IT BEGINS ANEW …
My quest to visit every country in the world resumed February 2nd. At the start of this leg of that journey, the marker stands at 95 countries. For those who have read previous posts on this blog, it should be obvious that my approach has been to minimize expenses and maximize opportunities by sequentially visiting proximate countries in geographic blocks. It makes no sense to fly to a single country, and expend most of your hard-earned funds largely on airfare. This round is to the Caribbean. I expect to visit 20 or so islands/countries, over a period of 45 to 50 days.
Four years ago, I entered Cuba on the sly, coming in from Cancun, thus bypassing all the legalities of having to file extensive paperwork and join an educational or religious group or cadre of government functionaries to justify my existence there. Not necessary this time. One of the best things President Obama has done (in an otherwise undistinguished record of accomplishment) was to open the door to Cuba for ordinary Americans to visit. My thinking (if not his) is why would we do business with 1.3 billion Chinese, who are a helluva lot more Communist than the Cubans will ever be, when we don’t have diplomatic relations with 20 million non-threatening Cubanos 90 minutes from our shores?
My objective in attending to Cuba this go-round, is to see the three-quarters of the eastern portion of the country. My previous travels had taken me from the fascinating confines of Havana (worth the trip all by itself) to the western reaches of the sylvan caves, tobacco fields, and world renowned grotto murals of Vialle de Vinales.
My initial flight in from Miami instead of Mexico reveals why there have been so many lost treasure ships lost to Spanish fleets oh so many years ago. It would take a master navigator to avoid the countless sand bars, shallows, shoals, reefs, and cayes that are so obvious from the air.
The flight from Miami was a portent of things to come. It departed 2.5 hours late, due to there being a change of planes and our plane being overloaded with fuel due to a longer trip being scheduled. It took a great deal of time for the independent tanker contractors to arrive and take fuel out of the plane. Once that was done, the ground crew could not be found to back the plane away from the terminal. Apparently they had been advised the tanker crew would take much more time for their task, and departed to parts unknown for a siesta.
Upon arrival in Havana, there was the usual nonsense from taxi drivers. I have actually learned to relish this experience, as most visitors just take the mentioned prices laying down and don’t bargain or refuse and walk on. In this case, the taxi traffic director quoted me a price of $25 US dollars. The number and denomination was clarified twice. When I arrived at my Habana Viejo hostel location, however, the driver said “Oh no, Sir, that price is in CUC. That is standard. I can’t change it.” And no matter how much I argued, he insisted in being paid in the official Cuban government currency which is forced on all tourists in order to guarantee they pay rapacious prices for transport, food, and entertainment relative to locals. (More on CUC vs the peso local currency workers are paid in, later).
It became clear that they will mention the price in dollars, because it is lower, being artificially valued at .85 US dollars. Therefore, a taxi ride of 25 CUC (short for Cuban Convertible Pesos) is actually about $28 US dollars, rounded. By mentioning the 25, and cleverly using the same symbol for CUC ($) as for US dollars ($), the Cubans manage to initially make the price look lower, and then skim the difference. So instead of creating a scene, I made sure the driver stuck around, unloaded all my luggage, answered travel questions, and made several calls on my behalf before paying for the ride and allowing him to take his leave. As it ended up, he was a very nice man. Like most Cubans, he had ample warmth and integrity, but was the pawn of a very inefficient and manipulative system.
Cuban food makes up for the nation’s transport deficiencies. Immediately following arrival, it was out for a walkabout. This is one of the surest ways to cure jetlag, after an all-night flight from Seattle and then final leg from Miami to Havana. Just around the corner, I ran into the delightful Mar y Terra restaurant, just one block up from the Malecon – Havana’s famous waterfront boulevard and one of the grandest walking jaunts on earth. At first I was shocked by the prices. I saw $25 for a glass of lemonade! But after some inquiry and renewal of my rusty Spanish, it came to me that price was in pesos – the generally off limits to tourists denomination that workers are paid in. It was actually one US dollar.
