Journal entries from January 8, 2017 to January 11, 2017
Sunday, January 8, 2017
The cold front that was predicted to arrive tomorrow came early. What I thought was just an afternoon rain squall rebuilt with increasing wind overnight that is now a steady thirty knots. Waves are crashing over the sea wall next to us and everyone is anxiously watching their boats. Will and I hope the winds die down by tomorrow morning so we can leave on our bus tour to Trinidad without worrying too much about Walkabout. Fenders and spring lines are in place and doing a good job but in high winds ropes chafe and fenders pop out.
Last night we visited the local yacht club and were welcomed in to sit and talk drinking Cuban rum into the night. We found out the sailboat Surprise that left Canal #1 to re-position in a calmer spot is owned by Pat, a ship captain who commands very large oil tankers. That would explain her expertise , also she knew what weather was coming and made a good move. Because she has been here many times before, she gets what she wants. The bar conversation went on and on. The only other thing useful that we gleaned from it was the location of a better than average little restaurant just around the corner that we visited this morning, both of us eating a breakfast of fried eggs with ham and cheese for only 3CUCs apiece. There will be no outside adventures today, reading, writing and watching Walkabout will be it.
7:55 PM The wind is backing down some but is far from gentle. It does, however, look like it may be alright to leave the boat unattended for the next three days while we “journey into the interior”. The fenders are staying in place even with a higher tide due to this passing cold front. We had one pop out on us this morning and passersby pointed it out. Grinding Walkabout down into a fine powder is not what I want.
I went for another bike ride late this afternoon, not far, and only to get some exercise. Traffic on Sunday is very light. I went east toward Havana on Avenida de Americas about three miles and turned around when the slow lane became so rutted it was hard to stay out of the way. For dinner Will and I went back to our haunt the Chinese place and tried a couple more of their dishes. They do not disappoint. We have packed for our excursion and will catch a cab into Havana tomorrow morning to be at the bus terminal to travel to Trinidad city. It should be quite the trip.
Monday, January 9, 2017
After a quick ride in a four door 1956 Chevrolet to the Viazul bus station in south Havana, across the road from the Cuban National Zoo, we boarded for our ride to the City of Trinidad 270 miles away. We traveled light, carrying just enough for two days and nights. Even then our small bags would not fit in the narrow overhead bins but had to be stuffed under the seat. All the seats on the bus were occupied, Viazul is a government run company, as are most other tourist bus companies in Cuba. With no competition demand is high.
There has been a substantial loosening of the total control that communist Cuba exerted over it’s people since the revolution. Half a million government jobs were eliminated in 2011 and many of those workers now hold private sector positions. Basic needs are still met by Cuba’s socialist structure, nobody is left to be hungry, homeless or without medical care and opportunities to earn money to buy into a more modern lifestyle are springing up. A new commercialism is on the horizon. First though, other primary changes have to happen. The double monetary system has to go. Tourists have the CUC, the Cuban people use the CUP and it brings on trouble for both. Visitors often feel cheated and Cubans feel, when foreigners use CUPs, that they are being encroached upon. There has to be only one currency. The government also has to become less autocratic and allow visitors traveling around Cuba greater freedom. We were asked for our visas wherever we stayed, changed money, or got on a bus and it got to be a bit tiring. The procedures reminded Will and I that we were in a communist country.
The Viazul bus made it’s way out of Havana onto the Autopiste traveling at 100kph, not very fast for a six lane highway that was not crowded. The bus stopped for lunch at a restaurant where we bought Cuban sandwiches for 4CUCs, while other passengers sampled the buffet. Efficient and well run, the restaurant was a good example of a private firm working with a public company.
After the break our route took us down to Cienfuégoes, an historic city with a large seaport. The most relevant thing to us was the city’s proximity to Playa Gitón, known to most Americans as the Bay of Pigs. Billboards along the road remind Cubans that they won that slipshod affair and should never forget it, nor let down their guard. Propaganda posters, billboards and handpainted slogans are everywhere but very little commercial advertising can be seen except for signs on stores and shops.
With only an hour of daylight left we pulled into Trinidad and our first order of business was to find a room for the two nights we planned to stay. Held at bay outside the bus yard were at least a hundred shouting “touts” holding up cardboard signs for “casa particulars” or guest rooms in and around Trinidad. Since they get a cut of the room fee we sidestepped the mob and after aimlessly wandering for twenty minutes asked a lady if she might know of one close by. Naturally she did but I don’t believe she got as big a cut because we were warmly welcomed by Julia and her husband Ramón, who runs a gas station, into their comfortable home. But the room was only available for one night and the procurer would have to find us another for Tuesday. No problemo.
Comfortable now that accomodations had been found we hunted down beers and, later, a rooftop restaurant for dinner. A band was playing Cuban tunes, the meal was served and we settled in to watch the sun sink into the Caribbean Sea.
Tuesday, January 10, 2017 Trinidad, Cuba
We woke this morning to crowing roosters and a schoolboy shouting “Alejándro!” to his friend. Catabatic wind blowing down from the nearby mountains wafted smoke past the wooden shutters on our iron barred bedroom window. Horses hooves on the cobblestone street, people greeting each other, “Holá“, “Buenas dias“, more children being packed off to school, all this began our day.
Trinidad has two parts, one is the old district, gated off from the slightly more modern and far more crowded surrounding city. The old town retains its cobblestone streets and Spanish era buildings and churches. Residents who live there have made an investment in the burgeoning tourist economy, many run popular establishments there. Traffic is limited to pedestrians, horses and carts, and vehicles with a special permit. So one can wander freely without worry of being run over.
After an excellent breakfast at Julia’s and moving our stuff to our second casa particular we walked down to the bus terminal to buy return tickets to Havana. I thought it odd that we couldn’t buy round trip tickets in the first place – but we couldn’t. No hay. And, there would be no seats available until Sunday, a dour ticket agent pronounced. But, surprise, surprise, as soon as we turned away from the counter our problem was solved: A Lone Arranger appeared promising us a taxi ride back to Havana for only ten CUCs more than the bus would have cost. He said we would be sharing a car with another couple and took down the address of our casa and said to be out front at 8:30AM Wednesday. We took him at his word and set out to see the city.
First, we struck out for a climb up the mountain north of town for a better view before the sun got hot. Following a narrow rocky road past the last buildings we climbed past a disco in a cave then a couple kilometers more past cactus and brush to the Radio Cuba tower on the hilltop. From that vantage you could see all of Trinidad, it’s small airport, jagged mountains to the east; all spreading down to the vast, and empty, Caribbean Sea. No boats on the water, no planes in the air. If you didn’t know there were a thousand tourists down below the place would feel positively bucolic.
Back in town we walked up and down the streets sidestepping horse manure and the streams of dish water tossed out of doorways and windows above. The sun was getting hotter, street smells stronger and by lunchtime we were searching for a resting spot. A menu sign offered, “hamburgueso” and “spiggeti“, and cervesa we assumed, so we cooled our heels inside for an hour before venturing out again.
A street with endless rows of stalls all selling more or less the same variety of trinkets was a thing to go through, instantly assaulted by pleas from peddlars to buy their hats or shawls or shirts that were swinging in the breeze. I got the “Che” Guevara shirt I’ve always wanted and both Will and I now wear authentic straw Cuban hats.
Will wanted to buy some more wifi time, I wanted to exchange money for taxi fare so we walked to the hotel district downtown. There we sat on benches in the municipal park with a thousand other visitors, and locals too, staring into our “devices”. I was glad to have done that – all was well back home.
Finding a money exchange was a bit harder and, after I did, the transaction was not so simple. I wanted to exchange one hundred US dollars to CUCs. My two fifty dollar notes had a little dab of pink on one edge and the clerk shook her head, “No!”, she couldn’t take them. So I handed her five tens instead, I didn’t need that much anyway. She needed to see my visa. She then recorded the serial number of each US note on a form and made me sign it before slowly counting out my 43.50 CUCs. Since Cuban currency is worthless outside Cuba I felt exchanging US currency necessary only when I ran low on CUCs but it is likely I’m too conservative because money changing is a real hassle.
To end the day and our visit to Trinidad we ate on the rooftop “terrazza” of a little place on the same street as Julia’s casa. Big plates of roasted pork with beans and rice washed down with Bucannero beers and a view over the “cuidado viejo”. There was music in the town square that evening and it really got going about ten with very talented bands. We sat near the stage drinking rum from plastic cups as the crowd filled in around us, everyone watching the samba dancers and listening to Cuban rhythms far into the night.
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Our second casa particular was comfortable but lacked Julia’s friendliness, we didn’t even learn the lady’s name who owned it. We think she lives alone although she had people calling on her when we were there. She served us coffee in the morning as we couldn’t linger over breakfast, quickly retreating to her TV in another room.
The taxi driver showed up on time and had us loaded in his Jetta diesel car with his “procurer” along to gather up the other two passengers at their lodgings. We were joined by two young people each traveling alone. A guy from Poland, Jacque, and a girl from China whose name I can not even guess at, but she is studying in Cleveland and speaks great English.
Our driver, Ramón, was worth everything we paid for the ride. It took almost an hour for the taxi pimp to find the two other passengers because he got a wrong street address. During the wait we talked with Ramón and learned much about life in Cuba. Ramón is a gregarious, retired Cuban army officer who piloted MIGs in Angola. He is fluent in English and knows some of at least three other languages. His retirement taxi driving job takes him all over the country and he knows Cuba inside and out. What surprised us the most about Ramón was his forthright optimism for Cuba’s future. He has definite opinions of what will work and what would not. The old system is not working. He hopes the US will lift the embargo, the sooner the better, and he, like us, thinks the double monetary system has to be eliminated.
Driving much faster than the bus, Ramón took us back to Havana in four hours, with a relief stop halfway. He gave a running commentary on the places we passed – far more entertaining than staring out a bus window. Pointing down the straight lanes of the Autopiste he told me that it was an alternative runway for the air force. “Like your interstate”. I asked him what the odd looking metal things occasionally lying beside the highway were for, big pipes spiraled with long spikes. “We drag them onto the highway to keep planes from landing”, he explained. A defense mechanism.
I learned that Cuba grows almost all of it’s own food and is a major exporter of sugar. Sugarcane fields we passed stretch on for miles. Tamarind groves line the highway, as do rice paddies in various stages of production, flooded and dry, being harvested by hand. Another major crop is mango. They grow a variety of mango that weighs up to three kilograms, as big as a football and full of juice. Ramón was quite proud of Cuba even though we found him to be just as critical of it’s faults – as he saw them.
While we rode along Ramón was on his cell phone trying to get rooms for the two other people in the car as they had no place to stay in Havana. Call after call with no luck. Havana was full. Just like Trinidad. Jacque did get a place to stay, at a higher price than he liked.
The Chinese girl, however, really didn’t like the price and, since Ramón hadn’t found her a casa yet, she just took her backpack, and her chances, and we left her on the sidewalk. She seemed to know what she was doing.
Ramón was not impressed, “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” he remarked. I think he was referring to both of them for not having arranged rooms earlier… We refrained from comment.
For a little extra, even though Ramón didn’t ask for it, Will and I were driven right down to Walkabout and found her just as we had left her. Showers and a beer later we were back to feeling normal and ready to go. Dos viejos y le mar.