Ada en Alex
The bell rings. I walk outside into the pouring rain. "Sunny, we're back!” I hear a young man shouting. Lifting up my heels to sneak over the fence and see Ada and Alex, a young couple whom I had welcomed on the ranch six days earlier. I open up the gate and jump into their arms. “Ow I am so intensely glad to see you guys again!" "Yeah, we couldn`t handle it anymore. We had to return to this place."Alex said, closing his sentence with a wink. " And….. we have brought a surprise for you." says Ada. Before I could even toss up a guess, she conjures a large pizza box from the trunk and a crate full of Imperial (the national beer). I invite them in, and while enjoying pizza and beer, we talk about their adventures on the coast illustrated by their pictures. As they wanted to spend their last day in beautiful Costa Rica wisely, they asked me on advice for a good hike and tossed an invitation to me to join them. National Park Braulio Carrillo seemed to me the best pick. Known for its bad and steep dirt road leading to the park, makes the park hard to reach and therefor really peaceful. Alex and his 4x4 rental don`t mind a bit of a challenge, so Braulio Carrillo it would be.
Completly matching its reputation we encountered an almost inaccessible dirt road the next day. As a true captain decorated with beads of sweat on his forehead, Alex steers around the lustful holes and boulders. Once in the park, the surrounding area is beautiful. Greener than green. We enjoy the forests and the beautiful lake that fills the old crater of volcano Barva. The next morning one last breakfast together and then it's really time to say goodbye to each other. I wave to them till their car totally disappeared from the hillside. I go back inside and grab my phone. A message from my father, "Grandma is sick, hospitalized. Can you contact us?". I immediately call back. Talking to my parents I stay reasonably calm. They have to go back to granny and hang up. I crawl into bed, I press my pillow close to me. For the first time since my departure I feel truly alone.
It's Saturday morning and I`m in the need of fresh air. The 'La Paz' waterfalls always had been on my wish list to visit, so I decided to take the car and head east to ride in the mountains. After surving the horror four-lane road to Heredia, I run into a road block. There is no signs of any kind for an alternative route (pura vida Costa Rica). Enlisting my own gutfeeling seemed to be the best and only option. I decided to make a U-turn and take the first reasonable turn that would come up to the left. The road leads up and appears to take me in the right direction. A few minutes later the road becomes narrower, turns into a gravel path and the steeper the incline the more my gut feeling increases this is not the way to go. Turning the car was, with a ravine on one side and a wall on the other hand, not a solution, into reverse either, the slope was too steep. While settle down my respiration I continue going up, hoping to find a spot to turn the car around. I finally find one. Just wide enough for the length of the car. I stop the car and bump a few times with my forehead on the steering wheel, while the horn forms a rytmic base for my just as rytmic Dutch swearwords. "Ok, San, we`re just going to steer the car back and forward till it`s in the other direction. Just do not end up in the ravine and you`ll be fine." I tell myself. Quietly I cross the car forward and backward, cm. for cm. The slope is so steep that the car at some points slides down along with the gravel. Quietly and as calm as possible I continue going forwards and backwards ... and then the moment had finally arrived. The car was reversed. I sigh deeply and wipe my sweaty hands with my pants. La Paz wasn`t my end destination that day, it was raining too hard. But a thick chocolate cake and hot chocolate with views over the mountains, I had definitely deserved. I park my bottom on a bench in the sun and catch the sunlight with my face. I chuckle when I take a bite of my pie. "Well done chick, you`re badass", I think to myself.
A new guest
Days pass by and guests are coming and going. In the morning I get the gardener in, prepare breakfast for the guests, Kalina and myself, bring Kalina to school. Give instructions for the day to the staff making sure everything is prepared up to every detail for any new guests. New guests are welcomed with a cup of coffee from our own beans, and guided around the property to show and teach them everything about the coffee they just drank. Some seek peace or are more on themselves, others stay until late at night at the kitchen table or take me out to dinner or to the bar. Every time I enjoy the stories and conversations.
