We travel from Havana to Trinidad in a collective taxi with another couple, squeezing four adult passengers and four suitcases into a modestly-sized “modern” car, which means something newer than 1959, ours perhaps just 40 years old. It takes three men pushing the vehicle to get it started, and then we are off at 8:30 on a Saturday morning.
The 1950s (and older) cars are ubiquitous, making up about 60% of the vehicles we see. Some are truly spectacular.
Billboards with photos of Fidel and Raul Castro are frequent sights, as are slogans about the benefits of Socialism.
Few people have cars, so traffic on the main highway is very very light by our standards. About 30 miles into the trip, the taxi exits onto a dirt road leading back into the densely treed, jungle-like area. We can’t help but wonder if we might be robbed, but it is just a matter of filling the gas tank with black market gasoline, using a funnel. The fumes remain prominent, at least for the person sitting immediately behind the driver with gasoline on his hands. He proves to be a safe and conscientious motorist who pulls over to accept a cell phone call, as it is illegal to talk or text on a cell phone while driving.
The trip costs $120 – $30 per person – up 50% from the 2016 tour book which quoted $80 – a sign that things are changing quickly. We learned in advance this is the standard rate for the route. A modern bus, which takes 6 hours, is an alternative at about $20 per person but requires advance reservations of several days.
Twice we stop to check for the noises coming from one of the wheels. The weight with four suitcases and five adults is too much for the small car. But we arrive safely after 4 hours, delivered right to the door. Our driver, who speaks no English, is kind enough to carry the luggage quite a distance.
I learn from our taxi-mates – grad students from Virginia Tech, one of whom is studying the Cuban culture – that Cuba has a history of considerable Chinese immigrants. As slavery of Africans was phased out, the Chinese took their places in the sugar fields and tobacco plantations in the mid 1800s. Reportedly, almost no Chinese women were among them. In Havana there is a large Chinese cemetery and a Chinatown.
Once off the main highway, we share the road with horse-drawn carts and bicycles, just as we did in Havana. Cattle – once as populous as people on the island – wandering freely pose the same dangers as our beloved elk, but it is a crime to kill one in Cuba and punishable with 10 years’ jail time if one’s intention is to kill to consume. During the Special Period, the cattle industry was diminished significantly as people ate whatever they could find.
Our casa particular in Trinidad is quite modern by Cuban standards, but the narrow concrete spiral staircase to the main level on the second floor is treacherous at best, only offering a handrail part of the way and pointed spikes of concrete threatening any misstep. Family members insist on helping John navigate each time we come and go. The elderly are revered in Cuba, and many generations live together.
There are so many family members and visitors present when we arrive that it is difficult to know whether or not they all live there. It takes us three days to sort out the names of our hosts, only one of whom (Yulitsu) speaks any English, which is minimal. Between John’s Spanish from his year in Venezuela in the early 1950s and my high school Spanish, we manage a number of in-depth conversations.
Elma, the matriarch of the family (pictured left), speaks only Spanish, but we communicate nevertheless. I like her and convey that I wish I could sit and chat. Elma’s job with a hotel during the “Special Period” kept the family from feeling as destitute as most Cubans, her daughter explains. Elma, at 77, still works, giving demonstrations to tourists of how to roll cigars near Plaza Mayor, the main plaza. When she comes home from work in the evening, she prepares dinner for the family, including Yuli’s mother-in-law who occupies the downstairs apartment, eating about 8 o'clock. The aroma of her homestyle cooking beckons to us as we pass through the modernly equipped kitchen.
Strangely enough, we hear little about men in the lives of the women we encounter. Many women are divorced, and we hesitate to probe. One says she needs a husband to help with the upkeep of her casa. Another asks me to find her a husband in the US. Everyone, however, exudes a contentedness not obvious in the average American who enjoys far more comforts, conveniences and treasures than the privileged Cuban.
