Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cuba Libre, Really?

I must admit I was a wee bit nervous heading to the enemy land, Cuba, so I again turned Irish for the occasion.  Who doesn't like the Irish?

It was a day long journey to Havana from Cusco, via Lima and Panama City, not arriving in Havana until nearly midnight. Despite the fact that it was Domingo, when things are usually dead, Havana was hopping (but not for me since I was tired and dirty).

Havana airport offered interesting sights- everyone smoking, flat screen TV’s coming out on the baggage carousel and sniffing dogs as I waited forever for my bag in the dimly lit baggage area. Then I had the pleasure of losing $50 on my money exchange since they charge an extra 10% on US Dollars--- damn embargo!

The next morning I met everyone on the Cuban Adventures tour and our local guide, Yoxander, for our drive west to Vinales (pop. 10,000), a small farming village with limestone pincushion hills (mogotes)-- this is tobacco country and one of the most agriculturally productive areas in the country. After a yummy $1.20 grilled cheese sandwich we went on a tour of the colorful village (which color would I paint my casa?).

The first stop was a tobacco plantation where we saw and smelled freshly picked leaves drying, in addition to coffee growing. The owner brewed us some of their strong coffee and showed us how to roll (and smoke) cigars. First puff of a cigar, not terrible but I didn’t really see the point.

The tour then turned more into a hike through pineapple fields (the farmer cut up a huge bowl for me and it was SO delicious, even if I didn't need an entire one), up a hill, through a cave and down the other side. Yoxander really should have mentioned that a skirt and flip flops were not so suitable.

Now that we were in Vinales we would be staying with local families and also eating some meals there. This is a way for the locals to make some money, but also a way to provide rooms for tourists since there are not enough hotels. Mirta was a lovely host and I slept so well here I considered staying longer.

We then had to experience the local music scene and the first of many mojitos--- a sort of cabaret show with a band (and sexy keyboard player in a playboy bunny wife beater- eck!), dancers in fabulous (and ill fitting) costumes, and my favorite, the soloist with the male dancer performing around her to be followed by a French tourist singing along. Priceless!

I know by now that I am not into caves, but the group decided to check out Cuevas del Indio so I went along and was fairly unim- pressed. Good thing we stopped by the bazaar Mural de Prehistoria painted on a cliff face (200ft. high X 300ft. long and commissioned by Castro in 1961)- it was so odd I was delighted (Laura would like this!).

Yoxander brought us to a scenic lookout where in addition to the spectacular view of the mogotes we spotted a swimming pool. Somehow we then crashed a fancy hotel’s swimming pool with lots of poolside (and in pool) mojitos.

Refreshed it was time for the pig roast at one of Yoxander’s friend’s places. I was excited to play dominoes, the national past time, but it really isn’t that fun.  A lot of Havana Club rum, some picking at the roasting pig and card games made for an enjoyable afternoon.

A few of the local guys joined us for a game and were hilarious in their enthu- siasm. We are now concerned that they are going to abandon dominoes in favor of a stupid drinking game.

Unfortunately the next day it was a long, 7-hour drive east to Santa Clara (pop. 175,000), a key city in the Cuban Revolution. I will dub it Che-ville since there is a huge Soviet-esque monument of Che with a museum underneath. There is Che everywhere in Cuba, but this is the territory he controlled during the revolution and the site of a successful attack on a train transporting troop reinforcements and US armaments to the east. Within days they captured the city, Batista fled the country and everything changed.

On the way to Santa Clara we had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer and Jessica (“the skinnier one”), 9-month old twins, and their grandparents who were waiting on the side of the road on route to Havana. Locals basically have to rely on occasional buses and hitchhiking to get from a to b. We bypassed a ton of people, but how can you not stop for babies all dressed up in fancy dresses and lacy socks.  Before I knew it a baby was plopped down on my lap--- they were pretty cute.

Although not my favorite, Santa Clara was an interesting glimpse into real Cuban city life, since it is not a big tourist desti- nation.  For instance, walking down the street and seeing pig heads out of the corner of your eye. There is so much pork in this country-- amazingly you could get a full roast pork meal with rice and salad for $1.50!

Better yet, $0.10! The cost of attending the playoff baseball game in Santa Clara.

I befriended 9-year old Brian, who would only take peanuts from us, while waiting for someone to score and explaining the game to the Brits and Czechs. I am still disappointed they don't have mascots here and forget about any hot dog race around the bases.  Just pure, old school baseball.

When Santa Clara finally took the lead the crowd went crazy and we decided to leave since they don’t sell any cervesa or crappy food like at home. You will be happy to know that Santa Clara won!

It was good to have some fun as we had just left a super awkward situation with our very large breasted host Luisa (they were really on display, otherwise there would be no reason to mention). We basically moved out after she insulted Danielle for being vegetarian and didn’t exactly have the appropriate accommodation (I was sleeping in her bed, it seemed). Our new host Rolando was a big upgrade!

After the game we enjoyed some Pina Coladas, Daiquiris and really good music in Parque Vidal, where they have a double-wide sidewalk that once kept whites and blacks apart (now there is no racism-- everyone really is equal).  I was surprised to see the occasional cross dresser walk by. Go figure!

Of course we couldn’t leave without visiting the Monumento Ernesto Che Guevara and museum, which was really just a bunch of stuff he may have touched at one point (and I got shushed just like at waxy Lenin).

A quick drive by Tren Blindado, the blown up train, and it was off to Trinidad through a bumpy Sierra del Escambray mountain road.

Trinidad (pop. 38,000) has quite a history.  Originally founded by Diego Velázquez in 1514, it is a beautiful colonial town and formerly the producer of a third of Cuba's sugar.  It was once very wealthy, as you can envision from the once grand mansions, due to the sugar that was introduced by French refugees fleeing a slave revolt in Haiti in the 1800's.  Unfortunately they also imported slaves from Jamaica to work those sugar plantations.

Jesus’ home and hospitality was perfect (I love the beautiful floor tiles in Cuban homes), as was Yoxander's walking tour before lunch of an absolutely enormous $10 lobster (after I sent back the dodgy shrimp).

The handicraft market around the Plaza Mayor had plenty of domino sets and stuff with Cuba written on it-- apparently you could buy anything since Danielle as offered a “side partner.”

When Jesus offered crab for dinner I was so excited, but the preparation was so odd-- chopped up with all the shells made it a bit of a challenge (later I had my suspicious why).

Trinidad has tons of live music venues, but it seems everyone starts the evening with a visit to The Steps. The name pretty much says it all--- a long flight of steps that people sit on while watching a band and dance troupes (the guys in bubble gum pink were my fav!). Some people dance along but I found that way too intimidating since 1) Cubans can really dance and 2) you basically have spectators, including my favorite Cuban sporting the ‘Proud to be an American' t-shirt. Instead I opted to watch as well while sampling a few more mojitos—I am conducting an informal taste test of Cuba’s mojitos. :-)

After The Steps the tourist ‘must do’ is Disco Ayala, aka The Cave. It is a full on disco inside a real cave, complete with disco lights, DJ booth, bar, banos--- everything you would find in a normal club. It was a late night dancing to a lot of reggaeton, mixed in with an occasional Black Eyed Peas, Shakira or something familiar. After months in South America a lot is now familiar and I have all sorts of favorite Latin tunes.

Since we were up until 3am, it is no surprise the next day was pretty lazy, with a late breakfast and trip to the money changer and Internet cafe.

We popped by a special needs school so the nice Canadian school teachers, Stephanie and Sandra, could donate some supplies they brought along—the kids were adorable and since we arrived at lunchtime it didn’t cause too much of a disruption.

To Playa Ancon in a robin’s egg blue vintage Chevy--- these old cars are SO spacious (they have converted them to diesel)! Hours lounging under an umbrella and hanging with Merhdad in the water proved quite relaxing. A red ’57 Chevy back to town capped off the afternoon.

That evening we learned that YoYo (Yoxander, who is married to an Australian he met on a previous tour) was granted temporary permission to move to Australia—you can imagine how excited he was. Hopefully he can now get permission from the Cuban government to leave. I really hope it all works out for him—after traveling for a year it is hard to fathom never having been off this island.

Celebration was in order! No time to mess around, just give me some dark rum on the rocks (I couldn’t take any more sweet mojitos). Since last night was so much fun it seemed fitting to do it again---- The Steps and The Cave with Stephanie, Yoxander and Merhdad until 3am. It was a great night!

The only problem was that we had to get up early for the trip back to Havana, stopping at French founded Cienfuegos on the way where a guy told me he hates America (he didn’t know I was American). The city is known as 'the pearl of the south' and is quite pretty.

On the way there we killed zillions of crabs (hmmm, dinner the other night?). Yes, you think I exaggerate, but really it was kilometer after kilometer of road completely covered with them!  You could hear and feel the crunching under the tires since we had to drive slowly to avoid a flat tire. It was SO gross and really disturbed my nap.

We also stopped by the Bay of Pigs for some anti-Yankee and “flunkies” propaganda (literally the words used in the museum material). It was a little awkward and reminded me of the feeling I had at the tunnels in Vietnam. I guess they have their side of the story too.  From then on I only wanted to be referred to as 'the Yankee' (I was the only one).

I did enjoy the snorkeling afterwards since there were tons of fish thanks to the nice Cuban man feeding bread to attract them (his parents live in the US, so he was quite happy to meet me and wanted a photo together).

Back to Havana (pop. 2.2 million).  As a total bonus at the end of the tour, we were upgraded to the historic Hotel Nacional (modeled on The Breakers in Palm Beach) which is pretty cool even if the rooms are a bit dated. It is also an excellent place to sample yet another mojito on the patio before heading out for our farewell dinner.

I missed it the first night, but the Cuban thing to do is BYOB to El Malecon, the waterfront area where everyone (young and old) hangs out, chats and listens to roaming musicians. At $3 for a bottle of rum, what a bargain! I loved!!

I was really sad to see all my new friends leave after breakfast, but thankfully the Aussies, Kristie and Danielle, had a late flight and were game to check out Old Havana, yet another UNESCO heritage site. It is charming- a restored area in the midst of a crumbling city.

After the market, Danielle getting mobbed by kids and a visit to the Princess Diana garden (why?), it basically turned into a tour of beverages, or places where Hemingway consumed beverages: chocolate milk, daiquiri, mojito and pina colada.

The end of our tour took us past El Capitolio, a building that once housed the House of Government and ironically was modeled after the US Capitol- weird!

Once everyone left I totally crashed--- god it was so good to finally sleep. I slept and slept and slept some more and eventually rose the next morning with nothing much to do. Of course I had to check out Plaza de la Dignidad and the Elian Gonzales statue pointing it's finger at the US Special Interests Building- excellent!

Speaking of US policy, I had such an impression of what life would be like in Cuba- it wasn't exactly accurate. It is not like the former Soviet Union countries--- these people smile!

Sure, the buildings are in disrepair and they don’t have the latest cars, the average monthly salary is between $10-20 and a taxi driver or tour guide earns more than a doctor.  Not like home, but not so bad.  Overall I actually found it to be incredibly pleasant.

The people are lovely, generous, spirited and generally seem happy. Life is slow and I am sure not easy, but they seem to make it work. There is music everywhere and people dancing every night just enjoying life.

I wanted to visit Cuba before the US changes our policy and we mess with the country, but the Cubans explained that even if that were to happen it wouldn’t change Cuba's policy-- interestingly, they don't see things changing any time soon.

I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a place I wasn’t free to leave, with tight government control and restrictions, where I was forced to find ways to cover basic expenses (la lucha--- the daily struggle). We heard it described as "the land where nothing is allowed and everything is possible."

I am not sure how they have kept the locals, who are fairly well educated and aware of the realities outside Cuba, so content.  When the USSR 'abandoned' them (the period known as the "Special Period") they had to open the country to tourism as a solution to the economic crisis--- how can seeing tourists driving in nice buses as they wait on the side of the road not breed resentment?   Sure, they have a system (and currency) to keep us separate so we don't corrupt the socialist ideals, but I would think our mere presence would have that result.  Is it really better to keep everyone poor versus having classes? 
I guess like everyone I left a little more confused, but also with a big smile and so many good memories.

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