Our one night at Iliana and Papa’s casa particular is a fill-in between other reservations that didn’t quite abut each other, but the stay proves to be a huge cultural exchange. Ronal’s fluency in English enables questions to fly in both directions with ease.
A couple of college-age German gals arrive in a rented car expressing exasperation at the driving experience. Once off the main highway, the roads are not well marked. In Trinidad, when marked at all, the streets are identified with tiny markers set into the old buildings, barely readable when walking, certainly not from an automobile. There are no street signs in La Boca. We have read that rental cars are few and far between, costing about three times as much as one might expect for a week. Parking is an issue in the larger towns, as parking lots do not exist and the streets can be quite narrow. Traveling by taxi seems to be the easiest.
Ronal is so moved by the many gifts we have given his family or left with them to distribute to people in their village that he insists on providing the taxi ride to our next casa a couple of miles away, although it is not in his own car. He accompanies us to ensure there is someone there to carry our bags into the house and again expresses his gratitude before wishing us a good stay.
At our next casa in La Boca, the two women who own the place speak not a syllable of English, and they seem to have difficulty understanding John’s Spanish, which up until now has impressed everyone else. They turn out to be nice people though and take pleasure in planning a birthday party for John one night, complete with recorded music, decorations and a single balloon. They cut numbers from construction paper and attach them to toothpicks to decorate the large flan they’d prepared for dessert, and they encourage other guests to join in with singing “Feliz Compleaños.” John is touched.
The house is the newest we’ve seen in Cuba and stands alone on the outskirts of the village, surrounded by a lot of land. It is sparsely furnished but has a large flat-screen TV in the living room and lovely artwork on the walls. All the homes seem to have oversized wooden rocking chairs as the main furniture in their living rooms. It is apparent that Maricela has invested her tourist dollars in making the house comfortable and attractive.
The tables for eating are outside in the fresh air, but undercover. Although the house has a well-equipped kitchen with a large, modern refrigerator, the cooking and food prep are done in the outdoor kitchen, also undercover. We come prepared with bug-repellant bracelets but only encounter a lone mosquito each night. The provided mosquito netting over the bed seems unnecessary but we hang our bug bracelets on the bedposts just in case.
Maricela enjoys gardening, and we tour her half-acre garden where she grows the vegetables she serves us for dinner. The tomatoes are to die for.
Elio Vilva Trujillo, a well-known artist from Trinidad, happens to be walking by on the street separated from the house by a large, xeriscaped front yard when Maricela, our hostess, calls to him to stop for a visit. She has two of his paintings hanging in her home. We admire Elio’s work, and he offers to come back later in the day, riding the 4 kilometers on his bike after the hottest part of the day passes. He says he’ll bring four other paintings we might wish to look at with the idea we might possibly buy one.
Elio does return around dinnertime with books and albums and documentation showing his accomplishments and how his paintings have been for sale in galleries in Italy, Belgium, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, New York City, LA and other places. Elio is the only Cuban we meet who has traveled beyond the island.
Articles in US newspapers indicate a cultural exchange has taken him to places in the Northeast; the scrapbooks prove to be a good source of information while communicating with someone who does not speak English. Trinidad happens to be a sister-city to Brunswick, Maine, which featured his work a few years ago. One article says a Belgian couple paid him 1,000 Euros, commissioning a piece to commemorate their 30th anniversary.
His delicately detailed acrylic pieces are mainly related to the Santeria religion. We select one that is not, pay his $80 asking price while he removes it from the frame and rolls it up for packing. We present him with Gorilla Glue and Gorilla Tape and two tiny flashlights, one that would clip onto his hat and help him get home in the dark. At age 60, he says it’s the first time he’s ever owned a flashlight!
[When we arrive home, we learn Elio is much more famous than we ever anticipated; Googling his name brings up dozens of listings indicating his small works the size of ours are reselling at auctions in the $1,000 range in foreign countries. Ten days after our meeting, we receive a personal email from him and establish a penpal relationship.]
The few other Americans we encounter in our travels have also brought things to give away. One young couple from LA say they will fly home with just the clothes on their backs, leaving everything else behind for the Cubans. We share their enthusiasm for wanting to show kindness, and it occurs to me that I could probably part with some of my clothing as well. John leaves behind a brand new pair of athletic shoes.
We find the closest thing to a pharmacy in the duty-free area of the airport when we leave; it offers about 25 different items, one of each under glass in a single display counter. One must take every possible medication or antiseptic because drugstores are simply not available. Leaving behind unused medicines, toiletries and clothes has become a common practice for Americans.
