Islands of the Caribbean; the Orinoco & Amazon Rivers; the Brazilian states of Ceara, Rio Grande do Norte, Pernambuco and Paraná; Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile & Easter Island, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela: Natural wonders, colonial cities, great food and fantastic music!

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Interview Time

Last year we didn’t manage to fit in our traditional end-of-expedition interviews, but this year we’re going for it big time! We’ve each prepared 20 questions for each other about the trip, to be answered blind and with no-holes-barred.

Jon’s Questions for Simon
Jon: Welcome to my large and intimidating interview panel, of Me, Myself and I. Thanks for coming, but even greater thanks for a brilliant time on this trip and for your invaluable blogging. There was an amazing amount of things to take in with regards to flora, fauna, languages, delicacies, sports, dances, music, and the list goes on. The blog has been a fantastic method of reflecting back on each moment and experience, be it joyful or sad, hilarious or serious, surprising or predictable; it’s kept our minds ticking and the folks at home entertained and in tune with what’s been going on. Now I’d just like us to look back at some of these moments and find out how the trip looked from your perspective, so think fast! What aspect of the whole trip did you find the most physically challenging?
Simon: Well funnily enough, not Roraima! We walked up and down with challenges, yes, but with relative ease. OK I admit that the final hour was punishing, but frankly that was solely from the psychology of receiving the t-shirts the night before and being lulled into the false sense of security that the trek was prematurely over. But all in all, I’m satisfied with my performance on this mountain. The biggest pounding was down in Chile. The hike up to the torres base camp made me just curl up into a little ball when you set of for Campamento Japones, whilst that long, long walk onwards to Italiano turned me into a zombie. But was it worth it? Absolutely!
Jon: Your words are true! Perhaps the Torres del Paine trek was more demanding due to having to carry more luggage for, perhaps when we talk about the most strenuous days, three times the length of each of the Roraima days. Plus, many of the ascents and descents were of similar gradients to the slopes of the Lost World. Now, out of all the things you brought with you from home, which single item could you not have lived without?
Simon: My money-belt. And that’s it! It’s a liberating feeling, walking through the Gran Sabana, knowing that round your waist is strapped your passport, cash and credit-cards, and that this all ALL you need to carry on and get back home. Everything else is superfluous, an added luxury. Even a few spare clothes; what you stand up in is all the traveller really needs.
Jon: How did the various South American cuisines live up to your expectations?
Simon: Complete, total and utter disappointment. I’m sorry, but the solid food was a disaster. But the fruit shakes, particularly in Colombia were amazing. And the Custard Apple we tried in Bolivia, fantastic, up there with our Cambodian Mangosteens and Rambutans.
Jon: Which of all the countries captured you most, and why?
Simon: I think it has to be Brazil. Because we MUST return, a.s.a.p. And then Colombia and Cuba come a close, equal second. But Brazil has made me eager to sample much more, from Salvador de Bahia down to your beloved Rio, and then to Ouro Preto and the rest of Minas Gerais, together with the beaches of Santa Catarina, the jaguars of the Pantanal, and the exciting railway journeys that are possible in Brazil. One of my biggest regrets with this continent is the lack of thrilling train travel. Just remember India!
Jon: When we set out on this adventure, we didn’t really have an understanding of Spanish. Do you feel that you have managed to get to grips with it a little? How much has your comprehension and active communication of Español improved?
Simon: Well, don’t forget that as a composer I was working quite closely with the poetry of Gabriela Mistral, so Latin American Spanish was fairly well established in my recent consciousness. But I certainly wasn’t prepared for the shock of how it sounds colloquially. Thinking back to all my visits to Spain, I was fairly lost even then, so you would expect that I would have been in need of some intensive remedial work. But the total immersion method in target language really does work: my passive vocabulary has expanded dramatically, and just by the very nature of being here for three months and listening to locals bringing me into a conversation, I’ve gained the ability to understand what’s going on. And I can look enthusiastic, pull the correct face and respond with “Si, claro…” So the next stage will be a stroll in the park…oops, losiento, un passeo en el parque…
