So what does going from +30c to -37c in a short place of time do to a body? Our considered research suggests it fucks it….
On our return to Vancouver, initially all was well. Laura and Paco had travelled up from San Antonio for a couple of days to meet us and we had a lovely couple of nights with them doing what we do best; drinking and talking bollocks in bars. We really are very good at it.
Fun and Games with L & P
We also visited the Vancouver Aquarium, which for an animal prison is pretty good. It does a lot of good work on conservation and is a really good at subtle, or not so subtle education, about looking after our planet a little bit better. They also have sea otters, which are the cutest most wonderful creatures in the world. Or at least they would be if they weren’t completely evil bastards masked in a nice public persona. Think Jimmy Savile…………. but without the tracksuit…….. and gold chains……….. and mullet……….and all the other things that in retrospect shouted ‘SEX OFFENDER!!!’. I won’t go into detail, but Google Sea Otters, sex, baby seals and all will become clear (dirty little fuckers). Maybe they should wear tracksuits. If you don’t know the UK too well, you may want to google Jimmy Savile too, but probably not at work.
A Sea Otter practicing evil stuff
We also enjoyed a wonderful cultural experience with Larry and Sandra going to the ice hockey. It’s not ice hockey in Canada, just hockey (I assume the other is called ‘running around a field hockey’). It’s a big deal. We went to see the Canucks vs the Anaheim Ducks from California (who knew), and whilst the Canucks haven’t had a great season, the other team were worse so expectations were high.
It’s a fast game and to be it just looked like a bit of a fast moving wrestling match until they started fighting, when it slowed down a little. There are lots of things going on, like loud sirens when the home team score, sharks playing drums, sharks firing tee shirts into the crowd and music being played on a very old organ every time there is a break in play. Great fun, and the Canucks won (thankfully…. Imagine if they lost to a team that comes from a state that lacks ice).
Fight! Fight! Fight!
After all this fun and games, my body first got a headache, then just said ‘Fuck you!’ And I spent the next couple days in bed, shivering, shaking, coughing and being miserable. On this journey, Canada turns out to be one of the better places to get sick due to the easy access to drugs and comfort food, like mountains of chocolate and shepherds pie with baked beans. The same situation in Cuba would have been truly horrible (having only rum and detergent to perk me up), but at least I would have been as miserable as the majority of the locals.
Out and About
J then got a version of the same, but obviously less bad, and we kind of wrote off a few days. We did recover for the grand finale of the Vancouver Food and Wine Festival though, an amazing event which L&S had very kindly bought us tickets. It was the FTs perfect environment; great food, plentiful good wine and in the stunning location of the Convention centre, over looking the harbour. So, with about 500 of Vancouver’s similarly disposed inhabitants we had a great party, which culminated in Sandra leading a massive conga line around the dance floor (this is a Sandra’s superpower and the last time I saw it in action was probably the only time in its long and esteemed history that the restaurant in London’s Ritz has seen one). Great fun.
The middle aged and middle class behaving badly.......
After a few days acclimatising to Canada, we jumped on a flight to Yellowknife, which is a mid sized town about 400km south of the Arctic Circle. At this time of year people go there for one thing: to see the Northern Lights. Whilst seeing the Northern Lights, you get to do one other thing; get fucking freezing. The coldest it got was -37c, and for those who have not been in this kind of cold, this means it is really, really cold. Snot freezes, I got a nosebleed, exposed bits of skin go red, lakes have ice metres thick covering them and ice roads become a normal thing. And no matter how cold it is, when you say to a local ‘This is fucking freezing’, the say ‘This is nothing, you should be here when it is really cold’. After 7 months in sunshine our bodies asked ‘WTF?’.
It is a strange but rather wonderful place to go. To survive up there, people do things differently; they dress differently, rarely walk anywhere, drive cars that need to be plugged in at night and seem to have lots of live music.
They also go curling, which is a very cold version of lawn bowels. We went to visit a curling club, which is like a very cold version of a bowlo in Oz; cheap beer and a mixture of the very serious and the very amateur.
Out and About in Yellowknife
We had two goes at seeing the lights. One was with an Aurora Hunter and involved a 45 m drive to the middle of a frozen lake and parting with a significant amount of cash. The other involves Sandra driving 10 mins out of town, alternating between sitting in the warmth of the car and standing on a lake looking skywards.
Nature doesn’t care how much you have spent to see something and generally does its own thing, so on night one we had an ok display and night two, with just the 4 of us in the car, we had a much better display.
