April 26, 2010
Vero Beach, Florida (We are back in the land of bland. But at least there is plenty of it)
Sitting on the dock in Hemingway Marina, Havana we were enjoying coffee in the sun, in the warmth and amongst the palm trees. Not too shabby.
Our reverie was interrupted by a crass overture from Nelson, the dock "fixer". Every dock in every planned economy has a Nelson - the go to guy for blackmarket cash, cigars, cheap (off the books) taxis, women. Whatever you want. Crass and these guys go together so I do not know why I wasted the adjective.
We did not like Nelson. He was a bully. I guess that is a positive characteristic in his line of work. The guards, the workmen, the dockmaster, everyone on the official payroll at Hemingway knew Nelson and either took orders from him or tolerated his existence. Nelson knew who to pay off.
The workmen and guards all walked to work or rode bicycles. Nelson drove a car. A rusty metal flake blue Lada with only one headlight working. But to drive a car in Cuba denotes undreamt of status and wealth beyond imagining. In Cuba well educated people in responsible jobs are making $15 CUC a month. Doctors are paid $20 to $25 CUC a month. Even wealthy Cubans cannot afford cars.
Twice a day Nelson rode his blue metal flake chariot into the mdst of "his" empire and showing his colours and ensuring that all present understood who was in charge. Nelson ruled. The Lada was his crown and his sceptre.
Immediately he parked the car, almost always with a beautiful woman riding shotgun, Nelson would emerge to discuss the day's affairs with the head Guarda. The woman, not always the same one, was left sitting idly in the passenger seat for as long as Nelson chose to leave her there - an hour or two or three. Just another demonstration of his power and wealth.
The dockmaster, on those rare occasions when he would deign to be seen on the dock, would greet Nelson warmly. Fidgeting during the conversation, the duplicity of it all getting to the rotund major domo of a dockmaster, the man would quickly dissociate himself and return to his office to "work. Very Busy".
The assistant dockmaster refused to recognize Nelson's existence. It was clear the assistant resented the presence of Nelson but was powerless to do anything about it. My conversations with the assistant disclosed a deep well of resentment towards the rotund little dockmaster whom the assistant believed was less educated and far less experienced that he, the assistant. I was never sure if the resentment emanated from a wellspring of Eliot Ness like purity or just the bitter realization that the better connected if obese little dockmaster was getting the juice from the association with Nelson while he, the superior man was forced to do his bidding.
Nelson had approached us almost as we docked at Hemingway. He offered to exchange US Cash into CUCs "off the books", and to arrange taxis. He took umbrage when we informed him we were not interested in his illegal money changing proposition or his illegal taxis. Our position was not based on any silly desire to adhere to the ridiculous laws of Fidel but Nelson wanted to change our cash at a rate that was far worse for us than if we used the Cadeca or Cuban Bank. He purported not to understand anyway but of course he was merely disappointed that we knew the exchange rate game.
Similarly Nelson's informal taxis were 20% more expensive than the government taxis.
Nelson hoped to gain advantage by taking advantage. In our case he hoped to benefit from our ignorance. This situation is like a cup of tea. The jerk can offer but I do not have to accept.
So there we were on day #2. Nelson had been dismissed by us as a :"goto" person for anything and we hoped not to see him again.
Nelson had one more ploy and he pulled it out of his playbook as we sat in our cockpit innocently drinking coffee and enjoying the placidity of Havana.
Nelson introduced us to what appeared to be a tired old man. His name was "Indio" explained Nelson and he was an expert woodworker. Indio wanted to work on our brightwork (the outside wood on a boat).
Nelson of course had to "interpret" for Indio. A couple of minutes was all that was necessary to sort out that Indio wanted to remove all of our Cetol on exterior wood and replace it with varnish. We indicated we wanted to keep the wood under Cetol but would be content to have him work in that coating. Sadly Indio had no Cetol. Meredith had no Cetol left.
It looked like we had dodged an incoming missile from Nelson.
Oh, but, but, but.
The Budget Committee wondered "could Indio work on our salon floor?".
"Oh, yes" offered Indio, now oddly fluent in English. "I do very good work. Perfecto".
Now, the Budget Committee has been fuming about the sad condition of our floors since May. The mechanic who swapped diesels for us managed in the process to wreck havoc with our teak floors. Apparently no one teaches respect for the customer's property in diesel mechanic school. Our floors were a mess and I knew it.
It was her birthday, or had recently been, I reminded myself.
That sunk my battleship. We began to discuss terms. And that is a topic for another blog.