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Journal - 05-Apr-2001, Thursday, Havana - Zapata, Cuba
(Trip: Cuba)

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Click for larger image! Hasta aqui llegaron.... Keywords: Cuba,coast,tourist,travel,havana,habana,zapata,crocodile,citrus,orange,lemon,drive,car,beach,playa,bay of pigs,bahia de cochinos
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Click for larger image! The sun sets over the paddy fields. Keywords: Cuba,coast,tourist,travel,havana,habana,zapata,crocodile,citrus,orange,lemon,drive,car,beach,playa,bay of pigs,bahia de cochinos
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Hasta aqui llegaron...
The sun sets over the paddy fields
Send to a friend! Send to a friend!

The pain in my head has gone but the stomach still feels wobbly. We lie half awake, half asleep, until 8:30, when Monica starts to busy herself. She seems to be feeling better. My temperature is back to normal. Great.

We still don't feel up to eating breakfast and take our time washing and packing up. At noon we leave the house and head into to town to go online and try and decide what to do.

Monica tells me about her conversations with the family yesterday. Without renting the room, the family's combined income is $25 a month. The daughter wants to leave Cuba desperately and has even stopped working in Cuba in the hope of finding an opportunity abroad. They say it's even more difficult to leave Cuba if you have a job. The daughter wonders what good free education is if one is only entitled to a $10 a month job at the end of it?

I wonder what their feelings are towards tourists who can pay $25 a night for accommodation. Monica says they want to be like those tourists!

We drive past the press center where they have internet access. There isn't anywhere to park. We do a few more circuits before deciding to park in the nearby Hotel Nacional carpark. Let's hope it's not too expensive.

After checking our mail, we're still undecided about what to do. On one hand we feel like changing our flights and going home now. On the other it seems a shame to waste the opportunity to explore more.

In the end we decide to head out west, taking in the Zapata peninsular that Monica has read about it. If we don't like it, we'll return to Havana tomorrow. If we like it we'll extend the car rental a couple of days.

The highway we need to take is the main backbone of Cuba, connecting all the cities east of Havana, so we don't expect too much trouble finding it. I figure out where we need to go on the map, now I just need to relate that to the actual streets.

We end up in a tiny street that looks almost deserted. This can't be right - it looks quite big on the map - maybe it's the next one. So we carry on. Before we know it we're at the tunnel again.

This isn't where I wanted to go but it should be fairly easy to navigate. We just take the ring road around Havana until we hit the main highway heading west. Surely that HAS to be sign posted.

After the tunnel we see signs to Cienfuegos, a city on the highway. Good - hopefully it will be plain-sailing from here.

Not so. A couple of roundabouts later and we're completely lost. We backtrack and ask some policemen. Following their directions, we go round the roundabouts again but still can't seem to find the right exit. So we go back to them and ask again. They patiently explain once more, and point out the highway to us, with trucks rolling along it. Okay, got it.

On the second roundabout we take the last exit. It's heading towards the highway that the policeman pointed out. We drive along parallel to the highway for longer than we'd expect but at least we're going the right way. I see some marks where cars have left the slip road and driven across the grass to the highway. I joke that maybe that's the access road.

The slip road ends after 100 meters! It's a complete dead-end! Large tire-tracks lead from the dead-end to the highway but there's no way our Atos, with it's toy-sized wheels, is going to make it on to the highway from the grass bank!

What did we do wrong this time? We turn around and drive back, the wrong way, along the slip road. It looks like they started building this access road and ran out of money. So they just left it.

As we approach the roundabout we spot a small road connecting us to the highway. Okay, lets go.

We motor along what we assume must be the highway circling Havana. This should pass over the main highway, heading east. The policemen told us to turn left at 'Ocho Vias' ('Eight Way Junction'), and this matches what I see on the map. The only problem is, we're not sure if we're going to recognize Ocho Vias when we come to it.

We drive, and drive, but don't see anything that looks like the junction with the main highway. We don't pass a single sign. This is very frustrating.

