Then I ran down to the clinic with a rash I've never seen before
But the test, to all of our surprise, it showed unusual high sex drive
I said soul livin', soul livin', soul livin’
we live and learn….
Okay, side trip….to Cuba! WOW! What an incredible experience. It is so different from anything I have seen so far that I was constantly amazed. How a city, a country, a people, can be so old and so new and so resilient is beyond me.
First stop, Havana or Habana as they spell it. I flew in from Cancun to Habana and the Airport alone was a trip and half. There were people everywhere, and it seemed to be complete chaos. The first thing I noticed is the ladies wearing these incredibly sexy stockings with patterns and lines running up the back, which of course had me completely distracted so I wasn’t prepared or paying attention when the undercover police strolled up to me and asked for my Passport. Okay, no problem, here you go. Then they wanted to know if I had a camera? Of course I have a camera I am a tourist. Does the camera have GPS? Hunh? Yes my camera has GPS. Why? Then they huddled together and discussed this situation in hushed voices and of course in spanish, so I had absolutely no idea what they were saying. Finally they gave me my Passport and my camera back and waved me back into line. Hunh!
Back in line I waited, I cleared Immigration and then went to Baggage Claim and waited, and waited, and waited. I have never seen anything like it. There were hundreds of strangely wrapped bundles of, of well I don’t know what? But what I did come to find out is that ALL of them are on top of the normal luggage and ALL of them are x-rayed before they can hit the conveyer belt and ALL the people except for me seemed to claim one or two of them? Hunh? So I waited, for about 2 hours, and finally my backpack came tumbling down the chute. Whew! Now I can get going.
Not so fast. I still had Customs to clear. Pretty simple right? There are two lanes - one, Green, for Nothing To Declare (which was completely empty) - and one, Red, for Items To Declare (which was packed with all the people with all of those strange bundles), I, being bundleless, headed straight for the Green Lane and just before I entered (of course I was back to looking at the pretty ladies in those sexy stockings) another Official (not too sure what his name, rank, or serial number was) stops me and pulls me aside. This time he had forms, many forms, and he went through each one and asked me a ton of questions, and wrote down all of my answers and eventually we got around to the camera questions,
“Do you have a camera?”
“Does it have GPS?”
Uh oh, now what? The Official took my Passport and my camera and off he went, with me following closely behind because I am still not too sure he is really Official and am worried he is stealing my Passport and camera. Eventually he huddled in the corner with some other Official looking dudes and they conversed, in hushed spanish, for what seemed to be a very long time. Me, I waited as patiently as possible. After some serious head shaking and some serious scribbling on papers, the Official came over and gave me back my Passport and my camera and wished me a pleasant trip. Hunh?
Go while the gettin’ is good. I quickly hustled through the Green Lane (of course by now ALL the people who were waiting in the Red Lane were long gone) and went in search of my ride into the city. Thank god I didn’t have to take a Taxi, because ALL the people from the Red Lane were now in the Taxi ranks with all of their strange bundles of who knows what. I fortunately had a private transfer waiting which was thrown in at the last minute by the travel agent in Mexico because my flight was canceled and bumped back a day. By the time I made it to my hotel, (supposedly one of the best - but it was a dump - and the employee’s have absolutely no incentive to be nice to you or go the extra mile - very weird), it was late and dark and I was hungry and a little shell shocked by the whole experience so far. So I dropped my bag in my room and went out in search of food.
Now, the guide books warn you about food and Cuba. Basically they say the food sucks. Eat because you have to, not for the dining experience. They also say that the best food is in the Casa Particulars (people who rent rooms in their house to tourists - kind of like a Bed & Breakfast) and not in the “Government Restaurants” or in the Hotels. So I wandered around the neighborhood and found nothing, absolutely nothing to eat. As a last resort I wandered into a nice hotel and was just going to eat in the hotel restaurant, when by chance I started talking to the Concierge who confirmed a recommendation some guy on the plane had mentioned and promptly called and made a reservation and then drew a map so I could find the place. It went something like, make a left, a right, cross the street, follow the sidewalk and look for the guy on the street standing in front of the yellow building with the blue door.
