Published in Calgary Herald, August 16, 2016
Living on Cuban time: Island has its charms, challenges and breathtaking beaches
"No problem," our taxi driver Rodolfo says cheerfully and as he pulls the 1981 Lada we're riding in to the side of the road. The sputtering and clanging is just another unholy sound coming from the belching rattletrap of a car - seemingly held together with Bondo and wire.
Holding up his index finger, he gestures and says, "un minuto," and grabs a pair of blue mechanics' coveralls from the trunk to put over his clean clothes.
My husband and I look at each other a little amused - but more in disbelief - as Rodolfo runs across the highway with pliers so he can cut a length of wire from a fence. Then, he's under the car reattaching whatever was about to fall off. As we pass the time during the repair, I notice the headlights on Rodolfo's taxi are adorned with the image of the ubiquitously romanticized revolutionary Che Guevara, and the car badge bears a Ferrari symbol.
I laugh at the irony, which is rich as this driver is likely poor, by Canadian standards. Like most Cubans, he works two or more jobs. By night, he drives a modern ambulance; by day, he drives his taxi. As much as I could be irate at the inconvenience of the breakdown, I can't. I'm more impressed with his resourcefulness and good humour over his junker of a car. (There would be three more such roadside repairs before we finally reach our destination hours later.)
Old, broken, dilapidated or simply non-existent everyday things we take for granted are part of life - from the many smoke-belching "taxis" we flagged down to the advertised "air-conditioned room and hot water" that never materialize.
"No problem!" became the motto of our unexpected and wonderful Cuban road trip as we tried to speak in our mangled Spanglish. We discovered that most people outside of Havana know little English. We also learned that travel itineraries get waylaid because we're on "Cuban time," and the aforementioned language barrier and sketchy cars.
To say that we loved every minute of the trip would be stretching the truth. Although there were wonderful days and moments, nothing comes easy in this country that often feels like a 1950s time warp.
OUR OFF-THE-RESORT EXPERIENCE
We wanted to see the "real" Cuba away from the manicured and resort-lined white sand beaches of Veradero, and "before the Americans come," the often heard mantra on our trip among fellow Canadians and Europeans we met. This has made it a record year for tourism in Cuba, which includes Americans, with Obama relaxing the 50-plus-year old travel constraints to the Caribbean country. But Cuba isn't quite ready for the rush. This is, in many respects, very much a Third World country, when it comes to infrastructure and availability of many common goods. It's also an all-cash society. The average wage is about $20 US a week, but they have what many other poor countries don't: free education, health care, and home and food subsidies.
Our off-the-resort experience came with surprises, delightful and at times a little disappointing.
We'd heard the food was mostly bad at the resorts and beyond, but we didn't have a bad meal - all were simply prepared but delicious.
Free Wi-Fi is hard to come by and so is chewing gum. Bottles of water, snacks, and even a toothbrush were scarce in stores that often have sparsely stocked shelves - even in Havana. We often opted for the farmer's market or roadside kiosks for fresh fruit and snacks to get us from desayuno (breakfast) to cena (dinner). The upside is that beer, rum and cigars are plentiful.
There are gorgeous white-sand beaches all around the island, and we visited two. Playa de Este is an hour east of Havana, where the mojitos were flowing all day from a makeshift bar and the water was as blue as the tropical turquoise of a 1950s Chevy on the streets of Havana. Cayo Jutias, our other beach stop, is one of the best we'd ever visited, with its driftwood beach sculptures providing perfectly dappled shade and warm gin-blue waters. Though our casa was billed as four kilometres from Cayo Jutias beach, it was actually 10. Our transportation options included hitching a horse and buggy with a local farmer, an unpredictable local bus, or using the owner's bikes, which we did one day.
But we also did what many rural Cubans do. We re-learned the art of hitchhiking with great success, which gave us the only air-conditioned car ride of the entire trip (in a government SUV).
We wanted to hear live Afro-Cuban band jams, and sip mojitos in old town Havana. Bar Montserrat and Cafe Paris were among just two that did not disappoint. Even the tiny tobacco farming town of Vinales, known for its lush mountain valley, served up the son, the most famous type of music with its salsa beat.
But we also wanted to meet Cubans and see how they lived, where they worked and if the food they eat is really all that bad (it's certainly not). Our go-to accommodations, Cuba's casa particulars, were cheap and cheerful, ranging from $30 to $45 a night. They're sort of like B Bs, and we had some of the freshest fish (speared that day at the beach) and chicken (the one running around in the kitchen one morning at breakfast).
Our nearly two-week stay also included a forced - but sometimes maddeningly inconvenient - digital and TV news hiatus that kept us out of the loop on world events. We did know before we arrived that the Rolling Stones were in Havana for a free concert and that Barack Obama was visiting for three days - the first such event by a U.S. president since 1928.
Aside from these momentous news events, which had everyone talking, we were disconnected from the rest of the world, just like the majority of Cubans. Less than 25 per cent have Internet access and it's very expensive, when it can be accessed.
Though Obama's visit has Cubans cautiously optimistic, it signals change and the question mark of what the future holds hangs in the Caribbean breezes.
For our own selfish reasons, we hope change comes slowly and carefully - and that our hardworking taxi driver Rodolfo can buy a better car one day.
THINGS WE WISH WE KNEW
Cuba is an all-cash society. We had trouble getting cash advances with our credit card as did many tourists we saw in Havana in the same bank lineup.
Be prepared for long waits; you'll eventually get money. Always carry your passport. You'll need it to get money from a teller at the bank when your credit card doesn't work in the ATM.
Little English is spoken outside of Havana. Carry a phrase book or a have translator app. With more tourists, comes the inevitable touts, trying to hustle you into a shop or restaurant, most common in Havana. We politely waved them away without a problem. Travel everywhere with toilet paper. Public bathrooms often don't have it (or toilet seats), or you'll have to have pay a peso for the pleasure of a poor quality square or two. All toilet paper goes into a provided wastebasket, because of the crumbling infrastructure. All the casa particulars we stayed at were very clean and comfortable and the owners were some of the kindest hosts we've ever met - eager to cook for you or show you around town. AC and hot water are often advertised on casa website listings, but often neither worked. Bring shampoo and soap; none is provided, even at the fanciest casa we stayed at in Havana. Also, bring your own towel for the beach if you're not going to a resort. Before getting in a cab, negotiate the price of your fare. You shouldn't pay more than 1 CUC (convertible peso) per kilometre.
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Beautiful beaches abound all over Cuba, including the beach at Cayo Jutias with its clear blue waters.
A Havana taxi driver proud of his refurbished ride.