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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Cuba Journal: Hemingway villa a look inside Cuba’s most famous ex-pat

Hemingway's tower where he penned "The Old Man and the Sea."

Hemingway’s tower where he penned “The Old Man and the Sea.”

Ernest Hemingway's living room in  his Finca la Vigia.

Ernest Hemingway’s living room in his Finca la Vigia.

FEB. 23 — HAVANA

I’m sitting on a stoop outside Havana’s microscopic bus terminal wondering if I can get a ticket to Trinidad. For the bus terminal of a major Latin American capital, this place looks more like a coffee shop. The office is the size of a 7-Eleven with a parking lot smaller than a baseball infield. It’s the only major bus terminal I’ve ever seen in a suburb.

I decided to go to Trinidad on the southern coast instead of Matanzas on the north after a talk with Katarina, my host in Havana. Yes, Trinidad is a traditional colonial Cuban town with narrow cobblestone streets and tons of packaged tourists. But Mantazas is the jump-off point to Varadero, Cuba’s first example of tourism gone berserk. It’s one continuous stretch of all-inclusive resorts where I hoped to slip between and feel the sand between my toes. Apparently I won’t have to do any sneaking in Trinidad. There are hardly any resorts and the beach is just as good.

Cuba is just getting the hang of this tourism thing. Yesterday, I went and saw Cuba’s greatest tourist-turned ex-pat. Ernest Hemingway lived in the Havana suburb of San Francisco de Paula from 1939-1960, buying a villa on a hill. It’s here where Hemingway went from an internationally acclaimed writer to a literary god. It’s here where he won the Pulitzer Prize for penning “The Old Man and the Sea” not to mention “For Whom a Bell Tolls” and “Islands in the Stream.” Each one had a Cuban theme and perfectly blended the pace of life in pre-revolution Cuba.

Frankly, much of Hemingway’s writing reads like a zipcode directory: “Rain comes down. Rain is cold. Rain is good.” That’s about it. But I adored “The Old Man and the Sea” and his newspaper work, gathered in the collection, “Dateline Toronto,” is among the best newspaper writing I’ve ever read. His feature on Benito Mussolini was absolutely brilliant and made me feel like I was in Il Duce’s office.

Fidel Castro befriended Hemingway who railed against the heavy-handed human relations of Fulgencio Batista, the corrupt capitalist Castro overthrew. So he embraced Castro’s revolution and Castro embraced back. Numerous bars in Havana show the same two photographs of a very gray Hemingway whispering in the ear of a smiling Castro, wearing his signature battle fatigues, in 1960. When Hemingway returned to the U.S. that year, they turned his villa into a museum.

The problem is getting to San Francisco de Paula is something out of public transportation hell. Hardly anyone has cars in Cuba and public buses cost almost nothing. Thus, nearly everyone in Cuba takes buses.
The San Francisco de Paula bus leaves from Capitolio Nacional, a slightly taller exact replica of the U.S. capitol. At night when Havana is dark and the Capitolio appears as a black monolith, it looks like a mockery of Cuba’s relationship with Washington. Built from 1926-29 with Cuba’s endless mountain of sugar money, it used to hold the Cuban Congress. But since Castro’s coup it has held the National Academy of Sciences and is the site of one of the more confusing bus systems in the Caribbean.

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Cuba Journal: Pickup baseball game in parking lot a huge hit for Havana visitor

A youth holds their baseball with the cover literally torn off.

A youth holds their baseball with the cover literally torn off.

Two youths warm up before a pickup game in the parking lot of staid old Estadio Latinoamericano.

Two youths warm up before a pickup game in the parking lot of staid old Estadio Latinoamericano.

FRIDAY, FEB. 22 – HAVANA

I saw what a baseball looks like when you knock the cover off it. Here in Cuba, it’s not how hard they hit the ball. It’s what they wind up playing with. That’s all they have.

The pre-teen ball player stood next to me in the parking lot of staid old Estadio Latinoamericano and handed the ball to me. It looked like a million Band-Aids wrapped together. In actuality, the ball was years old and merely lost its cover from being hit over and over and over by the same group of boys and men who gather here in the stadium parking lot every day to play pickup games.

I came to see Los Industriales, the New York Yankees of Cuban baseball who have won 12 Cuban championship since they formed in Havana in 1962. They play every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at Estadio Latinoamaericano, a crumbling dinosaur of a stadium that seats 58,000 crazed fans. The façade of the stadium, built in 1946, looks like Cuba. Peeling paint. Boarded-up windows. Cement blocks on the sidewalk.

The place was dead. I saw one open door. I peeked into see a poster of a younger Fidel Castro in a Cuba jersey waving a bat and eyeing a pitch. The two people said no game today. They’re preparing for “Il Classico.” That’s the World Baseball Classic. The Cubans I met were less concerned about who would replace Castro than how Cuba would do against China Monday in Japan. (Cuba won, 12-0).

But the real action was in the adjacent parking lot. This pickup game was nothing like I’d ever seen in the United States. Never, even as a child who lived at my neighborhood park in Eugene, Ore., in the ‘60s, did I see a neighborhood field two complete baseball teams.

From Havana’s Cerro neighborhood that borders the stadium, they looked like two street gangs. It was an oddball collection of torn tank tops, ragged shorts, beat-up Yankees hats and flapping old shoes. The ages ranged from about 8 to 58 but they all had one thing in common.

