In which we take Alex for a ride

Milagros means miracles in Spanish.

Milagros is also the name of our landlady in Havana.

I can easily understand a mother calling her child Milagro which is miracle in the singular, but what was so special about this birth that it warranted the plural?

We have decided to rent apartments through Airbnb as we travel around Cuba. When I say “we” I am sure you know well enough by now that “we” means Gordon. The alternative was staying in the upscale hotels which can be $400 to $600 a night which sounded perfectly reasonable to me and perfectly unreasonable to Gordon. And then he discovered that he could rent one bedroom apartments around Cuba for anywhere between $15 and $25 a night. Naturally he was looking at the $15 a night. Why pay $25 when you can rent one for $15.

The apartments are, to be polite, basic and spartan. While basic and spartan are not acceptable terms for me when referring to places I will be staying in, $15 a night is just about as appealing as anything can be to Gordon.

We both did a great deal of research on Airbnb but anything I came up with that was more than $25 a night got vetoed by Gordon. I don’t know who gave Gordon the power of veto (it certainly wasn’t moi!) but he wields that power with a heavy hand.

But to be fair (something that is unlikely to happen in future blogs concerning our accommodation), it was Gordon who suggested the apartment in Havana. It is a two bedroom apartment just one block from the Malecon with views of the ocean from one of the two balconies.

Certainly not a lovely view, but a view of the ocean never the less, and it would certainly have been more appealing if the sun was shining, but that never happened. The view from the back balcony is not as picturesque, but a lot more interesting as I  can watch the neighbors chatting while hanging out the washing

Compared to anything else we looked at in Havana and compared to anything else we stayed in around Cuba, it is incredibly stylish and has everything we could want including hot water (not always available), a bath (never available) and fast flowing water (unheard of).

It is also over $100 a night, an unheard of price in Cuba, and one that caused Gordon many sleepless nights, despite Milagros supplying comfortable queen size beds. Beds in Cuba are rarely described as queen size (they are always much smaller) and never described as comfortable, unless rock hard unyielding mattresses are your thing.

The apartment was furnished with wonderful vintage furniture

She had vintage chairs

A great collection of vintage radios

 

and very stylish lighting

She also had the lovely Raidel as her manager. He told us that Milagros has three apartments that she rents out, and she lives in one of the stylish art deco mansions we had driven by. We never met Milagros as she refrained from doing any hands on work, and we asked Raidel what she had done to be so well off.

He was silent for a moment, obviously deciding how discreet he should be. Fortunately he was not TOO discreet.

“She married a German” was all he said.

But it was enough

Perhaps that is the second miracle her name refers to.

I told him that the English have an expression for that which is “She married well”.

His hands flew to his face as he giggled.

After three days in Havana it is time for us to move on. If you remember we were having trouble getting a car rental, and although at the very last minute we had been promised a car and had paid for it, we had been unable to print the necessary voucher which Rex Car Rental required. We anxiously approached the counter unsure of our reception, but a charmingly cheerful woman (we are discovering that most Cubans are neither charming nor cheerful) behind the counter knew exactly who we were and had gone to the trouble of getting the voucher printed for us.

So we are all set for our drive to Cienfuegos, a lovely town (so we have been lead to believe) on the south coast some 200 miles from Havana.

And our next real adventure begins.

We knew and had been told by many that driving in Cuba is challenging. Even Cubans look concerned when we tell them of our plans. The first challenge is that there are virtually no road signs, and virtually no road names on street corners. The second challenge is that GPS systems do not work in Cuba. The third challenge is that many streets are one way, but you don’t find out which ones until you start driving down them and get yelled at in Spanish. The fourth challenge is that the road surface is terrible, and full of potholes.

But the biggest challenge of all is getting out of Havana

Highway 1 is the main highway that crosses Cuba. It starts outside of Havana and we have to find our way to it. We assumed that as this is the major route in Cuba there would be the occasional sign to give us a clue, but we are wrong.

We had discovered that there is an app that you can download that gives you directions on your phone without the use of Wifi. How it does that is beyond our technical understanding but it does. The only problem with it is, that it is wrong as often as it is right, and we don’t know which until we do or do not get to our destination. We also took the precaution of downloading our planned route for each day on google maps before we left the US and Gordon had taken screen shots of each. But google gives directions such as “turn left on main street”. But there are no street names.

Our MG5 stands out as one of the few newer cars on the streets. We occasionally see another rental car and realise that they all have number plates that start with a T. We wish they didn’t. T is for tourist and T is for target.

Havana is a large city and it takes us an hour of Gordon’s truly amazing map reading skills to get to a large 4 lane road on the outskirts of the city that we are convinced is taking us to Highway 1. The road is busy (well busy for Cuba) which is a good sign. But there is a car behind us flashing his lights at us, which is not. He overtakes us and puts on his warning lights and waves at us to stop.

