Apr. 14-18: It is not uncommon in a trip, that after a week or so of travel, my pace begins to slow. In the case of Cuba, I am not sure if I was assimilating into the slow culture or if it just took longer to get places and I wanted time to linger. Or maybe I was just worn down and needed to recharge my batteries.
In any case I got a ride from Viñales with Papito. We got a late start leaving Viñales and I did not get a beach day in Palma Rubia. So my mind was already figuring on staying a three days rather than the two I had planned. I was willing to cut the final day I had planned in Havana to do some extra exploring, possibly on bike, or to another beach.
Staying at a Family Farm
It was funny, since three days ago, I could not understand Papito when he spoke. And now when he dropped me in Palma Rubia, he came in so he could be the translator (fast Spanish to slow Spanish) between Gustavo, my new host, and me. Gustavo and Mary welcomed me and introduced us to the extended family. We all sat around the kitchen table chatting and laughing. Papito and Gustavo definitely had a kinship over being machismo and were making lots of multiple wives jokes.
The casa particular is on the family farm and since there is no town to speak of, checking out the farm became the evening activity. The couple from New Orleans got back from Caya Levisa and joined in the festivities. I met Gustavo and Mary’s dogs, who had five day old puppies. The puppies had yet to emerge from underneath the shed where they were born. But I got on the ground to peek under and could verify they were cute as buttons.
Gustavo II, Gustavo’s son, and I talked about their organic farming practice, in which his family takes great pride. His and his wife Mileni’s four year old son Michael was adorable and was totally comfortable making himself one of the gang.
When I asked whether they had coco’s (coconuts), they said they had a few and asked if we wanted coco locos. We nervously watched Gustavo II climb the coconut palms. The tool to loosen them wasn’t quite working but he was determined to make it happen. Soon enough, he was cracking coconuts open with a machete and Mileni was handing us a bottle of rum and some honey from the neighbor to perk up our coco locos.
At dinner, the couple from New Orleans showed me a picture of the private beach on Caya Levisa and at that moment, I decided for sure to skip Havana and stay in Palma Rubia for the duration of my trip. Also, after discovering how easy it is to get around Cuba if you are willing to pay for a cab, I felt assured I would make it to Havana in plenty of time to catch my plane home.
Bidding farewell to the New Orleans couple the next morning was a whole family affair. I partook, but my thoughts quickly shifted to the beach.
My Private Beach at Caya Levisa
At the dock I learned I needed a passport to get on the ferry and I didn’t have mine on me. Fortunately the man at the counter said “no problemo.” You can pretend to be part of someone else’s family. So in an instant, I was part of a nearby Columbian family. On the ferry, I befriended Jeff, an American who lives in Marin Country. We quickly became fast friends. When the boat landed on the Caya, we were engrossed in conversation about his travels to Morocco. I invited him to follow me to the private beach. The hours ticked away and six hours later, we were still talking when we acknowledged we needed to get a move on to catch the ferry back to the mainland. Because it was windy and not that hot, we ended up not even swimming, but instead, had camped out under a palapa.
Our conversations hit so many topics, from the super liberal California culture, to Havana’s empty Chinatown, to his early days of travel before internet and getting by on a wing and a prayer. We also enjoyed comparing stories from our casa particulars. It was apparent that the different Cubans’ personalities and idiosyncrasies shaped our experiences. He was at one when the owners’ celebrity friends came over and gave a performance.
On the way back to the 5 PM ferry, Jeff commented “well this was a hard day in heaven” to which I replied “yeah, it’s almost as bad as the day I got a stale baguette in Paris”. Listening to the many languages being spoken on the boat, getting splashed with cold water (after avoiding it all day), and drinking in the scenery all boiled down to what we both expressed was a truly magical day.
A Slice of Heaven in Palma Rubia
The vibe of the farm was quite wonderful. They pretty much grow everything they eat. And things are fresh as fresh can be. They grow the frijoles negra (black beans) and the arroz (rice). What do you want for dinner? Chicken. Mom sends her daughter-in-law into the yard to grab a chicken and voila – dinner! Fish. Dad calls his friend, the pescadero (fisherman) half a mile down the road and up he comes with lobster or another catch of the day. Breakfast was usually fruit, ripened to perfection and picked about five minutes before I ate it. Two large pigs and countless chickens wander freely around the place, even through the breezeway of the house! Every where I look there farm animals. And all the work is done with a smile on their faces. Surely I found a slice of heaven in Palma Rubia.
Playa el Pino
I wanted to bike to a Cuban beach, but Mileni told me I would be better off going to Playa el Pino and their friend, also named Gustavo, could drive me there. The roads were not good so the travel was slow but in fact we arrived and once again, I took a long walk to escape the crowds and get to a private beach. It was hotter, so I alternated between swimming and tanning. The salt water was medicine for my swollen glands. Yes, I inhaled it, repeatedly, like a neti pot, and by evening, I was feeling better.
A Farm Tour and Lobster Dinner
When we returned home, my evening was spent with Gustavo showing me the family property. It actually extends past his farm and there are two other pieces of nearby property. His father and grandfather lived there, now he lives there with his son and grandson. After the revolution, Fidel Castro gave Cubans land, so even if they have little else, they have that. It may be hard for us to grok, but Cuban’s do not understand mortgages, or relocating for employment and moving into a rental.
Within an hour, I knew Gustavo’s sisters and nephews and daughter and all of their partners and kids. They all work together to maintain the casa particulars of the three homes. It is a family business of sorts, with cooking, cleaning, and general upkeep of the homes. I also met the other guests, who were from Austria. They came to Cuba for the diving. Even though the Cubans live a simple life, compared to industrialized societies, they are actually quite a bit more global than a lot of people living in the US or other industrialized countries. Cuba is an international destination. Even Cubans living in a small rural village may have visitors from several countries a week. Just in a few days at this casa, I met other guests from the United States, France, Germany, and Austria. And this is just a typical week in sleepy Palma Rubia.
The star attraction for dinner was fresh caught lobster, it was so tasty. Mary lays out about nine plates of food for dinner. I very much appreciated all the effort and generosity, but honestly, the portions were overwhelming. The Cubans also consider waiting on their guests part of their job. For independent people like myself, it can be hard to get used to. But I tried to embrace it as part of the experience.
I was very satisfied with my choice to spend my last couple days at the beach instead of Havana. I did miss out on buying music and seeing a cabaret show, but it was a small price to pay for stretches of white sand and turquoise colored water and visiting with wonderful people.
Revisiting Caya Levisa
Since I liked Caya Levisa better than the other beach, I went back there for my last full day. I was joined by Esther and Jacob, a French woman and her teenage son. They had shown up to check in at the casa shortly before I left for the ferry. We chatted on the boat and I was impressed at what international travelers they are. They rarely travel in France or even Europe! They too were here for the tropical fish and we all caught another boat to go snorkeling.
It was about 20 minutes out to the reef and then we plunged into the water to relish the otherworldly stuff that was going on beneath us. It was not world class snorkeling by any means, but I saw a nice variety of colors and organisms. The coral and associated plants were very interesting. I loved the one that coats rocks and look like a brain, as well as the flat and lacey purple one that roots itself on other more stable rocks. Iridescent leaves swaying with the currents and a barracuda swimming through – good stuff.
Feeling a little seasick, I was happy to return to shore. I skipped out on lunch and headed back to my new favorite spot – the private beach. It was a hot day, so I laid in the sun and then cooled off in the unbelievably beautiful water. I had to set my alarm so I didn’t miss the boat. Although getting stranded on Caya Levisa would not have been such a bad thing.
Back to the Farm
A quiet evening on the farm ensued. Checking on the puppies was my favorite evening activity. Doing yoga for Gustavo’s friends while he pretended I was his girlfriend was amusing, but the charm had worn off of the machismo stuff.
I woke up very early, while it was still dark and walked toward the pier to watch the sunrise. The surprise bonus was that every 40 seconds or so lightning would light up the sky! As my herb teacher Cascade once told me, gifts come to those that linger. I rarely see lightning at home on the West Coast, so it was worth lingering around.
Gustavo had been promoting horseback riding on the farm and it worked out well, since I only had half a day before needing to go to the airport. One of the farm workers picked me up and we went for a gentle ride in fields and in the forest. We came across Miguel, Gustavo’s nephew and rode with him part of the way. Miguel raises vuei (water buffalo) and horses. He actually had a ten day old horse in his pack, it was seriously too cute. The horses start having babies when they are two and can have 15-20 babies in their lifetime, which is about 30 years. In general, I was far more enthralled by all the baby animals (pigs, dogs, horses) than the Cubans were, probably since they see such them every day.
When I got back, Mileni was cleaning the casa, similar work to what I saw Leiby’s hired help doing. It’s actually amazing the level to which they clean on a daily basis. Using tons of water and scrubbing the front porch, wiping down the rocking chairs that sit on the porch. Even drenching the inside floors as well, like I noticed at the hotel in Soroa. Maybe with the dry season, it serves to add some humidity into the air. I am not sure, but it is a curious phenomenon.
When I went to check out with Milani, I saw she had a notebook and a line notating every time I drank a bottled water, ate a meal, slept, etc. I asked her about it and whether the government looks at it. Not only to they look at it, but beyond that, they take 50% of the gross income from the casas! She said they didn’t like it, but it was better than nothing. Ultimately, when Cubans get in the flow of working with the tourist currency, their income skyrockets in relative terms, but so do their expenses. Money flows through their lives like water under the bridge.
Back to Havana and More Currency Conversion Fun
Like clockwork, Rafael, the taxi driver picked me up at Gustavo’s. We had our goodbye rituals and they all waved at us as we departed. It was slow going at first and we got hit with a tropical storm, although April is not typically the season for such. It actually was so bad, that we had to pull over a couple times until the rain let up. I would have had more fun with it, if I wasn’t trying to catch a plane.
Before we departed, I explained that I would need to stop at the bank to convert money to CUC’s for the taxi ride, since I only had about half the fee. We stopped in a town along the way and the bank happened to close at 2 PM. Rafael even went in to ask for himself. I was getting heartburn anticipating the drama that could ensue – based on being given potentially different stories from different people, plus a possible repeat of the bank drama in Viñales.
So instead I made a proposal. Basically to pay him a higher fee in Canadian dollars, and he could change it at his convenience. He sounded unsure and I offered to show him the money, and pointed out “menos tiempo, mas dinero, esta bueno!” The plan worked, he agreed it was muy bueno and off we went to the airport!
Eventually we reached the autopista (highway) and were able to make some time. I was intrigued by the men selling queso (cheese) on the side of the road. Rafael said it was made from la buca (female ox) or sheep. I thought peddling cheese as cars zoom by was a very interesting biz model.
Running the Gauntlet at Havana Airport
The airport in Havana was confusing. Since I was not able to check in online, I didn’t have the info for what terminal to go to. We went to the one that indicated international flights other than Europe or Canada. When I went inside there was no sign of Alaska airlines or flights to LA. Nervously, I asked someone outside and found out the terminal I needed to get to was 3 km away. In a panic, I ran to the nearest taxi and it was Rafael who had not left yet. He was totally accommodating and got me to the right place.
When I checked in, I was informed that I was randomly selected to be checked an additional time and after immigration I should go to customs. At immigration, I asked where customs was and the official said there was no customs. Maybe I should have investigated further, but I just went through security and figured out that my flight would be leaving from the door that said United (although I was flying Alaska).
The airport system works, but it is only because it is a small terminal and things have a way of working out in Cuba. But I can say the system is pretty screwed up. There are no correct signs for departure gates. Three flights can leave within fifteen minutes of each other. AND, there are no announcements as to which flight is boarding. So one must look around and ask other clueless tourists. If they say they too are flying Alaska, you assume you are in the right area (or you are all in the wrong area). And then don’t get too nervous, as the flights always seem to load a bit after the official boarding time.
Anyway, I got to the check-in and they told me I never went through customs. At this point I was cursing myself, since the official departure time was in fifteen minutes. I ran to the customs area and they started writing things on different pieces of paper, since nobody uses computers here (which has an upside, this not being one of them). Then I got taken to a separate room and got checked and re-checked. This included checking every little pocket and zipper, of which there are many, in my purse and backpack.
Finally they asked what line number I originally went through, which I didn’t know. There were fifteen windows, but there were only three open, so I told them whichever one was on the left. They wanted a more precise answer that I did not have. I started to panic and told them my flight was supposed to leave in eight minutes. They futzed around a bit more and ultimately gave me my stuff and sent me off.
I booked it back to the loading area and there was a long line for another unidentified flight. Maybe United, maybe Southwest, didn’t know, didn’t care. But I pushed my way to the front and got approved for walking outside to my plane. After having my ticket checked three more times I was on the plane.
Phew – that was not a pretty way to end a fabulous vacation. But as they say, all is well that ends well.
So what is next for Cuba? Nobody really knows. Currently, I would describe Cuba as evolving very slowly toward market socialism. There is free education, free medical care, and free food vouchers, at least for the basics. At the same time, private restaurants and casa particulars have turned many common citizens into mini-entrepreneurs. Raul has done a lot for the Cuban economy in the last number of years. A lot more than Fidel did for the 50 years prior. Since Raul is out of office in 2018, it remains to be seen how the country and economy will continue to evolve.
It’s unlikely the economy will go further back toward communism. It could very well stay the same, especially if Raul picks the new leader. Or maybe it will slowly switch to capitalism. Will the US lift the embargo when Raul is out of office? We don’t know that either. Trump could go either way, but he is not likely to be helpful. What I do know is that when Cuba is involved, it is always very interesting.
Click here to see how I started my trip in Havana.