Cuba Journal: My five bests and worsts of Cuba

A garlic salesman on the streets of Central Havana.

A garlic salesman on the streets of Central Havana.

One of the many circa 1953 model Chevrolets roaming the streets of Havana.

One of the many circa 1953 model Chevrolets roaming the streets of Havana.

A dancer in Havana's Plaza Vieja.

A dancer in Havana’s Plaza Vieja.

THURSDAY, FEB. 28 – HAVANA

My taxi in Cienfuegos stopped to pick up a ride before we headed up to Havana, and I didn’t know if it was a home or a vandalized construction site. It was a small one-story house which didn’t appear to have a front door or any glass on the windows. The paint was peeling. The front yard was a mix of crabgrass, dirt and cracked pavement. To the left was a small pile of broken concrete. Eduardo, a Methodist minister sitting in the front seat, turned around and told me, “Lifting the embargo won’t help the people.”

The general feeling among Cubans is more imports will merely help the government more than them. Unless salaries go up, the poor won’t be able to buy any of the imports. As when the Soviet Union fell, salaries stayed the same and costs skyrocketed. As in Cuba, I often got cab rides in Russia from professors and doctors trying to earn money on the side.

“The government is like big business,” Eduardo said, “a very big business.”

I told him my theory. Cubans come across as very happy people. They have their rum, their music, their passion. But deep inside they’re frustrated and tired.

“The embargo is good publicity,” he said. “Cubans can cry every day. Look at their faces.”

True, out here on the outskirts of Cienfuegos, with no salsa music and no sidewalk domino games, the average Cuban looked like they were shuffling off to the River Styx. Everyone’s frowning and walking as slow as they can to avoid the inevitability of a bad job that pays nothing. I also noticed no good-looking people here. Everyone’s lumpy and looks very, very old.

“Many people in Cuba are fat,” Eduardo said. “They eat beans or rice, rice or beans.”

Out of the house, however, came a quite attractive blonde in a shocking pink pantsuit. She spoke no English. I couldn’t ask her which one of Fidel Castro’s orifices she’d like to stick an Uzi.
Instead, I just sat back and watched rural Cuba go by. Some random sightings:

* Another one of the countless roadside billboards showing Che, Fidel or a combination of the two, with the words “Por Siempre Revolucion” (For Always Revolution).

* Horse-drawn carts carrying wood and a youth whipping the house with a giant reed.

* Dusty towns of dirt front yards and more broken concrete.

* Yet delicate, gorgeous palm trees providing shade to the peasants and farm workers.

* Rice fields. Cane fields. Fields that can grow nothing.

* Turkey vultures pecking at the side of the road, looking for anything to eat. They should just be patient. It looks like some of these people could die any minute.

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Cuba Journal: Cienfuegos is Key West with a communist bent

Cienfuegos' Teatro Tomas Terry, built between 1887-89 in honor of the Venezuelan industrialist.

Cienfuegos’ Teatro Tomas Terry, built between 1887-89 in honor of the Venezuelan industrialist.

My Spanish and Cuban friends.

My Spanish and Cuban friends.

The courtyard outside my room at my Cienfuegos casa particulare.

The courtyard outside my room at my Cienfuegos casa particulare.

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 27 – CIENFUEGOS, CUBA

Never judge a person by first impressions – unless, of course, it’s a hot Cuban babe whose first question is “Where are you staying?” – and don’t do it with cities, either. When we dropped off Marco here on the way to Trinidad, I thought Cienfuegos was a dusty little outpost with nothing but an overrated plaza.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Cienfuegos is an absolute jewel. It’s set hard on the Bay of Cienfuegos, the biggest natural bay in Cuba. The city of 145,000 is like a big Key West. It has a Prado lined with little restaurants and fancy resorts that stretch like a sculling oar right out into the bay.

The “overrated” plaza isn’t overrated at all. The Plaza Jose Marti is surrounded by a 1918 Italian mansion on one side, a 19th century theater with Italian architecture on another and a 19th century French-style cathedral on the far side, opposite an “Arco de Triunfo,” dedicated to Cuban independence.

I got a quick orientation to the city, not wholly by my own choosing. My casa particulare, located just a few blocks from the bus station, is spectacular. It has an open-air courtyard with ornate French furniture surroundedc by ferns and potted plants. An iron swing sits near the entrance. My room not only has a flat-screen TV, the first I’ve seen in Cuba, but a fully stocked refrigerator of beer, soda and water. Again, like all casa particulares in Cuba, it’s only 25 CUC ($25).

Before I even opened the door, an old man with a big white bandage up one calf, said, “You speak English? Come here. Let’s talk.” I was too tired and thirsty to move very fast so he told me his story. Bruce is a Canadian in his mid-60s who has been to Cuba five times, this time for five weeks.
Bruce, to put it kindly, is a little off.

“I don’t speak one word of Spanish,” he said, almost proudly.

“You must love Cuba,” I said.

“I love a girl in Cuba.”

He apparently has fallen for a woman set up by his Italian ex-pat friend from Ontario.

“Unfortunately, she doesn’t love me,” he said.

I can’t understand why except for the fact that he still can’t say hello in Spanish, has every evidence of creeping Alzheimer’s and is a massive bigot. (“My daughter got married to a man in Honduras,” he said. “I told her I wouldn’t go if he wasn’t a Christian.”)

He was incredibly annoying and borderline uncomfortable to be around. But his Italian buddy offered to give me the nickel tour and despite gnawing fatigue from an early wake-up call and much-needed review of my finances, I hopped in their tiny car. The Italian seemed to yell at every Cuban who came within a fastball’s distance from him.

“Fuckers!” he yelled out the window. “They walk right in front of you. The drivers drive right in front of you. They’re the worst drivers in the world, including in Naples.”

We went down the 2-3 mile-long Prado, and the street is really a mini version of what stretches down the Florida Keys. A two-lane road is lined with palm trees and goes into the middle of a cobalt-blue bay. Near the end are a couple of luxury hotels, which were lined with tour buses and camera-toting real white people.

They dropped me off at the post office and then I took off to prowl the plaza. There, like ghosts from traveling past, were Laura and her Spanish friend, who were in our taxi to Trinidad together. They arrived just after I did and, like myself, appeared dying of rum deprivation. The weather is turning to high broil and we were all sweating like sausages.

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Cuba Journal: After-hours bar a refreshing respite from tourism of Trinidad

Me and the gang at Savor Tropical. Yaydi is on the left.

Me and the gang at Savor Tropical. Yaydi is on the left.

TUESDAY, FEB. 26 – TRINIDAD, CUBA

I just sat down in a sweaty Viazul bus on my way to Cienfuegas. The Cubans call the bayside city “The Pearl of the South.” It could be the Hades of the South and I might go. I couldn’t handle one more visit to Trinidad’s Casa de la Musica or see one more ’53 Chevy paperweight. Trinidad is real, real touristy. You have to really look to find the real Cuba, well past the many mansions long ago abandoned by sugar barons fleeing Castro’s revolution.

But last night I found it. (The bus just turned on the A-C and, once again, I can think of only one place I’d rather be than Cuba right now. As to your ensuing question, no comment.)

I had just eaten a long-awaited ropa vieja, and roamed outside the Plaza Mayor area for some of the little hole-in-the-wall bars or cafes I passed while doing errands earlier in the day. About four blocks down the hill from the plaza I passed an open door with a small neon sign reading “Savor Tropical.” Inside were just a few tables and a tiny bar with four barstools, just enough for two couples or a lonely travel writer wanting to discuss sensitive political topics.

As I ordered my Havana Club on the rocks, which I’m slowly developing a weird dependency on, a stylish woman in a red tube-top dress asked me how I was. The last time a woman said that to me in Cuba, she wanted $100 for an hour of “cultural insight.” Turns out she was a singer-songwriter who was half the act for the evening. The other half sat at the last stool, a striking, narrow-faced woman with long, flowing black locks and a black scarf around her neck.

They both spoke a little English and Yaydi, the songwriter, spoke very good Italian. After seven days in Latin America, my Spanish still couldn’t get me out of a parking ticket. Finally, I could make myself understood.

Savor Tropical has been open only a couple of years and I wonder how some of these places stay open at all. Most of the restaurants I pass stand empty, a waiter limply holding a menu in the street. Earlier I had eaten my traditional ropa vieja, specially made as a request by Migue, my casa particulare host, alone in an empty restaurant, Salon 1851, which had been open all of two weeks. Two male guitar players and a woman singer serenaded me. I couldn’t have felt more foolish if I was singing to them.

But Yaydi seemed real happy. She writes a lot of poetry and so does her boyfriend. I’ll call him Javier. He is bald as a cueball and black as an 8-ball. He’s stocky. He looked like he played catcher for Los Industriales at one time. His glasses gave him a studious look, made even more when he talked about his poetry. He said he writes about love and struggles, two subjects that seem central in all Cubans’ lives.
Javier and Yaydi joined the growing list of Cubans I’ve met who are poets. I’m not surprised. Some of the best poetry in history came from Russia before and after the revolution.

The best writing comes from the heart and the heart is especially heavy when oppressed.

“It’s one way to express your fears and your dreams,” Javier said.

I asked Javier if he was happy.

“We are fighting every day to be very close to being happy,” he said.

He was happy last night. He’s a masseuse who finally, after waiting forever, got permission to open up a practice in one of the hotels. He was as giddy as a schoolboy, rubbing Yaydi’s leg and stealing kisses when her head was turned talking to the singer. Cubans are among the most passionate people I’ve ever seen which doesn’t help my loneliness. It never does. When I first started visiting Italy alone, I swear if I saw one more swarthy Italian bend a woman over a fruit cart I was going to get one of those cat scratching poles.

The duet’s audience was me and a bored, chubby local who looked like he hadn’t moved since Castro was healthy. When he left I was again a sheepish audience of one. Even they weren’t crazy about this idea. They stopped playing after about four songs.

But when they left, Javier asked me to help them celebrate.

“We go to special place,” he said. “It’s another club where singers go practice. It is the real Cuba.”

So I joined the three of them down the dark street and into a small doorway. It looked like another sugar baron’s house as we walked out a side exit and into what looked like a large breezeway between two mustard-colored buildings. A bunch of tables were set up facing a tiny stage at one end. The backdrop was a crumbling brick wall.

A middle-aged Argentine woman in a brown dress was belting out some very professional Latin hits to the appreciation of all the locals who gathered. She apparently had played a concert earlier that night and had come over to try some new songs. In Trinidad, that’s the equivalent of Robin Williams stopping by the Improv to test some new jokes.

“In this period,” Javier told me, “this has become big.”

Later a beautiful white Cuban in a short black dress sang love songs. Javier is right. This is Cuba. Even though I was alone, I felt some passion that fills Cubans every day. Or maybe I was just melancholy. I could hear birds chirping in the background. A cool breeze came off the sea eight miles away. It didn’t hurt that Yaydi kept filling my cup from a bottle of Havana Club she snuck in.

They left me with hearty handshakes, Yaydi’s CD, “Mujere Puede” (“Woman Can”), and Javier’s email address. They also left me with an affection for the Cuban people that will never disappear, even if the Castros do.

Cuba Journal: Playa Ancon simply one of the best, unspoiled beaches in Caribbean

This transport in Trinidad costs $5 for the seven-mile trip to the beach.

This transport in Trinidad costs $5 for the seven-mile trip to the beach.

Playa Ancon is located seven miles from Trinidad and has only two hotels.

Playa Ancon is located seven miles from Trinidad and has only two hotels.

MONDAY, FEB. 25 – TRINIDAD, CUBA

Here’s one aspect of Cuba that beats the hell out of all the other communist countries: It sure has better beaches than Eastern Europe. Ukraines go to the Black Sea – on July 15. That’s about the only time it’s warm enough. I made my first venture to a Cuban beach yesterday and decided it’s well worth putting up with Latin music.

