Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 2: Bay of Pigs & Cienfuegos)

Waiting for…. everything

Monday, January 4, 2016

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Havana street

After breakfasts at our various casas in Havana (breakfasts typically included eggs, ham, bread, coffee, pineapple or guava juice, and a plate of fruit including papaya, guava and bananas), the group started the day off with a meeting. Our friendly, knowledgeable and handsome leader Manolo (You’re welcome, Manny 🙂 ) outlined the next few days of our itinerary and explained some of the protocols and vagaries of travel in Cuba. Patience is required here, he stressed. He also warned us that there would be lineups for everything.

We then met Ariel our bus driver for the week, and loaded our luggage and ourselves into our clean and comfortable minibus.

We didn’t have to wait long to learn the truth of Manny’s warnings.

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Arnie heads for the bus

Before our bus had even left Havana, we discovered two things of which Cuba has shortages, both of which every member of our group needed right away – i.e., before we hit the road. The first was bottled water, and the second was Cuban money. We spent almost two hours waiting for the members of our group to extract enough CUCs from various exchange offices and ATMs (cajeros automáticos) to get through the week in case we don’t have access again when we are on the road.

The first place we went to had run out of money. The second had very long lineups. Various members of our group were trying (not always successfully) to exchange Canadian dollars, British pounds, Euros, Yen, Australian dollars and NZ money so it took a very long time. On the upside, across the street from the bank was a bar where we were able to buy a few bottles of water (1 CUC per bottle) and use the bathroom.

(Note: Almost everywhere in Cuba, you have to “Pay to Pee,” but not in places where you are a customer. I generally left 25 centavos but sometimes bathroom attendants got more if I didn’t have small change. In return, they gave me a couple of thin pieces of toilet paper. As in many other countries, in Cuba toilet paper does not go in the toilets: there is always a wastebasket nearby where it is supposed to go instead. It’s a hard habit to break, letting go of that piece of tissue after you’ve used it, but now I’ve learned the new system so well that back in Toronto I am still looking for the wastebasket.)

Bay of Pigs

By now far behind schedule, we set off through the rain toward the Playa Girón, a beach on the Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos). There, some of our group went for a swim in the bay, and the rest of us walked back about fifty yards from the highway to a cenote, which is a cave that has collapsed and then filled with water (photos below). The pool in the cenote was clear, and colourful tropical fishes swam about in it. I recognized an angel fish but I have no idea what the names were of the others.

Our guide Manolo and a royal palm

Our guide Manolo extols the virtues of the royal palm

Manolo briefly recounted the story of the Cuban Revolution of 1953-59 and the invasion of the Bay of Pigs (1961) from the Cuban perspective, which is pretty much the same perspective as what I’ve read on Wikipedia (i.e. Cuba good, America bad) so I won’t bother retelling it here. But it was an amazing experience to be told the story of how the Cubans withstood the invasion at the Bay of Pigs when you are actually at the Bay of Pigs. Inspiring.

As well as being an historically significant site, the Bay of Pigs is renowned for its scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities. The water is incredibly clear. On the day we were there, there were very few people in the water – possibly because it was raining and the diving shop was closed.

Soon after we left the Playa Girón (“playa” means “beach”), we stopped for “lunch.” We arrived around 3 p.m. and didn’t finish eating until about 5. Manny grew impatient with this wait, but the rest of us were pretty laid back about it. We had picked up cookies and other snacks at one of our bathroom breaks, so it wasn’t like we were starving. The long, long wait gave us a chance to get to know our fellow travellers a little better. As always, one of the advantages of group travel is the people in the group itself, and what you learn from them.

In the long run, our lunch/supper  – ultimately quite tasty and filling – proved an excellent way to save money, as we didn’t need dinner that day. 

Cienfuegos

We arrived in the city of Cienfuegos at about 7 p.m., and since it was too dark to do a walking tour of the city and no one was hungry, we were dropped off at our various casas particulares. Ours was a small comfortable room with a full bathroom which (to our mystification) locked from the outside. The host was wonderfully welcoming and very encouraging about having a conversation with us in Spanish. I quickly learned the limits of my knowledge of Spanish as we tried to actually answer her questions about ourselves and figure out what she told us about herself. But we eventually got the gist of most of it. I think.

When we registered at each of the casas, the owners wrote down our names and passport numbers, home address, and the dates on which we were checking in and out, and then asked us to sign the entry in the register before giving us the keys. I think the government has a long arm when it comes to accountability in Cuba.

After depositing our suitcases, Arnie and I walked to Cienfuegos’s malecón (pier/waterfrontand found ourselves some ice cream, then walked along the promenade for a while. We then went back to our room and watched ER with Spanish subtitles on a small television set. (The show was no more impressive than it is without the subtitles.)

Cuban television has no commercials, and most of the channels feature educational programs.

Despite having spent a lot of the day on the bus, our brains were overloaded, and we had no trouble falling asleep.

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Note re the photo gallery below: hover over images to see captions; click on images to see larger versions.

 

 

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