Several sleepy hours later, we pulled into the beautiful tourist beach town of Varadero. Running the length of a small peninsula in northern Cuba (Matanzas province), with around 20km of white-sand beach, it's popular as a tourist destination, especially for those coming on package deals or for travelers that stay in resorts and high-end hotels. So-called "all-inclusive" resorts are everywhere in Varadero. It's easy to navigate there too; avenues run parallel to the beach and there are very few (maybe 6 blocks at the thickest part of the peninsula), and streets run parallel. Most of the casas particulares are on the west end of the town, between Calle 3 and Calle 30, but look hard enough...
Since the internet isn't a thing in Cuba, you have to rely on word of mouth and phone calls while traveling as a backpacker if you want to find a place to stay. Rooms in Varadero have a de-facto "set" price per room, and generally hold 2-3 people, so if you can find a room for 3 you'll save a few CUC per person.
The driver stopped and let all the Cubans out first, telling us to stay. After driving another few blocks, he allowed us to leave. I was the last one to leave the bus, and the driver stopped me after counting the cash I gave him.
"You gave me $30. It's supposed to be $60." The hair on the back of my neck stood up.
"Your friend took half of it before we left Havana. He said we pay half there and half when we arrive."
"He's not my friend."
"I'm sorry, I didn't know. But he did take half the money," I said firmly. The driver looked at me intently for a moment before allowing me to pass. "I'm sorry," I repeated, sighing as loudly as I dared.
After asking around several hotels and casas it was clear that we were going to have issues finding a place to stay. With six of us, and having come at the height of tourist season, we were relying entirely on chance. And the good grace of the Cuban people. Fortunately, Varadero is literally built on tourism.
We walked around the residential area asking at several casas particulares for availability. All but one of them had us wait while they ran up and down the street after their friends, or while they called seven or eight other people, until we found a guy who seemingly phoned the entire city for us. We stood outside his home for half an hour, playing with the plants and kicking trash (which is ubiquitous in Cuba-- they've got a huge litter problem) farther down the street until he'd come up with nothing.
"You'll need to walk over to the next town, it's just a kilometer or two. But there will definitely be places there," I relayed the info dejectedly as the man went back inside. Just as we were getting ready to try somewhere else, he ran back out.
"I've found a place! My friend will come on a motorbike and lead you there."
Long story short, we ended up unintentionally displacing a married couple and their baby for two nights, who (as far as we could tell) went to stay with friends or other family members and had just enough time to set their two-bedroom apartment up for us. Apart from being incredibly allergic to my bed, it was a nice place. But after taking some time to look around at the neighbors' places, I was heartbroken. We were staying it what I would consider a really nice place; the neighbors were living in ramshackle metal cabins and broken-down concrete cells. The upper floors were reserved for tourists. Below were the locals.
Varadero understandably gets a lot of storm damage and Cuba doesn't have the infrastructure required to deal sufficiently with Category 4 hurricanes, but even more unpleasant was our degree of luxury against the striking poverty mere feet from us. The ones that didn't get the opportunity to work in the tourist industry, I thought.
And in our relative luxury, we made spaghetti and sat around watching an American documentary from the 90s about kissing:
...and ate a lot of horse burgers at the Hamburguesas.com fast-food stand near the beach.
...and went on about our business until the following morning.
I was delegated the task of finding us a ride out of Varadero to our next destination, Trinidad, some four hours away. Jonathan went with me to find the bus station, and several people, as in Havana, came out from behind their gates to ask us whether we needed taxis. Making sure to leave our options open, I told several of Varadero's more outspoken residents that I'd be back the next morning if I couldn't get a bus.
The most popular bus company (and basically, the only bus company) in Cuba for tourists is called Viazul and, like most businesses, has separate prices for foreigners and locals. We walked in and found a very angry-looking woman in a blue uniform helping a depressed-looking blonde woman who might have been from Germany. The uniformed woman rolled her eyes, huffed and puffed and blew the blonde woman down. When it was my turn, I approached cautiously.
"Hello," I offered.
"What do you want?" she asked, rolling her eyes.
"We've got six people and I need to make a reservation for the bus to Trinidad for the day after tomorrow."
"Ay, it's not possible," she whined.
"How far ahead do I need to come to book tickets?" I asked.
"You can't make reservations for buses, you'll have to get a taxi," she said, looking down at her notebook, which had no writing in it. "You can try coming in the morning and getting a seat, but you can't make reservations."
"What time in the morning should we be here?"
"I would be here before 7am," she spat, as if I had asked too many questions and wasted too much of her time. We left frustrated, but hopeful.
For a whole day, we had a normal vacation experience. To the beach!
Between visits to Hamburguesas.com and beer runs to the grocery store, we spent most of the day at the beach, out on the water in a bicicleta (which also required a great deal of haggling), and worrying about waking up early for a bus to Trinidad. That night, despite thunderstorms over the island, we waded around in the crystal clear water and watched one of the most beautiful sunsets I've seen in my life.
The next morning, we got things rolling as early as we could manage, and left a little note for our hosts who had so graciously given us their space. Remember; as a backpacker or tourist, no matter where you are, you represent a community of some kind, and your actions will be remembered by the people with whom you interact. Future travelers will have to deal with the stereotypes set in place by previous travelers, so... what I'm saying is don't be an asshole.
"Thanks for all your help! We want to thank you for welcoming us and for giving a place to sleep on such short notice. We tried to get all the sand out of the apartment... I hope you have a great day and we hope to return one day. Sincerely..."
On the other hand, you sometimes have to be an asshole. We were disappointed to find a giant group of people who were very clearly foreign waiting in a huddled mass of sadness inside the bus station. Most of them were dead silent and listening as a woman at the front of the queue (which was more of a blob) complained about not getting a seat on the bus.
"What's going on?" I asked someone at the back.
"There's no places left on the bus," he said.
"That's impossible, they're huge and there's not that many people here," I said.
"I don't know, they told us we had to come early in the morning because we couldn't make reservations."
"They told me the same thing."
Right on cue, the taxi drivers came piling in with offers to take groups to Trinidad for $50 a person. Outraged, people began forming smaller groups to negotiate, leaving altogether, or sitting despondently by a wall.
I wonder, have you ever seen a group of schoolchildren being offered a visit to their Granpap's house and then a flaming monorail appears out of thin air and destroys Granpap's house, only to have several overweight gnomes pick up the splintered chunks to take home? That's a little bit like what happened in this ugly, blue bus station in Cuba. And then we kicked into overdrive.
I told everyone to stay still while I negotiated the shit out of our situation.
"Hey, taxi for six?" I asked the first driver I saw on my way out of the room.
"$300," he said.
"NO!" I shouted, like he was trying to take my purse. I moved onto the next driver, standing by the exit.
"Taxi for six, how much?"
"$500," he said, bored.
"YOU'RE INSANE!" I shouted, and moved onto a couple drivers in the parking lot.
"Taxi for six, how much?"
"Two cars, $300," he said. The price of the bus had been $20 a person, so maybe if I found more people... As luck would have it, there were stranded travelers literally everywhere like little jacks some kid had dropped. I found a pair of girls from France and two guys from Sweden just by talking to them. Relaying information in several languages as fast as I could, I gathered everyone to the cars.
"Two cars, $350," the driver said.
"You just said $300," I seethed.
"You have ten people now," he said. "You need a bigger car."
"Wait here," I said. I walked down the street to where one of the shirtless, potbellied men had offered us a taxi the previous day. He wasn't there, but his neighbor was there speaking with another local, smoking a cigarette.
"Excuse me." All timidness and politeness had gone from my voice by this point, but it seemed to be much more effective in Cuba. "Where is your friend who was here yesterday? He was offering taxis."
"What did he look like?"
"I don't remember. He wasn't wearing a shirt. Maybe bald."
If you've ever seen Pokemon, you'll know there are identical Nurse Joys in various towns across the continent.
Nearly all taxi drivers in Cuba we encountered over the course of a week there looked identical, or had too many similarities to tease apart. They always wore white button-up shirts and black pants, were overweight, balding, beardless, and white. Unless they were illegitimate taxi drivers, and then all bets were off. I described her neighbor to the best of my ability.
"Ah, okay, he's probably here somewhere," she said, looking around. She sent her friend down the street to look for another friend who had taxi cars, and signaled for me to follow her. Pulling back on a bit of blue tarp tied to a fence, she yelled for him.
"MANUEL!" No response. "MANUELLLLLL! VENGA!" She turned to me after he'd finally come to speak with her through the fence. "Wait here," she told me. Several minutes later, the sun was just starting to peak over the roofs of the houses enough to burn my skin. But out he came.
"How many people?" were the first words out of his mouth.
"Ten. Or six. Whatever is more convenient," I said, slightly disappointed that I was so willing to leave four people behind.
"Meet me at the beach in two hours. There's a restaurant there with umbrellas. Stop there, get something to eat, pretend we don't know each other. I'll come with my friend and we will get you to Trinidad. Okay? Two hours. $100 for the car."
That didn't go over well with the group. And I was glad; waiting for two hours for another shady business deal didn't sound very appetizing. And then I turned into the negotiating interpreter again.
"200 each car!"
"He's not okay in the back seat...," and then "we have six tall people and four short people...," and then, "he can't put his luggage in the trunk...," and then, "no, we can't pay here. We pay when we get there...," and then...
Jonathan's response to all this? "This is the most difficult country I've ever been to."
It took what felt like a lifetime to sort out all the details, and it took the threat of us leaving and actually grabbing our luggage out of the trunk for the drivers to agree to our terms. But at long last, we were on our way to the magical city of Trinidad. We'd just have to pass through another gauntlet to get there.