Somehow my Cuban travel journal never made it to this blog in English. Here it comes, as a warning to the young, as a painful reminder to the experienced. Siin eesti keeles.
Air Europa is the perfect airline to take you to Cuba. Its tasteless food and indifferent service were a good preview of what to expect on the Socialist Island of Fidel, as we were to find out. Despite the airline’s three-hour delay, efforts to kill us of thirst for beer and break us mentally by leaving our kiteboarding gear to Madrid, we made it to Havana.
Cuba was entering the mind through all senses. Salsa rhythms from passing-by old American convertibles, accompanied by a cloud of thick smoke and the specific smell that characterizes forty year-old engines. Impressive architecture, but sadly in a condition that of a hundred year-old man’s teeth – the kind where if help does not arrive soon, one needs to clear out the area.
For some reason I couldn’t immediately tell if I liked Havana or not, or what was I supposed to expect from that place. Even warmer weather for a November day? Even stranger sights than the clumsy dance of a man on crutches who completely forgot about his condition when salsa started to play? The WHOLE city to drive around in classic cars with cigars hanging from the corners of mouths? Only by the third night, when I asked myself if this had been the Cuba we came to discover did I answer: Yes. At the same time I focused my attention to an ad hoc concert that had started in a petrol station after meeting a band coming from a rehearsal. The audience was us five travelers and the admission fee was paid in sips of rum and small bills as the music played, Atlantic ocean soaking Malecon just 50 meters away.
With some help from the locals we made our way to Casa de la Musica one night. This is where I realized that salsa is not just music or dance (nor a savory sauce), but a way of life. A busful of Columbian girls had also arrived to the house of music. Preliminary joy of the fact that both parties speak English better than just the restaurant menu was soon replaced by talking about nothing in particular. The only two things we knew about Colombia were drug czars and Shakira and that was exactly two things more than the count of things they knew about Estonia. Salsa filled that conversational gap just perfect and I hope at least a small part of Columbia now knows that Nordic men can also dance salsa. Or at least that Nordic men always apologize politely and try to joke the pain away after stepping on ladies’ toes.
After three days in Havana we made our way towards Playas del Este. This is a beach area supposedly close to the capital. Although close, it was surprisingly hard to find for something that is 25 kilometers away. You would think that all you have to do is follow the beach line and signs. With first being removed from sight by the Havanan labyrinth of streets and the latter having being extinct in the seventies we were left to the mercy of a map. That’s just slightly better than navigating with rolling dice or tasseography ie. using coffee grinds to know the way ahead. Maps were in severe conflicts with the reality – as I guess is the government of the country. Perseverance only lead us to the beach of Playas del Este and we discovered this to be the only local sight. The only other really exciting thing was the strange toaster-looking apparatus attached to the shower mixer that heated the water from cold to lukewarm. Turning this poorly isolated device on with a wet hand gave one a nice rush of adrenaline that made you even more awake than the shower itself.
On day five all of our kiteboarding gear had finally caught up with us and we were all set to leave Havana area. The first stop was San Diego de los Baňos. It featured the first decent hotel on the trip and a pool with a DJ (that we tipped to turn the music off). After doing nothing by the pool for a few hours the bravest of us dared to experience the local spa. This was truly something for the body and the soul. An ok massage for the body and a feeling of gratefulness that I didn’t have to experience massage in a place that looks like a morgue too often for the body. Having done all there was to do in San Diego with that we made our way towards Viňales. Hungry for the real Cuba we decided to take the road less travelled and drive out from the coverage area of Lonely Planet. As we found out there was a good reason why these paths had been less travelled – there was not much to see. True, we saw villages where no tourist had probably arrived for that week, month or year. But they hadn’t missed much as far as I’m concerned.
We reached our destination in the dark. We felt joy of simple things in life like food that had a flavor and a shower without wires intruding from the mixer. To finish the day off we had a great time at the local community center which also acted as a bar, concert venue, salsa joint and probably also a car repairs shop. Next thing we knew it was morning and we all suspected someone had mixed something to our drinks during all this fun … most probably rum.
