After an incredible amount of fun in Remedios, I made my way to the very quaint little village of Gibara. It’s only about a half hour from Holguin, which is a good sized city, that had an immigration office that I needed to visit.
I had decided to stay in Cuba for two months. Much, much longer than any ‘normal’ tourist stays in the country. I’m guessing here, but the vast majority of folks fly in to an airport convenient to the all-inclusive (government owned) resort that they will spend 7-10 days in, drinking as much cheap draft beer as possible and eating their (included) buffet. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Back to the airport and off they fly to some god forsaken (Canadian) city where it is many degrees below zero, still.
Since I didn’t fall into this category of tourist, I think the Castro brothers had their eye on me. It all came to a head in Gibara.
First let me explain exactly how the Cuban government is watching what pretty much everyone is doing.
On arrival in Havana I bought a Cuban cel phone line. Passport please.
I already explained the process of getting internet access. Passport please.
Every single night I stayed in a casa particular. A typical Cuban household to whom the government has given permission to rent out a room or two or three. The owners of these houses, normal every day Cubans, pay the government a monthly fee (Tax? That’s not very Socialist, but that’s what it amounts to, a tax), whether they rent those rooms or not. Competition is fierce. And rightfully so……at $20-$30 a NIGHT, these casa particulares can be a lucrative business for a Cuban who would make $20 a MONTH working for the government. Anyway, upon check-in to any casa particular, the owner immediately asks for, you guessed it, passport, por favor, and duly registers you in ‘the book’. They are obligated, by law, to report to the local immigration office (with their book), every tourist who checks into their house. No exceptions.
The government office for changing money (see note 1) is called ‘Cadeca‘ (CAsa DE CAmbio, get it?). Or, you could go to the bank. The government owned bank. Regardless of which one you use (the cola will be long in both places, the employees, making $20 a MONTH, will give absolutely not one good god damn how fast or slow they “work” and the ‘ultimo‘ game will be played with vengeance in either), you will be asked for your passport.
So, they know your cel phone number. They know when you are on the internet and what you are looking at on the internet. They know EXACTLY where you are sleeping each evening AND they know how much money you are changing and thus spending. Oh! Buying a bus ticket? Passport, please! So they know where your going as well.
Creepy, right? Paranoid? Maybe…..but listen to this…..
Here’s my Costa Rican passport. See the number at the top beginning with E? That’s NOT my passport number. See the number below that begins with 8? That IS my passport number. It EVEN SAYS, IN SPANISH, NUMERO DE PASAPORTE!
Well, it seems that the immigration folks at the Habana airport checked me into the country with the top number (see note 2). Every move I made from that day forward, getting my cel phone, getting internet cards, checking into casas particulares, changing money, getting a bus ticket…… it’s anyone’s guess which number they were using.
And there in lies the rub. The man couldn’t keep track of me properly.
I lined up at the immigration office in Holguin (‘Ultimo!’) to get me visa renewed for another 30 days. I waited 6 hours. I was issued an extension on my tourist visa with no problem. It’s completely legal and it costs $25. It’s just that most tourists don’t ever ask.
I left the next day for quaint little Gibara.
The next morning, Monday, the owner of the house I was staying in, Lily, asked me to come sit on the patio with her and have a little chat. She informed me that the local immigration officer had called her and was inquiring about me. Hmmmm.
What was it that they wanted to know, I asked?
They asked Lily if I was ‘acting’ like a normal tourist. Was I doing anything out of the ordinary? Was I meeting with any Cuban ‘friends’?
Then the bombshell. The immigration dude asked Lily if I had spent the entire previous day and night watching “American Football” at the (government owned) hotel in town? Hmmmmm and wow! BUSTED!
Lily warned me that I was being watched. She told me that I was probably being followed. She explained to me that I should be very careful from now on with whom I talked to and hung out with and where I went. She told me I shouldn’t use my cel phone. She also told me I had to leave her house.
She insisted it was simply a scheduling conflict, that a group of Canadians had reserved all her rooms and she no longer had a room for me. I still don’t know if that was true, or she simply wanted to rid herself of what could have become a major problem for her, namely me. The government could yank her room rental license in a heartbeat.
She, very nicely, arranged for me to move to another casa particular around the corner. So I did.
Same procedure at this house. The owner asked for my passport and filled out ‘the book’. I settled in to my new digs and within 15 minutes the owner was knocking on my door telling me that I had to come with her to the immigration office, they wanted to talk to me. Hmmmmm.
Off we went to immigration.
Meanwhile, the Holguin Sailing Team was practicing in Gibara Bay…..
I walked into the immigration office and a very, very stern looking woman, dressed in the olive drab of the revolution, immediately barked at me (in Spanish, obviously), “Why are you using two passports?”
“I’m not using two passports, comrade”, I told her.
“Let me see your passport!” she barked some more.
I opened my passport to the page with my entry stamp in it. Stamped into Cuba, right here, see? I then patiently explained the two different numbers that seemed to be confusing EVERY SINGLE PERSON who asks for my passport.
As it slowly dawned on her that what I was explaining to her was correct, she immediately tossed her compatriots that work at the Habana airport under the guagua (see note 3). I explained that THIS number (the one beginning with 8) is my passport number, NOT this one (the one beginning with E). She argued that, no, the one beginning with E was my passport number. UMMMMMMM, NO, it says right HERE, above the one beginning with 8, NUMERO DE PASAPORTE!
To put the matter to rest, I whipped out my other ammunition. My Costa Rican driver’s license AND my Costa Rican cedula (national ID card), both bearing the number beginning with 8, because that is how they do it. That is my number!!
Reluctantly, she relented.
And she asked me to do her (the government) a favor. From here on, whenever I used my passport to check into a casa particular or change money or buy an internet card or buy a bus ticket or do whatever, could I please tell the person taking my info to use THIS number (she pointed to the E) and NOT this one (the 8).
Will do, lady. I will instruct them to use the wrong number. Whatever. Can I go now?
Down the road I would have trouble with this issue again, but by then it was just humorous and not scary. The scary part was trying to actually leave the country.
For more on Lily, please see note 4.
Next up……..Holguin, Bayamo, Santiago de Cuba and Baracoa!!!! Whew!
1) ATM machines are pretty much non-existent on La Isla. All money changing must be done at either a government owned CADECA or a government owned bank. Cash is king, still. Especially Euros. US dollars get stung with a 10% commission on top of the official exchange rate. I was traveling with Euros.
To make things even more complicated, if that’s possible, Cuba has two official currencies. Yes, two separate types of money. There is the Cuban Peso, for Cubans, and the Cuban Convertible Peso for tourists.
2) Coming through immigration at Havana airport I was asked, oddly, “Have you been to Africa?” I think they are afraid of Ebola.
3) Bus. Cubans call a bus a guagua. Pronounced wa-wa.
4) Lily was an awesome lady. I really enjoyed staying at her house and we hit it off really well. She had a great sense of humor. I am grateful that she felt comfortable enough even telling me that immigration was inquiring about me and warning me to be extra careful. She put herself at risk trying to help me. She had a son, Gabriel, who also was very cool. The day before I showed up, some relative had just arrived from Miami bearing gifts. One of those gifts was a metal detector. Gabriel was convinced that there was gold in Gibara, lots of gold. Many of the houses and buildings in town date from the 16 and 1700’s. Pirates used Gibara Bay and the town itself as a hideout. Legend had it that every now and again someone would do some renovation to their house, tear down an interior wall, say, or dig up the back patio to fix a leak, say, and discover Spanish gold doubloons. Lots of them. One old women, it was rumored, accidentally punched a hole in the ceiling of her kitchen with a mop handle and out poured so much coinage that she immediately packed her bags and was never seen or heard from again. I helped Gabriel put the metal detector together and off we went to his grandfather’s (Lily’s dad) house. We searched high and low, inside and out, but, alas, no gold. Had a nice lunch with the grandma and grandad though. Treasure enough for me. Lily’s boyfriend, also a super nice guy, named Yadiel (Cuban’s love using Y names), was a pigeon racer (see note 4a….what? a note within a note….get out!), and he took off one morning headed for Camaguey to release his pigeons. Apparently it’s a big sport in Cuba. The pigeons arrived back from Camaguey before Yadiel did.
I got a few text messages from Lily over the next several weeks asking how I was doing and if everything was OK. Such a nice lady. Thanks Lily!