On a Monday we welcomed Jadan. Like me, traveling alone and quickly appeared that we could get along really well (wait for more adventures with Jadan on my new blog). Together we visit La Paz waterfalls, go hiking in the mountains, visit Irazu National Park and in the evening we end the day with an Imperial on the balcony. "Too bad you're so tall”; Jadan quips, "Otherwise I might have fallen in love with you." (Jadan is over 1.5 foot shorter than me) "Yeah, sorry," I laugh, “If only you had been with 6 others of similar hight, it could have led to a beautiful fairy tale wedding." Jadan puts his brains to work for a moment, and once the joke then finally sinks in, he roars with laughter. “Salut”', we both say in unison, tapping our cans together.
We come back from a walk, and once home I grab my phone to see if there has been news from back home. To my horror, I see several missed calls on skype and then eventually the message "Grandma died. She passed away quietly. Marcel and Wim were with her. We`re now on our way to grandma. We are only reachable by mobile phone." I throw my mobile on my bed and feel the tears appearing in my eyes. Kalina shouts from her bedroom: “Sunny let's go, we're going to be late." "Bloody school" I think to myself. Kalina needs to go to the village for some school project. I wipe my tears from my face and put my pokerface on. "Ok, let's go chicka.” Once arrived at destination, I feel like a zombie. I smile and nod if necessary, propose a few questions here and there, and I'm very excited for Kalina. But my mind is back home, back in the Netherlands.
When we arrive home it's already 19:30. I reckon, in the Netherlands it is now 2:30. Too late to make a call. I crawl into bed. Mister Rodelle, one of the dogs, jumps on the bed and rolls up next to me. I put on some music and wrap my arms around Mister Rodelle. Slowly I fall into a deep sleep.
Jadan had invited us to join him to to the beach. Kalina could bring one friend (more did not fit in his Daihatsu). As a true teenage girl, she could not choose. We could go with our own car, then she could at least take two. Makes the rigorous selection a bit easier. "Ok Kalina, this is the deal. You put those convincing charms of yours at work with your father so we can take the car to Playa Jaco, then I put my spell on Jadan to convince him that it's a lot of fun to spend over 12 hours with 3 giggling teenage girls." "Ok deal” and we seal the deal with a high five.
To make the most out of the day we want to leave early, so Laura and Manduela (two girlfriends) stay for a sleepover the night before. Somewhat half asleep, we leave the next morning to the Pacific coast. Laura needs to pick up her bikini and I get the instructions needed to get acquainted with her parents. During the drive to her house Laura and Kalina bomb me with instructions. "Be as mature as possible. Do NOT mention that Jadan is coming along. Laura's father works for the CIA, so no smartass comments! "Entering the apartment, I`m invited to sit down on the couch for a cup of tea. Her parents sit opposite me. I feel like a boyfriend meeting his parents-in-law for the first time. “Sunny Ok, there are some things you should know.” says Laura's stepfather and together with his wife they start, each alternately, with the list of requirements. "Take care on the highway, people overtake on every possible side. Do not drive too fast, nor too slow. Do not overtake on a bend. Keep an eye on your mirrors for motorcycles. There are drugs on the beach, so keep an eye on the girls. Park the car in sight. Do not leave valuables in the car. The waves are high, so don`t let the girls go in deeper in the water than their waists. " ….. a long pause of silence kicks in decorated with my blank face. My eyes suddenly catches a wild gesticulating Kalina. She gestures that I must come up with some kind of respond. I blink a few times with my eyes and tell him I will personally ensure that everything will be fine. Laura's parents smile satisfied; "But besides all the warnings, have a very lovely day." says her stepfather with a smile. And with a head that still twists around after all the information, we get in the back in the giggle express.
If one conclusion can be drawn, it is that the outbound traffic in Costa Rica and three 15 year old girls who have to lead the way, is not a good combination. Driving on the left when suddenly the girls scream from behind; "You have to take this turn! You have to take this turn!" While traffic is passing by from all sides. It takes a lot of mindfulness to remain calm in those type of situations. Luckily we were soon on the last highway that led us to Playa Jaco. The teenagers were giggling quietly so Jadan and I (as the sound frequency of the back allowed it) good finally have a conversation. It was delightful to drive around here, to whiz through the mountains. With finally appearing, two hours later, the beach. We take our clothes off and run all together in the refreshing sea. Like little children we play in the waves. We dive in, let us rewind to the beach and run back into the sea again. "Shit who is actually taking care of the stuff" I suddenly remark. We look at each other and start laughing. I offer to take the first shift and flop on my towel. It is a wonderful day and tired but satisfied, we return at the end of the day back to San Isidro. Less than 10 minutes after departure, the first head starts to nod off and not even 5 minutes later, everyone is asleep. I put my sunglasses on, turn the radio on my favorite channel, turn the window down and enjoy the scenery that I can now observe in peace. Once everybody is dropped off, safe and sound, I get a sense of relief. Everything went well, no accidents, kidnappings, nothing. Just a nice day. I plop on my bed and fall into a deep sleep.
