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.
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