As Cuba comes into sight the lady beside me starts rapid firing speaking to me about it. Because I translated for her back in Miami that we were "returning to the gate...for paper" (maintenance paperwork is beyond my vocabulary), she is obviously confused and thinks I can catch this new accent. She lives in Austin. She's from Cuba. She's been in Austin a year and one month...no she's coming here for a year and one month, I'm lost...the coastline doesn't show much of a sandy shoreline, think ocean meeting rock, but it's pretty and quickly followed by green fields with rows of some crop I make a note to figure out later. Not all the roads are paved, they are red clay. I see one paved one with a big truck driving down the center and two people walking; they've got to be a mile from anywhere. There are a couple shanties, maybe they live there. Wonder where they get water...
The airport looks new from the outside. It's small but we have a jet bridge; they announce that this is coming unlike the usual stairs to the outside. Inside begins the adventure, I giggle at the poorly translated "Inmigration" on the first sign and am slightly disappointed to see they've corrected it on the following signs. There are people everywhere just standing or sitting around, waiting on people I guess. One guy wants to drive me to cambio my money, no thanks dude. I'm white, not green.
The cab driver speaks zero English. Fortunately, I still remember directions and money so we set off. He thinks all girls from Texas are blond with blue eyes, lol. I told him we have lots of Mexicans. He seemed pretty awestruck by this and then resumed that the ones from Texas must be blonde though. Haha. I tell him Dallas is pretty diverse and also break the news to him that I'm 32 not 25. Bless you Rolando.
He knew Dallas through Gas Monkey garage - my dad will love that. I guess they like that show because of all the old cars here. It's pretty amazing how we consider a car old after a few years and they've kept these cars from the 50s going for well, 60 years. His car is new though and we're listening to Cubano music. Last year, The Rolling Stones came and played at their arena here in Havana (Habana, locally).
The buildings went from oh please don't let that be our Airbnb to an area that seemed to once be a vibrant neighborhood with beautiful Spanish colonial architecture that hasn't been cleaned, painted or cared for in quite some time. This was it. People are on the streets everywhere here. I look out for the gringos I can call mine :) Mi tía and prima were waiting for me outside the airbnb when we turned the corner! My heart was happy not to be on this adventure alone. This is a whole different world.
We walk through the streets to check out the ocean and the sights. The ocean breeze draws people out of their homes. Most don't have ac nor the money to run one from what I can figure. But it feels amazing, and some how the poorly kept buildings seem to glow with a unique beauty in the dusk light. The streets were bustling with people playing dominos, playing soccer, eating dinner, riding bikes with bench seats behind them and just chatting on their doorsteps. The street has dumpsters just in road every so often and loose dogs sniffing for a good find. The level of detail in the wood carved doors, archways, rod iron and tile work is remarkable. To see this place in its glory - it must have been incredibly charming. We walked through a building from 1913 being restored that had a marble staircase and paintings on the wall; in particular a note from Fidel.
My room at our Airbnb is smaller than my closet. It's probably about 6'*5'. I feel like Harry Potter but without the stairs. We had to light the gas to have "hot" water for showers this evening. Warm would be a generous term, but they weren't cold and I'm clean. My room has a European plug and an American plug so I've got my white noise maker beside me (that almost got confiscated at the airport bc I was doing a poor job at communicating that it was not a threat but "a machine with sound, white sound, in order to sleep" yeah, my Spanish is rough, lol. And it almost covers up the sound of the neighbor doing dishes and the stray dog barking in the distance but not quite. And that's okay, I'll do my best to fall asleep to the sounds of Cuba tonight. Buenas noches.
I went for a run down the main drag by the ocean this morning. Boy do those old cars put out some fumes. They are pretty cool though. The driver says that the body is old school american but most of the insides have been rebuilt with Japanese engines and such.
I did figure out the crops from yesterday, they were likely frijoles, and could have also been a local root they eat. They also have lots of trees that grow mangos, papayas, and pineapple here. And corn and bananas grow everywhere. Tobacco to the west and cocoa and coffee to the east.
I wonder if some people that haven't left the island have had a pear or apple or cherry. It's apparently expensive to leave and you don't see a ton of imported food. Even the grocery store didn't seen to have much food. I bought the one gluten-free option. Cereal rice with chocolate, $3.
The owner of the Airbnb cooks breakfast for us. This is very common. She makes my meal special so I won't get sick. Eggs with tomato and peppers, it's the best meal of the day. She cuts up lots of local fruit that is really pretty (mango, pineapple, papaya) but I can't eat them. She brought me a plate of bananas though, they grow bananas everywhere here and I've had 4 today, gluten free snacks are scarce. Snacks in general seem to be pretty scarce.
Our dinner last night took 3 hours! Tonight only 2. They have their own pace which is fine now that we know not to wait until we're starving but we did skip lunch (hence all the bananas) so we wouldn't kill half the day waiting for food.
To get internet you have to buy a card issued by the government and they only sell so many a day so you can't go buy one in the evening. There are two places in the city where you can use the internet code you purchase to log online. As you can imagine, you don't see too many people on their phones here which is refreshing. Everyone hangs out in the street. They don't seem to be up to much but the younger kids are playing soccer and riding skate boards and bikes. They've never heard of a triathlon.
There are so many people in the street at all times, I guess they don't work. In order to have a business here the gov't must own 51% so I don't think it's likely that a lot of restaurant nor American hotel chains will be in a rush to come down.
They have two different currencies. The CUC which equals $1USD and the CUP which fluctuates but right now a dollar CUC/USD can buy 24 CUP. The locals use CUP; CUC is more for tourists. They have a three dollar bill, and it's not all that queer.
Postcards of Cuba capture Old Havana, it's very small, a square mile perhaps, on an island over 200 miles across. If you come here solely looking for a nice tropical vacation, go to Old Havana straight from the airport and stay there, maybe spend a day or two at the nice beach nearby with resorts (and wifi).
Our last evening we spent on a rooftop in Old Havana, we enjoyed wine and food with live music and tremendous views of the ocean and the sun setting over the historical cathedrals and forts, and the just distant enough ghetto. What a different experience we might have had if we'd been there the entire time... the culture shock outside of that bubble will stay with you, be warned. My aunt wanted to stay in the city and learn what it is like in the real Cuba, so that's what we did and that's the Cuba you'll hear about below.
Man has nothing on nature. No matter the country. We hiked an hour to a waterfall today. The waterfall itself was not all that impressive but the hike was beautiful and challenging. The bluffs behind the falls stood 300 feet high and dwarfed the landscape below. My cousin and I jumped off the rocks into the pool at the bottom of the falls as is custom. The frigid water tingles but is the most refreshed and clean I've felt in 5 days.
On the way home there was a pig being roasted outside of a restaurant with a crowd of people waiting in the shade for it to be ready. You could see where they sliced him up the middle but worse was the stick that impaled him through the anus to the mouth. As if the sight of skinned pig being unloaded from the unrefrigerated truck in Havana and the chunks of ham hanging in the hot open air markets in Trinidad weren't enough to kill your appetite, this haunting image may have ceased my desire for bacon for eternity.
The despair I feel for the humans is only surpassed by my heart's sorrow for the helpless animals. The horses carry heavy men and loads day in and out up the street, over the hills and down the interstate. They are skin and bones. I try to think at least they have purpose, they all have blinders on and run next to cars and automobiles without expressed fear; it is their norm. I passed two men on horseback today. The boney horses were wet with sweat. It's over 90*, they are wearing leather saddles, I didn't see a blanket to protect from chaffing, the men weigh 180-200lbs. Pobrecitos.
There is a dog across the street on the beach that has been there all day. She is a little black dog with white socks and chest. I can not only count her ribs but see her pelvic bones. I went to give her food and her little tail flickered in a happy wag. All I had was plantains though and that was not fitting. As she stood up I saw blood on her legs, her private was ripped open over an inch and hanging. A fly landed on the open wound before she lay back down. With tear filled eyes I returned to her with two washed out ashtrays of fresh water. She drank readily then lay back down exhausted. Dios mío, pobrecita.
I am ready to go home. Day 6 & 7 won't be reported, you get the gist...The beauty of this place is lost in it's tragic reality.
I got to roll a cigar today! We went on a tour of the factory. It was very cool. I expected it to be like a wine vineyard outside of the city with rows of tobacco in lieu of grapes, but it was near downtown. They bring all the leaves in and sort them for the rollers. They open 6 boxes of 100lbs of leaves a day. They usually harvest in March, they pull bottom leaves then wait a week and pull the next set then after another week the top set. This gives the top leaves more flavor, they also don't burn continuously so the cigar is wrapped with the bottom leaf that stays lit. We had an almost private tour (2 other people) and Camilo let me roll one! You leave the center loose so air gets through and wrap the outside very tight. It was not as easy as it sounds but very cool.
I've only seen one lady driving here. Otherwise they are being driven, riding the bus or walking. I have not noticed pretty women here like in other Latin countries.
We sat in the park with our white market internet cards today. It took 15 minutes for my phone to connect. There are two parks in the city where you can get internet. So we just sat there with little kids playing soccer around us checking in to the "real world". Turns out we haven't missed anything.