Jon: If you could create a charity group to improve Latin America, what would it be called and what would it focus on?
Simon: I need to help address the single, most shocking problem of the continent, which is the grinding, pointless poverty of the massive favelas and barrios which radiate outwards from every single urban centre. Only occasionally can they be pretty; more often they are vile adjuncts to graceful plazas, and something needs to be done. Chavez has a building programme of social housing for the poorest sectors of society, but it’s hardly scratching at the surface of this issue; relentless urbanisation has proceeded unchecked, and the tragedy has a knock-on effect on villages and rural communities which have thus haemorrhaged their population and lost valuable traditions and techniques in the process. So my contribution would be in the establishing of tiny businesses with micro loans on minimal interest rates, to aid both urban and rural societies. It’s called Favela Umbrella…
Jon: Did any of the flora or fauna particularly impress you?
Simon: I really loved the bright purple which can be found everywhere: on balconies, behind the metal grilles of tiny, pastel coloured dwellings, and along the roadsides. And talking of purple, do you remember that massive, purple dragonfly we saw hovering just above a tiny stream as we were hiking in Venezuela? And it was in Venezuela that we saw the most impressive birds, from one long, elegant black and yellow, debonair specimen, to the green parrots and blue macaws. But the pumas and jaguars remained elusive, and, thankfully, so did the snakes and creepy-crawlies.
Jon: We’ve seen many wonders of the world on this trip. Which one exceeded your expectations most?
Simon: Interesting…well, here is one natural, and one cultural. If I had to single out just one experience as being more memorable than any other, it would have to be waking up at Campamento Italiano in the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, in the woodland dappled with sunlight and hearing the sound of gushing water, then immediately stumbling onto the little bridge over a truly spectacular stream slap, bang in the shadow of a beautiful glacier with wisps of snow blowing about it under an electric blue sky on the sheer walls of Paine Grande. This was unforgettable, and the type of moment where you wish for time to stop completely so you can savour it for hours! And the cultural experience? The churches of Cusco, with their massive, golden altarpieces and ornate carvings. These buildings sum up for me the entire ethos of the continent. And now I could continue and talk about Machu Picchu, but that’s not helpful in answering your question as I’ve already cheated by mentioning two things…
Jon: Any important money-saving tips for future travellers to South America?
Simon: Well, first and foremost, it’s important to remember that this is NOT Asia, and so the cheap five dollar rooms of India don’t exist, neither do the platefuls of Thai fried-rice for a few Baht, so budgeting carefully will be key. But we DID it! Virtually everywhere we managed to get a room for ten pounds per night, and by eating basic food, travelling on buses and buying a few, well-chosen souvenirs, we managed to do the whole thing on about £15 each per day. But that’s not including the £1,800 we forked out on flights during the planning stage…
Jon: Are there any moments that stick in your head when you felt threatened by something or someone?
Simon: well only the street boys in Buenos Aires, and I’m still not certain how serious they were, how much of a joke they saw the whole thing, or just how dangerous they might have been. But we were both terrified by Caracas, which turned out to be a fascinating, vibrant and visually engaging city.
Jon: I wasn't thinking of these aspescts, but they were threatening moments indeed. I have heard many bad stories about Caracas and thought it'd be a dive, but driving through it was stunning with the favelas and the cable car that ascended up the mountainside. The scary thing for me, was the risk of having to fight off rabid dogs. Tokirau, our dog on Easter Island, seemed to be a trouble magnet and we were forever standing between fierce groups of territorial hounds who sadistically enjoyed fighting among themselves. Let's continue. On such a huge adventure, what things did you miss most about home?
Simon: My mum! I’ve bought far too many souvenirs with her in my, considering her clear instruction to me was not to buy a single thing. Other than that, I’ve missed making music. But then over in Latin America, we’ve heard tons of the stuff…

Some time later, in Moscow, to be precise, the tables were turned…

Simon: Hello there, Jonathan, and thank you for all your hard work on this little blog over the past three months. It hardly seems like two years since we were finishing our Indian trip with a stopover in Jordan, so how has this stopover in Cuba been for you? Have you managed some deeper insights into Communism?
Jon: I love how your refer to our blog as ‘little’… It’s been the biggest yet! Hahaha! Cuba has been a real eye opener for me. I feel that I’ve managed to see communist ideas in action, but I feel more confused than before I arrived here. The two currency system (the peso nacional and the tourist’s, higher-value, peso convertible) has blown my mind because only those who are affiliated with the tourist industry can get hold of the tourist’s money. We find people in tourism earning far more than doctors or other healthcare professionals, and definite rich and poor divides. I was quite shocked to see poverty existing here, but what was even more astonishing was the ration book that our host family presented to us. I can’t believe that a modern day country is still rationing to this high degree. Very post-World War. Most people who visit Cuba are in resorts, far away from the real life in Havana, and I believe that I have learned an incredible amount about Cuban society (and improved my Spanish) by choosing the Casa Particular family home stay as opposed to a hotel. The day at the beach was a fantastic wind down, but no matter how many times I apply the factor 25, I get burned. Still, not as bad as some of our previous trips, but my legs are currently singed fast-food!
Simon: Good points, well made! Let’s turn now to languages! When we started out in Argentina, our first real experience of the Spanish speaking world, how did you handle the transition between speaking Portuguese and Spanish? Has your fluency increased?
Jon: Well, everyone was telling us that Argentinean Spanish was the most confusing and I understand why. But it helped me to learn Spanish quicker because the two ‘l’s (ll) make the sound of the Portuguese ‘ch’ as opposed to their normal ‘y’ sound. Take the word which means ‘to call’, for example. In Portuguese it’s ‘chamar’ and in Spanish it’s ‘llamar’. In Argentinean Spanish the sound didn’t seem different at all to the Portuguese that I knew already, and so I found myself speaking a lot of Portuguese in Argentina and being understood. However, when we ventured around the other countries, I was sure to pronounce correctly ‘yamar’ instead of ‘chamar’. I had already learned basic words and understood the fundamental differences between Spanish and Portuguese by this point, so I was able to communicate. These days my Spanish seems to be coming along quite well, but I still have lots to learn and I plan to watch films with Spanish subtitles turned on when we’re back home. It would be a shame to forget all what I’ve learned, and I believe that Portuguese and Spanish could be learned side by side, and they compliment each other very well.
Simon: Yes, and that’s precisely what I’m going to do when we get back, with the aid of dictionaries and great literature. Now how about food… On each of our massive expeditions, food has been an important feature of our experiences. What flavours and textures have struck you most this time around?
Jon: The Arepas of the Caribbean coasts of Colombia and Venezuela stick in my mind as a stodgy, tasteless staple, but the Peruvian guinea pig delicacy gets the world’s bitterest meat vote. These flavours indeed struck me, but not in the sense that you’re asking. The foods that I would gladly gobble again include the flimsy, tapioca pancakes filled with soft coconut and condensed milk, which we experienced in Brazil, but also the ‘rodizio de pizza‘ where we could eat all the different flavours of pizza we wanted (traditional savoury flavours plus chocolate, strawberry, coconut and more!); the saucy and spicy ‘hot doubles’ from the barraca in Trinidad; the juicy, succulent, rare steak that was delicately charred for us on one of the many churrascarias in Buenos Aires; the tantalising sauce, with the added crunch from ants, that we added to pizza and spaghetti in the Gran Sabana, Venezuela; but the Chinese restaurant in Lima probably served the best food of all!
Simon: I’m salivating now from all these memories. Seeing our travelling through your eyes, or rather tasting it on your tongue, it doesn’t sound so bad after all! But we always say that often a trip is made by the people we meet along the way. Which characters have made the deepest impressions on you in the last three months?
Jon: Hmmm… Difficult. There are always going to be some who I forget, but I’ll attempt. The entire group on the Roraima trek were just ideal and the best. I felt that I bonded mostly with the Japanese duo, Rachael, Lindsay, Moises, Francisco, Polly, Branni and, of course, Bruno, as conversation was always pumping around with these guys. And those of us who went to the salsa bar in Santa Elena just completely relaxed and I didn’t mind making a fool of myself during my salsa dance with two strangers and Polly… She’s a load of fun! Iuigi from Japan also had a great time with a keen Venezuelan woman, who wore him right out (and he’s used to exercise, what with being a second dan judoka!). Martin from the Salar Uyuni tour, Bolivia, was also very interesting and I hope that we can meet him in London sometime. Shirley from the same tour was actually hilarious and we strangely bumped into each other in the same hostel in Sucre, and at the Ecuador-Colombia border crossing. It was highly entertaining watching Shirley teach another guy from the tour, Christian, some Dutch phrases like “noke in de koke” (however you write it!). During our trek in the Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine, Chile, Robert from Oregon State, USA, was a great hiking companion and was a welcome third member to the team. When times got hard and food supplies scarce, he shared some pasta and ketchup with us. Life saver! And Marta, our Brazilian friend from the hostel in Puerto Natales, is just so cheerful and keen to teach me Portuguese and improve her perfect English. We’ll see her in Brazil, I’m sure!
Finally, the family we are staying with in Cuba at the casa particular is just fantastic: Sandra makes fantastic black bean rice and lobster, and Pablo converses keenly about the ups and downs of his country, in Spanish and English.
Simon: Wow, hasn’t it been a privilege to meet all these fascinating people? For me, the person who stands as an emblem for our wonderful encounters just has to be Bruno! Our local guide in Venezuela was of course the best anybody could wish for, but to be accompanied by a friendly and loquacious anthropologist, skilled in the tribal language of the indigenia, deeply familiar with the ethnography of the area and willing to share his skill, knowledge and wit was a mind-blowing, once-in-a-lifetime week!

Well, sadly, we've come to end end of our biggest ever blog, and longest ever trip. Thank you for following and supporting us, for helping us through the tough bits and laughing with us through the bizarre bits! But our travel plans aren't quite grinding to a halt over the next few years. Watch out for Poland, Germany, Guatemala and more, much more Brazil. But only in bite-sized chunks from now on, from weekends to a week. But by now, you already know just how much we can pack into just seven days. Bye for now...

La Vida Cubana (or, Havana Bad Time...)

For our final full day in Cuba, we decided to take it easy. The man behind the bar in the Casa del Ron summed up for us the entire ethos of being a tourist in Havana when he tried to get us to open the day’s batting with a mojito: “It’s very nice…” he swooned, making it sound so tempting. But he was so relaxed, unlike the hard-sell girls and boys on Obispo and down in Chinatown. Yes, it IS very nice, but this distorts the reality of existence here so much, it would be obscene to join in the game. Don’t forget, this team reports back to you what we find BEHIND the façade, and we always deliberately try NOT to be tourists, but to immerse in the local culture of the country we’re visiting. And that’s precisely why we’re not staying in a hotel here: we’re living life around the kitchen table and on the front doorstep onto the street with Sandra, Pablo, Luis and Lisandra. It would be ’very nice’ to sip Mojitos all day (and here I’m talking metaphorically, because they taste of mint from the garden, which isn’t quite to everybody’s palette, and I much prefer the Piña Colada…and, come to think of it, we haven’t even tried the Daquiris yet at El Floridita, but it would really go against the grain to walk in Hemmingway’s footsteps…) but life here is grim, unbelievably grim. Odaline de la Martinez once said in an interview that Cuba was Music. Period. Well, sort of. But it’s hardship too, and the music is just the blessed relief.
Simon was here almost exactly three years ago. And since then, it’s changed. Havana has rotted some more, there are fewer gringos on the streets, the jineteros are harder-selling, and the cycle rickshaws are an act of desperation. It’s not so much pulsating to the sound of Son and the beats of Salsa and Reggaeton, as lurching. And when Simon tried (admittedly in an act whiffing of desperation) to point out to Pablo that Raul and Fidel weren’t immortal and that Obama was willing to develop a healthy foreign policy towards Cuba, meaning that change was just around the corner, Pablo reacted with disdain. They always talk about change, but it has never happened. All his life he’s waited for the change, and now, it’s just too late.
So it was Sunday morning, and Simon went to the solemn mass in Havana Cathedral, complete with three priests, incense, twelve acolytes and a full nave. It was great (apart from the lamentable music, a shame in this of all places…) but of course the clergy here are controlled by the government, just as in the old days in Russia, and of course a high percentage of residents of the city are followers of Santeria rather than just Catholicism. But the priest worked hard in his lengthy sermon, and shook hands vigorously at the end. Later that night, our pair of weary travellers, longing for the journey home, feasted on swordfish and Morros y Christianos. Sandra cooks well indeed, and then Pablo came over to join the duo to put the world to rights. We have further, shocking discoveries to reveal. Let’s play a little game: Cuban What’s My Line. Place these three men in order of salary: taxi driver, street cleaner, doctor. Yes, you’ve guessed it correctly, of course the taxi driver is the richest, he makes a fortune driving around the rich gringos and he gets paid over 20cuc for an airport run. So who comes next? Yes, of course, it’s the street cleaner. So how much does the doctor earn? Wait for it… 500 pesos per month. We just did the maths, and that’s $250 per YEAR. Dollars, US. Per y.e.a.r. I don’t think we need to say any more. Over, and out!

Our Man in Havana

After exploring South America almost in its entirety, on your behalf, of course, over a period of more than three months, it was necessary for just a little R&R. Do you feel we’ve deserved it, scaling mountains, penetrating jungles and hiking national parks, all in the name of research? Well, it’s pay-back time, and what better place to do it than Cuba? We feel that we have earned ourselves a day at the beach!
Picture this: white sand, completely clear water lapping just one metre away from our sun loungers complete with a wind-activated retracting parasol; turquoise blue, warm sea water to splash about in under a tropical, cloudless blue sky, and a beach front lined with gently undulating dunes and palm trees. The beauty of the paradisiacal water cannot be emphasised enough. Imagine a tiger that is neither orange, nor white, but has a stunning body of light blue, aqua, turquoise and dark blue stripes that ripple as the tiger sighs peacefully. The fresh breeze created a fair few white horses on the surface and also thrusted our parasol high out of the ground and up the beach. We found the spontaneity hilarious but judging by the shock on other peoples’ faces, they seemed to think that Mary Poppins had just had a fatal accident.
Such is the environment at Playa del Este, just 20km from Havanna. And in the name of a well deserved one-day vacation, this is exactly where we ended up. Bliss.
Then it was time to head off into the sunset towards Chinatown for a fantastic oriental feast, including a very hot and spicy shredded pork, chicken with peanuts in yellow bean sauce, sweet and sour balls and egg fried rice. To round off the evening we strolled back along Obispo to buy two types of ice cream: Fresa y Chocolate. Writing this, sipping copious amounts of Cuba Libres, it hardly seems possible that we have been away on our gruelling expedition for the whole of this year, and that by this time next week we will be continuing with our own, individual projects, onwards to pastures new. But what a way to go!

Plaza de la Revolucion

We set off from our home on Aguacate, along Obispo and speedily past the tobacco store, heading for Centro. Just past the Capitolio we spied some rusting old steam locomotives and then headed west along Avenida Bolivar, taking in the astonishing Art Deco buildings which were on the verge of collapse, yet somehow managed to carry on as flats and apartments. Many facades hid cavernous workshops, where maybe, just maybe, sometimes work was to take place. Suddenly the faux gothic white spire of the Jesuit shrine of the Sagrada Corazon swung into view, which inside was resplendent with stained glass, Jugendstil reredos and a massive organ on the tribune. Bearing in mind the geographical associations of Alejo Carpentier, were we now in Cuba or in Paris?

We also stopped at a few small stalls along this wide boulevard specialising in the paraphernalia and souvenirs of Santeria, but somehow we weren’t quite in the mood for voodoo today. There was a wad of Moneda Nacional burning a hole in Simon’s pocket, and so we mingled with the locals (there are no tourists on this strip, nor are there any facilities for them…) by greeting them with the opening gambit “Que bolá?!” which is typical Cuban slang. Result! We started to spend our money on coffee, refrescos and amazingly tasty icecream.

After a left turn and a long hike, our destination suddenly became visible: the Plaza de la Revolucion. We were allowed to proceed right up to the most important seats, and so Jon made himself right at home in Fidel’s marble chair, whilst Simon gave a short speech to everybody in the crowd beneath.

All this hard work caused the famished pair to seek out a tiny restaurant, again working in Moneda Nacional, for a feast of tasty fried fish and black beans. But this was merely a prelude to the succulent, juicy and plump lobsters they devoured back at home that night.

Havana Good Time!

We popped into the rum store at the end of Obispo for some Romeo y Julietas. It took quite some time to smoke these big fat mommas...

The truth is that smoking is not a part of our daily lives but fortunately everybody, including us, knows not to inhale cigar smoke but that the fumes should be savoured in the mouth only before puffing out clouds of hoops and battleships. I’m sure the real Cubans are able to skilfully exhale smoky Che Guavaras but we’ve not yet witnessed that. As for us, we remained casual and pretended we were enjoying the repulsive experience of pure tobacco. Unable to finish our cigars, we left the rum shop feeling quite ill and woozy (I am sure that tobacco is not supposed to do that to people). Neither of us are in any hurry to go back and do it again.

Cuba: Food Rationing in 2011...

We were having a heated, rum-fuelled discussion with Pablo about how proud he thinks we should feel about being British in the run-up to a royal wedding, and so we attempted to flatter in return by suggesting that he, too, had a right to feel proud of his country for having the best health care and literacy rates in the world. Proud of his country? It was then that he gave to us as a souvenir the family’s ration book from last year. And suddenly the harsh truth about life in Cuba dawned.
But who is to blame: Fidel Castro or Jimmy Carter?
When you see us back at home, ask us about the ration book, or better still, ask to see it. We need to raise awareness of the plight here, alerting the bourgeois westerners hermetically sealed in the society of high-mass consumption to the sufferings on the paradise island. It’s not Marxism at work here, it’s a society of class distinctions lurching along under Fidelism. The crumbling, rotting Habana Vieja is a life of impossible hardships: Sandra is amazed by just our passports, for she is unable/forbidden ever to leave the country. We took a little stroll around the southern zone of the old city, where the roads crumbled years ago, the aging facades hide empty shells rather than functioning buildings, and the neighbourhood shops are devoid of any viable produce. We linger outside a house full of women adorned in white headscarves, only to move on when the Santero gives us a glance, and we listen to the sacrificial cockerels, blissfully unaware of their impending doom. We weave in and out of small shops selling artesanias, eventually purchasing enough musical instruments to found our very own two-man symphony orchestra. And eventually we arrive back at our family casa to find Pablo sitting in the street, forlornly gazing into the middle distance. What’s wrong? Well, there’s a problem yet again with the water supply: each house has water tanks underground and on the roof, but the mains water only runs for a few hours, every two days. Missing the slot could prove to be disastrous. During the evening, somewhere between 8 or 9pm, government workers allow water to pass from a reservoir to an accessible supply so that every household is able to take water on board through pump systems. As this only happens every other day, plans for evenings with friends or night walks have to go on hold, or life may become miserable. Water is life! The Cubans rely on this water supply for washing clothes, bed linen and the floor of the house from time to time, cooking and drinking. Bottled water is not really an alternative because prices are extortionate for these guys, so the best course of action which our host family have taken is to install a filter that allows them to drink tap water safely.
One of the most dismaying sides of Cuba is that the two-currency system makes it very difficult for locals who haven’t managed, and can’t manage, to get jobs relating to tourism. Builders, for example, receive their wages in Cuban Pesos Nacionales whereas the owners of tourist restaurants or craft shops have a large turnover in Cuban Pesos Convertibles (CUCs). Just to give you an idea, there are currently 24 Cuban Pesos to each single CUC. It has resorted to a fine divide with some restaurants serving food exclusively for tourists and others remaining loyal to their kind. Most Cubans cannot afford to pay 10CUCs (or 240 Pesos Nacionales) for a hearty meal of fish, beans, rice, and half a pizza if they’re really hungry. For a plate of rice tonight we paid 0.75CUCs, call it 75cents because this currency is pegged to the US dollar. In a restaurant we passed by earlier we saw that a portion of rice would cost a Cuban 2 Pesos Nacionales. We’ve done the maths here, so just trust us. We pay nine times more for rice than Cubans do, and just for your interest, 3 times more for beer. We aren’t complaining because, well take the rice again; we are paying nine times as much for it, but we probably earn much more than nine times the amount of money that they do.

Stuck in Caracas?

