A lot of chlorine, clean streets, old cars, host who doesn’t understand and many amigos.
Were you thinking sometimes how much information about the country you can get directly at the airport? Believe it or not – a lot. Cuba greets us with a gigantic sign SANTIAGO DE C BA, chlorine water for hands at the entrance, byrocracy in the form of compulsory insurance (while all others pay it, we are able to explain, that we have insurance which covers also Cuba). Later the interrogation by a custom officer and next outside by other policeman (maybe it’s time to start to care about myself more :-D), but everybody is polite, it is clean everywhere, there is a live band playing outside the airport and many amigos offering taxi. And this is how Cuba is.
In an old Lada car we arrive in 30minutes to a blue casa particular which the Finns have adviced us.
Casa particular (with a blue symbol outside at the door) – is the best and cheapest accomodation in cities. Some cubans offer one or two of the rooms in their house to tourists for 15-25CUC for the room per night (1CUC = 1USD). They gladly prepare you also food, but so much that is not possible to eat even after one week of starving (breakfast for 3-5CUC, dinner 5-8CUC per person). They are also helpful and can give you good advices. But you shouldn’t think that these are the real Cubans! People who have CP (the licence costs around 150CUC monthly) are actually quite rich Cubans who complain about bad conditions here and how is everybody poor. Anyway this type of accomodation is still better than hotels where you totally lose the contact with a real world.
They are surprised at the casa that we arrived because we didn’t let them know before, but after a short talk we get a nice room with a bathroom for next 2 nights (one double and one single bed are in 10 minutes totally occupied by our stuff). The son of the owner can speak English and we explain him we want to buy bicycles and ride from Santiago to Havana. He offers he has a friend and he can help us buy bicycles. This information pleases us, because we can go to enjoy the city now.
The streets, houses, cars – everything is different… It really looks like 50years ago. The houses are ramshackle, but in some way they take care of them and they have emotions. There is no garbage at the street. Few people and even less cars (yes, yes after Port-au-Prince many big cities even during high traffic and demonstration look like a calm place – but there is really almost nobody here). The people are nice and friendly, many selling something. The square is big with a huge catherdal at one side of it. The architecture is Spanish colonial with decorated fasades, vaults and high floors. And the beautiful cars from fifties in really good condition. We cannot believe that 3months ago a hurricane destroyed it here. In the shop a designated lady at the entrance to spray our hands with chlorine water (?). We buy rum for a great price (8CUC one liter), really cheap icecream at the street and blba (it tastes like it sounds – lime juice and sugar in shape of a brown stick – not really good). Right next to our casa we buy coffee for 1 peso (1CUC=25pesos), which is probably the cheapest buy during our travelling.
Back at the casa is a nice, new road bike waiting for us – for 350CUC. Our host didn’t really get what we want. After dinner like for a hungry giant and with a bottle of Havana Club rum we discuss 2hours in our spanglish the bicycles we want -old, cheap, good… Our “amigo” apologises that he didn’t get it before and that tommorrow at 12 a.m. he will bring us 2 of them.
Because I was today with my knee-length skirt and a T-shirt without sleeves the most covered girl at the street and Jan looked weard with his rattersall shorts and shirt, we decided to wear this time something more cuban – shorter pants and tight T-shirts for both of us. We look weard, still everybody knows we are tourists and it is really warm in it. We refuse all amigos who want to sell us something and write diary and articles at the square where a live salsa band starts to play and dance. Sun, beggers, disturbing people selling things and especially the coming noon takes us back with hope that yesterday our host understood us and our cuban bicycles are waiting. But there are 2 modern mountain bikes for 200CUC each. We cannot understand how people are not able to understand and I’m angry on myself that we’ve counted on somebody else again despite our experiences show us that it seldom works!
