A Travellerspoint blog


Cuban Life Revealed (1 Good and 1 Bad)

Weeks 4 - 5 October, sunny and 31 degrees in the shade No es facil en Cuba - it ain't easy in Cuba and my unsophisticated motto for Cuba is "if you see it, get it"

sunny 31 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

Imagine waking up one morning to find you are living in the 1950s where food rationing is still the norm, you have to boil the tap water if you want to drink it, it will take all of your lunch hour to queue for the bank which closes at 3pm, it could take up to 3 hours to source and purchase food for the next few days, you'll earn around $25 US dollars a month from your government job and you can't buy a bar of chocolate for love nor money - welcome to Cuba. Luckily, Cubans are happy go lucky, resilient, enterprising and constantly finding ways to improve their lot after enduring over 50 years of austerity.

Moneda Nacional Pandaneria - queuing to buy biscuits

Moneda Nacional Pandaneria - queuing to buy biscuits

For me, Cienfuegos was a turning point, as Cuba started to creep up on me and almost grew on me, but then another maddening, frustrating situation would occur - it is definitely a love/hate relationship.

Cuba is revealed through numerous anonymous open and closed doorways, whether off the main avenidas and plazas or down the residential calles. There is often no way to tell what a door will lead to; signage is distinctly lacking in most cases or confusing and shop windows can display a random selection bearing no resemblence to what the shop sells.

Selling Tropical Fish from your Living Room, Cienfuegos

Selling Tropical Fish from your Living Room, Cienfuegos

My favourite and most unusual enterprise that I discovered was in Cienfuegos; an aquarium tienda run two blocks down from our casa from a living room where the shuttered window had become the shop display of various tanks of tropical fish. The tanks were arranged between a sofa and armchairs adorned with family ornaments. I was invited in to look around.

Behind an anonymous heavy dark wood door off the colonaded main street, a gloomy tardis like shop was revealed. There were no shop windows or signs but it was stocked with a multitude of goods for Cuba from tins and pasta packets to children's toys. Men with photo albums of sofas and armchairs roamed the central shopping street while ladies perused the albums, asking for prices - the Cuban equivalent of the Argos catalogue.

We have finally perfected the Cuban stroll in Cienfuegos and the number one national Cuban past time of finding a shady place to sit and watch the world go by. There's always something entertaining whether it is the guy skillfully fishing with his line off Punta Gorda, neighbours assisting with repairing a 1950s classic while the kids play barefoot football in the fading sunlight at the end of the day, a shopping bag being lowered with a rope from a balcony two floors up so that it can be filled with bananas, or listening to your neighbour's music from across the road.

Twenty first century technology hasn't really arrived yet in Cuba which is part blessing and part curse. It is a cash economy due to the US blocade with limited debit cards and ATMs and a dual currency. Moneda Nacional known as Cuban pesos (MN$) and Cuban Convertibles (CUC$) which are used by tourists and by Cubans (if they can get hold of them) to buy modest luxuries such as deodorant, shampoo, house fittings and limited white goods. Our casa in Trinidad did not have a washing machine.

The dual currency creates an inequality within the communist society which is a paradox, as does the relaxed rules on private enterprises such as casa particulares, hairdressers, taxi drivers, restaurants etc. Any private business generating revenue from tourists is lucrative as services are paid for in the much sought after CUC$, whereas any government job such as teacher, doctor, nurse, government run hotel or restaurant will be paid in MN$. This results in many government workers taking on two or three jobs to survive or sell goods/services from their front room!

