Cuba As I See It, Day 6, Trinidad to Camagüay

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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.
Click here for Day 2Day 3, Day 4, and Day 5.
Day 6
Wednesday, Dec 28
Trinidad to Camagüay via Sancti Spiritus and Ciego De Avila
Just outside of Trinidad we visited a tower with a beautiful view.
This tower also had the obligatory market common to all tourist sites in Cuba.
Cuba is a beautiful country between (literally between) the mountains and the Caribbean.
On the way to Camugüey we visited the Sanctu Spiritus, another of the 7 oldest cities in Cuba. There we visited an open-air market where they were selling meat, beans, rice, and fresh veggies. Remember everything grown in Cuba is organic. There were many (organic, I guess) flies around, enjoying the foods, especially the meat. Vendors were counting money with the hands that they had just picked up the raw meat with and I’m sure they would soon pick up the meat again with all the germs on his hand from the money. There were no sinks visible anywhere in the market.
This market didn’t surprise me, as many places the world-over have similar open-air markets. It did surprise me in a nation that is so proud of its level of civilization (because of The Revolution, of course) and its self-proclaimed second-to-none health care system (also to be credited to The Revolution, of course). Cuba is a paradox of a nation. When traveling in Cuba we were inundated with their message (propaganda) that they are the healthiest and best-educated nation on earth. Then we’d run smack into something that looks exactly like what we have seen in Africa or rural Mexico.
The 1990’s were a period which Fidel and his government called the “Período Especial.” Basically, between the time of The Revolution and the fall of the USSR, Russia propped up the Cuban economy. When the USSR fell apart, their support of Cuba fell apart too. Fidel rallied the people by saying everyone should work together and expect hard times. This is what was called the “Special Period,” but it doesn’t sound very special to me, just really bad. Supplies were lacking, especially meat, but also soap, electricity, etc. With the drop of supplies, prices soared, and basic necessities were hard to obtain. Looking back on the dates, it was during this “Special Period” that I had a professor in college who was convinced and tried to convince us, his students, that Cuba was a great place to live. I didn’t believe him then, and I wouldn’t believe him now. They do not grow things that could be easily grown such as the carnations at Che’s burial site, various fruits, etc. Instead they import them at very expensive rates. China and Venezuela are now Cuba’s main allies and economic support now since the USSR came apart, but Venezuela has been having their own troubles, and Cuba is in a recession as a result.
After visiting the market, we took a quick 10 minute stroll through the heart of town. A block over from the open-air market we saw a sign for the Provincial Center of Hygiene, Epidemiology, and Microbiology. They would be well served to go inspect that market.
After lunch we also visited the Pauyet jewelry shop in Ciego de Ávila. There they make jewelry and other sculptures with silverware. I have never seen anything like their beautiful work. They are basically modern-day silversmiths. We saw where 4 of them were actively working.
When Steve found and bought a cross figurine for 30 CUC’s he took it back to the workshop and with Vince’s help asked who made it. We got to meet the artist and Steve got a picture with him. The cross now sits in his office.
 
They have national brands of water, cola, gas, and many many other things. We did see both Coke and Pepsi, but they were not actually made in the US.
However, there are obviously still good flowing in from the US. American brands of clothing were some of the most obvious. Also, our tour bus had a clear spot in the tinted windows so the driver could see the side mirror. This was in the shape of the Apple logo. When we asked our driver about it he said they just liked the shape. All those plastic-wrapped items at the airport eventually make their way into the homes and streets of Cuba.
 
Someone on the tour asked why sometimes Cuban people would be dancing or enjoying themselves and police officers would call them aside. As it turns out, they are checking people for a criminal record and if you have a record they make you leave. This is their way of keeping tourists safe and keeping shady characters away from them. I guess once you have been guilty of one thing it is assumed you’re always guilty (or will soon be) thereafter. Their way of preventing trouble, demonstrations, protests, etc, is to arrest people ahead of events they might object to.
After our long day of travel we checked into out homestay, which was very nice this time with an eating area, a fridge, a courtyard, etc.
After giving our passport info to the lady of the house, we took a bicycle rickshaw orientation tour seeing all the different “squares” which are not square at all.
The town of Camagüay was intentionally designed in 1528 to confuse foreign invaders, pirates, etc. Now it is equally successful in confusing tourists.
A symbol for this town is the tinajón. There is a legend that if you drink from one you will not leave Camagüay. In history these huge clay pots, some about 4 feet in diameter, were used to collect water for future use, similar to the function of our cisterns. Here is an example in the courtyard of our homestay.
 

