Sunday, 16 February 2014

You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave...

Soon after leaving Trinidad in a shared taxi headed to Camaguey after discovering that the bus was fully booked (sadly without Sharen & Vickie who had both left the day before me bound for Toronto & Santa Clara respectively), I found myself with some new travelling companions...a family from Berlin who adopted me for a few days. Daniel and Julia and their two children aged 2.5 and 11 months were in Cuba for 6 weeks, and like me (only braver for doing it with two such young children) had few plans about where they were going. For a few days we hung out first in Camaguey, then after Daniel kindly blagged us a ride to Holguin on a local bus, I decided to follow them to Gibara and Guadalavaca rather than heading for Santiago de Cuba after all, which was my original plan. My time was already limited and as nice as it would have been to see the former capital city, I was more concerned about ensuring I could get back to Varadero on 4th, something that the further south I travelled seemed to be a far less likely proposition. For some reason the procedure for buying viazul tickets changed from them being available several days in advance in Havana and Trinidad to only being able to buy them an hour before the bus left by the time I got to Camaguey, not leaving you with a great range of options if the bus was full.

Gibara was an interesting place, a fishing village almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Ike in 2008. If you goggle it you can see pictures of the utter devastation it caused. The buildings still standing now are often just facades with little behind them, yet people still live in them. Everywhere I went I found people wanting to tell me what buildings used to be...a restaurant, hotel, etc, always adding sadly that there is little money available for rebuilding. There is one very beautiful hotel there that stands out like a sore thumb, but when you go inside you realise that even that doesn't have the facilities you'd expect from such a internet, phone between rooms, etc. The other thing that struck me about Gibara were the high numbers of young people. Lots of teenagers and young children. Again here the poverty was evident...a small child played with what on first glance appeared to be a balloon tied to its pushchair, but on getting closer I realised was actually an inflated condom.

Guadalavaca was a typical small tourist beach town...a market, beach cabanas, mediocre fast food offerings and an endless line of hotels. The best part of the day was the ride there and back in a 1952 Chrysler Saratoga. Navy blue bodywork with a red leather interior, lovingly maintained by Miguel, the cars owner who looked horrified when he realised half way there that my legs were covered in hydraulic oil from a leaky gasket somewhere under the passenger side bulkhead. Still, the trip was well worth it, like being in a real life version of wacky races. Very few cars here are less than 20 years old. A recent opening of the car import market (for the very few who can afford to do so) has meant that car prices have now reached the realms of fantasy. The standard Lada taxis you see everywhere here? Five years ago selling for $5,000, now with a price tag of $15,000. A ten year old BMW? $100,000.... These are cars you'd only get scrap value for back home and the condition of most of them isn't far off despite the extortionate price tags.

When we first arrived at Holguin bus station, we managed to attract the attention of a taxi driver who drove a Lada, one of the better examples of the many of these relics to be found throughout Cuba. He decided to appoint himself our general tour guide and organiser of everything we were planning (and not planning) to do while in the area and he agreed that he'd ensure I was back in Holguin from wherever I was in time for the night bus back to Varadero on 3rd. Given that there's only one bus a day and it leaves at 11.35pm I knew I'd be in for a lot of sitting around at Holguin bus station that evening, but I didn't realise quite how spartan the place would be. A few chairs and a TV showing a baseball game. It reminded me of the old concrete benefit offices in the UK 20 years ago. I managed to entertain myself though, first talking to an English couple fresh off the plane from Manchester, followed by a few 'speed dating' style drinks with a Cuban doctor whose bus was leaving for Havana only half an hour after we started talking. Around 9pm I was just making myself comfy on one of the hard bus station seats and planning on trying to sleep for an hour when my Lada driving friend suddenly reappeared and with much flourish announced he'd found me a ride to Varadero with his taxi driver friend for just $50. A little wary, I figured nonetheless I probably had nothing to lose, so I accepted. An hour into the journey, shared with a Cuban/Peruvian couple who had the back seat, I really started to wish I hadn't.

