Cuba Journal Post #4

These are excerpts from the journal I kept while traveling in Cuba

April 18, 2017 – Viñales

Before taking a big walk in the valley, we went to the Cadeca early to change the last bit of our money. When we arrived there was already a line, and after a few minutes it opened but we were told they didn’t have CUC yet… there was much confusion, but we sat tight in line and ten minutes later we were ready to go. Sheena went to the Cubanacan (government tourist agency) office while I waited and go bus tickets for the next day to Havana. There is a feeling here that we should support enterprising Cubans and not government companies like Cubanacan. It’s difficult to know the affect. Money changes so many hands in the collective taxi market and I never know who benefits most.

This theme came up again later on the tour when we visited a coffee plantation and a tobacco farmer. The government took 30% and 90%, respectively, of the product to sell abroad and allowed the remainder to be sold locally by the farmers. The farmers lives have improved since they have been allowed to sell their own product, we were told. It’s not hard to see why because the coffee and cigars were expensive! $3 CUC each for the 10% of product the tobacco farmers could sell. But of course this is quite cheap when compared to stores and totally natural (no chemicals). If I wanted cigars I would buy them here. It seems to make sense to support the farmers in this case, even though profits from government sales go to social benefits like schools and daycare… both seem good. Who benefits from Cubanacan profits? Probably the Cuban people, through social benefits. And we prefer the bus over collectivo taxis!

The hike was a good one, with a great local guide named Changa (an apodo). He knew everyone and was very chatty. We asked a lot of questions and got some great Spanish practice! The valley is beautiful and it’s obvious why this place is so popular. The amount of people out in groups on horses was incredible. The horses looked pretty skinny and we asked Changa about this. He said there wasn’t much to eat for horses during the dry season, but not to worry because the rainy season was just starting!

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We walked for hours in the hot sun, taking breaks at the fincas, happy for the shade. A worker at the coffee farm has a dad in Portland, OR and he was excited to talk to people from the region. Everyone is excited to talk to us. We speak Spanish and the USA is very interesting to Cubans. Many of them would like to visit. We have asked several people about the changing relationship with the USA and they say they are happy it is happening. The Danish girl asked yesterday during the taxi ride about if there was any hostility toward us. The answer is a huge no. It has been so warm and full of curiosity. Someone told us “La gente es gente, politicos son otra cosa.” Cubans are also proud of the things they do well. They know it is safe here, that social services are great. They want more freedom and money, but they like (or seem to like) Cuba. It is always a good conversation to have. Yet, we learned that the coffee worker’s father went to the USA illegally. It’s like there is this specter overhead of the desire to go so badly. Hope for change is high.

We have seen a lot of animal life in this area. It reminds us of the Colca Canyon or something. Chickens everywhere. Pigs and piglets. Cows, horses, oxen (to plow fields!). A large rodent called a jutia. The plants are great too, with the majestic ceiba tree a favorite.

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The rainy season seems to have officially started. We don’t like it, but all the locals are happy. It was a long, dry winter. Rain is always good for farmers. It’s funny to hear the locals all mention the rain in passing. Changa said something to half the people he talked with on the trail. It makes things interesting and reminds us of Colombia. Cuba in general reminds us of Colombia. The people, the music, the landscape (in places). The food, sometimes.

We had a nice time last night chatting with a local “tres” guitar player in the plaza before dinner. We made plans to meet up later, but we made them loose enough and maybe he bailed in the end because we never saw him. I had steel guitar strings in my pocket (given to me by another tourist, meant to be a gift) so it was really too bad! We watched a live band and a bunch of locals and tourists dance salsa for about an hour.

April 19 – Travel to Havana

A tough travel day today. Are there any easy ones in Cuba? We took the Cubanacan bus, leaving in the afternoon, so we had a half day to kill. This seems difficult in the hot and humid climate. Not the first time we have done this, but should be the last… it’s better to take an early ride and get somewhere quickly, with lodging already prepared. Instead we’re booted out of the room and have to putter about town for a number of hours. That wasn’t awful today. We took a cab up to a lookout and then walked back to town. We had a nice lunch and then picked up our bags and waited for the bus.

