A diary of a tourist in Cuba – Part 1

By | Category: Travel destinations

CubaA day-by-day memory of an unforgettable holiday to Cuba.

MANYANA AND ALL THAT SALSA! A CUBAN TALE

After being “trapped on the runway for seven and a half hours” (Quote: ‘Daily Mirror’ and ‘GMTV’) at Gatwick, garden designers and landscapers Jill and Simon Foxley (www.the-perfumed-garden.co.uk Designer & Contractor of Bronze Medal Winning Small Garden at Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2008) with their 14 year old son Tom, travelled independently to the extremities of Cuba. This is the diary Jill kept when it became obvious this was to be no ordinary holiday!

Thursday
As we bustled out of the house at 5am down our pitch dark drive in the country, and towards the waiting taxi, the infernal trench that had lain unfilled and unfinished for 18 months, waiting for the electricity cable, claimed yet another victim! With mud squelching between my be-sandalled toes, it was back inside again to change into something clean and less earthy. A bad start it has to be said, and after spending 7.5 hours on the tarmac at Gatwick, ‘trapped on Flight VS063′, the tone of the holiday seemed as if it could only improve……..

An immense sense of camaraderie ran through the Hilton hotel that night. We had all endured the plane ordeal with very little refreshment, and even less understanding from the obviously frustrated cabin staff. Despite his best intentions, the Captain’s “another fifteen minutes” had repeatedly only served to irritate the situation on board. His calling the riot police had been insulting to a plane full of mostly very well mannered and exceptionally patient passengers.
Being a Bank Holiday weekend had ensured even longer Check-In queues and this was still the case as we queued again to take our rooms at the accommodation provided by the airline. The newly imposed extra security measures, added people and hours to the endurance test and we were all exhausted from the events of the day. “One alcoholic and as many soft drinks as you can consume” as part of the hotel stay, proved not to be the case in actuality.

Friday
The following morning brought a gesture of goodwill from Virgin as they oiled each passenger with free flights (clauses attached of course!). We were headline news on GMTV and in the Daily Mirror and as passengers we all felt a common bond.
You would have thought all would have been perfectly organised for our second attempt to depart, but no! Another two hour delay for cleaning and fuelling brought utter disbelief and despair from the united front.
Finally on our way at last, a great cheer erupted from the relieved comrades as the plane lumbered into the air, and once again upon touching down in Havana. It was raining – hard!

Two hours after landing and after proceeding through the intimidating immigration system, we collected our rucksacks from the pitifully slow carousel.

Our hearts sank once more when, after negotiating to hire a car, Simon’s credit cards were all refused. (It was then he realised he had left his driving licence in the UK – if we ever managed to hire a car, I would be the only driver!) Having taken precautions to ensure we brought only English traveller’s cheques, it did not cross our minds that perhaps our English credit card would be refused. Even the ATM would not issue its’ content forth (it seems Cuban PIN numbers have six digits!), so we were left high and dry. After so much trauma and elapsed time since we had left our house some forty hours earlier, the leaden air hung around us. What to do? Now late in the evening, Plan B was hastily concocted – a quick taxi ride into oblivion with no ideas, little cash, and no beds for the night. Fate was kind and the resourceful taxi driver found us simple lodgings with Juan Ramon in Old Havana for 30 pesos (about £20). Basic indeed, so much so that Simon was on the floor, and the 6am wake up call from Senor Ramon was a bit of a shock.

Saturday
Apparently, the ‘Plan B’ Astro bus to Surgidero Batabano was due to leave at 7am near the Plaza de la Revolucion across slumbering Havana! Frantic activity ensued! It was 6.45am when we left and still dark. Our rucksacks weighed as heavily as the Spanish words “You’ll never make it!” that rang out behind us, from our host.

Mannah from heaven! The taxi that manifested itself from nowhere, all new and shining, transported us smartly and efficiently to the bus station by 7am. As we stood in yet another queue, an angel came to us in the form of Marleen. In two minutes, with her very limited English and our almost nonexistent and completely treacherous Spanish, she had bought our bus tickets for us and obtained rooms at our final destination, La Isla de le Juventud (The Isle of Youth) with her sister. Ourselves and a German, Stefan, from Hamburg were the only tourists on the bus as tourist numbers are strictly limited. As such, we were spotted and ‘guarded’ by the driver while Simon was off trying to scavenge some bottled water for the hour and a half journey ahead. Upon his return we were all quickly and separately ushered onto the back seats of the bus. Thankfully the 7am proposed departure had proved as usual, completely unrealistic, and we finally set off at 8.30am – normal Cuban stuff!

In the chaotic payment system, it seemed the conductor ‘overlooked’ the need to give us change of 30 pesos from the 50 peso note we had handed him. Hero Stefan, with two weeks and infinitely more Spanish behind him than us, secured the payments’ return to us and wandered from the front of the bus, clutching the trophy notes in his hand. Much muttering and grumbling followed from fellow passenger Cubans, about the conductor’s behaviour, as if it was intended. Who knows?
Batabano is home to a surreal road and quay stretching into the Caribbean Sea. After more passport and security checks we were poured into a hot and humid waiting area with over 200 Cubans of all shapes, sizes and colours. Going to the toilet in chest high cubicles and being able to look out over the top when seated was extraordinary in itself! More waiting, more passport checks, more tickets to prove you could buy tickets, and fatigue was beginning to hit hard. However, the sight of the calm blue water had prompted my comment to Stefan “The calm before the hurricane.” Quite calmly he replied, “So you’ve heard?”
All our jaws dropped. It seemed that Hurricane Ernesto was due to touch down in forty eight hours, after weaving its’ way towards the southern edge of Cuba. Announcements on the waiting room TV at an illegally unsafe volume proved that Ernesto will indeed, be paying Cuba a visit very, very soon. Here we go again!
After another two hour wait and yet more queues, we finally boarded the hydrofoil. Having been made in Limassol, it had an air of comforting Greek holiday familiarity about it, although the sub-zero temperatures produced by a fiercely efficient air conditioning system proved yet another endurance test. Superhero Stefan once more came to the rescue with the loan of his jacket. What a star!

Finally we arrived at the island’s capital Nueva Gerona, and were greeted by the pretty and smiling face of Marle, Marleen’s sister. After saying our goodbyes to Stefan, Marle escorted us on foot through the busy streets, full of unshod children playing marbles, some trucks belching black fumes, horse drawn taxis and bicycles. She hailed a horse and cart and the driver Rubio. Wearing a cowboy hat and with his trusty steed pulling the benched-out cart, we clip-clopped through the streets.

In the outskirts of the town, Marle’s house (casa particulare) was on the first floor and although basic, was friendly and clean. The price was good too at just 55 pesos for accommodation and meals for all of us – about £35.
Marle’s husband was young and handsome and, as are most of the Cuban men, fit as a butcher’s dog. He spoke no English and Marle very little. Our Spanish had not by this time, improved one jot! (Mental note – remember the complete and utter frustration of understanding nothing – LEARN SPANISH!!)

After a quick lesson in operating the hideously unsafe electric fan and air conditioning unit, we set off apace with Rubio and ‘Caballo’ at the helm to the beach, to expose our glow-in-the-dark white bodies for the first time. The water was unsettlingly hot and was more like a warm bath than the sea. Rubio guarded the bags in case robbers came through the crab-ridden swamp behind to steal our things.

Home again and a shower and a fabulous supper of black market lobster and tomato sauce. Poor Tom! Finally the exhaustion and jet lag hit him like a ton weight and he fell into bed not waking for twelve hours.

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