Published: May 1st 2009May 1st 2009
Why did I find myself in Cuba? Wasn’t the plan to live and work in Colombia? Yes but I still change my mind as frequently as my undercrackers so I ended up here.
The missing two months since my last blog can be summed up quickly:
Ciudad Perdida trek; very very good.
Barranquilla Carneval; very very very good (better than Rio in my opinion).
Trying to find work, an apartment, a Spanish course in Medellin; frustrating.
Seeing all my friends and dragging out my birthday celebrations to at least a month; really nice.
Teaching again in Intercultura; fun.
Making plans to go back and open a bar; ongoing.
I had decided to give England a try, for the summer at least, and had arranged to go back into my old engineering job in April. The problem is; early April is Easter week so flights are very expensive. Unless you have an air hostess friend (thanks Kelly). The nearest country to Costa Rica that Virgin Atlantic fly to is Cuba, so that is where I went. Rather than a 3 hour stopover I decided an eleven day stopover would be more agreeable.
Valle de Viñales
A couple of flash hotels on the edge of town offer cracking views like this one.
I didn’t know much about Cuba. When I thought of the country I thought of Fidel Castro, The Bay of Pigs, Guantanamo Bay, The Cuban Missile Crisis, Che Guevara. But these are just words, I didn’t know what they meant. My American friends in Costa Rica were part jealous and part fearful for me that I was going to this forbidden land. To my friends in Britain I was simply going to another cheap Caribbean package holiday destination.
There are no hostels in Cuba. There are no beach cabins and no cheap hotels. There are plenty of big expensive all-inclusive resorts which aren’t much good to the independent traveller. Therefore you are left with casas particulares. These would be called homestays in other countries and are literally staying in someone’s home. Every family in Cuba is allowed to rent to tourists a maximum of two bedrooms in their house. They can also provide meals. This option might not sound appealing to people who enjoy the privacy and impersonality of a hotel but I liked it.
Because I was in Cuba alone it cost quite a bit to stay in these places because the price is per room. But
it would have cost significantly more to stay in a hotel. And because I was living with a family I was never alone. Without wanting to sound soft, that was quite important on this part of the trip. I had just left some of the best friends I have ever had in Costa Rica, unsure when I would return, and I didn’t really know why I was going back to live in Britain for a while. What I definitely didn’t need was alone time to dwell on this curious decision.
You can treat the houses like hotels. You have your own key, you can eat separately, and you could shut yourself in your room if you so wished. But I feel this would be a waste of an opportunity to figure out what makes the natives tick. You have to make an effort to spend time with local people in most countries but in Cuba the opportunity is on a plate.
Once accustomed to Cuba’s initially incomprehensible Spanish, I tried to spend a lot of time with the families who put me up. Without exception I found the people had the two most important qualities a person can
Dusk in Trinidad
The salsa bands probably just started up.
have. They were both interested and interesting. As much as I wanted to know about Cuba, they wanted to know about Britain or how Cuba compares to other Latin American countries. I found the people very open and very honest. They would talk frankly about communism, about Castro and about themselves. Cubans also seem very learned, having opinions on world issues that pass most people by. During the nine o’clock news while I was in a house in Viñales, Chavez appeared in Iran shaking hands with Ahmadinejad. This prompted a family discussion on the values of Latino-Persian relations in which everyone contributed, including the 75 year old grandma and her 12 year old granddaughter.
The education system in Cuba is arguably the best in the western hemisphere. School is compulsory from the age of six to sixteen and university is free. The standards are also very high as the huge number of foreign students attests. Cuba boasts the highest literacy rate in all of the Americas, higher than the USA. This is particularly commendable given the faltering economy. When the USSR began floundering, Cuba lost it’s most important economic partner. Combined with a drop in the global sugar prices
Havana’s unique taxis.
and the continued US trade embargo, Cuba didn’t have as much money to throw around as it used to. But governmental spending on education and notably on health (similarly the free health system is the envy of Latin America), never suffered.
It is hard not to bring up politics when talking about Cuba and I didn’t want to in this blog but it looks like I have. It also looks like I’m pro-communist when I read back over the last few paragraphs. The system does have a few problems which fortunately the government are addressing. The restrictions and requirements on foreign owned businesses have been relaxed to encourage investment. Similar laws aimed at Cuban business people have also been rewritten to prevent a drain of the countries entrepreneurs who previously had to go abroad to try and make their fortunes. This appears to have more than succeeded because I met a lot of Cubans who spoke perfect English after living in the US and who had returned to Cuba to make a better life for themselves.
I’ll stop raving about Cuba in a minute but first I’ll mention crime. There isn’t any. I happily walked home from central
Ministerio del Interior en Plaza de la Revolución, La Habana
“Forever Onwards Towards Victory” is more or less what Che is saying.
Havana during the early hours. I couldn’t do that in Costa Rica. Well I did but people always told me not to.
So if that isn’t enough reasons why I love Cuba here are a few more:
The old colonial towns and cities are beautiful. The sometimes done up, sometimes crumbling, usually something in between houses are straight from a film set. The scene is usually perfected by a classic 50’s car sitting outside and a wizened old man smoking a fat cigar in a rocking chair.
The island is surrounded by gorgeous white sand beaches and calm seas. I dived at Maria la Gorda and I think it is the clearest water I have ever been in. Not to mention the incredibly pretty coral reefs.
The countryside is nice too, particularly around Viñales. It appears to be unchanged in over a hundred years as more people get around in horses and carts than cars, and ploughs are pulled by bulls. While walking around the area I realised the peace and tranquillity was broken only by birdsong and calls to the bulls to try and keep them in a straight line. Imagine if that job would
be done by a tractor. As well as the noise and pollution it would be ten times faster. But why let one man do a job in a day that could take ten men all week. What’s the rush?
Finally, like one of those “cat rescued from a tree” stories at the end of the news, I want to talk about crabs. The final stretch of the road between Havana and Trinidad runs alongside the sea. You’ll find a rocky shore on one side and bushes on the other. During my journey along this route, the bus travelled increasingly slowly until we were crawling along and weaving all over the road. It wasn’t sheep or potholes or anything even slightly predictable. Crossing the road were hundreds of thousands, if not millions (I didn’t count) of big black crabs. They scuttled one way or the other as the bus approached, now going much faster as the driver became resigned to the fact that he was going to squash a few. For several kilometres this spectacle crunchingly continued and now we only slowed for the vultures enjoying a free feast who liked to play chicken with the bus. The splattered feathers
Brilliant Example of Recycling in Trinidad
Note what they use as bollards in Cuba. The concrete lumps we have in the UK can’t tell stories like these. (They are cannons if you haven’t already worked that out).
amongst the smashed crabs revealed that the vultures didn’t always win.
I was saddened by this crabby massacre. The big clawed crustaceans have been making this journey for thousands of years (probably) and it isn’t their fault that someone decided to build a road in the way. Later that day a local explained to me that this event happens only one week of each year and only here. He told me that it was very dangerous for traffic because the claws can puncture tyres. This cheered me up no end imagining a crab raising it’s claw braveheart-like (HOLLLLDDDDD!!!) and chuckling to itself the second before it is flattened knowing that it’s murderer will be pitched into the ocean. Revenge is salty.
There are more photos below