travelog 130

Cuba II: Unbelievable but true

After 3'964 kilometers (2'463 miles) on Cuban roads in a Chinese Morris Garage (MG6) brand rental car, we have cruised to (almost) every corner of the island. Almost 4'000 kilometers, the inclined reader will ask amazed. Cuba is 1'250 kilometers (777 miles) long and 104'556 km2 () large. This makes it the biggest island in the Caribbean and the 17th largest worldwide. On an atlas or a map it doesn't look very big, that's what we thought before our trip too; but if you first sit in this Chinese rental car and have driven on some of the few freeways - which you share with ox carts, horse carriages, bicycles, and pedestrians - and have explored the rest of the island on small roads riddled with potholes and/or on rocky dirt roads or roads that were paved about 20 years ago, then you certainly know that Cuba, as a matter of fact, is really a huge island.

Large parts of the island are flat land or low hills, apart from a few mountain ranges of which really only the Sierra Maestra, its highest peak, Pico Turquino, rising 1'974 m (6'476 ft) above sea level, in the southeastern part of the island is worth mentioning. Now, if you want to go from the western part of the island where you'll find the mogotes of Viñales, well worth a visit and nicely developed for tourism, to the eastern side to Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad and the spectacular coastal landscape around Cajobabo, then you will have to drive endless kilometers over flat land where the only "sights" are huge sugar cane fields, palm groves, and cattle or horse pastures. The palms offer some change in scenery and are always good for a few pictures. The Cuban royal palm, Roystonea regia, is Cuba's national tree and omnipresent (apparently, there are 20 million of them on the island), a fact that does not detract from their beauty. There are 98 palm species on Cuba, most of them belonging to Coccothrinax and Copernicia. Sometimes a Kapok tree, Ceiba pentandra, provides welcome shade along the road. The Ceiba is actually an 'árbol sagrado', a sacred tree, and they can grow into incredibly large and massive trees.

Cuba has over 11 million inhabitants of which about 70% live in big cities like La Habana, Santiago de Cuba, Camagüey and Holguín. As soon as you get into the countryside, you're pretty much alone. 70% of the people are white and descendants of Spanish immigrants, but also eastern Europeans who came during the Cold War. 12% of the population is dark skinned and descend mostly from African slaves. The remaining 18% are mulattos and a small part Asian. Especially in the eastern part of the island you'll find a striking number of colored people. The Taíno, an Arawak people, are Cuba's native people but the Spanish colonialists wiped them out early by violence and diseases. Cuba has an astonishing literacy rate of 99.8% and takes 10th place globally. Education is free on all levels and high school graduation rate is 94%. This all sounds pretty wonderful, but if you drive around and talk to people you'll find out that the best school education is useless if you're a young educated archaeologist, for example, sitting with your friends, who have graduated in other fields, in a small, dusty village around noon in the only open place - Café, Bar, and Disco all in one - drinking cheap beer from cans because you don't find a job. Or you'll meet the farmer who invited us for delicious coconut water when he saw us taking pictures of the age-old Ceiba rising into the blue sky next to his very modest house. He, too, is a studied engineer but for lack of work he became a farmer and really loves his job. Or the university professor who earns 80 CUC (80 US$) per month. Or the married doctors who make more per month with their 'casa particular' than if they both were working as doctors.

Cuba has two different currencies, the peso convertible (CUC) and the peso cubano or moneda nacional. 1 CUC is worth 1 US$ and at the time of our visit 1 CUC was worth 25 pesos cubanos. The bills look pretty similar which makes the whole affair even more confusing. People often talk about pesos, but you need to ask twice if they mean the expensive CUC's or the cheap peso cubano. The currency for tourists is the CUC, i.e. for everything you do and buy you will be charged in CUCs. But if you are leaving the cities and would like to have a coffee at a roadside stand, buy a bag of bread at the bakery, get sweet bananas along the road, or crave a Cuban pizza in the back of beyond, then it is advisable to have a few cheap Cuban pesos in your pocket.

If you're on a guided tour you will most likely be put up in hotels and eat in government-owned restaurants. As independent travellers in a rental car the 'casas particulares', private accommodation in Cuban houses, are the best and most inexpensive lodging type. First we follow the suggestions of our Lonely Planet travel guide book and drive to the recommended houses only to find out that all the rooms are already occupied. No wonder! In Cuba, virtually every tourist, from chic to hippie, runs around with a Lonely Planet book under the arm. The best way is to drive into the center of town and look out for the blue anchor that is painted on the doors of houses that rent rooms. If the room(s) are already rented, the owners are always ready to call a neighbor, friend or relative who has rooms for rent too. The rooms range from spartan to super kitschy. Sometimes you have to share a bathroom, often you'll have a small refrigerator in your room, and almost always you'll find air condition and a ceiling fan, absolutely essential for surviving the hot summer months. Cubans are allowed to rent rooms in their houses since 1997. In the meantime, this has become a big business and many Cubans have built another story and are now renting rooms above their living quarters. Usually you'll find accommodation for 20-25 CUC. With that you not only get a room for the night, but the chance to see another Cuban house every day and to talk with the people about everything under sun and about Cuba in particular. We don't want to make this report too long and we would also like to publish many pictures of the sometimes bizarrely kitschy furnished casas, that's why we'll write about our various accommodations in a separate travelog.

