Murphy’s Law proclaims: If anything can go wrong, it will.
Though deprecating the disdainful tone, I have to admit, after what I went through in Havana, that Murphy is right -
It started going wrong for me the moment my Aeroflot flight from Kingston touched down at Jose Marti Airport. I knew special permission had to be obtained for me to get on the plane in Kingston. What I did not know was that it needed special permission for me to get off the plane in Havana. Or so it seemed.
The doors having been opened, noticing no one else deplaning and figuring that maybe I was the only passenger for Havana, I headed for the exit, only to be waved back in a flurry of Russian prose liltingly spoken by the daintiest flight attendant imaginable (Showed how much I knew about Russian women. Brainwashed by American propaganda, I had always imagined them big, broad and hairy).
Assuming that ground clearance -
Time passed and nothing stirred. So I went up to Miss Dainty and explained in my best Russian English that my destination was Havana.
More Russian flung at me -
Declining, however, to go back to my seat, which they clearly wanted me to do, I firmly installed myself at the doorway, trying to appear in command of the situation. I can tell you there is nothing that looks and feels sillier than two people talking at each other, neither understanding the other, and each hoping that if the volume of speech were increased maybe it would penetrate the other’s comprehension.
So matters stood until ten minutes later, when one of the chorus girls made to close the door. The prospect of a free trip to Moscow -
The chorus behind me became shrill, and it did not flatter me that I had attracted an ardent following of flight attendants. Not hampered, like them, by tight skirts, I easily outpaced them to the Arrivals Hall. All the while, lurid headlines kept floating before my inner eye, the only printable ones being:
….KHAN FLEES PANTING AEROFLOT GIRLS….
…..UNESCO OFFICIAL JUMPS MOSCOW FLIGHT. DEFECTS TO CUBA…..
On reaching the Hall, and by this time not at all amused, I bellowed out to all and sundry, “Does anyone here speak English?”
I was in luck. An immigration officer came over. Interpreters were located, explanations followed, and the light of understanding seeped through the miasma of turbid verbiage. For the umpteenth time, I found myself railing against the Good Lord for unnecessarily complicating life by giving His creatures so many different tongues, when one alone -
Well, anyway, it seemed my name was not on Aeroflot’s manifest to deplane in Havana and, like the computer, the manifest is always right. Only this time, it was wrong.
Gracious in victory, I complimented them on their dedication to duty and we parted friends, if not comrades.
My Cuban hosts were awaiting me in the Customs Hall, and I breathed a sign of relief. As things turned out, that was one sigh wasted.
During our drive into Havana, still shaken by Aeroflot’s strong desire for my company, I kept thinking I would not welcome similar possessiveness on the part of the Cubans when it came time to take my leave five days later. I therefore reminded the Government and Conference representatives in my reception party that my return flight on Saturday on Air Cubana had not been confirmed prior to my departure from Kingston, and that they had undertaken to get this confirmation. Their reply, in clear if not exactly immaculate English, was, “We feex”.
Trusting in the efficacy of the Cuban Command System wherein, it is said, if the Government instructed you the citizen to do something and you don’t do it you are put to the wall and shot, I took it for granted that no Air Cubana official was going to want to lose his life on my account. I therefore unhesitatingly accepted that my scheduled flight out of Havana was assured.
I passed my air ticket and U.N. Laissez Passer over to mine hosts and, putting that matter out of my mind for the time being, turned attention to the challenges of the Conference ahead. Little did I suspect that Mr. Murphy was already busy laying minefields all over the terrain of my composure.
For the Conference, I had been promised simultaneous English translation. However, it appeared I was the only participant requiring this service, all others being Hispanic. So they decided to give me a personal interpreter instead. Reasonable in the circumstances, though my past experience with interpreters was that they had this tendency to spit in your ear, and their breath was never so fragrant that you welcomed the proximity. But what could possibly go wrong this time which I had not already been through?
Armed with a plentiful supply of handkerchiefs, I ventured forth to the Opening Ceremony accompanied by Pedro, my interpreter, an earnest and most amiable young man. I liked him from the start and felt we would get on famously.
It was about midway through the first speech, with my eardrums resonating to Pedro’s robust verbalizing, that I began to have some doubts. When, by the end of the speech, I still had not grasped any meaning, I became sure: My goodly interpreter did not know English too well.
What he was doing was inventing words as he went along: but since I did not have the key to his peculiar, evolving vocabulary, he ended up communing onto himself, leaving me innocent of comprehension. Should I report him?
