Cuba: Frozen in the ’60s with a salsa beat

Special to The Garden Island

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on the author’s visit to Cuba. The first was published last Sunday.

City of Trinidad

An animated woman, my “casa particular” (guest house) owner, Dahlia, prepares a tasty shrimp dinner (an option to restaurants in casas). I converse with halting Spanish that sounds more like Portuguese, but our communication is good. She lines up “a bici” (bicycle) taxi when I want to go for a swim at the beach. It’s my first dip in the Caribbean Ocean, with water warmer and saltier than Hawaii, but perfectly flat.

Dahlia also arranges a trip in a horse-drawn cart, bumping along in tandem with a Uruguayan couple. We stop in the country to drink green coconuts and hike to a tiny thatched hut in the rainforest, where a man pounds coffee beans while singing to the beat of a giant mortar and pestle. Next, a swim in a waterfall-fed pool that recedes into a cave with exotic limestone formations and refreshingly cool water. Temperatures in September average high 90s daily and fall to coolish 80s at night with high humidity, and a hurricane threat, June to December — like Hawaii. Dancing to salsa bands in the open-air plaza nightly guarantees sweat-drenched clothing. Besides bottled water, a cold Cuban beer also hits the spot!

Laughing with friendly Cubans, visiting museums, including one with the fuselage of a USA U-2 spy plane that was shot down nearby, is relaxing in this friendly and picture-perfect colonial town that is a UNESCO heritage site. But it’s time to travel onward. Another long bus ride passes by the historic Bay of Pigs, scene of a failed attempt by the U.S. in 1961 to invade Cuba after Castro’s revolution.

Baracoa

I find my niche in this laid-back, delightful town with a backdrop of green mountains and three ancient forts on the eastern tip of Cuba. Christopher Columbus landed here in 1492; a remnant of his wooden cross lies in the Catholic church. But my immediate attraction is not history, rather the beautiful main square area that is a no-car or bicycle zone along a four-block stretch.

Bicycles are common transportation and the main crop is cacao. I order a big bowl of chocolate ice cream in the Casa of Chocolate, one of two large ice cream parlors in town. In addition to dancing at the Casa de Trova where different bands play salsa nightly, the icing on the cake for me is a short bike ride to a sandy beach where the water is calm, clean and perfect for swimming.

I bond with a loose community of Cubans who gather around Jesus, a man who sells green drinking coconuts at the beach. My new friend, Victor, guides me on two extensive bike tours, including a swim in the river. Deliciously prepared fish with coconut sauce and shrimp dinners are my daily fair. I feel at home and relaxed for a week, then book the 8 a.m. flight (only one) to Havana.

After an 11 1/2-hour wait at the tiny airport, sustained only with two successive ham and cheese sandwiches and orange soda pop (no bottled water available), we board the plane. I mentioned in part one (TGI) that I had a chance to observe Cubans patiently waiting 45 minutes for luggage, but this experience ups the ante. People lounge around on benches and lawn in front of the airport, shifting around throughout the day to avoid direct sun. But I don’t hear any Cubans complain; they only say “It’s Cuba.” And I get yet one more lesson in “patiencia,” which appears to be built into Cuban DNA.

Vinales

I’ve transversed the 600 miles, the length of Cuba, to arrive in Vinales, a community of 18,000 encircled by tobacco fields on the western end of Cuba. A young man guides me on a five-hour walk through beautifully lush green tobacco fields, surrounded by limestone mountains that thrust up vertically. Most tourists choose horseback tours, but this intimacy with the soil and people along the way, such as a 89-year-old farmer, is more meaningful to me. I learn about tobacco agriculture, grown from seedlings, then hung to dry in huge thatched barns. Farmers are required to sell 90 percent of their yearly crop to the government, keep 10 percent and grow food for their own use. Bulky oxen till the soil with a farmer laboring behind a simple plow. I learn how to roll a cigar from dry tobacco leaves, but decline a smoke. With this tobacco, the government will fabricate renowned Cuban cigars that are sold to the world (USA excluded) for exorbitant prices.

We stop at a showpiece organic farm. Here bananas, papaya, citrus, pineapple as well as a variety of vegetables and herbs are grown organically, as are all crops in Cuba. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, imports were cut off to Cuba, including chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This farm is owned by Cubans who demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit (selling a juice/herbal drink to tourists) in an austere country where most businesses and land are owned by the government. It’s the first time I’ve seen this quantity and variety of vegetables, which are limited in most restaurants and markets.

Even though Cubans receive a monthly food ration, they line up in front of shops, waiting to buy food and merchandise displayed on half-empty shelves.

Stepping gingerly into a vast limestone cavern, I’m awed by the magnificent sculptural forms boldly manifesting out of the darkness. Gran Cavern Santo Tomas, the second-largest cavern in the Americas south of the USA/Mexican border, lies on the outskirts of Vinales. Drenched with sweat after climbing 80 feet, almost vertically, to enter the cave, turn on head lamps and enter chamber after chamber on five levels of this complex creation, a tribute to Mother Nature’s magnificence. If not for the guide, one could get lost in here and never see the light of day again.

What I learned talking to Cubans

During my solo, month-long Cuban journey, I spoke to numerous Cubans of all ages. Most conversations were light, e.g., saying I’m from Hawaii is acknowledged by some as the location of the series, “Hawaii Five-O.” Older people who experienced the revolution often expressed satisfaction with their lives, especially the ones who are savvy enough to open a “casa” or navigate the black market. However, numerous young people expressed unhappiness about the political climate of Cuba and feel trapped on the island. TV antennas proliferate throughout the country, but only a tiny percentage of people have computers or can afford to go online in the one place with public access in a city. Watching American movie DVDs and contact with young European tourists (few Americans) only increases their desire for more freedom. Those I spoke with want jobs, money to travel, and a chance to enter the 21st century, not just watch it through a window of desire.

“Knowledge of what is possible, is the beginning of happiness” — George Santayana, “The Boston Globe.”

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Gabriela Taylor is a resident of Kapaa, worldy traveler and author of “Geckos & Other Guests: Tales of a Kauai Bed & Breakfast,” available at Amazon.

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