Land Of El Che

Val Langelair

© Copyright 2002 by Val Langelair

This is a true story about a visit to Havana and Trinidad de Cuba which is further east of the Island in February 2001. 

Photo of a travel poster for Cuba.

I had travelled to the Caribbean before and loved it, so jumped at the chance to visit the land of El Ché with friends. There were five girls and one guy, who would act as our big brother figure on the holiday.

Suitcases packed to bursting point, we jump into our cars and drive the 40 minutes to Verona airport, check in and excitedly prepared ourselves for the long 12 hour trip. A last minute goodbye to my husband Fran (who for once is seeing me off and not going somewhere himself) and we board the plane (belonging to a famous racing driver). We soon settle in and take off towards our long awaited exotic holiday.

Food time and thank goodness they have fish on the menu. Even though I have informed the travel agent and check in about my allergy problems, the hostess doesn’t seem to know The menu for the evening only has meat so I advise her of my possible dilemma. She says “Don’t worry,” in her best English “I will put aside a vegetarian dish for you tonight.” I thank her and think no more of it. We spend time chatting and watching the various Richard Gere films and the likes on offer. Dinner time at last. Famished, we can’t wait to tuck into the meal. Everyone is served but my table remains empty so I remind the hostess about her promise. She becomes agitated and asks me for “proof you’ve ordered a vegetarian meal.” I’m dumbfounded as I don’t expect this and try to explain “but I already spoke to you at lunchtime.” She makes a big scene and calls the head stewardess who informs me that “there are only two vegetarian meals so there is nothing for you to eat as another passenger has produced proof of being vegetarian.” When I ask about the second vegetarian meal the original hostess shouts out that “I am also vegetarian and can’t be expected to give you my food and go without.” I can’t believe all this and let it go. Hungry as I am, I would have even accepted an offer of half her meal. This of course puts me in a bad mood and I munch on an apple I luckily have leftover in my bag. Not a very good start I think to myself.

Finally we touch down at José Marti airport after being cramped in two or three variations of possible seating positions, dripped on by condensation coming from the old air conditioning and sprayed without warning before landing. We join the long queues through customs and my turn finally comes up 30 minutes later. I enter the closed door and come up against a young man with a slightly cockeyed look. He’s very friendly and soon puts me at ease in that small enclosure with its locked entrance and exit doors and a mirror behind me in case I pull anything dangerous on him. He smiles and lets me through with a wish for a good holiday. I walk through and join the others taking my first breath of this famous land of El Ché.

After bartering a few minutes for a taxi, we head for our accommodation on the other side of New Havana. We are booked into a “casa particular” (rented rooms in family houses) as we want to experience life from an inside point of view. The taxi passes lines of people hitching lifts (mainly women immediately wrongly accused of practicing the oldest job in the world, as street prostitution no longer exists since the recent heavy fines imposed) and loads of propaganda everywhere which shows the still very alive presence of El Ché. A train line in view and our driver bumps across it without slowing down or taking any visual precautions (they don’t have barriers to advise of imminent trains) risking our lives as well as his.

The taxi finally pulls up and one of the girls asks in her best Spanish “are you sure this is the place?” We are outside a really rundown 6 storey apartment building which looks like it’s about to collapse. My mind runs riot and I feel a little uneasy. From the time I arrived, it still hasn’t sunk in that this island is completely different from all the other Caribbean ones I’ve visited. Under Fidel, I pictured wonderful large colonial free housing in good repair, just like in the postcards. (What planet have I been living on all these years)? I never imagined that conditions could be so terrible. We are led up the narrow winding staircase to the fifth floor by our taxi driver. He rings the bell (obviously already having visited this particular house) and we are greeted by two smiling faces. Miriam and Henri lead us inside their spotless and very French looking home. They are in fact of French decent but have recently become grandparents to two female twins of a mixed black Creole daughter-in-law and their son. (What I later love about this very frequent occurrence is the fact that everyone is just proud to be Cuban and colour or descent doesn’t matter at all). We put our suitcases in our rooms, have a quick wash and go out to explore our area of Vedado.

The roads are easy to follow as they all cross in grid fashion. Walking down Avenido Paseo we soon reach the main road which is so wide that it could be a three laned motorway. We eagerly take in all the sites. There are so many restaurants with their own personal doormen enticing you to come in and eat. The buildings here are less dilapidated as they contain rental car agencies, travel agencies and other shops specifically there to tempt the tourists. On our return we are greeted by our hosts who wish us goodnight adding “breakfast is at 8.30am which costs $3.00 and could you please remember not to throw the toilet paper in the toilet but in the bin provided.” Later we’re told the reason for this is that they wouldn’t be able to afford a replacement toilet in case of blockage and therefore prefer to empty smelly soiled bins. (During our stay this becomes more natural if difficult to remember at first for us spoilt westerners). Our first night and welcomed sleep.

The next morning we’re awoken at 7am by a neighbours car alarm going off in the cement courtyard below. We open the window and it’s a young blond Cuban repeatedly testing it. After the fifth fireman type ring we decide to get dressed, have our breakfast of bread, jam and fried eggs then make our way to “La Habana Viejo” which is the oldest part of the city. Not two minutes down the road and a sad looking blue Chevrolet with green doors approaches us and Jesus (pronounced Yesu) asks if we need a ride. We accept and pile into the rickety automobile which has an overpowering smell of petrol. Jesus sprays the back when we ask him about the smell, adding orange air freshener to the almost Molotov cocktail in our lungs. He puts us down at the beginning of a market in the middle of old Havana (leaving his number for future trips) and we stroll happily between queues of natives armed with plastic bottles. We later find out they’ve refilled their bottles with a variation on rum and see the effects on some of the locals further down the road already drinking that sweet liqueur. A quick rest in the small park where children are happily playing. They approach us asking for soap, sweets or pens and are provided from our bags with anything resembling their requests. We continue and walk deeper into the middle of the city. Lots of photos later of crumbling faded okra, blue and pink coloured houses (probably caused by a combination of the tropical climate and disinterest of Fidel to restore) with their intricate iron balconies and incredibly radiant smiles from the residents and we begin the journey home. So far every street corner is patrolled by a policeman and the locals seem to be conditioned into not hassling the tourists too much. We turn a corner which surprisingly doesn’t have the now familiar guard of the peace in place. The road is narrow, so we pair off in two’s and walk slowly, feet aching from our day’s adventure. I am on the outside nearest the road, and not 5 minutes along the street and I see this man approaching me on a bicycle. Before I know it his hand goes out towards me. He tries to grab the small gold chain I’m wearing, but because of the stickiness of my body, manages only to scratch me and ride off empty handed. Those smiling chatting inhabitants which I’d noticed just seconds before on a second floor iron balcony (miraculously holding their weight) have now disappeared inside. I shout after him because of the shock but soon calm down and feel sorry instead for my attacker. All I can imagine now is his desperation to have done that. The poverty is oozing out of every crack in every brick and I can’t take it personally. We get back to our lodgings and remove every bit of temptation from our bodies.

Five days later, feet aching from all that walking and we’ve explored all the places available to visit. Amongst them El Floridita, the bar Hemingway frequented, La Real Fuerza (the 1st Spanish defence fortress), the overwhelmingly huge “National Capitol” building with its grand statues and tourists who have paused on its steps only to be moved on by its whistling guards, a few beautiful bars where we stop to have our now regular Cuba Libre and listen to the very talented local musicians, the oldest pharmacy in Havana with its still wooden shelves housing lots of glass bottles containing various potions and concoctions. Its exterior is beautifully painted and of course the cameras are clicking away. I’m also now used to being mistaken for a Cuban (can’t think why as my features are nothing like any Cuban I’ve seen). I’ve been very lucky with meals as the beans are good and also their local “pescados” (fish). During those days we’re are frequently approached and give in to escorts (charging $5.00 for their services) who take us to reasonably priced restaurants where we can enjoy a banquet for the meagre sum of $7.00. On numerous occasions we invite them to join us but they decline the offer as they are not allowed to eat with the tourists. On our way back we go for a Mojito (a mixture of rum, lemon juice, soda, mint leaf, sugar and ice) in the famous Hotel Nacional and as we enter, there is a crowd gathered. Edging between them we see Herbie Hancock being interviewed. He’s there for a five day music festival, so we stop to listen, take some photos then compliment him for his concert we saw in Italy. He’s very friendly and also provides some of our group with his autograph and thanks for our compliments.

We pack our bags later that evening as the next morning we’re moving further east to Trinidad di Cuba. The Viazul (coach) is at 7am and will take approx. 4 hours, so we hit our pillows a little earlier that evening.

