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Journal - 28-Mar-2001, Wednesday, Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico - La Habana, Cuba
(Trip: Cuba)

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We leave the hotel shortly after eight, lugging all our stuff once more. I've shed a few things (spare sunblock, free snorkel from Xel-Ha, stained T-shirt) but the weight is still formidable. We walk towards the main avenue where the buses to the airport leave.

As taxis offer their services, it's tempting to ask how much. But no, we're trying to travel on a budget and every dollar counts. We expect the bus to cost around $1.

A bus is pulling up as we arrive at the avenue. After boarding, I pull out a twenty peso ($2) note to pay. The driver says "Eighty pesos".
"What?!". I look at the driver, sure he's joking. No trace of humor. He shows me some tickets that have '$40.00' printed on them. I pay, almost sure we're being tricked. There is only standing room available. How much would a taxi have been?

Monica asks one of the regular passengers what the fare is. "Six pesos for airport employees, forty pesos for tourists". Great. The twenty minute standing bus ride is the same price as the three hour ride from Tulum!

At the airport the bus stops a few hundred meters short of the terminal building and we have to walk, bags on back. Will the fun ever stop?

The check-in clerk barely says a word as he tags our bags and issues our boarding pass. The boarding passes are pre-printed sheets like the kind people hand out in the streets to sell pizza. It has advertisements on one side and blank boxes for seat number, etc. on the other. A serial number is pre-printed. Our names don't appear anywhere. The seat number field is left empty. First come, first served?

While waiting in the departure lounge, I go buy a snack to augment the morning's breakfast of two slices of toast. A medium sized bag of potato chips is $2.50 - about three times the normal price. A half-liter bottle of water is $2 - four times the price on the street.

At 11:00 we walk 50 meters to the plane. From a distance it looks like any other jet with fresh, clean, paintwork. Things aren't so bright closer up, however, as gentle bumps and dents in the body can be seen. The tips of wing aerofoils look more like a serrated knife edge than the sharp, smooth, line they should have. The boarding steps are badly buckled - the result of thirty years of use, no doubt.

Inside there are no preassigned seats (though we have to ask to confirm this). Some seats are doubled all the way forward as if braced for a crash landing. Hardly confidence inspiring!

I insist on sitting at the back - the statistically safest part of an aeroplane - and close to the rear exit. The seats are packed so tight together, my legs simply don't fit. I have to sit in an aisle seat with my knees hanging out.

The plane's Russian origins are given away by signs in cyrillic script. I wonder if one of the signs is a 'best before' date.

As the plane starts to take off, thick mist starts spewing overhead from the main air conditioning system. The upper third of the cabin becomes concealed in fog. It could be insecticide but, if so, the fly buzzing past indicates it isn't very effective. Water drips from the personal AC units. No-one asks us to turn off electronic devices - maybe there's no navigation system to interfere with.

Our wisdom in opting for the cheapest airline comes into question - it feels like "Half the price; thrice the risk". We've spent a few hundred dollars on vaccines; a couple hundred more on a decent airline might have gone even further to protect our health!

Trying to rationalize the risk, I consider that the stewards must make the air trip once or twice a day. Then I get to wondering just how long they've been in the job - they all look awfully young! Maybe they get a star or something for every successful flight.

The flight is short and after drinks are served we begin our descent. There is a lot of turbulence as we hit the clouds - no fun at all. The plane is thrown around like a fly in the wind. The passengers make a collective groaning noise.

The landing is equally heart stopping as we hit the tarmac with a strong thump on the left side, followed, a few seconds later, by the right side. The plane then veers off to one side before settling in a straight course. When the plane comes to a stop, everyone starts clapping; much to the amusement of the staff who obviously consider the flight to have been perfectly normal.

The airport building is of a newish, pre-fabricated metal design. Inside are about four queues for immigration and two kiosks with tourist information. They're selling maps of Havana for $3 - a bit of a contrast from Cancun, where free maps are printed on almost every pamphlet!

The immigration queue is incredibly slow. If US officers worked at this pace, they'd have a backlog down to Central America in a few days! Fortunately Cuba doesn't receive a huge number of visitors yet.

When our turn arrives, we're asked to pass one at a time. The first thing they ask for is a return ticket. I guess if you've created a utopian, socialist, paradise, it's natural to assume that foreigners will want to come and join the action illegally!

After customs, the airport is completely empty - not a single shop or anything. We were hoping to buy a tourist guide at the airport. No such luck. We were also expecting to hook up with the 'Sol & Son' travel agency to see if they'd gotten us a hotel or not. We understood they had a presence at the airport but it doesn't seem to be a very visible one.

Exiting the airport building - there's nothing else to do - we're immediately offered an official airport taxi. The young man tries, unsuccessfully, to find our travel agency. He even shows us the departure lounge, which is also completely uncluttered by shops or restaurants.

The taxi downtown will cost around $18 - and we thought the $10 the travel agency was going to charge for a shuttle bus was expensive! It seems that things aren't going to be as cheap as expected.

The taxi man offers to take us to a 'casa particular' (private house) that offers lodging for $25 a night for two. This quite a common form of accommodation in Cuba, and sounds more interesting than the cheapest hotel the travel agency offered for the same price (without breakfast). We decide to go and check it out.

Walking towards the taxis, the first car we see in Cuba is a Mercedes. So much for romanticized scenes of forty year old Buicks in perfect condition. In fact, as we drive towards town, it quickly becomes clear that the most common cars are Russian Ladas (made from Fiat molds). There are also quite a lot of new French and Korean cars, as well as a few private Mercedes. And, of course, every now and then a classic American car passes by.

A huge billboard welcomes the South African president to Cuba. Listening to the radio, it sounds like he's here now.

The roads are filled with cars. Forget any images of a country trying to make do with out-dated infrastructure, etc., the appearance from the road is similar to any Mexican city - a work-in-progress.

One of Cuba's quirks are the 'camels': a regular truck towing a trailer designed for passengers. The name comes from the shape of the passenger trailer which dips down in the middle, between the axles, thus giving a two humped appearance.

The most striking thing, for me, is that although Cuba is often portrayed at a place stuck in time, the reality seems quite different. There are brand new, machine made, road signs. Plenty of new cars. Lots of progressive-looking people. There are only a few signs of economic isolation, and no signs of cultural isolation.

The first indication of Russian influence, apart from the cars and a lot of strictly functional architecture, is a sign to 'Lenin Park'.

There is also a sign to the 'Plaza de la Revolucion' where a side of a building is covered with a huge wrought-iron representation of Che Guevara's face.

The taxi ride is about thirty minutes and glimpses of the sea can be caught between the houses. Hopefully we'll be close to the famous 'Malecon' - the wall and road that separate Havana from the violent Atlantic.

We pull into a residential cul-de-sac with colonial style buildings and, yes, an ancient American car parked out front! The taxi driver goes inside to make inquiries. While doing so, we're approached by a young man who offers us alternative accommodation. He has a strange way about him; I'm not sure if it's nervousness about talking to a stranger, or if he doesn't have purely good intentions. In any case the taxi driver appears and we enter the house.

The family appear very friendly. An elderly gentleman with a large white moustache shows us our room - all very clean and tidy. There is a bottle of water in the room, of the same brand I'd seen in the aeroplane. So bottled water does exist in Cuba - something I'd been wondering about!

The lady of the house, who seems to run the show, offers to serve us dinner at 7 pm. It's now three-thirty (thanks to a two hour timezone jump). We dump our bags (and cameras) and go out to explore.

A big modern hotel, the Meliá Cohiba, dominates the other side of the street. A line of taxis, many of them Mercedes, are parked nearby. We enter the hotel in search of tourist information. The lobby is of the sparkling luxury variety with marble decor, fountain, etc. The concierge gives us a free map of Havana but doesn't have any tourist pamphlets or anything. The map appears to be designed more for navigating than sightseeing, with no attractions pointed out with friendly icons.

We try hotel shop. There is a bookshelf full of English titles about Cuban-American relations and how the CIA is the root of all evil. Amongst this, we find something resembling a tourist guide. Most of the slim volume is taken up with directories of hotels and restaurants but there are at least ten pages dedicated to describing some places of interest. It also comes with a map with some functional (if not friendly) icons pointing out museum's and so forth. It's $5. Sold.

It feels a bit strange using US dollars outside of the states but I guess we'll get used to it quickly - we haven't seen any evidence of any other currency in Cuba.

There is a tour operator desk at the hotel. They don't have any printed pamphlets or anything but are able to show us a folder with details of about eight tours. The tours seem a little pricey but they give us some ideas as to what the attractions are. They also rent camper vans at only $160 a day.

Outside, the Malecon is just a few meters away. We sit on the sea wall and watch Cuban life pass by, trying to observe the secret rules by which this society lives.

There is a conspicuous absence of trade. No-one is selling anything in the street. There are no advertisements. The only billboards have government propaganda - usually some anti-imperialist (US) message.

It's very quiet. The only sound is the white-noise of cars passing and the incessant toot-toot sound of their horns. Cuban drivers seem to have gone to the same school as the rest of Latin America. There are a fair number of cyclists on the road but it's the cars that dominate the three lanes of traffic.

The quietness seems to be characteristic of the Cubans we've dealt with so far. The airline staff hardly spoke at all. There's no shouting anywhere.

