A.J. Twist Has Trouble Hanging Onto His Phone; Part 2

By AJ Twist / Posted April 15, 2015

One of my pleasures of travelling to Cuba is trying new hotels. I find this is one of the best ways to experience both their varied levels of hospitality but also to get to know a neighborhood. So it was with great excitement that I headed to the city last November to experience a recently renovated landmark (whose name I shall protect so that I don’t end up sleeping in the laundry room for my next booking). And the hotel delivered. A beautiful lobby, attentive and knowledgeable front desk staff and heavy security at the front door. All was looking good.

I had a busy week ahead of me but I decided to taste the local scene and I headed to the local café that first evening with a friend in tow. We found ourselves closing the place several hours later. This was problematic as I had a bus tour scheduled at 7:30 the next morning to Viñales, in the Pinar del Rio province of Cuba, to explore tobacco plantations. However, A.J. Twist always rises to the occasion and at 7:15 AM I appeared in the hotel lobby to catch my bus.

As I entered the lobby from the elevator (the lights were low and not much was happening there as it was a Monday morning) I noticed a smartly dressed man (black suit, shiny black shoes, white shirt, black tie) chatting with a couple of other hotel guests on one of the numerous couches near the front entrance. I presumed he was hotel security as he was dressed in the same way. As I approached to rest my weary bones (my head, actually), and await my bus, he gave me a cheery “Good morning! How are you, my friend?” I said ”Hola!” and waited. He continued his conversation with the others.

7:30 came and went with no bus, as did 7:40 and 7:50.

As I had not booked this excursion myself (a local friend took care of that for me), I started to become concerned and headed outside of the hotel with my voucher in hand to see if I could see the bus anywhere.

The smartly dressed gentleman from the lobby also exited the hotel and asked me what I was waiting for? I told him I was supposed to do a bus tour of Viñales. He asked to see my voucher and then quickly said, “Oh, your bus is down this way. Follow me.” Gingerly, I started to tag along (I am the first to say my brain was not exactly clear as a summer’s day) and we headed down a side street bordering the hotel. As we were getting further and further away from the hotel, I started to hesitate but sure enough there was this large, older bus parked on the street with a driver and his girlfriend just waiting for the day to begin. My guide quickly said a few words to the driver (in retrospect, it appeared there was some on-the-spot negotiations transpiring) and then he said to me “Sir, this is your bus. Let’s get on.”

The bus was of a vintage similar to many of the city’s cars, circa, mid-1950s, and its windows were lined with purple curtains. I thought this seemed strange but, as I had not booked the tour myself, I surmised that maybe my friend had found some budget operation that might be more of a true “Cuban experience”.

The driver turned over the engine and off the four of us went (the driver, his girlfriend, my “guide” and I).

at the bus station

at the bus station

The guide said that we must go to some other hotels and a bus station to pick up other tourists for the tour and, after that, we would head off to Viñales.

As we were driving, he asked to see my voucher again. I knew my friend had told me the tour included the bus, the tobacco plantation tour and a full lunch at a traditional Cuban restaurant.

My guide said, “You know, sir, this does not include your lunch today. We are going to have a great lunch. Pork, rice, beans, and all the beer you can drink. But you must pay me 20 CUCs.”

I said, “No, I do not think so. I was told everything was included and I am not paying you another 20 CUCs.”

“No, no, sir. You must pay me 20 CUCs or you will not be able to have any lunch today. This ticket only includes your bus there and back.” “ No, you are wrong” I said. “I am going to call my friend to verify”, I insisted. So I pulled out my friend’s business card and my IPhone and looked at it with no idea on how to proceed. Even though I have been to Cuba numerous times, for the life of me, I have never really figured out how to dial a local number using an international phone.

My guide immediately perked up. “Is that your friend you are calling? Does he speak Spanish? Let me call him for you.” And he proceeded to take the business card and the phone out of my hand and began to dial.

In the meantime, I had noticed we had not yet stopped at any hotels and we were headed into a part of town I was not familiar with but now we were stopping at a bus station. As we stopped, my guide mumbled something to the driver and the door opened and the guide started getting out of the bus while, apparently, dialing my friend’s number. I said, “Stop, where are you going with my phone?” he said, “No problem, my friend. Don’t worry. I am hotel security. Phone reception not good here. I am just outside the bus calling your friend. No problem. Don’t worry!”

