These observations are simply that: my observations. As the title of my blog indicates, this is “As I See It.” If I am offensive in anything I say, I apologize. That is not my intent. If I am incorrect in any information, I also apologize. I am not an expert, simply a traveler who visited the country for a few days. I hope you enjoy my views.
Each day I will tell you what we did on one day of the trip, but I will also give some observations about other topics that span the length of the whole trip.
I advise you to start at Day 1
and work your way through.
As I go along I will refer back to things I’ve pointed out and discussed on earlier days.
I hope you enjoy Cuba As I See It
Sunday, Dec 25
Cienfuegos to Trinidad via Santa Clara
Did you know that one of the places Columbus landed in the New World in 1492 was Cuba? As we all know, Columbus didn’t really discover it, and it wasn’t new. There were already native peoples living in Cuba. According to Columbus, “This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.” Cuba is indeed beautiful with its beaches and mountains. 7 of its current cities were founded between 1511 and 1514, some of the oldest cities in our hemisphere: Havana, Trinidad, Sancti Spritus, Camaguay, Santiago de Cuba, Bayamo, and Baracoa. On our travels we visited all 7.
On this day we traveled to Trinidad, a dirty city with cobblestone streets draining to the middle instead of the edges. Since the main way people clean their floors is to pour water on the floor and then sweep it out into the street, these streets are always wet.
On the way to Trinidad, we visited the place in Santa Clara where Ernesto “Che” Guevara is buried along with 29 other warriors who were fighting with him in Bolivia when he was killed. Fidel lived on to govern Cuba, but Che died as a martyr in 1967. His remains were discovered, exhumed, and moved to Cuba in 1997. I have read and heard that Che and Fidel had started to have major disagreements and that’s why Che was in Bolivia and not Cuba, but of course that was not even hinted at, much less spelled out, here at the Museum of Che Guevara. According to their presentation, Che, Fidel, and Raúl were always the best of friends who always agreed on everything during The Revolution and he was in Bolivia spreading the wonderful Revolution to other places that needed and wanted it. His family settled and remained in Cuba after his death. His wife remarried which upset some people there. He is such a fixture in their memories that they didn’t want her to move on. His youngest son now gives motorcycle tours of Cuba, rather capitalist of him, I think. Che’s picture and quotes are very common in Cuba, as I mentioned in my comments on Day 2.
Also in Santa Clara we visited a memorial involving some train cars that Fulgencio Batista was using to supply his troops. Batista was the dictator overthrown by The Revolution. The revolutionaries tried to shoot the armored train with guns and used Molotov cocktails but that didn’t work. They finally got ahead of the train and destroyed the tracks with a bulldozer causing the train to derail. When Batista heard this train had been derailed he immediately left Cuba. There is a large memorial set up with train cars and a bulldozer.
We arrived in Trinidad to find our casa quite dirty, and Vince’s room under construction. We told our guide, but there was really nothing he could do. They have some interesting ways of handling electricity in Cuba.
You see, our tour was going backward from the normal direction. Usually the groups fly first from Havana to Baracoa and then wend their way across the island back to Havana. However, Hurricane Matthew visited Baracoa in early October and left a lot of destruction, so our tour company canceled all those plans and had us travel by bus over several days from Havana to Baracoa and then fly back to Havana at the end. That way the accommodations in Baracoa would have the maximum amount of time for recovery and construction. However, this also left the company making last-minute reservations all along the way for our group instead of having them made months ahead. Also remember that we were traveling around Christmas and New Years, peak season for tourism there. So we got to experience a little more authentic experience in Trinidad than we would have preferred.
Also at our casa in Trinidad we experienced for the first time another special thing about Cuba. Their hot water heater for the shower is often attached to the shower head.Also, you may or may not know, some of the electrical outlets in Cuba use 220V. So you have choices when it comes to water: cold, hot, or electrifying. Steven experienced the latter when he reached up with a wet hand to adjust the setting.
We arranged to get some laundry done and gave the bag full of clothes to our guide since we were not sure of the reliability of the people at our unfinished casa. He said he should be able to have someone do it by the next evening. It came back nice and clean, though a spot on Steve’s shirt didn’t come out, and I was missing one of only 3 skirts I had taken with me. I never did get the skirt back. Someone in Cuba has a nice brown skirt.
On the Trinidad orientation walk our guide told us where the bank was, where to eat and hear good music, where to buy water, cigars, souvenirs, wifi cards, etc. But we really didn’t know where we were or what we were looking at, so we had to try to remember where things were. We did have maps and lists of possible activities at each of the cities we stayed at. The cities were generally safe, and we had with us the only fluent Spanish speaker (besides our guide, obviously) on the trip, so we were not too worried. Our guide made reservations for those of us who wanted them at a rooftop restaurant.
Dinner for me was a very nice chicken vegetable soup. Dessert was a “mango marmalade with cheese.” I was expecting something special with cream cheese, but this tasted and looked like apricot baby food with Cheddar cheese slices in it. I usually finish all my food, but this I left uneaten.
People were continually asking where we were from. Everybody was very kind when we told them we were from the US. I guess not everyone in Cuba is angry at the “Yankee Imperialists.” At this restaurant we met a fan of the Boston Red Sox. He knew the batting lineup and had a favorite player. Baseball is quite popular in Cuba and the national brand of Cola, Tucola, has the silhouette of a batter hitting a ball.
Things are gradually starting to change in Cuba, mainly since Raul came to power. But nothing is changing very fast. Over the next few days I’ll mention some of the changes.
While he was alive, no real details were given to the Cuban citizens about Fidel’s activities, his relations with other heads of state, etc. Only the news that Fidel wanted to be published was published. As you can probably tell from my writings, the propaganda machine is still alive and well in Cuba. The press is very limited, and I don’t think this has changed much. When the state is paying you and you would at least lose your job for publishing something else, you say what the state wants you to say. They used to make tour leaders and drivers stay away from tourists, because they didn’t want Cubans to get a view of what goes on outside of Cuba. At least that has changed. As I mentioned on Day 2, the media is very controlled (and boring), and outside or opposing views aren’t allowed in the media through newspapers, TV, or documentaries.
Another thing that has changed in the last 5-6 years is that Cubans are now allowed to stay in hotels. We are not staying in hotels, but, as I mentioned on Day 1, instead we are staying in their equivalent of B&Bs. These are not at all cushy places, though. Most have A/C. Most are clean. Rarely do they have furniture besides just the beds. The only mirrors are small ones over the sink (with one exception in Havana). Sometimes there is an extra area to relax, and there’s always a place to eat their provided breakfast. Sometimes there is soap. There is usually a skinny thin towel, but never washcloths. Sometimes there is a blanket. Sometimes there are both a flat and fitted sheet. The pillows are generally similar in material to a cheap (but slightly larger) throw pillow. The owners speak (if you’re lucky) broken English. I would not recommend staying in these places except maybe to people who enjoy camping.
Raúl finally allowed people to speak their opinions, at least to some extent, once he came to power. The government listened to the criticisms and made a list of 313 items to change, but even by Raúl’s estimation, only about 20% have even been started to change. He seems quite displeased with this in his speeches, but I’m not sure who he thinks is to blame since the government controls all aspects of Cuban life. People are very used to not speaking their mind or even thinking critically of the government. They are told constantly in every way possible that communism works and capitalism doesn’t. As I have shown and will continue to do so (probably to a nauseating extent), The Revolution is the best thing ever and should be celebrated and mentioned at every turn (quite literally when it comes to the road signs).
The street signs in Trinidad have a top name and a bottom name. The top name is the pre-Revolution name. The bottom is the new name celebrating some revolutionary figure. I think every city has a José Marti, for example.
The sidewalks in these old Cuban town tend to be very narrow and further constricted by electric poles and steep steps to the homes edging out part of the sidewalks.
There is often only room for people to walk single file and the locals do not ever step off to let you pass. You have to play a game of pedestrian-style “Chicken” which I consistently lost and then stepped into the street. Add to this that in some cities the cars and motorcycles are quite aggressive and do not give way easily to pedestrians. Plus remember the pooper scooper comment from Cienfuegos. So just walking around the in cities can be quite an adventure.
The towns also have a lot of rooftop cafes, patios, rooms, etc. because that is a good place to catch the breeze, especially in the evening.
They also have lots of steep stairs to get to them. They don’t waste space by making the steps of normal steepness. No, they save space and make the steps very steep instead. And they often don’t waste money on making the handrails go the full length of the stairs. They especially seem to save money at the very top where there’s nothing else to brace yourself on. Also at the top they’ll often even out the space of the steps to the height of the floor by giving you a smaller-than-normal step, like an inch high or a taller-than-normal step just to throw you off. So with this you have the opportunity to miss that first step and trip down the stairs. Also, the steps are usually tile which becomes slick when wet. In some places there were window air conditioners just over the stairs dripping their condensation on the stairs at a constant rate so they were always slippery. I never fell, but I am not the most graceful of people, so these things were quite worrisome to me.
To continue the journey, click here for Day 4