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