I worriedly followed him outside the bus not wishing to lose sight of him but he was wandering further and further away.

I gave a panic look to the bus driver and asked him where this guy was going and the driver exited the bus to make a half-hearted attempt to follow him and kind of shrugged his shoulders.

I jumped back into the bus to grab my packsack jam-packed with camera equipment and, with desperation on my face, began to frantically look for my guide who had by now completely disappeared.

I ran into the bus station praying he was really picking up other tour passengers but he was not there. I glanced down an alley and saw no sign of him there either. At this point, I knew I had been had. I walked dejectedly back to the bus but the bus was gone! I had been played from A to Z! Damn!

dumped in the middle of nowhere

dumped in the middle of nowhere

To say I was furious would have been the understatement of the year. I was seething.

I hailed a taxi and headed back to the hotel ready to rip someone a new one and it was going to start with hotel security as I felt they should have prevented the likes of my thief from hanging around the hotel.

Back at the hotel, I approached the front desk barely able to contain my fury and demanded to speak to the manager. When asked why, I recounted my story and quickly a very concerned executive was summoned to the front. He listened to my story intently and hotel security was also gathered looking very engaged.

“Sir, we are very, very sorry to hear your story. Please come with us.” Together we are clamored into the hotel’s security office that featured an entire bank of TV monitors along with an operator. They told him the story and the time of my lobby entrance and the operator rewound the tapes to that period. Sure enough, they could see my story documented both inside the lobby and outside the front entrance as well. They all looked at me gravely and said that we have to call the police and you will have to file a report.

Given the degree of seriousness they were all treating this and my desire to see justice served (I mean, this was basically a kidnapping, no?) I decided to go with the flow. “Wait here, sir. It won’t be long”.

Sure enough, within twenty minutes a couple of young patrol officers appeared in their tiny, thirty-year old, dilapidated Lada and their perfectly pressed uniforms and de rigueur aviation sunglasses. I was informed I would have to go to the police station to file a report. As I got into the back of the Lada (which I can assure you is no simple matter for a guy of my girth) I looked at the hotel security guys and asked if these were “real” police. Suddenly we were all laughing.

Off to the police station we went. I am sure they would have turned on the police siren if only it worked. Instead, they were cursing at every corner, trying to court some respect to give them priority clearance. This was all beginning to take a rather comical turn.

At the police station I was ushered in and invited to wait in the reception area. I don’t know the last time you found yourself in a Cuban police station but this stop is definitely not in the tour guides! The waiting room was lined with worried faces of girlfriends, mothers, boyfriends and, wait, is that a transvestite? I was about to ask “ Excuse me, do you know a tall skinny guy who has this little sidekick…” when I was summoned into bowels of the station.

Down a series of corridors I was led into a tiny office manned by a couple of other officers (also at least 10 years younger than the fleet of Ladas waiting outside) wearing a different style of uniform. Here the new officers were quickly briefed as to why I was there and they gave me glances and sighs like I was about to ruin a perfectly good day.

Dutifully I waited to be interviewed. There appeared to be some discussion amongst them on who was going to be assigned to my case and once that was determined, a very well groomed young man approached me and started rattling off a series of questions in Spanish. Once he realized I could not understand a word he was saying, they all rolled their eyes and concluded we had better head back to the hotel where someone could translate for us and they could file the report, which we did.

Back in the hotel security room I recounted my entire story again for the benefit of the officer and his lovely subordinate who seemed to be along just for the opportunity to be out of the station. He painstakingly wrote out my entire statement in impeccable handwriting. At one point, he looked at me and said, in Spanish, “You have been to Cuba before, haven’t you?” I nodded yes. “I know I have seen you somewhere before”. At this point I looked at him and asked with a completely serious expression on my face “Do you watch a lot of American movies?” He listened to the translator and replied “Si.” I then pointed ay my chest and said the words “Brad Pitt”. He barely cracked a smile but his female shadow almost lost her lunch. “Stop, stop!” she said, ‘You are going to ruin it for me!”

