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, a black lady, 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. 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.

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.

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.





Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Eastward from Matanzas

Our kind hostess in Mantanzas found us an adress to stay on our way to the southeast. It was only 44 kms, it was a finca (farm) called 'La Coincidencia'. And it was. A romantic place, where they have some cows and horses, grow their own vegetables etc. But the most important was the ceramics workshop. Tey make all kinds of pottery and huge vases, seem to give workshops for groups as well.
Our dinner and breakfast was all 'home grown' and delicious. We agreeably shared the table with a young cycling Canadian couple, coming from the very remote west coast near the Alaskan border. Of course we advised them to come cycling in Europe, and visit Breda. They promised us to do so :-)
From there it was a 76 kms ride to Playa Larga, the most northern beach in the Bay of Pigs. The ride was long and not interesting. Had some stops for fruit juice and chats with the locals.
Playa Larga is famous for the failed landing of the contra-revolutianaries in 1961 (supported by the US, under Kennedy). Memorials galore. Unless the 'help' of a jinetero (a hussler, in touristic places they are a nuisance) we found a very nice and clean casa particular. There are scores of them here, price mostly 25 CUC (=€).
Next stop was Playa Giròn, a short ride against the wind. A simple casa in a small, and boring sleeping wide spread settlement, with a museum of the invasion and a big hotel, which also was 'tote Hose'.
The day after brought us to Cienfuegos, 80 kms to the east. A busy and not unagreeable town, where we landed in a very beautiful casa particar with Victor and Elena, right in the historic centre. Like ourselves they are abuelo and abuela (grandpa and -ma), which caused a lot of sharing :-) We spent an extra day here.
Remarkable: there are ATM's here that allow creditcards to take out cash! Until now our information was that this is not possible in Cuba. We tried and it worked perfectly.
Next stop: Trinidad. A small, very historic and very touristic, town. It was founded not long after the discovery of the Americas and collected its wealth through the sugar trade. Now it's a Unesco-heritage settlement, with one storey houses along cobble-stone streets (impossible to ride a bike on). Here again we spent an extra day, just another couple among the thousands of tourists.

Note: using the internet remains extremely difficult.





Monday, January 23, 2017

Stormy winds

After perfect flights we landed in Havana a bit before scheduled. Our bikes came out quickly, boxes unharmed. Alsways a bit of a worry, so much depending on the condition of the bikes. Our man in Havana was waiting with a sign “Frons and Eveline”, so within the hour we were dropped off at a Casa Particular (the Cuban version of B&B). Surprise: not the one we had booked. But this seems to be normal practise in this country. Of course I disagreed and finally we agreed on a discount. In the end it appeared to be perfect, a spacious appartment (bicyles parked in the kitchen) in the very centre of the medieaval city centre. When we got out of the door we stepped right into colonial history. Old bronze guns used as poles to block the pedestrian area for traffic, very humouristic. Besides that the staff was sweet and helpful, breakfast copious and the bike boxes will be kept in a dry place for the return trip.
We spent two days in “La Habana Vieja”, walking the narrow and very (touristic) busy streets. Both museums for Bellas Artes (international and Cuban) are very worth while, took us hours and hours.

Then we left eastwards, first by ferry across the sheltered bay that made Havana such a safe port in the past full of pirates. Once on the other side we continued east, following the Via Blanca in a stormy wind that was now a headwind, then coming from besides and then in the rear. This day, 96 kms, was very long for a first day, with legs not yet used to the routine. We ended in a Casa Particular with food, beer, shower, good advice and a motorcycle hitch in order to buy an internet-ticket. And without the latter it would not be possible to post this blog.  

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Cuba

In a couple of days we will leave for Cuba. Our plan is to cycle more or less the whole island. This will take us about 7 weeks.
Now there are some things different on this island. Everybody knows that Cuba is one of the last 'communist' countries in the world. This, and the American blockade, have caused that the country has developed in a unique way, to say it positively. 
There are hardly any ATM's, debit- and credit cards are rarely accepted. 
Internet is hardly available. So blogging will be difficult and we're not sure if we will be able to post anything at all. Using email, WhatsApp or FB, same problem.
Another peculiarity: no GPS-devices are allowed. What might be the idea behind this??? In combination with the absence of internet this is a serious handicap for me though. I tend to use plotting sites on the web to prepare the route (including elevations etc.) for the next day, load it into my Garmin device and find my way everywhere. Especially the elevation, the meters we will have to climb, determines how hard a day's ride will be. Now we will have a map only, plus the advice of our hosts. 
But.... smartphones are allowed. And smartphones have gps and there are various navigation apps. So we will not be totally without the aid of modern techniques, I will only have to adapt to different, less complete, less familiar and less easy methods.
The people though seem to be joyful and friendly, and there's music on every corner. As an author states: Cuba is a marvellous shit-country. We will check all this and report when and where possible.
Our planned itinerary: