Awakened too early by the rooster in the back yard of our Cienfuegos casa. Half-awake, it sounds to me exactly like “Shut-the-fuck-uuup!” over and over and over again while I struggle to stay asleep in spite of the raucous din. I finally give up and get up. It’s too early for breakfast so I sit out on the sunny patio, out of sight of the two alsatians, catching up on my journal and watching the foot traffic as people walk into the city center to begin their work day.
A beaming Othalis and Oswaldo bring our breakfast and lay it out on the table in our little kitchen – cheese omelettes, fresh fruit and very strong coffee. Tea for Priti and Nicola. I’m sorry that we only have one night here as it is a lovely spot and I would have liked to get know our hosts better. In the few extra minutes before we meet the rest of our group we learn that Oswaldo is an engineer and Othalis is an economist although neither seems to be heading out to work. It was the same with our Vinales hosts. Julian described himself as a ‘technician’ but in the days we stayed with them he didn’t go anywhere during the day to work. I wonder about the level of active employment in Cuba. Oswaldo apologises profusely for wearing only an undershirt for our photo. I ask how business has been for their home-stay casa, wondering if events in the rest of the world are having an affect on the economy in Cuba. They tell me that their suite is booked for the next six months by ‘Gary’ from Canada, who comes every year and stays all season. I want to do that!
The morning is spent touring the beautiful city of Cienfuegos. We walk down the prado, which is much more impressive by daylight. All of the ornate, concrete buildings on both sides of the long, wide boulevard are fronted with tall, stately columns. The wide mall down the centre of the prado is planted with trees and shrubs and dotted with statuary, including a life-size bronze of the Cuban jazz great, Benny More. Walking down a side street toward the central Square that seems to be a common feature of all Cuban towns and cities we pass a very large shop with rows of barbers on one side of the polished floor and rows of hairdressers on the other. This is a state-run barber and beauty shop. As with elsewhere that we’ve been there are occasional monuments to the revolucion and on one corner of the big square a huge billboard of Che, in distinctive beret, Cuban flag in the background with an admonition in spanish for Cubans to respect their hard won rights…or something like that.It’s a gorgeous day, hot and sunny even though Hurricane Rina lurks off the coast between Cuba and the Yucatan Penninsula. I am the only one of our group with full cellular access (thanks to Rogers!) so I keep the group posted on developments but we are far enough south to be out of the way of any effects for now so we wander the park in the hot sunshine. Dani has a handful of inexpensive pens in her pack. We have read online that Cubans appreciate any small items like this. She gives one to a young boy whose mother has allowed us to take a photo and the gesture attracts the attention of a number of older men and women, who begin to follow us around the square asking for money. They do indeed look like they are in desperate straits and that’s inconsistent with my understanding that all Cubans have basic needs – food, housing and healthcare. We have also been told that it is not permitted for Cubans to beg.We drive out toward the bay and stop in front of a gorgeous, moorish looking mansion Palacia del Valle. It’s in the process of being restored and looks like it’s being used as a restaurant and a banquet hall. We wander the elaborately carved hallways and take the spiral staircase up to the rooftop to enjoy the beautiful views out over Punta Gorda. Crude repairs are being made to the finely crafted columns that form part of the rooftop structure and we’re told that the workers are ‘architectural students’.We stop by the spectacular Cienfuegos Yacht Club on the way out of town. Margurite wanders the docks sizing up the various moored catamarans. We have the club to ourselves except for the manager and a couple of staff and we linger on the patio in the sunshine enjoying the view out to the bay. I’m pretty happy that they have a lovely bathroom!
The rest of our drive to Trinidad takes us mostly along the beautiful south coastline of Cuba and it goes quickly. Trinidad is larger again than Cienfuegos and certainly appears to be a much older city. It’s a UNECSO World Heritage site. That makes four UNESCO sites for me, if anyone’s counting. The streets are narrow and quite crowded with dog carts, dusty cars and pedestrians making their way along the very narrow sidewalks that edge the roughly cobblestoned streets. Houses with iron grates at the windows and storefronts with gaping doors form solid walls along the ancient roads.We pull up on a very narrow street indistinguishable from all the other streets and stop in front of the large, heavy wood door of a yellow building with grated windows. This is where Margurite and I will stay for the next two nights. The iron hinges creak as we wrestle our bags through the door into the cool, tiled darkness of a formal sitting room. A sofa and matching chairs upholstered in a tapestry-like fabric are arranged symetrically around a low, graceful table that displays a number of small carvings. Large, dark bureaus and hutches hunker against the walls loaded down with photos and ornaments. Two doors to our left lead into bedrooms and in the opposite corner a staircase leads to the upstairs. We are introduced to Sol, a young woman of very few words who shows us through the sitting room toward the back of the house and into a large formal dining room furnished with an ornately-carved dark wood table and chairs and several matching sideboards, all burgeoning with stacks of fine china, silver and serving pieces. Beyond that, and open to the rest of the house except for an iron security gate is a lush walled garden around a mossy brick patio, deep green and cool in the heat and humidity, with several inviting iron rocking chairs and a bird in a bamboo cage. Margurites room is off the garden, adjoining the tiny kitchen in the corner and my large, bright yellow, thickly shuttered room is off the dining room. I’m very happy to find that the heavy yellow shutters open onto the garden. This feels like a place where I could spend some time. I’m drawn to the enchanting garden. It’s very hot and sticky and we have a quick shower before gathering up the rest of the girls for lunch. Their shared rooms are much more sparse – two rooms built on either side of the roof of a two storey house a few doors up the street from ours, with a steep staircase covered at the top by a rebar grate. This contraption would never get by a risk manager! We have lunch standing on the narrow sidewalk across from the casa – big, fluffy “peso pizzas” folded in half and dripping grease through the stiff brown paper wrappers. They come in two variations – with ham or without. They are being made and sold by a couple of guys hanging out the window of the casa across the street and they are delicious!
After lunch Jorge gives us a quick orientation of our neighbourhood – the streets really do all look the same and are laid out at angles and dead ends that make it almost impossible to get our bearings. I have a pretty sound sense of direction most times but I am very careful not to get left behind by the tour for fear I won’t find my way back to anyplace recognisable. Dani and I are distracted by a gallery along the way, lingering to admire a couple of large and very intriguing paintings. We hurry to catch up with the group but are determined to try to find our way back to the gallery again when we have time. Our tour culminates in Plaza Mayor, a large and open space at the top of a very old cobblestoned street that we enter through an iron gate. The large square blocks of stone that run like a spine down the middle of the worn and uneven stones that pave this street were originally used as ballast in the ships that called at Trinidad in the early days of shipping. The plaza is dominated by the pre-requisite Roman Catholic church with a tall bell tower that, perched on this rise in the middle of the city, overlooks most of Trinidad and on the opposite end a long bank of wide, well-worn stone steps between rows of tall trees, with various low buildings on each side and at the top. Jorge says that anyone who has not been to The Steps leading up to the Casa de la Musica, has not been to Trindad. Walking back to our casas Jorge reinforces how to get back from the plaza – three blocks (a relative term here) and then left and left. Or is it left and right? We devise our own orienteering method. We turn left onto Colon Street then right onto our own street, Gracias and remember it with the phrase “Thanks for the colonoscopy!” It may have been me who came up with that phrase. And it may have been after a couple of cuervesa’s at Plaza Mayor later that evening.
Our orientation completed, we are all very happy to head for the beach, which is a twenty minute ride by van from the city. Someone wonders why the city is not built on the coast and we speculate, on the drive out about the role of religion and of imposed standards of modesty in this hot, humid place where 95% of the population are Roman Catholic. I wonder about freedom of religion, the level of tolerance for alternate lifestyles and at the noticable absence of the ethnic diversity that I am accustomed to seeing in Canada.The beach is perfect! We park our sweltering bodies under a grass cabana, order a couple of lounge chairs and mojitos from the oh-so-convenient beach bar and settle in for a couple of hours of serious lounging. The water has been stirred up by the hurricane out in the gulf. It’s murky and slightly sandy instead of the clear blue of travel posters but its wonderfully warm and soothing.
We all ate at our casas on this night. Eating with our hosts is part of the home-stay experience and we are told that hosts really like the opportunity to meet and talk with people from abroad. There are only two places set. Margurite and I dine together and Alberto, who we think is the patriarch in this well-appointed multi-family home but whom we have not met until now, serves us in the style of a waiter at a high end restaurant. I feel slightly uncomfortable with this arrangement and as he slips into a creme coloured vest and wraps a bow tie around his shirt collar I wonder if he is playing a game or a charade. He pads silently back and forth from the kitchen in the obsequious manner of Anthony Hopkins playing the butler in “The Remains of the Day” with plates of fresh cucumber, ochre and shredded cabbage and a platter – each! – of fresh buttery lobster. It’s strange but all very tasty and I feel very badly about not being able to eat more. There’s a hint of displeasure from Alberto as he clears our plates.
The rest of the girls arrive to meet us and we start the evening with a “pre-game” – a very useful Australian term for a warm up cocktail at the beginning of the evening that we learned from Dani and not to be confused with ‘post-game”. Our pre-game is at the unbelievably civilised 5-star Iberostar Hotel just around the corner from our casas. It’s heaven and I make good use of the exceptionally well-appointed restroom before we head out to The Steps and Casa de la Musica at Plaza Mayor. It’s a very warm evening and we are immediately sticky with humidity. The Steps look entirely different from our first sight of them earlier in the day. Now they are flood-lit in bright colours, patio lights hang in the trees. Half way up the steps is the open Casa de la Musica – cloth-covered tables are arranged around a dance fllor and stage. The band is on a break but salsa music blares from banks of speakers and several couples show off their considerable skills on the dance floor. We order cuervesas, find a spot in the crowds on the steps and perch to watch the dancers. A few Cuban guys are picking out reluctant tourists from the crowd to have a dance. I’d be reluctant, too even though I love to dance and think I might be able to keep up but these Cubans can really, really dance. Especially the guys. We all watch a pretty big guy in a dark green t-shirt who is an artist – twisting and turning, stepping over and under his partner and seeming to float above the floor in spite of his size. He dances with a number of different partners and makes each one look like a pro. I think they must dance here every night and I envy them their simple and joyful pleasure. After a few cuervesas we make our way home – thanks for the colonoscopy – and call it a night at a pretty respectable one o’clock. Pre-game!