Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Cuba and the Revolution

28 December 2004
The first day in socialist paradise. Today I walked a lot! The joker at the casa particular told me, "one hour walk to the centre, maybe an hour and fifteen taking photos." I did take the scenic route along the Malecón. It's quieter than I expected, and quite run down. I finally made it to Old Havana which is a nicer area. The city is full of clapped out old Mustangs and Chevrolets, and of course the ubiquitous Lada, the most obvious sign on the ground of the old Soviet alliance. Most of these cars are ancient and it seems that I passed a broken down banger every ten minutes. I've already encountered Cuba's famous Jineteros*. There are lots of them trying to get you to buy stuff for them, or from them. They seem to think all tourists are rich and I suppose compared to them we are. The family seem friendly enough here, but the place is too far out. The guy told me he was in Ireland years ago. In the good old days there were many flights between Cuba and Mother Russia and they often had stop-overs in Shannon. Now that the USSR has fallen to capitalism, the route has been discontinued.
*literally jockeys, because they ride the tourists.

30 December
I went to the Museum of the Revolution, it was great. A lot of propaganda as you would expect. Unfortunately the Granma (the boat in which the revolutionaries sailed from to Mexico to Cuba) was so well protected behind metal grills that you could hardly see it. I walked again, this time through the centre so there wasn't much time for anything else. Same old story with the Jineteros.
"Cigar amigo?"
"My brother works for the cigar factory, good price”.

By the way it's a myth that Cuban cigars are rolled on the thighs of dusky maidens.
One of my aims on this trip was to hear Fidel's New Year's speech, but I hear now that it's not always in Havana, so I'll just head on to Trinidad as I've seen enough here. One of the girls from Spanish class asked me to bring some gifts to a friend in Old Havana. The son-in-law (I think) drove me home afterwards. He told me proudly about his North Korean car and how it had never broken down in the three years he had owned it. At the traffic lights someone rear-ended us.

31 December
New Years Eve in Trinidad, a small town on the coast. It was a good night - one of the neighbours cooked a pig over the spit and then brought it to the house where I'm staying. It was served with the usual rice and plantains. This place is pricey at about $30 per night. I'm not sure I completely trust the people in these houses, the prices seem to change a lot.

01 January 2005
New Year's day and the 46th anniversary of the Triumph of the Revolution. It's a quite day here but Trinidad is a small town.

02 January
I did scuba diving today. No need for any of that PADI licence nonsense, this is Cuba and if you have $25 that’s all the safety you need. I found it hard at first and kept spiting out the breathing apparatus. Which doesn't help when you are underwater. I soon got the hang of it though. We went to 9m depth and the second dive was about 40mins.

03 January
Today I did very little. Sat around, drank mojitos and listened to a band. I went to see the Museo de la Lucha contra los Banditos. It's about the struggle against counter-revolutionaries in the Escambry mountains. I think all these revolutionary museums are basically the same! There's a Finnish couple staying here, and we've arranged to hire a driver to take us to Santa Clara tomorrow. I'm not sure if it's legal, I asked but they dodged the question. That happens a lot here. The town of Trinidad is a UNESCO world heritage site. The guide books rave about it, but a few people who had been here told me not to expect too much. They were right, though it is worth a visit. The food in the casa was excellent, especially the lobster.

06 January
The taxi trip on Tuesday was an enjoyable day. The taxi drive was a bit if a character. He talked about how great Fidel is and how much Cuba does to help poorer countries. The Fins are a bit serious but they're nice enough. On the way, we stopped off at the town of Sancti Spiritus. I sat on a park bench outside the cathedral when a young girl in a nurse's uniform came over asking if I knew where she could get something photocopied, then decided to sit down and chat. I thought it was strange as despite everything I’d heard, the Cubanas seem to keep their distance in case they're thought of as prostitutes. It's usually the guys who come over to hassle you. The girl turned out to be Honduran, and was in Cuba studying medicine. We had a bit of trouble in Santa Clara. The casa I'd booked was full, so they sent me to another place. There's a real network amongst the casas. Before you leave one place they try to make a reservation for you at their friends beautiful house in the next town.
On Wednesday I visited the mausoleum of the great Ernesto “Che” Guevara. It was great to be there and the museum is the best I've seen in Cuba so far. Outside on the plaza, loud speakers play recordings of speeches and sound clips from Radio Rebelde.
Santa Clara was the scene of El Che's greatest triumph in the revolutionary war. They won the day by using a small bulldozer to derail a train sent from Havana carrying reinforcement weapons and ammunition to Batista's troops. The bulldozer and some of the train carriages are now part of a small open-air museum. Santa Clara is a nice town so I'll stay another day and then head south to Bayamo.

