There seems to be two ways to get around in Cuba. Collectivo taxis which offer door to door service but in reality involve trying not to touch the stranger next to you in a cramped car, or buses which look comfortable but are rumoured to make a lot of stops. We were unpopular with our Collectivo already as we misunderstood the timings, all discussed in Spanish, and kept a car full of people waiting as we quickly packed and ate breakfast. The ford seated 9 people and played Cuban music loudly the whole journey back to Havana, the dramatic music video highlighting Cubas best in dramatic facial expressions and love trauma. In Havana, to our surprise, we were sorted into our onward directions. For Cienfuegos, we were getting into an army style truck, our luggage all around us on overhead racks. With little explanation we began our journey south, stopping for a lunch break at a little town, inexplicably called Australia.
The day and journey seemed to never end. We hadn’t called ahead to the next casa and when we met Teresa she greeted us with a kiss on each cheek. We had become experts in deciphering Spanish with exaggerated sign language, in fact in every exchange we determined that we spoke ‘un poco’ Spanish and they spoke a little Ingles, so in every exchange one would have to give. For the most part, we each conversed in our own languages, acknowledging the other with plenty of ‘Si, Si..’ or prompting the conversation with the odd word, but it was nice to be forced to attempt to converse in Spanish. Teresa’s house, a beautiful dark wood colonial property, was being painted and she had arranged for us to stay up the street. Every family appears to have help and so we were shown up the street to a Casa of an elder lady. He house was similarly colonial 1920’s style with ceilings so high the rooms were taller than they were wider. Open air courtyards were filled with plants and pottery, every surface covered with trinkets. Despite the constant ‘Tranquilo..’ we could hardly unpack and relax without knocks on the door to show us something or another. Our basic Spanish did not deter the long explanations. We began difficult negotiations over the cost of laundry after which they had to get out a standalone washing machine and plumb it in. Water seems a limited resource as many toilets are not free filling either.
With tensions high, we didn’t really fancy a second night, a debacle in itself. We told her we would stay for one night so she took it upon ourselves to organise our onward transport letting us know the taxi would collect us at 10am. When I said no she seemed confused, put out. Her friend called to let us know she had space for us in Trinidad. I explained no, we were moving Casa’s. Her friend called a friend who arrived at the front door to let us know he had a more suitable room. I lied and said we had friends at another casa who we were joining. Word was out. I had to take another two phone calls and then finally was interrupted by a knock on the door, our onward transportation for Trinidad which I again declined. We were beginning to see the other side of the network, helpful when you needed it, difficult when you wanted to make your own arrangements. Trying to reassure her hurt feelings we left quickly for another casa.
The rain in Cienfuegos was relentless. May was low season and the start of the rainy season, but so far it didn’t seem to have established a pattern we could work with. We took to wearing flip flops, shorts and a rain jacket and persevering with our sightseeing as long as we could. The colonial centre had grand architecture of museums, a cathedral and a theatre dating back from the 1890’s. Whilst their frontages were grand, the interiors were crumbling and had a decrepit feel to them. It is the part of Cuba which claims French influence or heritage and the architecture suggests there was once pride in this association. At the centre of it all, a park. So far we have discovered that every city has a park known as wifi park. It’s almost as if Cuba is in the future, Internet in natural spaces. In fact wifi in Cuba is its own kind of archaic. Yes, you can access wifi in these parks, and generally these parks alone, but you will need to purchase your usage from an ETECSA office in the form of a scratch card. You can purchase it in hour denominations and head to the park to put in your lucky numbers and pray for a hit. Whilst messages are okay, it’s not fast enough to really do anything substantial on, like load a webpage, but still parks are the epitome of socialising.
After several days off the grid and kinda hoping for a weather forecast more than anything, we went to ETECSA to buy a card. ‘Sorry, none today, try the hotel.’ The Hotel la Union across the street was grand and welcoming. At the reception we got the same answer, sold out. ‘¿Mañana?’ I asked. She shrugged and let out a giggle. The only wifi left in Cienfuegos was at negotiation with the guys hanging out at the park corners.
In the evening we walked down Pinta Gorda, a long strip of waterfront dotted with the eclectic that doesn’t fit in the centres block like layout. 1920’s palaces of interesting design sit alongside petrol stations and arenas, and like everywhere else, there is no one to be seen. We watched Pelicans dive into the ocean gobbling up their evening meal and planned out ours, Club Cienfuegos on the horizon. Someone compared it to a wedding cake in design. It certainly made you look twice. As the only diners we got the balcony position looking out over the moored yachts and the moody sea. As we finished up the heavy drops started again and we hailed a bike taxi to whizz us back to the centre, where after a little wandering we ended up on the rooftop of the Hotel la Union. An excellent vantage point for the square below, we ordered cocktails and watched the winds bring the nights deluge even closer. Boy was it a big one. The loud cracks of thunder and jolts of lightening lasted out the entire night.