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Cuba Day 4: Discovering serenity in Havana


· Joey,Cuba,Travel journal

Meeting our friends & negotiating a taxi ride

After quickly grabbing breakfast at a cafe around the corner from our casa, we headed out to meet our friends outside the agreed restaurant, near the Melia Cohiba hotel. They were already waiting for us when we arrived, getting us with big smiles and matching straw hats (cute)! Meeting up at a pre-agreed spot at a pre-agreed time worked - how very refreshingly old school!

We were planning on heading to Vinales, a village South East of Havana famous for its mogotes valleys and tobacco plantations, the next day and wanted to get bus tickets in advance. In Cuba, there is just one intercity coach network called Viazul (literally blue way) that runs one or two times a day depending on the route. (Note: if you’re here as part of a package tour, the tour operators run private coaches.) We’d heard that these are the most comfortable way to travel, as the coaches are relatively modern with air conditioning. However, these get booked up pretty quickly especially with growing tourism in Cuba.

The Viazul station is near in the outskirts of Havana and was a 50 - 60 minute walk away from us, so we decided to grab taxis. Imitating the doorman from last night, I flagged down a couple of taxis and negotiated a ride for 5 CUC for each car. Alex jumped in with us, leaving Magda (who spoke a little Spanish) with the other couple Andia and Arian. To be honest we were a tiny bit nervous splitting up again without any means of getting back in touch if we got lost, but that voice again whispered Tranquilo and showed me how irrational that fear was - the taxi drivers wouldn’t get lost to the Viazul terminal...!

Inside a Cuban taxi

Me, Iris and Alex bossing it in the vintage car (“Americanas”). Don’t you just love his hat?

The Viazul incident - Joey haggles for the first time (and likes it!)

When we got to the terminal, our friends from the other car had already enquired about tickets and were told there was no availability. I quickly double-checked, as they weren’t entirely sure that the Viazul agent had understood their English properly. The route was sold out for the next two days.

There were countless taxi drivers outside the Viazul station trying to sell seats in their taxi collectivos for 20 CUC each. For Cubans, owning a casa and driving taxis is a really big earner. In a country where the average annual wage is $400 - $500, just one round trip to Vinales would earn them $160 or a third of the average annual wage. I’d heard these taxi collectivos aren’t usually the most comfortable ways to travel, despite being (significantly) quicker than the Viazul. A lot of cars don’t have air-conditioning and they’d cram three people at the back to maximise their revenue, which isn’t ideal for long distances.

I wondered if our friends’ casa owner (Tony) could book us a minivan to take us to Vinales, but he’d apparently said that they didn’t exist. Persisting nevertheless and doubting the non-existence of minivans in Havana, I went (with Iris’ encouragement) to ask around for someone with a large car or minivan, with air-conditioning, that could take all six of us in one car to Vinales, for 100 CUC in total, 20 CUC off asking price. Within 30 seconds I found two people with a jeep who said take us for 20 CUC each, which I negotiated down to the price I wanted. The guy we chose to go with took down our casa addresses and agreed to pick us up in the morning at our respective casas. Given that we would have had to take taxis to the Viazul terminal, it wasn’t any more expensive than taking the Viazul. Smashed it!

Travel tip:“No mas de ___ CUC” worked really well for me when negotiating prices in a hurry. I’d offer a fair amount (not rock bottom) based on what we’d read online or from asking casa owners. We could have saved more money had we negotiated harder, but that wasn’t always what we were after and the locals need the money to survive! We didn’t often pay the first price offered, as it’s almost always way above the “normal range”. We’ll do a more detailed post on this another time (see Trinidad), but we want to (a) protect our budgets from profligate spending; and (b) don’t agree with arbitrarily inflating prices for other travellers / more honest locals.

I was on such a high. I’ve never been very good at haggling. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of haggling (which I know is more common in certain demographics or cultural backgrounds) - I liked it when others did it on by behalf. It was that I felt incapable of doing it. Like I wasn’t good enough. And I’d just proven to myself that I am good enough. That I am capable. Doubly so, having done this all in Spanish - up until today I’d been really struggling with my confidence in speaking in Spanish. I’d go all quiet and meek. It is said that to truly travel is to grow - I’d definitely seen the truth in that.

