Published: August 7th 2007June 16th 2007
Farm near Vinales
It looks very peaceful, but there was a distant roar of what sounded like hundreds of people in the valley who had walked across the fields to go to the regular Sunday cockfight. Gambling is illegal in Cuba, but as someone said to me ´It's illegal, but it's also possible'
How can I begin to describe my experience of Cuba? Probably the easiest way is to begin at the end. On checking in to fly back to Cancun at Havana airport, nobody mentioned that I needed to pay departure tax of $25. I managed to get to the point of boarding the plane before this was pointed out to me. Bit of a problem - I only had the equivalent of $12 in Mexican pesos on me which I showed to the aiport official checking the boarding passes and explained that it wasn't enough, but it was either this or Visa, but there were no cash machines in the departure area. So she said that she was going to change my pesos and I thought, fine, maybe she'll just take that off me and let me away with paying half, as the flight was due to take off in 15 mins. She came back a few minutes later with the equivalent of $7 in Cuban pesos and told me that it wasn't enough. Tick tock goes the clock. So she rushed me back through security to the cash machine, insisting that I took out $25 worth. When I asked why that
Guillermo, the tobacco farmer
We ate pineapple and drank coffee produced on his farm while he showed us how to roll cigars
was when i already had $7, she just talked very fast, took my $25 and exchanged it for the necessary airport tax voucher and then took me back through security. I asked her twice about the money she had in her hand, she again deliberately talked very fast and waved me off on to the plane, wishing me a pleasant journey as I walked up the tunnel. She blatantly ripped me off, not my first experience in Cuba, and I blatantly crossed the line that she has never been able to cross. And that's the experience of being a tourist in Cuba in a nutshell - it's like stepping into a pool full of voracious piranhas who take what they can because they can't leave the pool. And although nobody likes to get ripped off, in the same situation how sympathetic would you feel towards people who can get on a plane and leave?
Just as well I didn't tell her where to stick her country from the other end of the tunnel (would have been very unfair, but also very tempting after 10 days in Cuba) as we got on the plane, it went at full speed down
the runway and then slammed on the brakes due to a technical 'difficulty' and we had to get off and wait another 5 hours in the airport while they rustled up another plane. I saw her quite a few times and was very relieved that I'd managed to bite my tongue, I'm sure she would have had friends with big guns and surgical gloves.
Cuba was definitely the most difficult country to travel in so far, especially travelling on your own, and most especially being a woman travelling alone. Almost all travel in the country is geared towards all inclusive resorts, obviously a very un-Communist idea, but when you see the thousands of Cubans who wait all day along the motorway waving money at passing cars trying to get a lift, you can see why it makes sense to have all the tourists in one place - the transport infrastructure isn't there to have thousands more people trying to move about.
As a backpacker the cheapest option is to stay in casas particulares, the homes which the government have permitted to let out no more than 2 rooms. At $25 a night, it's the most expensive accomodation I've had
Kids doing exercises
In Plaza Vieja, Havana
to get yet, and it means that you don't meet other people while travelling (apart from Cubans obviously), so I was very much on my tod the whole time. As soon as you go out on the street, there's a constant running commentary of men trying to get your attention, and I mean constant. As soon as you walk past one, you've reached the next one, and it doesn't matter how old or toothless they are, they still think they're qualified to look you up and down and pass comment. In a way it wasn't threatening, as I quickly realised that they weren't trying to follow me or hound me in any way, but it's pretty exhausting spending all day trying to ignore remarks that are coming your way, and it really spoilt the whole experience of being there for me. Added to that, there isn't a lot of information available to tourists to be able to do things independently - when you go to the government run tourist agencies, they have day trips available for a minimum of $30 a day (definitely over my budget), but if you just want a map or an idea of what you can
In the Museum of the Revolution, Havana
So all in all, it was pretty hard work being there, although I still don't regret going. It was my first and last chance to experience life under Communism, as I don't fancy going to North Korea much. I did meet some lovely people, especially the families that I stayed with, and there were some comedy moments, such as walking out in the countryside near Vinales with people popping out of bushes and unprompted telling you what different crops were, what the name of that hill over there is, how they make coffee etc in the hope that you'll say 'Thanks for that information, here's a couple of dollars'. On reflection maybe that should be tragi-comic. You do get a sense while you're there of how controlled people's lives are, although obviously in 10 days you can't absorb the full scale of it. It's strange to be somewhere that has no advertising at all, only propaganda about the revolution. One of the things that I found most amazing was that there is absolutely no grafitti at all, not even on toilet walls (although admittedly I didn't check the Who knows what the future holds for Cuba, but I think the
Not so flash, but still going
introduction of tourists into people's homes may play a small part - people have an insight into what they don't have. In Vinales I sat talking one evening with the owner's son, who asked me where else I was travelling. I didn't have the heart to tell him, it felt like really rubbing his nose in it, so I gave him a very edited version of Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua, and he was completely overwhelmed by that. He asked me lots of questions which I was happy to answer about how much I had earned, how much my house cost, how I paid for it etc (although it's funny how you do find yourself playing things down a bit when in a country where the average wage is $12 a month). But even playing it down, the economic difference is obviously astronomical, and you can understand how people who have their lives so controlled and limited and who become aware of what's on the other side are prepared to risk their lives on a life raft , spending 5 days travelling the sea it took me 15 minutes to fly over.
No one has all the answers, and Cuba
Site of Havana's only internet cafe
has some of them - free housing for everyone, 100% literacy, none of the extreme poverty in evidence in other Latin American countries (or North American and European cities for that matter) but to get those basic rights they have lost other rights that are no less basic and that it's not human to expect people to live without. Hopefully in the near future they will get those rights back and they can, along with that, find out that feminism happened 40 years ago and develop a healthy sense of what a normal amount to rip tourists off by is. Note to airport officials: $12 is too much, try starting with a couple!
Oh, by the way, I went to Havana for 3 nights, Vinales for 3 nights and Trinidad for 2 nights, then back to Havana for one night before my flight, I've still got some more photos to get developed of Trinidad. I did some fairly touristy things, like going to the Museum of the Revolution in Havana (everything the fault of 'yanquis' and imperialism), drank the best hot chocolate ever in the Museum of Chocolate and went on a walking trip near Vinales to visit a
There are more photos below