Journal entries from January 4, 2017 to January 7.
Wednesday, January 4, 2017
Havana, Cuba is huge. Will and I took the TransTur bus into the city yesterday, it cost one CUC each to ride and we used transfer slips for the return trip. The buses are new Chinese YuTong double-decker sightseeing affairs, very popular and packed with tourists like us. On the way to the central district we had to remain on the inside as the top was full, later we got to ride upstairs. We stopped at Revolución Square but the exhibits and monument were closed so we used transfer tickets to continue on downtown.
It’s tiring, riding buses so the first order of business was refreshment and we bought beers in a little dive before heading out into the crowds.
Havana once was the pride of the Caribbean and it could be again but will take a great investment in capital, training and attitude to turn it around. So many pre-Castro buildings are crumbling and many 1960’s Soviet era structures are beyond the point of rehabilitation. It will take a mighty effort that I cannot see happening in the near future even with the new detente between the Cuban government and the USA.
Time interrupted, that’s my impression of Cuba so far. Everywhere you look 1950’s vintage cars are churning up the highway billowing smoke. Don’t visit Havana if you suffer from asthma. The cars owners use them as taxis and you can ride almost anywhere for about the same money as on a bus.
We took a ride this morning on our second sojourn into the city in a 1956 Pontiac that it’s driver had to down shift at every light to go slow enough for the brakes to work. He was pretty skilled at getting it to stop. He charged us ten CUCs, half of the bus fare and got us there in half the time. We hailed another for the ride back tonight but for the life of me I could not identify the make of the car, it had been pieced together from so many different cars it didn’t look like anything I’ve ever seen. But it roared down the highway just fine.
Muses on the Revolución
Will and I waited in line to see the Museo de Revolución this morning. The museum occupies the former governor’s palace in central Havana. The building must have been a grand affair back in the day, it is four stories tall with a central courtyard, dozens of rooms and a magnificent ballroom decorated with columns trimmed in gold and a vast frescoed ceiling. That room is being restored and no visitors may enter but you can get a good view from porticoes on higher floors.
An exhibit of the history of the Cuban Revolution beginning in 1953 when Fidel Castro Ruz and a dozen compatriots first attempted to overthrow the dictatorship of US puppet Fulgencio Batista, failing and ending up imprisoned. If only a part of Batista’s brutality were true Castro would be exonerated by the world for his actions. He said so himself.
History is written by the victorious and the museum relates that version of the chronology of the buildup to and the subsequent guerrilla war for control of the island. Castro, Che Guevarra, Raul Castro and many other heroes of the Cuban Revolution are depicted in the most glorious fashion. Who would expect otherwise?
Behind the palace in a guarded glass envelope stands the Granma, a 60 foot motor yacht that carried the exiled revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba to start their second, successful assault on the dictator’s forces. Scattered around this building are two propeller driven aircraft, a bullet riddled bread truck, a small Russian tank, jeeps and armored bulldozers.
Also, the engine from a US U-2 spy plane the Cubans shot down just prior to the Bay of Pigs invasion and an example of the Soviet rocket that did it. Our CIA is featured in quite a few documents, nothing admirable there. Lots of bloodied uniforms and gory pictures in the display cases, and Che’s radio transmitter. There also was an embarrassing caricature display of Batista, and US Presidents Reagan, Bush One and Two on a wall declaiming them as “cretins”. The revolution was not won without heavy sacrifice (20,000 killed, mostly civilians) and if Cuba has anything to say it will not be soon forgotten. Whether stable relations between our country and Cuba can be formed remains to be seen.
These two intrepid travelers spent this morning searching for a rental car – without success – the CubaCar agency had nothing for us and, after walking a few blocks from the marina and a subsequent taxi ride struck out again with a local rental agency. So it looks like if we want to travel to another city for a day we’ll have to take a bus. Will wants to see the town of Trinidad, southeast of Havana by sixty miles, an historic town that, the guidebooks say, has plenty of early Spanish architecture and a lively bar scene. We tried to join a tour bus trip and that too was not possible since we were not part of the all inclusive tourist apparatchik. A local taxi might be possible, the cost is high and comes with no assurances. Not to worry, we’ll work it out. The rest of today we’ll spend on board catching up with our writing and getting some rest.
