Rum, Women and Song (2)
Wednesday, January 6, 2016
The Architecture Tells the Story
After 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 indigenous 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.
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.
In 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.
Until 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.