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 (unintentional) 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 after Russia pulled out in the early ’90s but the Cubans soldiered on 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!