Trinidad is an old colonial city dating back to 1514 that used to deal in slave trade for the sugar plantations in the valley. The entire city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, and they’ve done much to preserve the character. Cars – even bicycle taxis are forbidden in the oldest cobblestone area of many square blocks.
I have the opportunity to help save a man’s life in Plaza Mayor when a young taxi driver – probably from a distant city – enters the square without permission and puts his car in reverse to quickly escape before being prosecuted. With the fervor that makes me think of a car bomber mowing down a crowd of pedestrians, he nearly runs over an elderly tourist near me. I grab at the tourist and yell in a way that can be understood in any language, drawing the attention of others nearby who join in to avert what would certainly have been a disaster.
A train ride to view the former sugar plantations gives us a glimpse into the countryside, which is mostly arid with mountains a short distance away. There are not enough seats for everyone, and it is apparent that not everyone re-boards after the single touristy stop. The train makes an unusual move after departing from the end of the line, backing up more than half a mile when it realizes two of the train workers had failed to board!
Two years ago Yuli applied for the license to operate a casa particular and has earned quite a reputation on Airbnb for pleasing her clients with the upscale accommodations. The beds are comfortable, the rooms clean and pleasingly painted, and the breakfasts plentiful. The many serving plates fill the entire dining room table with more food than 8 people could eat – but there are just 2 of us. She does double duty to serve her houseguests on separate levels until we ask to eat with the other guests to reduce the workload for her.
Yuli enjoys acquiring antiques with her spare money and is proud of her peach-colored Depression glass and Baccarat crystal. We try visiting her private source for antiques, but alas, he is in Havana visiting his mother while she has eye surgery.
She does, however, arrange for me to get a haircut two doors down – 10 minutes for $5; the same shop repairs a split nail and freshens my polish for another $5 the next day. Locals pay less. I question the polish remover being used, and everyone shakes a head – it is labeled in Russian. Sanitary regulations are non-existent, and I suspect two days later that the rash I develop on all 10 fingers, similar in appearance to poison ivy, is due to the shared equipment that had never been sanitized. They speak no English, but not to worry – at least for the haircut – we manage better than I sometimes do in Evergreen with extensive attempts to describe what I want.
It seems everything is accomplished within a few steps of where they live.
Yulitsu explains that building on to one’s house for rentable rooms has to be done slowly and cautiously or it raises a red flag. She tells of one friend who added 12 rooms, and the government shut her down out of suspicion of where the money came from. We can see that some of the new-found wealth of tourism finds its way into providing more up-to-date furnishings and décor than the residents themselves enjoy.
Yuli confirms what I've heard from others about the process for becoming a casa particular and says she keeps busy 7 days/week for 9 months of the year. It really does tie one down, getting up 90 minutes or so before the first guests request breakfast to peal, cut and slice the many fruits; to prepare the pancakes that are served cold with just butter or honey to sweeten them; to create the tremendous spread of sweets and breads that complement the vast array of local fruits and juices. There is a pitcher or thermos for everything liquid – espresso-strength coffee, hot water, juices and hot milk. Eggs and cheese are also offered, but no breakfast meats.
We learn bacon does not exist in Cuba, as they have no means to process the pork. I find myself craving bacon before the week is out.
Other guests occupying a room were from Austria – part of a tour of Europeans booked into casas particulares throughout the island. Over breakfast they delicately and respectfully broach the subject of our president, wanting to see if their news is being reported accurately. Yuli says most of her guests are from Italy, Germany, Japan, China, and now the US. Our stay costs about $40/night plus $5 per person for a breakfast that would cost $20 per person in the US.
One evening we stop at the Iberostar Hotel, the priciest place in town, to inquire about dining there the next evening and possibly staying a night. Although just a one-star hotel by some ratings, a three-star by others, the cheapest room (that night) was $450. The restaurant was reasonably priced, however.
Individuals can also apply for licensing as a paladar, serving meals to tourists in their homes. Signage for these is sparse, but we observe locals selling prepared foods, presumably to proprietors of restaurants or casas particulares. We see one man helping a bicyclist to balance an open pail of soup, thick with rice, beans and vegetables. The pail itself – with a capacity of perhaps 3 or more gallons – is constructed of some sort of thick animal skin resembling the rawhide used for doggie chew toys. Other individuals display their freshly baked goods in street-level windows offering, we assume, to the same proprietors rather than the public.
We inquire about “needy” people we might give gifts to, and Yuli explains that ALL people in Cuba are needy. This family enjoys a much higher standard of living than most because of the tourism industry, but we approach workmen using pick axes on the roof of their home and present them with bags of personal hygiene items, utility knives and spare blades. Yuli translates how grateful they are, as a single anti-perspirant alone costs the equivalent of 25% of a person’s take-home pay for a month. They seldom get toothpaste for the same reason. Yuli spots a bottle of aspirin in the bag and asks if she can have that for her mother’s back pain, as aspirin is not available locally.
Generally, people are clean and fairly well groomed. Children wear uniforms to school and always appear neatly attired. Seemingly everyone – men and women – dye their hair, and I conclude at the end of a week that I stand out with my salt-and-pepper hair, which draws comments.
As in Havana, we notice a variety of occupations sharing a single storefront – perhaps as many as 8 or 10. There might be a barber alongside someone fixing a pressure cooker next to someone repairing a motorcycle next to someone repairing jewelry. Sometimes a “storefront” is merely an open door with pairs of used shoes displayed on the steps.
The pace of living in the city picks up noticeably as Monday morning arrives. People walk in the streets, stepping aside for the big trucks and tour buses navigating the narrow streets with difficulty. Two-seater bicycle taxies and horse-drawn carts are common.
Tuesday we observe one store that has two major deliveries – 50-lb bags of rice from Vietnam and fresh eggs, packaged 30 to a cardboard flat. We see people buying as many as 10 flats and being creative about transporting them on bicycles. The last of perhaps a thousand dozen eggs and an entire truckload of rice disappear before our eyes as we wait in line 20 minutes to exchange our Canadian dollars for tourist pesos and a modest amount for local pesos to give away. By 10:00 am the store is empty.
Two Cadecas (state-run money exchanges) are near the casa particular; there are always lines – but not as long as at the hour-long waits at banks where the exchanges are better. Cadecas exchange everything in $5 pesos, so it comes as a surprise when I exchange a substantial amount of Canadian dollars getting a stack of 120 $5 peso notes.
Many artists make a living off tourists in Trinidad with their vibrant drawings and paintings. The old automobiles make for popular subject matter, but a number of artists are inventive, toying with the supernatural or the Santaria religion. Original paintings can be had for as little as $10, but some climb into the thousands. We settle for 2 that total about $75. The proprietors offer to remove the canvases from the stretcher frames, rolling for easier packing.
Before bedtime, Yoni, the man of the house, hauls out his classical guitar and sings a few songs to us with his melodic voice, starting with such a pleasing version of Besame Mucho. He performs in clubs and restaurants but declares that tonight he is performing for this casa particular.
The sounds of Cuban conversations, laughter and joy pass through the cooler night air as we fall asleep with an open window.
In case you missed the start of this series:
Note: Last week's issue of JustAroundHere.com was published from Trinidad after seeking out a wifi connection (pronounced "wiffy" by the locals) and purchasing three hours of time at a telephone office in the square near the Iberostar Hotel. Coming within 30 minutes of finishing, my time ran out, and I ran to the telephone office 15 minutes before it was scheduled to close at 7 pm. Finding the door locked, others outside explain their system is down, so they'd had to close early. I returned to our casa, and Yuli offers to sell me time on her card, except about 10 minutes from hitting "send" the power in the area goes out (a frequent occurrence, I'm told), causing all Internet connections to cease for hours.