Cigar Country
in Viñales, Cuba on 13th April, 2013


We were up early to catch a bus from Havana to Viñales. The flat owner of the place we were staying at in Havana offered us a free ride in his Lada to a hotel where we'd catch our bus. The bus we boarded was brand new and built in China. The air conditioning worked and the seats were comfortable.

There was a guide on the bus who was explaining a lot of things along the way, generally discussing how horrible life in Cuba is and how socialism has been in Cuba for more than 50 years and nothing will ever improve under the current system.

The bus ride was scheduled to take three hours to reach Viñales. Halfway there we stopped for some drinks and to walk around a tobacco farm. After 20 minutes we returned to the bus but it was failing to start. The bus driver seemed anxious. If he couldn't get the bus to start and had to call for another one, assuming another one was available, he'd loose his job. He was determined, for however long it took, to get the bus working again.

It sounded like the starter motor was working and the bus simply didn't have any fuel. I'd heard stories about drivers syphoning off fuel and selling it on to others and it sounded like it might be the case here.

While waiting, we struck up a conversation with a British/American couple. The husband told me how he had traveled overland from Australia to the UK via places like Malaysia, India and Afghanistan. The height of the story came when he discussed being imprisoned in Turkey for ten days on suspicion of drug trafficking. I told him that in the 1960s these sorts of things were more acceptable. People today just can't reason with Turkish prison terms like they did back then.

After two hours we got impatient, Triin and the American woman went to try and hitch a ride from passing vehicles. There was a problem though. There was a only a vehicle about every five minutes. When one or two would pass they'd be large, farm-purposed vehicles full of men on the back. At one point there were two large trucks that passed, the first created a wind vortex that lifted the American's skirt and giving a show to the second truck full of men passing. But even that didn't get them to pull over and offer a lift.

After another 30 minutes or so our bus decided to start. We drove for another 15 minutes before it broke down again. Luckily, another bus drove by. It wasn't big enough for us all to fit but we managed to squish in and complete our trip to Viñales.

Pulling into Viñales was a treat. We were at the top of a hill driving down into a valley. The air temperature dropped to something more reasonable and the nature around us was breathtaking. As far as the eye could see there were limestone mountains and green valleys.

As soon as we got off the bus we were surrounded by home owners trying to rent out their rooms. We'd already booked somewhere but there wasn't much escaping these hustlers. There was only an hour remaining before the bank would close for the weekend so I had to leave Triin outside on the street with our bags while I went to get some much-needed hard currency.

I walked up to the front door and the guard motioned for me not to enter and to wait outside. I did so for about 15 minutes. He let others out and in but kept me waiting. Finally he let me in and made me sit. There were a bunch of other people sat in chairs looking at a ton of staff members working really slowly and not doing very much.

I thought I could be here for a long time, I could be here so long that they just close this place and kick me out or, being a foreigner, they decide to serve me quickly and kick me out before I notice too many things. Luckily, they served me ahead of others.

The woman at the counter only spoke Spanish and had a world of questions before letting me cash advance $200 off my credit card. She eventually got on to ask the address of where we were staying. I said I didn't know what "casa particulares" (Private house in Spanish) meant and she finally gave up and stopped asking questions. After signing a lot of paperwork which had all my card details printed out in full, I had my money.

Triin got to enjoy hustlers all over here trying to rent out their rooms outside during this whole experience. They acted like we were dragging suitcases full of money and with their name on them around.

We eventually found the house where we were staying. We dropped our bags, had some juice with the family and then headed out for lunch.

While eating lunch Triin noticed the waitress had some fancy nails. She asked her where she had them done and the woman gave us another woman's name and general directions as to where we could find her. We ended up going door-to-door in search of this woman. Eventually we came across a house where a family was keen to serve us. The Mother of the family walked us about seven blocks to a farm house outside of town where a technician was working on women's nails. I gave the technician $10 and left Triin with her new friends there.

I took the chance to enjoy a quiet beer on the street before going back to our place and turning on the air conditioning.

The next day we had a 4-hour horseback tour of Viñales. We visited some coffee and tobacco plantations, saw some caves and Triin went swimming in a lake. The entire tour was in Spanish. When they went into detail about how they made cigars, they went through everything slowly to make sure we understood as much as possible. It reminded me of German and Estonian classes where teachers would hand over a two-page story and we were expected to read, understand and then answer questions in the respective language about what we'd just read.

After our tour the Cuban guy we were with offered to take us to a cockfight. We thought he was offering to show us Chickens and Peacocks and we said we'd already seen a cockfight in Argentina at the Zoo. He looked at us in a strange way and didn't push the subject too much.

The sunsets in Viñales were pretty good. The town had a relaxed atmosphere compared to Havana. I spent one evening watching a baseball game. Professional sports are banned in Cuba and this was just an amateur game. They played with a lot of passion and argument. The other cool thing is that they didn't notice me at all, it felt nice being a ghost for a while. It was a shame seeing them having to play in their socks or barefooted.

When the sun came down I could see the stars. It reminded me that ~200KM north of where I was, NASA launches ships into outer space. In Cuba they're lucky if they can get a few hundred kilometers away from here without any problems. The rest of the world trades news in an instant, even in other communist countries. Here, they truly are stuck 60 years behind everyone else.

When I left Cuba a week later, I posted the following on facebook from the Bahamas: "I've never seen so many people who lack any hope. I pray Cubans find the courage to organise and bring change. No government should treat it's citizens like cattle."


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