La Villa Blanca Gibara

A soft landing is always a good idea at the beginning of a long trip so we began in the small (36,000) town of Gibara about an hour and a half by vintage “taxi” from the airport near Holguin. It is muy tranquilo as the locals say, situated on the ocean with a malecon, a pedestrian walkway, all along the shore. Our casa particular, Las Brisas (the breezes), is directly across from the malecon, so from our window we can watch the waves pound in and the local people walk by on their way to school and work. The front porch with actual comfortable chairs is a treat, bathed in breezes which mitigate the heat which is fairly fierce at midday.

Casas particulares are homes whose owners are permitted to rent one or two rooms to tourists. It is just like staying in someone’s spare bedroom except that they are bound by law to provide a bathroom which your aging correspondents’ bladders require. They all charge between 20 and 30 dollars per night and are delighted to cook you breakfast and/or dinner for a nominal price. Apparently the income from the room rate is taxed by the government but not so the meals so they are pleased to offer food. The two women who run the place are so nice, and though they do not speak a word of English, one in particular is willing to try to decipher my dreadful Spanish and we have been communicating fine. The owners, a Cuban woman and her German husband are here for the month of January though they reside in Germany most of the time. He speaks only German and Spanish, she speaks French as well as Spanish and seems determined to speak French to me, which gets us totally confused. So it’s hard to glean complex information so far.

The town was famous for its beautiful colonial buildings, hence its nickname The Villa Blanca. Hurricane Ike devastated the town in 2008, leaving it like a war zone apparently, and the work that has been done to reconstruct and renovate the old buildings is astonishing. No lives were lost despite the total destruction — the Cuban evacuation system for hurricanes is emulated around the world, lives are rarely lost despite the frequency of such events. Even the homes have largely been repaired, and I am not sure how they saved the furniture, everyone has the most gorgeous caned chairs and rockers, and other furniture we would consider antique which is all in perfect condition. I guess when you can’t buy new you restore and maintain what you have, hence the so called vintage cars which abound, all brought in in the ’40s and early ’50s before the revolution and in amazingly good shape.

I had ascertained before I came that there was no Etecsa office here (the telephone office where you can use computers) but there was supposed to be Internet in the gorgeously restored Hotel Ordono on the main square. Something happened to the town’s internet connection a couple of months ago and no one knows when it will be restored so currently there is no internet available in Gibara. It feels very strange to be so out of touch, though Torsten allowed me to use his phone (he has a German roaming package for the month he is here, very expensive from what he told me) to send out a message to the 2 daughters whose email addresses I had in my head. Rather garbled as his phone autocorrected into German and was very stubborn about it, so all I could do was hope for the best.

We have walked all around the town, admired all the antique buildings, checked out the stores (a real problem in Cuba, little stock or not the right stock), smiled at all the friendly people who greet us as we pass. On Sunday evening we attended a casual concert in a so called cultural centre which was just a courtyard where we all sat around on random chairs to listen. My goodness Cubans can dance, they do it everywhere when a piece they like comes on even on the street. All generations at the concert danced and sang along with the band, drank beer and had a wonderful time. Every now and then the singer would wade into the crowd and hold the mic up to a random member of the audience and he or she would continue the song seamlessly and without turning a hair, and I must say, in perfect tune. All would cheer and laugh and the singer would join back in. Maybe they knew better than to approach elderly tourists like us. A rather sweet custom seems to be that when a Cuban greets a friend, he is given a swig from whatever the friend is drinking, or even eating, as we saw in a restaurant our second evening. Then they kiss on the cheek. Maybe it is a manifestation of socialism, sharing whatever you have, but they sure haven’t done it in other socialist countries we’ve visited.

The Cuban body type seems to be very portly particularly in the belly and buttocks. Even younger women develop bellies very young it seems. And all females, except elderly dowagers, wear absolutely skin tight revealing clothing — I am talking Lycra tights of all hues topped with pasted on T-shirts with very plunging necklines. Quite remarkable, even some women my age (and 3 X my girth) dress like that. Overtly provocative you would think for the young ones who are often quite beautiful, but when everyone dresses that way the effect is strange. All bright colours too.

One day we took a small boat to the part of the bay that is directly across from our casa. There is a small white beach there, the Playa Blanca so we took our swimming stuff and some lunch and water. The boat was mainly for local people and fishermen but there were two other Dutch girls along as well. When we got to the harbour for the 10 o’clock boat, fortunately quite early, those waiting in line pointed to an elderly man manning the gate to the dock. La lista he said, brandishing a piece of paper. When Doug signed us up we were the last on the list, #s 15 and 16. An odd concept to us, does this boat limit the number of people on it?

Anyway when the boat came he began to let people through in twos. The Dutch girls were first (we found out later they missed the first boat so had been waiting for an hour). One of the fishermen set up a fuss, which I understood as, Why are you letting the tourists go first, did they pay you? The little man was so offended, he pointed to the list where they were clearly numbers 1 & 2, then pointed to us and to #15 &16. The fisherman was then abashed and said, Desculpe, Desculpe, which means Sorry. We were astonished, a list, a quota, on time? What next? There were even life jackets in the rafters of the boat, though it was a barely seaworthy little tub. We enjoyed the day, found shade at the beach, and even came across a small casa where they sold us a cold beer while we waited for the return. I think we are adopting Cuban small town pace which is our aim.

Cubans seem to have lining up down to an art, they do a lot of it as bureaucracy is slow and there are line ups at banks, government offices, pharmacies, bakeries, meat places etc. Very like India, but here there is no chaos. The system is very organized, we experienced it in the bank in Havana and again here. When you arrive and there is a queue, you say “ultimo?” or last, and that person indicates himself. When someone else comes the same is repeated. If the line is long, you can go away and come back later, and you have not lost your place in the line. Clever eh?

We are off to Bayamo tomorrow by taxi — the “vintage” car we came from the airport in as there is no direct bus connection. It’s quite the beater, originally a Chrysler Saratoga 1949 or thereabouts but now a sum of various ingeniously assembled parts. Hope for Internet in Bayamo.