29. March (Thursday): We had booked a rental car for four days from Zurich and today was the day to fetch it at the Hotel Sevilla.
We got the car quite easily, having signed a blank credit-card slip to cover eventual costs and inspected the car. It was a bright red Peugeot 203 which looked rather new, had air-conditioning and a radio/cassette. It had black "T" number plates to identify us as tourists. We were told to always have someone to watch the car when it was parked.
We decided to buy some food and water to take along with us and we also wanted to buy some flowers for Ulija, since this was our last day with her and we not planning to come back to live with her once we were back in Havana again. We got some biscuits and some plastic bottles of mineral water but where there were usually flower sellers, today there was none! Talk about them not being there when you needed them, so unfortunately we couldn't give her any. We bade farewell from her and her husband, paid the last part of our room rent, carried our bags into the car and off we went!
After having had to rely on taxis so far, it was a great feeling to be able to drive freely on our own around Havana! We took the Malecon road to go to the Melia Cohiba Hotel for a last lunch before taking off.
The parking spot we stopped at near the Cohiba had a guard who appeared from nowhere! What, efficiency? Here in Cuba?! He immediately placed a ticket on our windshield and requested a dollar for "watching". We had lunch by the pool of the hotel which was quite pleasant. The reception of the Cohiba has the weekly event calendar and the best map of Havana we could find (for free!), so we got one of those. They also had a big map of Havana, the best we had seen so far.
We decide to catch the highway to the town of Santa Clara, which is about in the centre of Cuba. We'd be driving eastwards.
On the map, the route through Havana to the highway looked simple enough - but it wasn't! Despite asking people along the roadside, we were suddenly hopelessly lost somewhere outside Havana. We again ask someone for directions, it's a man of about 35 in military garb. He says he'll show us the way and whether he could come along and join us on the trip, since he wanted to go in the same direction? We agree let him onto the back seat.
He leads us along quite a complicated route of roads until we reach the highway leading to Santa Clara. The last road is so small and unmarked, that I'd never have expected it to end in the highway!! Actually, most roads are unmarked...
Our Cuban passenger says he is a parachute instructor. He used to be a karate instructor and he shows us his government ID, as if to build our confidence. He says it is not too safe to take along hitchhikers in Cuba, even women. When they are in numbers, they might even try to attack you. He says that "today is his birthday" and he is on his way home. He explains the countryside to us, pointing out orange and sugarcane plantations along the road.
He provides constant conversation, although not in a pushy way. He says that Cubans are bad-off today, they have hardly any money. Demonstratively he takes out his wallet, which is absolutely empty. I can well imagine that he doesn't earn much money in the military, although I guess housing, food and clothes would be paid for.
The highway is wide and in mostly good shape. There are about 3 or four lanes on each side and very little traffic, which makes driving quite pleasant. The few cars drive at a moderate pace, so I can easily overtake most of them. I'm careful not to drive too fast, since I don't want to get in trouble with police in Cuba, which I could imagine wouldn't be very pleasant.
Somewhere along the road, a railway line crosses the highway without so much as a railway barrier! There actually are trains crossing here, we saw one on our way back. Luckily Atsuko warned us of this anomaly or I would have been VERY surprised!
Eventually (somewhere nearing Santa Clara) our passenger asks us to stop, since we've reached his destination. We halt at a petrol station and we allow him to leave. He thanks us heartily and shakes hands, hesitates and leaves. I try to start the engine of the car again to continue our trip but the starter does not work at all! Absolutely dead! Our man is still nearby, and he returns to us once he sees our situation and together we push the car a bit to the side of the road. I open the bonnet, and after some searching we find that one of the battery cables is loose.
He tries fixing them again and uses the side of his karate hand to "fix" them to the battery. Ouch! The car starts immediately after that and I'm relieved that nothing serious is wrong with the car. That would have been a real rotten start of our journey! We bade him farewell again and then we go to the shop of the petrol station for a quick round of cool cokes.
We start off driving again and we haven't reached the highway yet when we see our hitchhiker standing by the road, signalling us to stop. He says he has no money and if can give him 5 dollars. We're willing to help Cubans by taking them along in the car but we definitely don't want to spoil them with cash 'donations'! What about all the other Cubans who do not have the nerve to ask for a few dollars? We politely refuse and continue our trip.
Reaching Santa Clara, we park our car and start looking for a hotel. 'Hotel Santa Clara Libre' rings a bell (remember 'Havana Libre'?), but it's definitely not in the same price nor quality range. The outside walls are pockmarked with bullet marks from the revolution. The room we are shown is none too spectacular and the floor has stains but we almost take it nevertheless. The disco is on the top floor of the hotel and we're a bit concerned about the noise levels at night, so we decide to look around town some more before deciding.
The next hotel we plan to check is closed, the one after is only for Cubans.
We consult the LP for some 'Casa Particulars'. The first one we walk to is full, but a young man there takes us to another one nearby. It has a homely feel to it (no wonder, it is a private house) looks so-so to ok, but is near the main road and you can hear the traffic. The lady wants 20$, I offer her 15, saying the room is a bit noisy. She doesn't accept, so we decide to continue our search. Annewien's tired and I have a bad conscience about my pickiness.
LP lists another Particular, which is unmarked outside but I ring the bell anyway. The door is opened by a friendly man who shows us into a beautiful colonial-style house with rooms looking into a central courtyard and garden. The room is nice, there's hot water and he can offer us dinner for a modest extra. Price for the room: 20$. Good enough, we order dinner as well.
The man at the Particular recommends an older lady neighbour to watch our car and we agree. Can you believe she says she wants us to leave one door of the car unlocked at night, so she can sleep in the car holding a machete to deter any would-be criminals?! It sounds a bit strange to me, but I'm also a bit happy that she's so dedicated!
Santa Clara Plaza Major at Dusk (scroll right to see the full picture).
We set off for a walk before dinner. The centre of Santa Clara consists of a main square, called 'Plaza Mayor', with a church, administrative buildings, a library and a theatre being prominent. This layout seems to be a blueprint for most of the small Cuban towns we visited subsequently, the main square would always be called 'Plaza Mayor' and had about the same offering of buildings around it. The middle of Plaza Mayor is usually a park with plants, flowers, trees and benches, with paved paths across it and a roofed pavilion near the centre. Here and there would be some statues, usually of local heroes, some lions or whatever.
We discover that the theatre on Plaza Mayor will feature a 'Tropical Show' at 21:00. This would be just after our dinner so we decide to buy tickets. We then buy two beers, sit on the park benches and watch the goings-on of the Cubans on the square.
Just before 20:30 we go back to our Casa Particular for dinner, which consisted of some huge pieces of meat for me and a huge piece of fish for Annewien! It was quantity but not necessarily quality, but good enough on the whole.
We arrived late at the theatre, the show had already started. We're ushered into lounges at the back of the theatre. The place was packed and we sat squeezed together in the lounge with about 10 or more other people.
Santa Clara Thatre Interior after Show
Che overlooking empty Santa Clara Library at Night
The show was absolutely brilliant! We were absolutely not expecting something of this calibre in a sleepy town like Santa Clara! They had a mix of group Salsa dancing, African rhythms and African singing and dancing, all with a lot of show elements. The performers were extremely good and professional and we later learned that it was a troupe from Havana. And for such an exceptionally good show we'd paid only 2$ entrance per person!
With Santa Clara being quite small, it was a short walk back to our room for a good night's sleep.