It was in Viňales where it was particularly evident that capitalism fits Cuba like S-size jeans fit a heavyweight boxer. Private small businesses are permitted but regulated to a ridiculous extent. Por ejemplo in bed&breakfast places it was only possible to offer services to no more than four persons at a time. Not even serve a beer, not even talking about a shared meal or fitting an extra bed. When we insisted on having dinner fivesome, a fifth friend who had to sleep nextdoors didn’t even get a tablemat and had to swear on his mother’s name to sneak out the backdoor if anyone knocks on the door, taking any proof of his existence with him. It just happened so that on that night an inspector knocked, our friend Alan disappeared along his tableware, our host kissed the inspector on the cheek, her husband showed some papers and we all acted like four travellers who wouldn’t even think of going anywhere fivesome – everyone was happy. Except for poor Alan of course.
We played our tourist role to its finest finesses in Viňales and went to see the valley on horseback. The highlight of the day was the natural mojitos that a tobacco farmer served to thirsty passer-bys like us in a hut in the middle of his tobacco fields. As he started hand-rolling cigars to go with the sweet-tasting drinks served in coconuts I found myself thinking this was the most Cuban moment of the trip. The American equivalent of this would be Mr. George W. grilling you a burger at his ranch and serving poor tasting beer while asking whether Europe was a country.
After about a week of adventure tourism we were ready for turquoise blue sea, long days kitesurfing, functional showers and cocktails served directly to hammocks. But Lonely Planet and destiny had other plans for us. There were no hammocks in the hotel that was situated in the western tip of the island that could only be reached via 150 kilometers of dismal roads. Even worse, there were no free rooms. As the afternoon was turning into evening we were desperately looking for alternatives. According to our beloved travel guide there was a beach with two hotels about a two-hour drive away. Nothing fancy, but still hotels. We arrived there in the tropical darkness only to find a sad completely hotel-less village. One had been militarized and there was no sign of the second ever having existed. It was just the locals’ houses, some of them in such condition that light was shining through the cracks in the walls.
One that was relatively less transparent operated as a casa particular. ‘A special house’ if you translate it word for word – and I could not have coined a better term. Because, as it turned out sleeping conditions were Spartan but rich in species. In addition to millions of mosquitos and tens of pigs around the house a rat experience was included in the price. It wasn’t when a healthy specimen exposed itself from the top shelf of the kitchen when Sten lost his sleep, but when it came looking for proximity and love from the bed. Sten made his way to the van where Johanson, who had foreseeingly crashed there silently made him some room. We left the village in uncomfortable silence and we all knew it could only get better.
It did. Six hours and 300 kilometers later we were in Varadero, the largest resort in Cuba. We stayed at Club Karay in the beginning of the Varadero peninsula. Along with almost all other hotels it too was an all-inclusive one. After all these adventures this concept was a bit difficult to get used to. Take Johanson who was surprised that his generous offer to buy a round of beers for a tiny favor got almost no response. In fact the attention this request received was even smaller than the favor in question.
As it happens in mid-budget all inclusive resorts, the chef was very careful with his culinary efforts and thus meat tasted exactly like chicken and vice versa. Some entertainment was also included – according to the timetable in reception Monday was the night for Disco splash, show time and Thursdays was about Miss selection. And on our first buffet-dinner there was a terrible noise disturbing us – which later turned out to be a salsa band. Looking at bartenders and waiters it seemed that although food and drink were included, service was not, at least not without a hefty tip.
However, an hour later I wanted to take back all the criticism towards the staff. Waitresses started moving their hips to the rhythms of salsa more and more. At some point they dropped whatever they were doing at the moment and got down on the dance floor, pulling all members of the band that were not attached to instruments along. The crowd was clapping, overweight tourists were snapping photos and it was crystal clear who of us knew better how to relax and have a good time.
