Fidel and the Tortoise ~ Camagüey, Cuba

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Casa stays are a must in my opinion, if you want to have a slightly more real – or even surreal – Cuban experience.

This was my third trip to Cuba, but the first time on my own. No boyfriend, no groups, just me. I’d never stayed in a Casa (Cuban version of B&B / guesthouse) before, and being the sort that likes to research everything to death, it took me hours if not days to select what I thought were the The Ones. Was it worth all the research, and was it worth venturing out of my comfort zone of the 4 and 5 star hotels that are desperately trying to cling on to Old World glamour (and missing something) of half a century ago?

In the most unexpected way, it was.

Arriving in Camagüey

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My arrival in Camagüey on the Viazul coach from Trinidad was very smooth. By contrast, in general, arriving at any bus terminal in Cuba is quite an overwhelming experience (See my recent post for Tips on Cuban travel). I found this to be a common theme across bus terminals in Central and South American countries where more than a bus-load’s worth of taxi drivers are over-eagerly awaiting the arrival of a bus-load of tourists. As soon as you step out of the bus, you get the feeling that the taxi drivers, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and aggression, will pounce on you for your taxi fare.

But Cuba takes it up a notch. In addition to people shouting “Taxi?”, there are also people shouting “Casa?” or even “Casa Legal?” (legal Casa – yes, there are some illegal, non-registered ones). Worse still, are the ones who appear to be helpful, who take tourists to the wrong Casas (for a small commission from that wrong Casa owners), or blatantly lie to you about your particular Casa being full and introducing you to another (again, small commission due from Casa owners).

Camagüey seems to have a particularly bad reputation for this, and so the owner of my Casa, Ivan, was waiting for me at the bus terminal. So far, so good.

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One way sign to the Revolution
Arriving at the Casa – the Alternative One

During our short car journey into central Camagüey in his impressively new Toyota, Ivan was keenly telling me about his city, broadly confirming what little I’d read in my guide books. We were getting on just fine, and I was so glad to have avoided the common tourist trap of being taken to the wrong Casa, or being charged an outrageous (by Cuban standard) taxi fare. After a 5-hour bus journey, that’s the last thing you want.

Then the bomb.

“Listen, Maki”, said Ivan as he parked the car in front of a house I recognised from the website photos. “This is my house here, but tonight you’re staying in a different Casa, just for one night, and it’s just across the road.”

The story was that a German lady who was staying with them, in my room, had been taken ill and had to stay a few days extra, but not to worry, as she would be gone by tomorrow morning for sure.

I’d spent hours on the internet searching, reading reviews, looking at Google Maps. And I had selected my One after careful consideration. So I was surprised at how calm my reaction was in receiving this news. May be it was not calm, but despair. Or may be because I was in Cuba.

What could I do?

My options were: (a) just along with it; or (b) walk around Camagüey, a place I didn’t know, dragging my big suitcase along the uneven pavement (where there are any at all) in the hope of miraculously coming across a hotel or a perfect Casa that I had missed during my extensive search.

Reluctantly, I went across the road with Ivan, who took me to a green-coloured house. Outside, he struggled somewhat in opening the big padlock on the iron bar security door. I was to have the whole Casa to myself for the night, and the owner, Ivan’s nephew, would come around later to do the paper work. I felt a little uneasy at the prospect of being completely alone in a house that had an iron bar security door with a padlock, but before my thought was allowed to develop any further, Carlito arrived on his bicycle. A small and slightly chubby guy in his early thirties, he introduced himself, taking out an official-looking book from a wicker bag that was rather unfitting for him and definitely not what you’d imagine a macho Cuban guy to have. Not that he was one of those.

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A familiar face on the wall

I handed over my passport to Carlito, who was painstakingly slow in filling out his very official, state-issued Casa guest registration. Perhaps sensing my slight impatience watching him pen down one letter at a time, careful like a child taking his first spelling test, Carlito told me it was of utmost importance that the book was filled in correctly, with a big fine for any mistakes.

OK. This is going to take a while.

Taking my eyes off of Carlito’s writing endeavours for a second, I noticed a montage of photos on the wall. Lots of photos, mostly of the same two guys posing together. Sometimes on their own, sometimes with a few others. And most of them look quite ceremonial.

