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Intrepid Journeys

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Cuba: Kim Hill


Day One - Havana

The home of fine cigars: available in the back room of houses for a fraction of the real price. Indeed, two boxes of Cohibas for 100 pesos seem a bargain, compared with the shop-price of around 400 pesos. The Rough Guide says you're allowed to take up to 50 cigars out of Cuba without official receipts. Sure, it's the illegal "balsa negra" - but that's how Cubans survive - by ducking controls keeping them on revolutionary rations.

Day two - Havana

About those cigars: The Lonely Planet guide says all cigars need official receipts.  Confusion reigns. The cigars weigh heavy in my backpack. Like Kennedy choosing to ignore Khruchev's second telegram during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I will ignore the Lonely Planet's advice. A government driver tells me there is no crime in Cuba, and then I meet a young tourist who was mugged in Havana. She says the police were very helpful albeit with the disconcerting habit of repeatedly loading and unloading the bullets in their guns in front of her.

Day Three - Santa Clara

I see several officers swoop on a small child riding a bicycle through the Santa Clara plaza. After a thorough investigation, he is allowed to walk, not ride, his bicycle across. On the subject of the law, the latest on the cigars: If you take them out of the box, I'm told, the x-ray machines can't see them. Can this be true? And do I want to devalue my Cohiba's in this way? 

Day Four - Bay of Pigs

In Santa Clara I find a 1954 Chevrolet and its driver, Lola. She's happy to drive us to the Bay of Pigs and on to Trinidad - but she's not an authorised driver, so I have to duck down whenever we see the police. It's a journey of about 280km. Less then an hour into the journey, the clutch lets go completely. While seeking a mechanic, we hit a pothole and the muffler falls off, puncturing the petrol tank. We push the car into a mechanics, and spend the next four hours watching them reattach the muffler and fix the clutch. Cuba Libre!

Day Five - Trinidad

Lola gets me to Trinidad without incident. She is a true heroine of the revolution.  Many men offer me good cigars in Trinidad - with fake receipts too.  But if discovered with a dodgy receipt at Cuban Customs, isn't the crime compounded?

Day Six - Camaguey

Camaguey - a bunch of stalking "jinteros" stay with me for hours. I take shelter in a crumbling old palace - the studio space and home to a couple of artists. Exquisite objects cover every surface, yet from the outside it looks like a hovel. That is true of all exteriors of homes; all looking decrepit as each other, but inside they are usually immaculate at least, and exotically palatial at times.

Day Seven - Santiago de Cuba

Santiago de Cuba has a music festival on - it is very Afro-Cuban and there are a few Rastas around. I am recommended an illegal paladar, or restaurant, by an American man I bump into at the Hotel Casa Granda. He turns out to be David Soul of Starsky and Hutch fame.

Day Eight - Santiago de Cuba ceremony

Day Nine - Santiago de Cuba

Wilfred, the waiter from last night's illegal paladar, agrees to be my guide. I have a bad moment when talking about the bullet holes on the wall at Moncada Barracks. A huge man comes up. Wilfred mutters he is the head of the Santiago Police and we turn in different directions. Wilfie says everyone on the make in Cuba just pay off the police to stay in business. I finally test-smoke the black market cigars versus a full-price Cohiba. The illegal one, to my astonishment and gratification, is better.

Day Ten - Guantanamo Bay

A long bus ride, but Guantanamo Bay makes a good diversion en route. I gaze down at the huge US Naval Base from a platform. I am served rum and Coke and speculate at how the 500 or so are faring down there in Camp Delta. It seems bizarre that with all the ferocious rhetoric against the US by Castro, that the US can stay in Cuba.  I wonder what would happen if you dared to hang-glide over the base from the cliff above.

Day Eleven -Baracoa

Baracoa is lusher than the rest of the island. People seem calmer and a little less intent on tourist-trapping. It's the first time the countryside can be described as beautiful.

Day Twelve - Baracoa

I hire a laid-back driver called Alex, who takes me to a country school - even the tiniest school has a computer thanks to Fidel. This one's powered by solar panels on the roof. Education still seems to be the jewel in the crown of the revolution. Given that a taxi driver earns more than a doctor, you wonder what the point of the education actually is.

Day Thirteen - Havana

It's nice to be back in Havana - nice just to be out of the airport. They are unbelievably slow. The baggage carousel breaks down, so the entire plane-load of passengers is herded to a check-in counter where the luggage is handed out one bag at a time.

Day Fourteen - Havana

I track down Francisco Sanchez, the 90 year-old man I met on the first day in Havana.  He says he played with the Buena Vista Social Club and sells me a burnt CD (checking the credits, Frankie isn't mentioned). He plays the saxophone for me in his apartment and, if he is a conman, he deserves the meal I buy him. Later, he clarifies he was a session musician rather than a member of the band.

Day Fifteen - Havana

My last day. I spend it in the plaza with its galleries, expensive shops and hoards of tourists. I wonder if they ever discover that a street or two away are stinking slums.  There's something strange about this public face of Havana - a Potemkin city. It's odd to think for all the things that visitors love about Cuba - the old cars, the crumbling buildings, the slow pace - are largely the direct result of sheer poverty, not some kind of choice by Cubans. Still, I suppose all places are to the same extent accidents of circumstance.


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