Of course we were too early and it was hot and the bus was late… Then a young girl puked on the bus 30 minutes into the ride and the bus smelled awful the rest of the journey. That almost did Sheena in as well. Since it was a bus run by a tourist agency, it made stops at all the big hotels, slowing things down and taking about 4.5 hours in the end. We wished we had chosen a taxi for the journey and avoided all the hassle. 

April 20

Today we took a cab to Vedado to photograph some buildings. When we got into the taxi the driver berated us. When searching for a taxi we had been approached by a Cuban who asked if we needed one. We said yes, but that we needed a car. We told him the address and he said there was no way he could take us because he only had a bici taxi… but then he continued to be very helpful and run everywhere trying to get us a taxi. We didn’t realize, but he would demand a tip from the driver. The driver was pissed about that and yelled at us for about 2 minutes! He turned out to be a very friendly and jovial guy who knew all the policemen he passed. We learned a lot from this guy. He said he had to be friends with certain cops so that he could name drop them if a policeman every tried to get a tip off of him.

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While in Vedado we stopped at the famous ice cream shop, Copellia. We were immediately confronted by a security guard and asked what currency we had. We thought it might be more correct for us to say and pay in CUC, so that’s what we did. Unfortunately, we were then directed to a small little room with weak A/C where we had to order. There were only 5 other people in that area, even though the place was bustling with Cubans. We felt tricked and disappointed, especially because the ice cream was served in bowls and we had to sit there and eat it. We were put in a little tourist box.

Later on we stopped by Rodney and Laura’s house. Only Laura was around but we had so much fun catching up with her and telling stories from the trip. She got excited about the architect of the building we went to go check out (Antonio Quintana). She also told us about some of the shortages the country goes through. Right now it’s hard to find toilet paper and there’s no cheese. She told us a funny saying that people say because of the toilet paper shortages, when Cubans have to use newspaper instead: “Even the assholes here are educated!”

April 21

We have lucked out and get to stay in the apartment until leaving for the airport, as there are no other guests tonight. Marley came early and cooked us another great breakfast. She is cheerful, chatty and eager to please her guests. It’s really a wonderful stay at the end of our trip. We had cheese with breakfast today, but it was bland. Marley apologized, saying it was all she could find! I hope she didn’t go through too much trouble to get it for us…

We are ready to be going home. It has been a good trip, but exhausting. The climate especially, but also the mosquitoes and transportation has been difficult. But the trip has also been a success in many ways. Our Spanish was extremely useful and we had many wonderful interactions with Cubans.  They are certainly very open and friendly and up there with Colombians. It is also nice to be taken care of while traveling, which often doesn’t happen in Latin America. We learned a lot about this country; a place where there is always something interesting to learn.

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Cuba Journal Post #1

These are excerpts from the journal I kept while traveling in Cuba.

April 6, 2017 – Arrival in Havana

There is a certain type of Latina women who we seem to meet while traveling. Funny, mothering, helpful, forceful. I’m reminded of our Peruvian friend Sarai as one such women, or many of the hostel staff throughout South America. We were greeted by just such a person when arriving at our lodging in Havana. Laura is the type you need when arriving in such a place. I feel dropped into chaos. Small tight streets, rubble on the pavement. Trash, pedicabs, stray dogs. Music, construction, conversations everywhere. It’s overwhelming. I landed with a headache that only grew until I was immobile on the casa bed. But in Laura we trust and she makes us feel good that we are here. It’s always hard at first, in Latin America, to feel good when you arrive. How many times have I second guessed the whole trip? Chile, Buenos Aires, Nicaragua. I know it will pass with time. I’m looking forward to that.

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April 7

So much walking and so incredibly hot! It’s not so bad when in the shade or in the old part of the city, but we were crossing big streets choked with exhaust fumes and ducking over median islands and it was extremely exhausting. Our guide, Raynold, seemed completely indifferent to it. I wonder if he takes all of his clients on this route. I cannot imagine older couples taking the same path. The tour was tough but we did learn a lot about Cuba and Raynold’s life, the life of someone in the tourist industry. He has a geography degree, but can make many times more in the tourist industry. He actually felt that his degree set him back because it delayed his start to making money. His phone was stolen a day ago, which was weighing on him. We actually wanted his help booking some casas particulares in other towns, but in the end we got help from Laura because he was unresponsive. The phone is still a lifeline down here, regardless of internet access. Raynold said his rent was $100 CUC a month, which seemed like a lot. He said the average Cuban only makes $20 CUC per month at a government job (about the minimum salary). He could make about $25 CUC per day, but had to pay for a tourist license.

