There is a famous Cuban film called: Strawberry and Chocolate, it won the Oscar for the best foreign film in 1994, as well as lots of other foreign awards, and it is partly set at Havana’s most famous outdoor ice-cream parlour, Coppelia. It is in the modern part of Havana. The guide book tells us that queuing is part of the Havanan experience, when we arrive we are informed we will wait at least one and a half hours to get served, Cubans seem happy to wait, I cannot even find the end of the queue! You can go to the VIP tourist section, pay more, well, get ripped off (supporting the Cuban people! (StCP!)).
The ice cream can only be described as the quality you would get from a supermarket’s own brand when you are trying to save money and you have invited the whole class to your child’s birthday party, and that may be being generous on quality! The reason I highlight this is two-fold, firstly, I’m not sure Cubans actually know when they are queuing, it is so innate to them, and secondly, you don’t know what you’re missing until you’ve had it. Crap ice cream and excessive queuing would equate to elevated levels of moaning and complaining for many, dare I say, a first world problem!
The precursor to this is a journey in a motorised taxi, Havanan taxi drivers will rip you off if you don’t keep your wits about you. We have jumped in this taxi at the start of the Melecón, because it is incredibly hot (35°C), when we stop the driver switches the meter off that he has had on all the way. He times the fare by four! I remonstrate and I refuse to pay the amount he is demanding and tell him I’ll wait for the police – I have no idea the level corruption/integrity of Havana’s finest, but I’m prepared to find out, so is he, and why wouldn’t he if he can make several times his usual fare, (I will take about average wages in Cuba in the next blog). He then negotiates, when he realises I’m being serious. I end up giving him twice the ‘actual’ fare and walk off, he does not follow us, we do not get challenged by the law, unsurprisingly. This is taking StCP! too far. On our return to Havana in three weeks’ time, the taxi we get from the bus station, after 18 hours on a coach, is shared with two local women. We drop them first and they give the driver no money, even though we have agreed to share the cost of the ride. The driver then stops at a garage to get some cigarettes and leaves the meter running! When we get to our accommodation we are paying for the time it took him to laconically purchase cigs, and the two women’s ride home, then he tries to add some more on as well. We refuse to pay the exorbitant amount and he refuses to get our luggage out of the boot. The owner of the AirBnB intervenes and basically says the easiest way to resolve the issue is to pay him the full amount he is demanding! It still annoys me now, we would have given him a tip anyway. Be careful with taxi fares in Havana, negotiate before you get in, and not in a laissez faire/fare? way. If they pretend not to understand English, write it down, or type it into your phone. Nearly ALL Cuban people are lovely, but be wary of the capital’s taxi drivers!
We have explored Havana enough, we have our bearings, it will be great to return more knowledgeable. We are going to Viñales (pronounced Bin-yarl-es), we have by chance managed to share a ride with an Australian couple that are over to get married in Mexico, as it is half the price of doing it in Perth, Australia. Not half the price for their friends and relatives though! They work underground in the mining industry as explosive experts and I have a vision of them emerging from their shifts like the ‘Unbreakable’ Kimmy Schmidt and the Indiana Moles. If you complete twelve hours underground, you must emerge every time and think, ‘This is fucking brilliant, absolutely fucking brilliant up here!’ Unless you are emerging into a barren desert, even then it’s probably pretty good. We have debated with an English couple we met on the plane the best way to get to Viñales. It is about three hours on the disserted roads, they have decided to get a collectivo – that is not only packed with other budget ‘cattle’ tourists, there is a good chance of carbon monoxide poisoning – think cloud on unsteady wheels, and just to add double insult to injury we pass them broken down on side of the motorway, when we chat to them later it has taken them 6 hours, compared to our two and a half and they have saved the equivalent of about five US dollars each.
Transport in Cuba is interesting, you will see huge numbers of Cubans waiting patiently by the side of the road, waiting to be picked up by anyone, or anything, as public transport is chronic. There is, you guessed it, a queuing system, but priority is given to the old, infirmed and the pregnant, my advice is not to wait outside a maternity hospital.
Viñales is a big tourist trap, it is part of the Cuban Golden ‘package tour’ triangle, along with Trinidad. We have booked accommodation in advance, via our Airbnb, the owner of the accommodation has lied to us to get her to stay at one of her friends places, as when we arrive with our cases the one we think we are staying at is full, but she knows of another less desirable one that is vacant. The Wife has rumbled this quickly, and when the guesthouse owner says something to her about this other place and then shows us the sub-standard accommodation, The Wife is shouting at her, ‘You give Cubans a bad name!’ The female guesthouse owner is shouting back at her in Spanish, I’m walking backwards from this cultural exchange at this point. The Wife doesn’t need my help, she needs a cold drink. I leave her in a bar and go on the hunt for accommodation, which I love, the nosiness, the negotiating and the badinage. Viñales is a tiny farming village of about 300 people that now accommodates 1,500 guests, being a beautiful UNESCO area has helped massively, it is a beautiful place, and you have to go. I find a lovely place with a veranda on a side road, that we discover is a cut through for noisy lorries early in the mornings. I don’t mind as early the next morning a happy farmer in a cart being drawn by two oxen wishes me ‘beunos dias’ and I return the greeting with a big smile and take a picture with my mind’s eye for a future cold dark winter’s mornings in England.
We do a few of the tourist activities, tobacco/cigar/coffee production, on a guided walk with a young local woman. I have a dodgy stomach and as we pass her home on the outskirts of the village she points me to her toilet, which is outdoors and involves balancing on a precarious bowing thin plank of wood over a pit. It smells like it has dead mammals that have shat themselves just before they died somewhere in the gloom below – the thought of falling in their appears to cure me instantly. It is the other side of basic, it reminds me of the Australian joke: A Pommy visits an outback pub and is directed to the outdoor toilet by the landlord. Out the back are two open piles of shit, he climbs on the smallest pile and begins his business. Another man appears on the larger mound next to him. “You’re not from around here are you, mate?” “How can you tell?” “You’re in the bloody ladies!”
Viñales is the only pace The Wife gets a dodgy stomach in the entire time we are away – she has the stomach of a peasant, whereas I have the stomach of high-royalty! It is on the only occasion she has the panic-face of impending disaster she shoots into the bar in the corner of the main plaza. She runs past the confused man collecting the 1CUC entrance money and disappears for me to sort. I get drinks in and wait for the dancing to start and on her return when I ask over the state of the toilets she replies, ‘Marginally better than shitting myself!’ Like I said in the first blog, if you are a public-toiletaphob, Cuba is not the place for you. When we return home, our washing has been taken from the line along with the two French women in the next Casa. When we awake early the next morning to get our bus our washing has been returned, it would make for a dull Agatha Christie, but at least no one got murdered and everyone had clean underwear!
Like I said earlier, Viñales is a tourist trap, but it’s a beautiful tourist trap in a tropical landscape with friendly people and the best food we had in the whole of Cuba. If you’re in Cuba you have to go. You might even see a happy farmer with a smile as wide as his face wishing you ‘good morning’ leaving you in no doubt that it is, and when you reflect back on it and some of your first world problems you might just smile outwardly like a happy looney-ballooney or Nut-Womble!
Hasta la vista, habaneros.
Next time, #4: So, you think you’re badly paid!
I wouldn’t mess with this desperado!
Ian M Pindar writes books, and also about himself in the third person sometimes, so it looks as though he has a large team of dedicated professionals working around him. His latest book is in fact a novella and has the strange title of: ‘Foot-sex of the Mind’. It is not a Mills and Boon, but about finding out what is important in life far too late.