After my statement had been completely transposed, I was asked to sign it, which I did with about five people watching me as if I were signing the Declaration of Independence. Once I had done that, the officer (at this point I determined he was probably a detective of some sort) looked at me very seriously and said “Thank you. Now we will begin our investigation”. “Sure! Right”, I said to myself. “This will be the last I see of this guy” and I left the office to carry on with the rest of my week.

A couple of days later, as I was passing the front desk, the clerk frantically flags me down and tells me the police were here earlier. I must go to the police station immediately. They have some suspects for me to look at.

Holy smokes. What have I gotten myself into?

So I grab a taxi and head back to the police station. There I am ushered back to meet with Señor Carlos (the young detective who filed the report) and he takes me into another back room. I was quite nervous as I had no idea on what kind of line-up situation I might be subjected to. I mean, this is the first police station I had been into anywhere, let alone Cuba.

I had seen this shot of Myer Lansky's arrest and hoped for something of that drama

I had seen this shot of Myer Lansky’s arrest and hoped for something of that drama

Instead, he sits me down in front of an antique-looking piece of computing equipment that might be better suited for the Microsoft museum. After he poked at a few keys, he started bringing up photo files of very suspicious looking characters.

One by one he would show me a full screen of a suspect’s rap sheet and his photo, and would look at me with a hopeful expression asking me if this was the guy who stole my phone? I looked at four possible suspects and, in each case, my answer was no. Afterwards, I could see he was really disappointed but told me earnestly that their investigation would continue. I thanked him graciously as I was truly impressed with the degree of seriousness with which they were all treating my case.

A few days later, on the night before I was due to catch my flight home, my buddy and I were once again preparing to take Havana by storm. As I was leaving the hotel’s front door, I stopped in my tracks. Outside, where there was often a congregation of cab drivers, hustlers and stunning ladies hanging around, I could see the “guide” who stole my phone chatting up someone on the sidewalk a few hundred feet away. I quickly retraced my steps into the hotel and discretely pulled a security guard aside and said “That’s the guy who stole my phone!” He looked at the man I was indicating and asked me to wait while they called the police. Sure enough within minutes, they had him in custody and once again I was asked to return to the police station.

This being the evening, my “Detective Carlos” was not around but another chap that I had seen in his office, was on duty. He was familiar with my face and the broad details of the case. He wanted me to positively identify the alleged thief to him. He explained (in Spanish and gestures) that he was going to hide me in an office that overlooked the reception area and he was going to bring out the accused into the reception and I was to have a good look at him from behind the blinds to make sure it was the same man as the one who stole my phone. Sure enough, they marched out the suspect, in handcuffs, and whom seemed very confused as to why he was there, and I peeked through the blinds nervously.

I said “That is the guy!”

Again a witness statement was meticulously written out that I was asked to sign. After that, I was thanked and went out into the night without a clue what would happen next, if anything.

I left the next day to return home wondering how the gears of justice would grind forward in Cuba? Certainly I was long gone if there was going to be any trial or hearing.

Someone that I had told my story to while in Cuba had encouraged me to write the Canadian embassy in Havana to document my whole story as a form of “good will” should I ever find myself in sticky situation down the road. I did that and emailed it in with a scan of the official police report I had been given at the time along with a copy of my passport. I never heard a peep back from them.

Then, one day, completely out of the blue, about three months later, I a package arrives from Federal Express. I see it is from the Canadian Foreign Affairs office. Inside the envelope is a letter and my IPhone taken from the bus in November. The letter states, “ Dear Mr. Twist, Please find enclosed a cellphone pertaining to you. The cellphone was retrieved by the police in Havana and returned to the Canadian Embassy in Havana. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.”

Have you ever heard of such a tale? Wow!

Clearly the Havana police always seem to get their man! Thank you Detective Carlos! Muchos gracias!



A.J. Twist is a Montreal based photographer and travel writer who has troubles with his phone.


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AJ Twist

A.J. Twist is a Montreal-based writer and photographer. He is a frequent traveller to Havana,Cuba as well as many other exotic urban destinations.