A journey full of hassles, stripped memories and concluding remarks of my three weeks in Cuba. Those are the key words of this last chapter from Cuba.
This is one of six articles from a visit to Cuba in 2003.
Monday 7.7.2003, Trinidad, Camagüey
The Viazul bus (23 USD) driving into the bus station in Trinidad was full of tourists, no Cubans. Among them a couple from Bryne (close to home) with a teenage son. They were here for the second year in a row. They had got acquainted to somebody in Baracoa in the far east. The teacher couple brought with them extra luggage: 600 ball point pens and lots of second hand clothes. They were looking forward to unloading.
Most passengers were on the bus to the last stop at Santiago de Cuba. Because of a long way home at the end of this week I dropped it.
In Camaguëy we were met by a guy on a rickshaw. Our landlord in Trinidad had telephoned a colleague here. We pedalled up to his place and were quartered for 20 USD including breakfast. Arch-colonial style: High under the ceiling, airy, antiques. Stylish.
We relaxed in our room before walking into town. It was lively and had many nice things to see. We ate at “home”.
I checked my mail and sent an e-mail home along with a traditional post card.
Spent: 53 USD
Tuesday 8.7.2003, Camaguëy
We spent the day around town and at home. I was a bit uncertain how many days we should stay here, but found out that a one night stay was a bit short.
In a travel agency I was informed that the Havana bus is a night bus with a departure at 2240. That gives an extra day. Unfortunately the travel agency did not get through with their booking. They told me to go directly to Viazul at the bus station tomorrow.
We saw a couple museums, one of them with a very eager English speaking guide.
We dined in a nice backyard and talked to a Dutch couple.
Spent: 52 USD
Wednesday 9.7.2003, Camagüey, Playas del Este
This was a day we could have managed without. Absolutely terrible. Some decidedly black spots and a couple of light ones showing Cuba in several aspects.
The problem was about the departure for Havana, or rather the beaches in Playas del Este.
We took a rickshaw with pleasant Jorge to the bus station to get a Viazul ticket to Havana this evening. Here it was not as regulated for dollar tourists as the other places we have been to. First we were directed to a counter without personnel, then inside a locked door to the back-office. There we met a lady in uniform with lots of leaflets. She let some Spanish speaking before us in line. Then it was our turn in stuttering Spanish. Unfortunately she could not match us in even rudimentary English but the problem was really a genuine lack of interest in servicing foreigners. It appeared that the bus probably was full and that six persons were ahead of us on a waiting list. Other buses involved departing or arrival in the middle of the night, and even their availability were uncertain.
The lady said something about taking to el jéfé the same evening – porque el niño… For us it was little tempting to come here at night with no alternatives for staying the night. And we wanted to leave today to get a few days on a beach before returning home.
Not so easy
I left the office and talked to some Australians outside who suggested a few dollars under the table. I returned to the office but went out again as I saw several others in there, and the lady hurriedly leaving the room.
Our rickshaw driver summoned a few people talking about a collectivo or private taxi. 90 USD was suggested. For my part, I wanted to try the train first, even though the standard is not particularly high. After a long bike-ride we queued up in front of a counter, then a second counter. There we were referred to a travel agency which confirmed that bus tickets were not obtainable. Also they were not able to get us train tickets (the train was scheduled to leave at 0250 hours). We were however helpfully led to a new place – a large room with a few PCs at the back. Here we waited for three quarters of an hour for a special lady who had gone to the bathroom. None of the others could apparently help us.
We left. I wanted to try a private taxi.
I reckoned that a bus would cost us 50 USD plus a taxi from Havana to the beach for another 20 USD. Then it wouldn’t cost much more taking a private transportation directly to the beach.
Back on the rickshaw seat into town. Friends of Jorge on a café in town recommended a place near the railway station to find taxis. There were always 10-15 standing there waiting. They guessed 80-100 USD.
Up again. There were almost no taxis waiting. One guy however said 140 USD not less.
I was getting annoyed and I was running out of ideas. In addition I had a bad stomach and was feeling gradually worse. What now? Jorge suggested a man he knew with a car – not far away. He was fortunately at home, but wouldn’t go for less than 100 USD. In the end I accepted. Departure later the same afternoon. Jorge was also joining us to drive the car back home.
We agreed departure time at 1630 at the latest. They came at 1700 and we left. The car was an old Lada or Moskvitch with holes in the floor.
At 0100 we arrived at a casa that the driver Gustavo recommended. He had called in advance of our arrival. What an a..hole of a landlord! The room was not ready; and he spent an hour looking for a key to the annex. He wanted 35 USD and I said 20 for this first night. At 0230 we were in bed in a poor annex without water in the toilet or anywhere else, and with a noisy air condition dating back a hundred years.
Spent: 146 USD
Thursday 10.7.2003, Playas del Este
The casa was right on the beach. Two men were preparing a large fish they had harpooned. Great surroundings, but we wanted away from the landlord. Our drivers wanted to follow up on us and helped us on. I guess it was a matter of pride on their behalf. We ended up in an alright budget hotel in Guanabó, the “Cuban” (not “Foreigner”) beach here on this long stretch of playas.
The room cost us 22 USD and we had both lunch and dinner here. We thanked Jorge and Gustavo heartily for their assistance.
It was lovely to fall into an easier pace. The last couple of days have not been good in that respect. My son even had an ice cream. The beach was very nice, but a bit cooler than on the south coast of Cuba.
Spent: 47 USD
Friday 11.7.2003, Playas del Este
Beach day. And loo day. My bad stomach continues to harass me and demands little activity. Fair enough as there is little to do apart from being lazy on the beach.
The main street is a long stretch with few shops or restaurants. The night life was reportedly active, but that was past our bed time. My son got a few girl friends on the beach who played with him. They were a few years older than him, 12 or 13 I guess.
We had a drive westwards to the other beaches. The one westerners are usually quartered in has the prettiest beach, but is in fact completely empty. The hotels of the “all inclusive” sort seemed like prisons. The quality did not seem high either.
Back on our beach we had a hamburger at a very nice place nearby. We played billiards at our hotel.
Spent: 52 USD
Saturday 12.7.2003, Playas del Este
Our hotel has an agreement with another one about the use of their swimming pool. We spent the entire morning there and went home pretty red. Great fun for my son, and me too. He is unstoppable in his water activities and swims very well now.
It is very lively on the side and in the pool. There were for the most part Cubans around us. In contrast to the other days the service was slow today. The waiter had fallen asleep over a table, looked up after a while and fell asleep again. My son got his ice cream for the third day in a row, and I tried one too. My stomach is considerably better now.
We had another game at the billiard table and dinner in the very cheap and nice hotel restaurant. Tomorrow will be our last beach day before departing Cuba in the evening.
Spent: 45 USD
Sunday 13.7.2003, Playas del Este, Havana
Day of departure
We wanted to have two-three hours on the beach this morning before departing for the airport. Perhaps we would have time in the Revolution museum in Havana on the way. Our plane was scheduled to leave at 2000 this evening.
It did not turn out like that.
A last visit to the beach
On the beach we had lots of valuables stolen from us: All cameras (one video and two photo cameras), passports, tickets, 100 USD in cash, Visa-card, driver’s license, travel insurance card and all digital memory cards. An enormous tragedy!
The beach was popular this Sunday. We found ourselves a quiet spot and dug down the bag with all our stuff placing our T-shirts on top. Perfect. We had on lotion and waited until it had soaked in. After this my son went swimming and I sunbathed. After this we changed. Normal procedure. The unusual was that we this time ended up playing on the shore with all the valuables with us. We tossed ball in the shallow water while the bag was dug down 5-10 metres away.
I was continuously on the alert having the place in view. When we after a few minutes went back, the shirts had been removed and my black, anonymous bag was gone. It was 11 in the morning. No one nearby looked our way, apart from a lady looking out on the sea past us. On a direct question she said she had not seen anything. As my room key was also in the bag we put our sandals and T-shirts on and returned hastily to our hotel. They were astonished.
All valuables stolen
A fast shower and we left the luggage in the reception. After that we walked 13 blocks in the burning heat to the police station. After a short pause we continued in a police car to a police compound and a round of interviews. They made big eyes when they heard of the value of the lost belongings. After this we went to the beach with the police and later on signed a print of the report. The police was very helpful.
A taxi (28 USD) transported us to the Norwegian embassy in Havana. As it was Sunday there was of course nobody at work apart from a guard. He called the only Norwegian employee who was in the area. She came from her house and issued a temporary passport. Then off to the airport in another taxi (20 USD).
Police, embassy and off to airport
The Air Jamaica office was jammed with victims of overbooking. We were told that replacement tickets to London were out of the question because the loss was reported less than 72 hours before departure! We would have to buy new tickets, but the lady in charge was helpful and could fix that for us. The time was 1730 and with a glance around the packed room and company procedures etc. there were few other options available.
Luckily I had a few (180) dollars left in my money belt and a backup MasterCard. She would not accept the card, it had to be cash. Into the departure hall to get them. The ticket cost me 1016 USD! The first exchange office would not accept an 1100 dollar credit. On to the next where an ATM was out of order. Back to the first where they accepted 1000 USD. The ticket was finally secured.
There was a long delay in the check-in line and problems in sending the luggage through to Norway, not only to London. The clock was ticking. We continued on to pay the airport tax (50 USD) where the line luckily had disappeared when we arrived.
Getting another rip-off
Then on to the passport and police control. The clock had ticked past seven, less than an hour till departure. There was a full stop. We were told to wait and after my continuous questioning it was stated that the problem was our lack of visa. Or rather: There was a piece of paper placed loose together with the visa inside the passport and it may be used by others. (Possibly Cubans looking for a valid exit permit to leave their country I suspect.)