Cuba really is full of contraditions. To get an idea of how restrictive the Cuban communist regime has been, here are some restrictions that have been lifted since Raul Fidel took power from his brother:

  • mobile phones and electronic goods were legalised in 2008
  • Cubans were allowed to buy a car in 2011, only 38 of 1000 Cubans have a car compared to 800 of 1000 Americans
  • Cubans were allowed to buy their own houses in 2011
  • Cubans were allowed to travel outside of the country in 2013

Beautifully Restored Cienfuegos

Beautifully Restored Cienfuegos

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Cuba Tagged habana trinidad cienfuegos Comments (0)

Coppelia: A National Obsession (1 Good)


sunny 31 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

Coppelia is one of the most popular family treats in Cuba. It is essentially an outdoor ice cream parlour serving various flavoured scoops of ice cream in moneda nacional (1 peso = 1 scoop which is roughly 4 or 5 pence), although tourists are always directed to the ice cream stand that sells exactly the same product for 15 times the price. At weekends, there are two hour queues in Habana just to secure a table and order.

To understand what all the fuss was about, we decided to slip past the security guards and enter the world of Coppelia as experienced by the locals. There were many challenges ahead and the first was to find an empty table. We secured one on the balcony but after waiting for over fifiten minutes and being resolutely ignored along with Cubans on surrounding tables, we gave up and headed downstairs to the three ice cream bars, set out in a semi circle with stools. Surely we would have more luck as we joined a small queue to wait for a stool?

A sturdily built, grumpy, grim faced middle aged woman actually acknowledged our presence but would not take anyone's order. The ice cream bar seats about 15 customers and all the stools were full. We were now beginning to understand how the queue outside is over two hours long - was the ice cream just a myth? Bizarrely, we were served glasses of water, which no one touched, and we patiently waited.

Over the next fifteen minutes, our disenchanted server proceeded to wash bowls, pour water into jugs, wipe down the counter, remove our glasses and empty them of water, move condiments up and down the counter, fill more jugs with water much to our bemusement, but still no one was served. We tried a couple of times to ask for ice cream but were given a stern look and not dignified with a response. The locals were getting restless as well but no one had lost their resolve yet although I could tell that Thomas was ready to give up.

Finally the mystery was solved when a rotund lady appeared in a white coat and rearranged vast tubs of ice cream in the freezer, and hallelujah an ice cream scoop materialised. She had a chat with our stoic server and I now understood; one person scoops the ice cream and one person serves the ice cream; the natural order of things here must never be changed.

The ice cream flavours were barked at us at rapid speed and we ordered orange, pineapple and coconut ice cream. Why do all the Cubans order 10 scoops at a time? Because it takes an eternity to be served again and everyone is so thankful that the ordeal is over that the ice cream tastes all the better for it!

We revisted the ice cream bar section the next day with a new strategy - make mine 10 scoops please!

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Cuba Tagged ice cream coppelia Comments (0)

Shared Taxi to Trinidad in Kanye West Style (1 Good)


sunny 32 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

After discovering that a shared taxi from Habana to Trinidad door to door would cost less than a Viazul tourist bus after factoring in the taxi fares to the central bus station to buy the ticket and then return with our packs, we plumped for the shared taxi. The cost was 30 pounds per person one-way, a significant chunk of our budget.

Thomas managed to survive his first long journey of six hours in the blue, 1950s Chevrolet estate with a converted boot so passengers could sit on benches either side. The speedometer, temperature, fuel, oil and water gauges didn't appear to work and neither did the wind down back windows - there were no seat belts. In complete contrast, a state of the art DVD player stratgecially positioned by the front mirror provided the soundtrack to our journey - for six hours we were treated to a mixture of Latin American/Cuban hip hop with ladies in a state of undress revolving their ample bottoms.

Eight passengers including ourselves were squashed in while our backpacks were stowed on the roof rack although passenger distribution seemed to be dictated by attractiveness. Our driver blatantly squeezed the two single girls in the front seat with him.

Our taxi driver, with his wide smile, was a happy-go-lucky guy who would have looked more at home in a Kanye West or P Diddy music production than a 1950s Chevrolet taxi. Hoping to emulate his hip hop heroes, he was attired in a black Adidas t-shirt (these cost a small fortune over here), fashionably torn, distressed jeans, mirrored sunglasses and an ostentacious, chunky gold watch with enough bling to blind me when the sun light caught it. He tried to impress the girls in front with the two nude ladies in his life, one as the home page of his IPhone and the other was on the knob of this gear stick - I don't think he had much success.

1950s Chevrolet Shared Taxi to Trinidad (6 hours)

1950s Chevrolet Shared Taxi to Trinidad (6 hours)

After leaving the outskirts of Habana, the roads were eerily deserted apart from the odd car, coach and horse drawn carts. There is no traffic which is not surprising given that car ownership is so low.

Posted by edandsuet 16:00 Archived in Cuba Tagged cuba trinidad Comments (0)

The Languid Waitress - Am I Bothered? Whatever! (1 Bad)


sunny 32 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

Ordering food in a cafe/restaurant away from the plush, atmospheric places in Habana Vieja surrounding the historic plazas with freshly laundered tablecloths, staff that welcome you to your table and polished glassware, is a comedy of errors. In fact, as I start getting use to the idiosyncracies, there's probably enough comedy material and characters to create a sitcom in the same vein as "Little Britain". Our latest experience at a moneda nacional restaurant on the edge of the Verdado district (an altogether posher neighbourhood of La Habana) in La Habana caused me to chuckle into my limonada at the sheer nonchalance of the waitress.

We had tracked down the restaurant (because it was cheap) and were extremely hot and bothered by the time we arrived after 2pm, with Thomas physically wilting after two hours of walking in the heat. Only one table was taken by customers and at first glance, it would appear that there was an extensive menu of chicken and pasta dishes, including a board on the gate with today's specials. We were barely acknowledged by the two staff in attendance, who were essentially doing nothing but had taken the only table left in the shade to chat, rather than work at the counter in the shade by the kitchen hatch, pretending to endlessly review small squares of paper. This meant we had a few choices:

  • sit in the blistering sun
  • try to squeeze ourselves around a miniscle table intended for one person
  • leave

We chose to try and squeeze ourselves around the minature table and somehow orchestrate moving it into some shade. Edward tried to catch the attention of the waitress by gesturing for a menu, asking for a menu but no eye contact could be made so I helped myself to a menu. After ten to fifteen minutes and still no eye contact, Edward whispered "Do you think we should leave?". Thomas's face said it all, he could not bear to walk anywhere else so I said "Absolutely not", where upon our luck changed and the table in the shade became free.

It's a battle of wills; a farcical dance where we each play our parts knowing that someone must lose their resolve at some point, but who will it be?

It took a monumental effort for our waitress to rouse herself from her lethargy at the counter, shuffing over to take our orders in a manner that suggested she would prefer to be having a root canal procedure at the dentist rather than serving us. I sensed she was disappointed that we hadn't left yet but there was still time...

We have learnt that there is no point in reading the specials, the endless pages of the menu or even choosing dishes. The most important question to ask is "┬┐Que hay?" or what is there? I knew that Thomas wanted spaghetti but if you are lucky, there will only be two or three dishes being served. If you ask for a dish from the board or menu the response will be "No hay" or "it's finished" and that might be after waiting an interminable time to go through the pretence of asking the kitchen (wasting more time). The only dishes available were chicken and chicken in two different styles but it is essentially the same thing, so we all ordered, you've guessed it "chicken". After another five minutes, our waitress shuffled back asking whether we wanted our drinks now or with our meal. I asked for "ahora" in the vain hope the drinks might appear with the meal and I was feeling optimistic.

Calculating our bill of three items also proved challenging and took another ten minutes of number crunching on a calculator and the amount we were charged bore no resemblance to the prices on the menu but this is Cuba, so expect the unexpected.

If it was any consolation, all other customers (local and tourists alike) are treated with the same amount of disdain - was our waitress bothered? I think not.

'Holes in the walls', very popular with locals, were our other food options although the options available are rather unhealthy consisting of:
Hole in the Wall ofertas, Trinidad

Hole in the Wall ofertas, Trinidad

  • ham sandwich
  • cheese sandwich
  • ham and cheese sandwich
  • cheese pizza
  • ham pizza
  • ice cream
  • any variations of the above

Once an item is finished, the board with is updated by removing that choice.

