As you will know if you have been following our adventure (and if not, why not?) we changed our plans and decided to leave behind Central America and to head to Cuba. Cocktails, white sandy beaches, rum and endless salsa, what’s not to love? Well, a bit actually.
We arrived in Havana – confusingly called La Habana by the locals – at about midnight from San José in Costa Rica. Incidentally, San José is literally the best airport ever. They have unlimited free wi-fi and give away free coffee and chocolate in their duty free shop. On the other hand Havana airport is, to put it kindly, dated, and the staff are, to put it unkindly, useless. We waited hours for our bags despite being the only plane to have landed within the previous hour, and were baffled by the insane amount of luggage people seemed to be bringing with them. The reason for this, as would later become clear, is that there is a lot of stuff that you just can’t get in Cuba.
We then went to the cambio to change our money into Cuba’s insane currency, of which there are two, both called pesos. The one we got, the CUC or convertible peso, is for “luxury items,” by which they mean anything tourists buy, and is worth one US dollar (minus the 10% fee they charge you if you change USD into pesos, obviously). The other, which tourists aren’t supposed to get, is the CUP, worth 25 times less and used by the locals on their day to day stuff. It is confusing and frankly ridiculous, and as a by-product it is creating a dual-economy in Cuba whereby taxi drivers earn ten times what doctors do. It won’t last – it can’t – but for the moment we have to make do and get the tourist cash to pay for an insanely overpriced taxi to the bus station.
Now imagine our mood. We have been travelling for about 20 hours, we are tired and dirty and we’ve just waited 2 hours for our bags because the people of Cuba have brought every single item on sale in Panama with them on the flight. So we find a taxi driver and tell him where we are going. The bus station, please driver, but is it open at this time in the morning? In flawless (ahem) Spanish, of course. Of course, our new amigo replies. You will be able to sleep there until your bus, which is at 6am. So he relieves us of 25 CUC (this is what an average Cuban earns in a MONTH) and takes us to the bus station, gives us our bags and drives off, at which point we discover the bus station is of course not open at 2.30am and will not be for another 3 hours. Gracias, you wanker.
So our first impressions of Cuba weren’t exactly flawless, but a few days in touristy Varadero set us right. To be honest there’s not a lot a pristine white beach and crystal clear water won’t fix. We thought our troubles gone and set about enjoying ourselves, and continued to a few days later in beautiful, colonial Trinidad. If there is a warm heart of Cuba, you find it in Trinidad and we loved it.
Annoyingly, on leaving Trinidad for Havana, Cuba dealt us another shitty hand. You didn’t think it was over did you? Seriously, read the title.
We had bus tickets to Havana with a state-owned company called Viazul. Viazul essentially provide inter-city transport for tourists, as their prices are out of range of normal Cubans. We had taken two before and had no problems, but this one was a little different. We got ninety minutes into our five hour journey and stopped in the town of Cienfuegos. I think that means “a hundred fires” in Spanish – appropriately named since it was at least one million degrees in the sun there. To our surprise, everyone had to get off the bus, bags and all. Our consternation was compounded when, once the bus was empty, it drove off.
After much interrogation, it turned out this bus had gone because the air conditioning was broken. Nobody was warned, less consulted, just the company decided that we would be better off with no bus at all than a warm one. I would not have minded this thoughtfulness had there been a replacement bus lined up but of course, this was not the case. I actually had the temerity to ask a member of staff when a replacement bus would arrive. With a look that clearly wished me a slow and painful death and with the attitude of someone who has just been asked to smear shit on their sandwiches, he told me that he didn’t know; one hour, maybe two, maybe more. Even so, we’ve paid 25 CUC (average monthly salary, remember) for this privilege so we better wait it out.
Two hours in the blistering heat later, no food, no water and no information offered by the company. Everyone who has asked for information has been met with the same incredible rudeness I was, with even less useful information. Many people have given up and got a taxi instead. We can’t really afford that so we came up with the genius plan of asking for a refund and using these funds to pay for a taxi. The man in the office explained that he was unable to give a refund, but if you get a taxi to Havana and ask there they will be able to give you one. Can you write this down for me, kind sir? No, of course not. Hmm.
3 sweltering hours in a taxi later, we arrive at the Viazul terminal in Havana. Asking separate staff members about or refund, we’re met with the level of customer service we have come to expect from public sector workers in Cuba. I treat dog faeces on my shoe with more deference. The boss isn’t here, he won’t be back until tomorrow, one says. The boss is at the bank, he’ll be back in an hour another says. By this point my bullshit alarm is ringing loud and clear and my temper is very, very close to boiling point, as is that of about ten other passengers who have been forced to make the same journey. One companion who spoke much better Spanish than us told customer service representative number one to get the boss or you will have a bloody mutiny on your hands, which finally prompted her to get off her arse and do something.
Said boss arrived and was, despite the disagreeable raft of souls we have already met on this adventure, the rudest and most obnoxious man in Cuba. He dealt with us with an arrogance and disdain that only an un-sackable, fat lump of shit could do, telling us in pretty much exact words, to go fuck ourselves. A near riot ensued, and we were forcibly ejected from the bus station. A few words with a kindly taxi driver informed us that this isn’t an entirely unusual situation at the Viazul, but sadly the police would do nothing as they are public servants too and would side with the company. Great.
In our three days in Havana, we were plagued by more of this kind of thing, though on a lesser scale. Being “helped” by strangers then having money demanded from us. Being overcharged for everything unless we demanded a receipt. The problem, which lies directly at the feet of the Cuban government, is the insane dual economy created by the twin currencies. In Cuba there is money in tourism and in absolutely nothing else. Tourists are a walking dollar sign and it shows, and it is incredibly frustrating and puts a cloud over our time in what could be an amazing country.
It isn’t all bad, mind. In Part II read about what we loved about the place. For a country so famed for conflict, it hasn’t half left us conflicted.
TL;DR – Cuba is annoying.