Alright, now for the sucky part of our trip. After spending 5 sweaty days in Havana, we went on to the touristy beach resort of Varadero. I usually try avoid these places like the Black Death, but we found another home stay with an elderly couple right on the beach- and the beach itself was truly magnificent. No complaints here, but it was certainly a far cry from the grinding conditions of downtown Havana. Didn’t really feel like “Cuba” at all.
From there, we made our way South to the colonial city of Trinidad, minus a few lost hours due to a flat tire with the national bus service ViaAzul. It took so damn long to get repaired, we simply caught a ride with another tourist in a historic DeSoto taxi the rest of the journey. We just hired private cars for the rest of the trip. Public transport in Cuba is just too unreliable, and if you can get a group together, taxi’s are the way to go!
Trinidad was fantastic, and we got to spend a few good nights there- but the news we heard from Cubans on the street and from our homestay hosts was not good. A Category freakin’ 5 was on its way to hit the East and North coasts of Cuba by Friday night, and we would be feeling it hot and heavy in Trinidad before too long (Cuba is a long, but narrow island).
Our last day of sun was at nearby Playa Ancon. Even by Thursday, all the restaurants and places serving booze were closing down. Apparently, the durned Guvmit wants to make sure that nobody is drunk during national disasters. Fucking Pinko bastards: this is why America won the Cold War. And would you look at this beach!
There was a beautiful thatched palm restaurant just sitting there, in normal times serving mojitos and fresh lobster, but instead simply had a bunch of employees milling about, listening to music and telling everyone who walked up that they were “closed”. Still managed to finagle a few cold cans of the local barley pop from their fridge though.
By late Friday night, the rain was cats and dogs and we had already lost power- including our AC. Good luck trying to keep your shutters open to let the cool air and mosquitos in when it’s bucketing down outside. By 6am, the wind was howling like a pissed off Banshee and the windows and door to our room were rattling angrily in their locks. This incessant banging went on and on and on and on and on and on…for 14 hours straight with not even a 1% diminishment in ferocity. It was like being stuck on a runaway freight train which you couldn’t get off of due to the demonic speed it was reaching. The wind at times would actually cause the stone and concrete house we were in to shudder. If you did open the door even an inch to look outside, it was like someone instantly threw a bucket of water in your face, drenching your clothes to the bone.
I felt a lot like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz with her house spinning around and the evil neighbor lady riding her bicycle outside the window, cackling manically. “Auntie Em: It’s a Twister! Its a Twister!!!!!” Copious amounts of water started to flood onto the floor of our room through any available crack in the door and window frames. I’d liken it to being on a sinking ship: the more you tried to bale out the incoming water, the faster it came in, until their was a huge puddle on the floor and you just got tired of trying to take care of it so simply left it to accumulate. By about 10am, I was actually exhausted enough to fall asleep, even with all the loud banging going on. I woke up two hours later, and the same noise and horizontal rain was still howling past. To call this all unnerving would be the understatement of the Century.
Luckily around this time, our homestay family’s mom ran up in the rain to knock loudly on our door to bring us a bottle of Havana Club rum and a plastic water bottle full of sugar and fresh lime juice- God Bless the Cuban people! I vaguely recall drinking some of that and then passing out again.
I would say that by 10pm Saturday night, the hurricane had infinitesimally started to weaken, but as soon as it seemed to break for a few brief minutes of respite, the rain would splatter again on your windows and the screaming winds would begin back up again. I did remember by the middle of the night that it seemed like the worst of it had passed.
The next day, everyone in the town, both tourists and locals, started walking around to survey the damage- or least to simply get out of their houses and catch some fresh air. The worst that we could see was some loosened roof tiles and downed trees, but nothing major. Still, I thought that we were very lucky to have not been as close to the Eye as other parts of the country had been. Somehow, my wife’s iPhone was able to catch onto a 3G signal and we sent off a few texts to our family that we were all OK.
Honestly though, the hardest part of the trip was the next four days of the journey. Power was out in the entire country and the weather was still bucketing tropical rain down from the heavens. The biggest challenge came from simply finding food to eat. Since the Cuban government has strict controls on the economy, most businesses could not, or were not, interested in opening. This presents a problem if you’re a tourist and simply want to get a sandwich because you’re hungry. Cafes, stores (such as they exist), a restaurant, a market- all shut down until power was restored. We did see a state run bakery open, with a long line of Cubans clamoring to get some stale bread to last them the next few days.
We left Trinidad by Monday, and made our way to the elegant seaside city of Cienfuegos. Here still, it was raining and there was simply nothing to do and nowhere to go except to walk around with the other bored-looking tourists when it wasn’t pouring outside. I’ve been to New Orleans when a tropical storm knocked the power out at night. The bar owners just lit some candles, kept serving drinks, and grilled up some burgers in the courtyard. The show will still go on! Not so in Cuba. There were no clubs playing music, no bars, no food. I think at one point we found a generator-powered 24hr gas station serving half melted pints of ice cream. That was some fine dining, son.
By the 4th day of simply being stuck in my room, with nothing but my miner’s headlamp and a thick medieval fiction novel to keep me company, I was going completely Stir Crazy. Our time in Cuba was only 2.5 weeks and we’d already lost so many precious days to nothing. I was about ready to take a car to Havana airport and get the first flight out to Mexico- costs be damned. The more I thought about it though, there were probably 5000 other tourists trying to do the same damn thing, and the thought of camping out on the floor of the airport with no electricity for 3 days waiting for a standby flight was not exactly appealing either.
We carried on to the Bay of Pigs, and at least by this time Señor Sol had returned. We were at least able to get some snorkeling and a few decent meals in during our last few days before our flight home. When we arrived back in the upscale Vedado neighborhood in Havana, the streets look like this:
Apparently, 9ft waves had come smashing in from the Malecon seawall, and flooded every part of the city at least 6 blocks back up to the first storey. Whole apartments had been washed out. The streets were filled with rotting garbage, drainage water, soaked mattresses, broken furniture and irreplaceable household devices (vacuums, microwave’s etc) strewn about. Not a pretty sight- nor smell. Havana had been hit hard, but to its credit, the city government seemed to be pretty efficient in bringing in tree cutting crews, restoring downed power lines and bulldozing debris off of the streets.
Luckily, the airport was up and functioning normally by early Saturday morning and we were able to fly back home without a hitch. But my heart goes out to the kind Cuban people, and other islands in the Caribbean who lost everything. As I write this post, it seems that poor Puerto Rico is reaching a full-blown humanitarian crisis after Hurricane Maria. And if you’re reading this: an extra special thanks to Dr. Luis and Dona Olga Ibañez, who took such great care of us during the storm in Trinidad!