Cuba’s connections-culture

It is hot. and stuffy. SO hot. The air condition is not working. I am at the Viazul bus station in Baracoa, waiting for my bus to Santiago. Just as the girl told me, I came earlier and talked to her. Because apparently, there is no more seat available in the connection from Santiago to Havana. But, she told me not to worry. She wrote on a little piece of paper, folded it and wrote a name on it and closed it with tape. She told me to give this message to the person in Santiago and then I would get a seat. So now I am here in Baracoa, waiting in the heat and bored. What could be in the message? Maybe (it was a male name on the message) he was her lover or ex-lover or something and still owed her a favour? Or she had walked into him and saw him committing a crime or even a murder or him cheating… and now she is constantly threatening him and asking him to do stuff for her…. who knows, who knows. Heat and boredom make one creative, I know. As always, my day had started quite early again as I wanted to be early at the Viazul station. I spent my morning trying to look for coffee everywhere. But -surprise- the supermarkets were even more empty than usual. There was literally nothing. Even the guy who usually sells fruit didn’t have anything this time. He told me that due to New Years people were not working and thus there were no products available.  People sent me from one shop to an other. “Oh, try and ask Jose, he might have some…. tell him I said hi…. He lives at street xyz around this and that corner”. Ah, Cuba. Nothing without connections and family relations or something. But still, I gave up in the end. My host Ana laughed hard and said “La gente no quiere trabajar!” (People don’t like working) and I added “No se como los cubanos pueden vivir si no hay nada en las tiendas!” (I don’t know how Cubans can live/survive if there is nothing in the shops). She laughed again and added “Tu no lo puedes imaginar!” (You cannot imagine what it’s like). Even if you have money, doing groceries is always an adventure.

Anyways, I said goodbye to my lovely hosts which was quite emotional. I really felt so comfortable at their place and I had a great time. I had to promise Ana and Ricardo to come back with my boyfriend and they said that we should come to Cuba on our honeymoon if we get married on day. I laughed pretty hard. (As a 21-year old people think it is a normal age to get married in Cuba). Then I took the Bici taxi and got to the station where I am now sitting on the floor in the shadow. A couple is playing cards next to me on the floor, another couple is sharing some food. I am getting quite emotional. Why is it, that Cuba is mainly a destination for couples, and not so much for individual travellers or groups? My journey could have been so different otherwise.

Finally, the bus driver arrives and asks us to step in. And my 15.5 hour journey to Havana begins….

Picture: Las batallas solo se ganan dentro de una sociedad collectivista.
Battles can only be won within a collective society.
I think that this quote fits the content of this blog entry pretty well as I am explaining how people rely on each other and connections in order to survive in Cuba. luckily, as Cuba is a collective society this works out pretty well. In capitalist societies however people rely more on themselves and don’t help each other out that much.

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The pasta struggle

I was at the end of my third week in Cuba. And yes, although I love rice with beans and fresh fish, I began to miss Pasta. I am one of these people who could eat an entire bucket of pasta every day, therefore I felt like a drug addict in rehab. I had given pasta a try in Santa Clara and Santiago already, but it had been awful both times. Watery pasta, no salt, no taste. Disgusting.
While I took a nap on the balcony in Baracoa, I dreamt of eating a bowl of pasta aglio olio, al dente, and delicious. I couldn’t help it anymore, I had to try again.
So there I was, sitting in a Cuban pizzeria, so a veeeeery cheap restaurants where Cubans, not tourists eat, and I looked at the menu. About 1/4 of the menu which contained pizza and pasta had a black mark next to them, meaning that they ran out of it. I ordered pasta con pescado, pasta with fish. Yeah well, that was also not available. So I ordered espaguetti with tomato sauce. Yes, I was desperate.  The restaurant was really interesting. It was very simple, the doors and windows were open but AC was on, there were about one billion flies inside, the TV was on, still some cheesy christmas decoration… and Cuban families enjoyed their pasta.
After a while, I had my pasta with a nice beer. And my dreams were crushed by reality again. Note that Cuban cheese (queso criollo) is horrible. And the watery pasta and sauce without any herbs or spices, salt or pepper just tasted like nothing. There was also no salt or pepper on the table.
Anyways, I ate it, but I decided to let it be and to continue eating typical Cuban food, which is perfectly fine. Good news: The whole menu cost $30 MN ($24MN=1 Euro). And my beer alone was $18MN. So basically $12MN for the pasta, approximately 26 cent.

20141217_141218  my $7MN Pizza in Cienfuegos…. No comment.

You could technically survive in Cuba for almost no money in terms of food. If you are however a gourmande like me, then eating in the casa is probably the cheapest option.
But you can probably guess what the first food I had back in Europe was….. 😉

I wish I could be more like Baracoa

Good morning 2015.
I woke up on the morning of January 01 2015, without a hangover. Wow, this was a new feeling for me.
I got up quite early, had my 4 cups of coffee and fantastic breakfast made by Ana and went to the bus station to get my viazul Bus ticket. I walked there and it was actually really nice. The sun was shining and I was excited. I had made the decision to spend my last five days in Cuba somewhere near La Habana, but not in the city itself. I hadn’t forgotten about the traumatizing Havana experience. I wanted to give the city another chance, but still I did want to be on the safe side this time and have a casa rather outside of Havana but near the beach. My final choice were the Playas del Este again, but the “Cuban” part, not the mass tourist spots. I chatted with Ana about it, and of course she knew someone who had a casa in Guanabo. Alright.
From Baracoa, I would have to catch a bus to Santiago which takes four hours, and then another bus to Havana for another 14 (!) hours. I decided to do the bus trip during the night of course.
I arrived at the Viazul bus stop and talked to the lady. Bad news: She managed to get me a ticket to Santiago, however it seems like there was no spot available from Santiago to Havana. We talked for a bit. She was my age and seemed pretty cool. Then, she smiled at me and said that she was going to help me and that I should come back earlier tomorrow. She said that she would call in Havana and that she would try to get a spot for me. For some reason, I didn’t really mind and started walking back to the city. Well, worst case scenario would be that I had to sleep at the bus station in Santiago. How exciting! 😉
I took a nice walk at the ‘Malecon de Baracoa’ next to the rough waves which clashed against the cliffs. I loved this. Salty air, the sound of the clashing waves. I breathed in and closed my eyes and thought about how much I loved this place, when suddenly heavy raindrops reached my head. Two seconds later, the rain got insanely heavy and the water fountains fell heavy 20150101_143143on my head. I started to run and tried not to slip- I was wearing flip flops. I ran towards the city center, but the rain kept getting worse. Most people escaped under roofs of houses, and I decided to do the same. So, we stood there and waited. Ten minutes later, Baracoa was filled in sunshine again and the smell of rain and heat mixed again. Despite of the sun, the sky was still alarmingly black with aggressive clouds. It was hot, stuffy, humid, but I was amazed. Baracoa doesn’t follow any rules. This city embodies the rebel, it does whatever it wants. Soaked and wet with my clothes sticking on my skin, I wished I could be more like Baracoa.

Baracoa: Cuban New Years

What a totally different New Year’s Eve!
In Europe, New Year’s Eve is like the party of the year. I am used to celebrate the night with my friends, to have drinks, play games, dance, go crazy and enjoy beautiful fireworks at midnight. It has always been like that, and I have always been a New Year’s Eve- lover. Of course, I am also used to disappointments. The expectations for New Year’s eve are always very high and sometimes it doesn’t end up the way you thought it would (which happens often with parties that are announced to be ”the party of the year”). And this time, New Years was just a completely different holiday.

It stated off with an absolutely amazing dinner. My hosts Ana and20141231_192304 Ricardo, Ricardo’s mom and also the new guests from the Netherlands who had arrived and taken over my room (hmh) were also there. As the Dutch lady didn’t speak English or Spanish I had to be the translator. My job as a translator was funny and awkward at the same time as my Dutch is not that good. Anyways, we had fun. We listened to Frank Sinatra and had great conversations. The Dutch couple went to bed (the lady suddenly started crying and was super dramatic-ok..).

So yeah, then it was my hosts and me. We had some wines, beer and then watched some TV. This was the first time that I actually had access to a TV which seemed to work quite alright. There were maybe about 5 channels, colours! and the quality was not that bad. But still, it looked like those TV programmes they had in the 80s. We watched like a New Years program20141216_215702me. What you should also keep in mind that New Year’s is also the day of the revolution. So therefore, they celebrate the Ano Nuevo 2015, but also the 56 Ano de la revolucion.  So there were like revolution-spots with nostalgic music and clips of the revolution and military parades, etc. Oh and of course, a lot of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

We then went out to the city to see what’s going on. It was so nice to walk around with my hosts. No guy dared to make any annoying comments or sounds although I was wearing a dress.
Ricardo, Ana and the grandma were simply adorable. Super sweet. If you are in Baracoa, stay at their place, it is absolutely fantastic.
Anyways, in the city, there was nothing! No street party, nothing! People were at home, watching TV or listening to music. Ana and Ricardo explained to me that New Year’s Eve was a family holiday. Christmas is more the party holiday with fireworks, etc. I was really suprised.

So, we went back home and continued drinking and watching TV. Lots of neighbours also came over to wish us happy new year and I had really nice conversations with them. At midnight, we opened a bottle of sparkling wine which was nice, hugged each other and wished ”Feliz Ano Nuevo”. Outside, there were no fireworks. Only a couple of light balls in the air which was also pretty. Still, it was really weird. No noise, no party. And it was warm. What a different experience.

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We ended the night with more nice conversations, TV. and drinks. Even though I was a bit disappointed, I was also happy and didn’t mind the experience of a family New Year’s Eve.

Day 18:Yumuri, 14+ only!

I was so excited. I had booked a tour to the rain forest and to a little village outside of Baracoa. Most of the group were Germans and Italians. And as naïve as I am, I did not expect any rain. But duh, this was a trip to the rain forest. So it did rain a bit at the beginning. We did the ‘chocolate walk’ so our guide showed us the cocoa plants and explained stuff about it which was really nice.

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20141231_111350We then went to his grandmother’s house who is a cocoa farmer and she made hot chocolate for us and showed us how chocolate is made. We walked through the forest and then went to the ‘paso de los alemanes’. Afterwards, the highlight of the trip happened. We took a little taxi boat on the river to get to a little ‘island’ in the middle of the river. The water was absolutely beautiful and super clear and so we were able to swim there. It was fantastic and it was so nice to have nice chats with people. In the little village of Yumuri, loads of natives came and tried to make us buy ‘polymitas’, beautiful snails in different colours and they make jewellery out of it. DO NOT buy things made of polymitas! They are about to extinct and need to be protected. (see picture above)

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After the trip on the Yumuri River we went to a little empty beach- with black sand. It was completely beautiful, but the sea was quite wild and there were big rocks so it was not really possible to swim there. And there, I met the most disgusting guy ever. I know that I have complained a lot about how annoying Cuban guys are and the whole thing how they treat women. Well. This guy was from Canada. He was in his mid-forties and did not really look sexy or anything. He even wore a Canada baseball cap (why? WHYYY??) and typical tourist clothes. He was travelling alone, he doesn’t have any children, no family, etc. And the way he was talking was just disgusting. He complained about the ‘shitty’ job he had, the shitty weather in Canada, how shitty women were in Canada as they were rude when he tries to flirt with them and how much he hates shitty Christmas and New Year’s Eve. He hates his shitty apartment in Canada and that at the end of the month he barely has any money left. So, trips to Cuba are the only thing he can afford. Because here, he can be the king. Since 2009 he travelled to Cuba and he has a Cuban girlfriend in almost every city in Cuba. And then, he started complaining about how demanding Cuban women were. That they want presents from him, one of them wants a bike, the other one wanted a pig for New Year’s (a pig costs $40 CUC btw). I was disgusted. He complained about those women demanding stuff from him for sleeping with a disgusting and disrespectful Canadian guy. Then I told him about my experience with Cuban guys, and he completely defended them! He said that I should be more open-minded towards older men. Wtf? But well, I just wanted to get rid of him. I told one of the people from my group about what I had just experienced, and she said that in the plane when she was on the way from Germany to Havana she sat next to an old guy who was flying to Havana in order to marry his 35years younger Cuban girlfriend so that she would get his German pension.  How sad is that? I know that sex tourism is a global phenomenon, especially in South East Asia. But Cuba? I did not expect that.

So, I did some research. And I came across the blog naughty nomad where a guy shares his experience on how to ‘get laid’ in Cuba.

 If you’re the type that pays for sex, you’ll be in a heaven. But if you’re like me, Cuba can be a frustrating place. I honestly can’t think of a country where prostitution is so ingrained and pervasive in the culture. “You fuck, you pay. That’s Cuba,”

Also:

It really seemed like 80% of girls had a price tag. On one occasion, I even had a perfectly normal girl, walking hand in hand with her boyfriend, get in our car over the possibility of getting some pay for play. Sadly, this is what happens when the average salary is less than $25 a month. And under communism, finding a middle or upper class girl is like finding a Jew in Mecca.

Well I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that under communism girls are more likely to sell their bodies. As a political scientist I can tell you that you should not generalize concepts, such as communism.

Naughty nomad also explains that the police controls it really strictly when Cuban women (especially black Cuban women) walk closely together with a male tourist.
Prostitution is not allowed and Cuban women also cannot just spend the night at a hotel or casa with the tourist together as it has to be registered. (When you stay at a casa they will always register your ID in order to keep track of where you are to inform the government).
But apparently, the possibility to make some money outweighs the risks.

I know, I know. One could say that on this point I am not really tolerant. But excuse me, I do not tolerate Europeans/Canadians/ whoever to come to Cuba/Thailand/ whatever and to take advantage of the awful situation that some of the girls are facing. This is a horrible business which should not be supported.

But hey, it is not only European/Canadian/whatever men who come to Cuba to take advantage of girls. I will also tell you a similar story that I witnessed later on in my travels.

Day 17, Baracoa,or: And then the ox came

“Bananas, Bananas! Hay Coco, Hay Coco! Pinas, Bananas, Naranjas, y hay Cocoooooo!’’
I opened my eyes. I was in Baracoa. And I could hear a loud and singing voice outside on the streets of a happy guy selling fruit. After a wonderful breakfast with little mini toast with cheese that tasted a bit like Feta cheese and two big cups of coffee (at the beginning I didn’t like Cuban coffee at all as it is really strong. But after a while, I started having numerous cups of coffee per day) I stepped on the streets of Baracoa. The streets were wet and dirty and there were little lakes in the holes of the pavement. It had rained the night before- Baracoa is the city with the highest precipitation. I had talked with backpackers before who had been to Baracoa but who had to leave after a couple of days as it would not stop raining. But now, Baracoa looked innocent again showing its beautiful face covered in sunshine. My plan for the day was to go to the Playa Maguana, according to Lonely Planet this was an isolated little beach which was THE secret spot for tourists apparently. I was a bit early and so I decided to talk to the young man who was selling handmade bracelets on the streets. He had dreadlocks and he was wearing long loose pants and a wild beard. He looked like a stereotypical hippie. The guy was absolutely sweet. It turned out that he was a world traveller from Argentina and that he had already been travelling through Asia, Europe and that he would go to Mexico next. When I asked him what his favourite spot has been so far, he immediately said ‘’Cuba. Because even though people don’t have anything here they still live.’’ I was amazed by this fascinating guy, he had a very calm and silent voice, he called me ‘’hermana’’ (sister) and he had totally stunning crystal blue eyes. Wow. I bought one of his handmade bracelets with the bandera (Cuban flag) on it for $35 MN ( a bit more than 1 euro). I continued my walk through the city, it was 9 in the morning and my bus would leave at 9.30. I observed a man who was wearing a spiderman costume and who was completely drunk. He approached me and asked me for a pen. Nope, sorry senor. He had no teeth and the smell was indescribable.

I made it to the beach- but it was not really a quiet secret spot. There were a couple of other tourists as well and already loads of people trying to sell stuff. Anyways, I was sipping on a Pina Colada, listening to the sound of the sephotoa and everything was fantastic. And then, of course, this GUY came. He tried to flirt with me and told me that he could teach me how to dance salsa. I told him that I wasn’t stupid and that I knew exactly what that means. He smiled and asked me if I wanted to ‘’have a good time with him’’ at his place as he seemed to live close by. I laughed and declined. Then he started to tell me his story that he was 34 years old, divorced, that he had a 12 year old son who lived with his mom in Holguin and that he was an alcoholic who had quit drinking 4 years ago. When he was done with his story, he tried to convince me to change my mind and ‘’have a nice time’’ with him. What the fuck was he thinking? He was a 34 year old guy (who looked like 50 by the way. It must be the sun…?) he had just told me about his sad life and now he thought that this would convince me to sleep with him and be his sugar mommy? Oh come on, grow up. Do they really think that tourists are that dumb? (but I mean apparently it works, otherwise they wouldn’t try… I will address the topic sex tourism in Cuba soon btw)

Anyways, I told him that I wanted to enjoy the beach in silence and then he finally left. After he was gone, and elderly couple came and they put their beach towel literally 10cm next to mine although almost the entire beach was empty. I could have sworn that those were Germans (Germans have the talent to behave like embarrassing assholes on their holidays- cliché I know, not every German, I mean I am German myself 😉 ) but no, they were Austrians !! (sorry, honey :P)

The rest of my beach day was really nice. I talked to a Cuban guy who spoke German fluently as he had lived in Chemnitz (back then Karl Marx Stadt) in East Germany. He complained about the bad economic system. As it had rained for the past 2 weeks, he didn’t make any money in his restaurant next to the beach.
While we were talking, an ox-cart passed by at the beach. Alright, wtf?
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It was time to go back and the bus drove back to Baracoa. On our way back we saw numerous people on the streets carrying pigs. There were again two guys on bikes, holding a stick with a wrapped cloth were the ass of a pig could be seen.
Well, everybody was already preparing for tomorrow: Tomorrow was the big day, New Year’s Eve.

Day 16: Baracoa,or: The wild rebel

I made it. Finally. Baracoa.
After a decent trip in the Viazul bus from Santiago de Cuba via Guantanamo (yes, THE Guantanamo). The trip was amazing. From Guantanamo onwards it was a desert like landscape. Cactus trees, dirt and dust, then the Sierra mountains started and it got hilly, more banana trees, then more mountains…. And complete20141229_120733ly red mountains in a super strong colour, the mountains got bigger, the bus was jumping… it was amazing.We stopped in a super small mountain village where they offered coffee and chocolate, as well as fruit and coconuts.
Oh, and there were turkeys walking around in the small garden.
Baracoa is a little city at the most eastern point of the island. As it is surrounded by mountains, it was not possible to reach Baracoa for a super long time and the village was isolated. This however helped Baracoa to develop its own character and often it is described as the wild soul of Cuba. Baracoa is also the oldest city of the country, as it is the point where Columbus entered the island first. Baracoa was the capital of Cuba, but in 1511 (thanks Wikipedia 😉 ) this changed and Santiago de Cuba became the capital because of the difficult position of Baracoa. Until the revolution, Baracoa was not reachable by land, solely by sea as there was no road through the mountains. This changed then when Castro ordered the construction of ”La Farola”, the r20141229_142439oad which should connect Guantanamo with Baracoa.
This ended the isolation of the city and people living in Baracoa appreciate the revolution highly, in my opinion in Baracoa you can feel it most. You have lots of propaganda paintings, etc. People are really grateful for the fact that the revolution gave them La Farola.

After the trip, I got picked up by Ana, the owner of my casa. She was absolutely adorable! And my roo20141229_152916m, oh my gosh, it was amazing. I felt so warmly welcomed and the city had such a positive vibe. I bought chocolate (the only chocolate factory, established by Che Guevara himself, is in Baracoa) and cucuruchu- a delicious sweet snack which is wrapped in palm tree leaves and tastes absolutely fantastic. It’s a mix of coconut, nuts and dried fruit. My mouth is going crazy when I just think about it.
Buy it from this one guy who is selling it on the streets. You can get 2 of them for $1CUC. (make sure to have a spoon with you and put them in the fridge whenever you can).

I walked around in the city and absolutely loved it. I bought some souvenirs (much cheaper than in Havana!!) and had nice chats with people. Then, the Malec20141229_141509on. I was amazed. The sand was black and there were black rocks, the sea is rough and the water clashes against the rocks. It was a bit windy and the air smelled salty and whenever a rough wave clashes against the rocks you might get a bit wet. I absolutely loved it. I let the salty natural perfume soak through my nose, right in my mind… Baracoa, the wild rebel of the Cuban cities. I immediately felt home.