Touristy Trinidad de Cuba

This is the first town we’ve hit on the major tourist loop — Havana – Vinales – Cienfuegos – Trinidad, then usually they go on to a beach resort. We are glad we started in the east on this trip, for one thing is has been wet in the west and we have had fine weather albeit chilly for a couple of days in Camaguey, and also because we hope the tourist high season will be easing now. It seems that all the Europeans decided with the embargo about to lift that they must rush to Cuba and see it “before the Americans change everything.” Sure hope that doesn’t actually happen, this country is so wonderful as it is. And we get the idea that the Cubans are worried about this too.

Trinidad is one of the most historic colonial towns in Cuba, quite small and mostly unchanged over the years. The streets are still real cobblestone, of the random rock variety, very hard to walk on. Buildings are small and nondescript from the outside, though brightly painted in an array of pastel colours but through the always open doors and window shutters we glimpse beautiful tiled floors, high ceilings, and the ubiquitous gorgeous caned chairs, mostly rockers. There are lots of horses here, people ride through the streets, horses pull carts, and last evening we saw a man park his horse and have it shoed right outside the house of the farrier who was clad in a leather apron and rubber boots. When I stopped to watch, he offered to take me riding the next day.

  Last evening we took a loop away from the Plaza Mayor, the main square, up through an area of barrios to get some photos in the beautiful early evening light with lovely vistas down the twisting cobbled streets with their multicoloured houses, antique cars lovingly restored, horse carts and horses. Everyone sits in the evenings on their stoops, kids are playing in the street. The most mellow dogs here, they run freely but are healthy (but they need a neutering program badly) and seem to belong to people. Kids here have been infected by that French “bonbon” idea (I always wanted to find and murder the first Frenchman who gave out candies in India) but they ask for “caramelos” or pens. The pen thing is pretty much universal in the world, they have lots of pens, the little kids in the barrios are even playing with phones and tablets, but as one old guy who had good English told me, “I don’t really need a pen, I have pens, but I like to talk to tourists so they stop when I ask them and we talk.” Old ladies often ask for “sabon” which is soap, very odd as they also have lots of soap here, and though we have to pay in CUCs, in moneda nationale which they use it is very cheap. A lot of people bring suitcases of stuff to distribute, as far as I can see it is unnecessary, except for pharmaceuticals of which there is a great lack.  

There is music everywhere here too, those music lovers among you would so enjoy all the impromptu music and the bands who play everywhere. To truly get into the scene it is best to be a night owl, as the Casa de Trova (which every town has) a music venue for a variety of bands each night, really gets going after 10pm. Sadly your correspondents have wended their way home by then, full of the excellent meals which are also abundant here and unlike everywhere else there actually is a variety of cuisines. The other fantastic thing about Cuba in this regard is that it is never unsafe to walk the streets no matter how late the hour and what the neighbourhood. Though I am sure a bag could disappear if you left it somewhere (though Doug has left his camera bag in a restaurant and they put it away for him) it seems that actual robbery in the street is unheard of, which is absolutely unique in Central and South America for sure. I wonder if that will change with the influx of tourists that is happening.

  When we arrived at our casa here, I was somewhat dubious, the entry room was not the grand sala we are used to, and after climbing a rickety staircase and struggling with a tricky door lock our host opened the door to a vast room with a 20 foot ceiling, dark as a tomb with wooden shutters blocking off the light. When they opened the doors and shutters to our own private plant filled terrace on the back of the house (silent at night) I changed my mind. Daisy and Olaly bring us our breakfast on the terrace each morning via a treacherous spiral from the kitchen below, many trips are required to fully provision the foreigners with the requisite many course desayuno.  

The reason Bernardo’s entry is unimpressive is that he and his wife split up a few years ago, her casa is next door and she got the sala and dining room, he got the rooms above the street. We can see her interior terrace when we look down from ours, right now a party of Germans is being fed their breakfast, they must rise rather later than we do.

As usual, the women here are very friendly and helpful, particularly an older lady called Olaly. My watch decided to pack it in a day or so before we arrived here. Doug suggested I ask if there is a repair shop here. Olaly is one of those people who will try to understand my Spanish, Daisy just looks at me in horror every time I try and unleashes a torrent of Spanish which is incomprehensible to me, my pleas to go slowly result in her repeating the whole thing just as fast. At any rate Olaly suggested she take me to the watch repair, so we set off first thing in the morning. The watch repairer was sitting in his window, with a bench full of watch repair tools, wearing a magnifying lens over his glasses. As usual there was quite a line up of people which seemed strange to me as everyone was waiting while he repaired the watches one by one. As usual, Olaly yelled out, “Qui es ultimo?”and a man across the street sitting on the curb raised his hand. Soon someone else came by with the same query and I raised my hand. Such a wonderful system, sadly most of the tourists here in Trinidad don’t know it and they get very dirty looks from the Cubans as they surge to the front of the line in the tiendas to buy their beer and water.   

One thing that really impressed me was that a police officer on duty joined the line, as did a uniformed “bombero” an emergency responder and they took their turn like everyone else. Everyone was handing in their cheap watches, mostly with broken straps and paying their small fee in moneda nationale when he fixed them. Some however he took apart and repaired on the spot. Olaly took me to the front so I could be impressed by his professional tools, she told me he was very intelligent and knew all about repairing watches. Well when it was finally my turn, he took mine apart, (which requires a special tool for a St Moritz watch) and said the problem was “mecanico” (he had a large array of batteries on the bench but he tested mine and it was okay) he fiddled with its innards, then set it aside to see if it would continue to run. While we were waiting, Olaly took the opportunity to bring out 3 of her watches, one of which was declared unfixable, and the other 2 he repaired quickly. So far so good, 3 days later my watch is still running. Don’t think it’s likely a long term fix but if it gets me a bit farther…

  There is a very nice beach just out of town so we have spent a couple of half days swimming and sitting in the shade, even in the shade Doug has turned a bright scarlet. Really nice water and we love to swim. Another day we took an old rickety train out to the Valle de Ingenios where the old sugar plantations were in the Spanish days. We climbed a 7 storey tower from where the overseers could watch all the slaves working themselves to death in the cane fields. One old hacienda is now a restaurant where we had lunch. We met a lovely couple from the Yukon there, they live 20 km off the highway about 100 km south of Whitehorse. They are here for 2 months and have found the heat (which isn’t that bad) and the crush of people (also mild) overwhelming, but have also had a great time. An enjoyable day.

As I am writing this on our terrace on our last day in Trinidad, I just broke off quickly as we were engulfed in a fog of fumigation smoke. It is really interesting, the fumigators go from door to door, I don’t think it is optional but they warn you they are coming. We quickly vacated our casa in Santiago one morning as Carmen came to tell us we either should go out or up on the roof until they were finished. Two men come, one just makes a note of the house, the other has a hand held machine that sends out a dense fog of kerosene smelling anti insect chemical, no one has been able to tell me what it is. They do it to all the shops too, there will be a sign on the door saying closed for the morning for fumigation. Anyway as I sat here I could see a dense fog enveloping the house two down from here, then they moved on to the home of the elderly woman next door (introduced to me by Olaly who helps with her care). We began gathering our things with the intention of rapidly decamping but Claudia, another of the merry band of housekeepers said they weren’t coming here today. I guess that is why there are few mosquitoes and I have only seen one small cockroach the whole trip so far. The fumigator doesn’t use a proper mask, just a paper one, and they don’t seem too worried about the smoke. Public health is excellent here so I just can’t imagine what this so called innocuous bug spray could be.

This has been another lovely interlude, 6 nights about perfect, and we are off to Cienfuegos tomorrow. Have now become so addicted to our taxi rides door to door that we have arranged another one for the 85 km journey. Cienfuegos was settled by French at the beginning of the 1800’s so the architecture will be quite different. On we go!

Sancti Spiritus Stopover

We decided to stay a couple of days at Sancti Spiritus, a smallish colonial town without the tourist cachet of Trinidad, situated halfway between Camaguey and Trinidad. Smooth ride there in a newish, by our newfound standards, Peugot, through small villages and cane fields with more sleek and beautiful horses grazing everywhere. We are into cattle country now, a variety of types including the humped Brahma type we were used to in India, and other more familiar beef and dairy varieties. The most beautiful big-eyed, soft brown oxen too, pulling carts, all animals glowing with health, haven’t even seen a really neglected dog yet. We have been eating very good local cheese here, a medium aged Gouda type, but in this area people by the road side were selling large wheels of Feta which we ate in Sancti Spiritus and which was also very nice.
Casa Paraiso, home of Hector and his extended family, was our most lovely casa so far. Hector was quite the charmer, with a gravelly voice and a conviction that we could have a conversation in Spanish if he only tried hard enough. He first built two rooms at the rear of his family’s 1830 classic home, and has recently added two more. We had one of these sparkling brand new rooms, up a flight of steps from the main interior courtyard, with our own little plant-filled patio. Hector is full every night though nearly all stay only 1 or 2 nights as they pass through to break the journey between Santiago and Trinidad. Nearly everyone has a guide and or driver, and are dropped off at a casa and picked up again in the morning. Of course they move much faster than we do.
  We met some interesting fellow travellers there, including a pair of itinerant Bikram Yoga teachers who go from place to place as sort of substitute teachers in Bikram studios for periods of time. Evidently it is a well organized world wide thing. They had recently spent 3 months in a couple of places in Colombia so gave us a few tips for the next leg. When they left they were replaced by a very congenial English pair who live in Kent and travel extensively. He has just retired, at age 70, from his work as a sort of fixer for companies world wide headed for bankruptcy. For instance he worked on the Bombardier near collapse. He has worked all over the world and spent all his time travelling, she only travelled to meet him occasionally, staying home with the kids when they were young. Since he always lived in a five star hotel wherever he was, be it Beijing, Singapore, or Paris, her standard of travel is quite high. However she was bemusedly coping with casa life and agreed she found it very interesting. We had a great meal with them and hope they will pass through our neck of the woods one day as they intend to visit a cousin who lives in Kelowna.
By great good luck we arrived on the Eve of the celebration for the 165th anniversary of the birth of Jose Marti a huge hero of the Cuban people. At a young age he was part of a movement to oust the Spanish colonial government, was caught and went into exile in Mexico, Guatemala, the U.S and other countries in Latin America. While he was away for 20 years he formulated a revolutionary credo and inspired a movement to overthrow the Spanish, but even more importantly wrote poetry, literature and a philosophy of life that Cubans revere to this day. His works are studied in school and quotations from them are emblazoned everywhere. Cubans seem to react well to heroes, with so much less cynicism than we have, they will tell you they hold these people in their “corazon” (heart).
When Marti returned to Cuba in 1892 he coaxed out of exile various other revolutionaries whose names we are now very familiar with from the myriad of streets, buildings and monuments named after them; they mounted an army and began to do battle with the Spanish. Marti had sworn to wear black until Cuba was free, which after all was one of his poorer ideas as he was cut down leading his troops into battle on a white horse wearing his usual black dinner suit with white shirt and bow tie, clearly somewhat conspicuous. Che Gueverra, another hero, had not yet come on the scene to teach everyone guerrilla style warfare.
  Anyway every year on his birthday towns go all out to celebrate. As we ate dinner in Hector’s casa the first night, a great din of bands started up on the nearby plaza. We went out and in the distance we could see a sea of dancing lights approaching. People in the crowd tried to explain what it was, they were all snapping photos like mad, but to no avail. As it drew closer we could see a torchlight parade of hundreds and hundreds of people. They carried home made torches, tin cans attached to sticks filled with kerosene soaked rags which they held over their heads. It was quite a sight as they paraded up the approach to the Parque and then marched around it twice before heading off down another street. All ages and stages were represented in the marchers.
  That was as nothing though compared to the next morning when literally thousands streamed past. All the school children for sure, with adults of all ages, some walking with their kids others marching in groups holding flags of various themes. Many of them were dressed in period costumes with a lot of little boys dressed as Marti in black suits, white shirts and with moustaches painted on their faces. Some rode horses in the midst of the throng. Most of the children wore costumes, many inexplicable to us but clearly referencing some aspect of Marti’s life and works. The school children in uniforms carried banners with Marti quotations and waved books of his works. It took hours to go past, nothing fancy, just marching along laughing and talking as Cubans are wont to do. When it was over, life returned to normal and when we passed a couple of schools later we could hear children inside chanting as usual.
A most relaxing interlude in a small colonial place with some lovely buildings, with a small town Cuban atmosphere. On to Trinidad next, a Unesco site where tourism is in full swing.

Convoluted Calles in Camaguey

  The spider web streets of mysterious Camaguey were designed to foil pirate attacks by confusing the brigands, but nowadays just mystify visitors. Day after day a three spired church viewed in the distance disappeared like a mirage whenever we attempted to make our way towards it. Wherever several of the arms of the web intersect, the opportunity is seized to have yet another charming Parque centred on a statue of one or another hero of a revolution. We wandered lost and charmed here for three days.
The buildings are colonial relics, with the lovely soft colours of faded paint on mildewed stucco. We are struck everywhere by the extreme cleanliness of the streets in all the cities we have visited, any litter that appears is gone by the next morning as the garbage trucks sweep the streets clean at night. Everyone washes out their floors in the morning, continuing through the open front doors and onto the street in front of the house, ending by swilling off the sidewalk and sluicing the soapy water into the gutter. There is a lot of ironwork on the fronts of the buildings, balconies and window facades, and many buildings are colonnaded, lots of atmosphere. One good thing about having lost a good few years to modernization is that the colonial buildings are preserved, and now everywhere we go extensive renovations are taking place. Historic buildings are being refurbished in all their former glory as they have done in old Havana.
Julio and Julito (Jr) transported us in their venerable Lada from Santiago, about a 5 1/2 hour journey which we took non stop with one short bano stop at the side of the road. Lucky I am a veteran of the Indian buses, the men rushed off into the cane field leaving me to my own devices, two opened car doors and a lack of modesty did the trick. Julito fortunately had brought a GPS as we would never have found our casa in Camaguey any other way despite the voluminous directions Freddy had given Carmen when she phoned to confirm our arrival.
  Freddy and Mary live with their two little sons and Freddy’s parents to the north of the main historic area in a very simple suburban area. Living here is more like being in the thick of an extended family, and this being Cuba, a non stop stream of neighbours, friends, relatives, kids, cats and the dog revolve through the place. Freddy worked as a bar tender in one of the resorts near here for 15 years, returning with his savings to marry Mary who is much younger, and build a separate small house in his parents’ yard to run a casa particular. He has big plans, is building two more rooms on the roof and has constructed a large patio with a sort of palapa hut and arbour of vines, very pleasant for sitting in, which is where he plans his bar, his outdoor kitchen and a barbecue big enough to roast a pig. Not sure where all these clients are going to come from as it is a fairly long though interesting walk to the historic centre. Every casa we have stayed in has had such a different atmosphere.
Cubans are never alone it seems. They leave their doors open day and evening, and everyone has company all day long. They never stop talking. This is one place where your faithful correspondents’ loquaciousness does not seem out of place. Freddy and his dad sit in the evenings in their rocking chairs on the patio and chat and chat and chat. Such a friendly place this is, and very open. Cubans who move to North America must find life lonely.
Camaguey too is full of history, but we have enjoyed the art scene here. The sculpture, ceramics and painting galleries are fascinating and very avant garde. We assume that the Cubans are isolated because all we know about is the American embargo, but the arts scene is apparently very well known in Europe and Asia. Some of the artists here display awards from art shows all over the world. There are many working studios, very interesting to see the works in progress. The ceramics are astonishing not functional but representational and symbolic. The public art is very avant garde too, and Cubans seem very proud of their sculptors especially. I am not sure our more conservative cities would display some of the public art we see here. We have bought a small painting in a studio where we loved the work, and a print by another very famous artist. Her studio is on a square which is decorated with her life size bronze sculptures of local people, very amusing and tremendously life like, representing as they do occupations and preoccupations of real people in the neighbourhood. 
A number of people have asked about the food here. We always have breakfast in our casas, they charge between $2 and $4 for a huge breakfast — juice blenderized from fresh fruit, an assortment of fruits like papaya, pineapple, guava, bananas, an assortment of meat and cheese, a large plate of sliced tomatoes, bread or rolls bought fresh daily, good strong Cuban coffee with hot milk, and eggs any style. After a breakfast like that we really need to do the long walks which comprise our days.  
We usually eat dinner in the casa too, though in each city we have found a restaurant for a meal once or twice. They have private restaurants here too, like the casas, run by individuals in their homes, in contrast to the government run hotels and restaurants. These are called paladars and some of them have evolved from a few tables in the living room with Mum cooking out the back, to quite fancy establishments with extensive bars and very good food. One we ate in here twice is very grand with an extensive bar, white linen, and terrible wine by the glass. Not expensive at all, nothing is.
  The thing is, you really don’t get much different food wherever you eat it. In the casas the choice is always fish, shrimp, lobster, chicken, pork, and sometimes octopus. The restaurants offer exactly the same choices. They cook everything absolutely simply, garlic and a bit of onion are the only seasonings. The meal consists of one or two of the afore mentioned main courses, rice, plates of tomatoes and cucumbers (very delicious ripe veg) fried bananas or kind of grated taro fritters, sometimes baked pumpkin — really really filling and well prepared but oh so boring after a while. But they serve it when you ask them to and are so willing to please, it hardly seems worth going out to eat the same food for more money and to wait for service. That said, the food is vastly superior to anything we had in Guatemala (outside Antigua) and Honduras, and less bland that the cheese, potato and corn based offering in Ecuador. Really how can one complain about being offered lobster day after day?
Most of the produce comes to the door in carts and is very very fresh. The bread vendors come around too. They all call out or make characteristic sounds — oddly the scissor sharpener in Bayamo played a flute! Since shopping is not a simple process here, I guess that is how they cope.
Cubans are phenomenally fashion conscious and well dressed. Our hostess here, Mary, changed clothes 4 times yesterday, as did the children. “Real or fake”, as they say in China — I guess fake but the jeans are right up to the minute. No brand names in evidence, but all the latest styles. I have mentioned the fad for skin tight Lycra and denim, Mary’s mother who is around here all the time (though I don’t think she actually lives here) looks like a madam in a very tough brothel with her skin tight diamond encrusted cut offs, red plunging necked bare backed T-shirt, very dark wrinkled skin and dyed black hair. And as I said, the shape of the figure is not by any means a reason not to coat the curves in such tight clothing. The children too, are very fashionable, dressed with pride in the latest things with the cutest hairstyles. Shops display expensive toys in the windows and we see kids playing with them on their door steps, as well there are up to date appliances and furnishings in the windows of the stores. I just can’t figure out this economy.
  Another cultural phenomenon I have been meaning to mention is the Quince, the fifteenth birthday party which girls here have. Emily had wondered why Doug was taking pin up pictures of a model in a bikini on the beach in Gibara. Well she was having her Quince and was being photographed around town in various outfits. It is a really big deal. The girls are photographed in evening dresses, at least 4 in various colours (they must rent them) day clothes, the bikini if a beach is handy, all in sky high stilettos and all professionally made up. A lot of them have professional photographers who follow them like paparazzi as they make their way around town posing in various locations. In Bayamo on the Saturday evening we spent in the Parque listening to the bands and singers and watching the little children have their goat cart rides, a beautiful white horse carriage came into the square complete with a uniformed coach man in front, a young man in a boater hat behind strumming a guitar and singing, and in the pride of place a Quince girl in a white evening dress, flowers in her hair, smiling and waving at the spectators as she was driven around and around the Parque. Quite the spectacle.

