of the city, near to my hotel. At this point the part where he wasn’t a real taxi became a slight problem; he had no idea where to go on the small streets at the heart of Habana Veija. Fortunately the offline maps I had on my phone were working and we got close enough for me to walk the final block in. The ride took nearly two hours rather than the 30 minutes it should have and I didn’t get a discount on the fare versus a regular taxi. But I had a WAY better experience. Even if I was nervous as hell the whole time.
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