What’s that huge knife for? (a Cuban roadside adventure)

Pirates brought me to Camagüey. Not in the way that you might have hoped but bear with me while I set the scene a bit anyway. Currently Cuba’s third largest city, Camagüey sits about three quarters of the way down the island East from Havana. It used to be on the Northern coast, but its position near the sea turned out to be convenient for pirates and the town kept getting raided, notably by Captain Henry Morgan of subsequent spiced rum fame. Irritated by constant pillaging, somebody decided that the most sensible course of action would be to move the whole settlement inland by about sixty miles. No sea means no pirates and I can’t really fault that logic.

The version I like is that they then redesigned it like a maze that so that any pirates who did manage to get in would get all lost and confused and the good townspeople would be able to kick their plundering asses out of town. An alternate version involves a boring lack of planning and everybody wanting to be close to a church, so I’m going to stick with the pirates for now because running all over the world looking for pirates is exactly my kind of my jam. Anywhere with the faintest legacy of swashbuckling, from Charleston to Portpatrick to Disneyland, I’ll be there soaking up the gory history, naively romanticising barbarianism. And I’ll be happy.

After an entire night on one of Cuba’s notoriously under-scheduled buses sitting directly in front of somebody with a persistent cough identical in sound to the dying diesel engine of a soviet era tractor, I spent my first two hours in Camagüey trying not to fall asleep on a stone bench in Parque Agramonte. I spent the second two drinking a lot of surprisingly good coffee in a bar called Café Ciudad adjacent to said parque, and the next two conversing in Spanglitalian with my casa host Gino while he fed me rice and beans and very meaty soup. Finally I got to go unleash myself in the city’s inner maze.

It’s a true treat getting lost, especially when you’ve got no wifi.

That night Gino hired a man to take me out to experience the city’s nightlife. This guy did all the talking, bought all the drinks, and I paid him at the end for everything. Of course, I had to figure all this out as I went along because none of it was ever explained. From what I remember, the opportunity for the evening’s frivolity was presented to me as “Alfredo is going out on the town later if you want to go with him” and it definitely took more than a few of drinks for me to realise that this was a service he was providing and he wasn’t actually just out for a jolly. Although he did seem to enjoy himself.

Conceptually, it was kind of a weird way to spend an evening. But this is Cuba. We’re drinking in a tropical courtyard, the live music his you straight in the soul and the Havana Club starts to flow as soon as you walk in anywhere. It’s never going to be hard to have a good time. It’s mostly a local crowd, but we somehow ended up sharing a table and a bottle of rum with a Dutch couple who were on the final night of a three-week trip and couldn’t stop talking about how much they were looking forward to getting home and eating something that wasn’t pork, rice and beans. I generally don’t trust anybody who can get tired of pork, rice and beans but they had rum and they were generous with it so I gave them the benefit of the doubt and they turned out to be sound folk in many other ways.

They had a chaperone too so it must be a thing, and at one point it became apparent that their guy and my guy had some sort of historic beef which almost turned into to something exciting but ended up not being anything that a bunch of generously poured Cuba Libres and some good beats couldn’t help diffuse. Towards the end of the night, as is inevitable whenever somebody with my centre of gravity visits a dancefloor in Latin America, a very attractive young local couple tried to teach me how to move my body properly. A very time-consuming endeavour since I have long legs and no rhythm, and one which necessitated a second bottle of Havana Club.

The point of all this preamble is that I was nicely hungover the following day when I started my attempt to get from Camagüey to the beach town of Santa Lucia on the northern coast. I waited at what looked like an intermodal transit stop for a while but since nothing appeared to be coming or going I did a quick peso check and decide to treat myself to a taxi. In Cuba taxis are always a treat. I flagged down a beautiful faded turquoise and white Chevy from the early 50s with a driver of about the same age. Anywhere else in the world this would be a tourist attraction in itself that you’d pay a premium for, but the price I negotiated was bog standard taxi price. And here that’s pretty cheap.

The interior was white and dark green and smelled of petrol and the tropics. It was hot and humid and within minutes my legs were firmly stuck to the leather bench seat, the base of which was not attached to either the floor of the car nor the seatback. I like being hot, and I really like being chauffeured through Cuba’s agricultural heartland in what is objectively the vehicular embodiment of the golden age of American design. So everything was good and I was a melty blob of hungover contentedness, enjoying the bouncy ride and very much looking forward to arriving at the beach.

About forty minutes into the journey we trundled to a halt for no apparent reason on a totally deserted stretch of very rural road. Nothing about this alarmed me as he had pulled over once already to fiddle with something under the bonnet, but this time he sat in silence for a few moments as if weighing up some very important variables, then reached over to open the glove compartment and pulled out a very large knife.

Gripping the knife in his arthritic-looking right hand he got out of the car slowly, walked around the back of the vehicle and appeared at my window. Discovering my instinctive fight or flight response to be disappointingly absent, probably because I was too sweaty and hungover to muster much of either, I went for an aggressive side eye. It didn’t deter.

He reached through the open window for the pin and unlocked the door from the inside. I scanned the back seats of the car around me but there was nothing within reach I could use as a defensive weapon. Could I take this guy on with my bare hands? He was pretty old but also the knife was pretty big. Dammit, of course I would end up being the person who managed get herself murdered by a geriatric taxi driver in a low crime rate country.

I was already quite familiar with the “ah, so this is how I die” moment of realisation and the brief sensation of dissociation it brings as it washes over you. I shook it off as at this point it was hopefully premature, and as he opened the door I got ready to go full Feisty Scot on him. He stood there, holding up the knife, really blowing what little he had left of the element of surprise, and then just started talking at me. With the limited comprehension of Spanish I had, plus the general direction of the man’s knife waving, I gradually arrived at the understanding that there was something wrong with one of the wheels and that I should get out of the car.

It was bloody hot out on the tarmac in the midday sun and we were potentially stranded in the middle of nowhere, but I had not been stabbed with a rusty knife so with a possibly-inappropriate display of enthusiasm I skipped around the car to survey the situation. Indeed, the rear left tyre had completely deflated and there was a hole in it extending from tread to rim. Still muttering, the driver rummaged in the boot of the car, whipped out a jack and a tyre iron and put them on the road beside the dead wheel, then he took the knife and sawed through the cable ties that he had fastening the hub cap to the wheel. Ah. 

There’s only so long you can watch a guy in his 70s straining to loosen a set of ancient wheel bolts under the blazing Caribbean sun before visions of you having to preform roadside CPR on his lifeless body start to flood your thalamus. When I lived in Chicago, my then-boyfriend and his best friend taught me the basics of tyre changing in the car park behind our building. Granted, that was a 2005 BMW X3 and this is a 1952 Chevrolet Styleline but, as I’m sure is an idiom somewhere in the world, a wheel is a wheel. I cleared my throat and made the universal sign for “I’m fifty years younger than you, let me change the damn tyre” and he somewhat reluctantly agreed.

Harnessing the residual adrenaline from my non-murder and converting it into lug nut super strength, I got the wheel off in what I think was pretty good time. He helped me get the spare on, I bolted it tight, he jacked down the car, and together we hoisted the old wheel into the boot, slammed the lid shut and stepped back to admire our work. Oily, dusty and exceptionally sweaty, we shared a silent nod acknowledging our accomplishments. The knife went back into the glove compartment for next time, and we continued north to Santa Lucia, where I was to have three days of now well-deserved rest and relaxation.

That was the plan anyway.

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