Salsa, rum and Australians

The morning was spent in discussion with my Spanish teacher. Alas, little Spanish was learned but we had a very good chat about Cuba that left me feeling quite depressed. Life appears so hard here for the average Cuban that I feel very uncomfortable with my comparative wealth.

This feeling was exacerbated later in the afternoon when I returned to the Casa to collect my bags. Berta had been out since after breakfast going from small store to small store trying to find supplies. Local people have ration books for the basic necessities of rice, beans, coffee, bread, eggs, sugar and salt, which they purchase at a low price from the bogeda (government shop) in their own district. Anything else has to be bought from small stores (also government owned), which are very expensive. The average wage is approximately $30 per month but it is paid in Cuban pesos, with an exchange rate of 25 cents to 1CUC (kook), the currency that is used by tourists.

For the last ten years, it has been possible to own a private business so these Cubans tend to be better off, as are the Cubans with access to tourists by way of hotels, casas (homestays), taxis and other services, as they can receive tips in the much more valuable CUCs. However, this does not mean that there is the food available even if they have the money.

Along the Malecon
Along the Malecon

There was another salsa class this afternoon where I learned a few more steps although I hold out no hope whatsoever that I will be able to conjure them up when the occasion arises! My instructors insisted on taking a video of me at the end of the class but I am not about to share it!

After the class, Berta found me transport to the casa where I was to meet the group. I think it is unlikely that it was a legitimate taxi but it took me where I needed to go, albeit after asking for directions from one or two people!

Vedado
Vedado

A nasty surprise awaited me in the welcome note from the tour guide. We were leaving at 3.30am to catch a 6.00am plane. It was certainly not as dire for me, though, as for the Australians who had just arrived after several days journey.

Our group consists of five Australians, me and the tour guide and there is another tour leaving at the same time with eight English/NZ friends, whom we will, no doubt, bump into along the way from time to time.

Whilst waiting for everyone to arrive so that we could go out to dinner, a couple of the group produced a bottle of rum, with which I naturally invited myself to partake! Consequently, by the time we actually went out to a very disappointing and expensive tourist restaurant, the earliest arrivals were very merry. However, as everyone was very tired and with the prospect of such an early start, it was not too late a night and straight to bed after dinner.

Frozen aircraft toilets and old Ladas

After spending so much time travelling now, I sometimes wonder why I still get so anxious about the onward journey. This week’s worries have included:

  • will I wake up in time to catch the 5am bus, despite having 2 alarms set and arranging for my sister to phone me to make sure I am up (and I didn’t sleep anyway)
  • falling on the icy pavement whilst carrying my backpack
  • freezing to death in my thin jacket having sent my thick one to England
  • getting the bus from Varadero airport to Havana and then getting a taxi to the Casa Particular into which I was booked.

 

One of the airport workers sliding on the ice outside the plane
One of the airport workers sliding on the ice outside the plane

Naturally, everything went smoothly, apart from sitting on the tarmac for an hour and a quarter in Montreal whilst someone unfroze the water in the plane’s toilets, which had seized up in the extreme cold (something that hadn’t even featured in my list of worries). We couldn’t, of course, commence a 4 hour flight without a toilet!

Taking off over a frozen Montreal
Taking off over a frozen Montreal

The main occupants of the plane were Canadians travelling to the all inclusive resorts at Varadero, although there were a few who joined me on the bus to Havana. One of them was a Brazilian student doing a PHD in Lisbon, who spoke fluent Spanish, English and Portuguese, which was lucky for me as she was able to translate as we sat in the Viazul office whilst the extremely helpful staff member tried to find out whether there were seats on the next bus. There were, but we had to wait for the bus to arrive to find out!

The journey took us through some very green and lush countryside and along the coast to the capital. The cows are obviously well fed even if the people aren’t. The roads were relatively empty, apart from a number of buses, ancient Dodges and other varieties of old cars, all of which now seem to be outnumbered by the Ladas, Toyotas and the job lot of Suzuki jeeps.

Havana itself, when we arrived 2 hours later, was, unsurprisingly, run down and sad looking with the paint peeling off the majority of the old colonial buildings. There were taxi hustlers at the bus station and having negotiated the price without too much difficulty, I was led out of the bus station and over the road. Naturally, I hadn’t thought to check the credentials of the driver and was somewhat relieved to arrive at my destination in Vedado in the ‘definitely seen better days’ Lada. As far as I could see, there were absolutely no street names so it was with a little fear and trepidation that I sat in the back and waited to see where he took me. It was a little disconcerting when he stopped in front of a Gastroenterology clinic but I soon spotted the door at the side with a list of apartments. Having rung the bell, Bertha, my host for the next couple of days, asked me to wait for her friend, who would help me upstairs with my bag. The concept of back packs maybe hasn’t arrived in Cuba yet!

View from my bedroom in Vedado
View from my bedroom in Vedado

My room is in an apartment building that has also seen better days, overlooking the supposedly 5 star Habana Libre Hotel. However, whilst basic, it is cleaner and more comfortable than the apartment I have just left in Montreal. Luckily, Bertha speaks marginally better English than my Spanish and we managed to communicate in a mix of languages. The next 3 weeks promise to be very interesting!