It is the day of the funeral. I prepare breakfast for the guests and look at the clock. It shows 6 AM. The funeral has just begun in the Netherlands. I throw some coffee beans in the grinder and put oatmeal on the stove. Meanwhile I make toast ready for Kalina and me. Kalina is late again, so I quietly bring the breakfast to the guests and give the dogs their morning hug. When I dropped Kalina off at school. I get Daniella, the cook, on the go and check out the guests. I give them some fresh oranges for the road, from the orchard, and wave them goodbye while their car drives down the road.
First I call my brother. He is at Schiphol Airport for his flight back to London and we talk about the ceremony. This was nice. I had recorded a speech through whatsapp and this all worked out well in the church. I am relieved. We hang up and I try to catch the rest of the family. They're all out for dinner and I get passed from hand to hand through the Ipad. We talk about grandmother, about the funeral. "It was beautiful, like grandma had wanted it." Here and there a joke is made, what lightens the conversation. The atmosphere is good and I'm glad to see and speak to everyone again. It's good. A nice farewell and yet so close from the other side of the world. For a moment I'm very grateful to Mr. Skype.
When I hang up, it's good. Thanks for everything grandma! Fortunately, we still have the good memories......
At the moment it is very busy at the ranch. The B & B is fully occupied, the coffee plantation needs to be turned upside down and the owner flew to the States for a month. We produce Arabico Arabica, a rare species of coffee. The beans are of very high quality, but the plant requires more attention, making it unsuitable for commercial use. Fortunately, this coffee plantation is more hobby, and this plant has all the time on his side here to fully blossom and grow.
As with any plant, there is also a time for the Arabico arabica to prune and a time to blossom. At this time, all plants are pruned back to the trunk. This disastrous pruning needs to be done every three to six years, and keeps the plant small, strong and rich in coffee beans. At the time of pruning the plants are particularly vulnerable. Somewhat of wrong timing as there is severe plague of algae currently among coffee farmers in the valley. Day in day out, every staff member gives everything they got tho scrape the algea from the trunks, turning the once vast green plantation into a desolated place. Long lines of short bare stumps.
At first it made me sad, this bald look. But suddenly I realized the similarity to my own life. A few months back it was time for me to cut and scrape (see my blog `In a country far, far away`). I felt desolated, but now I'm in full bloom. Traveling independently and finally living the life I want to live.
Sunlight is making its way through the small opening between the curtains as it arises above the green mountains. I`m wide awake. I take the dogs to the plantation and take a close look at the coffee plants. Suddenly something in my left corner of my eyes gets my attention. I walk over to one of the trunks and kneel down. There it; a new leaf. It is small and fragile, but still .... it is a leaf. The plant survived the algae. My lips started to form a smile. The plantation smiles back. Suddenly everything looks like a new beginning. The plants and I, we will get into bloom.
The next adventure
Surprised by the sound of bouncing tires I’m shaken out of my dreams. The plane just touched Costa Rican ground. The impact made me sit up straight like a Russian ballerina. I didn’t notice anything from the flight, my dreams had taken me to another place. In a state of being half awake and half still in dreamland I grab my stuff and follow the rest of the passengers out of the aircraft.
Once out of the airport I don`t see anyone who looks like the picture Phil had send me of him and his daughter. Phil had approached me at the beginning of January through workaway.com, a website for backpackers and business owners who are looking for a temporary volunteer. Phil has to go to the States for a couple of weeks and needs somebody to take care of the B&B, garden, coffee field, animals and his 15 year old daughter. It didn’t take me long to say ‘yes’ to this challenge.
I decided to sit down on my backpack and just patiently wait while enjoy the comfortable strays of sun. A short 15 minutes later I saw him approaching. More than a head shorter than me and best to describe as mixture of Santa Claus and a Hells Angel member (use your imagination).
During the drive we mainly talked about Cuba. Phil appeared to have lived in Cuba for a couple of years (quite special for an American), bringing in car parts from the States every three months and filling up his empty suitcases with cigars when going back (I didn`t dare to ask about the extent of legality in this activity).
On the ranch we are enthusiastically greeted by 2 massive dogs and a small white poodle, named mister Rodelle) running in between. I’m introduced to the housekeepers Helena and her daughter Danielle who are sipping a fresh fruit juice. Phil takes me outside and shows me around the property. The house, studio and guesthouse are surrounded by a beautiful green field with orange trees, tropical flowers, bushes and a breathtaking view over San Jose valley and the Cloud forest Mountains of National Park Brauillo Crauilo. Behind the garden lies the coffee field and a meditation garden. Eric the gardener quickly comes to say high and then the clock tells us it`s time to pick up Kalina from school.
Kalina is half-Cuban and somewhat a shy girl. Luckily when I tell her I`m just back from Cuba, she slowly starts talking. There’s a click, I feel at home and at ease with the area. This is going to be fun.
Driving in Costa Rica for Dummy's
Considering the fact that one of my most important tasks is going to be dropping off and picking up Kalina from school, Phil wanted to put my driving skills to the test. A few beads of sweat are slowly making their way down my forehead as I jump behind the wheel. The inclines so steep I would have trouble walking up, sharp turns, bikes, pedestrians, dogs, no traffic rules, just `guidelines`)… “How much insurance do you have on this car?” I ask. Phil laughs; “Full comprehensive insurance Dutchie, so no worries.” After a few laps around the neighborhood I appeared to be better than I expected. It seemed to be a matter of checking your mirrors regularly, go with the flow and change lanes once you have enough space to squeeze the front of your car in between. Communicating with your horn is another very important feature:
Two weeks have past and I settled in quite well on the road. I`m honking like no tomorrow. I’m even becoming accustomed to zig zagging in between cars on the highway.
A walk around the block
Neighbour Mario wants to start his own company in organizing jungle tours. The honor was all mine to be the first tourist to join him on the condition to write a promotion for the information folder we provide to our tourists.
Mario, armed with a large knife ‘what they use in the jungle’ and me with a camera, pen and paper, hit the road. It appeared to be quite an incline, making our way to the top of the mountain, fields, bushes and finally, it begins… the jungle! Considering the fact that there were no street signs nor roads or paths in general, Mario needed to swipe his knife firmly from left to right to clear a path for us. Every couple of meters he marks the way by cutting a piece of bark on a carefully selected tree. Even though he has grown up in this area, the jungle stays a tricky place and is not a hard place to get lost. After every hour we take a small break enjoying one of the tasteless roots, plants or leaves Mother Nature has to give to us.
After a bit of hiking, climbing and crawling we finally get to the river that will lead us to the waterfall. Recent rainfall and high rock faces make going into the river our only option. We leave our gear at a tree and with my camera above my head I let myself slide into the freezing cold water. Mario can`t stop laughing about my semi-retarded sea lion way of swimming, desperately holding my camera up in the air, wildly expressing how cold I am by screaming and shouting. He explains that the water originates from the clouds hanging above the mountain and it rainfall has barely any time to warm up before it hits the stream. Luckily we`re both good swimmers and quickly we make our way to a beautiful oasis. With the high cliffs surrounding us, decorated with beautiful ferns and orchids which all plays a part with the light that`s beaming down from the sky. Around 15 meters above us, I see a beautiful, thin waterfall which is elegantly making its way down the cliff face. We can’t stay long as the water is way too cold, so quickly we make some pictures and enjoy this little slice of paradise. Once we return to the riverbank we dry off and warm ourselves by looking for some rays of sunlight. Mario goes out to gather food for lunch and after another tasteless, superfood meal we start making our way back.
Helena waits for us with a big plate of warm spaghetti which I proceed to attach like a goat on grass. Mario starts to make his way home and I’m starting to make my way to my warm and comfy bed. Effortlessly, I drift off into deep and sweet dreams.
The world at our feet
Funny how pavements have changed. Before I was the one travelling around the world and now I`m the in the center of other travelers passing through. I meet people and make friends from all over the world. It seems like the next story is bigger and more interesting than the last.
I open up the gate and park the car in the carport. A new guest awaits at the entrance, a girl my age. Her boyfriend recently had a job offer, making it impossible to join her on vacation. That`s why she decided to turn it into a challenge and go on her own. The next two years she wants to travel around the world, so this would be a good exercise. We drink a cup of tea together and talk like we’re already friends for years. The next morning I prepare breakfast as usual. Ellen my new friend told me she loves animals (I`m sure that`s a big reason why we can get along so well). She had turned her hobby into a profession and had her own dog washing service. While I`m preparing breakfast I gaze outside the kitchen window. My eyes catch the rental of Ellen, a massive 4x4 Chevrolet. Ellen walks in, we give each other a hug and she gracefully sits down the kitchen table. She’s a good looking girl, not like one you would find in the magazines, but she`ll definitely do good with the men when hitting the night clubs. She has this permanent flirty flow in her armour. Observing her perfectly completed hair extensions, manicure, pedicure and carefully selected outfit. I try to measure if she`s up to the next question I no longer can keep for myself. “Ellen, what do you really do for a living?” Somewhat shocked she looks up and looks me straight into the eyes. She looks around making sure nobody else is in the room and then let`s a grin appear on her face. “You’re a smart girl Sanne. I work as a High-class-escort”. “Don’t worry your secret is safe with me (her real name is not Ellen). I’ll tell you what, I state, you’re not fond of driving and I could use a day of fresh air. Pick a spot where you want to go, I’ll bring us there. Let’s have a girls-day-out!”
Resembling two teenage girls, we drive around the valley, through the mountain, singing along with the radio. We decided to finish the day with a dinner and I drive us to the best restaurant in town. As curious as I am, I bomb Ellen with all kinds of questions about her job. The most hilarious, embarrassing and amazing anecdotes come to the fore. We both can`t stop laughing. Suddenly Ellen’s expression changes while she points at an old, chubby men a couple of tables further, presumably around 65 years old. “That’s how by far most of my customers look like”, she whispers while holding her right hand close to her mouth. “How in earths name do you do it?” I ask her amazed, although I’m far from fully surprised. “It’s an illusion, I create an illusion. One of my customers bought me exclusivity. Working 2 nights a month I make more than $120,000 a year. I want to quit, but I can’t. I’m too addicted to the money. The financial freedom I’m experiencing now is unknown. Once you start, it’s almost impossible to get out the illusion.” She looks straight into my eyes and grabs my hand. “Please Sanne, promise me, you’ll never get yourself into this madness. Even though the money is so tempting, whatever offer they make you, don’t do it.” I gently smile back at her, knowing it would never be so easy to keep a promise.
After saying goodbye to my divine and heaven alike bed and bathroom (with hot water, including water pressure!), returning the charming cocktail dresses to Jorien M, I give Arturo a big hug and thank him for everything. I give Max the dog a kiss, wrap my arms around Jolanda, thank her for all the delicious food and then take once last look at the pool. I put my backpack on the back and change my charming slippers for my Teva sandals. The true adventure is about to begin. Off to the airport! After a 14 hours delay, my Cubana Airlines finally arrives in Havana. It is three o'clock in the morning and after some bargaining with several taxi drivers I finally found a good one. Havana is sleeping, but I'm wide awake. I instantly love this country, old buildings and old cars along the side of road. After half an hour we arrive at the address of the Casa Particular (Cubans are able to rent out a room or part of their home to tourists) where Luz is staying (an old colleague from Emmen Zoo, whose time in Cuba is overlapping with mine. The bathroom was no larger than 2x2 meters, the shower was cold (with a touch of warmth) and the bed had such hard springs that I woke up the next morning with a circle shaped pattern on my bottom. Yup, the adventure had indeed begun.
As Luz already discovered the streets of Havana, we decided we would make our way to Ceinfuegos the next morning (3 hours later), a small former French settlement 250 km southwest of Havana. The bus played a concert by Marc Anthony. I gazed at the video and couldn`t prevent a smile appearing on my face. 24 hours ago I was still sleeping in a `house` opposite to his, now I'm packed in a bus with my old togs and everything squeezed in a backpack, watching his concert.