07 January
I'm leaving soon, though I should have gone yesterday as I've done nothing today. That said, I did hear a great speech at the train plaza. There was a group of Venezuelans, talking about how great life is under Hugo Chavez. They also sang some songs and I joined in the cheers of "Viva Fidel"!
After I went for a "quiet" mojito to kill some time, and was joined by the inevitable Jinetero. He wanted to buy my t-shirt for a cigar. I told him I didn't speak Spanish. Or English. Or anything. He kept chatting anyway. I told him I didn't smoke. He told me his brother worked in a cigar factory and he could sell them cheaply. I told him nobody I knew smoked. Eventually I just had to get up and leave to try and get some peace.

09 January
The bus trip from Santa Clara was ten hours and not too pleasant as the air conditioning didn't work properly. I spent half the day in bed recovering. This house is quite nice with a lovely courtyard out the back. Yet again the bedroom is equipped with a touch-lamp. And it's the same style as the other three houses. The owner arranged for some guys to drive me to the Comandancia de la Plata in the Sierra Maestra, which was the base camp of the revolutionaries during the war. I had read in the guide book that hassling of tourists in Bayamo was rare, but so far it's more or less the same.
"Hey friend, where you from?"
"Want to buy a cigar?"
The chap at the house proudly showed me the cooking stove he'd been working on for the last few days. Cubans are great at this kind of thing. They have to be I suppose, to buy that new would be too expensive for this guy.

14 Jan
I went to the Comandancia de la Plata on Monday. It was nice to see it. I saw the "hospital" used by El Che and the antenna for the famous Radio Rebelde. For the first time ever I saw lemons and grapefruit growing on trees. The paved road up to the Alto de Naranja was the steepest paved road I've ever seen. We hitched a ride on a truck with a bunch of young Cubans. They were some kind of communist youth group, and there were speeches about how great they all are and the great work the revolution has done over the years. Then someone took out a ghetto-blaster and everyone danced around the car park as if it was a night club. These Cubans love to dance.

On Tuesday I came here to Camaguey. I'm staying with a Russia lady, who is quite informative. There seems to be a lot of secrecy around this place. I wonder if she might be ex-KGB. She told me about how she stopped in Shannon some time in the 1980s and had a chance to defect and stay in Ireland. She remained loyal to the Soviet regime. In the bedroom I had an uneasy feeling. This room wasn't like all the other rooms. Something was different. Finally it hit me. The touch lamp was different! No pink roses like the other lamps, this was blue glass and very chic. I took a day trip to Playa Santa Lucia with a German girl who is staying here and her Cuban boyfriend. Strange couple, the girl can't speak a word of Spanish and he can't speak English. I suppose it's not just the girls who want to marry rich tourists. We were stopped going through a check point near the beach. The driver was fined 250 pesos, so finally I know these taxis are illegal. The beach was full of tourists on package holidays. In Camaguey there is not so much hassle as in other towns. I sat down for 10mins with an ice cream and no-one came over to annoy me.

I've bought a ticked to head back to Havana, but just for one night and then back home. Cuba has generally been a disappointment. The social system is fascinating of course, but I haven't found the people to be as friendly as I'd heard. Too many of the people who approach me to have a chat just end up trying to sell me something. There was a huge storm last night with torrential rain.

15 January
Not much doing today, I visited a disappointing colonial house. There were some strange goings-on at the KGB house. Apparently it's not strictly legal to give me dinner after I had checked out, but after some discussion they threw caution to the wind and gave me that extra dinner. A nice family, and they gave me a glass of Ruski vodka before leaving.
At the bus station the joker putting the bags on the bus wants a dollar tip. This is in a country where the average wage is $US 12 per month. As I want my bag to arrive in Havana, I have little choice.

16 January
The bus arrived early in Havana. I walked to the casa to spite the taxi drivers. Every taxi I took the first time in Havana tried to rip me off. They switch off the clock and try to fix the price, which of course is "cheaper for you". Then they pocket some for themselves. One lady was at least honest about it.
"They don’t pay me much so I'm just going to keep half for myself."
I realised when I was on the street that the bus station was not the same one from where I had left Havana. So it turned out to be a two hour walk with a 12kg rucksack. But at least I made my point to the taxi drivers!

This morning I took a photo of a flag with "Heroes del Moncada" written on it. There was a street sweeper who must have thought I was taking a picture of him. He put his hand out and said
"un dollar".
I told him to get lost. Was this what Fidel and Raúl had in mind when they stormed the Moncada barracks in 1953? I doubt it.

At the airport I tried to change my Cuban pesos. The local ones which are worth almost nothing. I was told I couldn't change them there. And I couldn't spend them because only the convertible pesos (or Cuban dollars) can be used at the airport. Which is madness because I just took them home.

peace is what the world needs and wants