Sunday, March 26, 2017

Back home

As I mentioned before Viñales, though the village was quite convivial, was a bit of a dissappointment. After Viñales we rode further west and then turned back eastward, direction Havana. These were nice cycling days. 
Beautiful countryside and dito casas particulares, especially in San Diego de los Baños and Soroa. 
On March 4th we arrived back in Casa Aléman, our Havana home. We were welcomed with a hug by Yo, the housekeeper and got an even nicer appartment than the one nextdoor, that we had on our first arrival in Cuba. We spent the next two days packing, the bike boxes were still there, a visit to the museums of the Revolution and of Ron (rum), some beers and mojito's on Plaza Vieja and nice dinners in the old city centre.
Our flights home, via Madrid, went well (though they charged us USD 110 extra for the bikes) and now we're back in the usual routine. Which, no worries, is not bad at all.  

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Rectification


Cycling in a foreign country makes me aware of the differences in culture, politics and economics in the world. As a matter of fact, it is the only reason why I have always wanted to travel. Rather than base my opinions on the media in my own country I have always felt the need to go and see myself. This made me travel into the communist European countries – behind the iron curtain, which was not easy – in the seventies (seems ages ago now) and to so many other parts of the world. I wanted to see and experience how culture and systems (governments) shape societies and determine the lives of their citizens.
So I did in Cuba. To tell the truth, I loathed the Cuban goverment many times for the results of their policies for the Cubans. Many times I felt pity for the Cubans, for their poverty, for the empty shops, for their waiting, endless waiting.
My mistake is that I compare it to the Netherlands. I know that my country is one the most organised, reliable, free and prosperous countries in the world. So this comparison is unfair.
What I ought to do is compare Cuba with the countries in the region. And then the result is opposite. Haïti, the closest neighbour, is the poorest country in the world. Then there are Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Venezuela, Brasil (a Brasilian couple made this clear to us), countries where there are many homeless people, where crime and corruption are horrandous. The Cubans are a merry and friendly people, all of them have access to education and health care, they are well fed and the middle class is growing. In this comparison Cuba earns the best marks, thumbs up and great compliments, despite the fact that it is no democracy and that the US-bloccade has still not entirely been lifted.

My apologies.

The (too many :-)) photos are now to be seen. Click on the link in the right column.

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-stations 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 a mojito. Especially this one, rum, lemon, fresh mint leaves, water and ice cubes 'me gusta mucho'.
Pffff, thes Mojito's are really big.
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 in order 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 said 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 a main colour and a contrasting one. And then the colours of the two rocking chairs mostly match with the contrasting one. Very beautiful and tasteful 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 reminds me of my early childhood; you stand and wait for your turn at the counter and the employee 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.