After arriving in Ceinfuegos we walked towards the city center and knocked on the door of the first beautiful Casa Particular we encountered. A Siñora named Sandra opened the door and she stated that we were more than welcome to stay a few days at her place.
After we ticked of all the sightseeing’s inside the city of the list it was time for the beach to reveal its beauty. Jennifer, a girl from London who we had met on the bus, stayed with a young Cuban. He was more than willing to give us a hitchhike to the beach, if we would pay for the drinks. Fair deal! Never judge a book by its cover and that definitely seemed to occur for the cars of Cuba. The old rotten green FIAT looked more dead than alive, but from the inside it was equipped with a pounding stereo (he was a technical engineer) and colourful TV screen.
The beautiful palm beach was enriched by a coral reef, which was located around 500 m from the coast. Jennifer and I had both brought our snorkel and started the fight against surf. The coral was beautiful and so was the marine life. Tired but satisfied we swam back to shore.
Gratefully resorting to my towel it did not take long before I began to feel queasy. Luz took me to the toilet (well, I have been to toilets in India that would win any beauty pageant compared to this smelly hole in the ground) and after some proper inhalation of the local air my entire breakfast went return to sender. Food poisoning and sunstroke didn`t appear to be the best combination.....
The following days, Siñora Sandra spoiled me with delicious soups and cups of tea. "Your mother is far away in the Netherlands, so I'm now your Cuban mother," she said every time. After three days I could finally eat and drink normally and it was time for the next stop.....
Once settled and the city was explored through the day, it was time for: NIGHTLIFE CUBA! A fundamental rule, it’s important to keep up with Cuban rum, so first stop was to head to a ‘Palandar’ which are local family restaurants and are often cheaper than state restaurants. Soon we were approached by a young man with such bleached hair that he must have taken a bath in pure peroxide for two days. He offered to bring us to the restaurant of his mother. The menu looked good and so did the price so Vamos (we go)!
Warmly welcomed by the Cuban version of the Backstreet Boys (just a bit older and a bit…well…it`s the inside that counts right?) it seemed the family were happy to finally receive an audience. Luz isn`t shy of joining in when it comes to music making and soon we sung along loudly and maracas were shaken up and down. And yes, if you're in Cuba, your feet and hips can`t stay behind. The night and beats passed and the restaurant closed down. The band invited us to join them for a concert in the city. There I was with the illusion that I could dance quite reasonable. Everyone was dancing, small, young, old, fat, thin, whatever. So what would happen to you if you do not feel like dancing? There will be a Cuban who grabs you by your wrists and twists you around like a spinning top. The rum went around and we danced until the early hours of the morning. Tired but satisfied we went to bed. Tomorrow, we would spend the day hungover, on the beach. To thank the band for the wonderful evening, we gave two of the band members a lift in the taxi. It was a lovely day!
Santiago de Cuba
It is already late at night when we arrive by bus in Santiago with no place to sleep. Soon, we are approached by a man who knows a Casa Particular for us. We get in his ‘car’ AKA rotten can on wheels, which takes us to one of the suburbs of Santiago. There we are warmly welcomed by Lucia, an old grandmother that was so sweet she could even make peace in the Middle East. The Casa was old and not very fancy, but since Lucia had stolen our hearts, we decided to stay. We had three wonderful days completely pampered with her cooking and she always waited for us until we were back home safe and sound. It didn`t take us a long time to realize that everything Santiago lacked during the day, it made up for it in the night. There was music everywhere, the city was buzzing. After a night rebelling in the touristic part of the city, we wanted to try a club just around the corner of our casa. It was a small club. The light blue wall was covered with pictures of various Cuban music legends. Several couples rocked their hips gracefully among the tables, while the 1.50m in height singer sang his little lungs out of his body. We were invited by a group of Cubans to put in 1 CUC so we could share a bottle of rum and we were soon pulled on the dance floor. Slowly but surely the prostitutes began to flow inside the club. Girls my age, spicy dressed, trying to avoiding communistic life by earning a little extra. The white single men were carefully wrapped around their dark fingers. Once the club started to close down, Luz and I decided it was time for home. As we exited the club we notice the white men taking out their wallets to join their nocturnal girlfriend back home. I glazed at the sky, grateful I could go to my own bed .... alone!
