When we arrive in beautiful colonial UNESCO protected Trinidad, Cuba, a place that looks as though the clocks stopped in 1850 there is the usual scrum at a plaza (Carrillo) where the bus pulls in. We have a strategy that works for us, I leave the bags with The Wife in a bar/restaurant/shade etc and I go on the hunt for accommodation. My bicycle rickshaw driver is Daniel and I think I have negotiated a 2CUC ride to the casa that is top of our list. It is full and Daniel takes me to similar places, most are full, eventually we find a great casa run by a young lawyer. We return to The Wife in Plaza that also houses the hospital. Daniel now wants 15CUC. I lie and say we only have 7 until we can get to the bank, we have an emergency 10CUC note. He has told me he only picks tourists up, for obvious reasons. He reluctantly takes the 7CUC, you mean bastard I hear you say, or is that just paranoid tinnitus? Before you judge too harshly, let me explain the average monthly wage in Cuba: 20-25 CUC. Exchange rates can vary obviously, especially if you decide to leave your European brothers and sisters, for God knows what unbelievable reason! 20CUC is £25, or US$20 per month, just stop and think about that for a short moment (think… think… ok, carry on), this is for an entire month!! The world average is £928/ month – so the average Cuban is getting paid roughly 1/40th the average of the entire global monthly pay – no wonder young Cubans want change when they look out at the rest of the world through the internet! I have just paid a rickshaw driver, albeit a pleasant one, the equivalent of well over a week’s wage for less than an hour’s work! No wonder he only picks tourists up!
We get to the casa particular and we get chatting to the owner, let’s call him Carlo, the reason I’m changing his name, he tells us a lot about the politics of Cuba which I may refer to later. Carlo is in his mid-thirties, he is an ex-lawyer, when he was qualified he was earning 25CUC/ month, his wife is a doctor in the hospital, she earns 25CUC per month. The average casa in Cuba costs 25CUC per night, or, a month’s wages for a local – this is why Carlo is no longer a lawyer. The government take a set amount of monthly tax, he pays 500CUC as he has two rooms in his house, anything after ten nights full occupation is pure profit. They are wealthy, as are many other Cubans by local standards for basically doing bed and breakfast, breakfast by the way is usually 5CUC each, but they are massive, tasty and impossible to finish. Carlo is renovating a five-bed casa across the street to rent out, he is about to become even wealthier. Tourism is the game to get into, it is the difference between living on the bread line, like a lot of rural Cubans do, ‘They go to bed hungry many nights’ Carlo tells me, ‘And that’s not right.’ He adds. That is one thing ingrained socialism does, it breeds empathy, we meet it everywhere we go – apart from taxi drivers in Havana! Although Carlo tells me Cuba is not a socialist country, but the people in power want the outside would to perceive it that way! I ask him about corruption, he has had to pay the local administrator 50CUC for permission to renovate his new casa, he tells me it is not too bad. When I suggest that 50CUC is two months average wage he dismisses this as money he can make in a single night. His two bedrooms are full for four months solid and he is wealthy enough to have visited his friend in France. While we are on France, I spent many hours meeting French people last summer and trying to explain why the British decided to leave Europe and eventually when I could not help them any more with their total bafflement, I just shrugged my shoulders and apologised for the slightly higher majority (52% to 48%), most of which will be dead before any possibly ‘significant’ benefits are seen! Deep breath, move on. While still on France.
We meet a French couple who seek out the museum curator in Cienfuegos. Cienfuegos is twinned with the French woman’s home town, so she is interested to meet the curator, he gets paid 15CUC per month! He’s the boss, but she tells us he is not complaining as he has got to visit France twice because of his job! It is better in Cuba to do anything within tourism than any traditional indigenous occupation, this is the general consensus. Carlo said the game changer for him was not getting a degree in law, it was taking the optional module to learn English, by being able to speak English he rents his casa easier and can take pre-bookings, he also speaks French. I could tell you many other similar stories to emphasis the point, the graduate computer programmer that takes groups on wildlife walks as he gets paid fifty times more than programming – Cuba needs as many computer experts as it can recruit, believe me, or the teachers of English and History that no longer teach, but take guided tours exclusively for tourists.
The incredible monthly Cuban wage is the reason why government shops exist and the reason why a tourist is forbidden from buying a breezeblock of cheese for 15CUC! If there is actually any cheese available to buy – when it’s gone, it’s gone, and it’s often gone!
My Wife is a lawyer, and Carlo literally gasps when she tells him how much the firms she has worked for charge per hour – five times average monthly Cuban wage! He informs us about his wife’s work in the hospital, the basic levels; lack of equipment and drugs. People even have to bring their own paracetamol with them when they come in. His wife loves working in the hospital and with the rent from his casa and him at home to look after their children; she can afford to carry on doing it.
A two-tier system operates in Cuba, you pay the equivalent UK prices to travel on the buses, which if you have travelled quite extensively in the developing world, is quite surprising, but I suppose you have ticked the box on the visa application that states: ‘Supporting the Cuban People’, and you certainly have plenty of first-hand experience of that while you are there. You can see why foreign multinationals would want to operate there, a work force with the highest literacy rate in the world and one of the lowest labour costs, and on the doorstep of the United States and Mexico, etc.
The clip-clop of hooves in the morning In Trinidad gently wakes you, it’s real cowboy country. There is a lovely beach close by, Playa Anson, we spend a day there and are picked up in a Lada taxi as a storm blows in and the skies look as though they are about to haemorrhage, the taxi has no glass in driver’s side window and the inadequate plastic sheet does not keep the lashing rain out. The drive back costs us 20CUC, and the fact we are getting wet does not appear to bother the driver, it is all part of the experience, there’s no customer service department, and there’s still a living to make!
Look at the belligerence in the eyes of El-Loco Bastiddo at the back!
We decide, well, The Wife has decided we have to experience the horse trek, in horse country. I’m not a fan of horses. I had a girlfriend at teacher training college that had ridden all her life and when we went to stay with her parents and I informed her about my unease with a big beast between my legs, she dismissed me and told me to watch her as she took off across a large field for a stirrup to come lose and her to fall heavily to the ground; she has been in a bath-chair ever since and fed through a straw, ok, I made the last bit up, she can feed herself now, she’s fine, she got up dazed but unbelievably uninjured, but I remember thinking you know what you’re doing and you fell off, and quite quickly at the very start! I don’t like being that high up, as if you fall off you hurt yourself and it feels like you are doing a public hokey-kokey whilst trying to stop smuggled drugs falling out of your back passage – I appreciate this is not everyone’s view on equine activities! We trek up to a waterfall at one point my horse, El-Loco Bastiddo, I forget its real name, bolts off I pull it back and it nearly dislocates my shoulder. I’m also in trouble as I have forgotten to transfer the wallet from one bag to another when I’ve been to the bus station earlier by myself, the bus was booked up for two solid days up to Santa Clara. The taxi driver, a friend of Carlo has reduced his price massively when he thinks we will get the bus! The waterfall is lovely and we bath and chat to several people. An Irish woman tells us the prices in Cuba have gone up five times in the last five years.
When we eventually get off the horses, starving due to lack of funds to buy lunch, my arse is so bruised and battered it looks like I’ve been abused by a drunk medieval knight. It takes nearly a week for the pain of the bruising to fully dissipate – this is another reason why I don’t like horses.
Me doing my best Putin impression at a waterfall in Cuba. A bear is just about off shot deciding whether to wrestle me!
Trinidad as I have said earlier is a beautiful place to walk around and marvel at. There is a good choice of food (by Cuban standards), the main plaza and surrounding streets offers vibrancy, dancing, great company, and even though it is on the tourist triangle you would be foolish to miss it out. Definitely go, think twice about a horse ride!
Hasta la vista, Bucaneros.
Next time #5: The revolution starts here.
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.