 At the end they have books made up like the portfolios models have — all for their 15th birthday!! They look absolutely grown up too, more like 25 than 15. 
Next we are off to Sancti Spiritus, a smaller place on the way to Trinidad. Only about 80 kilometres away, we are going in a 10 year old Peugeot, very modern compared to the antiques we have been traveling in. Can’t wait to see what the next casa has in store for us!

Saucy Santiago de Cuba

Our journey from Bayamo on the ViaAzul bus was smooth, we enjoyed the rural scenery as we rolled along. We were met by a taxi sent by our casa (they do this to prevent you being stolen away by jineteros who take you to another casa) and you pay the taxi. This time it was an ancient Lada which struggled to make the uphill route from the port where the bus station was to our casa in one of the old streets bordering the Centro Historico.
Again we have a most cheerful and obliging hostess, Carmen, and her sweet sidekick Nena. Carmen starts off slowly but is convinced I can pick up the pace if need be, and I usually have to halt the torrent of words two sentences in to beg, “Despacio por favor.” She has lots of helpful information and we are doing very well. Our room is comfortable and large and there is a small roof terrace where she brings dinner when we stay in for the meal. A French couple was here for a few days, we attempted to communicate in Spanish as they did not speak English and I do not want to think about French because as soon as I do the French words begin getting in the way of the Spanish vocabulary. Weird how the mind functions.
Santiago is busy compared to the somnolence of Gibara and the tranquil pace of Bayamo. Still not that bad by our standards. The Parque Cespedes the main centre of the historic area is just a few blocks uphill but the sidewalks are narrow and the motorbikes are maniacal. Many antique cars on the roads here, and extremely venerable trucks. Although they are masters of ingenuity and craftsmanship in keeping these clunkers looking spiffy and functioning well, emission control leaves something to be desired.
History happened here — from 1868 to 1959 it was basically one battle for independence after the other. Originally the Spanish, then the Americans, and finally this is where Fidel’s forces consolidated their control and where he began his victory march. The inhabitants were known for their revolutionary spirit apparently.
There is an interesting racial mix in this city, the whole gamut from black to white and everything in between. Slaves were brought by the Spanish from West Africa, and when there was a slave revolt in Haiti the plantation owners moved their operations here and brought their slaves. So Africans of several origins, plus mestizo the mixed race people, right up to blue eyed blondes descended from the Spanish. There used to be a distinction between Spanish born in Spain and those born in Cuba, not any more obviously. The constitution of 1992 enshrines racial equality, some say with noticeable success.
  Caribbean influence is strong and music is huge here, all kinds of Cuban music and dance. One of the tenets of the Revolution is that culture is for everyone, so kids get musical training and the tickets to all kinds of cultural activities are dirt cheap. Same goes for sports which is why their Olympic athletes are so disproportionately successful. Every town has many cultural centres which post schedule of performances of music and dancing. Anyone can go and they happen at all times of the day. There are lots of bands playing around the square and in the streets leading up to it. You walk along a street and hear the most wonderful jazz playing, peak in the open windows and it an empty classroom with a group rehearsing with amazing gusto.
Hurricane Sandy inn 2012 heavily damaged this city. 15,000 people lost their homes entirely. Carmen and her family hunkered down in their kitchen while their roof blew away and they lost the roof top terrace completely. They had no power for 3 days (not bad by Maple Ridge standards) and there was water and garbage everywhere. The government came in and cleaned up all the debris but they had to do the main repairs on the house themselves. Three years on she has her guesthouse running and you would never know there had been water damage in the house. From the terrace though her roof can be seen to be a conglomeration of old corrugated sheeting, bits of asphalt roofing and other odd bits and pieces, as are many of her neighbors’. The house is very long and narrow, the stair case to our room is so narrow you can barely get up it straight on. Apparently families divided their houses for their children, and since everyone needs street access the result is a series of very narrow houses.  
We have, as usual, walked our legs off finding all the interesting museums, the wonderful cathedral, sights of this and that, lots of street scenes. Every evening we decamp to the roof of the picturesque Casa Blanca, a grand hotel dating from 1914 with surprisingly reasonable food and drink and helpful wait staff. We have come to love our pre-dinner Ron Collins. The hotel is crawling with tour groups, the first influx of tourists we have seen. Mostly German and French, but the occasional American. Surprisingly since Canadians make up more that 1/3 of their tourists, have yet to meet one here in Santiago. I guess they just come for the all inclusive and then go home. Everyone here is convinced that Canada is a complete ice box, and when Doug tries to tell them the west coast isn’t, they ask the temperature and still think we live in an ice box!
The museums commemorating the main events of the underground movement and the beginnings of the revolution are fascinating. Of course I wish my Spanish was better, we get the gist of the descriptions but it is exhausting work. It would help to know more than just the simple present tense. We visited the site of Fidel’s initial attack in 1953 on the Moncado Barracks which was almost a complete fiasco partly due to getting lost in Santiago’s confusing streets. His second in command was captured and he and his men summarily shot. The ensuing uproar meant that when the others were eventually captured, the army officer refused to shoot them and arrested them instead. They were put on trial where Fidel made his famous “History will Exonerate me” speech and got 15 years in jail. When Batista, in an effort to regain some public support lost through disgust with his bloodthirsty tactics, including assassinations of underground leaders, let them out and they immediately escaped to Mexico where they met Che Gueverra and plotted their return in 1956. Bloody photographs of victims and various implements used in the jungle in their field hospital and the clothing used to smuggle in food and supplies are preserved.
