Cuba Wrap-up

Cuba…. a land lost in time. up until the 1950´s Cuba was a growing country with beautiful grandiose cities, a thriving art and music scene, and a lot going for it. I really cant even imagine what an incredible place it must have been at that time. then, in 1959, Fidel Castro flipped a switch and time stopped for Cuba. the impressive buildings slowly started to crumble, with no new upkeep or repairs done to them. ginormous Cadillacs and Chevys from those years, still roam the streets, relics of another era that just never got replaced. yeah, socialism really did a number on Cuba, leaving people with very little in the way of material goods and new technologies.

yet, the people have not let that break them. walking around Cuba, you would almost never guess that the people here are as “oppressed” as the rest of the world says they are. everyone is always outside partying, smiling, and laughing. music plays everywhere, the bars are full, and spirits seem high. of course, what you can see with your eyes, isn’t necessarily the same as what lies beneath. I’m sure that life isn’t as easy for Cubans as it may look sometimes. but, at the same time, I’m would bet it isn’t as horrible and awful as David made it seem… I’m sure his stories were a bit skewed in order to get some pants.

so, somewhere in between, lies the truth. as a tourist, you never really can see the full picture of any country you visit. you can only see what’s on the surface. luckily, even just on the surface, Cuba had a lot to give. the country itself is incredibly beautiful, from the charming cities with their many plazas, old colonial buildings, and interesting streets, to the palm dotted lush greenery that covers the rest of the island. Havana with its thriving nightlife and incredible sights, Camaguay with its winding streets and quiet parks, Santiago de Cuba with its diverse neighborhoods, and Cienfuegos with its ocean views and mellow lifestyle… each city that I visited was wonderful in its own way. but, as i read somewhere, it’s the people of Cuba that are its real treasure. Cubans are exuberant, well educated, creative, and artsy. on every corner you see art for sale or hear wonderful music being played. there is always something going on and it seems life never slows down. the amazing music drives the nightlife here, as do the mojitos, daiquiris, and Cuba Libres that were all invented here. it’s definitely a great country to take some time out, kick back, have a drink, smoke a cigar, and people-watch for hours on end. also, you get to at least sort of get a better perspective of how people live here because you can stay in people’s homes and witness things firsthand. now, if only they could do something about the food, heh.

over the last decade, tourism has slowly started changing Cuba, little by little. tourism has given Cuba a much needed influx of cash, but unfortunately has also given it a large influx of hustlers and prostitutes. luckily, other than the huge resorts, tourism hasn’t changed Cuba a ton. there are still no advertisements all over and no McDonalds on every corner. Cuban life has largely remained intact, which on one hand makes this a pretty difficult country to travel in, yet is a great thing because you get a more authentic vision of it all.

while I was gone, Fidel got sick, so who knows what the future holds for Cuba. perhaps the government will change, and socialism will end here just like it has in so many different countries recently. if that happens, the us embargo will most likely be lifted as well. these two things would radically change Cuban life and in just a short time, it would be a radically different country. maybe in just a little time, US citizens will be able to travel to Cuba again and not have to sneak in like I did. I sure hope so, cause I’d really like to go back…

Cuba photos – part 1

the capitolio in Havana

classic cars are everywhere

classic cars are everywhere

coco taxi

kids around havana ride these homemade scooter made out of wood planks and metal wheels

i randomly found this concert in someone’s house

everyone loves Che

people are always kicking it on their balconies

quintessential Havana – classic cars, cuban flags, and crumbling buildings

you can check out the rest of my first batch of Cuba photos. these are all from Havana and Camaguay.


the way back

Aug 9th

My vacation in Cuba felt like it ended 3 days early. That’s because I had 3 straight days of being on the move, making connections etc. The morning of the 9th, I took the bus from Cienfuegos back to Havana. In Havana, I wanted to stay at the same place where I stayed last time, but they ended up being full, so I stayed at Yuri’s brother’s house across the street. it was my last day in Cuba, and here I was back in Havana, Cuba’s most amazing city. Unfortunately, it ended up raining a ton that day, but I still got to spend a decent amount of time wandering around tow, seeing some places I hadn’t checked out yet, and hanging out by the sea.

One of my main concerns at this point was money. I had pretty much none left. I just needed my cash to stretch till I got back to Cancun tomorrow. I needed to have 25$ dollars for the airport tax on the way out. I also wanted to buy 2 cigars. I was worried about bringing *anything* back to the US, but I thought that just 2 measly small cigars might be ok. I also hoped to buy a few postcards to send home. Buying just these few last odds and ends left me practically broke. The last problem was that the airport was hella far from Havana and taxis usually cost 20$. I just didn’t have 20$. But maybe, if I played all my cards right, I might just scrape by to get one of the cheaper taxis. If I couldn’t, I’d have to take one of those heinous camel buses, and be crushed along w/ my backpack for a whole hour. Ugh. So, I pinched pennies like crazy, ate the cheapest of the cheap food, bought the postcards and cigars, had a last mojito, and hoped that I’d have enough $ for cab fare the next day.

Aug 10th

I got lucky. I asked a cab guy if he’d take me to the airport for $13.75, and he said yes. Phew. So lucky!! The flight back to Cancun aboard the Fokker 100 (oddly named plane, eh?) was only an hour. Just before we landed, the plane attendants walked through the cabin and sprayed everything with some weird insecticide. Landing in Cancun, I had to go through immigration, and I was really hoping to not get my passport stamped. If I got no Mexican stamp here, my passport would be clean, and there would be no proof of me going anywhere. I walk up to the guy, and he asks for my passport. I hand him my birth certificate, and hope that this will work. He glares at me… “I said, give me your *passport*!!”. Crap. I start stammering something about US citizens being able to use their birth certificates to get into Mexico, but he cuts me off mid-sentence…”when you come from America, you can use this one, but now, you come from *Cuba* so, give me YOUR PASSPORT. And.. don’t put any money inside PLEASE!” doh!! One of the common ways of not getting a passport stamp is to slide a $20 into your passport as a bribe. I guess this guy wasn’t down. Sadly, I got the stamp.

I took the shuttle to the cheapest hotel I could find. It was SO weird to be in Cancun. All of a sudden I was surrounded by McDonald’s, bubba gumps, and burger kings. This place was like the exact opposite of the relaxed untouristy Cuba that I had just been in. it’s so weird to me that people from America would rush to come to Cancun, in a foreign country, and surround themselves with everything that they already have plenty of back in the US.

I was getting pretty stressed about going back home. What if they somehow knew that I had been to Cuba? What if they found the 2 cigars I had, then got suspicious and searched me, and found the passport w/ the bad stamp? I kept thinking about the possible $250,00 fine. Yikes! Of course, the fine was usually dropped to $7,000, but still… even that’s a ton of cash. I finally came up with an idea: I would FedEx my passport back home from Cancun. This way, I wouldn’t have any evidence on me except for the 2 cigars… and I could claim that I had just bought the Cuban cigars in Cancun. At night, I searched my backpack to be sure to get rid of absolutely anything that was Cuba related including any receipts or anything. As I looked through my pack, I found an envelope, and opened it finding $100 inside. Holy crap!!! I had brought it with me as a secret cash reserve and had forgotten all a bout it. DAMN. I thought back to how many times I was strapped for cash, and to how I was pretty much counting pennies on my last day in Havana. the whole time, I had an extra $100 on me. Sheez.

Aug 11th

In the morning, I mailed my postcards from the post office, sent my passport home, and headed to the airport. Sheez, I was SO nervous. Also, this was the day after the alleged terrorist attack was discovered, so searches would be extra good. I was nervous as hell for the whole flight to Houston. I knew that the chances of being caught were pretty much zero, but still it was nerve racking. On one hand, without the passport, there was no way anyone could really prove anything. Having Cuban cigars doesn’t necessarily mean you were in Cuba. but still, I worried that somehow they might start asking me questions and I’d mess up somehow. Would I be able to answer them if they asked me what I did in Cancun,. What hotel I stayed at, which beaches I went to, etc?

We landed in Houston. I hid my one Cuban bill in my sock. Here goes nothing. First I got to immigration. The guy didn’t look too happy about me using a birth certificate instead of passport. He kept looking up at me, typing, looking at me again, and typing some more. I was starting to feel panicky. Did he know something? What did he know? Finally, he asks “are you bringing in any tobacco, food, or fruits?”. Oh crap! He must know!! Sheez. Finally, he lets me through. My heart had been racing the whole time.

Next was customs. I handed my customs form to the agent. He glances at it, and tells me to go on. I walk forward and follow everyone to the left. Looking around, I find myself in a small room. A guy points some people to a line w/ a green arrow, and me to a line w/ a red arrow. Uh-oh. Red arrow?? What does that mean? Crap, I’m going to be searched, right? When I get to the front though, it turns out that I wasn’t supposed to have gone into this room at all. I had accidentally gone into the search room. Well, they let me just leave. PHEW!!! Holy crap. I couldn’t believe it.

So that was that. I had made it back from Cuba, without getting caught.

the last town

Aug 7th/8th

the bus ride last night was rough. a 12 hour bus ride through the night to Trinidad, where I staggered off the bus feeling dazed and then got on another bus 5 minutes later which took 2 more hours.


the town I’m in now is called Cienfuegos and is a nice small town by the sea. the owners of the casa particular that I’m staying at are so incredibly nice. the very old thin toothless man speaks pretty decent English and prefaces most things he says with “listen to me! listen to me!”. after I got settled in, he called me into his living room to show me a video about his town. how nice is that? he told me about all the things that there are to see and what prices I should pay so as not to get ripped off. this guys is so proud of his city, saying that cienfuegos is the best town in all of Cuba. actually, this has been the case all over the country… everyone that I talk to is sooo proud of their town and says that all the other cities hella suck compared to it. while in his living room, I eye his cd player, DVD player, TV, vcr, and even a computer…. thinking about everything that David told me the other day.

the main things to se here are clustered around the parque Marti in the center of town. a bunch of really impressive colonial buildings with huge columns. past that, the town has several long streets that follow the coastline. it’s a long stretch and you can look out onto the bay. horse-drawn carriages take people back and forth or you can take bike taxis as well.

a tiny bit outside of town, there is a huge cemetery which is really famous. I’ve never rally been a big cemetery person, but I decided to check this one out. it actually was incredibly impressive with very huge ornamental statues on many of the graves. some of these were so good that they looked like they should be in a museum instead of a cemetery. oddly enough, there were a lot of black cats hanging out there.

at one point, I decided to go get online. there’s only one internet place in town, but it turned out that they didn’t have any of the prepaid cards that you need to use the net. how can that be? they have internet, but you cant use it?! I went to the cigar store to get the cohibas that I liked, but they didn’t have any. I then went to a few bars and asked for mojitos, but both of them said they had no mint. wow. a country famous for mojitos, but no mint. internet shops, but no internet. Chinese restaurants with no Chinese food. David’s words rang in my ears… “ees sheet. in Cuba, there is only writing on the wall… but never have nothing. ees always sheet.”

today I finally broke the vicious fried chicken cycle and was able to get spaghetti for lunch. oh my god… I was ecstatic about it.

local cigars

one afternoon, I decided to buy some of the local bodega cigars. I went to this tiny little shop in a squat concrete building. here people got there food rations and you could buy vegetable oil by the ounce. I bought a few of the 4 penny cigars from the man at the counter. it was really cool. here I was, in Cuba, a country that it’s illegal to be in, and I’m in a tiny locals shop that probably no other tourist has ever even glanced at, and I’m buying the local cigars… not the fancy 5$ cigars that people buy to take home, but the ones that the people here smoke… the ones you see little old men smoking in the park. and not only that, but I did the whole transaction in Spanish. and I had gotten here by asking directions (in Spanish) from a nice old lady smoking a huge cigar. it was a really cool moment for me. I smoked my cigar on the malecon overlooking the ocean…

back to coppelia

this town has a Coppelia ice cream. when I walked past, the mob outside only had about 60-70 people in it, so I decided to wait it out. it was dusk, and actually kind of cool outside, so the 45 minute wait wasn’t too bad. man, these people *love* their ice cream. I looked around, and pretty much everyone there ordered 5 scoops. 5! I sat down w/ 3 kids (16 yrs old) who ate enough ice cream to feed a small army. the ice cream I had was decent, but nothing overwhelmingly crazy. it was only 7 cents for a banana split though..

they start out young here

one night I was sitting on a park bench at night, smoking a cigar, when I met the youngest hustler ever. a kid, no more that 11 years old maybe, walks up and sits down on the bench next to me, trying to look nonchalant as all the hustlers do, as if they weren’t purposefully trying to sit next to you, but just somehow ended up there. he had a younger brother, maybe 5 years old in tow. eventually he looks over at me, and starts out asking questions that he probably learned from some older hustler somewhere along the way:
“where…” “are……” “you….” “ummmm… ummmm” “from?” he asks, looking very uncertain if he was able to go correctly by the script. his younger brother meanwhile started playing with the empty cigar carton that i had left behind. the kid then slowly but surely, with many pauses in between, asks me all the usual hustler questions one at a time, everything from “how long are you here” to “are you staying at a hotel or casa”. it finally comes time for him to hit me up for money, and he asks me for a dollar.

i look down at the kids brand new nice unscuffed shoes. *sigh*… this 11 year old kid really shouldn’t be out here trying to scam tourists. shouldn’t he be playing or enjoying his childhood somewhere? i tell him no, and he changes strategies to asking for ice cream money. his little brother by this time is happily munching away on the cardboard box from the cigar, slowly breaking it apart. i tell the kid no again. he sits there for a while, probably trying to remember some other lines that the older kids had taught him. he can’t seem to come up w/ anything for a long time. finally he gets up to leave, grabbing his brother, who had practically disintegrated the whole carton, along w/ him.

one of the nights in cienfuegos, i decided to eat dinner at my casa instead of at a restaurant. wow, the people cooked me a really delicious dinner! the main course was a huge piece of pork, which was a real change from that sad skinny strips of meat you get in the restaurants. it even had grilled onions on it. plus there was a huge salad and soup. there was so much food that I wasn’t able to finish it all.


living w/ the old couple had been really cool. they were definitely two of the nicest casa owners I had met so far. back home, I had bought a few San Francisco postcards to give out. I had been writing a short note on the back, and giving them to each of the casa owners who I had stayed with. the old couple seemed really really psyched to get the postcard, and kept saying thank you over and over.

should i hand over my pants?

Aug 6th

i woke up in the morning not feeling too well. doh, it was bound to happen sometime, but really it wasn’t too bad. i wasn’t up for running around town though, so i grabbed some breakfast in a hotel cafe and then got online there. at one point, i had to use the bathroom, but when i went in there, no toilet paper. damn it. so, i go to the person working at the desk. i tell him that there is no toilet paper, and he just looks at me and shrugs. dude, you’ve got to be kidding me. ok, this was some tiny crappy hole in the wall place, it wouldn’t surprise me that they have no tp. but this isn’t a 3$ per night Thailand shack… this is a nice hotel, where the rooms start at 40$ a night. how could a place like this not provide something so basic. i ask him how can it be that there’s no tp in this whole hotel. he tells me that there might be tp in the rooms, just not in the lobby. i just stare at him. finally, he stops what he is doing, tears off a piece of perforated printer paper, and hands it to me. you have got to fucking be kidding me. he wants me to use *printer paper*??!! i was SO pissed. looking back on it, i wish i had actually gone ahead and used the printer paper, and then handed it back to him when finished.

with the weather looking dreary, and some time to kill before my bus, i decided to check out the cigar factory on the edge of town. i paid a taxi to get there, but when i walked up to the door, everything was shut. a lady told me that the factory “is on vacation”. wow. sometimes i just have the most amazing luck.

back in town, i get stopped by yet another hustler. this guy, David, wants to “practice his English”. uh-huh. i have nothing better to do, so i agree. he went into extensive details about how hard it is to live in Cuba. everything is expensive. most Cubans make little over 10$ a *month*, which barely is enough to get them the necessities. stuff like Nike shoes (3 year old styles) cost like 50$. a CD discman costs like 80$. it’s practically impossible to buy any of these items on the money they make… unless you are one of the lucky few.

