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Published: March 20th 2011
I assume many reading this will have some idea about Cuba and its system. Obviously, it's a Communist system, one of the few left. The economy, or at least the official one, is state run, and this creates an interesting set of circumstances, ones that you are unlikely to encounter anywhere else these days. I don't propose here to go into the pros and cons of such a system – this is supposed to be a travel blog, not an economics lesson after all, and having just finished my economics degree I've had just about enough of them for the time being (yeah, you heard – I actually finished something!) There are, however, some interesting quirks of the Cuban version of communism. Thus we heard the stories of people getting married in order to transfer property titles, the difficulty inherent in holding a funeral across provincial lines, and the impossibility of selling a car (they must be inherited, depending on when the car was built).
Our homage to the shrine of Ché complete, we headed to the town of Cienfuegos. Situated on the south coast of Cuba, Cienfuegos was the site of our first homestay. Under the Cuban system there
used to be no provision for private businesses, however, over the last few years, this has been relaxed. As it stood when we were there an approved person was able to rent out up to two rooms with up to a total of 2 persons in each room, and only to foreigners – these were the casa particulares
. Our first host was a very lovely lady called China, who shared her house with a spoilt grandson Diego, her daughter and her son in law, and random foreigners. The rooms themselves were great, if a little like staying at your grandma's place, and the food (extra for this) was actually pretty tasty – a surprise given the warnings we had received prior to our journey about the atrocious Cuban food.
After dinner we went for a bit of a stroll along the Malecon – every coastal Cuban town worth the name has one – just two people among the throngs of Cubans simply wandering, laughing, drinking, relaxing. If this was a people living under the heel of an oppressive dictator it certainly didn't feel like it at that moment.
Then we headed south. On the way way there we
made a stop at some botanical gardens somewhere. The name was forgettable, and has been forgotten, but the stop was worth it. One of the guides there gave us quite a comprehensive tour. They had everything there, from eucalypts, cactus, ebony to coca plants. These last were used for making tea and medicines. Apparently coca grown in Cuba has only 2% of the alkaloid – you need altitude for the good stuff, we were told.
Then, to Trinidad. Trinidad is a town on the south coast of Cuba and one of the oldest around, having been founded in 1514. Apparently it's one of the best preserved colonial cities in Cuba, and it looks it. Cobbled streets, Spanish architecture, colonial churches. Pretty place, all in all. We found what was basically a door through which pizza was sold – very cheap pizza at 6 CUPs per pizza. Handily situated just around the corner from a bar where a drunken Irishman regaled us with confused, barely remembered, entirely fanciful stories of his life in the merchant navy.
The first proper sickness of the trip hit the following day as Klaire began to feel a bit crook, so we took it
pretty easy. A quiet, fairly ordinary lunch at the Casa de la Musica was followed by an afternoon relaxing at the homestay. There was a salsa lesson on offer for the afternoon. We tried our best to get out of it, to no avail.
To put it bluntly, we were shithouse. My theory is that I had spent far too much time dancing like an idiot to four four time hardcore techno – the three four time had me stumped. The Cubans just figured we had no rhythm. I chose to think that it's because we like our freedom, not the restriction of set dance steps. However, later that night, as we watched the locals dance on the steps at the Casa de la Musica, I was forced to admit that there was something appealing about the moves.
At each new town it transpired that there was one casa used for a meeting point, a place for the guides to organise accommodation through, and for the various people to meet up before things happened. In Trinidad, this was the house of Jesus. Jesus owned a very nicely restored Chevy which was strategically parked outside in the street, setting
the classic Cuban scene. As it happens, the Chevy, as with the large majority of the old Yank Tanks in Cuba, had a non-standard engine – the original motor having died years earlier and parts from the US being very difficult to obtain. This car was equipped with the venerable Toyota 22R 2.4L petrol 4 cyl that I was very familiar with, and Toyota engines were very common choices. Given the weight of these old American cars diesel was a more popular choice than petrol.
The image of the old American car in Cuba is familiar to most people, so it was something I expected. What was more unexpected was the bikes. Happily, the Revolution happened before horrible American motorcycles managed to infect Cuba, otherwise we may have been left with squads of crappy Harleys and the like. What happened instead was the importation of Eastern Bloc bikes – MZs, Jawas, CZs, Urals and the like – and a lot of these were in very good nick. As might be expected these impressed a bit more than the cars.
And this time, another group was doing a similar tour to us, although a day later, so Jesus arranged
a beach barbecue of snapper, salads, rum, beer and bonfire for the two groups combined. The setting, it has to be said, was pretty special. We found our own stretch of private beach, gathered wood for the fire, cracked open the beers, mixed the Cuba Libres, and, with the Jesus' '57 Chevy strategically parked beneath the sunset, watched the sun sink into the Caribbean. If that sounds good, it was. The other group was made up of mainly Poms, a South African girl and a couple more Australians. It seems pertinent to mention here, also, that it took the Australians to eventually get the bonfire going.
Near Trinidad was the Valley of the Sugar Mills. Supposed to be very special, there was no mills, and not a lot of sugar left. What was there was a huge tower. The legend goes that some bloke had set his sons a challenge – one built a tower and the other was supposed to have dug a hole as deep as the tower was tall. No one know where the hole is. Still, the view from the tower is great, so it was worth the visit.
Camagüey. This town was originally
built in a location close to the coast but came under constant attacks from Indians, so it was moved inland to its present location. For this reason, and due to constant attacks by pirates, the place was built in a deliberately confusing way. None of the streets make sense, and the standard grid pattern is distorted. Aside from making Brisbane people feel at home, it also meant that we stayed in a hotel, rather than homestays, so we would be able to find each other.
It was a nice enough place, although the people there did feel a bit more standoffish than others up to that point. We had a good look around the place, taken around by a local guide who organised some bici-taxis to pedal us around. Not a fan of being pedalled around by someone else, but it wasn't too bad. Entirely too many churches on the route for my liking, but the local guide knew his stuff, so at least it was informative.
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