Ojalá

9th, 10th and 11th of January
Trinidad

Trinidad is beautiful. We – Betti and me – spent our first day there at playa Oncón, we cycled to the beach through a beautiful road and had a stop at La Boca then spent the rest of the day on the beach. I never learned to swim and never particularly loved the sea, but I started loving it in Holland (!) where one of my favorite pastimes was to spend hours alone at the beach in Den Haag’s windy winters. It was very calming for me and I loved the idea that there is something different on the other side. This day, for the first time, in my life, I managed to float. It was one of the most beautiful feelings I have experienced and I spent the whole day perfecting my new skill.

At night, we walked around the center of the city, we stopped by a guy who sells cocktails. We will become regular customers of him in the next few nights and will end up exchanging shirts at the heat of a bizarre moment. Walking around, we met an Italian guy called Enzo, we saw him in the bus station the day before in Cienfuegos and we were going to share a taxi together but he went on a different one eventually.

Betti and I wanted to go to a cascade the next day, a trip organized by our casa guy – a business man with such ruthless capitalistic capabilities for a socialist country. We decided to – again – try and target tourists to share a taxi with. We found our victims, they were two german tourists – Matias and Jenny – who just met a couple of minutes before we saw them. We pitched the idea and they agreed. We agreed to meet the next day at 10 am. Joking with Betti, I told her that – at least – we can expect the germans to be on time tomorrow, blunt stereotyping I know. They showed up right on time the next day.

The trip was good, a beautiful place away from everything. We had amazing food, talked with the casa owner and hosts, and the german friends turned out to be amazing company. We met at night again and went to a night club called la cueva, the cave, it’s literally a night club set inside a cave, although very touristy, it is one of the coolest places I have seen in Cuba or outside.

Having breakfast the next day, the casa owner called me to check the news. The war in South Sudan was all over the news, and since there is only one news channel the whole country listens to then every Cuban knew about it. Whenever I mention I am Sudanese, their followup will be “la guerra”, the war!

This day, we went to the beach again with the german friends, and I managed to swim for the first time. “Swimming” is being able to move few meters, Betti, Jenny and Mattias were very excited and encouraged and shouted in support the whole time. It was an amazing feeling to actually feel myself moving in the water for the first time.

At night, we all met again and went together to a nice music venue in the town center, we met Enzo the italian guy, and all of us were having a great time as if we knew each other for years, not just a couple of days. The surprise was that turning around, I just found Amet – the artist from Cienfuegos – in front of me. He came hitch hiking to Trinidad to attend the 500 years celebrations of the city and to see me and Betty one more time. It was surreal to meet him. I was genuinely happy. We hugged and formed a group, dancing, drinking, taking photos and having a great time.

To top it all, the band started playing Silvio Rodriguez’s Ojalá. When I heard it, I ran to the front and started singing/mumbling the lyrics. Amet was suprised his Sudanese brother knows this song and was more surprised about how emotional it made me. I was introduced to this singer years ago by a very good Chilean friend in Holland. Hearing it, I remembered him and the all-in-all beautiful, definitely eventful, past few years. Hearing Ojalá (which is a word meaning I hope, influenced from arabic o’Allah) felt like hearing the accompanying song to a movie’s finale, exactly the type of movies I will make one day.

It was almost 4 in the morning by then, we all went out of the bar as it was closing and listened to Bob Marley on Betti’s phone. He was singing “Good friends we have, good friends we lost, along the way” …

Cienfuegos and its good people

6th, 7th and 8th of January 2014
Cienfuegos, Trinidad

I ended up in Cienfuegos after the cool taxi drive with Miguel. I stayed at the same casa that the russian tourists were heading to.

The casa owners were a young couple, Yanetsy and Wilian, I haggled with them on the price of the room with all the strength and stamina I developed from years of living in Egypt. I must say that I felt guilty doing this in Cuba, being torn between knowing I have the finances of a first world citizen and the fact that I want to prove that I am not a first world citizen. Anyhow, I always ended up making amends one way or another on my own terms.

Next morning, I had breakfast at the kitchen with Yanetsy and Willian instead of having it at their terrace, they half-joked that I should be cleaning the dishes for ripping them off on the price and I half-joked that I like them so much that I would marry Yanetsy’s sister, la mulata, and stay in Cienfuegos forever paying nothing.

Afterwards, I went walking around the center of Cienfuegos, and shortly realized that there isn’t much to see. I decided to take an excursion to a nearby waterfall and started approaching other tourists with the idea of sharing a ride to the waterfall. Whenever I approached one of the tourists, they would think I am a Cuban jinitero and they wouldn’t even listen.

At the end, I gave up on the idea and started wandering around when I bumped into Jose Miguel, a russian tourist guide I met at the casa the day before and we started walking around together. He was also having a frustrating day as he failed to find any russians to do business with so he decided to give me a free tour of the city center. Jose Miguel seemed to know everyone in Cienfuegos, he kept meeting people he knows and sharing short friendly conversations with. One of the people we met was a young man called Amet, he told me that he is an artist and that they have a gallery – informally called the rastafari gallery – near the malecon.

Later, feeling bored already, I started walking towards the malecon and I passed by the rastafari gallery to meet Amet. I was very hungry so he took me to a local moneda nacional restaurant warning me that this place should be kept as a secret from tourists so that it doesn’t get ruined. At the gallery, I met a friend of Amet, a Hungarian girl called Betty who was also traveling around Cuba. We quickly hit it off, and decided to head to the next city – Trinidad – together the next day, I told her about my earlier failure to lure other tourists to go to the waterfalls and told her I might do with the help of a white girl by my side! She was totally sold on the idea and we quickly joined force to target tourists to join us for our trip. The theory did work and the first people we approached together immediately agreed on joining us. They did bail out on us eventually but the experience was enough for me to enforce my prejudices about westerners’ prejudices.

At night, I went back to the gallery where I got to know more of the rastafari artists. Carlos, a charismatic leader of the group explained to me the idea of the gallery and their project – k’ bola – that organizes cultural activities in the city mainly trying to spread reggae and alternative music types among the youth of the city. Another member of the group is Franc, an impressive person, a fisherman/artist/devoted rastafari who is full of life and positive energy, a delight to be with.

Amet, Franc and me walked around waiting for Betti, when we bumped into Mr. Franc Iraola. I would talk about Mr. Iraola but I think he deserves a separate post just dedicated to him. Betti showed up eventually and we headed the four of us – Betti, Amet, Franc and me – towards a local night club. It was totally different from the other touristy places I saw, there were barely any foreigners there. It was amazing how – once the music started – everyone were up on their feet and dancing on the piste. Stereotypes often are a blunt exaggeration but when it comes to Cubans and their passion for dance, that is one stereotype that hits the spot.

Next morning, I got a verbal slaughter by Yanetsy for being so late the night before. I also got one from Willian the night before, telling me how worried they were (I was out from 9 in the morning until 4 in the next morning). Yanetsy and Willian were an unexpected wonderful addition to the trip. Thanks to them and Amet, Cienfuegos turned out to be my favorite city in Cuba. Once again, traveling proves to be completely about the people and the friends you make along the way.

I met Betty around 10 in the morning and we went to the bus station to find a way to get to Trinidad. Instead of waiting for the bus, we took a collective taxi, it was cheaper than the bus and would leave immediately. The taxi had two other tourists from Switzerland who paid double what we paid for the same trip. The taxi driver let us get in the taxi instructing us not to let them know how much we paid, a conspiracy that I took part of without hesitation for some reason. We spent the rest of the day walking around trinidad. It is definitely one of the most beautiful and scenic cities of Cuba, and we were lucky that our visit coincided with the 500th anniversary of the city, so there were celebrations planned everywhere and people dressed up and painted their houses with beautiful bright colors to celebrate the occasion.

Cuban portraits – Numeiri

7th of January 2014
Cienfuegos, Cuba

My favorite experiences while traveling in Cuba are about people. It was amazing and surprising how everyone you approach seems to have an interesting story to tell. After my first few days in Havana (which I didn’t enjoy very much), I learned a valuable lesson, I put my camera away (benefiting from the fact that no one recognizes am a tourist without a camera or a white person by my side) and then I started approaching people instead of being approached. This was the turning point of my trip.

One of the random people I met is this gentleman who was part of a band playing in Punta Gorda in Cienfuegos. When they finished playing, I started talking to them. Normally when I say I am from Sudan, people either mix it up with South Africa or tell me that there is a war over there (which was all over the news when I arrived to Cuba).

Instead, this guy looked at me and asked me “Who do I look like?”. I couldn’t tell. I asked who, he looked at me and said:

“Gaafar Numeiri, do you know him?”

I was in shock. He did look like a Cuban brother of Gaafar Numeiri indeed. Numeiri – in case you don’t know – is an ex-dictator of Sudan who ruled the country for 15 years before I was even born. Still in shock, I asked him how he knows about Gaafar Numeiri, he told me that his best friend in the 80s was a Sudanese medicine student who studied in Cienfuegos, and this friend used to call him “Mr. Gaafar Numeiri”, and he never forgot that name ever since.

We talked more about Sudan, Ethiopia and Africa. And his knowledge was impressive, he told me a lot about Africans living there in Cienfuegos and in Cuba in general, and corrected me when I said that Mengistu was a communist, saying that he was just a “leftist”. Like most Cubans, their knowledge and education is impressive and obvious (especially pre “special period” generation as I came to understand afterwards from other Cuban friends), it is not just study-books knowledge but openness and curiosity to the world that you barely see in other parts of the world.

I listened to one last song from Gaafar Numeiri’s band and said goodbye. I couldn’t help but to imagine how different my country would have been if the original Numeiri also chose music instead of politics.

Miguel of Playa Girón

6th of January 2014
Playa Girón, Bahia de Cochinos (bay of pigs)

After few hours in Playa Girón, mainly to visit the museum, I said goodbye to Miriam, my German travel companion, as we were going in different directions now. I realized that it won’t be easy to get to Cienfuegos with local transport and I have to wait for the touristic Viazul buses.

To kill the time while waiting, I went to a bar to drink and eat something and a man in his late forties started talking to me, pointing to a couple of blond tourists standing next to me, I couldn’t understand his slang but I got what he meant from his gestures that were pretty universal. He took it to himself to start teaching me Cuban Spanish, or mainly, how to describe and talk about women in Cuban Spanish. I doubt there is any language/culture in the world that has as many ways to flirt with women or describe them. I listened carefully to my teacher’s light humorous lesson, we laughed and I invited him for a beer, a second one, a third one … we had plenty of time to kill. Miguel is a doctor but he works as a taxi driver as well to earn extra cash, he has a triplet of girls, 20 years old who are just graduating university. We started talking about all kind of things, avoiding politics, I found out that the most genuine people I met are the one who avoid politics. He didn’t need to talk politics though, a doctor having to work on a taxi to provide for his family, says enough and shows you the other side of the socialist dream. Although I admit I admire many aspects of socialist Cuba, I am also aware that it is far from perfect in many others, quiet often, it feels like it achieves equality by bringing many people down instead of raising everyone up.

Nasser, Miguel and me

While waiting with Miguel, another of his friends came, his name is Nasser. Once I said I am from Sudan, he greeted me in Arabic. Nasser is an Algerian, who came to Cuba in the eighties and fell in love with the island and a woman, and never went back ever since. Another one of the surreal stories that Cuba randomly throws at your face.

Anyhow, Miguel, Nasser and me were laughing and talking like good old friends already. I told Miguel that instead of paying 10 CUC to Viazul, I’d rather pay the same to him and hire his taxi. So I set on a mission to find other tourists to share the taxi. I found a Russian couple who also wanted to go to my same destination (Cienfuegos) and they accepted to share a ride instead of waiting for the bus. I shared one last drink with Miguel and Nasser and then got on the taxi. The Russians were worried about Miguel driving the taxi with a beer in his hand, I lied to them and said it was his first drink.

On the taxi, we continued the filthy Spanish lessons. We talked about his girls and his life. His tenure in Venezuela as a doctor which seems to be the best option Cuban doctors have to get out of poverty. I asked the Russian tourists about their jobs and it turned out they were doctors as well. They didn’t speak much Spanish so Miguel told me to ask them whether they also need to work on a taxi in their home country. I asked them and they didn’t answer. We all knew there was no need for an answer.

