(Yes, I know this is a year late. More than a year. But sometimes you have too much fun travelling to write, and not enough internet- so you scribble on paper like in the good olden days. Sigh.)
20.02.2013 - 22.02.2013
After three weeks of touring Cuba, with varying levels of success, I was back in Havana. In that time, the city had transformed from a lovely, breezy, sunny and romantic coffee-table book of "best places in the world" to an impossibly hot, stifling and sticky city where the smell of rubbish competed with the stale ocean stench. Summer was coming, fast, and the uncomfortableness of the heat was already settling in for the next eight months or so. I stood on the pavement at one of the largest intersections of Habana Centro, trying to fend off an amorous Cuban young enough to be my son, and scanning the street for a usually-ubiquitous fruit juice stall. I felt more than just hot; my plastic flip-flops seemed to have melted onto the pavement, rooting me as a part of the Havana street scene forever. It was time to shift cities.
I had thoroughly enjoyed my tour of Cuba; the small, provincial towns appealed to me far more than the famous night-life spots on the coast, sleepy cities such as Las Tunas and Bayamo. I had travelled with a 70-year old Australian lady who spent the night dancing on the street with an impossibly beautiful 19-year old Cuban, whilst a man played a piano in the middle of the street; hitched a ride with a slightly mad German who used to shout at lingering pedestrians things like "did you want to die today old man? If so, it's your lucky day!"; and got utterly lost in my favourite of cities, Camaguey, whilst queuing with the locals to buy a cheese pizza for 10 local pesos (that's about 30 pence) through some entrepreneuring lady's living room window. And I had ridden a lot of horses, drank lots of bad, tepid lager and talked to locals who were incredibly patient with my slow Spanish.
But back in Havana, I realised it was hot. And the day before my visa expired, I realised it was about to expire. Goody. I had had no internet, no phone and thus, as a modern Very-Busy-And-Connected person, I had completely lost track of time. I had been to Cuba a month and my visa needed a further stamp. So, after speaking to a few people who had done The Visa Run (they were all slowly going mad, going in and out of the immigration office which is, of course, ridiculously far from anywhere useful, and were now ready to just swim to Mexico to avoid going back to the office), I decided to head to Matanzas.
Really, I'm not sure why everyone wants to renew their visa in Havana. The queues are long, they get very arsy (one guy was sent back because he came in wearing flip-flops) and you are lucky if after an eight-hour wait they actually manage to see you that day. So I decided to head to Matanzas, because you can, actually, renew your visa in any of the state capitals. Matanzas was the closest, and it also held another appeal to me- I could go there using Cuba's only last remaining train line. Now, I like a nice train trip, even if I could do the same journey in a fraction of the time in a modern, air-conditioned bus which left on time and dropped you off in centre of town. Instead, I thought it might be fun to spend a whole day doing an 80-kilometre journey on a rusty train which anywhere else in the world would be in a museum, and would be likely to break down at any point. I had to take a bus and then a ferry to the start of the line, which in itself was absolutely nowhere. But it looked like fun. Apart from a few other tourists, all looking unreasonably exited to do a journey like this, there were a few Cubans, who must have spent their journey wondering why on earth anyone who can afford a nice, comfortable bus would opt for a rickety train through the thickest bush of Cuba? I bought a half-melted pot of strawberry ice-cream, purchased a ticket and sat on the wooden seat of the train.
After stopping everywhere, even at places that seemed to have no human habitation, such as a stable or a cow enclosure, we approached Matanzas after several hours. The train had progressed at a walking speed, huffing and puffing, cutting across the lovely green Cuban terrain, with occasional glimpses of the ocean between trees. I immediately liked Matanzas. Possibly, or very probably, because there was nothing there. The town was pretty but not overly so; people peered out of their doorways to see me pass (I got a little lost- what else is new?) but in a curious, non-threatening way. There were very few attractions for tourists, so few come- but I found a casa, paid for two nights and got settled.
I arrived on Wednesday. I fully expected to spend all of Thursday at the immigration, queuing, waiting, doing my rare routine of patience. So I went sightseeing a bit, took some photos and crossed the river to see some pretty cool Che Guevara- inspired wall paintings further afield. Then I sat down at the terrace of a beautiful, hacienda-styled restaurant, completed with colonnades and grand mahogany door, bought a beer, and pretended to read a book but instead, just people-watched. I can do this for hours. I'm forever being asked, What did you do? What do you do on your own? I watch. It's not very exciting, no, it's not like ticking off really cool stuff like shark-cage diving or racing your personal dolphin against a great white shark or whatever it is that these younger backpackers seem to do, but I love it. I can watch people pass by for hours- and sometimes their greatest enjoyment is to watch this odd foreigner with her luke-warm beer.
So, Thursday I was up early, had a coffee strong enough to make my hair stand up, fried eggs, bread and fried plantain, gathered my documents and armed with a book, water and snacks and mentally ready for a long wait, I went to the immigration office. I entered at 9.01. I left at 9.15 with a new stamp, my passport and a nice immigration lady wishing me a nice day. So, I was to have a whole other day in Matanzas, which, despite being nice, is rather sleepy. But I ought to explain. It wasn't really meant to be that easy. It all came down to a piece of gum.
I was called in immediately after getting in to have my documents assessed. The nice lady, along with her stern-looking supervisor, looked through my tickets and passport. It's always good to appear non-nonchalant in such circumstances, so I reached for a piece of gum and casually offered one to the lady processing my application. She looked at me, horrified and declined, with such conviction that for a moment, I thought I was in Singapore. The supervisor sauntered off, and suddenly, the woman, under her breath, whispered, "I'll have that gum now". I passed one, still surprised. She said she hadn't wanted to take one in front of her supervisor, in case he thought it would affect my application. I had never known a piece of gum to be used as a bribe, but there you go (I did use a torch once as a bribe, but that's a whole other story). She looked at me, saying she would need a registration number and a copy of the person's licence who's casa familiar I was staying at. I had no idea where I was staying; not the address nor the name of the person, which I had promptly forgotten. She brought up a database of all casas in Matanzas, and winked at me. "I think you might be staying with Diego. I happen to have a copy of Diego's licence. Is that correct...?". Yes, I answered. I had no idea who Diego was. She winked at me again, stamped my passport and tourist card, wished me a good day, and walking up to the door asked me for another piece of gum for her daughter.
So. Should anyone ever need tips on what to do in Matanzas for two days, I'm your lady. I had a pedicure by a small woman called Rosia, and went to the local cinema to see a wonderful Cuban film which cost me 3 local pesos- that's just over one UK penny. I walked to the edge of town and back, ate at a courtyard which was ambitiously named as "Food central- Matanzas" and consisted of 3 fast-food style stalls. I eyed the pricey, air-conditioned buses back to Havana, but as Friday came, I trudged the three-kilometre walk back to the tiny train station and took a rickety train back, watching cow sheds, sitting next to a goat and eating rapidly-melting ice-cream.