Standing in the street in front of a line of cabs in old Havana, I tell my Cuban travel minder, “It’s not my fault I missed the bus, it never came to my hotel this morning,” “You have to take a cab now and pay the driver the 20 dollar fare to the airport,” she insists.
“But I don’t have the money,” I exclaim.
Through a bit of bad planning and a bunch of plastic cards that are worthless in Cuba, I have only one twenty-dollar bill left in my bag for the airport tax. But it seems I need $40. 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.
In the backseat of the cab I see beautiful old Havana speeding past. Leaving Cuba is hard anyway. I’ve explored only a small part of it. Taking a bus on my own down to Trinidad, one the most well preserved colonial towns 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 just got off his horse. The grizzled meat vendor directed me up the next street, to the house on the corner of the square. Evenings there 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 as I’d ever tried. Life seemed to have a different pace and purpose here; to take it in through every sense, intensely, relentlessly and doused in a good deal of sweat.
But I didn’t think it would be literally difficult to get off the island. “You can get another foreigner at the airport to give you the twenty dollars for the exit tax,” the driver tells me, expecting me to give him my last $20.
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 half way 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 think, 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 5 pairs of earrings are tangled on my palm. “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 shacks again, more slowly this time.
All at once 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 slowly at each other. Five pairs of earrings makes this an expensive ride, but worth it because I can still pay the airport tax and get back to New York. And he won’t have to choose just one girlfriend now for a while.