Then, at a roundabout, we see a sign for 'Autopista'. Great, at last. When we approach the highway, however, the exit sign says 'Pinar del Rio' which is to the west, not east. What's more, it looks suspiciously like the exit we took a few days ago when we were heading to Pinar del Rio.

We reason that maybe if we can get on the highway, but in the other direction (east), we'll be all-right. So, after passing the exit west, we do a U-turn, and look for an exit heading east. We don't see anything sign-posted and so drive over the highway again.

This is extremely frustrating. Monica is at the point of return to Havana and changing our reservations to go back to Mexico tomorrow. I'm not far behind her.

We do another U-turn, pass over the highway, again not seeing exits east, just the Pinar del Rio exit. So we do a third U-turn and take what we've deduced must be the access road to the highway heading east.

Now we're on the highway. Great. Unfortunately, our delight is short lived. We abruptly reach the dead-end where we got lost yesterday! This is almost too much - like a recurring nightmare!

However, at least I have a good idea where we are now and how to get back to where we should be. Basically we've followed the perimeter highway way too far and have completely circled Havana in the opposite direction as yesterday. It's also the opposite direction to where we want to be going.

So, we retrace yesterday's steps and end up on perimeter road again. We've wasted over an hour now, just trying to leave Havana. I'm reminded of the film 'Escape from New York'.

As we pass the same propaganda billboards as yesterday, it occurs to me that it would be a lot more useful if these appeared on the map. They seem to be the only signs that are maintained in any way. It would be simple to navigate: "Go left at 'At your orders, Chief!', then continue straight until 'Che lives!'".

We drive over a fairly large highway. Although there isn't a single sign, I've a feeling it might be the one we're looking for. The main highway in Cuba. We stop to ask some people by the side of the road. They don't know.

We drive on a bit and ask a women. She says "Turn around. When you come to a bridge that goes under and over, you need to go under". Strangely, I understand perfectly. We do a U-turn and head back. An unsign-posted access road loops us onto the highway. At LAST!

Under the bridge the usual crowd of people are waving money, looking for rides. We let two of them in.

The male passenger launches into conversation quickly. He makes the usual remark about how he'd like to go to Mexico. I ask about the ban on traveling. This opens the lid on whole range of frustrations he has with the government.

This is interesting stuff - just the kind of real life problems I was hoping to hear about in Cuba. The man tells us how he studied in Russia but ended up having to work as a farmer because there was no jobs available for him in Cuba. As a young man he was an enthusiastic party member but this began to change as he experienced the reality of central government.

He recounted how he once came to Havana with trucks of cucumbers to sell. When he arrived, he found that cucumbers from his province weren't authorized for sale in Havana. So he ended up stuck with tonnes of cucumbers and no way to sell them.

Quite apart from the fact that he lost his considerable investment, he said he felt that it was a terrible waste for the people of Cuba - supposedly suffering from shortages thanks to US sanctions. He told us quite candidly that as much as the US sanctions are blamed for Cuba's problems, he believes Cuba's own government to be at least equally responsible.

So, he resigned from the party and now found himself in a difficult situation, without income. He says he has two houses but isn't allowed to sell them. Property can only be sold to the state - at a price they condider to be 'fair'. He also has a car which he can no longer drive because of some legal ownership issues.

Ownership seems to be a dirty word in Cuba. The man tells us that a farmer isn't even allowed to kill his own livestock. The penalties for disobeying this law are high. A live cow can only be sold to the state, at the state's price. If the farmer, after selling his cow, wants to buy beef, he has to go to the dollar shop like everyone else. The sale price of a cow buys only a few steaks or chickens. The state does distribute food rations but this provides meat only two or three times a year.

Our passenger clarifies for us that 200 pesos, an average wage in Cuba, is worth $10 USD, and that almost everything is bought from US dollar shops. He lists the prices of some things, saying how expensive they are. In fact the prices are pretty standard. The problem is how little purchasing power Cubans' have.

He asks us what salaries are like in Mexico. Although Mexicans' are typically paid far less than in States, it's still hard to compare it with someone earning $10 a month. We explain that salaries are obviously far larger but so are the costs of living. For example, accommodation seems to be basically free in Cuba. Not so in Mexico.

The man has a 23-year-old daughter who he claims is more communist than Castro! This seems to be part of a pattern. Cuba's young people, fresh from their free (and unbiased - not) education, tend to still have idealistic socialist beliefs. And why shouldn't they? The state has provided them with everything they've needed up to now. And besides, they don't know any different.

People who've tried to get on in life, however, aren't so happy. Our passenger says he's not a dissident, he simply wants to be in charge of his own life and possessions. If he wants to sell his house, he wants to be able to sell it to whoever wants to buy it, at whatever price he can. If he has the money to go to Mexico, he wants to be allowed to go.

Even certain beaches in Cuba are off-limits to Cubans. He tells us that if a Cuban tries to go to Cayo Coco, a tourist resort area, he'll be turned away at the entrance. He claims that a Cuban friend of his, married to a Russian, was able to enter with his Russian family but not with his parents. So much for equality.

A citrus plantation lines the road. We're told it stretches for kilometers and was created with Israeli expertise. It's quite a sight, and slightly mouth-watering, to see row after row of grapefruit laden trees. I wonder if nobody steals from the trees.

The turn off to the Zapata peninsular approaches. Just before the exit, there is a shiny gas station, so we pull in to fill up. The woman, who's hardly spoken, gets out - this where she was headed anyway.

We continue talking with the man. We feel a bit guilty about dropping him off here, short of his destination. We had originally said, incorrectly, we were going further along the highway. He gives us his addresses and asks us to contact him if we need somewhere to stay in Trinidad (a colonial city I want to visit).

As we drive on Monica notes that although the passengers waved money to get us to stop, they didn't give us anything! The 'all tourists are rich' syndrome? They may be right, and we would have declined payment if offered, but there's still the principle of following through on a deal!

We drive along farmland as the sun sets behind the palm-trees. We stop to try and get a photo of the huge orange sun but its almost gone by the time I race back to the scene.

It's still light when we pass a sign that says "Hasta aqui llegaron los mercenarios!" ("The mercenaries got no further than here!"). The road leads to Bahía de Cochinos ("Bay of Pigs") - site of the US-sponsered invasion in 1961. It's nice to visit these placenames that have become ingrained in our conscious with no thought to the place itself. Roadside tombstones remember Cuba's fallen heros.

A big sign announces a crocodile breeding center. We pull into see if there's a hotel. I ask the parking attendant. He replies with "Good afternoon...". There's a pause and I wonder if he's heard my question but, before I repeat it, he answers. Perhaps he was indirectly reprimanding me for being impolite by not commencing the conversation with "Good afternoon."?

The hotel can only be accessed by boat (sounds romantic). The boat ride costs $10 and the hotel is about $50 a night. We decide to carry on to the beach, where a man at the gas station told me there was cheap accommodation.

It's dark when we get to the beach. A large cabin-style hotel is spread out before us. Monica votes for staying in a hotel one night. Fine by me.

The cabins are $38. They have a living room (with TV) but are not all that nice. It seems a bit wasteful to spend the money when we've arrived so late and are leaving so early but 'what the hell?'. We take it.

In reception a dual-time clock shows local time and Frankfurt time. A sign nearby is in German. This is the first catering to German tourists we've seen. Why do they come here especially? Maybe it's part of an organized tour from Germany?

Back in our chalet, we watch some TV - mostly programs imported from Latin America. The news is the US-produced 'CNN en español'. Interesting.

The rooms have motion sensors. These are to ensure that the lights and air conditioning are only turned on when somebody is moving around. I wonder if the air conditioning will go off while we're sleeping.

A few mosquitoes have hovered by (and met their end) but there isn't anywhere to hang our mosquito net. I put some repellent on my arms and use my sleeping bag liner - a silk sheet, sown like a bag. As I take off my socks, my feet look like someone's painted the measles on them - the traces of midge bites from María la Gorda. What devils! Hope they're not carrying any diseases.

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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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