One nicely dressed Cuban ticket-seller at a museum approaches me to point out in Spanish that we are wearing the same shoes, just in different colors. I ask where she found them to buy, and she proudly says a tourist gave them to her. (I paid $85 for mine in Carmel.)
The other tourists we encounter from Europe seem puzzled why we’d be handing out gifts, admitting it would not have occurred to them. Tour groups and blogs for US travelers encourage gift giving, and it seems to be what differentiates the Americans from other tourists. Perhaps it is the generosity of Americans. Perhaps it is a one-on-one peace offering that seems appropriate between those from Estados Unidos to their neighbors on the newly accessible island to the south.
Most of the tourists we see are Europeans – dominated by Germans with a smattering of Swiss, Austrians and Brits. We only come across two Canadians and decide they likely stick to the all-inclusive resorts on the north side of the island, as Cuba is the most popular destination for Canadians. We learn that the Italians like to come in August, although that’s a month when most other tourists choose to avoid the hot, humid weather.
Although people we know who’ve traveled to Cuba have reported discussing the new relationship with the US, feelings about Cuba’s leaders, and how they view Americans, we find too many other things to talk about. I, especially, am eager to know about their lives. And they, without exception, are pleased to talk at length with the use of hand language, drawing images on paper, dictionaries, and pieced-together languages. They even offer up commentary about the immaturity of their university-aged children, dealing with an elderly parent who is fearful of leaving her house, quitting a job in the city and returning home when a father becomes ill.
Religion only comes up twice – once when one woman explains that she met her husband at church 25 years ago, the other when I inquire whether another family will be celebrating Easter at the end of the week when we are at their home. Raquel humbly explains that, when Castro came into power, the Catholic Church was condemned; Cuba became an atheist state. She’d been christened a Catholic after Castro took power, and even though some of the family heirlooms on display in her place are Catholic icons, she has not returned to the church after all these years. My research reveals that only about 1.5 percent of Cubans now attend the Catholic Church regularly. Santeria – a combination of African worship of saints and the Catholic faith – attracts more worshippers. Recent changes by Raul Castro are loosening the noose on religion.
Consistent with our other taxi experiences, our driver for the trip back to Havana arrives half an hour early and waits while we finish breakfast. Just outside of Trinidad we cover a mile or two stretch of roadway with thousands of smashed migrating land crabs about 6-10 inches in diameter that have been hit by vehicles the night before. Some escapees can still be seen moving across the pavement.
Reportedly, the crabs can puncture tires. Spring rains trigger their march home to the edge of the sea to lay eggs, traveling from burrows into the earth several kilometers inland.
A young Swiss couple staying at a shared casa tell us they’ve learned through conversations with a taxi driver that, if one can afford to own a car to be used as a taxi, it involves paying the government $250/year for the privilege. This falls into the recent changes by the Cuban government to allow individuals to profit from tourism. Acquiring a car for most is like aspiring for a million-dollar home while on welfare. I see this as an invitation for corruption in years to come as foreigners find ways to invest in Cuba.
The young man who drives us from Trinidad back to Havana – a four-hour drive one-way for $120 – only makes $20/month, as he uses a taxi owned by the state-owned agency. Big difference. He misses an opportunity to make a sizeable tip by not wanting to carry our bags up the stairs. Tipping taxi drivers is frowned upon, but I’d decided to give him all my remaining local currency nonetheless – about a third of a month’s wages. However, he turns away rapidly after glancing at the two flights of stairs leading to the second floor.
We stay again with Raquel in Old Havana. Our final afternoon before our trip home we decide to hire a taxi to drive us through the newer section of the city, traveling along the Malecon, Havana’s 5-mile-long stretch of sandy beach/seawall/esplanade. This is the area where newly permitted entrepreneurs are opening small businesses.
We see modern buildings as well as the elegant homes of diplomats and the US Embassy. We pass an enormous cemetery with all the crypts above ground, a monument honoring José Martî, and the park where the Rolling Stones performed a free, open-air concert just a year earlier. The reliable and pleasant driver Raquel arranged for us returns the next morning to deliver us to the airport. Although the vehicle itself is nothing to look at, we feel like we’re truly being chauffeured around in style.
Our plane tickets on Southwest and Interjet had permitted us to take two bags each, so we went with four and returned with two. Most tours and flights into Cuba are more restrictive than ours, permitting just a single suitcase limited to 44 lbs.
The personalities of everyone we meet on our trip make for a depth of understanding beyond words adequate to describe our first trip to Cuba. We depart feeling we have been good ambassadors for the United States, doing our part in helping to repair the relationship between countries that has existed for so many years. Like the story of the starfish being thrown back into the sea, while it doesn’t change things on a big scale, it makes a difference one by one.
In case you missed the start of this series: