Watch. Listen. Learn. Cuba 10: Afterthoughts and Reflections

Six months later.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Horse drawnAs has happened with other places I have visited, since our trip to Cuba the name of a familiar Cuban location in a news headline immediately attracts my attention. And with Barack Obama’s historic visit to Havana in March of this year, there has been no shortage of media coverage about Cuba since Arnie and I returned from our trip six months ago. There have been news stories (e.g. Shaquille O’Neal Lands in Havana to teach basketball as sports envoy, 7 News Miami, June 24, 2016; Harlem/Havana Cultural Exchange: First Ever Festival Celebrating Two Legendary Cities Announced, June 26, 2016, LA Times), travel items (“Canadian Tourism in Cuba: Will American Travellers Affect the Experience?” CBC, Feb. 2016) and opinion pieces (“Cuba For Sale,” The Guardian, Feb. 2016).

Social Conscience and/or Capitalism

One of the best items on the subject of Cuba that I’ve come across is a long piece written by Stephanie Nolan and published in The Globe and Mail on January 9, 2016. “A Cuban Revolution and the Stark Divide Between Rich and Poor” is an in-depth look at the economic, social, political, and even philosophical issues that are the subject of much discussion in Cuba as the American boycott of the country comes to an end. Nolen, a foreign correspondent with The Globe and Mail, is an outstanding writer and for many years I have found myself fascinated by articles she’s written about whatever topic she has chosen to investigate. (Notable among these was a series entitled Breaking Caste, which appeared after my trip to India.)

Nolen’s essay about Cuba reflects what we saw and heard when we were there, and expands on what has happened to the country since it was plunged into economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago. Today, the black market combined with new, legally sanctioned forms of enterprise are gradually changing the economic picture, but as one Havanan told Nolen, “Some people are getting very rich, and a lot of people are still very poor.”

The situation is complex. Nolen reports on a story she heard about a family that went to a bank to get a loan to help make things easier because they have a disabled child. The bank said they should just take the money and not pay it back. “There is still, today,” Nolen writes, “a strong social consensus about the role of the state in protecting the vulnerable.” But others she interviewed questioned how long that would last.

Nolen says, “The generacion historica, as the Castros and their former guerrillas at the top of government are known, have had a moral legitimacy and an ethical purity that have made Cubans willing to tolerate much from them.[…] There is real debate whether others will share their crystalline ideological purity.”

What comes next?

A lot of people express the desire to “get to Cuba before it changes,” by which they normally mean before the Cuban culture is overwhelmed by that of the Americans. I must admit that the timing of our holiday reflected this concern as well. However, before I went to Cuba, I thought that the impeding American invasion would be a wholly bad thing. I don’t think that any more.

Most of the Cuban people are very poor, and the influx of U.S. dollars is going to make an enormous difference to them. I hope that in the long term the U.S. influence will also cause the powers that be in Cuba to address the human rights issues that Obama raised when he was there.

In addition, with any luck, soon Cubans will have affordable access to the internet from their homes as well as from city squares, and in other ways will be able to join the 21st century – for all that is good and bad about it. However, individual Cubans with whom we talked were very concerned about preserving their culture in the face of American tourism and investment, and I can only wish them success in that regard. Cuba is a wonderful, richly textured and interesting country, and I would love for future generations to be able to get a taste of the way it is today.

Of Horses and Patio Furniture

Several people have asked me “What was the best part of your trip to Cuba?” but I can’t make a choice like that. From the Bay of Pigs to our tour of the Che Guevara monument to Viñales to the salsa dancing, it was all great, and I’d happily do it all again. Our hosts, our tour guides and our travelling companions were all wonderful, which enhanced the whole experience.

If I were forced to choose one “best thing” about the trip, it would be the Cuban people. We felt safe all the time, even in Havana but particularly in the smaller cities, and everyone we talked to was kind and helpful and – especially – cheerful. Despite all of their deprivations and hardships and shortages, and the run-down appearance of so many of their buildings, it is a pleasure to listen to their voices rising and falling as they talk to one another and laugh together. I know that there is misery everywhere, and I know that Cuba has lots of it, but the only other place I’ve ever been where everyone at least sounded as happy and as interested in the world as they do in Cuba has been in New York City.

A couple of additional, final, unrelated and irrelevant notes:

  • Although I loved all the old cars in Cuba, as everyone else does, I also enjoyed the many non-automated forms of transport still in use in Cuba, from horses to horse-drawn carriages to human-powered bicycle taxis.
  • Cuba has the heaviest outdoor furniture we have ever encountered anywhere. It is not just that it is made of metal, it is such heavy metal that it is almost impossible to move a chair even the few inches required to bring yourself closer to a patio table. I am certain that these items of furniture are not only theft-resistant, but also impervious to hurricanes.

Adíos

With this post, I conclude my musings on Cuba – with regret but also with relief: I had no idea it would take me this long to get around to completing the story of our trip! Thanks for sticking with me, Dan (and anyone else who is still following).

I am eager to get started on our next adventure: all details still TBA. Stay tuned.

Watch. Listen. Learn. Cuba 9: Varadero

Too little sun. Too much surf. Not enough Imodium.

Sunday, January 10 to Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Screen capture showing location of Varadero in relation to Havana, from Google Maps

We spent our last three days in Cuba at an all-inclusive in Varadero, a popular tourist sun-and-surf destination on Cuba’s north coast. When we’d booked our stay at the hotel, we’d envisioned concluding our ten-day trip to Cuba with three days on the beach – reading books, swimming, eating great food, talking about what we’d seen on our tour, and generally just relaxing before returning to reality.

It didn’t quite turn out the way we had imagined.

When we arrived at the all inclusive, the Royalton Hicacos Resort And Spa (photos above), we immediately discovered that the Cuban sense of time (which is non-specific, to say the least) extended to the tourist spots. Neither of us was feeling particularly well, so we were looking forward to checking into our room and getting settled. It took two hours for that to happen, despite our having timed our arrival to make sure it was well after the official check-in time. The delays included two last-minute room changes in the midst of a downpour.

Undaunted (well, Arnie was undaunted. I was ready to rip someone’s head off. And that isn’t only because Arnie is a calmer person in general than I am. For some reason, when I had been in Cuba proper I’d been unfazed by lengthy delays and mix-ups and the inability of almost anyone to understand English. I was fully aware that this was their country, and I was a visitor, and however Cubans did things was how they did them. I was cool with that. But when we got to the resort, I was suddenly bereft of empathy, sympathy and a few other forms of basic human kindness. I think this is because the place existed to serve tourists, primarily from Canada, and although it was a bit worn at the edges, it looked like it should have known what it was doing. Visually, it was a good imitation of an international resort. But the service, with a few exceptions, was ridiculously bad) we stowed our luggage in our room and set out for the beach.

There we learned that the sea was too dangerous for swimming (although a few fools had ventured into the water), and that it was unlikely to improve over the rest of our visit. (I did not blame this on the hotel. I was very zen about it.) In fact, as it turned out, that first afternoon offered the best weather, and we did get an hour or so on the beach before we went back to change for dinner.

Soon after that, we were struck in earnest by traveller’s tummy, referred to in other climes and places as Montezuma’s Revenge, Delhi Belly, and perhaps other equally charming epithets that I haven’t yet learned about/ experienced (“Barcelona Biliousness” may still be somewhere in my future). I had brought about 18 Imodium with me, but having doled out quite a few of them to various members of our group earlier in our tour, there weren’t enough left to use even judiciously during our current bouts of stomach upset.

A detail of the medical report on my "food transgression"

A detail of the medical report on my “food transgression”

Finally, after a sleepless night of intestinal uproars on both our parts, we requested a visit from the medical team at the resort, which consisted of Dr. Isabel Amable Alvarez and the nurse who was her assistant (whose name I don’t seem to have written down). These strict but kind women saved our lives – or if not our lives, at least the final days of our vacation.

A towel folded by our housekeeping staff

A towel folded by our housekeeping staff

They advised us (as others have before) to avoid treating diarrhea with loparamide (the main ingredient of Imodium) because it does nothing to treat the cause of the stomach upset, and can have undesirable side effects. (I am happy to follow this advice as long as I don’t have to go anywhere in public when I have a case of diarrhea. I will take anything that prevents my having a disaster in public.) They gave us injections and prescriptions involving an antibiotic, a stomach-acid inhibitor (ranitadine), electrolytes, and something called buscapina. They also warned us against eating anything acidic or greasy or containing milk for 48 hours – which limited our selection at the hotel’s several buffets considerably, but since we weren’t feeling too well, it wasn’t very difficult to comply.

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On the road to recovery – with our outstanding medical team

The medical attention (including medications) cost us about 100 CUCs each, and we got most of the money back from the Government of Ontario  (OHIP) and our insurance companies, so it was well worth the call. We had a great visit with Dr. Amable Alvarez when we went back two days later for our recheck. Among other interesting facts, such as how Latin American women get their double-barrelled last names (When they are single, their first last name is their father’s first surname and the second their mother’s first surname. After they get married their second surname may change to the first surname of their husband), we learned that doctors in Cuba earn only about the equivalent of USD 70 per month, while nurses earn about half that.

The stay at the all inclusive was not a total waste by any means. We did sit by the pool when it wasn’t raining, we ate in a couple of the four restaurants (there are also two buffets and ice-cream bars and a grill on the beach) and we enjoyed one of the nightly song-and-dance performances. However, the primary advantage of staying at the Royalton Hicacos was the fact that it was part of a SunWing package that got us fantastic rates for our flights to and from Cuba. It was worth it for just that – anything else was a bonus.

When it was time to go to the airport, we arrived at the entrance to our hotel five minutes before the appointed departure time, and found no other passengers and no sign of a bus. We considered how ironic it would be if the only vehicle that was ever early during our entire time in Cuba had been the bus to the airport – causing us to miss it.

Fortunately, we that didn’t happen – the bus was predictably late (but only by about five minutes). We learned on the bus that our misadventures with the Royalton Hicacos were nothing compared to the horrors others had encountered at neighbouring hotels. These ranged from five sick family members receiving no clean laundry, items being stolen from rooms, plugged toilets, etc. I think that a few years of American tourism is going to do a tremendous favour for everyone who visits the all-inclusives at Varadero, as Americans are much more likely to complain about bad service than are the Canadians who have for decades been the area’s primary guests.

At the airport, we made haste to turn all of our leftover CUCs to Canadian dollars, since they cannot be exchanged outside the country, made our way through customs, did a bit of shopping, and then we were off for Toronto.

 

Watch. Listen. Learn. Cuba 8: Havana

Motor City Boogie, Havana Style

Sunday, January 10, 2016

On our last morning on the official tour, we packed everything up, left it at our casa to collect it later, and met the group at the Hotel Ingleterra for our car excursion through the city.  At the hotel, I was told, they were filming an episode of House of Lies. If I’d ever watched the series, I might have recognized someone famous, but I hadn’t and I didn’t. However, one of our group said that Kirsten Bell was there.

Four classic cars had been booked for our Havana tour and we happily climbed into them. Ours was a red 1955 Ford Victoria with a 5-litre V8 engine.  The driver told us that the 61-year-old vehicle had been owned originally by his grandfather, then his father, and now it was his. He told us that the entire engine had been replaced, and that it used 20 litres of gas per 100 km.

For the car buffs among you, I am including an assortment of photos of a few of the old American cars we saw that day. We saw other cars on other days: they are not only in Havana but everywhere in Cuba.

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We saw a different side of Cuba as we toured in our convertible beneath spreading deciduous trees through neighbourhoods of middle-class homes in “new Havana.” We drove by the Colon Cemetery (1876) which is historically significant for the range of people who are interred there, as well as for the architecture of its tombs and memorials. I’d have loved to have looked around in there for a while, but we didn’t have time. I understand that it accommodates over a million deceased people and is now full. However, it is still a popular destination, so many of those who have been buried there for a while (three or four years) have to be disinterred and stored elsewhere to make room for the newcomers. I also understand that a lot of the tombs have been desecrated or are in disrepair, especially those belonging to families in exile.

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We stopped at the Plaza de la Revolución, which is surrounded by governmental and cultural buildings, to take photos of the huge metal depictions of the faces of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, and the José Martí Memorial (109 m tall). The square is 72,000 metres square, and is used for large political gatherings. Fidel Castro (or now his brother Raúl) address Cubans in this plaza at least twice a year.

Our next stop was a lovely park named Parque Almendares, also known as Bosque de la Habana (Havana’s forest). We wandered along the edge of the river and enjoyed the overwhelmingly lovely greenery, but we were warned to keep our eyes open for the remains from chicken sacrifices and other unsavoury litter as voodoo is a big thing among some of the park regulars. The area is gradually being restored and revived as part of the Gran Parque Metropolitano network that will offer safe outdoor activities for people of all ages. It is a truly lovely spot.

After parting for the final time from our group at the Hotel National, we wandered down the famous Havana Malecón (the word means “pier,” and the street’s official name is the Avenida de Maceo). The street, promenade and and seawall – which features in every film about Havana, often during storms when waves crash up against the wall and into the streets – stretches for 8 km along the coast. (For information on the bare flagpoles, read this article.)

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As the scheduled time for our departure from Havana approached, we caught a bicycle taxi back to our casa, collected our suitcases, and took a cab with another couple to Varadero There, we would spend our last two days in Cuba at an all-inclusive – mostly under gentle medical supervision.

 

Watch. Listen. Learn. (Cuba 7: Viñales to Havana. Part 2)

Caves, Cocktails and Cannons (Part 2)

Saturday, January 9, 2016

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Rations A Necessity

Our next stop was the Bodega la Caridad Consejo Popular. This is one of the stores most Cubans visit every month to pick up limited quantities of certain foods at reduced rates.  Since the average income for Cubans in 2012 was about USD 22 per month, these rations – which were introduced in 1962 – remain a necessary part of life. The rations are not extensive and they are certainly not luxurious: they often represent the difference between eating and not eating. They include, for example, six pounds each of rice and sugar per person per month, 15 lb. of flour, a dozen eggs (in certain months), 20 oz. of beans, etc. Children under 7 are also allocated a litre of milk. Other rationed products, including meat and cooking fuels, are available elsewhere. Although Cubans are able (when they have the money) to buy products in the public market, and Cuba apparently has a thriving black market, a visit to this bodega brought home to me the reality of daily life faced by most Cuban families.

The Gentleman of Paris

IMG_2839San Francisco Plaza, named after the church and monastery next it (Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asís), was the next stop on the tour. The church itself was built in the 1600s, and was occupied by several different religious orders until it was taken over by the Spanish governors in 1841. It is now a concert hall.

The statue of a saint named Junipero Serra next to the Basilica gave me the creeps, but I loved a more secular statue in the square entitled “The Gentleman of Paris” (“El Caballero de Paris”), which depicts a beloved homeless eccentric of Havana. Here is what our guide told us about him, embellished by a bit of online research –

José María López Lledín was born in 1899 in Spain. When he was twelve, he came to Cuba to live with an uncle, and he worked at odd jobs for the next fifteen years. But then he “lost his mind” and became convinced that he was a gentleman from Paris. For the next few decades he wandered the streets of Havana, and became popular with people who came to know him. When he was arrested or hospitalized by the authorities, as happened fairly often, his fans would insist he be released.

A cubagenweb.com entry about him says,

“He was of medium height, less than 6 feet. He sported long unkempt dark brown hair and beard, with a few white hairs. His fingernails were long and twisted from not being cut in many years. He always dressed in black, covered with a black cloak, even in the summer heat. He always carried a portfolio with papers and a bag where he carried his belongings.

“He was a gentle man who would appear in the most unlikely places at the most unpredictable times, although he visited many places on a regular schedule. He would walk the streets and ride the buses in Habana greeting everyone and discussing his philosophy of life, religion, politics and current events with everyone that crossed his path.”

On one occasion when he was offered money for appearing on a television program, Lledín responded that “Neither my feelings nor my high position allow me to accept this money. I give it to Bigote de Gato for a party that he will give in his establishment.” Lledín reminds me of the old caballero in our novel, The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid, which is probably why I was so taken by his story.

Street performers

Street performers near Plaza Vieja

In 1977, Lledín was permanently hospitalized due to his failing health. Tests conducted then indicated that he did not suffer from illusions, despite the fact that since the 1920s he had been maintaining that he was a gentleman from Paris – a city he had never visited in reality.

It is considered good luck – bringing prosperity to all (and virility to men) among other benefits – to place one hand on the statue’s beard, hold his left index finger with your other hand, and simultaneously step on his left foot. The brass of the statue, which was created by José Villa Soberón and erected in 2001, is worn where visitors have sought his assistance to improve their lots.

Viaje Fantástico

Our final stop on our Havana tour was the square nearest our casa, the Plaza Veija, and there we discussed another sculpture about which Arnie and I had been wondering since we’d first seen it on our arrival in Havana the previous Sunday.

The sculpture is entitled Viaje Fantástico, and it was created by the Cuban artist Roberto Fabelo. In English, there are a lot of potential interpretations of the artwork, from the association with a certain English nursery rhyme to the name of the piece of cutlery the woman is holding in her hand. I am pretty sure that our group managed to think of all of them. However, Fabelo is not English, he is Cuban, and therefore (I assume) Spanish-speaking. His surrealistic paintings and sculptures often involve women and birds. So all of our conjectures were probably quite wrong. It’s a great sculpture no matter what it means. (I have recently learned that there is a duplicate of this sculpture in Miami.)

Our group would disperse the following day, after a tour of Havana by Old Cuban-American Car. For our final dinner we enjoyed a superb meal together at a rooftop restaurant in Old Havana.

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.”