Friday, July 20
A long trip. After changing planes in Orlando (a lovely airport as long as you like Burger King, the only game in town) I arrive in Nassau to a long slow line of passport control and a loud sound of a reggae band. The airport looks like an old bus station that needed a paint job at least a decade ago. I have no trouble finding the Havanatour agent who presents me tickets and visa to Cuba. I pay $22 for these plus $15 for something else I do not understand. I am grateful for the lack of complications. As I wait for the flight to be announced I realize that I will not be fed for some time (American Airlines offered peanuts for lunch). So I buy two Twix candy bars, a container of yogurt and a bottle of water at the small grocery shop. They overcharge me without impunity or apology.
After about a two-hour wait in the uncomfortable plastic chair the flight is announced and we move, briefly, to the next waiting room. I can now get a good look at my fellow passengers. They are evenly divided into Bahamians — black, powerful, handsome people — and those I judge to be Americans of Cuban origin. English and Spanish laced together into many conversations. I watch a young couple of blond Americans in their 20’s who look like poster children for Harvard Yard. Tall, good looking, in preppy clothes, very athletic, with intelligent sun tanned faces. They seem to have walked away from a challenging wind surfing afternoon. So very blond and healthy. I watch them secretly because it fascinates me how little they say to one another. There is an unmistaken intimacy and comfort about them but still, they have such small need to talk!
The woman next to me in this Russian-made jet plane is young, large, black, and beautiful. She wears a lot of gold. She introduces herself as a Bahamian who once studied in Cuba. I don’t understand this connection but I don’t pursue it.
The flight is eventful. A violent storm in Havana forces us to land in Varadero for about an hour. People begin to comment on the unexpected landing. Immediately, two camps form: one group believes in the story of the storm, the other camp sees a conspiracy, a cover-up of some other sinister development, no doubt orchestrated by the Castro regime. I don’t have an opinion. I have been up since 5:00 AM, this is now more than 12 hours later, the yogurt is gone, the candy bar looks uninviting, and I resign myself to a dried-up cheese sandwich on white bread for $3.00 (American dollars).
It is 7 PM when we arrive in Havana. The airport scene is insane, too many people and too much luggage. A big group of Miami Cubans has arrived right before us. They have massive quantities of luggage, probably new kitchen sinks for the relatives in Cuba. The passport officer queries me suspiciously, which makes me feel guilty for no reason. Finally, I emerge on the street, straight into Philip’s embrace and a taxi. We are both wound up.
The hotel is a narrow building squeezed between many others on this grand promenade Prado. The layout of the building is such that, with the exception of a handful of rooms facing the street, most rooms have no windows to the outside. Our room has a small opening, which faces the inner corridor containing a staircase. No daylight filters into the room through this circuitous path. The room is a standard issue: clean, with a loud air-conditioner in what appears to be a blind wall. I don’t understand from where it draws its air. There must be a shaft behind it. The shower curtain is too short, leaving a lake on the floor after each shower, and the bathroom light does not turn on. We lower the shower curtain by eliminating two thirds of the rings and hooking the remaining ones together into three ring longish chains. I wonder how many years the bathroom has been flooding with each shower, without mobilizing anybody to lower the curtain rod. The first opportunity we have I am getting out of this hotel.
We take a walk in the post-storm warm Havana evening, watching people on the street. The population is much more Negroid that I expected. It becomes clearer after I read in the guidebook that by the 18th century, 45% of this Spanish colony comprised African slaves. The walk takes us to a local simple restaurant where we eat a perfectly acceptable nondescript broiled chicken with potatoes and some greens. Boring food, which is just right for my digestive system. I revive temporarily, long enough for us to walk the streets of Old Havana. We stop at the lobby of the Hotel Sevilla for a daiquiri. The old splendor of this hotel is palpable, with its Moorish motifs, and Art Deco and walls adorned with photographs of Al Capone and many celebrities who once stayed here. We sip daiquiris in the airy atrium, surrounded by Westerners.
The currency is strictly US dollars. There are no places to exchange money. In the tourist part of the city we get change in dollars. I have never seen anything like that: two separate currencies and two separate economies. They even have something like Monopoly money, printed paper equivalent to dollars. These are used by merchants who do not have real dollars to give us back as change. There is no point in finding out what the exchange rate is. We will probably not need it. I feel a momentary pang of anxiety thinking that I may not have brought enough cash with me. There is no way of telling how much we will pay for this trip. Then I remember that Philip can use his Dutch credit cards, and my mind is again at ease.
I see no cell phones, no ATM machines, hardly any automobile traffic. That part is splendid. It is 1 AM by the time we collapse in bed.
Saturday, July 21
After a long and fitful sleep (the air conditioner is so loud) we wake up with frozen sinuses and mild headaches. Thank God for antihistamines. We are off to explore the city.
Although I read a lot about the decay here I never really tried to envision it. These crumbling 18th-19th-20th century buildings, largely in colonial Spanish style, are astonishing. Some are just old. Others look like they were hit in an air raid. This was, indeed, a dazzling rich metropolis once upon a time. Our street, Prado, is a breathtaking promenade with an elevated marble center, intricately inlaid with geometric pieces of colored marble, built strictly for strolling. It is bordered on both sides by traffic lanes and, further out, by regular sidewalks along the buildings. Two rows of lush trees create a canopy over the walking part. Marble benches line both sides. It is easy to imagine the Spanish-Cuban aristocrats strolling here, with pomp and elegance. Philip informs me that the promenade is 1.5 km long. I don’t know where it begins. It ends not far from our hotel at the water’s edge, where it connects at a right angle to another wide avenue, Mancon, running for many kilometers along the cost. Something likes Collins Avenue in Miami Beach.
We walk through the old Havana (Habana Vieja). Open doors allow us a glimpse into the inner courtyards and people’s apartments. The poverty is shocking. They just don’t have anything. Repeatedly, older people accost us, asking for money. They are not exactly beggars in either demeanor or dress, but that is what they are. We are stunned to see this coda to Fidel’s revolution and the US embargo. Revolutionaries-turned- beggars. During the two days in Havana prior to my arrival Philip has been beleaguered by young women wanting him to spend money: a drink, maybe sex. Aggressive, direct, with no trace of subservience. My presence “protects” him from these assaults.
The streets are lively but not crowded. But this is a weekend, we do not know about weekdays. Infrequent cars on the roads. Several years from now these narrow streets of old Havana will be congested with traffic, suffocating. I am so glad we are here now. And of course, these enormous American cars from the 1950’s. People are working on them here and there. Come to think about it, people are fixing them more often than driving them.
I can see the beginnings of the free market. One of the streets near the Plaza Cathedral presents a string of art galleries. Each has a beautiful courtyard with wrought iron tables and chairs. These are spectacular old mansions, partly restored. The art is indifferent. The places are elegant. The people who run them seem more alive then those on the streets. Engaged, open to do business. We chat, with our hands, eyes, gestures. The prices are positively U.S.
Lunch with the locals. In the older, tourist-free part of town we find a luncheonette of sorts in a gracious, perfectly symmetrical square framed by columnar Spanish style buildings. Half of the buildings are renovated, painted in pastels, while the other half is dilapidated. The automobile traffic is barred from the square by neatly spaced ancient cannon balls attached to the street surface. There are many such cannon balls barriers throughout Havana. We affix ourselves to the bar with a few stools, lots of kids, and an ice cream stand. We loiter, watching what people eat and drink. It is cool here, despite the intense heat outside. The wise tropical architecture at its best. Finally we also make a move and order sandwiches and beer. Plain and tasty food. Here, we pay in pesos. It is cheap and pleasant, if you do not mind the flies.
By 2:00 PM we are very tired and on the way back to the hotel. The bed is irresistible. A man coming in to fix the bathroom light interrupts a long nap. Philip wants to tell him to come back later, but I advise him to grab the opportunity. He may never come back. The man does not seem to care that I barely have time to cover myself with the sheet. After ten minutes we have a functioning bathroom light.
Before dinner we go to the festival at the waterfront. The working poor and a variety of urban riff raff gather here to drink bad beer from paper cups, eat cheap food and dance salsa. A young black man with an open face asks me to dance. I agree. We do quite well together, in spite of my self-conscious stiffness. He shows me a new step. Nobody pays much attention to us. Soon, a young woman dances with Philip. That puts me on guard because I do not want to lose the sight of Philip in this dense crowd. Our beer cans (this is real beer), which Philip put on the ground in order to dance, quickly becomes public property: a young girl drinks it up.
