Off to the Oriente!
Trip Start Mar 01, 2006
551Trip End Dec 01, 2007
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The usual deal: get a tourist bus ticket, way more expensive than for the locals, but after that all good. Eating the road, stopping in major cities bus terminals to get access to toilets and a bit of food, the both of us with a funny belly. After a full day in the bus, we arrived in Camaguey after dark. Somehow we boarded a car with two guys inside, pretending to be a taxi, instead of taking a horse cart.
They took us to a house, a casa particular. Too expensive, and I was pleased to see that Sheena was just as stubborn as me on that point. The drivers offered to take us some place else, but we refused, having a fair idea of what was going on.Confirmation came minutes later when the guy from the casa followed us in the street to explain us that he had to give 5usd a night to the drivers for having taken us to his place. That is the way it is, absolutely non-negotiable, they don't even have to talk about it: 5 usd per night, as long as we stay, that is what any Cuban gets for taking a tourist to a casa. Needless to say, these 5usd are added to the price of your room. It works similarly for restaurants.
It goes even further. There we were walking in the dark streets of Camaguey, with my backpack and Sheena's suitcase (!): there was a power outage. We were randomly considering some casa particular, which are recognizable by a sign on their door. As we were going to try one out, and were looking for the bell, an opportunistic little guy literally jumped in and rang the bell for us. We had to leave, knowing that there was no way the casa owner could refuse the 5usd to the guy.
A very friendly casa owner made phone calls to other casas, looking for cheap ones, and directed us to a few blocks away, outside the city center. The casa owners there had proposed to come and get us, but we had said that we would manage on our own.
Casa owners send clients to each others free of charge (ie without the 5usd). Of course it is meant to be reciprocal, and no breach should be discovered in that code of conduct. We were to explore that code a little further...
We got a bit lost in the streets of Camaguey. Where most Cuban (and Latin-American) cities are designed on a grid, Camaguey is a charming maze of turning and winding streets, designed to help resist pirates attacks. The city was moved and rebuilt several times after many a successful looting.
So there we were, not too sure about where to go, and we were going to ask for directions. Not to anyone, of course, as that could have incurred the 5usd invisible fee. So, very naturally, we asked at another casa, where our recommended casa was. Actually that was the start of it: instead of asking where casa something was, I just asked for a casa, to see what they could offer. Everything normal up to there. The lady was fully booked, but proposed to take us to her cousin. She walked us there, of course, in order not to loose us clients. And anyway because Cubans are nice. Up to there, everything normal.
Then comes that boy on a bike. He says he's from casa something (the one we were recommended in the first place), and that we are expected there. Very rightfully, the lady says she knows nothing of that, and we start explaining that we had been given the name of casa something, but never reserved anything there. A dark look from the boy, and he goes away.
By the time we had got to our casa, the owner of casa something, alerted by his son on the bike, was right behind us, and started a drama. We were not involved, of course: the matter was that we were supposed to go to casa something, and that lady took us somewhere instead. Big big big problem. Shouting and everything. A BREACH in the code of conduct! Not explicitly said, of course. At that hot point we got involved and explained the guy that we had not told the lady that we had considered going to casa something, so she had nothing to do with it. Ok he says, but now that she knows that we were supposed to go there, she has to send us there. Not even "let" us go there, no: "SEND" us there. Gosh. There we explained him that it was our decision to stay there, and final. Such a baaaaad look at our casa owner. And she did not look comfortable. We talked a bit, at first she would not explain what the problem was, but as she saw that we had some extent of understanding of it, she confirmed our interpretation of the facts. It was indeed true that she was going to get a very bad reputation among casa owners, which is bad for business, as it would enter the unsaid code of conduct that nobody should send her clients...
So after dropping our bags, we offered to go to the other casa to talk more and try calm things down. That worked quite well, as Cubans are very educated and therefore reasonable people, and talking always gets problems a mutual understanding, if not a solution.
I am describing all this very informatively, but I can tell you the heat was raising up at times.
Back "home", we finally unpacked our stuff and got out. Finding food in Cuba was relatively easy, compared to the misery that travelers had experienced at other (very recent) times. But finding vegetarian food in Cuba is a nightmare. That got us a lot of walking and talking with people though.
We ended up in the casa de la trova, the local public cultural center. Tables, drinks, a band playing of course, people dancing depending on the music. An old westerner with a disgusted teenage Cuban, she was downing her drinks to try get used to the idea. Well, just like anywhere else really.
It's funny how you have to take care about not letting people do too much for you, as they might expect something in return. Of course you don't want to miss out on someone nice just because of mistrust. Almost every Cuban was very very nice, friendly, talkative. In the end, most Cubans were expecting something. A few were not. Anyway, once you understand they play the game between themselves too, you let go and enjoy the moments there are to be shared. And just stop it when it needs be. Usually that left friendliness and the satisfaction of the encounter on both sides. Sometimes it went a bit ugly.