Having completed his assignment, Carlito walks up to me and is very proud in telling me that the man in the photos is in fact his dad. His dad, who is posing next to none other than Fidel Castro. You can see that the photos span over a good few decades, and Carlito explains that his dad was the gobernador of Camagüey for many years, which meant that he reported directly to the Comandante. A very important position indeed.

I felt strangely star-struck in a bizarre kind of way. In Cuba, you’re constantly walking past propaganda posters, photos of Fidel Castro taking up prime position in shops, or Che Guevara’s face painted on the side of a building. We’ve all learnt about (whatever version of) the Revolution, or the Cuban Missile Crisis at school, but these photos, posters and T-shirts are so ubiquitous that they’d lost their place in the real real world for me. Like a Disney film that you almost believe in while you’re watching it (or is that just me?), but when it’s over, of course it’s just Disney. All the memorabilia that goes with the Cuban stuff had made it feel a little unreal to me. But now, all of a sudden, Fidel Castro was a real person, standing next to Carlito’s dad.

Tortoise in my Casa

That afternoon, I went exploring around Camagüey on my own. I’m not really a museum person, or a famous monument kind of person. I’m not great at being a tourist, really. I quite like walking randomly and just getting lost in a place. And getting lost was easy here, where the roads were deliberately laid out in the most confusing way as a defence mechanism against pirates.

Fending off a few annoying jineteros (“prostitutes” of sort) and blocking out random calls of “Hey! China!” (by now I was tired of saying “No, I’m not China (Chinese), I’m Japonesa“), I somehow managed to exchange some money at the only Cadeca (Casa de Cambio) that was open that afternoon and also completed my self-guided city tour that probably didn’t take in any of the Top 5 Must Sees.

With weary legs and an even wearier brain, I came home to my green Casa, struggling with the padlock just as Ivan had done earlier. I walked through the lounge area, past the small kitchen and into the bedroom.

Wait, what was that?

I reversed my steps, back into the lounge, and looked behind the sideboard.

Is that a dead tortoise? No, it can’t be. Then what?

Freaking out slightly, I rushed to the bedroom, took my trusted mini-torch from my back pack, and shone it at the tiny space where I thought I’d seen a dead tortoise. It was not a dead tortoise. It was a living one!!

I did the only thing I could think of, which was to run across the road to Ivan for help.

“Ivan, there is a tortoise in my Casa!”

I don’t blame him for thinking that I’d perhaps got the Spanish wrong. “A tortoise?”, he laughed. “What’s a tortoise doing there?” That’s what I’d like to know! So there I was, on Ivan’s doorstep, with his wife Lucy also looking perplexed, while I did my best impression of a tortoise, in the hope of convincing them that I wasn’t crazy.

Still looking half incredulous, and at this point I’m feeling like the boy who cried wolf, Ivan said “Ok, let me go and get something”. He returned with a wicker basket (what is it with men and wicker baskets here?) and we walked across the road to my green Casa. Tortoise retrieved safely, Ivan apologised and said he would speak to Carlito.

Later that night, back at Ivan and Lucy’s, I was sitting in their beautiful and tranquil tropical garden tucking into my Cuban dinner of fried pork, beans, rice and yuca cooked by Lucy. Honestly, I would have loved a glass of Rioja to go with it, but decent wine is hard to come by in Cuba. Just then, the doorbell rang, and there was Carlito again. I could see he was getting an earful from his aunt and uncle about the tortoise, but he didn’t seem to care much. So I also decided to bring up the tortoise affair with him too.

“Ah, don’t worry, it was mine. I bought it yesterday as a pet and…well I guess I just forgot it there”.

Not very satisfied with his somewhat irresponsible attitude, I went on to mention the shower that didn’t have hot water – in fact even the cold water was spraying everywhere but on me.

“The previous guests must have broken it.”

Again, not satisfactory. I was beginning to regret the dive trip that I had arranged with Carlito for the following day.

Taking a Day Trip to Playa Santa Lucia

SANTA LUCIA 2In Cuba, everyone knows someone who can arrange anything.

