Our next destination was Trinidad, heading further east. What a beautiful and delightful colonial town. It is actually classified as a world heritage sight, and it truly deserves the title. The centre is full of cobblestoned streets, gorgeous colonial houses and tiled colonial courtyards. It is also a town full of places that you can go and listen to bands, singers and music, and watch some mind blowing salsa as well as congo and other forms of traditional Cuban dance, rooted in African traditions. We certainly did out fair share of that!
One of our favourite places was La Casa de la Cultura (The House of Culture), which was an outdoor venue that you could hang out at and watch various bands perform. The variety and talent, yet again, left us astounded! When some of the locals danced to the tunes of Cuban salsa, I could only watch in amazement! I had lots of fun dancing along with them, but their dexterity compared to mine was…….well, incomparable! Oh, in my next life, when I come back with one of those butts……I want to be able to dance like a Cuban too!
There were some pleasant walks to undertake around town, and they offered some great views of Trinidad. An aerial view always seems to give another perspective. It´s also nice to be alone and be able to reflect!
Whilst in Trinidad, we also went to the beach for a day. Playa (or beach) Ancon was only a 12 kilometre ride away. We negotiated a ride on a bus to get there, which drops you off at a big resort like hotel, which sits smack bang on the best part of the beach. So, OK, we negotiated that and sat on the breathtaking beach, where we spent our day swimming, sunbathing and walking along the turqoise edged water. Caribbean waters really are all that they are cracked up to be! The thrill for us, however, was the ride home! As we waited for the bus to take us back, we noticed (and had been told about) another pick up truck that would take the resort workers back into Trinidad, at the end of their working day. When we saw all of them jump in the truck, we just followed suit. It was wonderful to sit with a bunch of Cubans and do it their way! What a sense of exhilaration and achievement! We did not have to pay anything, but we really did not care. It was not about saving money! The thrill was in the achievement……we are supposedly not allowed to do this, but we did it! I am so incredibly defiant!
Then there were all the one peso coffees we had (that is one peso of the national money, which is about USD 4 cents). The tourists were paying 1 CUC (about USD $1.00), but we knew where to get the cheap ones, and if we didn´t, we asked. That simple question one day got me into someone´s house. I asked a lady right in the centre of Trinidad, and she invited me in. Not only did I get a coffee, but we had a terrific chat about lots of different things and issues, which added to my growing repertoire of Cuban history and stories. What I found was that nobody actually comes out and ¨bags¨ (as we would say in Australia) Fidel, but they almost always imply that what they are given is not enough to live on!
Baracoa has often been hailed as isolated and intriguing, so although it was a long ride away, to the extreme east to be exact, we decided to go there. This entailed an all day trip of 13 hours, arriving at Santiago de Cuba at almost 9.00pm, spending the night in an illegal house close to the bus station (again, we gave our money freely, knowing that it was going directly to the woman who lived there), and getting up early the next day to catch an ongoing bus to Baracoa, which would take another 5 hours. Our night in the illegal house was fascinating. It was easy to befriend the beautiful woman and her sons who lived there. They all had some hairy stories to tell, and it was perhaps the first time that we had categorically heard someone say how much they despised Fidel and his regime. They all agreed that they lived in a country whose future was bleak , and their regime oppressive. One of the sons was so disenchanted that he cautiously shared with us that he was part of an anti-government group, and was working with the American Special Interests Group, to try and leave the country. His mother stated several times that she feared for his life, as there was no knowing what could and would happen to him if he was found out! Again, I inwardly sighed! How inhumane that people should have to live that kind of a life. We go full circle, and again come back to freedom of speech! Such a short time spent together, but more hugs, good memories and heavy hearts as we said goodbye and wished them well for the future……what future!
We arrived at Baracoa just after midday, the last two hours winding through spectacular tropical jungle and cliffs with sheer drop offs. Just a few kilometres before arriving, we stopped by the side of the road to buy some famous Baracoan hand made chocolate and ¨cucurucho¨, a sweet which is a combination of grated coconut, sugar honey and guava. Excessively sweet, but excessively delightful! We made our way to a place that we wanted to stay at, but the room was occupied. Nilsen, the super friendly and helpful host, actually went out of his way to ring around and help us find a place within our budget, and then walked us there! Another thing that I so love about Cubans is their solidarity and the way in which they help each other out. It´s all part of their survival.
