The few kilometers between Trinidad and La Boca remind us of the arid countryside in Spain.
Yoni, the 40-year-old man of the house where we’d stayed in Trinidad insists on driving us to our next casa, a reason to show off his newer-model bright red Dodge Ram Charger, a coveted possession he’d acquired two years earlier. He indicates driving us is to express gratitude for the gifts we left for his family and the workers. He also gives a ride home to his wife’s good friend, who, it turns out, lives two doors down from where we are about to spend the next night. Neither speaks any English, so the rapid-fire Spanish chatter is confined to the front seat.
We leave behind the tourists and the men playing dominoes in the streets; the vendor on the street corner pulling pork from a roasted pig to make sandwiches; the street musicians with drums, guitars, and maracas; and the many bicycle taxis.
We trade that for a quiet, low-key fishing village with a rugged coral shoreline, a tiny sand beach and fewer than 500 houses. Residents travel into Trinidad every couple of days to purchase most necessities. There is an all-purpose outdoor café/bar/taxi stand where a few tables are occupied and a couple of vintage cars are parked, their paint jobs not quite up to the level of those we’ve seen in Trinidad and Havana.
Our first casa particular in La Boca is like a tiny farmyard in the middle of the fishing village, with chickens, pigs and who-knows-what-else mostly concealed behind a wall of tropical plants and trees. Surprisingly, we detect no odor from the animals.
An enormous bunch of bananas hangs where it’s been placed for easy access to feed both people and animals. In the morning we hear the roosters crowing and the mourning doves calling above the whir of the fans. My earplugs allow through a pleasant filtered version, and I lie in bed imagining strings of words to match the four syllables coming from the doves with a Cuban accent – I decide they’re awakening the youngsters by cooing “report to school” with a frequency of a mother telling a child to get out of bed. We hear a variety of other birds in the early morning but never see them.
Ronal is our 30-something English-speaking host who studied the fine arts during his time at the university in Havana, choosing to work at restoring antique furniture in Trinidad until his father, the mayor, became ill a year earlier. His mother was the first person in town to rent a room to tourists 20+ years ago. There are two generations older than he in the casa as well as his spoiled soon-to-be-four-year-old daughter who is not feeling well the day we arrive. Privately John and I exchange glances indicating we each have doubts that we’ll be able to endure the whining and crying, wondering if the ear plugs will be called into doing double-duty.
But when I pull out a plush white pony with a mane and tail of blue yarn, her eyes light up and the tears dry. Winding the key plays Brahms' Lullaby, and she quickly names the stuffed animal “Musica.” The $3 purchase from the EChO Resale Store saves the day! Her father tells us the next morning that she awoke at 2 am, winding up Musica several times to go back to sleep.
Her pleasure is matched if not overshadowed by her parents’ delight when we pull out AA batteries from our suitcase. The wife, who’d said nothing up to that point, lights up and starts babbling rapidly in Spanish as she runs to uncover an extravagant electronic toy a family member had sent from Spain. The batteries with the toy arrived already spent, and the replacement batteries they’d sought out and paid dearly for had no more power when they got them home. So our batteries light up the eyes of the little one once again – as well as those of her parents who are pleased to see and hear the animated Spanish-speaking toy in action finally.
We present them with 48 AA batteries we’d bought at Costco; they decide these are enough for everyone in the entire village. We’d brought along two manual crank can openers because I’d heard many Cubans open tin cans with knives. Oh my, oh my! They’d never seen such things and needed a demonstration of how they worked. A huge hit!
While playing a few hands of gin in the afternoon, we open a baggie with premium mixed nuts we’ve brought along. Ronal studies them and asks if he can taste one, pointing to a cashew, saying they’ve only occasionally tasted peanuts and not seen any other nuts in Cuba. We pull out a second baggie and present it to him to share with his family.
This family has not yet experienced an increase in income from becoming a casa particular a year earlier. The tiny village is not necessarily a tourist attraction. Just a couple of months ago, the brother in Spain had registered them on Airbnb, facilitating publicity and the use of credit cards with advance reservations; and bookings had suddenly picked up. I’d wondered why my credit card had become usable for making reservations in Cuba. The secret is that those coordinating the bookings are relatives in foreign countries – Spain, France, and the US in our cases. They find their own ways to eventually hand over the monies to family members in Cuba, converted from various currencies. Airbnb is the way to go if you’re an American trying to plan a trip yourself!
The next day, the neighbor friend who’d shared the ride from Trinidad pays us a visit and invites us into her home, a modest stand-alone house with a fenced-in yard and room to park a car, although there is not one to be seen. She introduces us to her daughter who is bathing a grandchild while another pre-schooler plays on the living room floor. The living room is bare except for an old sewing machine she uses to make some of the cloth dolls we have seen for sale in Trinidad. I run back to our casa to retrieve the bag of buttons I brought along – you know, all the spare buttons that come with new clothing in case one needs to be replaced. I hate to throw them away but seldom, if ever, need one. Her eyes get big, studying the decorative ones and probably imagining how she might use them.
