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Published: October 26th 2019
We have slept two nights here in Cienfuegos, and yet it's only this morning that we'll have a walking tour of its Old Town, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. My walking partner and I did explore a bit, late yesterday afternoon before dinner, but except for us two, and occasionally a third woman and one man who tends to go off by himself, this group doesn't like to walk much, at least (so they say) in Cuba's heat and humidity. But I love it! It took a few days to adjust, but sweating is good and we are infinitely washable. Whenever possible I prefer exploring on foot rather than by peeking through the windows of a bus; that is being a tourist; I prefer - and view myself as - being a traveller. Thus the two of us who walk whenever we can are the tiny minority in this group. Our trip's included city walking tours have become extremely short, and even then most of our group decline to learn about these extraordinary places and instead choose to go back and sit in the air-conditioned bus. So after our truncated city walking tours, even though Eddy tells us we have so many minutes to explore on our own afterwards, we end up feeling we have to cut our time short because the majority of the group is waiting in the bus. This creates an awkward situation, but the group is kind enough not to complain when those of us who do use that free time return to the bus. At least each of us has a choice.
I am surprised that in such a climate as here in Cuba that more fruits and veggies are not grown. It is too hot for many plants (such as apples, pears, spinach, lettuces), but I expected there to be an abundance of fresh fruits and just off the vine veggies. Corn would grow well here, but it requires lots of water, which Cuba, even though surrounded by ocean on all sides, does not have. So very little corn is grown. There are tons of pumpkins, avocados, beans, sweet potatoes, eggplant, tobacco, coffee, cucumbers, tropical fruits, but very few greens. The tomatoes are surprisingly pale, as are the oranges; neither is sweet or tastes ripe. This country continues to struggle along, trying to improve life for its people, but somehow growing enough healthy foods does not seem to have been a focus. That I do not understand, but there is very little I understand about Cuba.
In driving through this country to me it feels as if rural Cubans are living as I imagine it was in America in the early part of the twentieth century. Those who live in the country are very active: they farm, wash their clothes in old Russian washing machines and hang everything on outside lines to dry (as I do in Maine); they drive horse carts or ride bicycles to get places as cars are very expensive. They walk, garden, prepare all meals from scratch, do hard physical labor daily, and thus look to be quite healthy. I have grown used to seeing horse carts being driven on roadways; this is a very common means of transport, plus horse carts can also be used as taxis when needed. On narrow roads our bus slows and politely stops behind any horse and cart or bicycle that is in front until the other lane is clear and we can pass; there are so many horse carts and bicycles it takes us a long time to get anywhere. But most roads are so bad modern vehicles cannot drive quickly anyway. Bumpy uneven roads are not a problem for horse carts. The worst thing on this trip for me is when we are riding in our fancy, modern, air-conditioned, almost empty bus and we pass by pods of people waiting for the local bus to pick them up. They raise their hands as they see our bus approach, but legally we cannot take them with us, so our driver, Captain Hook, shrugs his shoulders at them as we drive by. Some just seem deflated, preparing to wait longer in the hot sun, but many are angry and show us their feelings with impolite hand gestures. It is hard to feel so privileged amid their daily need, but what is the answer?
Most of the houses we've seen each have one small television set, one stove, one sink - sometimes with a pump for water, perhaps an old washing machine; in the countryside no one has internet and very few have indoor toilets. But people are connected to each other. There are places for older adults to go to spend time together; there are community bands that practice daily and play wonderful free concerts; there are so many beautiful parks and open town and city squares where children play and people of all ages meet, maybe to just sit in the shade and chat with others. Cubans might lack modern devices and equipment, but they are rich in what matters in life, purposeful work, family, friends, community.
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