  We took a day trip out to the end of the port to see El Castillo del Moro, a fort started by the Spanish in the late 1500’s but not completed for another 40 years which was designed to repel the pirates who terrorized the region for a couple of hundred years. It has been restored beautifully, and in addition to an interesting pirate museum containing pistols, swords, and pictures of the most bloodthirsty ones, there are a number of displays of the various ship wrecked vessels in the straits overlooked by the Fort including various American ones from the post Spanish period. We went with a guy called Armando in his pride and joy, an amazingly well preserved 1958 Opel, a station wagon model not sold in Canada. He had taken a complete wreck and refurbished it with fastidious care. A very nice man. We finished off the day with a trip by ferry to a small island off shore, Cayo Granma, a poor place as it turned out, severely damaged by the hurricane but interesting for a circumambulation.
  Yesterday we walked what seemed like miles through the busy streets with their heavy air pollution to find a small museum of the Santeria religion. When the slaves were brought from West Africa they brought with them a variety of local religions, the slaves brought from Haiti and workers from Jamaica added their beliefs. The ensuing religion is based on a pantheon of Orishas, or spirits, who embody certain characteristics and who influence life on earth. Though communication with the dead is part of their ritual, there is not much emphasis on the after life. Each person has a sort of patron orisha. Because the Spanish imposed the Catholic religion, and banned the native religions, each orisha became identified as one of the Catholic saints. That way people could pray and make offerings to their particular spirit without alerting the Spaniards as to their true beliefs.
The small museum was in a lovely old house in a relatively wealthy area of Santiago, formerly an upper middle class suburb taken over after the revolution by wealthy Cubans and military officials (always the way.) A guide offered to show us around for $1 and initially I was dubious but she was patient and went slowly and I got enough to get the gist. There are more than 400 of these Orishas but some of the main ones were represented by wooden carvings depicting their qualities. Offerings were placed to various of them — some with animal sacrifices and very smelly, others with bottles of pop and candles and flowers. You’d really want to be identified with one of those if possible. The guide was trying to explain how we all have an Orisha so she showed us with her birthdate how she had figured hers out. Then she did mine and Doug’s. She did seem to be spot on with the characteristics but I always think fortune tellers are just really really good observers. She told us our spirits were extremely compatible, that we have a “tranquillo” relationship and that we would never be split up until one of us dies. Rather nice to know. Then I gave her the daughters’ dates and it was downright creepy how she described each one’s characteristics. We didn’t say anything about birth order or any details about ages or occupations or anything that might have given a clue. Really really strange.

   When we were finished, I was too tired to go all the way back so we decided to look for a taxi when we got back to the main street, a considerable distance. A very nice woman who just happened to be walking in the neighbourhood and who helped us find the rather obscure museum and came in to see it with us, just hailed down a passing car and asked them if they would take us to Parque Cespedes. Sure they would, a reasonable price was quoted, and off we went! Sure beat walking.
Today we went out of town to a beautiful Basilica dedicated to the Cuban patron saint La Virgen de Caridad (Charity). People pray to this Virgin for help in reaching goals, for improving health, for successful reproduction and so on. They leave all manner of items with letters of thanks — there are numerous sports trophies, uniforms, signed baseballs and bats, Olympic medals, as well as piles of theses and diplomas, even Ernest Hemingway’s Novel Prize medal and citation. He wanted to give it to the people of Cuba when he won it in 1954 but didn’t want it to fall into the hands of Batista and his thuggish mob so gave it to the Virgin where it is safe in the Basiica.  
Even more interesting though are the piles and piles of crutches, prosthetic limbs, back braces, paediatric orthopaedic braces and shoes, models of limbs (representing injuries I suppose) stethoscopes, pictures of infants and baby clothes, medallions representing various body parts, nurse’s hats and on and on. I didn’t spot the asthma inhaler mentioned in my guide book though. We stayed for part of the mass, the acoustics were wonderful and the people who sang parts of the ceremony remarkable. Lots of people attended, carrying bunches of yellow flowers and all wearing yellow, the colour of this Saint/orisha. This is the one associated with me, so I will have to buy some more yellow attire. All the little girl babies had broad yellow headbands with sunflowers on them. Such cute well dressed children in this country.
We have really enjoyed this town and six days was not too much. We are off to Camaguey tomorrow in a taxi “privado” ie someone’s personal car. Our driver from today will take us in his venerable but sturdy Lada. We could not obtain reserved tickets for the bus and were unwilling to go standby for an 8 hour trip. It will be a shorter trip by car, and though expensive compared to the bus, actually fairly reasonable considering gas costs here what we pay at home. Looking forward to the next adventures!

Lazy Streets of Bayamo

  We arrived at the door of our casa in Bayamo in the Saratoga, quite an interesting journey of a little over 2 hours through farmland and sugar cane plantations. Such lovely sleek small horses they have here. Whole pastures of them grazing, and many being ridden along the edge of the road adorned with beautiful leather saddles etc such as you associate with Wild West movies set in Mexico. Horse carts abound, in the countryside as carts for produce and in the towns as taxis and transport trucks. The clip clop they make through the cobble streets of Bayamo is very charming.
We found our casa and met the hosts, Vivian y Segundo, both musicians apparently, and Segundo teaches and composes on the classical guitar. Their house is old style, littered with the gorgeous mahogany rocking chairs which abound here, some caned and some upholstered. Everyone seems to have them, even in very basic houses, and since people leave their doors open all the time you can see right into the living areas.
The room is very small, much less modern than the one in Gibara. It is separate from the house in a green shaded garden area which is a lovely place to relax in the heat of the afternoon. Huge variety of tropical plants in random pots in the style which we are familiar with from the courtyards of Asian countries. The hosts are very friendly and patient with my poor Spanish. Vivian speaks slowly and is convinced that I can understand everything, I just have some sort of speech issue which renders me incomprehensible most of the time. So we have managed very well.
As I mentioned before, the hosts like to prepare meals for the guests and breakfast is kind of a given. Very ample and good though I am sure I will be gagging at the sight of an egg before this trip is over. Nice fruit, fresh juice from the blender and very dark Cuban coffee with hot milk. We have eaten most of our dinners here too, good basic cooking, nothing exciting and very meat centric like all of Latin America in our experience but pleasant to sit in the garden and relax over it. There is so much waiting in restaurants here, not good for your impatient correspondents.

Bayamo is much bigger than Gibara, but still a pretty small place despite being the provincial capital. Doug went out while I rested while finishing my 36 hour detox which started in Gibara. By the time he came back he had hit all the main parques and the pedestrian promenade, had found the main square, Parque Cespedes and located the wifi area right in front of the main hotel.

  This town is very historical. It is the birthplace of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes , a wealthy sugar plantation owner who freed his slaves and called for revolution against the Spanish in 1868. He raised an army and had initial success, initiating dozens of reforms in the 90 days before the Spanish army came down upon them in force and his band of rebel soldiers were routed. The townspeople lit the town on fire to foil the advance of the Spanish army so most buildings in town post date that time. His friend Perucho Figueredo wrote the music and Cespedes the words of the Cuban national anthem.
Consequently there are a number of historic buildings here referencing that time and some lovely restored mansions now used as museums and government offices. The church is rather beautiful in its colonial style, and has a famous mural over the altar depicting the priest of the day blessing the rebel army’s new flag as they prepared to depart in battle in 1868. Apparently it is unique in Latin America for depicting the church’s support of rebellion against the Spanish colonialists. The new national anthem was then sung for the first time, in the very spot where it is still broadcast daily.
  Most of our time here has been wandering the sun baked slow paced streets, observing daily life and trying our best to figure out how this place works. There is a pedestrian only promenade from the main square stretching blocks and blocks, furnished with very modernistic and attractive marble benches, sinuous sculptures and the oddest selection of art installations, for example, a tree sporting a dissolving tube of toothpaste attached to its trunk, another with a spilling bottle of ink. Cubans are well known for their quirky and original take on various art forms. Saturday night the whole promenade was lined with people playing board games at little tables, or dancing to bands along the way. In the Parque little children rode around in carts pulled by goats, very cute goats, with long beards and curving horns. The whole town was partying.

  There are a lot more stores (tiendas) here than in Gibara, but they are as puzzling as before. They all have a goodly amount of stuff, and some of the stores are vast, but the combination of products is quite inexplicable if one is a systematic Canadian. All of them sell rum, some sell large appliances as well, but will have a few toiletries in one corner. Others look like grocery stores, or at least non perishable groceries, you have to buy fruits, vegetables, meats and baked goods in other places, but when you go in to look for something you find they have a large supply of some odd thing, like All bran cereal, and a piled high display of soap powder in bags, but nothing like crackers or anything to put on bread, there may be pop and there will be beer, but some have water and some don’t. There doesn’t appear to be a system, I think each one must receive whatever goods come around and then they sell them.

Imagine how long it takes to do the shopping, making matters worse, they don’t consistently have the same goods each day. And on top of that, once you have selected your items, the process of purchasing them is interminable. A line forms and you wait while they process each person’s bill at a snail’s pace, the bill is checked by another person, and only then do they look around for a box to pack the items in. Doug nearly lost his mind when he got behind a woman who had one of Cuba’s very newly issued credit cards. The modem was dial up, it failed the first time, everyone had to admire the card, then when the second attempt worked they began the whole process of packing, approving etc. Doug claims it took half an hour while the line went out the door.

There are line ups everywhere, the bank, the pharmacy, all offices, the tiendas, restaurants — hence their expertise with lining up. You will see a whole lot of people standing, or sitting on the curb on the shady side of the street, then you realize they are waiting for the bank on the other side. With the method of establishing who is before you with the Ultima? question you don’t actually have to be in the line.
The dual economy and money system is also puzzling. You pay hotels, tourist restaurants, taxis, the casas, the meals at the casas etc with CUC’s, pronounced kooks which are Cuban convertible pesos pegged at 1 to 1 with the American dollar. The other money is called CUPs but is usually called moneda nationale and is what government workers etc are paid in. They are 25 to 1 CUC. When we buy things in CUPs or go to a local restaurant things are astonishingly cheap. We ate lunch one day for two of us it was 25 CUPs or just about $1. Since it is so hard to buy lunch we often buy a small pizza and bring it back to the casa — a very good medium pizza is 10 CUPs or about 40 cents. Cans of Cuban beer are 1.5 CUC in a restaurant but in the moneda nationale restaurant they were 10 CUPs or about 40 cents.

