Cuba Journal Post #2

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

April 9, 2017 – Trinidad

So far, our taxi drivers are all young guys with newer cars and they all drive them much too fast. We speed down the highway, passing horse-drawn buggies and bicycles. There is loud music and funny decorative features on the cars, like LCD screens where rear-view mirrors should be, or Apple logos cut out of window tinting. The beach outside Trinidad (Playa Ancon) is very nice but there is a lack of services out here. We go swimming in the ocean every time we need to pee. There isn’t much food and we almost leave early, but finally some young guys selling “pizza” pass by. The dough is nice, but then it’s just bits of cheese and some red sauce on top. Still, we are so hungry we pay for a few pizzas and stay longer.

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April 10

We wake up early and go search for a car to take us to El Cubano nature reserve, where we will hike to a waterfall and swim. We look for an older driver with a slower car! We find one and it’s generally great, though much more smelly than the newer ones. The driver is nice and drives very slow, mostly to protect the condition of the car on the dirt road. It is a 1957 Hillman, and we learn that the driver owns it. He guesses that the young drivers we had previously did not own their own cars, which might be why they didn’t seem to take care of them very well. We ask about gas prices and learn that it is not so cheap and is a major expenditure for drivers.

In the afternoon we go visit William and Noemi in their house. They are very friendly and nice people. They probably did not expect us to take them up on the offer to come over! We enjoy spending time in the houses with the owners. We did this a lot in Havana as well, and it’s nice to hangout and chat and learn and practice Spanish. Many of the tourists have a shorter trip and are always out doing activities and hardly get to know the owners. Or they don’t speak much of the language… Noemi is cleaning mostly, but she pops into the conversation every once in awhile. William brings us some more Cuba Libres, though thankfully less strong this time! We play ukulele for them and they are super impressed and really happy to have the music. We are shy about it and say that we aren’t very good, which is true, but we do know a few songs now, and Sheena’s singing is always impressive. We like to play for them. It feels like something small to give back in the house.

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We walk around the Plaza in the evening and finally find out where all the tourists go at night! Our house is at the lower edge of town and it’s a trek to make it up here, but this is where all the music venues are. They don’t really get going until later and so we don’t actually stay around to see how good they are. The only night we stayed out late was when waiting to eat in one of the popular restaurants. We kept being told that we were next, and then suddenly we were being sat with another couple and it was 10:30pm. Luckily that couple turned out to be quite nice and we had an excellent meal that lasted until midnight. On that night we just went home to bed as well, so we never visited any of the bars…

April 11 – Travel to Remedios

We finally take the infamous Viazul bus. Not infamous for any reason except that our friends who visited before never took it, so no one really knew how it was. We were really interested in taking the bus, since that is how we traveled all through South America, and since it was likely more comfortable than the taxi colectivos. Also, it was cheaper. In the end there’s not really much to report about how the bus experience went. It was pretty much just like buses in Ecuador, which is very typical of Latin America. It was quiet and smooth and ran mostly on time.

The problem with transportation here seems to be that there are too few options. The taxi colectivos are filling a void left by the government bus service. There are three different sets of buses on the road, and you see them just about everywhere, but still there’s not really enough. The national bus lines are very difficult for Cubans to take. We heard that you have to get on a waiting list for most of them that is up to 3 months long. They are very cheap for Cubans, but you must wait. They are not an option for tourists. Then there is Viazul which seems to sell out a few days in advance because there are only a couple buses leaving each day. There are probably thousands of tourists arriving in Trinidad each day, but only two Viazul buses serve the city, so only about 60 can come in that way. The third type of buses are the private tour groups. You see these everywhere and it’s kind of maddening because you cannot take one as a backpacker. These are the Transgaviota, or Transtur buses. Again, the taxi colectivos fill the gap for tourists traveling on their own, and a complicated private system has formed to serve the market.

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Central plaza in Remedios

At times, driving along the more rural roads (off the national highway), it feels as if there is really only one travel lane. We drive mostly straddling the center line, and only move over into our lane when there is an oncoming car. We stay in the center because the pavement is better, but also because there are many bicyclists, horse drawn buggies, and motorcycles that move slower on the sides of the pavement. There really aren’t that many roads here, so everyone uses the same one to travel between towns.

