Sunday, December 7, 2008

Backpacking Cuba

Travelling to other countries in the world makes you glad that you live in Canada. Travelling in Cuba makes you count your blessings even more.

Cuba is truly a unique place on the planet. So much history of it's inhabitants being screwed over by outsiders. The Revolution. Castro. The Mariel airlift. The American blockade. 50 years of stable, socialist government.

I just spent 3 weeks there, backpacking around by bus and staying in casa particulars (rooms in private houses). I kept away from air conditioning, bottled water and restaurants.

I did a lot of advance reading. I had lots of expectations. I was quite surprised with conditions on the ground. I had travelled in hot, 3rd world countries before, where English is definitely not prevalent. All in all, Cuba was harder to get around that I expected. Oh yeah. I'm also not in my 20's anymore. It was an amazing trip. I am extremely glad I went.

My overall impression: With 50 years of stable government and it's location, resources and weather, Cuba should be doing better that what I saw. Yes, there is a base, minimum standard of life that is higher than the countries around it (basic health, food rations, education, electricity), but the average standard of living was still quite a bit below what I had expected. The infrastructure (roads, public buildings, communications, tourist facilities (outside the all-inclusives) was quite a bit lower than expected. To quote from a popular tune "she ain't pretty, she just looks that way..."


Does socialism work? I have lived on kibbutzim in Israel before and in my opinion, the concept worked pretty good in that small scale and for that time period in the life of an emerging country. Kibbutzim in Israel have almost all switched over to private enterprises now.

I think that socialism was a very good answer for the first 30 years after the Revolution. But it's time to move on. Any country that feels it has to exert so much control on its inhabitants and won't let them publically complain or even travel at will is doing something inherently wrong. On a more personal scale, the problem is motivation. Socialism thwarts, hides, ignores, represses, punishes personal motivation.

I was fortunate enough to have a few quite detailed conversations with some Cubans and the feeling I came away each time was their sense of dispair, frustration and a very basic acceptance that life wasn't changing anytime soon. Each person said at least one thing that made me embarrassed to be sitting there coming from such a free and rich society.

We travel to have new experiences and meet new people. You visit Cuba for a few weeks and you understand why so many people who visit fall in love with the place and it's people. You also understand why so many do what they can to help out. The people are so nice, they are working so hard. Socialism got them to where they are. It won't get them to the next level.

Ongoing socialism on a large scale does not work.


I arrived at my dingy, cheap hotel (right on the Malecon, catering to Cubans and budget-minded travellers like myself and the Duffys) in a state of shock. The road in from the airport was busier, much fuller and much more rundown that I expected. The array of vehicles was quite amazing. Russian junk, old American cars, scooters, motorcycles and of course horse-drawn karts and lot of hitch-hikers, in large groups of 50 or more. No English in the airport, the taxi or at the hotel reception. Of course, I had about the same amount of Spanish, so I guess it was fair.

Headed out into the city. Man, was I ever lily-white and conspicuous. A hustler's dream. You never really get used to getting hustled all the time, but you can get better at dealing with it. I was definitely fresh meat. A nice, polite, friendly, self-conscious Canadian who wanted to meet and interact with Cubans.

My basic run in Habana was the Malecon, Galiano up to San Raphael, over to Parque Central and down Obispo. That kept me pretty occupied each day I was in Habana. San Raphael was a riot. Lots of noise, music, food stalls and very gregarious Cubans. I tried to eat all my day food in Cuba off the street, and San Raphael was the place for that in Habana.

Everyone should have the pleasure of visiting Habana and spending a nice evening on the Malecon. I had found some live music, a beer outlet, converted some money into both local pesos and convertibles, had a local ice-cream (helado), met a fellow traveller (Kjartin from Norway) and eaten some questionable food.

The sun goes down, I'm not so conspicuous (yeah...right) and I am really enjoying myself. Watching all the colourful 1950's cars go by as all sorts of people and families stroll by with tons of kids, with people hawking all sorts of foodstuffs. I'm in heaven. I'm even making friends with some hustlers (who all have either an affliction, a birthday, a brother in Toronto, a chica, some cigars or money to exchange). It was a magical evening and one of my best memories from Cuba.