people who work with tourists usually make quite a bit of money. for instance, if you own a casa particular, you can make 600$-$1200 a month, and would only have to pay $150 in taxes, leaving you with a fortune. people who work in the hotel industry of tourist restaurants who get tourist tips, also make a decent living. policemen make a lot.

everyone else is poor and lives on the standard government wages. even people who would make a fortune in the US like dentists or doctors, still make the standard $10-$15 a month here. i asked him why everyone doesn’t just open their own casa particular then? he says that most people don’t have what you need for that. you need good beds, air-con, nice bathrooms, etc. even simple things like bedsheets, not everyone has.

it’s a tough life here in Cuba, he says. it’s a daily struggle just to get by. there are very few things out there in the shops, and the stuff that is there, is too expensive to buy. everything is a far cry from the happy socialist utopia described by Fidel. actually there is another group of Cubans that is fairly well off… people who have relatives in the US. they constantly get sent clothing, electronics, and money from their relatives. i had actually read in my guidebook that economically, the influx of money to Cuba from people’s relatives is larger than any of it’s industries.

we keep talking for a while about how tough it is in Cuba. eventually, he asks if there’s any way that i could help him out. could i give him some clothes. clothes are really expensive here and anything that i could give him would really help him out. i calculated how much clothing i’ve brought. very little. i tell him that i only brought the bare minimum to get by… 4 shirts, one pair of shorts, one pair of pants, some socks and boxers. i really didn’t have any extra. what about my pants, he asks? couldn’t i just wear shorts? i think about i for a bit… i guess i could. the pants that i have with me are really old and pretty ragged. i’ve actually thought many times that it’s about time to get rid of them anyways. so i agree. how about some underwear too, he asks hopefully. i say no though.. that would just be weird.

before i leave Santiago de Cuba, i go to grab a bite to eat in the cafeteria that i ate in last night. inside, fried chicken has been removed from the list of menu items up on the wall. damn. oh well, there is a list of 4 or 5 types of hamburgers, so i ask for one. they don’t have it… nor do they have any of the others. they only have one item available today and it´s something i’ve never heard of. when i walk outside, David asks what happened, and i tell him. he says “ees sheet. always, in cuba, always ees sheet. never have nothing here. just writing on the wall to say we have something… but never nothing.”

in the end, i hand over my pants, and leave Santiago de Cuba.

2nd largest… day 3

Aug 5th
end of the hustle
in the morning i meet Jorge at the park. he takes me to this building where there are tons of people playing chess and he plays a couple of games with one of them. dude, this guys is fast. the other guy sits and deliberates each move for ages, but Jorge makes each move when the other guys piece barely touches the board. he plays wildly, quickly, and arrogantly, and yet still wins one of the games and almost wins the second.

we set off towards the bus station, stopping many times for Jorge to talk to people. seems he knows just about everyone in town. i had been wondering what the catch was going to be, and now i got to find out. we were in a bike taxi going to the bus station, when all of a sudden, instead of taking the cheapo bus to the river and drinking peso beers all day like he said the day before, he suggests we take the bicycle taxi around the city to check out the sights. hrm, doesn’t sound bad. i ask how much. Jorge stalls and keeps saying that we shouldn’t talk about money etc etc, it’s vacation, blah blah. we keep going back and forth until i finally say that unless he tells me the price now, i want to get out immediately. i’ve seen this scam a million times. you don’t agree on a price in advance, and then at the end, surprise surprise, you end up paying 20 or 30 bucks for something that should have cost 5. Jorge tries to insist, but i say no, and he pretends to look hurt.

so, we decide to get some beer instead. we go to this totally random rural area and the bicycle taxi man runs out and knocks on someone’s door. we buy a huge 2 liter of beer (my tab, as usual). i guess the guy in the house lives near the beer factory and gets (steals?) beer from there, selling it out of his house in 2 liter bottles. we kick back, drinking beer till it’s all gone. Jorge says we should buy more beer, but hanging out w/ him is starting to get a bit expensive so i decline. he tries to invent some excuses as to why we *must* buy beer, but i decide to leave. “no!! why you leave! my amigo!! we frens!”.

so, overall it was a pretty interesting experience. on one hand, Jorge definitely benefited from me buying everything, but on the flip side, whatever, the beers, cigarettes, and rum didn’t really cost much and i definitely got to see an interesting side of Cuba that i probably wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.

the non-touristy side of town

i needed to get bus tickets to leave town, and as usual, the train station was hellza far away from the center of town. i decided to walk it, just to see what was out there. it was a tough walk in the blazing sun. as i got farther and farther from the center of town, everything looked very different. the buildings out here were crumbling a bit more, the iron gates a bit more rusted, and the paint peeling all over. peeking inside the houses, as i always do, the insides were looking a lot shabbier than usual as well.

as i walked past one house, the guy inside called me over. i was fully prepared for the usual script and for him to ask for money or sell me cigars or whatnot, but surprisingly, he just wanted to say hi. i was invited into his house where i hung out in rocking chairs with him and his brother. in my broken Spanish, we tried to carry on a conversation as bets we could. later, some neighbors dropped by and i talked to them as well. hmmm, looks like the people outside the center of town are a bit different that the hustlers.

