Monday, February 27, 2017

Impressions

Trends are world wide.
We already noticed elsewhere in the world that the trends concerning fashion, music, outer appearance are world wide, independent of the local culture. Globalisation seems to be complete in this field. Also in Cuba, where there is such difficult acces to the internet and where tv-sdtations are government controlled, youngsters wear the same t-shirts and shorts as they do in Europe or Asia. Boys have this modern haircut, the sides of their heads shaved almost bald and a well cured haircut on the top of the skull. Girls (and women) prefer low cut very tight shirts and leggings or shorts. Not even a year ago we cycled in Iran, the contrast couldn't be bigger.
Cubans love music, and you will not easily find a spot where you don't hear a blaring loudspeaker. In Havana and east we mainly heard the typical Cuban music. Here we see boys walking around with getto blasters playing the music that young people seem to love everywhere, house or trash or whatever it may be called. Even from restaurants and bars the beat of the drums and the endless repeating tones attack your ears.

Alcohol.
Cubans love to drink. Beer is a favourite, but it surely must be mentioned that, not surprisingly for a big sugar producing country, rum is very popular. On Sundays you can see groups of men sitting around with many bottles of rum, drinking directly from the bottle. We learned to appreciate some cocktails here. You cannot be here without having been presented with a mojito. Especially this one, rum, lemon, fresh mint leaves, water and ice cubes 'me gusta mucho'.
Pffff, thes Mojito's are really big, and in unusually big jars.
In shops a can of beer is about the same price as in the Netherlands, in bars etc. they do up to 2 CUC. Too much for most Cubans. A full bottle of rum only costs 4 or 5 CUC. Not a very difficult choice for a Cuban working man, whose regular earnings are said to be 20 to 80 CUC a month.

Cuba can be very noisy. If there is no music, there is the traffic. Most cars, trucks and the many soviet tractors are old or very, very old. With old and very old engines. Most of them diesels. Also the numerous American cars from the fifties appear to have replaced their original petrol engines for diesels. So a passing vehicle mostly make you stop your conversation for a moment, as well as hold your breath to prevent your lungs from being blackened.
Modern touring cars are Chinese and they do not differ from ours. Buses for local transport or again very old and have the same qualities as mentioned before. It is sad to see that most of inter local public transport is done on trucks that have been built up for human transport. In Europe I'm not sure if it would be allowed to transport animals this way.
Buses
Rocking chairs.
There is no Cuban house without rocking chairs, as there is no veranda here without a matching pair of those neatly standing next to each other. Many houses are without paint and look ramshackle, but we were pleased to see a trend: when house owners are wealthy enough to take good care of their dwellings, they beautifully paint the walls of their house in mostly a combination of two, a main colour and a contrasting one. And then the colours of the two rocking chairs match with the contrasting one. Very beautiful and thoughtful indeed.


Lobster
Lobster is a delicasy that we seldom eat. Not here. Though it's the most expensive dish, you can have it here for 12 to 15 CUC (=€) for one dish. Not bad. We have become experienced lobster eaters by now.

Shops

For their daily needs the Cubans depend on the tiendas (shops). How they manage to get their things in the house I don't know, because often when we look into a shop we mainly see empty shelves. And then, we were told, it is much better than some years ago. The system is as I remember from my early chilhood, you stand and wait for your turn at the counter and the emplyee gets for you what you ask for. If in stock, of course! At such moments I feel sorry for the people here.

Viñales, a tourist shake out

Vinñales is one of Cuba's touristic hot spots. The reason must be found in the fact that it is situated in a valley between those typical steep and high karst formations. Beautiful scenery indeed, only not visible from anywhere in the village. The village is completely dedicated to tourism, with lots of casas particulares, bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and a real tourist market where you can buy the rubbish that are for sale all over the world. But, it must be said, a nice atmosphere and the restaurants serve good meals for normal prices.
For the tourist though the question is: now we are here, what are we going to do. We chose for a '4-hour private guided walk in the national park, including an excursion to a tabacco farm, a coffee farm and a cave”. Well, the guide hardly spoke at all, let alone English, we were with four, so not private, though the other couple were nice people. The explanation about the tabacco and cigar making was ok, the coffee part was pure fake. There was exactly one coffee bush, some beans drying and we could have a cold cup of coffee for an extra 2 CUCs a cup (thieves!, along the streets you buy better ones for precisely 50 times less) and on top of that, the guide at the coffee place was an arrogant, annoyed and impolite girl, whose English we could not understand and who was totally unfit for the job. Then there was the cave, which was a real cave indeed, and in the end we could hand over 20 CUCs a person. Mind, 80 CUC's for our little group in exchange of something that was bullshit for a great part. Even bigger thieves. (To compare: a good room in a casa particular is average 25 CUCs).

So, if you intend to visit this interesting country and you consider to visit Viñales, think why and what before you go. There are far more beautiful karst mountains elsewhere in the world.  

West

Things went well in Santiago. Eveline's eye appeared to react immediately to the drops. She has used them for almost ten days now and the problem seems to be solved. She'll will have it checked again at home.
Also our visa were extended. Not without some complications though. When we showed up in the office there were many people waiting, most likely it would take us a couple of hours. Then a Dutchman who lives in Cuba told us that we should have a certain kind of stamps, without which we would not get our extensions. To be bought at certain banks. So back to the the city centre again, partly walking, partly using a taxi. We had a taxi, based on the Willy's jeep, built in 1942! Bought the stamps and returned in the office some 90 minutes later. Just in time, it was our turn, the kind Dutchman had kept our places. Then the lady said we were 2 days too early for the extension. To which I explained that we are cyclists and we would not be sure when we would arrive in another town where there was a visa-office. When she saw all the business cards of the casa particulares where we had stayed she was ready to beleive us and the extensions were written and stamped. This visa is on a separate inlay in the passport, so that no other country (= the US) will be able to see that we have visited Cuba.

Spent another day in Santiago and left on a Viazul bus. We had a relatively comfortable 16-hour ride and arrived in Havana at 07.00 in the morning. We immediately set off and arrived in Cabañas, 75 kms to the west, in the afternoon. A nice finca-like casa. Here we met two other cyclists, Johann, our age, from Switzerland, for the third time in Cuba (why???) and Anders, 33, from Denmark who we would meet a couple of times again in the following days. A nice young man who, like us, had cycled in many other countries before. He was riding on a over-40-year-old ramshackle bike which he already had sold to a guy from Trinidad, a week or so ago. And to his and our astonishment this man really showed up in Viñales to pick it up, and pay the agreed 50 CUC!! The guy had travelled hundreds of kilometers to get this wreck, that had a broken derailer, no mudguards or anything. We shared Anders' commercial succes with some cold beers on a terrace in Viñales.

From Viñales we made a detour via Pinar del Rio to Guane and back. Beautiful scenic roads. In Guane there were supposed to be accommodations, but the only ones that we could find – not easily – were rooms to be let by the hour. The third place that we tried looked reasonable and the lady understood our needs: a room for the night, dinner, breakfast and some cold beers. She was kind, delivered and we were satified.

Now we are in San Diego de los Baños, a village where there are thermal baths. We are staying in an old casa particular, owned by an old couple. The room is basic but good, the bathroom dito, and we are sitting on the veranda in the garden, reading, sipping our drinks and taking it easy. By the end of this week we'll arrive back in Havana and finish this Cuba tour.



Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A day in the hospital

Eveline's eye was so painful that she couldn't sleep, she couldn't stand the daylight and felt really bad. So right after breakfast we set off to the international clinic. Not very far, we walked about 30 minutes and got there by 09.30. A small building where we were told to wait. Which lasted 2 hours. Then we were seen by a doctor, who arranged an ambulance to bring us to the university hospital, as she didn't have the right instruments to diagnose Eveline's eye-problem. Again more than one hour waiting. Then a 5 minutes ride to the hospital, walking dark and low corridors back and forth, visiting the facturation office, a cabin with two lazy-looking girls, and then there was the eyes-department. We were received by a nice doctor who had the instruments and who quickly saw what was wrong, a corneal micro ulcer. A little sore in the middle of the eye, which with no treatment could become very dangerous. 
The eye doctor
 She prescribed 3 kinds of eye drops. Again it lasted some hours before we had the drops and paid the hospital (all in all just over 50€). Very soon after having administered the first set of drops Eveline felt a lot better. She will not stay in bed for two days as the doctor advised, but she will wear sunglasses all the time and by a hat or cap to shield her eyes from the sun. The good thing is that she is walking straight up again and that she has regained her energy.

Taxi, built in 1942,
Considering everything we decided to stay an extra day here. Returning from the hospital we called on the bus terminal and booked our 16-hour bus trip back to Havana on Thursday. So we will have ample time to extend our visas and see some museums and roam through the centre of the city, a colonial gem, with large colourfull buildings like hotels, cathedral, townhall, music bars and restaurants. And the Parque Cespedes for lingering on a bench and the internet of course.
Casa de la Trova, a famous music bar.

