Roamingbear's Blog

Travel adventures in Ecuador, Cuba and Vietnam

Mompiche

leave a comment »

Friday 11 November – Saturday 12 November

The bus pulled into its stop at Atacames on the coast at 6:30 am. It wasn’t exactly a bus station, more a stop on the side of the road and there were men on bicycle taxis everywhere. I was the only tourist, so stuck out like a sore thumb with my backpack. It was interesting, the vast majority of the population on the coast is of African descent, originally bought as slaves by the Spanish but when they were freed,  for some reason which I don’t know, most settled on the coast of Ecuador and Colombia. Because of the African roots of most of the inhabitants, the coast had a very different vibe to other parts of Ecuador I had visited.

A ship on the beach at Mompiche

After asking around a bit I discovered that I’d have to catch 2 buses to get to Mompiche, and I waited for the first one on the side of the road for about 1.5 hours. The ticket inspector said he’d tell me when to get off to get to Mompiche, and I asked the guy I was sitting next to to tell me when to get off for Mompiche so I was set. He was a bank teller and a dad with a big gut and a wooly vest and he was super friendly and told me all about the region.

I was directed to get off at a T-intersection and apparently there I could catch a passing bus to Mompiche.  I really did feel like I was way off the tourist track, but that was a nice feeling. I didn’t have to wait long for a bus that was headed to Mompiche, and after buying my breakfast of freshly cooked, piping hot empanadas from same elderly ladies on the bus, I was starting to feel much better.

The scenery was very much that of the countryside. Mompiche, at first glance, didn’t seem to be anything that  special – the town entrance was a bit dirty with lots of rubbish everywhere, although when you got into the town centre and saw the magnificent beach I could understand why Igor had raved  about the place. It had a kind of hippy, surfer vibe, with all the shops and houses made from wood with thatched roofs and nothing overly commercial like supermarkets or fancy hotels.

'El Erizo' hostel

As I was wandering around the owner of a fresh juice and smoothie stand, who introduced himself as ‘El Negrito’ leapt up from his stall and greeted me with an enthusiastic handshake and a huge smile. I bought one of his smoothies, banana and coconut which was absolutely amazing, then found a hostel called ‘El Erizo’ which I thought looked good. It had dream catchers on the balcony, driftwood and hammocks on the patio and it was reasonably priced. It was run by a family, and the son, Jose, when I enquired about surfing lessons said that he was a surfing instructor and could take me the next day.

Cerviche con patacones

Near El Erizo was a great restaurant which specialised in cerviche. For only $6 I had the best cerviche I’ve ever eaten, made from the freshest prawns and seafood. For the rest of my time in Mompiche I combined El Negrito’s incredible smoothies with cerviche for lunch and dinner, which kept me very happy.

El Negito's incredible smoothie

Along the beach I happened upon a tiny baby turtle which was stranded in the sand, on its back, flapping it’s fins in exhaustion. I was told my some passer -bys that many sea turtles lay there eggs on the beaches of Mompiche, they take about a year to hatch and most of them hatch in December, when there is no moon as it is safer for them to cross the beach and make it to the sea in the dark. I slid the little turtle onto a piece of wood and took him deeper into the waves, I hope it survived.

Although Mompiche is a super-cool place, I think it would be easier to return with a friend or with Pablo. Being a foreign girl on your own here gets one lots of attention, which can get a little tiring! With 3 invitations to go out that night from random men that had started talking to me in the street or on the beach,  I elected to have a seafood dinner and have an early night. I ate some amazing steamed fish with onion, thyme and lemon juice which the owner promised to show me how to make the following night. It was interesting, the owner of the restaurant told me that there were lots of works and cranes on the beach of Mompiche at the moment, because the government had ordered them to build a wall along the beach to protect the town after the Chilean earthquake in February 2010. Apparently after that earthquake, massive waves had flooded Mompiche, which surprised me given its distance from Chile. Just goes to show the immense power of that earthquake.

Mompiche beach

The restaurant owner also told me that tourism in Mompiche had  been damaged by the recent construction of the luxury resort chain ‘De Cameron’ which had been built just a few kilometres away. Apparently De Cameron is packed with tourists all year round, who pay something like $70 a night for accommodation, food and all activities, like surfing and fishing and sailing. Apparently the staff at De Cameron have said things like ‘if you go to Mompiche and eat the food there, we won’t be responsible if you get sick’ which has meant that many tourists now don’t even set foot in the town. So ‘De Cameron’ is not overly popular with the people from Mompiche.

Saturday

I had my surfing lesson with Jose, who was a real character. He was a complete stoner, with a massive smile and one of the happiest, most chilled out person I’ve ever met. He was super content with his life, helping his family run the hostel but also working as a surf instructor. He gave lessons to people like me, but also was employed by De Cameron to give lessons to their clients.

He was a good teacher and was very encouraging which was a great help. I started  with a long board and learnt to lie down on it further back and not too far toward the front of the board. He taught me how to sit on the board while waiting for a good wave, then when you saw one you’ve got to lye down and paddle fast, then when you’d caught it to jump up quickly on the board.  I stood up around 6 times I reckon and it is a really amazing feeling.  Ill have to rent a long board and practice more as I caught a few all by myself so it’s very possible to do it now.

 

That night I went with Jose to a party at the hostel next door. They were a cool bunch of people and eventually we all went to a club and danced salsa until the early hours of the morning. There was an Australian women who was living in Mompiche who was super interesting – her name was Barbara and she was around 40 years old. She had worked as a Chef in Sydney in a restaurant with some really difficult people who didn’t treat her so well. She said that one day she just cracked, resigned in the middle of service time and went home. She flipped a coin and gave herself 2 options – heads = got to Turkey, tails = go to India. It landed on heads so she bought a ticket that night online and the next day was  on a plane to Turkey. She knew no Turkish but learnt it all in the street. She got a job quickly at a restaurant and later was offered a job as a journalist for a newspaper that was written in English for the expats. She had no formal  journalistic training but thought it sounded interesting so accepted the job. She worked there for years, then in 2003 was approached by Reuters press to do war journalism in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said it was the most full on experience of her life, and that many of her articles were changed enormously by the time they went to print. She said she’d often report that 3 people had been killed, and then when she saw her article in print it had been changed to 240, ans she could do nothing about it because it was all published in ‘Reuters press’ and not with her individual name. She said she got paid a stack of money but was nearly killed many times, she had an enormous scar on her leg after a member of the Taliban swung his machete at her in an attempt to kill her.  She said it was such a stressful and unpleasant time in her life that she’d spent the last 2 years chilling out in Mompiche, smoking pot and generally being hedonistic. I found her story fascinating, I suppose I’ve always thought that being a war journalist would be really interesting, but after talking with Barbara and I can how it could really mess you up. She must have seen and experienced some shocking things to feel the need to escape to Mompiche and do nothing for 2 whole years.

 

Written by roamingbear

July 14, 2011 at 4:31 am

Banyos

leave a comment »

Sunday 7 November – Thursday 11 November 2010

On Sunday morning, slightly hungover, I caught a bus from Latacunga south to Banyos which is a really nice, very touristy and safe feeling town in the mountains.

The terrace at 'Plantas y Blanca'

I stayed at Plantas y Blanco, one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. It was really clean, the staff were helpful, the dorms locked and the beds were comfortable. What’s more, it had a super cool terrace up the top with a bar and kitchen which had great views and was a really good spot to socialize. You could also order breakfast in the morning which they cooked for you and they had some extremely good meals at decent prices.

Canyoning in Banyos

On my first full day in Banyos I went canyoning, which is essentially abseiling down numerous waterfalls. It was fun but not amazing, I didn’t get any huge adrenalin rush and don’t think I’d do it again, but it was nice.  That night I went on a ride in a Chiva, which is like a big party bus, with a bunch of other tourists to a look out where you can at times get a glimpse of the active volcano towering over Banyos. It was extremely tacky and of course we weren’t able to see anything from the lookout although there was a nice view of the town at night. I later heard a local in the baths   that the lava from the volcano hadn’t been visible for months. Because of course, the town is called Banyos or ‘Baths’ due to the fantastic thermal springs that you can bath in due to the volcano. I spent most nights lounging around in the steamy thermal water, looking out over the town and up at the moon and stars.

The town of Banyos

Back at the hostel I met a German hippy called Hans. He was a bit weird but he lighted up when he heard that I had worked as a lawyer. He said he needed a lawyer because he had been fined back in Germany for ‘painting walls with art.’ His life passion was graffiti art and for him the most painful think to see was a blank ugly wall, as cities look so much more beautiful with artwork on those walls. He actually had a website, which he showed us, that recorded all of his graffiti art. Most of it was in Germany but he had been busy while here in Ecuador and showed us some of his works here in Banyos. He works in a team back in Germany and they always plan their projects carefully and carry out the painting in the middle of the night. They use paint that they find on the streets when people are throwing it out. His graffiti actually was pretty good and he was immensely proud of his work. He was clear to differentiate himself from taggers, who ‘just give us artists a bad reputation.’ He certainly gave me an alternative view of graffiti artists and opened my eyes to this thriving sub-culture.

Views from the outskirts of town

The following day I rented a bike and rode to Rio Verde. It is a really beautiful ride, downhill most of the way with spectacular views of mountains and valleys. The waterfalls in Rio Verde where well worth seeing p the Plainton del Diablo was particularly impressive, the extreme force of tones of water smashing onto the boulders below certainly was sobering. It was also possible to crawl through this rocky path and stand right beneath the waterfall on the top of the cliff, which was pretty cool.  The day of exercise ended with playing drinking games with some of the other backpackers up on the terrace in the Hostel which was fun.

A monkey from the zoo

There is also a Zoo in Banyos, which I visited the next day with Ron, a lovely German guy from my dorm. The animals were stir crazy, one bear just paced around in tiny circles non-stop the whole time we were there. I think the enclosures were too small for them which was a sad thing to see. Ron spoke very good English and had travelled around Australia a few years ago. He said when he first arrived his English was pretty basic and he worked for a month in the outback in Western Australia doing fencing work on a huge rural property. He said he learnt a lot of English from the Aussie blokes that he was working with, and when he left the property he was saying sentences like “so I left the fucking door open, and then all these fucking flies came in I was like ‘fuck!’” Luckily he soon met an English girl who became his girlfriend and she very quickly fixed up his English!

After the zoo we did a long walk, up many steps to the huge virgin statue on the hill, then around the mountain until we finally reached the café de cielo, which is an expensive resort but also a café with great coffee and food and a fantastic view.

 

Some exotic bird behind bars

I had planned for that to be my last day in Banyos, as my next destination was Mompiche on the coast. Igor, the Ukranian guy whom we helped with tree planting near Las Tolas had recommended Mompiche as one of the best ‘secrets’ of Ecuador. It certainly wasn’t on the tourist track as no-one had heard of it or knew how to get there. I was told by a Mexican necklace-maker that I had chatted to at the waterfalls that to get to Mompiche I should catch a bus to Atacames, which is a popular town on the northern coast for Ecuadorians to go on holidays. From there, I should be able to ask and find a bus that would get me to Mompiche.  A bus that passed through Banyos from Puyo went directly to Atacames on an overnight stretch, so I if I waited on the side of the main road at around 9pm in Banyos I should be able to stop it. It was impossible to book in Banyos and the ‘Latino America’ bus company in Puyo wouldn’t take phone bookings. I waited for ages for the white and purple bus to come, but one went straight past me which may have been my bus. I was getting cold and didn’t want to hang around any longer, so headed back to Plantas y Blanco and was warmly welcomed by the gang I’d been hanging out with at the hostel. I spent the night with them drinking rum and coke and then went to a bar called the leprechaun which as alright.

The next day I was on a bus for 3 hours to get to and come back from Puyo, as I wanted to be sure to book a seat on the bus to Atacames so that I wouldn’t miss it again. I got the ticket, and had a lovely breakfast in the markets for $2 which was much cheaper than eating at the hostel. I went to the baths that night for the last time, and had a chat to a tour guide called William. When I told him that I was off to Atacames and then to Mompiche he looked very concerned “be careful on the coast, don’t trust anyone.” He proceeded to tell me that the first and only time he had been to Atacames, he had escorted a European backpacker whom I assumed he’d picked up in Banyos. He was carrying her backpack and after arriving at night, he suggested that they catch a taxi to their hotel. She wanted to save money and said no, lets just walk. Unfortunately, on a bridge near the beach they were robbed by a gang of young men who carried knives and threatened them with the knives if they didn’t hand over all their gear. He hadn’t taken much with him, but his friend lost her passport, camera and all of her travel gear. “Take a taxi if you arrive there at night” William begged me. I promised him that I would.

 

The facade of the church at sunset

When I got back to the hostel I was greeted with another pleasant travel story about the Ecuadorian coast. A new girl in my dorm was said how she had planned to go to a place Canoa, which is meant to be a real backpacker party town, as a friend from the States had been living there for a while and working in a bar. Her friend had abruptly canceled on her as she was heading back home, after being recently drugged, raped and having all of her gear stolen. Apparently this friend partied hard with lots of pills so probably wasn’t being super careful, but what a bloody horrible story. Hearing 2 really bad things about the coast made me slightly apprehensive about going there the next day, although I had heard many, many good things about it during my trip.

And stuff got stolen in Banyos too, which is generally regarded as a safe touristy town. One of the girls from the hostel was upset as her passport was recently stolen. She thinks it may have happened in the hostel, as she had the passport in her daypack, unlocked, and had left the daypack behind the counter all day the previous day while she was out. I personally think that was an extremely stupid thing to do – there are heaps of staff at the place, not to mention other backpackers and randoms that can easily access that room. Leaving your bag unlocked with your most valuable possession, the passport, is not overly intelligent.

An exhibit from the Banyos 'museum.'

