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Saturday, July 14, 2018

That Time I Almost Got Trapped in Cuba...

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Victory Photo after Recovering Bag
It's been nearly two months since I nearly got trapped in Cuba, but I pulled this out of my travel journal because I thought it was a story worth sharing. This is a story of one of the most dramatic days of my life, when I lost my passport and almost got trapped in Cuba, if it weren't for the favors and trustworthiness of a few kind people.

The date was Friday, May 25, 2018. After a few months of excitedly waiting to land in a place that had been shut off to Americans for decades, my friend Rob and I were preparing to leave the airport. Upon exiting the sliding doors of the airport, we were instantly swarmed by cab drivers that wanted to take us to our destination. After sitting in the back, Rob moved our backpacks to the front, so there was room for him to join.

After determining that we had been quoted a reasonable price (at least for foreigners), we hopped in a cab and made our way to our AirBnB. We were heading to central Havana where we were meeting our two friends who had come the day before. While this sounds like a simple task, keep in mind that we knew little Spanish, had no Internet, and weren't entirely sure where the AirBnB was actually located.

When we arrived at our destination, we saw our friend Ethan, who happened to be returning from grabbing coffee at just the right time. I grabbed my carry on and Rob grabbed his bags, and we hopped out of the car as fast as we could to catch his attention. Ethan pointed down the street and said that our AirBnB was actually a few blocks away. We would've never found it if we hadn't run into him.

Just as we were sighing with relief, Rob looked at me and exclaimed, "Brandon, where's your backpack?" At that moment, I looked towards the street and saw the cab cruising away. I tried to run towards it, but it was too late. The driver did not see me.

After standing there hopelessly for a few minutes to see if the driver would realize my bag was in there and turn around, we retired the effort and headed to our AirBnB. We had no Internet or any knowledge whatsoever of how to contact the cab company (or even what cab company it was for that matter). We called the host, and she told us she'd be there as soon as possible. The minutes leading up to her arrival felt like a century. Would I ever get my MacBook, Beats headphones, and most importantly my passport - my ticket out of this country - back?

Despite being in a crisis, I couldn't help but take photos when I saw cool cars along the way.

When our host arrived, she began talking with Ethan and Andy (other friend) in Spanish and looked extremely concerned. Her first recommendation was visiting the police station.  We walked for what felt like forever, until we arrived at a small, local police station. Our host talked with the people in Spanish for a bit, but they directed her to another station that was even further away.

A Police Station or a Castle?

We walked again for a while, with no idea where we were going. Finally, we arrived at our destination: a huge police station that looked more like a castle than a police station. When we walked in, we saw a huge, open space with walls covered in portraits of Fidel Castro and old relics. At first glance, it felt like a strange place, but when we walked up to the counter and they directed us to take a seat and wait, it began to normalize and feel like any other police station.

Finally, we were called, and we entered a small room with the officers. Our host, Ethan, and Andy explained to the officers what had happened, and they looked worried and began to brainstorm ideas. They left the room for a bit and re-entered with a police report that they had drafted. They then directed us to the U.S. Embassy (which is technically closed because of the recent incidents of American workers becoming mysteriously ill). 

We were going to take a taxi there, but we had one too many people for the taxi. So, we decided to walk. We arrived a little after 3 PM, and the guard at the door told us that they closed at 3 PM on Fridays. Because we had walked, we had barely missed them being open. The guard took our police report, walked in the embassy for a few minutes, and returned to tell us that we would have to come back on Tuesday, the day of our flights. The embassy was closed on Monday for Memorial Day. The guard told me that I could get a letter permitting me to leave the country, but because they were closed, I would risk missing my flight.

The waitress was definitely judging me after I had a strange craving for lemonade, espresso, and a mango shake all at the same time.

At that point, we needed a break. We had just walked miles across the city in a frantic several hour journey. We bid our AirBnB host farewell, thanked her for her efforts, and stopped by a local joint where we had dinner and sampled some local juice and espresso.

The Rusty Nuts

After our small break, we determined that taking a taxi to the airport was our best choice. We ended up finding Hector, a comedic driver with a hot red classic car with stickers on each window exclaiming its title as the "Rusty Nuts." 

We took the long trip back to the airport, but Hector made it a bit less stressful with his humor. While Rob and I understood little Spanish, Ethan and Andy were able to communicate with him relatively well. We understood enough Spanish to pick up his humor though and laughed the whole ride to the airport.

When we got there, we saw members of the same cab company that we had ridden with there. We walked up to the person who looked like the organizer, told him why we were here, and at that moment, recognized our cab driver walking towards us.

He walked up to us and informed us that he did indeed have my bag. He also told us that he had driven the whole way back from the airport and waited for three hours where he had dropped us off; we had just missed him. 

He walked us to his cab, showed me the bag, and had me look through it to verify that everything was there. After, he kindly asked for 30 CUC, the cost of a ride from the airport, since he had driven back to where he dropped us off. I happily handed him more as a thank you. He was confused at first but was super grateful when he realized that I was tipping him. When Hector saw I was tipping, he asked where his tip was for bringing us here and laughed.

I could not believe that I had recovered my bag. The MacBook inside of it literally cost more than the locals make in months, and the honesty of that driver had been unbelievable. He could have fed his family for years with the cost of what was inside that bag. Both the cab driver and the AirBnB host had given up hours of their time to helping me, and I could not have been more grateful for their kindness. Because of them, I didn't miss my flight, and I am now happily back in the U.S. 
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