When my iPhone slipped from the back of the tank and into the toilet, I snatched it out immediately. Though at first all seemed fine, it soon switched off and remained unresponsive.
"It's toast," was the verdict from Grant, an Apple store Genius. "We don't deem it really, like, worth it to replace the inner components of the shell of a broken phone. I'll throw that guy away and get you a brand new one."
Grant said I'd have to buy a new phone for $649 (or a refurbished one for $150). I was about to leave on a trip to Cuba, where my phone wasn't going to work anyway. So I thanked him and left.
On my second day in Havana, I passed a small electronics store in the once-upscale Vedado neighborhood and stopped in. Fishing the useless slab from my bag, I asked, "Is there anyone who might know how to fix this?" The woman at the counter headed to the back and returned with a thin slip of paper bearing an address in the Miramar neighborhood.
A kid wearing white-framed Ray-Bans nodded when I knocked on the green plywood door at the destination. His name was Andy, and he was confident he could fix my problem. Removing the tiny screws that hold the glass cover in place, he began a rapid disassembly. I had to admit Andy seemed less impressed with my fancy phone than I might have expected.
"How often do you fix an iPhone?" I asked.
"Daily," he replied.
A phone explosion
"In the last two or three years, I've noticed [iPhones] popping up," said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute. Raúl Castro's reforms have jolted the mobile market. "In 2008, when he lifted the prohibition on Cubans' having cell phones in their own name, that led to an explosion in the number of subscribers."
Like many products in Cuba, iPhones are often brought in by tourists or citizens allowed to travel abroad.
Andy extracted the motherboard with a dental pick, put it in a green tank, added alcohol from a soda bottle, and pressed power. The contraption shook vigorously. Abelito, his partner, says they learned most of what they know via an illegal Web connection. After 20 minutes of careful prodding and scrubbing, Andy miraculously resuscitated my phone, but the battery holds little charge. I tried to pay. He refused.
"We usually only accept payment when we've fixed the problem."
"But you did!" I argue. He would not be swayed.
A black market
A day later, at Hotel Saratoga in Old Havana, I noticed the porter swiping at his iPhone 3. I told him about my battery, and he pointed to a thin, carefully dressed young man hanging around the bar. Ten minutes later, Roberto and I were making our way down a muddy street behind the impressive, decaying Capitol Building modeled exactly after the rather better-kept one in Washington.
We stopped in front of a dark entryway. Roberto asked me to wait and bounded up a set of concrete stairs. Minutes later, he returned with a new iPhone battery in its black plastic wrapper.
As payment, he accepted an 8-gigabyte flash drive I'd been carrying. Flash drives are valuable in Cuba, where Internet use is restricted and monitored. Roberto, an architecture student, explained that while "tuition here is free, you have to buy lesson books, paper, pens, your food, your transportation." All that costs money.
Just as their fathers learned to fix obsolete Detroit cars, Andy and Roberto have learned to make a living with Palo Alto technology to which they have no official access. The healthy cell phone repair market here is the latest example of Cuban ingenuity that locals call sobreviviendo. It's small-scale capitalism working around a 50-year embargo and an anemic, centrally planned economy.
Two months later, my phone works perfectly. The next time an Apple Genius tells you there's no hope, consider it an excuse to visit Havana.