Hurricane Irma: Down and Out in Cuba

In Cuba during Hurricane Irma

 

Friday 8th September

Usually sayings aren’t to be taken literally but as I walked around Trinidad this afternoon under the scorching heat, it was like the calm before the storm. It seemed like a normal sunny day but a foreboding sense of dread cast a shadow across the town and the faces of people who passed me by. I might have imagined it, but the air felt different too. The humidity had intensified. At least it felt that way. If I did imagine it, then it very well could be the manifestation of my body internalising fear.

For the last few days, Ruchi and I have been trying to get as much information as we can about the movements of Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane that’s hitting Cuba tonight and the rest of tomorrow. It’s already caused devastation to many of the Caribbean’s smaller islands but we’ve been assured that Cuba has specially strong infrastructure in place for extreme weather. Without any considerable access to the internet or being able to muster up a few words of Spanish between ourselves, getting information – and the right information – has been no easy feat.

We’d planned to go to Santa Clara, believing we’d be safer in the middle of the country, away from the sea and closer to our end destination of Havana should we need to leave the country sooner. But at the last minute we changed our minds by opting to stay in Trinidad whilst the hurricane passed. Last night we put out a plea on my FB page for advice and this morning I was surprised to see all the replies. Even though we wanted to leave Trinidad because we felt we had seen everything we wanted to see, Ruchi and I decided it would be foolish to leave after reading the advice given to us.

Later today we heard tourists are being evacuated from Santa Clara so we made the right decision. Trinidad, we’re told, is one of the safest places to be as the hurricane is supposed to severely affect the east and then move along the northern part of Cuba. Luckily, I’m in the south so I don’t think it’s going to affect us badly, I guess tomorrow we’ll find out…

7.30 pm. The sky has turned deep purple and it’s thundering and lightening now. It’s hard to believe I was sheltering from the sun only a few hours ago and now I’m sheltering from the storm. Mother Nature is as unpredictable as she is strong and beautiful.

Ruchi is lying asleep next to me, or likely trying to sleep. It’s too noisy outside. The wind is rattling against the metal shutters that keep us safe. I’m glad houses in Cuba don’t have glass windows.

11 pm. I fell asleep and woke to discover all the electricity has gone. I’m weeping the loss of air con! Can’t believe it’s only 11pm. It’s going to be a long night…

It’s a strange time being in Cuba. An island where the internet is illegal in homes and where they only got wifi hotspots in 2015, and still, they’re only accessible in a few public spaces in each city. For the first week of our trip I loved how removed I felt from the outside world but now I want information at my fingers tips I feel like I’ve been stripped of a magic power.

I’ve become so used to being connected that I forgot what it’s like to wake up in a morning and reach for anything but my phone. When did that become more important to me? Is it even important to me or have I just adopted a bad habit I need to shake off?

 

Saturday 9th September

5 am. Woke up to the sound of my phone ringing. My friend, Rachel, from back home called to see if I were safe, “Shing! I didn’t expect to get through!” were the first words I heard before we had a quick conversation. I didn’t expect her to call. It was comforting to hear her voice. I should probably switch off my phone. I need to conserve my battery since I don’t know when the electricity will be back on.

I managed to sleep most of the night. The wind has grown stronger. I can hear banging outside. Not sure if it’s thunder or the wind’s destruction. Every now and again, a quick, sharp flicker of lightning momentarily transforms the darkness of our room bright white, the way heaven’s usually depicted in films.

I need to open the metal shutters or we’ll be in darkness the entire day. If we open them a little it will allow some light to seep through, but also rain. A bit of rain in our room is a trade off we’ll gladly make. We need light for our sanity. Most of all, I want to keep reading and writing.

9 am. We exited our room and ran through the courtyard into the main house to get the food we stored in the fridge. We’re using the torch on our phones because the kitchen has no natural light. We ate dry bread and fruit. We definitely don’t have enough food to last the next couple of days. We regret not stocking up on more food but everywhere closed early yesterday and it’s so damn hard to find supermarkets in Cuba.

We ventured into the main living space and water is already seeping in through the lurid pink walls. It’s flooding into the house under the door where there’s a tiny gap too. The day has only just begun….

Hurricane Irma, flooding in the buildings

10 am. The wind is persisting but it’s not as strong as I imagined it to be. Maybe we’re not getting the full impact because we’re hibernating in a room at the back of the house which keeps us very insulated. I’m glad we stayed in Trinidad but I hate this casa, Spanish for house. Usually in Cuban casas you stay with a family and experience their hospitality and enjoy home-cooked food. That’s what we’ve been doing so far but the owner of this casa, Rudolfo, has left us the entire house without anything to help us prepare for the hurricane. At first we were happy to have the place to ourselves but now we’d like the reassurance, safety and warmth people can bring to situations like this.

