Havana good time in Cuba

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
Trip End Dec 15, 2006

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Saturday, October 7, 2006

Hi everyone

Well, it has been a little time since I last wrote and Louise and I have been travelling lots. I better start quickly:

At the end of Belize we made our last latin border crossing and passed into Mexico. I felt so relieved to see signs in Spanish and toothless homeless people again that I almost hugged someone in the street. I quickly thought better of this and got back into my luxury minivan. This actually sumarises the start of our Mexican adventure quite well as we spent it on the Yucatan peninsula (the Caribean ocean side of Mexico) which is very expensive, very touristy and has strict rules about hugging the locals. Our first port of call was the (port) of Tuluum. Tulum has a nice set of Mayan ruins made great by being perched on a cliff overlooking a magnificent beach. We stayed, as any Simpson's fan will enjoy, in a place called 'Rancho Relaxo'. Troy McCleur was unfortunately not there but an aging American hippy took his place. He helped the time pass far more slowly than it should have by telling us stories about his dog. Tulum's only downfall (aside from my mis-timed step along a cliff edge) was the endemic tour-bus-guide-with-umbrella tourist. I managed to keep them all away though by pretending to speak spanish and have no teeth.

A few days later it was time to head to Cancun. The is the Little-America for Big-Americans of Mexico. Most people only ever see the hotel-strip: 25 km of beach-front mega-resorts. Most tourists never actually leave the resort they are staying in. They simply walk (waddle) out to their little strip of beach and then waddle back to the hotel again. I guess that is one way to see the 'real Mexico'. Louise and I decided that the seedy downtown area was a better bet. Our hostel, bless them, offered us free earplugs when we checked in. As I lay awake at 4am listening to people screaming, fighting and f***ing I was touched by their generosity. If only they gave me a free iron bar to beat the other people in my dorm into submission it would have been perfect.

However, the fact we couldn't sleep may have been due to the fact that WE WERE GOING TO CUBA THE NEXT DAY! Going to Havana has been one of my big goals for the whole trip and it was definitely an... experience. I wish I could say the whole thing was fantastic but, unfortunately, it was like a box of 'genuine cuban cigars' - a bit of a mixed bag.

Cuba, as many know, is one of the few surviving socialist countries in the world with salsa. The hundreds of salsa bands had my tapping my (state-made and hence in a sorry state) shoes to a new beat. The cars are also pretty special: most are well maintained vintage American models from before the US trade-embargo. Some of them are truly beautiful Cadi's and Dodge's and... OK, I know nothing about cars so I will stop. Unfortunately there are also a fleet of new BMWs and Mercedes cruising the streets but Cubans can't use them - only tourists. I didn't really like such state-sanctioned hypocrisy and honked loudly at all those other inconsiderate tourists driving beside me.

Havana itself is an amazingly city. Old Havana has been given a new coat of paint and sparkles beautifully. We walked every morning about 2km down an ocean-side promenade called the Malecon where waves crashed over the baracades and drenched us. This would have been great had it not been for all the pick-pockets, beggars and con-artists trying to get our money. I thought one guy was actually about to hit me when I wouldn't give him any money. He was in the middle of calling me a 'dirty mother f***er' when a waved broke the baricade and washed him onto the motorway. A charming tourist then ran over him in a new BMW so, in a way, the Cubans did start using the new vehicles whilst we were there.

The city also venerates Ernest Hemingway - he lived there for about 2 decades and wrote 'The Old Man and the Sea' whilst living in Havana. Most Cubans believe he was a fervent supporter of the revolution. He was unquestionably an alcoholic. It is every tourist's responsibility to take a pub-crawl to his favourite haunts and get soundly written (he, he - a literary joke) off. We drunk Mojitos (the national, and only, cocktail) and puffed away on Cuban Puros in his memory. I then went and threw up. ironically I couldn't buy a single Ernest Hemingway book whilst I was there, counter-revolutionary, you know.

We also visited the famous Partagas Cigar Factory where we watched hundreds of Cubans packed, cigar-like, into a huge hand-rolling-sweat-shop. It smelt like, well, cigars. When I left every bloke and his dog offered me cheap, inferior-quality fake cigars that only an idiot would buy. Luckily I now have cigars for every reader of my blog!

However, we did have some problems, some I already alluded to, all of them basically due to the fact that we were tourists and hence rich whilst the Cubans were Cuban, and hence poor (free of capitalist influence). Everyone tried to rip us off. I was yelled at, abused and we were overcharged for everything. The entire currency in Cuba is a complete crock - They have these special 'tourist-dollars' that are meant to be a 1 to 1 exchange for US dollars. They don't tell you that there is a 20% surcharge for changing any money in the country. Then, after sucking 20% of our money out of us they then charge RIDICULOUS prices for everything. As everyone says - Cuba is an incredibly expensive place for somewhere with nothing to buy.

Anyway - five alcohol and smoke filled days later it was time to leave. We left both drun and poor and, looking at each other, realised that we had become Cuban. That is obviously a joke but, seriously, the people in that country are really doing it tough. Free education and free health care are all well and good but if there are no jobs, no variety of food, no opportunity for travel and neither free speech nor free press - well, what's the point???

Hope everyone is well.

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