Sweating it up in Cuba

Ah BsAs, what a fab time we had together. It was a great last hurrah to South America (albeit so different from most of the rest of the trip) and now it was time to turn our thoughts northwards, to that little thorn in the US’s side, Cuba. We knew we were in for a change, but still I don’t think we were quite prepared. The first thing we had to adjust to was the climate – it was really, really hot and so friggin humid. The sweating would begin as you toweled yourself after a cold shower and would continue to the next cold shower. We were wondering if we’d all end up the size of a jockey, but apparantly our bodies can leak out loads of water without affecting our general shape.

And so it was hello Havana. Our casa particular (private home offering guesthouse service) was in a slightly dodgy area and on our first morning as we made our way through the narrow, dusty streets I think we suffered a bit of good ol’ culture shock. The streets were filled with locals hanging out, sizing us up as we did them. A few streets on we came to more official tourist parts of the city and the edginess dissipated immediately. Instead there were al fresco restaurants with bands playing tourist favourites. We sauntered around, and kept making our way back to the stunning Capitolio which had a lovely outdoor balcony bar that overlooked one of Havana’s main streets and a rank of fab big old taxi cars. We had a ride in one of those beasts, the driver was a laidback old man who was happy to talk about life in Cuba. Generally he thought things were fine, which was interesting as we’d met some other folk who complained about the tough life and about Fidel. Speaking of Fidel, John – with his beard growing ever more large – was told a couple of times that he looked like Fidel. We’ve got a photo of him with appropriate hat and cigar and the likeness is uncanny. John didn’t know whether this was a good thing or bad thing when walking the streets. We took that old taxi to the Place de la Revolution where Fidel works and where the face of Che covers a huge building.

We were hoping to find a kicking bar in Havana that wasn’t set up for tourists but didn’t have any luck. Cuba seems determined to keep clear distinctions between tourist and local life. Separate money, separate places to stay and eat. We were always delighted if we found a place to drink that had even a couple of locals in it. Very strange. The main way of talking with the locals was either in the street – where the talk was inevitably leading up to a ‘you want to buy cigars?’ or in the casas particulares or the cars we hired.

After a few days in Havana, we started to make our way east. We decided to start off by treating ourselves to a resort stay in Vedado for a couple of nights. We stayed at an all-inclusive which was a strange experience indeed. Big buffet meals, a few different bars, games and activities all payed for once you had your wristband on. People dressed up for dinner. We felt a strange mix of horror and humour but made the most of it for the couple of days. And the beach was stunning. I don’t think I’ve seen such clear aqua water before. It really made up for the tackiness, plus Maryanne and i really enjoyed our salsa lesson.

It was a relief to get back to buses and casas particulares, though, and for the next two weeks we townhopped our way across to Santiago de Cuba. We visited Santa Clara where Che is buried along with the other revolutionaries who fought with him in Bolivia. From Cienfuegos we made a trip to the Bay of Pigs to check out a museum dedicated to this event. We hired a car to drive us down that couldn’t go much faster than 60km/h. This meant our time in the museum was a bit rushed, but, really, travelling in those old cars is an event in itself. We had a quick dip in the bay where we were made a fuss of by the locals, particularly the children, although i think lollies – or pens – were their motive. In Camaguey we had the best meals of the whole trip in our casa particular. Can’t remember your name, fella, but you were one helluva cook. From holguin we visited another beach, Santa Lucia, which wasn’t quite as stunning as Vedado but which was pretty much deserted. How cool. And finally Santiago de Cuba, definitely the most sociable part of our stay. The family in the casa were lovely, we had salsa lessons with the inimitable Fernando and we made friends in a bar with a trumpet player called Pastor and also with some rasta-type characters in a city square. These were genuine folk who weren’t out for money (we were always waiting for the ‘gimme money’ line). Well, I have to admit that one of the sons of the casa family did invite us out for a drink and then expected us to pay. He wouldn’t have been able to go where we went unless we paid for it, so twas fair enough but still a weird cultural difference. The trumpet player was a class act. We were having a drink in a bar, and Maryanne and I were rocking away in some rocking chairs (as you do) when he walked in. He stopped in his tracks when he saw us and in moments had each of us up for some salsa dancing. The guy was 50 years old and had the moves. He then shared a cigar with John and kept asking us to go back to his house. We finally did and we shared some coffee with him and his wife while they showed us some photos. Rations of coffee are miniscule so it was so generous of them to offer us some. There were hugs all round and this was definitely a highlight of our time in Cuba.

And then it was back to Havana for a couple more days before we were leaving the Americas and heading on to Europe.  Cuba is definitely like no other place we’d been to and it was hard work. We did witness all the romantic visions of Cuba too (big cars, big, crumbling colonial buildings, big, worn revolutionary murals, good cheap rum) but with big doses of heat (I can’t tell you enough about the heat!), and the usual tourist hassles.

It was a bit odd to think we were heading to Europe next. No more egg-shaped coco taxis hooning around the place, no more Daddy Yankee blasting through the airwaves, no more violent american movies dubbed into spanish as the entertainment on bus rides… Ah but surely Europe wouldn’t be so hot…