Cuba Aventures: It’s About the Pre-Journey, not the Journey or the Destination

If I keep up this writing pace, I might complete most of the story before my next trip. Most of the story is better than some of the story, no?

On the second morning, I got up early. Getting up early in Cuba is easy because it’s on Eastern time, which a whole 90 minutes behind Newfoundland time. So even though it was dark and earie when I jumped out of bed, my body was thrilled to think it had slept in.

My body was slightly less thrilled to see itself in the mirror.

My hair was missing. That’s right. Someone stole my hair and replaced with yellow, frayed rope. I’ve never had dry hair before in my life (usually I can wring the oil out a few hours after I wash it) so I was thoroughly disturbed. And if that wasn’t bad enough, my face was bright, shiny red. Like radioactive red.

Before you all scold me on my sunscreen habits, I would like to point out that I had reapplied my SPF 60 sunscreen (yes, that is a 60) every hour. Besides, my face wasn’t sunburned. I’ve been a pasty-white Canadian my whole life, I know what sunburns feel like. I wasn’t sunburned. I was just red.

No, you don’t get pictures of my cosmetic misery.

Listen carefully in case this happens to you. The solution to hair-that-was-replaced-by-rope is conditioner. Lots of it. Next time I go to Cuba I will bring several tubes of conditioner because last time I ran out. The solution to red face is foundation makeup, followed by translucent powder. I was a little anxious because the number on my foundation is -3: extra pale for pasty chicks, not for radioactive red faces. But it worked (yay!) and the powder took the shine away. I finally looked like a normal human being again.

The taxi ride to the Viazul station is 15$/CUC. There are places where you can negotiate your taxi ride, but a few of my classmates tried, leading us to discover that Varadero is not one of those places. Taxis do run early in the morning, thankfully, so I was at the station by 7:30 am, ready to hop on the 8 am bus.

The bus station in Varadero is divided into two parts. The Viazul for the tourists is on one side and the Astro for the locals is on the other. The toilets are only on the Astro side of station. I always take a trip to the washroom while waiting for a bus, so I figured I’d keep up with the tradition.

Just before I walked in to the room, some lady greeted me. Nonplussed, I greeted her back. As I was closing the door to my stall, though, I heard some loud banging on the door, with some yelling. I opened it to see the woman gesticulating wildly and speaking Spanish way too fast for me. I squinted and tried to make out what she was saying. Eventually I caught the gist of it:

“El papel!”

I turned around. Sure enough, there was no toilet paper in my stall. The woman was a toilet paper vendor.

Turns out that most public bathrooms don’t have toilet paper in Cuba. Not sure if it’s a waste prevention thing or if people just steal the paper to become toilet paper vendors, but yeah, bring your own toilet paper with you if you expect to leave your hotel or casa. Even then, sometimes vendors will get very insistant if you don’t buy their toilet paper.

I gave the woman 50 cents and hoped it was enough.

It was.

She gave me enough paper to last the rest of my trip.

I did my business as usual, figured out how to flush the toilets (they have weird flushers in Cuba. I think they’re actually kind of techy-enviro-modern but each toilet is a new adventure to figure out). As I left my stall, I noticed the bathroom door was closed. It hadn’t been closed before. The alarms went off in my head before I even saw her.

Toilet vendor lady was standing there, waiting for me. I was still alarmed, but I breathed. Her head barely reached my shoulders and she was kind of pudgy. If she was going to mug me, she was going to have a rough go at it.

Instead, she started speaking rapidly in Spanish. I didn’t know what she wanted, but I was already somewhat vexed at having to pay her to use the washrooms. I didn’t want to give her more money. I shook me head and played stupid tourist. I’ve found two ways to get out of situations I don’t like when I’m on the go: giving people money to make them go away, and playing stupid tourist. “No comprendo” I told her. “No Comprendo!”

Eventually she made herself clear. She tugged on my shirt.

Ropa. Nina. Enfirma.

She wanted my clothes to give to her sick daughter.

I thought about the belongings I had on me. I had only brought the bare essentials. Whether she was telling the truth or not, I love giving away old clothes. It’s just that, short of undressing in front of her and spending the rest of the day naked, I had nothing to give her.

I tried to explain myself in my rudimentary Spanish -tried and failed. Eventually she did get the hint and let me go. I made a beeline back to the tourist section.

It wasn’t long until we were boarding. Viazul takes pride in being on time, and on time they were. I got on the bus and gave my ticket to the ticket person. The ticket person shook her head. “11:30 for you”.

Whaaaaa….After all that yesterday, I was still scheduled for the wrong bus?

Annoyed and still shaken from my bathroom encounter, I may have been a bit snappier than usual. Which resulted in being quickly switched to the right schedule, told that there was no problem and that there was plenty of room on the 8 am bus.

As we pulled out of Varadero and made our way to Havana, I thought about the toilet paper vendor lady. The only times I was harassed by people wanting my stuff was in Varadero: the ticket vendor who wanted my clothes and a woman with a card saying she had a brain tumor wanting my soap and shampoo. (In case you are wondering about the lady with the brain tumor, I didn’t have much on me at the time and I didn’t want to part with my GoToobs so I gave her my travel sized face soap. From then on, though, I carried some shampoo from the hotel in my purse, just in case.)

It’s difficult for an outsider to judge what the living conditions are like in Cuba. Cubans in Varadero (and American television) will be quick to tell you than Cuba is a third world country, that food is extremely difficult to access, that they are suffering immensely. But outside of Varadero, people seem happy and healthy. I don’t envy the Cuban people their lack of freedom, but from what I’ve seen, the average Cuban lives quite nicely. People dress well. It’s actually surprising how well they dress. Homes look small and run down from the outside, which is very shocking to unaccustomed Canadian eyes. But what little I saw of the house insides seems quite clean and cosy. Cubans are generally either outside working (I’ve found that Cubans are extremely hard workers) and outside talking with neighboors. It’s not like Canada where we spend almost the entirety of our lives behind our thick walls. They don’t have winters or extremes in temperatures to deal with. Only the heat and the sun, which make being outside lovely, and don’t do favors to the external appearance of buildings. Health-wise, Cuba has free healthcare, which is reputed to be of quite high quality. People take care of their bodies too, and I don’t think I saw a single obese Cuban the entire time I was there. Similarly, I don’t think I saw an overly thin Cuban either. Education is also free, and I was quite impressed how how intelligent and knowledgeable most Cubans I met were.

And if you were good and read through this entire post, you are allowed to look at a pictures I took from a bus stop on the way to Havana. If you didn’t read the whole post, NO PEAKING UNTIL YOU’RE FINISHED READING.

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2 Responses to Cuba Aventures: It’s About the Pre-Journey, not the Journey or the Destination

  1. Brangwen says:

    AH Toilet attendants!! HAHAA. Generally, they are “unofficial” and have actually stolen the toilet paper to sell it to you. Some places they buy the toilet paper themselves and sell it to you, some places they are official (like I remember in France!) and kind of keep the toilets clean blah blah as well. I wonder which one this lady was? Even if you bring your own TP, often it is expected to tip these people anyway as a tourist when you leave even if they did nothing.

    And begging in general. Yeah, when roughing it around Africa it was pretty common for kids (with their parents or “parents” around the corner) to beg pleading sickness and injury, with the sickness/injury being carefully cultivated by the adults they are reporting to by beatings or general crappy living conditions. I never gave them money, I did sometimes buy them food or things, or trade what I had. The downside was that once you do it, you become a mark and got harassed by ever increasing crowds of people asking you for stuff. In the end, we stopped doing it – which was heartbreaking, but there is only so much you can do.

    • Ophelie says:

      They have toilet attendants here in Canada too, but usually only in really high scale bars and restaurants. The first time I saw one, I was all “why is this woman handing me a towel?” I suppose I’ll never know if the lady at the bus station was official or not. All the bus stations and stops had them, though, so I just avoided using those bathrooms for the rest of the trip.

      The only begging I saw in Cuba was in Varadero, and it was only adults, no children, so I attributed it to be due to the fact that Varadero is full of tourists who know absolutely nothing of the country they’re visiting. I’m told that tourists get harassed a lot in Havana too (which is another pretty big tourist destination), but (which I’ll hopefully get into next post) the parts of Havana I was in weren’t touristy areas. I saw maybe 1 or 2 homeless people begging, but they were begging other Cubans and ignored me.

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