Embracing Contradiction in Cuba – Part Two

Our third day in Cuba saw us scrambling the hell outta Havana. The day before, we’d gone into a travel agency on the main drag to acquire information about how to get to the small, rural town of Viñales.

I cannot tell you the last time I set foot in a travel agency. Perhaps 1988. But there we were, seated at a desk surrounded by curled-edged travel posters, lapping up the free pool of information provided by the agent.

Of course, nothing is really free in Cuba. This came to be a bit of a cynical catch phrase of mine (‘nada por nada’) each time we felt taken for a ride, which was regularly.

This time, however, at least the guy was honest that the ‘ride’ he was offering us was more expensive than the bus, but that it would pick us up from our casa and take us to our next one.

The following morning, we bundled into a gargantuan green jalopy with a familiarity that comes from a childhood spent sliding on torn leather car seats.

Green vintage car Cuba Sarah Somewhere Cuba

Wedged between the sun scorched driver and Tyrhone, I hitched up my knees, planted my feet on the hump which made room for the chassis and settled in for a good old-fashioned (is there any other type?) Cuban road trip.

Cuba Road Trip

About two hours in to the three hour drive, the driver started talking to me. My ears pricked up, trying to decipher his Spanish using my main translation tool – context.

‘Jaah, siii,’ I replied as I nodded my little Latinophile head, pleased as punch that I understood the overall arc of the ‘conversation,’ which was really more of a monologue by him interspersed by a lot of ‘si-si-sis‘ from me.

I was quite chuffed with myself as I listened to his speech about tobacco production in Cuba and guessed that the Dutch couple and the few hundred Israeli backpackers squashed into the back seats must think I was pretty astute to understand all this vital information.

I mean, I know a little something about tobacco. Every Friday evening I used to catch the train into Perth city to snare my weekly pack of ‘Winfield Whites’ from the Asian deli that never asked for ID. I had to get through my final year of high school somehow (but don’t worry, I only smoked when I drank).

That was before I went on to university, feminism and Peter Styvescent lights, followed by my flight attendant years which were drenched in cosmopolitans and shrouded in a haze of Malborough lights (always a light seeker, see?).

When I met Tyrhone, got sober and started thinking about powers greater than myself I went the healthy route and only smoked natural tobacco with my smoothie after yoga.

So yes, I had me some context for this convo – which I might add was the first decent one I’d had with a local since we’d arrived.

As his well-versed prose came to a timely and opportune pause, he cranked the worn steering wheel to the right and deposited us at his amigo’s tobacco farm-slash-restaurant. His left arm extended out the car window, poised to received his gratis ham and cheese sandwich upon delivery of ‘the goods’.

Snap.

Oh, I see, came the realisation of that all too familiar feeling of being taken for a ride… while being taken for a ride.

Nada por nada. Not even a trip down smokey memory lane. 

Tyrhone shut that show down. Usually one to keep the peace and go with flow, Cuba had ignited a defiance in him that I was rather pleased about.

“Does anyone want to do this?” he asked the group as our driver’s friend led us to inspect a meter high tobacco plant growing on the side of the driveway for display purposes. Met with a resounding no, we bundled back in the car. Upon arrival in Viñales, I requested to be taken to the public bus station where I could book our return tickets back in two days’ time.

At our casa, we were given a speech by our hostess about all the wonderful things we could do with her friend, the English speaking tour guide, before making a bee line to a decent looking tapas bar on the main street.

Turns out we hit the jackpot again. Tasty food, genuinely friendly service and good prices gradually restored our faith in our new destination.

Viñales is a small, colorful town overlooking a verdant valley. The valley gives rise to dramatic karst formations reminiscent of Vang Vieng, Laos (minus the drunken tubing). It was dubbed ‘the most beautiful place in Cuba’ by none other than Mr Castro himself and designated a national park by, well, Fidel, of course!

Vinales

Because who else makes the decisions around here?

