The evening after my friend left Vinales, a restaurant rejected my 100CUC note. They took everything else I had rather than break it. I was frustrated, but not surprised. It had been hard enough to find people to break a 50CUC note. I tried a few more places before someone pointed out that it wasn’t even Cuban money. It was a 100 Quetzales note, left over from Guatemala.
When I returned to my casa particular to get more money, I found that all the cash I assumed was CUC was actually unusable currency. How had I managed to spend 350CUC (US$350) in four days? I ran the numbers through my head and stopped when I reached 230CUC in the middle of the third day. It was true. I had used it all.
The next morning I tracked down some ATMs, tried a couple of cards in both banks and came up with nothing. I then took all five of my cards from St George and Westpac in to the branch and found that all were rejected. Nor would they change my remaining Australian dollars. I’d done my research and knew that US cards weren’t accepted, but Australian cards should be fine. I connected to the internet to get in touch with my bank to see what was wrong and found an article from Westpac stating that they followed US policy regarding money laundering etc, so cards could not be used in a few countries including Cuba. Being owned by Westpac, St George would have the same policy. Western Union, then, but according to their website they only had branches as far west as Havana.
My panic began in earnest. I owed 30CUC to my casa for two nights stay, and a bus cost 12CUC to Havana. Then I’d need to get to the airport, which was another 25CUC and I may even need to stay a night there. Then I had the problem of booking a flight out or surviving until the flight I’d booked more than a week later.
How had I, an experienced and usually well-organised, traveller gotten myself into this position? I had meant to get more money out in Cancun, but at the last minute I took a tour just to get out of the place. I expected the tour to be back by 5pm, but it was almost 10pm before I reached my hotel and my taxi to the airport would arrive in six hours. Past my normal bedtime and soaked through from the tropical rain, I wasn’t operating at maximum capacity. I managed to withdraw enough pesos to convert to 350CUC from one account, believing that would get me through the first week in case I had a problem with my card during that time. If I’d been more alert, I might have tried to get money from another account as well. Then, because of the rush, I didn’t take the time to move old money out of my hiding places into the central storage I have for foreign currencies.
When I arrived in Cuba, I headed to the placard bearing my name and said I wanted to get some Cuban money, pointing to an ATM. The driver said, ‘outside’ and directed me to a money changer outside. There was no ATM, but there would be plenty in the city with better rates. I changed my pesos for CUC.
I had gotten myself into this situation. I needed to get myself out. That might mean spending a couple of nights sleeping on the street. It might mean not eating for a few days. I was healthy enough, and the climate warm enough, that I was sure I could manage it. But I’d still need money to get out of Cuba.
I started asking around, targeting tourists because the Cubans couldn’t afford to help me. I got more desperate as each person shook their head in sympathy, but offered no money. ‘I can transfer you the money,’ I’d say, but that turned out to be difficult too. Westpac locked me out of my account and I couldn’t receive an SMS required to set up a new password. It then occurred to me that the same requirements were in place to add a new payee through both banks.
Paypal? No one I met admitted to using it, even for placing orders. I couldn’t call Westpac because I needed to use a phone. My mobile wouldn’t work and I couldn’t afford a payphone. Skype, then. I tried to set up an account, but got a message stating that my card wasn’t accepted from my location.
I was in more trouble than I had realised. I tried booking a room through AirBnB. Same problem. Blocked at every step, sleeping on the street seemed certain. Worse, I’d have to skip my casa without paying. I sent an email to the Australian embassy in Mexico asking for help.
Finally, a couple of kind German girls gave me 50CUC with no strings attached. I got the number of one and sent her a WhatsApp message, promising to pay her back when I got out of Cuba. That allowed me to pay for my casa and get the bus, but I still had to get to the airport and out of the country.
I noticed a guy in his thirties travelling by himself and told him my story, asking if there was any chance of sharing his room that night. Was there an extra bed that I could borrow? There wasn’t. He couldn’t help. I spent the rest of the ride in silence, trying to sleep, to conserve energy. I didn’t eat when the bus stopped for a lunch break, instead taking advantage of the wifi hotspot to find some way of paying for a room. AirBnB didn’t work. Bookings.com didn’t work. I ran through a few more options with no success.
Finally, as we reached the outskirts of Havana, a Norwegian couple on the bus offered to share their taxi into town, and that perhaps I’d find something there. I readily accepted and when I discovered that they were staying at a cheaper hotel, I decided to try my luck. The man on reception said that the owner knew a few tricks and might be able to help. I could sit in the common area until he arrived that evening.
The Norwegians gave me 13CUC to get some food, which added to my remaining 8CUC still wasn’t enough for the taxi I’d need to the airport, but I decided to risk spending a bit on food and headed out to see what I could find in my budget. Walking away from the tourist area, I came across locals crowding a tiny shop selling pizza in local currency. It wasn’t the best pizza I’ve ever had, but the cashier gave me change from 1CUC, so I wouldn’t starve.
It was after 10pm before the hotel owner arrived, but true to his word, he could help. An agent in the US could charge my credit card, and each week shipped the money across to him. I guess a system like this could be used to launder money, but really it just meant that the hotel could service its guests more easily.
The following morning I went in search of a bank that would change my Australian dollars. I was directed from bank to bank, finally being told I needed to go to an international bank half way across town.
Along the way I discovered a local market selling 100 bananas for 1CUC – a cent each. Walking away from there, I was joined by an attractive woman who wanted to give me a blow job and was prepared to walk all around town with me for the privilege. She dragged me to a number of other banks and money changers, trying to calm me down as each place said they could neither take my cards nor change Australian dollars. Then she quipped that I’d relax pretty quickly once she had me in her mouth. It was a surreal experience for someone who’s never even been to a strip club, but just her company somehow took the edge off my panic.
By the time even the international bank refused to help, I had realised that the hotel owner might be able to lend me some cash using the same process as I used to pay for the hotel. Then I just needed to book a flight out.
I gave the woman a few notes of local money and left her to find a wifi hotspot. An email from the embassy said that the Canadian embassy in Havana could help with a bit of cash as a last resort, which still would have left me stuck in Vinales had the German girls not been so kind.
I tried a few flight companies until I found one that would take my card despite me being in Cuba, and relaxed as I realised I had a way out of the situation and wouldn’t be sleeping on the street.
I’ve never been tolerant of beggars in any country, but I guess that will change after this experience. I still think that local people should take care of their own, and that the benefits in Australia are sufficient to keep people off the street if they so choose, but I now realise that not everyone can make use of any support that exists. Will I be able to tell the difference, though?
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