Monica identifies a shopping center across the road, directly in front of us. It's a blue glass building with the word 'Galarias' above the door. There's nothing on display in the windows, or any other indication there might be shops inside. We go and check it out.

On the ground floor is a car dealership with a number of new cars on display. Prominent amongst these is an Audi A4.

There is a supermarket one level up. I'm dying to go inside and see what it's like - what better barometer of a society than what they buy day to day?

First appearances don't show anything out of the ordinary. There is a large, fancy, wine section - something of a surprise as the selection in the rest of the shop isn't great. There are products from all over the world - Mexico, Turkey, Belgium, ... as well as a few Cuban products. People seem to by buying freely, purses full of US dollars.

I buy a can of fruit juice for $0.85. I'm curious to see what change I'll be given - US coins or Cuban pesos. To my surprise, I'm handed Cuban coins with US denominations! The Cuban central bank must issue it's own US coins backed by genuine greenbacks (at least I hope that's the case!). Has the national peso has been abandoned altogether?

On the way out, a man checks receipts against goods purchased - not something I've seen in a supermarket before!

Downstairs there is a fast food restaurant filled with young people. So much for Cuban poverty. It seems incredible that the dollar, and private enterprise, was legalized just a few years ago. What will the place be like in 10 years? That's why we're here today - to catch it in the last vestiges of it's former state.

We walk down the Malecon. Nobody is leaping to sell us something at every (or, indeed, any) corner - something we've almost become accustomed too in Mexico's tourist areas.

The streets are generally free of garbage. We're not sure if this is because Cubans are especially conscientious people, or because they're too poor to throw anything away.

A few blocks away is an open air market with mobile food stands. Seems like street trade exists but only in designated areas. The market has leather sandals, and handicrafts. And more leather sandals, and more handicrafts. Some of the abstract wooden sculptures are actually quite interesting and way above the tacky tourist souvenir category. If we were going directly back home, I'd be tempted.

There's a stand selling pizza. Monica orders a 'single cheese' pizza for only $1. When the pizza comes out of the oven, I'm a little surprised to see only a sprinkling of cheese on top. Probably should have got the 'double cheese'! Ah well, what do you expect for a dollar?

We continue walking alongside the concrete sea wall. Locals tend to sit on the wall where square pillars rise up and provide some shelter from the strong wind. When we finally find an unoccupied pillar, we start to sit down for a rest. A man in uniform starts blowing his whistle from across the street. There is some official building on the other side of the road. Maybe they don't like people spoiling the view (or launching terrorist attacks).

At almost every street corner there is an armed policeman, standing with a stiff, military, pose. They seem friendly enough but it feels a little strange that such a presence should be considered necessary or justifiable.

Further on we sit on the wall again. No-one whistles at us this time. Two cuban guys ask us the time, in English, as they walk past. Monica answers in Spanish and they say something back. After some mental processing, Monica realizes they said "Espanoles?", i.e. "Are you from Spain?". The Cuban accent can be pretty strong and indecipherable to us poor foreigners.

The guys stop a few meters down to talk to some friends. They're facing our way. I suspect they're going to come back and talk to us - hope it's not going to be unpleasant.

Surprise, surprise, they walk down past us once more and this time ask for a light from a distance. At least they're predictable - should be easy to spot any games they might try to play. They come over and ask us where we're from, how long we're staying, where we're staying, etc. Both have quite badly scarred faces. When they hear we're staying in a private house they seem to lose interest and say goodbye. Who knows what they were looking for.

We head back to our lodgings, which we find after a few wrong turns. The short, closed, street is quite pretty. There seems to be a childrens birthday party going on at the end of it, with balloons and music.

The landlady's twenty-something daughter answers door. Seems like three generations share the house. She's watching a recent American movie on video.

A rich dinner is served for just Monica and myself. The family usually eats later, after the sun has gone done. Towards the end of the meal, the landlady opens the window to let the fresh air circulate.

The windows in this style of house have no glass - just wooden or metal shutters. The idea is to block out the sun during the day, and let in the air at night. It's quite pleasant and keeps the houses cool. Some insect netting might not go amis, however!

We're both exhausted - so much new information in one day - and, after a satisfying dinner, collapse on the mattress. The mattress, in turn, collapses into the bed stand. It's so soft and saggy it forms a crater that Monica and I roll into. The only way to sleep is to try and lie at the edge of the crater.

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Cuba - Rotorua, New Zealand - Christ Church, Dublin - Monument Valley, Arizona - Monte Albán, Oaxaca, Mexico - Staffa, Scotland - Huamantla, Tlaxcala, Mexico - Costa Rica - Tule Tree, Oaxaca, Mexico - Fiesta, Mexico City - Making Lacquer, Olinalá, Mexico - Talavera Ceramics, Puebla, Mexico - Mata Ortiz Pottery, Mexico - Lebanon
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