During the orientation, our guide pointed out various restaurants, art galleries, bars, and other attractions that were either good, bad, or overpriced.

Outside the art gallery featuring the works of Martha Jimenez we saw some statues made by her that feature local people. One was a man pushing a cart full of tinajónes.
 
Another of the statues was 4 chairs, 3 of them filled by women gossiping and the empty one for someone else to join in. I try not to be a gossiper, but I joined their party on this occasion.
These people have all died, but the other one is of an old man who still lives and occasionally comes and sits next to the statue of him reading the local newspaper and he talks to people. According to our guide he has Parkinson’s Disease and doesn’t come meet people as much any more.
 
Camagüay is a beautiful clean town with a lot of artwork, cathedrals, shops, etc. Remember how awful Cuban TV is their expensive Wi-Fi is only available in the squares? Main Street USA may have died but the main streets downtown in Cuba are still vibrant and very much alive.  The shops, however, are not well-stocked. I only saw 1 store (with home goods) that was adequately stocked by American standards. Most had lots of empty floor space and sparsely-filled shelves.
By the time we ended our orientation tour it was about 7:30 and we were very hungry. On our guide’s suggestion, we ate Italian food at a place whose menu was in Spanish with a tiny bit of Italian but absolutely no English. We ordered two pizzas to share: one with only cheese, and one with what was supposed to be sausage but looked like hot dogs. We were very hungry, though, and it all tasted very good.
After eating we returned home. At this point I was getting sick, my asthma was kicking up, and I was starting to get what felt like a sinus infection.
Click on Day 7 to continue the journey.


Cuba As I See It, Day 5, Trinidad

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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.
Click here for Day 2Day 3, and Day 4.
Day 5,
Tuesday, Dec 27
Trinidad
We spent part of the day on a boat going to an island that was deserted except for about 40 friendly iguanas, countless hermit crabs, and a furry little animal whose name I’ve forgotten but he reminded me of a groundhog.
Our guide was not allowed to go on the boat with us. He didn’t have the proper license to go on a boat, as it seems the government is concerned that its citizens might hijack boats and head north with them and everyone on them. This actually happened in 2003 as reported here. Cuba normally doesn’t do capital punishment, but they made a special exception and suspended their moratorium on the death penalty for this case.
We took a 1952 Chevy taxi to the marina and back. The driver’s grandfather bought the car new and it has been in the family ever since. These classic cars are abundant but usually not in very good shape. They mostly need new paint jobs and the interiors are falling apart. The door handles and window cranks 1/2 the time don’t work. They are not what we think of as classic cars. They are more just old cars. And they spew this awful exhaust into the air.
 
There also is a lot of smoking in Cuba. I should not have been surprised by this in a country known for its cigars. So between the cars smoking and the people smoking, the air quality in Cuban cities quite literally stinks.
That night we went out to eat at a marvelous restaurant called San José. It was the best restaurant meal by far on the whole trip. Their $2.00 milkshake was amazing and their non-alcoholic piña colada was splendid. One of the ladies in our group was celebrating a birthday, so they brought out a cake with a sparkling firework on it. It was very nice.
After dinner we walked back down to the square to try to catch some Wi-Fi, and we noticed there were crowds and music everywhere. We figured it was just a busy night in a busy town. As I have said before, because of the lack of internet, horrible TV, and infrequent A/C, the town squares are quite lively places, and the music scene (though I tired of the same type of music over and over) was quite vibrant.
Then on the way to our homestay we saw a nice new Mercedes and soldiers on the street corner (who we did NOT take pictures of because we like our freedom and our cameras), so we figured there was a big shot in town, maybe someone from the national government. Like I said on another day, some things are common to all cultures. While we were on the sidewalk chatting with the girl sharing our casa, we heard and saw a police escort, lights and sirens and all, coming through the streets, then a bunch of people running a race through the streets followed by an ambulance. Vincent asked some of the other folks on the street what was going on, and they said it was the anniversary of the liberation of Trinidad on Dec 27, 1958 during The Revolution. So I guess that’s why it was such a bustling night.
To continue the journey, click Day 6.


Cuba As I See It, Day 4, Trinidad

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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.
Click here for Day 2 and Day 3.
I hope you enjoy Cuba As I See It
Day 4,
Monday, Dec 26
Trinidad
Today was our first full day in Trinidad.
We wandered the streets of the non-touristy part of town where the locals eyed us with suspicion.  (We did this in several smaller cites that we visited. We never felt really unsafe, just not quite welcome.) Then we went to the public square and stood in line at the ETECSA (telecommunications) shop to buy Wi-Fi cards.
During the time of Fidel’s rule there were no computers allowed in the homes or smart phones. There is really no good answer to the question of “Why Not?” The only answer given was, “Just because.” This is still a common response and still common question that applies to many situations. There are a few older computers in the private homes now (probably checked as luggage in those plastic-wrapped boxes I mentioned on Day 1), but still no internet access in the homes. The only computer I saw in use in a casa was being used as a giant MP3 player. There are also not computers in schools. If they need to write a research paper they use the printed encyclopedias at the library or they can go to the telecommunications office (where we bought the Wi-Fi cards) and use their computers for a fee.
Some jobs require smart phones, so a few people have those now, too. The only internet available to private citizens is the Wi-Fi in hotels and public parks, and they have to buy access to that. It costs them 1/2 a CUC an hour, which sounds really cheap until you realize that the average Cuban has a take-home pay of 10-30 CUC’s per month. As non-Cubans, we paid 2 CUC’s per hour.
After waiting in line for an hour and 15 minutes in the hot Cuban sun, we were each allowed to buy 3 of the 5-hour cards.
Not wanting to wait in the long hot line again during our trip, both Steven and I bought 15 hours each. We had to show our passport, or at least a copy of it. Also, at every homestay site we had to show our passports and sign their book. Our hosts then only had a few days to report we had been there so they could be taxed the appropriate amount. Every time I pulled out my passport here was a definite feel of Big Brother watching.
After we got the Wi-Fi cards we checked our emails and texted our kids. We tried to FaceTime, but the Wi-Fi wasn’t up to it. In fact, the Wi-Fi was really awful. It was very unpredictable. Sometimes it would let us on, but about half the time it would give us an error message. That is, if we could get it to even bring up the login page it would give us an error message. Then, if we did manage to finally get on, it would intermittently and randomly kick us off, so we’d have to start the whole frustrating process again. We did manage to check emails and text the kids an average of every-other-day or so throughout the trip, though, and Steven even managed to do a Facebook Live video once or twice on the trip. In my opinion, this is a very purposeful decision by the Cuban government. The average Cuban cannot afford to spend time fact-checking what the government says, and the infrastructure is much too unreliable to coordinate any uprisings or share much information. Social media is a totally untapped resource.
While we were trying to take care of some email business, Vince played a game at the local chess club. This was my idea as he does enjoy chess, and I thought it would be a good chance to try out his language skills. Then we realized that people don’t talk during chess games. Though he lost he said it was a good game.
While sitting in the town square we met Enzo, a 1 yr old boy, who liked to put leaves in Steven’s hat. Some things are common across cultures, and child development is one of them. His mother and father were very nice and gave us directions to a few places in town.
 
Next we visited some local shops and markets where we bought some percussion musical instruments (a güiro, and some maracas) and a wooden crocodile to add to Vincent’s collection of wooden animals from the places he visits. Unfortunately, a flight attendant on the Cuban Air flight on the way home managed to crush the musical instruments while they were in the overhead bin.
I thought about buying some artwork, but 99% of the subject matter was either classic cars, provocative women, or Afro-Cuban people, some quite offensive to my American sensibilities. I was not interested in any of these, so we bought no artwork.
Then we got a soda and sat outside the Casa De Musica, listening to a band play music.
They had a trumpet as well as the requisite guitar, and Latin percussion instruments (such as bongos, güiro, claves, maracas, cowbell, etc.) The beat of the rhythm was 1, 2&, 3, 4&, or 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8&. Cubans are quite proud of their music, but after a while all the bands and songs sound alike. There is not much variety.
To continue the journey, click here for Day 5.


Cuba As I See It, Day 3 – Cienfuegos to Trinidad via Santa Clara

Posted on
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.
Click here for Day 2.
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
Day 3,
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.