11 am. The courtyard is imprisoned in a metal mesh. It’s a good safety measure. A few bricks and tiles have already crashed onto the mesh that would otherwise have smashed straight through onto the courtyard. We’re not spending any time outside our room if we can help it, but we need to pass the courtyard to get to the kitchen.

12 pm. The rain is relentless. Some water is seeping under the door into our room from the courtyard. My rucksack was on the floor and now the clothes I had at the bottom are sodden. I’ve wrung them out and shoved everything onto our beds. I have no clean clothes left. I look like shit and smell like a decaying piece of fruit that’s been left to languish and turn mouldy at the bottom of a fruit bowl.

1 pm. I’ve been doing a lot of staring at the walls. They’re two different shades of blue. A lighter colour would make the room appear warmer and more spacious. It’s like a dank cell with streams of water excreting out from the corners like witch’s fingers. Three pictures are hung up on the walls depicting non-offensive flowers in earthy colours of brown and green.

2 pm. Ruchi is reading Orwell’s Down And Out in Paris and London. It’s amazing how productive you can be without the internet.

3 pm. Can hear a few crashes from the loose debris outside but we feel safe. The buildings are made to last in Cuba. To pass the time for ten minutes we’ve devised a game. We bought some Panama-style hats in Cienfuegos and we’re seeing who can spin them on their feet the longest. I feel like I’m a baby at a Greek wedding.

4 pm. We ate the last of our bread with a sachet of butter and mango jam. It’s amazing how delicious food can taste when you’re hungry.

3-day diary of being in Cuba during Hurricane Irma

We only have bananas left and a packet of crisps I bought believing they were cheese flavoured. I was wrong. They are garlic flavoured. I love garlic but whoever decided garlic flavoured crisps disguised as cheesy puffs were a good idea deserves a long time behind bars.

5 pm. We’re accumulating a little pond under our beds. I hope the rain stops. Every time we step down off our beds we’re greeted with the sound of splashing and the pitter-patter of our feet. I just looked at Ruchi and rolled my eyes at her until they turned white.

6 pm. Ruchi is sleeping. We’ve closed the shutters so now we’re in complete darkness. I’ve switched my phone back on so I can continue writing these entries.

I’m thinking of all the things we could do to pass the time but we’re not in the mood – laughter has escaped the building. Ruchi and I are tired of each other. Had I been here with someone I was romantically involved with, being locked away might have its plus side. I would pretend the world was reliant on our procreation. Time would certainly be going faster. On the other hand, what draws a friendship closer together than enduring a hurricane?

7 pm. It’s still raining but the wind no longer sounds so strong. I’m thinking of eating the bananas which are now brown.

8 pm. I ate the bananas. We’ve only got those garlic crisps left now. We’ll save them for when we’re truly desperate. I’m hoping I’ll get sleepy so I won’t be tempted to eat them.

9 pm. Rudolfo came over. He had a torch with him and I’m sure he was slightly drunk. It looked like a bad scene from Taken. Two girls trapped in a room, trying to cover their bodies with their bedsheets from a potbellied man hovering over them with a torch. Where’s Liam Neeson when you need him?

He seemed surprised that the bedroom was flooded but wasn’t concerned enough to help us clear it up. A caring host would help us with food and light at least. He told us the bad news that we probably won’t be able to go to Santa Clara tomorrow. I asked him how he got here and he said his friend was waiting outside in his truck. I was concerned about his safety and had a really grateful expression on my face for coming to see us in the hurricane. I imagine this is what the onset of Stockholm syndrome is like: Stage 1 – Appreciation when captor pays a visit.

Ruchi said he didn’t come to see us, he came to check on his house and pick up the Havana Rum stored in the kitchen at the same time. She’s probably right, he doesn’t care about our welfare in the slightest.

Praying things will look up in the morning. Hopefully Cuba hasn’t been subjected to too much damage.

 

Sunday 10th September

 

5 am. Woke up to Ruchi trying to open the bathroom door. I think the flood has plugged it shut. She’s gone outside to do her business above the drain in the courtyard. At the moment, anything goes.

11 am. The hurricane is over so we went outside in seek of food. Broken trees are everywhere and people have begun restoring the damage to their homes.

Damage in Cuba from Hurricane Irma

Damage in Trinidad, Cuba, after Hurricane IrmaMy overall impression is relief. Full trees have been torn out of the ground from their roots and some roofs have collapsed but most of the buildings are undamaged, a testimony to Cuban infrastructure. But looking at some of the street dogs, they must have been terrified.

Destruction of Hurricane Irma in Cuban

Most places are shut but a few places are opened. I bought a cream pastry for three or four times the price it ought to be. The cream had gone off. There’s nothing that can leave a sour taste in your mouth quite like how it feels to be financially exploited in a hurricane.