We go back to the streets with purpose to buy bicycles. Our tactics is: Jan looks at the bicycle, reviews it and gives me a sign and I then run and stop the cyclist. First one we stop after 20minutes and start to negotiate (just for info: our Spanish is still at the level “I Tarzan”, we mix numbers, words and there is no gramma). The bicycles is a little smaller and in interesting shape, but 2 adults were on them riding which adds to its value. We give an offer – 50CUC (which we think is enough). The man stares at us surprised and we should forget it. Now we don’t know what is wrong, because new bicycles in the shop cost around 150 and this one is old, crappy and with many defects… After 2 minutes we get it – we didn’t say 50 but 5. We understand his reaction now :-D. But at the end we decide that we don’t want this bicycle and when it is so easy, we should find some better one for a good price. Today we don’t get to any other negotiation… doesn’t matter – tomorrow is also a day.
Tired from walking the side streets all day and looking for cuban cyclists we return home. We stop at an exhibition of photographies taken after the hurricane. Terrible and amazing at the same time. The building where we are now didn’t have roof and most of the construction was destroyed, at the square were no more palms left and many of houses were torn and splashed, streets full of garbage and pollution of the water sources which led to cholera. And how it looks now – 3 months later? Everything is clean, repaired and even the plants and grass at the square look like they have been growing there like this always. The water from tap smells and tastes like waterpool and when entering shops or restaurant you need to wash your hands in chlorine water, but there is no more cholera. Cubanos, you have my respect! If Haitians have at least half of your nature, their country would look 100 times nicer.
At home another bike is waiting for us – again a modern mountain bike. I don’t even try it and have enough of this “help” (and hope, that our “amigo” doesn’t expect for this worthless tries any tip). The father of family writes on a old typing machine a list of casa particular in other parts of Cuba and makes a plan of travelling. I give up and don’t comment this another misunderstanding … two days we are explaining him that we want to bicycle through the country and be more in smaller towns or villages and he is teleporting us in his plan between the big cities, where he plans always couple of days. But probably the reality is that he means it good and we are those weard ones who want old bicycles and sleep in a tent.
We go one more time to the streets but this time to find some real salsa disco with a great music and full of sweating dancing Cubanos (I admit that my vision comes from Dirty dancing 2). We get two tips – but one is a regular tuc-tuc disco crap, where we don’t even stop and on the way to the other an amigo joins us and for a while it looks like he is talking with us gratuitous. He leads us to Casa de la Trova (the house with traditional music). After paying 5CUC entrance we realize that it is full here but with older tourists sitting and drinking expensive drinks. Some of the guests dance, but with Cubans who are probably paid for taking people to dance. We finish one beer and go out to look for the bar from dirty dancing. Almost one hour we walk around the center but we don’t find anything – saturday night, haloo, where are you all?! On the way back we stop at Trova, where are not so many people anymore and we meet there the amigo who looks like he was looking for us. I dance one salsa with him because he talks about how good dancer he is. He is a little bit surprised that I don’t just walk around but dance and after repeating 10 times the same steps we go to sit down (brother, thank you for training – you are definitely better salsa dancer than him!:)). We move to the square where he introduces us to his friends and offers some rum and coke. He explains that Cubanos don’t go out much because it is expensive and just drink at the square or go to parties at somebodys place or dance at carnevals in the streets during the day. At the end he asks Jan to contribute for the next bottle of rum after which we go directly home. Basically we don’t have anything against sharing the costs but after whole evening talking that he is different that the Cubanos who just want money from tourists is this a real surprise… we thought for a while that we met an exception.
In the next morning we pack all our things and go for important misstion – buy two old good bicycles. We walk, search, ask,we start to be popular and known and around 11am we have first nice bicycle which gets his brother till 3pm (more about this part in the article Flying pigeons on Cuba).
After 6pm we move our things to another casa already on our bicycles. There the man asks for the night 5CUC more than was the deal, but as a bonus I get a cream for my sore leg (after a mosquito bite and my scratching it) and great dinner – so we forgive it to him. He is a doctor so it is with a diagnosis also. Jan mounts bells, carriers, repairs the stand and I upgrade the frames with colorful duct tapes. We cream the Brooks saddles, put the luggage on, attach the flag and we are ready to go.
18th of February 6:00am – the alarm rings and we don’t snooze it for later but get up, eat breakfast and get on our new unconfortable saddles :). Good bye Santiago! Cuba, we are comming…