They could play.

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Cuba journal: The arrival — This isn’t what Karl Marx had in mind

Me and Ernest Hemingway at Havana's Bar Monserrate. (Psst! I'm on the left.)

Me and Ernest Hemingway at Havana’s Bar Monserrate. (Psst! I’m on the left.)

THURSDAY, FEB. 21 – HAVANA

I just discovered first hand the problems of the new Cuba. My free breakfast that I was told came with my room is now 3 Cuban convertibles (CUC). It’s only the equivalent of $3 and I don’t mind paying it, particularly when the fried egg, bread basket and fruit plate represent the struggles of a communist country treading water nearly alone in the 21st century.

I’d read for a month about Raul Castro’s attempts at opening the financial shackles for Cuba’s struggling people, raised on his older brother’s cradle-to-grave minimum wage program. Yes, people can open some forms of small businesses — as long as they give most of the money to the government.

Well, shortly after I reserved my room in this “casa particulare,” the government jacked up the prices on goods Cubans had to buy to supplement the monthly rations that have been steadily cut over the last 20 years. A carton of 30 eggs went from 30 Cuban pesos (about $1.20) to to 90 pesos ($3.60). Doesn’t seem like much?

The average Cuban makes $15-$25 a month.

I remember Vera, my old Albanian girlfriend, was an economist for her communist government and her monthly income was $10. But that was in 1992. In 20 years, Cuba’s people aren’t much better off than what is considered the most communist country in man’s history.

Fortunately for Cubans, housing is free. I’m staying with a woman I’ll call Katarina. She’s one of the many thousands of Cubans who run casa particulares. They are rooms Cubans rent out to travelers, part of Raul Castro’s economic reforms he started implementing when his power factor rose as brother Fidel’s health dropped in the mid-2000s.

It’s a beautiful if odd-shaped home. It’s on San Nicholas, a long, narrow street that snakes its way between Central Havana and Habana Nieva (Old Havana). The house has an iron gate guarding two huge wooden doors. Inside is a dark, narrow living room with two TVs circa 1965, the kind that are the size of kitchen cupboards.

Three shiny red barstools surround a tiny bar that served its last drink a long time ago. Behind the bar aren’t beer and rum (pronounced ROAM here) but ceramic tiles and small bongo drums. There’s a narrow, roofless hallway leading to three tidy, well-equipped rooms and the kitchen/dining room beyond.

Katarina, 52, is a lovely host. A statuesque woman with broad shoulders and big hair, she probably cut quite a swath through the Palace de Revolucion when she worked there at one time. They sent her to the USSR to study Russian and economics. Her Russian is fluent, she says, and her experience is vast. She traveled a couple times a year with her government job to places like Brazil and Central America.

“They give me 200 CUC a month for nice clothes and nice jewelry,” she told me over breakfast this morning. “But when I come home, I have the same problems everyone else has. I can’t afford shoes for my kids.”

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Cuba Journal: Cancun an unfortunate layover on journey to Marxland

A man on the music-filled streets of Havana.

A man on the music-filled streets of Havana.

(THIS IS THE FIRST OF A 10-PART BLOG DETAILING MY RECENT TRIP TO CUBA, A BEAUTIFUL PARADISE WITH A TORTURED POPULACE. CUBA IS SALSA POURING OUT OF EVERY WINDOW, FRUSTRATION POURING OUT OF EVERY SOUL AND UNSPOILED BEACHES THAT MAKE YOU WONDER WHAT AMERICA WILL DO TO THIS PLACE WHEN THE CASTROS DIE AND THE EMBARGO IS EVER LIFTED. THIS IS WHY I WENT. THIS IS WHY I WENT NOW.)

WEDNESDAY, FEB. 20 – CANCUN, MEXICO

I am going to Cuba to get in touch with my inner Marxist. After one night in this Mexican theme park called Cancun, I feel like donning a Cossack hat and becoming the first person to hop in a small boat and sneak into Cuba.

Confession: I hate Cancun. I’m the type of person who sees the negatives in people — blame journalism’s cynicism — but the positives in cultures. When it comes to Cancun, however, I need a microscope and some Extra Strength Excedrin to focus on the positives. This is my third time here and no place in Mexico is less representative of the Mexican culture than this phony, miserable tourist trap. About 4 million visitors come to Cancun annually. The vast majority are Americans. The vast majority of those Americans can’t pronounce “Gracias.”

I get the lure. The beach really is nice. The resorts are big and modern. The margaritas are strong. But the Cancun government has angled this place so far to the American market that you feel like you’re in one of Pancho Villa’s worst nightmares. One night in Cancun is like being stuck on a cactus with a mariachi band poking me with machetes.

The drive in from the airport perfectly puts Cancun (pop. 530,000) in perspective. When you reach Zona Hotelera, you have one endless strip of chock-a-block resorts on your right and an equally long stretch of cheap Mexican souvenir stands, American chains (Planet Hollywood, Bubba Gump, Hard Rock Cafe) and hordes of pasty or sunburned tourists. It’s one giant strip mall. From the road you don’t see one speck of sand. Between Zona Hotelera and downtown Cancun, you actually have a sprawling open-air complex of street stalls where you can find a sombrero that hasn’t donned a Mexican’s head since the 1950s.

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