Travel is all about the people you meet along the way, this is a short story of some of those people…
Years ago under a merciless sun in a distant country I stood in the shade of hotel building, desperately trying to connect to the lobby password.
I was covered in dirt, my legs were shaking and my bicycle laden with all my possessions lay on the ground boasting a flat tire and broken brakes. My friend had gone in search of accommodation, and since my tire was useless l waited for her return. We had been in contact with an individual on couch surfing but after an initial positive reply we had arrived with no response at the given address or any way to make contact. The sun was slowly giving reprieve as it started to sink and the shadows were lengthening ominously, in desperation I was starting to eye the park as a possible resting place. Anna and I were in the south of Serbia on route to Istanbul and we were on a budget which literally translated into, we needed a place to stay for free.
Still no luck with the internet and as l was starting to lose hope, two cyclists rode across the square and pulled up in front of me. I was greeted with the usual who are you? where are you from? where are you going? And then they noticed my flat tire. Immediately they started to pull my bike apart, l knew how to fix the flat but the problem was that the previous mechanic had tightened the nuts holding the wheel on so tightly that try as l might with my pitiful arms l could not get the wheel off. In a jiffy they had me sorted and then proceeded to try to arrange accommodation for the night. My friend Anna reappeared and together with these two gentlemen they proceeded to go through a list of grandmothers and aunts that might have place for us. In the end we were situated in a beautiful apartment and were given the bedroom while our new hosts slept on the sofa. Soft towels, hot water and a delicious dinner to top it off! It just didn’t get better then that, Serbian hospitality at its finest.
I never forgot the people who opened their homes and kitchens to me and l always vowed to return the favor in kind when given the chance.
And then came Cuba.
I was waiting outside in line at a Cadeca, a money exchange house in Havana, with two Australian men that l had met the previous day. We talked and laughed when out of the corner of my eye l saw a handsome man walk down the street. He was wearing expensive clothes, white leather shoes and carrying a bag that probably cost my years salary. He entered a extravagant hotel opposite us and l had a brief flash of envy. I was staying in a 9 dollar bed in a shady part of town, with broken air-con and a street that you didn’t want to be caught out on alone after dark. I had sneaked a peak into that same hotel just a few minutes earlier, the cold air a seductive pull in contrast to the sweltering 35 degrees l was standing in. The entrance was marble floor and gold statues, there was a fountain in the courtyard beyond and the miniature garden surrounding it was dark green and inviting. My max expenditure was 25 dollars a day including boarding, that hotel was out of the question.
Image by Bryan
For a minute l imagined what it must be like to be rich, to wear designer clothing so elegantly and walk with that assurance of wealth. Not budgeting or having to choose between food for the day or a night out. But nothing good ever came from comparing so l returned my attention to my two mates. Then we heard a voice beside us. It spoke with an Australian accent, and as we turned l recognized the same handsome man, he excused the intrusion but said that he had overheard the accent and was wondering if they had been able to use their Australian bank cards at the exchange house. They replied that they had indeed and we exchanged names and found out that he was there for the weekend. He owned a chain of Mexican restaurants and was visiting his tequila suppliers in Mexico when he decided a weekend in Havana for some fun would be a great idea. In Cuba they only allow one person in at a time to exchange money, hence the wait outside, so when it was our turn we said goodbye and went our separate ways.
The next day l was walking alone through the cobbled streets of old Havana. I had navigated my way there and was feeling very self sufficient and pleased with myself for managing to find, flag down and catch the correct local transport required to bring me to the more affluent area of town.
Photo by Pedro
l had a luxurious 4.5 dollars to spend on breakfast which needed to include my water for the day and l was contemplating my usual street kitchen stall that sold fresh tomato pizza when l heard someone shouting my name. Turning in surprise l saw that it was the man from yesterday. He was running toward me, l waited for him to catch up, and when he did he exclaimed how happy he was to see me and proceeded to tell me the misadventures that he had experience since our last meeting. It turns out that wealth sometimes brings with it a certain lack of planning as money is usually all that is needed to sort out any problem. In Cuba there are certain restrictions placed on foreign currency and bank cards. In fact it is almost impossible to pay by bank card for anything as internet is restricted to certain areas. As he was unfortunately in possession of the type of card that is invalid in Cuba (In fact both of his cards) and with no cash he was literally reduced to a beggar. He had spent the day after our meeting going from one Cadeca to another, the banks were tried to no avail and in desperation he tried to find a embassy but with no luck. With no phone signal (they block your phone provider as well) and no means of communication he was stranded, and had spent the night on the street, reduced to asking passerby’s for water.
He sheepishly asked me if l could buy him a bottle of water. Mentally l deducted the 1 dollar bottle from my current budget and the fresh pizza seemed to drift further out of reach. But this was not a request that required deliberation. We got water and l bought him a pizza which he actually inhaled and we set about trying to solve his dilemma. I was due to meet the two Australians later that day and since they were renting an apartment l told him we could surely arrange a place for him to stay and give him the money to get to the airport the next day. He kept lamenting his position walking past restaurants where he moaned that although he was well able to afford them they were hopelessly out of reach. He kept trying to convince me that he was rich. I didn’t really need convincing, it would be a lousy con artist that attached himself to a poor backpacker for a bottle of water and pizza. I assured him that l was more than happy to pay back some of the kindness l had received on my travels.
We met up with my friends later that day and together we came up with a solution. Since they both had the same bank provider in Australia, (just a different type of card, debit versus credit) we would find a internet zone and using a prepaid internet card he would transfer money from his account via a phone app to their account. Once they received confirmation of the transfer they would withdraw the funds from the bank. Problem solved.
Image by Eric
After a frustrating hour of trying to connect to the wifi signal we finally had success. He then calmly transferred 1000 dollars into their account. We were all a little stunned as he had less that 15 hours remaining in the country. He noticed and gave us a concerned look, wondering if we thought it was too little. We assured him that 1000 was plenty for the evening and together we walked to the nearest bank where he withdrew the pile of cash.
Almost immediately the tables were turned and it was my turn to be taken out. The rest of the evening was a brief glimpse into the life of the privileged, cocktail bars, restaurants with waiters in black tie and several courses the size of a thumbnail. Cuban cigars dipped in honey, the best mojitos I have ever had, a live band singing Pavarotti, and a underground nightclub reserved for the elite, all blended into a night that cost more that my monthly budget. He left in a taxi for his 6am flight and l was left reeling at the experience. Travelling isn’t always easy, some days I really have been stranded and left to sleep in a bus station or eat a two day old hard-boiled egg for lack of anything else, but it always rewards you with moments like this.
And it pays to be kind to strangers.
Image by Jaume