Banyos also hosted another entertaining lost passport story. An Aussie guy called Ben who was also staying at Plantas y Blanco, rented a bike and while riding it around town accidently dropped his daypack, which had his passport, ipod and some money. He turned his bike around to pick it up but during the 20 seconds that it took him to do that, the backpack had vanished. Ben somehow managed to put an add on radio, saying to contact him at Plantas y Blanco for a reward if anyone found the backpack. The thief who had picked up his bag heard the add, and contacted Ben at the hostel, saying that she had only found the his passport and demanding $200 USD for its return. Apparently it was a women on the phone making all the demands, but there was a man in the background who was telling her what to say. They arranged to meet at the bus terminal the next day to exchange the money for the passport. A staff member at the hostel overheard what was happening, and was obviously disgusted at how Ben was being extorted. She had a friend who was a policeman, and she contacted her friend and told him about the situation. The policeman met with Ben and arranged to be at the bus terminal in plain clothes tagging behind Ben. A women approached Ben and asked “Do you have the money?” He replied “Do you have my passport?” She gave him the passport and as Ben hesitated with the money, another man came up behind her, the one who had been pulling the strings on the phone, and demanded that he give them the money. At that moment the plain clothes police swooped and handcuffed the thieves. No-one at the hostel knew what ended up happening to them, but Ben was just glad to have his passport back.

That night the bus to Atacames stopped at about 9:20 pm. At the bus stop I drank a delicious glass of sugar cane juice which can be found everywhere in Banyos, and it gave me some energy and warmth for the chilly overnight bus ride to Atacames.

Written by roamingbear

July 13, 2011 at 4:12 pm

Latacunga and Cotopaxi

leave a comment »

Wednesday 3 November 2010

After staying the night at Hostel Chicago in Quito I caught a bus to Latacunga which is the capital of the Cotopaxi region. The bus trip was only a few hours and my first impression of Latacunga was not great. The city itself is pretty dirty, packed with people and just generally not overly pleasant, however it is the ‘gateway’ to the region. I stayed the first night at Hotel Santiago which was actually really nice, the people running it were lovely and its was only $6 for a private room and the place had cooking facilities. I had a chat with the 7 year old son of one of the Hotel workers who was super cute, he was crazy about dinosaurs and was stoked to take some photos with my camera.

The dinosaur-crazy kid from Hotel Santiago

I went out to find out about going to Cotopaxi and after several discussions with tour groups it looked like it was a bit difficult to get there on your own as you really needed a car. I ended up booking a tour for the following day with Hostel Tiana which was much more set up for the backpacker, it had a really friendly vibe, lots of other backpackers, a court yard, wifi and internet, and very helpful staff there to tell you were to go and how to do things. That’s what Hotel Santiago lacked. I was feeling a little lonely at Santiago, it would be great if I was travelling with Pablo but on my own, I didn’t meet anyone there, and I’d heard there was this big fiesta called ‘Mama Negra’ which started on Friday night and ran all of Saturday. I wasn’t too keen on going to that on my own and it looked like there would be more of a chance of hanging out with people for the fiesta if I moved to Hostel Tiana. So I made the move and felt a bit bad, because the staff at Hotel Santiago where lovely and it was cheaper and more comfortable, but in terms of making friends to go to the Fiesta with I think moving was the better option.

The volcano Cotopaxi

 

Thursday 4 November 2010

I met my tour guide Marciel, our driver Marco and another tourist from England called Andy as we departed early from Hostel Tiana to head to the south face of Cotopoxi. We were lucky with a really clear, bright day and Cotopaxi was very visible. It has such an impressive towering cone with constant snow, most of which is glaciers as I soon discovered, since our destination today was to the glaciers on the south face. Sadly, like many glaciers around the world they are rapidly diminishing due to global warming.

The hike up the south face of Cotopxi

It was funny getting there, it was quite a drive through the countryside and there were about 4 roads where we turned down and there were road works and blocked roads. There were no warning signs beforehand or directions for another route, just a massive hole in the ground or boulders on the road and a rope across it. So we lost a bit of time getting there, but the scenery was nice with lots of gum trees which I learnt today were introduced to Ecuador about 160 years ago by President Garcia. He introduced them because the ground was wet in some parts and the plan was for the eucalypt trees to reduce the water. Now they a real pest, but also a useful plantation tree.

Roadblocks on the way

Marciel told us that the name Cotopaxi came from 2 Quechwan words which meant ‘neck’ and ‘moon.’ Apparently at special times of the month the moon rises over the top of the volcano, and the volcano looks like a neck with the head of the moon on top.

The view from the refuge

Marciel also explained that the festival that was starting in Latacunga this weekend called Mama Negra celebrated 2 events, both of which occurred in 1877. First, it celebrated the end of the Haciendas, the Spanish-run plantations, after the people (who were essentially slaves) revolted, got rid of the Spanish and won their freedom. At around the same time, on 24 and 25 September, Cotopaxi erupted (this was its last eruption and it’s apparently well due for another.) The people prayed that there wouldn’t be a secondary eruption as their often is one. Cotopaxi did not erupt again at that time, which the people believed was due to their prayers. A black lady, the ‘Mama Negra’ had visions of the virgin Mercedes, and when everyone was celebrating the 2 events in the streets, she led the parade sitting on a donkey with a statue of the virgin. So that’s why the festival is called Mama Negra.

Marco drove us up to 4,100 metres, which is where we commenced the trek. By this stage we were so close that the cone of the volcano was simply amazing, looming out of the lunar landscape of pebbles and old ash, an omnipresent figure. I was puffing hard within the first 100 metres which was not a good sign. I didn’t quite realise how high up it was and I hadn’t given my body time to adjust to the altitude, particularly since only a few days earlier I had been at sea level in the Galapagos Islands. I struggled to start with and it just got worse and worse as the trek progressed. By the time we were near the refuge, which was just a few hundred metres below the glaciers, I could barely walk. I was just gasping for air but with every breath it didn’t feel like I was getting much. I felt dizzy, had a sharp headache and my chest felt tight, as if it had a metal vice crushing it. I got to the stage where I could only walk a few steps then had to sit down and rest. Embarrassingly, Marciel had to help me walk then practically carried me to the refuge as he was worried about us getting down in the afternoon before the weather turned bad. Worse, I even vomited, and I think part of it went on his shoe.

I made it! To the refuge anyway, the glaciers are close behind.

It was so good to get to the refuge and lie down on this little make-shift bed. Marciel made us a light lunch, which was nice and I was looking forward to the energy it would give me, but then soon after I vomited it all up again. Seeing the volcano peak so close and feeling the awesome power of the volcano, the wind whipping you as it flew off the icy glaciers and the incredible views of the surrounding countryside made it worth it, although altitude sickness truly is a horrible experience. What made it bad was that you’d push yourself to keep going, but with every step you felt worse and worse.

That’s why the descent was so nice, because with every step I felt better and better as there was more air and it was physically easier to move as gravity was doing all the work for me. We saw condor on the way down which was rather picturesque, and soaked up the wildness of the place which was pretty special.

On the way down...the vegetation-less landscape and expansive view

We had a funny ‘lost in translation’ moment on the way down from Cotopaxi. The vegetation was very sparse due to the altitude but there was one tiny plant with little seed pods so I enquired as to its name. Marciel replied very seriously ‘It’s called the Penis Plant.’ Andy the other tourist and I both raised our eyebrows said ‘oh, right!’ “Yes, look’ Marciel grabbed the little seed pods, which I guess looked kind of phallic and opened them up and said “See, here are the little penises, the animals eat these ones but there are bigger plants, much bigger ones that humans can eat.’ He kept talking about these penises and when he asked me “Have you eaten penis in Latacunga?” I knew there must be some bad translation happening. Andy burst out laughing and I didn’t really know how to reply. I asked him “So is the plants name in Espanol pene?” He looked taken aback and said “no, no pene is something else, no its …” and then I told him that penis meant pene in English, it turned out he was trying to say pea, or seed! That made a lot more sense. So it was really called the pea plant.

Friday 5 November 2010

 

I was glad that I moved to Hostel Tiana as I was able to meet a few people who I could hang out with at the Mama Negra festival. On Friday I went with a German girl called Elisa to the Lagoon at Quilotoa. I’m really glad we went because the countryside was amazing, there is a track that you can take called the Quilotoa loop which is meant to be really lovely and the lagoon is one of the attractions on that loop. We caught a bus from Latacunga and it took about 2 hours, maybe a little more. The countryside had huge mountains but with a dry and open landscape. Parts of it reminded me of Australia although it was more mountainous.

A small town on the way to Quilatoa

The town of Quilotoa is tiny; I think it only exists because of the lake because everything in town is geared up for tourists. It was pretty annoying, people would start talking to you and you think at first it’s because they’re being nice but then they ask “Do you need gloves? A jumper? What about a lift in a truck to get back to Latacunga? The people were more indigenous looking and the women all wore green bowler hats with peacock feathers, traditional dresses and had their hair in long braids.

The sign for Quilatoa lagoon

The lake really was breathtaking. It used to be a volcano, now it’s dormant but the crater is this enormous, deep lake with a devastating background of dramatic mountains. It was the sort of place where you could just stay for a whole day as there’s plenty of walks around the crater, you can take a horse ride down to the lake and there’s even boats on the lake which you can hire.

The Quilatoa lagoon

We had been told by the bus driver that there’d be a bus every hour until 6pm, but the lady in the restaurant (who kept pushing the services of her husband’s truck to take us back to Latacunga) said there wasn’t a bus. So at around 5:30pm we were happy to see a bus outside the restaurant, which turned out to be a bus full of students who were studying to be tourist guides, ranging from 16 – 20 years old. They were from Quito, but were in Quilotoa to see the lake and then were off to the Mama Negra festival in Latacunga, which was where we were headed. We spoke to the bus driver and he said we could get a lift with them for free, but that they’d be stopping a bit.

God, we had no idea what we were in for. Perhaps because we were both white with blue eyes so looked different we were an instant hit and the centre of attention, we were practically mobbed by girls and boys asking ‘Where are you from?’ which was followed by at least 10 requests to have a photo with us. The students were all really drunk and getting progressively drunk as time went by. We met the director of the school, a man at least in his 50’s, and another teacher who both did not care in the slightest that the students under their care were absolutely wasted. There were kids up the front of the bus next to the driver with fanta bottles full of grog laughing and shouting and falling over, a couple making out in the seats next to us and loud crazy music. The bus stopped and this girl was dragged from the back by some friends to sit outside, she was completely legless, her arms and body were limp and she could not speak or respond to anything as she had passed out from drinking too much. It was awful as she was sitting out the front door of the bus and when they were moving her, her bra came loose and the whole bus saw her left breast. After a while when nothing changed in her condition her ‘friends’ just dumped her on the floor of the bus, the bus took off and people were stepping on her lifeless form as they drunkenly clambered about.

The party bus

The bloody Director didn’t do anything, he just commented ‘Mmm, she’s had too much to drink,’ joined some other insensitive students who were taking photos of her then started chatting to a group of female students. Elisa and I insisted that she sit up so that she didn’t choke if she vomited. While Elisa was holding her up in her seat, I got mobbed by a guy and a girl, who were both wasted and fighting with each other over who was going to talk to me. The both wanted to practice their tiny amount of English with me, but the girl was so annoying, she asked me about 6 times ‘Because you like Ecuador?’ I told her why then she’d ask me again 2 minutes later. The guy was a wanna-be rap artist, and he made up his own song for me about me being on the bus in Ecuador with them. After 2 hours of this we heard from the bus driver that we had another 2 hours to go because they were stopping for dinner somewhere. I sighted another bus which was going to Latacunga so we made a run for it and escaped from our new-found drunken friends. On the bus to Latacunga I was lucky enough to hear a regaton version of Men at Work’s ‘Land down Under’ which was really funny. Latacunga was pretty quite when we got back, and I got a bed in the end so straight to sleep.

 Saturday 6 November

Inn the streets one felt a certain anticipation as the day of the Mama Negra festival arrived.  From the early hours of the morning all of the cars, people and dogs were heading in one direction – towards the parade. Elisa and Else, my German and Belgium backpacker friends, and I headed to the festival. Certain streets in the town were absolutely packed with people, every second store on the side of the road was selling beer and there were stalls with food including roasted choclo corn, whole pig bodies with head attached staring at you accompanied by bright yellow mashed potato. We tried to see the procession from the street but it was so packed we really couldn’t see anything.

Roast pig with potato and choclo - one of the many stores lining the streets

We spied some people on a roof nearby, and Elisa insisted that we go and ask the shop owner. I didn’t want to as I am generally reluctant to ask people for favours, but thankfully she did. She asked the person in the shop for the owner and he called out the back and this gruff, older guy who, unlike most males here, didn’t light up as soon as us young foreign girls.  Before Elisa had even opened her mouth he gave us a look as if to say ‘what the hell do you want?’ Elisa started out in this flirty tone with ‘hola, soy Elisa de Alemania….’ He wasn’t buying it at all at first, he kept saying ‘You can’t see anything from the terrace’ but we gently pushed and asked if we could try and he finally, grudgingly allowed us.

Drinking beer on the terrace, with the parade down below

It was great up there, we could see the parade, and hear and see the party in the street below us. We went down and bought some beer and some food and water and just set ourselves up for the day up on the terrace. The parade was full of people dancing in an array of colourful costumes to the tunes of the marching band. We took lots of photos, and were in lots of photos I think, we kept getting invitations from guys in the street to come and join them and were asked many times by people in the street to pose for photos which was funny.

