27/03/2011/1:02 pm, Baracoa, Cuba
We packed our bags with clothes, cameras, and snacks along with give-aways (children's clothes, pens, markers, crayons, paper, razors and soap) and headed off in our air conditioned little Hyundai. Ali had told us that Baracoa was his favourite city and that the northern road was scenic. Tina told us that road was "not so good" but that we should definitely go to Baracoa along with Santiago de Cuba.
We have this to say: Definitely go to Baracoa - but definitely do NOT take that northern road! It was so full of pot holes that it was pure misery for the last 30 or 40 miles. It wound through the mountains and we saw tiny rural houses and farms tucked away in valleys and on hillsides - that was nice. (Really - it was very nice and very picturesque - I'm just grumpy from the bumps!) We drove past the big ugly mine at Moa - not so nice - and finally emerged into the city of Baracoa (population 42,000). It is Cuba's oldest city, founded in 1511. According to the Lonely Planet Guide it was, for many years, somewhat of a Cuban Siberia where rebellious revolutionaries were sent, and in the early 19th century, French planters arrived from Haiti to start farming the same crops that are found there today - coconut, cocoa and coffee. Until the wonderful new highway, La Farola, was completed in 1964, the area was pretty much isolated allowing it to develop its unique culture and traditions.
As we drove into the city about 4 pm, we found ourselves suddenly in the midst of narrow little streets filled with horse, bike and foot traffic. We were on the lookout for a Casa Particular - the private houses with rooms to let - like the Bed and Breakfasts we are familiar with in other countries. They can be identified by the blue, upside down anchor signs which mean they are government approved and meet certain standards. (Air conditioning, private or shared bath, at least one double bed per room, clean!) As we drove, a man and little boy on a bike kept waving at us and following us around corners. Jackie, at the wheel, ignored him for a bit, but then as we were stopped at a corner, we decided to see what he had to say. He offered to lead us to a casa, and since he looked "respectable" and we had no particular place in mind, we said OK. We could always refuse it if we didn't like it. Well it turned out just fine! He led us to his brother's casa at #3 Frank Paix at the corner of Ava Malecon - the road along the water. It was airy, clean, 2 blocks from the centre of the city and cost 20 CUC's per room. (We were to learn later that sometimes it works to follow people who want to lead us to casas and sometimes it doesn't. This time it worked!) The people there had very little English, but our friend, John, spoke pretty decent traveller's Spanish so we were quite comfortable. Without him, we'd have had to resort to the dictionary much more often.
We arranged to have dinner there that night and after depositing our bags and handing over our passports, we headed out to explore. (We discovered that all the casas particulares require our passports for their records - they are given back once the hosts fill in the forms and we sign them.)
As became our pattern - we followed the music. Up a couple of streets and around a corner, we discovered an outdoor patio with music and dancing. We quickly responded to the waving hand of a waiter and found seats. With beers and mohitos in hand, we listened and watched - for about two minutes. Then the invitations came to get up and join in the dancing - so of course we did! What fun we had. The locals were good natured and encouraging and managed not to laugh at our ignorance of steps and our inability to move like they did. When the music stopped, we sat and talked in very broken Spanish and English with several of the patrons - with laughter and smiles filling in the gaps where the words just did not connect.
The Baracoan cuisine includes dishes cooked in coconut milk - and that's what we enjoyed that night. Jim and I had fish and John and Jackie had lobster. The meal started with a chicken noodle soup and the main course included a platter of cabbage, tomato and cucumber along with bowls of rice. (About 5 or 6 CUC's per person) Again, we were operating on information we had heard from others - the most authentic food is generally available from the Casas. It was all delicious, and with full stomachs, we headed for bed.
Next morning, we were up bright and early. I went for a walk along the waterfront and saw trucks full of people heading into the city. We saw lots of these trucks - like cattle trucks - closed sides with an open space running all along the top. There were as many of these as there were real buses - both in the small towns and in the cities. A garbage truck rumbled along the street too. I had wondered about the piles of garbage at the street corners - it turned out that folks just dumped their buckets of garbage and the garbage cleaners came by and shoveled it up into the truck. I guess it saved on bags! And of course, there is not nearly so much garbage in Cuba because there is not nearly so much over packaging or disposables.
Breakfast (3 CUC each) was fruit - banana, papaya, pineapple - bread, juice, perfectly fried eggs and wonderful thick sweetened coffee. Hot milk was available if we wanted it. We discovered that was a pretty typical breakfast. The fruit varied and the kind of bread, sometimes there was cheese or even sliced meat, and sometimes the price was 4 CUC but that was the food we started our day with. It can be hard to understand that it is different here. We don't place an order. The hosts offer what they can, and we learned much later that it costs them a considerable amount to put that food on the table. (More about that later)
We spent the day roaming around town. The little triangular "square" or plaza in the centre of town was a good starting place. The cathedral on one side was undergoing renovations so we couldn't get in, but we were happy to see that something was being done. It surely needed repairs. We checked out the library where there was a good selection of books - fiction, social issues, history, local interest, the expected books on the party and the leadership figures. There was even a poster on the wall reminding people to practice safe sex! An art gallery we hoped to see was closed, but we spent time perusing the carvings and paintings at the market area. We each bought a nice carving from a man whose work was clearly a cut above that on the other tables. We never did find anything we liked as much in any other city. I wish now that I had bought some of the beautiful wooden spoons and salad servers there. They were beautiful and well priced.
Jim and I had a laugh when we gave a gel pen to a fellow who asked for something. The cap was quite difficult to remove, and he kept coming after us to question how it worked. Jim would open it, close it and give it back to him and he'd go off. Pretty soon he appeared again. Finally, we showed him how to grip it firmly and pull, got him to try it and then he was satisfied. Meanwhile his buddies were all laughing too. I would never have thought that something as simple as a pen would be so gratefully received, but I learned to carry a stock of them in my purse. (We came prepared with a good stock that Jim brought back from Canada on one of his trips.)
We watched a fellow selling little candies from a big bag on his lap - he'd spoon them out into the hands of his buyers. A young woman selling sugar had a set of scales set up on the verandah in front of a store. People would give her their bags or containers, she would weigh them and then ladle the sugar from her big bag to the container on the scales. Other folks had tables set up and were selling whatever they had extra.
Jim got a haircut here! A barber standing in the doorway of a very attractive barber shop motioned him in. Since he really did need a haircut, he sat down in his chair and proceeded with the full deal - haircut, shave and facial massage. It was a good, short cut and our friends said it took 10 years off him from the shaggy, grizzly look he had been sporting. And the cost? The extravagant sum of 5 CUC.
We went to our first Etecsa centre - where we could use computers. We needed to present our passports again - no Cubans are allowed to use the computers - and pay 6 CUC for an hour's worth of time. The cards could be saved to use again if we didn't use the whole hour. The connection was sometimes slow, and we couldn't connect with some sites, but it was at least a chance to make a quick check of emails. Interestingly, I tried to get on my PayPal account but it told me I was in a suspect place and would not be able to get into the account. (When I got back to Florida, I was irritated to find that they restricted my account and I had to supply photo ID and a faxed proof of my address in order to get it restored. Geesh!)
At lunch time, we went to a paladar listed in the guidebook - the Paladar El Colonial - where we shared a plate of chicken, rice and salad - all delicious and costing 4 CUC. By the time we sat on a bench in the shade for a bit, wandered the streets some more, chatted with some students at the medical school up the street, the end of the afternoon was approaching and we had time for just 2 touristy visits - the first to the Museo Archeologico in las Cuevas del Paraiso - the caves high on a ridge on the edge of the city that once were Taino burial chambers. (The Taino were pre Columbian people, pretty much wiped out by the Spanish although there is some speculation that there are Indians still living in the Sierra Maestra, and of course it is likely that there is Indian blood in many mixed race people of the area.) It was quite an adventure, climbing up to the top level of the caves! No lawsuit-conscious officials had anything to do with that place! We saw skeletons and bones, pieces of pottery, 3000 year old petroglyphs and then climbed ladders made of sticks wired together to the viewpoint at the very top. It was worth the climb, but I had to breath deeply and look no farther than my feet for some of it.
We ended the day with beers from the little stand beside the Cruz de la Parra, the cross said to have been erected by Christopher Columbus in 1492 - it once was at the cathedral and is now located way down at the end of the road along the water. The cross has been carbon dated to the late 1400's, but it appears to have been made of indigenous Cuban wood, and therefor was not carried here from Europe as legend has it.
Back at our casa, we watched the young man who is renovating the top floor into a restaurant as he made nails for his project. Yes - that's right - he was making nails. From a long piece of what looked like copper, he chopped two inch pieces with his machete, and then proceeded to shape them into nails by hammering one end to a point and flattening the other end. It's a hard way to get construction materials.
We enjoyed another fine dinner and then Jim and I went for an evening stroll along the seawall, watching boys playing basketball in an open air court, and the many local folks out for strolls of their own. We saw that a couple of carnival rides had been set up near our corner, but it didn't dawn on us that it would be a noisy evening until the very loud music started at dusk and continued until midnight. Unfortunately the morning started early too as a car with a well functioning stereo parked at the end of the street and woke up the whole neighbourhood.
We could easily have stayed here another day or two but Santiago was calling us, and we loaded ourselves into the car, said good bye to our hosts and headed off, meeting dozens and dozens of folks headed toward the centre of town for work and school. Once again, the main transportation was bicycle, horse and foot, with a few truckloads thrown in too. It was really worth the 8:30 departure to see the Baracoa version of the Ottawa Queensway at rush hour!
26/03/2011/12:58 pm, Santa Lucia
We were up bright and early to go to the Saturday market in Santa Lucia. We had been told by Suncast and Talisa, and also by the doctor that it was a must see, and it was. I think we were the only foreigners there that day, and I know we had the only car parked along the road by the market square - all the rest of the spaces were taken up by horses and carts. What a culture difference!
Jackie and I got into the swing of things quickly - buying rustic woven market baskets first thing - for about 35 pesos. (Everything was in national pesos here - it was a local market). There were trucks and carts and tables loaded with vegetables of all kinds. We saw two men refilling butane lighters, and bought coffee from a woman pouring the dark liquid from an old fashioned kettle into glasses. It cost about a peso per inch. There are virtually no takeaway containers here. People stand at the counters using glasses that are washed and used again, or else they bring pop or water bottles to fill. Food is served on a bit of paper or a napkin if you are lucky. (We learned to carry not only toilet paper in our pockets but also paper towels or kleenex, and a bottle of hand sanitizer wasn't a bad idea either.) We ate more of those delicious little pork buns too. The man cut generous slices from the roast on his table, cut open the white rolls and laid in the pork, sprinkled it with salt and pepper and handed it over. Yum!
Despite knowing I was going on a road trip the next day, I couldn't resist buying a few things. A bowl full of green peppers that were wonderfully crisp, tomatoes - some ripe and ready to eat, and some that would ripen while we were away, a big bunch of beets - all for a few pesos. Dr. Rolando had told us that the market is a good place for Cubans to buy their food, and I can see why. It is not only much fresher - just like at the markets at home - but (unlike at most of our markets) much cheaper too. There were peppers of many sizes and colours, onions, garlic, yucca, cassava, and another similar looking root that I never did figure out. Eggs were sold in flats of 30. Plantains and bananas were available in abundance, along with pineapples and papayas.
The meat tables were something to behold. A long line of butchers stood with their machetes flying - chopping up roasts and chops. Pork and chicken are standard. Beef is not available to Cubans - it is reserved for high end tourist restaurants (and we had only one taste of beef all the time we were there - in Camiguey as a chef's special). The ever present stray dogs wandered around under the tables hoping for scraps and were shooed away by the vendors when they got too close.
A display of fresh flowers and beautiful garden plants was doing a brisk business. I wished I had room for a pot of flowers on Madcap - but that was purely wishful thinking.
We got there about 7:30 (an hour later would have been early enough) and were ready to leave when we spotted a band setting up on a nearby stage so of course we waited. Soon enough, the sounds of son Cubana - the most frequently heard music around here - swelled out over the field and we listened for a while before heading back to the car.
We changed some CUC's into pesos at the cadeca nearby (40 CUC worth seemed to give us lots for the next couple of weeks) and, at the stand across the street, tried a drink of sugar cane juice mixed with yucca. Hmmm .... interesting ... but once was enough. It was bright green and tasted sweet and grassy. The stand was doing a brisk business, but I had to discretely dump part of my glass behind a bush. We then went driving around the area until lunch time. Out by the beach, we found what looked like a cottage area and surmised that it might be vacation housing for workers in the collectives from the Soviet era. The cottages didn't look like tourist housing and were not permanently occupied. We'll have to find out some more about that.
By lunch time, we were back in Santa Lucia and upstairs at la Tulipen near the Cadeca. It was one of the paladars - restaurants in private homes - that we had heard about and were determined to try. These are often the best places to eat - lots of well prepared food. This one was no exception, but we were sure newbies!
When offered selections of fish, chicken, pork, crab, shrimp along with rice and salad, we said yes to everything! Our intention was to sample a variety of items, but when platter after platter arrived on the table, we realized our mistake. There was far too much food for the 4 of us, and take away was not an option. When John asked for a take away container, he was handed a plastic shopping bag! That just wouldn't do the trick so we left the remainders of the platters, hoping the family would be able to make good use of the food. We ended up spending 30 CUC's for the four of us when we could have had lots to eat for 10 CUC's. Oh well - live and learn!
Back at the boats, we napped and planned. Our big road trip was on for the next day!
Everything is going perfectly so far. We are seeing and doing as much as we can because we like to do that! The marina is also a good place to relax and visit neighbouring boats. Snorkelling trips are offered through the marina, and giant catamarans go out every morning loaded with tourists from the local resorts. The bar serves good food - and the beers are cold. The guards keep the boats safe and are unintrusive - and appreciate a cold beer or cola now and then. Tina and Ali are absolute gems for information and advice.
25/03/2011/12:56 pm, Holguin, Cuba
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.