Lost in Translation

Trip Start Apr 06, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Ignacio and Clara's place

Flag of Cuba  ,
Saturday, July 24, 2010

We set off from the hostel in Cancun with plenty of time and went in search of the elusive collectivos; small mini buses that apparently pick you up anywhere from along the main road in downtown Cancun and drop you at the airport for a fraction of the price of the tourist bus. An hour later we were becoming increasingly agitated as not a single collectivo went past us the entire time we were waiting, and in the end we had to swallow our pride and smile nicely at the taxi drivers we'd been fighting off for the last hour and haggle down a price to take us to the airport...time was getting on and we still had to get our tourist card etc sorted out at the airport too. The flight to Havana was so short that we literally had time for one cerveza and a packet of peanuts and before we knew it 45 minutes had passed and we were in Cuba. We managed to hook up with another couple of backpackers to share a taxi with who were heading in the same direction as us towards the Plaza de la Revolucion. We had pre-booked a Casa Particular (a homestay with a Cuban family who are officially allowed to rent a room out to tourists) in an area of the city called Vedado for our first couple of nights and would decide from there whether to travel around for a while in Cuba or hang out in Havana for a few days. It was a bit of a culture shock when we pulled up at our casa...it was a small flat in a huge apartment block, there were kids and dogs and washing everywhere. The family however were very nice, making a strong, sweet shot of Cuban coffee to perk us up and we met another couple from Ecuador who were also staying there. They recommended a good, cheap restaurant so we ventured out onto the streets of Havana and parked ourselves outside the restaurant for some chicken and rice, a can of Crystal, and soaked in the new atmosphere of old cars, dilapidated buildings and loud music everywhere.

The next morning we pounded the pavements and walked all the way down through Central Havana to Old Havana, and found out some information about the possibility of visiting Vernales for a couple of days whilst we were here. Although we were happy with our casa, it was a bit cramped and the son of the host had started the hard sale on us trying to flog all sorts of things from cigars to scuba diving trips. As we were walking back past the University an older guy started to talk to us in Spanish, and although we'd had people trying to talk to us all day, we both immediately got good vibes from him and he asked us to wait outside his house whilst he called his Senora. Clara, his wife, was able to speak some english and it transpired that these 2 also ran a casa particular and had a room available. We went to have a look and were so happy when they took us upstairs to the first floor which comprised of a lovely double room, private bathroom, private kitchen, and huge roof terrace complete with rocking chairs, grapes growing everywhere and a view of the university. All for $2 more a night than we were already paying. Seeing this easily helped us make up our minds to stay in Havana for the next 5 days and really explore the city, not to mention a welcome break from long distance bus journeys.

So the next morning we moved house and our new hosts Clara and Ignacio made us very welcome. They insisted that the first thing we do is exchange some of our convertible pesos for cuban pesos so that we could get more for our money. There is a dual currency system in Cuba, meaning that one convertible peso that tourists are given to spend (which is roughly the same as $1 US) are automatically worth 24 times the value of one cuban peso which is the currency that cuban nationals work with. It's a strange system really, as we found out during our stay that the things you can buy with cuban pesos are extremely limited to bread, fruit, eggs, local bus tickets, and the odd restaurant or food stall / ice cream stand. On the other hand, many of the shops and restaurants in Havana that are specifically for tourists only accept convertible pesos, and the food in these places is not cheap, immediately excluding any of the local people from being able to eat in them. Likewise with the taxis; there are loads of old american cars from the 50's that will pick up a cuban national for a few cuban pesos, but it is illegal for them to take tourists, and the likes of us are expected to pay in convertible currency for an official government taxi...again making travelling by cab here very expensive. Anyway, Ignacio was determined to put a stop to this so off we went in search of a bank that would exchange some of our convertibles into cuban pesos, and once we had the money we went to the market for some supplies. Within a couple of hours of moving in we had our own fridge stocked with one pineapple, one mango, 15 bananas, 10 limes, 2 loafs of bread, a block of cheese, 4 cans of beer, 4 cans of diet coke, one bottle of havana club rum, a couple of bottles of water, and some freshly baked biscuits from one of the local food stalls...all for about a fiver.

We spent the next 4 days having a super nice time in Havana. It really is a fascinating and beautiful city, ranging from the huge colonial buildings (some restored and some about to fall down), live music in the bars in Old Havana, and the sheer amount of people loitering around on every street corner in Central Havana. We decided that we were definitely lost in translation staying with Clara and Ignacio though. They were a little bit eccentric to be fair, and did not seem to grasp the fact that our spanish is very limited. They were so nice and wanted to talk to us at every available opportunity, but we did not have a clue what they were on about most of the time and did a lot of smiling and head nodding in appreciation of whatever it was they were telling us. Despite this, they managed to invite us for a day out to the beach with them on our final day in Cuba, and we thought what the heck and accepted. Well, it was a bit of an epic day out and definitely one to be remembered. We squeezed onto a local bus with hundreds of cubans that took us to the other side of Havana for 1 cuban peso for both of us (about 3 pence). From here, we got herded into the back of what felt and looked just like a cattle truck for the 40 minute journey to Santa Maria beach. The beach was amazing and typically Caribbean with pure white sand and turquoise water and it was so nice to have a swim and cool down after the baking hot journey. Just when we started to relax Ignacio and Clara declared that they were very hungry and that they wanted to take us to a restaurant for cuban nationals only for some cheap food. It took us over an hour of walking in the blazing heat until we finally found a restaurant that Ignacio was satisfied with and we all had some delicious pork from the BBQ with rice and beans for only 15 cuban pesos each (about 40 pence). When it came to making our way back to Havana, Clara and Ignacio insisted that it was too hot to stand on the packed bus all the way back and started their search for a driver of one of the 50's american cars that was willing to smuggle some gringos back to the city. It didn't take too long before we were in the back of a cool old jeep with music blaring out, and Clara and Ignacio were acting like a couple of mischievous kids and insisting that Dan wear a disguise of Ignacio's baseball cap and dark glasses everytime we saw a police man to cover his very un-cuban blue eyes and blond hair . Very funny! We made it back to Havana without being arrested and were really pleased we had decided to accompany this crazy old couple to the beach.

We were surely going to miss our new cuban friends, including the amazing breakfasts that they had been making us each morning consisting of omelettes, fried bananas and fried malanga vegetables, and different fruit juices that they conjured up using the grapes growing all around the terrace upstairs. Again they insisted that we do as the locals do and proceeded to explain how to make our way to the airport by public bus. It really didn't seem that complicated to us...take bus number P16 for around 40 minutes and ask around on the bus for the pretty universally named 'aeropurto international'. But oh no, Ignacio was not convinced that we'd make it, and wrote us a long note that translates along the lines of 'Please! We are trying to get to the international airport! Please tell us when to get off the bus! Gracias!!'. He insisted that we show this to as many people on the bus as possible, threw my backpack onto a trolley on wheels and walked us down to the bus stop. He would be very proud to know that we did make it all by ourselves, and we were very happy that the journey back to the airport cost us 3 pence as opposed to the $20 we'd payed when we first arrived to get to central Havana in a cab. We were so determined in fact that this is all it would cost us, we walked the final couple of miles from where the bus dropped us to the Jose Marti International Terminal in the mid-day sun with all of our stuff.
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claire on

Sounds like an amazing trip. I love reading your blogs, I can really imagine being there with you. xx

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