The first thing that started to make me nervous was that the engine of the car, a Chinese brand I'd never heard of 'Geely', started to cut out periodically. Now this isn't the sort of place where when you break down you just wait for a national tow truck company to show up. This place doesn't even seem to have repair garages and these roads are unlit at night and go on for hundreds of kilometres between towns with nothing in between. Secondly, the driver, who apparently had had a days rest between his drive from Havana and the drive back again, was falling asleep. He'd rub his eyes, twitch, speed up, slow down and occasionally almost stop in the middle of the road. Several stops in quick succession for red bull and espresso didn't seem to make much difference, so eventually the three of us got together and insisted he stop and sleep. Reluctantly he agreed to sleep for ten minutes and pulled into the noisiest, busiest layby we'd seen on the whole journey. Three hours later he woke up and finally twelve hours after we'd left Holguin we arrived in Varadero. There are few journeys that have been so bad that I've seriously doubted that I'd even make it to my destination alive, but that was definitely one of them. At least I was back in Varadero though which had been my biggest concern for most of the previous week.

Being back in Varadero I felt like I could relax for the first time since I'd been in Cuba. By now I knew where things were in the town and how they worked, I didn't have to feel like I was on a constant search for everything. It meant that I noticed far more, like just how weird the country actually is.

Welcome to the Twilight Zone. If ever a town deserved such a title then Varadero is it. On the surface you could be forgiven for thinking it is just like every other beach resort type town. Then you look closer and you get a feeling something isn't right. The majority of people who visit Varadero do so by way of an all-inclusive package deal so they probably don't notice the strangeness of the catering options, but when you're trying to find places to eat two or three times a day you soon realise that everywhere has the same menu. The restaurant may have a different name but the food is virtually identical. Mediocre and cheap admittedly, but the same as everywhere else. A glance at the 'where to eat' section of a friends Lonely Planet confirmed this with exact photos of what you would receive if you ordered fish or chicken...the photos could have been of the exact plates of food we were served. Occasionally there was the odd exception to the catering and hospitality rule such as the surprisingly good steak house at Calle 65 or drinks at the Xanadu mansion, the upmarket former Dupont residence, but on the whole it's all the same. And if one place runs out of something you can guarantee no one else will have it our endless search for french fries proved!

It's not just food though that's the same, you soon realise the same applies to everything. Everything here works to a formula. Souvenir stalls line 1st Avenue all selling identical imported trinkets and wooden carvings, probably from China, but no one seems to care if you buy anything. Market traders in any other country would be falling over themselves to relieve you of your money, but not here. The things for sale are cheap and no one really cares if you buy anything. The stall holders just sit and quietly read a book, play on their phone or have a game of chess with their neighbour. The only people who seem remotely interested in selling you anything are the guys in the shadows who occasionally offer you coke or weed. The most excitement and action we saw in town all week was the arrival of a Canadian led motorcycle rally and the festivities connected to it.

You soon realise that the place is largely run by robots. Whether it's souvenir sellers, waiters or tour salespeople, they just don't really care. They're there to give the impression that everything a tourist could possibly want is available, but they're not real and they don't appear to have any vested interest in anything they're doing. After a while you find yourself being sucked in to the weirdness of it all too. For example, you order dinner. The waiter or waitress rarely writes down your order. After a period of time you may, or as is more likely may not, get what you ordered. The food will usually be lukewarm at best, but edible. Then you'll be ignored to the point where you have to go to the counter to pay the bill in order to leave. At this point the waiter will write down some random figures, punch some numbers into a calculator and ask for an amount. Usually it will be completely wrong, surprisingly almost always well in your favour, but they aren't in the least bit bothered even if you try and point out their mistake. Eventually you even fail to care on the odd occasions when you're overcharged.

Upon talking to some people things start to make a little more sense. Pretty much everything here is government owned and run. The hotels, the restaurants, the souvenir stalls, everything. The workers it seems are paid a basic wage just to be there. Any kind of visibly successful entrepreneurship is soon greeted with a visit from the authorities requesting a 'donation' in light of the income being generated. Any business that's seen to be too successful may even be taken over as a government venture, then when it fails it'll be offered back to the person originally running it on a waged basis. With the average wage here only $20 a month, it seems the only way to better your situation is to be making money somehow on the quiet and making sure you keep it well hidden. You soon realise that there are a number of little sidelines going on, for example a lot of Casa Particular's apparently obtain their food supplies, cutlery and crockery on the black market from the many hotels in town. Even doing the most basic things here requires a high level of ingenuity. If your car breaks down you're unlikely to find spare parts, so you make what you need from recycled aluminium cans. Visits to electrical and furniture stores, purely out of curiosity, revealed old style chunky televisions for sale at four times the price of a modern flat screen back home. The most shocking price we found was for a wicker babies crib at an astonishing $2,200.

Still, even when you start to understand how it all works, you can't help but wonder why whoever is running the show is doing it so ineffectively, if indeed all the above is true. If making money is the name of the game then they appear to be failing dismally. A visit to a large upmarket hotel the other day just because we were passing revealed a ghost town of a place. No visible guests, no life at all and this place must have had over 100 rooms. In the evening the downtown area is dead after 8pm. Something here isn't working at all despite the facade. The only thing that ever seemed to be packed full were the open top buses carrying hotel dwellers into the downtown area and back. Few seemed to even get off the bus, many opting just for a round trip.

Nevertheless, I like Cuba. It gave me the chance to spend a very weird and wonderful week with a very good friend trying to get to the bottom of how that crazy country works. It also has extremely good coffee. With no ability to simply google the answers, Cuba provided us with hours of mystery solving interspersed with regular visits to the beach in the hope that there would be enough wind for kite surfing. Unfortunately there rarely was, so we decided a day out was in order and we caught a bus to Havana.

Now I'll admit I wasn't too worried about going back to Havana again after my first experiences there, but in hindsight I'm so glad we went. This time I saw a whole different place. Havana is a beautiful city. The buildings may be slowly crumbling away but the architecture is still stunning. This time I saw a city full of life and things happening around every corner. Musicians, artists and more culture than I'd witnessed anywhere else in the country. We spent the day just wandering the streets and had lunch at Cafe Taberna, the oldest cafe in Havana dating back to 1772, with a 50's style Cuban band playing. It was like being in an old movie. Maybe the highlight of the day was a visit to the Camera Obscura with its 360 degree panoramic views over the city. Here you could really see the scale of old Havana, the beauty and the decay.

I wish we could have spent a few days there; suddenly the place I'd written off as a place I disliked on my first visit held so much potential and I felt like we'd only just scratched the surface. The last bus back to Varadero leaves at 5pm though, so we had to smile when, just as we really needed to catch a taxi to the bus station some way out of town, there were suddenly none to be found. Thanks to a last minute dash in a coco taxi we caught the bus by the skin of our teeth and soon we were back in the Twilight Zone once more. Back to the same loop tapes of 80's power ballads, Adele and what must be songs by the Spanish equivalent to Justin Beiber playing everywhere while you ate your dinner. Back to the nonchalant serving staff, the laughable maths and the constant sound of horses hooves on the tarmac of 1st Avenue.

All too soon the week was over and a decision to try one last time to get some kiting in ended in the only way it possibly could have in that crazy country. On arrival at the kite beach, despite there being the most promising wind we'd seen for days, we found there was no kite school tent, no flags. In fact no sign that it had ever existed at all. Perhaps it never did. Perhaps even Cuba was just one big weird dream.

The following morning I had to smile when, as the taxi I had managed to persuade to take me to Havana airport for a reasonable price pulled into the terminal, once again 'Hotel California' started to play on the stereo. On talking to a few different people, it seems it is often one of the first songs people hear on arrival in Cuba and as I was arguing with the check in guy about him not wanting to let me on the plane without having an onward ticket out of Mexico, its lyrics seemed so apt.

Whatever, I'm glad I decided to go and check out Cuba. It's a place that will clearly change a lot in the not too distant future and I'm glad I got to see it before it does. The beaches there are the most beautiful I've ever seen, the people friendly and it gave me the opportunity to spend some time again with a friend I love very much, so I have no complaints despite my relationship with the place getting off on the wrong foot. Who knows, one day I may even go back.

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