Cuba is one of the last socialist countries in the world. It follows the ideas of José Martí (1853–1895, Cuban national hero and martyr, poet, journalist, revolutionary philosopher, etc.) and Marx, Engels and Lenin. 1959: the revolution triumphs; 1961: beginning of the US trade embargo; 1967: Che Guevara, another Cuban national hero and martyr, is killed at age 39 in Bolivia; 1991 marks the end of the Sovjet Union and the beginning of the so-called "Período especial en tiempo de paz", the "special period in a time of peace", or in other words the worst economic collapse of modern Cuban times; 2006: due to illness, Fidel Castro steps down from his presidential duties at almost 80 years old and appoints his five year younger brother Raúl to be president. We had heard and read a lot about Cuba, but nobody and nothing can prepare you for the real propaganda that you will find in this country. Driving from the airport to the center of Havana, you'll pass larger-than-life billboards with martial slogans. You'll find quotes of Che, Fidel, and Raúl everywhere along roads. Of course, these slogans are concentrated around larger cities. Then there's the photos of Fidel with all the dear friends like Hugo Chavez or Nelson Mandela. But again, we don't want to go into detail here, but prefer to dedicate an entire travelog to these billboards.

Back to the time line. Raúl Castro is oficially inaugurated as president in 2008 and passes first reforms: Cubans are now permitted access to tourist hotels (most of whom could not/can't afford it anyway), they are also allowed to buy mobile phones and other electronic goods, among other things. The biggest economic and ideological reforms come in 2011 when, among other things, car sales are legalized, and even more important, when Cubans are allowed to buy and sell houses. In 2012, Cubans are finally permitted to travel abroad at will (again, if they can afford it). At the airport we can already witness that nowadays many Cubans can afford to shop abroad. Luggage carts piled sky-high with boxes of flatscreen TV's, DVD players, and other electronic goods are pushed into the To-Declare-Lanes. One casa owner later explains that, once a year, she can fly with Condor and take 120 kilos (264 pounds) of luggage per person back to Cuba free of charge. That's how she imported her bathroom fixtures, kitchen appliances and other electronic goods from Germany we take for granted and believe indespensable and only paid 50 CUC import duty. With enough money you take the grandmother and grandkids along and bring back half an airplane of stuff. There's one thing, though, that is explicitly forbidden from importing, and it will be pointed out to you as a tourist too: pornography. Another casa owner brought back tons of fabric softener, shampoo, and soap bars from her recent trip to Mexico because these items are hard to find in Cuba and if they are on offer they cost a fortune. There are also many casa owners who let friends and former clients from abroad stay for free in their rooms in exchange for bed linens, towels, soap bars and other "luxury goods".

So, how about the cars that Cubans can legally purchase since 2011? In 2014 there were apparently 38 motor vehicles (i.e. cars, trucks, busses, commercial and freight vehicles) per 1000 Cubans, coming up to rank 136 of 192 worldwide. In comparison: The US ranks 3rd with 797, Germany ranks 20th with 572, Switzerland comes in 22nd with 566, and Mexico ranks 59th with 275 motor vehicles per 1000 inhabitants. Traffic in Cuba is therefore not cars but bicycles, ox carts, pedestrians, and horse carriages. We all go into raptures when talking about the oldtimers cruising around Cuba - until you have actually driven behind one of these oldtimer trucks for a little while. These things produce the biggest, blackest, and most impenetrable clouds of smoke from their exhausts that you have ever seen (and smelled!) in your life. We are not big fans of the typically American exaggeration "the best/worst/most you have ever ... in your life", but this time we really mean it. Again, we don't want to anticipate anything because the beautiful oldtimers deserve their own travelog, above all because of the photos!

Many inclined readers probably miss the mentioning of "our" favorite plants. No worries, we have also seen agaves! Most of them were green and big and, in our opinion, could be placed under one single species name. Of course there are many more interesting plants apart from agaves. By the way, when the Spaniards arrived at the end of the 15th century, more than 90% of the island was covered with trees. The same walked from one end of the island to the other under the shade of trees, as Fray Bartolome de las Casas reported. In 1890, forest land had been reduced to 54% thanks to massive clearing for cattle ranges and sugar cane fields. In 1959 a bare 14% of the island was still forest land. Today it stands at about 19% thanks to reforestation. There are more than 6000 plant species on Cuba of which about half are endemic. We'll talk about very special plants like Microcycas calocoma, Dracaena cubensis, the melocacti, and of course the agaves in another travelog.

What have we forgotten to mention? Likely a whole lot because in our more than three weeks on the island, we have had so many experiences and have seen so much that it is impossible to squeeze it all into a few travel reports. In our daily life, we take so many things for granted that it is quite unbelievable that there still are countries in this world where you need to search for hours to find bottled water; where you are served indefinable fish in an ocean front restaurant; where the window displays of shops look as in eastern Germany in the sixties; Internet access is scandalously expensive; or public busses don't run because of lack of gasoline; that there's actually Nestlé ice cream in cups but no plastic spoons to eat it; police cars with their huge blue light on the roof look like from a Monsieur Hulot or Inspector Clouzot movie; lime are a rarity in a land whose main export is citrus fruits, etc., pp. In short, the daily motto is usually 'no hay!' ('it doesn't exist!'). After a few days we realize that we are actually living in paradise - even if it is, as in our case, only a tiny, nondescript little place in Mexico. Suddenly, you start to look at your own behaviour and think twice about what you really want to complain about every single day.

June 2016

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen