is what I first learned about Cuba on my first trip out of the country to Mexico as I read the brick walls of buildings and fences. And there was the Cuban missile crisis when I had to tell my fifth graders that they should hide under their desks when the bomb fell although I had been told or read that the ground so close to Indianapolis would be building. And then the sixties came into full swing and Che t-shirts and banners were ubiquitous.
So unexpectedly I get a chance to go to Cuba fifty years or more later and I go. Denise did all the planning, reading studying and I figured I would just tag along and make do with whatever traveling Spanish was retrievable from my deteriorating brain.
Our apartment was in Old Havana, nicely located near two good cafe restaurants and a central plaza. The apt had been redone inside with tiles and the balcony jutted out over the street which was alive with action from about 10am until 10pm. It was a neighborhood and in this part of town a life without cell phones so people are chatting, shouting to each other from windows above, laughing together sitting on the stoops, talking to passersby in doorways. Hawkers go by yelling out their wares. CEBOLLA PAN and even a cleaner with brooms and mops following his/her yeller at all hours of the day into the evening. All of this in and around horse carriages and wagons, bicycle rickshaws with radios or tape players tied to the back of their rigs. and cars and motorcycles, their music thrumming and echoing off the narrow walls of the street. Standing on the balcony and staring was satisfying entertainment in itself.
The above photo is at dawn; below midday
You know how it is after a red eye across the country. There is a kind of zombie mode, but simultaneously less defended. We feel clever in having an agenda to keep us on track the first day. A map; a Spanish English dictionary; butter for our newly purchased bread. We meet a distressed American who feels he is living in a crack house which was advertized as modern and hates the noise. We find the map, but the hunt for butter—it took me half the day to remember the word in Spanish—takes us all over the fringes of old town into the supposed uptown areas and each store which is a super mercado is a revelation in scarcity. Shelves are sparsely filled with a few cereals and crackers and no canned goods and our “ Hay mantequilla” is answered by a head shake until finally we are shown to a glass case where three little pats of butter which are given free in restaurants in the US are taped together and priced at $3.50. Whoa!
The richness of the streets; the meagerness of the super mercado.
We discovered the cute loose slipover dresses were made in India. We found shop after shop with art and wished JA was with us to choose. In one artist shop, the owner, an older woman, began dissing Trump and admittedly I had practiced my Spanish phrases commiserating with her about a “corazon pequeno” and she told us to have courage and be strong women to keep marching.
Back at the apartment for the night, we discover that a small yapping dog and a parrot enjoy arguing with each other from about 7pm to 11pm. They are on the bottom floor in the inner courtyard where the laundry hangs out and our windows open onto.
On the second day we are a Floridita cafe across from the bank when I get a major cramping call to the bano and my spirits sink as I see the little old lady sitting by the door with a saucer for change, shades of Spain emerge, and she hands me a wispy piece of tissue which is going to be worthless. Fortunately I have my pack and notebook paper to use. Scarcity underlined.
We take the Havana tour on the hop on hop off bus which lets us see most of the city, but the heavily accented guide is useless. We get off at a super mercado in a suburban area and buy coffee and water. It is better stocked. There is a long line. long lines are typical everywhere. We ask directions and are helped by everyone, even to the point of walking us to the place to be picked up again. We stop by some huge banyan trees.
And in walking around the newer areas I discover my theory about a country without cell phones is not true. There are hot spots where the business class are sitting and clicking away oblivious of surroundings. We have tried the big hotels to try to get online, but the service is spotty at best and not worth the trouble. I am personally glad to not know the news and be immersed in another culture with immediate concerns of finding out where I am and where I will find food and how I will get home. Such a relief!
