Since I’m skipping around chronologically, this story requires a bit of prefacing. Back in the day, before porn, air, and freedom became free; pornography really was a multi-billion dollar business. We all worked online, so there was absolutely no need to travel. However, anywhere more than two webmasters could assemble in an exotic location for “trade shows”, “networking”, and most importantly shenanigans we would do just that.
It was such an occasion when my business partner and I found ourselves in Panama City, Panama (not Florida’s “Redneck Riviera”). After a few days of hedonism, dozens of Colombian hookers, and an ounce of Devil's Dandruff, the rest of the group was going to continue the “webmaster excess” tour to Costa Rica.
We were faced with a conundrum: Do “more of the same” in Costa Rica or do something “really gangsta” and go to Cuba. You can’t take a flight directly from the United States, but you can go if you’re already in a foreign country.
Over dinner with Fabian, a business associate who later became the head of Manwin/Brazzers/Youporn and was busted for multiple money-laundering attempts, both in the United States and Germany, was telling us how awesome Cuba was. He claimed to “go all of the time” and could set everything up through his “travel assistant”.
My business partner and I had always been curious about Cuba. We figured we'd take his word for it and accepted his assistance.
Although some things have changed culturally between the United States and Cuba since 2007, this was the state of affairs at that time:
1. Under all circumstances, Americans were forbidden to travel there.
2. Because of the embargo, any ATM and Visa tied to an American bank was useless.
3. You have zero internet access.
4. Your cell phone becomes a paperweight; there is absolutely no cell phone service.
5. In summation, Cuba isn’t so much a foreign country — it’s a fucking time machine!
We made our “plans” the night after a 5-day bender in Panama. We woke up at 8 AM and cabbed to the airport. We had booked two tickets on COPA Airlines from Panama to Cuba, maxed-out every bank card to scrape together enough cash for four days in Havana. We pre-paid the “travel assistant” for the hotel, so we should have more than enough money when we got there.
At the airport, I was informed that my flight was overbooked, and I'd have to fly standby. At the gate, COPA put me on the flight BEFORE the one I was supposed to be on. My business partner's flight to Havana was only 30 minutes after. They rushed me to another gate, boarded the plane, and my bags were still on the original flight.
Here is where the shit hits the fan…
I tell my business partner since I would be getting there before him, I would wait for him outside of immigration. I arrive at customs in Cuba. It was probably a stupid idea; I was wearing a DARE (Dare to Resist Drugs and Alcohol) t-shirt. In hindsight, the only word they could probably read was “drugs.” This woman, a customs official, started interrogating me in broken English.
She leaves and comes back; this time accompanied by some nice gentlemen in military uniforms with assault rifles, machetes, and precious little English. Fumbling nervously through my English to Spanish dictionary, I tensely try to explain my flight situation, which probably sounded something like this:
“My name is deferred payment albatross. Would you please direct me to the nearest water buffalo although my hovercraft is infested with eels.”
The customs officials became more confused and kept coming back with a more menacing looking men carrying bigger guns. Fuck, this is getting ugly.
This goes on for 45 minutes. Finally, my business partner's flight arrives. Momentarily, I feel relieved, until the woman asks if “Es tu amigo?” I say, “Yes.” So, they start interrogating him with equal tenacity.
They strip us of our passports, drag us into separate interrogation rooms before we even can get our luggage, which was spinning around on an empty carousel, surrounded by a dozen drug sniffing cocker spaniels. They ask us to point out our bags and the second phase of the interrogation begins.
They take us to another room where they start going through my luggage with a fine tooth comb and taking notes on clipboards of everything I was saying. When we left Panama, we didn't even finish the ounce of cocaine because it was so strong we gave the remainder of it to the hookers. At any second, I am expecting something I’d forgotten to be found in the “drug pocket” of my jeans.
Mentally, I've already resigned myself to a 20-year stint in Guantanamo Bay, locked up with terrorists. Meanwhile, the customs officers drag my business partner to the back room which he later described as being “loaded with pliers, hammers, and electrical equipment”. There was a flurry of activity from the airport security. They must have found something in my luggage. Fuck! Then the lady begins questioning me about a “Samsonite 10 Year Warrantee” card that was broken into pieces at the bottom of my suitcase!
Yes, the Mattress Police are real!
“¿En qué hotel estás permaneciendo?” (in what hotel are you staying) they question.
“NL Hotel”, I respond (it is only the best-known hotel in Havana).
“No hay tall sugar hotel NL!” (translated, “they never heard of it”) they mock.
“¿Quién es Charles Bukowski?”
She suspected it was anti-Castro propaganda and scribbled that down as well. They keep repeating the same questions going back and forth between my business partner and me to see if our stories matched. This continued for over three hours.
Finally satisfied, the lady says, “I’m sorry, welcome to Cuba.”
Outside it was literally like stepping into Zoloft-land. Everyone is happy. The sun shined brightly. I finally see my partner emerge from immigration with a look of sheer terror on his face. At the information counter, we ask about Hotel NL and suddenly everyone knows exactly where it was! Those sadistic motherfuckers!
We grab a cab to the hotel. Fabian told us it was part of a Spanish chain and our Visa would work because it would appear to be billed by a bank from Spain. Upon arrival, we found this to be untrue. All of a sudden, the money we had brought would now be for our hotel rooms, leaving us very little cash with no access to more.