In Remedios we find Yudiel, Rodney’s cousin, without much effort. He’s a nice guy, who looks nothing like Rodney. He works for a car rental/travel agency on the plaza and he set up lodging for us when Laura called a few days before. He walks us to the other side of the plaza to a casa right on the edge. The room is nice, though small. It is also full of mosquitoes. This is pretty unfortunate, especially because the ceiling is so high it is hard to kill them… The town is nice and immediately has a different feel. Trinidad was very touristy and it felt like that. Havana was extremely chaotic. This is quaint. People smile and say hello. There aren’t many tourists in town, so perhaps they know all about us already. We go to the post office to buy a WiFi card and are directed to someone’s house across the street. We knock and no one answers, but then the women is coming up the street and so she opens up her house and invites us in and sells us one internet card. We also run into the Spanish couple on the street, who we will share the cab with tomorrow. They find us from Yudiel’s description (un flaco y una china). We laugh and think that’s about all people need in this town to find us. We later learn that Yudiel practically forced the Spanish couple into sharing a taxi with us for the visit to Cayo Santa Maria. When Laura called him and asked for him to find another couple to share costs, he was clearly motivated. We had a lot of fun relating our different experiences leading up to the outing with the Spanish couple.

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It seems like a pretty open ended definition

Tonight is our first dinner in one of the casas, since the food options aren’t great here. It starts with soup, and then a large main plate (fish, chicken, beef or pork) with rice and beans and salad. The salad, as we find out, is always cucumbers, tomato, cabbage and green beans. The green beans must be canned because they are always the same, and always soft and flavorless. We use oil and vinegar and salt to make the salad palatable. I eat the green beans, as I miss greens already. Sheena takes care of the tomatoes usually. The chicken is very good and the proportions are giant.

April 12 – Day trip to Cayo Santa Maria

We shared a taxi with our new Spanish friends (Pilar and Jaime) and really had a great day. I seem to catch most of what they say, but also, when it was just us 4, I think they slowed down a bit. When they were talking with the taxi driver, it was too fast with too many different accents! It was fun to spend a whole day talking in another language. I think we genuinely connected with them and had a lot of laughs. They were so nice and encouraging and funny and it was super fun.

The beach was very nice. We were warned that it was “primitive” with nothing at all, except shade structures of course! But then it turned out there were beach chairs too. And then it turned out that a hotel was only 500 meters up the beach where we could get cold beers for $1 CUC each. Ha! Latin American ideas of primitive should always be taken with a grain of salt. The water here is so clear and the sand is very white. Although as the tide goes out and the beach gets bigger, the waves and wind also kick up and it isn’t as nice. We stay for a few hours before heading back to the entrance to the park to meet up with the taxi driver. He drives an old Chevy, but one that has been replaced with mostly Nissan parts. He is nice and plays funny music videos for us. The music is a little loud but it’s just such a beautiful day we all have a great time. We go for lunch at the resort area down the street and then are able to sneak in another quick swim with some sweet talking by the Spanish couple. Otherwise we would have had to pay some more.

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During lunch, the Spanish couple bring up the current USA political climate and we talk about that for the first time on the trip. We don’t know what’s happening at all, really. And it turns out to be not much anyway. The internet is spotty and not available in most places. You have to use an internet card and then it just doesn’t seem all that worthwhile. We have checked email once or twice, just to send notes that we are OK. Cubans seem bothered by the current political climate as well, though. They have told us, generally, that they are excited for improved relationships between the USA and Cuba, that it will mean good changes for the country. Our current president threatens that, and they don’t know what to think now. Cuba was described as being “al lado del mundo” to us, and that seems fitting.

We learned a bit of Spanish history concerning Cuba from Pilar and Jaime. How Spain traded Cuba for Florida with the English, and how Spanish leftists fled Spain after the civil war and immigrated to Cuba. How there were many Spanish immigrants who fought with Castro and were excited by the revolution. What an amazing amount of change only a few generations could experience! Supposedly the old man in the plaza selling peanuts fought under Che during the revolution. He then went to University, but was called up to go to Angola and fight in some conflict that Cuba was sending troops for. When he refused he was booted out of the University and lost a lot of privilege. This was the story he told Pilar and Jaime. Our bici-taxi driver told us the other day that he had served in Angola. We like to ask people if they have ever left the country. Because it is difficult to leave, and was even more so in the past, many people only left for government related causes. This man had been in Angola for two years! He spoke Portuguese fluently.

Conflict and great geopolitical strife has been historically low during my life. I guess I’ve been lulled into thinking that things are like this. More or less stable. It is amazing to be somewhere with such a varied history, a place that has experienced rapid change many times in a few generations. Suddenly, it seems like this is more normal than my own experience in the USA. I realize that the future could bring anything. Especially when thinking about our own current political situation.

 

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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