After a snack of papas bravas and ‘Tu Kola’ (Cuba’s answer to Coca Cola which is actually delicious), we tried to reclaim our positive attitudes with a walk around the quaint town.

It seemed that cynicism had well and truly taken hold, however, as we discussed the decidedly ‘Stepford’ feel to the place. The brightly painted facades of the casas were in stark opposition to the overall atmosphere.

Vinales Cuba

If I felt the economic and creative oppression of old Havana, then I was well and truly channeling it ‘Medium’ style in Vinales. I imagined grim-faced members of The Regime enforcing strict standards of brightly colored paint application throughout the town and yelling at people to smile for the tourists.

The locals, it seemed had only followed through with the former (paint) and not the latter (smiles).

I realise that perspective is everything, but I sensed a deep unhappiness and even resentment from the people of Viñales .

The way our hostess’ face dropped the moment we said we didn’t want to pay for a private guide, the lack of response to buenas tardes we were met with (or rather, not met with) in the streets; the glaring look from the cashier in the local store as she short changed me, and so on.

Vinales store

Pondering this, we bumped into a couple we had already seen twice in Havana but not yet spoken to. Our first rendezvous had been outside a state run restaurant we had the displeasure of eating at. As we were leaving, they were perusing the menu and I gave them the international sign for ‘don’t bother,’ feeling slightly vindicated if not a little nauseous.

The second time was in the fly blown restaurant we’d walked out of. We’d waved across the dreary dining room but not had a chance to chat, and then, poof we were gone.

Third time, it seemed, was a charm, so we had a bumbled chat on the side walk about Cuba and travel and bad food. Turns out that they were on their honeymoon from Germany and driving the length of the country in a rental car. I liked their adventurous style.

It was a light-hearted conversation punctuated by nervous laughter and a friendliness I was craving.

We bumped into Anja and Lutz again later that night in the tapas bar (I tend to give restaurant recommendations to anyone who’ll listen, even within my first few hours in a place). We merged tables and chatted into the grande hours (1030pm is late for us, okay?) resulting in a refreshing exchange over invisible cultural lines.

Lutz: “So, you don’t drink? Did you ever drink?”

Me: “No, I don’t. I did. A lot. But I don’t anymore. It’s better for everyone if I don’t.”

We laughed and joked and talked and at one point, Lutz looked at us a little suspiciously and said, “You two don’t seem jaded by the responsibilities and expectations of life.”

We were a little stunned by this frank observation. I proceeded to tell him a little of our back story to which he responded with a heartfelt, “thank you for being so open and honest.”

Since I had skimmed over much of the minutiae of our misfitted lives, omitting many of the details I regularly overshare on the internet, I thought to myself, “Oh, sweety, you have no idea.”

******

The next day we opted for the hop-on-hop-off bus again as we wanted to avoid as many awkward financial transactions as possible. 5 CUC each gave us seats on a brand new Korean bus, complete with a very informative video expelling the virtues of the bus company, rather than Viñales itself (as if we had a choice about the bus!).

Bus tour Vinales Cuba

We had a big chuckle at this and at us and at the whole trip. It was all so… weird, and actually, we quite like weird.

So when the bus stopped for a photo-op at the Mural de la Prehistoria – a garish and wonderfully out of place mural plastered on the side of a rock face in the national park (thanks to Fidel) – we took it in our stride.

Mural de Prehistorica Vinales

We had a great time on our Korean bus tour and even forked out another 5 CUC each for the 15 minute tour of The Indian Cave, complete with a 5 minute boat ride on the cave’s river system. It was like a kids’ Disneyland ride, but this time, we didn’t feel like we were being taken for one.

Indian Cave Vinales

We chatted with a lovely woman from Israel, and then, as we were making our second round of the circuit that afternoon (because, why not?) we bumped into Anja and Lutz at the picturesque viewpoint of the Los Jazmines Hotel.

Los Jasmines hotel Vinales

Los Jasmines lookout Vinales

Fifth time lucky.

We rode back to town with them in their rental car, stopping to buy a 1 Peso cigar from a local farmer and for a drink at a beautiful little restaurant perched over the valley.

Terrazza Vinales

That evening as we walked back to our casa, Latin rhythms blared from speakers in the main square, dispelling the heaviness we first experienced.

As we crossed the road, the stout bus driver from the Korea-Cuba tourist initiative was heading home. When he saw us his eyes widened and he proceeded to explain that he had waited for us to board the bus at Los Jazmines.

We tried to explain what happened, to which he smiled, shook our hands and wished us a pleasant evening.

We may have gotten off to a rocky start in Viñales, but we finished on a high and hoped to take our elevated attitudes back to Havana the next day.

Lookout Vinales Cuba

Part three of our Cuba saga adventure coming soon… last one… promise.

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Comments

Embracing Contradiction in Cuba – Part Two — 10 Comments

  1. You expressed in total detail my experience travelling through Cuba. I also felt the disdain of being a tourist in that oppressive Country. What stood out were no Iphones in the parks and old men were playing board games which I found cozy. I stayed in an upscale hotel that would shut off the AC at night which was unbearable and the gratis breakfast was white rice, black beans, boiled eggs and bananas. I was packing to leave and noticed my flipflops were missing. When the maid walked in she sheepishly pulled them out from under her unifrom. I would have given them to her if she hadn’t of taken them. I was so glad to get back to Playa. Vinyalis was the saving grace as well as the coffee and rum. I enjoyed a great dance show at the National Hotel.

    • Hey Patti, the flip flops made me smile. I agree, it sucks to be treated like a dumb, ‘rich’ tourist when you are attempting to enjoy a place and experience the culture. I think that is what i found most frustrating, but tune in next week because we finished with a great experience in Havana that restored my faith in Cuba and left me with some great memories. XXX

  2. Interesting posts out of Cuba, Sarah, an honest viewpoint. I’ve been wondering about Cuba. Are the people ready for an onslaught of tourism? Will travelers just see some of the shady aspects as just being Cuba, or will it turn them off? It’s an interesting conundrum don’t you think? And it will be even more interesting to see how it plays out. I think Abi would take it on, but I’m not sure I’m ready.. think I’ll sit back and watch it unfold for now.

    • Hi Patti, Cuba has been open to tourism for a long time, especially the European market. Since Europeans tend to travel more than people from the US, I dont think that softening relations will bring an onslaught of tourists, and if so, they have a pretty well established system in place for vacation packages, tours, etc. Traveling independently in Cuba is certainly more challenging, especially on a budget, but you do get used to it after a few days. Our trip was only 5 nights, so as we were starting to enjoy ourselves, it was time to leave! Of course, things are changing in Cuba, and it will be a rocky road as transitions always are. But I see these changes as positive because I am of the mindset that you cant stop progress. I am confident that the people of Cuba are ready for change and that their adaptability will ensure a bright future. I think you would enjoy it, but as we both know, the only way to find out is to go!

      • Thanks so much for the insight. We Americans tend to forget there are others in the world who travel to countries the U.S. is not open to. It’s good to hear there is an established system in place for travelers to Cuba. I’m open to visiting Cuba, I just tend to sit back and observe for a while. That, and there are so many places in this vast world of ours to visit, it’s hard to prioritize sometimes! 😉
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        • Oh totally! I call it ‘Getting the call.’ I have to feel the call of a place before I go. I mean, I want to go everywhere but there is a timing to it, you know? And sometimes, the call suddenly arrives and it’s like, ‘Okay, I’m ready.’ I’ve been living an hour away by plane from Cuba off and on for two years, but it wasn’t until now that the call came through. And it turned out to be perfect timing, as it always is. It was frustrating and confusing, and perhaps I judged it a bit harshly, but like most things I judge, it is because it mirrors or triggers something in me. It’s been a while since I was out of my travel comfort zone, so it pushed some buttons, for sure. But it was great to have an adventure again. XXX