Thursday, 13 February 2014

Next time you're at the checkout and you hear the beep...

Remember Supermarket Sweep? For those who don't it was a 90's daytime game show where teams competed against each other to win the chance to do a trolley dash - the Super Sweep - around a fake supermarket with the grand prize being the value of the goods you collected within the time limit. Simple enough, you'd think, but the teams always seemed to be idiots who spent their time filling their trolleys with cans of soup and apples rather than heading for the large electronics and grabbing as many tv's and video players as they could. You'd find yourself shouting and swearing at the screen, wondering how those people could be so stupid as Dale congratulated them on winning £138. Well, that's how Cuba has made me feel for the last four one of those contestants on Supermarket Sweep.

This is by far the most frustrating country I've ever been to. From the moment I set foot on Cuban soil in Havana nothing has gone to plan. Part of the problem was not actually having a plan and that just doesn't work here. This really isn't a place you can wing it that easily. I have never had to fill in so many pieces of paper prior to flying either. Customs, immigration, tourist card, lists of electronics you are bringing into the country, etc, etc. Then you have to deal with border control. Never have I experienced an immigration process so slow, yet when you finally get to the counter, they ask you virtually nothing and just stamp your card. Then it's one final security scan of your bags and you're free to go.

Nothing is simple here though. For a start we didn't have anywhere to stay. We had a vague idea, an address of a hostel, but we were immediately warned by a friendly tour operator upon arrival at the airport that we really didn't want to be staying there because it was in a bad area. Knowing this is usually bull and just a way for them to coerce you into taking up their alternative offer of accommodation, nevertheless we were tired and gave in, accepting the offer of a room at a casa particular run by his 'cousin' in the city centre. As it turns out his cousin was a very nice guy, didn't rip us off and his place couldn't have been better located, if only we'd ever had the chance to relax and enjoy the city.

First though we needed find two things - an ATM and an internet connection so Sharen could book her flight back to Toronto. Sounds simple, but this is Cuba. The guy who we we're staying with said that internet was available at hotels and waved his hand in the general direction so we set off. Two hours later we'd visited about half a dozen hotels only to be told by each one that internet wasn't available there, but it would be at x, y or z. We also managed to somehow pick up a very persistent jintero who insisted on trying to take us to the hotel Hemingway stayed in before demanding money from us despite the fact we'd never asked him for any help with anything. We finally found Hotel Telegrapho who advised us that we were welcome to use their wifi, except that they had sold out of access cards so we would have to find a card somewhere first. Out we set again and finally found cards for sale at a Hotel Sevilla. However, here their wifi was down! So we bought a few cards (at $4.50 an hour!) and headed back to Telegrapho only to be told that the cards we had bought wouldn't work there!! With most of the morning wasted we decided to try to find an ATM instead. Another hour later still no joy despite lots of different directions from people. Even two different official tourist information places gave us conflicting advice. Feeling thoroughly pissed off and ready to punch the next person who asked if we wanted a taxi, we made our way back to Hotel Sevilla where luckily their wifi was now working. That was when we realised that internet here is dial up speed and an hour allows you to send approximately 3.5 emails and perhaps do one google search if you were lucky.

It was during the next hour that we found that it was almost impossible to book a flight online from Cuba, especially a one way flight. We didn't realise it at the time, but this meant that the next few days were going to be spent trying to find some way for Sharen to get home, a problem that would still not be solved 4 days later.

Anyway, we ended the day with a rather strange dinner that consisted of very dry fish, rice and salad, but with a complimentary mojito and laundry soap flavoured ice cream. Our search for a flight meant staying an unplanned second night in Havana and eventually we did manage to see a little bit of the city, but there has been a distinct air of frustration about our time here so far and tempers have been frayed.

Next it was Varadero, a far more touristy beach resort place a little to the east of Havana and again, frustration reins. I have spent two whole days trying to book a hotel for next week, my time split between trying to find a place for less than $180 a night and queuing to use the now $6 an hour internet. When I did finally find a hotel yesterday I was informed that I couldn't make a reservation because it was Sunday and the reservation lady didn't work on a Sunday! To make matters worse there doesn't seem to be any wifi here so you have to use the provided computers, a la 1990's Internet cafe, but with no 'cafe' about them. Last night one of the five machines was out of order while a second was being avoided by everyone due to the large puddle of pee all over the seat and floor underneath it kindly left by a woman tourist who was clearly very drunk and not in control of her bodily functions. As I sat waiting my turn I had to smile when I realised that the picture on the front of the internet access scratch cards is a woman sitting calmly in the lotus position. I'm not sure whether that is a suggestion as to how to survive the system or someone being ironic, but either way I've found nothing relaxing about this place so far.

I'm trying to like it though. Almost dying from fumes in my room caused by a burning wires due to an electrical fault with the shower on the first night didn't help either, but yesterday we walked on the beach and last night went to watch some Cuban music at Calle 62 so it's not all bad. I've also discovered that a good mood restorer is a ride in a coco taxi. Touristy as hell, but you can't help but smile as you run down first avenue with the wind on your face in a little yellow bubble like car!

Trinidad is definitely my favourite town so far. It's like Havana but prettier and without everything being so hidden. Internet and banks are marginally easier to find, probably on account of it being almost purely a tourist town, but not in a negative way. Trinidad has just celebrated its 500 year anniversary so most of the buildings have been recently restored or at least had a fresh coat of paint. It's pastel coloured houses remind me somewhat of a Cornish fishing village. There are hustlers but they're far less menacing and persistent. They don't follow you, they merely reel off a list of places they can take you to as you pass by. It's cheap enough to eat too. One of the only foods that Cuba seems to do really well is good, cheap pizza. A 'personal' sized one being at least 12 inches, there's plenty left for breakfast too. The fish is usually decent enough too, the chicken pre-cooked but edible. The best food item I've seen so far was in a typically sparsely stocked grocery store in Trinidad...a small can labelled 'tinned meat for tourists'!

Trinidad was been fun though and certainly more active. We took a taxi and visited Topes de Collantes and climbed down a waterfall and yesterday we went horse riding down into the valley to escape the heat of the town and to visit a sugar cane plantation. Sugar cane juice mixed with bitter oranges is wonderful. So now I'm aching somewhat and I can feel the muscles in my shins from the after the waterfall climb. Next up I'm heading for Camaguey, Holguin and Santiago de Cuba for a few nights before heading back to the beautiful beaches of Varadero for some much needed rest!

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