Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Chasing Che

January 23, 2008 - Playas del Este
Adrian and I only had two must do's on our agenda. See Havana. And chase Che Guevara.
You see ever since our trip to Buenos Aires, 8 years ago, Adrian has been somewhat obsessed with Che Guevara. Why? I'm not sure and I don't think Adrian is either. But slowly we've been tracing his footsteps around the world, by accident. First to BA then to Peru and now to Cuba. We can only hope that our trip to Bolivia will end better than his.

In Cuba, chasing Che meant a pilgrimage to Santa Clara, but how to get there was our problem. Car rentals were $300. Buses took at least 7 hours. And both of these options were not working with our time and money limitations. Thankfully, we were staying at a resort.

The next morning we had our first pass at the buffet and met with the tour rep. We were accompanied by the same haggard looking man who'd stumbled off the bus with us the night before. He made sure we knew this was his fifth trip to the Tropicoco and he wanted to drink. Considering the place has the atmosphere of a prison, I can understand the need for alcohol at 10am. But I didn't understand his need to brag about his previous stays. In an attempt to show his superior knowledge, he kept interrupting the tour rep which meant she had to repeat everything twice. By the end of it I think she was deliberately talking very slowly about unimportant hotel features just to annoy him as much he was annoying us.

Before she arrived, I'd picked up a brochure of tours. They had an all-inclusive two day tour of Trinidad, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Sancti Spiritus for $150. This seemed like a good deal. Unfortunately, the tour had already left that morning. But the tour guide helped us book with another company. We also signed up for a day trip to Cayo Largo the day after. $600 later we were headed to the beach.

That's right I sat in the sun, tempting fate with only my 30 SPF sunblock between me and certain blisters. It was just what Adrian and I needed a day of doing nothing. I brought a book with me and didn't touch it. Instead I just sat back and enjoyed figuring out the religion of many of the men on the beach a very easy task due to the high speedo ratio on the beach. In fact Adrian was one of a handful of men not wearing tiny pants - it had the effect of making his shorts looking more ridiculous than the fat old men in banana hammocks.

Needless to say we skipped lunch, preferring to munch cuban cheesie wotsits on the beach and drink watered down piña coladas. Very watery, as in we both needed to pee. Unfortunately, there was no loo on the beach and our hotel room seemed oh so far away. So we did what we had to do. We ventured into the sea. Now don't waggle your finger at me. There are millions of fish and other animals that pee in the sea every day so our 4 piña coladas were no big deal. I'm sure we weren't the only ones.

We stayed on the sand until 6, had dinner and some drinks before packing our overnight bag and turning in preparing for our two days of Che Chasing.

January 24, 2008 - Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus
I woke up at 6 am the next morning and watched the news while packing. Saw that Heath Ledger had died. There's something odd about being far away from home and seeing breaking news stories on CNN or BBC. They feel bigger than they actually are. I guess because they're not buried in the day-to-day chaos. But I digress...

The bus picked us up promptly at 8:15. Getting on I scanned the crowd and guessed the average age was 50. We picked our seats at the back and braced ourselves for the hell that is a packaged tour. Our oh-so enthusiastic tour guide, Rita, pointed out that there was a mix of Spaniards, French, Russian, German, Ukrainian and Australian folks in the group. In other words, there wasn't going to be a lot of chitchat between all of us. Introductions out of the way, we set off.

My worst fears about the package tour were coming true when after a couple of hours on the road we stopped at a roadside park/cafe/zoo/bar/campground for a morning refreshment. But Rita was almost apologetic when she warned us to stay away from the man selling tickets to win rum ("i've never seen anyone win, ever"), pointed out the washrooms, and where to get a tasty cup of coffee. She also walked to the back and apologized for her English explaining it was her 4th language. (frankly it was much better than many people's first) and introduced us to the other native English speaker on the bus: Ben, a young australian traveling around the world.
The three of us wondered aimlessly around the park, trying not to make eye contact with the rum seller, or the cigar seller, or the cd sellers, or the craft sellers.

Soon enough it was time to head out on the road. We spent the next couple of hours chatting with Ben about travelling and looking out the window at the political billboards that dotted the roadway. 

Along the road people were hanging out and waiting. Rita explained that they were waiting for a ride. Because public transportation is scarce, people wait by the side of the road for a ride share. Government vehicles are required to stop and take as many people as they have room room. It's sanctioned hitchhiking. Pretty cool and made me wish that something like this existed elsewhere particularly in Canada. In the winter. When I'm freeing my ass off at a bus stop. 

Within a couple of hours we reached Santa Clara - the epicentre of che chasing. Our first stop was the train memorial, site of Che's bulldozer battle with an army supply train. The museum in the train was tiny and with the arrival of another tour bus it was quickly overrun. Adrian giggled with glee as he climbed over, around and under the train taking it all in in the allotted time while I chilled outside enjoying another non-winter winter's day. Before I started to get burned we were herded back on the bus for our next stop.

The bus dropped us off in the main plaza of Santa Clara. The problem with plazas is once you've seen one you've seen them all. And in Peru we'd seen about 15. So while the rest of the tour took off around the plaza, Adrian and I chilled in the shady park. There was a theatre, an old building that was being restoredprovincial government buildingsand another theatre. Oh and there was a fountain of a boy holding a leaky boot, which a guy in the park turned on when we sat down near by and then off as soon as we got up to leave. While we were sitting there we were immediately approached by two guys who wanted to sell us some cigars. Unlike touts we've encountered elsewhere, they were pretty chill. Even when we said no to the cigars they stopped with us and chatted until they had to go back to work at the cigar factory.

Ben reappeared and then the rest of the tour group and was time to get back on the bus. We stopped at a tourist buffet for lunch complete with free beer so I pulled out the camera to add another beer shot to our collection. We were soon joined by Michael, a German consular services employee who was in Cuba on vacation while he awaited notification where he would be stationed next. Both he and Ben had been in Cuba longer than us and shared lots of tidbits. 

After lunch we headed to the Che memorial and mausoleum. Adrian was in the holy land. Giant Che kept watch over an empty plaza. Around the back (no pictures allowed) was Che's mausoleum. Just recently, the Cuban government had repatriated his body from Bolivia as well as that of his fallen comrades. And they were laid to rest in the memorial. Next door there was also a small but extensive museum devoted to the life and times of Guevera - Adrian and Rita had an informal Che factoid competition with Ben, Michael and I caught in the middle of their onslaught. Rita gave up on Adrian and decided to point out to me just how guapo Che was. I agree Rita - he was rather dishy.

Since it was about one million degrees in the concrete plaza, I was quite happy to get back on the bus. The heat had zonked everyone out so Rita was quiet as we drove through the countryside past sugar cane fields, past more political billboards and hitchhiking posts, toward our next stop Sancti Spiritus. 

It was getting late in the afternoon as we pulled up in Sancti Spiritus, a sleepy town where we would be spending the night. It was also getting rather cloudy. Rita took us around the town, through the main plaza, down tight streets where dogs slept in front of shuttered windows, past a second hand shop that had the latest alarm clocks on display, through a market, around beautiful old cars, down tighter streets (remember this), cutting through a pickup game of baseball, and finally stopping at a bar on the river bank.

That's right a bar. Which meant another beer for Ben, Michael, Adrian and I. But I swear it was purely educational since the bar overlooked Cuba's oldest bridge. Finally, the clouds opened and it poured so we hung out until the rain passed. By the time it was clear, it was also dark. Not a problem for us as we found the bus easily. However, the bus driver wasn't so lucky. 

Remember those really tight narrow streets I was talking about earlier. Well apparently the bus driver didn't. While attempting a 378 point turn to get us out of Sancti Spiritus, the driver didn't notice the street sing pushing on the bus window between Ben and I's heads. We also didn't notice the ominous creaking sinking-titanic sounds it was making. Nor did he register Ben shouts of "the window is going to break". Until of course it was too late. 

Suddenly an intricate spider web pattern spread across the window. It stayed in place for what seemed like an eternity - which gave Adrian, Ben and I time to jump out of our seats and across the aisle - before crumbling into a thousand million trillion pieces

Despite the Curious Incident of the Bus in the Night (or CIBN for short), the bus driver didn't stop, flinch, look back or acknowledge the CIBN and eventually made his way out of the Sancti Spiritus and on to the highway. 

Adrian, Ben, Michael and I looked at each other in awe as the wind from the now empty window tussled our hair. But no one else seemed to notice. 

It was only when we stopped at our accommodation for the night that Rita and the bus driver came back to inspect the damage, followed by every other person on the tour and their cameras. We were quickly ushered into the checkout with a shrug of the shoulders and offer of cuba libres. 

The CIBN would be replayed second by second over the buffet dinner and many beers by Adrian, Ben, Michael and myself. And managed to upstage the evening entertainment provided by the hotel. Of course considering the entertainment was some guy with a mullet pony tail doing magic tricks and riding a unicycle it wasn't that hard. 

January 25, 2008 - Trinidad and Cienfuegos
The next morning we set off for the next two stops on our tour - Trinidad and Cienfuegos. The broken window from the CIBN had been half-covered in cardboard and the curtains pulled across to disguise the damage. That lasted for about 15 minutes before getting blown out on the highway. No worries it meant fresh air on the bus and great views of the countryside around the Sierra del Escambray. 

After about two hours on the road, the bus pulled into an old sugar mill in Manaca Iznaga - just outside of Trinidad. The mill still had a watch tower that could be climbed so of course before I could blink the boys were running up the stairs to take in the same views the foreman would have had of the sugar cane fields where the slaves worked. I stayed firmly on the ground and checked out the handmade linen on display in the wind and the manor house which was now a simple tourist shop. 

Soon we were back on the bus and pulling into Trinidad. Trinidad is one of those post card cities of Cuba. A small colourful colonial town that seems perfectly preserved. There aren't any sites to search out, instead, the whole town is something to take in. It reminded my a lot of Cusco in Peru but unlike Cusco I actually wanted to stay there longer. 

Rita took us on a walking tour around the town, over cobblestone streets and around the the main plaza. She then took us on a tour of an old colonial house of a former wealthy landowner in the area - it's now a museum full of pretty nice things, however, I thought the views from the top floor was the best part. 

Next we stopped in the church before heading for a music break at one of the many cafes in town. Rita tried her best to get everyone to dance. The music was awesome so I was content to sit and take in the show Rita and the band where putting on. By  this time, Ben and Adrian were plotting something else. Both had seen a club mentioned in the Lonely Planet that was built in a cave and despite it being the morning they were determined to find it. 

Michael and I tried to talk them out of it over drinks at the Canchanchara and later during lunch. "you don't know where it is" "it won't be open" "we don't have time". We thought they were over it. We had lunch serenaded by more musicians. Ben sat and talked to Rita for 30 minutes about politics. And Adrian and I probed Michael on his experiences living in China and Turkey. Suddenly Ben appeared, turned to Adrian and said "let's go". Before Michael and I could object, they were off. It was only minutes later that Rita appeared to gather us all up for the ride to Cienfuegos. 

"But Adrian and Ben, they just left to go to the cave club," I panicked.

"What!? I told Ben it was too far. I thought he was a good boy. He promised," replied Rita before launching into a stream of Spanish that wasn't in my dictionary or most polite conversation. 

Michael ran off to try and track the boys down not knowing what direction the mythical cave club was in. He came back a few minutes later when everyone was on the bus. Rita requested a volunteer to wait for them while we transferred our luggage to a new bus. I tried to volunteer but Rita refused telling me my husband was not my fault. And it seemed that the trip of chasing Che had turned into chasing Adrian and Ben. 

After 20 minutes of waiting, the Russians and Ukrainians were revolting; they no longer wanted to stay with the tour and were going to catch a bus back to Havana themselves. Rita tried to convince them to stay but their lack of any of the 4 languages Rita spoke and her lack of either Russian or Ukrainian meant an unsuccessful negotiation - the mutineers had bought bus tickets to head back on their own. Finally 10 minutes later, Adrian and Ben appeared unaware of the grief they had caused. We set off  three people less, on a new bus headed to a new city. 

I gave Adrian the old stink eye for the journey to Cienfuegos. Unfortunately, I think Ben was more affected by it. Sorry Ben. Good thing it wasn't that far away. 

Our first stop in the city was an old stretch on the Bay lined with beautiful old colonial mansions. We were let out for a quick pit stop at one which had been converted into a restaurant. Michael, Ben and Adrian wandered off, perhaps still a little apprehensive of me while I walked over to the malecon to take in the view of the bay. I had one of my toy cameras on my wrist which caught the attention of a guy hanging out on the sea wall. He laughed at it and wanted to know why I had a toy with me. When I explained that it worked and took four pictures in one, he immediately wanted one. So I took a shot. He motioned that he wanted to see it and I had to explain that it was film. He looked disappointed so I took out my digital and got another shot of him. He was quite pleased with how he looked and gave me his address to mail him a copy of the shots. Here it is Luis. When I develop the film in the toy camera I'll send you your copies. 

By now the bus had pulled up and we were back on it and driving into the city. After the rest of our trip, Cienfuegos seemed a bit anticlimactic. We walked along a prado to the plaza which was like other plazas; there was a church, some government offices, a theatre, and a college set around a square. It was nice enough but I'm glad we didn't stop there overnight. 

Back on the bus, we drove back to the hotel. It was a 3 hour drive in the dark. So Adrian pulled out his PSP to kill some zombies and I put on my iPod. Just before Havana we exchanged contact info with Michael and Ben and wished them luck on both of their travels - hopefully with no more Curious Incidents of Buses in the Night. Who knows maybe we'll cross paths again some day.

It was after 9pm when the bus pulled up to the Concrete Monstrosity™. We quickly said our goodbyes and grabbed all our belongings from the dark bus (or so we thought) and went right to bed exhausted from a very full two days. 

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