Monday, March 30, 2009

Reflections - Cuba 2009 - Part 1

Havana is looking more prosperous this year. More shops along Calle Obispo, more goods in the shops, more energy in the streets. But the hustling has got more intense and it was a relief to get away to the unspoiled east where tourists are stared at rather than importuned. The hustling took many forms: straightforward begging from stick-thin old ladies, younger women using babies as props, hustlers hawking cigars, chicas offering themselves, and mariachi bands touring the hotels and assailing the hapless drinkers with Guantanamara and Besame Mucho. Luckily we had the roof-top pool of the Parque Central hotel to escape to - and there we were able to observe the radical differences between Air France and Virgin Airlines flight attendants. Women and girls really, in fact women and shop girls. While the Virgin crew frolicked in the pool with their under water camera, the French girls gave each other massages, or read their novels while smoking in that elegant French way.

Much affronted by naughty Havana our blameless trio decided to head for beautiful Baracoa on the east coast. The train seemed an adventurous option so we headed off to the central station where a bloated ticket office operator ignored us for a while as she conversed with a colleague and then gleefully informed us that there were no trains that day. So we hied it to the airport. Alas all planes to Santiago di Cuba, the nearest main town to Baracoa, were full. There were however planes to Moa if we bribed the appropriate ticket agent. We were in the air before we discovered two things: Cuban airlines have an appalling safety record; and the Rough Guide to Cuba expressly advises people not to go near Moa. Looking around the short-arsed turbo prop we realise that we were the only tourists to ignore this advice. Moa is known for its open pit mining of nickel - and not much else.

When we arrive, very bumpily, in an airport nestling cunningly amongst the hills, we discover that they're not really set up for tourists. I ask a surly police man if there are any taxis and he just sneers and turns away. Well he might, the only transport around is the cyclotaxi, designed for short local journeys. Baracoa is 30miles away and the road is not really a road - more a track with occasional stretches of tarmac and numerous pot holes. Miraculously we find a Cuban called Anderson who speaks English. He takes us to a shanty town where we find a man head down under the bonnet of a big yellow taxi. He agrees to take us for €60. The journey featured two police checks (for the driver), numerous black pigs, oxen drawing carts, and lots of purposeful men walking the road armed with machetes. Two hours later we land in an idyllic beach side hostel.