Cockfights and Caving: Confusion in Cuba

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April 2nd 2006
Published: May 10th 2006
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Cuban street sceneCuban street sceneCuban street scene

An old man walks by as the kids play baseball in the street.
Since returning from Cuba I have been asked dozens of times what Cuba was like. These queries mainly come from eager Americans and Europeans who seem keen for reports of a socialist paradise where liberated socialists enjoy the benefits of free health care and enforced leisure time. Each time I’m asked, all I seem to muster is a series of ummmms and errrs before quite meekly finally describing Cuba as “different”. And I suppose that is the truth. Cuba is unlike any country I have visited before. Did I enjoy Cuba? I’m not sure. Yes, parts of it were fun but other parts were solely frustrating and confusing. Did I learn about the system of socialism that supposedly exists in Cuba? I don’t know. I returned to Central America with more questions than I arrived with. Do they dance in the streets? Well, yes. I still have remnants of the scratches left by the drunk woman who I was bumping and grinding with in the middle of the street in Trinidad. Would I go back? An even tougher question. Havana yes, I’d return in a flash. The rest of Cuba, I’m not so sure I’d be as keen.

On returning
One horse and two bullock townOne horse and two bullock townOne horse and two bullock town

On the way to the caves in Vinales
to Guatemala from Cuba I was happily mouthing off about the injustices that Cubans have to face from an autocratic-cum-dictatorial government that refuses to allow its citizens any real self-determination. “Yes, they have free education and health care; but they can’t vote or leave the country.” I mused to one of my Spanish teachers. “I think I value the right (or obligation) to vote and to determine the path of my life even more than these other things. At least in Guatemala you can change the government or leave the country.” Quickly demonstrating my lack of knowledge about the realities of Guatemalan life my teacher explained: “In theory we have these things, but the reality is that the government and the elections are so corrupt that no matter how we vote things never change. Our financial circumstances are so difficult that we could never leave Guatemala even if we dearly want to and to cap it off we have terrible health and education systems. I would much prefer to live in Cuba where at least I have those two things”. Hmmm, good point.

After living it up in Havana I thought that I wanted to pack everything in and
The cockfightThe cockfightThe cockfight

As close as I could get to take a happy snap.
start life in that making money as a Reggaeton dancer. On moving out of Havana to Vinales and Trinidad I was soon counting the days till I could get back to Havana or out of Cuba altogether.

Vinales was your typical one horse rural town. Ok, I lie. It had dozens of horses roaming the streets pulling carts of produce that never seemed to end up in any restaurant or store that we ever went to. The catch cry of Cuba is “No hay” (We don’t have it) in response to any request for a particular food or drink that is listed on a menu. We heard it so often that soon we would be able to quickly revert to ordering the ubiquitous fried chicken or pizza before the waiter had had a chance to utter our two favourite syllables of Cuba.

What Vinales did have going for it was some caves where you could go swimming. Canadian Good Samaritan/scam artist Jen had headed to Vinales a few days before us. On our arrival we walked with her, her sister and a Cuban guide through farming land, past tobacco drying houses to the mouth of a cave where we were escorted into the 200 metre deep cavern by an old farmer who made his money growing tobacco and leading bewildered tourists into a huge hole where they could swim in the pitch black for a few blissful, albeit kind of freaky minutes. It was here that we thought Jen would rob us. Alas, all she did was accidentally punch me in the head and introduce us to a group of Cubans who then spent the rest of the night professing their love for Tenna and Pia and demanding that they dance salsa with them. I’m of the view that salsa was only invented to make busloads of French tourists look ridiculous as they sway and stumble abruptly against the rhythm and beats of the tide of salsa music that floods the streets of Cuba.

The rest of our time in Vinales was spent waiting out the rain in our homestay with our hostess Sarita who was pissed at us because Pia had the gall to go and organize a horseback riding tour without her prior approval (and added commission).

We packed out and headed to Trinidad to discover sun, surf, more mojitos and perhaps the best
Cool old carsCool old carsCool old cars

In central Havana
example of a moustache on a woman I have seen in my life (truly disturbing). Trinidad is a colonial town and is quite beautiful. The beaches that lay around 15 kilomeres outside of Trinidad attract a lot of tourists because of their white sand and azure waters. Consequently we shared Trinidad with hundred of tourist touts and thousands of Europeans who were bussed in each day from their beachside resorts to see the “charming” delights of the town square and the old buildings. I found the lines of people queuing for rations of strawberry flavoured cake and ridiculously oversized (I’m talking over 1.5 metres long) state issued, loaves of bread to be more interesting (although often the loaves were strangely empty inside).
The beach was undeniably nice (see photos). Although we were stalked by a weird Israeli for a while but we shook him.

One of the most disappointing and disturbing things that I saw while in Cuba was what Pia and I happened upon at the outskirts of Trinidad one Sunday morning. As we came down the hill from a lookout we approached the ruins of an old church where an excited and rowdy group of Cubans had
Hmm this bus is crowdedHmm this bus is crowdedHmm this bus is crowded

The crazy buses in Cuba. they are just semi-trailers pulling wagons full of people. Known as camels for their two humps these buses were so crowded that it defied belief.
gathered in a ring. Knowing Cuba’s long and proud history of amateur boxing I though perhaps we had stumbled upon a clandestine, bare knuckle match. However, as I scrambled up the hill to get a better view I soon was stopped in my tracks as a great roar went up from the crowd and a puff of feathers floated at head height around the onlookers. It was a cockfight. Covered in blood and exhausted from the effort of fighting each other, two lean roosters were pathetically attacking each other to the soundtrack of the hoots and laughter of the crowd. Each bird had steel talons tied to its feet and wobbled about the ring seemingly disorientated and at their wits end. Every so often the owners of the birds would pick each rooster up and kiss it on the backside before throwing it at the opponent rooster again. I tried to take a photo as one rooster fell and was lightly scratched by the other, however I was stopped by a few people in the crowd. These matches are considered illegal in Cuba but judging by the level of delight they took in seeing the roosters slowly kill each other
Street art being createdStreet art being createdStreet art being created

A man paints a mural in Havana. One of the main buildings of Havana, The Insitute of Sciences is in the background.
it seems to be a tradition that is alive and well.

Bailing from Trinidad after seeing one too many staged salsa shows for us tourists we headed back to Havana to live it up for a few days before returning to Guatemala.

The nightlife in Havana is good. Tenna and I had the good sense to crash an eighteenth birthday party where the Reggaeton was being played so loudly that we couldn’t ignore it in our homestay apartment three floors below. Donning our best Spanish we raced upstairs to be greeted by group of young Cubans and their families who promptly invited us in and drank all of the rum we were carrying for the night. After a few dances and a marriage proposal from a sixteen year old who told me, loaded with all the blunt sexual innuendo a sixteen year old can muster that she would do “anything” to get out of Cuba, we headed out to a club with the few Cuban guys there that weren’t annoyed that the white people had hijacked the party. We piled in a sixties style taxi that took us to the fort on the inside of the harbour in Havana. There we spent the night dancing in an outdoor arena with panoramic views of Havana as our backdrop. It was a pretty amazing event and was made more fun by the hospitality of the Cuban guys who just wanted to show us tourists the delights of their city.

So Cuba was full of contrasts. It was sometimes difficult to travel in Cuba but at the same time provided a great opportunity to learn about a different system of existence that is lying just 100 kilometres off the coast of the world’s most developed capitalist state. I’m still unsure if I liked Cuba but I am certain that I learnt something. And if worse comes to worse I can always say it was “ummmm errrr interesting”.


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