at the train station, they had no train tickets (“come back later!”), so i caught a bike taxi to the bus station. as we rode, people would look out from the porches and wave to me, or yell out hola. it was really nice to experience this more genuine side of Cuba for an afternoon.

food is never easy

fried chicken. i’ve eaten a ton of it. everyday i eat fried chicken. it seems like pretty much the only food in all of Cuba is fried chicken or fried pork. the lack of variety here is stunning. today, i decide to try something different and head to a Chinese restaurant mentioned in the book. it’s a long walk, and the sun is blazing. by the time i arrive at Restaurant Peking, i’m dying. but i´m so happy to get some new food. there’s a woman sitting on the doorstep of the restaurant, who looks up at me. “abierto?” i ask (open?). she says yes, but doesn’t move to let me in. i look down at her. she looks up at me. silence. finally she says that they have fried chicken and rice. what?! i ask about the Chinese food. we don’t have any, she says. ARRGGHHH.

i go back to the center of town disappointed. near my hotel though, there is another Chinese restaurant. the waiter hands me a two page menu with a ton of Chinese food. i look it over. he comes back and tells me that they have very good fried chicken or pork tonight. i ask about the Chinese food. he points to the one and a half pages of Chinese food items, “oh, we don’t have any of that”. unbelievable. ditto with Italian places in town too.

other travelers

as i was glumly deciding to get the chicken or pork, someone from another table called me over. there was a group of travelers, one guy from America, a few dutch, and a few Swiss. we hung out for a while. man, i haven’t been able to talk to anyone in English since that one day in Havana when i met those Irish people. the other American guy said that he had experienced pretty much the same thing… virtually no American or British travelers in Cuba. we all kicked back, had beers, smoked cigars, and then eventually split up planning to meet again later that night.
i was still starving, and on the way back to my hotel, i found this tiny cafeteria with just a long counter that you sit at and order food in the cheap pesos. this is the cheapest of the cheap Cuban places where only locals go, and everyone there got really excited to see me ordering food. it´s funny, there are certain things that you can do in each country, that the locals never expect you to do, and when you do them, people get really stoked. everyone started asking me where i was from, whether i liked Cuban food, etc etc. people recommended i try this orange drink that they were serving, so i got one and it was pretty damn good. in the end, yeah, i had fried chicken again, but it only cost 1$ and it was a cool experience to do it locals style.

later that night, i went to the casa de las trovas, which is a live music venue in town. that night the music wasn’t live, but i hung out w/ the people who i had met earlier at the “Chinese” restaurant. had a few beers, and called it a night…

2nd largest… days 1 and 2

Aug 3rd (day 1)

the arrival

Santiago de Cuba is Cuba´s second largest city and is almost as far east as you can go in cuba. there´s been a long standing rivalry between it and havana, and the people of each city boast about how much better their city is than the other. i arrived at night, and the second i walked out of the station, a huge mob jumped on me. people were yelling at the top of their lungs in everywhich language and arms were grabbing me from all directions. wow, i havent experienced anyting like this since india. “5 pesos to center!!!”, “3 pesos to center!!”, “i have nice casa, come look!”, etc etc. it was serious madness… i had no room to move in any direction and was literally being crushed from all sides. i finally shoved as hard as i could and pushed through the mob. inegotiated a cab ride and was soon dropped off in the center of town. soon enough, i found a casa and then went searching for food.

the hustle

within just a few minutes of walking, i ran into a guy who introduced himself as jorge. Jorge was a skinny weasel lookinhg kinda guy. he talked a million miles per hour in fairly decent english but with a heavy spanish accent. within seconds, his friend Tomas joined us. Jorge was a chess teacher and Tomas was a boxing teacher (“he is brains, and he is strong!” they kept saying). as usual, they tried to drag me off god knows where, but i refused saying that i was hungry, so they end up following me to the restaurant.

arriving at a restauarnt (or anywhere else really) w/ two hustlers in tow, is never a good idea. chnaces are, your meal will end up way more expensive cause they get commission. i had been on a bus all day and was too tired to battle it out though, so i let them come along. the restuarnt was supposed to be really cheap, the book said nothing is over 35 cuban pesos which is a buck fifty, yet my fish ended up costing 6 bucks. hmmmmm. i got myself a mojito, and the two hustlers, to save money just shared a glass of rum (on my tab of course).

Jorge spent most of the night ranting about how much of a rip-off this reastuarnt was, and how he cant believe i had to pay this much for food. he said that tomorrow i should come hang out with him. we´ll take the bus to the river and all day everything will be cheap, etc etc. “you no pay een toorist money! you pay een peso cubano! we are now amigos!”. i said maybe, but in my head decided not to go. who knows what this dude was up to. before i left to go home, jorge hit me up for 10 CUP, but i said no and took off.

Aug 4th (day 2)


I started off the next day in a tiny cuban coffeshop. here they drink tiny espresso sized coffees which are usually pre-sweetened. at the table next to me, a guy strummed his guitar and sang. it really is amazing how in cuba, music is everywhere. after breakfast i did what i do pretty much everyday here… i just wandered around and chilled. sure cuba, and santiago, has its fair share of museums etc, but i jkust ahvent bothered to go into many of them. most of my time really is just spent walking around aimlessly and looking at stuff, or sitting in parks/bars and watching people and life go by. it´s a very different vacation than i´m used to taking, but i´ve really liked it.

Santiago de Cuba, like Havana has a vibrant big city feel and also is full of grandiose colonial architecture, old cars, and crumbling houses. but, i wouldnt say that santiago is as nice as havana.. in fact, there´s just something special about the atmosphere in havana that the other cities here cant really compete with. still though, i´m enjoying my time in Santiago de Cuba very much. Park Sesipedes is the main park in the center of town here, and there is a fancy hotel next to it where you can kick it on the balcony, sip mojitos and watch the action in the park. there really is nothing like a mojito when you´re in the sweltering heat of cuba. it´s just so perfectly refreshing, nice and minty and tart and cold. ahhhh. i´ve also tried several different brands of cigar now and have decided that my favorite is Cohiba… it´s got a nice spicy kick to it.

the embargo

while chilling in the park later, i spent a little time reading about cuba´s history and about the US embargo. ugh. the whole us embargo thing is just so ridiculous and insane. not only have they been doing this for over 40 years now, but they keep tightening the screws worse and worse. lately they have even passed laws to try to force other countries to act the same, like for instance, if another country´s ship stops in cuba, they aren´t allowed to stop in a US port for 6 months. the US claims that the embargo is partially to help the cuban people by putting the screws to Fidel and to get rid of him, but that´s pretyty much a bunch of crap, since this embargo is cripelling the country and depriving it of much needed food and medicine. the UN has voted time and again that the US should end its embargo, but of course the US wont listen. instead, it continues everytning based on decade old grudges even though *both* countries would benefit of the embrago was lifted.

pizzas and music

later in the afternoon, i did a quick tour of the rum museum which was a bit dissapointing, but you do get a free shot of rum with your tour. interestingly enough, bacardi rum is actually originally from cuba, but tthe bacardi family left cuba and are now suing their old factory here (which has since been renamed to Rum Caney or something). walking down the street, i head some really loud music and followed the noise. it was coming from Casa de las Trova, and there was a band in there practicing for tonight´s show. dude, they were amazing! people were literally dancing in the streets, and others were pressing up to the open windows adn listening to the tunes. nearby, there was a long line to get the 25 cent pizzas from someones house. a lady would run down the stairs every once in a while witha huge tray with a bunch of pizzas on it and then run back up inside while a lady downstairs quickly sold the pizzas to the waiting cubans. it´s funny, i partially really enjoy buying these pizzas because i hardly ever see other tourists do so. it´s like a little secret that you can buy pizzas from someone´s house and i feel like a local when i do it. so i ate my cuban pizza (folded in half in the cuban way), and listened to the amazing salsa from casa del las trova. nice.

ice cream

as i mentioned before, cubans love their ice cream. apparently, they especially love this chain called coppelia, and today i decided to try it out. i had read in the book that there arew often long queues here, but i wasn´t prepared for what i saw when i go tthere. there were two “lines” (remember, people dont line up, you just “el ultimo” here), one of them havinga bout 150 people and the other having a out a 100. dayum!! how good could this ice cream be for people to wait ages out in the flaming hot sun to get it? i decided to skip it.

the music scene

at night i decided to go out and listen to some cuban music at casa del tradicionnes. this was a small place that played classic cuban stuff. it was a long walk to get there and i ended up a bit lost when i got pretty far from the center. i was just thinking about how dark the streets were, when al lof a sudden all of the streetlights (the few that were there) completely went out. crap. here i was lost in the ghetto, in the pitch black, and it was too dark to read the map in my book. i ended up finally finding my way, but i was pretty sketched out for a bit.

the music at this place was ok. it truned out to be some night where they play mostly ballads, which was a bit mellow for my taste, but it was still decent. it was a pretty interesting scene though. i think most opf the people there were musicians themselves who would take turns singinging. most of them had shrink wrapped cds that they were trying to sell, and i definitely go tthe feeling that a lot of these people were artsy types who were there more to promote themselves than to actually listen to the music.

some of the people there were really digging it though. they were miming and gesturing and pretending to sing to the music. some people were making the record store face and everything. they were hyped! it was then that this older guy came up to me and introduced himself. i can´t recall his name, but i think it was something something Wilson. “i am a poet”, he says and hands me his business card. s ure enough, on the card it says “wilson – poet”. i never knew that poets had business cards. wilson left, but then came back after a litle bit, dropping off two small books in my lap, and walked away again. on the cover, there was Wilson, looking off in the distance and contemplating something very deeply in a poet-like fashion.

i flipped through the books, but my spanish really wasn´t good enough to understand them. abit later, another guy (probably Wilson´s friend) casually walks by, looks down and when he sees the books in my lap, his eyes go wide and he gets incredibly excited “Ahhh!!! i see you have the books of Wilson!!! he is the greatest poet in all of Santiago de cuba!!!”. he sits down for a bit to examine the books, nodding approvingly the whole time. heh, i get the feeling i´m gonna have some serious pressure to buy these books.

Wilson returns shortly,a nd i tell him that i cannot buy his books. i dont know spanish first of all. he tells me to have them translated. i tell him that i am from america and i cannot legally bring them to my country. he says he´ll lower the price. i tell him, really, i just cant. Wilson takes his books and sulks off, but the battle is not yet over. a few minutes later, his friend come over with a very concerned look on his face, a look taht tells me that i am making a huge mistake and passing up the opportuinity of a lifetime. he sits down and says “i am sorry. i just cannot understand this. please explain to me why you cannot buy these books”.

i tell him that i would get in trouble with the government and mime my throat being slit along w/ the appropriate sound. the guy thinksfor a while. along time actually. we sit there in silence. finally, he picks up a nearby pieces of paper,a nd places it on top of the book saying i should cover the book so my govt doesnt find it. i mime a customs official taking the paper off and findinng the book, and make the throat slitting gesture again. wilson´s friend looks very glum by this point. then he says that i could tell them that the book is from mexico. i flip the book over and show the back cover where it clearly states that Wilson is an amazing poet from Santiago de Cuba. it´s pretty difficult to explain to this guy that i am pretty scared of smuggling anything back to the US, much less a book by an author i´ve never heard of and in a language that i dont understand. finally, he skulks off. i look into the next room, and see Wilson witing there looking both grim and thoughtful at the same time. finally thoug, later in the night, he comes by, shakes my hand, and says that he completely understands.

so we meet again

around midnight, i´m beat, it´s been a long day and i head off home. at some point i hear the usual “hey amigo!” yells, but i ignore them as usual until i feel someone grab my shoulder. oh shit. it´s jorge. jorge´s looking pretty drunk at this point and starts asking me why i didnt meet him today to go to the river etc etc. i tell him i was busy and now i´m tired and going to bed. “you sleeping!!! no sleeping! ees vacation! you sleep in america, after”. hrm, jorge wouldnt take no for an answer and after a bit, i decided, fuck it, why not. i knew he had some hidden agendas etc, but whatever, i may as well see what the night had in store. plus, this guy was just so funny and entertaining, that if i spent a little extra cash to buy him beers or whatnot, who cares.

“today i make love.. 5 hours! i see beautiful lady, me no sleeping!!” he says. i hear this from him at least a couple of times a day, each time he follows this by lifting up his shirt and pointing at his stomach, though i´m not sure why. jorge then starts appologizing for asking for money yesterday. “you my amigo!! i cant ask for money from an amigo! no ees possible! i am so stupid. what was i thinking?!”. and later launches into a rant about the restaurant frmo last night “you know what i find? i ask seester. she say that fish cost only 2CUC. and you pay 6CUC. you know why?” yeah, i´m betting that it´s because he was there, but just for fun, i ask why. “ees mafia” he says witha straight face. “ees mafia. shoor”. wow, this guy really was a piece of work.

i go over to buy some cigarettes and jorge gets a pack too, on my tab of course. he says we should go drinking, but only in the “real cuba”. we head off and soon end up wayyy far frmo the center. he tells me that back inthe center, that crap is just for toursists, but this area, this is the real cuba… and in a way it is. i couldnt imagine any other toursist venturing out here. it´s dark, and kind of ghetto. vagrants walk around, a group of gay dudes menacingly flick their tongues at me, buildings are ten times more ramshackle than elsewhere. we sit down and drink beers (my tab) at a streetstall, where jorge unloads all of his thoughts about castro, cuba, che guarvara, chess, and everything. afterwards we venture off to this other streetstall. here they sell rum by the mililiter. they give you a ghlass and then pour rum through a funnel into it until it reaches a certain point. the people hanging out here are mostly old men, and al of them look completely tanked. we get about 5 shots worth of rum for like 50 cents , it must be the high quality stuff (ha!), and go sit on some steps with one of the drunk old men.

it´s been a hell of a random night. i feel like i´ve really seen and experienced some stuff that many others will never get to see. jorge once again brings up going to the river tomorrow. i know there´s gotta be some big time scam here, but i´m curious to see how it plays out and what the deal is. so, i agree. jorge leads me out of the ghetto, and i stumble home.

no way out?

aug 2nd/3rd

i was starting to think that there would be no way for me to leave Camaguay. each thing i tried, one thing after another didnt seem to work. my guidebook was useless as far as getting any info, and i´ve spent a fortune in cab fares trying to figure out how to leave. would i be stuck here forever?? here´s what happened:

camguay has a bus station and a train station, but neither is conveniently located and they´re a pain to get to. the bu statsing is especially bad, being 3km outside of town. on the 2nd, i went to the trains station to get tickets. after waiting forever, i talked to a lady who told me that tonight´s train was at 4:30am and tomorrow´s train was at 1:20 am. ouch. both of those are pretty shitty times. maybe i´d have better luck with the bus? the bus station is hella far away, but i end up forking over cash to take a bike taxi over there.

the maze of a bus station is really confusing, but eventualy i find the right office. i ask about Astro buses leaving tomorrow, but apparently taking one is not possible, though i can´t understand what she says is the reason. then i ask about the other bus company. she says i can put my name on the list, and opens up a book with a TON of names already in it. ugh. what´re the chances of that working out? for the hell of it, i put my name down and leave.

looks like the train station is my best bet, so i go back there (all the way across town). i tell the lady who i spoke to earlier that i want to buy tickets for the 1am train. “this is not possible”. apparently, i need to come back the following dfay to buy tix since you cant buy a day in advance. great. on my way out, i notice a huge schedule of trains posted on the walls. according to the schedule, there should be a train passing through in my direction at 1:15pm. i as kan attendant if there is a train at 1:15PM. he says yes. i ask him again if he is SURE. and if it´s *PM*. i repeat “del dia” which means during the day several times. he says yes, and that i can buy tickets for it at noon tomorrow. i ask him again, if he is sure. yes, yes.

