The historic towns of Cianfuegos and Trinidad have been forever paired by UNESCO as heritage sites, but they each have their own distinct character. The former is typically Caribbean in that it is (slowly) facing the future, yet not at the expense of its rich colonial past. Trinidad on the other hand appears happy right where it is, which is 19th Century Spain. Renowned tourist sites can be divided into micro and macro types. Kyoto, where I live, is the former, being essentially an ugly city filled with some marvelous sites. Trinidad is the latter, for the town itself is a gem. Nested on a long rolling series of hills between the mountains and the sea, it is a spiderweb of little lanes, cobbled with what I’ve heard best described as turtle-shells, and sloping downward toward drainages running down the center. These irregular surfaces make for difficult walking, slowing everyone to a leisurely amble. Those who can’t even be bothered to walk sit before low two-story buildings painted an array of hues, and punctuated with brightly colored doors. When the pony-drawn carriage before you passes by a parked 1952 Chevy, you suddenly find yourself part of a travel brochure.
Like in all the best towns, there is little to do but absorb the vibe. We listlessly explore a couple of palazzo museums, poke our heads into churches. Have the obligatory canchanchara at its namesake Taverna. I also take the time to do a solo walk at dawn one morning, into the barrios well away from the tourist heart of town, where young dudes work on their motorcycles, and groups of young girls stroll to school in their uniforms. Along the way I come across a Yoruba temple, in the courtyard of which a man is washing and plucking a chicken, either a result of, or preparation for, a ceremony of some kind.
The slow pace of life in the daytime serves to pace the locals for their revelries at night. Music is simply everywhere., in every café, spilling onto the streets. Not far from the steps beside the Iglesia Parroquial where tourists sit and welcome the night, we dine at Paladar 1514, an antique shop of sorts crammed with the wares of five centuries. This all adds to the restaurant’s ramshackle look, of crumbled brick and absent roof. I believe that the structure actually is half-collapsed, and we dine alfresco safely between two columns. Our waiter is a very young man who’s been working there for just a few weeks, and he deftly battes our queries about history in charming and amusing ways. We are the only diners at first, but slowly others come to sit at tables overladen with ancient ceramic and glass (removed of course before the meal arrives). Another waitress comes on duty, moving through the narrow spaces as if dancing tango; all the movement is below the waist. At some point musicians crowd into one corner of the courtyard, and before long I am pulled before them to dance with a young black woman that I'd seen flirting earlier with the mulatto bartender. Trinidad has a certain racial ambiguity, its people even a greater array of colors than its buildings, yet seemingly devoid of any of the usual tension. When I make this comment to my guide so tells me that Trinidad's port had been one of the points of entry for African slaves. In fact, more African slaves arrived in Cuba than the United States. This is mainly because the Americans saw the value in have healthy slaves to work and breed. The Spanish simply worked theirs to death, to be replaced by new African slaves. Things have improved of course, but G tells me that the lighter skinned tend to do better with education and employment, but the overt racism of the north is quite rare.
After dinner we climb atop the ruins of what had once been the palador's upper floor and from our perch atop a hill looked across the town. Turning myself in a slow 360 degree circle, I spot at least five bands playing on rooftops on adjoining streets. And the fun never stops, carrying on well into the night, as a pair of chatty old men have an animated discussion in the square across from our hotel. Probably about anything but race.
The final morning we drive out to the Sierra del Escambray, tracing the coastline lined with small, underdeveloped hotels before turning inland to climb and wind over the tendrils of hills pointing seaward. Roads like these never fails to amuse. It is as if there was no time or thought toward grading. Far easier to just pave the hillsides, creating a roller coaster effect. Always thrilling, always exhilarating.
We stop at the park information center which has detailed information about the various hikes in the area. Towering just above is a large hotel block that had once been a TB sanitarium. We leave this soon enough, in the back of a massive Soviet-built troop transport. We bounce along on the hard bench-like seats as the truck powers along the windy mountain roads. Now and then small settlements will appear, small clusters of squat homes amidst all that verdant green. Symbols and slogans of the revolution are everywhere, little wonder since that these hills were home to the revolutionaries for much of its struggle. In that spirit I pull on my bandana, like some Corsican freedom-fighter.
We climbed from the truck in a small village at the start of the trail. Not far in we come across a decent-sized coffee plantation, shaded by massive trees. This canopy shades us as well, as we make our way gingerly along slopes made slippery from the rain of two days before. We come eventually to a tall waterfall, and a swimming hole that on this day serves as playground to a handful of foreigners. On such a relatively mild day, I don't need feel the need to cool off, so I simply dip my lower half in the waters.
The second part of the hike isn’t much harder the first, though it does require us to climb gradually from the valley. The views open up some, of the river we parallel, which in itself draws out more bird and wildlife. (Happily for me, Cuba doesn't have any venomous snakes, so ophidiophobic me can walk with my eyes pointing up for a change.) We leave the jungle at a small farm, not far from a series of bungalows where we’ll lunch. We sit out on the veranda, eating a plate of chicken and the obligatory beans and rice. It is a pleasant, bucolic afternoon, though now growing hot. When it is time to depart, our truck is nowhere to be found, so we sit awhile more in the shade, watching the chickens who, no matter how fast they can run, cannot outrun their destiny as tomorrow’s lunch.
Back finally at our vehicle, for the long ride home. Our guide G decides to pass the time in discussing Cuba and what it is like to live there. For days we have politely avoided the topic of politics, it seems as if she finds it important to show how politics is intricately entangled with daily life.
She tells us of the hardships of the Special Period, of a country in free-fall after the collapse of the USSR, its main economic trading partner. The government did a remarkable job in strategically weathering out the crisis. Not to say that the people didn't suffer. Food production dramatically declined, due to the absence of fossil fuels. But the Cubans are a clever people, due to a high level of education and resilient due to the embargo. Bicycles began to appear on the streets, and many moved out into the countryside to crow their own food. The diets became incredibly imaginative and innovative, with people substituting plantain peels for beef, and utilizing vegetables long overlooked. One bizarre side effect was the huge reduction of deaths from as diabetes and heart disease.
Cuba weathered this, as they weathered everything else. But with exposure to tourists growing exponentially, Cubans are beginning to resent the stagnation of their island. Most live on a monthly salary of $25 dollars a month, and I know that some of our meals cost more. Yet despite this, she, along with all the other Cubans I met, truly love their country and have no intention to leave. And therein lies the paradox. To wait as patiently as the Cubans do, implies the belief that something better will come along. And after fifty plus years, at no time does the future look brighter than it does now. Obama seemed determined that part of his legacy be to open up the country, and I smile at the thought that the “Hope” slogan of his initial presidential campaign also holds meaning for the people of this nation. Granted his successor seems equally determined to slam shut the doors again. Yet a bigger factor is the fact that Cuba is taking its first baby steps into a future without Fidel. It is hard to picture a Cuba without Castro, despite the fact that the Cuban exiles in Miami and the CIA have been doing that for decades. But the issue all along was with Fidel, and never the Cuban people.
So that hope stills exists. Americans and their tourist dollars are now flowing in, and that will certainly change things. It won't be long before the big corporate players follow, their insidious logos appearing on what has until now been crumbling facades. Perhaps one of those logos might even be of a certain hotel chain owned by Obama’s successor himself.
Personally I think that Cuba’s biggest potential lies in being a major destination for medical tourism. This island is famous for the high quality of its healthcare system, and it exports more trained medical personnel to the developing world than all the G8 countries combined. Americans are already finding inexpensive treatment in countries like Thailand, India, and Singapore, and it won't be long before they find relief closer to home.
And home is where we are now turned. It is long drive back to the airport, so we stop twice: once for a long lunch stop at the living zoo of Fiesta Campesina, and later at a coffee stand alongside the highway. I walk out to stand awhile at the road’s edge, looking at the silence and emptiness stretching away in both directions. Cars are few, maybe one every minute, but it is this very dearth of vehicles, and the vintage of those that do, that enables me to have my own On the Road moment. With nostalgia comes certain pangs: feeling the cool wind in my face, feeling the pull of the open road. Part of it is inspired by being a prisoner of a minutely-controlled organized tour. Part of it has something to do with all these 1940s vehicles drifting unhurriedly by. Surely in one these are the ghosts of Neil Cassidy and Jack Kerouac, rolling on toward their own particular brand of freedom. It is something they share with the Cubans, who opt for a similar joie du vivre in spite of the top-heavy political system under which they live.
I too had a wonderful journey, one of the best I’ve ever had, yet in its very scripted nature, I was never truly free to go my own. I never got a chance to truly be in the landscape, rather than simply move through it. I would have relished an evening sitting in the rocking chairs in the Vinales Valley. Or a few days spent meandering along the uneven cobblestones of the Old Habana, stopping only for the odd cup of coffee, or to poke around the bookstalls, before rewarding myself with a craft beer at La Factoria Plaza Vieja. I fantasize about sitting at the bar and getting into conversations with the locals.
But I notice that there is a definitive separation between the Cubans and the tourists who are beginning to move amongst them in greater and great numbers. It’s unlike other cities I’ve been, where there’s much more engagement, more interaction. Here, the Cubans continue to go about their business, or their lack of business, as the touts are as yet unpushy, choosing to let the big specimens of overseas wealth simply drift by That ability to choose, implies a freedom that they’ve had all along. Let’s hope they can weather the myriad of choices to be made as their island grows more and more open.
Once the big hotels and international conglomerates return then surprise surprise, socially they won't be far off from where they were in 1959. A more optimistic view is that Cubans, being proud, patient, and educated people, will take a slower more sensible approach to things. But the people are most certainly hungry. Not for food this time, but a chance to share their strengths with the rest of the world.
On the turntable: Cactus, "Rochester, New York 1971"