Reaching Santiago from the west via the coast

You can travel to Santiago de Cuba from the west via a coastal road of about 200 kms. It's a remote part of the country, the road is a thin line between the Sierra Maestra and the Caribean sea. This region is called Granma, after the name of the boat in which Fidel and his companions landed on this coast and these are the mountains in which he stayed for nearly 2 years and formed his rebel army.
Road is an eufemism here. The rocks often fall steep into the sea, leaving just a narrow space for the road, the surf beating it on the other side. As there live very few people here, road maintainance apparently has no high priority (as in many other parts of the country). Then the hurricanes that every now and then hit this coast make roadbuilding here a hopeless case. After each hurricane some parts appear to have completely gone.
That is what we found when we traveled here. We had the loveliest weather, no wind and not too hot. There were parts where cycling was hardly possible and sometimes we felt the spray from the surf. We enjoyed every bit of it, just us, the mountain sides and the sea. It made a memorable day.

We cycled three days along this coast line before we reached Santiago de Cuba. Again the typical Caribean city, one-storey houses in square blocks and narrow one-way streets. But in the centre, where we are staying with a lovely elderly couple, there are enormous colonial buildings. Obviously it's the second largest city of Cuba. We'll stay a couple of days to see the sites, to extend our visa and to pay a visit to the international clinic, as Eveline has had a problem with a very painful eye for a the last week.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Do Cubans have two faces?

In our preparation of this trip we of course did some reading. After the invasion by the contra-rebels in the Bay of Pigs (1961) there was the definite breach with the US and Fidel's creed: Socialism or death. The US reacted with a total blocade of the country and Cuba could not but find refuge under the wings of the USSR. Which ended abruptly in 1991, causing Cuba's economic system falling to pieces.
Now average wages vary between 20 and 80 CUC (equals €) a month. This is too little to live on, so everyone tries to make money outside the system. (estimated 80% of economic activities). Cycling through the land we, apart from much public transport, we don't see a lot of economic activity (=people at work).
This makes that we (or anyone?) can't grasp how everything really works. In the book Cuba Conga by a Dutch author who spent most of the last 20 years in Cuba it is said that 50% (some say 70%) of what Cubans say is just not true. So you never know what is really going on. Cubans know that their wages are very low and as a consequence many of them will mainly see tourists as walking money bags (which can be taken literary), from which you'd better take as much as you can. In some cases you feel this as a reality. Prices for museum tickets can be 20 times as expensive for tourists as for Cubans. Then there are restaurants/bars that have two price tables. They will show the tourist the CUC-one, which is five or more times more expensive than the one in CUP (the cuban peso or 'moneda national'). The Dutch author warns that they may try to squeeze you out, as you are the ignorant wealthy westerner (yuma) who doesn't understand how things really work here. In spite of his warning it happened to me once. I had two consumptions in a 'moneda national' place and they charged me CUC's. I was too flabbergasted to react correctly (=refuse to pay this amount). I'm still angry with myself and I promised myself that next time it will not happen again. But....... until now there hasn't been a next time. I even laid down a bit my alertness, since we have been treated kindly and with no harrasment all the time. As to the 'jineteros', those annoying persons clinging to you and trying to bring you to a guesthouse, restaurant or anything, they are not that omni-present. And where they are I easily get rid of them, either politely or impolitely.
All in all I came here a little harnassed, but after 3 weeks now I'm much more relaxed in this matter. The following paragraph will support this looser attitude.