My jinteros get arrested

Ideally, socialism doesn't require that you control the minds and bodies of your countrymen, but for some reason, that's what happens in socialist states. In Cuba, the same omnipresent police force that controls the locals can also be used to keep them from bugging the tourists too much.

Sunday morning I get up and head out to the Malecon to watch the sun come up. There is a small crowd of locals having a small rum party near me, and 2 of them detach themselves to come give me the once-over. After a few minutes of back and forth banter, we are just schmoozing. One of the guys has pretty good English and had been to the U.S. as a youngster in a judo tournament. The 2 police guys stroll over and ask for these guys ID cards. They call up the details on their little radios and with 5 minutes, the 2 are hand-cuffed and let away. This is not a movie. I'm in this scene and trying to argue with buddy to leave these guys alone, we are just talking.

There is a lot of arguing and yelling going on, but I'm invisible to these police guys. I am totally stunned. Next, the rest of the drinking party come over, trying to convince me with their 5 words of English that I have to go with them to the police station to try and get these guys out. The boys are all drunk. I'm arguing that if the police didn't listen to me in the middle of the situation, why would they listen later on? In short I am now wandering up Galiano with some drunk Cubans at 6:30 on a Sunday morning, headed for the police station a few kms away.

I end up drifting away from these guys. Their attention span is all over the place. They are arguing with everyone they meet on the street.

Welcome to Habana, boys and girls.

Bruce gets scammed

I try the breakfast at the hotel. Passable and barely that. Other than the wonderful soups at the casas, I did not enjoy the food in Cuba. The only spices seemed to be salt, garlic and peppers.

Next, I find the train station and after quite a struggle, they convince me that there is not a train to Pinar del Rio. (Lonely Planet disagrees and now I'll probably never know). I wander the streets toward the Astro bus station, finding out about all these salsa parties starting up as we speak, free for me if I go in now.

A Cuban couple goes by and it's Ray (from the hotel, security, remember me from yesterday?) Of course I remember him. He introduces me to his girlfriend who has pretty good English. We sit and talk for a minute. They ask me what I'm doing and next thing you know, I'm in a conveniently located travel agency buying a bus ticket to Pinar from their good friend. Only problem is, they want 50 convertibles. Lonely Planet says around 6-8. ....FINALLY... the little bells in my head get loud enough. I'm being scammed.

That's not the embarrassing part. It takes until the next day for me to realize that it wasn't Ray from the hotel who was scamming me. The guy just played on that most human of emotions: "of course, I remember you from yesterday". Damn!

Bruce ends up in the wrong town

I do get my bus ticket, but instead of an Astro ticket to Pinar, I end up with a Viazul ticket to Vinales. Still don't know how this happened. What kind of bus system do they have that basically requires me to reserve a ticket a day in advance? In Trinidad, it took me 2 hours in the bus station, just to get a booking agent to sell me one. I did try a show up and buy once. Another new experience for sure. I spend day #3 in Habana in some museums, on the Prado, looking for books in English, wandering back streets, buying pastries, listening to live music. I end up in a cafeteria that sells in local pesos. Being the only tourist in there, I attract some attention and end up making some new friends. I buy my lunch in local currency, but these guys end up dragging convertibles out of my pocket for baksheesh. It's a lot of fun, but it does take up energy. It's tough being that 'on' for so much of the day.

Overnite, my room floods a full centimeter in a big rainstorm (I wonder how the people in all those condemned-looking buildings around me fared). Have to taxi to bus station (lots of arguing in Astro vs Viazul stations). No price dickering in the rain either. Taxi costs as much as the bus. Welcome to Habana, Brucie.

My Cuba Trip Movie

Trip Video.
Habana, Vinales, Trinidad, Holguin, Vinales, Pinar del Rio, Habana

Vinales. Home Sweet Home

I could live in Vinales. I liked the place so much, I spent 1/3 of my trip there, coming back in the 3rd week for some R&R on the way back to Habana. I had a great casa, the village was less than 10,000 people. The standard of living was high because of the 300 casas in town. Nobody hassled you, as the casa people could hook you up. If not them, one of the two travel agencies in the main square. I got swimming, horse-back riding, hiking, caving, a baseball game, music. It was heaven.

