Friday, March 25, 2016

Cuba Connection Part III

Sleek American cars from the 1950’s weave through Havana’s thick traffic - their flashy chrome and deep colors in bright contrast to the drab Russian Ladas that make up most of the Cuban car population. And just like on the postcards these beauties hum along the Malacon filled with exuberant tourists snapping selfies in convertibles and gawking out the windows of beefy '56 Chevys.

For the past 55 years locals have been creating custom parts to keep their vintage cars on the road.
However a ride in one of those beauties will cost you $40 an hour. The rest of the taxi options are a little less glamorous, but certainly more affordable. You can still catch a ride in an old classic, because there are plenty of them around - they just haven’t had the good fortune of being restored. But just like their more glamorous brethren their gas guzzling engines have been replaced with diesel engines, and whether they are rusted and rumbling or straight from the set of Grease, they all belch stinky black exhaust.

Off we go in a Coco Taxi - other than walking this was our favorite way get around in Havana.
We rode in a few of those faded ladies, and a few Ladas that we weren’t sure would get us home before their last last gasp. But our favorite ride around town was the Coco Taxi. A round yellow cocoon bolted to a Vespa with a top speed of 25 miles an hour. We even took Cocos the entire 5 miles from the center of Havana to our casa, although they had to let us out at the bottom of the final steep hill - it was just too much for their overworked 150 cc engines. The downside of the open air ride was being blasted by exhaust fumes from all sides, and the even bumpier ride over pothole-riddled side streets.

On our last day in Havana, Mari, one of the favorite Casa Ortega drivers took us to the Viazul bus station to buy tickets to Cardenas, our next destination city. It is about a four hour trip east of Havana near the famous Varadero beaches. He waited while we stood in line (there are always lines in Cuba) to purchase tickets. We were nervous about what the Cuban version of a luxury bus might be, but they were fine. We were all set to leave early the next morning.

Surprisingly nice buses get you quickly and affordably around the island.
When we shared our plans with our host a look of concern crossed her face. It turned out we had purchased tickets to the wrong destination. We were close, but quite a distance from where we needed to go. Mari to the rescue! He picked us up the next day, and after some negotiation and a bit of cash was exchanged, our bus driver agreed to make sure we were dropped at the right station and he would find a taxi to take us the rest of the way. Late in the day we arrived in Cardenas at Hostal Relax, our second Airbnb.

Booking Airbnbs in Cuba was an adventure as I explained in the previous blog. I am sure it will get easier as the process improves and the Internet becomes more widely available. But we were early adopters so communication including cell phone usage was off the table. Because there isn’t any Internet, and as near as we could tell, we wouldn’t be able to get SIM cards for our phones like we’ve done it other countries, we couldn’t communicate easily with our hosts or anyone else on planet earth.

Laundry day across the street from our Airbnb in Cardenas
Even though we had this airbnb booked, and we’d received a confirmation, our arrival details were a bit loose. Our taxi dropped us at the door facing the almost dusty abandoned main street of Cardenas. There was no answer to our continued knocking (and eventual pounding) on the door. That is disconcerting... no matter where you are! Finally the housekeeper heard us and ushered us inside.

The hosts arrived shortly thereafter and they were a spirited pair in their late 50s. Susan is Canadian and just recently settled in Cardenas with her Cuban husband Orlando. He was great fun - a former boxer who spoke a fair amount of English and loves to cook. A bonus for us. They are new to Airbnb and did their very best to make our stay special. Here's the link:

Special treatment for Valentine's Day!
When we initially booked this place we thought we were closer to Varadero, a very popular beach resort town, when in fact were at least a 20 minute taxi ride away. As it turned out however, the sleepy little town of Cardenas offered a “slice of Cuban life” experience we wouldn't have had otherwise.

