Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cuba, Part 10


Seven days and seven nights passed quickly in Havana before Danielle and I were off, by air conditioned bus, to a small tourist town named Vinales about 100 miles due East of the spot where we were deposited initially.

Vinales was nestled inside the lush and verdant valley of Pinar Del Rio, which was well known for its prime tobacco growing properties. And tobacco meant Cuban cigars! But the thing about Vinales, in particular, was that it had these dramatic limestone mountains jutting out of the earth like rounded teeth with pockmarks. These formations broke thru the terrain, or maybe they were set there purposefully, obese carnacs, by mischievous and playful Gods who were now long gone.

These protruding rock formations were famous for housing obscenely large colonies of bats. Shortly after dawn, if one had keen eyes, it was possible to spot a massive cloud of bats fleeing their elevated penthouse caves, in a cacophony of screeches, to feast for the night.

Danielle and I had heard about all this in Havana, and we knew we had to see it for ourselves. Vinales had captured our imaginations from the first word.

Our bus arrived in Vinales in front of a general store, not unlike one that may have been in an old Western town except that the colors were pastel as opposed to unfinished wood. The colors and the manner in which the buildings that lined the main street were painted, gave them an almost dollhouse-like quality. However, everything was too dusty and plain to be called "quaint" by any stretch. We couldn't see the entirety of the general store very well because a large crowd of people pushed up against the bus, all the way from the porch of the general store, and most of them held hand-written signs above their head. Very quickly we realized that the majority of the people were trying to sell a room in their home for the night or longer periods depending on the needs of a particular tourist. The signs ranged between 20 and 30 dollars per night and all the prices were written as "U.S. dollars" which I found interesting.

One sign advertised a "Luxury Villa" just down the road. Really? A luxury villa? From a cursory examination through different windows around the bus, it appeared that Vinales was the most rudimentary of farm towns. A pitstop with running water. Every single edifice was a one story, small home or home-turned-business with a porch. They all looked pretty much the same. The main street, itself, was just a wide path of dry, cracked dirt. I saw horse droppings along the far side of the rode. I doubted there was even one clothing store, here. Not even a place to purchase a hat to shield us from the hot sun. Not that we needed one, anyway.

Could this be the place that everyone, when visiting Cuba, "had to see"?!

But, as we were about to find out, things could change for the worse very quickly in Cuba, even in a place like Vinales.


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Cuba, Part 9

The five of us walked down the gravel road in the dark, saved only by the full moon.

"I almost forgot about that," the leader remarked.

"What?" I asked.

"The Hotel Lido is right there!" he said, pointing ahead of us and to the right.

I looked in the direction of his finger. A few blocks down, light issued from a window, faintly. Still no streetlights, but I was encouraged.

"It looks like you are in luck!" the Cuban continued, "They have electricity!"

The four men continued walking with us, chatting in Spanish, while Danielle and I said virtually nothing. We had no energy left at this point. If, by some chance, we arrived at the hotel and it was closed with no concierge person, I was fairly certain that we were going to lie down next to the door and sleep on top of our luggage.

But when we arrived and looked through the window, we saw a pleasant looking, middle-aged woman at the counter watching a very small black and white television.

"Have a good time in Cuba!" the leader said, extending his hand to say goodbye to us.

"Thanks for walking us down. We appreciate it," I answered, also shaking hands with the three friends as they wished us luck in Spanish.

Four pairs of dusty cowboy boots made their way back to their post, up the road, presumably to knock out at least four more beers before sleeping.

Danielle and I made a monumental effort to drag our heavy suitcases up the few stairs to the entryway of the Hotel Lido, and I propped the front door open so that we could make our way in with our stuff.

"Can I help you?" the concierge woman inquired in Spanish, turning down the volume knob on the television.

"Hablo Ingles?" I asked, knowing that my Spanish was in no shape for a conversation.

"Si, un poco...but just a few words."

"Gracias. Do you have a room?"

"Yes," she said immediately.


"But...we only take CUCs. No American dollars," she clarified.

Oh no!

"No dollars?" I repeated, hoping that she would magically change her mind.

"No. I can't. Sorry." she frowned.

"What if we pay a little bit extra?" Danielle suggested to her.

"Que?" she replied, her forehead wrinkling with the difficult translation.

"How many CUCs per noche?" Danielle asked in her finest Spanglish.

"Four zero," and she wrote the number "40" on a piece of paper in front of us.

"I'll offer her sixty and see what she says," I told Danielle.

I peeled sixty dollars out of my left pocket, being sure to go for the fatter bill roll, where the twenties were. I put them on the counter in front of her.

"Para este noche? Si? Esta bien?" I asked, going for my first bribe in Cuba.

She looked at the money and thought about it for a few seconds.

"Si. Yes. I will take you to your room," and she took the bills and put them in some sort of box that was underneath the counter. She'd made an extra twenty because there was an exact one-to-one relationship between CUCs and the U.S. dollar. I wondered whether she would pocket the money or whether she would turn it all over to the owner (and the government). I was pretty sure she would turn it all over. Unless she'd made up the fact that they only took CUCs. In which case, she could very easily pocket the money, which, at that moment, I did not mind one bit. Hell, for all I knew the price was twenty dollars per night and she was going to pocket forty. That would be two week's salary for a lot of people in Havana.

She led us up the long, thin stairway to our room, opened the door, and said goodnight.

I closed the door on her. It had a decent lock on it, and I clicked it shut.

"Thank God!!" I exclaimed.

"It's been a long day, hasn't it?" Danielle agreed.

I looked around the room. The walls were a dingy yellow, and the paint was peeling. It was white underneath. There were two very thin beds placed right next to each other with ugly green and yellow sheets which looked uncomfortable just on sight. The "bathroom" consisted of an old, slightly rusty sink and there was a crudely fashioned wardrobe next to it. Randomly, I remembered some advice from the guidebook: 'Don't drink the tap water in Cuba or it is very likely that you will get sick.' It was the worst hotel room I had ever seen in my life and I was quite happy with it. At least it was reasonably clean, and the ceilings were very high, which always helps. The quality hardly mattered.

Danielle and I crashed on the bed, in our clothes, and slept like rocks.