ET on the Bus

ET on the Bus


We said goodbye to our pink room with the red curtains draped in white wedding lace and our green tiled bathroom.  One last time we sat in our white rocking chairs on our concrete porch in front of the tidy red house perched on a small hill, overlooking the Vinales Valley.  We had hoped to sip our coffee in peace and quiet, but with overbearing Marisol, our AirBnB host mother around, there was no peace and quiet to be had.  In a high voice, compromised by laryngitis she would talk non-stop, nonetheless.  Telling us about this or that, but mostly inquiring about this and that.  What will we do, what did we do; all in fast Spanish.  Poor Celibeth, for speaking some Spanish.  I left Marisol entirely to her.   This morning in particular, as I had some food poisoning.  No coffee for me.  Just some mint tea and some prayers that I would manage the 3-hour car ride back to Havana and the 5-hour bus ride from there.  The collectivo driver showed up 20 minutes early.  That surely beats the opposite, but it cut our morning routine even shorter.  And for us travelers, that morning routine is everything…

A sturdy-enough looking white Lada was our new vehicle and the driver picked up a young German couple after us:  Anja and Christian.  I claimed the front seat, focused on my breathing, chewed some gum, said some prayers to my pantheon and hoped for the best.

The ride was uneventful.  Today, more than any other time I realized that the air pollution was everywhere.  Even cars that we hardly saw in the distance ahead of us, had filled the air with the fumes of leaded gas that now permeated the air in our car.  Of course, the windows were rolled down, as there was no air conditioning.  When we narrowed in on one of the big trucks blasting a constant stream of black soot into the air, I could only hold my nose and pray.  I made it to Havana without incident.  Thanks, Bhaisajyaguru.

This is the smell of my childhood.  I did not mind or notice it then.  But I remember that foreign visitors commented on the smells in my country.  Now I know what they experienced.  It is not only the smell of gasoline, even though that is the most constant one.   Most pungent are the smells of garbage, sewage, industry and who knows what.  It is literally impossible to turn a corner and not encounter a new scent.  One of the most pleasant surprises was the thick wafts of jasmine in Vinales.  But that was the only nice exception so far.

The Viazul bus station in Havana was surprisingly small.  Viazul is the government-run overland bus network connecting every major city in Cuba.  I had high expectations as one traveler whom I met in Mexico had praised Viazul as even better than the buses in Mexico.  Not even close!  Overland buses in Mexico are new and clean, and are frequent and comfortable.  One can buy tickets ahead or on the spot and the supply seems to match demand. 

My first experience with Viazul was in the US when I began to map out our trip.  Buses were filling up fast.  Unless you prepaid, your seat was not guaranteed.  And on top of that, my guidebook warned — if you are not there 1/2 hour in advance, your seat might be sold from under you, still.

A dirty waiting hall, filled with uncomfortable metal chairs was crowded with people.  We barely found a seat.  The air was thin.  A thick, slow-moving line had formed in front of the counter where ticket requests were handled.  When that thinned out after the departure of several buses, Celibeth got in line while I rested.  I was in no position to move around or stand in lines.  We were early.  You would think that is a bonus, but Celi, after reaching the ticket clerk, was told that she was too early!  She had to come back closer to departure time; and stand in line again, of course.  The nerve!  Only in a government-run economy can you operate like this.  Somebody could make millions here opening up a privately run bus system.  But is that even possible?

I stretched out on two seats that had become available, my back aching before long, but I had to choose between one or the other pain.  After a while a Viazul clerk came around telling me that I could not put up my feet…  For not running a very impressive operation, they surely have plenty of useless rules!  But before getting too upset, I remembered my bus trips in Mali and felt much better.  Soon, I would be riding in an air conditioned, if run-down bus, could stretch out on the last row, had space, and got to Cienfuegos in 5 hours on a reasonably well-paved road.  There are worse things in life than Viazul.  Travel in Cuba is not what it is elsewhere but it is by far not the worst.

On time, we rolled into the small station in Cienfuegos where Franz, from our next AirBnB awaited us.  We walked the 7 blocks to our centrally located home and were welcomed by our new hosts:  Reina and Alberto own a three-floor French mansion built around the middle of the 19th Century.  They rent out three rooms for six guests and employ several helpers:  A cleaner who also does laundry,  a cook (or cooker, as they called her!) who works on a what’s-needed basis, and Franz for the odd jobs.  The income from three rooms is substantial in proportion to government-job earnings.  Their rooms are adequate, equipped with a refrigerator, outfitted with a nicely tiled bath, and best of all, a fabulous roof terrace where meals are served. 

Our hosts were helpful and full of good information but they backed off after the introduction.  The feel of this AirBnB is more like an international hostel.  In Havana, we had our own apartment and saw our host Alexis only twice.  In Vinales, we were part of the family and Marisol behaved more like an overbearing mother.  Each AirBnB has its own character.  That makes it rather interesting. 

Reina made me a big cup of Chamomile tea.  That was all I could handle.  My biggest fear now was dehydration.  Two cups of tea cured that.  Thank goodness, Celibeth felt well.  I was determined to be better tomorrow.  A good-night sleep can do wonders.

Good night.