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