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posted December 2013

As you could see from 2013's Santa Card, I'm in a Cuba phase. That's because I just spent most of November and some of December in Cuba and --now back in the frozen north-- I'm still missing that much nicer winter weather. I was tanning on a tropical beach last week, now I'm dodging snowflakes in Copenhagen.

It was an excellent trip, almost a re-run of my youthful backpacking gringo days in Mexico and South America, and yet Cuba is different enough historically and politically to be another experience entirely. There's also that bit about being an old fart now instead of a young hippy on the road, but actually that part seemed pretty much the same since most of the fellow backpack travelers we met were in their 30's, Hardy and I may have been the only ones in our 70's but we just blended in.

Hardy's an old Danish friend, we've known each other almost 30 years, having been neighbors back when we both lived in NW Copenhagen. He'd been to Cuba twice before and was eager to go again, preferably with a companion. It wasn't that hard to talk me into it, although we were vacillating between Cuba and Mexico. I finally decided I'd rather experience someplace new than go on a "it-used-to-be-so-much-better-when-I-was-younger" tour down the Mexican memory lane. So it was a "just the guys" trip, wives remaining home this time.

Probably a good thing, wives probably wouldn't have liked Cuba, it's really a guy's world. For one thing you need to have a healthy tolerance for shit. It's all so poor and run down-- Havana is a genuine archeological ruin which also happens to be full of people and old American cars (it's true!), garbage stacks up on the street corners for weeks before the city does anything about it (if they ever do), and everyone you meet is asking for money. Pretty girls, though. Like I said, a guy's world.

And most important, you need to be fairly fluent in Spanish to function there (most travelers were, male or female), in a month we met only 2-3 Cubans who spoke some English (but then, we avoided tourist hotels).

Except for Santiago, where we had "family" to visit, we always stayed in casas particulares, basically private homes that rent out rooms and serve food. They're cheap--usually 15 Pesos/Dollars for a room with up to 3 beds in them-- clean, and usually the toilets even work. There are lots of them in every town and they're easily found by a little blue-on-white sign above the door. The people who run them are invariably friendly, helpful and glad for the business. They're also the best places to eat, always cheaper and usually better than restaurants, because they know just how much food to prepare and if you tell them what you'd like to eat tonight, what you get is a home cooked meal just like your very own Mama Cubana used to make. But they usually speak only Spanish, which filters out most of the high-end tourists.

Actually, the most fun thing in Cuba was talking to people. I generally got the feeling that most of them had a modern mentality (unlike campesinos in Mexico), they were educated, ready to move on, wanted to travel-- but were trapped in Fidel's dream of a communist ideal (& benign dictatorship). For me the trip was total re-immersion into the Spanish language/culture, which I had been forgetting for the last 30 years, so now I'm fluent again.

Part of that is due to traveling with Hardy. His Spanish is more recently learned so is not as smooth as mine, but he was always getting caught up in conversations on the street. The impulse to just get irritated and brush off someone asking for money (which they all did, at some point) allows you to move through the streets faster, but without much contact with anyone. Hardy almost always looked them in the eye, smiled, put a hand on their shoulder and got involved in a 20-minute conversation. Cubans liked that, they were happy to talk to foreigners, it was nice. It took a lot longer to get from point A to B, but the experience of moseying through town became a hell of a lot more fun. I started doing the same thing, we had no important personal schedules anyway.

I mentioned pretty girls, and man, were there lots of them. Cuba has a reputation for being a sex-paradise (or hell) and it certainly seems to be so. Although the actual whores just scared us, being 2 guys walking around without wives, we were constantly being offered a nice time by amazingly appealing young women. And not always for money, most often it was just for company: getting to know one another, maybe drinks, a meal, dancing some salsa, innocent stuff. But that's only because Cuban girls want foreign boyfriends who can marry them and get them out of Cuba. Even grizzled old buzzards like Hardy and me, we were hot! Even when we told them we were married, they shrugged that off and insisted that a man can always use a young mistress. Of course, it was eventually all about money, one way or another (Hardy tells a horror story about one of his 70-year-old traveling companions getting married to a pretty young Cubana on his last visit). But it was fun being flirted with, I have to admit.

Upon escaping Havana, Cuba is a beautiful tropical island; rolling green fields, palm trees, white beaches, etc. We traveled from Havana to Trinidad (cozy little colonial town), took a bus to Santiago (big city, where we stayed with the family of my nephew Thomas' Cuban wife), and further to Baracoa (where Christopher Columbus landed way back when), over 1200 km the one way. Then we had to go all the way back, but had a month so that was okay. Besides, we had people to visit & hang out with in Santiago, so we were there a while.

The Pictures

1. Hardy and I arrive at Arsenio's Casa Particular where we'll be living in Havana for 15 Pesos Convertibles (value=US Dollar) per day between us. Arsenio is a good old guy, about 80 but healthy and going strong, who speaks nice slow comprehensible Spanish. So it's a good place to start warming up the language. His casa is on Calle Consulado, one block over from Prado, the main drag, and the neighborhood is pretty much a slum, but there's no violence or aggression whatsoever, so it's an okay place to be.

2. Here we are over on Prado, and of course, those famous old American cars cruise up and down the strip, just like they're supposed to do.

3. A common solution to the problem of garbage: let it pile up. Almost every street corner looked like this.

4. We met a pair of friendly dance (Salsa) instructors and had a beer with them. We'd thought they were a couple, but learned that they just worked together, he was married, etc. Then the woman, who was really cute, started hinting that she was available if either Hardy or I were interested...

I mean really, LOOK at this girl; she's more or less typical of the kind of Cubanas we had to fight off all the time. No fair.

5. This is the Headquarters for the all-powerful Communist Party of Cuba in downtown Havana. As you can see, they don't waste the people's money on frills. But hey--they DO have a computer, and that's rare.

6. Cuba has a rival religion to Catholicism: Santería; an Afro-Cuban mix of Christianity and Voodoo from the time of slavery. Note the 3 lady saints, there's an element of women's power going on here, and most of the women we met were into it. Might explain the more free Cuban sexual mores in comparison to devoutely Catholic Latin America, which is strictly puritanical.

7. Hardy going into chat-mode. There could go a while before we get any further down the street, but who knows what we might learn in the meantime?

8. Trinidad is an ancient colonial town, well preserved, definitely in much better shape than Havana. Not so big, but lots of cozy restaurants and bars anyway, usually quite cheap. Got a popular Casa de Musica, marketplaces for local handicrafts, artists personally selling their paintings-- even some good ones! Dare I call it a tourist town?

9. Scenic splendor, church, etc. No, I have no idea what it's called. But that water out on the horizon is called El Mar: Trinidad is considered a beach town, although it's an expensive taxi ride away (about 15 km).

10. More spendor, also scenic, taken from upstairs in that same church as before. No. I still don't know what it's called but downstairs is El Museo de los Banditos. Really.

11. Yes, there are cigars in Cuba. No, I did not stick it in my mouth or light it... or buy it.

12. Santiago is the 2nd largest city in Cuba, here's the town center. Cars try to drive up and down that street too. Busy place, but even more so at night: streets absolutely full of people, live & recorded music blasting away. I asked if Mardi Gras was going on, but our friends said, "No no, this is normal."

In Santiago we stayed at the house of my Danish nephew Thomas & his Cuban wife Mariela, bought a few years ago as an investment. It's an old one-story building, tucked in the middle of a block 5 minutes walk from the city center, so it was ideal for us turistas. Little sister Marilin & her 7 year-old son Osvio were living there at the time, which was handy since water and elecricity were therefore functioning.

It's a big house, which filled up with the rest of the family over the weekend, who wanted to meet us. Typically Cuban-primitive, nice big front room (sofa & TV), long narrow outdoor patio, lots of very open rooms with one main corridor passing through them all along the way to the kitchen & bathroom (no privacy whatsoever, so don't be shy).

13. Here's Mariela/Marilin's father Soccoro and me doing a duet (we were great!). Although I did wonder why his guitar was so difficult to tune until I saw that most of the strings were the wrong thickness. "I can't find the right strings in the shops," he told me, "so I have to use whatever I can get." Typical Cuba, it's usually a matter of luck to find anything in the shops, "No hay!" being the most frequent response to any inquiry. But Soccora was lucky that day: I just happened to have a brand new set of classical strings in my backpack (in case I should break a string, which never happened)-- so we tuned him up properly with new strings, and precisely with my guitar tuner.

14. Our friend Lars (also from Copenhagen) showed up with wife & kids (also Cuban), so the family got bigger. They arrived in a rented car, so we also went places: here dinner on the beach, lobster, fish, cerveza. Every evening was a party for a while, fun fun fun. Pizzas, beer, rum, whee!

Of course, that can get expensive. When we "rich gringos" or yumas are guests in Cuba, we are more or less required to pay for all the food & drinks-- otherwise there could be no partying at all, since most Cubans simply can't afford it. Fair enough, we're glad to contribute to having a good time--so we converted from guests into hosts.

However, one complication that can happen is that if word gets out there's a foreigner visiting, you are suddenly buying food, beer & rum for a much larger crowd than intended. Hardy and I had run into greedy-crowd situations a few times, where we had to refuse to pay for all the extra goodies that were being tossed into the shopping cart (mas ron, mas!). But that never happened with our "family" in Santiago, and once Lars showed up we were "3 rich guys" footing the bill, so it wasn't bad. We continued partying.

15. Taking a break from Santiago, Hardy and I went over to the other side of Cuba, North of Guantanamo, to Baracoa, the oldest settlement on the island. Where Christopher Colombus landed in 1492, if you want a historical reference. It seems more a Carribeam town than Latino, if you want an opinion. We stayed in a nice casa particular run by some nice ladies, so it was... nice.

16. Funny thing, whenever unescorted guy yumas (of any age) sit on a beach, cute young girls show up and begin rolling around in the waves right in front of them. We noticed that several times. And when you go past them into the water they make their move: "Hola, quieres compania?" These pictured Cubanas were especially cheeky and provocative, bless their perky little butts. But there were two tough-looking guys sitting nearby and I think the girls were working for them.

17. In Denmark Hardy is politically to the left (Enhedlisten), he's a dedicated Che Guevarra fan, so he kind of likes Fidel's Cuba... even though he can see that communism never quite works out the way it's supposed to. But hey, "Viva la Revolución anyway!"

18. Statue of Cristobál Colon, supposedly right where he landed. No idea if he looked like that, or if it was really right HERE, but I do know that he was the worst thing that ever happened to the indigenous people. He cheated them, enslaved them, destroyed their culture, gave them VD... as you can see in the picture, I'm having a serious talk with him.

19. We went on an all-day guided expedition into Humboldt National Park, Hardy and I being the only non-Germans. We hiked 12 kilometers up into the hills, jungle, waterfall & pool, saw lots of animals (mostly cute little pigs), ended up on a beach; it was more fun than it was hard.

20. We're on a day trip outside Santiago with Lars & family. The picture is taken by the guy selling coconuts. There's not much internet on Cuba yet but they sent it to me by modem. As of this writing, Lars & Yirka are still there visiting family for another month. What, envious? Who, me?