Cuba weeks 23-25


We went by bus to Vinales. The system was queue and buy a ticket , wait in a scruffy waiting room , then 30 minutes before the bus leaves queue again and get a seat number , which bears no resemblance to the seat numbers on the bus and is free seating anyway. The buses were dusty and dirty and the seat in front reclined so far back that I had a French girl’s head in my lap. And these are the good buses for foreigners. During the trip I started to feel ill and by the time we reached Vinales I had a temperature. For the next 24 hours I was never off the toilet. By the time I recovered Patrick went down with the same thing. The area has carst limestone cliffs like in Vietnam , Thailand, China and tobacco is grown. The town has brightly coloured wooden houses and seems to be very geared to tourism, every other house is a homestay. The one we stayed at was run by a big homely smiling lady with a fat , lazy husband and son. It’s clear the women do the work in this place.

To get to our next destination , Cienfuegos we had to first catch the bus back to Havana and change there. On the road we stopped off at a roadside café, there was almost nothing to buy there. In Havana bus station they charge you 50 cents to use the disgusting toilet; Patrick took a photo and afterwards a burly man told him to delete it. Instead of sitting around why can’t the employees clean and repair the toilets and wash and vacuum the buses? Because it’s a state run service, there’s no competition and the employees are poorly paid. We travelled along the Bay of Pigs to Cienfuegos.

It’s a pleasant town with muted , pastel coloured buildings built around a classic Spanish square .In the homestay we watched the Gisella’s little brother catch doves on the deck with an improvised string trap . We only found out later that the men around , who were keeping doves , do so as a business to supply them to a religious sect Santeria.

We enjoyed staying in the Homestays and got on well with our hosts. Giselle , our host told us that she had a diploma in Tourism and then was put to work cleaning floors with one day off per week earning $10 /month. There are many men sitting around all day looking sad and disillusioned , we were told later that there are plenty of jobs available but nobody wants to work for the poor wages .

Books like Lonely Planet don’t paint a true picture of a country. Behind a crumbling beautiful façade can live a life of poverty and misery and they don’t portray that.

We moved to Trinidad, a cobbled, attractive town full of tourists. It’s hard to find anywhere today in the world without tourists. We spent the day at Playa Ancon beach, the typical Caribbean blue sea, white sand, Europeans sizzling on the beach. There are many girls travelling from different countries, some in pairs and some singly. They seem to be more adventurous than guys.

We took a walk to the top of a hill and visited another mundane museum celebrating the 60 year old revolution.

The scene at the bus station in the early morning was almost cliché South America. People milling about waiting for buses and then chaos erupting when an official opened a window, everyone clamouring for a tickets. We drove along the mainly empty road, passing gauchos on horseback, bullocks or horses pulling carts full of people, guys on bikes or the odd lone vintage American car.

There just don’t seem to be any stores or shops as we know them in Cuba and everything is in short supply except for beer, rum and spirits , which are plentiful. Our homestay in Santa Clara was very beautiful, like an oasis in the desert , with a peaceful garden where we could eat our meals. This town is the site of Che Guevara’s mausoleum which we walked to on the top of a commanding hill and with a fine statue of the hero. Once again the mausoleum was closed (remember Ho Chi Minh ) and we wondered if he would have been proud of today’s Cuba. Is this what he envisaged? There was a parade for school children to celebrate a luminary’s birthday with lots of propaganda songs; Patrick even saw a truck with “Propaganda “ written on the side

We returned to Cienfuegos and Giselle’s homestay. Her little brother and mother were away in Colombia obtaining a USA visa, it’s sad that young people have to leave their homes, breaking up a family, to make their way in the world.

We took a tour to Nase , a reserve in the forest with a waterfall and had a swim followed by lunch.

We met some intriguing travellers, a French Canadian lady about our age who was spending three months in Cuba to avoid the harsh winter back home and we kept bumping into a Swiss family with three small children travelling for four months.

Our last two transfers were by Taxi Collectivo and were good experiences; the first was with a vintage American car booming along the empty highway.

Our last day was spent walking along the broad two lane highway looking at the mansions, some derelict and others pristine such as the UK and North Korean embassies which were next door to each other. We also said goodbye to Flavia who had gone out of her way to help us in our travels around Cuba.

So farewell to Cuba, we met some great people who deserve a better standard of living and some hope for the future. They must embrace capitalism within the system like China, allow private enterprise , go full steam ahead with introducing an internet network, encourage entrepreneurship and drag the country into the twenty first century.


Week 22 Havana Cuba

So our journey kicked off badly again, we found that Carol needed a visa so we took a decision that I would travel on and Patrick and Carol would go to Cancun to get one from the Cuban embassy and catch a later flight. After arriving at the homestay, sometime later I realised that I had given them the wrong address. I had no way of contacting them and their flight had arrived, so together with Flavia , the homestay manager we waited with baited breath at the wrong address. All was well, they had arrived at the correct address. The Roger effect had kicked in again.
There’s no WiFi or internet in Cuba, one stands in a queue and purchases a card with a password to be used at hot spots usually in front of hotels where you find clusters of people .We can only conclude that the Government finds it convenient not to develop a network because it’ not in their interest to.
We stayed in homestays, we made friends with the owners and we often woke up to the sounds of children at school and street hawkers calling out their wares either walking, on a bicycle or on a horse and cart.
What to say about Havana and Cuba? Wonderful Spanish architecture, narrow streets, old classic American cars by the hundreds , ruined derelict buildings next to smart classic restored ones , little squares and great vistas. The Malecon sea front is a long stretch of ruined buildings, anywhere else it would be classic expensive houses and apartments. People of all colours, long legged girls, school girls in impossibly short skirts, some huge men but overall an impression of poverty. We stayed the majority of the time in a suburb next to the Revolution Square but spent one night in the old quarter in a house renovated by the Spanish, Cuban owner. This was nicely done but was just the ground floor and the upper floors belonged to other tenants and the roof was completely open to the elements in one area. You could look up and see the man upstairs brushing his teeth. During the night it rained hard and the water just poured in to the stone passage below. The owner pumped it out and then got a squeegee and finished the job. There are very few shops, we witnessed people queuing for bread, jam packed into old decrepit buses . The roads are potholed and the few old cars on the road pick their way around them. We went to the Museum of the Revolution and looked at the political dogma and propaganda that’s on display there. Notwithstanding the will and determination needed to overcome Batista and co you can’t help wondering if this is the best that the revolution can achieve after 60 years. Yes American sanctions haven’t helped but China, Vietnam and others have successfully negotiated a change to a capitalistic market system within a Communist country quite successfully. We discovered there is no real incentive to progress in fields, wages are hopeless, for example a doctor or a teacher earn about $25/month. We saw many young and older men just sitting around staring into space. Old people have a small pension and if their children can’t look after them then they resort to begging. Although medical care is free medicines have to be paid for and they are expensive. Education is free. Tourist books like Lonely Planet don’t paint a true picture of a country. Behind a crumbling, beautiful facade can live a life of poverty and desperation. So with the help of Flavia we made our reservations to travel around the island.

Week 21 Tulum Mexico

The Roger effect continued to click in , Patrick’s Uber wouldn’t work and mine was not connected to my credit card , so we did some frantic in putting of data before getting a taxi. On checking my passport details and ticket names didn’t correspond and I had an anxious one hour whilst I was shuttled back and forth from one airline to the next before receiving my boarding pass. We’ve found it important to check in 3 hours before a flight in case of hiccups.
When we arrived in Cancun there was no arranged driver to meet us so we caught a taxi to our homestay. This was in pitch darkness and nobody around seemed to know anything about the owners. The taxi driver took us to a hotel in town and we enjoyed grabbing something to eat at a local café next door.
The next morning it was pouring down with rain and we caught a bus to Tulum , a holiday town down the coast with very little charm. At the apartment where we stayed we were met by an Argentinian girl called Macarena , would you believe , from Argentina , another economic refugee from that country. We walked around the town with its tourist shops and cafes and broken pavements . We talked in the evening to an American retiree who came to Tulum twice a year to escape the harsh American winters. Its cheaper than USA and much warmer. Tulum has a bit of a reputation for being a hippy community and I liked the fact that everyone was walking about and using bicycles.
The following day we did the same and hired bikes and discovered why people come here. The Caribbean is gloriously turquoise and the sand white and fine. But the weather wasn’t really for the beach, so we rode on to the Maya ruins nearby, but beat a hasty retreat as it was horribly crowded. We decided to go back the next morning when it opened and we had the place more or less to ourselves. The Mayan ruins are beautiful , set on a cliff above the ocean and surrounded by bush and nice birds. As we were leaving the crowds started to pour in.
The next day we rode to a cenote , and swam in a natural pool formed by limestone , collapsing and forming natural underground clear tranquil water. The bicycle hire guy showed us a drawer full of unclaimed driving licences and passports of people who had lost bicycles. over the December and January period he collected 70 of them. The mind boggles.
So we took the bus back to Cancun , stayed in a nice homestay almost next door to the original one we wanted to stay at and went to the airport the next morning early. What fate would greet us this time?