As it always goes, my final full day in Cuba arrived in the blink of an eye.
After a full day of moseying through the city, Mariska and I decided to hit the daquiri bar with The Russian as a final hurrah. He had been kind enough to charge my phone in his hotel room, which by that point was at 4% battery when we met him for coffee overlooking the water at his hotel earlier that afternoon, an act for which I was eternally grateful. We closed the daquiri bar down, deciding that we needed to plan a time in a few years where we would all cross paths on the road again.
In all honesty, it’s been 7 years since I was in Australia and met Mariska, and a few days in Havana was a short amount of time to have to catch up. We see each other once every 3 years, I had calculated, thinking of the time I decided to travel to Amsterdam and she was nice enough to put me up in her apartment even though she wasn’t even going to be there for part of my stay.
There’s a sense of loyalty about being a part of the travel community that is unrivaled. My friendships from my time spent on the road are valuable and strong. The day I moved to Seattle I invested in a sleeper sofa because that ideology is ingrained in me that I need a place for people to crash. It’s my obligation to be able to offer up a place to sleep, should they ever show up at my door, because I’ve spent more than enough of my time staying in the homes of my friends all over the world.
Mariska and I parted ways the next day, as I was flying out that afternoon and she was continuing her adventure traveling through Cuba in Vinales. “See you in three years,” I said, “and let me know you are alive once you get to a place where you actually have internet.”
It’s always sad parting ways with friends. It’s a catch 22 with travel. I meet wonderful people from different places, but after we part ways, I don’t get to see them in person for a few years until our travels make us cross paths again.
I thanked Gerardo, the host at our casa, and chatted with him for a while, and he told me to tell my American friends that they are all welcome at his place. Then I wandered through the city solo for a few hours until I had to head to the airport.
Once I arrived, I had my last adventure, which was exchanging my CUC back into American dollars. Because we don’t acknowledge tourism in Cuba, the only place I can exchange money is in Cuba.
I waited in a ridiculously long line, only to be told by the girl at the desk that they didn’t have any more American money, despite the fact that there were Americans in front of me in line who she had shut down for Cuban currency as well. She told me I had to go to the currency exchange through customs.
Knowing that this could easily be bullshit, I spotted an American man who worked for United airlines standing by the ticketing booths. I asked him if there really was a currency exchange back there, and if it had American money. He said it did, but they were spotty and I’d lose money, so I might as well swap money with him, and neither of us would lose money in the transaction.
I agreed when he pulled a one hundred dollar bill out of his pocket, feeling weird about handing him cash in a public place. He told me to come wait around the corner, and he’d grab his friend who knew a guy who could get money for me.
Suddenly this felt shady, but if I didn’t exchange the money with him, whatever Cuban money I had left would be worthless once I got back into the States. I might as well be wiping my ass with it (giving a new meaning to dirty money), which would have come in handy in Cuba, but not so much in the US when I would get back to normal plumbing and bathrooms with toilet paper in them.
I was desperate, and I didn’t love the idea of this black market money exchange. What if I got caught and sent to Cuban jail? I was confident the toilets there would be terrible.
I waited until a pale, giant of a man walked out with the United worker. He said his connection was there, and to give him my cash and he would go exchange it for me.
I looked into his icy blue eyes, and said, “No offense, but I’m not handing you a wad of cash and letting you walk off with it.”
“You can trust me,” he said. “I do this all of the time for a lot of people. Mark will wait here with you.”
“I appreciate that you are being honest, but you have to understand why I won’t let you walk away with my cash and no guarantee.”
“Fine, come with me then.”
I found myself following him and a stranger he recruited along the way behind some weird back wall thinking to myself, “This is how people get murdered, but I really don’t want to bring home toilet paper money.”
His friend opened up his man purse that was filled with all kinds of cash. He found the American bills, and I wiped him clean of his stash, also avoiding the cut of money the pasty giant was going to take as being the mediator for the deal.
I finally got my boarding pass and made it quickly through customs, and waited in line at the currency exchange to get my final $160 back. I waited for an hour for the attendant to come back from her break that she told us would be 5 minutes, while people in front of me in line had to leave to catch their plane to New York, unable to switch their cash and losing their cool, as they were now going home with toilet paper money.
I waited patiently, the woman came back, and I got the last of my cash exchanged, feeling like this felt shadier than meeting a man with a man purse full of money behind a wall somewhere.
I sighed in relief and chilled out until my plane showed up, holding my bladder until I could use the plane toilet. I looked out the window sadly, wondering when I would be able to make it back to this country, and when I did, how much it would have evolved from what I had already experienced. As much as I struggled with phone service and toilets, that was part of the deal when I wanted to travel to a place that is stuck in a different time. In the end, it was surreal and had quite a charm to it that I wouldn’t trade for a fancy toilet.