Tuesday, September 25, 2012

CUBA NOTES (aka my own rum diaries) ~ a multi-part series about my Cuba impressions


Cuba is a land of transportation choices. People walk, bike, horseback to work or shop. Pedi-cabs (large, roofed tricycles, with peddler in front and two or three riders in the back - aka bicitaxis), horse-drawn carriages (coches de caballo, hold two to three), horse carts (hold up to ten), coco taxis, government taxis, independent taxis, busses of all kinds, trains, and planes carry Cubans and tourists throughout the island. There's a transportation hierarchy. Walkers probably want a bike. Bicyclers long for a motorcycle. Cars are a premium, being at the top of the personal transportation chain.
Our favorites are pedi-cabs. The drivers are all fun and funny, taking special pride in their bikes, their music, knowing the neighborhoods. I still remember the darling rasta guy with his tweaked out cab, the roof like a Cuban flag, reggae blasting from front and rear speakers. We develop good rapport with peddlers, ride close to the street action - people walking, biking...coco taxis, and hear  what's happening in town, what beach not to miss, what bands are at the House of Music tonight. 

Horse-drawn carriages are fabulous and more expensive, and I love the clip-clop of hooves on cobblestone streets. In Varadero we walk to a coche to our taxi to the bus station. In Cienfuegos we share a horse-cart with a trio of Britts, sailing around Cuba. We head back with them to the yacht club, where they pay the driver $10. Later over a cold Crystal, the driver (invited in for a beer by the sailors) asks us for $10 more - highway robbery for the two kilometer trip! The bartender kicks him out.

American automobiles are everywhere and, for the most part, in impeccable condition. (where do they get those parts?) We ride in a '49 Chevy, a stunning '51 Pontiac Chieftain, a cool-blue '55 Bel-Aire, a '58 Edsel Corsair (remember those?), a classic '59 Cadillac Eldorado. In Viñales Valley we take off in an old Soviet Lada, with a ruskie driver...who drives like an Italian.

Under relaxed regulations, many of the old classics are used as taxis. Cabbies can be negotiated to fifty cents per kilometer, and often offer a flat fee. This is half that of newer government taxis, with rides costing $1.00 per km. The newer taxis also have air conditioning and English-speaking drivers. One driver refused us because he was polishing his '52 Oldsmobile, and wouldn't drive in his dirty shirt, sending us around the corner.

If a driver owns the car, a taxi license is $350 per month. If renting a government car, he pays $25 per day. In either case, the driver is fully responsible for the care, upkeep, and fuel. Venezuelan gas is $1.20 per litre, and the old cars are gas-guzzlers. Lack of emissions control adds to the smog of Habana, and without air conditioning, windows are down, and riders suck up fumes. Still the classic old American cars are fun! And photogenic. Roberto, Andres, Carlos, and Duano take such pride in their cars. Drivers are fitted out with fake Rolexes and diamond ear studs, and their cars are decked out with the latest Argentine video players (yea, like that's a good idea), blasting Latin music videos from dashboards. Often drivers can't find a casa or a street, can't read a map, but they are often brother or uncle to our casa owner, and hey, we negotiated a great price.

After a week in and around Havana, we take an overnight train (tren Français) to the other end of the island. Not without great effort. Taking a pedi-cab to the ticket office, we are herded into a small, hot office (for foreigners) where two women hold court...but don't speak a word of English. A translator is called, and after about ten minutes, we begin to understand the process. The overnight train goes Tuesday not Monday, despite the schedule on the wall. We flash our passports, and tickets are hand written. Our passports are checked five more times - confirming our trip at the station, standing in line, getting through the gate, boarding, and again once we're seated. And we're not crossing ANY borders. Hmmmm.