When we arrived in Manzanillo, a non-descript coastal town, we stopped at a nice looking casa particular. Disappointment; full, which is bad news for tired cyclists. But no worries, the guy started making phone calls. Here the 'jinetero-mechanism' could start up, with commissions to be paid in the end!. We heard him speak and understood even before he told us, most of the casas were booked. But after some time he took us (on his bike) to one that had a vacancy. A good looking one, normal price, CasaLa Chichi and el Wilfre. Before returning to his own casa he asked where we were going the next day and we told him that we intended to go to Niquero or, closer, to Media Luna, but that we didn't know if there was accommodation there. Well, he said he knew, told us exactly where it was, and that he would call and left. The day after we arrived in a nice casa in Media Luna and we were welcomed with “Hi Frans” (I didn't even remember if I told the guy my name!). And a nice casa, Pedro en Tamara's, normal price, so no extra charge for commission or anything. Tamara booked the next casa on the very lonely coast at Marea del Portillo for us, next to the extensive and delicious dinner and breakfast that she made.
Isabel, the landlady of the casa where we did stay in Manzanillo is a XXL-lady of 47 and as lovely as her size. For dinner she served rez (beef), and not just a small piece. Now it's prohibited to slaughter beef in Cuba, penalty 30 years in prison she said. But 'Cubans are intelligent etc.....' so we filled our little stomachs to the rim.
Breakfasts are extensive here, lots of fruit, a big jug of fresh fruit juice/smoothie, ham, cheese, butter, marmalade, honey, two fried eggs, coffee. We tend to fill one waterbottle with what remains of the fruitjuice for the road, and we will always take some bread, cheese and ham too. When Isabel saw me doing that, she took the bottle away and brought it back, filled to the top with the delicious smoothie. She brought plastic foil as well to wrap the sandwiches in. Then she gave us two handwritten names and adresses of casas particulares for the next days, of which we – as I told before – had no information if and where there were any.
This kindness is not standing on its own. Alertness is good and always necessary, but our experiences until now are more positive than anticipated. In a couple of days we'll arrive in Santiago de Cuba, a touristic hotspot. See if there are many money bag shakers around there.




Sunday, February 5, 2017

Waiting and other impressions

Cubans spend a lot of time waiting.
As we are cycling along the carrateras, at every crossroads and in every village scores of people stand waiting for a bus or any other means of transport. This silent, expressionless waiting makes me sad and feel pity for them. I can't help seeing myself standing like this, endlessly, bored, depressing. Why are these people here, where do they want to go and why?
Then they stand in lines for shops. In the bigger shops (don't imagine more than 100m2 ) there is a staff member letting in just 1 or 2 persons a a time. People just stand in line. When they arrive at the line they will ask who is 'ultimo', so that they can even stand or sit somewhere aside and spend their waiting time there.
In every public building or office building the one thing you see when you look inside is a small desk with, you already guessed, a waiting person. Waiting for someone to come in or not, just waiting. These persons have this special look that you get when your days exist of waiting for nothing to happen.
In parks and on squares there's wifi. With a tarjeta (card) from the provider Etecsa you can log in. But, to buy such a card you have to stand in line for the Etecsa shop and wait. And trying to get connection with the wifi results is often very long waiting untill you get the connection. Then the hope is that logging in will succeed. If not, well, just wait for the next trial.
As the information in all tourist guidebooks tell you that ATM's (cash-dispensers) in Cuba don't work with western credit- or debet cards, tourists carry all the money that they think they will spend during their stay in Cuba with them, plus an extra amount for emergencies of course. Imagine all that cash walking around in tourist areas. Now you have to change this money into Cuban convertibles (CUC). You can do this at a Casa di Cambio (Cadeca). And stand in line and wait till the door-person will allow you in and you will notice that the employees in some of the booths are working, some just chatting with each other.
It was a surprise to notice that in all reasonably sized places there are ATM's accepting creditcards and even Maestro. I tried one and it worked!

In Cuba dogs don't chase passing cyclists. This is a great convenience. They just let you pass, sometimes they keep an eye on you, sometimes they just don't pay any attention. The worst country in this respect was, as far as our experience can tell, China. There dogs will really try to bite you in the leg. Or your pannier. Remarkable was, that as soon as we passed the border from China into Laos it was over. Dogs just watched and ignored you. My conclusion is that dogs reflect the human culture in which they are kept.
Now think of Holland and how dogs behave. Might give you something to ponder upon.

Coffee in Cuba is extremely good. In cafetarias they will serve you a very small cup, size Italian espresso, of very sweet and very tasty coffee for the amount of 1 Cuban peso (CUP). That is the national money for the Cubans themselves, not the convertibal currency for the tourists and for international products, which is CUC (1CUC=25CUP=app.1€). 1 CUP= €0.04.
In the same places you buy a hamburger (a simple version) or a roll with fried egg for 5 CUP, a pizza (not the Italian taste) for 10CUP. So very cheap.

We have visited a number of historic cities now. Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Sancti Siritus, Camaguëy. We noticed that most historic buildings, and there are very many, are in relative good shape. In other words, the city centres are not in the delapidated condition that we expected. Our hopes are that the system will allow more economic chances to continue and improve this important work.
The casas particulares where we stay very often are in historic colonial houses, with high ceilinged roofs and high doors, collumns and patios. Often very nice places to spend time.