Saturday 19 September 2009

It is not easy to fall in love with Cuba

"It is not easy to fall in love with Cuba", I think, sitting on a bus to Trinidad and recalling the previous day. Waking up early in the morning to catch the Hershey train, the only electric train in Cuba, built in 1917 for the American Hershey Chocolate Company and connecting Havana with industrial Matanzas, some 90 kilometres away. Trouble buying my ticket: sent away with nothing again and again, I watch Cubans pay for theirs, and after an hour of this I am told that a ticket will be sold to me by a conductor during the trip. A shabby and incredibly dusty train drudgingly conquers its route in four hours, stopping every now and then at small stations. Palms, horses, cows, sheep, a cloudy sky, green valleys surrouded by hills come and go behind my grubby window. A slow clatter of wheels rocks me to sleep and even talkative Julio Cesar, introducing his family to me, offering a bunch of bananas and suggesting lodging for a night at his friends', don't keep me from sleeping for about an hour. Matanzas welcomes us with a polluted river, destroyed houses and cockroches on the streets. Julio's friends' house, painted blue, fits the town's atmosphere perfectly: greyish walls, ants in the bathroom, and a small electric shower fail to impress, but the owner offers to sell me a beer and breakfast in the morning. I leave my bags and go looking for the bus station, stopping on my way for what must be the worst hamburger in my life. The station is small, worn-out and has plastic seats. I ask for connections to Trinidad and that is then when it starts. Cuba has two bus companies: one - for Cubans, another - for tourists. Prices? For an Astro bus Cubans pay 61 MN, for a Viazul bus (and more than an hour's layover in touristic Varadero) tourists have to pay 26 CUC. Outraged by such unfair prices and a lack of options, I wander to find a train station. I find it after an hour's walk through a neighborhood of apartment blocks, fields and along train tracks - a train that costs locals 7 MN, costs me 7 CUC, cheaper than the bus. Nevertheless, the connection is very late at night, and my guidebook tells me it would be naive to count on the trip going according to schedule. I seem to have no choice: hitch-hiking is not an option after all the stories I have read - I have to take Viazul buses. So the next day I switch buses in Varadero and together with other tourists I am on my way to Trinidad, cursing everything and everyone in this cursed Cuba.

Trinidad is pretty. Small cobblestone streets, colorful, well maintained houses, bicycles and horse carriages, an enormous room in the attic of a colonial casa particular, delicious breakfast and perfect chicken, made by the female owner for dinner, all astonish me. In the ruins of an old theater I watch an impressive dancing spectacle; I admire couples dancing salsa outside Casa de la Música; I give a wide berth to restaurants and only eat in my casa; I lazily walk along the winding streets; I drink a strong mojito, pay 6 CUC for an hour of internet on ancient computers, and decide to rent a bike for a day. The only place in town that officially has bikes for rent, fails: their bikes all have flat tyres. The owner of my casa leads me to her friend, who in turn leads me to hers, and after a small fee I set off on a borrowed bike towards Playa Ancón. The sun burns unbearably, the seat pinches, but I diligently pedal through green fields, pastures full of cows and forests paths towards a sandy beach. I get lost a bit on my way back and I have to conquer an incredibly high hill - I give up and walk my bike up the mountain. In Trinidad I practise talking to people on the streets, which bears fantastic fruit: a ride to a waterfall in the nearby national park. I share a small wooden carriage with a milk jug and a coachman who decides to add a bit of a flavour to my adventure by leading the tired horse to a little farm, where I drink juice freshly made of sugar cane and lemon. On the fourth day in Trinidad a man stops me on a street and asks whether I am that Polish girl who plans to go to Viñales soon. Apparently there is a rumour in the town about my horse trip, as Pedro is glad that I enjoyed the waterfall and asks me if his friend did a good job as a guide. Pedro informs me that he is able to organise a car that will take me to Viñales for a price similar to the bus, but faster. Apparently a couple of tourists want to go in the same direction and are looking for people to share the cost. The owner of my casa says I should accept the offer, while his wife is definitely against the idea. When I go downstairs in the evening for dinner, she is talking cordially to an older man, introducing him to me after a little while. He is a very good friend of hers, and he is to be my driver "for tomorrow". I am in safe hands, and she calls her friends from Viñales to ask whether they have a place for me in their house. Not having to worry about lodgings, sharing an official, yellow Hyundai Lantra taxi that reminds me of home, with a Danish couple, I ride towards a new place. Of course, not all is perfect and we have a stopover in the middle of nowhere to repair the car, but I have chips with me and I share them with the couple while we watch the driver curse..

I don't know how it is possible, but Viñales is even more interesting than Trinidad. Amazingly green, lying in a valley created by mountains' full of caves collapsing, with farms on a red, clayish soil, nothing about the little town repells, not even the large number of tourists. I hire a guide and, along with a Spanish couple, I visit a local farm, where I drink freshly made coffee, grown on the trees nearby, and watch the farmer roll cigars. I learn a lot about life in Cuba, and Sandra (our guide) points out that the unfair treatment I experienced in Havana's restaurants happens to both tourist and Cubans. Another farmer greets us with fresh fruits and mango juice, while we are sitting in front of his house, with little pigs beneath our legs. I spend the afternoon on a two-hour hike through dark caves, conquering just a small piece of the third largest cave system in Latin America. The evenings pass nicely, sipping mojitos and listening to songs, excellently performed by Blanco y Negro. From Viñales I also take a trip to Cayo Levisa, a three-kilometer long island just North of the town, where I encounter my companions from the taxi and for the first time in my life try my hand at snorkeling. I fall in love with Viñales, I even enjoy the taste of reheated pizza in a bar next to the petrol station. The landscape is wonderful, the people - smiling, there is a fresh smell of damp soil in the air and for the first time I begin to regret that I will soon have to leave this country.

Havana seems familiar, when I come back after my nine days of exile. It still doesn't delight me but I start to understand it. I decide to spend two more days spending only MN - and succeed with not much difficulty. Admittedly, I don't eat anything delicious, an ice-cream melts in my hands, a pizza is worse than the one in Viñales, and granizada is some kind of artificial concentrated juice poured over ice cubes, but at least I have a feeling I am closer to real Cuban life than ever.

"It is not easy to fall in love with Cuba", I think, sitting on a plane to Bogota where I am to meet Bjarni, "and yet it is not completely impossible".

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Dziewcze! Well done! :-0
    Amazing story... nicely said and interesting to read.
    I'm looking for more now - got hooked up!
    (will read the previous one in the meantime...)


The past!