“We'll catch up sleep in the bus” Unfortunately .... that intention more or less failed while we were in the bus from Santiago to Baracoa. Not only did we had great fun with Alex and Jennifer, two other backpackers, we could not keep our eyes from the stunning view. The brown dead grass plains began to turn into green mountains and the old stone Spanish houses were slowly exchanged for wooden, brightly colored huts covered with palm leaves.
We agreed after arriving with Jennifer and Alex to meet up for dinner that night. First we explored the town and started looking for the famous Baracoa chocolate which the town is known for.
Night falls, and after a nice dinner with the four of us, we head for Casa de Musica. We raise four Mojitos in the air and bring out a toast to the good life. After a lot of salsa, we have become friends with half the village and the rest of the backpackers. And as the music goes, we realize that we must quickly go to bed, in order to sneak in 3 hours sleep before our trip to Humbollt national park.
With somewhat heavy heads, we hop into the bus the following morning with Alex and Jennifer. Soon after arriving we are awakened by our guide. Time for a 4.5 hour hike through the mountains. Starting was an uphill battle, however it was more than worth it. The scenery was breathtakingly, the rainforest simply beautiful. At the end of our adventure we were reward with a refreshing dip in a waterfall. Pura Vida!
A fortunate hitchhike with an Australian couple to Camaguey brought me to the point where I had to say goodbye Luz. She continued with the Aussies to Havana and I would stay in Camaguey. I was nervous, for the first time I would truly be by myself… I threw my arms around Luz, providing me with the last hold of somebody I knew and then it was over… I was on my own now.
I grabbed my camera and went into the city, a dense mesh of maze-like streets. Wandering from street to street, somebody suddenly grabbed my arm. With a sense of angriness I look aside and look straight into the eyes of a boy with Down's syndrome. Enthusiastically he shouts in Spanish that they have a party and he wants me to come. I walk with him to the other side of the street where a group is doing a sound check. I settled myself down in the crowd surrounded by parents and relatives when the music explodes. A true spectacle singing, ladies in Flamingo dresses and men with big sombrero hats begins. Everybody enthusiastically claps along. People started dancing which made time fly like a spitfire. Luckily at the end of the show all the stars made time for their fans and handed out photographs and posed professionally for pictures. Slowly people started to return to their homes and I decided to don my backpack on and continue exploring the streets of Camaguey.
Playa Santa Lucia
The beach is calling me, it is time to head off to one of the most famous diving and snorkeling destinations in Cuba; Playa Santa Lucia. The bus isn`t busy, so I start a conversation with the other passengers asking them if they might know a place for me to stay. The bus driver seems to know some people with a ‘Casa’, but on arrival they all appear to be full. The driver suggested I would ride along with him to his hotel, where he could negotiate a good price. It turned out to be the oldest and cheapest hotel in Santa Lucia and largely filled with Dutchies (gee ... can that be right?). Because there were only all-inclusive resorts in town and the casas were far out, everybody had to rely on the local snack bar for lunch and dinner. While I try to enjoy my spaghetti like ‘papas fritas’ as much as possible, I gaze at the five-star resorts in the distance. “We can do better than this Sanne,” I tell myself.
The next morning I pull to the most fancy beach outfit I have out of my backpack, put my sunglasses on my poker face and leave for the seaweed-strewn beach. The beach was engulfed with luxury sunbeds, umbrellas and cocktails. I found one resort, exactly matching with my wishes and park my bikini bottom on the blue cotton lounger. It didn`t take long for one of the staff member to noticed the lack of a wristband. "Sorry, miss, but you're not staying at this resort.” I slide my sunglasses down, give him 1 CUC, a wink and say, "Neither do you, right?” He smiles like a lottery winner. “Welcome to Hotel Club Amigo miss, if there's anything we could do for you, let me know.” “Uno coco por favor.” I say with a smile, and with a fresh coconut in hand, I look out over the Azure Sea. From all the days I had- and would spent in Cuba, I never been served so well as in Playa Santa Lucia.