We hand out toys for her grandchildren, and she’s particularly taken by the daintily dressed Beatrix Potter mouse and the durable four-wheeler Batman vehicle with giant tires. Spending a total of $17 at EChO on a discount day had nearly filled one suitcase with toys. Customs agents had questioned us how much we’d spent on the toys and personal hygiene items in one suitcase, finding it hard to believe when I said $40-50 because the toys were all used.
We walk a few blocks to the elementary school to hand out construction paper, scissors and glue sticks, supplies of pencils, colored pencils and crayons. A book on fractions takes the eye of one teacher who also recognizes the glue gun as something she can use. We have baseballs, a soccer ball, Play-Doh, stuffed animals and other toys to turn over, as well as ten baggies filled with fishing line, weights and hooks. Casting an outfitted line into the water and hauling it in fist over fist takes the place of fishing poles – unaffordable and unavailable in many Caribbean islands.
Fish, however, are readily available across the island. For the next three nights we pay our hosts to serve us local cuisine home-style. We’re given choices of fish, chicken, shrimp, pork, and lobster tails, ranging in price from $8 to $15. They even offer up drink menus with the more popular cocktails like Mojitos and piña coladas. Contrary to what we’d read about a lack of spice in Cuban foods, we find them to be very flavorful. Indeed, they are not “spicy” as in picante. We gift our small, unopened bottle of Tobasco to one of the casas should they have guests who need more kick.
Guavas, mangos, papayas, pineapples and bananas are staples, along with other fruits we cannot identify. Strawberries show up on an occasional dessert, but berries in general are not a part of the wide array of fruits offered. Ice cream is everyone’s favorite. Potatoes and sweet potatoes often accompany rice on a plate. Cucumbers, shredded cabbage, carrots and tomatoes comprise the typical salad, served with oil and vinegar.
Iliana, Ronal’s mother, serves up the world’s best chicken noodle soup, rich with vegetables – a meal in itself but meant to be a starter – and is pleased that our expressions reflect another five-star endorsement for the family favorite. The lobster tail is enormous – more than I care to eat, but who lets a lobster tail go completely uneaten?
We learn Iliana had lived her first dozen or so years in a mountainous location where there was no electricity or plumbing and no work for her father. Living in the small village appeals to her after spending some time in Havana. Her daughter-in-law in the household is also from a rural village. I wonder how well they get along living together under one roof, but we are not there long enough to report any observations. I give them each a packet of cosmetics.
We apologize that we are unable to eat everything they put in front of us, feeling bad that any food goes to waste; they convey a “not to worry” response, saying they use the leftovers to feed the pigs! It seems important throughout our 10-day period on the island that offering more-than-generous amounts of food is important to convey the welcoming Cuban hospitality. I wonder how much they eat privately.
Ronal tells us about a young couple from the States who’d arrived not knowing their credit cards would not be usable in Cuba, explaining they could not afford to pay the $5 per person for breakfast. Ronal’s family waived the breakfast charges and provided them with bowls of their hearty soup at no cost for an evening meal.
It’s important to note that Cuba does not do business with American banks. ATMs don’t work for Americans. Even foreign currency loaded to a debit card won’t work if the card is issued by a US Bank. I’m not sure you could even have money wired if you run out of cash. Anyone planning to travel to Cuba outside of a tour needs to be prepared with LOTS of cash for any eventuality.
Our German counterparts in the next guestroom are cigarette smokers, and the smoke that drifts through the open louvers is a reminder that we’ve seen very few smokers anywhere. I’d inquired in Trinidad whether the Cubans themselves smoked cigars, as we’d only seen two occasions on the streets when men were enjoying the native product. “Yes!” had been the answer.
We share a taxi with the Germans to Playa Ancon, a two-mile stretch of white sandy beach about 5 or 6 kilometers away. The charge is $10, and the Germans argue with the driver that it is too much, explaining they knew it should just be $5. We have no problem with the charge, but they feel by paying the higher amount all future tourists will suffer. I ask around before the return trip and find that, like the increased fare from Havana to Trinidad, the short trips have also increased. Overall, I find little reason to challenge any of the charges we incur in Cuba, except for the occasional opportunist on the street who wants to make $10 for offering to snap one’s picture, for instance.
Tipping for taxi rides is outside the protocol in Cuba. No tipping except in all-inclusive resorts. One exception: Tipping in restaurants is now being encouraged. 10% is the amount suggested on many menus. We ran across two restaurants in Havana that added it on automatically as a “service charge.”
I foresee Americans upsetting the applecart in this regard. It would seem like this is one way to add to the Cuban economy and to help the locals, but it is not encouraged. The foreign tourists who have been going to Cuba for all the years before Americans were permitted to do so will also resent the change in the status quo.
With the way things are changing so rapidly, my comments about tipping could easily be out-of-date by the time the next tour book is published.
We see very few Americans in our travels, mostly Europeans. In fact, as I think back, we really haven't seen very many tourists, considering it is the last week of high season. At this point, most tourists visit all-inclusive resorts on the northeast part of the island and might get a day trip to a place like Trinidad.
Privately, I marvel at the joys of family life we are able to observe in these multi-generational households and hope that no part of the changes to come will alter those aspects of life in Cuba.
In case you missed the start of this series: