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Cuba

The horror!  Caryn had used the money for my first class ticket the studio had sent her to upgrade everyone to business class.  None of them had any sympathy for me.  At least I wasn’t jammed into a middle seat.  Actually, business class wasn’t all that bad, but I wasn’t going to let Caryn know that.

Cassidy claimed the aisle seat next to me.  Normally I wanted the aisle for my long legs, but Fritz had made it clear that one of my security people should be between any danger and me.  I’d agreed, because I had been attacked on a plane before.  The other thing he insisted on was that I had to wear my birth-control, black-rimmed glasses that acted as a body cam.  I’d gotten used to wearing them, so it wasn’t a problem.

Turns out, Cassidy was terrible security.  She slept the three hours it took to fly to Miami.

In Miami, we were directed to customs where we had to produce our special papers for travel to Cuba.  When I’d gone to the UK, I’d only had to show my passport, but for Cuba you needed special entry.  We were sent to a special section where we found the rest of the cast and production crew who were to fly to Havana on our chartered flight.  There were twenty of us and we were the last to arrive.  We soon boarded a much smaller plane than we’d arrived on.  This time there was no choice about seating class.

When we arrived at Havana, it was nothing like I expected.  London had the feel of history, as did Havana.  As we rode in our taxi to the hotel, I caught glimpses of seductive beauty sidled up to spectacular decay.  It was obvious that the city had gone through some hard times.  While clean, many buildings showed signs of neglect.  There was also a unique smell.  It was a combination of papaya mixed with tobacco leaf, gasoline, and a musty, moldy smell.

The other thing that you noticed was the heat and humidity.  It must have been at least 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity.  It didn’t help that the taxi was a 1957 Chevy with no air conditioning.  The heat and humidity was almost a physical thing weighing you down.  It was hard to get your breath, almost as if you were breathing under water.  The one thing I was sure of was that my deodorant wouldn’t survive for long.

The movie was being filmed at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, and we would be staying there as well.  The grand entrance featured a long drive with palm trees lining the median.  It was built in 1930 and had a Miami feel because of its Art Deco design.  You walked in to check-in and found yourself in a hall that had a twenty-foot wood ceiling, and plaster arches with Spanish tile around the bases and along the front of the check-in counter.

While everything was top notch, you got the feeling that you’d stepped back into time by about sixty years.  I think what gave it such a dated feel was the furniture.  It all seemed to be right out of the 1950s.  When I got to my room, that notion was reinforced.  I had a couch that was French provincial and looked like it had recently been bought at an antique shop.

As I unpacked, I found I had another problem.  The plug-ins for electricity were for two-pronged devices with round pins.  I couldn’t even plug in my new Google phone to recharge it.  I should have found that out, because I’d done my research on Cuba, but I never found that piece of advice.

While I puzzled out what kind of adapter I needed, I began to worry that it might be a different voltage.  It would totally suck if it fried my phone.  Caryn would give me a ration of shit about breaking it the first day.

While I finished emptying my carry-on there was a knock on the door.  It was a porter with my boxes that had been shipped.  I saw he had some helpers and they were delivering them to everyone else.

“Do you speak English?” I asked.

“Si, a little bit.”

“Can I tip you dollars?” I asked.

“Si, of course.”

I pulled out a twenty and I saw his eyes get big.

“Would this be enough for everyone?” I asked to indicate the two other men.

“More than enough.  I am Cedro.  If you need anything …” he responded, and snatched the twenty.

I got the feeling that for another twenty I might have someone killed.

Dinner was in a private dining room that held about thirty people.  It had all the people that had flown in today and then there was a head table where I saw Laurent Vance with a few other people who looked to be important.

When everyone arrived, the waitstaff brought us salads, and a young woman stood up at the main table.

“I’m Anita Haig, Production Assistant.  I want to introduce a few people, if I may.  Seated next to me is Laurent Vance our Director.  Next to him is Kitty Ellis, Assistant Director, and Roger Brooks, our Producer.

“I also want to point out a couple of people who’ve joined us: David A Dawson who will be playing Rick, Stewart Thatcher who plays Callum Ascot of MI6, and Heath Rooter playing Mike Carter of the CIA,” Anita announced.

Stewart looked like he could play James Bond, while Heath was a character actor that I’d seen in many movies.  He had to be almost sixty.

“While you eat I’m going to give you the dos and don’ts while you’re in Cuba.  First of all, I know some of you discovered the outlets in your hotel rooms.  I have a box of adapters with me.  Please see me before you leave and each of you can have a couple of them.

“Let me give you a little background about Cuba.  Until 2011, there was an import ban on cars in Cuba.  That meant that the majority of the cars on the road are classic cars from the 50’s.  It’s against the law to hire an unlicensed taxi.  You can tell if it’s a licensed one if it has a meter in it.  Also, make sure they turn it on when you begin your trip.

“The average gross national income per capita of Cuba is officially $5,539, but the take-home salary for most Cubans is around $20 a month.  There are separate currencies for tourists and nationals.  While it’s not illegal to possess American dollars, it is discouraged.  The hotel can convert your money for you, just ask for the manager and he will help you.”

That might have been why Cedro had seemed excited when I tipped him for delivering the boxes.  Anita continued after the main course was brought out, a chicken breast with black beans and rice.

“Please remember: safety first.  Always have someone with you when you go anywhere.  Don’t wear anything flashy or carry a lot of cash.  Cuba doesn’t have a high crime rate, but with such low incomes things happen.  First things first; look out for street hustlers.  Don’t fall for the free picture, because there will be a fee.

“Another thing you need to be careful of is to never take a picture of the police or military.  It’s against the law here.  I would also avoid making negative remarks about communism or Fidel Castro,” Anita continued.

I would have to remember to be careful when taking pictures and remember that Cuba wasn’t a free state like it was in the US.

“One strange thing is it is considered rude to blow your nose in public.  Cuba also has suffered from years of embargos.  One of the things you will find missing is variety in your food choices.  They are a bit lacking if you’re used to condiments like ketchup, hot sauce, pepper,  jams, cinnamon, and peanut butter.  They simply don’t have them.”

I might go through withdrawals without hot sauce.

“What about Internet access?” a girl in the back asked.

“Three things … it is expensive and slow … you also need to be aware that your access may be monitored.  Only five percent of Cubans actually have access to the uncensored, open Internet,” Anita answered.

“How should we tip?” I asked.

“Good question.  The majority of locals in Cuba working at your hotel—such as your housekeeper, bartender, waiter, and hotel desk staff—make very little money for hygienic or personal care items. That’s why many tourists bring along extra toothbrushes, mouthwashes, toothpastes, floss, panty hose, etc., to leave for them as gifts. Believe me; locals are incredibly grateful for these items.  We have a stockpile of such things you can pick up to give as gifts,” Anita suggested.

“Is it safe to drink the water?” someone else asked.

“Cuba is a very clean and hygienic country. However, drinking tap water is not highly recommended and might leave you with a nasty case of diarrhea or upset stomach. Opting for bottled water would be my recommendation,” Anita shared.

“I tried to order papaya, but the woman selling it was offended.  Did I do something wrong?” a young man asked.

The people at the front table laughed.

“Sorry, but papaya is a vulgar slang for … a vagina.  They’ve actually renamed it fruta bomba,” Anita shared.

She turned to the table she was sitting at.

“Did I forget anything?” she asked.

“Personally, I like the rum here.  A rum and coke with lime is normally called a ’Cuba Libre’ in Latin America except in Cuba. Here, it’s called a ‘mentirita’ or ‘little lie’,” Kitty Ellis, the Assistant Director, shared.

“Speaking of rum, you are able to take both that and cigars home with you.  In Cuba, cigars are called ‘puros’ or ‘habanos’.  Americans are able to bring back $400 worth of goods from Cuba—including $100 in cigars and rum,” Roger Brooks, our Producer, said.

With that done, Anita sat down and Laurent stood up to talk.

“I have some good news.  If you noticed, the actors only received scripts for their part.  I normally am not one for secrecy, but we needed to obtain permissions to film certain things.  This movie is set in 1959 when President Fulgencio Batista was ousted on January first.  Our movie is set during the chaotic time right after that.

“The new government, led by Fidel Castro took power.  One of the first things they did was confront the American mafia.  They had been pouring money into Havana and built hotels with casinos.  One of the first things Castro did was require his people be present in the counting rooms.  The mafia didn’t like that, because that was where large sums of money went missing.

“Castro decided to remove them and shut down the casinos.  His own people talked him into reopening them, because they thought the loss of tourism dollars would be devastating to the economy,” Laurent told us.

He took a drink and continued.

“The other thing in play was the revolution.  In 1957, the US imposed an embargo on Cuba and withdrew its ambassador in protest over the brutal means President Batista used to subdue revolution.  The US was even less happy when Castro’s revolutionaries took power.  The US attempted to achieve regime change, most notably their failure at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.  Because of the US’s hostility, Castro turned to Russia for support.

“The storyline for the script was originally based on the then Sir Richard Jackson’s accounts of his time in Cuba as a teenager.  Lord Jackson has helped us as an advisor.  The reason for the secrecy has been that some of the things that happened had been classified and we needed to get permission to show them in our film,” Laurent explained.

I remembered reading the Richard Jackson saga.  I only remembered a brief description of him in Cuba where he met some Soviet missile soldiers at a hotel in Havana.

“Lord Jackson has allowed us to take great license with his story and expand the role that Rick participates in.  We’ve gone far enough off the original story that it bears very little resemblance to what really happened, but we wanted to expand the scope to include much more of the actual history of what happened during that turbulent time,” Laurent further explained.

“Tomorrow we will get started early.  I will need the actors to be on set first thing so we can get costume sizes confirmed and give you all period haircuts,” Kitty announced.

Hearing that someone as successful as Lord Jackson was involved in this project made me happy.  He’d actually been a movie star in his youth.  I really hoped that I would get to meet him at some point.