4 Jun 2024

TRIP REPORT (Part 2): When I went rogue in Cuba... and was powerless

After a week at the resort in Cuba, I moved out (as planned!)

At the end of a wonderful, relaxing week at the lovely and well-appointed Marea del Portillo Resort, I moved off campus, one could say. Or, as I like to say, I went rogue! But, it wasn’t a “girl’s gone wild” type of thing; it was a carefully planned shift in lifestyle. Well, it was planned as carefully as one can plan anything in Cuba these days! When not staying at a resort, plans must be flexible and should always include a willingness to go with the flow.

During the off-resort flow of my March trip to Cuba, I spent two weeks at the home of an amiga in Pilón. Her son was away at university, so I took over his room and was very graciously taken care of by my host and other friends. But, in the small town that is less than 15 km away from the resort, life is quite different from a tourist compound. Frequent power outages were the biggest challenge, as they continue to be in most parts of the country. The resort is on a different part of the local electrical grid, so their supply is more consistent.
While I was in Pilón, the power generally came and went at intervals of roughly 5-6 hours at a stretch. However, the times of outage were not according to a set schedule; they were maddeningly and inexplicably variable. At some points, the electricity was off for as much as 10-12 hours. Over all, during that two-week period, the power was off more than it was on.

The unpredictability was (and is) extremely frustrating and makes everything more difficult. It can create cascading problems since many daily tasks require electricity, both at home and at work, from charging one’s phone to cooking. There’s an ever-present concern that the food in one’s fridge or freezer will go bad. And, it's hard to sleep when the power's off, the heat rises and the mosquitoes are hungry.

Food itself has become increasingly pricey and availability is often dicey. While in Pilón though, I did enjoy some nice fresh lettuce, thanks to a friend who raises it – for the reason why he won’t sell it to the resort, see Part 1 of my TRIP REPORT. As well, I dined on a variety of seafood, from fish to lobster and cobo (a fist-sized shellfish also called conch or sea snail), along with a little chicken or other meat, including some I had brought from Canada. Pork is no longer ever-present in Cuban households, and it is considered a special treat when it appears on a table.
People have become necessarily creative when it comes to cooking. My host likes to say she “invents” solutions to cooking or other problems, and she’s a very good inventor! Given the randomness of the electrical supply and the unavailability of gas for cooking, she sometimes made do with an alcohol-based fuel. Many people use wood or charcoal to cook, but the latter has become a bit expensive.

An article I read recently says that Cuban pork production fell by 91% in the past few years, going from 149,400 tons in 2018 to only 13,300 in 2023. Similarly, rice production declined from 273,800 tons to 27,900, which is a drop of 90%. That means more rice than ever must be imported, since it is an essential part of the national diet. Paying for imported products of any kind, however, is increasingly difficult for the Cuban government.
Meanwhile, the people struggle on, inventing as best they can. Although they didn’t originate in Cuba, I was very glad for inventions like rechargeable fans, lights and battery packs! If you’re planning a trip to Cuba, I would encourage you to take solar lights and fans that can be recharged when the power is on – as well as basic medicine cabinet supplies (especially acetaminophen and ibuprofen) and any types of protein you can fit into your luggage. Cured and canned meats are “kosher,” according to current customs regulations. To cut down on weight, I also took tuna that I had dehydrated.
On a few occasions, I was able to take my friends out for meals at private restaurants like “Kocha’s Place,” which is a few blocks away from Pilón’s main square. You can find it on Google maps. Since Kocha had supplied his family’s café/bar with a generator, they could serve hot food when the power was off… as long as there was fuel to run it, of course.  

Fuel was and is a huge problem in Cuba. Fuel is needed to generate the majority of the country’s electricity; solar and wind power are nominal. Gas or diesel fuel is vital for vehicles, of course, which means that both private and public transportation often stalls. More and more people in Pilón seem to be using electric motorcycles/scooters or e-bikes, even though recharging is an issue. Horse carts are busy these days! I did a lot of biking; I’m on the Cuban fitness plan.
For my final week in Cuba, I planned to attend the annual book fair in Bayamo, which is about 145 km from Pilón. A small bus had been arranged for attendees from more distant towns and, since I was included on the passenger list as a guest of one of the local writers, I felt confident that I would have transportation. I did, but it was not without a hitch or two!
On the day we were supposed to meet our “Diana,” the brand name of that type of little bus, I loaded my luggage into a horse cart and went to the designated meeting place, close to the town’s only gas station, at the appointed hour of 8 a.m. I seated myself on a nice rock beside the road and waited. My travelling companion arrived poetically late, since he had to walk from his home in a more distant part of town, carrying his assorted bags. We began to wait, and wait, and wait.
As the morning bled into afternoon, ZZ Top’s classic song, “Waitin’ For the Bus,” was playing on endless loop in my mind. We eventually received word that the bus was on its way from Bayamo to pick us up, but progress was slow because it had to make a lot of stops. By this time, we had shifted our butts to a bench in the yard of an adjacent home, where a bathroom was also available. Then it started to rain. 

Since we knew the route the bus would be taking, a plan was hatched for a rendezvous. Just as the rain began to pelt down more heavily, we climbed aboard a truck-bus that would take us over the mountain to Sevilla, where Diana would be waiting. Fortunately, this particular truck had a covered back, so nobody got completely soaked! Another woman and I were given the princess seats in the cab with the driver. By the time we chugged into Sevilla, the rain had stopped.
Once aboard the Diana bus with the other authors, we settled in for a long ride – protracted by the requirement to pick up anyone and everyone who was waiting at a bus stop, and to let them off wherever necessary. That’s how it goes in Cuba. If a bus or truck isn’t full, the doors will be opened for people needing transportation.

Eventually, we made it to Bayamo and pulled into a gas station but, after refuelling, Diana remained immobile. Another problem had arisen – the location of my casa particular (Cuban B&B) was not conducive to bus traffic. Little Diana was too big to navigate the narrow street where I would be staying. After some discussion, my friend and I agreed to jump off at the nearest intersection and haul our luggage the half-block to the casa. Thank goodness for suitcases with sturdy wheels!  

All told, the trip from Pilón to our destination took about 12 hours. We had missed the opening ceremony of the book fair and I was too exhausted to attend the evening’s scheduled cocktail party. I just wanted to have a hot shower and something to eat. A tin of meat and some crackers provided the necessary sustenance but the shower, to me, was more delicious than the food!
While in Pilón, I had not been able to take a long, hot shower, due to the electricity woes. The primary water tank for my friend’s apartment is located on the roof of the building and, in that town, the municipal water supply is only turned on every three days. Unfortunately, for the entire two weeks I was there, the timing didn’t jive for us to have water and electricity simultaneously. Therefore, we madly rationed water, since we didn’t really know how much remained in the rooftop tank.

On the day I left town, my friend reported that she finally had both water and power at the same time, which meant she was able to use her electric pump to refill the tank. I was greatly relieved to learn that she could finally do laundry, have a longer shower and not have to worry so much.

Once ensconced in Bayamo, all went remarkably well. The casa was located near the heart of town, so it was an easy walk to most of the main book fair activities and, in that quadrant, the electricity supply was more stable. In fact, there was barely a hiccup in power that week, which was nice. In addition to hot showers, I quite enjoyed hanging out with the literati of Granma and playing tourist in the province’s capital. 

I’ve been to the book fair a couple of times but, usually, I haven’t been able to do much sightseeing. This year, I stayed in Bayamo for a few days after the fair because it made more logistical sense to travel directly to Holguin for my flight home rather taking a slow bus back to Pilón and, then, an expensive taxi to the airport. In case you don't have a map in front of you (or in your head), the HOG airport is about an hour on the opposite side of Bayamo from Pilón. 

Since I had more leisure time on this trip, I was finally able to go to the wax museum in it’s new location on the city’s charming pedestrian street. Believe it or not, this is the only wax museum in all of Cuba! Although the bird exhibit, which I had fondly recalled from a previous tour, was being refurbished, the other displays have been updated and expanded. It’s certainly worth a visit, if you’re in town.

I could wax philosophical about Cuba’s current woes but, at this point, I think it’s time to sign off. I’ve given you plenty to read for now!
Keep smiling,




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