Mid week I decide to take it easy and just relax at home and hang around the hood. There are an amazing amounts of improvements being made next door(all over the old town, really) which means pounding, drilling, sanding and sawing all day, added to the street noise sends me out to walk around the neighborhood. I find a small plaza and shade to sit in. I had one of those moments when you have no agenda and are just being, so that the life around you suddenly comes into focus without the perturbation of finding or wanting or grasping experience. Just the life of the plaza on an ordinary day in Cuba. Schoolgirls in groups of twos and threes or more walk by talking and giggling. They are like young girls everywhere, reminding me of my granddaughter and her friends. They look so neat in their white knee socks, the blue blouses, or gold skirts of their school, their hair pulled back in pony tails. The young boys play soccer, seriously, intensely. Some 20 something guys sitting across from me have body builder bodies. There are a lot of Cuban man muscled up like that. An old Cuban couple stroll by holding each other’s arm. Every once in a while a few tourists come through, eyes darting right and left and up and then down at the map and walking on. I felt so happy sitting there, so kind of invisible, seeing Cuban life without my interference.
I end the day sitting at the nearby cafe, having a coffee and watching the life on the stoops where men gather in groups sitting or hanging out and talking or just being together watching the passing scene. A very old woman comes by with a plastic bag collecting aluminum cans and when the men see her coming and start gathering up their Crystal Beer cans to give her. Then they open up the pizza box and offer her the rest of their pizza. She takes it immediately and stuffs some of it in her mouth and then walks on over to my table and sit down across from me to finish the food. She says something in Spanish I don’t understand, but assume it is that she wants just to rest a bit.
Denise and I visit the National Hotel where we weren’t allowed to go to the panoramic view. $450 a night—not for us peons. This is the one hotel owned by the Cuban government, the others are international companies. This is where Fidel and Che and the rebels stayed right after the mob left and the revolution was complete. Denise goes on to the Vedado and I walk along the Malacon, snapping pictures and enjoying the warm breeze.
I had so many questions about how this new tourist economy is being handled and how much the money pouring into these places which charge $200-$400 a night is going to benefit the people on my street in old town or the people in the countryside. There are two kinds of Cuban money. One is for tourists and one for the people which is 1/4 the value. On my walk on the Malacon I met a Brit who had been coming to Cuba for years who said that in the last three years there were big changes. Much more food than before when you couldn’t find vegies in the old town. There is no big central mercado where the peasants bring in their wares. Now there are a few sad looking potatoes and some greens, an onion seller has abundance. All the good produce goes to the big hotels and what is left is sold locally. There is an string of high end hotels on an archipelago jutting out into the sea where you go if you just want beach and partying. in contrast, his girlfriend’s parents are retired and get a pension of $8 a month. They have a refrigerator—their only modern appliance.
The last day in Havana we sit in a plaza looking at the vast array of skin color from cream to blue back and hair style and outfits. A muscle boy comes into the plaza with a small thin limping side kick and they set up a meal in a bowl type business. Muscle boy poses, struts, shows his physique. He has shaved head with large curls on top. Young men have outdone themselves with dramatic extrapolations of western dos. The plaza has guys with shaved head on sides and dreds on top or bleached on top standing straight up. The eye is stunned by huge black women smoking cigarettes, bandana head wrap, a bleached blond afro with black spaghetti strap tops, a young woman poured into tights, streaked hair, top knotted, purple nails, nike pink strips and pink blouse. Business types appear with crisp white blouses and shirts and again the poured into pants and skirts and suddenly everyone is sitting and bending over eating their lunch, and we, who have been in the middle of this scene have no idea how that happened. It’s the miracle of the loaves and fishes!
Contrasts in perception:
Denise says they are styling; I say they look like they are in second hand clothes.
Denise says they seem so happy; I say I have seen a lot of furrowed brows and concerned faces.
Denise says they are all so thin; I say there are a lot of really heavy people, but we both agree everyone even the huge move well.
Later on I am hunting the used mercado and turn a corner to see a monster cruise ship like a visitation from another planet, docked and there are guides leading a groups of people around the streets. Horrified, I retreat to the cafe on the corner near our apartment to while away the afternoon, felling suddenly sad for Cuba with the layer of wealth that is coming in on top of what is already here which will change it inevitably and in the end, who knows if it’s for the better.
I know I am taking up a whole table with just a coffee and all the tables are filled so I get nervous when the girl brings my coffee and the owner, who I have seen several times out and about and nodded “Hola” to(anytime anyone catches your eye out and about, we say Hola—an acknowledgment that comforts me), calls her over I think I will be asked to hurry, but no, I get a free coffee. I am touched. Some young people join me and I discover they are from Turkey, but before I can assure them about my liberality they quickly move to another table when I say Estados Unidos.
So on to Trinidad. This is the part of the trip Denise doesn’t have reservation for because there willl be people greeting the bus to take us to their “casa”. The bus trip makes for a strange day of feeling captive, stopping only at the government tienda for lunch with restroom and small tourist items. We go through some jungly country and some major big irrigation type farms, but gradually there are many more horse drawn wagons, and farmers on horseback only the very occasional car. I have a million questions. Who owns what, where do the workers live who work the fields, what plants are grown, who decides what to grow and on and on. No one to tell me.
So indeed when the bus stops in Trinidad, there are hawkers galore asking to take us to their very good, very clean, very quiet, lovely modern casa. It is chaos and very hot. I stay with the bags and Denise goes off with one. A old man takes me over to the shade to sit and then a woman tells me he has a great apartment, very good, so does she but hers is full. The man says nothing. Denise comes back freaked out. It is above 80 degrees the casa was full and another not suitable. She is hot and has been too much in the sun. I suggest we try this silent man’s place and we take a rickshaw there. Denise looks and finds it unsuitable. It is upstairs of his house, has two bedrooms, a sitting room a bathroom. I look and realize it is not up to par, my bedroom has only a partial wall and the ceilings are peeling paint and the doors are lockable but old. We take it, me tipping the scales in that direction and bargaining the price down to $15 each a night and Denise acquiescing, thinking maybe just one night. Denise still freaked and I know Maya might agree, but there are no bed bugs and no roaches or other insects and the sheets are clean and Denise’s room has an air conditioner and there is a frig and a balcony. It is middle class Cuba.
The view from our balcony. Our neighbor across the street watched with us.
We walk around Trinidad to discover the town if full of tourists. We come to the main plaza and just between the church and the palace are steps going up and up and those steps are covered with westerners, eyes glued on their cell phones. The town hotspot. We are horrified with Trinidad and after finding a restaurant head back home, stopping to talk to a Cuba tour woman about finding another place, another town, anything. Tomorrow she promises. We head back to our “casa” There are no towels and the street is noisy, her ankle hurts, my hip hurts, and the toilet doesn’t flush.
We have only two days left and we spend most of this morning trying to find another place to stay. Denise is pushing for leaving and going to Cienfuegos although I am hesitant because what is going to be different there? Cuba is not set up for tourists with small hotels that are clean and reasonable. It’s people’s houses or above restaurants and after walking and looking at a few places, we give up and go back to our casa and sit with Jose and his daughter in the living room and say we want to get out of town. They suggest two things, the stream train to the old sugar mill and the trip to the national park by taxi and a hike to a waterfall. Tomorrow the steam train at 9am and for today since it is already late, they call a taxi and off we go to the mountains.
And it is a great relief to get out of town into the country. There are very few cars and our driver speaks pretty good English. He says he’s named his car after a Cuban cartoon character and up the mountain we go until about half way up the car starts jerking, cutting out and we have to stop. He has carried bottles of water to pour on the radiator and we start again and get a bit further before it stops. There’s a vapor lock now. He suggests we walk up to the look out above and wait there for him which we do. By now we are beyond agendas. It’s lovely to be out of town and see the mountains and the level plains with beaches on both sides of Trinidad in the distance.
The car has recovered and on we go to the park. Our driver is going to visit his relatives while we hike. At the bottom of this steep gully is a waterfall and beautiful pool to swim in and we start down full of hope and energy and interest in the surrounding jungle forest. It is wonderful.
We meet others coming back huffing and puffing talking about how steep it is. After about an hour we both realize that we should turn around and head up. We make it up to a small stream and pause to fill bottles and pour water over our heads and shoulders to cool down. As we are doing this, up comes the last couple from the pool and the guard who brings up the last tourists. So he walks with us up and up which takes a while as I am going slow by any standards and he is trying to be slow but also in a hurry to finish his day. I do manage to find out that the area where the jungle is cut is going to be planted in coffee and it will be terraced to prevent erosion. At least I had a successful communication.
At the top, we get water and are cooling down when I realize my glasses have fallen off where I hooked them over my collar and then had leaned down to scoop up water. Hopelessly, they are expensive glasses, i walk over to the lone girl at the ticket stand and explain and she says it’s only 25 minutes to the stream and I say, for you, maybe, but for me, not possible. I have to give up my glasses completely as there is no young kid to run down and search. Our driver comes and they talk and I mention a “regalo”, not remembering the word for reward, and on the drive home he gets a phone call that my glasses have been found and that night he rides over on his bike to give them to me!!! So relieved and pleased.
The next morning we go on the steam train with the other tourists to an old sugar mill now abandoned but used to attract tourists. More country, more small villages, more country people on horses and horse pulled wagons along the way. The houses that Fidel promised to build for every Cuban are looking pretty run down 60 years later, the tin roofs askew, the paint and sometimes the walls crumbling. Cuba reminded me of Mexico 60 years ago.
There is a museum which the Danes we talk to say has little to no information. Pictures with typed information taped below. They were really interested but disappointed at the lack of preparation for tourists. We drink sugar cane juice and also coconut water and have them split the coconut to get the pulp. I try in my broken Spanish to find out how the cane is prepared to crush into juice. When we leave, the guys I talked to come over to the train and with big smiles, give me a peeled sugar cane. How sweet that they cared that I had asked!
We stop on the way down at a fancy lunch place and once back in Trinidad get ready the next day for a taxi ride to the airport and the trip home. We managed to get the toilet to work sometimes and learned to love our landlord and his daughter both of whom were so sweet and helpful. We kissed goodby. I said Vaya con Dios, not knowing if this is appropriate, (I enjoyed the every day struggle of trying to say what I didn’t have the words for with the words I knew) but Jose broke into a huge smile and repeated it to me. Here we are on the balcony chatting.
I read Havana Nocturne while I was there which added another level to a very layered experience. The mob literally planned to own Cuba until Fidel and Che intervened. It was a real revolution and one in my lifetime and one that defied the USA. I feel happy that I was able to see Cuba before Burger King and Pizza hut are on every corner. I said to Denise that this hadn't really been a vacation--the vactioners were in the hotels on the archipelago who may have been eating the fresh fish and ripe fruit of which we had none, except for bananas. Our experiece was traveling. It was work, but it was so worth it.
I can’t imagine how the campesinos will fare with the influx of money from tourists. They were the ones who kept the rebels fed as they hid in the mountain forests gaining numbers and training fighters at the same time teaching the peasants to read and setting up medical centers and schools. They are the ones still living in the concrete block one or two room house much weathered from 60 years use.
I asked our taxi driver about corruption and he said not on the street but only at the high levels. Two economies can’t work for long especially with the internet newly introduced. We changed money on the street a couple of times—the same rate without the long line at the bank. Everyone kept saying it had all changed in the last three years, more services for tourists, more food at the little street stands, more internet, more money. But it still isn’t set up for the lone traveler who is not on tour. One of our money changers was hoping to get enough “real” money to get to Mexico where he could come to the US to work and “get ahead”. Our taxi driver had gone to Angola to work as a driver and made enough money to “get ahead”. He said he bought his wreck of a car for $15,000, a price I still find hard to believe. We paid him $30 in tourist CUCs plus the 'regalo".for an afternoon which is five times the monthly retirement of the Brit's girlfriend's parents.
There is, I think, some kind of tsunami coming.