Title: I've seen a stretch limousine and a bus that looks ilke a lorry!
Location: Havana, Cuba
The only place in the world where I've seen a stretch limousine lada and a bus that looks like a lorry! And what are those peapod-like things that masquerade as taxis? A strange land indeed!
My sister joined us for a 2 week holiday on this the last leg of our round-the-world trip. Ruth had arrived earlier in the day and was already at our lodgings (casa particular) when we turned up at night. The communist government of Castro has many restrictions on capitalist ventures and private enterprises but they have recently allowed ordinary citizens who have a spare room or two to rent them out to tourists at a capped rate. This one was in a nice area surrounded by magnificent, faded and somewhat dilapidated colonial buildings. The architecture in Havana is astonishing but largely falling to bits! We were fortunate to have air conditioning, a rare luxury in Cuba but very much needed in the stifling heat of Havana.
One day we were walking along the Malecon (the road that runs alongside the Caribbean at the edge of Havana) when a young couple approached us and greeted us in a friendly manner. We started chatting about life in Britain and their experiences of living in Cuba. The woman did say to us that it was illegal for Cubans to be out-and-about talking to tourists and we suggested they had better be careful but they reckoned they would be ok. We all headed towards the old town where we wanted to visit the Museum of the Revolution. As we walked up a busy street a policeman saw us and whistled for the Cuban couple to come over to him. After a few minutes the woman came over to us and told us that they were being arrested and the policeman had called for a police car to take them to the station. Shocked and appalled we tried to reason with the policeman which was difficult as we spoke very little Spanish and he no English! (We need to take some Spanish immersion classes!) He told us if we were so concerned he would take us to the police station as well! Not sure if he meant under arrest or not! As we spoke the police car turned up with two other arrestees already inside so there was no room for us anyway. The Cuban couple were bundled into the back and off they sped! I was going to leave it at that but Sarah felt we should at least go to the police station and try and get them released, so we headed off in the general direction they had pointed to us. After asking a few people we found the station and entered into the reception, only to be ignored by the officer in attendance. Eventually he asked us what we wanted and we tried to explain that our friends were inside. He motioned to us that they had already been released. As we had no way of knowing if he were telling the truth or not we simply had to leave.
We hired a great old red Mercury '55 taxi to take us to the museum. On arriving there we were debating whether to buy something to eat when our old friends turned up again! We were surprised and pleased to see them but we were getting suspicious of their motives for wanting to be with us. They told us they were released from the station after meeting a policeman who was an old friend from their home town of Guantanamo. The couple decided they would come in to the museum with us, so we all wandered round together. When we came out later the man asked Sarah for a contribution towards their baby (which wasn't with them) as they couldn't afford milk for it. Denise gave them a token $2 and we parted. We were somewhat disappointed and probably a bit angry at being 'fooled' into the situation. You think people are being friendly and helpful but then you find out there's an ulterior motive. The whole situation is a sad reflection on Cuban society, the mad, repressive law of not being able to mix freely with visitors to your country, the poverty of people, and the resultant dishonesty of 'befriending' tourists with a view to asking them for money. On the other hand it's sad too that that there is such a divide in the world between the rich and the poor. The rich can afford to visit their country but they are too poor (and in any event usually not allowed) to visit other countries. We could go on to mention the anomaly of the American occupation in Guantanamo and what they are getting up to, and the ban on Americans traveling to or doing business with Cuba (did you know a US citizen could be jailed for up to 10 years if caught going to Cuba?), but I don't want to bore you!
After a few days in Havana we took a bus to the beach resort of Varadero. We had booked the hotel in Havana, but when we arrived they only had rooms for one night but unfortunately not that night! So they booked us in to a nearby hotel for that night and we were to return the next day. This was a hassle as it was well above 90 (33) degrees and we had to carry our own bags to the next place with the sweat pouring off us and then we had to pack up and do the same again the next day! The beach was quite nice although there was very little shade and the sunbeds were all taken long before we had arisen from bed, however, swimming in the sea was a joy. Varadero is the premier beach resort in Cuba and it's a long strip of large hotels. Most Westerners stay in the all inclusive (all food provided) hotels, although we couldn't afford to. We were told that Cubans are not allowed in these hotels (unless they work there of course).
After relaxing a bit, we proceeded with our Spanish immersion classes. School is very pleasant, the teachers are also very nice. I think we will extend our stay, as the Spanish language instruction is very helpful.