¡Cuba Libre!

Trip Start May 04, 2010
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Trip End Ongoing


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Where I stayed
Casa particular in La Habana, Trinidad & Vinales

Flag of Cuba  ,
Wednesday, November 17, 2010

From insights into the luxurious life lead by rich and famous yacht owners, to seeing the basic existence in Communist Cuba - what a contrast! And what an ironic place for me to rediscover and truly appreciate my freedom as a voluntarily unemployed person (yet again) when the Cuban people themselves are so trapped and bound to their own country and circumstances.

It took me a couple of days to adjust to the new environment around me; dirty streets, derelict buildings, crazy traffic, smog from vintage cars, the Cubano "pssssssst" street hassle, people begging for money and the frustration and loneliness that a language barrier entails, especially after having 11 people around me 24/7!

From speaking with other tourists, it seems that it's a common experience for Cuba to grow on visitors more and more every day. This was totally true in my case; the longer I stayed, the more I loved it and didn't want to leave. Still, the good times I had in Cuba can be attributed to the fantastic people I spent time with there. My CouchSurfing host, Raul, who found me a great place to stay in Havana with his neighbour, Sandra and her 2 girls, and who also took me out all over town during the week nights and weekends that I spent in Havana. With Raul I had my own private dance instructor, access to all the local bars, clubs and university parties, as well as insider information on anything I wanted to know about Cuba. In spite of Raul's excellent tuition, I would need a lot longer to be able to master the moves of a Cuban girl, am satisfied that I learnt enough to raise a few eyebrows back at home should any reggaeton music ever come on! Raul was so dedicated to his teaching that he even did a gender swap to demonstrate exactly how I should grind my bum against a guy's crotch when dancing this dirty style!

The other person who really made my stay in Cuba was Veronica, a Swiss girl that I randomly approached and befriended on the malecon (waterfront) on my second day in Havana when I was desperately seeking some English speaking company! Given the historical context of Cuba, it is not completely obvious who is local and who is foreign, but Veronica's sneakers were a dead give away! She was also travelling alone, so together we made a good pair.

I was completely unprepared arriving in Cuba with no guide book and lacking many other essential items such as sun cream (who on earth goes to the Caribbean without sun cream?!) and pocket tissues (which saw me shamefully begin to steal toilet paper from those hotels that offered it in their restrooms). As such, I didn't really have any idea about how I was going to spend my 2 weeks in Cuba, so when Veronica mentioned that she was going to head down to Trinidad, a small town on the south side of the island, I thought that I might as well follow her down there! That turned out to be a great move because Trinidad was my favourite place in Cuba - green countryside, mountains, beach, historic town, great nightlife/ salsa scene and very friendly people that didn't yell out "pssst", "pssst" to you every time you walked past on your own!

Cubans have "friends" everywhere, so Sandra in Havana organised a house for me in Trinidad and the landlady was waiting for at the bus stop on my arrival 7 hours later. I was pleasantly surprised to be led into a very spacious and nicely decorated house with my own independent room, bathroom and terrace upstairs with fabulous views over the town and out to the Escambray mountains. My stay at Rosa's house was made even more enjoyable by the company of a nice Israeli couple over meal times. These people accosted me in the street on my first orientation walk around Trinidad asking whether I spoke English and whether I could recommend any decent accommodation. Rosa was very happy with me for bringing in business so soon after arriving!

The next day in Trinidad I had organised to meet Veronica at the bus stop at 10am. When 10.30am rolled past, I realised that we must have been waiting at different bus stops so started to make my way down to the other end of town. Just as I thought that we'd missed each other and that I would be spending the day alone, we ran into each other on the street. Perfect! So off we went together walking the old town in the morning, eating food off the street in the main square for lunch and then hopped on the overland "train" for an afternoon at the beach. It was extremely slow and could have caused permanent back damage, but cost $2 return and saw us meet a nice Brazilian guy that also joined us for the rest of the day.