What I found was Ivan Justo! An absolute gem. One of the nicest restaurant I have ever had the pleasure of dining in. It was so good I am at a loss for words. Let me try to explain though. First off it turns out that things are changing in Cuba and they are changing at light speed. Fidel is no longer calling the shots and his brother Raul is loosening up the tight reign that has been in place for so many years. The people are now allowed (not necessarily encouraged) to have small capitalistic businesses, to make their own money, to be entrepreneurs. One of the fastest growing areas is the Hospitality Industry and two of the biggest segments within this field are the previously mentioned Casa Particulars and now, more recently, the privately owned Paladares. So now it is possible to find first class chefs offering their culinary creations to the public.
Another interesting fact to mention is that the Cubans are a pork eating people - as a matter of fact it is almost impossible to find beef anywhere except for in Government run Restaurants. I asked many questions about this and the best I can do to explain it is that the cows all belong to the Government, and each and every cow has its own official papers identifying it. It is so serious that if a cow is sick or dies, you have to have a Government Veterinarian come to see the cow and pronounce it dead and then you have to burn the cow (you are not allowed to eat them?). Hunh?
Anyway I love pig, pork, I never met a piece of bacon I didn’t like. I had a quarter of a suckling pig for dinner my first night in Cuba at Ivan Justo and I fell in love. It melted in my mouth while the skin crunched and crackled. It was so good I made a mental note to say a silent "thank you” to the universe for pigs and Ivan himself.
The following morning found me on a city tour of Habana. I am still not 100% sure how it happened but one minute I was in the lobby and the next I was on a tour bus? I had not booked a tour or had any intention of taking a tour, it kind of just happened. It was well worth it though for over the next 4 hours or so I was treated to an overview of Habana, today, yesterday and tomorrow. What a snapshot of things that were and are still trying to be. There is everything from crumbling mildew and mold covered buildings from the 1940’s to renovations and new construction. The streets are packed with cars from the 1940’s and 1950’s. There are pictures of Che everywhere. The people are out and about living their lives in the streets for all to see. It was fascinating. We drove down the Malecon (boardwalk along the ocean), passed famous hotels where the likes of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky used to hang out, stopped at Revolution Square, visited an old fort that still stands proudly at the entrance to Habana Bay, and finished up in Habana Vieja (the old city) with a walking tour of the squares and back alleys.
I broke off from the whole group tour thing at this point and wandered aimlessly around the old town. I saw the Cathedral, a roving band of pranksters, old and young dancing in the squares, children playing baseball with sticks for bats and plastic water bottle tops for the ball, and all the while being offered cigars or rum by every tout in town. I finally settled in for a lunch break at another gem of a Paladare called Dona Eutimia where I dined on Lobster and drank strong dark coffee. Wow! Now, I’ve not been everywhere, and some of the world’s best cities are still on my list of places to see, but I do have to say that if I was to make a list of must see cities - Habana would definitely be on my Top 10. It was that different, that amazing.
This was a side trip though and I only had a week in Cuba and there was lots more I wanted to see. So the following morning I met my private driver and ad-hoc tour guide - Frank (easy for me to remember) - who was going to drive me around Cuba for the next 5 days. Frank was great, he spoke very good english and was very modern but also very passionate about his country. He was a perfect blend of the old and the new.
Our first stop was in Las Terrazzas - an eco-village with a neat old coffee plantation to visit - Cafetale Buenavista. I stopped and had a nice strong brew and then we were back on the road and headed to Valle de Vinales. Vinales is a picturesque valley of karst peaks jutting out from the green earth surrounded by tobacco fields and farms and is just beautiful. When we arrived we went straight to a local Paladare and had another incredible pork meal, this time it was pig on the bbq and all the trimmings and all you can eat. Mmmm….
I then checked into my Casa Particular and was delighted to meet my host family and find a clean comfortable even somewhat modern room waiting for me. I would have dropped down for a well deserved nap but it was Super Bowl Sunday! and it just wouldn’t be right to not at least try to see the game. The only problem was that no one had any idea what I was talking about when I asked if the TV was going to have the game on? They didn’t even get what American Football was? NFL? Huh?
No to worry, my new best friend Frank drove me up to the only real hotel in the area and being that his first language is spanish he had no problem asking the Bartenders if I could surf the channels and look for the game. Woo hoo! Success. Not only would I get to see one of the most beautiful sunsets over the valley but the game was on in real time, live! Okay so it was all in spanish (because it was a Mexican Broadcast) but hey I understand the game so who cares. There I was the only American, with Frank a Cuban and Peter from Switzerland, a strange bunch for sure, and me the only one who knows the game and the rules and I am excited to share my countries sport with some fellow travelers and … it is one of the worst games and most boring games to try to get outsiders interested in the game ever! Hahahaha… Oh well, I watched it to the bitter end anyway and Peter and Frank hung in there with me.
The next day we toured the valley. We went through a cave system - I really wished I had dive gear. We stopped to look at “ancient rock paintings” that were painted almost 20 years ago? then the highlight for me was we went to visit a Tobacco Farm and meet the local farmer. What a character! He was as charming as could be and (out of the kindness of his heart) he gives “free” tours of his plantation and explains the process of tobacco farming and then invites you into his home where he has all his female family working their butts off serving fresh coffee and selling his cigars. It was awesome. There he was at 11 in the morning rocking in his rocking chair, drinking rum, smoking a cigar and flirting with every skirt that came by. Hahaha…
We then settled in for a long drive to Cienfuegos, where we would spend the night. Somewhere along the route though we stopped for another spectacular lunch of, you guessed it, PORK! and all the trimmings. I missed most of what we passed on the rest of the drive because I was in a pork coma and drooling on myself in the passenger seat as I napped away.
Cienfuegos was asleep when we arrived, and since I slept most of the way there I was wide awake. We checked into a Casa Particular and headed out to see what we could find. Nothing. I mean nothing. The town was really locked up for the night. I was lucky to find a store still open to buy some water before I toddled off to bed. In the morning though the city came to life. I watched from my balcone as the locals started their day. After a nice Casa Particular breakfast we cruised around Cienfuegos and checked out the old architecture before hitting the road.
Next stop Trinidad. Again Wow! Trinidad is mostly as it was or has been for the last 500 years. It is like traveling back in time. The streets are cobblestone, the transportation horses, the architecture old and spanish influenced, the people and the culture suspended in time. Absolutely incredible. After lunch and a bit of a struggle to find a nice Casa Particular, I set out to explore. I wandered the streets for hours. I took a look in the local museum, climbed some very narrow stairs to find a beautiful view over the old city, meandered through the Plaza Mayor, marveled at the old towers, lingered in the Barrio Los Tres Cruces soaking up the local vibe, poked my head into the Casa Templo de Santeria Yemaya to see if any santero (Santeria priest’s were around) and eventually found my way back to where I began. I probably took a hundred pictures, it was that interesting and alive.
I spent many more hours over the next few days wandering the Calle’s and alleyways of Trinidad and did do quite a bit more exploring. But after a morning stroll to witness the seeming chaos that is the daily life of a Trinidadian and seeing everything from buying the daily vegetables and meat to feed the family, to the men on the corners loudly and very passionately discussing the baseball scores of the day before, it was time for me to hit the beach. For me the sun was calling and a large chunk of the day was spent at Playa Ancon, one of Cuba’s most beautiful beaches. I spent the afternoon soaking up the sun and sipping on a coconut. Nice.
That evening found my back in Trinidad seeking out one more incredible Paladare for a meal of (yes I ate both) pork and lobster. I wound up in a place called Guitarra Mia and as I ate they played and sang. Then I wandered back through the dark streets with the sounds of salsa wafting down on me from the Plaza on the nights breeze. Ahhh.
The next day it was a long drive back to Habana. I kept myself awake and entertained this time though by trying to take pictures of all the Billboards and there are lots of them, with there seemingly endless propaganda that is to this day very much a part of cuban life. Things might be changing and some things changing very quickly, but make no mistake, this is still Cuba.
Back in Habana I spent my last night in style. (well not the hotel - I checked back into the same dump) But I dined once again at Ivan Justo, and again it was beyond description. (rumor has it he used to be Fidel’s Private Chef?) Then Frank drove us to the most touristy thing in all of Cuba but an absolute must see, the Tropicana Night Club! Hahahaha…. From the moment we arrived with all the neon lights and the Maitre D’ dude who wanted a “tip” for better seats, to the full on production with period costumes and dances, to the bottle of rum on every table and the cigar lady making her rounds, it was a full on Ricky and Lucy experience! I half expected Ethel and Fred to sit down next to me. Hahaha… Havana is amazing!
That was that for now. Frank picked me up at my hotel and gave me a ride to the Airport. He brought his wife and son with him to introduce me to his family. We exchanged numbers and bid each other farewell. The exit procedure went way smoother then the entry procedure and before I knew it I was flying safely at 30,000 feet over the Caribbean Sea on my way back to Mexico.
Wow! What a side trip.
Soul livin', soul livin', soul livin', we live and learn...