Travel like a Cuban

5th of January 2014
On the road to Playa Larga

Next day, Miriam and I started heading towards bay of pigs, the spot where Castro’s army humiliated the US and its Cuban allies some 50 years ago. We said goodbye to Jorge who was heading in the other direction towards Varadero. We decided that we are not going to take any touristic buses but we will make it to Playa Larga using only local transportation. Our only piece of information was that we needed to head south so we started walking south of the city hoping that we can stop a car heading in that direction.

While walking, we stopped at a small shop to have a cup of coffee. The owner of the coffee place was Elio, he spoke English perfectly and he started chatting with us once we came in. With Elio in Matanzas He told us that he just got the permission to host foreigners in his casa particular and took me to see it and take photos of it. Elio gave us our first clue to start heading south from Matanzas, he told us we needed to go to the bus station and over there we can take a truck (máquina) that will take us to another city south of Matanzas.

We made it to the bus stop, and over there we couldn’t find the trucks we were looking for. When we asked the taxi drivers, they tried to convince us that the only way for us is to take a taxi, I answered them that we are short of money and we can’t afford a taxi. They immediately changed tone and led us to where the trucks were stopping. We got into the truck after a short wait amidst the curiosity of Cubans looking at the German girl accompanying the – supposedly – Cuban guy and clearly didn’t belong in that truck.

In the truck, we got to know a young family and started playing with their cute child. Miriam gave him a balloon to play with, but it exploded shortly. She wanted to get rid of it, but the mom took it and started sewing it to fix it. She reminded me of my aunts who have an incredible ability to fix and repair anything time after time before giving up on it. A culture of poverty that is the same whether you are in Cuba or in Sudan, and that it is understandably very foreign for Europeans for example.

The truck arrived to the next stop, Jovellano. We asked the passengers how we can get to the next city, Jagüey Grande. A passenger – a young man doing his military service – told us he is going there and that we can follow him to take a local taxi colectivo. We started walking with the guy towards the taxi stop in a city that seemed completely empty of tourists or tourist attractions. We reached the stop and I started chatting with a local man, our connection was that he was wearing a Barcelona shirt like me. We were then joined by a young kid who could easily be from Khartoum suburbs, we started looking at the photos on my mobile, he told me that he wishes to go to Italy one day and when he saw the photo of my friend’s daughter, he said he wouldn’t mind marrying her because she is beautiful. Cubans seem to develop a great taste for women from a very young age.

Finally, the taxi moved and everyone on board seemed to know each other and started a very loud chatter. My Barcelona friend got his bottle of rum out and started sharing it with everyone in the taxi especially me. He made sure though to ask for my permission every single time he wanted to pass the bottle to my German friend!

We finally reached Jagüey Grande, I said goodbye to my FCB friend and he made sure to get us a bicitaxi to take us to the main road where we can get our next transportation method towards our final destination. It seemed that – by this point – we were part of a local circle of trust and everyone were making sure to take good care of us.

The bicitaxi took us to the main road and then waited for us to find a taxi colectivo and made sure we knew the local price. We got into the car that seemed like an older version of Sudan’s 1978 trucks. In the car, there was a guy I assumed he is a fake Cuban like me, traveling with a tourist. We talked when the car stopped and Reynier turned out to be 100% Cuban from Centro Habana, a university student, who liked to travel and explore the beauty of his country. I assumed that he is not Cuban, simply because Cubans – like all other poor countries – don’t travel for the sake of traveling, it’s a luxury that people just don’t think about, although it’s quiet affordable even for local standards.

Anyhow, we made it to Playa Larga around mid day and we decided to spend the night there and started looking for a casa for the four of us. We found a casa, left our bags, then headed to the beach where we all went swimming, except Reynier who said it was too cold for a Cuban. After the quick swim, we went looking for a restaurant, whenever we found a restaurant, they brought us the “foreigners” menu which has prices that are at least 3 times what would Reynier pays if he was by himself.

We finally settled for a place to eat, and we had a delicious dinner talking listening to Rey. He taught me about Cuba and young Cubans in few hours more than what I learned in the whole past week. His talks were more than the typical complaints about the difficulty and complexity of life in Cuba, on the contrary, Rey was full of hope, optimism and love to this country. He doesn’t think about leaving it – maybe only a vacation if he ever gets the chance – but he realizes how unique and beautiful it is. He said that he started traveling around Cuba when he got frustrated of his Cuban friends complaining about not being able to travel outside “Why would they dream about Miami when most of them haven’t seen how beautiful Trinidad is for example?!”, he exclaimed. We didn’t talk about politics and this might be one of the few conversations with Cubans where we didn’t mention Castro or the embargo or the communist party. It was just a simple but fascinating look into his life as a young man. A life full of dreams, ambition and passion as any other young person … from Miami to Khartoum.

Matanzas

4th of January 2014
Matanzas, Cuba

I already spent 3 days in Havana and I must say that I was beginning to feel disappointed. I always had a very dreamy picture of Cuba and Cubans. For me, they were all bearded revolutionaries fighting for justice and full of love for life, I forgot the simple fact that people are people, and poverty and revolutionary idealism just can’t thrive together.

What was shocking about Cuba after these three days though was that, at many times, Cuba felt even poorer and more miserable than Khartoum or Cairo’s poor alleys, you can see this poverty in all the jiniteros hustling tourists in hope of ridding them of some of their dollars and euros but also just in the exhausted eyes of older men and women. I felt uncomfortable with the situation initially, I wouldn’t accept distancing myself as most westerner tourists do, but in the same time, I recognized that – in the eyes of Cubans – I am yet another tourist even if hold an identity and a passport as cruel and as miserable as theirs.

But by the fourth day, my trip was about to take a massive shift. I decided to head east from Havana with my German friend Miriam that I met in the hostel in Havana. Our final destination was the bay of pigs with a stop at Matanzas on the way. We decided to take the old electric train to Matanzas, it is an old train that resembles Heliopolis trams in Cairo albeit it functions in much more beautiful surroundings. We headed towards Casablanca – the station on the other side of Havana – it is the most unassuming train station I ever saw, it looks like any other colonial house in Havana.

The old train departed exactly on time in a precision that astonished even my German friend. It started rolling very slowly in the middle of the beautiful nature of the suburbs of Havana. In front of us, was a family formed of a father and his daughter, and as the train went forward, more members of the family joined them at different stations. In about an hour, there were more than 10 members of the family from the grand father to a baby who is probably the fourth generation of the family. The train reminded me of my father’s stories about Kareema’s train in Sudan, it was rolling slowly from one station to another taking its time at each stop allowing passengers and workers to chat with their friends, that train – as well as Kareema train probably – are the extreme opposite of Europe’s miserable punctual and spiritless trains.

Two hours into the trip, an electric fault happened and the roof of the train went on fire. All of a sudden, there were blazes of fire falling from the windows into the carriages. For a moment, I thought I was dreaming until people started running around me, and the train stopped in the middle of the villages. We got off the train, sat down on the grass while people were chatting and drinking loudly. One Cuban came to talk to us, a doctor who speaks English fluently, he explained how these accidents are very normal on this train, and the problem will be fixed soon and we will continue our way shortly. Meanwhile, the train staff were fixing the issues accompanied by lots of passengers who didn’t shy from providing their knowledge and expertise to the cause of getting us moving again. The train finally moved, and we arrived to Matanzas, strangely enough, on the exact scheduled time as if this accident was completely accounted for.

When we arrived. we joined another tourist from Spain named Jorge, and we decided to look for a casa together. We found a great casa with a huge room with three beds, which looked – as most of the casas – as if it belonged to a family that was extremely rich before the revolution. Jorge is an architecture student who is spending a semester in Mexico, an extremely clever and knowledgeable young guy, one of these young Europeans that I keep meeting and wonder how beautiful and fair Europe would be – to itself and others – if it gets ruled by this generation one day. We put our bags and headed for a walk around Matanzas, we went to a local restaurant where we can pay in moneda nacional – Cuba has two currencies – and I found out, thanks to Jorge, how much we can change the course of our trip once we start using moneda nacional. It is not just because of saving money, but because it opens the ability to travel, eat and enjoy Cuba more like Cubans.

We had our good food then sat down near the railway track looking at the rusty malecon of Matanzas and talking about all sort of things for hours.

Arriving to Havana

31st of December 2013
to 3rd of January 2014
Havana, Cuba

I arrived to Havana around 6 in the evening, a very long queue was waiting for us in the airport. After more than an hour, I finally made it to the immigration officer, looking at my unusual passport, she told me to wait on the side. Even you Cuba!

I was the only one among hundreds of passengers, from the most socialist countries to the most imperialist, that was not allowed to enter. After another half hour (by then, I was the only one remaining in the hall), an officer with a higher rank came and started interrogating me in very poor English, he asked about my reasons to come to Cuba and then started looking at my passport again. I told him we are a poor country, we can’t afford fancy passports. And then poked him saying that “my American friend already entered, I didn’t know that you don’t welcome poor countries in Cuba”. At the end, I was only allowed in when I showed my British residence, when he saw the residence, he went back to the first immigration officer and asked her angrily why she’s wasting his time if she knew that I live in Europe. She replied she wasn’t sure what to do as she never saw a passport like that.

I made it to my casa particular (the Cuban equivalent of hostels) around 10 o’clock, just two hours before new year. I went to the casa with a nice taxi driver, we talked about Cuba and Sudan, and I told him that Sudan is embargoed as well by the US, he replied laughing “and who gets to embargo the US”, no one. We passed by many of Havana’s beautiful squares, I saw many portraits of Guevara on the way, but not any for the Castro brothers, unlike what you would expect from a “dictatorship” I thought.

“Casa particulares” are  houses belonging to normal Cubans who can get a permission to host foreigners in a room or two in their house. It is one of the few possibilities for private business in Cuba. My casa was in Centro Habana, and it’s a a dorm with each room having four beds. I was warmly welcomed by Julio in the casa, and there were an Argentinian couple and a german girl. I was very tired and jet lagged that I knew I won’t be able to do anything special, I had a quick nap and then woke up just before midnight, and we all celebrated in the simplest of manners in the casa with a delicious meal and a bottle of rum. I then smoked a Cuban cigar on the balcony, watching Cubans on the street, each having their mini party in front of their house doors.

Next day, I started my trip exploring Havana walking around from Centro Habana to Habana vieja. The roads looked like Cairo’s alleys except they were cleaner and had some air of freedom. The houses are old and most cars are from pre revolution. I walked around Habana vieja, from the capitolio to Obispo, saw a couple of Hemingway’s favorite spots. The streets are full of shops, music and tourists. Most of the locals (at least the ones who approach you, I learned afterwards) are hustlers who want to rip tourists off some money. I had an advantage that, if I don’t have my camera or Lonely Planet guide out, then no one recognized am not a Cuban. As for the hustling, I expected that from a poor country, the same happens in Egypt so I claimed I knew most of the tricks and wouldn’t fall easily for them.

I kept walking around until the malecon, the street on the coast side, and I walked around it for hours, talking to many people who approached me on the way, most of them were hustlers or prostitutes, I talk with them then when it’s time to seal a deal, I apologize that am a poor tourist from a poor country. I finally went and had dinner in a very chique restaurant only visited by first world tourists, like me.

In the casa, I got to know a Swedish couple, Lisa and Erik, and a german girl called Miriam. We decided to go to one of Havana’s beaches the next day. I love the sea but I can’t swim. And although this beach and Havana’s beaches in general are considered mediocre in Cuba’s standards, it was still one of the most beautiful beaches I saw. The water was clear and warm, and I could walk for tens of meters before the water reaches my waist. We spent a beautiful day, ate at an Italian restaurant that we were told it has the best pizza in Havana, and it didn’t disappoint. Miriam gave me a swimming lesson (the first of many in Cuba) that day. At the end of the day, Miriam and me went back together, the Swedish couple went back earlier, and as we couldn’t find a taxi, we decided to take the local bus. The ticket for the bus was less than 1 cent (in CUC, one of Cuba’s two currencies), while we paid 10 CUC for the taxi on the way to the beach! I realized then that this bus ride is probably my first Cuban experience in two days in Havana.

The third day in Havana, I spent it going to the must-see touristy places, plaza de la revolucion and walking on the malecon of course. And Miriam and I, decided that we will take the old electric train to Matanzas the next day. And this is when my trip really started.