Even more polite questions from me – the time was eight – resulted in getting through to the security check point for cabin luggage. That bit went well. At 2015 we ran through the departure hall and were met by another queue. Fortunately the plane was delayed and we came on board just fine.
The flight back home had a transit landing in Kingston, Jamaica. There we encountered three girls from home (Hommersåk?) we had met in Cuba.
Spent: 130 USD + 21 in souvenirs, 6 for passport photos and 1016 for new tickets.
Monday 14.7.2003, Havana, London, Stavanger
The luggage went straight to Stavanger, luckily. We had ourselves another ticket mess in London and had to drop a fast trip into the city.
We were flying SAS home from London, but SAS wouldn’t issue a ticket for us as the entire journey had been issued as an Air Jamaica ticket originally. The representative would not do anything but refer us to Air Jamaica and he called their doings in Havana as “rubbish”. Air Jamaica in London told us that we should have bought a new ticket to Stavanger in Havana. They said we would have to buy new tickets to be able to continue home. We had to return to SAS and purchase business class tickets for 688 pounds. Fortunately that involved using the lovely SAS lounge and we rounded off with tax-free purchases.
Back home in Stavanger we took a taxi home at ten in the evening to a waiting family. Good to be home again after the stress of the last couple of days. We went to bed late all of us.
Cuba round-up and impressions
Unfortunate last couple of days
Well now. Despite extensive travelling over the years to many countries I had but once experienced theft. That was on a bus in Rio back in 1987 when a clever group of three managed to distract me enough to relieve me of a camera lens. On this trip I took my usual precautions, but was caught with my pants down on the very last hour of my stay. The consequences were heavy even though I got most of my loss back on my travel insurance later. The worst was that I lost an hour of video footage and all my hundreds of photos.
(This of course explains the poor photo quality from this trip, and the lack of pictures in the last two blog entries: I had to grab still pictures from the film I had stored in my luggage in the hotel room)
What is the best to do? Leave all valuables unattended in a budget hotel room, or carry them on at all times? I usually prefer the latter and it usually pays off. However I was careless on that beach. And I was punished for it. The temptation was obviously too high for a poor Cuban.
Fortunately I carried two credit cards, stored separately. That saved me this time.
I was also angry at the airline personnel charging me for a new ticket all the way from Cuba to Norway. Instead of printing out the ticket once more. In insisting in cash payment, it was all too obvious that it was a fraud – but what to do standing there on the other side of the ocean?
The big question is nonetheless: What about Cuba?
I am sincerely happy I went there. It is a beautiful country, lovely scenery, brilliant beaches and a proud people. They were eager to meet us and talk about their lives. The country’s colonial past has much to offer us historically interested visitors, and the near present history after the revolution is intriguing as well. The country’s future seems bright, if they handle the necessary transition into a modern democratic state well. The standards of living must rise, but the structures of government must not be broken down while doing so. Just look at what happened to Russia after Gorbachev. And look at the poor conditions in all respects, in so many of the other Latin American states.
We did our best to promote small, private enterprises, i.e the black economy. We took private taxis, stayed in private accommodation, ate in private paladares restaurants. And so on. I have no regrets about it, and I sincerely hope the authorities will encourage more of it, white-wash it. So to speak. Before the inevitable development gets out of hand.
In some cases we met the same kind of socialist legacy I met in Eastern Europe, especially Czechoslovakia in 1990: The lack of service from officials in public bureaus. The kind of people who just love to get the (rich) foreigner upset about not having his way.
I might also add that Cuba is cheap for us foreigners. As documented in this diary I and my young son spent around 50 USD a day.
All in all, I am very glad I got here before the North Americans return leading the flood of Western mass tourism.
This was the last chapter in this series of blog posts from our 2003 trip to Cuba. Read from the start. Have a look at all the pictures below (grabbed from my remaining video tapes), and the five videos on my Youtube channel playlist.
(1) Havana: Cuba as it is, with Fidel still alive, and the system working as it has done since the revolution. That is what I wanted to find on my three week trip to this intriguing island in the sun. Did I find it? My conclusion follows at the end of this story in five chapters.
(2) Pinar del Rio and the Viñales valley: A beautiful country, and an emerging private economy is found in this chapter two of my Cuba journey.
(3) From Cienfuegos to Trinidad: Chapter three is about lazy days on the beach, colonial mansions and a flat tire in the middle of nowhere.
(4) Trinidad: A most wonderful town and surroundings rich in slave history. This is chapter four of my Cuban experience.
(5) Camaguëy, Playas del Este: A journey full of hassles, stripped memories and concluding remarks of my three weeks in Cuba. Those are the key words of this last chapter from Cuba.
PICS – Cuba: All images from Cuba in one place.