I am captivated by wrought iron in any form! Here's a dazzling door on an otherwise bleak street.
We did spend a day in Varadero, and the beaches were beautiful, the hotels were glitzy, the restaurants were full and the streets were crowded with tourists. If you flew into Varadero, hopped on an air-conditioned coach to arrive at your all-inclusive beach resort, you might think Cuba is just another lovely Caribbean destination. I am glad we made ended up where we did.

For one thing, two blocks from our Airbnb a huge, dilapidated rum factory, that actually looked abandoned, wafted a sweet, “intoxicating” perfume over the neighborhood most afternoons.

Havana Club rum was cheap and plentiful. Unlike a lot of other sustanance!
The most common means of public transportation were horse drawn buggies. The most common place to take this form of transportation was to the main plaza, the only place in town where there was an Internet signal.

A horse named Uber!
Once again we found very little in the way of food supplies or other provisions. There was a Sunday market across from the church we attended where it seemed most everyone stocked up on produce and meat for the week. It was also the place to wear your Sunday best, drink rum in the shade and gossip with your neighbors. Without the Internet, this was where you got your news.

The Sunday market was a parking lot full of trucks with goods sold from the back
On other days, old men trudged along the streets in the early hours of the morning selling bread from push carts. Later in the day, younger men hawked onions and garlic and occasionally fresh fish. There was one grocery store for locals where they collected their weekly rations. The other store, where foreigners could shop, offered Coca Cola and Pringles (don’t ask me why, but those two American staples were everywhere in Cuba!), canned goods, rice, beans, beer, rum, and a small selection of tired fruit and vegetables. Dotted throughout town were kiosks made from old shipping containers. There you could peek past the counter where the owner served up sweets, toiletries, snacks, cigars and, of course, beer and rum.

Beer on tap at your table. A popular way to spend an afternoon.
Beer, rum and thankfully, ice cream could always be found.
Sadly, we had to say goodbye to Orlando and his backyard barbecue and head to our next destination. The historic town of Trinidad. We had heard great things about this UNESCO protected city. We boarded our comfortable bus and settled in for the four hour ride.

A mural in Trinidad that I captured just as a woman in tears walked by.
Our host had arranged for a taxi to meet us at the central bus station so thankfully we were able to avoid the pack of drivers swarming the bus looking for a fare. We piled into a rusty red taxi and with Elton John hits blaring in our ears we jostled our way out of town and down a country lane to the tiny beach town of La Boca.

Michael was anamoured with our taxi. Eventually he had to give it back.
Our lovely, very tiny host Kiwi and her mother.
There we were greeting by our host Kiwi, a petite woman with a great smile and excellent English, wish we came to appreciate. We were also welcomed by her mother, her cousin and my soon to be shadow, her five year old niece. Oh, and a dog, a cat, a parrot and about 40 chickens including a rooster, several hens and dozens of chicks who were "free range" to the point they could wander into your room if you didn't keep the door closed. Here's the link:

Just a few of the many, many chickens that ruled the roost at Casa Jardin.
After settling in, we knew we wouldn't be spending too much time in our room due to the glaring lights, Flamingo pink walls, and a bathroom without a door (that's twice so far) so we headed to the courtyard to read for a bit. It was at that moment we discovered we must have left Michael's Kindle on the bus! This was cause for complete panic because we were at the end of the earth in a small house with little to do beyond reading our backlog of books.

Kiwi jumped into action and called our taxi driver who was back in Trinidad. He rushed to the bus station and luckily, our bus was still there. He spoke to the driver and they searched the bus but couldn't find the Kindle. Kiwi said unfortunately in Cuba, if someone had found it - even if they weren't sure what it was, they would try to sell it for a few pesos. We decided not to give up and took so Kiwi called the driver and back and we raced into the city again to look for ourselves. It was a tense ride - Michael was as near to tears as I've seen him on the whole trip - especially since he was two-thirds through a great book and there would be no way to replace a Kindle until we were back in the states two weeks later.

Losing your Kindle was almost as bad as  losing your phone, wallet or passport!
Amazingly, our bus was still there but was it was loaded with passengers with the engine idling and ready for departure. The driver was not keen on having his bus rummaged through again - but we were determined. We searched our seats and the surrounding areas and questioned the passengers and the drivers. In the end, all we could do was file a useless Lost Property report. As I was working on that, Michael took one last look. I heard a whoop and looked up to see him salsa dancing with his kindle held high! Because it has a blue cover, and the bus seats were blue, no one saw that it had slipped sideways deep between our two seats. There is a God.

This was the part of the beach we could walk to from our Airbnb.
This was the part of the beach you could stretch out on just a short cab ride away.
Now that the Kindle drama was behind us we were ready to settle into Casa Jardin. We could in fact, walk to the beach from our casa. It wasn't at "the pretty end" but still, you could catch the sea air and there were a couple of restaurants, and although our room was a little scary, the courtyard was pleasant and the family was attentive but also discreet.

Aarne (with two A's) and Anita, our delightful Airbnb mates.
Things changed later in the day when a young couple from Los Angeles arrived - also booked for four nights in this quirky little house. We've always had an entire home to ourselves before coming to Cuba, and we were just getting used to living with hosts. Now we would be sharing the courtyard and having meals with strangers, and there really wasn't anywhere else to go since both of our rooms opened directly into the common space. We looked at each other warily and made our introductions. They went to their room - and just like us, made a quick exit. Their paint color was even more garish that ours! From that moment on we became friends and without their company, our stay in Trinidad would have been far less enjoyable.

This was one big delicious fish! It tasted better than it looks.
We had many things in common with Aarne and Anita, even with our 30 year age difference. We had some great home-cooked meals together in the evenings when Kiwi and her mom served whole grilled fish fresh from the neighbors boat, pumpkin soup, crisp salads, piles of fruit and homemade custards. Breakfasts were just as good. We taught them to play dominoes and we spend time together in Trinidad. Aarne is a senior producer for NBC News and had great stories about the on-air talent and interesting behind-the-scenes tales about news he's covered around the world. Anita works for a fast growing start-up that delivers organic groceries to your door.

Our stay with this family and with our new friends was a highlight of our Cuban adventure.
The other new love in my life was Kiwi's niece Zyolita. I must give off a certain "grandmotherly"vibe because I was on her radar from the minute we arrived. Although we couldn't communicate with words, we formed a great bond and spent time drawing together. I drew many Disney princesses for her to color and paint and left behind my watercolor set as a gift.

My new little friend Zyolita - a big fan of Disney Princesses!
Zyolita and her mother and I admiring her painting skills.
Between the menagerie, our new friends, a sweet little girl, sublime fish dinners, and the faded beauty of a grand city, our time in Trinidad was one of the highlights of our trip so far.

Everywhere I looked in Trinidad there was another stunning photo to be taken.
When we first arrived in Havana, I was overwhelmed by the poverty and the tragic state of the city. I said to Michael that I didn't think there was a magic wand big enough to solve their many problems and restore this beautiful country to it's former glory. But as we traveled deeper into the country, the magic did started to happen. And it is all about the people. They have a resilience that is humbling and seem happy to live one day at a time, shrugging off the hardship. They were friendly and open and were very keen to welcome American visitors. And the music seemed to never stop. Ten days to go... and the beat goes on.

Thanks for following along,

Debbie and Michael Campbell
The Senior Nomads


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  3. I was in Havana for a month in July 2015 and there were a handful of AIrbnb's for Americans only. Being a New Zealander I stayed at a casa particular with a local family. 30Cuc per night + 5 CUC for breakfast. Does that still exist?

  4. I was in Havana for a month in July 2015 and there were a handful of AIrbnb's for Americans only. Being a New Zealander I stayed at a casa particular with a local family. 30Cuc per night + 5 CUC for breakfast. Does that still exist?