your spanish shop
Supporting appealmobile on his world travels

Monday, 27 March 2017

Cuba (part two of the US - Cuba trip))

And so I prepared for Cuba, an experience I was determined not to miss out on. Cuba has always been a fascination for me as a socialist. I was eight or nine at the time of the revolution and was in secondary school at the time of the missile crisis. Although that episode scared me to death, as it did many others, it was a trigger for me in the continued following of a romantic ideal of a small country defying the might of the US. I was also interested in how Cuba was changing, but I had no reference point to compare, so I did some reading in Miami Central library to recap my knowledge and understanding of past events in Cuban/US relations. While in Cuba many of the European visitors and myself, in the hostal I stayed in, discussed the Cuban situation and the rights and wrongs etc. of Cuban policies, laws and regulations, that impact on it's citizens. I am in no way a historian or a master in politics and I realised during those discussions, that small sampling of a few locals opinions could never give a true aspect of life there With that in mind, I will not espouse any views or opinions on the Cuban situation in this blog. Now back to the story............


After all the complications, that eventually led me to Fort Lauderdale, I was set to go, complete with ticket and permits. I'd slept in the airport for two nights to be sure of going, but it was while I was camping there a thought crept in my mind, that had permeated my thoughts, when camping in Madrid airport. I asked myself, if ever there was going to be a terrorist shootout, then wouldn't it be most likely to happen at an airport and why would I be putting myself in these high risk locations. I had observed the security situation at Fort Lauderdale and although there were many police cars parked outside and police sheriffs walking about, I came to the conclusion it would be an easy target for suicidal shooters. Any terrorist damage could be done before any response could be made. This thought recurred when I arrived back, but it was a couple of weeks after returning, that I read about the attack there, during the time I was in Cuba. 

This wasn't on my mind though when I checked through security, to breakfast on a colada and spinach empanada in the Cuban restaurant, at a very affordable price for an airport, I may add. At this moment I was full of excited anticipation of arriving in Havana for lunch, but moments later I found my flight was delayed. Then it was delayed further until it was cancelled. We were told that we would be allocated seats on the afternoon flight, but I was worried there would not be space for the fifty or more passengers. It turned out to be an unnecessary worry, as it seemed we were supplementing a very few passengers on the later flight. These were new routes for the airline and I don't think the public had woken up to a relaxed attitude for Cuba visits by the US controls. So I believe the airline confronted by and almost empty flight in the afternoon cancelled our flight to fill the empty plane leaving later.

Colada and empanada Cuban style

I arrived in Cuba at Havana airport at 5 pm and quickly found that the problems I had with my visa card in the states, was also going to be a problem in Cuba. As I had no cash whatsoever in my pocket, I went straight to the ATM, to find it wouldn't accept my card. You can not use a US visa or master card in Cuba, but mine was a UK card.  I had no idea of the location of the airport in relation to the city, but I decided it couldn't be that far, so set off to walk. Fortunately the last of the days sun was still showing which gave me a direction to head in which had to be North. I was approached on the road outside the airport by a number of taxis and having explained I had no money, in Spanish of course, they asked me, "Well how are you going to get to Havana then"? I proudly told them I would walk, which brought about hysterical laughter and comments such as, "Eres Loco!" In retrospect, they were absolutely right. I had no GPS to use my map and was only sure that if I walked to the coast which was Northwards of the airport I would find a route to the capitol. I also had no idea of the distance and to cap it off I was suffering with pain in my legs from my back problems. Havanna was in fact Northwest of the airport and had I set off in that direction I would have found the busier and more populated route. I walked for an hour on a busy road following the signpost to Havana, until I arrived at an unsigned crossroads. I asked a woman for directions and she told me that I could get a bus if I took the road to the right. I didn't want to be call crazy again, by telling her I was walking so I followed her directions. It was getting dark now and I appeared to be on the edges of a small community, but with little street lighting, so asked another person. He again referenced a bus stop where I could get a bus. I told him I had no money, but instead of questioning my sanity, told me to tell the driver on the bus and he would understand and let me travel free. So I stood with a group of people at the bus stop and when the bus arrived, reluctantly advanced to the driver with a well rehearsed story in Spanish to tell him. Before I could utter my plea, a Cuban guy leaned past me and said "Sit down, I pay for you" 
I did as I was told, rather than try to explain to the driver my plight.
"Gracias, muchas gracias," I uttered to this lovely man, who proceeded to explain that I had to change further along the route to another bus. Then as we approached the junction where I had to change, a woman came and took me by the arm.
"Come with me and we take a taxi from here into the center" she said smiling. 
"No I can't let you do that, I can walk now that we are nearer" I insisted
"No it's still too far, we take a taxi" she replied. It was at this moment I noticed a bus at the other stop and I asked her if it was going to the center. Yes she told me. So I told her I would let her pay for the bus, but not for a taxi, which she agreed to. I was so happy I conceded to her offer of help, as it seemed an eternity to reach Central Havana. Already I had met such wonderful people and I had only been there a couple of hours. It was later in my stay, that I learned the fare was only four cents on each bus, but that doesn't lessen the generosity and kindness of those wonderful people.

I was on the edge of Vieja the old part of Havana in darkness and no idea where my hostel was. I was suffering with the pain in my leg and I was hot and sweaty. I was concerned that I would lose my reservation, but I also needed money to pay for it. I wandered around the the old quarter locating ATM's but still no machine would accept my card, so I set off walking after being given directions to the hostel. My worries regarding losing my reservation were needless. I was welcomed by Mirella the owner and one of the loveliest people on this island and told not to worry about money or anything else. I fellow guest loaned me $10 dollars (CUP) to get a beer as I was in a pretty distressed state on arrival and the following day I went walkabout trying to find an ATM that would accept my card. I failed and with the last dollar in my pocket from my friend loan, I stepped into the bar that became my local for the next four weeks. In Cuba there are two currencies. CUP and CUC. The CUP is the currency for the tourists, while the CUC is used by locals. The dollar I had was CUP and the pint of draught beer I bought amounted to the whole dollar CUP. I explained to the guy who served me, that I was having trouble finding a machine to get my money and he immediately advised me to go to the Hotel Nacional, where I could draw money out from my card. I thanked him, drank my beer and was straight to the hotel to resolve my financial situation while promising to return the following day for another couple of pints of beer. I had a little problem locating the hotel at first and then got hustled to buy a guy a Mojito after he showed me where the hotel was and the exchange bureau inside. I eventually bought a few for the same guy in my relief to have access to cash at last. I was charged $4 per Mojito which I later accessed for $2.50 in the center. I didn't care I was happy, it was warm and I was here at last. I also returned the following day to avail myself of that wonderful beer. I was surprised to find the beer was in fact only 40 cents a pint using the CUC local currency and even better was a large rum for 20 cents. I stayed all afternoon drinking the both and even indulging myself of a Havana cigar for 30 cents or so. Not surprisingly, I really can't remember after all that beer and rum. It was a great inauguration to Havana life and the bar was to become my home for as long as the beer flowed. This was interrupted frequently as stocks ran out and delays in delivery occurred. 

My fat Cuban a rum and a beer. Heaven

My capacity for walking was impeded by my sciatica pains, but I did go for walks into Vieje for money exchange as the hotel only paid out in CUP and the only place to change for the locals money was in the old town. It was here I found the best bar for a quiet drink. It was at the end of Prado the large dual carriageway leading up to Capitol from the sea front. It was a flat iron bar, ie situated on an acute corner, but always had a sea breeze and more importantly served the best mojitos in Havana at only $2.50. This was my civilised little stop and treat of the week. A time to act out my colonialist tendencies, by sitting outside and watching the world pass by. It was also an opportunity to let my pains ease before walking back along the sea front. The buildings along the sea front were the most ruined that I had come across. There are a lot of development and restoration taking place on some of these grand buildings. 

Renovation and restoration of some of the loveliest buildings

The sea front is also the most wonderful place to breathe some fresh air. Havana is full of old American classic cars that are used as taxis. Unfortunately the engines are so worn, they billow out the most polluting fumes from their exhausts, that every time a traffic lights change, there is a blue fog that lingers and clears momentarily till the next signal change. This was also a problem for me with my breathing/respiration problems. The better vehicles are really wonderful though, but tend to be used for city tours and hang around the tourist areas for maximum financial return.

One of the better examples of American classics

Due to my walking difficulties, I started to explore the various bus routes. At four cents a trip it was well affordable. The buses tend to get packed as it is still the principal means of transport for locals. I was astonished at how many people they would let on the bus. They had no concept of the notion of full and would allow people to be nose pressed against the front screen. Everybody was honest in paying. People would pass their fare to others on the platform and then dash back to the middle doors to squeeze on board, while the people who collected the fare from them would honestly pass it to the driver. I did notice several times that the driver would hold his hand over the honesty box and appear to pocket the fare, only to realise later, that they were holding change for passengers who only had a bank note. The drivers would then, every so often deposit the fares from their pockets into the honesty box. I would also like to point out that the sensitivity to other passengers, regarding keeping listening devices turned off or to use ear phones didn't apply. Most of the drivers had ghetto blasters at full volume blasting out salsa music, much to the delight of the passengers, who would be dancing in that squashed space they were standing in.

I had become part of the furniture at the Hostal Mirella. Not only due to my immoblity and inability to get out to a club with other guys there, but also due to the cost of venturing further afield than Havana. The Hostal Mirella, at $8 a night was quite affordable and left me enough for beers and a bottle of rum ($3-4). That coupled with a fifty cents breakfast and a one dollar evening meal left me enough for internet connections and my trip down town for those mojitos. But stories of the costs in other locations of Cuba left me stranded in the capitol. One would expect to pay $20 for a cas and while sharing with someone could reduce that, it was too much of a gamble to set off for the likes of Trinidad. At sixty eight years of age, it is unrealistic to hope to find a young person who would want to share with a disabled geriatric. I was longing to hit a beach even if it was just for one day. The nearest beaches were at Playa del Este, 25 kilometres from Havana. I discovered there was a bus from Vieje and so set off one day to explore. Eight cents on two buses was fantastic economy. I had no idea where I was heading, but met two people from the hostel at the bus stop who were also heading to the beach. Before we arrived at Playa del Este, we noticed a beach to our left and decided to get off and head there, mainly cos there was a guy with a towel, who seemed to be a local going in that direction. The beach, Bacuranao, was glorious and devoid of tourists. I had a swim and spent a wonderful couple of hours there, before spending another eight cents to get back. I had been warned not to go to Playa del Este without CUP as it was a tourist situation, but had no problems using my CUC there.

I had been expecting a good friend, Antonio from Cordoba, who I had met in Mumbai on my India ride, to arrive in Havana and I eventually got word he was arriving the day after my beach venture. I was surprised to discover that he was already in Havana and staying only four hundred yards from my hostal. He and his Japanese wife Yoko had rented a casa and were preparing for a New Years eve BBQ on their roof top terrace. The family that owned the Casa were great and really friendly and we had a really great New Years eve party together. We spent some days trawling each others bars together before they eventually flew out to Mexico. But not before they had told me about a wonderful location at Las Coloradas near Santiago  in the south. They had managed to find this casa at ten dollars a night for both of them and two dollars less for giving English lessons to the owners kids. 

Antonio and Yoko on the roof terrace preparing food for NYE
Antonio and his tongue

Antonio put me in touch with them and arranged for the same deal for me, gave me details how to get there and then left to continue his world tour, which he has been on for five years continuously. Now I had had the most wonderful month at Mirellas, and had met some of the most wonderful people from all parts of the world and had integrated well with the locals in the street and up at the bar, but I was desperate for a change of scene.

