Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 7: Viñales to Havana. Part 1)

Caves, Cocktails and Cannons (Part 1)

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Viñales is home to the most extensive cave system in Cuba and before we left the area we had the opportunity to visit the Cueva del Indio (Cave of the Indian) about five kilometres north of Viñales town, in the Parque Nacional Viñales. A note in Lonely Planet says that the cave was an “ancient indigenous dwelling rediscovered in the 1920s.”

Before we entered the cave itself, we had the opportunity to see a display of objects that have been used for centuries by indigenous people of Cuba. Members of our group were particularly taken with the conches, which made a keening sound when you blew into them.

We then entered the cave and walked along a narrow passage to a waterway. There, a motorboat took groups of ten or twelve from a small dock through the cave and out to a landing on the other side. It was a short trip but memorable. There were (of course) bats but (of course) I couldn’t get a photo of them.

 

Havana: A walking tour

IMG_3680We arrived in Havana in the early afternoon and had time to check into our casa particulares (the same one we had stayed at the previous Sunday night) before heading out in a bicycle cab to join the group for a walking tour of the city.

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Drivers await hires near the Inglaterra

We had wandered around old Havana on our own the previous Sunday, but we learned a good deal more when we had someone to explain what we were looking at. To list everything we saw on the two-hour walk, which included Havana’s five major plazas among other attractions, would make this a very very long entry, and it is already going to be quite long. So instead, below and in the next post I’ll give you what I thought were the most interesting highlights.

The Most Interesting Highlights

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Hotel Inglaterra

We met our guide Manny and most of the rest of the group at the Hotel Inglaterra, near the National Capitol Building which marks the centre of Havana. Completed in 1926, El Capitolio was built with the US capitol building in mind, however, as Manny explained with pride, the one in Havana is six metres taller than the one in the US. El Capitolio housed government activities until the Cuban revolution in 1959. Like many many notable buildings in Havana, it is now being reconstructed, and when it is finished it will again become the seat of the National Assembly.

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Hotel Manzana

We then walked past the Saratoga – the most expensive hotel in Cuba – and the Gran Teatro de La Habana and into Central Park (“where they argue loudly about baseball”).  Nearby, a hotel (the Manzana), currently under reconstruction, features bullet holes incurred during the Revolution.

Obispo Street

Obispo Street

We set off down Havana’s famous Obispo Street (where no smoking is allowed), walking past one of Hemingway’s favourite haunts — the Floridita bar – where a few years ago, in honour of what would have been the author’s 113th birthday, the owners blended 27 bottles of rum with proportional amounts of the other requisite ingredients to make the biggest daiquiri in the world.

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Our next stop was Cathedral Plaza, which was lovely, spacious and  – save for a few young boys playing soccer – nearly deserted. Manny told us that this neighbourhood – built on what was originally swampland – has some of the best restaurants in Havana, and that the Doña Eutimia tops the list. The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception is also on the square and, just to bring things full circle, the Bodeguita del Medio – Hemingway’s favourite stop for a mojito. (For an alcoholic, it seems to me, Ernest was pretty particular about where he drank what.)

Where There Were Pirates (long long ago)

Havana used to be the most attacked city in the world, with pirates from everywhere descending on the harbour with greed in their eyes. Around 1600 the Spanish decided to fortify, and the remains of the resulting battlements can be IMG_0428seen at Parque Histórico Morro y Cabaña. During the Colonial era, every night at nine a cannon was fired from the fortification to announce the city’s curfew, and the traditional continues at the Cabaña Fortress today – although (one can assume from accounts of the nightlife in Havana) now it is ceremonial only. Near to the remains of the fort, there is also a display of boats that have been retrieved from the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, a warning to others who – like the boats’ original owners – might be tempted to flee the island.

IMG_0438We moved on to the Plaza del Armas, which is well known for its hundreds of local vendors of old books, antiques, and artworks (and the typical scenes of men playing chess). On the eastern side of the plaza is the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, the former residence of the governors (capitans) of Havana, and current home of the Museum of the City (Museo de la Ciudad). A part of the street itself is made of wood, rather than stone; it was re-surfaced in response to complaints from visitors at nearby hotels about the sounds of horses’ shoes clip-clopping on the cobbles.

