“Hey Maik!” somebody is shouting my name and abruptly I turn around.
I see a pink Chevrolet ‘55 convertible taxi, and I see a woman, wearing an elegant long dress and a hat that makes every sombrero look tiny. Huge sunglasses cover what is left to see on her face. The sun is burning relentlessly. I squint. I see the elegant woman, the taxi with its driver and the bored security guard leaning against the gate. Nobody else is in my field of vision, but I don’t see anyone who could possibly know my name or would have a reason to shout it. As the woman waves at me like greeting a good friend, I finally figure it must be her who called my name. So, I set off walking toward her. Is this Britta? Although she shares the same year of birth as the Cuban revolution, she looks much fresher.
About Oil Fields and Battle Cries
Britta had contacted me a week ago on Facebook. She had booked a flight to Varadero to go sailing with friends. They cancelled on her for a medical emergency, but the flight was booked, and she was not ready to give up on Cuba yet. Then she saw my post, saw that I am a sailor and I am in Varadero, and reached out to me. I had no plans and a free stern cabin. So, we had a deal.
A day later we were sitting in the Cubacar office to get our rental car for some inland exploration. Cubacar is the state-owned rental car company in Cuba. “Don’t wait until you run out of gas,” is the clear warning when I am handed the keys, “you may not be able to come back.” So, we stop at the first gas station in Varadero and fill up the tank. I knew that gas stations in tourist areas get preferred deliveries. Now we are good to go.
On the way to Havana we pass a huge oil field near Santa Cruz del Norte. I read that Cuba produces around 50,000 barrels every day. That’s quite a figure, however not enough by far to cover its consumption of 150,000 barrels, leaving Cuba with a deficit of 100,000 barrels per day. A bad thing with their mighty neighbor trying to choke this socialist country off its lifelines. No wonder the battle cry of the local soccer team, written in huge red letters on the stadium wall, is ‘Socialismo o Muerte!’ (Socialism or death).
Beef is Beautiful
When we arrive in Havana an hour later, we drop off our luggage at our AirBnB place. Rossana, our sweet host, asks us if she should prepare us dinner and we quickly agree. Then she asks the question, that I am sure she will regret for the rest of the day: “What would you guys like to eat?” We have heard so much about Ropa Vieja, Cuba’s national beef dish, so we asked her if she could prepare it for us for dinner. She hesitates a split second, but she agrees, and we head out into the city center. The architecture is stunning, the atmosphere friendly, the weather wonderful, tourists aplenty. The afternoon passes in a heartbeat. At least for us.
When we later eat delicious Ropa Vieja with Rossana she is overly happy. She simply cannot stop smiling. When we ask her for the reason for her happiness, she says she is so happy she could hunt down some beef today.
After the economic crisis in the 90’s, cattle farming in Cuba dropped tremendously. It is less than a third today of what it used to be. As the black market for beef and dairy products flourished, the government invented intense control mechanisms for beef and dairy production and draconic punishments for illegal beef production and sales. In fact, so draconic it scared almost everyone away from this industry altogether. As a result, beef is scarce and expensive, the opposite of the doubtlessly good intentions of the government.
Rossana’s daughter later tells me she traveled one hour to a specific supermarket that supposedly had beef today and waited in line for two more hours to get let in. I feel bad for having asked for Ropa Vieja. I had no idea. I understand now it is like asking for fresh lobster in my hometown in central Germany.
With full bellies and feeling a little ashamed, we go to sleep. I decide to wait and take a shower the next morning. Another miscalculation as I’m about to find out.
No Line – No Gas
We wake early because today we want to go to Viñales. Viñales in the western mountains is famous for its tobacco and coffee plantations. It’s about a 2.5-hour drive. When I try to take a shower, very little water comes out of the faucet. A few drops, that’s it.
At breakfast we learn that water is shut off over night to reduce energy and water consumption. Only tourist regions are excluded. That is usual. Unusual, however, is that this morning the gas is also shut off. A quick call to her mother who lives on the other end of town tells Rossana that the whole city is affected. But it wouldn’t be Cuba if there wasn’t a solution to every problem. Their neighbor has an electrical stove, and he is happy to make coffee for us and heat up the milk. Mhhhhh, real cow milk! Pure luxury! Cuba may be the only country in the world, where coffee often is cheaper than milk.
When we get in the car the warning of the rental car guy echoes in my head… “Don’t wait until you run out of gas or you may not come back!”. The tank is half-empty, so I think it’s a good time to top up. When I stop at the first gas station, they just shake their heads. The second has a line too long for my spoiled western taste. The third one has no line, but also no gas. Eventually, and slightly frustrated, I return to the gas station with the long line and do what they do here, I humbly line up. Because they have what I want and there is no other way to get it. But if you think waiting is wasted time, you’re wrong.
I love my job as a travel writer. What for most others may be wasted time for me is the perfect opportunity to learn more about people’s lives and why exactly fuel is scarce in this country. We already know Cuba produces only a third of its consumption and both the continued chaos in their brother state Venezuela, Cuba’s No. 1 oil supplier and the US embargo has hit them hard. Whatever is available goes into tourism and military first, then state owned transport. Little is left for private transportation.
An hour later and with a full tank we venture out of Havana onto the motorway and west. The quality of the road is ok, traffic is low. Hardly any cars but lots of horse coaches. Yes, you heard right, horse coaches on a four-lane motorway. Smart, the fuel they use is fairly abundant. About two thirds of the way there we pass an accident. A car hit a bus. How they managed to meet each other on the empty roads will remain their secret forever.
Tobacco, Coffee and Horses
We get flagged down and we are asked if we can take Javier to Viñales so he can come back with a spare bus to pick up his colleagues. We know it’s not a trick. Hitchhiking in Cuba is a form of public transport and it is absolutely safe. Javier works for the national park in Viñales and during the remaining hour of our drive we learn a lot about Viñales and the province Pinar del Rio. We learn that the soil is red and full of minerals. We learn the cool nights and the sunny days in the mountains are best for coffee and tobacco. We learn that the city Pinar del Rio is the tobacco capital of Cuba.
As we arrive in Viñales we drop off Javier at the tobacco farm, and he arranges a free tour for us and a cigar roll course in return for the ride. Cigar production is all about leaves: shade leaves and sun leaves and upper leaves and lower leaves and wet leaves and dry leaves and cover leaves and…
Anyway, the only thing I remember is that Che used to dip his cigars in honey. No wonder he always had one in his mouth. Imagine if El Comandante would have just sucked a honey spoon instead! Would have looked silly for a revolutionist, wouldn’t it?!
We were hoping to see the ecological coffee plantation, too. No cars go there, and walking is pretty far. Horses are the only mode of transport. Cargo is carried on oxcarts. It’s been a while since I last rode a horse. But hey, it’s like riding a bicycle, you never un-learn it, right?! Britta and I exchange some looks waiting for the other to bail out, but the battle of will ends in a clear stalemate and off we go, at first moving at a slow pace but later we get braver and gallop the last miles through the valley and past tobacco fields. You only live once, right?! And I’d rather that life be short than boring!
On the coffee plantation they grow Arabica and Robusta in certified ecological cultivation. We learn the difference, that I forgot again and that they mix 80% Arabica and 20% Robusta for their local produce. We taste some coffee and honey from coffee flowers. Oh my, that is delicious! I understand why all school kids want to be like Che, they all love honey as he did. (“Seremos como el Che” – “We will be like Che” is the motto of the Cuban pioneers.)
I take a pass on the local rum and have another coffee instead. The waitress is cute, too. She tells us that they only produce four tons of coffee per year on this ecological farm where everything is done by hand. At the end we even make everybody join us in singing the ‘pilón’, the song they sing while grinding the beans.
My crotch is still sore from the way here, but we cannot stay forever. The coffee girl is sweet, but I am not meant to end up as coffee farmer in Cuba. It’s just not my destiny, sorry, girl! So, I saddle my horse (it is already saddled but it sounds better) and spur it into the sunset, with Britta right behind me. It is so much fun but as I crawl off my stallion, I have the strong feeling the ride put an abrupt end to any reproduction ambitions I still might have had. I understand now why lonesome cowboys remain lonesome.
After we returned our four-legged transport we go to the farmers’ restaurant Javier recommended. They had expected us, and the food is fantastic, but hell, is the chief waiter curious. By the time we have our main course he knew more of Britta and me than I knew about my wife when I married her. By the time we have our dessert, I was wondering what the Cuban state security would make of all the made-up bullshit stories we told him. Maybe I will end up on a coffee plantation after all. In chains. Learning my lessons.
Seizing the Day
One more reason to seize the day and dance as if there was no tomorrow. The opportunity is good as they have their weekly street festival. The main street is already blocked, and bars and restaurants have moved their tables out. Live music is playing and old and young are rhythmically moving their hips to the salsa tunes. The air is full of laughter and love and happiness. Life is beautiful!
Less beautiful is the long ride back to Havana during the pitch-black night. We arrive only when the first light glows over the horizon.
Another day is waiting for us. Another day in beautiful Cuba. I am sure it will be full of sunshine, salsa and socialism again.
You enjoyed the read? If you want to learn more about every day life in Cuba, here is the Captain’s pick: