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(Travel)Diary: looking back on November

During November we spend most of our time in Cuba. A fascinating island where everything works a bit different than we are used to. Socialism for example is still leading in this country. Together with Dutch friends Sander & Renate we travel around for three weeks. And our group certainly doesn’t visit the tourist sites only.

Havana ooh na na

Cuba’s capital is the perfect place to land, both literally and figuratively. We fly in from Mexico and our friends depart from Germany. Unfortunately we just miss each other on Havana airport. Without having any data or internet to contact. Later it turns out that our friends already took a taxi to the shared accommodation. While we keep waiting at the airport (and waiting, and). Ah well, people watching is always a great thing to do especially at the gate right? When the group is finally complete we go out for our to try our first ‘ropa vieja’ (old clothes): a national dish with braised beef and rice.

In Havana itself life is noisy and a lot happens in the colourful streets. From vendors selling to kids playing plus the constantly honking old timers. Nevertheless, it has a pleasant charm with always something new to see. We even find a modern coffee place with decent coffee and a cuddly house cat. The last one we see for weeks in the country (both). All of us cannot wait to start our Cuba trip so we don’t stay in Havana for too long.

The great negotiation game

Bargaining for a good price is a daily thing on Cuba. For us it all starts with arranging a cab to picture perfect Trinidad, our next destination. Via the uncle of a friend of the neighbour’s sister we find a reliable driver (LinkedIn eat your heart out). Let the games for a reasonable price begin! After a lot of phone calls and negotiation in Spanish we come to an agreement. Thank God for our friends, who speak Spanish. Even though it feels a bit helpless sometimes to let them do all the work. 

This game repeats itself many times during our round trip. Mostly to arrange accommodations and taxi’s. And along the way we get to know the Cubans more and more. Which helps to understand and improve our level. Especially Renate developed a hilarious way of doing business in dramatic Cuban style. The two of us start to participate in the ‘games’ as well. Having picked up three words of Spanish.

‘No hay si hay’

In other words, it’s not there or it’s there. To us, all items on a menu should theoretically be available. On Cuba this is certainly not the case. Supplies are often limited and getting new stuff takes forever. Same story for the government owned supermarkets. And ATM’s. At a certain point it’s simply empty. Luckily, we came prepared! 

But sometimes ‘no hay’ has a double meaning in Cuban hospitality. It could mean that a certain item is really not there. It can also mean that an employee doesn’t feel like helping you. Best example was our visit to a coffee place in Camaguey. ‘No hay’ coffee said the staff to our friend Renate and Anita. ‘But the other guy at the bar is drinking coffee too’, Renate says with a surprised tone of voice. Busted! Without any hesitation the employee asks whether she wants espresso, americano or cappuccino.

Cuban hospitality

We meet a lot of great hosts during our Cuba round trip. Everybody seems to know each other and they love to help us out with anything. Sometimes for their own good of course (commissions). But secretly they find us travelers very interesting. Because of limited internet on Cuba, we only book our first two nights in Havana beforehand.  

From there on everything is still open. It is a matter of knocking on doors at ‘casa particulares’ (B&B’s, indicated by a blue sign). And references by locals. When a casa is full, the owners can always advice you on other places to stay. Amazing system and fully independent of the internet. And a great way to experience local cuisine as well as the Cubans themselves. Which felt to us like a lot of extra freedom and adventure. 

The Dengue virus

Biggest setback during our Cuba round trip is the Dengue virus. Our friends don’t feel well in the second week. And it doesn’t seem to improve. After a medical check it turns out both of them have Dengue, caused by mosquito bites! The flue, fever and sensitive eyes are symptoms. Rest is the only way to get rid of it. Poor guys.

The hospital even starts the Dengue protocol. Which means that all our accommodations from the past days need to be smoked out. And our friends need to stay in quarantine for six days. Stubborn as they are, they are not cooperating with this last requirement. Resting in a relaxed casa is a much better idea than a tiny humid hospital room (without proper meds). After a few days Sander & Renate already feel much better.

Transport on Cuba

Negotiating is an important part of arranging transport during our Cuba round trip. The transport itself is an interesting topic too. Cars are almost always old timers due to the import embargo. Which makes it likely for us to get into car troubles, at least that’s what we expect. Especially in combination with the bad condition of the ‘pothole’ roads. 

Nevertheless, no car problems for us. Until the very last week that is. Smoke appears from under the bonnet. While we are driving in the middle of nowhere between Havana and Vinales. The driver tries to solve the problem, but without any result. And so we are stuck on a lonely road in twilight. Oops, what do we do now?! 

First thing we try is hitch hiking. After a while an empty old bus stops. The driver is willing to bring us to the next town. There we find another taxi who ironically also breaks down after a few miles. Eventually the uncle of the neighbour of the driver’s brother takes us to our final destination. Plus we brought our ‘best 500ml friend’ Ron (rum) for cases like these.

Without accommodation we end up in Vinales in the middle of the night. Everybody is asleep, which makes it difficult to search for a casa. Fortunately we see a man half asleep in his chair. He has a spare room for guests and saves the day.

End of the adventure

Our Cuba round trip ends where it began in Havana. Where we make use of the opportunity to drive in a classic pink Buick cabrio. Moreover we finally find good food and drinks again. On a rooftop terrace. A great way to end our trip. Plus we did ‘have to get rid’ of all the local cash anyway. 

On the last morning we say our goodbyes after a cup of coffee. Our friends go to El Salvador and we will fly to Guatemala. Time for Spanish classes in Antigua! We now already experienced how useful it is in Latin America to hablar the language.

Also this month:

-It is the first time we are traveling together with good friends Sander and Renate. Who taught us lots of travel hacks before we left home a few months ago. 

-Anita overcomes her fears by touring on the back of a ‘motorcycle taxi’ in the steep streets of Santiago de Cuba. 

-We meet a poor (and tall) Cuban guy with shoe size 12 (!) to gift Tom’s trainers. The man is very happy with them, because his shoes were totally worn out!