 

(to be continued)

Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 6: Viñales)

Red Dirt

Friday, January 8, 2016

IMG_2670This morning Arnie and I went our separate ways: he to do a horseback trip through the Viñales valley, and me to join a walking tour of a few farms in the same area. We compared notes after we met up again and discovered that we’d both watched the owners of different tobacco farms make cigars by hand. We’d learned about the different leaves that go into the creation of the perfect cigar, and been told that the finer the cigar, the lower the level of nicotine. We’d been advised that inhaling is not a recommended part of the cigar-smoking experience anyway. After the demonstration, each member of both groups was given a Cuban cigar to smoke. Arnie smoked all of his. I just took one puff.

IMG_2633Rain had pounded down all night and into the day, to the point where when a few members of our group stepped out into a Viñales street after breakfast, they found water going over the tops of their trekking boots. Their feet were wet all morning. I didn’t get wet feet until I started walking around the countryside, but when I did it was not only wet but red. I assume a high iron content in the soil, but I forgot to ask about that.

IMG_2686Our guide did tell us that the soil here is very good for tobacco growing and that they use no pesticides or fertilizers. The farm workers plant all the seeds, pick all the leaves, and harvest the leaves by hand. It takes three to four months to grow a tobacco crop and the farmers in this area sell 90% of their crops to the government and turn the rest into cigars with their own brands. (Our host said his were called “Geraldo’s cigars” but I think that was a joke.)

Three kinds of leaves go into the creation of a good cigar: filler leaves, sealer leaves and wrapper leaves. If you have a good, genuine Cuban cigar the ash will not fall off the end of it when you are smoking it. If ash forms, it is likely that the manufacturer has used banana leaves as filler.

IMG_3539The inside leaves that are high in nicotine content are fed to animals. The better leaves are soaked in honey, guava and rum, and then put into home-fashioned humidors (made of plastic wrap) to cure for a year or two. The result is a cigar that tastes wonderful and has very little nicotine. (Geraldo pointed to his 70-year-old mother who was smoking a very large Cuban cigar as evidence that cigar smoking will not harm your health. [See slide show album below for photo of her.] I was not impressed, as 70 seems very young to me. Show me your 100-year-old mother. Then I will pay attention.) Geraldo hand wraps approximately 100 cigars a day.

IMG_0315.jpgIn addition to tobacco crops and drying barns, we saw fields and groves of mango, bananas, coffee beans (arabica), black beans, calabash (from which maracas are made), taro and cassava. I have discovered here in Cuba that I love taro, which is the basis for arrowroot and according the locals cures almost everything. (And anything it doesn’t cure is cured by the root of the royal palm so it is all covered here. Although there is also excellent health care in Cuba if anything else is required.)

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A shrine in a royal palm

Some people believe that a God lives inside the royal palm and they will try to get close to one if there is a hurricane or other natural disaster in order to avoid danger. During two hurricanes that hit this area, royal palms were the only things left standing, so it is hard to question this theory.

While we were out on our field trip, we also saw a Cuban rat (a pet of the owner), chickens, pigs (including some very cute piglets) a lot of dogs, horses, burros, and oxen. We also saw some men cock-fighting, which was horrible.

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Farm family’s pet rat

Before heading back to Viñales to meet the group for lunch, we were offered most delicious piña coladas. They were 3 CUCs each, but contained no rum. We all bought one. Then the host came and put down a rum bottle and invited us to add as much as we wanted to our drinks. Rum free. Drinks 3 CUCs.

Back in Viñales, Arnie rejoined us. Most of our group had stepped in deep puddles that had splashed mud to our knees, but Arnie was splattered in red mud from head to toe, and his hands were stained with achiote, a plant that is used to make cosmetics. He declared his horseback excursion to have been a huge success.

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Achiote

We had lunch at a restaurant near the entrance to the Cuevo del Indio (Cave of the Indian) outside of Viñales, which we planned to tour after lunch. However, by the time our (very, very slow) service at the restaurant had finished and we had eaten and paid for our meals, the lineups for the caves were 1.5 to 2 hours long. We decided to postpone our cave tour to the morning, and go back to Viñales for a quiet evening.

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The food was great… when it finally arrived! This place added a new dimension to the term “slow food”

The first item on the agenda when we got back to our casa particulare was to eliminate the red mud from our clothes and our bodies. We discussed the possibility of paying our hosts to do a laundry for us. They were willing, but they didn’t have a clothes dryer, so it would not have been possible to get our clothes dried before we left the following day. So we packed our dirty clothes into plastic bags to take home with us. (I ultimately left my running shoes in Cuba: I loved them, but there was no way they could ever have been cleaned. They had seen better days anyway, so it was a good excuse to replace them.)

We took dozens and dozens of photos on our Viñales excursions. I’ve jammed as many of them as I can into the post itself. Here are some of the others:

 

 

 

Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 5. Trinidad to Viñales)

Land of the CigArtistes*

Thursday, January 7

Today was a travel day. Our bus picked us up at about 9 a.m. and we set off for Viñales, which is a seven-hour bus trip that took us about nine hours. Most of the delays were due to the incredibly slow table service which is so typical of Cuban restaurants. We often wait long enough after ordering that we are sure that our hosts are going out and slaughtering our meat and catching our fish and letting the bread rise while we drink our beers (or in my case, Cuban cola, which isn’t bad stuff at all).

The road to Viñales took us back to the outskirts of Havana and then southwest. Since nothing much happened aside from some great views of the countryside and then the hills, I will use this space to relate a couple of bits of interesting information I’ve picked up in the past few days:

  • Although it used to be the case that everyone in Cuba earned basically the same amount of money (meaning that those who earned more were heavily taxed), that is no longer the case. Private business owners are now permitted to keep more of their money than they could before, which means of course that some Cubans are wealthier than others. This is fairly obvious from the homes we have seen, and the way the Cubans dress. But differences in economic status among the inhabitants of this country are still far less visible than in most places I’ve been.
  • The national flower of Cuba is the Hedychium coronarium, commonly known as white
    Mariposa

    Cuba’s national flower

    ginger. In Cuba, it is called “flor mariposa” (butterfly flower). During the revolution, women carried secret messages within the flowers, which they pinned into their hair.

  • The topography of the Viñales region is described as a “karst” landscape. Wikipedia (albeit referring to a University of Texas link that no longer functions) says that karst topography is a “landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum. It is characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes, dolines, and caves.”

When we arrived in Viñales at last (around 6 p.m.) we checked into our casas and then met in the city square. There, Manny gave us a run-down of the distinguishing features of this city. As we discovered more fully when the sun came up the next day, this is an extraordinarily beautiful part of the country.

When the Spanish first arrived in this valley, they thought from the look of the terrain and vegetation that they would be able to grow grapes here to make wine, which is why it is called “Viñales.” But the main crop of the area then and forever was already being grown: it was tobacco. Manny also told us that when the first Europeans first encountered the indigenous population here and found them walking around with smoke coming out of their mouths, they thought that they were dragons or some other mythical creatures. The indigenous people were likely equally astounded by the appearance of the humans who had just wandered unannounced into their valley.

Today, Viñales is known worldwide as the primary growing region of the fine tobacco leaves that make Cuban cigars so famous. The Viñales valley was declared a UNESCO site in 1999 to preserve its nature as a “cultural landscape” characterized by traditional farming methods. The valley is dotted with rocky formations shaped like rounded cones that are called “mogotes.” Very few places in the world have similar landscapes.

Within the limestone formations there are miles of caves, and I am looking forward to visiting one or two as they may offer me an opportunity to see more Cuban bats. Plus I just like caves – maybe thanks to the Welsh coalminers from whom I am descended.

Here are some of the great photos Arnie took of the Viñales region.

 

*I just made up that word. Can also be spelled “CigarTistes.” Or “Cigartistes.”

Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 4: Trinidad, Part 2)

Rum, Women and Song (2)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Architecture Tells the Story

IMG_4355After lunch, we met our Trinidad tour guide who took us on a fascinating walking tour through the city for about two hours. He showed us how closely the history and the architecture of this city are connected.

Trinidad was the third Spanish settlement in Cuba; it was founded in 1514, twelve years after Christopher Columbus had first set eyes on the island. The Spanish had been trying to find gold on their Atlantic voyages but in Cuba, they had to settle for tobacco, corn and sugar. They had also been charged by the then pope to “conquer, colonize and convert the pagans of the new world to Catholicism,” but instead they drove most of the IMG_2609indigenous people back into the mountains. According to our guide, the Spaniards were able to manage the tobacco and corn crops without help, but when they got serious about farming sugar cane in the 16th century, they needed stronger arms. More than a million slaves would be brought to Cuba from Africa over the course of the next century.

The crosses were recreated in the 1920s to show the location of the first centre of the town

The crosses were recreated in the 1920s to show the location of the first centre of the town

Cuba’s cultures have now blended, our guide told us: blacks, Europeans and indigenous people in the region have intermarried, and the colours of their skin and eyes reflect their blends of heritage. (He made this all sound very harmonious and charming, but I have read elsewhere that racism is as alive and well in Cuba as it is anywhere else, and for many, whether they are the perpetrators or recipients of racist behaviours depends a lot on skin colour.) Cuba was one of the last Caribbean islands to proclaim independence from its European rulers, which it did in 1899. It was also one of the last countries in the Americas to abolish slavery (1866).

As we walked through the streets of Trinidad, our guide explained that the original homes in Trinidad had been built from clay and wood. When metal began to be imported from the USA in the 1800s, the roofs no longer had to be angled to let the rain pour off, and the ceilings became higher. There was no electricity in those days, so the higher ceilings meant cooler rooms. It was better from an “air conditioning” standpoint to have a high ceiling than a second story.

The tall windows and doors – also necessary to alleviate the heat – were not secure, so many homes had domestic slaves who would guard them at night. However, they were no match for marauders from the mountains (the displaced Arawaks, among others), and many slaves lost their lives trying to protect their owners’ property. Many owners died as well. Therefore, everyone was relieved when wrought iron became available, because the iron grilling made their homes much more secure.

IMG_2616In the 1800s, marble began to be used as ballast on ships that were returning from Italy after dropping off their cargoes of tobacco, corn and sugar, and the wealthy Spaniards in Trinidad and elsewhere began to make their homes more elaborate and opulent. A favoured form of roofing tiles were the curved clay variety, and originally these were all slightly different sizes because they were made by folding wet clay over the thighs of slaves.

IMG_2615Until the turn of the 20th century, the streets in Trinidad were made of cobblestones: the small rocks were carried from the mountains to the city by the slaves. After the 20th century began, town planning became much more organized and the streets started to be made from concrete and to become better aligned. (At this point, in our walk, the town’s appearance became far less appealing, but the walk became easier on the feet.) As in Cienfuegos, the older part of Trinidad has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Interesting Things I Learned Today

  • Cubans use all parts of the royal palm. They use the roots for medicine, feed seeds to animals, make thatched roofs with palm leaves, and use the wood in construction.
  • Great Britain occupied Cuba for eleven months in 1762, but swapped it with Spain for Florida.
  • The sewer system that existed in Trinidad before a town sewage system was introduced is still in use in the older parts of town. In these areas, all the sewage drops into huge containers underground, which are cleaned out on a regular basis.
  • Many of the beautiful old Spanish Colonial homes in Trinidad are being made into hotels.
  • The former slave populations in Cuba have contributed to the distinctive sounds of Cuban music.

Buenos Cumpleaños a Dos

By an amazing coincidence, today was the birthday of two people in our group: Arnie and Suzanne. After a one-hour salsa lesson (in which only four of us were courageous enough to participate), we headed out for dinner at a restaurant called El Museo, where we were greeted by the owner with a shot of rum. Now both relaxed and ready to dance, we were seated at tables that resembled antique shop shelves more than they did restaurant tables, and a local Cuban music group arrived soon after to entertain us with familiar and unfamiliar tunes, most of them with a strong Latin flavour (although a Bob Marley influence was detected as well). Three dancers, two sultry Cuban women and a suave Cuban male, had come to the restaurant with the band and they began to move around the room, inviting the tourists (guests) to dance. After a few Cuba Libras and other drinks each, the group was ready to celebrate the two birthdays in style. There was much dancing, eating, singing and shouting.

By the end of the most memorable (and active) day so far, we dawdled our way home through the quiet, lamp-lit cobbled streets to our casa, our feet sore and our bodies exhausted, but happy, well fed and (at least some cases) perhaps a little tipsy.

 

Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 4: Trinidad, Part 1)

Rum, Women and Song (1)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Well, today was a day to remember. We did a 2.5 k hike up to a waterfall in the rainforest and went for a swim, then did a walking tour of Trinidad, and after that we had a salsa lesson. We also ate at two more picturesque and distinctive paradores (“home restaurants”), and we concluded the day with rum-soaked toasts to two members of our group who were celebrating birthdays.

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Dr. Dan Riskin, Biólogo (aka, my elder kid)

Even before all of that, I had the utterly mind-boggling experience of seeing my elder son on Cuban television. Our host at the casa had turned on her TV while we were waiting for our bus to arrive. She started changing channels and all of a sudden Arnie yelled, “Stop! Go back! Go back!” Lo and behold, there was an episode of Monsters Inside Me, a show about parasites that is broadcast on Animal Planet. And there was Dan, who is not only the co-host of Daily Planet on Discovery Channel in Canada, but also does the scientific explanations on MIM. Only it wasn’t his voice: it was a Spanish voice that had been dubbed in. I was yelling “Mi hijo! Mi hijo!” and I think our host thought we had lost our minds. But we finally explained it all, and went on with our day.

Hiking, Swimming and Bats

The bus collected us at 8:30 am and took us on a bumpy ride up to the parking area for the hike to the Salto del Caburni, a 62m waterfall that drops into a wonderful swimming hole and stream. After a beer (or gaseosa for some of us) we set out on a beautiful hike through the rainforest – bumpy and uneven in some places and uphill for part of the way, but easy walking for the most part. About half way up, we stopped at the cabin of a farmer who had lived in the same house all his life and raised his family in it. It is completely constructed from royal palm. He served us tea that he had made from various herbs.

We then followed the stream further up the mountain to where it widened into a pool of clear blue water below a waterfall. We swam into the waterfall and beyond – and inside the cave behind the falls, at least two species of bats were trying to get a decent day’s sleep. Disturbed by our splashing and calling, a few of them flitted around above us which, of course, made me very happy as my bat-loving son has fostered in me a great affection for the little beasts. I wished I’d had a camera with me and am hoping someone got some photos (Andrew? Isobel?). The swim was wonderfully refreshing and the setting magnificent.

Unlike several others in our group (mainly guys, although Isobel bravely contemplated a leap for quite a while), I’d walked into the water from a rocky platform rather than jumping off a high cliff into the deep pool that had formed beneath the pounding water from the falls. A couple of those who did jump regretted it afterwards, Will from Australia in particular. He suffered a bruised coccyx, which made sitting on buses quite difficult for him for several days. Salto means “jump” so it was hard to resist the urge, I guess.

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In addition to intriguing flora, rock formations, the bats and a few lizards, we were fortunate to see several birds on our hike. A highlight was a sighting of Cuba’s national bird, the tocororo (aka Cuban Trogon, or Priotelus temnurus), which is red, white and blue like the Cuban flag. We also walked past almond trees and tried (without much luck) to get the nuts out by cracking dried fruits on the ground with rocks.

Back in Trinidad, we enjoyed yet another delicious meal at yet another attractive and surprisingly large family-owned restaurant. I had pollo tropicale and it was muy delicioso. We were seated outside and during lunch, a bird (not a tocororo) pooped on me. All of us agreed that this was a sign of exceeding good fortune.

(See next post for the second part of our day in Trinidad, which was far too busy and fun to describe in just one post.)

 

Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 3: Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Trinidad)

Some French architecture, then ¡Che!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016
IMG_2479After breakfast, our group set out on a walking tour of Cienfuegos. The city was founded by Don Louis de Clouet, who came to Cuba from France via Louisiana. He worked to build up the city’s white population by inviting families to join him from New Orleans, Philadelphia and Bordeaux. As a result, much of the city’s early architecture is neoclassical French.

Cienfuegos has a more prosperous economic base than many other cities in Cuba (shrimp fishing, thermoelectric and petrochemical plants, and ship building, according to my trusty Lonely Planet), and it is a lovely city with a large port. Its elegant and stately buildings are gradually being restored after years of neglect, thanks to the financial support that has accrued from its having been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2005.

In the main square of the city, there is access to wifi so after our tour we settled in for 15 or 20 minutes of connecting the outside world. Access to the internet is extremely limited in Cuba and estimates of the number of Cubans with internet connections range from 5% to 25%. Most of the connecting is done on mobile phones in wifi hotspots, most of which are located in city squares, and even when they are connected, Cubans’ access to many independent news sites are blocked.

Wifi access cards are 2 CUCs per hour (about CAD 3), and you can use them at any hotspot on the island. The card gives you a user name and a password. We were told that if you use the card for ten minutes and then sign off, you will be able to use the remaining 50 minutes at the same or other locations in future, but several times when I signed off part way through an hour, when I tried to sign on again I was told that I had used up all my time.

Cienfuegos

We then set off for Santa Clara, enjoying a varied and delicious buffet lunch en route at a restaurant whose Don Quixote theme made me very happy, needless to say.

Mausoleo de Che Guevara

Santa Clara is where the mausoleum of Che Guevara and his friends/fellow revolutionaries is located. In 1967, seven men, including Che, were tracked down and executed in Bolivia, where they were working to instigate an uprising there, but their bodies were not found for several decades. After their DNA had been tested to prove their identities, they were brought to Santa Clara. The location was chosen because it was in Santa Clara that, years earlier, Che and his compatriots had derailed the train that carried munitions and troops sent by Batista to defend the city, effectively spelling the successful end of the Cuban revolution.

The mausoleo complex is a shrine to a man who is more than a hero in this country. It features a towering statue of Che, his arm in a cast – as it was during the Battle of Santa Clara, since he had broken his arm in a battle at Caibarién a few days earlier. The mausoleum itself, which includes an eternal flame lit by Fidel Castro, is so secure that one is allowed to take nothing at all into it – including a purse or a cell phone. The documents and objects that are collected in the accompanying museum are intriguingly specific and detailed and range across Guevara’s life. I could have spent three hours there instead the one we were allotted.

Our guide Manny told us how Che had arrived in Cuba with Fidel, Raúl and nine others on a yacht called Granma in 1956. These twelve were only ones left of 82 who had set out from Mexico with the intention of overthrowing the Batista dictatorship – an upheaval that by then Fidel had been planning from exile for more than five years.

The day was cloudy and as we got back on the bus following our tour, it started to rain. The grey skies seemed appropriate.

Assorted interesting things I have learned today (mostly from Manny):

  • The given name of Che – who was Argentinian – was Ernesto. His nickname came about from his Argentinian custom of ending his sentences with the interjection “che?” (as Canadians do “eh?” Example, “Let’s go get a beer, che?”). One of his closest friends, Nico Lopez, a Cuban, asked him, “Why do you always say ‘Che?’ I am going to call you ‘Che’.”
  • Cubans are not permitted to ride in motorized boats – even a catamaran that is for rent to tourists is off-limits to Cubans
  • Locals shop and stay in separate, lower-quality stores and casas particulares than do tourists
  • White herons hang out around the cows, adding spots of brightness to the fields
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Field of sugar cane as seen from the bus

Trinidad

We next travelled through some truly beautiful mountainous countryside to Trinidad, which is a charming town on the island’s south shore with an amazing array of restaurants, bars, nightlife and shops – not to mention more interesting history and culture.

Since we arrived after dark, there was no time for sightseeing, but our group met at the foot of the stairs where all the action is. The younger ones went up the stairs to party. The more mature of us (Arnie and I) went for a great dinner in a rooftop restaurant and then walked back to our new casa.

The female head of this household – which includes two school-aged children – is, like our host in Cienfuegos, a warm and friendly woman who wants to help us practice our Spanish. 🙂 She told us that they have friends in Montreal who come down to stay with them every year or two. She also told us that they have never been outside Cuba because they cannot afford to travel (as is the case for most Cubans). For holidays they go to Havana sometimes, but prefer to spend their time at their beach house. She also told us that when she was growing up, they did not teach English in schools, but now they do. Her children are learning to speak English and she believes that this is very important.

We have two nights here, so we feel as though we can settle in a bit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 2: Bay of Pigs & Cienfuegos)

Waiting for…. everything

Monday, January 4, 2016

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Havana street

After breakfasts at our various casas in Havana (breakfasts typically included eggs, ham, bread, coffee, pineapple or guava juice, and a plate of fruit including papaya, guava and bananas), the group started the day off with a meeting. Our friendly, knowledgeable and handsome leader Manolo (You’re welcome, Manny 🙂 ) outlined the next few days of our itinerary and explained some of the protocols and vagaries of travel in Cuba. Patience is required here, he stressed. He also warned us that there would be lineups for everything.

We then met Ariel our bus driver for the week, and loaded our luggage and ourselves into our clean and comfortable minibus.

We didn’t have to wait long to learn the truth of Manny’s warnings.

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Arnie heads for the bus

Before our bus had even left Havana, we discovered two things of which Cuba has shortages, both of which every member of our group needed right away – i.e., before we hit the road. The first was bottled water, and the second was Cuban money. We spent almost two hours waiting for the members of our group to extract enough CUCs from various exchange offices and ATMs (cajeros automáticos) to get through the week in case we don’t have access again when we are on the road.

The first place we went to had run out of money. The second had very long lineups. Various members of our group were trying (not always successfully) to exchange Canadian dollars, British pounds, Euros, Yen, Australian dollars and NZ money so it took a very long time. On the upside, across the street from the bank was a bar where we were able to buy a few bottles of water (1 CUC per bottle) and use the bathroom.

(Note: Almost everywhere in Cuba, you have to “Pay to Pee,” but not in places where you are a customer. I generally left 25 centavos but sometimes bathroom attendants got more if I didn’t have small change. In return, they gave me a couple of thin pieces of toilet paper. As in many other countries, in Cuba toilet paper does not go in the toilets: there is always a wastebasket nearby where it is supposed to go instead. It’s a hard habit to break, letting go of that piece of tissue after you’ve used it, but now I’ve learned the new system so well that back in Toronto I am still looking for the wastebasket.)

Bay of Pigs

By now far behind schedule, we set off through the rain toward the Playa Girón, a beach on the Bay of Pigs (Bahía de Cochinos). There, some of our group went for a swim in the bay, and the rest of us walked back about fifty yards from the highway to a cenote, which is a cave that has collapsed and then filled with water (photos below). The pool in the cenote was clear, and colourful tropical fishes swam about in it. I recognized an angel fish but I have no idea what the names were of the others.

Our guide Manolo and a royal palm

Our guide Manolo extols the virtues of the royal palm

Manolo briefly recounted the story of the Cuban Revolution of 1953-59 and the invasion of the Bay of Pigs (1961) from the Cuban perspective, which is pretty much the same perspective as what I’ve read on Wikipedia (i.e. Cuba good, America bad) so I won’t bother retelling it here. But it was an amazing experience to be told the story of how the Cubans withstood the invasion at the Bay of Pigs when you are actually at the Bay of Pigs. Inspiring.

As well as being an historically significant site, the Bay of Pigs is renowned for its scuba diving and snorkeling opportunities. The water is incredibly clear. On the day we were there, there were very few people in the water – possibly because it was raining and the diving shop was closed.

Soon after we left the Playa Girón (“playa” means “beach”), we stopped for “lunch.” We arrived around 3 p.m. and didn’t finish eating until about 5. Manny grew impatient with this wait, but the rest of us were pretty laid back about it. We had picked up cookies and other snacks at one of our bathroom breaks, so it wasn’t like we were starving. The long, long wait gave us a chance to get to know our fellow travellers a little better. As always, one of the advantages of group travel is the people in the group itself, and what you learn from them.

In the long run, our lunch/supper  – ultimately quite tasty and filling – proved an excellent way to save money, as we didn’t need dinner that day. 

Cienfuegos

We arrived in the city of Cienfuegos at about 7 p.m., and since it was too dark to do a walking tour of the city and no one was hungry, we were dropped off at our various casas particulares. Ours was a small comfortable room with a full bathroom which (to our mystification) locked from the outside. The host was wonderfully welcoming and very encouraging about having a conversation with us in Spanish. I quickly learned the limits of my knowledge of Spanish as we tried to actually answer her questions about ourselves and figure out what she told us about herself. But we eventually got the gist of most of it. I think.

When we registered at each of the casas, the owners wrote down our names and passport numbers, home address, and the dates on which we were checking in and out, and then asked us to sign the entry in the register before giving us the keys. I think the government has a long arm when it comes to accountability in Cuba.

After depositing our suitcases, Arnie and I walked to Cienfuegos’s malecón (pier/waterfrontand found ourselves some ice cream, then walked along the promenade for a while. We then went back to our room and watched ER with Spanish subtitles on a small television set. (The show was no more impressive than it is without the subtitles.)

Cuban television has no commercials, and most of the channels feature educational programs.

Despite having spent a lot of the day on the bus, our brains were overloaded, and we had no trouble falling asleep.

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Note re the photo gallery below: hover over images to see captions; click on images to see larger versions.