Not booking ahead if possible, I end up in some interesting situations. Showing up on the bus in Vinales (I thought I was going to Pinar...remember), there were literally 50 people outside the bus trying to get about 12 of us inside to stay in their casa. They make good money off us tourists, but of course, the gov't doesn't just take a cut, they require a guaranteed 100 convertibles a month for the licence, whether you rent the room or not. Of course, any sort of per rental basis tax would be scammed around big time, so it makes sense.

I pick the person with the cheapest rent ($15 pesos) and off we go to the poorer side of the village, thru fences and a sawmill and down a few dirt roads. Initial impressions were quite scattered, but the place was lovely, the room great and the casa and it's owner (Margot) contributed greatly to my enjoyment of Cuba.

I hiked about the little village and out in the tobacco fields among the magotes and the next day, did the same on a horse (Marguerite) with OshNeal. We visited his buddy Romero on his tobacco farm, then his buddies at the cave for a swim. Every service in Cuba had a base price, then the little propina tips along the way, plus the side trips to try and extract a few more sheckels out of your pocket. It took me awhile to adjust to this, and once I did, I enjoyed myself more.

Vinales. Caves, the Mural and Hitch-hiking

I spent the next 2 days hiking out to some of the local caves and tourist sights. Put me near a bunch of tourists and I get all freaky, so making my own way was fun. I enjoyed the walking a lot and had some interesting hookups with locals. I hiked up to one of the 2 local hotels (stunning view) and then cross-country for a few kms to a road, where I bummed a ride with Homer and Alberto on a horsecart. They were drinking some god-awful local rum brew (I made it thru 3 weeks of Cuba, no cigar and no rum. Blasphemous!). I got on a local truck with Eduardo. His comment about most likely never seeing another country but Cuba was heart-rendering.

At the Pre-Historic Mural (it is huge), I spent some time in the local campesino (Cuban campground with small huts, just like Israel), making some new friends (I had tried to sneak past buddy who worked at the caves the day before and he remembered me).

Walking, I got to see so many things. People just going about their daily business. Kids going to school (on trucks, backs of bikes, motorcycles, walking), people selling food in road-side stands, people on horses, working in the field.

At the casa, I was being fed by a series of people. I had the only bathroom in the place, so whoever was feeding me was using a bathroom in someone else's house. Again, a very gregarious, sharing society. Margot took some of the money I was paying her and spent the day at the beach. My leftover food was being put to good use (some person or some animal finished everything off or it was re-cycled into my foodstream).

Every light I saw in Cuba was flourescent, electricity being a large part of a person's expenses. Plastic bags were washed and re-cycled. I never saw a washing machine, or god-forbid, a dryer.

With so few cars in Cuba, hitch-hiking is not a sport, it's a job. Trucks are duty-bound (I think gov't runs some of them) to stop and load up the back with a seemingly endless line of Cubans. They even have people whose job is to make sure this process runs smoothly (Cuban-style smoothly). I did my hitch-hiking outside towns. These people needed their rides.

No idea what the current un-employment rate is in Cuba (maybe 30%+), but I saw a lot of seemingly idle people. That being said, I also saw a lot more people working their butts off to get themselves to work and their kids to school.

Trinidad. Horseback-riding and swimming

Took 2 buses to get to Trinidad (up to Habana,then over). The roads were atrocious. Hitch-hikers waving local and convertible pesos. What gov't structure has this percentage of people trying to get from A to B by hitch-hiking? Arrived in town and did the 'pick a casa owner from this group' game. ended up with Eliot, a teacher who spoke a few languages. He always looked a tired and maybe a bit down. He was working his butt off. I stayed at his Aunt Luisa's casa, a gorgeous spot. The other room had Andre (Italian) for 2 nights then Lisa and Dominique (British) for 2 more. Good conversations in English for first time in Cuba.

The hustlers in the Plaza Major area were aggressive, but the rest of the place was fine. I can't say that I was impressed with any of the museums I was in while in Cuba. Museum staff pushing items on you while you look about was definitely a new experience for me.

Eliot hooked me with up with Luis and a great horseback-riding experience with Parahito who was a good size bigger than the horses in Vinales. The terrain was quite hilly and definitely generated more adrenalin than the nice, comfy ride in the tobacco fields around the magotes. We ended up a at small waterfall (Luis's buddy was pushing mohitos). Got in a nice swim, ate some mango right off the tree and generally had an excellent time. Parahito even got into a full gallop a few times. Easier on the parts and mucho fun. Note to self, swimming followed by a few hours on a horse just might get you a few saddle sores.

I enjoyed my stay in Trinidad. I went to the Casa del la Trove (traditional music) each night and listened to some pretty good music. Ended up buying a beer or two for locals in every music spot I was in Cuba. Out on the streets, it was the other people coming up to me usually with the aim generating some coin. In the Troves, it was me coming up to the locals and making something happen. I think I am at my most comfortable, sitting in a bar, listening to live music.

My original todo list for Cuba involved lots of walking and as many different types of transportation as possible. The infrastructure and language problems had me give up on the train/plane options pretty quick. That being said, Trinidad has a day train with a steam engine. I spent a full day on this beast and enjoyed myself, other than the fact that it was mostly tourists (no groups, thank goodness).

I got out to the Boca beach while in Trinidad. This is the local beach as compared to the Hotel Tourist beach a few more kilometers away. I really enjoyed the local walking, and the swim at the end of the walk was a real treat. In a place as dense as a Cuban town, you meet a lot of people in an 8 km walk.

I noticed that the locals say hi a few different ways. A lot of 'holas', but also the short version of 'buenos dias' cut down to just 'buenos'. After almost 2 weeks in Cuba, I felt comfy enough to start throwing in a few 'buenos'. Tourist chic.

As poor as a lot of the housing was, both in Habana and out in the country, it looked like damn near everyone had access to electricity, which in most cases would also mean a fridge and a TV (for the baseball...and of course...educational purposes)

Tipping in Cuba

It's tough enough dealing with 2 completely separate monetary systems in a country that you don't speak the language in, but how do you tip for services received. My answer...stick with what you know. In Canada, I tip a decent percentage, even more if the service warrants. But how do you tip when the local $$$ is only 1/24 of the tourist convertible peso. Obviously, you tip in convertibles, but the how much is quite variable.

My horse guy was quite upset when I tried to tip the guys in the swimming cave a full peso. He made it quite clear that $.25 was more than enough. Damn tourists! Inflating everything they touch.

In a few cases, I over-tipped on purpose. If I had spent quite a bit of time with someone (the horse guys, the baseball game, beers in a bar), I tended to express myself with a big tip. Everyone happy on both sides. Giving my horse guy Luis a tip worth about 2 weeks pay in local currency (about $10 out of my pocket) was a nice surprise.

Locals drink rum, beer is really too expensive. In a local cafeteria, lunch might set you back about 5 local pesos. A beer in this situation would be about 20 pesos. In Canada, that's like putting out $50 for a beer. The only way locals get beer is if they generate convertibles. I bought beer for a local in pretty much every music situation I was in. Again, both sides happy.

Holguin. City of bikes and locked doors

Did not like Holguin that much. Nice enough spot, 3 big plazas all in a line. But it was too big to get outside of easily and too small to be funky. My Trinidad casa person called ahead and I had Renaldo waiting for me at the bus station. He biked me over to Ruben's casa, but Ruben had already rented the room to a physical person (as compared to me hopefully coming in on the bus). No biggie. He hooked me up with Sonja. Nice enough place, but plastic bedsheets, no toilet seat and no key to the casa (had to get buzzed in and out each time) made this not my favorite casa choice.

Holguin is a city of bikes, thousands of them. I was surprised at the lack of bikes in other places. Not here. All the downtown lower flats were rented parking spaces for bikes. I had my best and longest conversation with a Cuban here in Holguin. About 2.5 hours with a young doctor (Victor). It was a wide-ranging conversation. He was well aware of American politics. I didn't really learn anything new, just confirmed a lot. As Victor said 'the government owns the schools, newspapers, TV, radio. If I wanted to get 10 people together to complain about something in this square, we'd all be in jail within 20 minutes'. With the news we get in Canada, I asked if he felt that the situation in the ground will change in the next 5-10 years. The answer was a very distinct NO.