By consensus, this is the dirtiest place we've ever been. And we've traveled a lot; collectively we've been to every continent but Antártica and over 20 countries.
There are 11 million residents of Cuba, if everyone picked up 10 pieces of trash there would still be about 11 billion pieces of trash. Walking home from dinner today I stepped in shit, in the street or on the sidewalk I stepped in shit. I would have thrown the fouled shoes away, or given them to one of this kids on the street without shoes but I need them for hiking...and all the children I've seen barefoot have had bigger feet than me.
At dinner, I had to pick chicken off the bone. Granted this is done in fine restaurants in other countries, I just don't get it - it makes my skin crawl. I'm not here to be a cave man, this isn't Medical Times, finish prepping this fn chicken. Today after dinner we saw men unloading dead, skinned pigs from a unrefrigerated truck. I may just eat rice and bananas moving forward. Thanks Dios for that chocolate rice cereal.
I'm first world privileged and I'm grateful for it. I sometimes think if I were lost in the woods, how could I survive...make shelter with x, find food with y, make fire with z...but this, I'm not sure I would survive. I can barely begin to imagine a life where you are born on a hot, sticky, dirty island where you'll very likely never make enough money to be able to leave and even if you do you'd have to be one of the two-ish people a day that get a visa each day. Can you imagine saving your $15/month earnings until you can afford an airline ticket to Miami and then getting denied a visa?! This is why people try on makeshift rafts. Why the hell not? Old Havana looks pretty in pictures, and is nice but that's a small piece of a very large island that hasn't received millions in UNESCO funds for a facelift. It's not where the Cubans live, it's for tourists and it's not their life.
As I try to go to sleep I hear the city outside over my white noise maker, the cars and motorcycles on the street below, a dog barking, some dishes clanging, a baby crying. Does he know? Does he know he's stuck here in poverty for life? I wish him a wealth of happiness money can't buy.
Day 4 - La Boca, Sancti Spiritus, Cuba
If you're going to be poor, live in a rich land. Trinidad is rich with outdoor activities, there are mountains for hiking, the beach for nada, snorkeling, fishing, swimming, people are cycling everywhere! Most because they don't have a car but many for sport. Amigos!
There are vibrant red blooms on the trees along the rocky seashore, across the blue waters of the bay the cascading mountains glow with various shades of green; this is Cuba. If you're going to come visit, come here. Trinidad is one of 9 UNESCO world heritage sites on the island so it's cleaner than most cities, como Old Havana. There is art and music on every street in the square downtown. The yellow church stands tall at the top of the hill and provides shade to the side where many people sit and relax. Horses with carriages take people around, not just tourist but locals carrying food and things to sell at market. There are nearly as many horses passing in front of our casa as cars, and an equal amount of pedicabs.
I wouldn't be able to have my company here since being online is nearly non-existent. I would probably give cycling tours, week and fortnight long expeditions that span the country, taking photos and writing in my spare time. I would learn English, French and German so I could help people from all over learn about Cuba and learn from them.
We learn a lot from our drivers. It's also cool to tell them things about the "outside world" that they don't know. They have 4 tv channels here, legally. A lot of people near hotels in the city will split the line to get 8 or 12 channels. Some of those from the hotel have Miami news. They do listen to American music on the radio. Too bad for them we don't live in a time where pop music really has any political message like it once did. I've heard the Bieber a few times now, he's just whining about some girl.
We rode in a car from 1958 today, a blue and white Chevrolet Bel Air. The entire engine had been replaced with Mercedes parts. It had an 80L Diesel engine which last him a very long way. He also added a Pioneer stereo. Even some of the bicycle cabs have stereos!
Gas/petro is regulated here by the government. They own the gas stations and gas is the same price across the country.
The countryside is beautiful and they grow everything here; except apples. And orange sweet potatoes. They are yellow here. There are political signs along the interstate and roads across the entire country. Propaganda for the revolution. It's crazy how people talk about things...there is before the revolución and after. That's how you tell time. Things were bad, then there was the revolution and now things are good. This is what they have been reading and have been told since birth. By the time they are adults it's just matter of fact. The revolution was 58 years ago but it could have been 5 or 10 by the way people tell time by it...when was this tunnel built? During the revolución, Castro built this. Is this a toll road? It was prior to the revolución pero not anymore, we don't have toll roads.
Batista was President before Castro and he spent a lot of money on himself and his palace. There is also marble everywhere! All over dirty Havana. It's crazy. There is a quarry on an island off shore. There is pink, black and white/gray from what I have seen.
Nothing beats the mountains hitting the ocean though, I'm excited to explore more of the countryside tomorrow.