The 'Mama Negra' parade

At around 4 or 5pm we left the terrace and joined the street party, after dropping off our cameras at the hostel. We heard that an Israeli guy from our hostel had his camera, phone and wallet stolen, apparently the festival is rife with pick pocketers from Quito who come especially for the event. We bought a bottle of rum and a coke for $8 to share with some other backpackers from our hostel and we danced on the street for ages, got asked to dance by every second man on the street which was fun for a bit at first but then a little tiring.

People watching from the terrace

We were given a bottle of warm Canela as a gift from some random guy for all of us, and when we were finally cleared of the street by the army (who were there for security), a few Ecuadorians took as to a club called Galaxy. The club was heaps of fun, we danced a lot and all got pretty drunk, it was just a really fun, funny night. We got back to the hostel at about 2am and luckily I had a bed that night as someone who had booked for the night didn’t show up. I was told that I could stay there on a bean bag which is what I was expecting on my arrival so the bed was fantastic.

Too much beer....a fight breaks out below

Written by roamingbear

July 13, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Havana 2

leave a comment »

Havana Friday 18 December – Sunday 20 December 2010

As promised, Antonio dropped us off at our casa particular in Havana. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay with Loida again as she was already booked, but we stayed at her friend’s casa which was just around the corner.

On Saturday I ventured into Old Havana in the city centre to do a few things while Pablo had a guitar lesson. As I stepped out of one of the hotels in the main plaza, amazingly I heard someone yell ‘Em!’ I turned around and there was my cousin Richard! We had been in touch via email a few months earlier, as he was passing through Ecuador while I was there, but we didn’t manage to catch up as he was heading through Ecuador pretty quickly to meet a friend in Colombia. I had no idea that he was going to Cuba and he had no idea that I would be there either, it was just pure chance that we ran into each other. Or maybe it was not chance at all.

Our last night in Cuba at La Zorra y El Cuervo

Anyway, that night we met up with Rich and his friends at La Zorra y El Cuervo (the jazz bar we went to on our first night), after eating a magnificent dinner accompanied by 1 CUC rums at Sofia’s restaurant next door. We had such a good experience at the restaurant and the jazz club on our first night in Havana so it seemed fitting to repeat the experience on our last night. The jazz bands were amazing, the rum and mojitos were plentiful and the company great fun, it truly was a lovely way to spend our last night in Cuba.

Rich and I at La Zorra y El Cuervo

On Sunday 20 December 2010 we headed to the airport in the morning, after saying our farewells to Loida and Alejandro over a coffee at their house – and promising to return some day soon.

Written by roamingbear

February 23, 2011 at 9:52 am

Posted in G - Havana 2

Cienfuegos

leave a comment »

Thursday 16 December

Again we experienced trials and tribulations trying to buy a bus ticket with Viazul. We went to the bus station on Wednesday and Viazul would not, they say could not, sell us the bus ticket to go to Santiago the next day. We had to go back on Thursday at 8 am to put our names on a list, then go back again to the bus station at 1 pm to pay, then we could leave on the bus at 2:15 pm that day.  The same company, the only tourist bus company Viazul had completely different systems for buying tickets in each city, some straightforward, others absolutely insane. We couldn’t buy a ticket from Baracoa to Cienfuegos even though we would be travelling with the one company, we had to buy one to Santiago, then wait and line up in Santiago to buy a connecting ticket to Trinidad, then when in Trinidad buy another ticket to Cienfuegos. It was a 5 hour ride to Santiago, we managed to get the connecting bus to Trinidad which left at 7:30 pm. We spent the whole night on the bus to get from Santiago to Trinidad. The night ride was absolutely freezing, I had my thermal underwear, jeans, shoes and socks, 2 jumpers and a jacket and I was still chilled to the bone. It was, unfortunately, a cold night by Cuban standards, there were no blankets and the bloody bus had an automatic air conditioner that could not be turned off so we had the air conditioner blasting cold air onto us all night. It really was, in a word, a horrendous experience. It was impossible to sleep as we were just so cold and uncomfortable. I don’t know how many times I cursed the design of the bus that night – what bus has no heating and only air conditioning that can’t be turned off? Earlier in the trip we were regretting bringing jumpers as we hadn’t used them but that night I was so glad we had bought them, we definitely would have got sick from the cold without them. The bus driver was funny, we stopped for food at 2 am and he said he’d been driving buses for about 20 years and was still waiting to do the route on the bridge from Cuba to Miami, ‘a one way trip’ he laughed.

Another day in Trinidad

When we arrived in Trinidad at 6:30 am, we had one hour to wait until the bus to Cienfuegos left at 7:30 am. Since Zeyda and Pedro (the owners of the casa particular we had stayed at just a few weeks ago) lived just across the road, we thought we’d drop in and say hello. Pedro answered door and welcomed us in for a coffee. It was so good to have something warm in our frozen bodies. We were so tired, cold and grumpy that the temptation to stay there that day and night was too great. We cancelled our booking in Cienfuegos for that night and stayed in Trinidad. We had breakfast cooked for us, a warm shower which was just amazing, and then we had a blissful sleep lying under a mountain of doonas. We took it easy in Trinidad that afternoon, buying 12 bottles of rum for presents and for ourselves and somehow managing to get them back to the casa. I returned to the ruined church on the hill and bought a hat from hat lady and necklace from the lady whom I had naughtily taken a photo off the weeks before. I’m glad that I returned to buy from them, especially the hat lady as she was really skilled, worked really hard and was kind and helpful to tourists – so different to the vultures, she still had dignity and kindness.

A Balcony in Trinidad

We also bought a packet of cigars from Don Juan, Zeyda’s father. He was rapt. I’m not sure if they were the real deal as they were much cheaper than in the official cigar shops and burnt a lot quicker than the one we bought in Havana on my birthday – but what the hell, the one we smoked tasted nice and we were happy to buy them from him.

He knew a lot about tobacco and told us that there were 6 about different kinds of tobacco grown in Cuba, all with distinct flavours.

Zeyda told us about a tourist who had stayed few days earlier. She didn’t like the look of  him from the start and her judgement was proved correct that night when she heard voices from his room. She knocked on the door and found that there was a very young looking Cuban girl in his room. Zeyda yelled at her to get out and told her off for disrespecting her house. Zeyda said that they get really worried when tourists bring jiniteras back to the house because prostitution with tourists is against the law and the owners of the house can get into trouble for allowing the jiniteras into the house. Apparently some jineteras work with the police and report casas particulares that turn a blind eye to prostitution. This country certainly does have a culture of spies, no wonder people don’t trust each other.

Cienfuegos – Thursday 16 December – Friday 17 December

The Viazul bus drew into the station in Cienfuegos at 9am on Thursday and we were greeted by Dianelis and husband Miguel, whom we had booked a room with on recommendation by the Argentinean girls we had met in Baracoa. Dianelis had a bright, charismatic personality. She had sharp green eyes, black curly hair and looked very French, which wasn’t surprising given the strong French influence in Cienfuegos. When the African slave population revolted in neighbouring Haiti in 1789 most of the French population re-settled in Cuba, and many of them in Cienfuegos.

An example of the spectacular architecture in Cienfuegos

The architecture in Cienfuegos was really beautiful and quite French-inspired. The town itself was clean and many of the buildings had been restored and freshly painted. The buildings here were certainly in the best condition that I had seen in Cuba.

Cienfuegos also had the best array of wooden carvings at the best prices. They were much cheaper here than in Santiago and Baracoa, which was unfortunately where we bought most of our carvings. I suspect that they are made here, and that people from other cities buy them in bulk in Cienfuegos then sell them at a higher price in other areas.

More architecture in the main plaza of Cienfuegos

It was well worth it to stroll along the Malecon with its ocean views around late afternoon, so that you can be at the punta gorda (the point) for the sunset. As the point juts out into the ocean the views are panoramic and the array or colours flooding the sky as the sun sinks into the ocean are stunning. Even better, one can sit peacefully watching the sunset while being served a mojito from the suited waiters at the nearby bar. We came across quite a few casas particulares on the point which would be tempting to stay at next time given their verandas and beach views – although they are further away from town and the bus station.

Sunset at La Punta Gorda

We caught a bicitaxi from the Punta Gorda to the bus station. We had to buy the bus tickets for Havana the following day and we had gone earlier in the day, at 3pm and the Viazul office was shut. We were told that the one worker was having his lunch break and would be away for another hour or so, but that he worked until 8pm so we could come back tonight.

Pablo in La Punta Gorda sunset

The driver of the bicitaxi was a nurse who earned 20 CUC a month so he worked with his bicitaxi most nights after working as a nurse and on his days off. He said that he normally earns about 10 CUC a day with his bicitaxi. We told him that Cuba was perhaps the only country in world where a taxi driver earns more than professional. He’d like to buy a car to use as a taxi but they are far too expensive here, leaving the bicitaxi as the cheaper, viable alternative. Plus, he laughed, driving us tourists around in the bicitaxi is good exercise for him. Both Pablo and I had a go at being the driver in the bicitaxi ad my god was it hard work. It’s effectively a bicycle with gears with a carriage attached to the back for the passengers to sit in. So you’re cycling not only your own weight and the weight of the carriage, but also the passengers in the back. He was such a lovely guy, there are so many lovely people here in Cuba – I really hope that things can change for them.

Pablo driving the bicitaxi

We got to the Viazul office at the bus station at 7:00pm and it was closed, contrary to what we had been told that afternoon. So we woke up earlier on Friday morning so that we could line up and hopefully get a ticket to Havana. While we were waiting in the line we were approached by a guy who said he’d take us in a taxi to Havana for 40 CUC, which is what we would have paid for 2 tickets on the bus. We jumped at the offer as it would be much quicker to get there by car and he said that the driver would drop us off at our casa particular. It’s funny, in no other country would I consider for a second getting into a private car (it was not a registered taxi) after some guy just approached me at the bus station, especially with my luggage. No-one would even offer to do that in Australia, and if you ever were approached by someone with that offer in any other Latin American country it would be highly likely that they would mug you. That concern didn’t even cross my mind, to the contrary I was happy to give our $40 directly to a Cuban, as opposed to going to the state like it would through Viazul.

A 2010 Che Guevara Calender in the Cienfuego's bank

Our taxi driver, Antonio was in his mid 20’s when the revolution occurred, so he was able to give an insight into life before communism. He was from a farming family who were not super wealthy but he said that life was good, the Cuban peso was at some times as strong as the American dollar so Cubans could save money and go on holidays. There was Cuban industry and investment. While he didn’t like Batisa turning Cuba into a brothel for the USA, he felt that life offered many more opportunities in Cuba, even under that corrupt regime, than it does now.

He actually fought in the armed resistance against Fidel a few years after got into power. Most of his brothers supported and helped Fidel and the troops when they took over from Batista, but Antonio never supported Fidel. Antonio said that prior to the revolution, he was told by a friend who had studied with Fidel at university that he was a communist, although Fidel never said that he was a communist when he was in the mountains fighting.

The mini 'Arch de Triumph' in Cienfuegos

He told us how hard life was in Cuba in early 90’s when the USSR collapsed. He said that it was as if their ‘big daddy’ who had protected them so much vanished overnight. Since Cuba wasn’t producing anything they were suddenly absolutely stuffed. There was literally not enough food in the country and people were starving. He said that people were pickling banana skins and selling them and others actually bought it to eat as they were so hungry. Antonio went to the countryside to look for food on trees, and most people lost many kilos a year due to lack of food. Now Cubans have replaced the food they used to receive from the USSR by growing a lot of fruit and vegetables themselves and selling them illegally to each other. Antonio confirmed that the state didn’t do anything to help with the food crisis. He noted, as we drove along the freeway, that Cuba was blessed with a lot fertile land, however most of it was not used to produce food and there were very few large-scale, state owned agricultural projects. He said that because the state charges such enormous taxes for people to register a farming business that produces crops, no-one wants to do it as farming is such hard labour and the taxes are so high that it is difficult to make a living out of it, even if one had a well-run farm producing lots of food. Selling wood carvings in the city to tourists or being a taxi driver is better paid and easier work than being a farmer. Antonio told us that if someone has farm and it is registered and they have some cows or cattle on their land, they actually have to ask for the governments permission and pay tax to be able to kill the own cow if they want to sell or eat the meat, because there is no private ownership, the cows and the crops on the land are state owned. To make it so difficult and unappealing for people to legally produce food in a country that is blessed with fertile soil and could easily feed their own population and export food is, to my mind, the thinking of a mad state.

Written by roamingbear

February 23, 2011 at 9:40 am

Baracoa

leave a comment »

9 December – 15 December

The bus trip from Santiago to Baracoa took about 5 hours and most of the trip was through the most interesting scenery I had seen in Cuba to date. The road wound through banana plantations, mountains, beside the ocean and though tropical vegetation. The town of Baracoa itself is nothing special – the streets were unpaved so very muddy when it rained and most of the buildings were falling apart, there was no nice ‘toursity’ block with renovated buildings like there was in Havana or in Trinidad. The casa particular which Mirtha had arranged for us was OK but it was nothing special and for 25 CUC per night including breakfast was not the best deal. We stayed there for the first night and ate an incredible dinner – prawns in coconut sauce along with a huge salad, beans and rice, all in enormous servings like all of the casas we had stayed at. The region of Baracoa is incredibly fertile and along with many fruit and vegetables, coffee and coco for chocolate is grown there, hence the coffee and especially the hot chocolate in Baracoa is really tasty.

More political graffiti in the town of Baracoa

The highlight of Baracoa is the nature, not the town architecture. We went to an archeological museum which was a little bit out of town in a cave and not so easy to find, although well worth the visit. It was set up by a guy called Noel who was very passionate about the history of the indigenous people in Cuba. Apparently they came to the Caribbean by land and by boat from the north of Colombia. They were small, asian looking people, similar to the indigenous people in South America. They started as hunter gatherers, then cultivated crops such as sweet potato and corn and also lived off the abundance of fruit growing naturally on the island. They really suffered when the Spanish arrived and were the first slaves of the Spanish, although they were soon replaced by African slaves after most were wiped out by the bubonic plague, who were a stronger build and able to work harder. There is a cliff around Baracoa where many of the indigenous people who were forced into slavery committed suicide to end their misery.