Told to arrive at five pm, we spend two and a half hours in the station, an architectural wonder, filled with food stands and a growing crowd inside. Baseball playoffs on numerous TVs keep everyone sane and (with the hometown Habana Industriales winning) happy. At 7:27 sharp we pull out, leaving Havana, with a view of the sun setting over the Capitola. I settle in with a good book[1] and a nice local red wine. Before long my Cuban seatmate offers me a plate of chicken and rice. Children play in the aisles until lights-out at eleven. In the morning someone gets on with baskets of warm banana bread for fifty cents a loaf. Plains like Texas, with miles of cattle and bilious white clouds, pass by...as does the morning, along with horses, goats, fields of corn and yucca, mango orchards. The advertised twelve-hour trip takes seventeen. Thank gawd for air conditioning!

Busses are great bargains. Just look for Cubanacan, Cubatur, or Havanatur travel agencies (in any town or most hotels) for trips, tours, events, activities, maps, and hotel to hotel bus trips. Even though we stay at casas, agents always know a hotel closest to our casa or the heart of town. Like Viazul busses (booked at bus terminales[2]), these are a fantastic ride - punctual, safe, new and comfortable, air conditioned, with a bathroom at the back. Inexpensive, we ride five hours for about $10, passing fishing villages, shrimp farms, cactus fence posts, a rodeo. Drivers stop at roadside stands for fruits, vegetables, coffee breaks.

Viazul terminals swarm with cheap food - $1 pizza, .50 sandwiches, .10 helados. Viazul ('v's pronounced 'b') busses are Yutong state-of-the-art Chinese-made. Local busses (Astro metrobusses) are even less expensive (crowded and less comfortable), but the prices are about one tenth and paid in MN. We pay $1 for a journey we taxi'd two days before for $40. Warned by locals, we don't even attempt trucks (camiones - hot, crowded, standing-room-only, high-walled with no visibility).

In Havana, Varadero, and other larger cities, tour busses (usually double-decker) are available. Passengers can get on and off all day long for five-dollar day-pass. A great value, they allow tourists (especially) to see and stop at various sites, beaches, venues...and then get home easily. We meet a local medical student who claims one of the best days of her life was riding the jump-on, jump-off bus in Varadero - a birthday present from her husband.

We take a Viazul bus from Santiago to Baracoa and are amazed. On a grey day, suddenly - sunflowers. We roll through the mountains of the revolution, trying to imagine how Che and friends pulled this off...all the way to Havana. Interest peaks as we close in on Guantanamo and find that Guantanamo is a thriving Cuban city. The bus rep (sideman to the driver on all busses)  tells us over the years (since the US took the land and port)[3] fewer and fewer Cubans have been allowed on base, where there are only two Cubans left working, the others all being retired. Near the check-point for the US Guantanamo base, he comes back to ask me to put away my camera. If they see a camera, the bus will be unloaded and everyone checked. "Just one," I plead. "Not going to happen," he insists.

Once we clear Guantanamo, it turns into the road to Hana...on steroids. This road was built in only three years in the 60's and connects Baracoa to the rest of the island. Men blow kisses along the route. We cross rivers, watch gossamer clouds hang over thatched huts. We stop at a magnificent lookout nearing the end of the island and are mobbed by sellers of Baracoa products - coffee, coco, and chocolate. The dark chocolate bar is fantastic! The coco-ruchos - far too sweet for my taste. The coffee belongs at Noble. The far East point of Cuba was discovered by Columbus. Having been cut off from the rest of Cuba for generations, Taino indians and people of native descent abound here. A trip to Baracoa allows a rare adventure...and a different taste of Cuba.

Cubana Airlines flies us to and from the island. New planes have replaced the old Russian ones, but cola is still topped up with plenty of Havana Club for farewell cuba libres.

[1]  Havana Lunar, Roberto Arellano
[2]  Ticketing nightmares at every Viazul station - long waits for hand-written tickets. But great for people watching and baseball playoffs on big screens
[3]  Seized in 1905 as one of the spoils of war (Spanish/American), Guantanamo base is a real stickling point for all Cubans, especially since we began torturing prisoners and denying them due process. In protest, Fidel has refused to cash the US rent checks since the start of the revolution.