We have dinner at one of the paladores, the eating establishments organized in private homes. Faded paint, remnants of gracious past ways of life. The ceilings are 14 feet high, with baroque gilding, and are supported with arched doorways. A large balcony with wrought iron railings extends the marble floors. A large family occupies the small entry room while guests are at the tables in the large room and on the balcony. The food is predictable and non-threatening: chicken, prepared in a somewhat different fashion than yesterday. I can already see that this trip will not be a gourmet experience. In this gentle cool night we watch people strolling on Prado. The plans to go dancing never materialize. We stay in, and by midnight we are deeply asleep.
Sunday, July 22
We welcome a cloudy day to continue exploring Havana. We start with a church in the neighborhood. The morning mass is in progress, and the place is full and well kept. Clearly, the government does not mess around with the people’s faith. This crowd is markedly different from the carnival crowd of the previous evening: different skin colors, different demeanor.
We spend most of the morning in the Museum of the Revolution. Fascinating blow by blow description of the movement, its origins, the failed attempts during the 1950s, and the victory. Fidel emerges from this chronicle as a charismatic megalomaniac with courage, brilliance, and no past. Not a word about his family, in contrast to Che Guevara and Camilo Chienfuego, who are both shown in old photographs with their prosperous families. The leading comrades were rebellious, well educated boys from affluent families. In the series of photographs Fidel gets arrested, released, arrested again, freed again. On the prison photographs he looks well fed, well dressed, well groomed. He obviously loved to be photographed, as though the revolutionary movement was a fun adventure. We can only guess at the influences of his family that kept him well groomed in prison, and most of the time out of prison. With whom did they consort on behalf of their rebellious son? Perhaps these puzzles explain the silence about Castro’s family in the mythology about him. Later, I learn from the guidebook that Fidel’s daughter and sister live in the United States, both having rejected the Revolution.
Munching ice cream in the bar Philip and I talk at length about the twists of Cuba’s recent history, the alliance with USSR, and the roads taken and not taken. And the ultimate corruption of the revolution, which must have started around 1970. The U.S. had a hand in it.
Our lunch reminds me why we came to Cuba. In an outdoor restaurant, to the sound of a good band, we eat excellent pizza and watch a distant fort on a hill. It is steamy, my shirt is glued to my body, and I feel good. In the afternoon we take a ferry across the Havana harbor to the village of Casa Blanca. The ride takes no more than 10 minutes while it would take a long time to circle around the long harbor by taxi. The village is miserably dead, clinging to a side of a sharp cliff, and topped with a 50-meter tall white marble statue of Jesus. The view over the city is impressive. I realize what a big prosperous bustling city Havana was once, quite amazing, really, a European-Spanish city among Caribbean beach huts on the scattered islands. This is not a city for beach clothes. It is for finely tailored formal wear and diamonds.
We drink sodas under the Jesus statute, among simple looking families on a Sunday afternoon outing. The music mixes with human voices. I am mentally transported to a Hispanic neighborhood of my New York City years.
The trip home turns into an event. We wait for the ferry along with a dense crowd of Habanos. The boat is delayed; the crowd thickens and becomes tense. I am squeezed from all sides; it is unbearably hot and humid. The tension grows, the boat does not arrive, near three-quarters of an hour goes by. Philip and I wonder what will happen when it is time to embark. We are now over a hundred people, too many for one boat. The waiting area consists of a cage-like metal structure, no room to expand, and it is not clear which of the several gates in the front will be open for the passengers to pass through. People are tensely watching each gate, ready to start pushing in that direction as soon as the ferry appears. This is a recipe for a disaster, a stampede. It all gets worse when the boat arrives. People are pressing, I cannot breathe: I hold on to my green bag and Philip’s clammy hand. Suddenly, and predictably, a fight breaks out in the front. It is like a lighting bolt. We don’t know what is going on, but the crowd bounces back like a spring. Nobody speaks English here. In a matter of seconds several soldiers appear to contain a wild teenage girl and several others who lost control. By the time everything quiets down, Philip and I are pushed out of the crowd way into the back, with no hope for making this ferry.
After a while, a small boat of soldiers arrives. There must be 20 of them by now, monitoring the temperature of the crowd.
There are soldiers everywhere in Havana. They are on street corners, and at the entrances to buildings. They are all slender, mild and not threatening. To me they appear underfed. I feel that they represent the people rather than the State. I certainly feel safer with soldiers around.
After two more ferry loads we make it across the harbor. We get home around 8, tired and hot. A quick shower, change of clothes, and we go back out. This time we take a taxi to the plaza Francisco Assisi. We dine in an attractive outdoor place, with a 6-man band playing Cuban music. The plaza is unreal with its symmetry, architecture, long shadows and few people. This is the restored part of Old Havana. In a few years we will have to share it with crowds of tourists, but not tonight. People dance salsa and we join in the dance. It is spontaneous and unselfconscious. A girl stands outside the perimeter of the restaurant’s property, watching. She stands there for a long time, motionless. She is watching others and me around me who can afford the rich life. I see myself in that girl, 30 years ago, in Rome, curiously peering into a life I had never seen before. I feel that I owe her an explanation, but what is there to say? Anyway, I don’t speak Spanish. One time when I shot a glance in the girl’s direction the spot is empty! Only the ever-present cannon balls are there, lined up in their neat intervals.
A couple next to us is from Japan, on a 2-day stopover in Havana on an around-the-world cruise. In their 50’s or 60’s, handsome and prosperous. The woman is uncharacteristically outgoing. They don’t speak a word of English, so we help them order some food. A couple of times the woman asks Philip to dance salsa with her. He gladly complies, and the husband is relieved that he can be left alone in his chair. This is a good life.
I get back to the hotel strangely shaken. Perhaps this was too much for one day. Perhaps this is because of seeing the Revolution disintegrating so visibly into poverty and begging. Habanos have become cave dwellers. Many of them live in what look like windowless caverns of street level rooms in decomposing buildings. Through the slightly opened doors I see plastic chairs, naked light bulbs, shadows of people, flickers of television sets, and darkness. There must be other spaces in the back there, perhaps inner courtyards in these urban canyons, but not much light emerges from behind. These are caves, and I wonder what kind of sanitary facilities they have. And then there are the state-operated stores. Or rather distribution centers for cashing in on the food and staple rations, such as soap, rice, beans, and so on. The few stores we visit look identical: dark, windowless, unadorned, with mostly empty shelves. A blackboard on a side-wall lists the available items, their prices, and what looks like monthly allowances. A few customers and uninterested clerk briskly conduct the pitiful transactions.
But not everyone lives that way. The two sisters, with whom we make reservations for our last two nights in Cuba, two weeks from now, have a spacious, airy, high ceilinged modern apartment, which resembles the coveted apartments in the post-war MDM section of Warsaw. Large rooms — if not numerous — high ceilings, adequate kitchens and bathrooms. There are some racial and class divides in this country, the explanation for which is not accessible to us. But it does not take much research to see that with regard to skin color darker is poorer in Cuba.
Late in the evening we silently watch the clerk at the registration desk of the hotel enter by hand into a large notebook the serial number of every single dollar bill, regardless of denomination. It is hard to believe that anyone will get around to using this information. I think this is a chore invented to keep people on their guard: someone is watching and keeping track. I ask the bartender in our hotel what will happen when Fidel dies. A vast blankness fills his face. “I don’t think the revolution is completely dead”, he then says.
Monday, July 23
We did not sleep well. Too hot without the air conditioning, too loud with it. On Monday morning the city gets busy, loud, more polluted. There is a car available for rent. Philip has been inquiring for two days in the car rental office, without receiving any assurances. We are lucky. A little red Japanese thing reminiscent of a Fiat 500. We contemplate with pleasure the prospect of leaving the city. Especially Philip, who has a two-day head start over me in Havana.
On the way out of the city we stop at the imposing Hotel Nationale. An imposing art deco structure carefully restored. Enormous and filled to the brim with Western tourists. We stop long enough to use their business center for checking e-mail (very expensive. My energy level is low. We have done too much yesterday. The small fight we had in the morning over the plans to meet my internet acquaintance Delgado lingers in my heart.
Soon after exiting the city the landscape changes. It is lush, but with not much economic activity. Just widely growing palm trees, low bushes and grasses, no houses, no farm fences. The road is very good: this is the famous autopista that crosses the country from the western end to Santiago de Cuba in the east, with a large segment in the middle missing. They ran out of money for finishing it after the Soviet system collapsed. Two lanes each way with hardly any traffic.
We stop at a dilapidated vacation resort populated mostly by Cubans to take a swim in the ocean. The beach is rocky, the water is refreshing. Afterward I wander if it was such a good idea: I cannot get the sand off my skin or out of the car.