Trinidad isn’t right on the beach. It’s about seven miles inland. You have to take public transport which is half the fun. I have now taken a city bus, a ’53 Chevy taxi, a pedicab and the carved-out husk of a giant coconut.

It’s called a coco taxi, very aptly named. It’s basically a motor scooter inside a giant yellow metal ball. Two small orange seats are behind the driver who goes no more than 25-30 mph, just enough for a nice breeze to cool unobstructed views of the Cuban countryside.

It’s a 20-minute ride from Trinidad to Playa Ancon. The hulking driver the color of a mahogany dining room table seemed to greet every driver of the horse-drawn carts transporting locals for two pesos (about 8 cents) apiece. The trip didn’t exactly remind me of a drive to Hawaii’s Koala Coast. Irrigation ditches. Dried-up river beds. Empty fields. This is where America’s absence is felt. Five years after the Castros die, this will be lined with McDonald’s, KFCs and Marriotts.

It’ll look like Parker Road.

I kept looking for the string of high-end all-inclusive resorts that have dotted the beach in Varadera in the north. But I only saw two. The only one near my beach towel was a big yellow, four-story hotel called Club Amigo. I could only see the other one from the road.

After the coco taxi pulled into the crude parking lot, I hoped the Castros would live forever and the U.S. never comes near this place. I walked 50 feet over the small arc of sand to see an incredible stretch of sand as white as sugar and as soft as powdered snow. Only a couple dozen people were lying in the brilliant sunshine, mostly locals and many under the few strategically placed bamboo-thatched umbrellas.

I rolled out my towel, put my daypack under my head and read “Cuba: A New History” for three hours.
The blue-green water was as precious as I’ve ever seen. It’s about 83 degrees and didn’t get over my head until I swam 100 meters from shore. I didn’t feel a single pebble under my feet. I didn’t even mind the cloud cover after two hours. I was in bliss.

It’s good Trinidad has a beach because for a town as touristy as this, night life isn’t much more than your average night in La Junta. Unlike Havana, Trinidad has no real bars. It’s all restaurants. There’s no long wooden bar where you can belly up and drink and talk to the bartender. I went back to the Casa de la Trova merely because the rum was cheap.

Eventually, I migrated back to Casa de la Musica where the same packed crowd listened to the same music. And I drank the same rum with a couple of weak mojitos thrown in. The music made my head hurt and making contacts was impractical. People who weren’t crowding onto the tiny dance floor watched the musicians play with the intensity of an English soccer crowd. I talked for a while to a Dutch family doctor who’d traveled all over Cuba with her frizzy-haired friend.

“I wanted to come before it all changed,” she said. It’s a common theme I’m hearing. It’s like the longer Fidel is sick the more Cuban tourism goes up.

I finally saw some interest on the dance floor later that night. A young lithe woman with her long hair in a tight bun (I think I heard her friend speaking German) was dancing up a salsa storm. She danced with about four or five local men, all black as the night. With each one she danced with the choreography of a pro. She twirled under their arms, she spun away, her free arm bent so ladlylike. She shook her butt wrapped in tiny jeans shorts.

The men were absolute masters. It’s clear the Cubans use dance as a means of expression and not means to a sexual happy ending. They were all perfect gentlemen. They never placed their hands too low or too high. When one finished he even gave her a two-handed high-five.

SUNDAY: A TRIP TO TRINIDAD’S AFTER HOURS CLUB

Cuba Journal: Trinidad a step into Cuba’s colonial past but TURN DOWN THE MUSIC!

Independencia, the street of my casa (turquoise).

Independencia, the street of my casa (turquoise).

Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor

Two Trinidadians (who look like twins) enjoy an afternoon cigar.

Two Trinidadians (who look like twins) enjoy an afternoon cigar.

SUNDAY, FEB. 24 – TRINIDAD, CUBA

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.

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