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.

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.

I invited them to a little French-style patio café on the plaza where I learned neither one of them drink. So I sat there with my Heineken (One more bar that didn’t carry Cuban beer. I’m starting to feel as if higher-end bars want to charge the extra 1.50 CUC for foreign beer, regardless of whether I can get a Heiken two blocks from my Denver condo.)

The two Spanish are quite stunning. Laura is short and spry with brown curly hair and big brown eyes. Her friend – whose name I still can’t pronounce – has long blonde hair so thick locals think they’re dreadlocks. She’s very curvy and her little sun dresses are just short enough to draw stares from every Cuban they pass.

That includes the two guys who sat behind her and tried desperately to start up a conversation. First they teased her about her hair, then her accent, then her laughter triggered their desire to get pictures of all of us together.

I asked Laura, “How are the men in Cuba treating you?”

“They’re nice,” she said. “But they want more. Sempre. They always want more.”

The two guys didn’t get it from them but they got two beers from me I had no intention of giving. Somehow they claimed they asked if they could have beers and somehow I said yes. I didn’t get pissed. It bought a few minutes with them at my table. Without pulling out my increasingly dogeared notepad, I asked them about life in Cuba.

Both were in their 20s, well-groomed, handsome and fit. The shorter one said, “I’m not happy. I am going to school to be a physical education teacher. Physical education teachers make no money. I have no hope.”

As he left, the other guy appeared more set for a career at hustling. Suddenly, his English got very fast which made it all the more confusing. The only words I clearly understood were “pesos,” “rum,” “difficult” and “buy us.” He well understood the one word I told him:

Hey, I’ll be taken advantage of for a beer, particularly if it leads to a slice of local life. But just because I’m an American doesn’t mean I can supply every hustler in the Third World with alcohol. I told him, “Buenos tardes” as I left and he wouldn’t even say “adios.” He merely waved his hand at me. Later, when I returned to use the bathroom, the other guy was coming out. He sneered as he walked past and when I turned my head and stared at him, he stopped and just shook his at me as if to say, “You cheap American bastard.”

Hey, blame your banks. They’re the ones who prevent me from taking out more money. At the tail end of a Cuba trip, you MUST ration your money. I’m counting every CUC, projecting every expense.

Starving, I perused a menu at a Prado restaurant where every dish was no more than 4 CUCs. Restaurant Dora Nora turned out to be one of the best finds of this trip. I had a little balcony table overlooking the horse-drawn carts and lovers coming up the Prado. The place was filled with ornate white furniture and flower-print dishware.

On Day 7 of this trip, one of Dora Nora’s biggest appeals was Latin music was nowhere to be heard. A Michael Jackson-Paul McCartney duet was more than music to my ears.

The menu was similar to many I’ve seen. It’s two or three foods – chicken, beef and pork – served in the same three or four different ways: breaded, fried or with garlic and butter. But this grilled fish at Dona Nora was scrumptious. It didn’t look like much. It was four long, narrow fish steaks. They were as gray as boa constrictors. But served with lemon, salt, pepper and cumin, it tasted fantastic. That was 3.50 and with a 1.50 beer, the entire meal was 5 CUC. In South Beach that would’ve been $20.

Later, I stopped by for some rum with the owner, a long-haired guy in his 30s named Yanek. He’d been a cab driver for 10 years before he opened this place two years ago when the economic yolk lifted. I asked him where all the cooks were coming from. It’s not like there’s a Cuban culinary society. He said people are taking recipes from home and putting them in restaurants they open. It explains the simple ingredients but it also explains how authentic it all tastes. The food in Cuba has been terrific.

Yanek is one the few optimistic Cubans I’ve met. He doesn’t know what’ll happen when the Castros die. But he shares my worry that Cuba could turn into another Miami Beach.

“I would like change but not too much,” he said. “There is not violence. There is not drugs. Health is free. Education is free. I can make money. Now is better.”

You know what’s best? Sitting on the Bar Terraza in the Palacio de Valle, Batista’s colossal 1917 hotel on the tip of the Prado. The whole hotel is built with an African-Moorish theme. The terrace bar has a red floor with African masks adorning the bodega bar. I sipped a reasonably priced $3 CUC rum, listened to a six-piece salsa band in red Hawaiian shirts and looked out at the blue bay. The breeze, finally turning cool at sunset, blew threw my hair. The rum was like cold nectar as it went down my throat. Turkey vultures passed overhead.

Then on the very dark walk home, I saw the other side of Cuba: a broken-down ice cream stand, a horsecart cobbling up a potholed road with no street lights. Families with doors and windows wide open all watching the same variety show on the same channel. Old men sitting on the curb talking. Lovers stealing kisses in the shadows.

There were no threats. There were no comments. There were no stares. I felt safe.

I felt safer than Cubans.