What not to do after spending 6 weeks in Jamaica surrounded by locals and backpackers smoking weed: forget to wash your socks.
I arrived into Santiago de Cuba. Things were good. There was a lot of security and customs officers, asking the same questions, which I had all of the answers for. I got all the way through to baggage claim, was excited to have a beer with my new local friend Timmy, when customs decided to search the single male clean shaven freshly washed hair good looking tourist arriving from the world’s most renown marijuana smoking country. Of course this didn’t bother me, as I don’t smoke. This guy was very thorough though, making me empty out every single item out of both of my bags. He was searching little hiding places I didn’t know I had and finding little pieces of bark and sand and dirt and who knows what from the inside of seams which has been there forever and a day. He was testing little bits that he particularly liked by adding a couple of drops from 3 different bottles. They all turned yellow and no one seemed to mind. Then, when he picked a piece off my smelly socks and it turned red, I got a little worried. He tested quite a few pieces off this one pair of socks and about 4 or 5 turned red. I was becoming a little more worried. I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal though, since they didn’t find any real quantities, and it was only one pair of socks, and one piece from a shirt that was next to them. So how big of a deal was it??? After 2 hours of having absolutely everything unpacked and repacked, the result was a $110 fine. I asked if I could call my embassy, he said, ‘sure, there’s a payphone outside’. I didn’t have any money or the phone number so I just ran with it. All of it was done with proper paperwork and a whole heap of stamping and carbon copies and more stamping and signatures, so it was legit. I was feeling pretty average, mainly disappointed with my own naive carefreeness, when I found a taxi driver with an awesome Ford 57 (according to the sticker on the windscreen). He drove me to the bus station via a bar, a tourist restaurant and a local restaurant. It’s not often you get to shout your taxi driver dinner and a beer!
People are strange, when you’re a stranger.
Cuba is a very unique country. I really can’t get my head around how things operate. It’s a communist country, yet that seems to have very little impact on the every day backpacker. Taxi drivers still hassle you everywhere you walk and try to rip you off. Hustlers pounce on you as soon as you get off an inter-city bus, before you can even get your bags. Prices for accommodation and even restaurants have to be negotiated. And of course tourists love horse rides (we met a guy that paid $40, while we paid 4 cents each as part of the public transport system).
Then you’ve got the Casas Particulares. This is the most common form of accommodation for the budget traveller, the only option other than hotels (which are apparently very poor quality anyway) or free camping. The idea is that you are staying with a family, but unfortunately, in our opinion, you get treated more like a hotel guest – of course you have a private bedroom (and often bathroom), but if you choose to pay extra for dinner, you are waited upon like you’re in a restaurant, rather than having a family dinner, and are served up excessive quantities of food, which you feel some obligation to attempt to eat. They generally charge $20 or $25 including breakfast. At first this seems like an excellent income for the family, but they have to pay the government $200 per month, plus 20% tax on any profit. It’s far from easy. Also no wonder they try hard to sell you dinner for 6 or 8 bucks each, which won’t get taxed at all. When it comes to meal time, either lunch or dinner, everybody is certain that all tourists love to eat excessive quantities, especially seafood and even more particularly lobster (although its actually crayfish). Our first experience of the lobster was fantastic. We had been chatting with our Couch Surfing mate David, drinking his cocktails, and mentioned that Dasha had never tried lobster and I very rarely. The next evening when we called in for a cheeky cocktail, he brought out a massive platter – 5 grilled lobster tails on top of a salad (they don’t bother eating the rest of the animal). It was nothing short of brilliant.
It seems that I may be making somewhat of a habit of seeing the coolest thing on the last day. I wanted to buy dominoes, and surprisingly that was very hard. We met a dude willing to sell his personal Bucanero set, which sounded perfect since Bucanero was my beer of choice during my 3 weeks. We went for a stroll in the evening to find his apartment. This entire block was incredible! In a city that is relatively flat, there is some kind of… might have to ask my geologist friends out there, but perhaps a sink hole? So the top of all of the buildings are at the same level as the rest of the suburb, and from the street there is absolutely no way of telling that there is anything special here, but there’s an extra 3 stories below street level, built in this hole, with natural rock faces visible around the perimeter. It was a shame we didn’t get to go there during the day time for a photo session. It was actually quite a surreal and little bit spooky place in the evening. If you want to find it, you’ll have to stay with Ernesto.