Wednesday, 28 January 2015


Craig Writes:
Friday 2 January 2015
Cubana Airlines, what a funny bunch they are. There seemed to be some confusion around which gate we were leaving from that even the Cubana staff seemed unable to clear up.  We were directed to three different gates on two different levels before - forty minutes behind schedule - we finally got asked to board.  The passengers sitting in the front half of the plane were called up first and directed to a bus.   The passengers sitting in the rear of the plane were then called up and put in a separate bus.  When we get to where the plane is parked on the tarmac the passengers sitting at the front of the plane are directed to the planes rear door and the passengers sitting at the back of the plane are directed through the planes front door.  Interesting.  It didn't take Einstein to figure that we were all going to meet in the middle. It was a monumental fuck up and a gleeful act of stupidity that fortunately most of us managed to have a laugh at.

We weren't quite sure what to expect from Cuban customs but we had landed in the right country so that was a good start.  Entry through Customs was actually quite painless, at least for us. Unfortunately it didn't go so well for one of our fellow passengers. Before we were all allowed off the plane three burly men wearing protective gloves and green camouflage jackets came on board and carted off a fella standing only a metre away from me. It was an odd experience to witness.  The man himself seemed oddly more embarrassed than fearful or intimidated. 

Once we were safely outside the terminal we were approached by a handsome young fella called Janny, he was to be our guide for our time in Cuba.   After a quick intro to our driver, the big burly and bald Renee, it was off to the Four Star Plaza Hotel in the centre of Havana. The hotel celebrated it's 105th Anniversary last year. They must have blown the renovation budget on the cake and party hats because they sure as hell haven't spent any money on this place in a very long time.  It is a dump.  No doubt it was a splendid place in its prime but unfortunately that was many many decades ago. Simple things could help, some washers in the taps, some plaster in the holes in the wall, and maybe some toilet paper would be handy.  
We had to improvise with the table napkins.
The silver lining though was that we were finally getting to meet up again with our very good friends Nora, Anastas and the very sweet Anna.  After dumping our bags we all met on the fifth floor at the alfresco bar that overlooked the city.  They had bought some of their Bulgarian friends with them, Milan, Geri and their son Nikki.  We drank Mojitos under the Cuban moon and caught up on each other's lives.  Two drinks in and Nora and Christina were starting to plan our next skiing holiday in Austria.

Saturday 3 January 2015
The plan today was for the others to follow us in their hire cars as we made our way out to the crocodile farm at Playa Giron.  It wasn't a stand out but it was an interesting enough place. There were twenty or so large crocs basking on the shore of an enclosure and for a couple of dollars a tourist could use a Huckleberry Finn fishing pole and feed them a piece of cow hide. 
You could hold one for a small tip.
Callum chose very wisely.
From here we headed to Cueva de Los Peces to play in a Cenote that was over seventy metres deep.  What it lacked in length and width it made up for with its incredible depth and an abundance of different coloured varieties of fish life.
We had lunch at the small restaurant overlooking the Cenote then grabbed our snorkel gear and dived straight in. It was warm and salty and fresh and exciting to look into the depths and see the colour spiral down to a deep dark bruised blue.
Drop your goggles here and they're gone forever.
We gobbled up the hour we were given and then said farewell as the others hopped in their cars and headed off towards Cienfuegos.  We would be catching up with them again soon in Trinidad.  For us though it was on to our accommodation at Playa Giron where we sat on the beach and watched the sun sink into The Bay of Pigs.

Sunday 4 January 
Well the gloss has started to come off our intrepid guide and driver.  Renee, our driver, has a fairly bad cold and hasn't grasped the concept that if you blow the snot out you don't have to keep snorting it up, swallowing it and recycling it with ever increasing frequency and volume.   As for Janny his youth is starting to show.  Outside of the time he picks us up and drops us off, he's not interested.  He won't even acknowledge us in the restaurants even though he's only a table or two away.  He decided to go to the local niteclub last night and it was showing this morning.  He looked like he had gone hard.  He has plenty to say when we ask a question but otherwise he offers nothing and just sits and chats to the driver in Spanish.  We were staying in an apartment that was up two flights of stairs today so instead of offering to help carry the four cases and four back packs they dropped us at the bottom, off loaded the luggage and just left, no offer to help. Not impressed

Before leaving Playa Giron we had a quick visit to the local Museum of the Peoples Triumph.  It was nothing too grand but what it did have going for it was this was the province where it all happened. It was displaying the relics and trophies of the States glorious victory over the imperialist Americans who backed the 1500 Cuban exiles during the Bay of Pigs fiasco. There were plenty of examples of captured weapons, pictures of dead citizens and portraits of dead soldiers who gave their lives for the protection of the Revolution, complete with blood stained uniforms with bullet holes.   

Here's an interesting Cuban fact.  If you kill a Cuban citizen here you can get fifteen years jail, if you kill a cow you can get thirty years. The reason being is that beef is a rare commodity and every cow is sacred.  Not for religious reasons but economic. You can only buy cows from the State and for a significant amount.  You can breed them for milk, cheese etc but any new calf must be registered by the State and branded with a number.  You can sell your cow back to the State but if you do it means your probably desperate because they will only pay a fraction of what you paid for it.  Any deceased cow must be autopsied and you had better hope it comes up as natural causes...or else.

From here we were off for a quick tour of Cienfuegos. There were some interesting buildings, the local theatre where Enrico Caruso once sang and the towns first two story building, a delightful French inspired number in powder blue. One hour was plenty of time.  It was time to go eat before carrying on to our hotel, Club Amigo Costa Sur Playa Larga, a small beachside resort a few miles outside of Trinidad. 
The building where we had lunch was a former palace built by a Spanish General in 1912 and left vacant for decades after his sudden death until it was bought by Cubas pre-revolutionary leader, Batista .  There is now a great little restaurant on the ground floor after which you can make your way to the on the top deck to enjoy the breeze of Jagua Bay and the incredible views.
Very nice if you like that sort of thing.
Club Amigo seems like The Ritz Carlton after the last two places. We're really not that hard to please, a clean room, firm bed, running water and toilet paper in every bathroom keeps us happy. The bonus here was that the food is goodish and the barman knows how to make a decent Mojita, and, like Playa Giron, it is an all inclusive resort.  A bit like Club Med where all the food and drinks are included but in a post revolutionary kind of way.  The next three days should be good.

Monday 5 January
Renee, our snot gobbling phlem - bott of a driver, has successfully managed to impart some of his Cuban bugs to Christina and she is feeling a little under par.  We have decided to forego our tour of a large paddock where some old sugar mills used to stand and stay at the resort for some sun and relaxation and more importantly some time away from El Snotty. 
I had the beach to myself this morning.  I set the alarm and was on the shore at 6.30am for some much needed yoga and a quiet swim, it was delicious.  
After breakfast we all grabbed our towels and wandered down to claim a spot and enjoyed those warm Caribbean waters under a clear azure blue sky.  
One of the activity coordinators from the hotel started was roaming the beach trying to arrange a beach volley ball match.  He finally managed to wrangle up two teams, The Rest of The World - Australia, Brazil and Cuba against three Canadians.  It was never going to be pretty, in fact it would be fair to say we absolutely flogged them. 
Setting up for a perfect spike.
Basking in the glory of our victory I retired to a beach chair with Christina to enjoy a couple of celebratory Mojitas as we contemplated lunch.
The food is nothing special but it filled the gap and fuelled us for a table tennis tournament after lunch.  
Our postcard moment.
Nora, Anastas, Anna and their friends, Milan, Geri and their son Nikki have arrived just in time to come play in the 4pm water polo tournament. Should be lots of fun and an opportunity to burn of some alcohol calories. 

Little did we know that water polo could so quickly turn into water smackdown. It was ninety minutes of water churning body slamming fun.  The numbers on each team changed as team members left the pool injured or in search of another Mojita. One thing was for sure, no one left that pool unscathed be it a bruise a scratch or something that was possibly a bite. It was a lot of fun. 
This tranquil setting was the scene of our water polo smackdown.  
After dinner we all retired back to the pool area to watch the hotels little cabaret show and enjoy a couple of Nora's Cuban Montechristos.  The energetic young brunette dancing with the skinny guy wearing the tight lime green jumpsuit was the standout.  It was unbelievable, he wasn't wearing any undies and his penis was jumping around like a possessed garden hose.  You just couldn't take your eyes off it.  His hair could have gone up like a flaming bush and I swear no one would have noticed.  Still, he seemed to be enjoying himself and we all appreciated his athletic display.
The crew at dinner, minus Charlie and Anna.
Nora was not happy when I volunteered her for the singing competition  and I think she came seriously close to putting her cigars back in the box.  But she didn't.  She actually did very well, she didn't win but she came a very close second.  All in all it was a very entertaining night.   
Thanks for sharing Nora.

Tuesday 6 January 
Today we drove to the waterfall at Parque El Cubano. It's up in the Sierra Escabray mountains which overlooked the stretch of the Caribbean Sea that is Casa Amigos 'swimming pool'.  It was a short pretty 1.5 km walk through the jungle on a cool overcast day.  Nora, Anastas and Anna were with us, we chatted and stopped here and there to take photos, we saw a hummingbird, then we turned the corner and came across it.
A tall cliff face covered from top to bottom in what looked like old flour bags, there were hundreds of them. But they weren't flour bags, it was a gargantuan colony of wasps.  Callum was about to charge forward to take photos before Janny grabbed him by the arm.  They are apparently extremely sensitive to noise and have been known to attack if disturbed. They are there in such significant numbers that once they have stung their prey to death, a most terrifying and painful way to die, they pick up the bloated dead and carry them back to their nest where they lay the eggs of the next generation inside them. 
We were encouraged to take photos but warned to not speak too loudly or move too quickly.  It was a horror story just waiting to happen.  We clicked quietly and left quickly.
When we arrived at the waterfall it was bags down, gear off, avoid the two metre long black snake with the white dots that slide just past Charlie - apparently it's not venomous- and then jump over the side of the cliff into the pool below.  We warmed up with a small jump of only a few metes to gird our loins for the higher jump to come.  I continue to be amazed at the courage of my two boys when it comes to jumping off high things. Callum was keen to jump from the very top, easily fifteen metres, but I had to veto that as I probably would have had to jump with him. 
The water was deep and dark and refreshingly cool.  There was an enormous cave behind the waterfall that was eerie and slick with moss and algae and very likely the home of trolls and things of the night. I'm sure there was lurking going on in the shadows and the deeper darker recesses. I for one was glad to swim under the waterfall and back into the light.
We swam and jumped and swam some more before heading back to the cars under the cover of a light misty sprinkling.

Back at Casa Amigo we worked off lunch with a vigorous ping pong tournament.  Charlie and Callum are both naturals and I am inclined to think we may need to invest in said table when we return.  After exhausting ourselves in the table tennis arena it was time to rest up at the beach before the afternoons beach volleyball rematch. Knowing the importance of hydrating before rigorous activity I headed to the beach bar for a few extra Mojitas.  My team lost but I put that down to insufficient hydrating.
After dinner we had time for cigars, more Mojitas and a couple of games of pool before heading off to Trinidad for our nightime tour. The big bonus here is that Callum is babysitting Charlie, Anna and Niki and all the adults are getting taxied in in our van.  Yippee.
Trinidad is the third of the original seven villages established in Cuba and dates back to 1514.  It's really quite charming and we'd love to come back at another time and wander some of the many galleries and shops, but tonight is not about that.  Tonight is about music, salsa and drinking.  Our first stop was the Canahanchara Club, famous for the Canahanchara drink, honey, lemon, ice, water and rum, apparently it's a medicinal drink, good for the throat. It sure felt good going down.  
We drank, we salsaed, we watched some of the locals shake their thing and then we moved on to  Casa De La Musica - or La Escalinta, the staircase.  This place was packed and the band here was bigger and brassier than other bands we had seen.  We climbed the stairs and found a spot to stand where we drank some more and swayed some more.  Unfortunately we had had to impose a curfew on ourselves of 12 o'clock, to be fair to the kids, and this came around way to quickly.  Janny had spoken of a famous club called the Cave, or disco Ayala -a nightclub built inside a huge cave - that we would all have loved to have gone and explored but it didn't open until 11pm and that just wasn't going to work.  Maybe next time but for now we banked this short memory and headed back. 
Wednesday 7 January
It is with a sad heart that we say goodbye to our dear friends Anastas, Nora and Anna and the newest additions to our Bulgarian family, Milan, Geri and Niki.  Our eleventh hour bid to extend our stay one more night was not successful so, after abundant hugs kisses and plans to catch up again, we piled into the van and headed towards the mausoleum and museum of the legendary revolutionary Che Guevara.  We stopped on the outskirts of Santa Clara to have a look at some of the actual train carriages that the Batista government was sending to reinforce their troops at Santa Clara.
These carriages held the weapons and supplies that helped Castro win the revolution.
Unbeknownst to them the force under Che Guevara's control had derailed the line and was in waiting to capture their weapons and supplies.  It was the turning point in the revolution and another notch in the Che legend.
From here it was a short walk around the Santa Clara main square before lunch and then onto the mausoleum.  It was interesting to see some actual belongings of the man, his .45 colt, his binoculars, his watch, his pen etc and finally, his last resting place inside the mausoleum.  He's obviously attained mythical status since his death and I don't have his T shirt but at least I can now say I've seen his grave  and understand a little more of the man who went from saving lives as a doctor to taking lives for the revolution. 
The massive monument that stands over Che's mausoleum.
From here it was a three hour ride back into Havana and a chance to rest up for our walking tour of the city tomorrow, but, not before finding the best little Cuban pizza restaurant in Havana for dinner.  Two cocktails, four pizzas and two deserts for less than fourty Aussie dollars.

Thursday 8 January
Everyone was very happy with the ten o'clock start to our walking tour this morning.  Our expectations were not high but as it turned out we were very impressed with Havana. It did have a lot to do with having a guide who knew where we were going and what we were looking at. Janny has redeemed himself a little since our night in Trinidad.  
It is a very easy city to get around.  The roads are a simple grid system so it would be hard to get lost. We walked the four main squares of the town stopping at our leisure, first for some roadside Churros and then at a small chocolate factory for the best hot chocolate this side of Ecuador.  
I would gladly drown in  a vat of this.
It was thick as molasses, had hints of cinnamon and vanilla and came with thin wheat biscuits.  When you dipped them in the liquid chocolate it stuck like honey to a hive.  It was unbelievably delicious.

Obispo st is the main artery that cuts through this part of the city and at the very end of the street is La Floridita.  It is famous as one of Hemingway's favourite bars in Havana and is only a few hundred metres down the street from Ambos Mundos, the hotel where he stayed on and off  from 1928 to 1938 . 
They say Hemingway still haunts his favorite corner of the bar.
It was in this hotel, in room 511, that he wrote parts off To Have and To Have Not, Death in the Afternoon and Green Hills of Africa.  His original typewriter and his adjustable desk - he liked to write standing up - are both there as are some of his beloved fishing rods.  While not the grandest room in the hotel it had the best view of the city.  
How much more brilliance could he have produced if only he'd had an I Pad.
A couple of streets over is the famous La Bodeguita Del Medio, a small crowded bar with a five piece band crammed in one corner and tourists spilling out into the street.   The original owner used to give credit to all the writers and artists in return for them decorating his walls with messages and drawings.  Today there is hardly a spare centimetre of wall space left. Hemingway was very happy with the trading terms here and quickly became a regular.  His ode to how good the Mojitas and Daiquiris are here is immortalized in a framed piece of the wall that hangs above the bar.

Friday 9 January
Our final day in Havana and what better way to end it than a tour around the city in a 1952 convertible Buick and 1956 convertible Chevrolet. We toured the Maleca sea wall, an eight kilometre long stretch that comes alive at night with a gathering of locals and tourists who come to sit on the sea wall and eat, drink, listen to live bands and off course to dance. 
We visited Revolution Square, a large bitumen area surrounded by important government buildings, a monument to their national hero, Manuel de Cespedes, who lead the first Cuban independence movement against the Spanish, and the scene where a crowd of two million gathered in 2010 to listen to a concert for peace. 
So much fun, until you sitting behind a chugging bus or a truck.
From here we went to 'the lungs of Havana,' Isla Josefina, a vast expanse of jungle that delivers a refreshing pause of clean air after the often choking fumes of driving in an open car behind buses and sixty year old spluttering American classics.  We quickly realised as we left our cars for a walk down by the river that where we had been let out was not the picturesque picnic area Janny spoke off where the locals gather on weekends but at the spot where the local African Cubans come to practice their religious rituals.  We looked on in amazement as two fellas wearing white shirts and golden Christmas tinsel around their necks, slit the throats of three chickens and set them adrift in the swirling eddies of the river. 
Recently deceased chickens, very recent.
It wasn't till we turned to head back that we realised we were in the middle of some sort of graveyard for sacrificed animals.  There were fly infested carcasses, broken bottles and plates and rotting fruit and coconuts everywhere.  Apparently the locals imbued the objects and the animals with their bad thoughts and bad luck and placed them there in an attempt to cleanse themselves.  Janny made a point of saying not to touch anything lest the bad intentions and fortunes be transferred to us.  I was glad to be wearing my New Orleans Voodoo bracelet.
As we walked back towards the cars we saw several large Turkey Vultures ripping apart the bodies of the sacrificial beasts that the flies and maggots had not quite finished with.    