The landscape suddenly changes as we enter the industrial town of Mariel at the foot of a gigantic chemical works complex. A steady diet of large billboards with revolutionary slogans and likenesses of national heroes announces the approaching socialist monster. Like the billboards and their messages, everything is bleached by the sun, lifeless, unconvincing. The air here is so foul that our mouths begin to taste of the chemicals. A couple of streets, standard communist architecture, deadly poisons in the air, people extending arms to hitchhike. It is so hopeless here. We don’t take hitchhikers because we are lost and not sure about our route and destination.
By 2:00 PM we are hungry, only to realize that there is no meal to be found anywhere. Philip’s ideas of cafes and quaint restaurants are a mirage. This is the result of discouraging private enterprise and of low incomes. Poland in the late 1980s must have been that way. Cubanos do not have money to go to restaurants, so if there are no tourists there are no restaurants. Finally, we find a small town with a snack bar under umbrellas. The man offers us ham and cheese sandwiches on long rolls and nondesript carbonated drinks. What a relief! I am appalled at the price: $5.00, which is about a week’s salary in this country. I feel like a sucker until I remind myself that we operate in the alternative economy. This is an amazing system! They will not accept pesos from us. I pay what they ask and take in change what they give us. What else is there to do?
The ecovillage Las Tarrasas is our destination. After some trials we find the road leading to it. It turns out to be an entry to some national park. The attendant at the car gate asks if we have accommodations for the night. No, we say. In response she points to the right as tells us that the hotel there costs $100 per night. On the left, on the other hand, there are private accommodations for $25 a night. This is our first experience with casa particularas in Cuba. Of course, we go left. A couple of kilometers down the road we find our farmhouse in the country, Villa Juanita, where the lady rents private rooms and cooks meals. It looks a little like an Italian villa (without the architecture): stone floors, shutters, a balcony. It is wonderful here. We are in a village. Animals and birds walk around, breeze in my hair, gentle rocking chairs, pure air and open space. We breathe again after the claustrophobia of the windowless Havana hotel. I walk barefoot. Tranquility fills our minds. We are at home.
The landlady is a shrewd businesswoman who keeps track of her referral network and the word-of-mouth. She wants to know the name of the woman who gave us the referral, which I find scribbled on the business card given to us earlier. There must be a commission involved. I like our landlady.
Tuesday, July 24
A lazy day. And a good thing because the sun is beating hard. We drive the 3 kilometers that separate us from Las Tarrasas. This is a Cuban style national park of lush forest, hills and rivers at the foot of Sierras del Rosario. In the center of it there is an ecovillage, which in the Cuban context means that it is a designed human settlement in harmony with its environment: single level housing, a lake, playgrounds, everything on human scale. On a hillside, hidden among trees, is a beautifully designed hotel resort Moca. Its architecture reminds me of a tree house. It is multileveled, open, terraced, built into the forest. Frank Lloyd Wright would approve.
We start our day ambitiously, studying carefully the map of hiking trails, choosing one over another. In reality, however, our hike lasts about 15 minutes. Up the hill, the grass became thicker, taller, and sharp edged, while the temperature seemed to rise a degree with each step. Philip gives me a quick look and we both know: let’s get the hell out of here.
We spend the next hour driving around in a vain search of lunch. One place is overrun by three busloads of Cuban tourists. Another is closed for renovations. The third does not exist outside our map. We end up in the Moca hotel, munching uninspiring sandwiches made of bread which I do not call bread. “Crystal” beer makes it palatable. What to do next? The answer is obvious: the hotel grounds have a nice swimming pool. So this is how the day passes. At the pool I occupy myself with watching groups of obviously rich Cubans enjoy a nice resort. The rum punch is good. The music (there is always music!) is western boring stuff.
On the way back to our house we visit a remarkably well-preserved 19th century coffee plantation. It is perched on top of a hill like a fortress and has a spectacular view of the Gulf of Mexico in the North. I can just imagine the slaves and their masters in this amazing place. It is empty here in the afternoon, except for a solitary soldier-guard. He satisfies my curiosity of what a coffee plant looks like.
Back at Villa Juanita we meet two young Italian men who have moved into the second guestroom. Their English is limited. We swap tips about where to go and where to stay. They are heading east while we are heading west.
The night on the terrace is slow; the daily thunder can be heard in the distance. It will rain again.
Wednesday, July 25
In the morning we are back on the autopista, driving towards Pinar del Rio (Pines on the river). Early on we pick up a hitchhiker. There are dozens of them at exit points from cities and at highway intersections. This is a widely practiced mode of transportation. Trucks always stop if they have no cargo. There are men whose job it is to assign hitchhikers to passenger cars. This is done mostly in cities. Cubans have little choice but to hitchhike because of the poor public transportation system between cities.
Our hitchhiker introduces himself as Lazaro. In his 20’s, he spells trouble from the beginning by breaking a hitchhiker’s code of ethics: to be invisible on the back seat unless we express interest in a conversation. Lazaro starts talking right away. The conversation is fairly interesting considering that we do not have a common language. This and that about Cuba. But after a while turning my neck backwards and carrying on with a 20 word vocabulary becomes burdensome. The man offers to show us around a tobacco plantation where he claims to be employed, and we accept.
The countryside along the highway is lush and varied. Different kinds of palm trees, and an occasional cornfield. In general, however this is an uncultivated land. I don’t understand why. In this moist hot climate this should be the land of abundance. We pass through the center of Pinar del Rio and head straight for the plantation by way of a pot-holed back road. The harvest is over for this year: even the transparent wooden barns for drying the tobacco leaves are empty. The tobacco season is from March to May. The old man who lives in the tiny farmhouse with his wife lets us handle and smell the tied bunches of tobacco leaves. I like the aroma of this year’s crop but those from the last year am too strong for my taste. I ask to use the bathroom in the farmhouse: a room adjacent to the main bedroom, a hole in a cement floor and a bucket of water to rinse the floor. What do they do with feces?
The ‘distribution’ center to which we go next turns out to be a private house where a pretty blonde girl with honey colored eyes is selling boxes of cigars. One gets such eyes only from distant Negro ancestors. Her younger brother has identical eyes. I get carried away with the enthusiasm to buy a box. Fortunately, Philip looks disapprovingly and is not interested, which improves my bargaining position. The initial price of $100 (presumably a bargain in comparison with retail prices) quickly drops to $50. We finally settle on $45 for 25 cigars. All the labels are there, and I hope I have not been cheated. But with Lazaro for a guide the feeling of possibly having been taken for a ride while giving a ride (what irony), lingers. He compounds it by asking if we have tee-shirts to give/sell. No, we don’t. By now we want to get back to the city and get rid of this man who is now making plans to show us his uncle’s house, to show us a good restaurant, a club, and so. I understand that it is his job to milk tourists, but this man has no class.
Pinar de Rio is a bustling, noisy third world city. A chaotic collection of buildings, shacks, streets and alleys. It has a higher density of shops and eating and drinking establishments than we saw in Havana. It seems more enterprising and with greater sense of identity than the capital. But it is also hot and overbearing. After a lunch of simple spaghetti in a quiet eatery (what a welcome change from the uninspiring sandwiches and constant meat) we move on.
The arrival in Vinales, our destination for today, instantly announces a change of pace. As promised by the guidebooks, this is an unspoiled village in a luscious valley surrounded by mountains. A few crisscrossing streets, a Cultural Center in the Central Square, storefronts, and lots of children. It is more prosperous here than any other place we have seen so far. There are even fruit stands offering splendid looking papayas, mangos, pineapples, bananas, guayava, avocado, and mamej.
The casa particularas recommended by our Italian neighbors in Las Tarrasas is booked, but its owner efficiently installs us in another place down the street. We quickly settle in a perfectly adequate habitacione and soon find ourselves on the steps of the Cultural Center (a handsome colonial building) listening to a local band. This is good Cuban music. People dance, and we join. We are in Cuba beyond any doubt.
After dinner at our home (the same exact menu as each day before: chicken, rice, bean sauce, salad, fresh fruit, coffee) we take a walk through the village. People sit outside, kids congregate around a disco, and it is pitch black. The torrential rain this afternoon left deep puddles on the main street, and we walk into them. Mosquitoes are annoying as the guidebook warned. There is nothing for us to do here so we drive to the picturesque hillside hotel for a drink. The crickets are as loud as bells, and the moon is bright. A brief electrical blackout puts our terrace in darkness. This is a romantic night.
Thursday, July 26
We sleep well and long, awaking to the loud rooster next door. To explore this region we drive a few kilometers until we discover a large plantation that completely fills the neighboring valley. It is an agricultural collective. Today is a national holiday so there are only a few people around. Occasionally, a farmer passes by on a horse. Cuban peasants we meet here have a particular look to them. They resemble Juan Valdez, the character advertising Colombian coffee on the US television. Their body type is slight, wiry, muscular and implies endurance rather than sheer strength. Olive skin, angular face with finely chiseled in features, and a full head of slightly wavy brown hair.
We wander through the large plantation, looking at coffee trees, corn fields, rice patties, banana trees, and another crop we don’t recognize. This is unreal! I feel very far from home. But even here we cannot be alone for too long. Before we know it we have a tour guide, a young peasant with a warm smile and non-stop flood of words. Only after a while I realize that his opening remark – that because of the proximity of military installations we cannot walk here – was probably a lie concocted to start a conversation and to walk with us. Another hustler. However, he earns his $2 tip by taking us to a location with a fine view of the mountains and the valley. We avoid getting sucked into some business plan of his, which would start if we carelessly accepted the invitation to have a cup of coffee at his mother’s house. We are rapidly acquiring a savvy in dealing with tourist leeches.
The rest of the morning we explore a nearby cave and by the time we reach Hotel Arunite for lunch I am having a brain meltdown from the heat. So for me this will be an afternoon by the hotel pool, under a mango tree, while Philip explores the area by car. The mangos are as big as good size cantaloupes. A distant thunder rumbles incessantly. A daily storm hangs over the mountains. By four or five o’clock (I don’t wear a watch on this trip) two Cubans start making music, and it is time for a daiquiri. I recognize the black guy with the drum from yesterday’s music making in the village. He was then dancing then with the blonde tourist woman who is now sitting next to him and listening. There is another musician with them, white, pony-tailed, playing guitar. Both sing. I have seen the blonde tourist woman several times in the last two days. It seems that she came to Cuba for the music and dancing. She was dancing yesterday in front of the Cultural Center.
The no-see-ems flies are ferocious here. They bite.
We have dinner in the pretentious Le Jasmine Hotel with the best views of the valley. It is a comfortable, attractive and self-contained world of tourist resorts. Nothing interesting. We return to Vinales for the evening. I admire the trees lining the roads in this area. Their canopies, shaped like mushrooms, provide perfect shading for the roads.
Drawing of the tree
I like this town. It is becoming as familiar as Turfan was back in China. Three Cubans are making music in open air in one of the drinking establishments. This music is good. Two of the three guys have personalities and make eye contact. I see the blonde woman again! She dances with a lanky black guy with a coarse face. This girl intrigues me. She clearly hangs around, following the music, but she is entirely aloof. Even while dancing salsa she maintains her face free of any expression and studiously avoids eye contact with anyone, even her dance partner. Only occasionally, when the partner speaks her to, she looks at him. Once I saw her smile. The rest of the time she keeps an invisible barrier around herself. I realize that the guy with a ponytail, whom I saw in the afternoon at the pool, is also around, and judging by his casual touch and a kiss on her mouth, he is the boyfriend. It is a curious thing: woman traveling alone through Cuba, following the music, salsa, and something else I do not know. I met several such singly traveling women in China, in Turfan. I do not have a clue what propels them and what they are looking for. A different breed.
We spend a late evening with the music and a couple of drinks. The dancing does not work for us tonight because nobody dances except for the tourist woman. Suddenly we realize that the place is overrun by tourists, many of them French. The men ignore the musicians and talk incessantly to each other and to the women in their group to compensate for their inability to dance. The natural atmosphere of the yesterday afternoon in front of the Cultural Center is gone. We check out another establishment across the street: also filled with immobile tourists, self-conscious about dancing, listening to the musical ‘performance’. After a while we leave, passing the busses that brought these unwelcome guests to ‘our’town.
Friday, July 27
Hitchhiking is a national sport as well as a necessity in Cuba. I note that people we pass on the back roads don’t just look at the car. They actually make an eye contact with me when I look at them from the safety of my passenger seat. I attribute it to the hitchhiker’s habit.
We are beginning to learn how to handle the hitchhikers. Our early experiences have taught us that (1) single young men spell trouble because they start hustling; (2) people will give you wrong driving directions in order to get you to go towards their own destinations; (3) older men and women, and younger women with small children usually go shorter distances and are the best riders. We resolve the stop only for those people. And another thing: when we need to ask for driving directions we ask the individuals who are either walking in the opposite direction from ours or are riding bicycles. This way we know that they will not try to force their way into the car to get a ride. We want to be helpful, having room in the car, but we must protect ourselves as well. We also need some privacy.
We decide to stay in Vinales for a third night. It seems like home now. It gets prettier every day. Our landlady, Senora Hernandez is a handsome widow in her sixties. She feeds us well and looks after us with kindness. There is no rush to go. Now I remember that our Italian neighbors a few days ago stayed here also for three nights, though they planned a shorter stop. This is what the place does to people.
Today is a beach day. We drive towards the coast for about an hour and take a boat to a nearby island resort, Cayo. The ride on a motor boat along with a few other tourists takes about half an hour. The rest is familiar to anybody who goes on Caribbean vacations: mangroves, palm trees, shining white beach, warm blue water, hot sun and a lazy day. It is perfect. In the afternoon we watch a daily storm move across the sky.
The hitchhiker whom we bring to Vinales gives me an avocado. On his way out he makes a gesture of gratitude and friendship, which I interpret is a friendship towards the US. I pass the perfectly ripe piece of fruit to Senora Hernades. It lands on our dinner table. Tonight we stay in and read books. Around 11 o’clock we take a break and stroll to the music club, only to find it crowded and spilling over with tourists. We do not stay.
Saturday, July 28
The most popular piece of furniture in Vinales is a rocking chair. Each household has several, as evident from the front porches and front rooms behind open doors. Most of the chairs have exactly the same design: stained wood, slanted back, straight flat armrests. They are a hybrid of the indoor and outdoor designs. There must be a factory somewhere in Cuba that manufactures that single model. The rocking chair symbolizes to me an attitude towards life and towards time.
This is not an eventful day. We drive towards Playa Giron, east of Havana. During the first half hour a policeman flags us down on a back road for speeding. The posted speed limit is 30 km/hr, absurdly low for this brand new road in the woods. A classic speed trap. But we are not going to argue with a Cuban policeman, or point out to him that he has no radar system to prove that we were speeding (which, of course, we were). It costs us $10, written into our car rental contract.
A pretty girl gets a ride from us to Havana, through which we need to pass on our eastbound trajectory, and then we continue towards the historic Bay of Pigs. On the way we stop at an uninspiring crocodile farm. Overpriced and dead place. But we get to see some ferocious looking beasts. The restaurant, which features crocodile steaks, is unfortunately closed. Amusingly, the Cuban authorities do not see a contradiction between keeping a farm to protect this threatened species and serving its meat to tourists.
We check into a hotel at Playa Larga, exactly at the center of the Bay of Pigs. It is a resort straight from the 60s or 70s, which has not been upgraded since then. The grounds are nice enough if sparse (mostly grass and occasional palm trees), and the individual bungalows are spacious two room simple affairs. But nothing works quite right here: the toilet takes an hour to refill, the faucet is blocked, the sink looks ready to rip out of the wall, and the air conditioner is anemic. On the other hand, it is very inexpensive.
Sunday, July 29
Our day starts with a guided tour of the ecological refuge at Zapata Peninsula. It is an immense 3200 sq. km. mirror image of the Florida Everglades, except that it has not been touched by development in the 1950s. We begin on an uncertain note, knowing full well that we cannot enter the area without a guide, but we have no reservations, and it is Sunday. But luck follows us on this trip. A youth on a bicycle leaning against a closed office of the national park leads us to the house of the expert professional guide, Angelo Martines, who agrees on the spot to give us a tour. This is a man of 44 with a gentle open face and a tranquil manner of someone comfortable with solitude. We later find his name in our guidebook as one of the two highly recommended guides.
Angelo gives me doubtful look, and I know that is because of my attire: a breezy cotton dress and sandals. No signs of L.L.Bean on this woman. Once we start, however, he warms up, probably because of my genuine interest in the place and my willingness to follow him into the thickest parts of the forest.
We slowly drive the 21 km distance on a road as straight as a rope. This used to be railroad tracks, at the end of which was once a sea-salt processing facility. The first several kilometers take us through mangrove bush, followed by a thick forest. The mosquitoes fly here in dense clouds. I have not seen such an attack since the trip to the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming 25 years ago. We both put a second coat of industrial strength mosquito repellant, even on the areas covered by clothes. I later discover a bite on my nose where I apparently missed a small spot when applying my chemical warfare agent. Angelo moves quickly through the forest in search of a Cuban Trogan, the national bird of Cuba. He holds a small tape recorder and plays the sounds of the bird. On the second try we find one. A beautiful bird with colors of the Cuban flag: blue, white and red. There is also green on the back, and the wings are striped black and white.
