Cuba and Beyond

Part One

Fidel in Cuba died recently and I felt smugly pleased that I had made it to that island before he had passed away. Well done, I have to say, for standing up – alone (except for massive Russian help, I suppose, in the earlier days) – to the regional superpower and for sticking to his guns over the last three plus decades.

I remember being exhausted when I thought about how I arrived – the flight from Sydney to Dallas was 15 hours! The amazing thing was that I left Sydney at 1PM on Wednesday 12 August and arrived here in Dallas 15 minutes later on Wednesday 12 August. Still haven’t worked that out. However, on again to Mexico City where I’ll stay the night before leaving for Havana the next morning!

Stayed in a lovely hostel in the Centro Historico in Mexico City and caught my early morning flight to “La Habana” the next day. Arrived safely but a bit tired after nearly 26 hours actual flying time. Stayed in a very nice “casa particulare” which is a private home providing bed and breakfast.  The Cuban government under Raoul, Fidel’s brother, recently decided to allow private individuals to rent a room in their homes to tourists. Fascinated by the disrepair everywhere, I went out for a walk the first evening and got lost immediately – took me 4 hours to find the pension again.

fullsizeoutput_fb7Havana is amazing – Like going back in time – a jumble of narrow streets, all dug up and rough, crumbling mildewed buildings propped up with wooden beams and here and there a splash of bright paint covering up the ruins! If I thought the streets in Hanoi were confusing and the rough paths in Saigon were not for pedestrians, here in Havana everything is worse – the streets are a jumble of broken pavements and street signs are few and not very clear.  So far I have got lost every single time within 5 minutes of leaving my “casa” and I end up walking around in a maze of narrow streets, stopping whenever I can to gulp bottled water and find a shady cafe where I can sit, relax, read, study Spanish and do people watching.  All the men are stick thin, mostly, while the women have the biggest bums and boobs I have ever seen.  I hadn’t realised how black the people are – all shades really from shiny black African types to milky coffee colours. The only peopfullsizeoutput_fb6le who speak English are the touts who offer cigars, taxis and tours – “hello, welcome to Cuba, enjoy your holiday – where are you from? No, no, wait, listen to me, I don’t want your money for myself but if you can buy some oil or milk for my baby ….“. And then there is the music – every bar seems to have a traveling band who play for 30 minutes or so before passing the hat around! Where I had dinner last night – a grilled fish with rice and black beans – the band had a resident couple in a flamboyant costume who danced salsa for tips.  Everything is cheap but not too cheap in Havana and nothing is free of course – even sitting in a park will attract touts and sometimes it is easier to give a few coins than to constantly refuse.

I ended up staying 6 nights and then got a 4 hour bus ride to Viñales a rural town to the west of Habana where the main occupation seems to be sitting on a verandah in a rocking chair, drinking Ron! Very quiet and calm compared to Havana which was a bit too money hungry for my liking.  Here in the village everything seems to be a lot slower as was img_0623the Internet which was intermittent and chaotic.  Queued for more than an hour to buy a internet card valid for one hour and which must be used on the pavement outside the telephone office in order to use the connection there.  Weird system, or maybe no system at all. I really need to book a flight out of Cuba before it is too late because the music, the salsa dancing, the food, cocktails are all so lovely and laid back. Probably going to leave the home stay in Viñales tomorrow but the food is incredible – both the quantity and the quality – I’ve eaten nothing but seafood and last night my lobster was too big for me to finish! – and head off to a beach nearby and stay there for a few days – long enough to get laundry done! All the bars everywhere have a roster of bands playing great salsa music for about 3 or 4 songs before they pass the hat around and try to sell their cd.    The last night in Viñales, there was a ten-man band belting out the music and eight extraordinary dancers at the cultural centre where – of course both the band and the dancers expected – and were well worth – the minimal tips involved.