So I ended up going on a scuba diving day trip to the beautiful beach of Santa Lucia, a 120km drive east of Camagüey. Ivan was the driver. Carlito came along for the ride. We picked up Macao, my dive guide, along the way. With a few stops here and there, it took around 2 hours each way. And this was to be the most insightful trip into the lives of (some) Cubans. What was interesting for me was to hear the other side of the story – the viewpoint of the privileged minority that clearly exists in communist Cuba.

I’m a City banker in London, and I had a 4 year old Blackberry. So it was puzzling to see so many Cubans walking around with iPhone 6s. How do they afford it, when the salary range is USD25-35 per month and what place does an iPhone have in a country that still has a food rationing system and the worst internet connections, not to mention the practically non-exisitent wifi?

Apparently, there is a very simple explanation to this. Step One: Foreign tourist comes over to Cuba and falls in love with their Cuban “boyfriend” or “girlfriend”. Step Two: When they leave the country, they leave behind their latest iPhones as a gift. Step Three: As the average Cuban does not have access to wifi or the internet, they sell this rather useless gift in the black market. Step Four: Now it can be bought at a bargain price, for those who can afford it. Good for them.

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So what about the rest? Is 25 CUCs (1 CUC = 1USD) a month really enough to even survive on in Cuba? The answer I get from my new friends is no, but the State does a fantastic job in providing food for all – the aforementioned rationing system. This is interesting, because most of the poorer people I’ve spoken to have said that it’s impossible to have a proper diet consisting solely of rationed products which basically consists of rice, beans, a few eggs, sugar, coffee, and very little meat.

I then ask how the highly skilled professions such as doctors and lawyers felt about equal-ish pay for all. Doctors, they say, may get paid the same as everyone else, but a lot of people take their rations of rice, beans etc to them as a gift. And by the way, we are very proud of the great job that this government is doing in providing free healthcare to all. Even breast-enlargement surgery is free here, says Carlito. But I suspect he may have got slightly carried away on this point. That, does not sound right.

Right or wrong as this last point may be, these conversations are hugely insightful in understanding the social divide between the “Have”s and “Have-not”s. There are clearly people who are looked after, and people who are not. But even for the wealthier families with iPhones, there are things that are difficult to put on the plate – and that’s beef. As a tourist, I can walk into a restaurant in Cuba and pay 12 CUCs for a plate of Ropa Vieja (which translates Old Clothes – in reality it’s a very tasty Cuban stewed beef). At almost half the average monthly salary, this is virtually unaffordable for the Cubans.

Discussions of food aside, I can really see that my new Cuban friends are ardent supporters of the government. This goes against everything that I’d been hearing from people telling me about how the controlling state has neighbourhood spies dotted around the place, taking note of every word you say. How highly skilled surgeons are now driving taxis in Havana as that earns them more money than carrying out open-heart surgery. Being in the car with these 3 Cuban guys, it’s as if I’ve suddenly entered a different Cuba in a parallel universe. And they too, like the other Cubans I’ve got to know, are really good genuine people.

So I’m now confused. Which version of the truth is right? Or does the truth just depend on where you’re standing? I can see that Ivan and Lucy work extremely hard in maintaining their beautiful Casa. They are very professional about it, and their business clearly works. With tourists like me paying 25 CUCs a night, it’s undoubtedly good business. So they can afford to live well, but not through lack of hard work. Could any Cuban emulate this business model if only they had the ingenuity and the work ethics? Or is this an opportunity that is only afforded to the chosen few? I still don’t know.

Despite the shower with no hot water that sprayed everywhere but on me, despite the Tortoise Surprise, despite the neighbour’s annoyingly loud (but strangely reassuring) TV, I’m grateful for the one night I stayed in a disaster of a casa across the road. Because it resulted in this totally unplanned trip that was a lot more than getting to an idyllic beach, and way more than the two fairly average dives I had. And for me, this is exactly the kind of day that makes a trip my own, something to remember for a long time. It was a crash course in Cuban history and culture, and the most insightful and unexpected rare view into the lives of the fortunate few in Cuba, however they may have got there.

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