Julia Stiles on Being Stranded in Havana
By JULIA STILES
With three days left to go in my trip, I was walking around Havana flat broke. I had been spending my convertibles, the secondary currency used by tourists, like Monopoly money. I figured when my cash supply got low, I'd simply slow down my spending. With funds dwindling, I realized I had miscalculated the cost of my lodging, and forgotten about the exit fee at the airport. Cuba is not a place where one can access American banks or use credit cards, so if you run out of cash you cannot get anything. You can't even get off the island. I had been staying in a casa particular, where specific families are licensed to rent out a bedroom in their homes by the night. The couple putting me up had become like my surrogate Cuban parents; Carlos knew just how I took my coffee, and would stay up waiting for me if I came home late at night. We would sit in their sun room and chat about everything from rations to folkloric dance, and I couldn't bear the thought of not being able to pay my bill. When he tried to teach me a Spanish phrase using the tricky subjunctive tense, the example he gave translated to, "I would go out with you tonight if I had the money..." I almost choked on my own tongue. What could I sell? Who did I know that I wouldn't be ashamed to ask for a loan? How would I ever reimburse Carlos and his wife if I couldn't send a check back from the States? I thought about reciting monologues in the Plaza Vieja for spare change.
I could swallow my pride and ask to borrow from someone in the humanitarian aid group that brought me, but they had already left for the other side of the island. With few cell phones, most everyone is still accustomed to leaving messages at someone's home and waiting for a return call. My younger sister, who was there with her college, had agreed to cover for me. That is, if anyone could find the person to unlock the dormitory safe, and that could take days. I knew I might not starve, but I would have to beg, borrow or steal to pay for the rest of my stay.
I replayed every expense that had gotten me to this point. If only I had argued with the taxi drivers more. If only I had waited in the very long lines with the locals for a better exchange rate, instead of lazily going to the Hotel Nacional. I was under the impression I had been quite frugal, but I was so accustomed to thoughtlessly using credit cards, I had underestimated how much cash to bring even just for the basics.
There are two currencies in Cuba, one for tourists and one for Cubans, and therefore two prices for everything. The first day I arrived, I wandered into the part of town everyone warned against to hear some live rumba. The music was free, but the overall experience was not. Two women decided to take me under their wing, explaining customs and the symbolism behind their dances. In exchange, they seemed only to want me to buy them drinks, and I was happy to oblige. "From each according to his ability," I figured. It's easy to romanticize the socialist ideals graffitied on every concrete wall, because generosity seems to be contagious. Obviously the reality is more complex.
I knew that the painfully slow connection at a hotel was too expensive for me at this point, but I was told of a student's residence hall that had a computer room. I snuck in and logged on to their ancient PC. Of course I got caught, but pleaded with the attendant to just give me five minutes. Before I was able to address my cash situation, an email from friends back in the States sidetracked me, congratulating me on a Golden Globe nomination. There I was, thrilled to have received such a professional honor, yet still unable to barter it for cab fare.
In Havana, everything can seem poetic. At movie theaters and baseball games, a few entrepreneurial people strap cardboard boxes to their shoulders and sell "Rositas de Maiz." Instead of calling it popcorn, though, Cubans refer to the treat as "little roses of corn." As elated as I was about the recognition from my industry, it would afford me no special treatment on this remote and yet not-so-distant island.
Eventually the Keeper of the Safe was located, and I was able to borrow money to pay for my housing. My host generously offered to drive me to the airport in his 25-year-old stick shift, and I boarded the flight to Miami. With all of its crumbling beauty, Havana taught me the true value of a dollar. It also taught me that the people you know, and the ways in which you rely on one another, are more valuable than any paper currency.—Ms. Stiles will be appearing on Broadway this spring in the Neil LaBute play "Fat Pig."