Left Vinales and took a bus down to the south coast to a town called Cienfuegos where the casa particulare, while pleasant enough, was miles out of town.  I didn’t really like the town despite its fantastic lovely buildings as it was stinking hot and there were not enough bars.  Decided to leave the next day and go to Trinidad and took a taxi to the bus station where I queued for the bus ticket and then queued again to get a seat number on the bus but when the bus finally arrived there were no seat numbers so I just sat down.  Cubans have to queue for everything here – God help them! In direct contrast to Cienfuegos, img_0632Trinidad was lively and colourful – narrow, cobbled streets, loads of bars, great music and fantastic restaurants.  Sitting on a rooftop terrace enjoying the first mojito of the day, listening to another band with a fat lady belting out the songs and swaying to the rhythm when the singer asked me to dance and tried to show me the steps, faster and faster, swaying all the time.  Of course I had to give her a dollar then.  Great fun, though, but God, the sweat pours out of me.

Left Trinidad worn out and hired a taxi for the 12k run to the coast – Playa Ancon, which looked lovely but the hotel was $125 a night – a bit rich for my blood – so back in the taxi, another $7 and down the road to a local fishing village where I found a lovely clean room in a private home where the host also offers breakfast and dinner.  This morning, before leaving Trinidad, I had breakfast in the  casa – a pot of strong black coffee, a pot of hot milk, a basket of toast, four small pancakes, a plate of sliced cheese and ham,  a small omelette, a HUGE jug of fresh mango juice, a plate of papaya, mango and pineapple and a litre of fresh yogurt – absolutely amazing.  Enough to last me for days – or until dinner tonight and I’ve already ordered fish.

Back in Havana and sitting on the balcony of my casa particulare and enjoying the afternoon breeze and listening to the noise of the street below me – groups of young kids kicking a punctured ball around and singing “ole, ole, ole” (probably the worst “music” I have heard since I arrived). Planning to take a ferry ride across the harbour to a fantastic, img_0572fairytale fort on the other side the next day.  Time for my evening cocktail as I try to chat in Spanish to the old man, Gomez and his wife, Miranda who are renting me the room, a/c, private bathroom, big bed and balcony plus a huge breakfast Trying to keep the spending down but had to splash out at the loo today in a hotel! No free lunches here – everything has to be paid for. I’ve enjoyed Cuba but now, it’s getting on time for me to move on and I plan to fly to Quito, which is the second highest capital city in the world, in Ecuador by the end of the month.  Should be cool there, I’d imagine! I drip with sweat the whole time here and my sandals stink despite me washing and scrubbing them every night.

Cuba is really a step back in time. Queues are paramount, even to enter the bank, only one person allowed in at a time, or to buy a bus ticket, or the exchange booth but as yet I have not seen an ordinary shop as we know it. Plenty of souvenirs on sale as well as exquisite lace and embroidered everything but I haven’t bought anything yet, except for food and drinks.  Pathetic in loads of ways, queues in the morning for bread and oil, no internet to speak of, battered and broken down old Russian Ladas and ancient Chevies and Caddies, mildewed and crumbling buildings, incredibly fat ladies squeezed into tight Lycra, but God, the music, the rum, the ambience, the sheer decrepitness of it all somehow combines to provide an out of world feeling.  In the bars at night, there was music in the air and revolution in the air. A rum mojito – although I tended to prefer daiquiris – was an experience as no barman worth his salt would ever dream of using a measure. They just up-ended the bottle leaving barely a fraction for a splash of fizzy water. It became my undoing as they would offen enquire if the drink was “fuerte” enough and of course, being who I am, I would shake my head and pass the glass over where they would freshen it for me. Not much else to say about Cuba mainly because I don’t remember my alcoholic nights which often began shortly after noon for the above reasons but overall, I’d have to say a good time. Nevertheless, glad to leave after nearly 3 weeks there  and flying onto Quito, via Panama, in Ecuador. From there, I don’t know exactly what my plans are but I just find the heat and the humidity here in Cuba a bit draining.  Here’s hoping the cooler air further south will revive me as Quito is something like 2,500 metres above sea level. I doubt I will complain about the heat there. And, there should be regular internet access there. Had enough of poor old Cuba.