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Journal - 06-Apr-2001, Friday, Play Girón, Zapata - Cienfuegos, Cuba
(Trip: Cuba)

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Click for larger image! Crabs Crossing. 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! Am I dreaming?. 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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Crabs Crossing
Am I dreaming?
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Click for larger image! Cienfuegos. 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! No trains today. 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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Cienfuegos
No trains today
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We're feeling happier and healthier now, so we decide to extend the car rental for a couple of days, and continue with our vacation. The closest car rental office is Playa Girón - one of the landing sites of the US-sponsered Bay of Pigs invasion. It's not too far away.

The road follows the edge of the bay, driving past incredible blue colored waters, much like those at María la Gorda. People in diving gear are entering at the bay's edge. It looks fantastic - the underwater corals can be seen from the car! It's hard to imagine anyone having the audacity to wage war in a place as beautiful as this!

Suddenly the road is covered with red crabs - thousands of them, spread out in formation, maybe half a meter apart. A couple of bright yellow individuals stand out among the rest. The crab-army orchestrates defensive maneuvers against our car, rearing up and retreating rapidly as I open the door to take photos. We stand and wait until they become used to us and I can get a few shots of the great crossing.

When we move on, we do so with the utmost care, trying to give the crabs a chance to scurry out of the way before they're squashed by the tires. We only hit a couple. Then a lorry comes charging from the opposite direction, promptly slaughtering everything in it's path. The aftermath is like a bomb attack, with dead and dismembered crabs lying helpless on the road.

We drive all the way through Playa Girón without seeing the car rental office. All we've seen are single story dwellings and a couple of hostels which seem to cater to the budget traveler. We turn around and do a pass of the town from the other direction. This time we spot a turn off.

The road leads us to the 'hotel zone'. Well, there's only one hotel but it seems to be a big one. There's also a shop, a laundry, a museum, and, most importantly, a car rental office.

The office is really a small, air conditioned, kiosk, with just enough room for a desk and three chairs. We extend the rental, which involves waiting as a new contract is filled in by hand. Yawn.

At the shop, we buy breakfast. Tortilla chips from Belgium (why don't they make tortilla chips in Mexico?).

The hotel, like the one we stayed in last night, seems to cater to Germans, with many signs in German and English. There is a board with a list of the day's activities. Right now it's aquarobics. A dance troupe is practicing its moves on an outdoor stage.

Monica asks at the laundry about washing clothes.
"We only handle the laundry from the hotel but we could probably do your clothes."
"How much would that be?"
"I don't know, it would depend on the load," the women shrugs.
"For a 4 kg load?"
The women just smiles and shrugs. It's difficult to see how we can proceed with this transaction so we thank her and walk away.

Outside the small museum there's a British warplane used by the Cuban airforce to repel the invadors. There's also a monument with the names of the people that died in combat.

The entrance fee is $2. The entire museum can be seen from the entrance - it's just one big room. We pay anyway. It's mostly photos and newspaper clippings but quite interesting. The newspapers talk being bombed by enemy planes with Cuban insignia. Not nice - though maybe the bombers considered themselves to be the true Cuban airforce?

Looking at the attempted invasion from a Cuban perspective, one can't help but feel that the US brought their 'Cuban problem' on themselves. "We send over a few bombs and the next thing you know the commie bastards are in bed with the Russians!". Go figure.

To see Cuba today, it's hard to imagine a time of armed militia. We haven't seen an automatic firearm since we arrived. Compare that to Mexico where private security guards pack AK-47s. We get the feeling that there is very little crime in Cuba - at least against individuals. The results of a good moral education or close government surveillance?

After the museum we drive back the way we came. Monica wants to visit the crocodile farm we passed yesterday.

On the way, there's a cenote that's mentioned in the guidebook. It costs a dollar to see. I reluctantly cough up.

The cenote is really a 'tourist trap' restaurant built next to the natural pool. The water is crystal clear, however, and a lot of big fish can be seen swimming around - some a few meters below the surface. The water is so clear, in fact, that it's hard to see the surface; to detect the boundary between air and water. We take a couple of pictures and move on.

More interesting is the color of sea by the roadside. It's just incredible. Small clouds dot the sky, enhancing the beauty of the scene.

We drive past our hotel and on towards the crocodile farm. The carpark is almost full when we arrive. Our options are:

  1. Visit 'Treasure Lake' for $10. This is a lake where the indigenous people are thought to have hid their treasure from the Spanish. It's full of small islands and supposedly very beautiful. The hotel is built on the lake.
  2. Visit the crocodile farm for $5.

Both seem overpriced to me, so we settle for just visiting the crocodiles.

A small, concrete, pool contains some really strange fish. The head and mouth looks reptilian, like a crocodile, but with the body of a fish! Each is over half a meter long.

We get the opportunity to have our photo taken with a live crocodile. I felt sorry for the poor animal, it had a rope around it's mouth and was possibly drugged. Monica reluctantly tried the beast on for size and promptly shrieked when it made contact!

The surface of a fairly large pond is broken by crocodile faces peeping out. All the animals are pretty docile, just floating in the water. They've probably been fed already today. A chain link fence separates the spectators from the three meter long chompers.

As we walk around the pond, we see one crocodile swim towards another. After minimal foreplay they start mating. In public! The two leather-skinned bodies make a show of splashing about and spiraling like corkscrews in the water. It's the highlight of the visit.

We leave the crocodiles to their pleasures. Our next destination is the city of Cienfuegos. It's a colonial style city and on the way to Trinidad, a town described as a 'living museum'.

The drive is pleasant, with yellow-green sugar plantations on either side of the road. We pick-up and drop-off passengers as we go. One man tells us he's been waiting for two hours in the sun. On a weekday. That can't be too productive and efficient!

We pass a herd of cows. Like most of the livestock (and people!) we've seen, the cows are very skinny, with ribs showing clearly beneath their coats. In Pinar del Rio we saw several teams of men cutting the roadside grass with machetes. Maybe they should just put some cows on it instead. But then what would the teams of men do?

The main street in Cienfuegos seems promising. We pass both Chinese and Italian restaurants. I was beginning to think that Chinese food hadn't reached Cuba yet. Looks like I was wrong.

After passing through the main part of town, the road continues along a sea wall. It's cordened off today, however, for some kind of fair. A detour leads us to a small car park. Next to the car park are white marquees.

Monica goes to see what's going on. She returns to tell me that there's a trade show going on with companies from all over Europe. It would be quite interesting to see what people are trying to sell in Cuba but right now we really need to eat.

We drive back towards the Italian restaurant and park in a side street. The Italian seems a bit dirty, so we try the Chinese. It doesn't open till seven. In the end we find a 'El Rapido' fast food place, and resign ourselves to eating there. It's actually quite good and inexpensive.

Feeling much better after eating, we wander around town. It's the most vibrant place we've been too, with pedestrianized streets full of shoppers. We pass a 'peso' shop, selling government produce. The place is completely bare, with little placards indicating the products available and their price.

As we're walking down the street, an elderly gentleman asks if we're looking for a private house to stay the night in. Perfect timing - we were wondering where we'd stay. He takes us to the house (not his). It's $15 a night for a very nice room. We take it, very relieved to have our accommodation taken care of.

We return to the streets and wind up back at our car as the sun starts to set. As we get in, Monica notices that one of the rear doors is unlocked. All our stuff is (or at least 'was') in the back. Nervously we open luggage compartment to see if everything is still there. We seem to be in luck. Thank God we're not in Mexico or everything would have been long gone.

Earlier we noticed a Coppelia's ice cream parlour. This is the famous ice cream that people in Havana queue for hours for. We have to try it, so we park outside and go in.

We're a little surprised to find that they only have two flavors: Coconut or vanilla. Monica hates coconut and detests vanilla! I try to leave but the salesgirl is very persuasive and we end up staying to try three scoops. Monica tries it and seems to like it, so we share the bowl. There doesn't seem to be anything too special about it. Maybe it's just very cheap or something (in pesos, that is - it costs tourists $0.50 a scoop).

There are many colorful tourist signs pointing in the same direction, so we decide to follow them. A couple of blocks down, we arrive at the town square. It's a beautiful place with many stately buildings facing a decorative square with monuments and fountains. The sun is just creeping between the buildings as we arrive, and the moon is bright on the other side of the sky.

In the square we're repeatedly offered a place to eat, cigars to buy, etc. Everyone thinks we're either French or Spanish. So much so that many immediately speak to us in French.

Monica makes friends with the doorman of a government building. He tells her how, as a young man, he used to sing the songs of Pedro Enfante - a Mexican filmstar of the 1950s.

An adolescent offers us a restaurant. After our polite refusal, he continues talking. He looks a bit suspicious but probably harmless. He asks if we have any old clothes we can give him, maybe a dirty shirt "that a tourist would throw away"! We explain that, unfortunately, like Cubans, we also have to wash and re-use our clothing. We've only brought just enough to cover our needs.

The boy persists, saying that an Italian gave him the T-shirt he's wearing, and that anything we give will be well looked after. Eventually Monica relents and offers him a T-shirt for his sister. This means returning to our lodging with the boy.

As we all get in the car, the man who tried to sell us cigars runs up and says he's been looking after our car. This is nonsense as he wasn't even there when we arrived - besides, we haven't been out of sight of the car. After some argument, Monica gives him some change, to which he protests loudly, so she he gives him some Mexican coins as well. He seems happy with that - foreign items seem to have special appeal to a people deprived of the right to travel.

At the house, Monica goes inside for her T-shirt, while I wait outside with the boy. We talk about the poverty in Cuba. He asks if there are people in Mexico so poor they can't buy clothes. Probably not but there are many that can't afford a home, something all Cubans take for granted.

Monica comes out a few minutes later, arms laden. She gives the boy the T-shirt and then reveals the wind chimes we've been carrying around for the last few weeks. She gives them to the boy. Free at last!

We decide to stay in the house for two nights, and make our visit to Trinidad a day trip. It's much nicer to have a base and not have to worry about finding somewhere to stay. It also means we can wash some clothes and leave them to dry.

After quite a few days of moving around, I've collected a big heap of dirty laundry. I pile everything into the shower and painstakingly scrub every piece of fabric with regular soap. This is a huge amount of work to wash a few pieces of clothing, and something I hope I don't have to do too often on our trip!

We're too tired to put up the mosquito net, so we shut all the curtains, kill any mosquitos in sight, and hope for the best.

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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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