Luckily, we all liked ham and cheese although after two weeks, you hope never to see ham or cheese ever again. I was hoping to detox in Mexico and not eat any of the above for at least a month.

Posted by edandsuet 17:00 Archived in Cuba Tagged restaurants nacional moneda Comments (0)

Casa Particulares, Cuba (1 Good)


sunny 32 °C
View Thomas's Great Adventure on edandsuet's travel map.

Casa Particulares in Cuba are rooms in family homes that are rented out to tourists with breakfast as extra (desayuno is generally around 5 pounds per person).

Our first casa was in Centro Habana, a dilapidated, crumbling neighbourhood of Habana, which is the most densely populated and mainly untouched by tourism, where kids play football in their bare feet, older ladies sit on chairs outside their doorways, curvacious girls in vivid tight lycra attempt to flag down taxi collectivos, and battered buses and 1950s vintage cars belch out toxic, asphyxiating clouds of black exhaust fumes that the EU would have kittens over. The restoration process along the Malecon was in progress so hopefully more of the district would slowly be restored back to its former glory.

On first impressions of our casa, after seeing the rusty old gate leading to a dingy, unlit concrete corridor, you would probably have picked up your backpack and run for the hills, but first impressions can be deceiving as with many things in Cuba. It was reminiscent of horror films, where the heroine is frantically sprinting down a dimly lit corridor with flickering flourescent lights only to find each light is extinguished, doorway by doorway. On the third floor, our room with double aspect windows in the casa, was airy, bright and spotlessly clean with a spectacular view of the Malecon from one side and then dilapidation from the other.

Malecon, Habana Centro

Malecon, Habana Centro

View from Casa Particulares in Habana Centro

View from Casa Particulares in Habana Centro

We stayed with a family where 7 members were all squeezed into one apartment and they were so welcoming and accommodating. Multi-generational living is the norm and the great-grandmother would kiss and hug Thomas first thing in the morning and before he went to bed at night. The other bonus was that they had a nine year old son, who gladly taught Thomas some Spanish and invited him to play with his friends, dashing up and down the floors of the apartment block and using the dodgy, antiquated elevator which seemed to amuse them for hours. Carlita and Orlando just down the hall prepared a lavish breakfast (by Cuban standards) composed of banana, guava, papaya and pineapple platter, two fruit juices, coffee/black tea, toast, two eggs and sponge cake. I was very appreciative of all the effort that had gone into sourcing the ingredients and buying them, knowing that it could take two to three hours to procure the food needed for breakfast. This lovely couple would fuss over Thomas, offering him more chocolate milk and eggs done exactly how he wanted them.

Generally, we found casas run by older couples were the best and spotlessly clean. Thomas would be petted, indulged, hugged and cuddled and his every whim at breakfast met. In Cienfuegos, the lovely Anita (Hostal Anita) would offer him extra fruit cocktail for breakfast and teach him Spanish.

Living Room of Casa Particulares - Cienfuegos

Living Room of Casa Particulares - Cienfuegos

Some casas would be at home on Antiques Roadshow or would have David Dickenson all in a lather with grand front rooms/parlours furnished with marbled floors, wooden beamed ceilings, heavy, dark wood chairs and sideboards, ornate Baroque mirrors, stunning sparkling ceiling chandeliers, chintzy grandiose china ornaments, display cabinets of dainty tea/coffee sets and gigantic oil paintings. Often there were verdant roof terraces overflowing with pot plants. Generally, we would find that the grander the decor in the front room, the worst the rooms were. We endured leaking sinks that flooded the bathroom, toilets without toilet seats, showers where barely a trickle of water came out, no hot water and beds which sank in the middle or were on a slant that ended up aggravating Edward's back problem. However, there was something magical about eating breakfast in a room that felt like a living museum.

Posted by edandsuet 17:00 Archived in Cuba Tagged casa particulares Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 6) Page [1] 2 » Next