Originally, I had planned to go to Santiago de Cuba first and in hindsight, the side trip to Holguin was a mistake. I missed a chance at a big baseball game and due to travelling burnout, decide to backtrack. Couldn't deal with the size of Santiago de Cuba in the mental and physical shape I was in. Took an overnighter to Habana and daytrip back to Vinales. Was refused the bus to Vinales as it was considered full (each bus trip in Cuba had something happen that I didn't expect). I had not booked the day before, so was at their mercy. I did end up on the bus on a last call rush. This place is stressing me out.

Cuban Schoolkids

I can't count the number of schoolkids I saw and heard in a few weeks. It seemd the country was full of schoolkids. Considering the poor transportation infrastructure, I also saw quite a few ways to get those kids to school. Imagine biking thru town with 2 of your kids tacked onto your bike at 7:30 in the morning. One on the back fender and one tucked between you and the cross-bar. Check out the accompanying picture of a tractor pulling a trailer load of kids. A lot of Dads biking or walking kids to school. Of course, everyone in their uniforms. I saw kids on the back of motorcycles (no helmet). There is a pretty serious helmet law in Cuba, and I always saw adults on motorbikes with helmets. No so for anyone on a bicycle or kids on motorcycles.

Vinales. Whew! I need a break

Back in Vinales, I decided to act more like a tourist on vacation. I booked a trip to a baseball game, another to the beach, did some emailing and phone calls, bought some books, went to church, hung out with other backpackers, hiked out to the hotels to take sunup/sundown pictures, spent a day reading.

It was wonderful. I met lots of people from all over the place (English, Polish, Swiss, Slovenian, Italian, Portugese, Spanish, German, French, Souht African, Argentinian, Australian, Danish, Irish, Japanese, Israeli), swapped some stories and really enjoyed myself. I was back in the same casa. I could so my own laundry, had my own fridge, a hot(ish) shower.

The trip to the beach was a first for me. Sun, sand and water all day. Bit of schmoozing with the girls from Argentina, Israel and Canada, bit of reading. A relaxing day, but definitely a one-off for me.

The baseball game was a riot. Instead of a solo trip, the booked tourist trip got me a seat in a van with 6 other backpackers (none of whom knew any baseball), tickets ot the game, a lunch and a guide (Francisco) who spoke English. Nice way to enjoy a day. Cubans are very gregarious and they take their baseball seriously (see embedded movie earlier in this story).

We were told that the stadium had no bathrooms. I'm still working on that one. Francisco didn't want to take us? Didn't want us to go alone or in groups? Were there really no bathrooms?

I used a travel agency to book a charter bus back to Habana. They spoke English and the bus made stops in town (right at the Deauville) instead of just the Viazul station in the outskirts of Habana. Much better service (no stop off to get you to use the pay bathrooms and tourist knick-knack stalls). Same price. Live and learn.

A sad farewell to Margot at my casa and back to the big city.

Habana Redux

To say that I enjoyed Habana the second time around would be quite the understatement. I'm better at transportation, I have a serious tan, I have more working Spanish, I've seen a lot of hustlers, I have adjusted to the heat, I know my way around, my cheap-price hotel bookings pan out, my first hotel has a pool, second is a 4 star (Cuban), I have tickets to the ballet and I can shrug off hustlers with a glance. Too cool!

I'm going to eat in a real restaurant, use the pool, use the AC, buy some gifts. Wow! This is a lot of fun. Budget couldn't handle a few days of this, but for the last day, it is a well-earned treat.

Like I said, everyone should get a chance to spend a few days in Habana. It's like New York, Rome, Jerusalem, London, Athens or Cairo or any really big old city. Lots of work and hassle but always a very unique experience.

I eat in the El Medina, an Arab restaurant (2.5 hour lunch), find the local Jewish synagogue, hit a few museums, wander a lot of tiny, busy streets in which I am the only tourist, buy some local pastries out of a cardboard box, hang out on the Malecon.

Thoughts on Cuba

I'm still working on this part. I saw so many things I didn't expect. I did quite a bit of political reading before visiting, even more in Cuba. It will take a few weeks and some time away for me to finish this section.

Like I said, Cuba is a very unique place. Instead of a chicken in every pot (altho that is true as well), it seems to be electricity in every home and all the kids in school.

You can try this link if you want an insider view. I'll add more tags later on Generation Y


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