Cuba: Countryside teems with life and contradictions
Frank Absher, Special to the St Louis Post-Dispatch
Editor’s note: For more than five decades, U.S. citizens were not allowed to visit Cuba as the result of a U.S. embargo after the communist takeover. But starting in 2011 the people-to-people tours began after President Barack Obama eased travel restrictions. Travel companies providing the people-to-people tours must be licensed by the federal government to provide the service. A special visa, which is required for Cuban visits, is normally arranged by the tour company. This is the second in a two-part series about travel to Cuba.
Cienfuegos on a Saturday night is in full swing, and from the balcony of a tourist hotel beside the Paseo del Prado, it’s easy to observe life on the island. What one sees assaults the senses with contradictions, some difficult to put into words. To a tourist from the U.S., less than 200 miles north of this place, the long spit of land jutting about a half-mile into the Bay of Cienfuegos is both a trip back 50 years and a jarring look at present-day Cuba.
Just down the road is the ornate 1913 mansion of the late sugar magnate Acisclo del Valle Blanco, one of the richest men in Cuba; immediately across the road from your hotel are modest ranch-style bed-and-breakfast inns; next to them is a state-owned high-end tourist hotel catering to foreigners. A constant stream of people passes by as horse-drawn carts, pedicabs and municipal buses share the roadway with U.S.-made cars from the 1950s. Birds of uncertain lineage dive from the sky for insects while a rooster crows just down the block.
Next to your tourist hotel, a family lounges on the roof of their home as the lady of the house takes the day’s laundry from the rooftop clotheslines; a breeze floats off the water on both sides of the spit, giving a brief respite from the stifling humidity. As night falls, the sound of Cuban dance music wafts across the waves from a nearby open-air dance hall — all of this is the background for what is happening along the seawall.
There, couples sit long past sunset, each twosome in varying stages of romance. They have come seeking privacy from their families for an evening. Such a pilgrimage is necessary because many households contain several generations, sharing a limited number of bedrooms and a limited amount of space and food. Privacy does not exist at home.
Cienfuegos, which was settled by the French in 1819, has a beautiful town square, the Parque Jose Marti, and several museums and restored buildings, all of which make the trip to this city worthwhile. In the countryside nearby is a wonderful botanical garden, owned by Instituto de Egocolica y Sistematic. It is home to many exotic species of trees and animals, all of which are seen in their outdoor habitat.
Central Cuba is rural, and even the smallest settlements contain once-beautiful buildings that show signs of their former grandeur amid their disrepair. Riding one of the many modern, Chinese-made tour buses over the narrow and often-bumpy roads, one sees the smokestacks of abandoned sugar refineries. At one time, hundreds operated across the island, but now only five are left. The others remain closed because parts are not available for the old machinery.
A TRIP THROUGH THE COUNTRYSIDE
Even more horse carts are seen on the rural roads, and some of those roads have well-worn paths on both sides where people ride their horses as the principal means of transit. The main automotive artery bisecting the island from east to west has six paved, bumpy lanes, and the professional bus driver has been known to grind his vehicle to a full stop on this road to wait for a chicken to amble across.
Drivers must also be on the lookout for grain on the roads — not spills, but long stretches of roadway covered with corn or rice. Farmers put their crops on one lane of the pavement, rake it out and leave it there to dry in the sun. Horses and oxen provide much of the power for farmers in the fields, where sugar cane, rice and corn grow.
Often on the drive through the countryside, the tour bus crosses railroad tracks, and the tour group’s government-provided minder, in a moment of total candor, says rail travel in Cuba is a national joke. He says it can take days to traverse the 780-mile-long island by train.
Few intercity buses operate, but Cuba does boast another, very informal mode of mass transit seen mostly outside of Havana. Those people lucky enough to have vehicles, especially trucks, pile as many riders as possible into the truck beds. Anyone riding on rural roads will always find these little trucks pulled over at bus stops, where the drivers negotiate prices with potential riders.
All settlements, no matter how small, share a love for the arts. Music can be heard almost any time of day or night coming from even the smallest social clubs or drinking establishments, and the people love to dance and sing. The style is heavily Latin, but an admirable percentage of classical and semi-classical live music is available.
In the village of Trinidad on a Saturday afternoon, a trio provided the entertainment at a hole-in-the-wall “taberna” as a burro stood in the hot sun just down the street. Around the corner a five-piece string band provided music for dancing in an outdoor café. The streets were mostly devoid of people. Trinidad is a town founded 500 years ago, and today one can observe the changes taking place in Cuba. For the first time since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, the government is officially allowing some capitalism to openly exist.
This is seen in the “paladars” of Trinidad and every other town. These restaurants are privately owned and operated. The owners must pay a tax to the government.
Residences and apartments are all still government-owned, which means the casual visitor will see little, if any, effort made by residents to clean up, fix up or otherwise try to improve the appearance of their dwelling.
In the quiet, southern coastal village of Playa Giron, a small one-story building houses the Cuban Bay of Pigs Museum. Inside are many examples of U.S. weaponry captured by the Cubans who fought off the attackers. Other examples of the machinery of war are permanently displayed in front of the building. The bay itself is quite large, and public beaches allow tourists to immerse themselves in the historic waters.
The small city of Santa Clara is home to the monument honoring one of Cuba’s most-loved heroes, Che Guevara. Visitors should be aware that the monument is closed during rainfall, and reverent silence is expected. The museum at the statue is the final resting place of Guevara and 29 of his fellow revolutionaries.
A separate section of the building houses countless photos of the guerrilla movement in its jungle bases in the 1950s, along with examples of their weaponry, including U.S.-made vintage Springfield rifles. The monument overlooks the city where the final battle of the Cuban Revolution was fought, a war that toppled the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Adjacent to the big parking lot at the memorial is a large, unsightly slum.
A STATE OF DISREPAIR
Any visitor to Cuba will see that the promises that followed the revolution have failed to materialize in the way many Cubans had hoped they would. Even those who are part of organized tours will see examples of how Cuba has failed to counter the U.S. economic blockade of the country. The Soviet Union offered financial aid to Cuba for years, providing manufacturing equipment, construction equipment, cars and erecting apartment and office buildings, but when the USSR dissolved, the money stopped.
Because of the severe economic constraints on the Cuban government, most tour organizers provide bottled water for their guests during the trip and recommend that visitors refrain from drinking water from the tap to avoid getting sick.
Food available to tourists in rural Cuba includes the staple of rice and beans and usually some form of pork, chicken or maybe fish. Soup is served with every large meal. Breakfast will almost always include some concoction with eggs. Every drinking establishment offers a large variety of rum drinks and beer, and there’s not a bad mojito anywhere on the island. Coffee is always strong.
Roman Catholic churches are found in every town, but the religious community in Cuba is not influential in politics and seems but a small part of everyday life. Catholic priests do not wield the same amount of influence found in other Latin American countries.
Souvenirs are rare, and for tourists, spending money in Cuba requires a little extra work. Dollars are not welcome in business establishments. Instead, the government provides a special monetary system for tourists. Dollars are exchanged for CUCs (pronounced “cooks”), which may then be used to make purchases only in designated businesses. The regular Cuban peso is available only to Cuban residents. Cuban citizens also receive ration books from the government for rice and some other staples.
The objective of these people-to-people tours is creating a learning experience, you will find yourself doing a lot of walking. The payoff comes in the conversations you will have with people of another culture. They provide many opportunities to see life completely different from your own experiences and to immerse yourself temporarily in a culture with different values.
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