Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Stranded in Cuba

Stranded in Cuba
01/24/2017 05:47 pm ET
Chaya Block

Full time college student, part time writer, with a passion for dance,
travel, health and fitness and meeting new people.

This time it is Cuba. Last week was Nicaragua. It's 9 am, and we've just
arrived in the airport of the last leg of our summer travels through
Central America. We enthusiastically exited the non-air-conditioned
international terminal, schlepping our heavy backpacks with sweat
dripping down our brows.

The backpackers we had conversed with in Guatemala had specifically
advised us against bringing cash, but rather to take out money from the
ATM at the airport to avoid hefty conversion fees. Unbeknownst at the
time, all the people we had spoken to were European and thus unaware of
one minor detail, that Cuba does not accept US credit or debit cards.
With only $25 USD cash left from our travels, we had no idea what we
were in for.

Heading straight for the ATM, we thought our plan was simple; we would
take out enough cash to last us for the next four days. I inserted my
card into the ATM, and received an error message. So we tried again. And
again. And again. We tried this with every debit and credit card we
possessed, to no avail. We were not too concerned at that point, as we
were certain we would find a way to take out cash. We left the airport
with our pre-arranged taxi that cost $25 USD and headed to our Casa
where we would be sleeping. Our plan was to drop off our backpacks and
figure out our precarious money situation.

Our first stop was the local bank in Havana. It was a boiling hot day
and there were lines out the door. Frustrated Cubans were pushing each
other to gain entry into the bank. As my friend and I are not Spanish
speakers, we knew we had to find an English-speaking local to help us.
Luckily, we met Gina, a kindhearted Cuban who saw two distressed
American girls and decided to literally adopt us for the day.

Gina stayed in the bank with us for two hours, trying to call her
friends and see if there was any way we could take out money from our
American cards. It was at that point we realized our money problem was
going to be more problematic than we had anticipated. Stress started to
seep in. Coupled with the boiling humidity and lack of food and sleep,
it was not a great combination.

Gina, who sensed our anxiety, warmly invited us to her home to speak to
her husband and see if he had any novel ideas. As we walked into her
house she proudly exclaimed "Mi Casa Es Tu Casa" and thanks to Flo-Rida,
I actually understood what she meant. Gina's husband wisely advised us
to walk to the local hotel and speak to the concierge who may be able to
help. Twenty minutes later, we were told the following, "There is no way
your credit card will be accepted in Cuba. Your only hope is the
International Bank. And even that..."

We left the hotel severely distressed and disheartened. To have an issue
when you are traveling is challenging, but to have one in a third world
communist country brings challenging to a whole new level. Without any
access to Wi-Fi or phone communication we were stuck in a traveler's
worst nightmare.

Not ones to give up easy, we ran to the international bank. It was just
our luck that due to the heat and a broken air-conditioning the
international bank closed its doors at 1:30 PM. We showed up at 1:40 PM.
Although the doors were closed I could see people inside so we
frantically started to bang on the door. At this point we were royal
messes. With tears streaming down both of our faces, it was a pitiful
site. Thankfully the man fixing the air-conditioning felt sympathetic
and opened up the door to the bank.

We ran inside to find someone who spoke English. After explaining our
situation, they told us there was nothing they can do, but suggested
going to another bank called Western Union. This would be our only
option. Directions when you can use Google maps are a piece of cake, but
in Cuba finding our way to Western Union was no small feat. The man
fixing the air-conditioning realized we would never find our way to
Western Union and kindly accompanied us.

Outside Western Union, was a kind security guard who told us to wait and
we would be seen shortly. Twenty minutes later, we walked inside a tiny
room with one little lady sitting by a desk. Thankfully Mr. Fix the
Aircon (for lack of remembering his real name, "Angel" also works)
decided to stay with us until we had the situation under control. The
lady at Western Union explained that we needed to use someone's phone to
call the USA and transfer money into a local Cuban's bank account. Mr.
Fix the Aircon graciously allowed us to use his little Nokia mobile to
call the USA, but with limited money left on his prepaid account, we
would only have a few minutes.

A frantic phone call for money is not something I have ever done before
(nor something I hope to ever do again). My friend tried calling her
dad, who did not answer his phone. Next, I dialed a family friend's
number. The immense pressure and headache that kept on growing made it
hard to think logically. It is hard to describe how it feels to be stuck
in a country without any money. My brain was flooded with thoughts of
sleeping on the street, or crashing at Gina's house, or selling the
jewelry I was wearing. We were considering returning to the airport and
trying to get on a plane to Mexico, but did not even have money to get
back to the airport. As all these thoughts are flying through my brain,
my friend Sam miraculously answered the phone. When I heard his voice, I
was lost for words."Chaya, are you OK?" I heard but could not respond. I
knew I had to say something so I replied, "I will be OK, I just need
money urgently."

We took turns crying. My friend, who was not crying at the time and
could speak, took the phone and quickly tried to explain the situation.
We had exactly one minute before the call was disconnected. We were not
sure that he had not heard all the information needed for the transfer
but all we could do was wait. 30 minutes later, he called us back and
told us he would transfer the money.

In the meantime, Sam called a dear friend of mine, Sari who lives in
Israel to ask her advice. He was worried we were being kidnapped and
held for ransom. Sari called Mr. Fix the Aircon's phone to hear if I was
OK. She told me she had already Googled the local Cuban police and was
about to report a kidnapping of two US girls. Whilst all this drama was
occurring my friend and I were sitting and frantically waiting in the
little cubicle for the lady at the bank to tell us that the transfer was
successful. Two hours later, Sam had miraculously managed to transfer
$500 into Mr. Fix the Aircon's bank account and a few minutes later we
were holding $500.

Relief and disbelief, flooded through my entire body. Words aren't
sufficient to describe how we felt holding that $500. We could not
believe that our dramatic quest for money had come to an end and we were
free to continue our travels. We profusely thanked Mr. Fix the Aircon
for helping save our lives and gave him $20 (which is apparently
equivalent to a month salary). The contrast between the vulnerability we
felt without money, to the instantaneous feeling of security that
enveloped us once we were holding cash was mammoth. With a newfound
understanding of gratitude, we left Western Union and found a taxi to
take us back to our Casa.

Although at the time, being in a third world country without a cent to
your name is petrifying, it certainly makes a great story for the
grandchildren. This escapade taught me a lesson I will carry with me for
eternity. Kindness, especially when it comes from total strangers, must
never be underappreciated. Kind words, smiles and warm gestures can
literally transform a traveler's worst nightmare, into a slightly less
traumatic experience. From the medicine given to me when I had a massive
headache, to the water bottle generously donated to our cause, to all
the special angels we met on our journey that attempted to help us
foreigners - I will be forever grateful.

And last but not least, never ever travel without cash, especially in a
third world country!

Source: Stranded in Cuba | The Huffington Post -

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