The journey is relaxing and we enjoy the endless open spaces and beautiful vegetation passing Cienfuegos (a nearby town) on the way. Our new sleeping quarters have been recommended by our previous hosts, but on arrival we are disappointed to be shown a really small windowless room behind their kitchen definitely not big enough for all of us. We walk up and down that same street looking for “casa particular” signs and finally find the perfect place; a huge house with two large rooms on the first floor. The first room comfortably accommodates the four females and the other the couple. Our suitcases are hurriedly arranged in the room and we go off to explore. Trinidad with its narrow mostly cobbled roads and small reasonably kept terraced houses is such a contrast to the huge crumbling buildings of Havana. With directions from our host we make our way to their Plaza Mayor (town centre) where we find a beautiful flower lined square with lots of shops and restaurants already playing a variety of Cuban music. We explore each little shop then buy some fruit from the road vendors. After a quick change we make for a restaurant recommended in the travel guide. It doesn’t take long to find and we are welcomed and seated in what seems like the garden of a converted house. In the entrance there are relics from more affluent days and we soon settle down to an interesting spicy meal of pescados (fish), meat, beans, arroz (rice) and salad washed down by their local Cristal beer. Full and exhausted we jump into bed.

The next morning arrives and someone is talking in the courtyard below our room. They seem to be repeating the same thing over and over again. “Pepe, Pepe,” something but we can’t understand the rest. On going down for breakfast we come across the culprit; the family’s brightly coloured (green, red and a touch of blue) parrot perched in a small banana tree in the garden. A wonderful spread awaits us of fresh fruit, juice, banana milk shake, onion tortilla (which is really a delicious, if anaemic looking, one egg omelette), bread, jam and coffee. Not long afterwards we’re on our way to the train station to catch the old train to neighbouring Iznaga. It pulls in punctually at 11am and we’re soon on our way.

On arrival we witness the killing of a huge black pig. I won’t tell you the ins and outs but suffice it to say it isn’t a pretty sight or painless death for the poor swine. Walking up the stalled lined road with its owners all beckoning you to buy their wares and we come across an old clock tower with its huge displaced bell at the base. Bedraggled looking kids are running amongst the tourists asking for pens and sweets. There’s the occasional tug of war between them when a lucky one gets given more than the others. A wander round then the train arrives to take us back to town. Another walk until late afternoon and we make our way back to our abode to freshen up ready for a great home cooked meal of “camarones” (shrimps), arroz, loads of fresh vegetables, bread, fresh fruit, Cristal beer and soft drinks all for the incredible price of $7.00. I ask “why does the parrot repeat “Pepe, Pepe” something frequently? Reply translated by one of the girls: “We’ve called her Pepe after our local aphrodisiac Pepe Hey, and she reminds us daily to keep the spice in our lives. I could get some for you if you want.” I decline the offer but the couple in our group secretly look interested. Tummies full we venture out the same a few hours later to listen to a local band playing in the nearby square. Our feet cannot keep still and we dance until the early hours of the morning, drinking the occasional Cuba Libre to keep up our “Pepe Hey” spirits.

What can we do the next day? We decide on a catamaran trip to Cayo Blanca. We board this beautiful sailing vessel and are soon on our way with a welcoming Mojito. It’s a beautiful sunny day and only half an hour into the trip and they stop to allow anyone daring enough to jump into the crystal clear water. This is not for a leisurely swim but a request to help the crew catch lunch for the day. Two of the young staff are already doing just that and soon return with 8 lobsters for the pot. A few brave ones have jumped in with good intentions, but soon give up and photograph instead the numerous brightly coloured fish. Everyone reboards and we continue towards the island with the perfume of lobsters and rice already drifting out of the vessel’s kitchen.

It’s a pleasant deserted island with white sand that almost blinds you and definitely used exclusively for tourist meal stopovers. A rush for seating by the now famished passengers and we finally devour our delicious banquet with the beady eyes of the occasional lizard firmly fixed on us in the hope of a morsel or two. After lunch we explore the shore for a while collecting shells and dry coral and then head back home. The sun is still hot enough to have a swim so we do just that before returning to get changed and out again for dinner and more dancing with the locals.

Our five days pass quickly and we have many wonderful days exploring the various churches, Museo Nacional de la Lucha contra Bandidos (which contains documents, photos and objects concerning the fight against counterrevolutionary groups after 1959), bartering for local handmade masks and jewellery in the numerous markets and just communicating with the Cubans. We are even secretly led to hidden restaurant in the garden of a house where after dinner we are offered bargain cigars for sale. We stock up with pressies for our near and dear ones to the delight of the young girl peddling her precious merchandise. A strenuous four hour, ten mile walk downhill in the mountainous Topes de Collantes area to see a unmerited waterfall and 10 miles back (obviously uphill) guarantees a rest day at the beach for our final day.

