From colonial Spanish architecture in Trinidad to French influenced Cienfuegos, we made a quick trip by taxi with our first English speaking taxi driver. He spent the hour and a half journey explicating his political views, so much for verboten topics of conversation. Nothing seems to hold Cubans’ tongues. We were distracted from the pretty coastal scenery dotted with shellfish farming operations by his often amusing observations.
We have mentioned how the shops are so oddly full of some things and not others, while other shops have the missing things and not the other things, making shopping a time consuming process — as he said, “you go looking for oil and you find soap, you go looking for soap and you find milk powder, you want hair gel, you will be bald before you find it…” And it is so strange, in a store there will be a five foot high display of soap powder, shelves full of mayonnaise, but no crackers, no water, but for some reason a whole bunch of salad dressing which as far as I can see no one uses. The next store has no soap powder but a whole shelf of tomato sauce and canned beans. All the stuff is available but in so many different places. A whole truckload of toilet paper will get unloaded into just one shop and everyone rushes in and comes out with bags of the stuff… His theory was that everyone is kept so busy shopping for all the necessary items they have no time to complain. I have read that it is a major distribution problem, ships sit in Havana harbour and cargo sits on the docks because the paper work has not yet been done and takes months to do. Having observed the paper work palaver necessary to buy the items once you find them, I think I believe it.
Cienfuegos was established by the French in 1815 so it is about 300 years younger than the other cities we have been traveling through. The French like grid systems, so no wandering in confusion like in Camaguey, there is a kind of miniature Arc de Triomphe in the main plaza and a straight pedestrian causeway leads through it and on to the Malecon, the sea side walk. All the buildings look like Wedgewood pottery, painted in pastels of blue, sage, and sienna with the same appliquéd decorative touches on the friezes and columns. Quite formal and very attractive on the ones that have been restored, a bit of a crumbling mess on others.
Lovely walk along the Malecon if one doesn’t check the foreshore where the garbage accumulates (as usual the streets are immaculately clean so a bit of a shock to see garbage dumped). A narrow isthmus leads to Punto Gorda which was formerly an upper class enclave, lovely old mansions from before the revolution and kind of 40’s and 50’s modern bungalows, some immaculately kept and advertising rooms to rent. A huge wedding cake-like Sailing Club, formerly the preserve of the rich, still in use by the hoi poloi with a large number of yachts both foreign and Cuban charters tied up at the docks. The most startling building is a huge Moorish styled construction which looks like an imitation miniature Alhambra, originally built as a family home by a sugar baron, then was one of Batista’s Mafia run casinos, and now is attempting to be an upscale restaurant.
Our casa this time is with Ines, a single woman who lives in her grandparents’ former house, in fact she was born here. It was built in 1920 and takes up the second floor of the apartment house. This being Cuba, everything is original, the floor tiles, the wooden louvred windows opening from all the rooms, the gorgeous wedding cake icing like decorations on the 20 foot high ceilings, and even the very art deco looking black and white tiled bathroom — the only concession to modernity being the new toilet and one of the ubiquitous water heating shower heads. The interior doors are inset with a kind of marbleized stained glass, very pretty in the light. The furniture has never been changed, heavy wooden tables, plant stands, and caned rockers. I adore the caned settee which is set before a set of louvred doors. Cabinets are filled with ancient mouldering books and crystal glassware and the numerous espresso sets which it seems every Cuban household has. You feel like you are living in an episode of Hercule Poirot except that everything is very very old and has been mended in ingenious ways as it deteriorated.
Ines is very voluble, only the second house in which some English is spoken. However, after some rather convoluted question and answer sessions (I thought this was my chance to get some facts nailed down about this peculiar economic system) we have sort of decided that asking the question in Spanish and Ines answering in a combination of English and Spanish is more likely to yield results. I nearly split a gut listening to Doug talking with her about home ownership here. She told us that all Cubans have houses. Since they have only been allowed to buy and sell their houses for the last few years (Raul’s economic reform) Doug obviously wanted to know where they get these homes. Well they are family homes, this house has been her family’s since it was built in 1920. She has 2 sisters, where do they live then? One lives in the other grandparents’ house, the other one in Miami. Ines’s son has recently moved to Atlanta to study and work. What if she had too many children for the house, where would they get a house? No no my son lives in Atlanta. No but if he DID live in Cuba and he got married and had a family where would he live? No no he is only 20, too young to have children. Yes but IF he did and IF he lived in Cienfuegos where would he live? But he lives in Atlanta. Finally…Well he would live here. But there is no room…. it went on and on.
The upshot is that everyone has a house, no one makes house payments, there are no mortgages, there are no house taxes, in fact no taxes at all, electricity and telephone are basically free, health is free, schooling is free, a lot of basic food stuffs are free, but they are all angry because they don’t have money like in other countries. She simply doesn’t understand what you mean when you say that we pay for all those things. Like anyone who works in the tourism business and gets paid in CUC’s she is very well off. She can make as much renting one room for 2 nights per month as she made in a month teaching school. I still can’t make sense out of it. Her sister who is a teacher came to visit to get her manicure done (the manicurist comes to the house). The sister who apparently makes the equivalent of 30 CUCs ($30) per month is just as overly fashionably dressed as Ines, and lives just the same sort of lifestyle. Completely puzzling. But at any rate I worked up the nerve to ask how they limit their families to one or two children — apparently not a delicate question at all once I worked out the Spanish for “contraception”. Oh condoms, they are free, or IUD if you want. What about all these excessively seductively dressed teenagers parading in the parques? Contraception is taught in school and they hand out condoms to the kids for free. Sounds like a plan…
Quite enjoyed our 3 days here, lovely drinks on the roof of the gorgeously restored Hotel Union and dinners cooked by Poupe, Ines’s cook. (Cheap to have help paid in CUP’s if you are making CUC’s, they all have a cleaner and a cook.). Into the countryside next, we are off to Soroa, Ines thinks it is a terrible idea, a small village in the mountains! What a city girl she is. Then on to Vinales, our time is winding down too fast as always.