It is a very special experience, to stand in the freezing cold, watching the green light swirl about in the sky, peeing in the snow whilst a fox sniffs about (‘Is that a sodding wolf?’) and I am very glad we did it (not so much the peeing in the snow with a furry audience). I was also reminded how lucky some of my army experience was. In 1996 I was based on the prairies of Alberta at BATUS and spent many nights under the stars. I remember one night waking up and seeing an amazing show of colour above me, swirling and shivering like a bad effect on the 60s version of Lost in Space (if it had been in colour). I had no idea what was going on and had to ask someone. It’s only now I fully understand the lengths people will go to to have such an experience.
The other thing I was reminded of is that I like North American bars. They have more in common with UK pubs than Aussie ones in so much that both men and women go in roughly equal numbers and they just feel friendly. You can sit at the bar and chat to people without seeming like a weirdo for doing so (though some may conclude you are a weirdo after doing so) and it feels like a comfortable place to be.
I took a liking to the Black Knight bar, as it had everything a simple man like me needs: good beer, good service, proper pub food and atmosphere. We had a lovely experience on our first visit, when on asking for our bill after chatting to a local at the bar who left before us, we found that he had bought us a round. How friendly are Canadians!!
One of our visits coincided with a open mike music night upstairs which featured some great acts, so great that when we heard some were moving to another place to play, we followed them there, watched some great line dancing and local drunkenness and nearly followed then to the after, after party…….
A musical highlight was a visit to The Northern Arts and Cultural Centre to see 2 DJs, who together are know as Miraj, play an ‘Ambient Trance’ set, complete with light show. Sandra booked this. Now, at 48, I was the youngest of the group and the oldest had more than 30 years on me…. From the outset I wasn’t convinced that everyone really understood what ambient trance was, and knowing Jodie’s taste in music was pretty convinced only I would enjoy this. I was mostly right. As I sat with about 40 other people in a hall that could take 800, with 3 people dancing oddly (one of whom was obviously a man who needed help), watching two people put together reasonable music on a stage decorated with pot plants and and lava lamps, my appreciation deserted me after about 45 minutes.
It didn’t last too much longer, though no one was sure about that. In fact, the end was so un distinctive, they came back on stage to tell us all it was over, took some applause then started packing up their pot plants. Larry had the right idea; Larry slept.
The Music Scene
Far better than the DJs was a trip to see the ice cave, pulled over the frozen lake by a pair of husky’s. It’s amazing what these creatures can do; just hanging around in -20 something without lots of cloths is a feat in itself, but add to that, pulling a beer and fatty food fuelled man, and it’s nothing short of a miracle.
Whilst the change in temperature was a little extreme, it was a fascinating way to spend a few days and I would recommend it.
We flew from Cuba with Air Rouge, Air Canada’s budget airline, as few full service airlines service the place and whilst we had images of the squalor, elbowing and general rudeness of Ryanair in our minds, we were pleasantly surprised from the off. The wonderfully helpful and cheerful Taylor in the premium cabin took note of our rather ‘spoilt kids’ need for comfort and variety after a month in Cuba and did what ever she could to make us feel comfortable. This mostly involved keeping the booze and food coming, both of which were good and we became happier by the minute. It was the perfect start to the Canadian adventure.
It was almost less perfect when we got carried away in the lounge in Toronto when waiting for our connection and where so close to missing our plane, the guy at the gate said down the phone ‘You can stop off loading their bags, they are here’. That is as close as you want to get to missing a flight.
After so long in hot, non English speaking countries, why Canada? Our primary reason was to visit our lovely friends, Larry and Sandra, who we met in 2010 in the Antarctic and had then met a number of times in Sydney, London and Las Vegas. What we hadn’t done is see them in their natural environment of Vancouver and despite, their nervousness about us visiting at that time of year, we had decided this was the perfect opportunity to do so.
Arriving in the snow was a bit of a shock to the system, especially for J whose wardrobe was very much a summer only thing and had only Birkenstock’s to keep her feet warm in 0c, so first stop was an outlet mall. Talk about from famine to feast. From empty shops with grumpy staff to an orgasm of consumerism, staffed by people who are so helpful and charming it can feel a bit creepy to a stiff Englishman. It made us feel giddy.
The other shock on arrival in Canada was the cost of everything (besides all the goodies in the Outlet Mall). Mostly in Cuba and Colombia, as long as we didn’t go to international hotels or the very best city restaurants, it was pretty easy to stick within budget, without really thinking about it but in Canada it is all but impossible. The prices on the menu are high, but the cost at the end is so much higher. There is normal tax, liquor tax and then the tip. The tip thing is all very odd. In Oz and the UK, mostly you tip for good service. In Canada, poor service demands 15%, good service 18-20% and exceptional service 25%. On top of that, chambermaids expect $5 per day, taxi drivers at least 10% and pretty much everyone who provides a service expects something. The English in me wants to push back on this, but the only people to suffer from that would be the pleasant, hard working people who, in accordance with Canadian labour law are allowed to be underpaid by the employer who takes the profit. It’s all a bit odd and shit. Luckily we have a slush fund to ensure we can do most of things we really want to do that don’t fall in the normal daily budget.
On the upside, mostly this results in good service, though it can feel a little insincere at times (FWP). I’m not sure what is better; insincere politeness or genuine grumpy shits.
If I were to describe Canada with one word, it would be easy. By that, I mean the word is ‘easy’, not that it would be easy to come up with a word, though it is easy to come up with easy.
Firstly, whilst our Spanish is now ok to get by with, it hurts my head to think so much about just talking about normal stuff, so to be able to just talk without thinking (not something I admit to too often, but something my friends will agree with) is a real delight.
Secondly, it is a proper first world country so everything works. In the west we take much for granted; getting drinking water out of taps, having public transport that is understandable and reasonably efficient, safe roads, shops with everything you could ever need or want, restaurants selling every type of food etc. The last time all of this came together for us was September last year in Berlin so we really do know how lucky we are to be in such an environment.
The difference in places was hugely apparent on night 2, when we went for dinner followed by going to La Boheme in Vancouver (though we did get Cuba flashbacks when we were confronted with the not so faint smell of sewage in the first place we went to. We left). Being surrounded by the better off element of Vancouver society, watching a highly polished performance was a world away from our last cultural experience, watching ballet in Camagüey but not so different that I could resist some very ‘long blinks’ during it, which could be also described as a very expensive way to sleep.
We had left Havana nearly a month before and had friggin hated it. On our return we had decided to stay in a different part of town, Vedado, as we had heard it was a bit less feral than Barrio Chino (it would be very hard to be more feral). We got that right and were very happy when we arrived at our AirBnB in an apartment of what used to be a grand old house. The young couple who ran it were charming and the place so well provisioned (wifi, hot water, coca-cola etc) we were sure they must be related to the Castros.
This good start meant that Havana had every chance of winning us over on our second visit…….My jog around hen area and then back along the front to Barrio Chino to pick up some stuff we had stored there took me along some beautiful streets past incredible houses and filled me with hope. It failed to ride the wave though. Dinner on the first night was at an interesting Iranian place that reminded us it was Cuban when they decided they didn’t have what J ordered so gave her something completely different, got shirty when we complained, then brought out what’s she had ordered. We then dealt with every taxi driver trying to rip us off (I think there is a cartel in town that keeps the prices high), objectionable staff in restaurants and being treated to the worst haircut of the trip (it will take months to recover from it). It was still Cuba. It was a better experience than the first, but being in a prison cell without Mr Big is a better experience than being in a prison cell with Mr Big but neither are experiences one would rush to.
I won’t summarise the Cuba trip again as I did that at the start but I have to say that getting on our flight to Canada, despite our reluctance to go somewhere cold, was a real pleasure.
I wish Cuba the very best; all people deserve the best. Unfortunately I wouldn’t recommend helping the economy by spending your tourist money there unless you really have run out of other places to go.
I don’t know what I found more surprising: that an eight hour delay didn’t warrant an apology from one single member of the airline, or that nobody seemed to complain. I guess it was a combination of just accepting that life will always be a little shit and being glad that they didn’t have to get the bus or train.
Flying is expensive, (as are most things a tourist might want ..except rum) so most locals either never fly or fly rarely, which is probably why, when we hit sustained and reasonably significant turbulence, there was a fair amount of screaming and just a little crying. I’m not so keen on bumps myself, especially on a small turboprop owned by an airline with a very poor safety record and this background of general despair didn’t help.
We had been Umm-ing and ahh-ing about pulling the pin on our trip to Vinales as the delayed flight meant that we had lost a significant proportion of our time there, but the fact that a taxi driver had been waiting for us for 8 hours and we had an room reserved made us stick to the plan. We were very glad that we did. The town is a very well trodden tourist path set in the hills about 2 hours outside Havana, and after a night in a mosquito infested Casa Peculiar, we met the lovely Miguel and his gorgeous horses and went for a ride in the countryside.
I love a good horse, and mine, Caramello, was pretty much perfect. All I had to do is think trot, canter, stop and he did just that. He made polo ponies look a little sluggish……..and I wanted to take him home.
The first thing my gee-gee did was to encourage me to do something I hadn’t done for 26 years: smoke. We visited a local tobacco farm that was allowed to keep 10% of its product for local sales. Whether true or not, they convinced us that the leaves that made their cigars had the spines removed that contains 80% of the nicotine and as there were no preservation chemicals used, they were pretty much healthy smokes. It won’t become a JFT thing (due to the smell, expense, the need to do it away from most other human beings, the health risk and mostly people smoking fat cigars look like dicks), but I must admit, sitting in the morning sun, puffing on a freshly rolled fat cigar, drinking a very nice honey mojito looking out over the fields was a rather enjoyable experience.
The next thing my naughty horse did was take us to another farm that this time made coffee and rum. As we had done enough coffee in Colombia, we asked that we focus on the rum and in doing so met a lovely local farmer and sampled some lovely local rum with added guavana which gave it a distinctive flavour. We went from the sample to buying a glass (think ¼ pint), then a bottle whilst listening to a very lively trio of musicians playing local music.
It really felt like being in the Latin America that we love. The sun was out, the landscape hilly and beautiful, a group of Puerto Rican’s were dancing and everybody was smiling. If all of Cuba was like this we would be very happy people.
The remainder of the ride took as to a lake (with a bar), through a river, up a hill and through the outskirts of the town. It really was wonderful and Vinales knocked Baracoa off the top place to visit in Cuba podium after just one day at the top.
After the ride, we ate well in the relatively pricy but very good ……. Restaurant before returning to Havana in the same 1952 Chevy that had picked us up the previous day.
Vinales helped us recover some of our joy of travelling and we are very glad we went. Perhaps if we had started here, we may have had a more positive feeling about Cuba from the off. Whether this would have sustained us for the rest of the month is something we won’t know, but if Yu are planning a trip to Cuba, think about starting here.
The best town in Cuba award was held by Bayamo for two long days until it was knocked off the top by Baracoa.
Three days earlier, as we pulled in to town on our Viazul bus having driven through the normal empty scruffy streets past plastic filled beaches, I would have thought this very unlikely.
The town is right at the east end of Cuba and is in a hilly, tropical landscape, dominated by the anvil shaped El Yunque mountain. The town centre is small, but clean, lively and pleasant. There are a few too many touts, who after getting a ‘No gracias’ to their offers of taxis etc, will then start asking for your clothes…..’But I need my shoes to walk home in’. They are very proud of the special coconut milk sauce, unique to the area, and a good size fresh lobster with this sauce will cost about $12.
Locals and tourists alike wander the streets, drink in the square, listen to music and dance on pretty much every day of the week. It felt like a happy town.
We had two excursions to the countryside. The first was to the Yumuri gorge, a site where the indigenous people used to go and commit suicide as a better alternative to being a slave to the Spanish (the name is a bastardisation of the Spanish for ‘I die’) and included a very pleasant visit to a cacao farm to learn how the locals make chocolate, a lunch on a nice beach and a visit to a place called ‘Pretty Lady Mountain’. The latter got its name because a pretty lady once lived at the base of it. I kept an eye out for ‘What a Minger Hill’ and ‘Grumpy Old Cunt Gully’.
This was the first government run tour we went on, and we were not expecting much, but it was a great day. We went on a bus so modern (it had USB power sockets at each seat) we called it the Spaceship …. it really was out of this particular world. We also had a really, really good guide. At $20 for a full day, it was great VFM, which made a refreshing change.
Day Tripping; Yumuri Gorge
The second day trip was was to the Humboldt Reserve, about an hour outside town, where we walked 7km through the jungle, drank coconut juice straight from the coconut, sat by a river having more coconut juice straight from the coconut, but this time with the addition of rum, lime and honey, and swam in a lovely natural pool at the bottom of a waterfall. This was facilitated by the very professional Alber The Hiker (http://alberthehiker.com/en/baracoa-city/) his rather reckless driver in a 1956 Plymouth and made better by the company; two Germans (Henkel and Mariel?) and a Dutch lady (Natasha).
We finished on the beautiful, white sand Maguana Beach where we bathed, drank a little too much beer and mojitos and met two lovely Scottish girls, Angela and Clare. We drove back in high spirits, grateful to arrive safely as the driver had enjoyed a couple of drinks too (when I tipped him as I got out, he ran straight across the road to buy half a bottle of rum and some coke and he cracked the rum straight away).
That evening, we met the gang and the guide at the reasonably good Bon Sabor (‘we have no pork, fish or lamb tonight’) and were served by our guide from day 1, before heading off for a couple at the Casa Trova, where Angela demonstrated some of the best Salsa dancing I have seen by a person not from a Latin American country (she loves dancing, dances with locals but gets proposals of marriage after dance 2 and will find old dancing partners grinding themselves up behind her as she waits at the bar for a drink – ewgh).
Due to a flight at 8.30am next day, we didn’t go mad and were grateful for this when we checked in. Cuban flights are not known to be the best, with a poor safety record and low quality of service bar, but it was the best option (we repeatedly heard that plan ‘A’, a 20 hour train journey was ridiculous due to the huge delays (up to 2 days), broken loos and cockroaches).
There are only 3 or 4 flights a week, so the terminal is small, chaotic and hot. We arrived at 7.15am stood in the first queue to check in our bags, then joined the second to get our hand written boarding passes. At that point, after we had checked in our bags which contained towels and bathing suits, were told that the plane was ‘dead’ and subject to a 6.5 hour delay.
Out and about around Baracoa
We had ‘done’ most of Baracoa by then, so filling 6.5 hours was going to be tough. We started by heading to the town museum that included the storey of Che Guevara and his chocolate factory. There is only one chocolate factory in Cuba and the great Che personally set it up (he may have spent his time better on getting the trains to work). It is currently closed, as its machinery, installed in the late 50’s, had been damaged in the hurricane and Cuba has ‘bought’ new machines from Germany. The factory will reopen July or in 5 years (depend on who tells you .. I’d go 5 years). When we arrived at the museum we were told it was closed. ‘When will it be open?’ ‘May…….. probably).
We then went to the El Castillo Hotel, overlooking the city and the airfield, drank beer and hoped that the plane would be resurrected…..
Back and forth to the airport
We came to Bayamo as we had heard about its huge Saturday night fiesta, unique in Cuba, featuring street bands, street food, organ grinders and streets full of horses. It isn’t quite as advertised; there are no horses or organ grinders, the street food was two stands that sold churros and one that sold popcorn, plus three restaurants with tables in the street, the ‘bands’ were two areas with speakers and lights and the party was a rather subdued affair. J and I tried hard to find the party. The highlight was a goat cart; i.e a cart, pulled by a goat that children could ride on. We went to a lively corner bar that had a faint whiff of sewage about it for a couple of beers, walked up and down the high street trying to find a restaurant that was open, had veggie options and no queue, and, when we failed, hit a soulless hotel bar for a supper of rum and Cornettos, returned to the bar with the faint whiff of sewage, acknowledging it was the place to be, then had one last wander (interestingly, we watched a group of 4 tourists come into the the sniffy bar, sit at the only available table, decide they didn’t like something (the faint whiff of sewage, the indifferent service or the flies on the dirty table) leave, only to return 10 mins later with a look of disappointment, which got deeper when they realised that the only table available was no longer so). Our last foray out to find the party was when it it got better … we found about 30 locals dancing on a street corner near one of the speaker set ups. It really was the first time we had seen such a large collection of locals having fun. When that wound up, we thought we would push our luck and head to the Casa Trova and see if this was also kicking off, and it was. About 100 locals dancing and singing, to reggaeton, disco classics (Michael Jackson, the Bee Gees) and to odd things like the Jungle Book “King of the Swingers”. We fell in with a local family and, after closing time, sat with them in the town square drinking more rum. I think we were the last people ’standing’ as we wandered home at 2.30am, having had a really enjoyable night.
The next day was less enjoyable with J and I wandering around a largely closed, very humid, town with rum flavoured sweat seeping out of us.
Besides the fiesta, there is little to recommend in Bayamo. The Lonely Planet has a number of entries under sights and activities and at first glance it appears interesting, but on closer inspection the sights can be summarised as follows:
• A town square
• A house where someone famous lived until they were 12
• A pedestrianised ‘shopping’ street.
• A small square where Fidel did his last speech before becoming ill.
• A museum with some shells, bones and stones in it.
• 3 churches (closed on Sundays……really)
• A plaque to mark where the national anthem before the current one was first sung
• A house that belonged to a previous president but within which ‘You’ll find little about the famous former occupant”
So we ended up:
• Going to a restaurant that served an omelet so swimming in fat it was inedible
• Having ice cream in a place that ripped us off by saying the prices were in CUC not CUP (so x 24)
• Getting some Wifi cards from a shop assistant that did the whole transaction with using only one word – ‘passport’ – and avoiding eye contact.
• Walking the pedestrianised shopping street, twice
• Visiting some closed churches
• Going into a ‘supermarket’ to marvel at the lack of stuff
• Wishing that our bus was earlier.
And it remains the best town we have been to.
We got to Camaguey in luxury; a reasonable modern Chinese Geely copy of a 1990’s Merc C class, that featured seatbelts, some working electrics, a driver with mirrored aviators and the desire and ability to do 120kph. We felt right posh.
The best bit about going to a new town in Cuba is that we have hope it’s all going to start to get better. On the first evening in Camaguey, as we walked down a lively pedestrianised street, containing shops that seemed to have something other than detergent to sell and a technology park, we thought our hopes had paid off. We also established it was culture week, with ‘lots of events’ taking place. After a quick wander around we stopped off in an eccentrically decorated bar on the edge of a leafy square, drank a few rums and tried to get a feel for the place. We sat at the bar so that the miserable git behind it would find it a challenge to ignore us, but still he gave it his best shot. I think our Spanish was a little off as when we asked for a little ice for our drinks, the look on his face and his general manner suggested that we had accidentally asked to sacrifice his first born. However, to appease us, he slunk off and got us an ice cube each.
Another ‘interesting’ museum
It turns out there was three big ‘events’ as part of culture week. One was getting shitfaced on cheap rum, as demonstrated in the bar and by the people zig-zagging around the streets clutching rum. The second event was to queue to get tickets for up to date films like the original Lethal Weapon or something with Charlie Chaplin in it. The last was to go and see the ‘Big Doll’, a 30ft high rag doll suspended off the side of a building, in a sitting position with its rag legs outstretched. If you went to stare at it in daylight, it had small children playing on the legs. If you stared at it in the evening, it had a couple of ladies who looked down on their luck, sitting on the legs doing their knitting.
Camaguey is Cuba’s third largest city, and like all the cities we have visited, has tremendous potential. It has big, old churches, handsome buildings, large open parks etc. But it is in Cuba, so the potential is far from realised and very soon, after the normal shit service experiences and discovering that the technology park was a place were you could get wifi, our hope left us.
A Shopping Extravaganza
In the three days we were there, we ate once in an up and coming private place called the Melange Grill Bar whose owner was a charming Cuban Canadian who was also trying to open a new bakery in town but was hampered by the lack of flour. We also found the very good Casa Austria, featuring Weiner Scnitzel and Afpel Strudel with ice cream and the Restaurant El Paso on a quiet square with smiling staff and reasonable wine. These places took us a while to find, so supper on a couple of nights was beer and Pringle’s (in normal life, I consider Pringles to be the devils food; here when we see then, we buy at least 4 tubes).
Our highlight was another night of ballet at the Theatro Princiapal. The show was in five parts, each one featuring about 20 minutes of ballet. It was obviously a big deal in the city and people had dressed up for the occasion, even teenagers (who in the west would probably never dream of going to such a thing).
The first performance was the normal 19th Century affair, with tutus and permanent smiles but the second two were more contemporary, flowing and full of emotion, backed by some great music. I really, really loved it, so much so that I kept the program so that when I return to a place that has access to Spotify I can download them. So, some good from Cuba .. I may be a bit of a fan of contemporary ballet.
Out and About
Our daytrip out of Camaguey was a very Cuban experience. We were off to the Hoyo De Bonet, a natural deep depression with a unique biosphere in it. We were picked up by a guide and a taxi, a 1980s Lada that had so much exhaust fumes seeping through the floor that keeping the windows open was a must to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, and drove the 45m to the park where we were met by another local guide.
