I’m up at 5 a.m. with a savage headache. I don’t know whether it was from the seven-year-old Havana Club rum I swilled last night or the small metropolis of roosters that are outside my bedroom door. I’ve heard a steady chorus of “cock-a-doodle-do” for nearly two hours. There are at least three of them, timing their insane cackles so when one stops another starts. When they do rest to catch their filthy breaths, I can hear other roosters off in the distance. It was the same thing in Havana. In the middle of the nation’s capital, one rooster sat outside my house and woke up everyone at the crack of dawn. It didn’t matter if you got home just before dawn. You weren’t sleeping anymore. And I’m not now.
Reading the history of Cuba, when they got rid of slavery they forgot to get rid of the roosters as well. Too bad rooster meat is awful. The Cubans would make a feast out of these bastards.
At least the roosters give this town of Trinidad some semblance of Cuba. Not much else does. I’ve been to touristy towns before. Las Vegas comes to mind. But few have been infiltrated to its very soul like Trinidad. It’s a city of 90,000 and I swear there are more tourists here than locals. Everywhere I went after arriving yesterday afternoon I saw white faces, whiter legs and sneakers. The locals, not surprisingly, have a much better command of English than anywhere in Havana, particularly when they’re outside their restaurants, art galleries and music venues barking at you to enter.
Trinidad, located on the southern coast about four hours from Havana, was one of the richest cities in Cuba. The massive fortunes the sugar industry produced before the first revolution in the early 19th century created a city of sprawling mansions, haciendas and a quaint town square. The town’s look has remained the same through two revolutions and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The problem is it’s so cute and quaint, tourists come here by the busloads to see the “Perfectly Preserved Spanish Colonial Settlement.” UNESCO declaring it a World Heritage Site in 1988 didn’t help it any.
I read about its cobblestone streets. But they’re not like cobblestones in Havana, where they are even and flat and give you a historical feel, or Rome where they’re red and aligned so perfectly they look like 2,000-year-old mosaics. Trinidad’s cobblestones are simply a pile of rocks tied together by loads of concrete. Walking on them is like maneuvering around an obstacle course. Strolling in flipflops was a disaster. I was a sprained ankle waiting to happen. Even the hookers here don’t dare wear heels.
I got here earlier than expected. While waiting for the bus in Havana, an Italian approached me and said for the same $25 price each, we can take a taxi together. A cab to Trinidad is four hours and we left at 7:30 a.m.; a bus is 5 ½ and left at 8. Finally finding a language I could speak halfway decent, I threw my bags in the back of a yellow cab and off we went.
Marco is a silver-haired architect from Rome who married a Cuban 15 years ago and has been coming here ever since. He loves the people, the life, the weather. Listening to Italy’s economic problems, it sounds like Cuba has more promise, too. Joining us were two young, pretty Spanish girls who spent one day in Havana and left. While the three of them chatted in Spanish in the back seat, I took in my first glance at rural Cuba.
Tourism hasn’t come close to spoiling rural life here. We passed numerous horse-drawn carts carrying sugar cane from fields that seemingly lined the entire eight-lane highway to Trinidad. Sugar pretty much built Cuba to where sugar has its own moniker: monocrop. It attracted the Spanish who brought in the slaves who helped the sugar industry build one of the richest – albeit corrupt and brutal – countries in the Caribbean.
It’s a good road. I could see Castro made sure transportation worked around the island. It makes sense. Transportation off the island is impossible. The lanes were well lined and free of potholes. Palm trees lining the both sides made it nice visually, too.
A bunch of middle-aged tourists on bikes stopped under a shady tree for a very well-earned break.
But the villages were barebones and scruffy. Haggard people of all races, sat lazily on plastic chairs or under shaded bus stops to escape the mid-80s temperatures. I saw shops but couldn’t see any goods inside or customers outside. For obvious reasons, the billboards that featured drawings of Che Guevara or Fidel Castro with the words “Sempre Revolucion” don’t have much impact here. Turkey vultures, called “auras” here, circled overhead. Young boys ran out to greet our passing car on the road, desperately holding out bunches of bananas.
My casa permanente here is on one of Trinidad’s main roads the cab could barely negotiate due to the razor-sharp cobblestones. I was just hoping he’d reach the front door before he blew out all four tires. The casa is similar to the one in Havana: a long, narrow house with rooms lining a hallway that connects the living room with the kitchen and outdoor dining area. It’s run by Migue and Tere, a healthy, smiling couple in their 40s who absolutely love their city. Migue, a lithe, tanned, white man with stylish graying hair, lived in Germany for 17 years teaching salsa for the Cuban govenrment and working for a hotel. He’d come back every year for a month before he realized how much he missed Trinidad.
“I live in the best city in Cuba,” he said. “It is beautiful. There is the sea. Music is everywhere.”
After an excellent lunch of roast pork and rice and beans, he gave me the nickel tour. Trinidad’s famed Plaza Mayor is four blocks away. It’s small, neatly kept and dominated by a yellow clock tower. Surrounding it are mansions once owned by the sugar kings who fled Cuba right after Castro took over and turned their businesses from free enterprises to social agronomy.
We went to Casa de la Trova where a four-piece band played ear-splitting music in a cement courtyard to packaged tourists. A few locals shook hands with Migue who slowly rocked his head to a beat I couldn’t feel.
True confession: I don’t get Latin music, like, at all. I’ve heard it from San Diego to Buenos Aires and every single song, every note, every instrument, sounds the same. It’s like it all comes from a Musique factory in Guadalajara. There’s the Spanish guitar, the trumpet and in Cuba they add bongo drums for a little variety. It doesn’t matter. It does nothing for me. After four days listening to it fill the air wherever I go in Cuba, it has become white noise.
But to the tens of thousands of non-Americans who pour into Cuba every year, this is why they’re here. It’s why the Casa de la Musica is the major draw. Trinidad holds nightly salsa shows on the steps next to the Iglesia Parroquial just off Plaza Mayor. By the time I finished a rather expensive 15 CUC meal, every table in front of the 121-year-old church was filled. Every stair leading up to the church was covered by a butt.
All night music played. A pretty duet played the guitar, a six-piece band played salsa, a man dressed in all white sang traditional songs. To me, it all sounded like the gaggle of roosters who are still crowing. I spent my time talking to a procession of tourists who took the three vacant seats next to me at the table I secured early. There were the three Danes who discussed U.S. gun laws with me. For the record, right-wing America, Copenhagen, a city of 1.5 million people, had five murders last year, all with knives.
There was the Scotsman who has run a business in Normandy for 27 years. While the stage filled with local dancers, he and I discussed some of the more intricate economic issues facing Scottish soccer. Yes, at this venue, I probably would be a pretty boring date.
I must admit, as a keen observer of athletes, the dancing whole-heartedly impessed me. Well-groomed Cuban men and women in tight short dresses – and flats – twirled away in a whirlwind of arms, legs and pony tails. Every couple seemed to know each other’s next move. No one stumbled. No one even bumped into each other, a remarkable feat considering the small dance floor had people waving their fannies at others at the closest tables.
I left at midnight. I don’t know who won the massive brawl fighting for my vacant seat. To me, it was all white noise.
SATURDAY: A TRIP TO PLAYA ANCON A RARE GLIMPSE AT A GORGEOUS, UNSPOILED CARIBBEAN BEACH