This question of the dual economy will have to be addressed soon as with the burgeoning tourist industry it is leading to a two tier social hierarchy, something that is anathema to the government. That eventuality never worried the Chinese or Vietnamese government when they loosened up their strict economic policies when Russia pulled out in the early ’90s but the Cubans soldiered through those terrible times (the Special Period) and came out the other side. However tourism and foreign investment are changing all that even before the Americans arrive in droves. Canadians account for 1.25 million tourists a year, over a third of their total tourists. Everyone loves us here, partly because of that and also because Canada has become a major trading partner and everyone knows the meetings between the U.S and Cuba last year took place in Canada. Of course the vast majority of Canadian tourists go only to the resorts but that will change when people realize what this country has to offer and what an easy place it is to travel.
We are off to Santiago tomorrow on the bus, a much much busier city, the crucible for rebellions small and large since 1868 and the most Caribbean culture of Cuba. Lots of music, different cultural mix, and sadly muchos motorbikes which have not been noticeable up to now. We have 6 nights there. Adios for now!

La Villa Blanca Gibara

    A soft landing is always a good idea at the beginning of a long trip so we began in the small (36,000) town of Gibara about an hour and a half by vintage “taxi” from the airport near Holguin. It is muy tranquilo as the locals say, situated on the ocean with a malecon, a pedestrian walkway, all along the shore. Our casa particular, Las Brisas (the breezes), is directly across from the malecon, so from our window we can watch the waves pound in and the local people walk by on their way to school and work. The front porch with actual comfortable chairs is a treat, bathed in breezes which mitigate the heat which is fairly fierce at midday.
Casas particulares are homes whose owners are permitted to rent one or two rooms to tourists. It is just like staying in someone’s spare bedroom except that they are bound by law to provide a bathroom which your aging correspondents’ bladders require. They all charge between 20 and 30 dollars per night and are delighted to cook you breakfast and/or dinner for a nominal price. Apparently the income from the room rate is taxed by the government but not so the meals so they are pleased to offer food. The two women who run the place are so nice, and though they do not speak a word of English, one in particular is willing to try to decipher my dreadful Spanish and we have been communicating fine. The owners, a Cuban woman and her German husband are here for the month of January though they reside in Germany most of the time. He speaks only German and Spanish, she speaks French as well as Spanish and seems determined to speak French to me, which gets us totally confused. So hard to glean complex information so far.
The town was famous for its beautiful colonial buildings, hence its nickname The Villa Blanca. Hurricane Ike devastated the town in 2008, leaving it like a war zone apparently, and the work that has been done to reconstruct and renovate the old buildings is astonishing. No lives were lost despite the total destruction — the Cuban evacuation system for hurricanes is emulated around the world, lives are rarely lost despite the frequency of such events. Even the homes have largely been repaired, and I am not sure how they saved the furniture, everyone has the most gorgeous caned chairs and rockers, and other furniture we would consider antique which is all in perfect condition. I guess when you can’t buy new you restore and maintain what you have, hence the so called vintage cars which abound, all brought in in the ’40s and early ’50s before the revolution and in amazingly good shape.  

I had ascertained before I came that there was no Ecsetra office here (the telephone office where you can use computers) but there was supposed to be Internet in the gorgeously restored Hotel Ordono on the main square. Something happened to the town’s internet connection a couple of months ago and no one knows when it will be restored so currently there is no internet available in Gibara. It feels very strange to be so out of touch, though Torsten allowed me to use his phone (he has a German roaming package for the month he is here, very expensive from what he told me) to send out a message to the 2 daughters whose email addresses I had in my head. Rather garbled as his phone autocorrected into German and was very stubborn about it, so all I could do was hope for the best.
We have walked all around the town, admired all the antique buildings, checked out the stores (a real problem in Cuba, little stock or not the right stock), smiled at all the friendly people who greet us as we pass. On Sunday evening we attended a casual concert in a so called cultural centre which was just a courtyard where we all sat around on random chairs to listen. My goodness Cubans can dance, they do it everywhere when a piece they like comes on even on the street. All generations at the concert danced and sang along with the band, drank beer and had a wonderful time. Every now and then the singer would wade into the crowd and hold the mic up to a random member of the audience and he or she would continue the song seamlessly and without turning a hair, and I must say, in perfect tune. All would cheer and laugh and the singer would join back in. Maybe they knew better than to approach elderly tourists like us. A rather sweet custom seems to be that when a Cuban greets a friend, he is given a swig from whatever the friend is drinking, or even eating, as we saw in a restaurant our second evening. Then they kiss on the cheek. Maybe it is a manifestation of socialism, sharing whatever you have, but they sure haven’t done it in other socialist countries we’ve visited.  
The Cuban body type seems to be very portly particularly in the belly and buttocks. Even younger women develop bellies very young it seems. And all females, except elderly dowagers, wear absolutely skin tight revealing clothing — I am talking Lycra tights of all hues topped with pasted on T-shirts with very plunging necklines. Quite remarkable, even some women my age (and 3 X my girth) dress like that. Overtly provocative you would think for the young ones who are often quite beautiful, but when everyone dresses that way the effect is strange. All bright colours too.

