Cigar country.. real man country..

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Vinales, Cuba

Computers have changed a lot. I should know. But you should too; I think we’ve reached a point in the Western world where we take a lot of this stuff as granted and entitled. There’s been places we’ve been where you’d see an old Dot Matrix printer with roller fed paper and you chortle a bit. ‘Remember those?’ .. but it’s a completely different tangent here.

The bus tickets we’d purchased a few days prior were a hand-cut string of pre-printed coupon type pieces of paper that had pencil scribble in the appropriate boxes indicating stuff like time, date and destination. The total amount we paid for them was rung up on one of those big grey beasts of a cashier machine with the white numbers on black backing and the type-writer style keys. Once purchased we moved over to a stern looking woman on a desk who took the details of the tickets and transposed them onto a list attached to a clipboard. She then took a small rubber stamp.. yes stamp.. pressed it onto an ink pad and ensured that our tickets had the official seal with that little wobble people do with stamps to ensure a good impression. A lost art-form I think; given some of the stamps in our passports.

Similarly when we arrived and ‘checked-in’ our luggage to a luggage attendant he gave us a stamped receipt. In the departure lounge, I ventured upstairs through the thick cigar smoke to get some bottled water for our journey. ‘Do you have a large bottle of water?’ I ask in Spanish.

‘No tenemos’ came the reply. This should be stamped onto the next round of bank notes I reckon. Everywhere you go, every menu you look at, every store you enter you’re bound to hear it regularly. It’s the nature of supply in a communist country I suppose. Sometimes things are available, often they’re not. I ordered two small bottles instead.

The bus we got onto was Chinese so the headrest on the seat back poked into the top of your shoulders. It was a bus full of gringos and it felt a lot like an organised tour. The patterns on the seats had re-assuring phrases like: ‘Good road’, ‘Best vehicle’ and ‘Good seat’. I’d beg to differ on the last one.

We set out through the broad boulevards of Havana and were soon on the freeway out of town. A remarkably ‘good road’ with little traffic and the unusual tendency to have occasional overpasses with no overpassing road; i.e: just an overhead bridge that sharply drops off at either end. The scenery is a little drab, Cuba has cleared most it’s land as means for cultivation. In 1959 only some 16% of virgin rainforest remained. The late 1960’s brought some decent environmental conservation and reforestation efforts, a great example of which is Pinar del Rio’s ‘Las Terraza’s’ to which we were unknowningly en route, and this brought the statistic up to 24%. So a few words to describe the landscape would be: thatch, scrub, dust, sneeze, allergy, yellows, browns, reds, and a bit of green. In amongst all that you’ve got Cuba’s famous royal palms which help break up the desolation. It’s a bit like Cambodias totty palms, breaking through the scrub and thatch, reaching for the sun.

We stop in La Terrazas for a bit of break. It’s a Unesco Biosphere Reserve and once the site of a flourishing coffee industry. It’s a half hour diversion off the road just to get there but there’s a man-made lake with a sort-of mountainous backdrop and some really rich vegetation. There’s a cafe that has a handful of other bus-through tourists enjoying refreshments and a band waiting for our arrival. We disembark and disperse, some directly into the cafe, however we suspiciously hang back and pretend to admire the scenery. Some guy introduces the band and they rip into what I guess is a local salsa classic. And they’re pretty good. Tips are of course requested after a paltry 2 songs. We get on the bus before the second song finishes.

Back on the road and among the road-less overpasses are a continuous stream of billboards displaying propaganda; part of a relentless bombardment since we’d entered the country. ‘Patria o muerte’ (Be a patriot.. or die), or ‘Viva la revolucion!’ or another one which translates as ‘The best way to repay your country is to work’. Doubt they have a dole here then. But it’s a weird feeling to see things like ‘Defending 50 years of Imperial terrorism’. People here have been wonderful to us so far but it just makes you wonder if perhaps they’re slightly suspicious. They’re a highly educated people, with a cracking 99.8% literacy rate and some of the best doctors in the world supporting a completely holistic and free public health system. It’s so good in fact that the government has exported medical knowledge and know-how to Venezuela in exchange for oil and has conducted a free-of-charge sight restoration program across Latin America and other developing nations. A massive burden to the government you’d think. But then they do stuff like that. Sugar had been a boom industry in Cuba for 300 years, but it started flailing in they early 2000’s and was eventually mostly shut-down. The laid-off workers were still given all community benefits and continue to this day to draw a salary.

Cuba has suffered greatly since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has only waveringly been able to stand on it’s own two feet, perhaps a result of opening tourism and legalising the US dollar in 1993. Its weird and cumbersome but perhaps slightly brilliant two level economy means that tourist related activities can be charged at a more ‘global tourist rate’ using CUC’s or convertible pesos; whilst the urban population can continue to purchase and trade using moneda nacional, which tourists typically shouldn’t have access to. A great example of this is Rebecca and I only today purchased some coffees in a tourist coffee shop, an espresso and a coffee with milk. It cost us $3.50 CUC’s which are leveled with the value of the US dollar so about 3 bucks 50. Later that day we went to a local pizza shop and each purchased a small pizza for 8 and 6 local pesos respectively, which adds up to 14 pesos total. There’s 24 local pesos to one CUC or dollar.

We roll into Vinales, a main street town. There’s a hoard of local women waving placards at the bus and screaming stuff like ‘Hey boy, look.. good room’. Given Victors good work back in Havana we’re expecting to see our names on a placard and sure enough we do. We break through the screaming gaggle of women over to Gladys who proudly puts away her placard and directs us to collect our luggage. After we do, she gathers a taxi to take us the half a kilometer or so to her casa.
‘Do we speak Spanish’ she asks?
‘A bit’ I say.
‘Good..Estamos in Cuba. Hablemos en Espanol’ (We’re in Cuba.. We’ll speak in Spanish’) she fires back. What a firecracker! Problem was that for the most part, it was very accented Spanish and very, very fast. So our conversations were mostly fragmented car wrecks. We walk through the front gate past a pigeon perched staunchly on the top. Paloma was a pet and resided in an elaborate coup on the rooftop. He developed a feverish hatred of Rebecca during our stay there and we’re not entirely sure he hasn’t followed us since we’ve left. Anyway.

Rosado means ‘pink’ and it’s Gladys’s favourite color and word probably because the entire house could have been dunked in a giant can of the stuff. It’s so bright and feminine and it glows right to the back of your eyeballs. There’s absolutely no relief. Actually I lie, there is one very good escape. Gladys takes us upstairs to the rooftop, where Paloma is perched on his coup, cooing away with his finicky eyeball
s. We have an absolutely magnificent view across some local crops, the small town to the beautiful limestone mountains surrounding the town in the distance, part of the Valle de Vinales, another Unesco World Heritage site. They glow in the afternoon sunshine and there’s this wonderful fertile red soil all around their base. Modest tobacco farmhouses litter the scenery between here and there and we’re reminded we’re in cigar heaven. Cuba is renown worldwide for it’s tobacco and the best stuff is grown right here. Local exploitation of that fact has emerged in weird little tourist traps like local leather-faced farmers sitting outside prominent local buildings with a ridiculously oversized cigars in their mouths who encourage you to take an iconic photo but then request a tip. Fair enough I say. We wow at the view for a bit and Gladys does her bit to explain there’s a myriad of tours available from horse rides to bicycles to local water holes and a beach trip. We’re not overly interested in doing any of that stuff so we commit instead to a 7:30pm home cooked meal and set off into town.

Colonnades are big in Cuban towns. Legacy of colonialists I suppose but the main street of Vinales has plenty of them. They date back about as far as 1875, but it means you have these flat roofed places with a colonnaded front and giant double doors behind them. They’re typically painted those pastel colors too so it all looks great in a late afternoon sunlight. Townsfolk and farmers wander around at all times of the day, horses and their carts clop along the roads with bagged up bundles of dried tobacco leaves and a handful of farmers en tow. There’s a small church and plaza in the town center and a handful of restaurants around, most of which cater to both locals and tourists, a nice change from feeling overly exclusive in some of the places in Havana. We frequented a nice place where you get a basic pasta for about 50 local pesos or 2 bucks.

The backstreets are a mix of local houses, most of which take that colonnade model and simplify it somewhat. Mostly there’s a porch or front area purposed for sitting in rocking-chairs of an afternoon. A colonnade or two but then a flat facade and rooftop. And it’s nice to see some effort in the some of the front gardens too. Every second house is a casa particular, explaining the gaggling touty women at the bus stop. You would have no reason to pre-book here at any time of the year.

We spent sun-down on the rooftop with a home-made mojito. Less fizzy and sugary then we’re used to at home but how can you argue with the real deal. Gladys summons us at 7:30pm and we collapse at the magnitude of food she has on offer. Pot of beans, bowl of rice, half a chicken, a large freshwater fish fillet, plate of fruit, plate of crisps, plate of plaintains and yuca, plate of salad, various sauces and home-made salsa’s, and to finish it off two giant squares of meringue topped cake. It was an indefeatable array of food but we came bloody close given it absolutely mouth-watering. At the end of our titanic struggle and explaining to Gladys, (who by now is dressed in a hot little number) that we’ll never need to eat again, she tries to get us up to dance a little salsa! What a saucy lady!

Breakfast was repeat event of delicious fresh food of enormous magnitude, and I develop a sincere hatred of critics of Cuban cuisine. ‘You just didn’t bloody do it right!’ I scream in my angry little mind.

We spend that day and the next simply wandering around the nearby outskirts of town. We take in a local tobacco farm, chatting to a local farmer out the front who explains how it’s the ‘best tobacco in the world’. We follow the red soiled path around toward the towering limestone outcrops and through some of the tobacco farmland. Farmers blaze through the path, dirty shirts open and flailing in the wind, atop horses, with cowboy hats and cigars in their mouths. It’s disgustingly iconic.

We also make our way up the road to the biggest and most luxurious tourist hotel built on a hill facing the mountains. It has a nice little pool and some wonderful villa style lodgings. We enjoy a coffee and their view but there’s no way in hell I’d swap it for the modest rooftop and nightly meals prepared by Gladys and assisted by her local friends and family. Including Lara the dog and yes even Paloma the pigeon who only attacked Rebecca because she teased him with kernels of corn. I know how he feels.

It’s a 9 hour trip on the ‘Good Seat’ bus to our next destination, the heritage town of Trinidad. We opt instead to put our names on a list for a taxi, which costs a measly 3 CUC more. We pay our ticket price and true to life here we receive a yellow receipt, stamped by the bus company and scribbled with our names, the departure time and destination. Ahh pure simplicity. Official and personalised but somehow slightly annoying too.

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