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!