Not the most cheerful airport in the world, what with dim lamps hanging from the high, dark ceilings, the plain concrete staircases and, of course, all types of people waiting in utter boredom. The best thing was that we were seven hours early for our check-in! Thank goodness for Church’s Chicken, the best fast-food chicken burgers on the planet! And let’s not forget their awesome crinkle-cut chips with plenty of ketchup! We also requested Coca-Cola in the combo meal and it was delicious, but it was a much cheaper version like the 2l bottles we used to buy for 8p. We also managed a bit of final souvenir shopping, which killed a couple of hours and before long we were rushing to the randomised queue where a few people seemed to be surrounded by an entropy of thousands of suitcases. We, clever detectives, found out that A LOT of Cubans come to Venezuela to buy their expensive electronic goods on the cheap as opposed to paying more for them in their own country. This must be worth it to them somehow but when you consider the price of the tickets from Cuba to and from Caracas, plus the astronomical airport taxes, it’s hard to believe that there’s any point at all. We spent ample time in the queue standing upright until our backs became cranky and we assumed the sitting position for a while before that became uncomfortable also. There was just one more thing for it… Another one of those chicken combo meals each!
At this stage of the game, we had little idea of the true nature of Cubana’s customer service skills: this would only be gradually revealed over the coming days. Yes, days, for we also had scant knowledge of the looming fact that the flight we were about to undertake would, in fact, be lasting three days…
Well, LAN gave us a little bit of a hard time going to Easter Island last month and they didn’t offer us a hotel room and instead made us wait up through the night after which we woke up with our heads inside our empty McDonald’s Mac-litter. I am really looking for good points about Cubana de Aviacion and to give them their due, they paid our night in the hotel on the outer limits of Caracas so that we could descansar before checking in AGAIN about 24 hours later than scheduled. But just as they were redeeming themselves, we found more hurdles to come.
So the flight was postponed until the following day because there was a major technical fault with the fuel lines on the Yakolev-42D. The hotel in Macuto was great, as was the truly spectacular views of the mountains which descend here dramatically to meet the Caribbean. The following day we arrived back at the airport and eventually boarded our Yak. Words cannot fully describe the condition of the aircraft; business class was littered with stray luggage, cattle class resembled a dirty Guatemalan chicken bus, whilst the signs were in Russian, Lithuanian, Arabic and eventually Spanish. The strong whiff of aviation fuel completed the first impressions. We took off, flew for three hours and touched down in a tropical paradise, complete with turquoise water and white, sandy beaches. We bounded down from the plane and over to the tiny terminal building. At some point during this short walk, Simon pointed out to Jon that it didn’t really look much like Havana, the supposed destination of the trip. It wasn’t Havana at all, but Cayo Largo. One hour passed before we were queuing to board the plane again to Havana, hopefully! Up and away we went, right into a tropical storm, complete with lightening and killer turblence. Would our little Yak survive? Wish as we might, but Camagüey turned the next port of call. Our information on this place is rather limited as, by this time, the light of day had completely disappeared and we are only able to comment on the beautiful streetlamp specks! Changing money was successful here though and we were able to tuck into some half-a-job microwave pizza. With a mixture of Tabasco, Lea and Perrin’s, ketchup and ground pepper, the pizza didn’t seem all that bad. Just to be sure, we eradicated the taste with some good value tubs of chocolate and strawberry ice cream. It was about now that Simon discovered just how cheap the local rum was…
Within ten minutes of ingestion, the airline staff gathered the fellow passengers and started issuing tickets for free airport food. If only we had waited a little longer. We were stuffed at this point but, since it was free, we managed to find extra room for the ham and cheese baguette, and the cola. We hadn’t even finished chomping when it was announced that we should be embarking the plane once again!
This time the flight went to Trinidad. Actually, I’m joking, We finally made it to Havana, but I had you there for a second, admit it! Immigration was fairly rigorous, but we got through before waiting five decades for our backpacks. We then queue jumped the passengers who were declaring their TVs, DVDs, computer consoles, microwaves, (you name it!) from Venezuela and strolled right out into the open where we were to meet a large group of dedicated taxi drivers. It turned out we picked the right guy to get a lift with as his car was just the best and all we ever wanted to experience from Cuban automobiles. It was a massive, vintage 1954 Buic. The scarlet red and magnolia stripes on the paintwork were highlighted by the exposed, overheating bulbs of the rear lights, and the whole car seemed to violently vibrate as the engine rumbled during the journey. There was an overpowering whiff of something, like a mixture of engine oil, gasoline, heat on leather and stale sweat. The day after, it became more obvious that this wasn’t just the smell of the Buic, but the odour pervading the streets, dwellings and shops of the city. Let the experience commence!
By this stage it was 3 in the morning, but we didn’t care! Neither did Pablo, who was there to greet us at the casa particular. And what a fantastic house he and his wife, Sandra, have! We were shown to our room, which was immediately up a flight of white, tiled stairs and through a small door. The room is like its own apartment, but without a kitchen and is very cosy with small windows and a couple of tiny Tiffany lights for illumination. This is most definitely the “king of rooms” out of all the ones we have stayed in during the trip, plus the nice family here really enhances the experience! We flung open the tiny shutters the following morning to see one of the many characteristic vintage motors that dominate the city streets!