Our First Cuban Exploration - Holguin
25 March 2011 | Holguin, Cuba
Beth / 90's
On Friday morning, the rental car man picked up John and Jackie, Jim and me at the Marina and delivered us to the office where we did the paperwork (again, extensive and time consuming but pleasant and with a man who spoke excellent English). That done, we were off! The four boats in from the Bahamas split easily into 2 groups - Chris and Tom (Polar Pacer) and John and Julie (Amazing Grace) travelling together and John and Jackie (Camelot) travelling with us. We did many of the same things but on different schedules.
Our first excursion was to Holguin - the nearest city of any size (265,000)- and it was the perfect introduction to a Cuban city. We drove along the main highway to the turn-off and stopped to ask directions. What followed was the first of endless encounters with helpful, friendly Cubans. There aren’t a whole lot of tourists in Holguin so we kind of stood out. The fellow we spoke to motioned his friend over. With a big smile, he pulled out his cell phone and showed John a picture, saying, “Amigos?” It was the two people on the boat next to Camelot - they had stayed at this man’s mother’s house the night before! He then hopped on his bike and motioned us to follow, and so we did - along the road into the city - past horses and carts, past dozens of bikes and pedicabs and people on foot, around corners and over bumps right into the middle of the city. Jackie had wondered how we would ever manage to go slowly enough to stay behind a man on a bike, but it was no trouble. These were busy streets!
We stopped in one of the many squares in Holguin and he pointed out where the shopping was, where food could be found, and how to find our way back out of town when we were ready to leave. We tipped him a couple of CUC’s and started wandering. We had read in the Lonely Planet Guide book (our favourite) about Cuban street food and we started in on what was to become a continual love affair with street food. Not far down the first street was a window where people were lined up. Of course we craned our necks to see - and what we saw was pizza. We joined the line and soon had 6” rounds of cheese and tomato pizza in our hands - for the grand sum of 5 pesos each (20 cents!!). Farther down the street, we bought fluffy white buns filled with freshly sliced roast pork, a slice of tomato and a leaf of lettuce - another 5 pesos. I bought tiny little balls of coconut and honey dipped in a crunchy sugar coating for 1 peso each.
It is useful to get some CUC’s changed into national pesos at the earliest opportunity and then to carry some of each. It takes a while to get the currency figured out and it is complicated because there are two currencies operating here simultaneously - available to both Cubans and tourists. 24 national pesos = 1 CUC which is roughly $1.00. For ease of figuring, we counted a peso as 4 cents - although who needs to think very hard about it at that amount? Most of the restaurants and stores want CUC’s but street vendors, local food markets and some small restaurants charge in pesos. They are all called pesos and until you get a feel for it, it is important to always ask, “Is that national pesos or convertibles?” (One is worth 4 cents, the other is worth $1.00) I kept pesos in one pocket and CUC’s in the other so I always had them available.
Holguin was the most wonderful place to see the old cars that we all associate with Cuba. And they were there by the dozens. Fords and Chevys, Pontiacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles, the occasional Studebaker and even some Ladas from the Soviet era although these are not as plentiful. ’52 and ’54 and ’56 and all the rest from that pre-revolutionary era. For the most part, they were in wonderful shape. Jim laughed when he saw a ’52 Ford (same year he was born) and he thought it looked to be in as good a shape as he is! Unlike in Santiago and Havana, where most operate as taxis, many of these seemed to be private cars and they were lined up proudly on the streets surrounding the main square.
The stone buildings had been grand in their day, with ornate facades and intricate wrought iron railings and brightly painted woodwork, but they are suffering badly from lack of funds for upkeep. The parks are filled with benches and statues and are clearly places for conversation and relaxation. Holguin is arranged around several squares and we strolled along several streets joining a few of them. Art has so clearly been a significant feature in Cuba - from the frescoes and carvings, to murals and statues (not all of them political), to the very design of the squares.
We wandered through a department store that sold clothes and shoes and appliances along with soap and perfume, napkins and toilet paper. We had been told that these are in short supply in Cuba and wondered at them being here until we found that they are available, but are very expensive for Cubans. Jackie looked at some lipsticks but the only colour was dark brown. In another shop we checked out nail polishes - again the colours were very limited. In the clothing sections, lycra and denim prevailed. We found Cuban women to be dressed very well - clean and smart - and not exactly current with North American fashions. Lots of colour - especially yellow - and lots of form fitting styles. We saw many many Canadian T-shirts and hats on people we met - from sports teams and cities. Jim even spotted an Old Ottawa South soccer shirt on one fellow! (that was the neighbourhood we lived in for 10 years - I went looking for him to take his picture but I never did find him). A wedding party went around the square, horns honking and with the beautiful bride seated on the back of the convertible.
We stopped for beers in an outdoor cafeteria - Crystal and Buccanero are the Cuban beers - about 1CUC each - and enjoyed more people watching. We had been told that pens and soaps are good items to have for giving away and that proved to be true. There were some people begging - no more than in any Canadian city - and they were generally very happy to be given a pen or cake of soap. When I ran out of those, I gave pesos. Cuba is the only place I have ever heard the recipients say a heartfelt, “Gracias.” (well except maybe Halifax - we have polite beggers too :-) For sure, Cuba is the only place I have had my hand kissed in return for a bar of soap.
At the end of the afternoon we made our way back out of town. Once again, we encountered more horses and bicycles than cars. We passed tiny rundown houses with laundry hanging off the porches, and others that were freshly painted with flowers and well tended gardens. We went by open doors where we could see people at sewing machines and men fixing bikes and motors. We passed horse drawn carts with water tanks on the back, and others with wood, and still others loaded with people.
We exchanged waves and “Holas” with everyone and arrived back at the marina feeling like we had gotten a taste of the Cuba that tourists don’t always see. Having a car to travel with made it easy to get around, but one can also take buses for another bit of adventure.