The Year of Living Differently #29: There’s Something About Money – Cancun, Mexico to La Habana, Cuba

There’s Something About Money

I came all the way to Cancun and left without setting eyes on the famous beaches. Will the trying-to-tan-but-burn-instead tourists ever forgive me?

Jose from the travel agency had told me to get to the airport two hours ahead of my flight, at 10am. While this short flight felt like an internal flight, it was actually international so two hours ahead was normal. I checked my baggage in at around 10am and wandered around the airport, snooping at the souvenir store and baulking at the prices on the stupid souvenirs made of sea-shells and other brightly-painted, gross ‘beach’ adornments.

I was to board at 11:20am. I glanced at my calculator-clock, it was 10:20am. I had an hour to kill. I decided to go to some seats near the Domestic Arrival and read. But to kill more time getting to the seats, instead of taking a right turn from outside the souvenir store which would take me right there, I took a left turn to walk around the restaurant opposite. Just there, I passed a sign reading, “6 ABRIL 2003, CAMBIA LA HORA…”. 6 April, change the time forward by 1 hour. 6 April?? That’s TODAY. Where’s the information counter??? What time is it now?


Gracias. I needed to board NOW. As I cleared customs and stuff, I marvelled at my luck. If I had turned right, I would have missed the sign and the flight. I realised, many times, things just fall into place for me. If I push and try to force certain things to happen, it might not work. But if I let things take its flow, usually they work out perfectly.

The plane was one of those tiny ones with propellers at the wings. The body was the size of a bus and it was free seating. The windows were round port-holes. Upon entering, it was stuffy and airless. But when the plane was in the air, the air felt cool and comfortable. We even had inflight service from the one steward.

Little did I realise that the cool air circulating in the tin-can was au naturelle. Air was gushing in from outside, through the sides of the port-hole windows and possibly the connecting portions of the air-frame, barely held together by nuts and bolts. When we were landing, the cold air poured in relentlessly and we were entirely shrouded in mists. Condensation was dripping onto us. What can I say? One unforgettable flight.

In Cuba, tourists are supposed to stay in state hotels. These are priced from, I don’t know, US$50 to US$ anything. Not long ago, the state had allowed some forms of private enterprises. So some Cubans had set up rooms in their house and offered accommodation, usually to independent tourists. These were known as casa particulars (private houses). As they are in competition with the state hotels, naturally, the state will not let them off easily. They are taxed heavily, as much as 60% of what they earned ultimately returns to the state. In La Habana, these ‘casas’ are usually priced US$25 to US$30. Of course, there are cheaper illegal ones (US$10 or so) but you need to be standing on the streets and waiting for a tout to find you and lead you to their houses. I had been paying between US$3 to US$6 for six months in South America. So, Cuba was certainly not cheap for me, especially now when my funds were running out.

I hit the streets right away, for I had the excitable glee of a child let loose in a toy store. I could not believe I was in La Habana! As you could probably guess, my travelling zeal had dipped a little last week after eleven months on the road. But Cuba injected such a surprising freshness and mystery to my trip. I suddenly felt apprehensive, unsure as to what will happen, what to expect again and this was GREAT.

I gaped at the crumbling and colourful (in the peeling-paint sort of way) colonial houses in Vedado, where I stayed, and those that lined the Malecon (sea-wall). The houses were enormous and would look terrifically grand and imposing if they correct the lop-sided balconies, replace the broken window shutters, replaster the columns and basically give the house a whole fresh lick of paint. But unless the Cubans had relatives in Miami, they obviously had no chance of ever restoring their houses. And so these ancient houses retained an arresting, old-flavoured charm to them.

Colourful laundry strung around the balconies. Bored women stared out of windows. Men gathered on the street to play dominoes. Boys flung make-shift baseballs (bottle-caps or home-made balls tied together in plastic) and used wooden sticks (perhaps yanked from park benches) to make a swing at them. Lovers relaxed by the sea-wall to soak in the sunset. Old ladies sold plastic flowers and peanuts along the Malecon.

There was a black-out by the time I returned to Vedado. Nelson, my host, had given me a map of where to head to find cheap food around my ‘casa’. Due to the black-out, several places did not appear to be offering food.

On his map, there was a paladar nearby. ‘Paladares’ were private enterprises which offered food. Again, because of the taxes, the meals cost US$5 to US$10. Definitely not cheap either. As the food was prepared in houses, there were usually no obvious signs outside. I asked a family sitting on rocking chairs on the porch, if their house was a paladar and one lady quickly led me in.

