Perhaps more than any country on earth, Cuba had been somewhere I wanted to visit since I was a young-un. Visions of walking around Havana listening to sincere music spilling out from under spreading trees, old men missing teeth sucking on rich cigars and smiling, women walking by with their colourful dresses and haunting looks.
Here’s what its really like:
Munich Airport. FFS. Arrived with Special K and Mathilde after a painless flight from Oslo only to find out that our connecting flight (on the worlds worst airline, Condor) was delayed. We circumnavigated the airport, delved into its depths, dove underground, scurried through tunnels, groped at distant lights, and basically found ourselves back where we started for the fourth time. Confusion doesn’t come into it, and I thought Germans were efficient. After much heartache and suffering we found our way to the Condor desk which had managed to forget signs and nobody knew where to queue or which desk was the right one. By means of trial and error we finally got through to someone who could deal with our questions and were told the flight was 3 hours late, and to keep an eye on the information board for further instructions. We got lost again. Found our way back to the desk that we didn’t want to return to, frolicked down a few new dark tunnels before discovering there was a shopping mall hidden in the belly of the terminal that had some fairly decent restaurants offering our hunger respite. I ventured over to check the time-table to see if there had been any updates. Strangely enough our flight had disappeared from the information board. Hmm. We hurried back to the Condor desk to inquire and were met by the rudest Germans I have ever met. They refused to give us any information and just told us that the flight was 6 hours delayed now and that we should keep our eyes on the board (that didn’t contain any information).
We sat and had a beer. It seemed the best option.
7 hours later after what can only be described as the most poorly planned departure gate this side of Ashkhabad we boarded a plane (not the one we were supposed to be on) that can only be said as having been severely neglected for decades. The interior reminded me of flying in the 80s, the seats were almost all broken, the smell was off-putting, there were no televisions or entertainment, and the volume of the passengers was louder than any Black Metal show I have been to in my life. What a sodding day to have packed your headphones in your check-in luggage. Rookie mistake.
We touched down at Havana airport at almost midnight. The air was balmy and sweet. My thoughts began to stir at the countless adventures we were about to enjoy in our 3 weeks in Cuba. The food, the music, the locals, the nature.
Our cab dropped us off in Havana Viejo, the old town. Jan was waiting for us on the street. We hugged. Ran up to our room, nice, headed down to party it up in the crazy city that was Havana. Instead we were accosted by drug dealers, hookers and plain mad people on our 300 meter walk to the main street (Obispo- hell spawn of Satans undercarriage). After having a couple of cold Cristal Beers and being hounded the entire time by a twat with a out-of-tune violin we decided it sensible to head to bed and allow the days happenings to fold into dreams.
The next 4 days we spent being ripped off, followed by police, lied to, continually subjected to the most wanky street musicians who’s eyes were firmly on your wallet and did not understand the concept of “STFU we are trying to talk”. No, I don’t want to hear the songs from Buena Vista Social Club 99 times a day for a month. Je suis desolé.
After the Hatchet Man landed and spent a couple of days seeking out shelter in the squares outside the main drag, and trying to sample beers without a band marching through or a homeless man in a wheelchair singing at the top of his diminished, raspy voice while all of us prayed for death in the afternoon and sipped our beers wishing the ground would swallow him, or us. This was life in Havana, day in, day out. Like being stuck in a room with a billion mosquitos constantly biting you, buzzing around your ear and flying into your nose and mouth. That’s Havana.
We fled. With middle fingers aimed surely at the city as the vintage American car drove us all out and over to Santa Clara for a change of scenery. The fields were full of beans. There were hardly any cars on the road. A few police check-points. Nothing much. We arrived in Santa Clara late at night and first impressions were not great. It seemed like a labyrinth of small, uninteresting houses and streets. We checked into our Casa Particulares with the worlds most intense woman who wouldn’t stop for a second without fussing over us or asking if things were ok. Tiring to say the least.
They called a friend to come pick us up in an old banger to take us to a “real” Italian restaurant in the suburbs where the food was promised to be mouthwatering beyond compare. After 5 days in Havana sampling food you wouldn’t serve to a person in a coma in Europe we were intrigued. It took two trips to ferry myself, Hatchet, Jan, Ruben Sandwich, Special K, Mathilde and the newly arrived Mort + Linda who would join us for the entire remainder of the time in Cuba. What transpired was comedic gold.
We were dropped off at a private residence, miles outside the city centre, in a shady side street with what can only be described as a mansion from drug-lord movies involving Al Pacino or someone of that caliber. Tables were scattered under trees, no customers as far as the eye could see, which didn’t put us off at all and we pulled up some chairs and sat waiting for the second car-load to arrive while sipping on Santiago De Cuba 12 Anos.
Three hours later, after Jan had managed to misunderstand the menu and order us 26 bruscetta as a starter, the pizzas arrived. Not the greatest thing i’ve ever had in my life, but semi-decent. We ploughed in us some more Cristals and called it a night.
After a couple of nights exploring Santa Clara and finding it to be overly acceptable, having seen genuine musicians, avoided most forms of beggars and actually stumbled upon a couple of “underground” bars where students congregated and locals did their best attempts at sounding like western artists, we decided it was time for the beach.
We rented another old car (insanely expensive) and started riding up towards Cayo Santa Maria. The trip was beautiful and we passed through numerous small towns and villages where Cuban life happened at its own pace and order.
Cayo Santa Maria was not what we expected. Sure we didn’t really pay too much attention to the book of lies (Lonely Planet) and decided it worth the risk heading up there to find cheap accommodation. It turned out to be an island made up of expensive all-inclusive resorts. Great!
After the taxi-driver fucked us over again for an extra 40 $ and his car putted off into the distance with our scorn following it’s every move, we decided to splash out on one night at the all-inclusive and see what all the fuss was about. Heaven forbid!
Good news nr 1: All you can drink.
Good news nr 2 (that turned out to be bad news): All you can eat.
There was no more good news.
Escorted to our rooms by way of an elongated golf-cart, we marvelled at the fact that the bathroom looked straight out onto the path and the windows were full-length with no barrier except a shoddy blind that didn’t go all the way down. (Starting to wonder if this is some sort of kinky, weird set-up). Down to the beach, nice, lay down on a sun bed, served fernets and cold margaritas by waiters dressed in suits, nice, read by Fante book for an hour or so, then wandered up for lunch, abysmal. The typical Cuban fare of zero seasoning, overcooking everything to death, but washed down with a couple Cristals it all seemed ok. We potted around the campus for a while, met some Canadian lesbians who got very offended when we suggested that this was not really Cuba, saw a magic show that took comedy to a whole new level, READ: Amateur night at a high-school in Albuquerque. Then came dinner, which we had reserved at the beach-side amaze-balls restaurant, that turned out to be so inedible that we all literally ran back to the buffet and stuffed our faces with more meaningless tripe to furnish enough of a barrier to withstand a long night of heavy liver-punishment and meaningless gazes off into the unseen distance.
Morning came, with its crushing hangover. The check-out process took over an hour, so naturally we mobilised over to the nearest bar and downed as many screwdrivers as we could before suspicions arose. Our taxi arrived, and we were whisked away from the fantasy land of rich tourists, back into the treacherous streets of the real Cuba where we had to show our passports to get back into, and the long distant stench of all-inclusives was left behind forever.
The “real” Cuba will be explored in Part 2.