View of the ocean from the museum

The museum was small, not overly professional looking and clearly underfunded, although it had some interesting objects like terracotta bowls, stones for sharpening things and actual human bones. In the cemetery which was a short climb above the cave there were more skeletons with the skulls and everything just lying there on the ground with nothing protecting them. They could easily be stolen. We spoke with Noel after and he said that it was too costly to put the skeletons behind glass and that all the glass that we had seen in the museum was from old bus windows. We also suggested that they have more signs for the museum as it was so hard to find. He said that the paperwork to apply for something like that was horrendous and that it could take him years and lots of work to get the signs. We also asked how old the skeletons of the indigenous people were how ever he didn’t know. He said they couldn’t get bones carbon tested in Cuba and the government would not send the bones away to do that so they had no idea of the age. I really admired his passion for archeology and the hard work he had put in to making the museum. It certainly had a lot of potential, but also a long way to go, with lots of barriers to progress.

The moon from Onoria's terrace

We found a better casa particular owned by Onoria which had an amazing terrace with views of the bay. It was just so, so pleasant to sit up there on the terrace with views of the bay, the moon and the stars, Cuba Libre in hand, a cigar in the other after eating a fresh, delicious fish dinner at the house. An Australian man called Bob who was in his 50’s actually lived in one of Onoria’s rooms. He works in the oil industry and lives all over the world, currently in Mozambique and spends 5 weeks in Mozambique then 5 weeks off here in Cuba. He was super wealthy and quite eccentric. He had no desire to live in Australia again as he finds the 9-5 life and footy on the weekend much too boring. He started the first surf school in Cuba as he was the first surfer to live here, and many of the Cubans now competing in surf competitions started in his school. He said that the first time he bought a surf board into country he had lots of problems with customs as the government thought that people might use the surfboards to escape the country. He had to pay the government and sign a document saying that he wouldn’t use his surfboard to ferry people out of Cuba.

The view from Onoria's terrace

We were getting along famously with Bob until he started to share his views on slavery and Africa. He was of the opinion that the African slaves were the ‘lucky ones’ compared to Australian convicts, because the Australian convicts were treated worse than the slaves. He thought that since Australians had got over being convicts, Africans should also get over their history of slavery and stop blaming the past for the mess that they are in now. He said that Africans were shit at organizing themselves and that they really need Europeans back there because “we leave and they run the country into the ground.”

I thought the analogy between the Australian convicts and slavery was pretty unconvincing. Sure, after visiting Port Arthur and learning the history of the convicts they were essentially treated as slave labour, in appallingly cruel conditions, however they were taken as prisoners, not slaves, and when they had served their time they were free men. The slaves from Africa were taken by Europeans for centuries as they were deemed an inferior race and they could rarely earn their freedom, there were generations of Africans who lived their entire lives as slaves and had their children born into slavery.  I am no expert on the current problems that Africa faces, and I can see his point that throwing more and more money at Africa is not the answer given that the system of governance in so many African countries is corrupt at so many levels. I can also see his point that they need to take some responsibility for the mess that Africa is in now and not just continue to blame the past. But I thought it was ignorant of him to completely ignore the horrendous history that they have had to endure through slavery, and to dismiss them as incompetent and hopeless when they have essentially, like so many non-European cultures, been forced to adopt a European-style system of governance in a very short space of time.

The Baracoa moon

He also challenged my rather naïve assumption (one that I’d never really thought through) that someone who is in a relationship with a person of a different racial background wouldn’t be racist. He used that card quite a bit, telling us about his ‘girl’ who is Cuban of African descent, and even saying outright ‘hey I’m no racist, my girl is black.’ Things he said, such as using the word ‘coons’ and saying things like ‘she’s won the bloody lottery with me,’ along with his comments about Africa, made me think that he most likely felt superior to her.

On 12th December we unfortunately had to move to another casa as our room at Onoria’s was booked. A friend of hers that helped us move opened up to us about life in Cuba. He explained that all Cubans have food cards, and with these cards they are assigned one small roll of bread per person for day, along with other basics. However this food is not free as I had assumed, they still have to pay for it. So the whole point of having the food cards was kind of lost on me. As we had noticed, all the shops are state owned, there are no supermarkets, butchers or green grocers, the only shops selling food are very expensive, there is just tins and packaged food at exorbitant prices, all in CUC. The state-owned legal shops simply do not have enough food to feed the population. Hence people have to grow their own food and secretly sell it to each other as they can be heavily fined for doing that. To me, it is absolutely insane that a State makes it against the law for people to have their own private enterprise of selling food to each other, when it does not provide enough food for them to live. He said that there is a code sign for eggs and bread and that people pass though the neighbourhood at night or early morning knocking on the doors with the code sign in order to sell their produce. It is the same for the fisherman, they have to smuggle out fish that they have caught so that they can sell it themselves.

Kids playing at the beach at Baracoa

I guess that’s why there was a noticeable lack of street food in Cuba when compared to every other Latin-American country I had been to. The only street food they had was a very mediocre pizza with only tomato sauce and cheese. I have no idea where that came from, I often asked myself why there was pizza, originally from Italy, when most of the population had African, Spanish and French backgrounds.

He also told us that there was an emerging group of Cuban and American protesters who are funded by groups in the USA and who openly demonstrate against the regime in Cuba. Members of the group haven’t been imprisoned because these protesters are under the eye of Amnesty International and the regime uses the fact that these rowdy protesters haven’t been imprisoned to say that there are no human rights problems in the country. He said that the normal Cubans, who can’t go back to the USA are too scared to join them because they know that the regime will have no problems crushing them since no international eyes would be watching them. Apparently Raul Castro’s daughter is next in line for the leadership. Interestingly, she is openly gay therefore the regime is currently big on promoting gay and lesbian rights. Baracoa is apparently one of the more conservative towns in the country, and recently they were ordered to have a huge festival like a Mardi Gras to celebrate homosexuality. Of course they all went because they had too, although we were told that most of the people did not want to be there.

The Baracoa beach

Another interesting thing that we noticed in Baracoa (which may have something to do with their resistance to homosexuality) was the rising popularity of religion, particularly smaller protestant sects. Yindra and Ruben, the owners of our new casa particular, said that religion had surged after the earthquake in Haiti. Baracoa is the closest point to Haiti and was actually flooded by enormous waves due to the earthquake. There was one church which we could see and hear from the casa. It was packed with people, many young people, who were singing, clapping and playing drums for many hours without stopping. On Sunday night we went to have a drink at the casa of some Argentinean girls and Didiere, the French guy who had stayed at our casa in Trinidad. Their casa was near another church which was also going off. We walked past the church at 5pm and people were hysterically singing and clapping, we had dinner, came back to the casa and they were still going. We had our drink together and when we left, at 11pm the congregation was still going absolutely mental with no signs of slowing down. They had been singing and dancing, praising the Lord preacher-style for 6 hours non-stop. I have never seen a church so packed, people were swaying and dancing and flinging their hair and arms around – it honestly looked like they were all at some rave and on ecstasy.

Pigs on the beach

We met Yindra and Rubens daughter, Claudia, who was intimidating quick with the guitar. She had a lesson with Pablo and picked up complicated things in a matter of seconds. Pablo said he’d never taught someone as quick as her. She was studying architecture in Santiago de Cuba. As Santiago is 5 hours away, she boards there at the University and only comes back to Baracoa some weekends. Her University education, board in Santiago and food in Santiago is all free, which compared to the expense of my university education sounded fantastic. The free University education was, I think, the only good thing that I heard about the Cuban state. Claudia said that the quality of the food in her boarding house was terrible, and that her parents always sent her back from her weekend stays with lots of tins and food to survive the weeks to come – although that sounds like boarding houses in many parts of the world.

Pablo at the beach

I suppose that one might be able to have semi normal life here in Cuba until they finish their education. I guess it’s when they start working and find that they can not live and support their family on their wage, after years of studying to be a professional that life would become really bleak. Not being able to save for anything like a holiday, or being faced with the impossibility of buying your own home or apartment even after being married since there has been no new construction since the revolution  – living with your parents or parents in law and knowing that there was no option of leaving – that would be really hard.

Baracoa is a really special place nature-wise; I could have spent a lot more time there exploring the beaches and rivers. One beach called Maguana was about a 30 minute drive away from town on a rough road, but the site that greeted you at the beach was well worth the trip. The beach had white sand, lots of palm trees and warm, aqua coloured water that was deeper and had more waves than the beach in Trinidad. Like in Trinidad, there were deck chairs with umbrellas for shade, and some nearby restaurants that served the obligatory mojito. Better still, some enterprising locals with houses nearby offered their services to cook lunch for us when we arrive in the morning and deliver it to our deck chair at our elected time. I ordered with a guy called Flaco and had exquisite octopus the first day for lunch, and for an experience I had turtle the next day. Like all the food cooked by the people here (not the restaurants) the quality was great, the portions huge and the prices reasonable. It also differed form the beach in Trinidad as it had a very rural feel as there were lots of farms nearby, hence the sow with her litter of 12 piglets scurrying around the beach eating our left-overs, along with chooks and dogs which was very funny. The image of a huge, fat pig snuffling around this idyllic beach is something that still makes me laugh.

The river

There are also beautiful rivers around Baracoa where you can swim and explore. The river de Miel is the most famous but there is another river close to town that we went to, a favourite place of our taxi driver taxi drivers favourite spot. I heard from various people that there are caves nearby with a river inside where you can swim.

Written by roamingbear

February 23, 2011 at 9:39 am

Posted in E - Baracoa

Santiago de Cuba

leave a comment »

6 – 8 December 2010 Santiago de Cuba

Santiago de Cuba was our next destination, a slow and not so direct 12 hour bus ride away. We arrived late at night, and luckily Zeyda had a contact at another casa particular in Santiago whom she called so we were met at the bus station by Mirtha and her driver.  It was great after such a long day on the bus not to have to deal with the mob at the bus station trying to offer us taxis or casas, we just saw Mirtha with a sign with our names on it and she had a driver and it was all done. Mirtha’s house was in a great location, right near the historic centre of town so easy to walk to most of the attractions. The house itself was big, the bed comfortable and our room had a fridge, TV, an air conditioner and a clean bathroom. She even had dinner ready for us too which was perfect as we were starving and she cooked really well. We really enjoyed our time with Mirtha, she was such a funny character but really loveable. She is from Guantanamo and has a very unique, sing-song accent. She is the most popular person I think I’ve met, in terms of her phone, it rang from 7am to 10pm every day at least 10 times. She played the cheesiest latino love songs that I’ve ever heard which just added to her character, which was very warm and motherly.

Mirtha, our lovable host from Santiago

Santiago de Cuba as a place was alright, perhaps worth seeing for a couple of days but for me, it wasn’t a highlight of Cuba. It’s the second largest city in Cuba, but it lacks the energy and action of Havana. The main plaza is nice, the old buildings have been restored, one of which was the first house in Cuba, built for the Governor of Santiago de Cuba. The foundations of the original building and the kitchen are still there and the rest of the building is from a later date, each room decked it out with furniture used in Cuba from the 16th, 17, 18th and 19th Centuries. It was interesting that it was only in 18th century that people started putting tables and chairs in the centre of the room, in the prior centuries they had always been on the side of the room leaving the centre empty. The church in the Plaza is also impressive, although it has a sad history of being sacked by pirates and destroyed in earthquakes, however the 18th century version still stands.

View of the city

In the centre of the plaza a band played most days, although if you took a photo of them they would follow you, obviously wanting money. To the left of the band was an old lady, sporting a crumpled straw hat, cigar in mouth and with a wrinkled, interesting face.  The photographer in me thought that this was too good to be true, she would make a picturesque photo, she could be, without a doubt, the front cover of the next edition of the Cuba Lonely Planet. On a second glance it was too good to be true, another tourist had fallen for the lure of possible Lonely Planet grandeur, snapped a photo of her and there she was in an instant, hands outstretched in front of the tourist asking for money. She sure was not the real deal, for the rest of our stay in Santiago de Cuba I spotted her seated in a prime location in the Plaza, with the same cigar which I later noticed was never lit, posing for tourists to make a living. It was a bit sad, the fakeness of it all. I felt that too at La Casa de Trova, where we went at night to see some live music. With a cover charge of 5 CUC it was clearly not for a Cuban audience. Upstairs the band was great, but the room was filled with seated tourists, with the obligatory 4 Cubans dancing amazingly well together, then asking tourists to dance. They obviously worked at the place and where there to provide a ‘Cuban atmosphere’ to improve the tourist experience. I liked the ‘Casa de Musica’ in Trinidad more, since entry was free for everyone and lots of Cubans went there to enjoy their music, along with the tourists. It felt more genuine.

Political graffiti in the streets of Santiago

It was in Santiago that I reached breaking point with the bureaucracy in Cuba. I hate bureaucracy everywhere, but it seemed to be particularly bad here. So many processes for the most basic items where not streamlined and lacked any ounce of logic. For example, when we wanted to buy bread, the only places that sold them were bakeries, bread was not sold in the corner shops and supermarkets don’t exist in Cuba. To find a bakery took a lot of asking for directions and a lot of walking, when we finally found one at 3:00 pm for some reason it was closed and we were told to return in 45 minutes.  Not wanting to wait for 45 minutes, we asked for directions to another bakery, and when we finally found it there was a line trailing out the door of it the size of one of those lines from the movies of the Great Depression. It looked like we’d be waiting in that line for at least 40 minutes so we just gave up, it was too much of a hassle to buy bread.

The view from the castle

The following day we were looking to buy a different type of rum to try. A Cuban guy who had sold us some wood carvings recommended a corner shop that was for Cubans, as the prices were in CUP, so were supposedly cheaper. There was a great selection of rum, however we were again recommended Santiago de Cuba as the best brand and we had enjoyed it so much previously that we decided to buy it again. Strangely, the price for the Santiago de Cuba rum, and only that rum, was the equivalent of 10 CUC in CUP’s, which meant it was more expensive to buy it in the shop that was meant to be cheaper for Cubans than the other shops that had prices in CUC. The bizarre thing is that since all the shops are state owned, whoever was setting the prices must have consciously made that one rum more expensive in the CUP shops, which makes absolutely no sense.

The fort

Early in the morning on the 8th of December, we caught a taxi to the Viazul bus station to book a ticket for the 9th to Baracoa. In Havana and in Trinidad we had been able to pre-book the bus tickets for the next day so we didn’t envisage that there would be any problem. We were told at the ticket counter that we couldn’t put our name on a list for Barocoa, nor pay for the tickets today. We had to come back tomorrow morning at 6:45 am, an hour before the bus left to Baracoa. There was no explanation as to why we had to do this, its just what we had to do. So we got there 6:45 am, which was the same time that another bus arrived. The ticket counter area is really small, narrow, and in front of the exit so it was filled with people like us trying to buy tickets for the bus that day, people trying to leave who had just arrived, everyone with their huge backpacks and the vultures at the exit trying to win the business of the new arrivals, poking their heads through the door when the guard wasn’t looking to scream ‘lady taxi, taxi!’ with hysteria. One vulture opted for different strategy, instead of yelling ‘taxi’ he had a piece of brown glass from a bottle which he tapped incessantly on the window pane ‘tat tat, tat tat tat’ in the same pattern whenever anyone walked by. It had an irritating pitch just high enough to attract people’s attention, and when anyone made eye contact with him he would raise his eyebrows and, with his hands do the motion of a wheel to indicate he could drive them. I had to wait near that window pane and after 30 minutes that ‘tat tat, tat tat tat’ sound of glass on glass became ingrained in my brain.

Another photo from the fort

After much waiting we were finally able to buy a ticket, the ticket operator used an old 1960’s machine to print the ticket, which looked like it existed before the typewriter. It certainly wasn’t computerized, so you had to show your passport to buy a ticket, then wait for them to fill out the passport details on the ticket, stamp the ticket, then fill out the passport details again in a book. It was a very slow, outdated process but we finally got our tickets. As it turned out, half the bus had reserved their ticket the day before and just rocked up at the last minute to catch the bus. It turned out that you could book the Viazul bus tickets from the travel agencies, but not, in some cities, from Viazul themselves.

A rusted canon at the castle

The highlight from Santiago was el castillo de San Pedro del Morro, which was about a 20 minute taxi ride from the city. The castle was originally designed in 1587 in order to protect the city and its treasures from pirates. Cuba used to be swamped with pirates from England and France, as England had its colony of Jamaica nearby and the French had Haiti – useful bases for attacking the Spanish ships laden with Peruvian and Colombian gold. The Spanish ships used Cuba as a base to re-load and group together in flotillas for the long journey back to Spain. The history of the region is fascinating, Haiti and the Dominican Republic (which is the same island) was initially the Spanish base in the Caribbean for ships carrying South American gold to gather and group together for the voyage to Spain. However, when the French took over Haiti, instead of using the Dominican Republic as the entrepot, they moved the base to Cuba – perhaps for strategic reasons with the risk of being so close to a French colony.

There was some information about Henry Morgan, the English pirate who, for his efforts raiding Cuba and stealing Spanish gold was knighted by the Queen of England and made Governor of Jamaica. Even today he still has a Jamaican rum in his name.

The castle was truly amazing and very photographic. Its design was improved upon throughout the centuries until it was used a s a prison in the 1900’s. Now it is only a tourist attraction, but you only need to use a slight amount of imagination to picture the raiding pirate ships heading for its stony walls.

Again...the castle

We met a man called Andres in the street and he was selling some beautiful wooden carvings. He said that clothes were really expensive here in Cuba and even offered to sell us wooden carvings in exchange for any clothes that we did not want. About 6 years ago he tried to leave Cuba in boat destined for USA, however he was caught by the Cuban navy and the boat was sent back to Cuba. He then spent 4 years in prison as punishment for trying to leave, and then had to serve an extra year because he couldn’t afford to pay the guards to release him. He was a friendly guy, although pretty pushy with his sales and then with any other service we may want such as finding accommodation in Baracoa or buying rum. I could understand why though – we, the tourists are the cash cows in a tight, tight economy.

A friend of his, an older man, told us how his son had gone to the USA. The family met a Mexican tourist who gave the son a letter of invitation to Mexico. It cost the father $8000 in total for his son to be able to go, god knows how he paid for it but somehow he did, probably with his whole life savings. His son reached Mexico, then crossed the boarder illegally to USA. Luckily he survived and is now living and working in Miami. Although the man didn’t go into detail about how risky that journey is, form what I have heard it is incredibly risky. If he had been caught by Mexican drug lords at the border, he would have been forced to be a mule for them and carry drugs into the USA and shot if he refused. He could have died from dehydration or from the rattle snakes and scorpions in the desert. If he survived all of that, he still could have been killed by American vigilantes patrolling border or arrested for carrying drugs. It’s a true maze of danger. Knowing about all of those risks, and the huge cost to his family of getting him to Mexico, he still did it. It must have been so terrifying for the father, waiting for weeks to hear from his soon, not knowing if he made it or not. The father confessed to us that he had depression and that a lot of people here did. He said life here was just so hard and hopeless. He was happy that his son has a chance to live a better life in the States but he has no hope of going there himself, he has tried but the USA won’t give him the visa as it is a risk for them that he will stay.

Written by roamingbear

February 23, 2011 at 9:21 am

Trinidad

leave a comment »

3 December 2010 – Trinidad and the beach

After a few hours on the Viazul tourist bus we arrived in Trinidad. It certainly had a better vibe than Santa Clara, although as the guide predicted we were mobbed by people offering casa particulares. Apparently there are over 300 here in this small town and the competition is pretty fierce which was good for us. After looking around a bit we found one right opposite the bus station. It didn’t look overly impressive from the outside, but once the front doors were swung open they revealed a huge colonial house, with high ceilings and an open air section in the middle with chairs and a table to sit around and chat. Our room was big with a comfortable bed, a new bathroom and an outside part to sit and chill out. Pablo managed to talk them down to 20 CUC a night including a complete breakfast for us both (better than the original starting point of 25 CUC per night and 6 CUC for 2 breakfasts). It certainly helped that there were many casas particulares for few tourists and that we were staying for a few nights. We just chilled out in the room and had a spectacular dinner of fish, rice, incredible beans, sweet potato and big salad – really really tasty, good quality food, it was ready on the dot of 7:00 pm as we had asked and it was all served outside our room for only 6 CUC each. Better, we could drink the rum ‘Santiago de Cuba’ which we had bought, which was cheaper and better than some of the rum they offer in the restaurants. This was definitely the way to do dinner in the future.

50's car and sunset in Trinidad

On the 4th we had a great breakfast at the casa particular, attempted to look at some of the museums but the one about modern art didn’t look so great. There was one about Santoria, the African religion which is still practiced widely here (it was adapted under Spanish rule to look as if they were celebrating Catholicism, however Mary and Jesus and the Saints were all code for Gods from their religion that they continued to worship under the guise of being good Catholics.) The temple was a little disappointing, just a room and a shrine with a Mary, only difference is she’s black.

Trinidad's beach

We caught a taxi to the beach at Ancon, 9k’s away, which was, in two words, simply amazing. I felt like I’d stepped into the cast of Getaway or some similar travel program where they show places that look like paradise and caused all those people sitting at home on their sofa’s watching TV, which used to be me, to think ‘I could never be a place as perfect as that.’ But yet here we were. Amazing. The water was a spectacular, sparkling aqua and the sand was a pure white. We were able to rent deck chairs under palm leave umbrellas for the day and divide our time between swimming and relaxing in the deck chair sipping mojitos delivered by a suited waiter. The water was like that of a spa, so warm and clear and beautiful, and the mojitos and sandwiches from the nearby bar were excellent.  It really was a heavenly afternoon and we planned to spend tomorrow there also.

Mojito and deckchair

We caught the train back to town, which was really more like a car with an engine but with carriages like a train, designed especially to transport tourists to and from the beach. When we arrived back in Trinidad we had a look in some of the touristy trinket shops, of which we hadn’t seen in Havana or in Santa Clara. There were lots of interesting things like woven straw hats, paintings of typical Cuban landscapes and wood carvings, all good present material.

Trinidad main plaza

The amazing day continued – we returned home to a magnificent dinner of lobster with rice, beans and salad for only 7 CUC each. It was possibly better than the lobster I had at El Patio which cost 26 CUC and it was definitely a lot more food. We also had our own Santiago de Cuba rum on ice – it was heavenly having amazing food like lobster along with top quality rum. We then continued on into town and a few blocks away was a strip with great live music  – ‘La Casa de Musica’ was the best I think, not only because it was free, but practically all of the musicians we saw in other places had either played there or ended up playing there later that night. Because it is a free venue, it is where all the Cubans go also, so it is packed with Cubans and tourists and everyone dances, giving it a much better atmosphere than the other venues. There was an incredible African band with 12 men in the band all dressed in white, chanting and playing percussion, professional male and female dance shows accompanied each song. The dances were mind blowing, they were like nothing I’d ever seen before. The dancers were so supple and the style almost animalistic. Another tourist called Mike told us that many slaves that ended up in Cuba were originally from Nigeria.

The streets of Trinidad

4 – 5 December 2010

In the morning we rented bikes from a place recommended in the guide book and headed to the farm of ‘Maria Dolores’ , which the Lonely Planet book described as an enchanting place on the river where you could spend the day, rent horses or see Campesino dances around a camp fire at night. The bikes where really old and they did not come with a helmet or a repair kit – I was surprised that such a place had been recommended by the Lonely Planet. On the outskirts of town at the top of a hill on the main road the chain of my bike popped off, and since the brakes were at the pedals and thus relied on the chain, I had no brakes. I had to veer off the road and ride straight into a pile of rubbish on the side of the road to stop the bike. I was OK but its pretty scary to have no brakes on a bike when you’re on a main road commencing a huge slope. We finally got to the farm and it was very average – they seemed to think it was strange that we were there and just wanted to sell us rooms to stay for the night, there were no campesino dances or horses as outlined in the guide and the food at the restaurant was horrible as always. When we got back to the bikes one of Pablo’s tyres was flat and a little boy appeared soon after offering a bike pump which was strange, as we hadn’t asked him. It felt like a scam, and since there was no repair kit and my bike had a dodgy chain we caught a taxi back to town.

Roast pork for dinner?

In town we visited the museum of a German man who had owned a sugar plantation in the area and had many slaves working for him. The house was impressive and there were a lot of interesting artifacts from the 1800’s, as well as a spectacular view of Trinidad and its surrounds from the lookout above. What wasn’t nice was that there was a ‘guide’ in practically every room of the house, whom instead of doing their job and telling us about the history of the place, would motion furtively to you, saying ‘amiga, amiga’ or ‘where you from’ then as soon as there was eye contact from your behalf, the sales pitch began ‘you want to buy this coin set of Che Guevara, good price for you my friend.’ If they weren’t selling Che memorabilia it was ‘Do you have a pen for my child’ and when you say no they follow up with ‘what about a lolly? Or soap?’

View from the museum lookout

The Lonely Planet recommended a walk to a hilltop where there was a lovely old church and you could see the sunset. We were warned by Zeyda Pedro’s wife at the casa particular, that the people on that side of town were a bit ‘strange.’ I understood what she meant on the way to the hill – the route took as a few blocks past the plaza and the touristy zones, which rapidly deteriorated into really run down, poor houses with dirty streets, stagnant puddles of water and an overbearing sense of poverty. Every second person asked ‘where you from’ which was followed by ‘you want eat at my restaurant tonight?…..you want to stay at my casa?….you want taxi?’ On the hill top, where there were the ruins of a spectacular old church, we were bombarded by a pack of women whose profession seemed to be to scavenge whatever they could off the tourists who visited the hill “Amiga amiga where you from? You have one peso? Soap? A pen? A lolly for my child? You want to exchange Euros? Etc etc etc. The pack of women were relentless, and the second they stopped little kids started ‘you have a pen? Soap? A lolly?’ I really felt like some dying calf, surrounded by vultures that were fighting each other to pick and suck whatever they could from me.

The ruins of the church in Trinidad

Not far from the church on the hilltop was an enormous cave, which was decked out as a disco and opened most nights. Zeyda had told us about it and we went to have a look at it. Although not open, the guard, Douglas, was really lovely and let us in and showed us around, which is something he really didn’t have to do. The cave was impressive, a completely natural network of caves which formed many different rooms of the nightclub. It looked like this place would go off at night and could be well worth a visit later that night. Douglas was such a refreshing change from the vultures at the top of the hill, who expected something from you for nothing, so we tipped him a few CUC as a thank you.

Colourful doorways in Trinidad

As we passed the church on the way back home we were mobbed again by the vultures. I was feeling so frustrated, as for the last 4 hours of the day, since we had visited the museum of the German land owner, we had been constantly harassed for our money and possessions, and it was becoming really draining. I was actually getting really angry. So a part of me just wanted to get the hell out of there, yet the photographer in me was enchanted by the stunning natural light that was falling directly on the sandstone ruins of the old church. It was too good an opportunity to miss, so biting my tongue and doing my best to ignore the vultures, I whipped out my camera and snapped away.

