We’re all up early for the long drive from Vinales to Cienfuegos on the south coast, via Havana. Jorge says seven hours including stops and lunch. Breakfast is pancakes, fruit and plaintains. Margurite and I say thank you and good bye to Maga and a shirtless Julian on the porch. One of the girls says there is a law in Cuba that prohibits men from being shirtless but a man’s home is apparently exempt. This is the morning that I realise I’ve been calling our driver ‘Peirot’, which sounds like the spanish equivalent of ‘dog’ when his name is actually Pedro. I apologise with a reasonably straight face and we all have a good laugh.
We are all polite about taking turns in the rear bench of the van which is uncomfortable, especially the middle seat that humps up in the wrong places and has less leg room. I have the front bench for the first part of the drive, between Priti and Nicola who are both dozing before we’ve gone very far. I’m soon flanked by dark, nodding heads. It’s 137 miles to Havana which seems to take a long time at the slow speed of our cautious driver, in spite of the autoway being in quite good condition but it gives us a good opportunity to take in the scenery along the way. We pass many people standing at the side of the road, or braver souls leaning out into traffic in a game of chicken, waving dollar bills in their hands to entice a lift into Havana. Public transit seems unreliable at best and we are told that taxi’s with certain coloured license plates are required by law to pick up people along the route if they have room. Our license plate is blue and anyway, we are full. Groups of people gather under overpasses to wait for public buses, ushered and queued by attendants in yellow shirts. I notice the ubiquitous wood and web rocking chairs being sold at the roadside or from the backs of pick up trucks. We listen to music from Jorge’s iPod – Buena Vista Social Club, Benny More, Enrique Iglesius. A group of schoolgirls stand on a hill in crisp white shirts, and red skirts with suspenders waving madly at the passing traffic and having a great time.
We are soon winding through the Miramar district of Havana, an area of large mansions and expansive gardens that are mostly embassies and consulates. Jorge needs to pick up papers from a government office that closes at noon – just minutes before we pull up. I guess government offices are about the same everywhere. Jorge is disappointed but recovers quickly as we continue on through Havana and turn south toward Cienfuegos.
We are hungry by now and look for someplace along the highway to have lunch. We pull over at what looks like just a gravel pull out at the side of the road but Jorge chats to a guy lounging in a crude shack to one side and we are directed down the drive to a large covered patio with an outdoor kitchen and, luckily something that passes as a bathroom. Barely. The palador (a restaurant not owned by the state) is empty when we get there but soon fills up as we dine on one of the best meals I had in Cuba – crisp roast chicken, a large pork chop, moist chunks of roast pork, cassava, rice and beans, a huge bowl of fresh avocado chunks with dressing and fried ripe plantains. Our meal is briefly interrupted when the cook comes into the yard next to our table looking for a chicken, who sees him coming and after a respectable chase escapes under the fence. We all get a kick out of that.
A couple of hours later we reach the coast and the Bay of Pigs. Playa Giron. This is where the Cubans, under Fidel Castro foiled an invasion attempt by the US in 1961. Kennedy was in the White House and this episode is still considered to be his folly. I was nine years old and not old enough to understand the politics, the revolution in a place I’d never heard of, and Russian missiles in silos only a few hundred miles off the coast of the United States. My impressions of war came from stories of my grandfather fighting the Nazis in Italy, and the episodes of “Combat” that my father watched on the television on Saturday nights. Years later I would read about Che Guevarra, the politics of Fidel Castro and the passions of a people divided by their desire for the good life but unwilling to live under direct influence and control of the United States.
But at nine I was mightily impressed and frightened by the prospect of war, the terrifying sound of air raid sirens winding up from the tops of telephone poles in our neighbourhood, and the drills at school where we ducked under our desks for cover. Our mothers talked about building community air raid shelters and speculated about which neighbourhood kids they would, or would not like to be confined with in a bomb shelter. We Johnson kids were known to be pretty self-sufficient so I think we all ended up on the “with” list but I have never been quite sure of that.
I had nightmares about jack-booted soldiers clomping down the stairs and into my basement bedroom and I wasn’t going to wait around for a community shelter to be built. I fashioned my own refuge under our basement stairs, equipping it with essentials – books, pillows, a flashlight and as much candy as my twenty-five cent weekly allowance could buy. As an extra precaution I drilled a hole through the back of the stairs so that from my sheltered position I could see through the stairs to know who was going up or down. My mother soon spotted my peephole which unfortunately also pierced the carpet she had put down on the stairs. She did not get a kick out of that.
Jorge has pointed out the passes in the nearby mountain range where US jets thundered through doing reconnaissance missions prior to the invasion, also where the missle silos were that so threatened all of North America. Being here brings it all into perspective and closes a circle for me. I’m sure lots of Cuban kids had nightmares, too. The names of patriots who gave their lives defending Cuba during the Bay of Pigs invasion are inscribed on plaques displayed alongside Russian tanks and fighter planes. I’m struck by the beauty and the quiet of the place. We would love to take a swim in the Bay but it’s overcast, a bit cool and we are expected in Cienfuegos.
Our home stay casa in Cienfuegos is delightful – a separate suite in a large, ranch style house with a big yard. Our hosts, Oswaldo and Othalis are wonderful. They speak very little english, and our spanish is pitiful but they smile a lot and we return the gesture. A lot. Oswaldo apologizes through gestures for greeting us shirtless. There is a double room for Priti and Nic and a single room for me. There are chickens in the yard and it would become very evident early next morning, a rooster. There are also two very large Alsatian dogs who Oswaldo assures me are more pet than guard. I’m not convinced.
A quick shower and we are off down many blocks off colonnaded prado (boulevard) to a tiny, bright yellow cafe decorated on every wall with paintings of nude women, some of them quite good but all of them somewhat distracting. We are the only customers on this almost-rainy evening and a duo of guitar players descends on us with a vengeance. We battle with this duo for most of the evening as they respond to our spirited
conversation by creeping ever closer and cranking up the volume. Limited menu – spaghetti or pizza. Pizza toppings options are cheese, onions, olives, chorizo. I opt for the pizza, loaded and it’s quite good.