School holidays, Viñales ……… and not Bin Laden!

I have just survived 2 weeks of the boy’s school holidays and on top of that, an ailing little sister Saskia.  Who dictates to all of us in her sweet but firm way!  Terrible twos just round the corner.

I feel as though I deserve a medal!  I did recruit a teacher from the French school to do some extra French classes for a couple of hours on three mornings in the first week but as Saskia was at home grumpy and contrary Mary, I did not feel as though there was any let up.  I know I have a nanny and people helping me, but the bottom line is that I am their Mum and only I can do that job.  At times I don’t feel as though I am doing it very well but hey, I do my best …….  They can read this blog when they grow up and tell me where I was going wrong.

On Tuesday and Thursday I took them to the Film school for the day with their bicycles but mealtimes were fraught and public and the constant whining for sweets and icecream every time they saw me, wore me down.  I began to think that if anything they were acting as good condom adverts for the students.  Do you remember that Swedish condom advert of a child having a huge tantrum in a supermarket?

By week 2, I decided to escape with the boys and leave Saskia with the nanny and Rafa.  Not something I could do too easily in Guatemala so I decided to remember that I could be independent.  We headed west to the beautiful valley of Viñales, which I have to say lived up to my expectations.  The name is pronounced a little bit like Bin Laden and in fact would have made a good hide out for him before he was murdered.  Or maybe the real Bin Laden still hides there, chortling under his beard at the opposite end of the island to Guantanamo.

We didn’t actually do that much but this was designed to be a reccy trip.  Check out the lay of the land and find a good place to stay and a swimming pool maybe.  It took us around 2 hours to get there.  The motorway was empty and very straight until we turned off to wind our way up towards the amazing scenery that we had been promised.  For a moment we felt as though we were back in Guatemala ……… but no …. No volcanoes and no guns!  But the patchwork hillsides had some similarities.

Said to be one of Cuba’s greatest natural attractions the Viñales valley is a UNESCO site.  The lay of the land …….. It is the finest example of a karst valley (?) where mogotes (great word!), knolls with rounded tops and steep slopes contrast harmoniously with the flat surface of the valley where they stand.  It has even been described as Cuba’s Yosemite valley.  Tobacco is cultivated along with taro and bananas and the countryside is peppered with the wooden tobacco houses where the leaves are dried (I suppose).

Looking around at all this beauty a little too much, I stopped to check I had taken a correct turn and was persuaded to give a lift to a young man who was headed to Viñales.  He was a smiley chirpy chap and the boys liked the look of him so I broke my rule of only picking up women and let him escort us all the way to Viñales town.  As we approached, he of course, had a recommendation for a Casa Particular (B&B) and we agreed to check it out.

The place was an emporium of bad taste and so kitsch that in the gold lamé  room you really needed to keep your shades on.  This was of course the room that the boys wanted.  I said that we would go for lunch and think about it, not sure if I could last a whole night in that room, even if the boys thought it was the coolest thing ever.

We bought some tourist tat in the plazuela and found somewhere to eat amongst the European tourists and backpackers.  There were trips to caves, horseriding, trekking, bicycle tours, trips to the famous mural …………..  The thought of doing all this with a 6 and 7 year old was enough but Paulo had absolutely no brakes on his bike even if I had managed to get a good deal on a bicycle hire.  The thought of him spinning off down one of those steep hills with me trying to stop him …

They cycled up and down the mainstreet for a while before I decided we should go and check out the hotel with the view, 5 minutes back up the road we had come down.  Los Jasminas did have a knock out view and a fairly decent swimming pool, which was surrounded by ever so slightly too sunburnt tourists.

I started chatting to one of the guests as the boys tore around the premises putting chewing gum in each other’s hair.  Christine was part of a big possy of Danish and Cubans who all spent their time between Cuba and Copenhagen with their beautiful mulatto children and god children like a large extended family of friends.  The sun was going down and we headed back to claim the gold room as ours!

When I produced my resident card at the Casa Particular, they were not impressed at all.  In fact they told me that without my passport I could not stay there (not even in the gold room!).  Surely being a resident meant that I was more legit, I thought.  But no, they wanted my visa number and passport number.  I felt as though they were not being very helpful with their intakes of breath and clucking and headshaking, and decided to try my luck somewhere else.

As we scorched away from the gold room we bumped into hitchhiker friend who told us that he would help us find somewhere and hopped in again.  We tried two more places who told us that they did not dare have me stay as they may get a fine and they may lose their licence to be a Casa Particular.  Just as I was thinking we would have to head back to Havana chirpy chappy sorted us out with his mate down the road.

We still had to spend around 20 minutes hanging around in the street as they whole issue of my status was discussed amongst various people and phonecalls were made to immigration.  In the meantime a little mulatto boy around the same age as Paulo appeared with a very snazzy looking piece of Cars Lego.  Where on earth did he get that from I thought?  His Afro Cuban Mum was not far behind him telling me that his father was English and sitting in the house across the road.

There are only 200 resident Brits here in Cuba so this was quite a coincidence.  Within half an hour I was cleared to stay the night, had met the whole neighbourhood and was sipping a beer on the patio, whilst the boys raced around on their bicycles with half the street.  Tony (the Brit, known as Antonio) was a retired teacher from the North West originally but more recently living in Essex.  He had met his present wife whilst he was recovering from his divorce from his first wife.  Why did he choose to live in the crazy world of Cuba?  One day in Essex his next door neighbours had a birthday party in their back garden just over from where they were sitting in their garden.  There was no attempt to invite them round and Tony remembered what he liked about Cuba.  How long will he stay, he doesn’t know ……….

The main problems for tourists in Viñales are the roosters waking everyone up at the crack of dawn, so I was expecting not to have a very long night.  I woke up at my usual hour but it was so peaceful and the boys were kept quiet watching Garfield 2 on their DVD player so I managed to doze until 9am, quite a result for me.  Aaahhhh sleep, that rare commodity.

We were served up a rather tasty breakfast of omelette, toast, ham, tropical fruits, coffee and fresh guava juice before heading off back to the pool and the knockout view and possibly to chat with our new Danish friends.

The mirador (viewpoint) of the hotel had a few people plying their wares.  I managed to keep the boys happy with a couple of post-it pads and bookmarks of Viñales before heading home after lunch.

So Viñales, we will be back to either sit looking at the view from Los Jasminas or to get active on bikes, horses or feet and maybe bump into Bin Laden hiding in one of those tobacco houses.