She took me through a series of rooms and corridors. While the colonial houses were enormous, it did not mean that only one family lived in one house. They were often sectioned up into several areas and housed multiple families. So, I found myself stumbling in the dark, passing rooms where someone was using the phone, another where children were playing, and yet another, where I crashed right into some old folks sitting and chatting. I felt like I was intruding.

At the end of the house, the lady lit a candle and I sat in the stuffy room and was soon served my US$5 dinner. I had to admit the food was quite a spread, with rice, beans, salad, meat, but I knew I could not afford this for every meal in Cuba.

LA HABANA, CUBA – 7 April, 2003
To up the challenge and confusion for tourists, Cuba had three currencies circulating – US dollars, Cuban pesos and the Peso Convertibles. The Cuban peso was 26 pesos to US$1 at the time I was there. The Peso Convertible was worth the US dollar. They exist to provide change in coins or more US$ circulation without actually having US dollars. However, unlike its name, it cannot be converted to anything after you leave Cuba. It is best not to get too much of this Monopoly money.

I changed US$10 worth of Cuban pesos today and could try and buy things from the Cuban-peso places. My first try was at a stall selling bananas by the unit, 0.50 peso each. Bananas by the unit? Usually, they were sold by weight. I checked them out and realised the bananas were in various stages of rotting, that it was best to pick and choose through the lot for the best-looking ones one-by-one. A man bought ten and he had to carry them himself, no plastic carriers provided, of course.

Cuba must be the American Dream Car Haven for classic-car lovers. My thoughts went to Claudio from Buenos Aires. He was the proud owner of a 1938 Chevrolet. Here, the models were mostly from the 1950s, just before the Cuban Revolution. While cars of this age had died everywhere else in the world long ago, here, because the Cubans are the best mechanics in the world (nothing is ever thrown away, everything is fixed), the cars were all given a second, third or whatever chance in life. Some grand old ladies were barely surviving. Others were mighty impressive, with fine paint jobs and smooth red, white leather upholstery inside.

As I walked along the Malecon to La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and around Old Havana itself, I was at the receiving end of many callings of ‘China’ (Chinese girl), ‘Chinita’ (little Chinese girl), ‘Japonesa’ (Japanese girl) and funnily, unique to Cuba, I supposed, ‘Mao Tse Tung’ too. It was worse passing construction or restoration sites and in Old Havana, there are many such state-funded restorations. I was constantly harassed with hootings, hissings, odious cat-calls, disgusting flying kisses, leerings and more ‘China’s.

Old Havana was the touristy area of La Habana and it was also the place where the poorest people of La Habana lived. Ironically, the decrepit houses the tourists had come to admire housed these poor people.

Nelson had told me a doctor might earn US$20 a month, a lawyer US$12 and general workers, about US$6. How do people survive with this pittance of a salary? He had explained many had to do some sort of side-lines, like setting up make-shift stalls to sell food, drinks or whatever. But even these were taxed.

Indeed, along the streets of Old Havana, many had opened a window to the side of their house facing the street and attached rectangular card-boards, stating whatever they had to offer. ‘Refrescos’ (cold drinks) usually went for 1 peso. ‘Pan de Jamon’ (Ham sandwich) was priced from 4 to 12 pesos. ‘Pizzas’ fetched the price of 3 to 5 pesos.

My wallet was overflowing with 260 pesos. At these prices, I wondered vaguely if I could finish spending this amount by the end of my two weeks. Such was the disparities between what the tourists pay and what the Cubans pay.

I took a seat at the counter in a cafe, filled with Cubans. I had been seeking out one such place for a while to ‘eat like the locals’. There was a huge crowd at the counter, with three or four lines of people waiting for the 2-peso ‘pizzeta’ (little pizza). The woman took her time serving the pizzetas. She looked BORED. She randomly served the people and some guys yelled at her as they claimed they were here first. She was unmoved, looked right through them and continued her task languidly. The tray was finished and we had to wait for the next tray to be heated up. I noticed no plate, or serviettes, were provided. You use your own paper or hand.

How wasteful our societies are, actually. Most purchases came with a disposable something, be it a cup, a bottle, a paper plate, a plastic bag. But Cubans could not afford waste.

I ripped a page from my diary and indicated I wanted one pizzeta please. She looked right through me too and turned away unsmilingly. I remained ignored as she served all the others at the counter slowly and randomly. She finally decided to hand me a piece when the ‘queue’ was left to me and another woman who wanted three pizzetas and there was only one pizzeta left on the tray.

Meanwhile, near the Plaza de Armas, an area filled with fancy restored hotels, package tourists were following their group leaders everywhere and dining and drinking in US$ bars and restaurants. A restaurant overlooking the plaza, had a live band playing ‘Cuban son’. Not quite Buena Vista Social Club but the music was great and tourists were dancing and having a wonderful time.

You could almost never find a spot where locals and tourists mix. The price difference was just too impossibly huge. I believed the state (now it is pronounced with a more sinister sneer) was also
intent on separating locals and tourists.

LA HABANA to VINALES, CUBA – 8 April, 2003
Due to poor and expensive public transportation, lack of ability to afford cars and basically petrol shortages, hitch-hiking was a very common practice here in Cuba. My guidebook wrote that stopping for hitch-hikers was obligatory for drivers. The drivers could not ask much from the hitch-hikers because fellow Cubans simply had not much money anyway.

Then, I wondered, what if they picked up a tourist. Why get Cuban pesos from them when they could milk US dollars?

However, I learnt later that if a local, and not a taxi, was caught picking up tourists, he could be fined US$1500 and might even lose the car. Tourists must take taxis and authorised buses.

Viazul was the authorised bus company for tourists and everything was perfect about it. The buses were clean, had comfortable, adjustable seats and were air-conditioned. They left on time, service was immaculate and they spoke English (some form of, anyway). All for very high prices in US dollars, of course, but these are for tourists, they had dollars to burn anyway.

Er, not me, no… I paid a hefty US$12 for a 3-hour bus-ride to Vinales and my ulcer bled internally for a long time. I recalled a US$12 overnight bus-ride in Argentina, which was 8 hours long, reclined nearly all the way and came with a tasty dinner too. Sob.

Vinales was a very small town west of La Habana, set amongst roundish mountains called mogotes. All the houses had a porch out front and a few rocking chairs idled there. Did rocking chairs come from Cuba? I peeped into several houses and sometimes, the entire suite of furniture inside consisted of rocking chairs only. Some were the wooden sort and others had metal frames with the plastic threads strung around the frames. Very 60s and 70s flavour.

I walked along the highway for 3km to a site, known as The Mural of Prehistory. The mogotes reminded me a lot of the Oriental mountains I had seen in pictures of Vietnam and Huang Shan, China. The vegetation was very tropical too and with the wooden houses, rocking chairs and relaxed hot and humid atmosphere, it reminded me a lot of rural Malaysia. Malaysia… hmmm, I had not thought of this neighbouring country of mine for a while. Perhaps, it was seeing a misty-eyed Dr. Mahatir hugging Fidel Castro on TV last night.

The Mural must be the biggest joke. It was painted rather childishly by a Cuban professor Leovigildo Gonzalez and probably under the instruction of the Commander. It had dinosaurs and stick men. How about that? Still, there was great scenery walking out here and checking out the quotable quotes from the Mighty FC, put up on sign-boards along the road.

I returned to Vinales and spied a food ration store. This was a store that sold basic food and necessities. They were rationed on a per-person basis monthly. People who came had to bring a little passport-sized notebook for the guys at the counter to make a record. On the blackboard, it was written that the food and necessities ration for April 1 to 30 – six pounds of rice, five (something, I could not figure it out) of black beans, three pounds of refined sugar, two pounds of crude sugar, one kilo of salt for three months, six fine cigarettes, two cigars, one soap for bathing, one box of matches (for smoking your cigars, how thoughtful), etc…

Of course, one could buy more of these food items at regular markets but the prices there would be higher. And not-so-necessary items like soap sold elsewhere would be priced in US dollars.

VINALES, CUBA – 9 April, 2003
Leoni was the cousin of the hostess of my ‘casa’. He had come over last night to try and convince me to go on a hike with three French tourists to ‘the most beautiful scenery in Latin America’, or so he claimed. I knew it was not true, for I had already seen the most beautiful scenery in Latin America, in Chile and Argentina. He wanted to charge me US$10. I could not afford this price. Since he already had the three other tourists, adding me to the list was a bonus and he did not mind a lower price from me. I wanted to see more of Vinales. Heading back to La Habana today would be a pity. He kept asking what price I was willing to pay. US$6?, I had ventured. OK! he had gushed immediately. But I must not tell the French tourists anything about my price.

Apparently, there was a very popular song beginning with ‘Tu quieres te lleva a Singapur?’ (You want to go to Singapore?) in Cuba lately. For them, they had absolutely no idea where Singapore was and to hear that I was actually from this country, I suddenly became a legend for them. Leoni was singing this song-beginning over and over again.

It poured very heavily just before we set off so we sat around and chatted until the rain stopped. The French tourists were Guillaume, Geraldine, and Agathe but I must not tell them anything about my price.

We departed on the muddy farmlands in the late afternoon. The rain had converted the trail into impossible nightmares. My sandals were caked with so much mud and leaves that I felt like a duck walking around with very large webbed feet. Every step resulted in flying mud that decorated the back of my dress.

We checked out a tobacco shed with beams of drying tobacco leaves stacked from floor to ceiling. The leaves dried outside for a few months before being transferred to be dried indoors for another three or four months. The cigar-chomping owner looked in, smilingly. He had such a typical look for a tobacco farmer. He was a tanned, wrinkled, little old man, wearing a straw hat. He had probably chewed on cigars since forever so he was missing several teeth but all this meant he could tuck the cigar more securely in his mouth in between the remaining teeth. I learnt from him that three or four leaves would roll into a cigar and they rolled them at home. He gave us one cigar each, cool.

Leoni spied an unfriendly cow and decided we could not walk the trail ahead. Instead, he took us through the tobacco farmlands and we were soon squelching across and crashing blindly amongst what would become the world’s best cigars that, for now, were as high as our chest level.

We entered a cave and gingerly staggered inside to find the subterranean river. Walking in the cave is much like living a life, I think. You try not to question what is up ahead, you just take each illuminated step at a time and you will be fine.

Known length of the river was 18km but it remained unexplored and Leoni said this could be the largest cave in Latin America, more than 100km long. This guy had a thing about superlatives.

By the time we popped out of the cave, it had grown dark already. Suddenly, it rained. We had to walk quickly through the mud for it was worse if you take slow steps… you might sink and get stuck. At one point, a horse cart belonging to the owner of the farm closest to the cave was waiting for us and so we got our ride out through the muddy fields. It was a very bad road and I was bumped and bruised but imagine if we had to make our way back entirely by walking… it would have been worse.

VINALES to LA HABANA, CUBA – 10 April, 2003

I realised that for the past few nights, the reason I could not sleep properly was because I had been doing math in my head all the time, calculating how much I had spent and would spend for the rest of my Cuban stay. If I kept up at this rate, I would really be out-of-funds. I knew if I kept thinking about money, I could not enjoy myself. But the tourists here in Cuba were mostly just here for two weeks, ten days. They did not mind throwing money around for two weeks of comfort and luxury hotels. I was not like them. If I could not do anything about bus-rides and prices of ‘casas’, my other option was to regulate my metabolic rate down to take in only one meal a day.

On the bus-ride back to La Habana, I spotted one other person travelling alone. At a snack break, I asked him where he was heading to in La Habana, perhaps we could share a taxi. He said he had no ‘casa’ in mind but wanted to be near the bus-station in order to take the morning bus to Trinidad.

Just as we reached La Habana, I had an idea. Since he had no ‘casa’, I suggested he come to my ‘casa’ and we share the room to split the cost, for I was also heading back to the bus-station in the morning for the Trinidad bus. How I plot and scheme my way to save money.

Yves, from Switzerland, was very agreeable. Great! I learned later he was thinking of staying three or four nights in Trinidad. We could share the room in Trinidad too. Excellent.

We strolled to Plaza de la Revolucion which had an ugly pointy monument and a huge statue of Jose Marti, Mr 1-Cuban-peso, the guy who fought for Cuba’s independence. Opposite was an ugly building block which had a series of metals lined and shaped into the famous smothering look of Che Guevara, Mr 3-Cuban-peso, the guy who fought in the Cuban Revolution, sun-lit against a wall. Hasta la victoria siempre, (Always until the victory) it read.

LA HABANA to TRINIDAD, CUBA – 11 April, 2003
As our bus pulled into Trinidad’s bus station, I was surprised to see someone holding the sign ‘TRISHA’. I told Yves I had not made any reservations with any ‘casa’. Strange. When we disembarked, the lady lunged at me, the ‘chinita’, and waved at me feverishly, inviting me to her house. Yves had another recommendation in mind and so was determined to check that one out first. I asked this lady how in the world she got my name. She said she obtained it from her friend in Vinales. Even stranger. I did mention to my hostess in Vinales I was heading to Cienfuegos and Trinidad. But I certainly did not tell her when I would get to Trinidad. The intricate casa particulars network.

The one that Yves went to was full. By the time we arrived at the house of this lady with my name, hers was full too. We were brought to yet another house of her friend. It was never any problem to find accommodation in small towns of Cuba.

While this country is a socialist system, where everyone is supposed to be equal, I could feel very obviously that some Cubans were just more ‘equal’ than others. Take those who wanted to start the casa particular business and dig into the tourism pie, for example, they could not just pack their relatives into one room and release the other one for tourists just like that. They had to fix it up beautifully, install an air-conditioner and perhaps, build a tiny attached toilet. All these need DOLLARS in the first place. If they did not have relatives overseas to send dollars over, I seriously doubted they could get this infrastructure up before their first guest. So, the richer will still become ‘richer’ (by their standards) and the poor will still be stuck.

The house I stayed in Trinidad was enormous, with a backyard and some very fine furniture. Our hostess had at least four gold chains around her neck and two fistfuls of chunky rings. The hi-fi system was no ordinary hi-fi set. Yves estimated it cost at least US$1000 for all those gizmos. I could not afford a hi-fi system at half that price. So, how did they do it?

We also noticed that in this country where material goods were lacking and supposed to be ‘evil’ anyway, the Cubans appeared to be more materialistic than normal. They were always asking Yves what car he owned, what kind of house he lived in. OK, this could just be pure curiosity of what lies elsewhere outside the island, but this was the tiny little feeling we shared.

The streets of Trinidad were tranquil, with hardly any traffic. There were some horse carts and bicycles milling around. A world of difference from La Habana. One could walk in the middle of the streets. The houses were colourful and charming. This town was one of the UNESCO-protected Heritage sites.

When we neared the touristy area of Trinidad, we were hollered at all the time. Many were touts, wanting to offer us ‘paladares’ for dinner. Others asked if we had soap for them. Soap, gosh… we nearly always take soap for granted and here, in Cuba, they are asking for soap. I felt very regretful of those little soaps provided in hotels that were thrown away after one use. What a waste.

‘China!!’, ‘Chinita!!’, ‘Mira, china!’ (Look, Chinese girl!)… Yes, mostly, I was the celebrity. Yves was practically ignored. In the residential area, the old folks sitting on the doorways or standing around, chatting, would look up, delighted at the sight of me. Some called out from inside their house and waved away. Yves, now my publicity agent, had to tell me, “Hey, there’s another in there, sitting at the door, who just called you.” I had to turn here and there and give my royal waves.

I was taught how to smoke my first cigar tonight. Suck in, roll the smoke in my mouth and let it out. Never take it into the lungs, it burns. Hey, piece of cake.

TRINIDAD, CUBA – 12 April, 2003
Some shops sold items entirely in US dollars. At one, I browsed the goods and noted the prices. Jeans cost US$19. A pair of shorts, US$8. Some fake jewellery was priced at US$10. A hi-fi radio set cost US$450. Refrigerators, US$850. A million questions swam in my head. The prices of hi-fi sets and refrigerators in my country certainly did not cost so much. If a doctor earned US$20 a month, how could anyone afford such things? Yet, people were checking them out intently. There must be some very illegal things going on around here.

I spent the day, curled up on a rocking chair and reading my book. I had a long time to study the decorations around the living room and I knew that I had finally found the most kitsch country in my entire trip. Cuba is a legend in this area. The search is over.

Every house I had peeked in or stayed in had porcelain statues placed evenly on their tables. Porcelain statues such as Chinese fisherman, European ladies in 18th century dresses with parasols, Smiling Buddha, or cute children holding little pets.

Then, there were the plastic flowers. It was not a case of plastic flowers with artistic arrangements set eternally on the dining room table to adorn the house. The house-owner simply bought vases and dumped the plastic flowers in them. Way too many vases all over the house and way too many plastic flowers.

The one that takes the cake must be the black-and-white portraits that were coloured faintly for the blush, lipstick and the background.

I loved it here. A bug could fly into my open jaws if I was not careful enough.

Well, I had decided to regulate my metabolic rate to one full US$5 or US$6 meal every two days and fill my stomach with Cuban-peso-priced food the rest of the time. Since I had stuffed myself last night, tonight it would be Cuban-peso night.

Cuban-peso food meant ham clasped in very stale small pieces of bread and home-made pizzas (it actually barely resembled a real pizza, the thing in common was probably the round shape and the cheese on top). These usually tasted, I will be kind here, awful. But to me in this condition, food was food. I queued for them, hung around the streets and gobbled them up just like any other good ol’ Cubans. In a way, I really admired the Cubans. I figured the awful food might be due to lack of ingredients or lack of expertise. Yet, the Cubans ate them up without complaint. This was normal for them.

TRINIDAD, CUBA – 13 April, 2003
My guidebook had interested us in a train-ride to the Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Mills). This was the agricultural region of sugar-cane plantations and there were many sugar mills in this valley, hence, the name. The guidebook wrote the ride cost 50 cents. Yves and I decided to take the trip.

It turned out to cost US$10. Yet another money-making enterprise for the state (remember the sneer). The train was a replica steam train with two wagons and hordes of elderly tourists were unloaded from tour buses for this scenic journey. I had imagined a local train but this was obviously just catering to tourists now. This was surely one of my most embarrassing super-touristy moments.

When the Disneyland train pulled out of the station, the locals waved at us. I felt very sheepish. I did not know where to hide my face. But later, I realised the locals seemed really sincere and delighted to wave at us, especially from the plantations further out. Even guys playing baseball stopped to wave. I found it interesting. I would never understand this country.

We stopped at Manaca-Iznaga and we tourists alighted to visit the craft market and climb the 45-metre concrete tower (US$1, of course) to view the entire plantation. This was obviously where the masters stood to watch their slaves at work during the colonial times. Yves said one could really see everything. I wouldn’t know. I didn’t pay.

Instead, I walked around the houses nearby and got to chatting with an 85-year-old elderly man and some of his neighbours’ kids. He was delighted I spoke some ‘Cubano’ and later, kept praising that I spoke ‘casi igual’ (almost the same). He was very sweet. His name was Calendario. He had ten children, 30 grandchildren and even great-grand children. He claimed he had heart problems but it was unoperable. He had the jovial yet resigned-to-fate attitude. I had an amazing time just sitting with him and learning.

I realised visiting Cuba was, to me, not really to take in the sights. There were not so many impressive sights. It was more to observe the people, talk to them, learn how life is like for them. They will surprise you, shock you, touch you and delight you.

Yet, so many tourists, unloaded from the plane, are driven straight to fancy hotels by the beach. They vegetate there for days, drink beer, attend cabaret shows, complain about whatever, and take the occasional day-trips to nearby towns. They get off the bus and are told they have 30 minutes. So, they wander to the nearby souvenir stalls, sit on the plaza and wait for the time. The segregation between locals and these tourists was even greater. I wonder if they see the side of Cuban life we independent travellers glimpse a little of. I wonder if they ask the same questions like what we have in our heads.

TRINIDAD, CUBA – 14 April, 2003
Yves would head to Playa del Este, the beach east of La Habana tomorrow for a couple of days. After he booked his hotel, we decided to go lie on the beach near Trinidad, in Peninsula Ancon. But first, I had to use the Internet to check on something urgent. Using internet here was like burning dollars, only faster.

Ooooh, expensive day today for both of us. Yves had just plonked down US$130 for two-nights on the beach in Playa del Este. I had just spent US$2.50 for 23 minutes of excruciatingly slow internet usage. Ka-ching.

The Caribbean Sea just had the perfect turquoise colour in the water. The colours shown in postcards and resort magazines were REAL. I had an awesome, incredible feeling, standing there and looking out to the sea.

By now, I had found out from Yves that the other bus company, Astro, which catered for locals, actually reserved up to four places for foreigners. The tourists naturally did not need to queue and would pay in dollars. While the price was perhaps 20 to 30 times more than what the Cubans pay, it was still cheaper than Viazul.

I took the Astro bus to Cienfuegos. It felt normal again, sitting with the locals, catching the breeze from the open window, instead of sitting among tourists some of whom whined that the toilets at the snack break had no paper and the tap did not work.

The number of mustachioed women in Cuba was beginning to really worry me. I hope it was not anything from the water.

Passing a cinema along the main road of Cienfuegos, I spotted a movie for ‘Tropicana’ at 1:30pm. It was made in Cuba. I had to watch it. I waited patiently for the ticket-office to open.

At 1:10pm, a sour-faced woman was fussing behind the counter. I asked the shabby auntie in front of me how much the price was. 1 Cuban peso. What? This was free. Sour-face stuck a notice on the window. Shabby Auntie read the notice and indicated my haversack. Sour-face wagged her finger at my haversack too and indicated a ‘No’.

I read the notice and realised that JUST NOW, they had decided they did not allow any form of backpacks, packages, whatever, into the cinema. Why?? Were they afraid I would bootleg the movie? Well, this was the Cuban version of the Russian ‘Nyet’. You stop asking why after a while.

Movie would start in 20 minutes. My ‘casa’ was 10 minutes away. No biggie. Nothing stands between me and my 1-Cuban-peso movie.

I returned, duly unloaded, and this time, Sour-face had no excuse not to let me in. ‘Tropicana’ was set in the famous, oldest and most trashy cabaret show in the world. This was the sequinned side of Cuban tourism. The movie was ridiculous but funny and entertaining. Way better than the Mongolian-made ‘Nyet Porno‘ I watched nearly nine months ago in Ulaan Baator.

While there were some shops that sold US$-priced items, there were the few which were true-blue Cuban shopping centres. One third of the glass displays were perhaps broken. Some of the remaining ones were held together by duct tapes. These were lined with some clothes, the odd underwear, cassettes, glorious glorious plastic flowers and the most horrible-looking, mass-produced, porcelain ceramic statues in the world. A section had ancient, tattered, revolution-themed, multiple-hand books. One salesman tried to interest me in the last few pages of a book, showing several photos of Che Guevara, their Cuban Revolution hero, drawing my attention to those without beard. Ooo, spooky when without beard.

CIENFUEGOS, CUBA – 16 April, 2003
I boarded the catamaran to the Castillo de Jagua, a Spanish fort on the other side of the Bay of Jagua from Cienfuegos. The price written on the wall had been 0.50. As this was a catamaran for local passengers, I was sure 0.50 meant 0.50 Cuban peso. But everyone else submitted the 1 Cuban-peso coin and so I did likewise.

There was only one other foreigner on the catamaran. He was an elderly German gentleman. When we arrived at the other side, we walked together to visit the fort. He then started to fret that he had only US$0.30 left, not ‘enough’ for the ride back. I realised that he had paid US$0.50 for the boat ride. That was too much. I told him, for our return, I would pay for him 1 Cuban peso (for he was one of those tourists who did not change any money into Cuban pesos).

We took the same catamaran back but because German Elderly Man got on at a later dock, he was standing away from me. When the sweaty conductor-sort came round, I gave him a fiver and said, “Para dos personas (For two persons)”. He returned the change of three pesos to me. When he reached German Elderly Man, I waved to him to indicate that this was the other person had I paid for earlier.

Instead, Sweaty Conductor strode over and wordlessly shove 1 peso into my palm. He demanded US$0.50 from German Elderly Man. No, this is the 1 peso for him, I insisted. He simply refused to take my money. I argued with him but he ignored me totally. He continued to bug German Elderly Man. A Cuban woman joined in and wanted to pay 1 peso for German Elderly Man as well. Sweaty Conductor unsmilingly asked her not to butt in. Finally, German Elderly Man had no choice but to remove a US$1 note. Sweaty Conductor then returned US$0.50 change and was finally appeased.

I was thoroughly surprised. Obviously, German Elderly Man made the mistake earlier and was now taken advantage upon to be charged the ‘foreigner’s price’. Why then did he not ask US$0.50 from me, by my association with German Elderly Man, I was obviously a foreigner as well, I wondered? Did he really think I was a Cuban Chinese? Maybe, but I doubted it. One really just stop questioning why in Cuba after a while.

CIENFUEGOS to LA HABANA, CUBA – 17 April, 2003
I was the only foreigner on the Astro bus to La Habana and because I went to the special office and wrote my name down on the special book and paid the special price, they forgot I existed and booked two person for the same seat 21. I was driven from my seat by the lady. I let her take it while we inquired with the bus guys about the errors. They tried to morph the 21 into a 12 but seat 12 was taken too. They did realise I paid 20 to 30 times the price of the Cubans, so they quickly asked me to take my seat. I felt bad for the lady but they were later able to place her somewhere. All’s well ends well.

Unlike the Viazul snack stops which stopped at US$-priced cafes, the snack stops now were all Cuban eateries and street-side stalls. Mighty affordable. I slurped up ice-cream just because. I ate a sandwich even when I was not hungry.

A dog looked at me with those doggy eyes as I munched away. I dropped a piece of the stale bread on the ground for it. It sniffed the bread but refused to take it. I told you the food was bad.

I had no idea where the Astro bus station was but when it finally stopped, I looked up and saw Jose Marti and the pointy monument and I knew I was near Plaza de la Revolucion. I knew how to walk to my ‘casa’ from here. No need for taxis.

Just the other day, Yves, being the Physicist that he is, did some reverse engineering analysis and concluded that perhaps the Viazul bus station was located quite an inconvenient distance away to give tourists no choice but to take taxis. Oh, I see… gosh, Fidel is GOOD.

If the brainy Yves ever wins the Nobel Prize for Physics in the future, I will be proud to say I had known this guy before, albeit briefly.

LA HABANA, CUBA – 18 April, 2003
How to finish spending the rest of my Cuban pesos? There were not much available to be bought and for those food items available, it was so cheap, it was nearly free. I busied myself stopping by every other ‘Refresco’ stalls and drinking away cups of syrups just to spend the pesos.

I finally located a restaurant at Barrio Chino (Chinatown) which had prices in US$ and Cuban pesos and splurged on a big lunch there in pesos.

I meandered to Parque Central opposite the White House lookalike, the Capitolio Nacional in Old Havana and rested under the shade. There, scores of locals, regardless of day and time, were standing around and discussing things with fervor. Politics? Baseball?

I observed a policeman checking the identity card of a guy just sitting on the bench. I had noticed how suspicious the police were of everyone and how, to a certain extent, state-fearing the locals were.

When I went to Vinales, I only brought along a small haversack and had left my passport in my ‘casa’ in La Habana, thinking I did not need it anywhere else. My hostess wanted my passport to register me. When I said I only had a photocopy with me, she literally stopped short and grew worried. She said if the officials found out she registered me with a photocopy and not the original, they would be fined. She had really turned pale. I apologized to her, cursing myself why I did not just bring my passport along. I explained I did not know this rule and if she did not want me, I would look for another ‘casa’. This was met with feverish protests. I guess, while they were state-fearing, they took risks because of the money.

I compared this to that old crone in the cheap hostel St. Petersburg, Russia which I and several tourists were trying to check in. She found faults with all of our visas and simply refused to accept us. One of the guys had said to her, “If you are smart, you will take our money and let us in.” I guess, for her, she rather not take the risk with foreigners and accept only Russian tourists.

Then, I also compared the difference the police treated the tourists here in Cuba and Russia. Here in Cuba, tourists could do no wrong. You really must do something very bad, like really, really bad… perhaps, make an attempt on the life of The Bearded One (one could only attempt, for this guy seemed to have ninety lives), then, you just might receive a slap on the wrist. In Russia, the police were hunting down tourists. You just have to molecularly exist in approximately the same space-time spectrum with a Russian police officer, naturally holding your passport and claiming something is wrong with the visa before being hauled to the police station, if you refuse to pay the on-the-spot fine.

As I walked around La Habana, I really marvelled at the patience of the locals waiting for buses. When a bus arrived, the queue could be as long as thirty-five to forty people long. They had obviously been waiting for a long time. The buses were also nearly always full already. In China or Mongolia, I could imagine all forty people rushing to the bus-door upon arrival of the bus, fighting and shoving to get in.

Another scary public transport is the ‘camello’ (camel). It was a very long truck. The container-part of the truck was slightly elevated at the two ends, like two humps of a camel. The container was so long that up to two hundred people could squeeze into it. Nearly every time I saw this ‘camello’, it was jam-packed with sweaty bodies. I only dared hop onto one later that evening when it was surprisingly not so crowded.

By night time, I still had 20 Cuban pesos and decided to spend it on one final meal. It was fried rice. It was gross. I kept washing it down with my bottle of water. When my water ran out, I tried to dry-swallow the rice. But my throat kept contracting to prevent the food-intake. I tilted my head at an angle to try and roll down the rice using gravity, much like what seals do to swallow their fish. For the life of me, I just couldn’t swallow.

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