Even though I have now made more than 30 trips to Cuba, I was a bit nervous driving down the road with Ruben in the taxi. No, not because he asked if I had a boyfriend, and by the way, my response was, “Tengo un esposo”, “I have a husband”, which, of course, made no difference to him. He still asked me out, I declined.
The reason I was nervous was because I was about to embark on an 11 day walking tour that everyone said I was crazy to do and no one said that more, than the Cuban people I met. I had absolutely no idea what I would find, where I would stay, what I would eat and how people would react to me. Was it going to be fun to walk down the road or miserable? Would anyone talk to me? Would EVERYONE talk to me? All of this was exciting and a little scary but I think two things bothered me the most. First, would there be some kind of road block that would stop me from my goal? What I mean is would it actually be impossible for some reason I hadn’t even thought of to do this? I was about to find out and I would be embarrassed and humiliated if I then realized I couldn’t do it. And the second thing was the thought I mentioned in my last post, would I NOT like the Cuba I was about to discover. That was something very frightening that I had never considered.
Ruben asked me lots of these questions as we drove like, “Where will you eat?” “Where will you stay?” I really didn’t have any good answers to which he became the first to dub me, “Anita Loca” a name which stuck throughout my adventure.
I watched the road as we drove, because this was to be my route. I looked for “hotels” or “rooms to rent” and made mental notes of small restaurants. I turned on my Cuba cell phone and punched in the PIN code and prayed it would work. It did! I put in my contact phone numbers and texted out to my friends that I had arrived. When I received texts back I was elated. I now had my friends around me.
We arrived in Las Tunas and found my casa particular. I met a wonderful couple, Maria and Pelayo who owned and operated the little B&B. I had a very comfortable room with AC, a fridge and private bathroom. One thing to notice in Cuba is the lack of toilet seats in bathrooms. I was thrilled to find one attached to the camode in my bathroom! So, while my plan was to walk the length of Cuba, my plan was not to do it by sleeping in sheds or on the side of the road. It was not a hardship trip. I am happy to find a nice bed at the end of the day in whatever small town I find myself. This was a delightful home of a doctor and his wife who now find it more profitable to run a B&B than to be a doctor working for a state wage.
Pelayo’s friend, a taxi driver, stopped by. I think the friend was looking for some work and asked if I needed a taxi during my stay. I thanked him but said I was walking from here on out to Guardalavaca. All three of them just stared at me and it began….walking???, Yes, I told them, walking….. Anita…you are loca!! Yep…and by the way, I would be staying in the small town of Calixto tomorrow night and did they know of a place for me to stay? Well, as it turns out they did….ahhhh, my initial thoughts were correct. Cuba is a country where the people have always relied on each other, people know each other and I thought that perhaps in one town, they would help me with the next. Pelayo called his friend Carlos who worked at the telecom office who said he would find me a place to stay, perhaps a porch where I could pitch my tent he said. Okay, that would work. I took his phone number and put it into my phone. He became Carlos Calixto. I was set!
Hitting the Road
I was a bit nervous on this morning, so much so that I kicked over the only Diet Coke I had brought with me and had to confess my mess to Maria and ask for a mop to clean it up. She was gracious, I was embarrassed! Maria also gave me a little book that had a map of Las Tunas and gave me directions out to the main road. They fed me an enormous breakfast which would become the norm. Once people realized the physical output I would have during the day, they wanted to fill me to the brim! The thing is that I don’t eat a lot and it became embarrassing to only be able to eat about half of what was laid out before me in a country still lacking in basic provisions. I told everyone everywhere, please, small meals but it was never heeded! Had I had a working camera I would have photographed the spread of eggs, ham, cheese, guava, pineapple, bananas and bread, yikes!
One of the best ideas of my trip was to take with me 50 small lapel pins. These pins are the American and Cuban flags attached together in friendship. I had one attached to my backpack and I planned to give out about 5 a day to people I would meet. Maria and Pelayo were thrilled to receive them and they took all kinds of pictures of us with our pins. These would become both great ice breakers as well as great leave takers along the road.
And so at 9:00 on Saturday, the 21st of October, I set out eastward. Here is what I noticed first….the HEAT. It was really hot walking along the road with a 22lb backpack. Within 10 minutes I had stopped for sunscreen and a hat. I was thankful I had completely filled my camelbak with water along with one extra water bottle that hung on my pack. There was no way to tell how low my water was with an internal camelbak so having the extra bottle on my pack was a reserve I always knew I had. I thought I was pretty damn smart to think of that!
Here is the second thing I noticed. EVERYONE looked at me and all the men STARED. This is something I do know about Cuba, men openly stare at women. But I was definitely an anomaly, a single foreign woman with a backpack walking down the road. Plus, I had my boobs with me, so what did I expect! And then the catcalls. I realized it was a Saturday and everyone was out and about, groups of guys hanging out in the parks with nothing better to do than call out. I became a little self-conscious and just wished they would stop. I pulled my hat down, my v-neck shirt up a bit and was thankful I had on dark sunglasses. After about half an hour, I came to the edge of town and the people started to thin out. I passed a control station where the local policia (police) stop and check people coming and going. Here I wondered if they would stop me and question what I was doing. But as I passed by, one of the officers looked at me, smiled, and in English said, “hello……and good bye” since I was leaving town. I responded in kind, smiled at his using English with me and walked out of Las Tunas and down the road.
I was now in the countryside though still walking the main road. The main road in Cuba, here in the east, Oriente, is two lane undivided, and is the artery of the island. On this road it seems, life happens. There are large smelly trucks, old American cars, people walking, people on bicycles, people in horse carts, and some very old busses filled to the brim with people getting from here to there. There are also new Chinese busses with Canadian, German, French and now American tourists staring out the windows at the countryside flying by. So the fast vehicles pass around the slow vehicles as all of this is on the road together.
And there are really two places to walk. On the road dodging the masses or along dirt paths which run in front of rows of houses along the road. I preferred to walk here when possible so I could wave and say hello to people.
My first walk was six miles. I wanted to start slowly but also have time to wander and not feel rushed to get anywhere anytime soon. Two different men stopped to ask me if I wanted a ride on their bicycles. No thank you I told them, I was walking. They were stunned. No Cuban walks when offered a ride because transportation is a huge problem here. There simply are not enough vehicles to move people. Everyone hitch hikes and government vehicles are required by law to stop and pick up people along the way. There are special people called amarillos (yellow in Spanish due to the color they wear so they are recognizable) who will stop government cars and help people get rides. So to refuse a ride just isn’t done! I walked past bus stops full of people who just looked at me oddly since I just kept walking on past them.
I quickly learned to get out of the road in time for huge trucks to fly past me and they would normally honk to let me know they were there. I always walked on the left with oncoming traffic in front of me but sometimes a large vehicle would pass someone in the right lane and scare the bejesus out of me! But in the heat, one of my cooling mechanisms was the breeze that hit me three seconds after a huge truck passed!
Jumping off the side of the road also had its downside. Dew point was very high and the grass on the side of the road stayed wet until afternoon. And the horses. One of things that I didn’t expect was that the entire roadway at walking level would smell like horse. If you can’t take the smell of horse shit, don’t walk the country roads in Cuba. It is as constant as the sun!
It felt good to walk, to be doing what I dreamed of for this adventure. I felt confident, happy and carefree. I was by myself with no agenda and had the freedom to go and do and think and feel and be. It was just me, the countryside, the wet grass, the horse shit and the trucks…..and a host of Cuban people I had yet to meet along the way.
I arrived into the town of Calixto by 11:30 in the morning. I wasn’t tired but I was hot and needed a cool down. I searched out a “refresco” a soda of whatever flavor was available, and sat by the side of the road to watch life go by. I watched the local policia check IDs of passing drivers, he never gave me a glance. Tourism has some privileges here. In other countries it could have been a big hassle and cost me a bribe!
I decided to find a park where I could hang out for a bit. Calixto is a small town, a few thousand people but I knew there was a park somewhere. I followed the busiest side street I could find and came upon a street of businesses with a concrete park.
I walked past a couple of small restaurants, guys selling “carne”, beef on the side of the road, the wood processing factory (lumber yard?) and the Etecsa office (telecom). Well, the guy who has the room works there and I was told he drove a white moto which was parked out front. I wasn’t ready for my room yet so I noted the location across from the park and kept exploring. I got further down the street and there was a street party, loud music, lots of people, lots of beer, lots more catcalls. If I wasn’t alone I probably would have stopped. I continued on and came across the cemetario at the end of town. I spent some time walking through and thinking of so many of these people who probably spent all of their lives in this little town. I went back through the street party on my way back to the park, still deciding not to stop, still the best plan, lol.
I found a bench in the park, stripped off my shoes and pulled out a banana and the remains of my bag of popcorn from the Miami airport. Too hot to eat much.
My phone rang @3:00 and it was Carlos Calixto, my “contact” for the place to stay. I looked up and he was waving from a pay phone at the telecom office across the street. I guess I’m the only solo Americana in town with a backpack, crazy enough to walk here!
We went to his office and I met his friend Vladamir who speaks some English. They walked me to the local casa particular, Carlos insisting on carrying my pack (as if I couldn’t!, long live chivalry in Cuba!) one that is only supposed to be for locals, a cheaper price & different standard. Nothing for tourists in this small town. Fine with me. Can’t beat 12 bucks for room and dinner!
The Love Nest
So the casa had a small living room and in the back, stairs with no railing on the landing so I took note not to walk down it in the dark! On the way up the stairs I passed a small Catholic shrine and a pen with two pigs. Upstairs there were two rooms. She opened the door and I almost laughed It is definitely local “by the hour”. Plastic roses by the bed, 6 spray painted red hearts on the ceiling! Rose curtains, peach walls and a huge velour pink and black polka dotted heart behind the bed. A fitted sheet but no covers, too hot or just not needed for normal activities in this room. And of course, no toilet seat, standard in Cuba! I would learn as I continued that as most Cubans live multiple generations in a home, privacy can be an issue, thus the rooms. I had known about them but had no idea they were little “love nests”. I laughed at the half naked woman on the shower curtain and the loud stereo systems that are standard in these rooms.
Later in the evening, the grandson of the owner of the house knocked on my door and brought me the top sheet to the bed (obviously, my reason for being in the room was completely different than most!) and a couple of guayavas for the walk tomorrow. Vladimir also came by and let me know that he had a place for me to stay in the next town, sweet! And that I should call him when I got there.
So far, this was all working exactly as I had “not” planned. I checked in with my Cuban contacts to let them know Anita Loca was fine and safe. I received advice not to walk beyond my ability and to be sure I was eating properly and drinking lots of water. Between my top sheet, my guayavas, and good solid advice from my friends, I felt wrapped in a cocoon of care.
“Anita Loca” was doing well after the first day. So with high hopes for the coming days, I tucked in, giggled at the spray painted hearts on the ceiling and slipped off to sleep.