A Travellerspoint blog

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


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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)


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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)


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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)

Bad Choices Make Good Stories, Cuba (1 Bad)

Habano Centro, Cuba: Week 4 October, sunny 30 degrees in the shade

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I was brought swiftly down to earth about the realities of backpacking within the first few hours of arriving in Cuba, but I am trying not to let our first few negative moments colour the rest of our Cuban escapade. In retrospect, Cuba probably wasn't the best introduction to backpacking for Thomas, however learning first hand about living under austerity, aspects of communism and socialism and social inequality caused by the dual currency are not normally subjects you find on the curriculum at school.

Cuba is going to be challenging, especially with Thomas, as I discovered on arriving at the airport outside La Habana in the late afternoon. I also realised early on that my lack of Spanish fluency was going to be problematic as Cuba would be much easier if I could speak fluent Spanish. It is completely unlike South American countries that I have visited or other countries with far less infrastructure than Cuba.

Before we left the UK, we had to estimate our budget for Cuba and bring with us enough hard currency (sterling) to cover our two weeks in Cuba. At the time we thought we had a healthy budget. We couldn't take the risk of using ATMs which sometimes don't work in Cuba (as another backpacking couple found who had all their transactions denied and were totally stressed by their third day in Cuba) or swallow your card. This is the beginning of our travels and losing our credit cards would be catastrophic.

On landing, Edward went to change money into CUC$ at the official money changing desk but the security guard would not allow me to go to the counter with Edward. Unfortunately, he was scammed and we lost 100 pounds. If I had been able to witness what happened or had been able to challenge the cashier then maybe there would have been a different outcome. It was not the best start.

The next part is going to sound ludricrous and bizarre, so you'll have to bear with me. We arrived in Habana Centro at our casa and our first priority was to find water and somewhere to eat. Sounds simple, doesn't it? We headed for the main street a few blocks down the Malecon and I asked a few tourists that I came across where they got their water from. Most of them had brought it with them and not bought it in the district we were in, however one couple said that on the main street there was a tienda that was easy to miss as there were no signs and the front window doesn't display what it sells but right at the back of the shop, they had found water. They said 'good luck' as they had also struggled to find drinking water.

Still sounds relatively straightforward at this point - all we had to do was find the shop without signs. It was just after 5pm and the daylight was starting to fade. Thomas was really thirsty and hungry so with some urgency we tried to locate the shop with no success. Next, I spotted a kiosk and saw small bottles of water on the shelf and asked in Spanish for water. I was told "it's finished" which was to become a familiar phrase in Cuba and he could not sell us the water. We searched for another ten minutes and found another kiosk with small bottles of water so tantilisingly close (yet so far), where a guy was frantically tapping on a calculator and didn't want to engage with us. Again I was told in Spanish the same thing "it's finished and I cannot sell it to you". It was starting to get dark, Thomas was getting visibly upset and we were in an unknown part of Habana and had no idea yet where to buy food or drink. We ended up in a smoky bar on bar stools (not ideal for Thomas) but at least they were still serving bar snacks and small bottles of overpriced water.

It became apparent very quickly, many tiendas in Cuba do not have signs, shop windows or if there is a shop window it displays a random selection of goods sometimes completely unrelated to what is actually sold inside. We also discovered, that buying drinking water can be an expensive business (1.50 sterling for a small bottle of 500ml) unless you are prepared to track down shops that sell larger bottles. The next morning, we headed out in Habano Centro to track down a shop that sold 5 litre bottles without charging a small fortune and finally found it in a shop that from the outside would appear to sell toiletries but at the back there was water - hurrah!

Farmacia, Habana Centro

Farmacia, Habana Centro

Again, many shops operate a counter system where you join a queue for the counter you want to purchase from as the limited goods are held on shelves behind the counter. You reach the front of the queue and then ask for your item and pay (we started saving up bags as most of the time you are expected to bring your own bag with you). This gave us a glimpse into why queuing is a way of life for Cubans whether it is queuing to actually get inside a shop, queuing for a counter, queuing for the ATM or queuing for over two hours for ice cream at Coppelias. Then there are the markets or shops that have hardly any stock or nothing to sell as "it has already finished".

We checked out Harris Brothers in Habano Vieja which was described in our guide book as the most extensively stocked supermercado in Habana. We made a beeline for this thinking we would find a veritable oasis of food and drink opportunities compared to other tiendas. The sign outside was tiny and the door led to a gloomy, grubby, grimy tiled hall lined with two counters either side. I think 'extensively stocked' was a misprint and we were constantly hassled by hustlers and scam artists while inside - to be avoided.

We decided an action plan was needed so that we knew our priorities whenever we reached a new destination in Cuba:

1. take as much water as we could physially carry on your journey to a new destination
2. first priority is to hunt out a shop that sells drinking water hopefully in 5 litre bottles
3. second priority is to search out moneda nactional restaurants/cafes/holes in the wall for cheap eating opportunities
4. find where the Candeca is for changing money as it is easy to miss these as well (we passed one three times before we realised that it was the Candeca)

Our budget had also taken a hammering in Cuba after losing the money at the airport. It coincided with a crash in the pound as it was announced two days before we arrived in Cuba, that Brexit negotiations would start in March. This combined with discovering how expensive eating was (30 pounds for a meal for 3 people) plus the cost of travelling between places, ruled out eating at what I would call actual restaurants i.e. they had table cloths and glassware or dinner in our casa (we told 12 to 15 pounds per person).

Moneda Nacional Pandaneria - queuing to buy biscuits

Moneda Nacional Pandaneria - queuing to buy biscuits

We reassessed our budget and ruled out any excursions, entrance fees to museums and places of interest, and only use taxis in absolute emergencies. We explained to Thomas that we had our own austerity rules; this meant two meals a day (breakfast in our casa and late lunch/dinner from moneda nacional places if possible) and to walk everywhere. On the positive side there was no chance of putting on weight in Cuba and Thomas could walk for over three hours in the tropical heat by our last day in Cuba - his stamina had significantly improved!

Fruit and Veg Market in Verdado, La Habana

Fruit and Veg Market in Verdado, La Habana

Posted by edandsuet 17:00 Archived in Cuba Tagged habana centro Comments (0)

Harry Potter's Wizarding World Lives Up to the Hype (1 Good)


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Hogwarts Train

Hogwarts Train

Universal Studios beats Disney hands down in providing an enthralling, immersive experience with a meticulous level of detail and Hogsmeade/Diagon Alley connected by the Hogwarts train is a prime example.

Whether it is sipping on Butter beer outside the 'Leaky Cauldron', wandering the cobbled streets of Hogsmeade village, boarding the Hogwarts Express, sampling shepherds pie in 'The Three Broomsticks', whizzing through the air on a magical flying bench during a Quidditch match, escaping from Gringotts bank deep within the vaults, surviving a close encounter with Lord Voldemort himself or marvelling at the shops in Diagon Alley - I can appreciate the spectacle even if I'm not a Harry Potter fan.

The rides themselves are a masterpiece in thrills and spills where the stories and characters are vividly brought to life. Now, where did I park my broomstick?

Where Did I Leave My Broomstick?

Where Did I Leave My Broomstick?



Posted by edandsuet 11:51 Archived in USA Tagged world studios orlando harry universal potter Comments (0)

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