This trip to Cuba is only logged for archival purposes. I’m basically blogging about what happened as opposed to providing a route guide. It is possible to cycle tour in Cuba, however for simplicity’s sake, and because I would be traveling with friends, I left my bicycle in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. In the upcoming lines, I’ll try to paint a picture of Cuba in 1998.
Today we awoke to a hot room – it is much warmer in Havana than Isla Mujeres in Mexico. Took a cab to the University for $4US which according to a “rasta man” that we met, should have been only $2. Then we went to a celebration for the 70th birthday of Che! Understanding very little of the presentation piqued my desire to learn Spanish. We listened to the music for Che, and then walked down Ave. Neptuno towards Ciudad Vieja. We met some people who were very nice and wanted to take us into their shop for paper. They made Miguel a stamp with his name. We pent time with some people at a juice stand. They also wanted to exchange addresses. We got some Cuban pesos (18:1 exchange rate on the street; 20:1 elsewhere). There are 3 currencies in Cuba: the US dollar, Pesos, and “equivalents,” which are equal to $1US. We met a guy who wanted to talk about Fidel… he said that Fidel wants to be capitalist, but he must maintain his communist image. We got a cab and went to the hotel after some more lengthy conversations with other people. Many people we met seemed to be political and well educated. The taxi driver told us he makes $15 per month as a teacher in escuela secondaria, and $200 per month as a taxi driver! He likes being a teacher, but he wants to move to Argentina with his brother.
Today we headed for Trinidad. We got a “secret” taxi and headed out. The man first took us to his house where we met his wife. Then, we headed on the road and got a flat tire after 3 1/2 hours. The tire was quickly changed, and we paid $180 for the round trip (that’s $45 per person). It was quite a ride in this old jalopy! The scenery was monotone, but there was diversity in the people. People don’t smile much in the street, but once you begin to talk to them, they befriend you instantly with a smile. Certainly knowing the language is quite important. The police will catch private taxis if they are transporting tourists. For this reason, we had to be careful and prepare a plan. There are police at checkpoints.
Last night was spent in a splendid home. The outside looked bad, but the inside was spectacular. This is a strange concept, perhaps – Outward appearances are not a big thing here, as they are at home. Somewhat to my surprise, the people we stayed with did not have basic necessities – like food! Anther experience I had was with the shower head instant water heaters. As I was using the shower, when I touched the metal handle to shut off the water, a strong pulse of electricity went through my body. The world got dark/bright/dark/bright several times before I could make the difficult effort of releasing my hand from the knob. The people who live here surely must have been shocked like this before. It kind of hurt, but was a major relief when it was over: as if I had just finished a very hard workout.
We see Che Guevara’s image all over the place – on T-shirts, and murals. We explored Trinidad, and took a horse and carriage ride. People don’t seem excessively happy or sad – but many seem bored. Many people like to come talk to us. Our taxi too us back to Havana.
May 3, 1998 – Cuba Day 5
Today we woke in Hotel Bruzon. Tom had taken some film to be developed, and we went to pick it up… but the place was closed. Tom really wanted to get these pictures! As we were leaving, there were some issues with the visa expiration date. I changed mine in pen, but the others in my group paid a steep fee to extend their visas. When you go to board the airplane, you are taken into a tiny room – all by yourself. Behind you is a wall of mirrors. In front of you is a person behind thick glass. This person asked me a long round of questions. The plane was already late to leave because of all the people before me getting this one-on-one interrogation. During my time in the interrogation room, I was asked for a bribe. This went on for several minutes, but I continued to refuse. I was locked in this room on either side, and the man was intimidating – standing higher than me inside his booth. I held my ground for an eternity. The flight attendant knocked on the other side of the door, and the interrogator hit an electronic buzzer to admit her into the room. She rapidly told him that the plane was late and waiting! He waved her off, and the door locked again behind her. He continued to ask me for money, but I continued to refuse. Finally, he stamped my passport and let me go. When I got onto the shuttle bus that takes you to the tarmac, I discovered that all 3 of my friends had been relieved of hundreds by this guy!