After telling Rosa that I had come to Cuba to dance salsa, she promptly organised one of her "friends" to come to the house to teach me some salsa. When I got back from the beach to see who was sitting in the lounge room waiting for me I nearly died! I had been drawn out by the sound of salsa music the night before following the music all the way to the Casa de la Musica (House of Music). He was the salsa instructor there and said to be one of the best dancers in Cuba (best salsa dancer in Havana 3 times running I later found out). The dude could move and I was so nervous! So there I was, up on my private terrace in the balmy night air under a full moon dancing salsa with one of the best dancers in the country! I didn't think it was going to get much better than that, but the next night saw us out dancing in a cave-come-nightclub until the early hours of the morning! Salsa, salsa, salsa, bachata, salsa, cha-cha, salsa, merengue, salsa, electro, salsa...and a bit of reggaeton for good measure just because the Cubans don't consider it a good night out without a bit of bump and grind!

After a couple of hours sleep I found myself on an 8 hour bus trip to Viņales, a town west of Havana, renowned for its situation in a beautiful valley. Everyone I had talked to had raved about Viņales so I was determined to fit it in before leaving Cuba. It only took me 20 minutes on the bus heading out of Trinidad to realise that I had made a mistake! The bus driver must have thought I was an absolute mad woman when I asked him to stop the bus and let me off in the middle of nowhere. I let him convince me to continue onto Viņales, but when I arrived to confront visa  issues, I wished that I'd thrown myself out of the bus! Sandra in Havana had kept my visa card for safekeeping, and the house I'd organised in Viņales wouldn't accept me without it, so I got carted off down some back streets to a house where no visa was no problems! 

The next morning my mood spiraled downwards further when the English speaking guide that had been organised to take me through the valley didn't speak any English and want to charge me some ridiculous amount of money to take me. At this point I really didn't care if I saw the valley or not so I dug my heels in until they organised someone who could explain at least a few things to me in English about the local area and until settling on a drastically reduced the going rate. I felt like a complete spoilt brat, but I’d been ripped off by locals previously in Havana and wasn’t having it again! As nice as the locals are in Cuba, they are out to exploit tourists as much as possible, and when you see how they live, you can’t blame them really!

In spite of the initial dramas, my morning in Viņales turned out to be very pleasant horse riding through the valley, exploring some natural caves, drinking mojitos and playing cards at my tour guide's family house. The afternoon was completely random. On the way to a salsa class, again with a "friend" of the lady I was staying with, I was introduced to another "friend" who did massage...so of course, just like that, I was booked in for a massage. When I went back there after salsa and mentioned that I had just had a salsa class, the mother of the house demanded for her son to put on some salsa music so I could show them what I had. So there I was in the middle of some random family lounge room dancing salsa with my masseuse! Even if the massage was a complete rip off, I had my date sorted for the Casa de la Musica that night ;-)

After 2 nights in Viņales, I returned back to Havana to find my double room occupied by 2 giants from Iceland, the owner's room rearranged with a single bed for me and her bed relocated to the kitchen! Oh god - flashbacks of our rigmarole with accommodation in San Sebastian haunted me. Still, at least I didn't have a repeat experience of going to the bathroom in the middle of the night to find some guy sprawled out sleeping in the hallway in his jocks...and only his jocks. It's all relative! "Esta bien!" I told an anxious Sandra, "it's fine!"

During my last 2 days in Havana, I was in a state of absolute confusion after receiving a surprise email asking if I would return to the yacht for 2 months relief work. After much internal debate, I decided to continue with the plans I'd already made to meet and travel with a good friend through some of SEA and Australia by 4WD before returning home to Busselton late March for a number of close friends' weddings - special events that I didn’t want to miss. While I haven’t really been on my own over this whole 7 months away thus far, it is going to be a new chapter travelling with a companion, but one which I'm really looking forward to. See you in Manila Noam!
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