The Hotel Nationale is the most famous hotel in Havana and has a who's who picture gallery of both the infamous and the famous who have stayed there over the years. Presidents, Prime Ministers, actors, boxers, gangsters and musicians from Putin to Ali from Speilberg to Arnie from Myer Lansky and Lucky Luciano to Fred Astaire and Rocky Marciano. It was fun and so nice to be out of the fog of fumes for a little bit.  The tour was two hours well spent and I think we can now leave Havana saying we have seen most of what it has to offer...except for one piece of unfinished business.

You cant leave Cuba without a box of just cant.  Janny said he had a supplier he would take us to but it ended up just being the local state retailer who wanted to hit us for $210 CUC for twenty five No.2 Montecristos. We knew Nora and Anastas had paid $80 CUC for theirs.  We passed on Janny's supplier and after several texts made contact with Noras supplier, Daniel. Daniel's supplier was obviously not through the regular channels because from here things went a little clandestine.  

A rendezvous was arranged, payment was agreed and we were instructed to wait in our hotel room for his call at two o'clock the next day.  Two came and went, 2.30 then three o'clock.  Had something happened to spook him, had he been detained, was the risk just too great?
Three thirty came and we were starting to think something had gone wrong.  
Then the phone rang. 
Christina and I exchanged a furtive glance and I picked up the receiver. It was Daniel, he was in the lobby and he had the goods. We exchanged brief descriptions, he was tall, wearing a blue shirt and carrying a backpack.  I was tall, wearing a fedora with a blue band and an Aztec shirt.  I was also told to bring a backpack.  
We recognised each other across the lobby and exchanged discreet nods.  We briefly shook hands he suggested I follow him, ' there are too many cameras in this hotel' he said.
We walked out into the busy street and I followed him down a side street, through a crowded park and finally to a small hotel where we we took the end table facing the pavement. We made polite conversation, had a beer and somewhere in between a package wrapped in a white plastic bag made it's way from his backpack into mine.  The transaction was so smooth I hardly noticed it myself. A small, almost imperceptible nod passed between us and I slipped him a small wad of notes.  He didn't bother to count it. 
We chatted for a few minutes more, he was looking around taking in the crowd who was coming and going.  He seemed particularly interested in two long haired guys in their fifties who had sat at the table next to us. He had seemed ready to go but he settled back into his seat and we chatted some more, the weather, Cuba, the local food. Then as casually as the conversation had started, it was over.  We rose, I paid for the beers and we left. He made a casual glance over his shoulder towards the two ponytails who still sat at the table next to us, we shook hands and he turned and left.   The deal had been done.

Tonight our thoughts turn to packing and the continuation of our journey to Belize. We walked the cobblestoned street of Obispo once more, found a restaurant for dinner and bought a Havana ashtray to go with our cigars. There was a brief mention of walking down to the foreshore and watching the locals do their thing but we wisely opted to stay in.  Wisely, because at 10 o'clock the heavens opened up and a downpour of torrential proportions bucketed down and continued to do so till well into the early hours of the morning. 

Cuba has been a very pleasant surprise. While you can always pick holes, the food isn't great, the lack of loo paper, no internet - actually not a bad thing -, no hot water in the showers, things broken and in need of repair, ATM's with no money etc, there's some interesting back stories to the place if you ask the right questions and dig a little.  

The music is contagious, you just can't not move your hips, even a little.   The booze is cheap, so is the food, the people for the most part are very friendly and the beaches are lovely. Havana, the old part of the city, and Trinidad were the standouts for us. Seeing Hemingways haunts and his hotel room complete with typewriter and fishing rods was exciting for me. I would definitely have to say Viva La Cuba.

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