My visa had only a week left, but I was sure I would get a one month extension when I arrived at Las Coloradas, and set off to the Terminal de bus to catch, not a bus as they are for Cubans, but a Camion. Now a Camion is basically a truck with a box that has seats inside. Comfy seats and windows on the long haul, but just metal benches and canvas covered tops on the short hauls. I had to get the long haul to Santiago and change at Bayamo to Manzanillo. Its approximately 14 hours to Bayamo and there aren't meal stops or toilet stops as such. Food is bought through the windows at various stops and a toilet break is a mad dash while passengers disembark and embark. I got my Camion at two in the morning which cost me $25 and any hopes of sleeping where dashed, when we hit a bump that catapulted me out of my seat and resulted in me hitting my head on the metal frame of the seat in front. So sleep was a series of half hour dozes, while bolt upright and my bag wedging me in the seat. Eventually  arrived in Bayamo and quickly found a camion to Manzanillo after some refreshments. This was an arduous journey, sitting on these long metal benches and it was having a disastrous impact on my back.

Was I Drugged?

I arrived in Manzanillo late in the day. I wasn't even sure I was there as the Terminal de bus had a persons name rather than the place name. I was in serious pain and tired and my back was ridgid, like a wooden plank. i decided I needed another break before venturing to Niqueiro, approximately another 80 kms more. As the bus terminal was on the edge of this small town I jumped into a horse drawn taxi to take me into the centre. I regretted it for two reasons. The driver was harshly if not cruelly treating the horse, which made me uncomfortable and if I wasn't so disabled I would have disembarked. The other reason was the jolting of the carriage was giving my back more problems than the relief through not walking. I was asked by another passenger after what seemed a longer journey than the camion to there where I wanted to go. I told her the center and she advised me I had just passed it. I alighted and was challenged by a bar bathed in sunlight and a wonderful terrace, so I naturally went for a couple of beers. Then I headed back to the bus terminal, this time by local bus proper and after battling through many people as each camion arrived, I was informed by a young local that the last camion for Niqueiro had left and the next wouldn't be till the following morning. I have been in similar situation in my travels before so I decided to go back to the bar and have another few drinks before returning to the terminal to sit the night out. This time I foolishly walked and by the time I got to the bar I was in serious pain. I had no more than a couple of beers and a couple of rums and was disturbed only once by a local asking for a cigarette, which drew a rebuke from the staff. I reassured them I was fine giving out a cigarette, finished my drink and set off back to the Terminal. I remember feeling a little drunk, staggering a little and being confronted by two young women who seemed intent on luring me into their house. They were reinforced by another woman on the balcony above who tried to tell me she had been to England. I made some sarcastic remark in good humour and walked on. That is the last thing I remembered of the evening.

I came around after midnight, at least two or even three hours after leaving the bar. I was on a bench in the main square and had no idea who I was or where I was. I remember walking off and walking what I think was a circuit of the buildings adjacent to the square as though I was sleep walking but aware. I returned to the square and suddenly became frightened as I couldn't remember anything about myself, even my name. I saw a group of young men and went to them asking if they could help me. I told them I didn't know who I was or where I was. 
One said "Mazanillo." 
"Manzanillo? where is that" I said blankly
"Cuba" he continued
I was totally bewildered, "Cuba? Cuba? Why am I in Cuba?" I asked
One of the other young guys was on the phone and told me not to go away as he was calling the police. Then drip by drip the fog started clearing and I remembered who I was and why I was in Cuba and then where I was going. Then I remembered that I had a bag which I no longer had. I can't explain that 15-20 minute experience. I swung from dazed to frightened to surprise and then to shock.
My bag was nowhere visible and I had no idea how I got to the square or how I happened to go unconcious there. The police station was just around the corner and they escorted me there.

I was met by two really nice policemen. I explained what I could remember and explained my bag was lost or stolen. Although I kept my passport and bankcard in my pocket, my visa was with other documents in my bag, which also included my rent for a week in Las Coloradas. There I was in a T-shirt and shorts with only 13 dollars in the bank and nothing else apart from what I was wearing. They were great and told me I had to sleep in the station that night. They also contacted the owner of the casa to explain what had happened to me and that I wouldn't arrive till the following day. What I didn't know was that the owner of the casa was the driver of the local bus from Las Coloradas to Niquiero and he was going to collect me the next day.The other wonderful outcome of this episode was they took me round the corner to the police medical centre, where the doctor gave me an pain killing injection into my buttock and prescribed me some antibiotics. I slept in the entrance to the station on a mattress and was woken in the morning with a sandwich and a coffee. They explained I had to wait for the immigration to interview me as my visa was lost or not in my possession. The immigration interview was more like an interrogation but eventually they left me alone on the proviso I went and drew my remaining thirteen dollars from the bank, which I did. I was then told that my 'taxi' was waiting for meand I was transported to Las Coloradas. Although my host was the driver of the bus to Niquiero he did a service down to Niquiero and it was a packed bus the whole journey. I was sat by the door that never opened or closed fully so I became the guardian of the door, making sure it opened and closed, to prevent the standing passengers falling out.

I was promised it was heaven and it was
The casa was fantastic and as promised by my friend Antonio was only fifty yards from the beach. I took a walk there before having a shower and a sleep. After dining with the owner and his wife, we talked about how I could get my visa application extension done and getting my pension out from the bank next day to pay them. It would involve another trip on the magic yellow bus to Niquiero to complete the tasks which I was looking forward to. His wife offered to accompany me as she knew where every place was and who to speak to at immigration. Staying at the casa was aYoung Candian and his Cuban girlfriend. At breakfast he went off and returned with a spare pair of shorts and a singlet for me and the wife brought me a T-shirt. At ten we were off on the bus to Niquiero which is twenty Kms along a flat and pretty dull route. We arrived at the bank first and I drew my pension out and then across the road to immigration. As always there is a qeue and here was no exception. However my hostess bypassed the qeue and brought out the immigration officer to me.

"So where is your visa?" He asked
"Lost or stolen" I replied
"Then why did Manzanillo immigration let you travel here" he quizzed
"I don't know" I replied.
"Wait here I will have to call them" he added and disappeared back inside

He returned and very calmly told me I had to buy a $5 stamp for a five day visa and then I had to return on Monday with my hostess and collect it. "OK." was my response and then he continued.

"You must stay in Las Coloradas till then and after getting your visa you have to return to Havana and leave the country by Wednesday."

I realised there was no option for argument or negotiation, so I thanked him and walked away. This was to be my final week in Cuba. My hostess was sad too. They were looking forward to a months rent from me that would have kept them going for a while in the winter months. We returned in silence on the same bus and all I could think of doing was go to the beach. The paradise my friend had described to me. It was a sweet and sour experience. I was enjoying this moment of tranquility yet I knew I had to leave it soon. I managed to engage in a game of football in the afternoon with the local kids, but really couldn't get excited or animated outside that. My hosts explained that the police and immigration had called every day to enquire about my health, which was kind of them but in view of my expulsion was hard to take. Monday came and off I went to Niqueiro, got my visa and found a camion back to Manzanillo. I was experienced now on this form of transport and managed to find another camion to Bayamo quite easily. I arrived back in Havana early morning and had to wait some hours, in what was a cold night on the street in just my shorts and T-shirt until the hostal showed some life. It was lovely to see everyone again at the hostal but it was sad in these circumstances.

The following morning I set off for the airport on the local bus, convinced my flight was 2.30 pm. I was in good time and was lingering around the terminal checking the screens for my flight, only to realise my flight had left at 11.30 while I was sitting there. Another $65 later I had another ticket and even bought a ticket for an American guy who was having trouble with his non accepted US visa card. I bought his ticket on the understanding he would pay me at Fort Lauderdale on arrival. Another decision that led to further problems for when I arrived back in the states. But that's another story.

I said I would not comment on anything political, but the last thing I did in Havana was look around a flee market and I came across a copy of the Cuban constitution. I read it and only wish every country could have one like this.

No comments: