cuba

Cuban Reflections

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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March 2016

Here are twenty photos and some reflections from the trip to Cuba. Because its tropical flora and fauna, couldn’t help comparing the country to South East Asia that has become familiar in past years.

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Malecon, Havana.

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Havana.

What can I write about Cubans? They are music lovers and party people more than anything. Salsa is in their DNA. So are their love for fat cigars and rum. The liquor is even sold in small tetra packs. I spotted often guys sipping innocent looking small boxes and wondered whats the sudden juice or soda passion for grown up men. But no it is Ron Planchao, 40% alcohol. That explained! People are not proud but self confident. Locals often greet foreigners and welcoming them for happy holidays.

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Havana.

From the trio of countries that I’ve been documenting, Cuba is by far most touristy. Ocean cruisers bring hundreds at a time, and so does the busy Havana airport. When hearing the news that Cuba is opening to international community and blockades are history, many wont realise that in tourism industry that happen already 20 years ago. After fall of Soviet Union, Cuba lost not just an ally, but main customer for its agricultural products. From then on, tourists from Canada and Europe brought desperately needed foreign currency. Venezuela provided cheap oil that prevented economic wheels from stalling completely.

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Havana.
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The island is flat, Cuba’s highest peak does not reach 2000m. Scenes from bus: Sugar cane fields and rice paddies. Small sloping hills, palm trees and more fields and greenery.

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Vienales in west of island has landscape that remind scenes from South East Asia.

Farm animals are everywhere. It’s nice to see cowboy slowly riding to the fields in the mellow evening light, to return livestock back after grassing the day out. Condors gliding lazily with air currents and screening the world underneath. Another common bird that can be seen in shores is the pelican. Edit: related to farm animals, here’s link to a discussion on a web forum about Cuban “pork economy”, and some discussion as well as controversies related to situation in the country and its past.

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Trinidad.

Ride paddies are not worked as meticulously as in Asia, where rice has always been backbone of feeding populations. Burmese or Thai farmer could be shocked to see how temporary the mud walls that form the pools are. They seem like pulled up quickly with tractor, not carved to the soil in shape that farmer passes on to his son.

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Trinidad.

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Havana.

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Cienfuegos.

Streets are in pretty good condition, although street lights at night are dim. Lack of light pollution means bright night skies even in city centers. Traffic culture more expectable than in Asia, car drivers and pedestrians respecting each other.

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Santiago.

Shops and markets lack the endless variety and full shelf’s like in more prosperous countries. There were some queues occasionally, but in general shops always have least one brand of product’s on offer, and shelf’s were never completely empty.

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Trinidad, locomotive drivers.

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Camaguey.
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Weather in March has been really a dream. Constant winds, especially in Havana and northern side of island are refreshing. In south side, and especially Santiago, air was more stale and walking around in mid day not as nice.

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Camaguey.

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Santiago.
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Santiago.
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Viazul is Cuban hard currency bus company. Many tourists are using their busses while traveling in Cuba. Drivers are pretty well motivated, but are making bit extra on their own. Busses always have front seats that passengers cannot use. Those are for people that are picked up from hitching by the road side, and pay directly to drivers.

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In a bus. Co-driver relaxing, texting and chatting with the driver.

They are funny blokes to watch, wheeling and dealing their own along the way. When they feel like a juice, for instance, they stop by the shop, all passengers watching and waiting. Or when the other one knows a good basket shop on the way. The duo again disappear to a road side shop for a minute, and return smiling with nice new baskets in their hands. Chinese made busses are in ok condition, and schedule holds pretty well. That ensures no big protest arise when another surprise stop happens. Things run, but bit differently in Cuba.

Cuban Yank Tanks

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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Everyone who’s been in Cuba, and also many who hasn’t, knows the old American cars from -50’s are trademarks of Cuban street scene.

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Some are serviced and polished vehicles to drive the tourists in Havana city tours. Long lines attracting customers are parked in front of luxury Hotel Inglaterra every day. However majority of cars are not that great condition. These are noisy, smoky and in need of patching here and there. Sometimes original engine is changed to Soviet made diesel. Locals use them often as share taxis, Uber in Cuban style if you like!

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Outside world these cars can be seen in vintage motor shows, a wedding or some similar event vehicles, and in a motor hobby scene. In Cuba these cars are still in service as every day vehicles, they are everywhere. Its a bit surreal feeling at first, but after couple days one gets adjusted and relate them just like locals do.

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Besides old cars, much of Cuba still also moves with one horse power only. Horse carriages can be easily spotted on city streets as well as countryside.

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And, fields are often plowed using bull power…

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Wind Of Change: Myanmar, Iran, Cuba

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Posts in the series:

Back in late 1980’s when I was a teenager, Berlin Wall, East European Communist satellites, and finally Soviet Union itself collapsed within time of only few years. Media, adults, everyone, were commenting and speculating what comes next. Scorpions recorded their famous song Wind Of Change, to portray the epic changes that profoundly changed lives of millions of Europeans. Me included, although completely clueless about it, but I liked the song.

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In this decade we’ve seen the news, ministers, presidents, envoys shuffling back and forth to three countries: Republic of the Union of Myanmar, Islamic Republic of Iran and lately Barak Obama was first American president in 90 years to travel Havana, capital of Republic of Cuba. All the high level work has been about ending economic blockades, sanctions and trade embargoes. These countries are far apart with different histories. Issues in negotiations have local nuances, and remains to be seen wether actual changes continue like the wind of change, or stale air of empty words. These events nevertheless represent similar dawn-of-new-era moment for the people of these countries, similar of what was happening in Europe earlier. To people who have been waiting for a long time, in many cases their entire lives. People who want more open, prosperous and predictable future.

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Spring 2015 I was finishing my assignment in north Thailand. While land border to Myanmar was always close by, crossing was limited to air travel mainly. So after my work was finished, flight to Yangon was awaiting and journey started from there. Friends also recommended two other countries, and the plan expanded from there.

Here’s the journey so far:

Cuban Travel Practicalities

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March 2016:

— Money matters. As travel books and websites know, Cuba has double currency system. Confusing and because to the past financial difficulties country has been in. Cuban hard currency is called CUC is about same as one US Dollar. And one CUC is worth 25 CUP, aka. moneda nacional. Tourists are expected to know only CUC. But having low value CUP in wallet is handy for small purchases. It’s also good to offer them first, if unsure is price quoted in which currency. Locals can call prices from both as “Peso” for tourists. What makes this system expensive for foreigners is that all, even the trivial expenses such as ferry or bus ticket, small espresso from thermos, local pizza-bread etc. are usually quoted nice round sum of one CUC. That is, four, maybe ten times the actual value that locals pay. Government have indicated plans for single currency system, but at time of writing two currencies are very much effective.

— Credit cards and ATMs: Despite the first hand information (e.g taxi driver telling me when coming from airport) and travel reading, MasterCard can be used in Cuba. Government owned Cadeca money exchange in every major city approves them. MasterCards from European, Canadian, Australian etc. banks probably work just fine. Visa cards are easier, any ATM with Visa logo will approve them on street. Americans should check their bank first, before trying to use card in Cuba. Exchange rate for credit card withdrawal is not as good as if changing cash on street. But its good to know that both major credit cards can be used in Cuba, just in case.

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Camel bus. These things are nowadays getting a rare sight. Modern Chinese busses have been replacing them for almost a decade now. But they are not entirely extinct, yet.

— Casas particulates, Cuban home stays. You pay a room and owners usually sleep in another in same apartment. Kitchen, bathroom are often shared. One peculiarity is that you don’t always get all the keys needed to enter from street to the room. Instead you need knocking doors and pressing buzzers to be let in by someone in apartment. Mosquito repellent a must accessory when staying in casas. March is still high season, I paid about 15-20 CUC a night. Havana prices are bar above rest of country. Paying 20 give or take 5, means Cuba is not popular backpacker destination like South East Asia or India for example.

— Internet is another thing that deserves special mention. When it started to dawn on me, it felt like arrangement from -90’s. Prepaid wifi cards from government monopoly Etecsa are sold by their shops (and sold for higher through second hands on street). Most common card is probably one hour but there are several lengths. I usually paid 3 CUC for hour card. Card can then be used in public parks, sitting on a bench or side walk. Needing a computer instead of smartphone? Perhaps with some USB device attached? There you are sitting under the sun, people walking by, kids, dogs running around and perhaps random ball from game nearby flying by you. And for this luxury you pay couple CUC/Dollars per hour!

— Photo and video. If documenting the trip is on high priority and planning to bring equipment into Cuba, be aware that air is often full of diesel fumes and dust. You never know when old Soviet truck or tractor in full steam like locomotive rolls in from behind the corner. Yank Tanks that Cuba is famous for, and East European two-stroke motorbikes are second worse encounters. Dust sealed camera bag is a must, and streets are worst place to switch lenses.

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Yank tanks. These vehicles can be seen on vintage car shows around the world. But in Cuba they are still very real part of peoples lives.
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