The place was pleasant enough and we walked through deserted woodland, spotting hummingbirds, a snake and big millipedes, visited a cave, walked through a steep sided natural limestone canyon and got to the hole itself. The thing we did know about the hole is that you are not allowed in it as it is a ‘unique biosphere’ that cannot be disturbed. We also didn’t know that the old viewing platform was destroyed by a hurricane a couple of years ago and hadn’t been replaced so you get to stand on a rock near the edge, holding on to a sapling to reduce the risk of death and see pretty much fuck-all whilst the guide assures you that it is really interesting down there. The experience cost of $120….to see fuck all……and get gassed…… Fantastic VFM.
Perhaps the next place will be great……..
Hoyo de Bonet
Cuba is to Canadians what the Costa Del Sol is to Brits. It is where you go to lie on a beach and get a tan. The difference is that there are no parties, no ‘Bar Street’ and ‘Club Street’ and bar crawls that end in either sex or sleeping in a pool of your own vomit, rather each all inclusive hotel has it’s own entertainment program that made us think of Hi-Di-Hi.
The locals call Canadians ‘Pollos’ (Chickens), coz all they do is eat and sleep. About 1.2m come to eat and sleep each year, and I think they like it because their noisy cousins from south of the border can’t get there easily.
An all-inclusive resort isn’t really our thing but we went for two reasons; the Cayos only have all-inclusive resorts as options and secondly, we wanted a bit of a break from Cuba. We pushed the budget a bit and opted to stay at the 5* Melia Cayo Coco. It cost US$220 a night for all food, booze, activities etc and, best of all, was adults only. It was also described as ‘an intimate resort’ as there were ‘only’ 300 rooms!
We arrived, after an easy three hours in our banger, rather early (12pm rather than the check in time of 4pm) but were welcomed and allowed access to everything right from the off. Nobody cried when we got to our room, which was big, airy, slightly dated and had a bath. The hotel was in a lovely location, with a white sand & crystal clear water beach on one side, and a lagoon (also a breeding ground for mosquitoes) on the other. It boasted 4 restaurants; the first was the main buffet restaurant, which we christened ‘The Trough’ and three small ‘a la carte’ places, that you needed to reserve a table in. Interestingly, demand is so high for the non ‘trough’ restaurants that people book via the inter web before they arrive so we had to beg to get a late table on one night in the one place with a vegi option.
It turns out that Canadian ‘Snowbirds’ (people escaping the snow for a bit of sunshine) return year after year and it really was happy families with the staff. The returners also know the tricks of the trade and, rather than being content with the small plastic glasses of beer and cocktails you get to take to the beach, come equipped with their own massive thermal mugs which take about an hour to fill but greatly reduces their need to return to the bar.
I liked being amongst middle to late aged Canadians. They drank but did seem to get drunk, they talked without shouting, they clapped politely at the appalling entertainment, whilst no strangers to the buffet, they weren’t really kicking the arse out of eating (except perhaps the guy who took a whole loaf of bread to accompany his breakfast) and mostly they knew that one wears a top when at the bar. The staff loved them too, because of their almost universal lack of understanding of what Cuba was really like and their North American attitude to tipping. About 50% would tip $1 every time they got an all-inclusive beer (which is about the cost of a beer in a Cuban bar) and I would be surprised if the barman at the beach bar – who rarely bothered to smile or chat – didn’t clear $100 a day in tips, in a country that pays its Doctors $60-$100 per month.
Cayo Coco is also very close to perhaps the worlds most perfect beach under certain criteria – Playa Pilar. It takes about an hour to get there, has no hotels on it, sand like talcum powder and crystal clear water that is shallow enough to wade out waist deep for about 100m. Because you can only get there on one of approx 4 daily buses or in a taxi, it is really quiet, and being Cuba, everything is cheap too. Two sun loungers under a palm roof shade cost $4 for the day and beers were $2. Such a wonderful place in Europe would be packed and charging $60 for a beach chair. If you like lots of bars, music, jet skis etc, this won’t be for you, but as a perfect place to relax, it can’t be beaten.
You get to the beach on an open topped double decker, the hop-on, hop-off type you see in most cities. The difference is, in most cities they rarely go faster than about 50kph. Here they go at 100kph which leads to a bit of an assault on ones senses, rather like being on a motorbike without a crash helmet, and if you keep your mouth open there is a high chance you will drench those behind in streams of dribble.
It was a lovely few days. Some of the staff could have been a lot more friendly, but they were good by Cuban standards, and the scoff lacked a bit of variety, but we ate well, slept well, relaxed on a beautiful beach and felt ready to hit Cuba again by the end of it.
The reason that cars now are not the same as the cars were in 1950, is that the cars in 1950 were shit. It is important to remember this when you get carried away with the romantic idea of Cuban cars and commit to a 2 hour trip in one.
We had ditched our bus in favour of a 1956 Chevy that enabled us to leave Trinidad later and visit an old sugar plantation on the way to the provincial capital of Sancti Spiritus. In Cuba, your view of a good car changes. After 3 weeks here, all we wanted is a trip without a breakdown, a car with seatbelts (very rare), seats that didn’t leave your bum numb after 10 mins, drivers that didn’t bring up phlegm and gob out the window, and a cabin that didn’t have exhaust fumes seeping into it. The bar is low.
The sugar cane place should have been interesting as it had been a large, slave enabled place, that housed about 300 slaves and produced a lot of sugar. We got to learn a bit about the shit life of a slave and would have learnt more if the English speaking guide had not been ‘too busy’ to guide, leaving it to our cab driver and his wife (along for the ride) to show us around. In Spanish.
Sancti Spiritus itself is quite nice. It is clean, it has useable pavements and we found a lovely restaurant overlooking the Yayabo River that served reasonable wine, had blue cheese, an atmosphere and smiling staff. The real shock is that it had all of these, and was a government run place.
It is not a tourist destination so it was good to see ‘The Real Cuba”. It has a pedestrianised shopping street that has some shops that have some stuff in them. Stuff normally comes in the shape of detergent (every shop seems to have loads), rum (it is much, much, much easier to get rum than water), massive, catering size tins of tomato’s or pineapples, rubber gloves and rice cookers. They are so excited about these things, that shop window displays have this stuff in them, and as we approached St Valentines Day, some shops were wrapping detergent and shampoo up as a gift for your significant other. If one shop has x or y in, every shop will have it in, and if you can’t get something in one shop, there is probably little point in looking in similar ones.
Real Cuba seems to lack joy as well. We have visited many poor areas in many different countries in our time and often the thing that goes with such areas is noise; children playing in the streets, scooters buzzing away, music places, people talking on the doorstep, others drinking beer in corner bars etc. Here, there is nothing. A band playing in a street will be watched by people who seem content to stand and stare. Streets are deserted and if you look through peoples doors, a family will be sitting staring at the one channel of the telly, unmoving. Most can’t afford a beer, let alone a scooter. If they do go out, it will be to queue it get into a cheaper government run place where 99% of the staff behave like they really do not want you there (if you got $25 per month, no matter if 1 or 1000s people came in to your restaurant, perhaps we would all behave the same).
Whilst there we went to the Guayabera shirt museum that is located in a lovely old house next to a semi putrid river, and that displays about 30 shirts once worn by famous people. Fascinating. I may open a big pants museum in Bundanoon.
Perhaps slightly more fascinating was the natural history museum, aka the bad taxidermy museum. Our fave exhibit was the up lit stuffed hedgehog. (We got told off by a fellow tourist for having a dim view of the local museums as “it’s amazing what they achieve with very few resources”. I agree with this, but it makes them no less shit as an experience)
The other thing that took up some time was getting the fuck out of there. Our next stop was Cayo Coco in the north and getting there was a challenge, but led to a good Cuban experience. We were trying to get a bus to a town near the Cayo, from where we could get a taxi. Our first trip to the bus station led us to think we should find somewhere in town to get tickets and 30 mins of searching in town indicated that we needed to return to the bus station. We approached a motorbike taxi type thing and asked the driver how much it would cost to go to the bus station, wait for us whilst we got a ticket, then comeback to the square. Not only did he offer a fair price, he came in to the station with us, attempted to help us get a ticket (after 10 mins the solution appeared to be, turn up 30 mins beforehand the following day, wait for the bus to come in and there would ‘probably’ be space for us). The taxi driver suggested that Cuba was crazy, returned us to the square and was both surprised and delighted by the tip we gave him.
We had some interesting dining experiences in town too; a coffee shop that had no milk and an ice cream shop that was eat in only and involved being stared at by the (far too many) staff whilst we ate in a place empty but for us. This place is V odd.
On the day of departure, we duly arrived at the bus station met a nice taxi driver with a reasonable car (a 1980s, Chinese copy of the great Talbot Alpine, that had no seatbelts and no working electrics, but did have comfy seats) and negotiated a reasonable rate to take us to our next stop; an all inclusive package holiday hotel on Cayo Coco.