We arrived in Baracoa on the Friday before Easter Sunday, and there was a big festival lined up for the weekend. The ¨carnaval¨ is actually to commemorate somebody or other landing somewhere close by, rather than Easter, as I would have expected. I actually was not even sure if it was Easter, as it is not formally celebrated in Cuba. Although people are now ¨allowed¨ to have and practice a religion, years and years of not being allowed to seems to have somewhat dampened the spirit….so to speak!
The carnival was indeed raucous. It mainly consisted of lots of alcohol consuming, music, bands and people chatting and having a good time. Alex and I did our best to mingle among them. It´s amazing what people will tell you when they have had a little too much to drink. One man told me how unfair he thought it was that I could do more things as a foreigner than he as a Cuban! I bowed my head down in shame and agreed! Another exceptionally well dressed couple told me that they had earlier tried to get into the cafe of an upmarket hotel, but had been denied…….until the gentleman showed his passport! (Which, by the way, he possessed only because of an organised marriage to a Canadian, in order to flee his own country!) I asked his Cuban girlfriend how she felt about this, and she basically said that, as a Cuban, all she could do was live for today! Another guy, a professor told me a joke: ¨There´s a little old and drunken man sitting on a park bench with his friend. He sees an Astro Bus (there are only 2 bus companies in Cuba) go by, turns to his friend and says, ¨I don´t know why they took the C away from the front of Astro…….we all know they belong to him!¨. This is life in Cuba, as seen by the Cubans!!!!!!!!
Whilst in Baracoa we also did a wonderful day hike that took us through sub tropical areas, full of banana trees, coconut groves and clapboard houses. Ah, we had finally been able to see some of the delightful Cuban countryside, that so many tourists never get to see, because there are no tours there! Again, my theory is that they keep the tourists in little groups…where they want them! Heaven forbid that they should see something that ¨does not exist in Cuba!¨. We also visited some caves, including the Cueva del Aguas (The cave of water) , with a sparkling, freshwater swimming spot. Whereas Alex took a dip, I declined. It was a liitle too small, dark and cozy for me. The other caves we saw were more like huge, open caverns hugging the very steep cliff face. The stalactites and stalagmites were amazing, and our guide explained how the caves had in the past been used by several pre-Columbian cultures. At one point, we also reached a vantage point that looked right out onto the sea. On a clear day, you can supposedly see Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Some of the fine people we met in Baracoa: An elderly man called Aquiles, who was so sweet. We were supposed to go and have coffee with him, but unfortunately it never eventuated. He was an extremely knowlegeable man who seemed to know more about Australia that I did. Eugenio and Daniel, a couple whom we met on the beach, and chatted to for ages! A real bond formed, with these two men, who also opened up and told us lots. Ah, and then there was ¨la senora de los pollos morados¨ (the woman with the purple chickens). As we walked by her house, I commented on her dyed purple chickens, and before I knew it, she had invited us into her house with a dirt floor and was offering us bananas. She told us that she had dyed the chickens, as the feathers, despite washing, no longer looked clean! That was a magic moment! Despite the little they have, Cubans are so truly giving.
Cuba, the land of extemes, has both dazzled and bedazzled both Alex and I, but surely its crown jewel (when they open up) is its people!
I am sorry, but I just have not been able to fit Cuba into only a couple of blogs, and so the final one will be on Santiago de Cuba, and Havana.
¨We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.¨ – Martin Luther King, Jr
(Photos: 1.- Eye to the past, Trinidad. 2.- Main church in the historical centre, Trinidad. 3.- Ancon beach, Trinidad. 4.- Dancing in the rain, kids on top of a 15th century Spanish fortress, Baracoa. 5.- Kids having fun at the Baracoa annual carnival. 6.- Amazing caves and caverns, Baracoa. 7.- On the way to the caves, Baracoa. 8.- ¨La senora de los pollos morados¨ and her amazing purple chickens!)