After that shit, we thought we ought to see Havana. Outside our hotel, this guy approaches us, who speaks English. I am good at spotting a scammer, but this guy wasn’t triggering any alarms. He recommended this bar for “the best Mojitos in Havana.” Truth be told, I don't even like Mojitos, but we agreed and walked to a nearby bar. The next thing we know, Cuban gangsters are surrounding our table trying to sell us cigars; of all the toxic things I've put in my body, the one drug guy despise is tobacco. I didn't have any interest. It became clear the menacing crowd of street thugs weren't going to give us any choice but to “buy” their overpriced cigars. So we wind up getting robbed and were lucky to get out of there with our lives.
It was good we left some money in the room. In just a few short hours in Cuba we had been tortured, robbed, harassed, and were going broke fast. So, we went back to the hotel and tried to get on the next flight to ANYWHERE, but were informed no flights were available until the day we were scheduled to leave.
Trying to make plans was difficult. We were getting billed 4$ USD per minute for phone calls. Fabian told us our money would be sent by Western Union and everything would be fine. We go to the pool for lunch. In my opinion, Cuba is boring, packed mostly with vacationing baby-boomer Europeans. We walked down to old town Havana, which seemed pretty cool, until we made it to the ocean. I was wondering why no one was in the water until I saw the oil pollution that would make the Exxon Valdez look like an oil leak from a ’79 Chevy! Under the rule of Castro, Cuba never had emissions standards. Hence, what could be beautiful beaches were now an uninhabitable oil slick you could light with a match.
Still aware of the imminent monetary issues, but hell-bent on doing something fun — we decide to go out to a club Fabian recommended. The place sucked. I would rather eat a cyanide capsule buffet than hear one Reggaetón song again! We cut the night short, but not before a rather embarrassing Mexican standoff with an obese 50 year-old-pear-shaped Dutch stewardess my business partner was trying to pick up at the hotel bar.
We wake up the next morning, need to square up the hotel bill and are left with a mere $83. We needed $50 for the “exit tax” and at least, $25 for the taxi to get us the airport. We would have checked into a cheaper hotel, had we not been constantly assured the cavalry was coming.
At 1 PM we were getting kicked out of our hotel room with eight bucks in pocket and 32 hours left in Cuba. Even worse, the four dollar a minute phone is the only way to make contact with the outside world. Then the desk calls: Fabian's Western Union transfer had “failed.”
The concierge tells us of a place called “Touraid” to help stranded tourists. After being given countless sets of wrong directions, we find “Touraid” and it is nothing more than a medical office.
We go back to the hotel, Fabian's assistant phones us again. There was another change in plans. The money would be sent from Miami, (which made no sense all) to some guy named Hector. This was wrong too, because of the embargo, the only money that could be sent via Western Union was to American military personnel.
The hotel agrees to extend our room for two hours so we could get our shit together. At this juncture, I am ready to kill Fabian. Never once during this whole ordeal did he ever personally take charge of the situation, instead kept delegating our dilemma through his network of $200 per month virtual assistants.
Next, they said our money will be sent via airbill on Copa, but nobody can give a time or flight number. If we took a cab to the airport and the money didn’t show, we wouldn't have enough money for the “exit tax” and would have a big fat Cuban stamp on our passports. We’d need to stiff the hotel, ditch our baggage, and spend the rest of our time dodging authorities or we’d be rotting in Guantánamo Bay.
At 1 PM they shut our phone off to outgoing calls. All we could do was stare at the phone and wait. Just sit and wait. To add insult to injury, from the rooftops of the hotel across the street these annoying motherfuckers started blasting bagpipes NONSTOP! To this day, this is the closest I've ever come to the brink of insanity. Here I was sitting in a hotel room in Cuba, waiting for a telephone to ring, while the din of Scottish bagpipes slowly drove me closer and closer to a nervous breakdown. I finally lost it, and started shrieking, “Will you motherfuckers quit playing those goddamn bagpipes!”
We had to weigh our options:
1. We could sneak out of the hotel and spend the night on the streets trying to dodge the authorities.
2. Camp out at the airport, where the police would surely be looking for us with those scary ass customs motherfuckers from the beginning of this disaster.
3. Turn ourselves over to the American Embassy for a $12,000 fine and get our passports taken away.
Finally, with only minutes left on the clock, the front desk called us to inform us that some kind soul, having nothing to do with Fabian, named Richard Burry from the Netherlands had squared up our tab and given us enough money to leave.
Richard, you are a good man, whoever you are — muchas gracias!
In 2007, Cuba was the last Warsaw Pact Marxist Communist country left on planet Earth and a perfect demonstration of why Communism doesn't work. The guy who cleans the bathroom makes the same wage as a brain surgeon! Very few philanthropists would aspire to higher things in life!
The saddest thing to ever happen to Cuba was Che Guevara and the glorious Revolution. Yet, many Cubans, hippies, and Rage Against The Machine fans were brainwashed into glamorizing goons like Che Guevara and Castro — they failed to see the real victims were the Cuban people. It is sad the outside world bought into the rebel mystique. Had JFK pulled the trigger on the Bay of Pigs, maybe he would have lived and Cosa Nostra would still be running the island. Vegas would've never existed. As soon as Castro takes a dirtnap, Cuba will open to the West. The island will again bathe itself in the cobalt-green-light of capitalism.
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