More ruins

An old lady sat at the top of the hill on a plastic seat, weaving hats from straw. She had aa big pile of them at her feet, and while they were obviously for sale she never asked for anything from us and happily told Pablo about the history of the church while she worked away. Another lady was selling necklaces that she had made, and she asked as if we wanted to buy one, but she asked in a polite way. I snapped ‘No’, in exasperation I guess after being asked continually to buy and give. She looked away and in that moment, the photographer in me saw a picturesque shot – her wrinkled, interesting face with grey braided hair staring away towards the sunlit church. Since she wasn’t looking at me and with the camera so close hanging around my neck, I raised it quickly and snapped a photo. Alas, I forgot about the satisfying ‘click’ that my Nikon D90 makes with every shot. She heard it and turned around, catching me in the act of putting the camera down.  She asked me to at least give 1 peso for taking a photo of her, and in the shame of the moment I pretended not to understand and scurried away down the hill.

I normally don’t take photos of people for that exact reason, and I felt quite bad about it. I had essentially used her, taking a photo of her poverty with my flashy camera and not giving her anything for it. I also felt bad about being so snappy with her when she asked if I wanted to buy a necklace. At the time, I just felt so infuriated with the vultures and with everyone who had been trying to suck me dry of any money I had all day, it had been a relentless string of people clawing at me for anything I had. But this lady wasn’t like the vultures just trying to scab money and possessions of me and offering nothing in return, she had actually spent her time making necklaces so she wasn’t begging, and I hadn’t distinguished her from the others, which is something that I should have done. Her and the lady selling the hats were different, they were working to earn money from tourists and they were the people who deserved something from us. I planned to go back to the hill and buy something from them both.

The hat lady

The other thing that happened that day was that we had a very long, in-depth conversation with Juan and Marta, a couple we met at La Casa de Musica. They both hated Fidel and the regime with intensity that rivaled that of Ramon. Marta noted how there were only 4 TV channels, all owned by the state, and that whenever Fidel felt like talking, which was often a few times a week, whatever had been scheduled  on the 4 channels was suddenly switched off and all 4 were directed to Fidel. Apparently he can talk for hours on end without stopping, one December a few years ago he spoke from 5 pm to 10 pm every night for the whole month. She thinks Raul is not much better as a leader, he is basically under Fidel’s thumb – but the one thing that is better under his rule is that he doesn’t like to talk like Fidel and he’ll just make brief announcements when needed. Given the sad state of affairs with Cuban television, Marta stressed “here, it’s a necessity to have a DVD player, no matter how poor we are, people save up to buy a DVD player.” Cubans living in Miami post DVD’s to their family, who burn them for others to watch. Marta said that Cubans especially love soap operas, particularly Colombian soap operas, as by following the dramas of other people’s lives they can forget their own, for at least a little while. I suppose that is a purpose of soap operas everywhere, but it seemed particularly relevant here.

The theatre in Trinidad

Marta emitted a strong sense of despair about her life. She was around 40 years old, so had spent her entire life under Fidel Castor’s rule. She revealed how when she finished school, she made the decision to got to University and really made a lot of sacrifices to study. It wasn’t easy, she had to travel 2 hours each day to go to University, studied really hard and after 5 years of sacrifice she gained the qualification of an economist. In her first job she worked really, really hard, 12 hour days at times and it was difficult work – and for this work she was paid 8 CUC a month. This is a wage that is virtually impossible to live on, a small tin of tuna costs 1.75 CUC and most average meals at restaurants cost 8 CUC. That was the wage for an economist about 15 years ago, and it remains the wage of an economist now. She said that there was no possibility of a pay rise. Her husband Juan also works as a professional and doesn’t earn much more than 8 CUC a month.

Men chatting in a doorway

They made the decision that it was not worth her continuing to work as an economist, given the unsustainable wage she earned and the huge hours she was expected to work. So now they have a casa particular, which is basically the only private business allowed by the state. It was difficult to make much of a living out of a casa particular, especially in Trinidad given the enormous number of casas available to tourists, not to mention the ‘illegal’ casas particulares, who offered rooms to tourists at lower rates but were not registered, so paid no tax on the business. Juan and Marta complained that the main reason they made no money from the business was the crippling tax of 200 CUC per room, per month. In popular months like December when they have lots of tourists stay, they just save what they can so that they have money to pay the tax for the quite months. Therefore, in the end they don’t make much profit from the business. ‘So this is my life now, cooking meals for tourists and keeping the house clean’ Martha sighed bitterly.

Another classic car in Trinidad

She said that she distracts herself with soap operas before she goes to bed, but when the sun rises and she awakes for a new day she is hit with the crushing reality that a day, just like the last one, and the one before that, awaits her. She bemoaned that everyone kept saying that things will change but the years roll by, her life rolls by and everything is the same, and there is no whiff of change on the horizon. Her youth is gone and she lives with the horrible feeling and knowledge that her life is slipping by and she hasn’t done anything much with it, not for lack of trying but for lack of options available to everyone here. Her pain really touched me, the obvious and palpable weight on her mind, living here and feeling so frustrated with what life had handed her, her opportunities and those of so many Cubans cut short by one mans ego. She struck me as the sort of person who, had she been born anywhere else, even to a poor family in a poor country, would have made a real go of her life. She was intelligent and quick and had, in the past, been motivated to do something great with her life.

Snack store at night

Juan and Marta have a small plot of land in the country, on which they grow most of the fruit and vegetables that they eat. The land is in another family member’s name, and they keep quite about it because Juan works for state and it is frowned upon to have any other possible source of income, like land with food growing on it, even though most people have to earn money or grow their own food in order to survive.

Juan told us that when Fidel wants to announce something, he orders the entire population of the country to go to the plazas in their respective towns. They all hear that they have to be at the plaza the next morning at 8 am, so they go and have to cheer and shout for the revolution. If they don’t go, or don’t cheer for Fidel, the informants (who live in every block) make a note of who didn’t go and who didn’t participate and pass these details on. Those people noted will then be watched closely and can easily have trouble down the track. So everyone, even Marta with her heavy heart, goes to the plazas and cheers for the dictator, although inside she said that she feels nothing but hatred for him. George Orwell really had got it right with ‘1984’ – Juan’s description of the people having to cheer in the plazas was exactly what the hero of 1984, Winston, had to suffer.

More of the idyllic Trinidad beach

We asked Jose why the food in the restaurants here were so bad and the service so slow, We relayed how in our experience, many times we had been the only people in the restaurant, the food would take 40 – 50 minutes to arrive, there would be 5 waiters standing around chatting to each other and when it did arrive the food was just a fried piece of chicken with rice. Juan said that the waiters here, or any customer service for that matter, weren’t very good because it made no difference to their wages if they were attentive, friendly to customers and good at their job or not – they would still always earn the same amount. He said that when he started his work he used to get very stressed, until other employees said to him ‘why get so stressed? Take your time, let them come tomorrow.’ That was the attitude of most workers here. As for the food, since nearly all restaurants were state owned, the government prescribed the amounts of meat and ingredients for each restaurant each day, the restaurant owners had to plan to sell a certain number of dishes each day so as not to waste the food, and if they didn’t they were in trouble. That explained why many waiters were so pushy about a certain dish, normally the most expensive one, and often look really annoyed when we ordered something else. Juan said that they probably take so long with our dishes because they were most likely defrosting the meat we had ordered, as they don’t defrost all the meat for all the options on the menu to avoid wasting it.

Marta informed us that Castro knew nothing about economy and that the economy in Cuba was in ruins. All of the big businesses that were here before the revolution had left and the state not replaced them. The only state owned companies that produced goods and employed people were the rum and cigar factories, nothing else. I’d heard prior to coming here that after the collapse of the USSR and with the consequent lack of food in the country, the state had implemented a mass permaculture project to feed the people which had been a great success. Both Marta and Juan laughed and said “He did nothing, the state did nothing for us – nearly all of the fruit and vegetables that you eat here are produced by local people on their own little plots of land, and they sell it to each other illegally because you are not allowed to grow your own food or have your own animals and sell them without the states permission and without paying enormous taxes on what you sell.” They said that there were barely any registered, legal farms producing meat, vegetables or fruit because the taxes were so high, the earnings so low and the work so hard that people preferred to do other work, such as being a taxi driver, which was easier and better paid. Cuba once had state-run rice plantations but Fidel suddenly decided in the 90’s that Cuba would start to buy all their rice from China, so all rice farms in the country were shut down overnight and all of the workers los their jobs. Cuba started to buy rice from China, but China stopped selling rice and products to Cuba because Cuba wasn’t paying. China wasn’t going to be the great communist protector like the USSR had been. So for a long time Cubans had no rice, which is staple here.

2 girls wait to dance at one of the many Trinidad clubs

They told us that it was an absolute disaster for Cuba when the USSR fell, as Cuba relied on them for most goods such as food, cars, oil and machines. For so long the USSR had pumped money into Cuba, but Fidel did nothing with it, he created no knew infrastructure, no new factories to produce anything, he just took the money, got the oil cheaply from USSR then sold the oil to other countries at higher price. What a terrible way to treat trading partner. Apparently there is still resentment in the USSR towards Cuba, because Cuba was a huge financial burden to them and they would have been much better off financially without Cuba. We were told that Fidel hadn’t changed and was now receiving oil very cheaply from Venezuela, but still the petrol here was very expensive for the people. They say that Fidel is just trying to sap more and more money from them, as he has always done.

The obvious weight of Marta’s hopelessness was so sad to see. I’ve been unhappy with my situation in life before, but at least I’ve always been able to have hope for the future, I’ve always been able to plan and work towards changing how my life is, be it to study something new and gain a new skill,  work harder to get a promotion and earn more money, plan to start your own business, save up to go on a holiday, learn a new language so that I can live in another country and communicate with the people there – all of those possibilities give you hope. Sure, Marta could study a new course so that she could pursue something different – but the incentive fades away when she knows that she won’t be able to live on the wage provided by any government job. She can’t start her own business because private businesses are a rare thing here, having the casa particular is one of the only private businesses available to the people. I suppose she could learn another language, but she’d struggle to save the money to go overseas and practice it, and faces the very real possibility that she would not be allowed to leave when she reached customs. What a tragedy, that so many people like her have had their dreams and creativity stifled.

Written by roamingbear

February 23, 2011 at 9:18 am

Posted in C - Trinidad

Santa Clara

leave a comment »

1 – 2 December 2010

Early in the morning we caught the Viazual bus – which is reserved only for tourists – from Havana to Santa Clara, a town about 4 hours away which had been recommended to us by a few people. We asked about catching the local buses and/or trains but were unanimously advised by many locals that it was not a good idea – the local buses are from the 1950’s or 1960’s, absolutely crammed with people so you often do not have a seat. Apparently many Cubans also bring their chickens, sacks of potatoes and whatever else with them on the bus also so they are basically chaotic, crowded, slow and generally unpleasant. The Viazul, or the tourist bus was much newer, with comfortable seats and air conditioning and it wasn’t outrageously expensive so we went for that option.  It took a few hours to get to Santa Clara and to be honest, the place was a bit of a disappointment. The town itself was quite big, not overly attractive and there wasn’t much to do. There’s a cigar factory which I wanted to look around but after eventually finding it in the afternoon we were told we couldn’t have a tour and look around unless we booked a tour with an agency back in the centre of town, which seemed a bit stupid to go all the way back to town to book the tour and walk back again so we didn’t bother. There was a good shop opposite the cigar factory which sells cigars and rum but the prices looked reasonably similar to those back in Havana, and instead of carting a whole lot of stuff with us for the next few weeks it seemed easier to buy rum and cigars when we returned to Habana.

The Che monument in Santa Clara

The Museum and shrine of Che Guevara were interesting, and really the only worthwhile point to visit in the town. The shrine that was dedicated to Che was enormous, I believe it was built in 1993 when Che’s remains, along with those of about 30 compatriots who died with him in Bolivia, were transported to Cuba. He really is a national hero of Cuba, although Che’s popularity is clearly used by Fidel to advance his own interests.

Ramon, and other people we’ve spoken to, have mentioned that most people here see Che and Camillo Cienfuegos as true heroes of the revolution, who really fought for a better society for everyone and really believed in what they were doing, whereas Fidel has just used the revolution to create his own little nest egg of power. The museum was filled with photos of Che and Fidel together, and a private letter that Che had written to Fidel, praising him and his leadership, was in display in the museum and also written on the shrine. The message that these letters and photos portrayed was that Che wholeheartedly supported Fidel, even at the end when he left. I think there is little doubt that he supported Fidel to start with, and at the beginning of his rule, but many Cubans told us that Che left to Bolivia after people such as Cienfuegos started to ‘disappear’ and Fidel took on the characteristics of a brutal dictator. I wonder what Che would think now, with Fidel continuing to ride off the back of his popularity and use him as a means to legitimise the regime.

The Cuban flag at the monument

The museum under the Shrine was small, but interesting, containing many personal photos and objects of Che ranging from family photos as a baby in Argentina, primary school reports, photos as a teenager, in the jungle in Cuba when he was fighting as a Guerilla, later when he was a Governor in Cuba and then some photos in Bolivia. It really did give an insight into his life, and for anyone who is mildly interested in Che Guevara it is worth visiting.

We ate some horrible food for lunch and dinner. For lunch I ordered a vegetarian pizza which consisted of a pizza with not much tomato sauce, cheese and chopped lettuce on top, which was a bizarre and basically flavourless combination. For dinner we had pizza again, a capriccioso which was oozing with grease and just had cheese and poor quality, pink coloured processed meat. The guide book said that Cuba is renowned for its mediocre food and it is right, there really is no good street food and it can be really difficult to find a restaurant, then when you find one, most where the meals cost around 4- 7 CUC they are just meat and rice and a simple salad. Worse, in every restaurant we had eaten in we had to wait at least 40 minutes for the meal. We could be the only people in the restaurant and we would still wait 40 minutes for a piece of fried meat and some rice. On our return to the casa particular we saw another couple being served an enormous meal with a great salad, they told us that most casa particulares offer dinner and that the quality is much better.

Written by roamingbear

February 23, 2011 at 9:16 am

Posted in B - Santa Clara

Havana

leave a comment »

Friday 26 November – Monday 29 November

The journey began as most journeys do with a flight. Ours was from Bogota to Panama, then from Panama to Havana, Cuba. On the flight from Panama to Cuba we sat next to a Cuban, which surprised me a little as I had heard that they were not allowed to leave the country. Orlando had been working in Venezuela for the last year as a specialized mechanic, apparently Cuba sends skilled workers to Venezuela as a part of an exchange between the two countries.  He was a super friendly guy but I found his accent virtually impenetrable – an unnerving sign for the fate of my Spanish in the next 3 weeks.

The airport in Havana was relatively normal, although the buildings looked old and the customs was extremely thorough and a little intimidating. I was thankful that we had got our tourist cards earlier in Bogota, and that we had booked accommodation and had the address, as both were required and this is one country where I would not want to have problems with customs. The customs officers had no computers with which to enter our details, all our details were entered by hand into a book. After exchanging some Euros for Cuban CUC, we managed to negotiate a taxi ride from the airport to the suburb of Vedado in Havana for 20 CUC (roughly $20 USD). We had elected to travel around Cuba with the more economical option of staying at casas particulares, and our casa which we had booked for the first night was in Vedado. Casas Particulares are essentially the houses of normal people, who operate like a hotel offering accommodation and breakfast to tourists and who have a license from the government to have tourists stay the night. Without a license it is illegal for a foreigner to stay the night at a Cuban’s house. There are no backpackers or cheap hostels in Cuba, so it’s either the casas particulares or expensive hotels.

Political propaganda

Travelling along the main road from the airport, I was struck by the volume of political propaganda varnishing the roadside. On a huge billboard at an intersection, where in most countries there would be an add promoting shampoo or dog food, this billboard was decorated with a young Fidel Castro in his army greens, celebrating his victory in 1959 with rifle in hand and reading ’52 years since the revolution.’ Another giant billboard held the grim looking faces of 5 men or ‘the five heroes’ as they are referred to throughout Cuba, with ‘They will return’ in bold print. Apparently they are prisoners in the USA, but for what I never really did find out. Che Guevara had a strong presence, his image plastered on many billboards and sprayed onto walls along with revolutionary phrases. The ‘graffiti’ on walls celebrating the revolution was interesting, it was all in old 1950’s script and all with fresh, clear colours – a strong contrast to the flaking, decaying houses and buildings which looked like they hadn’t been painted since the revolution. Someone was obviously touching up the ‘graffiti.’ There was a noticeable absence of any form of advertising, something which was true for Cuba in its entirety. It really did feel, as a first impression which was confirmed during the following weeks, as if the clock stopped in Cuba in 1959. Most of the political advertising (which was the only advertising in the country) looked to 1959 celebrated the revolution.

We met our host, Loida who was exceptionally warm and welcoming lady in her 60’s. She lived in an apartment which, like nearly all the buildings here, needed a good paint on the outside. The inside it was clean and neat, we had our own room and bathroom and for 3 CUC extra each we could eat breakfast with her.  She asked for our passports and tourist visas when we arrived, apparently she had to fill out an official book with our details then take our tourist cards to the immigration office the next day. It was definitely odd, the process she had to go through to have us stay, although considering that it is against the law for tourists to stay with local people unless it is in a registered casa particular is, well, odd to say the least.

The view from Loida's balcony

Upon questioning from Pablo about communism and life here, Loida said that she was happy with the system and life wasn’t much different to what it was before the revolution. She said that Cubans are free to leave the country whenever they wish and the Cuban state did nothing to stop them– the real problem that Cubans had with travelling was that other countries wouldn’t give them visas. She and her husband Alejandro had recently been to the USA for 8 months to visit her son and grandchildren and they had no problems from the Cuban government in terms of being able to leave. The only thing she told us that she wasn’t happy about was the tax that she, along with all of the owners of the casa particulares had to pay for having a casa particular. Each month they were obliged to pay $200 CUC to the government per room that they rented to tourists. Considering that we were paying 25 CUC a night, just to break even they need to rent the room for 8 nights per month, which may not be so difficult in the high season, but Loida informed us that for about 3-4 months of the year there are practically no tourists, so they make no money yet still have to pay 200 CUC, therefore during the high season they all save to cover the tax imposed during the low season.  Given that there are many casas particulares around and a lot of competition, according to Loida they don’t earn much after the tax has been paid for the whole year. If they don’t pay the tax for one month because they cannot afford it, they lose their licence and have to wait an entire year before they can re-apply again, and the application is apparently a bureaucratic nightmare.

'Cheaper than water' - rum from Sofia's restaurant

On our first night in Havana we went to a jazz club which had been recommended to us, called ‘La Zorra y El Cuervo’ (the fox and the crow) which was close by in Vedado and located down a flight of stairs under a red English-style phone booth. As shows started at 11:00pm, we went to a restaurant called Sofia’s next door and ate a delicious meal for only 4 CUC, accompanied by shots of 7 year aged Havana Club rum on the rocks for only 1 CUC (ironically a bottle of water cost 2 CUC).

We continued on the rum at the bar outside the restaurant and watched a really talented live band playing traditional Cuban son music, this band was way too talented to be playing for free at a restaurant, but that was a trend that repeated itself again and again during our time in Cuba – the level of musicianship in the country is outstanding. Before heading off to the show at the Jazz Club we ran into problems paying the bill at the bar – they charged us for double rums when we had never asked for double rums. We had been warned before coming to be careful with the restaurants here, and anywhere where you paid for a service. Since Cubans are apparently given a jail sentence for robbing or trying to rob a tourist, Cuba is one of the safest places for a tourist to travel since they are rarely mugged or attacked. However, we were told that they would try to rob you in other ways – such as overcharging on the bill or selling dodgy cigars at a high price. Or charging you for double rums when you had never asked for double rums. Pablo argued with the waitress and bartender for almost 15 minutes before they finally relented and only charged us for single rums.

La Zorra y El Cuervo Jazz Club was amazing, I’m not the hugest fan of jazz but I was really impressed by the band that we heard and Pablo, who is a musician and loves Jazz, said they were the best jazz musicians he had heard. During one of the breaks some of the musicians came and chatted with people in the audience, including Pablo, about their music. It stunned both of us when one of them shamelessly asked Pablo to give him 1 CUC. Here was a top musician at one of the best jazz clubs in Cuba who anywhere else would have a successful career and comfortable life effectively begging for $1. That sure as hell would not happen in any country that I am familiar with.

Saxaphonist at La Zora El Cuervo

We were driven home by Eddie, an illegal taxi driver, who drove a charming blue 1950’s Chevrolet with leather bench seats and a wooden dashboard. Eddie was illegal in the sense that his car was not a registered taxi and only registered taxis are legally allowed to receive a fare from a customer. While they can be fined for operating as taxis and charging people, the reality is that a large proportion of people who have cars use them as illegal taxis because they can make much higher wages than is possible working for the state.

1950's leather seats - inside Eddie's taxi

Eddie informed us that practically all the businesses here were state owned, and that it was extremely difficult to have your own private business. Most restaurants for example were state owned, along with business such as the jazz club we had been to that night. The majority of Cubans worked for the government and received around 20 CUC (so about $20 USD) per month – although they are not paid in CUC, they are paid in CUP, the currency used for Cubans which is much weaker than the CUC, which is meant to be only for tourists. Eddie said that one of the best paying and only few private businesses possible was to have a casa particular, and that not just anyone can obtain a permit to have one.

A street in Old Havana

On Saturday morning we took a taxi to Old Havana, which was in a word, incredible. I had read that Havana had once been named ‘the pearl of the Caribbean’ and it was obvious why  – the architecture was spectacular, with 17th Century grand Colonial Buildings lining the streets. It was clear that at one time Havana had been a place of much wealth and decadence. Sadly, that decadence was decaying before our eyes, with paint flaking of practically every building and mortar crumbling and all of the signs and technology paused in 1959. We strolled down the very touristy street of Calle Obispo which was even more impressive than what we had previously seen, perhaps because there were some restoration projects on the buildings in the tourist zones.

Renovated buildings in Old Havana

We asked a man, who turned out to be called Jorge, for directions and after we informed him that we had just arrived he kindly invited us to a rum. He led us to a nearby shop and recommend the brand ‘Santiago de Cuba’ as the best rum, much better than Havana club, so we bought a bottle. We sat down with him, to talk about ‘the real Cuba’ and after he’d told us that it would be really cheap because he knew the owner and had ordered double shots of the most expensive rum for everyone, he remarked “since you’ve invited me to a rum I’ll invite you to my gig tomorrow at la Casa de Musica’ which is a famous venue. He said he was a musician and told us lots of things about how difficult life was in Cuba and how he hated the regime and wanted to leave. When he said emphatically that it was illegal for Cubans to even have the internet in their houses, and his friend, who was also sitting at the table, started to disagree than quickly shut up, I got the feeling that he was just telling us what he thought we wanted to hear. He then started to offer us cheap cigars, which were apparently the real deal but cheap because he has a friend who works at the factory. I had read in the lonely planet guide that this was the famous line used by the people selling black market, bad quality cigars. We then got slugged with the bill of 9 CUC, which was a lot to pay for drinks that we never really wanted in the first place and only agreed to have because we were invited to them. As we were leaving his friend leapt up and asked us for 1 CUC to pay for milk for his baby. ‘We’re not millionaires’ snapped Pablo as we hurriedly paid the bill and got out of there. It was sad because Jorge seemed like a decent enough guy but we left feeling like we had been conned and essentially used to squeeze a bit of money out of. It certainly was not a genuine exchange of time or information.

A restored balcony in Old Havana

On Sunday we explored Old Havana more as there is plenty to see. La Plaza de Armas was perhaps my favourite place as there was a beautiful open air market, along with the impressive Torre de fuerte, a fortified castle built by the Spanish to protect the stores of gold from the colonies in South America from British and French pirates. The museum inside the castle was fascinating and gave a really clear picture of how, after what is now the Dominican Republic and Haiti were taken by the French, Cuba became the place in th Caribbean where the ships loaded with gold and treasures from South America would dock and reorganize to travel the stretch from the Caribbean back to Spain in Armadas. As a transit point for so much wealth being plundered form the ‘new world’, Havana and Cuba quickly benefited from that extraordinary wealth, evident in the architecture.

The Castle in the Plaza de Armas

The rooftop of a building in the Plaza Vieja gives a fantastic vantage point in which to view the city. Apart from the few touristy zones where you can see that the freshly painted and restored buildings, it was evident from the view of the rest of the buildings in the city that the grandiosity of most of the ‘pearl of the Caribbean’ is rapidly decaying.

The decaying 'Pearl of the Caribbean.'

Later in the day, we were approached by a man at the bus station who told us that he was a University student and wanted to ask us some questions about the class system in our countries, because he had an assignment to complete and did not have access to the internet. We said that in Australia most of the population was middle class, with small pockets of upper class and lower class. He nodded, then said ‘what do you think the percentages of the population in each class are in Cuba?’ We didn’t know as we’d just arrived but we made some guesses. He shook his head and smiled sadly at our guesses, and replied “About 10% of the population is upper class, around 10% -15% were middle class (this group included the owners of casas particulares and some taxi drivers) and the rest 75% – 80% were lower class. It was an interesting exchange and gave us an insight into life here from his perspective, however he soon made his real intentions clear by giving us a long and detailed spiel about how he needed to buy milk for his baby but couldn’t afford it and could we spare just 1 CUC? We politely said no, and explained that he was the 4th person that day who had asked us for money. It was sad, you really got the feeling that anyone who started talking to you just wanted money from you.

The taxi driver, Rodrigo, who drove us home after the day in Old Havana was super critical of the state of Cuba. He said that you can’t speak out or trust anyone when it comes to politics as there are so many informants who get paid to report people’s murmurings of discontent to the authorities. He said that he doesn’t even talk to his friends and most of his family about politics because he has so little trust for people.   He lamented that most of the people of Cuba had lost their morals and that many woke up every morning thinking ‘how can I rip someone off today’ so that they could make more than their measly state-controlled wage. In this regard, tourists were the main target, as even the poorest tourist earned so much more money than the average Cuban. He noted that since the revolution there had been practically no new buildings built by the state, which meant that the younger generations, even when married, had to still share the home with their parents since there were no new buildings for them to move out to. Apparently the one thing that Fidel was good at building was jails. Rodrigo said that before the revolution Cuba had 4 jails while now they had 26. Many of the women in jail were there because they had been prostitutes. Prostitution was rife in Cuba, the main targets obviously being tourists. There was a big problem too with underage prostitutes. We asked Rodrigo how easy it was for Cubans to leave the country. He said that people could leave, but it wasn’t easy. You first needed a letter of invitation from someone in the country that they wanted to go to, and with that they may be able to leave, but the Cuban government could still refuse to let you go. The government normally lets people who have a family back in Cuba go, as they are likely to return however if you are single and you try to leave the country without a letter of invitation there was no way the Authorities would let you go. Furthermore, the Cuban wage was so low that it is extremely difficult to save the money needed to leave the country and set up a new life elsewhere. Rodrigo confirmed that Cubans can use the internet, however it was very expensive and many sites were blocked. Skype for example is blocked here in Cuba. `

Monday 29 November 2010

In the morning while eating breakfast we met one of Loida’s friends called Marcia. She was very friendly to us and invited us to her house for a coffee. She warned us to be careful of the ‘scum’ on the streets. She said that Cuba was a paradise before it opened its doors to tourists, but it is due to tourism that there are now prostitutes, drug dealers and general rip-off artists. She mentioned proudly that her husband fought with Fidel in the revolution then mentioned that she had to go to check her email. That was a clue that she must hold a high position here, as the average Cuban cannot have a private email address.