For everything Cuba stands for, Havana has it times 10 over. It’s amazing to wander around with my backpack through the streets, taking pictures, here and there a chat or a dance and again back to continue my path. I decided to visit the cemetery (one of the largest in the world), the plaza revolution and then continued walking to Hotel National, the most expensive hotel in all of Cuba. The reception and the hotel staff seemed copied from an old black and white movie. I hear a Dutch couple coming out of the elevator and ask them where I can find the bathroom. Surprised as they were to hear Dutch, they asked about my trip and why I was alone. When I told them I was just traveling around, the woman puts her arm around me. “Girl, let me buy you drink. We are very curious about your stories.” They turned out to be cigar distributors, and with a whole delegation of BENELUX, they were invited by Cubana Cigars to come for two weeks to Cuba. Somewhat uncomfortable I follow them on my old Teva sandals and sun-bleached shorts to the upscale terrace, where the rest of the cigar company looks up, somewhat surprised by the new addition of the group. After a short introduction, I was inundated with questions: “Is it not dangerous?” “So you really sleep in people's homes?” Etc. The noon started to change into nightfall, the cigars shortened and the level of wine in the bottles dropped quicker by every passing second. Suddenly my phone rings; it`s Mariel, a German girl I met in a taxi in Cienfuegos. We agreed to meet in Havanna and travel together to Viñalles. Her train would arrive in about 2 hours and if it was ok for me to bring three Englishmen with whom she had met on the train. The more people, the more fun ... so of course, no problem. I said goodbye to my new cigar friends and began the walk of 3.5 km back to my Casa through the streets of Havana.
I turn off the beaten track and go to the slums of Havana Vieja, making a shortcut towards my Casa. Suddenly I my ears catch the sound of drums and singing coming from one of the houses. I follow the sound and suddenly stand next to a living room filled with dancing and singing people (in Cuba it`s common to have the front door open, the living room is usually right behind). A young, dark girl of my age waves me inside. I must bow to the altar, my hands and feet are getting washed and an old man sprinkles water on my forehead while he mumbles a prayer. He nods and the girl pulls me onto the dance floor. A row of four men create music by tapping on cardboard boxes, an oil drum and a wooden box. The dance seemed similar of an African tribe, I (as best as it can with my 1.86 m long Dutch frame) tried to imitate as closely as possible. I glance at my watch, it's time to go. I embraced and kissed my new friends and walk the last two blocks to my Casa. Still half an hour to go before Mariel and her three new English friends arrive. I flop on the bed and fall into a deep sleep.
“Oh dear, did she die?” sounds with a charming English accent through my dream. I open my eyes and there is Mariel, with three men, all bent over my bed. They appeared to between 40 and 50 years old and copied from a Monty Python sketch. “Thank goodness she's alive.” I rub the sleep out of my eyes.... did all of this really happen within the last 24 hours....?
We exchange the bustling Havana for the green hills of Viñalles. A small village in a green oasis south west of Havana. Mariel also appears to be a big fan of horseback riding so as fast as we could we tried to find a good guide for the next day. At a local travel agency they seemed to know a good address with healthy horses where we could go the next morning.
The next morning we knock on the door of Yuri, a horse owner, just outside the village. He grins when we tell we both can ride. “Good, Rambo and Diego could use a good ride.” We saddle the horses and ride off into the valley. We pass endless tobacco fields and farmland. Here and there we have to pass a bullock cart or an old farmhouse. We stop in between at friends of Yuri to water the horses and get ourselves a fresh coconut and cigar. Once in a quieter part of the valley, we put the horses at a gallop. They seemed to have looked forward to this moment. All of us lift up our nose and rush through the valley breathing in the fresh smell of flowers and grass. We gallop climbing a hilltop, enjoying a beautiful view.
We return slowly back to Yuri’s ranch and meet up in the evening to go to a concert in the center of the village. We bump into two German ornithologists, a Swiss banker and an Australian dentistry student. Together we put in a CUC for a bottle of rum and a Cuban variant of Coca Cola. We danced the night away until blisters start forming on our feet. Viva la vida! Viva la Cuba!
After a burn-out it was time for a change. I quit my job, sold my stuff and bought a one-way ticket to the Dominican Republic. What was supposed to be a 4 month adventure turned into 2,5 years and counting......
Photo by: Vanessa Marques Barreto