3 pm. Rudolfo and his smug face came to the house to boot up some electricity with his car for 45 minutes. Enough time to charge my phone for a bit. Whoop! Then he poured us each a bit of rum to celebrate. We’re happy about that but he keeps loitering in and out of our room and staring at us longer than what’s acceptable. Creep. We’re hanging out our clothes to dry. We’d like to do it in privacy please.

6 pm. Rudolfo came back to the house with some chicken we asked him to get us for a pricy sum. No doubt he made a tidy profit from us. Haven’t eaten meat properly in years but after only a bit of bread yesterday I’m in no position to turn it down. I’m not allowed to make myself feel guilty.

9 pm. Ruchi has just asked an important question, ‘Would you rather have air con right now or light?’

I said air con but she said light so she can read. She’s already read three books in two days. Maybe she’s onto something with that answer…

 

Monday 11th September

 

8 am. We got up early to get money from the ATM so we could pay Ruldolfo what we owed him before getting the hell out of here. But bad luck is still looming over us as we discovered all the ATMs are down because the city still doesn’t have any electricity. We hadn’t accounted for this eventuality.

We scrapped all our cash together and luckily we have just enough for what we owe him for the six nights we spent here. Phew.

9 am. Ruldolfo came over and, surprise, surprise; we have been landed with a bill more than we anticipated. The con-man has charged us more per night than we initially arranged with his wife. He wants another 30 CUC (approx £23) from us but we don’t have it. We told him we have to leave today but he looked at us and said we’re not going anywhere until the ATMs are working and he gets the full amount. We asked him when the ATMs would be running again but he doesn’t know. It could be days. Does this man have no compassion?!

Luckily, I remembered I had 100 US dollars that I wasn’t able to change when I arrived into the country. We asked him if he’d accept it.

He did.

Now we’re on our way to Santa Clara.

Goodbye Trinidad. If I come again let’s hope the circumstances are different.



A travel & culture blog specialising in Scandinavia and the Arctic, peppered with the rest of the world in between.


'Hurricane Irma: Down and Out in Cuba' have 9 comments

  1. September 19, 2017 @ 10:33 am Tony Burgum

    Bloody hell Shing, that was some ‘Adventure’ and one I have no doubt your are not in a hurry to experience again. Glad you are both OK and as for Rudolfo I am surprised he didn’t get a big red nose off one of you. 2 girls on an island where they don’t speak the lingo I not a good situation to be in, now your home take up self defence classes, you never know the next time you will need it. Still you have survived to tell the tale and will no doubt be in a better place to offer advice from your learnings.

    Reply

    • September 21, 2017 @ 11:08 am ruchi

      we are considering both Spanish and self defense classes Tony 🙂

      Reply

  2. September 19, 2017 @ 11:16 am Jude

    So glad you girls are safe …. And so sorry you had such a bad experience in Cuba. As a Canadian I have traveled to Cuba many times & found the people to be very beautiful and friendly. Again, so very sorry you had that experience. I always enjoy hearing about your adventures and seeing your photography. (Your photo of the injured street dog brought a tear to my eye). Jude from Saskatchewan Canada

    Reply

  3. September 19, 2017 @ 12:03 pm Benji

    This was a great post. Thank you for sharing the hardships as well as the good times.

    Reply

  4. September 19, 2017 @ 12:33 pm Brad in San Diego

    Wow, that was an adventure for sure. I was thinking of you and Ruchi every minute, hoping for the best. Since I thought you were in Santa Clara, I was even more concerned as the storm had tracked that way last minute. Sorry to hear you had such an awful housing experience, but you weathered the storm and now have that adventure under your belt. Glad you are home and at least a little rested !

    Reply

    • September 21, 2017 @ 11:07 am ruchi

      Thanks for your kind words and concern Brad! Cuba is still a wonderful place, well worth exploring!

      Reply

  5. September 20, 2017 @ 10:07 am David Yoong

    Someone up there was looking after the two of you

    Reply

    • October 10, 2017 @ 9:10 am Shing Yoong

      Uncle David, you were my saviour ! You gave my dad that $100 dollars which enabled Ruchi and I to escape Rudolfo!

      Reply

  6. September 25, 2017 @ 3:25 pm Victoria @TheBritishBerliner

    Omigosh! What a tale!

    ‘So glad that you’re both safe, and that in this case, you didn’t travel solo. I can’t imagine how horrific and scared you must have felt. I recently read a write up about an American journalist (quite a few of them actually) who were caught up in the storm on the Virgin Islands I think. And it was awful. They were saved by the fact that they put the mattress on the window, and had bought extra food and water. Their hotel was the only one left standing, and they had to be evacuated by navy ship!

    p.s. And as for Rudolfo, what a creep!

    Reply


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