By Larry Benvenuti
I have been to Cuba 20 times before, having had many adventures on the island nation to the south of the Florida Keys. My mission for the trip in April 2013 was to meet with friends and officials involved with the conservation and preservation of coral reefs and Cuba’s natural environment. It was to explore how ACUALINA, a non-governmental organization and the Instituto de Oceanologia could establish meaningful communications and relations with a couple of Florida Keys environmental agencies; a noble purpose, as always. Yet, it was a stupid “tourist” mistake that almost turned the trip into a disaster.
The adventure to Cuba started out well with the weather cooperating for the flights from Ft. Lauderdale to Nassau, Bahamas and from Nassau to Jose Marti International Airport on the outskirts of Havana, Cuba. At the airport, there were the usual questions from aduana (Cuban customs), but finally, I was able to meet up with my friend Alejandro and his wife Yulia who picked me up at the airport.
The next day was one filled with meetings to establish the connections I had wanted to make. Afterward, it was time to relax. Alejandro, who has been my guide and diplomat of sorts since 1997, took me to a restaurant/bar in Old Havana where he takes tourists to eat and drink while working for a Cuban tourism agency. It was late afternoon. We parked the car and walked up two flights of stairs to get to the restaurant. Parched and hungry, we entered the quaint bar area that seats about 10. We took seats at the bar on high stools, joining four other patrons.
Because Alejandro knew everyone, I felt an immediate connection with this place and its employees. We ordered a couple of Cristal light beers, a Cuban lager beer established in 1928. Alejandro told the staff that I was a professional photographer and to be prepared to have their picture taken. Everyone there was happy to participate. The atmosphere was very friendly and inviting. How could one go wrong in this old restored colonial building?
We enjoyed the first thirst-quenching Cristal and each requested another before ordering our dinner. I took my wallet from the inside zippered pocket of my photographers vest to pay for the drinks. Not thinking, I placed my wallet atop my camera bag on the stool next to me. Big mistake! I saw a photo opportunity to my left and moved closer to the center of the bar for better camera angles. I absent-mindedly yanked my camera bag from the stool and placed it on the seat that I had just been sitting in. My wallet with $200 Cuban Convertible Pesos (equivalent to $200 U.S. dollars) and various important ID’s and a credit card fell onto the stool where my camera bag had been. I didn’t notice because I was absorbed in taking the next photos. But someone else saw exactly what had happened.
I finished taking the photos and reached into my pocket to pay for the tab before being seated for dinner at a nearby table when I realized that my wallet was gone. I told Alejandro, but even though we and the restaurant personnel looked high and low, it was nowhere to be found. It had been stolen. I knew better than anyone not to do what I had done — not to carry anything on your person except your passport and money. Losing the money only was a minor inconvenience compared to the fact that my identification and credit card were gone. Alejandro told me to take it easy. He knew there were strategically located security cameras at the bar. The staff assured me that whoever stole the wallet would be identified. I was not consoled. How would they be able to find this thief? And if they did, would my money and other contents of my wallet be with the ladron (thief) or would it be lost forever?
The manager told me that there was no need for the police to be involved, that they could take care of the situation. After reviewing the camera videos, the manager and employees returned to the area where I was waiting and told me that they knew who stole the wallet. The thief was a private taxi cab driver from one of the local hotels who had just dropped off some clients. He had been to the restaurant with clients many times before. The manager would send out the “Perros de Caseria” (hunting dogs, their term for the security staff) to retrieve what had been taken.
The “hunting dogs,” Noel and Modesto, went off. I sat there with Alejandro, shaking my head at my negligence, at the same time hoping that I would hear some good news soon. Within the hour, the bar received a phone call from the hunters. The thief was apprehended, caught, or subdued at the hotel where he awaited more clients. I didn’t ask what happened. The bartender handed me a restaurant phone. One of the “perros de caseria” asked me how much money I had in my wallet and what else was in it. My answers confirmed that they had recovered my stolen property intact. Shortly, thereafter, my saviors came walking through the side door of the bar proudly handing my wallet over to me. They asked me to inspect and confirm its contents. Everything was there except for my driver’s license.
I was so relieved! Everyone, especially me, was now smiling. I quickly zipped my wallet securely in the inside pocket of my photographer’s vest. The restaurant employees, including the cooks, gathered for a group photo at the scene of the crime. I thanked everyone with mil gracias (a thousand thanks) and abrazos grandes (big hugs) for the help and support that they gave me during this ordeal, especially to Modesto and Noel. Alejandro and I sat down at a small table next to the bar and, finally, ordered dinner. The food seemed to taste exceptionally good. I wonder why! Now, that’s “How to Catch a Thief.”