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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.