Drawing of the bird
At some point the forest gives way to an open patchwork of wetlands, grasslands, lagoons, woods and islands. We alternately watch herds of majestic pink flamingoes, tricolored Cuban herons, reddish and while like snow egrets, common stilts and many other birds whose names I do not catch. Angelo’s book “Birds of West Indies” is our source. This is an exquisite tranquil world where fish jump high up above the water. For me, this is the mysterious antipodes: the place to which the Massachusetts birds go during the winter.
At the end of the drive there is a small cottage for two caretakers who change shifts at three-day intervals. It is a self-sufficient existence: a cow produces milk, fishing is plentiful, the forest provides other foods (I could not understand Angelo what that is), and the solar panels provide all the energy. A tall transmission tower links them to the world. I guess that drinking water is brought in. On the way back we once again admire the flamingos. We then gratefully drop our guide at his home. Three hours have gone by, and this is the height of the day’s heat. There is little we can do beyond going to the beach.
The beach is full of people, almost all Cubans. The water is too warm for serious swimming but perfect for relaxation. The sand is Caribbean: white flour. Lying under a palm tree with my book I think of our good fortune. As usual, someone helps us spend our dollars. This time it is a fellow in charge of renting beach chairs.
Since we cannot bear the prospect of another boring dinner in the hotel restaurant to the sounds of predigested Cuban popular songs, we try the International Diving Center next door. The place seems half dead, and later we find out why: because of the unbearable mosquitoes in this area the German tourist company on which they have depended for business has terminated the contract. This is a diver’s paradise: for $25 dollars we can get a scuba diving lesson and a supervised dive among fish and coral reefs. We make a mental note to come back here one day. In the meantime, we sit under the umbrellas at the all-plastic-furniture snack bar sipping Mojitos and watching a dozen or so beautiful Cuban women and men in their 20’s playing funny group games. So much fun they have. The girls are gorgeous and the men are handsome.
We slowly eat another dinner of chicken with rice when we realize that the place is strangely quiet. It is a blackout, a common occurrence outside Havana. No more music, no lights, no people. Only the ferocious mosquitoes. The attendant goes twice around the bar with some machine that looks like a lawn mower, makes twice as much noise, and emits thick white fumes of some anti-mosquito toxin. We disappear momentarily in this toxic cloud, which smells of gasoline. I wonder what it does to our bodies. Ultimately nothing can kill these monsters, and we have to run.
The blackout makes it impossible to be indoors because the air conditioner does not work, so this is the night for watching the sky from the water’s edge, under the coconut palms and the moon. The Big Dipper is bigger and much lower in this sky than in Massachusetts.
Monday, July 30
Here we are, in the historic Bay of Pigs. The reality of it continues to amaze us. So much lore and romanticism associated with that name, both in Philip’s youth and mine.
Today we have a considerable amount of driving to do. Trinidad (Trinity) is our destination. The first stretch is short, from Playa Larga to Playa Giron. An inevitable hitchhiker on the back seat, a young man who works at the reception desk at the hotel. He tells us that in the spring this road is completely covered with large crabs that travel across the asphalt towards the shore to mate, then back to the woods, and then towards the water again to lay eggs. Cars crush these crabs, then the familiar black vultures, which are ever-present on this trip, come down to clean up the mess. It must be quite a sight and smell.
Our hitchhiker is divorced, like a lot of people we meet on this trip. Many marriages in Cuba are what we call cohabitation situations. I don’t know the cause of so many divorces (42 per 1000, compared with 48 in the US). Life is the cause.
The Museum of the Bay of Pig Invasion is fascinating. We follow the events of these 68 hours in April of 1961, which took place on this very beach and in the forest where we walked yesterday. I am taken back to my youth, my connection to Cuba, the parties I attended in April with the Cuban boyfriend and his friends. It was a century ago. For Philip this is also a personal journey because of his youthful engagement in the Movement and the plans to go to Cuba to cut sugar cane. Of course, now he knows what a terrible slave labor that is.
We decide to head to Trinidad via a scenic route through the mountains. This time, a woman with a 16 year old daughter is on the back seat. According to the map we need to take a left turn in a nearby village. We do so, but this is the wrong road, as we discover much later. The road is getting worse by the minute. The asphalt surface is packed with holes as deep as canyons. In time, there are more holes than the flat surface. We have somewhere around 40 km of that driving ahead of us. The views are not even as spectacular as promised by the guidebook. At some stretches there is no paving at all. It looks like an aftermath of an old rockslide. This is an SUV country. I look at our miniature car with toy wheels and well-worn tires and know what everybody thinks: if we get a flat tire in this desolate place in the forest we are truly in trouble. After a time, when the upward slope gets very steep, we — the three women — get out and walk the stretch of the road to make the car lighter. At one such intermission we pause and take in the surroundings. We stand on a small stone bridge over a mountain stream surrounded by a thick tropical jungle. White lily-like flowers with a powerful sweet aroma are everywhere, and so are the birds. This short moment of magic makes the whole crazy trip worth while. Philip takes a group picture, and the girl puts flowers in my hair. We continue, sometimes in scary silence, sometimes joking.
After 2 or 3 hours of such driving, with only an occasional horseman in sight, we suddenly merge with a fine road. In front of us, down in the valley, nested between gentle mountains and the sea is our home for tonight: Trinidad. The mountain breeze makes the heat more bearable. We sigh a collective sigh of relief.
We enter the city around 6:30 PM and our lady finds us a comfortable casa particulara with her uncle, a local physician (or physician’s relative, I cannot quite figure it out). As long as there are hitchhikers with relatives and friends we have our room and board guaranteed anywhere in Cuba. This cheaply constructed dwelling consists of two small houses connected by an inner court: one is for guests (three rooms) and one is for the owners. A tall wooden fence with an open gate separates the two parts. We are the only guests here, so we can enjoy the privacy. It is intensely hot in Trinidad, but no mosquitoes. We park our brave little car, all covered in dust and mud. Children’s book comes to mind, which we read to our toddler David: “A Little Red Caboose.”
At night this seems like the most romantic spot on Earth. The cool breeze from the mountains dries our sweat, and the moon is fluorescent. The walk to the center of the old city takes us through old narrow, cobblestone streets and past the open doors to family dwellings. The cobblestones were once used by the Spaniards as ship ballast. The modest one story exteriors of the houses, only a step above slum-like structures (to our inexperienced eyes) reveal large airy rooms inside, mostly furnished with antique XIX century furniture. Many front rooms are huge, probably close to 100 square meters, with very high ceilings and Moorish archways. These are ballrooms. As in Vinales, people rock in the inevitable familiar rocking chairs, but inside. The Spanish architecture of this town does not include front porches.
The middle of the old city has the local version of Roman Spanish Steps. At night the place is populated by young European tourists. People sit on the steps and at café table, talking, drinking, and listening to the band. Plenty of room to dance, and plenty of superb dancers. My sons should come here with their girlfriends. Our dancing does not work as well as we would like. People who dance are Western tourists and Cubanos who have mastered the art of salsa. They are showing off their skills, and we admire them. But for us there is no spontaneity and no way to loose ourselves in the anonymity of an everyman’s party.
Tuesday, July 31
We have arrived at the destination of the Cuban adventure. Its name is Trinidad. This city of about 100,000 is so different from any other I have ever experienced that I am short of reference points and analogies in describing it. Its beauty is in the formality of the old center and the quaintness and casualness of the streets radiating out of the center. With the distance from the center increasing the houses get shrink and age, and the cobblestones become less even.
In Trinidad we do nothing in particular. The heat and humidity put us, and everyone else, into slow motion. Shower or no shower, the sweat covers our bodies. It is about 100 degrees and humid. People sit on park benches and front steps at 11 in the morning. Who works here? Obviously, some do but the idea seems out of place. We do our touristy duties and visit one of the great 18th century houses. Built in a hacienda Spanish style and furnished with heavy European furniture, the house appropriately impresses us. The house has a tower of sorts with a stunning view of the valley, the mountains, and the shore. We spend a long time there watching the tourists come and go. But our real interest is in just hanging out. We slowly walk towards the hills that frame the northwest part of the city. One of those Dutch buses goes by with Dutch destination displayed in the front. We have seen them before. This is the Dutch international development aid personified.
Unexpectedly, its starts raining. A woman in a doorway of a dilapidated dwelling motions us to come inside. We do and take two unoccupied chairs. There are three women sitting in this very modest room, empty except for the chairs, a junk china cabinet filled with unidentifiable brick-a-brack and a TV set with two large photographs. Two of the women are middle aged and the third is an old lady. They are dressed in some random shmatas: in one “skirt” I recognize a half-slip, and one dress looks like a nightgown. The old lady patiently sorts rice grains in a small blue plastic bowl. Minute by minute, with relaxed concentration, she picks out bad grains of rice and stacks them up on the armrest of her chair. Watching the lady, I think of the Cinderella story and the assignment by the bad stepmother to sort some unsortable substances. Except that nobody here is getting ready for a ball. They are not getting ready for anything. The time stands still. The old woman’s toenails are painted bright red.
So we sit in this room for 15 minutes or more, watching the rain through glass-less windows and doorless doorways. Occasionally, the women say something to one another or to us, but mostly nothing happens at all. How could Fidel imagine firing up a revolution in this climate? And how could the CIA imagine that people would rise up and topple Fidel in 1961? In this heat, and in this town, the idea seems absurd.
It is already 2:00 PM and so we find a restaurant for lunch. The rain has stopped temporarily. We sit down in an inner court under a plastic awning, on plastic chairs at plastic tables. The menu consists of hot dogs and Cuban hamburgers. The latter is a quickly fried sliver of pork on a bun. We order the hamburgers. Until a middle-aged couple from Switzerland enters the establishment we are its only customers. Except, of course, the band. They are superb. Four guys with a base, two guitars and drums.
I have noticed that each band we encounter on this trip has a set of specific personalities. One musician is always the background guy, just doing his job, oblivious to everyone. One is a very serious musician with a soul connected to his instrument. And at least one is an extrovert, making eye contact with the audience. This band is no different. Two of the players are extroverts. After a while, two Cubanos stroll in and sit down to listen to the music. One of them, and ebony black man has a face like a sculpture and listens to the music with his whole being. I am riveted by this man, his intensity, and his seriousness about the music. At some point he takes place of the drummer who briefly disappears. His voice is good.
Philip and I are taken by the music. The rhythm lifts us to the open area, and we dance. We dance well, easily and spontaneously. The Swiss couple does not know how to dance, but the owner asks the woman to dance anyway. This is the heart of the Cuban trip. There is no need to go any further.
We spend the late afternoon in the room. It rains on and off. The dinner is very good: two kinds of excellent fish, rice with beans, tiny french fries, and a platter of vegetables: avocado, green beans and okra. The rain did not cool the air significantly. And I wish for a breeze from the mountains. Maybe it will come later tonight.
This is another late night on the Spanish Steps under the moon.
Wednesday, August 1
We wake up to torrential rains. That is a new experience in Cuba. The streets of Trinidad quickly turn into fast running rivers as the water drains from the adjacent mountains. But this water looks clean. So I enjoy, after days of scorching heat, walking in cool water. We put our dirty car on the street and Philip washes it with a rag our landlady has given him.
We go to the nearby Internet Cafe. The price is not bad, $5 per hour, but things do not work. Two very slow computers and a long wait. A girl with an English accent tells me that hotmail is not sending messages out. We hang around the place and chat with a fellow from California who is on his second visit to Cuba. Like us, he travels without a group and prides himself in “having friends” in Cuba. I do not know what that means. I detect a certain self-congratulatory attitude of a man who feels that he has risen above the usual touristy mold. But Philip and I do the same each time we see a busload of disembarking herd of tourists. We feel superior. To tell the truth, the Californian indeed made an effort to connect with Cuba. In the interval between his two visits to Cuba he learned the language. This I envy him. If we could speak Spanish this trip would be so much richer!!
As is often the case, the man is eager to tell us about his experience and about himself but does not ask us any questions. People are so self absorbed. I am self absorbed as well, but my love of watching people and disentangling their identities serves me well in these travel encounters. We loiter around the Cafe a while longer. Part of the attraction of being here is to listen to the English language. We have met very few Americans on this trip. Large number of the Dutch and the English, also the French, Belgians, some Germans, and the Swiss couple yesterday. Only occasionally I hear American English. I like the idea of being ahead of the curve.
We stop at the well-stocked dollars-only store. The prices are Western, but all in dollars. I react with anger to this system of two separate economies. Mentally, it transports me to my youth in Poland. Today I made inquiries about the casa particularas system. It is not the free market we initially thought. Our hosts have 3 rooms for rent and for that they have to pay the government $250 per month (there is some uncertainty as to the exact number per room because according to the Californian the figures are higher). This is a license fee of sorts, which must be paid irrespective of their rental income. That means that they have to rent 13 day rooms per month before turning any profit. This must be hard, judging by the number of individual tourists in this town and the number of available private accommodations. Their profit probably comes mostly from serving us breakfasts and dinners, which is unreported and requires making food purchases on the black market. It may be true that Cuba is getting richer from tourism, but its people are lagging far behind the State.
I am troubled by the inequities between our hosts and us because we are, after all, occupying the same house. These are nice people, gentle in manner, warm. Their teenage son brings our breakfast to the table and clears it afterwards. We have occasional conversations with Mr. and Mrs. Duran: as best we can with a total shared vocabulary of perhaps 50 words in both languages. Our hosts cook us splendid meals, which they cannot afford to eat themselves. But there is no solution to this problem. If we do not eat here and go to the restaurant we will deprive them of income. If we do not visit at all, the outcome will be similar. So the situation must go on. Each day I leave some meat on the serving dish. I just cannot finish it. I also notice that Mrs. Duran watches my white sandals I bout in Leiden. Her feet are about my size, and I will give the sandals to her when we leave.
We stop at a tobacco store and discover that the box of cigars we have bought for $45 sells for $140. We did well! Our day continues. I photograph a Masonic lodge building, which is an unexpected discovery. By early afternoon the rain stops. It is cool and everything is wet, even the unused pages of this notebook. We drive the few miles towards Ancon peninsula to the horrendous Ancon hotel and tourist resort. Acting as though we belong there we do not attract much attention and enjoy their olympic size swimming pool. But it is depressing to spend too much time at the resort and we are happy to be back in Trinidad. Our casa is located in the outer layers of this city, in a quiet, modest looking section. The neighbors recognize us by now. It is good to exchange greetings. We buy a ripe avocado for tomorrow’s trip.
The last two hours before dinner we hike to the top of the mountainous edge of the city where ruins of the old church look down on Trinidad. It is a strenuous walk on uneven cobblestones. The further we go the more slum-like he streets become until it is just a countryside with randomly put together dwellings. But the interiors of most homes do not match their exteriors. Many are carefully furnished and decorated. The streets are full of people. Adults on front stoops and kids playing. The place does not feel like a slum, I do not see the vacant looks I observed on the faces of the cave dwellers in Havana. But I am painfully aware of my immense ignorance of who these people are, how they live, what they think when they smile and say holla. To look at them may mean staring; to not look may mean unfriendliness. We try to navigate between the two extremes and be polite. They, of course, size us up with open interest. Perhaps we simply do not belong in this part of town.
Tomorrow we leave Trinidad. If I have to choose only one place in Cuba to which I can return, this will be the one. I will take with me the curved streets with houses painted in all colors of pastels, and the peeling paint revealing older coats of blue, pink, yellow, mossy green, and others. I will remember the open front doors with some stunning interiors and ornate European furniture. And these extraordinary tall windows with handsome steel bars and filigree iron work in the shape of human-size birdcages. People looking out of these birdcages. I will take with me the sounds of Trinidad: an odd mix of television, adult conversation, children playing and drums of the Cuban music. I will take with me the scent of pure moist air. This is Trinidad before cars and motorcycles have moved in. As every night, we spend this one sipping Mojitos at the cafe on the Spanish Steps. We already recognize the faces. We recognize the “woman with hair”, a Cuban beauty who dances spectacularly.
Thursday, August 2
After a brief visit to a small cigar factory ($l each, a local brand) we drive all morning through Lomas de Banao, a fertile agricultural valley planted with sugar cane. This must be the breadbasket of Cuba. Small farmhouses, villages, men on horses. Pastoral land. We stop for sightseeing and lunch in Sancti Spirito. This town is a familiar sight to our traveler’s eyes. Spanish architecture, Spanish food (excellent chick pea soup). I get my shoe fixed by a cobbler working at an open arcade by the church. The man has the temerity to charge me $2 for a simple glue job. Perhaps it is the immobilizing heat or perhaps it is the training we have received during the past two weeks, but to my own surprise I don’t challenge the outrageous price or try to bargain. I would certainly do so in the Middle East. Cuba is different. Bargaining is not part of the ambiance here. Anyway, I should have asked the price beforehand.
We do this and that in Santi Spirito, and three hours are gone. A thermometer on the phone both shows 98 degrees, and it is humid. We drive away towards Remedios, our outpost towards the northern beaches in the center of this long island of Cuba.
We arrive in Remedios at 5:00 PM without reservations. Actually, Philip tried to make them by phone from Trinidad but I gathered from his conversation that the place we called (listed in the guidebook) was booked. We took a chance anyway. What we did not know in advance is that Remedios has only four casa particularas, and all are occupied tonight. The handsome 16-room renovated hotel is also full, booked by the irritating ever-present Dutch tourists. The bus parked in front of the hotel is the evidence.
Exam question: what do you do in a Cuban town when you are a stranger and need any kind of services or help? The answer: you drive to the main square (50% chance that it is called Plaza Jose Marti), stop your car and roll down the windows. This is precisely what we do. Within seconds an older man asks if we need a room. When the answer is affirmative he momentarily disappears and returns with a young fellow named Jose. Jose gets on a bicycle and motions us to follow him. In a few minutes we arrive at a private home where we are greeted by a gentle looking woman whose name escapes me. Her home is spacious, with these 15 feet ceilings we have seen in Trinidad, large rooms, and an atrium. The cost is $15 per night. We get registered as “friends” since she does not have a casa particularas license. I don’t know how illegal this is, but she bears a hundred percent of the risk. We do not have to know anything about the Cuban system.
Within a half-an-hour we sit in the arcade of a cafe in the main square drinking beer. A man comes and offers us a homemade dinner. We thank him and explain that this has been arranged already. Another man comes to collect money for overnight parking. In this town parking on side streets adjoining the main plaza is not permitted at all, and parking in the main square is permitted only during the day. Then something unusual happens. A slight dried up man starts speaking to us in beautiful English. He is a local poet and playwright, a former teacher of English. The man looks like someone consumed by terminal illness, but his eyes have extraordinary black intensity. Riveting eyes. We chat about this and that, admire his book of children’s poetry. Really, this is an extraordinary encounter. Senior Garcia (that is his name) turns down our offer of a beer and shortly moves on. I hope we meet him again tomorrow.
It is cooling off. We linger at the cafe, admiring the perfect symmetry of the main square, the blues, pinks and creams of the restored Spanish buildings. The bell of the main church rings every half-hour. Remedios has population of 100,000, similar to Trinidad, but the atmosphere is that of tranquility. We are very far from home. Except for the busload of Dutch tourists, whom we do not see around, there are not too many strajieros in this place. We briefly chat with an Italian couple at the next table.
We get passed again from the hands of one guy to those of another and led to a paladore for dinner. This is a modest household with a pleasant enough courtyard. One catch, though: there is a pigsty there, with a cute little pig. So we eat in the company of a little pig. The same menu as before: broiled chicken with rice, bean sauce, cucumbers. I am so throughly tired of that dish!
At night the main square fills with life. It seems that the whole town is out. Teenagers play in the Cultural Center, smaller kids run outside, adults sit on benches and talk. Since most windows have no glass, and doors are wide open, the indoors and outdoors blend into a single lively scene. Until, at some moment the shutters close, doors get locked, and buildings look blind and totally turned inward. But for now, this is a perfect small town picture among fine architecture. Idyllic. Yet, we feel that there is something less than benevolent underlying this reality. The local writer is most likely an informer. There is a sense of tight control over the life of the beautiful Remedios. Our car, along with other local cars, is parked in a fenced locked area at the city’s outskirts, and there is just one uniformed man who has the key. The efficiency with which our needs were met earlier, and our fees collected, are reminders that we are being watched. On the other hand, looking at this perfect summer evening I think about what lies ahead for Remedio’s inhabitants. Television and phones in each household and computers will change things. Prosperity and future democracy will allow people to travel and to do other things with their evenings, besides congregating in the main square and the Cultural Center. Cars will start choking up the peripheral streets where they have not been restricted yet. I wonder if it is possible to make a transition to this new state without loosing the magic that comes with evenings such as this one.
Friday, August 3
We slept badly. The mattress is terrible, the street noise from behind the shutters annoying and mosquitoes bite. In addition, the plumbing is inadequate in this place. The bathroom is actually in the kitchen, separated by a 7-8 feet high square plywood partition. With these enormously high ceilings the flimsy partition provides little privacy: while sitting on the toilet I hear every move my landlady makes. Getting a shower is a complex ritual. She lights up a small countertop gas stove, then we wait for maybe half an hour, then a trickle of warm water emerges from the shower head. The woman gives me a conspiratorial wink, saying ‘primitivo, si?’ ‘Si’, I agree. After breakfast Philip and I communicate almost without words: we have to get out of this place.
The car is our biggest problem. It has been vibrating badly during the last day. Fortunately, we discover a large car repair shop near the overnight parking area. After a few trials a correct diagnosis is made: one of the front tires is completely destroyed (the metal thread is sticking out) and one of the back tires has a large protrusion which may or may not burst between here and Havana. The mechanic replaces the dead tire with our spare one, but no replacement can be found for the tire with aneurysm. Philip consults by phone with Havana and announces that we must go to Santa Clara today, the closest city where we can get help from the outpost of our rental agency. That means that we cannot stay another night in Remedios. I am very disappointed. I could easily stay here another day or two.
While the business with the tires is playing itself out I watch the scene at the service center from my distant stone bench. At one point I count 7 men, plus Philip, plus an inevitable in such places teenage boy, standing around and conferring about our little red car. These people do not live in a “billable hours” universe.
We embark on another exploration before turning towards Santa Clara. This is very risky, considering the state of our tires but the temptation is too great. Some 10 miles north of Remedios a brand new highway has been built on a 50 km long dike protruding directly into the sea and connecting a series of tiny islands (cayos). After passing a passport control checkpoint we drive about two-thirds of the full stretch of the highway to a recently built vacation resort. As usual in Cuba, the road belongs to us. It is a panoramic view of a perfect Caribbean turquoise water with clumps of mangroves and other vegetation hugging the shallow waters adjacent to the highway. The resort is a well-designed set of bungalows at a higher end of prices. We spend a couple of hours on the white, completely perfect beach populated only by a handful of tourists. It is possible to skinny-dip here. In a few years I expect this place to be crowded, especially when the construction of the resort at the furthest island, Cayo Santa Maria, is completed. For today, we are grateful to be here ahead of the curve. We don’t want to leave quite yet, but we must get to Santa Clara before the car rental office closes.
The afternoon consists of problem solving. The office for the car rental agency is not where it should be, then we get wrong directions to another location, nobody has heard of our rental agency. As time goes by we get hotter, more tired and increasingly irritable. The best hotel in Santa Clara, Santo Clara Libro, is a vintage communist disaster, both in architecture, furnishings and service, though people smile at least. Two out of town resorts are full, and for a minute things do not look good: dysfunctional car, a phantom agent, and no overnight accommodations. Finally, a room materializes in the second resort, overpriced, standardized in every respect, but with the best shower yet (the first good water pressure in two weeks). The food, all buffet style, is below average and expensive. A group of Italians seems to be the only foreigners here.
The most important achievement of this afternoon is that a kind taxi driver locates on our map the office of the taxi-branch of our rental agency. This is not a car rental place, just a taxi depot, but at least the name of the company is the same! The cab driver gives us meticulous directions how to get there. The office is a small austere room in a remote neighborhood of Santa Clara, and it is occupied by real life people. They connect us by phone to the mystery man who is supposed to help us. Roberto, as the man is called, tells me (in English) that he does not have another car in Santa Clara but if we can make it about 90 kilometers past the city, in the direction of Havana, they will be able to help us there. There is nothing else to do but spend the night in the hotel and try our luck tomorrow. I count on our brave little red cabus to make it another 100 kilometers.
The evening passes over a drink by the pool while we watch many Cubans play dominos and other games. Nothing happens unless we count the murder of a cute little frog, which appears unexpectedly between the tables. A brutal looking man crushes the poor thing under his boot while the Italians and we watch with horror. Nobody else gives the incident another thought.
The woman at the reception desk notices the Jewish star I wear around my neck. She tells me that her husband belongs to the Santa Clara Jewish community, which has 24 members. She gives me the address of the Havana Synagogue. I plan to look it up.
Saturday, August 4
Before departing from Santa Clara we visit the Che Guevara memorial and museum.
