I am indeed loving Instagram (as you may have noticed) and generally getting sidetracked with many, many things (er hmmmm football) - which is why blogs are a little sporadic at the moment. But that's what I love about blogging. There are no rules, no regulations, unless you're working towards a plan.
As promised, I'm going to talk about Cuba today. We will return to all things writing soon, after I've told you about my May exploits!
So we pretty much covered the top half of the country in just over a week. Bombing it down the empty freeway a lot in the first five days to get to where we were headed. And I quickly learned (and giggled to myself every time) that squeezing your hand to the locals signals you're too busy or in a hurry so can't stop to buy their wares or give them a lift. Of course, this means an entirely different thing where I come from hehehe.
You know I'm a fast tourist. I've been trained to cram it in - see as much as possible in as less time out of the office as I can. Probably not the way it should be, but at least the concept makes you travel by the seat of your pants and hone in on the things you're really excited about. And we did slow it down towards the end. My theory is, if there's something that I really liked about the country, I'll go back at some stage to do / see / experience it all over again. If I wasn't fussed, I'll happily move on to the next adventure.
Well, I can safely tell you that there's plenty about Cuba I'd like to do all over again - and again - and again! Not to mention seeing the other half of the country...
So I flew via Toronto to pick up my travel bud (cousin Mel) and then we flew the easy peasy 3 hour flight (with no time difference) down to Varadero. Flying from Toronto to Varadero rather than to Havana shaved £300 off the flight price - it was a no brainer! The two hour taxi transfer Varadero to Havana meant we could chill out (after getting up at the crack of dawn) and soak up the Cuban countryside before meeting our guide and hitting lively Havana.
This is how I know I'm getting old - when my tour guides start to get younger than me. Robbie was only a baby at 27. What a lovely guy - quietly funny, very polite and full of knowledge about his country. Everything we could wish for. Robbie was coming to the end of his 2 years "social service" to his country as he chose to be a tour guide for this. He also spoke excellent Russian. Everybody warned him off learning a language he probably wouldn't have much use for, but he went ahead and studied it anyway - and now he's in a better position for it. When Russians come to Cuba for their holidays, he's one of very few who can actually lead the groups because he speaks the lingo! Genius.
Havana at the beginning was incredible. In a few hours I had done everything I set out to experience - cigar rolling (and smoking!), rum tasting (banana rum liquer is to die for), matching rum with cigars and coffee with cigars, a lesson on sugar cane crushing and tasting the sweet nectar, cruising around the town in a 1950s crimson Dodge !!!!! It was jam packed and so much fun. We stumbled across Voodoo in Havana's forest (didn't even know Havana had a forest!), drove by random crumbling buildings sitting next to pristine ones, learned that different coloured number plates indicate certain cars for certain people - blue for the Feds, green for the Government, red for a rental - and stood in Revolution Square... the list just goes on and on...
For me, Havana mesmerizes you by day and pulsates every fibre of your being by night. It catapults your senses and captivates your mind. What a place!
Next up came Soroa and Vinales - both beautiful for very different reasons. In Soroa we visited an orchid garden said to be created by a lawyer from Gran Canaria in memory of his daughter who passed away from cancer. I missed out on filming the humming birds, but was able to get some great shots of the many different orchids (which I love). I'd read so much about the limestone mogotes landscape in Vinales so, when it came to seeing it up close, I was simply blown away. In amongst these fabulous places, we also drank espressos for 25p (25p!!!!!!!), visited a tobacco farm, ate at a fabulous private restaurant where the food and drinks were to die for (Mel had lobster for next to nothing) and took a boat trip through part of the largest network of underground caves in Cuba at Cueva del indio.
We ended our Havana and Western Cuba stint with the famous Tropicana show. Wow Wow Wow what a spectacle. I'd waited years to see it. We went for the mid package - table next to the stage with a welcome cocktail, glass of champagne and some nibbles, and then a bottle of Havana Club and coke - plenty to keep us going. At the end everybody gets dragged onto the stage to have a boogie and my cousin happily obliged with a little prompting hehehe. I have the video evidence! Our table consisted of me, Mel, a lovely couple from Sheffield although the bloke was originally from my neck of the woods (what are the chances?!) and 4 very insane middle aged (if not older) Austrians. It was quite a lively night on (and off) the stage!
Our third day took us to a Cuban croc conservation farm (because there are only 3,000 left on the island), the Bay of Pigs, Playa Larga, La Cueva de los Peces (a 61 metre deep sinkhole filled with multicolored fish), Giron museum and Cienfuegos dubbed the Miami of Cuba. We had a great Cuban McDonalds in Cienfuegos. Literally a ham burger because beef is rationed to the max and farmers must report the death of a cow immediately. It's rumoured you'd get a longer prison sentence for killing a cow than you'd get for killing a person...
Unfortunately our time in Trinidad was a complete wash out as we had two straight days of rain (tail end of a hurricane in the States???) and feeling clammy and being bitten to death (when it was 26 degrees back home in England and Canada grrrrrrrr), but we went in search of the best Mojito and had a laugh with the locals in the bars, not to mention a bit of shopping and chatting with some lovely English ladies on a Saga tour. The locals thought we were nuts walking around in our halter necks and shorts when it was torrential downpouring. Make the best of it, right!
Sites close in Cuba for no reason at all. It's a country that ticks to its own clock. So, we were hardly surprised when we got to Santa Clara, to find the famous Che Guevara mausoleum closed. A real shame as this was another big highlight for me and Mel, but hey ho onwards and upwards. It was still raining and desperately clammy and we were enjoying the comfortable air con and crazy Cuban reggae tunes courtesy of the Rapper "Chocolate Nestle" (no, I'm not kidding) playing in the car. The songs Waa Waa Waa and Bom Bom Bom will be forever ingrained on my memory.
Now it was time to head to Varadero. Self indulgent Cuba. My first taste of true Caribbean life. And we needed to find that sun!
We eventually found it the closer we got to Varadero, thank goodness. Luckily we weren't self driving as the locals rub off on the road signs where the main towns are so they can lure you for coffee, rum, cigars and make some pesos. A good trick although you can tell the general direction you need to be heading by the big smudge on the maps! And, as Robbie pointed out, check the road. If it's well worn, you're driving the right way.
After saying "goodbye" to Robbie and our little blue Peugeot which, after doing 113,000 kms as a rental, was now being sold as a brand new car, it was nice to finally plonk our bums down on the beach at our resort in Varadero and take a long relaxing swim in the Atlantic. Ahhhhhhhhh, bliss. Robbie looked miffed when he left us as we'd had him staying at the old Plaza hotel in Havana and the Finca Ma' Dolores just outside of Trinidad where he'd caught a touch of man flu bless. Now we were lapping up the luxury - and he was going home!
I still don't fully understand the politics of Cuba as I hoped I might after this trip. Socialism and Revolution weaved itself in and out of what we saw and what we did, just as it should. Rations, baseball, Royal palms, the white butterfly flower, rum, cigars, coffee, being stuck in the 1950s, salsa, colours, vibrancy... these are the things I will remember about Cuba. And the fact that breakfast, lunch and dinner are the three biggest problems of the country. We had to keep reminding Robbie to stop for lunch! The Cubans have rhythm in their soul. Everywhere we went, we were serenaded to - and then offered the band's CD (for pesos of course). For me, this is a country where nothing makes sense except for the music and dancing and singing. The Cubans are busy doing nothing most of the time. Why should they work when the Government demands the majority of their profits and everybody gets paid the same anyway no matter what profession they take up?! The freeway (motorway) is empty even on a Monday morning, but you can't go too far without seeing a local selling his guava or cheese on the side of the road - which is illegal. When they see a cop car, they throw their wares in the ditch to hide them, only to retrieve them and continue selling once the cops move on. Nice!
As Robbie always says "Such is life" with a shrug of his shoulders.
PS. I love the fact I get to say "grassy arse" every time I thank a Cuban! I did that in Mexico too :D
Check out my impressions of Cuba in photos @ Instagram: peewee291982
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Blogging is an amazing concept so here I am giving it a whirl. You'll get words. You'll get pics. Sometimes a vid or two. You'll get tongue in cheek, the odd humble opinion and an honest insight into my travels and writing life. Maybe even a few gems along the way. I'll be musing on home turf as I see more and more of the UK and sharing my experiences further afield on holidays and adventurous trips across the globe.