Miles and I stepped off the tourist bus in Trinidad (the Cuban town, not the country) in the last glow of twilight and were assaulted by a mob of home owners. This was our first (and only) ride in the bus actually designed for tourists, so our first experience with the onslaught other tourists seemed to take for normal. We retreated to the relative safety of the back of the bus and quickly agreed – we would pay no more than 15 CUC ($15) for a room. Up until then, we had paid 30-35 CUC, except for those nights when we stealth camped on the beach.
Where did this number come from? Who knows? But we both had the same one in mind, so decided to go with it. We were road-wary, stomach-sick and we hadn’t showered in 5 days of public transportation, only the last few miles of which were on a tourist bus. We really needed a room, and a zero-mile rest day.
Hitchhiking in Cuba is easy. In fact, there are designated hitchhiking points where an official in uniform will help you flag down free rides or negotiate bus rides for you.
That is what the web said and the tourist guides confirmed.
Yes, that is correct … if you are Cuban! If you are not Cuban, the official in uniform might or might not get you on a bus, depending on how he feels that day, and every private car turns into an overpriced taxi.
Miles and I had been standing by the side of the road, only 1 km away from Blanca‘s house, for several hours when night fell, and traffic disappeared. Playa Larga, the next town, and our planned destination, was still 15 miles away. Or *only* 15 miles away. I mean, are we not thru-hikers? What’s 15 miles? We had headlamps with us, so we just started walking.
It got very dark very fast, with thick forest on both sides of the narrow road, and no place to stealth camp, so when a car finally pulled up, I offered the driver 160 pesos (~ $8 – about twice the normal price for a ride of this distance).
“I know this is too much.” I told the driver, “but I’m tired.” He nodded in agreement. We both understood that it was indeed too much, but that we were still paying the full amount offered.
The next couples of days were a crash-course in Cuban transportation. We took turns being sick. Miles was hit first. I was brought down by a street-corner bowl of spaghetti. We kept moving forward anyway. We rode on local buses (seats forward, though not always padded), on guaguas (a metal box on a truck chassis with bench seats), on camions (like a guaga with less seats, more standing room, and the same amount of exhaust fumes), and on a … I don’t even know what it’s called … it consisted of two small wooden bench seats mounted on a metal platform in the back of a tractor. Above the benches was a tin roof decorated with colorful small flags. We had been walking most of the morning in the sun on a deserted road through the forest when it puttered by. I waved two fingers up (two people need a ride) in hopes that it would stop. The driver twirled his finger in the air to indicate he couldn’t stop – there were no breaks – but had to turn around to pick us up on the fly. We got on quickly before the engine could die, and were saved any further walking in the thick moist noon heat of that day.
Miles and I looked at each other, took a deep inhale, and plunged back into the mob. We were immediately separated and individually engulfed. Ten people waved laminated pictures of living rooms, clean beds and bathrooms in my face while yelling dollar amounts, in English, louder than their neighbors. Above all the hands and pictures, I could see Miles in the same predicament, faring only slightly better because of his height and natural calm.
“I will pay no more than 15 CUC per night. I need two nights for two people.” I yelled over the numbers, in Spanish. It was like I had dropped a cat in a flock of pigeons. Only two home-owners remained. One looked at me, visibly dumbfounded, and asked “20?” I shook my head no. The other was Lilly.
Traveling through Cuba is very cheap. You need only about $100 a week per person.
That is what the web said, and the tourist guides confirmed.
Again, yes, if you are Cuban. If you are not Cuban, then you are expected to use the tourist money, the CUC (Convertible Peso, matched to the American dollar, 1 CUC = $1, instead of the CUP, the Cuban peso, ~20 CUP = 1 CUC). If you have CUCs, then that 12 cent pizza is 1 CUC, that 5 cent bus ride is 2 to 4 CUC, and so forth.
But Miles and I didn’t know this beforehand. We planned $200 a week per person, expecting we’d live large with twice the recommended amount. American bank cards don’t work in Cuba, so whatever amount we landed with was our play money, period. We immediately learned that camping is illegal in Cuba. Tourists are expected to stay in either 5-star all-inclusive hotels or in Casa Particulares – the private houses of Cubans. These houses are everywhere, marked by a blue anchor near the door. At 30-35 CUC a night, plus 5 CUC for breakfast, our week’s budget would have been shot in a couple of days had we stayed in Casas every night. The tourist bus, towards which the Cubans continually tried to redirect us (“You don’t want to ride in this smelly guagua. The Viazur bus is down the street”), costs between 16 and 45 CUC per ride. Against, a few of those and our budget would have been shot. As for the 12-cent street pizza and spaghetti I had read about? Yes, it exists. But I, for one, would be fine living the rest of my life without that experience again. That’s all I’ll say about it. I don’t know when this $100 a week Cuba existed, but it no longer does.
Lilly grabbed my hand. This seemed to be the signal that I was accounted for, and off the market. Hand in hand, the two of us weaved our way through Miles’ mob to extricate him. “Sorry. I go with her” he told his crowd, pointing at me. They followed the chain of hands from me to Lilly and realized why he was off the market. All the pictures still in the air dropped, shoulders drooped and feet shuffled away. We were the last ones there. All other tourists had already been snatched.
“That was CRAZY!” I pointed back towards the bus depot. Lilly laughed. “I know. It’s like that every day. But you are safe now. I live just a few blocks down this cobblestone. You will love it.” She weaved her arm in mine, and we walked in step laughing and chatting all the way to her house.
Lilly was a beautiful 45 years old woman – my age – but her years did not show in her youthful face, only in the confidence with which she ran her house. She was a business woman. She had rooms to fill and knew how to play her cards, especially the friendship card. I was enamored with Lilly right away, imagining I had just met a soul-sister and future pen-pal. Miles wasn’t wooed, but he didn’t want to burst my bubble, plus, he liked the room, and the price was right.
“Here, my Love, this is your room. You have a private bathroom and a balcony. I will serve breakfast at this table, here, tomorrow – 5 CUC. How would you like your eggs?”
“No breakfast for us, thank you.” I didn’t catch the brief frown of displeasure on her face, Miles did. She had already returned to smiling when I looked back at her from the balcony.
She took our passports and returned with a big official ledger she spread on the table. Each guest’s passport number was noted in the ledger and reported to the government. I read upside down that the other two rooms were rented to a woman from Finland and a couple from Slovenia. Everyone had paid 15 CUC.
That night, all of us roommates met and gathered around a couple of bottles of rum at the breakfast table. Taru from Finland left the group early. She was a salsa dancer and teacher, and a frequent visitor to Cuba. Jason and Ilinka, from Slovenia, were first time visitors, and in the throes of the same budget dilemma we faced.
“Cubans act as though we are millionaires.” Ilinka said, “I worked hard for a whole year to save enough for this vacation. We didn’t expect everything to be so pricey. We are almost out, and we still have three weeks before our flights back. I don’t know what we are going to do.”
At least, Miles and I were saved from a deadline. We didn’t even have return tickets – the Viking had said we were returning by boat, and he had not changed his mind once.
“I’m sure we’ll be fine.” Ilinka said, recomposing herself. “I mean, it was nice to find Lilly’s place, at only 25 CUC a night. The bathroom doesn’t flush, but the breakfast is good, and it’s only 8 CUC.”
I remembered the 15 CUC on the ledger, and I got it. Haaa! 15 CUC was the price Lilly reported to the government. Everything else was gravy in the pocket. I later learned that ALL blue-anchored Casa Particulares are 15 CUC a night, but no one charges that unless you ask. And wouldn’t you, try to fluff up the price a bit, if your fixed salary as tourist host in your own home was about $40 a month?
I glanced over at Miles, wondering if I should tell Ilinka that she had been taken, but he was deeply engrossed in a conversation with Jason, and I didn’t want to interrupt. I filed it away, to ask him later.
Later didn’t come until much later. Miles and Jason talked until dawn, then slept well past Lilly’s breakfast time. When everyone finally stirred back to life, Lilly was gone for the day, leaving the house in the care of her mother. The Slovenians left for the beach, the Finn went out to meet a dancer friend in town, and Miles and I meandered to the non-tourist part of town in search of a bakery, cigar factory and vegetable stand – in that order.
We all regrouped at sunset, just in time to catch a live salsa band in the main plaza, and had SO MUCH FUN.
Lilly commented the next day how great it was that we all got along so well. “Usually people stay in their rooms, or go out, but not together.” She said. I wondered if she was worried we might “talk”. I still hadn’t asked Miles what he thought I should do.
The next day, the Slovenians were again going to the beach, so we decided to go with them. Two nights was all we had planned at Lilly’s. If there was a beach, there was a chance for free stealth camping.
Since we were already packed and out of the room, Lilly decided to move Taru to our room, in case a family came – because Taru and the Slovenians already knew each other, and we shared a common area, whereas Taru’s room was off on its own. Since Miles and I were just standing around waiting for the rest of the group, we helped move Taru.
Then Lilly decided to move Ilinka and Jason to Taru’s room, because she remembered that their toilet didn’t flush. The Slovenians had a LOT of luggage. We helped move them too. By then, Taru had gotten a chance to settle in our former room, and was distraught at its proximity to the street. Not only was it loud, but all the exhaust fumes from the street were giving her a headache. So Lilly called a plumber, which couldn’t come until the next day, and we helped move Taru into Ilinka and Jason’s room – the one with the broken toilet.
With each move, Lilly became increasingly irritated by our “but why?” questions. As soon as Taru was moved a second time, she gave us a perfunctory goodbye, put her glasses on and disappeared in her ledger.
Miles and I had a lovely day and a horrible night at the beach. My belly was making that water-cooler noise, the one that makes you run to the woods and everyone else for cover. Fishermen almost discovered our stealth camp, but we were able to evade them by laying very flat and quiet. This went on for a while, so we couldn’t sleep. And when they finally left, groups of tourists appeared at the edge of the white sand, led by local guides straight toward our hiding spot. We packed in a hurry and walked back into the open, where we were asked to leave because that part of the beach was reserved for hotel guests. We were pissy, tired, sick. It was not our best morning.
We spent the rest of the day waiting at the park in Trinidad for a taxi that never came. He had promised us a ride to the next town, where his Mom lived, if we paid for the fuel, which he couldn’t afford. I think he really meant to give us a ride, but either because he got caught by his boss or because we missed each other at the park, it never happened.
While waiting at the park, we ran into Jason and Ilinka. Things were not well at the house. Lilly was upset that no one was eating breakfast (previously directly in her pocket), and Taru had asked for a discount down to 15 CUC a night because the toilet was still broken (out of her pocket). Lilly was being short-tempered with everyone.
I heard the stories, but was impervious. I liked Lilly. She was my friend. Still, it felt right to tell Ilinka about the room rate. That is when I discovered that Miles had never trusted Lilly from the start, and in fact had a much different experience of her than I had through my love-goggles.
We finally gave up waiting for the taxi at sunset. We left the park and meandered the streets of Trinidad in search of a 15 CUC room with a blue anchor for hours, but no one was taking the bait. No wonder – we looked tired, and it was already dark. We were at a disadvantage, and they knew they had leverage.
“Can’t we just go back to Lilly’s?” I insisted.
“I don’t want to go back to Lilly’s.”
“But, we know there is a room at Lilly’s.”
Miles kept walking. Oh, how frustrating that stubborn man was sometimes! I foresaw walking around aimlessly until 2 in the morning just because he didn’t like the lady of the house. Arg!
Miles was actually very calm – or deadly quiet? – and I was vaguely aware that I was having a tantrum and that the situation was probably not as bleak as I perceived it, but I was too tired to care.
“C’m on. C’m on. C’m on. Let’s go back to Lilly’s.”
He stopped to face me. “If you say the word ‘Lilly’ one more time, I’ll give you 15 CUC and you can go sleep there by yourself. But I’m going somewhere else.”
He kept walking, then said from afar “Just have a little faith, will you …”
As he said these words, a few ladies sitting on steps in front of a house hailed us good evening. There was no blue anchor on their house. I asked anyway. They had a friend, just down the street, who might have a room.
“We want to pay 10 CUC. It’s just for tonight.”
I don’t know why I said that, maybe so the owner would refuse and I’d win some argument.
“Bueno. Welcome to my house. Here is your room, and your private bathroom.”
Miles glanced at me with a smile and a “Told you so” look on his face, and I allowed it.
Lilly’s was the last blue-anchor house in which we stayed, and we never paid 15 CUC again. Many Cubans have a spare bedroom in their government-appointed free house, and as long as nobody sees you go in and you look like you aren’t going to be any trouble, that room is up for grabs. You just need to ask, and have a little faith.
Next … Daneel