Fight or flight in Cuba?

LaBodeguitaDelMediosignSo this was Havana, Cuba. A legendary destination. In a way I pity those who will travel here once the US embargo is lifted. It will lose some of its specialness by that inclusion. The independent inventive spirit of the excluded could easily be changed. I was only there for 72 hours but it felt like much more.

I was on a business trip (again!) and had offered to take my hoped for client to lunch. He appreciated the gesture in the usual way of things. But I sensed hesitation behind his agreement. “Are you sure?” I asked. He nodded but I wasn’t convinced. ^Maybe you have a better idea? Another option?” It turned out he did. Rather shyly he asked if we could have a sandwich in the street and spend the same money the business lunch would have cost in the dollar shop. Unlike in my home town where this would mean a bargain basement, here it meant a store which only accepted dollars, therefore excluding most of the local population. I’m not sure where our business principles document stood on this kind of situation but it seemed entirely reasonable to me. And he bought sensible things. Rice. Baby milk. Basic provisions. I really couldn’t – and don’t – see why this is any worse than wasting money on a fancy lunch. If it cost my company the same amount, and benefited more people – not to mention improving customer relations, then where’s the harm? And I admired his courage and humility in risking potential embarrassment by asking.

Later, back ar the hotel, I was a little surprised to be approached by a vaguely familiar face. A colleague from the London office who I recognized but didn’t know. Turned out he was a regular visitor to the place (it was my first visit) and provided me with the exactly the kind of low maintenance cover that can be so useful on foreign travels. I agreed to provide him with protection from the frequent approaches foreign businessmen apparently suffer from beautiful Cuban women out at night, and in return he would buy me rum at the regular street party that Havana turns into on balmy evenings. In fact this turned out not to be such a great solution as he was instead offered deals by their pimps which involved me too. All part of the local economy I guess. We took it in good spirit – and turned down the offers.chess-cuba

Nights are not short in Havana. By the end of that evening I had drunk in the bar that lays claim to Hemingway, met a Frenchman who claimed to be a close personal friend of his (aren’t we all?), played speed chess at the top of a tower (not with these guys pictured, obviously since they are  top Cuban players. but luckily against a beatable opponent) and a Spaniard who is still the only person I ever met who shares my exact date of birth.

The next day, when I was due to fly back to London, brought me back to earth with a thud. Struggling with the fuzziness of a short night I was a little bewildered to find the airport in pandemonium. ahead of me in the check out line fist fights were breaking out. There were people everywhere and few of them looked relaxed. After a few enquiries I discovered that it was a national day of  protest against… nobody seemed to agree about what… so many flights were cancelled, including mine. The fights were for seats. Great. My fighting capacity is untested but a combination of squeamishness, respect for humanity and physical limitations make any prowess unlikely. What then?

I spotted my slightly known colleague in the distance and gestured astonishment at the surrounding chaos. He rushed over, grabbed my arm and ran me through the airport. I was baffled but it didn’t seem any worse than staying in the fight club queue. As we ran he explained that he had a taxi plane to the Bahamas that he could get me onto. The pilot was ready but we had to act fast. I was startled of course. When did, how did, my business trip slip into this escapade? But never mind that, here was an unexpected opportunity so I grabbed it. A few minutes later we were airborne and leaving uncertainty behind. A tiny plane. Spectacular views of the Caribbean. An altogether superior way to finish a business trip. In fact this way I got back quicker than if I had stuck to my official schedule. Especially as that wasn’t going to happen anyway.

Of course none of this stopped my ever sceptical boss being extremely suspicious once I was back in the London office. I reminded him that it had cost him less, I was safe, and I was back in the office a day earlier. “Yes but why? It seems very odd to me. what was really going on?” was his wary response. I suppose some people will always resist life’s unexpected gifts. I hope I never do.

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