How could I pull the plug on someone who was no nice to me, rushing to open doors for me, and to brush my chair seat, and to fetch me water I did not need and documents I could not read? If I were to reveal he was merely play-
So I stuck by Pedro and, despite his best efforts, found ways of getting, more or less, to the meaning of what was being discussed, while every now and then intervening with a comment of my own that said nothing but said it well. God knows what he made of these comments in his Spanish translations.
Even more mind-
It was no wonder that those interviewers who were audacious enough to tackle the lethal duo of Khan and Pedro all wore glazed looks by the time we were through with them. Strike two for Murphy. Only this time I quite enjoyed it all going wrong.
Tuesday came and went, but with no word to me about my flight confirmation. Exuding a suavity and assurance I really did not feel, I refrained from inquiring. After all, this was Cuba. When they told you they would do something, it got done, right?
It was just before the lunch break on Wednesday, while I was grappling with one of Pedro’s verbal concoctions, wondering what on earth he meant by “formataliation”, that Murphy struck again.
A very pale Maria (my Government escort) and an almost tearful Violeta (my Conference escort) beckoned to me to join them outside the Conference room.
“We have bad news”, Maria said. “The Havana-
I was incredulous. Surely they must be pulling my legs? But, from their demeanour, it was clear these delicately nurtured ladies would not take such a liberty.
I replied, “So what is the difficulty? No doubt you will make them bounce me right to the top and onto the confirmed list?”
Their answer: “We are sorry, so sorry. Eet ees not possible”.
I was tempted to ask, Didn’t you threaten to have someone shot? but remained diplomatically silent, letting them stew in my wordless displeasure.
It seemed that all morning and throughout the previous day, well nigh every level of the Party hierarchy below the Maximum Leader was in contact with Air Cubana trying to get me confirmed, but with no success. I thought to myself: This kind of slackness is only supposed to happen in democracies, not in Cuba. Can the Bureaucracy dare to say no even here?
At this point, Violeta, excusing herself, went into the Ladies room and, as far as I know, did not emerge for the rest of the day. Maria, with a more seasoned spine, started to suggest alternative flights, but I stopped her short, saying that was premature and I still expected her to deliver on her Government’s commitment.
I was being terribly hard on two well-
To take my mind off my woes, I decided to visit the Guyana Embassy that same afternoon. My Guyana national passport had been used up and I needed a new one.
The Ambassador, an erstwhile colleague, after effusive greetings, responded to my request by saying, “Sure, I’ll go arrange things right away.”
As he left the office, I glanced under my chair and breathed, “Take that, Murphy.”
Minutes later, the Ambassador came back looking sheepish. An embarrassing thing had happened, he explained. The lady in charge of passports had locked up all the blank books in a strong box and gone off to Guyana, taking the only key with her. She was not expected back for another three weeks.
I said nothing, but pulled my most mournful face. It had the desired effect. Valerie, the Ambassador’s helpful secretary, brightly offered to find a lock smith to open the safe. They decided to get on it right away and I was asked to check back in the morning. I slinked away, followed by a sneering Murphy.
O.K. Enough of all this botheration, I firmly resolved. That night I would have me some recreation. The Unesco National Commission had invited me to dine with them at what they proudly referred to as a “special” Arabian restaurant located in Old Havana. Billeted in a hotel where the cuisine suggested that food was a necessary evil -
It was a restaurant full of colour and atmosphere. As the geriatric waiter (there is no other kind in Havana) shared around the opulent-
It all became clear when, finally, the food was served. All that this special Arabian restaurant had to offer its patrons was stewed meat and friend potatoes.
Nevertheless, my companions seemed determined to enjoy their treat. So I, like a good sport, bravely munched along, while trying forlornly to detect some hint of any mid-
Well, never mind, there was dessert to come. What would it be? Halvah Pistachio? Baklava, light and flaky? Methuselah drooped by and consultations resumed. By then, I was beginning to pick some meaning out of the Spanish spoken, and it sounded suspiciously to me as if he was informing these decadent denizens of Babylon there would be no dessert of any kind for them that night. A hasty reading of my companions’ faces confirmed my fears.
To spare them embarrassment, and before anyone could say anything more, I chimed in, ever so innocently, “You know, that dish we had was quite filling. I don’t think I have any space left for dessert. Do you?” Blessed relief all around, as the others suddenly discovered they too were gorged.
So ended our Arabian night of revelry in Old Havana. On the way back to the hotel, I asked my driver what he had for dinner.
“A McCastro,” he replied, smirking.
“What is a McCastro?” I asked in puzzlement.
“A super oily McDonald.”
I prayed with all my heart for a plague of the most oleaginous McCastros to be visited on the dyspeptic stomachs of the Murphys of this world.
I woke up the next morning, Thursday, determined to make this the day of decisions. Summoning a meeting of the inner circle, I asked for a status report.
“Good news”, said Violeta, smiling brightly. “They have moved you from twenty-
This dear girl so desperately wanted my approval, I was tempted to pat her head. However, the stark fact had to be faced that, whether I was sixteenth standby or first, if in the end I stoodby on Saturday watching the only weekly flight depart for Kingston, the high status of my standing would be cold comfort indeed.
Desperate situations require desperate measures. I decided to call in the United States Marines, in the person of Miguel, the general factotum of the Unesco Cultural Office in Havana. I had thought of him much earlier on but held back because of the niceties of protocol, it being the case that the arrangements for my mission were the responsibility of the Government, not the Unesco Office. However, with the Bureaucracy triumphant, I had no alternative.
Every organization that wants to get on in the world should have a Miguel. He is the quintessential Mr. Fix-
I picked up the phone.
My instructions to him were clear and precise: “Get me to Kingston by Sunday.”True to his calling, he replied, “I feex eet,” promising to report back in one hour.
This gave me time to check on other pending matters. I called the Guyana Embassy.
“Any progress with the safe-
“Well, he is here, but I think he is drunk,” was Valerie’s reply. “He is stabbing away at the safe-
“Ply him with coffee, black and strong and lots,” was my advice. “And if that doesn’t work, tell him Fidel is a pal of mine and won’t be too pleased if he doesn’t get the door open. That ought to sober him up fast.”
Saying I would call back later, I turned away from the telephone and filled in the time “conversing” with Pedro about his career choice as an interpreter, until Miguel came by.
“You can go”, he announced, “but very complicated.”
With my twin angels, Maria and Violeta, hovering over me, I asked Miguel to state the options.
“First you to go Mexico on Saturday. Then to Miami. Then to Kingston. But you don’t get there until Monday.”
“No good. Next.”
“How say Canada? You overnight there, and then come down to Kingston.”
“That’s crazy. Besides, I don’t have a Canadian visa.”
“Alright. From Havana down to Caracas. Up back to San Juan, then to Kingston. By Monday you arrive.”
I paused to muse on the perversities of geopolitics. Who could have imagined that it would require this kind of circuitous and costly routing to get to a country that was less than one hundred miles away?
“No way. What else?”
“Again Havana to Caracas. Then to Curacao. Then to Kingston. You arrive late Sunday night.”
“Better. Any more?”
All the proposals so far were premised on my departing Havana on Saturday. Since Miguel’s battery appeared to have run low, I decided to give him a jump start.
“Is there a flight out of Havana tomorrow, Friday?”
“Yes, but eet very late now. May, just maybe, can feex.”
“Well, zees senorita at Viasa. She is a very sweet girl….”
“Alright, alright. Spare me the details. What then?”
Miguel consulted his charts, while I held my breath.
“Caramba! Tomorrow morning you first go to Santo Domingo, then to Caracas. Tomorrow night from Caracas to Port of Spain. Saturday morning on to Kingston.”
In true presidential manner, I handed down my decision.
Let’s do it.”
Miguel hurried off to buy the ticket and get the necessary flight confirmations -
For the first time since I arrived in Havana -
“Any good?” was my terse question to Valerie.
“You mean…?”, going uncharacteristically speechless.
“Yes. I am putting the stamps on now. You can send for your passport in fifteen minutes.”
In one glorious effulgence, the sun broke through. God had returned to His Heaven, and all was right with the world.
The next morning, my faithful companions accompanied me to the Airport. When we arrived, Miguel, who had been awaiting us, stepped forward and, with a flourish, presented me with my boarding pass.
It was now the time for pretty speeches, and we indulged in an orgy of mutual admiration, sincerely felt by all, I am sure.
I walked slowly -
Violeta was smiling wanly.
Maria was beaming proudly.
Pedro, belatedly distrusting his English, shouted, “Adios.”
I returned the salute, four times, then entered the plane.
Borne aloft in Havana skies, I stared down with unseeing eyes on a city and a people in whose adversities I briefly shared and who shared so wholeheartedly in mine. A great affection stirred within me for every Cuban that I knew.
Ensconced in my Viasa seat, I was idly rolling a chilled glass of French wine across my throbbing forehead while reviewing the sequence of events just concluded, when, in one blinding flash of inspiration, I discovered -
I gasped and shivered.
Fortunately for me, I was strapped to my seat or I might have been impelled, Archimedes-
And what is this Grand Discovery that affected me so?
It is cogent, compelling and, like all great Truths, simple.
Here it is:
KHAN’S COROLLARY. If anything that goes wrong can come right, it will.
Footnote Rafiq Khan was on an official Unesco mission to Cuba in November, 1990. In case there is any doubt, this is NOT his Official Report. The story, however, is true, though names have been changed.