We do, although we are very cautious and leave a large gap between the two cars.

There must be something wrong with our car, we think

Two young men get out of the car. One looks a little dodgy, but he stays by their car. The other looks nice, with clean clothes sporting a rental car company logo and an open face. He has a friendly smile as he approaches our car.

“Are you going to Highway 1” he asks in English that is way better than our Spanish.

“This is the route for trucks and commercial vehicles” he adds. “When you get to the freeway entrance the police will stop you and turn you back. You have to go another way”

From what we have already learned about Cuba, that sounds perfectly reasonable.

When we ask how to get to the correct entrance he goes into great detail. I kilometre turn right at the gas station, then 5 kilometres past the hospital turn left, past not just one but two cemeteries, and on and on. We look bewildered. He says he will draw us a map, and starts writing directions down, but again it is too much to take in. We are truly grateful for him taking the time to tell us all this but his directions are overwhelming.

How will we ever find our way?

Just as we are beginning to feel totally helpless he makes an incredible offer.

He offers to come with us in our car and take us there, if we will let him off at a freeway exit.

I fleetingly wonder why he wouldn’t offer to get back into his car with his friend and lead us there. That sounds so much more practicable.

But he is so nice and we are so grateful that we readily accept.

He tells us his name is Alex, shakes our hands and climbs into our car without saying a word to his friend and tells us to go back the way we came.

Why, I wonder, hasn’t he told his friend what he is doing?

But he tells us that he works in a car rental agency at the airport and that so many of his customers get lost trying to get to Highway 1 he is used to helping.

What a nice young man, we think. And we tell him how grateful we are.

For well over half an hour we twist and turn through the back streets of Havana while he gives directions and talks incessantly. The more twists and turns we take the more we wonder how we would ever have found this route ourselves, and the more grateful we become. We continue to thank him profusely.

“Perhaps when I come to San Francisco you can buy me a beer” he says.

At this point we would buy him anything and tell him so.

We all laugh.

Finally we reach another dual carriageway that eventually leads us to Highway 1.

“Just drop me off at the first exit” he says.

The freeway is huge. Four lanes each way with a big grassy median planted with all sorts of bushes in the middle. And not another car to be seen

As we drive, Alex gives us some tips for freeway driving in Cuba.

Always stay in the third lane, he advises, The road surface is bad and full of potholes (it is) but the third lane is usually the best. Plus the two slow lanes will have horse and carts, and pedal cabs in them (it does).

We can’t believe how lucky we are to have come across Alex. He is charming, polite and helpful. He does talk non stop but we can hardly complain. We come to the first exit and he points to a grassy area off on the side and asks us to drop him off there. There are several people already hanging around on the grass, and I wonder for a moment if I don’t recognise one of them as his friend with the car.

We let Alex off and tell him how grateful we are.

He assures us that it was nothing and he was happy to do it for such nice people.

Then, just as we start to drive away, he says

“Perhaps I could ask you to pay for the taxi I will have to call to pick me up”

We are a little surprised, but certainly can’t object to such a simple request.

Gordon and I look at each other and wonder whether $20 would be about right. But before we say anything he has pulled out his phone and is talking to the taxi company. He asks how much the ride will be.

He turns off his phone and explains at some length how the taxi companies charge per kilometre and they have different types of taxis.,

He tells us that he has booked an economy taxi, and we certainly heard him use the word “economico” over the phone. Just as we are thinking yet again, how fortunate we were to have found him, he announces that the taxi fare will be $120

For a moment we are stunned

Then we get it.

We weren’t taking Alex for a ride. He was taking us.

And he did it perfectly.

In all our years of traveling we have prided ourselves on being smarter than them. We have never been conned before. But this was one smart Alex.

He had taken us on a 45 minute joy ride, talked non stop so that we didn’t have time to think, and no doubt brought us back to the exact same spot we would have reached on our own.

It was perfect. His only mistake was that he was too greedy. If he had asked for $40 or maybe $50 he would have probably have gotten away with it.

Furious with ourselves, but unsure of where his dodgy friend is, we hand him $20 and quickly drive off.

With one eye on the mirror I speed down Highway 1, imagining Alex climbing into his friends’ car parked just round the corner, congratulating each other on fooling two more stupid tourists.

I am sure that at this very moment he is flagging down another car. There is always a steady supply of stupid tourists and they all have a car marked with a T for target.

We have to admit, it was a really well done scam

Welcome to Cuba

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2 Responses to In which we take Alex for a ride

  1. Nancy Whitley says:

    Oh sure, he was talking to the taxi company 🤥

  2. Claudette Robinson says:

    Love your blogs. So much detail, so well written!

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