Quickly stuffing away my Cuban convertible pesos that I had gotten in exchange for a bunch of Mexican currency, I had saved my Euros for another time, I took a deep breath and started looking for a taxi at the airport in Havana. I had barely any time to pick one of the yellow cars to approach when I heard someone asking me where I was going. It was a fellow traveller, tall with a giant backpack, one sports and one paper bag in each hand who looked a bit over dressed for the summer like weather three days before Christmas. He asked if I were willing to share a cab to the city center, hoping to be able to save some money or at least get a better price for two people. Having little to no language barrier to overcome but still being on my own, I suspected the worst. Some sort of scam maybe. I asked where he was from and upon hearing France I immediately was able to place the familiar sounding accent.
Guillaume was a sports teacher from Paris backpacking Cuba on his own during winter break. He had come in just now from Charles De Gaulle Airport, as he claimed, but the strong scent coming from his clothes, which gave away a slight hint of onion, suggested that he might as well have been on the journey for a couple of days by now. Havana, even from its outskirts, reminded me of one of the photo books one could find in the travel section of any bookstore. I had arrived in a picture volume come alive.
As soon as we dropped off Guillaume at his Airbnb, I gave the driver the address of my hostel. Having low expectations of success in finding it, I suggested he leave me by the University of Havana. Earlier travels and short-term stays abroad had taught me that known landmarks were easier to find destinations than actual streets with numbers. Alfonso however, was determined to get me to my hostel and refused any alternative solutions. We kept driving through the narrow streets of Havana with no interruptions from other cars as there were barely any around but having to stop occasionally for the people who inhabited the otherwise empty streets lined by pastel colored buildings that would have absolutely no chance of withstanding an earthquake should there ever be one. Having come from Mexico, that was the first thing that came to mind. When we arrived at my building in what seemed a residential neighbourhood beyond the touristic areas, Alfonso swiped back and forth on his GPS. Out of sheer curiosity he entered the name of the University and let out a triumphant laugh. There, see, he said in Spanish. This is how far you would have to walk had I left you there. He pointed at the blue dotted line on the screen and nodded.
Growing up I have been told many times not to believe everything that was on the internet. It turns out that, depending on where in the world you are, this warning does not just apply to odd sounding news articles or text messages coming from strangers, but also to the information found on the websites of mobile network providers.
Expectation: Telcel has a network agreement with Cubacel. I researched that, so everything should be fine.
Reality: Can’t connect to mobile network Cubacel. Love, your overpriced smart phone that is of no use to you here.
Under any other circumstances I would have been happy to get some digital detox and disconnect for a while but with my mother waiting to hear from me back in Mexico I had to think of a way to communicate. Nowhere else in the world has speaking the language of a country earned me so much respect from the locals like on the American continent. So I asked the owner of the hostel if I could use the landline phone to call Mexico and give her the money back when I paid for my room. Aleida gave me a sad look and enlightened me on the fact that the phone in this building had no way of making calls outside of Cuba itself.
It was beginning to get dark outside and the booths selling phone cards in the park had closed only 10 minutes ago. I made my way upstairs and stepped on the balcony of the recreation room. Some households indeed had a WiFi connection these days but none of them were open. For a moment I thought about giving up on trying to write home and get an internet card first thing in the morning instead. Not sure about what to do next I looked around and stayed focused on the opposite building. Through the wide open windows I could look into the living room of a Cuban family. A little boy was watching TV sitting on an old brown couch that stood in high contrast to the light blue painted wall and a navy blue rug on the floor. Below me I heard children laugh and people talk. Party music was blasting all the way from somewhere I couldn’t see. Even at night and with the streetlights giving barely any light, the streets were full of life as they would usually be during the day. I watched the faces of the little girls being illuminated by the bright screens of their smartphones and wondered about how strange it was to see modern technology all over the place like that but having no way to reach the world beyond Cuba.
The thought of my parents waiting to hear from me didn’t let me rest. I went downstairs and asked Aleida for some change on my 20 pesos bill. The five pesos bill in my hand, I stepped outside and walked towards the park only a few blocks away. The ETECSA kiosk was closed as expected. Using the mixture of helplessness and frustration running through my veins to my advantage, I got up the courage to ask around where I could possibly get WiFi. A couple bent over their smartphones on one of the benches pointed to a group of young men across the soccer field. They had the password to the network, they said. I should ask them. So I did.
Sure, I can connect you, said the young fellow I approached in my shaky voice. Holding his hand out he waited for me to hand over my phone so he could enter the password. He noticed my tension as I reluctantly handed over the little device and told me not to worry, returning it quickly, the little WiFi signal blinking in the upper right corner of the screen.
I handed him the bill of five convertible pesos which was the currency for foreigners in the country. Knowing that I had given away my state of desperation, I expected him to take all the money for himself, charging me anything he wanted. A single woman hectically asking for a WiFi connection in the middle of the night probably was the best thing that could happen to him. After all, he made his money by letting people use the megabytes on the internet cards he bought at the kiosk, usually charging about one peso for twenty minutes or so. I was way a too easy target to think positive and put my prejudices aside this time. I didn’t care about the five pesos, which were the equivalent of five dollars. I was willing to let myself be ripped off if that meant reaching my parents and getting my peace of mind back. Before I knew it, the Cuban youth pulled up a chair and told me to take a seat. Shortly after he came back with my change of four pesos, petted me on the shoulder and told me to take all the time I needed to reach home.
I have never been so happy to be wrong about something.