The classic cars are great. There are also many motorcycles, some with sidecars. They all spew exhaust. The humidity amplifies the gross and grimy feeling when walking around the city. We need more than one shower a day, and we are reminded of Cartegena, Colombia often. Just now, I heard a ton of music outside. I looked out the second story window and saw that a trash truck was picking up trash and had blocked the one-lane street so that all the vehicles behind had to wait. There were three or four pedicabs, and one of them was decked out with bright lights and was pumping music. It was all very disruptive and very normal. Somehow, our balcony doors (and the drone of the fan) keep most of the street noise out.

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Rodney and Laura are doing some renovations in the casa. Laura joked that Cubans are always doing construction. I think it’s the truth! We see half finished buildings and people selling and transporting raw materials all over the city. In many ways, this isn’t that much different from the rest of Latin America, except that raw materials are much harder to come by here. Some other similarities: the sidewalks are full of holes, there is corrugated metal sheeting used to enclose work sites.

At the moment Rodney is negotiating the sale of some dremel tools and a length of what appears to be insulated wiring. The casa is full of random people who seem mostly to be there to do construction, sell, or buy something. Rodney pulled out great sacks of tourist key chains, the kind you see everywhere, and asked us to pick one out as a wedding gift. I was mostly surprised to see that he had so many thousands of key chains! Was he going to sell them to someone? How did he get them? There seems be a deal going on all the time in this city. It’s hard to know what or where.

April 6

A beach day which was well spent, though now I’m very sunburned! I have a horizontal stripe of a burn across my stomach that is quite funny (at least Laura found it hilarious). The beach was definitely a needed break. This city is relentless. It is so chaotic! People are seemingly always on the move and yet, always just hanging out on the street corner, doing nothing. I’ve never seen streets so full of activity and choked with groups just talking! While walking, we are passed by endless numbers of bici-taxis and cars and motorcycles, and people walking everywhere. Every street is a shared street, as the sidewalks are too narrow and too crumbled to be useful for pedestrians. Most of the scooters are electric, so they don’t make a sound and sneak up on you just as bicycles do.

We look into unfinished buildings, and maybe some old man is sitting there watching TV. Maybe a family is in a big room without walls, eating. We are usually asked if we want a taxi, followed by a list of possible destinations. Sheena is usually asked if she is Japanese or Chinese. People say, “do you speak English?” This might be the only English they know. It all seems designed to get you to stop for a second so they can try to extract money. But people are nice generally. When you engage first, they are taken aback slightly and smile, nod, give you a good day. People are on the balconies high above the street during the morning and evenings. The buildings are so tall and the streets so narrow that you can forget to look up. Watching the street from above is a joy.

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Before dinner we have a long chat with Laura and Rodney about all-things Cuba related. We learn how they met (worked for the same government construction company – he as a mechanical engineer, she as an architect), where they have traveled (he to Italy once for work, but was sick with Dengue he claims he got from her! – She to Hainan Island, Italy, and Mexico by family connections and for work), how they got into the tourist industry (she started the casa; it was her aunt’s apartment; they started working together after getting married two years ago) and of course, how to say some bad words in Cuba (pinga means penis, but of course de pingado means either really great or really bad).

Laura and Rodney are big fans of the pizza in Cuba, and convinced us to try their favorite place, Los Asturianitos. We walk into the building on the ground floor and are directed up the steps by a well dressed host. We pass a sign and spur stairway for Los Nardos restaurant and continue past to the second floor. Walking through an open air walkway filled with A/C units (and extremely hot), we climb a second staircase and enter another restaurant called El Trofeo. We walk through the dining room, right past people enjoying their meal, and find a third staircase in the back of the place, with a small plaque directing us up to Los Asturianitos. A very pleasant dining space is located on the third floor and we enjoy some pretty decent pizza. We will have no better in the country.