On our search this morning for rental cars we wandered into a small restaurant (the CubaCar sign was just outside) where we met a local entrepreneur, Jesus, who immediately sized us up and offered his services in our quest. “I know rental car company”, he announced, “just a few blocks up the street”, and summoned one of his minions to fetch a taxi. Not that we are incredible, or incredibly stupid, but we went along with him. But, of course, he couldn’t produce. There just aren’t any rental cars available, anywhere, any more than there was electricity in Jesus’ house this morning. But Jesus was full of life, entertaining us as we plowed along in his hijacked taxi through the exhaust filled streets. He diverted the taxi ride near its end to his own house, which he insisted we had to see, a little cement thing he shared with his mother and two dogs. Will bought some of his counterfeit cigars and I laughed at his jokes, if they were jokes, about chicas and Viagra. A side trip to the lower end it was. You cannot blame the hustlers for trying to squeeze money from rich European or American tourists, the average wage in communist Cuba is forty dollars a month. A taxi driver getting a dollar a mile is making big money if he works off the meter. A cigar hustler can make a month’s salary with one sale of a bag of mislabeled cigars. But, the tobacco in a cigar with a fake label is still Cuban tobacco and better than anywhere else. Even though we came away with no rental car the adventure was worth it.
Saturday, January 7, 2017
Even though you might think I had learned my lesson I went out on my rusted bicycle this morning pedaling down the highway to Santa Fe, the little burg just west of Marina Hemingway. The right lane of the four lane road is for slow moving vehicles, like bikes and horses, pedal cars and pedestrians, of which there are plenty. So I didn’t feel at all threatened like I did back in Marathon. Car drivers stick to the left lane and don’t crowd out people who have to travel on foot, or horse or pedal power. A refreshing situation I thought as I rode through the town and into the countryside. After six miles I had had enough and headed back, the noontime sun was beating down on my Yankee body and I was cooked. I stopped to read a menu in a local eating establishment, the prices were in Cuban Pesos. A decent breakfast, desayuna, was about a dollar and a half. I didn’t have any pesos, just convertible Cuban currency so I didn’t buy but will go back if I can. It is becoming apparent to me that many things in Cuba are only available after much study and acclimation. Two weeks is not going to do it. So far, I can recommend that one get CUPs as well as CUCs and frequent as many local places as you feel comfortable with – in as short a time as you can. Some advice, but that’s what it looks like to me at this point.
Later in the day, after I washed my laundry in a bucket on the pier next to Walkabout, a rather large, 22 tonne, sailboat named Surprise tied up close behind us captained by a woman with two younger girls as crew. Surprise is no ordinary sailboat, it is fifty-five feet long, made of wood and gleams with that special look constant care imparts. I had biked to the store for beer and was going back to the boat when a rain squall came along blowing thirty or so. I’m riding sideways down the dock with my backpack loaded with beer cans passing sailboats hard against their squished fenders and noticed the boat just ahead of Walkabout was grinding its hull against the concrete pier. We had two spare fenders so Will and I pushed the neighbor’s boat out, dropped in the fenders and got it off the pier. Surprise behind us had that happen a few minutes earlier and Will had put another one of our fenders on that boat too. We got a bag of cookies from the women for Will’s good deed – the other boater hasn’t returned yet.
The wind squall was too much for the captain of Surprise and she arranged for a different dock space in a canal further inland. Now, the wind was still blowing hard pressing all the boats in our canal up against its concrete sides, but this captain was intent on moving her boat. She sent her two girl crew out in a dinghy to tie two ropes to a post on the other side of the canal and slowly winched her boat out into the middle before backing out. Will and I were dumfounded watching this action but it went just as she had planned. My big concern was that the post might pull out of the ground and let her boat careen into mine but it didn’t happen.
Since all this occurred the wind has died down a bit, Surprise successfully moved and we are now without close neighbors but a bag of cookies richer. A good thing, because tomorrow a cold front is supposed to reach us with strong and prolonged winds from the North and good cookies are hard to find.
Sunday, January 8, 2017
The cold front that was supposed to materialize later today arrived early, what we thought was just a rain squall built with increasing wind overnight and now is in the thirty knot range. Seas are crashing over the sea wall next to us and everyone is anxiously watching their boats. Our hope is that the winds die down by tomorrow morning so we can leave on our bus tour to Trinidad without worrying too much about the boat. Fenders and spring lines are in place and doing a good job but in high winds ropes chafe and fenders pop out. We shall see.
Last night Will and I visited the local yacht club and were welcomed in to sit and talk drinking Cuban rum into the night. We found out Surprise is owned by Dot, a ship captain who commands very large oil tankers. That would explain her expert seamanship, also she knew what weather was coming and made a wise move. Captain Dot has been here many times before so she gets what she wants too. 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 breakfasts 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.