On the way to the well earned rest, our familiar taxi driver José, who charges $1 each for any ride we need, introduces us to one of his many children. He doesn’t think it odd that he has 5 children with three different women. He explains this is the “norm” and his score is nothing compared to his friend’s who has 10 children with 6 women. (Obviously the “Pepe Hey” works well and leaving your mark is the name of the game). Our hosts prepare a wonderful bean soup, baked pescados, rice, beans and various vegetables, beer and a strange homemade oversweet dessert made from corn. In house dancing and partying continues until after midnight when go for a walk and a final farewell Cuba Libre in the still busy square.

Anto and I have decided to return to Havana as our plane is leaving in two days time. The couple, Lucio and Antionetta have another week and decide to stay in Trinidad with plans to sunbathe, eat and whatever takes their fancy. The other two girls, Cristina and Lucia also have another two weeks but have decided to make their way to Cayo Largo then Santiago at the end of Cuba’s east side.

The Viazul is at 7.30am and we sleepily get on and settle down for the journey. There’s a TV showing various films in between blaring out propaganda for the cause. A short halfway stop where we have a roll and watch a man providing a short show with snakes, lizards and the likes. Not our cup of tea, so we steer wide and take photos from a safe distance.

Back at the station and we’re approached by a young woman enquiring if we need a taxi. It’s already dark and we gratefully accept. It doesn’t take 15 minutes to arrive back at our original house and we’re escorted by the suitcase laden driver up those familiar stairs to the fifth floor. We pay him and enter. Our hosts have rented our rooms even though we had booked for our return but they have also arranged for us to stay with another friend who has a “casa particular” just around the corner. We pick up our suitcases and Anto suddenly shouts “Where’s my other bag?” “You had it,” I say. “Oh my God it’s not here. It has my passport, house keys and money in it.” We look around and no bag. Finally she remembers it was on the seat next to her and in her tiredness got out without picking up. Panic. A call to the bus terminal and no-one knows anything. What can we do now? Henri offers to call another cab so we can make our way back to the terminal in the hope of seeing the same driver. A horn from below, the signal that the cab has arrived. We rush down the stairs and come face to face with the same cab driver who’d dropped us off only 15 minutes earlier. He looks at us and we look at him. He makes the signal to come towards him. We approach him and he hands over the bag. I hug him and thank him profusely as Anto is fixed to the spot and so happy at the return of her property. Another cab arrives and it’s the one we called. Our first driver Luis had arrived in old Havana when he noticed the bag in the back. He was on his way home but came back just to give us the bag. We get Henri to explain that we no longer need the second cab and relieved make our way to our new accommodation for the next two nights.

The time we have left is spent visiting the Cemetery (where we arrive in style by the equivalent of a Chinese Rick shack) with an entrance fee of $1.00, the botanical gardens (taken by Jesus) with its beautiful trees, cacti and exotic plants. On the last day we change driver as Jesus is busy and meet Carlos and his friend Oscar. They taxi people around as they earn more than the standard $5.00 per month they’d make as trained engineers. Talking with them we also find out that doctors and other professionals only earn between $10-15 per month. Of course it helps that they have a monetary system in pesos for the locals and dollars for tourists, but taxes still have to be paid. Housing and schooling are free, but anyone leaving their homeland (especially females) are expected to repay the government for their education. The population is also controlled as to where they can move within Cuba; two days being the longest they can leave their own areas without permission. We later visit Ernest Hemingway’s other favourite bar in Cojimar called “Las Tarrazas” and his house in San Francisco de Paula which is now a museum, a Santeria (African religion) where we purchase a wooden effigy of Ochun, the Cuban patron saint of love, Plaza de la Revolucion with its proud image of Che Guevara mounted high on a building, the Casa de la Musica where Compay Segundo’s band plays with a rare appearance from him (unluckily not when we visited) and a last walk on the seawall of this crumbling war torn looking, yet at the same time, exceptionally magical city.

I will never forget the feelings I had during that holiday which changed my life forever. I learnt a lot from this poverty stricken yet extremely proud to be Cuban population. We have so much, yet they with the little they have, go about their lives in such a humble, happy, accepting way.

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