April 7

We finally told Laura that we didn’t have lodging arranged for the rest of our trip and the situation with Raynold’s phone. She was so worried for us, so we started to worry as well! We thought Semana Santa wouldn’t be a big deal (as the country is predominantly not religious practicing), but apparently we were wrong. Apparently a lot of people take time off to travel during the week, and then during the following week as well, since it is a school holiday. We quickly made plans for the following two weeks of travel, going back and forth on the destinations and the order we would do things. Finally agreeing, Laura began to call everyone, exchanging pleasantries as she spoke with her contacts in other towns. It seemed that a lot of her guests arrive with ready made plans and she doesn’t have to do much work, but all casa owners have contacts in other towns and try to help you make reservations. We have heard that they will get kickbacks from referrals, and that sometimes the room will be more expensive when arranged for you by your casa owner. But we were so happy with our stay with Laura and Rodney, that we wanted to let them arrange things for us. We hoped they knew people who were great as well, and frankly, we were a little worried about the “good casas” being booked when we arrived in town. Laura joked that she was her guest’s internet in Cuba. We agreed that it is so much harder because there is no internet. You have to trust in someone else to figure things out for you. If you don’t speak Spanish, it seems that much more difficult.

April 8 – Travel to Trinidad

Construction continued in Laura and Rodney’s place, with a gas engine powered pressure cleaner for their water pipes being hauled up to the second floor and started up in the apartment. It was extremely loud in the closed space! The taxi arrived late and we were told that they had been some sort of cancellations that was causing a problem. We think it was a couple passengers that cancelled at the last minute, and they were trying to sort out how to get full cars to make the drive to Trinidad. We drove all over Havana for about an hour, with the driver and his fellow organizer frantically calling number after number in their phone. When they weren’t calling, the phone was ringing. We were looking for a different car, or maybe another passenger, and then we needed to find a driver for the car. It was all so confusing I had no idea what was happening. At one point we stopped at a casa and a couple came out, but then they got into a second car that appeared out of nowhere. Then both cars drove to another place and picked up a single person to get in the second car. Finally, we picked up a couple of Spanish girls, who crowded into our small car (shedding one of the organizers). A last stop was made to switch cars and drivers, and we ended up in a newer Geely sedan, that seemed to be an OK option. The driver then bragged that he could make up the delay and get us to Trinidad in only 3.5 hours! We proceeded to drive recklessly fast with loud reggaeton blasting the whole way and did indeed arrive in about 3.5 hours. It was terrible in most ways and we were a little shellshocked upon arrival. It felt like a very Latin American way to travel between two cities and maybe we should not have been all that surprised. We look forward to the opportunity to take the bus between two cities. We opted not to try this to get to Trinidad, as we were explained that you had to take a taxi to the bus station in Havana, as it was in the middle of nowhere (and intercity bus transportation is very complex and difficult; no marked stops, complicated routes, etc.) in order to buy your bus tickets, so that added about $30 CUC to the cost of the journey, and that pretty much made the shared taxi cheaper. There will be other opportunities to take the bus I believe.

I noticed how large and empty the 8-lane national highway felt leaving Havana. We weaved all over the four lanes, always searching for the smoothest piece of asphalt. This contributed greatly to the uncomfortable ride. Our GPS and maps.me app helped us find the hostel once we arrived in town. The drivers have a tendency to ask directions on the street and then learn about other casas that have vacancies (maybe an opportunity for a referral payment), and then take their passengers to that location instead. Without understanding Spanish, you could very easily end up at the wrong place and have no idea…

We walked into William and Noemi’s place, called Casa Indigus, and were immediately ushered into the beautiful and calm garden. We were so frazzled by the journey that we kind of just sat there in a daze and tried to talk with William. Shortly he “invited us” to a Cuba Libre, and it was one of the strongest we ever had! Or maybe we were just extremely dehydrated. In either case, we were buzzing pretty hard, pretty shortly after, and feeling a lot better about being in Trinidad. William and Noemi were very nice and we were sad not to be staying in their casa (it was full, so we were staying at a neighbor’s). Gladys’s place was a different picture entirely, as the house was half under construction! But our room was spacious and we got a private bath and it all seemed very nice to us. Gladys is extremely nice and she brought up some fresh juice once we were settled a little bit.

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Hanging out with Noemi, William and Baloo