One day we took a small boat to the part of the bay that is directly across from our casa. There is a small white beach there, the Playa Blanca so we took our swimming stuff and some lunch and water. The boat was mainly for local people and fishermen but there were two other Dutch girls along as well. When we got to the harbour for the 10 o’clock boat, fortunately quite early, those waiting in line pointed to an elderly man manning the gate to the dock. La lista he said, brandishing a piece of paper. When Doug signed us up we were the last on the list, #s 15 and 16. An odd concept to us, does this boat limit the number of people on it? Anyway when the boat came he began to let people through in twos. The Dutch girls were first (we found out later they missed the first boat so had been waiting for an hour). One of the fishermen set up a fuss, which I understood as, Why are you letting the tourists go first, did they pay you? The little man was so offended, he pointed to the list where they were clearly numbers 1 & 2, then pointed to us and to #15 &16. The fisherman was then abashed and said, Desculpe, Desculpe, which means Sorry. We were astonished, a list, a quota, on time? What next? There were even life jackets in the rafters of the boat, though it was a barely seaworthy little tub. We enjoyed the day, found shade at the beach, and even came across a small casa where they sold us a cold beer while we waited for the return. I think we are adopting Cuban small town pace which is our aim.
Cubans seem to have lining up down to an art, they do a lot of it as bureaucracy is slow and there are line ups at banks, government offices, pharmacies, bakeries, meat places etc. Very like India, but here there is no chaos. The system is very organized, we experienced it in the bank in Havana and again here. When you arrive and there is a queue, you say “ultimo?” or last, and that person indicates himself. When someone else comes the same is repeated. If the line is long, you can go away and come back later, and you have not lost your place in the line. Clever eh?
We are off to Bayamo tomorrow by taxi — the “vintage” car we came from the airport in as there is no direct bus connection. It’s quite the beater, originally a Chrysler Saratoga 1949 or thereabouts but now a sum of various ingeniously assembled parts. Hope for Internet in Bayamo.

Blown Away by Barcelona

October 15, 2015


We have left the lazy south. Barcelona is quite the contrast. It seems people get up early and go to work here — our hotel puts out the coffee and muffins at 7:00, unheard of before.  We splurged to some degree on a sweet hotel here, very conveniently near all the main sights, a so-called boutique hotel of 8 rooms in an 18th century building on a street of similar buildings.

When we drew up in the taxi we could see no reason to think it was a hotel, the taxi driver’s GPS having declared that this was the spot we all got out and looked, and sure enough, beside the bell was a discrete sign declaring the name of the place.  We rang and a young woman came running down to show us the elevator at the back of the nondescript lobby, up we went to a landing, then  up a few steps, she opened a door and we stepped into a minimalistic tiny lobby with abstract and whimsical art on the walls, distressed furniture, brightly coloured lighting fixtures, in complete contrast to the heritage building and the antique elevator.

Our room is huge, very modern, and we have casement doors that open on to our own wrought iron balcony overlooking the street.  At night we pull wooden sliding doors over the windows which keep out most of the street sound.  Quite cool!  and such friendly, kind of unhotel like young women running the place.  The 8 rooms occupy only two floors of the building so we have a key to enter the building, go up the stairs and use a scan card to get into the hotel, then our own door key!

The city is very large, and very very busy.  Somehow just so many more bodies than we are used to.  The Barcelonians must get so sick of the throngs of tourists in their midst.  We are definitely sick of them!  Much different culture than in the Andalusia area.  People are up and off to work here at the early hours we are used to at home, and although the evening meal is not happening before 8 or 8:30, it is not 10:00 like in the south.  Also Catalan is the first language, and all the signage is in Catalan, so much for my (slightly) improving Spanish!  Found out that nearly 40% of Spanish people smoke, hence my previous comments about smoking. However, years ago the government began raising the price of cigarettes and they have banned smoking inside bars and restaurants, though the patios are still fair game.  So things will no doubt change here too.


We have been walking and touring sights, and despite feeling overloaded with sight seeing we have enjoyed some special ones here.  Many of the most lovely old buildings, including the area of our hotel, were influenced by a movement called Modernisme, its most famous architect being Gaudi whose buildings with their hobbit house like curves and crazy wrought iron railings you may have seen in pictures.  Modernisme was a reaction to the industrial age and borrows its themes from nature, with lots of curves and floral embellishments, with especially lovely ceramic work and mosaic tile covering everything.  The aesthetic is similar to the Arte Nouveau movement in Britain I think.  We toured an apartment building built by Gaudi in 1914, really interesting structurally as well as in terms of the thought that went into the comfort of the inhabitants, unusual at that time.



However his most famous creation is an enormous cathedral called La Sagrada Familia which has been under construction for more than 100 years now and is slated to near completion by 2040 if they are lucky.  It is astonishingly innovative, every piece of it is its own work of art, and even though we are quite jaded by cathedrals now, we found it fascinating.  It would be so interesting for an engineer like Jeremy to see how the plans and models were done, as the forms were invented as Gaudi was conceiving the visual design.   Nowadays a team of people on computers is transcribing blueprints from his original ideas but they still do a lot of models.  Cranes are operating, machines grinding away, and literally thousands and thousands of people are touring the site every day, while in a couple of (fairly) quiet chapels people are worshipping.  Quite a unique place.  Gaudi is buried in the crypt.


A contemporary of Gaudi’s Montaner, designed the so-called Palace of Music (Palau de la Musica Catalana) which is in its own way, similarly stunning.  He sandwiched this vivid but elegant building, decorated with ceramic mosaic and sculpture in between tenements and factories in 1914 because he wanted to build a structure to house a choir of women who worked in the textile factories of the neighborhood.  When we found it, with some difficulty, in a small street crammed between buildings, we thought they had encroached on it, not the other way around.  To view it you had to be taken around by a tour leader, which was great as we got into all the parts of the seating and he explained the symbolic intent of the decor.  The intent was to give equal emphasis to the folk art of the people and the classical roots of music.  It has been upgraded for better acoustics and ventilation by adding a glass envelope to part of it, but the original structure and decor preserved.  They clearly have lots of money for upkeep as they run concerts 300 days a year, and I don’t know how many tourists go through each day — admissions here are startlingly expensive too.


We have enjoyed other things too and walking from end to end of the old city and around the port.  Our little hotel is just sweet and the “girls” who work here are so helpful.   Time to go home! Adios to Espana.