Day 4 - Incline, Insanity and Inebriation

The morning routine ended up with Matt and I having breakfast in another, proto-kitchen located on the second floor which involved traversing a set of stairs and navigating around some barbarous looking corrugated sheets. The tradition of good coffee and unidentifiable jam continued accompanied by omelette and various fruits.

Alfredo and the mechanic from the previous day were already present when we finished breakfast, evidently ready to take us on our planned trip which today was to be Gran Piedre, a mountain 30 kilometres from Santiago. We had always planned to leave Santiago today or tomorrow, how we would do that and where would go wasn't decided until last night when a firmer plan for our holiday was proposed; we would take an overnight bus to Sancti Spiritus where we would meet up with one of the contacts our original itinerary creator had mentioned.

Learning from yesterday, we asked the price for going up to Gran Piedre which Alfredo stated would be $35, any attempt to haggle him down was met with the same, evidently practised, spiel of being on a flat rate rather than a meter like a state-run taxi. Given the distance it wasn't unreasonable, but given the mode of transportation it became hard to swallow. Heading downstairs, my heart jumped for joy when I saw a reasonable looking saloon car, only to be shown once again to the decrepit Lada positioned behind it. We stopped off at the bus station and somehow managed to cross a 6 lane speedway without dying to get to the booking office. Matt once again excelled at his Spanish and managed to figure out that we would need our passports to book a ticket in advance and we were better turning up later, probably around 1930 for the 2000 bus.

Once again we crossed the Road of Death, this time meat-shielded by some locals who seemed to know what they were doing more than us. Back in the car and we set off for Gran Piedre which, to begin with at least, followed a major road out of Santiago. Along the way, our driver gave a lift to a fully uniformed police officer, quite possibly one of the many he spoke to yesterday as a favour for looking the other way. The journey to the mountain involved driving the car up a winding mountain road part of the way, and for an aging Lada, this was not an easy task. Half-way up the road which seemed to fold back in on itself, he stopped the car near a fresh-water spring and filled up a radiator tank; as gung-ho as he was, he seemed to know his vehicle well enough. One of my thoughts at this point involved the fact that we would, eventually, have to come down this road, this time going with gravity rather than fighting against it.

Regardless, the car continued and deposited us at the base of what would be our climb. "Climb" is used in the loosest sense of the word as Gran Piedre has a set of 462 steps leading to the summit which meant climbing clods such as myself could conquer it. After paying for admission, we were talked to by a large booming man, not unlike the man who drank himself into a stupor on the flight over. To complete the scene, this one also carried a glass of whiskey as he talked to us in near perfect English. We excused ourselves when it became apparent that in the end, all he really wanted was money, I felt something that the adult guide referred to as "that walking dollar feeling".

The trek to the top of the mountain lead us through various snippets of jungle vegetation, and combined with the early morning cool, made the entire journey a pleasant and refreshing break from the city. The summit was adorned with some kind of aerial array, replete with peeling paint and a retro-futuristic look, as well as a stunning view of the entire surround valley. Our time soaking in the view and serenity was once again broken by a mixed group of tourists and locals, worryingly, one tourist seemed insistent on taking photos of one of the accompanying girls. Heading back down, Matt and I explored around the aerial construction, still none the wiser as to its function or purpose. By now several makeshift stalls had been set up along the path down selling all kinds of familiar wooden jewellery and useless statuettes.

As we came to where our driver had parked the car, one of the men sitting along a nearby wall relayed to us that our he was apparently picking someone up and would be back in a few minutes. The familiar chug of the Lada let us know he had returned, however the one passenger had become four; with Matt and I as paying customers, we got the pick of the seats while two others sat in the open boot. The roller-coaster ride to the bottom had begun.

Coasting most of the way, the car picked up speed and had all the controllability of a bobsled given the amount of weight propelling it forward. The two passengers perched in the boot got off part way down the hill, and it was only myself, the driver, Matt, and a middle aged man and woman (with child) left in the car. By now, I had come to the realisation that were the car to crash, nothing I held on to, be it the driver's seat in front of me or the door handle next to me would provide me any protection, we would all simply crumple along with the car. Despite this, the woman and child next to me seemed to be jostled by the constant hairpin bends, so I did the gentlemanly thing and hoisted myself away to give her some room. This was of course taken by the mechanic to mean I was scared (I was, but not the point) so he forcefully peeled my hands from the door handle, laughing all the while. I quickly removed my hands from the door, realising his attention was in fact no longer on the race-course ahead of us.

Dropping our passengers off at various points along the way, the car and both remaining passengers managed to survive the journey back into Santiago and to our casa. Alfredo was waiting when we got there so we were quickly relieved of our $35 but only after an assurance that we would get a lift to the bus station this evening with our luggage. With this all sorted and the time barely midday, we headed into town which now thrummed with life thanks to it no longer being a bank holiday. We ate at the strangely named Hotel Venus, which was neither a hotel nor worthy of the title Venus, but served beer and acceptable lunchtime food.

Places of potential interest were now open, so we of course headed straight to the Rum museum, a staple in Cuba, and for our admission fee we got a free taster shot of some exceptionally potent rum. The exhibits were once again in Spanish, but thanks to some straightforward machinery and some selective translation, the gist of the rum making process was gleaned. Two beers, a shot of rum and the afternoon heat made me pleasantly squiffy while we tried to find the Emilio Bacardi museum, ending up instead in a pleasantly cooled bakers with some much needed water. Once we found it, the museum turned out to be some kind of weird hybrid: the bottom floor devoted to colonial weapons and uniforms all in excellent condition, the second floor however was a variety of paintings, some good, some not so much.

Hot, tired and slightly confused, we walked back to the casa where I took a nap and Matt learned some more Spanish. Our bags packed, an early tea of fish awaited us followed by a silent taxi journey back to the bus station; this time by a far more stoic driver but the same decaying car. Arriving at the station around 1900, our tickets were bought, our bags tagged and we were in the waiting room to people-watch until the bus departed. This happened far sooner than expected and we were headed for Sancti Spiritus before half past seven, a full half hour before we were told the bus would depart.

The bus itself was a welcome sight with curved, padded seats and air-conditioning which erred on the side of cool rather than Arctic. It also had an entertainment system which consisted of a 14 inch television located halfway down the bus and whose tinny sound reached only a few feet from that. Thankfully this was all moot as the movie showing was "The Tuxedo" with Jackie Chan and Jennifer Love Hewitt, so thankfully a cinematic masterpiece was not wasted on me, especially as the audio track was in Spanish although I doubt this improved the movie at all. Despite the comfortable bus and onrush of darkness, my attempts to sleep were scuppered by the Cuban roads which refused to be smooth even for a behemoth such as the bus. Matt seemed to take to sleep far quicker than I, who alternated dozing and staring out of the window.

For once, I was glad I did, for the Cuban scenery was fascinating and amazing in the dark. High above a half moon shone while on the horizon, a storm raged with forked lightning striking a far away landscape. I watched this enthralling scene, interspersed by nameless warehouses illuminated from within or floodlit courtyards with nary a sign as to their purpose. Despite the length of the journey, time passed quickly and it wasn't long before the bus driver called out the stop for Sancti Spiritus.

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