Finding Rooms in Cuba- How to Make the Simple, Complicao

Perhaps you are already thinking what a weird piece.  You are wondering first about the possible typo in the title and then about the title itself.  However, Complicao is a very precisely chosen word and in fact, not a typo at all.  It is the Cuban shortened form of complicado, complicated in Spanish. Complicao, in my mind, because it is uniquely Cuban, must mean mucho mas complicated.  It’s complication beyond the imagination and it is the way life often happens in Cuba.

Next you are wondering how I could make something simple, like finding a room to rent, not just complicated or complicado but even COMPLICAO ?

Well, the story goes like this…..

In Cuba, as a tourist, it is illegal to stay in someone’s home unless they have a specific license as a tourist accommodation.  There are also separate licenses for homes that rent rooms to Cuban nationals and people who rent to foreigners.  In the large cities, it is easy to spot the upsidedown blue umbrella-like sign which signifies a licensed crash pad.  For Cuban rooms, the umbrella-like sign is orange.  In smaller towns you can often find some type of Cuban accommodation but regular tourist rooms are rare.  Camping is also illegal except in designated campgrounds.  This poses a challenge for me as I continue my solo walk across the island.

sign indicating a room for rent to tourists

On March 20th, I began the second leg of my walk and on the first night I found myself in a town with a lovely home where I rented a room.  However, I knew the next night I would be staying in a town that the Cubans would call chicatica (a very very small place and a word whose spelling I probably just butchered, sorry!).  I had a pretty good idea that I would not find a “legal” place to stay.  So I asked my hosts if they knew of a place and they told me they had a friend who had a casa particular (a legal tourist accommodation).  I was surprised!  They called him and it was available so the plan was for me to call him when I arrived in the town.  All the world around, it’s who you know eh?

By early afternoon the next day I had arrived in the small village of 3000 people.  I found the corner cafe, ordered my usual drink which is whatever type of soda they have available and pulled out my phone to call Abel (not his real name) about my room for the night.  There was no answer but since by now I am somewhat Cuban in my attitude, I simply settled in to wait.  Most traveling Americans would probably just call the next place down the road.

As I sat and let the super sugary drink revive me after a long hot day of walking, I looked up to see the proprietor of the cafe and his friend, arms resting on the counter just staring at me.  I have become used to the fact that Cuban men openly stare at women.  I smiled and said hello and that was all the opening they needed.  As this was definitely NOT a tourist town they asked me the usual questions of where I was from and what I was doing and why was I crazy enough to be walking across Cuba when there were bicycles, horses, buggies and even busses available to get me across mas rapido!  They asked me where I was staying the night and I explained that I was waiting for a friend of a friend to get home and I was staying with he and his wife.  That made perfect sense to them.  So eventually I called Abel again and finally reached him.  However, speaking on the phone in a language I don’t speak well proved very difficult with Abel.  I could not understand a single word he said!  After a few minutes of completely incomprehensible conversation I hung up and thought, “hmmm, I wonder what that was all about?”  But in true Cuban form once again, I just thought I would wait it out.  I told him I was at the red colored cafe and it was a small town so perhaps he would come for me…or not.

So as my new buddies at the cafe continued to chat with me another guy came in and sat down and joined in the conversation.  This man spoke the fastest Cuban Spanish I had ever heard and I constantly had to slow him down and then I still had a hard time.  An hour later I was starting to wonder if I would be sleeping in the cafe.  The fast talker told me he was responsible for the mosquito eradication program in the province and knew every one of the 3000 people in the town.  So when he asked where I was staying the night I confessed I wasn’t sure and did he know of a place since I had no idea if I would ever meet the elusive Abel.  He explained there was a place just a couple of blocks away but they only had one room and he didn’t know if it was available.

Cubans being as friendly and helpful as they are, one of the counter-flies offered to go and ask for me.  So he hopped on his bike and took off down the road.  15 minutes later he arrived back with the owner of the casa in tow who spoke some English.  At this point, I decided to bail on Abel and head off with the lady who I could understand and who I knew had a legal place for me to stay.

Of course, as we were walking up the road, here came Abel peddling on his bike.  Now being the only gringa in town I stood out like…well…the only gringa in town… so Abel knew exactly who I was.  Thus ensued the very awkward conversation of explaining to this nice lady that Abel actually had “dibs” on me.  I could see that Abel would not have been happy to have peddled out to get me only to have me bail on him.  I knew he was counting on the money since his conversation with my hostess last night.  The lady was very gracious and understood and I turned around and walked back past the cafe with Abel.  My buddies at the cafe were understandably confused but simply told me to come back in the morning to enjoy a coffee with them.

So Abel and I walked the six blocks or so to his house….he chatted and chatted and I still understood nothing, but now I knew why.  Abel, at this point in his long life, was in possession of his last remaining six teeth and being elderly in a chicatica town, his Spanish was very very local.  However, I remained positive and figured that I would probably better understand his wife.

He showed me the room which was very nice, attached to his own very modest home in much worse shape.  I did not see a sign for either foreign tourists or locals so I wasn’t sure exactly what type of place it was but it was more typical of a Cuban style casa particular with no toilet seat and no hot water.  Abel explained that he would bring me hot water later for a shower, there was, after all a bucket.  So I followed him into his house to meet his wife.

His wife, it turned out was infirm and was in a wheelchair.  I deduced that she had had a stroke.   This was not an issue except for the fact that the stroke had, of course, affected her speech and so, once again, I could not understand a word she said!  She smiled a lot, kissed me and held my hand and talked just as much as her husband.  I knew for sure they were a lovely couple, if only I could understand them!

As well, I had absolutely no idea how much I was to pay for the room or when, if ever, I would get my hot water….I found it quite funny.  So I retired to my room to wait for the possible hot water.  At that point, I texted my Cuban friends to let them know I was settled in for the night.  One of my friends called and said, “Hey, let me talk to the guy and I’ll get your hot water and find out how much the room is.”  I felt a bit inept but agreed.  My friend asked if it was a rent by the hour place and I said I didn’t think so because the walls were so thin you could hear everything and I couldn’t imagine this nice elderly couple hearing THAT!  So I put Abel on the phone and I could tell when he asked the price because Abel started counting hours on his fingers and I was asked what time I would be leaving.  So, yep, it was the local, by the hour, spot in town.

Complicao?  Absolutely….I thought as I settled in for the night.  It was a… who you know, wait in a cafe, have incomprehensible conversations, wait another hour, find a place, not take the place, go with the guy I don’t understand, pay by the hour kind of way of finding a room!

But as it turned out that would not be the most complicated story of finding a room by far……..for I had yet to reach Jatibonico…..

In fact, a number of days later I had just I completed 18 miles from Ciego de Avila to the town of Majagua and was looking for a room.  This town, on the map, showed promise being larger than the chicatica town where Abel lived and I was confident of finding a room.  At the entrance to town there were more than six billboards toting the joy of living here and how they are known for singing and dancing and… making tomato paste!  I had walked past mile after mile of tomato fields.

There was a small hotel and I went in an inquired about a casa particular.  He told me there were none in town.  I was surprised and thought perhaps he had not understood my question and at any rate I’m sure I knew more than he did (smile!) and I would certainly find something.  He did tell me that I could get a cabin out back of this little hotel for Cubans only.  But when I looked out back it did not look like a place I would be comfortable in and it was all Cuban men sitting around drinking.  So I walked into town and walked the entire town and found…well …nothing, just like the man said!

No worries, there was a large town, more like an actual city, 20kms ahead.  I would get local transport there and then backtrack in the morning to complete the walk.  I walked to the bus stop and found an old American car where the guy was asking me for just a few dollars for the ride.  His name was Alex and he had one other passenger in the front seat.  I knew the bus was much cheaper, in fact the bus is only a few cents but I needed to get to the next town before it got late and get a room so I hopped in.

The town ahead was Jatibonico, a bit rough and tumble in my book.  I didn’t see any signs for casas but I asked the other passenger in the car where the wifi hot spot was and hopped on line to see if I could get an address on a place.  No luck which was odd as Jatibonico is a town of 20,000 people!  It was getting past 4:00pm so I started walking the town…..no luck.  The next option was to go to the tourist town of Sancti Spiritus but that was another 30kms and I would then have to backtrack 50kms in the morning.

As I was deciding what course of action to take I happened again on the man who had ridden in the car with me.  He was from Havana and had been visiting in another town and was trying to get a bus back to Havana.  I asked him if he knew of a place to stay and he said no but he would ask someone (of course I could have done this too!).  The two ladies we asked directed me to a small Cuban hotel where they said I could get a clean room for 20 cuban pesos or just less than $1.00.  I was not convinced but the guy said, hey, why not take a look.  I thought it was very nice of this man to help and the women directed us to the horse and buggy who would take me there.  As I climbed up into the cart, the man followed me.  I explained that he did not need to go with me (I had, in fact, already managed almost 300 miles without him!) but he wanted to ride along.  Hmmm, weird but okay.

We drove and drove in the horse cart and we got further and further to the outskirts of town.  The horse cart driver (I’m sure there is a very cool Cuban name for one who drives a horse cart) kept saying, just a little further but I was getting concerned here.  I didn’t feel threatened or scared or anything but I just knew I didn’t want to stay on the outskirts of this rough and tumble town at a place for $1.00/night illegally and as a single female.  So I told the driver no, we would head back to town.

Strike two!!  Two towns and no place to stay.

I was already seeing that I was going to have to continue on into the city of Sancti Spiritus.  My new friend who seemed to be tagging along started telling me that he would accompany me to Sancti Spiritus and help me find a place.  Sancti Spiritus is a city of 133,000 and a huge tourist center and I needed no help in finding a place.  However, I couldn’t understand if he was wanting to split the cost of a taxi so he could also get there to get a bus to Havana or if he wanted to share the cost of a taxi AND a hotel room.  So I kept asking him to explain (he spoke no English).  There was a subtle difference in what his words were but a HUGE difference in what I might be agreeing to!  I knew if I couldn’t figure it out, I would just say no thank you.  We were just getting back to the place where we had picked up the horse cart and just by chance one of my friends happened to call.

I asked her to talk to this guy and find out what exactly he was after so I put him on the phone with her.  When I took the phone back, my girlfriend said, “Sweetie….he wants more than to share a cab!!!!”  So I politely told him I would continue solo to which he just kind of shrugged and walked away.

Okay, chalking up the interesting experiences on the day, I headed on to yet the third town to find a room.  I hailed a bus that charged me $4.00 for a 20 cent ride but at this point I didn’t care.  It was getting on 5:00 and I needed a place to stay.  The bus took me to the terminal outside of the city and from there I hoofed it another mile into the main square of the historical city.  I had now walked more than 20 miles, explored two cities, been ripped off by the local bus driver and been offered quite openly to share a hotel.  Now, I was ready to put my feet up and call it a day.

I had barely walked into the square when a man came up and asked me if I needed a room.  There were plenty all around but I walked with the guy to his place since he was working to get the business.  Since I now had to backtrack 50kms and Sancti Spiritus was the termination of this leg of my walk I would be staying here a number of nights, so I wanted a nice place.  His place was a little dark and dingy and I told him I wanted a room with windows.  So he walked me over to a lovely casa just off the square where I ended up with the entire upstairs of a house with my own kitchen and terrace.  It was perfect.  I was home!

solo walk across Cuba

Wonderful room in Sancti Spiritus

The next day as I backtracked and walked the route from Majaqua back to the now infamous Jatibonico, my girlfriend called to see how I had managed to get away from my hanger-oner and how I was doing.  As I explained the rest of my adventure to her, she laughed and said, “by the way, that guy was a professional”.  I thought about it a minute and realized what she meant by professional and I started laughing…that was the first time a professional gigolo had ever, anywhere in the world tried to solicit me.

Now you understand.  Sometimes finding a room in Cuba is muy muy complicao!!

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