the next day i show up at noon, sweating like an animal from carrying my pack in the heat. there is a mob at the ticket window. i wait. at 12:30, the mob is only partrially gone. i´m starting to worry i wont buy my ticket on time. finally, i get to the front and then am told that this is the wrong line and i need to go into a different office. i go ther and ask about the 1:15pm train. “there is no 1pm train… only 1:20am”. WHAT!!?? i tell them that i talked to a man yesterday and he assured me there was. they just shrug. i then tell them that there is a huge sign outside w/ a train schedule. when i mention the sign, the woman just starts laughing. “no es correcto”. nice. wonderfull. now what? i guess my only option is to buy tix for the train that night. but no, that´s not possible either. i have to come back after 5 for that.

sheeeez. how do i get out of this town?! then i remember my name on that long list of names at the bus station. should i spend the cab fare to go all the way down there and try? may as well. i get to the bus station, and soon there is a small mob of tourists standing aroun d a lady w/ a clipboard. everyone is looking nervous. it´s obvious not all of us will be leaving a winner. the woman starts calling off names. after several, miraculously, my name comes up. holy shit! i go into the office and get a bus ticket. walking back out, push through the sea of unhappy toursists, still waiting and hoping to be called…

i was so happy. phew!

the small town

Aug 1st/2nd

Camaguay is a small town in the middle of Cuba. It’s not very touristy which is really nice. The streets are lined with quaint one story colonial buildings. It has cobblestone streets that wind in every which way. The layout is pretty confusing with parallel streets ending u being diagonal or even perpendicular later, so it’s a great place to just wander about and get lost in. The city has a really chill relaxed atmosphere and is a huge change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Havana. People around here ride bikes everywhere and often times the streets are more packed w/ bikes than they are w/ cars. Also, most of the taxis that ride around town are bicycle taxis. This is a great town to just hang out and take it all in.

Because of the heat, people here almost always have a lot of their windows and doors open. I like to walk down the streets and sneak peeks into people’s houses to see what it’s like inside. People here definitely aren’t rich, but they’re not terribly bad off either. Compared to the barren one room cement buildings I’ve seen in many countries, the Cubans live like kings. Almost everyone here has a TV, old but decent furniture, multiple rooms, and a fridge. The thing that I did notice was that the two Casa Particulars that I saw here were definitely more nicely furnished and fancier than the rest of the houses I peeked into.

I’m starting to get the hang of being in Cuba and a lot of my confusion about things is starting to dissipate. I’m getting used to the two different currencies and now usually know what things are sold in one and which in the other. Paying in CUC is expensive, but I’ve found out that there are certain restaurants here that are “peso restaurants” meaning they take the small CUP bills. If you can find one of these places, you can usually eat for really cheap… just 2$ or so, and they sometimes have “peso beers” which run for under 50 cents. Also, there are little local street stalls where you can usually pay in CUP as well for small snacks. All over the place they sell these small thick crust pizzas for like 20 cents… they’re not really a full meal, but a nice thing to tide you over and I’ve been eating them daily. One night I decided to try a Chinese restaurant to see what the Cuban interpretation of Chinese food was. Wow, it was nothing like it is in the states. I have no idea what I ordered, but it ended up being a ton of sauce with little pieces of something or other in it (chicken??) with a little bit of a celery like vegetable. Not spicy whatsoever either.

My Spanish has also been improving a little bit. I’ve been doing some studying here and there and I’m slowly remembering all the Spanish I knew last year from south America. I still don’t know very much, but if the people here talk pretty slowly, I can usually at least get the gist of what they are saying. It’s really cool being able to at least somewhat communicate in a foreign language. I had a really hard time one day trying to find out where to buy a lighter. I know how to ask for a light, “tienne fuego” which literally means “do you have fire”, but I’m sure asking someone “where is the fire?” would be a bit wrong. So I went from person to person and shop to shop, each time miming using a lighter to light a cigarette. Oddly enough, it was near impossible to find one, with each shopkeeper sending me somewhere else. Finally I found one though.

I settled down in one of the many plazas to smoke my cigar. Eventually, I started talking to this Cuban girl who was a student at the nearby university and a marathon runner. Her English was pretty much nonexistent, yet we somehow managed to maintain a conversation about all sorts of stuff: her family in a nearby town, the differences between random Cuban cities, and other stuff. It was cool to be able to just talk to someone without being hustled for something… or so I thought. After several hours of this of course, as always there was a catch and she started into “lets have sexo”, “give me pesos”, etc etc. UGH. Really is it possible to talk to anyone here without it ending like this?!

That night it started pouring like crazy and I ended up being drenched in the rain. I finally made it to the restaurant I was walking to and staggered in, dripping wet. 90% of the place was filled with a HUGE tour group… maybe 25-30 people or so. They pretty much dominated this whole place and it really struck me as weird how these huge package tour groups can completely take over the atmosphere in any place they go to. Also, it never ceases to surprise me that Cuba is such a popular destination for huge tour groups looking for fun in the sun. I’ve always thought of Cuba as more of a place to explore a culture and not a place where people come looking for all-inclusive resorts. Yet it turns out that Cuba has more resorts than any other Caribbean country.

After eating my food (Fried chicken on the bone (surprise surprise) with a thin slice of ham on top and then a slice of cheese on top), set out back to the hotel. Unlike Havana, where at night you would hear constant music from all the buildings around, here people were mostly watching TV. As I walked by house after house, I saw almost always the same show on and the soundtrack drifted through the streets coming from all directions. It’s odd to see such a sight, coming from America where there are a million channels and everyone has a satellite… while everyone here watches the same thing…