The bird that can't be caged

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January 1st 2012
Published: January 3rd 2012
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Wow - Cuba - what a country, what an experience! I have had such a fantastic time over the last week or so I don't know where to why not at the beginning.

Ater a routine flight from Mexico DF, Lucy and I arrived in not just a different country but what felt like a different age. Within seconds of being on the road we saw the old cars that Cuba is famous for, along with the revolutionary signs "Viva la Revolucion!" and pictures of Che Guevara. We were whisked in a Lada taxi to our hotel, on the edge of the Parque Central, the Hotel Plaza, arriving in an old hotel with a beautiful pink art deco style lobby. The rooms didn't quite match up, but no matter, we were already bewitched!

First up in the priorities for me was a mojito. We were in Cuba after all, and where else to do this but the Hotel Raquel? This was not far from our hotel but as we didn't quite have our bearings right we took a cycle rickshaw. It was a great way to travel, and we soaked up the atmosphere, eyes on stilts. Havana, in fact Cuba itself as we were to discover, is like being in a museum. Almost all the buildings were old and crumbling, the 1950s cars outnumber anything else, and everything was steeped in history. We were already beginning to suspect just how different this country was going to be.

The Hotel Raquel was suitably grand, with a stunning lobby stuffed with beautiful furniture, so enjoying a mojito and chatting to the bartender was no great chore. We then wandered up Obispo, one of the main pedestrian streets, to get back to our Hotel. That evening a few blocks from our hotel we stumbled across El Floridita, one of Ernest Hemingway's old haunts and where he would go for daiquiris, so we decided to stop off for a quick daiquiri on our way to dinner. Delicious! Mr Hemingway sure knew his stuff.

Day two was Christmas Day, although this completely slipped my mind until about two hours into our day. It was also when our cycling tour group departed, and we met our tour guide and the rest of the group. We were supposed to be 15, however one had pulled out at the last minute due to a family illness. So we were 14 instead, made up of:

Douglas - our Cuban guide; Alexander - our Cuban driver; Amanda - from New York (whose travel companion had pulled out the last minute); Chuck and Virg - from Iowa; Pat and Bob - from Texas; Sissell - from Norway; Marlene and Gerald - from Vienna in Austria; Dave - from Toronto; Pati and Neil - from Alberta; and Kristin - from Norway.

We weren't to know on day one, but we couldn't have found better travel companions if we'd tried.

So first up we piled into the bus and headed for Pinar del Rio, about 160kms west of La Habana, where we settled into our first hotel for the trip, and got our bikes and set ourselves up. We then headed off by bike to the city of Pinar del Rio, about 7kms away, to get used to the bikes and have a look at the architecture. It was about this point that I realised that I was woefully ill prepared for a cycling trip. The Americans, as we called the two couples from Iowa and Texas, go on many cycling holidays and cycle often. The Austrians live five minutes from some lovely forest areas and mountain bike all the time, and it certainly looked like everyone else had given this a lot more thought than me! I hadn't been on a bike for about two years, and beyond buying an el cheapo helmet from the warehouse had not given the cycling aspect of my trip any thought at all.

Despite my lack of preparation the first afternoon's cycling went fine. We cycled into the town of Pinar del Rio and had a quick look at the gorgeous architecture - coloured houses and pillars. It was very quiet in Pinar del Rio, perhaps because it was Christmas Day, but more likely because it was Sunday. Christmas didn't seem to be a big deal in Cuba, although I saw Christmas trees and decorations in people's houses. It's been a holiday in Cuba since the Pope's visit there in 1995.

It was with much more trepidation that I got on the bike on day three. Douglas had prepared us well, telling us that it was a very hard day with many hills. I bitterly regretted not having packed biking pants, or bringing any sports drink or sports food with me, or in fact doing any training whatsoever....but despite this I did okay! It was a very hard sixty kms, but through some gorgeous quiet country roads. Horse and gig, oxen pulling carts, horse riding, trucks and buses transporting people were all very common sights.

When we finally arrived at our destination, Cayo Jutías, it felt that it had all been worth while, although a miracle I made it! On the north side of the island it was an idyllic Caribbean beach, with white sand, turquoise water, fringed with palm trees and almost entirely ours alone. Heaven!

The next morning we awoke to a beautiful day. I opened the shutters at our hotel overlooking the Valle de Viñales and was greeted by a stunning view. Wow. Simply gorgeous looking over the valley, and the colours were amazing. After yesterday's long hard climb and late lunch I had a bigger breakfast in preparation for the day ahead, which turned out to be a very wise move.

First up we cycled down to the town of Viñales itself where we had around 30 minutes or so to wander around the town. Although Douglas told us that
El Floridita, cradle of the daiquiriEl Floridita, cradle of the daiquiriEl Floridita, cradle of the daiquiri

Hemingway's favourite spot in La Habana for a Daiquiri
there were about 160,000 people living in the town and the surrounds, it was a one-horse town, with a main street no bigger than Taihape's. It was very pretty however, and fascinating peering into people's living rooms and reading all the Revolutionary signs people had on their houses.

The plan for the rest of the day was to cycle to a small river for a picnic lunch, then visit a tobacco farm. Everything went awry however when about 15km away from La Palma, one of our riders, Sissell, fell off her bike. A group of us were ahead when we heard Neil yelling out for us to stop and for Douglas, our guide to go back as there had been an accident. The bus which was following us was at the accident scene very quickly and within minutes the Cuban family, whose house she had crashed outside, had scooped her up and bundled her into the bus and Alexander whisked her to the emergency hospital in La Palma, along with Kristin (the other Norwegian), Amanda (who speaks some Spanish) and Dave. The rest of us rode to La Palma to meet them and see what the news was at the hospital.

After quite some time waiting, Douglas finally emerged from the hospital with Sissell's x-rays, and we all peered at them trying to figure out what they meant. By the time we left it felt as though the entire town had seen Sissell's x-rays - privacy issues are clearly not a concern in Cuba! However the bad news was that her elbow was badly broken and she would require surgery, plus her collarbone was also broken. Her back was also very badly grazed and required treatment. Douglas was keen to get her to the much bigger hospital in Pinar del Rio, as La Palma was a very small town, so he went with her in the ambulance to the hospital, while we went with Alexander in the bus back to our hotel. It was 5.00pm by the time we got there, so we had our picnic lunch, absolutely famished. Although we waited up for Douglas for an update that night, he didn't get back from the hospital until well after midnight, and it wasn't until late the next day that we learned that she had also broken her leg. Poor girl!

Our plans for the next day went out the window a little too, as we were all keen to try to visit Sissell in hospital in Pinar del Rio, as well as try to visit a tobacco farm, which we had missed out on yesterday. It was already going to be a very busy day, so we decided not to bike so that we could fit everything in. This somehow didn't quite get through to Douglas who was in his cycling kit all day, although we couldn't complain about that - he cuts a very fine figure!

First up we visited a tobacco factory where they made the cigars. It was incredibly labour intensive, with the leaves selected individually and rolled by hand, different leaves from the tobacco plan used for different parts of the cigar. We were all a little relieved to discover that the children at the factory were not working, but were killing time waiting for their mothers during the school holidays. Most of the workers were women, which Douglas claimed was because of their hand sizes.

From there we went to the hospital in Pinar del Rio. It was a very large hospital, being the main one in the region,
Taxi anyone?Taxi anyone?Taxi anyone?

Shared taxi transportation in Pinar del Rio
but was not like anything I had come across before. In fact I had the misfortune to need to use the bathroom there and it was the dirtiest and most disgusting one that I have come across to date. It didn't have any running water whatsoever. Needless to say my hand sanitiser got a good work-out that day. There was a lot of waiting around while Douglas was liaising with GAP (the tour operator), local hospital people and the travel insurance, but we finally all got an opportunity to see Sissell and say goodbye and good luck. At that stage we thought that she was going to be flying back to Norway in the next few days. Sissell had a great attitude, and put on a very brave face along with her gorgeous smile, but it felt terrible to leave her there in the hospital. The good news however is that Dave decided to stay with her for the next few days until she was able to be moved to a better hospital and she could receive some better care. It was extremely kind of him, and put our minds at rest. We thought we might be able to meet
Overlooking the Valle de ViñalesOverlooking the Valle de ViñalesOverlooking the Valle de Viñales

Sissell took this the morning of the accident
up with him again in Havana but unfortunately we didn't see him again, and also never got an opportunity to say goodbye.

From the hospital we went to the tobacco farm, which was really interesting. The farmer is told by the state how much to plant (as a minimum), and once it is grown and ready, the state come back and buy back 90% of it. Naturally they determine the price. If he plants more, that is fine too but they still buy 90% of it. The amount that they give him is the minimum amount that he has to grow. The remaining 10% he can do what he likes with, including make his own cigars and sell to tourists.

The political situation was fascinating to us and we asked lots of questions trying to understand it better. Douglas had originally studied and qualified as an electrical engineer however the money as a tour guide is much better, as although he is an employee of the state (his services are contracted to various tour companies) he gets tips which he can keep. He is saving to buy a house, which he should be able to do in about 3 years. It is only recently that you can buy and sell property, however like most things in Cuba, there was a black market where it went on anyhow. The state has now allowed houses to be bought and sold and I imagine takes a cut. However even though life is changing for Cubans, they don't exactly know what the future could bring, although it will include "socialism" as Douglas called it. It's not logical in many senses - the country is filled with slogans about continuing to fight the revolution, however they are already embracing the opportunities to establish their own small businesses such as restaurants and homestays to make extra money. So it's a very strange mix of capitalism and socialism that is hard to explain.

Last stop of the day was at Los Portales, which is the cave where Che Guevara was holed up during the Cuban crisis in 1962. It was in a beautiful spot, however I wouldn't want to have been cooped up in the very austere office and bedroom that Che occupied during that time. They had left it almost exactly as it was when Che was there. It is fascinating to hear the history from the Cuban's side. Apparently the Russians the US resolved the crisis using diplomacy, but they never bothered to keep Fidel informed, so when he discovered what had happened he was furious.

That night after dinner began the first of our dancing lessons. In Cuba there is music and salsa absolutely everywhere you turn and it seems as if to be born Cuban is to be born dancing. Our dancing efforts were less successful but a lot of fun. We had proper lessons one night, but the rest of the time anybody and everybody would be teaching us and pointing out what we should be doing. My most discouraging moment was after dancing with one Cuban who said, "We'll call that the NZ version of Salsa". I had thought I was doing ok!

Another local custom that we have also adopted with gusto is enjoying a rum or two in the evenings. They sure know how to make a good mojito here. And a very good Cuba Libre too. Douglas told us the story of where the Cuba Libre comes from - in 1898 Cuba and US joined together to fight the Spanish, and when they finally conquered them in 1901 they brought together two things symbolic of each of their countries - Rum from Cuba, and Coca Cola from the US to create a drink in celebration of "Free Cuba". And thus the Cuba Libre was born.

Day six of our tour saw us visit Las Terrazas, created in the late 1960s as part of government funded conservation and reforestation project, as well as providing housing for local farming families. In 1990 it became an ecotourism resort - so Cuba was well ahead of the times in that respect. We also visited an old coffee plantation perched at the top of a very high and nasty hill. However once there it was all worth it - absolutely gorgeous. While we there we saw the Tocororo (or Cuban Robin), which is the national bird of Cuba. This is for three reasons: because it is native to Cuba; its colours are the same as the Cuban flag - white breast, red on the front and blue on the back; and it's a bird that can't be caged, like the Cubans themselves in their quest to be free. That's how Douglas put it anyhow.

That night at dinner we got another update about Sissell - she has been transferred to an international hospital in Havana and will require an operation, either in Cuba or Norway, depending on how quickly she can get home and how urgently the operation is needed. As it happened a few of us had the opportunity to visit her in hospital on New Year's Eve in Havana, as it was difficult to get her flights out of Cuba and the doctor from her travel insurance company determined that she needed the operation more urgently, so Sissell was still in Havana on my last day. It was good to see her again, and especially good to see that she was in a hospital that looked more familiar. It had air conditioning, it was clean, not crowded, and she had a private room. She has certainly had an adventure but not the one she had been expecting!

Back in Havana we visited the rum factory and a few sites in Havana, before having a walking tour of La Habana Vieja, the old town. It really is a gorgeous city, and it is slowly being refurbished. Because it was January 30th and all the hotels were booked we couldn't go back to the Hotel Plaza, so after being pushed from one hotel to the next, we finally ended up in the Hotel Deauville, down by the Malecon. We knew it mustn't have been a great hotel when we were offered two free drinks at lunch and an upgraded meal to lobster. The meal was delicious! However we arived at our hotel and saw what we had sacrificed. It was kind of creepy and seedy, not helped by the prostitutes, or jineteras in the lobby plying their trade.

The next day was New Year's Eve, and I had booked a night of luxury at the Hotel Nacional. It was heaven after the Dirty Deauville! Pati and Neil were also staying there, so we caught up with them for a drink and a cigar before heading into town to meet the rest of the group - or those that were left - for one final dinner. We were on the roof of the Hotel Parque Centrale, overlooking the park itself, and it was a gorgeous evening. Our final Cuban experience was witnessing a poor woman's bag being snatched, as she stood mere centimetres from where
Cayo JutíasCayo JutíasCayo Jutías

I've never been so happy to get to the beach
we were trying to get a cab on our way to another bar for a New Year's drink. He moved like lightening!

So then it was to the Hotel Inglaterra for the last mojito of 2011, to have a toast to new friends and old, and to welcome in 2012. We've had an adventure none of us will forget in a long time, and made new friends that I hope I'll have the opportunity to see again soon.

Cuba was a fantastic experience and I loved every minute of it. It's a hard place to explain, to understand and to describe. Like the bird that can't be caged, Cuba's national bird, you can't wrap up Cuba and put it in a box. I highly recommend it, it's fantastic!

Wishing everybody a very happy New Year, here's to whatever adventures that 2012 may bring!

Additional photos below
Photos: 79, Displayed: 34


Cayo JutíasCayo Jutías
Cayo Jutías

Beautiful secluded spot
Valle de ViñalesValle de Viñales
Valle de Viñales

View from the bedroom window
The famous fiveThe famous five
The famous five

A common sight around Cuba, protesting against the wrongful imprisonment of five Cubans in the US

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