Rakachaka. I’m sitting in a little beachside thatched cantina with a band playing music just a little too loud and a waitress trying in vain to herd me back to the tourist section that’s even closer to the band. Cuba seems to have a love of too-loud music in somewhat inappropriate places, like in a funeral procession or in a romantically intimate restaurant. Cuba also seems to love not making any extra effort for anything (communism anyone?) and so I just keep asking the waitress if I can stay where I tam and she gives up easily. Score one more for the imperialist swine. I know I’m a bad tourist sometimes and, at the time, I don’t really care.
I didn’t get to write anything yesterday because I spent the day chillin with a bunch of swell Euros as a result of a random and lucky turn of events. Yesterday, morning I made my way to the bus station early to try to get a spot on the overbooked bus to the scenic Vinales valley. Even though it was only 8am, the 20 minute walk left me completely drenched in sweat, as usual. And, as usual, I’m the only one.
Anyway, the Cubans were vague as usual, recommending that I wait around for a while to see what time the bus would go and if there would be space. I struck up the usual “what do you think” kinda conversation with a white chick and her boyfriend and we quickly deduced that we could split a taxi between 3 of us for about the same cost. Done and done. Right then, another guy overheard our conversation in English and asked if three of them could tag along. So now we were 6: 4 Danes, a Canadian and a Swiss, plenty to make something happen.
Within minutes we had a taxi coming for all of us and we sat in the shade outside wondering if a tiny Lada was going to pull up in a cloud of smoke, blasting salsa from the windows. Music I mean. Realistically I expected something like a VW van but what we got was a million times better. Our senor rolled up in a typical Cuban jalopy station wagon, of 50’s vintage but without any kind of indication of what brand it was originally. Upon closer inspection I found Lada, Chevy, Fiat, Renault, and Cadillac parts bolted around what seemed to be a diesel engine and an old 3-on-the-tree transmission. Really, honestly, the only thing that could have thrilled me more would be salsa literally blasting from the windows. But salsa music was a close second.
We hit the highway and I was pretty surprised that he got it up to about 100kph. With no seatbelts. And no headrests. And not much order to the traffic. And a very solid front end that long predated any crumple zones. In the event of a collision I figured the 2 up front would remove that pesky windshield and I’d have a nice clear path for supermanning down the highway. Whaddyagonnado? If you can’t except a little risk, the boundaries of your life will always be within easy reach.
After a couple stops – one where we ‘happened’ to run into his cousin who was ready to take us on a plantation tour, and another where he made some minor engine repairs – we arrived in Vinales a bit salsa’d out. Vinales is a tiny little town that’s pretty popular with tourists but, like the rest of Cuba, it’s not overrun. In fact most tourists seem to share happy greetings and exchanges of information. This is something that, again, I have to chalk up to the American embargo. If Castro had never overthrown Batista, this would be the Hawaii of the east coast and the tourism would be a little sickening. So although I don’t have many flowery compliments for the political and economic directions this country has taken, perhaps it’s still better than the alternative.
The Vinales valley is what people come for, not the town. Surrounded by small but aesthetic hills, the valley is offers ideal growing conditions for tobacco and lush green fields blanket much of the arable land. Palm trees reach high above the fields and island of thick tropical growth. The boleros saunter through the countryside on aged mules, in aged clothes, with an air of aged confidence when they return your greeting with a nod and a slight smile. And when the sun nears the horizon, and the golden light filters through smoke from the agricultural fires and your cold Cuban cerveza tastes just right, you can’t help but wonder why we spend so much time worrying about so many trivial things in life.
Although I generally have no qualms about traveling solo, the 6 of us got along famously and I really enjoyed their company for the day. We found a casa particular with 3 rooms and each kinda settled in for the heat of the afternoon in our own ways. Martin and Yeppe had some cold guava daiquiris, which were damn good. Morten read on a shady balcony and Danielle bid us adieu and continued on to her diving locale a couple more hours down the coast. Lena and I sauntered a few kilometers up the valley just to see what was over the next rise, then the next, and the next…
The casa particulares are basically B&B’s but the friendliness far exceeds what you’d normally find in western countries. These people really open their homes to you and for $20 per night its without question the best way to go. After sunset we creaked back and forth on the porch rocking chairs, had a fantastic fish dinner, and talked late into the evening on the rooftop watching lightning in the distance. I don’t want to generalize too much, but Euros are some cool cats, or at least the ones that seem to spend a lot of time traveling to interesting places.
Unfortunately, the agrarian nature of Vinales showed its other side when, at 2am, the roosters figured it was close enough to dawn to start calling. With a loud soviet AC running on high, I could hear them. With earplugs in, I could hear them. With a pillow over my head, I could near them. With all 3 combined, yep, loud and clear. Compared to roosters, an alarm clock is like a soothing lullaby. Thank god they eventually stopped… at 7am when it was time to get up. I was exhausted and I didn’t care to stay there any longer than it took to explain that I would find accommodation elsewhere the next night.
But thankfully I’d planned a beach trip that day and it didn’t require much effort. I stumbled down to the town square and bought a $22 tour ticket and was on my way on an over-air conditioned bus. An hour later we were dropped at a gorgeous pristine white sand beach with a small thatched cabana restaurant. Palms leaned overhead and stretches of beach were a curious minefield of bleached driftwood. In some places, tall mangroves shaded the entire beach, providing some nice shady spots. However, all I really wanted to do was get into the sparkling blue Caribbean water and when I did, it really was everything I expected it to be. Just floating aimlessly was bliss, especially with a deserted beach a kilometer or so down from the crowd at the cabana. I’m not much of a beach person, but if every beach were like this, I probably would be.
At the end of the day, we bussed back to town, I found a new casa particulare for the evening, I found my euro friends by keeping an eye out for 6’4″ Yeppe, we had some dinner and some more drinks on the roof, and I bid adieu to another day well-spent.