Shops catering to tourists charge in CUC. So do buses, airplanes, and trains (at least on tourist routes). Some buses and trains charge virtual pennies for a ride, and will not allow tourists aboard due to the low pricing. Shops catering to locals will post prices in pesos. That rate is 25 pesos to 1 American dollar. That is the currency the Cuban government does not want you to use, because if you find the right establishment where locals do business, you can eat and travel like a king. And half of the outlay will not go to the Cuban government. So the lemonade was a dollar. A complete meal consisting of rice, beans (those two are always included in any Cuban meal), salad, beef and the aforementioned lemonade cost $2.25 US.
A walk down the Malecon toward Habana Viejo (Old Havana) is always a pleasure. In any weather, on any day, the visitor will always find lovers in various stages of embrace, fishermen, poets, artists, and photographers. Waves coming in from the Gulf of Mexico crash against the coral breakwater and throw up an occasional surprise curtain of spray. Along the path are architectural testimonials to what makes Havana uniquely Havana. And that is, a wonderful colonial veneer testifying to an earlier era as a playground for gangsters and moguls. This provides an occasional hint of renewal and optimism (fueled by a fresh generation of visitors due to the thaw in relations between Cuba and the US), with an overlay of crumbling decay and echoes of things well past.
To the east along the waterfront, are the twin redoubts of El Morro Castillo and the artillery stronghold La Fortaleza. In concert on opposite sides at the mouth of the Havana River, these twin fortresses brimming with ancient rusted cannons kept marauding French, English and Dutch invaders at bay for many years. Other favorite spots always worth visiting are the Revolutionary Museum, the Opera House, the Ambos Mundo Hotel (Ernest Hemingway’s writing desk and sleep quarters are on the fifth floor). Also the La Floridita Bar – said to be his favorite watering hole, where “Papa” allegedly drank up to 15 non-sweetened daiquiris daily. How did we ever get “The Old Man And The Sea” and “The Sun Also Rises” with that going on?
Despite vast improvements in internet access compared to my last visit to Havana four years ago, there is little or no open web access in Havana. You have to go to a wi-fi hot spot, buy a card (always limited availability), and hope for the best. My first night in Havana is not my night for such luck. This is poison to a writer. When you have a new adventure every day, no matter how furiously you take notes, the immediacy is lost to you if you can’t get memories and correct names and spellings computerized that night. Thus, tavern owners all over the planet complain bitterly about my selfish nesting instincts, preferring to stay in my room and write rather than sharing good cheer with fellow travelers.
In my last trip to Havana, I met a young man named Barbaro Gonzalez. At first, I thought he and his cohorts were going to mug me. But he plaintively asked me: “Sir, what is really going on in the world?” We became fast friends at that point, as I described the world situation that had been hidden from him. He has since learned via regular internet access what takes place on our planet, and even moved to Argentina for a higher paying job. In his absence, I had a chance to visit with his extended family. They live in one of the poorest sections of Havana, with approximately a dozen people living in a five-room apartment.
As we drank beer and traded Barbaro stories in poor Spanish and worse English, for a time I forgot our differences. Those were largely the opportunities afforded me as an American and a world traveler, mixing it up with lively Cubanos who had never left Havana. For one of those brief shining moments (four hours), we had beer, toasts, dancing, laughter, smiles, embraces, and then difficulty in parting. My parting gift to Barbaro’s mother Reina was a crisp $100 Yankee greenback, which is nearly a year’s salary to many Cubans. I left with some regret, yet having fulfilled my promise to my young friend to take care of his mother in his absence.
The next morning, I attempt to take the bus Via Azul – where you have to pay in tourist CUC – to the mid-Cuba city of Trinidad. No go, bus full until the next day. So I linked up in the parking lot with another frequent traveler, Max, and his 87 year-old Italian grandfather on a coche particular (private car out for hire) to make the journey. The price for my share was $80, which far exceeds the cost of a bus ticket, but as I have written previously – what is the price of a day, stuck in a place you have already seen and know well? And the journey is shortened to four hours without stops, not eight.
One of the particular delights of staying in hostels or sharing a coche particular is trading travel stories, travel tips, and sometimes exaggerated adventures. As it turns out, Max is a Swedish freestyle traveler also (traveling without plans or reservations, except for occasional airline legs). He tends to linger more than I in most places, and stops to work and refresh his bank account. We part company in Trinidad with promises to keep in touch, and his offer of using his base in Stockholm as a stopover when next in Scandanavia.
As is the custom in third world countries, the train does not leave for my fly-out point at Santiago de Cuba from Trinidad as advertised. That takes place at Sancti Spiritus, 68 kilometers away. This requires another coche particular at added expense. Of course upon arrival in Sancti Spiritus, I learn the train does not depart from there, either. More bad information. My driver Rolando – a most generous man – made a phone call on my behalf and we learn the train takes off from Guayos, about 15 kilometers distance. We agree to meet later that night, so I can get a meal and use the internet in town.
Coming off the bus in Sancti Spiritus, I am desperate to use the bathroom. I enter the station, and as customary in the US, simply head for the door. Suddenly a woman is shrieking at me. She attempts to block my path. I walk past her, and she grabs me. We have substantial language differences. She reaches her hand out … apparently for money. I told her “No!” I walk past her anyway, and she grabs me again, and clutches me all the way into the men’s urinal. She then calls for the police. She and the bemused policeman make it clear a peso is needed (costing (approximately four cents) to use the john. They don’t have pesos in tourist CUC fractions, however.
“Can’t you wait until I am done?” I asked in passable Spanish. “I have no proper change.” The woman clutched at my arm, and tried to drag me out of the bathroom, despite me being twice her size. The policeman said: “You can always get change.” And then pointed to the ticket window, where a long line appeared to me as if a cruel joke was being played out. Luckily, a Cuban man watching the whole exchange reached into his pocket and paid the single peso for me, about five seconds before my bladder nearly exploded.
Part of the time awaiting Rolando’s return was spent accessing the internet. I was able to do this with the help of another inquisitive Cuban, Reinier Fernando Romero Hernandez. I met him in the primary public square at Sancti Spiritus, asking where the wi-fi hot spots were. He turned out to be an English teacher, looking to perfect his second tongue. He also wanted to know some “usual phrases” that might be catchy, current, relevant, or useful. I had little to offer. “Most of what I know that you would remember isn’t everyday conversation,” I told him. “They are mostly insults.” He was not dissuaded. So I armed him with such gems as “Your ass sucks wind” and “if your IQ could even be measured it would surely be less than your age.”
Reiner told me of his own travel plans, and his admiration for my goal to reach every country in the world. I pointed out to him there were tradeoffs to fulfill such a goal. These include living simply, not accumulating … stuff … and being willing to do what others won’t – particularly working two or more jobs, working past midnight, working weekends, and giving up time with significant others. “Being able to travel well involves a direct price, sure” I told him. That part you can predict and budget for. But it also involves a cost. Most can’t or won’t pay the cost.”
Rolando picked me up at 10 pm, continuing my ordeal to find an outlet to Santiago de Cuba. We arrive in Guayos without incident. This train does run to Santiago de Cuba. Huzzah! However, on this date and on my stop as it comes through at 1:30 am, it will be full of military. I am not allowed to board. Again. We all look at each other, unable to explain what has happened, or why, and what the alternatives are.
Luckily for me the Cubans train personnel abandon their ticket selling and work overtime to find a solution. They are wonderful people, not the least lacking in earnestness or the desire to be of assistance without needing a reward in return. Rolando and the train staff finally find a Via Azul bus, passing through Sancti Spiritus at 1:30 in the morning. We rush back, he loads me up and walks me through the ticketing process (after the unexpected delight of a quick stopover to introduce me at his home to his wife and newborn son). Eleven hours later, I am finally in Santiago de Cuba. It has been nearly a 28 hour travel day.
Santiago de Cuba has the reputation of being the “blackest” of Cuba’s major cities. This is due to its historic concentration of slaves at nearby sugar cane fields, and the percentage of escaped slaves who made their way here from other islands. The number of horse-drawn carts in town and nearby still being used for primary transportation is surprising. Santiago de Cuba has a fine historic colonial district, well worth a wander on most occasions. But sometimes the odds catch up to you. Probably due to taking ice in my bottled water and drinks (and perhaps due to water used to irrigate salads and sauces), I succumb to a combination of Montezuma’s revenge, bus cramps, dehydration, and fatigue. The whole night is sadly spent sleeping -- despite a beautiful view, a warm hostess and a rare opportunity thus far to write. At least I have met my departure deadline and am in a position to fly out of Cuba, one of the rare set pieces of my 50-day freestyle itinerary.