For travel journal purposes Varadero is a useless place. There’s the surfing paradise in the beginning, shops, bars and sun-baking people in the middle and large vacation factories (which some call resorts) to end the peninsula. So we accepted the few things this place had to offer. Obviously we surfed excessively – carrying the gear from one dirt hole to the next had finally paid off. I hope the endeavor of two Estonians to set up Cuba’s first surfing club pays off in a similar manner. They’ve gotten a good range of windsurging gear and raised the flags of Cubawindsurf (the name of their business) on the beach, but after three years of chasing bureaucrats they don’t have a permit to actually do what they’re doing. Their official status sounded something like that they can sell package holidays with an extra safety measure – to include a rescue device that just happens to have a sail attached to it. The good side to that story – there are very few surfers and on most days there were no more that three kites or sails on the water.
The nightlife of Varadero was exactly like you’d expect from a tourist report – boring. The main nightclub is called Rumba. If it were not the salsa music playing a significant amount of time this club could be anywhere. And Cubans were doing the salsa with such twists and turns I was almost afraid any pair of them will mix their limbs in a way that they would need surgical interference in order to be separated again.
But, 15 kilometers away lies Gardenas, the home of everything that has been raked from Varadero. The main street is abuzz and everything is for sale. Kalevi the Estonian surf entrepreneur knew the drill and he said we should hire one of the local “businessmen” just to keep the others away. Our new partner Tony said he would take no money from us for such a simple task, but added in about 15 minutes he would, after all, appreciate some money to buy milk for his baby at home. Mentioning such a figure as if his baby weighed 400 pounds and would have started breaking furniture if left without milk. As he actually had helped keep the other hustlers away we each paid some money and expected accounts to be settled. How wrong we were – in no time Tony took off his security hat and became the most annoying hustler of all times (he probably recalled his baby needs diapers as well). Even one of the locals thought this is going too far and a well targeted punch put out the lights for both Tony and the bar. We don’t want no trouble here, said the barman and people started walking away, except for Tony of course, who got carried away. Literally. It may very well have been that Gardenas had more to offer, but we left these to be discovered by someone else and made our way back to Varadero in style, in a 1956 Chevy BelAir.
We spent one day deep-sea fishing. It doesn’t require much talent or skills – while the experts were tinkering with the bait all we had to do is drink beer. It did require filling out a feedback form afterwards and I mostly filled it positive answers. The only thing I found difficult to comment was “satisfaction with bait” as I didn’t taste it myself. I knew that two tunas, one dolphin fish and one fish with a very complicated name were very satisfied with it. And if one had asked the fish for more feedback they would not have had been satisfied with “onboard service” as the crew treated them real bad – pierced them with a hook and threw them onto the lower deck. So in combination with lunch freshly caught langusts deep sea fishing was an activity that lacked real action but was nevertheless relaxing.
Towards the end of our trip Fidel celebrated his 220th birthday or something. We had seen preparations everywhere to the smallest villages where people had had erected do-it-yourself monuments or painted their houses ugly pink. Although it would have been fun to follow the parade from the epicenter of it we figured we had seen enough hoorays-to-whatever and waving of alien flags, having grown up in a Soviet country. So we watched the broadcast on the telly. Fidel was not attending the celebrations, allegedly his doctor had recommended him not to. It was probably the same doctor who had claimed that Fidel lives to be 140. Who knew, perhaps the strategy was that Castro took it easy for some ten years and caught his breath, after which he’d return to actively running a country. What was constantly flashing on the screen was the subtitles that Raul Castro is taking part of the ceremony. This implied propaganda, but also attitude that glasses are always half-full, not half-empty.
I think all of us were left missing these half-full glasses, with or without rum, so there will be a sequel. But as Fidel lives at least for another 60 years and there are other fun places in this world, then perhaps not this year.
Photos by Margus Johanson and Taavet.