Che’s statute is enormous but the museum and the memorial are actually of human size and well put together. We expected something much worse from the looks of the area around it. A very large plaza that brings to mind Tian Man Square or Red Square. A parking lot designed for hundreds of cars is empty. Another soviet ‘present’ to a friendly country. Although I am told that nobody in Cuba thinks of Che or believes in his cause of days past, the museum puts us in a contemplative mood. The Cuban revolution was the most recent, and probably the last, such event in the world where social justice and the cause of the poor and downtrodden was a leading slogan. That is something, even if decades later it has become bankrupt.
We are on the way to Havana. Looking at the almost empty three-lane highway bordered by low vegetation and with slender green dividing strip we can clearly see the military uses for this road. This is an aircraft runway as well as a delivery system for modern military equipment. 90 kilometers from Santa Clara we find the service station identified by Roberto and the office of the rental agency. The man is expecting us. We are very lucky: a car of the same model has been damaged in a collision, and we are the fortunate recipients of its brand new tires. An organ transplant for our brave little red caboose. This incident could have ended much worse than it has.
It is good to be back in Havana, with all its noise and chaos. We settle in our last casa particulara, right on the corner of Mancon and Prado, overlooking the sea. This is still a lower class neighborhood, but I give it 3-5 years before it becomes a high rent district. The location is perfect: water view and constant see breeze. We see the city from our fifth floor wide window. The room is large and bright although we encounter the usual problems with water pressure. One thinks twice here before flushing a toilet here.
Tonight we treat ourselves to an elegant dinner at Hotel Sevilla. This is one of a dozen on so such enterprises within a half-hour walk from our apartment. These are opulent, elegant “grand dames” of hotels, which have been renovated and refurbished to their past glory. Although the receptionists repeatedly tell us that they are fully booked we see little activity either in their lobbies or their restaurants. It is not clear where the guests are. What I find striking about these places is the jarring contrast between their elegant formality and the informal look of the patrons. Tee shirts and shorts dominate the scene, and there are young people in their 20’s often sitting at the bars. Even Philip, who does not concern himself much with appearance, notes the incongruity of the appearance of people and their surroundings. I hope that in the future it will change towards a little more decorum. Not too much, just enough to emphasize fine manners, acknowledge the quality of the piano player, feel the uniqueness of the moment.
The view from our opulent 10th floor restaurant is stunning but the place is almost empty. The service is world class, in contrast to unremarkable but well presented food. It is a lovely evening for us.
We do not want to go home quite yet. Tomorrow is our last day in Havana. Quite by accident we happen upon Café Paris, drawn in by the sound of good jazz. This is a welcome change from the Cuban popular music of the past two weeks. Café Paris is the hunting ground of Havana’s night people. Quite a scene: from the bottom to the top of the human food chain, from trash to sophistication. Nursing the drinks as long as we can, we watch the Western men linking up with pretty Cuban girls, and various nondescript characters going in and out. There is a Hemingway look-alike and Batista look-alike among the patrons. A woman with long black hair at the next table looks like a Latin American freedom fighter (alas, she later turns out to be a Dutch tourist!). We strike a conversation with a peculiar looking Spaniard who tells us that he spends all his evenings at this place. The saxophonist is a virtuoso. As though there was not enough going on here already, a drunken man outside the café, a hang-on clinging to the wooden open lattice slats forming the outside wall, begins to sing along with the band. This is unreal but I am too tired to watch the scene develop. I am glad to go home when the music stops playing at midnight.
Sunday, August 5.
We wake up to a loud noise of chickens. On the roof of the neighboring building, several stories below us, a man keeps a chicken farm. He must be one of the key suppliers for the neighborhood paladores and casas particulares. I take another look at the rooftops of Havana from our high window. From this location Havana looks like a city bombed.
At 11:30 we meet Fidel, my internet acquaintance. He joins us, all smiles, at the courtyard café of Sevilla Hotel. We talk about his work and ours, about environmental issues. Fidel offers to lead us to the Havana synagogue and talks about the Jews of Havana, or whatever is left of the once vibrant and well-organized community. The ‘short walk’ to synagogue turns into a long trek through the run down neighborhoods in a sweltering heat and humidity of unadorned Habana Vieja. At some point we encounter a local fruit market and Fidel chooses for ma a perfect avocado and a perfect mango, both for tomorrow’s travel. The mango must weigh over two pounds. It is enormous. When we reach the synagogue it turns out to be a boxy ugly structure circa 1960, with all the bad architectural ideas and inferior materials of that period. On this Sunday afternoon the gate is, of course, closed. Philip photographs me in front of the Star of David. After a long walk back to the more touristy section of Old Havana we are exhausted and ready for lunch.
The smiling Fidel gets increasingly serious and visibly depressed as the conversation continues. I notice that he does not want to be identified by the waiter as a Cuban fraternizing with foreigners. He stops talking each time the waiter is within an earshot. Our conversation turns to the life in Cuba. He paints a gloomy picture: currency that is worthless in its own country, the whole nation functioning in the black market economy, the hopeless situation of those without legal access to dollars or with insufficient savvy to procure them through hustling, the fundamental corruption of the national soul. The man does not mince words: we hear about the Big Brother and Kafkaesque labyrinth of life in Cuba. At some point, perhaps loosened up by the beer, Fidel talks about having no way out at all. Even when talking about his 17-year-old son his message of hoping for a better life is tentative at best.
This conversation is sobering. I know that he does not represent the views of all Cubans but I also know that neither is he on the fringe. And what about the once impoverished peasants who live with dignity now? For them, the last 40 years were a major improvement. The picture is not clear at all, but Fidel’s despair is. At 3 PM we part. We will be in touch.
Philip and I try to digest what we heard. This will take more than a short afternoon. One observation is apparent, however: while Cuba’s critics have for years focused on the issue of civil liberties, violations of democratic values, and free speech, they generally overlooked the economic repression of its people. In my view, it is this economic repression, and the accompanying corruption, that will be the undoing of the Castro’s system. Of course, this is the goal of the US embargo.
We savor an afternoon nap in our cool room by the seashore. When the evening arrives we are ready for a night on the town. Philip wants to end our trip with a splash, a fancy club, dancing, forgetting ourselves. I am a bit of a party pooper because I feel overfed by Cuban music, restaurants, and the tourist scene. My mood is more contemplative. In retrospect, we should have sat in the rocking chairs on the windy terrace of out apartment, but we did not think of it. So after a fine dinner in an outdoor restaurant and a brief interlude on a park bench we gravitate to Café Paris. The place seems seedier than yesterday. The musicians are the same and so is the music. We recognize several faces, including our fellow Spaniard. He identifies a famous Spanish movie director at the corner table.
We stroll one last time on the Prado promenade. It is after midnight.
Monday, August 6.
Filial bonds are the bloodline of an underground economy. The two nice English-speaking sisters who run a casa particulara in an upstairs apartment in our building offer the transportation services of their car-owning cousin. Why pay the taxi driver if we can have a private ride? The deal is that for a fixed amount she will take us to the airport in the morning, take Philip back to
Havana, and late at night will take Philip to the airport.
The cousin arrives with her adult daughter at a fixed time. Watching them negotiate the roads we get the impression that they rarely, if ever, take the route to the airport. But then, something else begins to happen as we approach the airport. The two women are clearly on a lookout for something more than a parking space or the right door. They are timidly approaching the airport building, going in a roundabout way, not certain of their next move. We cannot communicate because they do not speak English. Only later the cause of their consternation becomes clear: it must be highly illegal to give private rides to foreigners. The state’s long greedy hand is omnipresent: it wants our money to be delivered into the hands of state-owned taxis service. The women were afraid to be spotted by the uniformed surveillance crew.
This is the last encounter with the Cuban way of doing things. It is time to say the farewell to my Philip. Nassau, not Miami, is the entry point to the United States. I am nervous going through the passport control. The Bahamian official openly scolds me for illegally visiting Cuba. I get a prominent stamp in the passport announcing that I am in the Bahamas in transit, which of course begs the question “transit from where?” I sweat thinking about the untruthful answer I gave in the US immigration form to the question about the countries I have visited. What if the immigration officer opens my passport, or asks me where I stayed in Bahamas? I make a bad liar, especially when I feel guilty. I can see BIG TROUBLE ahead.
Nothing happens. Only the Department of Agriculture officials confiscate my beautiful mango. They let me keep the avocado. Another unsolved mystery.
In Miami I worry again about the illegal cigars in my luggage because there is a dog sniffing our stuff. Nothing happens again. Now I know that these dogs are not trained to detect tobacco products. Good information for the future. I am grateful to be on the American soil, and I tenderly hold my once again functional credit cards.