We caught an illegal taxi to the Viazul terminal, which is the tourist bus company so that we could book a ticket to Santa Clara. It’s funny, I think Cuba is the only country in the world where it is normal and safe to stand on the side of the road and wave randomly at the passing traffic until a car stops to take you. There are so many non-official taxi drivers, practically every second or third car will stop and take you wherever you want as taxi-driving, especially with tourists as the passengers, provides a lucrative income. Ramon stopped in a battered old 80’s Russian car and drove us to Viazul. We chatted about places to go in Cuba and, after arriving at the Viazul terminal, somehow we got to talking about how the Americans had practically taken over Cuba at the beginning of the 1900’s after the Spanish had been defeated. Ramon confided in a hushed voice ‘and we wish the Americans had stayed longer.” “So life if tough here?” I asked. He wore a pained and honest expression on his face “Yeah, it’s really tough….” He wanted to say more but a state-sanctioned taxi driver poked his head through the window “Taxi to Trinidad? You want a taxi to Trinidad?” The conversation was cut short and we bid Ramon farewell, after getting his number in case we needed his services again.

Image of Cienfuegos near the Plaza de la Revolucion

After buying the tickets for Santa Clara we got another taxi to Central Havana where we visited the Revolution Museum. It was interesting to go to, but strange, in that it was housed on the third floor of an imperial style building yet reminded me of a 1960’s High School display. It was essentially filled with photographs of the revolutionaries mounted on pieces of old faded cardboard behind glass display cabinets. All the information looked like it was written on a type-writer as it was in old-school font – it certainly didn’t look like a national museum. It felt more like an ode to Fidel, with the same youthful photographs of him which shower the billboards on the streets. It had that strong sense that history is written by the victors, and that this particular victor had an enormous ego and was himself still caught up in his glory days of 1959. Consequently, the country was still now looking back all the time to 1959. The captions under the photos were filled with communist rhetoric such as ‘the fight for the people’ ‘rid Cuba of the evil imperialists’ etc. It made me feel sick in the stomach – what the hell happened to ‘the fight for the people?’ From what the people here had told  us, poverty was far more entrenched now for the majority of the population than it was before the revolution. I wondered if Fidel was ever truly committed to the revolutionary cause, or did he always plan to use it as an excuse to ride into office and gain absolute power for himself?

Photo from the 3 wheeler taxi - old 50's car and decaying buildings behind

We caught a 3-wheeler taxi to the Hotel National which gave us great, open aired view as we drove along the Malecon. The Hotel National is an incredibly grand and impressive establishment, with enormous gardens overlooking the ocean which are open to not only guests of the hotel but other tourists also. We drank some more smooth Cuban rum in the garden while we watched the sunset. Apparently this hotel and its garden was a favourite haunt of the American mafia whose presence in Cuba was strong during the reign of Batista before the revolution.

Views of the ocean from the Hotel Nacional

After dinner at a French restaurant nearby, we returned back to Loida’s house and drank a couple more rums on her balcony. I had the pleasant surprise of listening to Pablo play a really beautiful song on the guitar, which turned into a marriage proposal! Of course I said yes and so it was there in Havana, the day before my 27th birthday that I became engaged.


Pablo on Loida's balcon

Ramon, the taxi driver from today, called by our place at about 10:00 pm as Pablo had called him earlier to invite him to drink a rum with us. I was pretty tired so Pablo went alone to meet with him. On his return Pablo said that Ramon had told him some really strong things about life in Cuba.

Their rum session started with Pablo politely telling Ramon that he was sorry that he felt he had to say this, but that all he wanted was a friendly chat and a drink with him and that he wasn’t going to pay him anything or buy anything from him. Pablo noted that he felt bad to say that to him, but practically every Cuban he had met so far wanted money from him at some point so that’s why he wanted to make that clear from the beginning. Ramon just smiled, nodded his head and agreed that most Cubans who spoke to us would want money from us so he could understand why Pablo had said that, and that no, he wasn’t expecting money. Ramon then said “I also have a precondition for you.” “Ok,” replied Pablo, “What is it?” Ramon looked him in the eye and said, point blank “I’m not gay.” Pablo was a bit taken aback, but when Ramon explained that he had been propositioned numerous times by male tourists, mainly Spaniards, he could understand. The fact that he had invited to Ramon to drink with us both then only he appeared would not have helped. Ramon said he knew Cubans who were not gay who had prostituted themselves when propositioned by tourists for only 20 CUC. So after Ramon confirmed that he didn’t want money, and Pablo confirmed that he didn’t want sex, they were able to relax and talk normally and have some rums. I think Cuba is one of the only countries where that exchange would take place before a local and a tourist of the same gender and age could sit down together to chat and share a drink.

Ramon was 29, the same age as Pablo, and he and his wife lived with his parents, as there was no housing available for them to move out to. His mum had answered Pablo’s call, and he said he had told both his mum and his wife that he was driving Pablo and I around to some clubs to earn extra money from us tonight, as they would never understand why he would meet with a tourist just to talk, they would think he was an absolute moron for wasting an opportunity to make money. His wife had said before he left that they need to buy a lock for the house, which costs about 15 CUC and he said that he’d get the money from us tonight.

He told Pablo that he was a doctor and earns 23 CUC a month. He spends all of his spare time driving the car as an illegal taxi to make enough money to live on. The car was not his, he rented it but even having to pay to rent the car and driving it on his 2 days off per week and at nights after work, he managed to earn around 80 -100 CUC a month as a taxi driver. Consequently, he never rested. He enjoyed the rum, and asked Pablo how much it cost. When Pablo replied 12 CUC, he just shook his head and said that that’s why most Cubans don’t drink a lot of rum, 12 CUC is 2 weeks wage as a doctor.

"All for the revolution" More propaganda

Ramon confirmed what Rodrigo had told us, that Cuba as a society had lost its morals and that now, people would do anything for money. Friendships are broken over 15 CUC, you can’t trust anyone and that society was basically rotten to the core. He himself had sunk so low that he happy when someone leaves a mobile or a jumper in his taxi, because he can sell them and make more money.

As a doctor, it is virtually impossible for him to leave the country on a permanent basis (that is, aside from doing a government sponsored post overseas for a couple of years) because the government wants the doctors to stay. He said that if he puts in an application to travel and perhaps stay abroad, the government would take 5 years to process his application. Once it was processed, and if approved, the government would then strip him of all his qualifications as a Doctor, so that when he arrived in the new country he would have no documents or paperwork to show to prospective employers. Given that we live in such a crazy, bureaucratic world, sadly, with out any documentation of his qualifications and only his word that he had been a doctor, he would never be employed. Therefore there was no point even applying. He noted that many doctors grab the opportunity to do an overseas post, but he wasn’t interested because his family couldn’t come with him, and that you couldn’t save much doing the posts anyway, since they are still paid a similar wage to that in Cuba as they are still paid by the Cuban government overseas.

"Always until the Victory" Che's famous words in street propaganda

One image I had of Cuba before I came was that everyone here had excellent medical care, which was free and provided by the state. Ramon shattered that image – he said that there were about 3 good hospitals in Cuba where only the people with top military positions, politicians and tourists are treated. Theses hospitals were first-rate, there were enough beds for everyone, current and functioning equipment and the best doctors worked there. These were the hospitals where inspectors from the UN and foreign observers such as diplomats and official parties where taken. The rest of the hospitals in the country, including the hospital that Ramon worked at, were the hospitals used by the bulk of Cuban and their condition was shocking. Patients were put on the floor because there were not enough beds and doctors had to deal with aging, outdated equipment and insufficient supplies of medicine. He said that he is aware of occasions where ordinary Cubans have been taken by ambulance after some serious accident to the nearest hospital – which happened to be one of the 3 reserved for the upper class and for tourists – and on entrance staff asked for their name and occupation and when it was clear that they were not high ranking state officials, they were denied access and told to go to another hospital.

Ramon reported that a person working in a restaurant who mops the floors earns more than he does as a doctor, because the tips that tourists leave are spread between all of the restaurant staff. Despite that, he loves being a doctor and helping people and wouldn’t want to be anything different. He said that life was just so hard here and that there is a reason why 95% of the world runs on a capitalist system – because communism simply doesn’t work. He noted how here, in Cuba, the tourist is King and is treated with much more respect than the local people. He gave the extreme example of, if he and Pablo that night decided to go out and stab someone, and they both did and were then arrested, he would be put straight into jail, whereas Pablo would be encouraged to say that he was defending himself, then would be immediately released. Ramon confirmed what we had already heard – that living in every single block of ever single town and city in the country is an informant, whose job is to report to the government about any ‘anti-revolutionary’ activities or sentiment. Freedom of speech and freedom of movement certainly do no exist here; it is a true police state.

Ramon asked Pablo how he managed to live in Australia and Pablo told him his story – how he was a bit bored in Bogota and he went to the Australian consulate and read a pamphlet about a course to study which sounded good, he applied, was accepted 2 months later then 2 weeks later left. He got a loan from his Dad, worked hard but was able to pay for his course and save, and after 7 years in Australia he was now a citizen. There was silence when Pablo had finished his story, which was broken by Ramon who said it was probably time for him to go home. Pablo thought that it was probably too painful for Ramon to hear how easy it was for him to leave his country and change his life, which is something that he, Ramon, will never be able to do – not under the current regime.

Hearing about real life here made me feel sick and uneasy and just so incredibly sad at how ‘the revolution’ has turned out for the people. I also feel bad to be having this fun, superficial tourist experience after hearing about real life here. It’s so unjust that most tourists come here and stay at ridiculously extravagant 17th century hotels decked out with marble statues and bellboys in suits and pay 200 CUC per night, then spend their days gliding along behind a tour guide on  charming streets where the buildings have been freshly painted for their photos, when only 2 streets behind the ground is unpaved with puddles of filthy water in the potholes, the place stinks and the rotting buildings look like they are going to collapse any second. It’s just so controlled what you see here.

"faithful to your courage and your ideas" more state propoganda

There are only 2 newspapers in Cuba, both controlled by the state. The most prominent is the ‘Granma’ – which ironically was the name of the ship which carried Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, Che Guevara, Camillo Cienfuegos and other to Cuba to start Guerrilla war against the Batista. The newspaper was a joke really, it was full of blatant propaganda. The front page consisted of 3 articles. One commemorated a battle that had occurred on that day in 1959 between the revolutionaries and Batista (that article really did confirm my feeling that one feels in this country as if they are eternally stuck in 1959). The second article was a speech that Raul Castro made last year about the people being united and the final article told how in the USA, a child goes missing every 4 seconds. That sums up the state here, that front page of the newspaper – still celebrating a 1959 battle, a speech by Raul Castro on communism and something bad about the society of the enemy, the USA.

The renowned John Lennon statue in 'Parque Lennon.'

30 November 2010

Well today I turned 27 which was exciting. Pablo managed to bargain the price with Loida so that it was 25 CUC per night including 2 breakfasts (normally it is about 25 CUC per night, plus 3 CUC each for breakfast). One thing I am learning from travelling with him here is that the first price is rarely the final price! Pablo had arranged a lesson with the pianist from the jazz band at La Zorra El Cuervo who composed all the music, so I had the afternoon to myself.

The Malecon

I went on an excursion to the Malecon, which is the main road next to the beach which starts only a few blocks from Loida’s house. I couldn’t believe that in the space of 3 suburban blocks, I copped about 8 sleazy comments including whistles and ‘eres linda’ etc etc.  I thought the men in Ecuador were full on but this was a whole new level. I don’t think I’d want to travel around Cuba by myself as a women.

After a quick meal at a restaurant overlooking the beach I returned home and was met by Loida with a birthday present – a wooden ashtray with ‘Cuba’ written on the side. It was so lovely of her to buy me something, and it felt especially meaningful here to receive a gift from someone when at times it feels like most people are trying to make money off you.

I met Pablo in the centre of Havana and we took a horse and cart ride around the city – although it was dark and you can see more during the day it was well worth it as we saw really nice parts of the city which we hadn’t seen in the previous days.

The view from the restaurant 'El Patio.'

We then went to a gorgeous restaurant called ‘El Patio’ in an amazing Plaza with ancient buildings, one was a church I think, which were all lit up at night giving the entire plaza a very romantic atmosphere. We ate upstairs on a patio overlooking the plaza. Pablo insisted that I have the most expensive seafood dish, which was essentially a platter of lobster, fish, prawn and octopus, along with numerous magnificent mojitos, these mojitos had heaps of mint in them which I think is the secret to a quality mojito.

Seafood platter from El Patio

In the plaza below was a 6 piece live band along with dancers which was pretty amazing. It was up there on the patio that Pablo proposed again, this time with 2 rings that he’s bought that day. Apparently it is illegal to buy or sell gold in Cuba so he couldn’t buy anything with gold in it, so the rings from the patio are temporary until we get back to Bogota and can find something nicer. But it’s lovely to have a ring on that finger anyway, it makes the engagement seem official!

Pablo and I at El Patio

We got chatting to a really lovely Irish couple called Sonia and Cormak who were sitting behind us, they were in Cuba on their honeymoon. We spent the rest of the night with them and after leaving the Patio we had a few more mojitos in a nearby bar, a lovely bar with lots of character and again very good mojitos. It was just a really enjoyable, special night – great food, drinks, company, and environment, it was my birthday and I was engaged!

Written by roamingbear

February 23, 2011 at 9:14 am

Posted in A - Havana