Levelling up - mingling with the locals & a random act of kindness

Transport sorted, we decided to head to Old Town. Our friends wanted to visit Revolution Square on the way and walk to Old Town. Iris and I decided to skip the walk (our feet were hurting a little from our three days of constant walking) and grab a taxi instead. We arranged to meet a few hours later at the Revolution Museum, to leave plenty of time for the long walk.

Fresh from the high of haggling the transport to Vinales, I tried to find taxis that would take us to Old Town for 5 CUC, but in vain. The going rate seemed to be 8 CUC, which we didn’t really feel like paying as we’d alreayd taken taxis and that’d pay for a sit down meal for two! We spotted a Cuban youth and a lady sitting down at a bus stop and asked them how to get to Old Town. As luck would have it, the lady was waiting for the same bus. She said that it’s 1 CUP (MN), for the both of us. We asked if she had any change for a 20 CUP (MN) note, but she gave us a 1 CUP coin and said with a smile that it’s okay. She asked how much the taxi would have been to Old Town and laughed in shock when we told her. Es loco (“it’s crazy”). We did the numbers and one 8 CUC taxi ride would be enough to pay for 400 local bus journeys (25 CUP in one CUC, and one ride being half a CUP). It helped cement our awareness of just what a different experience the local Cubans had of their own country to us foreign visitors.

A Cuban bus stop

We were touched by this lady’s random act of kindness. She helped a couple of Yumas (foreigners) first with directions and then giving money away, when she didn’t have to. The young man certainly didn’t offer help (not that we expected help). Wanting to show our appreciation, we gave her our mobile phone top up card that we mistakenly bought yesterday and thanked her for her kindness. She seemed surprised and very happy with the gift, a 125 x return on her “investment”. But you can’t put a price on a kind act and we were glad to be able to show our appreciation in some way.

The bus took some time to arrive. There is no schedule, even the locals just wait. Like with a lot of things in Cuba, it comes when it’s ready to come, which was 20 - 30 minutes or so. We mimicked the locals and quickly shoved our 1 CUP into hands of this guy on the bus and shuffled onto the crowded slinky bus. The lady ushered us into a corner and told us to watch our pockets and bags, doing the same herself. It was an incredible experience, standing shoulder to shoulder with locals and seeing Cuba from their perspective, if only for this short bus ride. We were also pretty pleased with ourselves for the money we’d saved!

Saying no to bad mojitos - the worst mojitos in the world

Once our friends had caught up with us in Old Town, we lost ourselves in the streets again, checking out the various plazas, bars that Hemingway frequented and introducing our friends to Cuban food. We even queued half an hour for some churros, which were delicious but ridiculously slow. (Travel tip: if you want churros and don’t want to wait 30 minutes, go to the park at the corner of Obispo and Aguacate, rather than the one near Plaza Vieja.)

Iris, Alex and Arian at a plaza. If you look closely you can see where the sliders had cut into Arian's toe :(

Magda found us a nice bar called La Relaquia with a happy hour deal on Cuban cocktails. They were also giving salsa lessons, which Magda and Alex took up with gusto. My favourite memory of that place had to be though was when we ordered a refill of the mojitoes and it was absolutely disgusting! It didn’t taste like it had any rum, sugar or lime! To the protestation of my friends, I called the waitress over to explain the situation. She took a couple of our drinks back to the barman, who proceeded to pour a whole load of rum into the glasses and returned them! I wasn’t having any of it! Thankfully the salsa teacher came to the rescue, who we asked for a second opinion on the mojitos. He swiftly arranged for us to have replacement drinks, apart from Andia who had sunk quite a lot of the spiked mojito already!

Our stay in Cuba so far reminded me of a prayer we have in my faith tradition, called the Prayer of Serenity:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. (Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.)”

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference"

Some things we couldn’t change, like waiting for a bus that may be 5 minutes, or 50 minutes. Or bloody feet from walking 15km in sliders (Travel tip: don't). Or flip flops falling apart (Travel tip: don't wear flip flops). Or the fact that people will try to hustle money from you. Some things we could change, like disgusting mojitos (the writer of the prayer probably had something more noble in mind). I hope our travels will help us develop these three aspects in our lives - serenity, courage and wisdom.

Alex's broken sandals, which Andia kind of secured in place with safety pins. Travel tip: Andia is prepared for all eventualities.

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