Friday, February 22
As always seems to happen when I am traveling, I get behind on the journal, start to skip around, hoping to record what I can remember and then try to figure out what happen on the days I seem to have no notes for! Well, the 22nd was just such a day. I didn’t write anything in my journal – but I did make a few notes in my State Department/Nat Geo Journal, so let’s see what I can reconstruct.
We were still in Cienfuegos, so I know breakfast was nothing to write about! Our first trip for the day was to the Soledad Sugar Mill – what remains. The sugar mills were all finally closed in 2002. Sugar was an integral part of Cuba’s history through the 20th century. Before the revolution, sugar was the main crop, employed thousands (millions maybe?) and depended upon slave and near slave labor to survive. But we know from our own history that sugar beets began to replace sugar cane as the main source of sugar at some point in the early 20th century. By the time of the triumph of the Revolution, sugar cane was too expensive a method of producing sugar, but luckily for Cuba, the Soviet Union decided to subsidize the sugar production on the island. Insulated from real market forces, Cuba continued to manufacture sugar from cane. When the Soviet Union fell apart in the early 90s, Cuba lost its patron for sugar production (as well as 80% of its trade) and could not find a replacement. It died a very slow death during the “special period” and was eventually terminated in 2002.
Sugar was a way of life. The towns that grew up around the factories were filled with people whose livelihood depended directly or indirectly from the sugar production. Some of those towns still surround now abandoned and derelict owners’ houses, like the one we found at Soledad. There was quite a bit of activity in the town – maybe its place on the tourist routes is keeping it alive now. The house belonged to an American family, and we talked to people among its ruins who remembered working there when the family still lived there. We sensed a real nostalgia for a time past – a better time than now.
From Soledad, we drove practically across the highway to enter the botanical garden. Donated to Cienfuegos by a prominent sugar family from Massachusetts, the garden was managed by Harvard University until 1959. Our guide, Hilda, who we all assumed was of German ancestry since she kept saying “Yah?” was funny, professional and very knowledgeable. We enjoyed her jokes right along with her facts! The garden may not have been at its best at the end of February as it is clearly winter now in Cuba and everything is very dry and brown. Still there were flowers and fruits we had never seen to marvel at and ooh and ah over.
Lunch today was at the “Casa Verde”, literally across the street from our hotel. We ate outside on a back, covered patio, looking at the water. The delicious roast pig with typical sides is just a bit heavy for a noon meal in a hot climate! Our next activity wasn’t until almost 3 so we had a little down time and a chance to make a trip to our hotel rooms for whatever errands needed to be accomplished there before we continued our day.
Our day continued with a trip to the main square to listen to a performance by the Cienfuegos Choir. The group was approximately 22 singers, men and women, who sang a variety of music for us, including an American folk song. It was beautiful! The director spoke beautiful English, so we were able to ask a lot of questions. Many in our group are musical (in one way or another) so this was a very special stop for us. Members of our group brought sheet music for the choir, and it was thrilling to watch how the excited the choir members were to receive it.
Our final meeting today will be to see a kids’ dance show, but we have almost 2 hours to kill in between the choir and the kids. Gerry was not feeling well, so he was headed back to the hotel to lie down. We walked together to the center of the Boulevard (remember this is the pedestrian mall in the center of town, to visit our friend Carmen’s family home, now the Verja Restaurant.
As we have in so many places in Cuba, we walked right in. Someone came over to help us, and when we explained that we just wanted to look around – no problem. Carmen had described some of the items of her family’s that are still in the restaurant and of course I went looking for those: An orange tree in the courtyard, paintings on the walls of the main dining room, and a magnificent wood ”divider” (I really don’t know what the word for it is) between the two areas of the dining room. My meager experience with colonial houses suggests that it divided the living room from the dining room when the house was a residence.
After Carmen’s, Gerry left for the hotel via cab, and I walked and walked. I walked all the way to Carmen’s Aunt’s house on the Paseo el Prado, and to the wharfs; I zigzagged through the streets just exploring, I meandered through a craft market…but still did not eat up all my time. Back in the plaza I discovered friends from the group at a bar! Hallelujah! Hot and tired, I sat and drank the most delicious piña colada a hot, thirsty, tired person still alive on earth could wish to find!
The kids dance show was very cute. There was one little girl who reminded me of one of my nieces. So off in her own world! There was also one particular boy who caught my eye – he looked like he had the biggest crush on the girl he was dancing with.
Tonight, our dinner was served inside the Palacio de Valle (One of my books lists it as de Valle and another as del Valle, but since Valle refers to the family and not a place, I am sticking with de). We had a small chamber size orchestra with flutes, all women players, as our musical accompaniment to dinner. Another meal of lobster and shrimp, my lobster was slightly over cooked. During the trip, we were assumed, or we were told, that lobster and fish are not common foods for locals to eat, so eating it was a bit of a problem. I didn’t like the idea that as a tourist, I was being treated outlandishly and so differently from a Cuban. Something about the sense of privilege, after learning so much about the values of the revolution, just didn’t sit right. That privilege part is still unfinished mental business for me, but I read after I got back that lobster is actually very plentiful in Cuba.
I was really starting to wear down, so I opted for a relatively early bedtime.
Saturday, February 23
Today we head back to Havana via Playa Girón (the Bay of Pigs) and the Australia sugar plantation. It proved to be an emotional day!
It would be impossible to visit the places we visited today and not find it emotional: Today is about the Bay of Pigs invasion. Playa Girón, a placid, sun-drenched tourist beach, with colorful boats and waving palms was the landing place in 1962 where the Cuban-exiles, who were trained by the CIA, came ashore to try to overthrow Castro’s government. They failed. Some were killed. Many were taken prisoner and ransomed for food and machinery. You can look up the facts for yourself. It was not the US government’s finest hour.
That said, to hear the same story told from the side of the victors, to hear your country and your government described as terrorists, and the combatants as mercenaries – and those are some of the milder words – it was hard to take. Part of that came out of the mouth of our guide, Zoe, who is young and Cuban educated – and therefore to be forgiven if she wasn’t particularly diplomatic. However, the “museum” we were treated to was beyond the pale. The Spanish descriptions were particularly insulting (a lot of highly contentious words), and the English translation would have been hilarious, if it hadn’t been meant to translate the Spanish. I could not stomach the place. It was obviously such a huge propaganda set-up, that it had no educational value whatsoever. It left a very sour taste.
Afterwards, we walked down to the beach itself, and recovered a little equilibrium just looking at the beautiful beach and trying to forget where we were.
From Playa Girón and the “museum”, we boarded the bus and drove to “Australia.” Australia is the name of another sugar factory/town, where Fidel set up his command headquarters for the Bay of Pigs Invasion. This display was not so difficult to look at. There were artifacts and maps that explained the Cuban defense and victory. Naturally it was a celebration of the victors, but somehow the whole tone of the place was different – more factual.
Thanks to the steam trains, we didn’t need to dwell on the defeat for long. I wandered back along the train tracks to find the locomotives and also found two engineers, willing to show them to me and my tour mates, and to pose for pictures. The locomotives date from 1913 and 1914, and that they are still running – is another vindication of the ingenuity of the Cubans’ existence under the US embargo.
Along the way back to Havana, we stopped and had a picnic lunch under the trees, with sugar cane at our backs, and a trio of musicians to serenade us with Cuban music.
We pulled into Havana about 4:30. Massimo is taking a group for a “camera walk” so I will go along. Gerry decided to stay behind and rest. Tonight we are free for dinner, so Gerry and I, Jon and Barbara and Cindy are planning to go to La Esperanza, a paladar in Miramar for dinner. Jon and Barbara were in Cuba 11 years ago with National Geographic. This trip has been a real eye opened for them. They are amazed at the changes. La Esperanza is a place they ate on their first trip and they want to see if that, too, has changed. We decided to meet at 7:00pm so I have a couple of hours to walk around with Massimo and take some pictures. Since this trip is not a photo trip, squeezing in time just for taking pictures is a priority for me.
When the walkers assemble, I chuckle at the stamina of this group. They can really go and go and go. Little Energizer bunnies!
One of the places I really wanted to go was the Palacio de Matrimonios. I had read that on Saturdays, lots of wedding parties would arrive, all dressed up, in the fancy old cars, to witness the wedding and then pose for pictures and drive off into a future of happy ever after (with a honeymoon and special meal as a gift of the state). It turned out to be right around the corner from our hotel, right on the Paseo del Prado.
No weddings today, unfortunately, but a guard did let us in to look around and took us on a tour of the place. In a past life it was a casino (Yes! One of those gangster casino operations that Havana was famous for!) It has been restored. My guidebook is from 2007 and says it was “run-down”. Since it is anything but run-down now, we shall assume that the renovation is recent. It is impressive! The large wedding room is also used for concerts, and is called the “Sala Cervantes” according to our guide. Please, if you plan to visit Havana, put this on your Must See List. The only thing that would have made it better for me would have been to see a wedding. I think the group that went to see it on Sunday did get to see a wedding. (Can anyone confirm?)
Another fun place we saw was a cinema. (“Now closed” Massimo told us … His first clue must have been the broken marquee and the bars across the door? JK!) It had a representation of the seats, the balconies and the watchers painted on the outside wall facing the street. The light was great – though we lost Massimo to it late afternoon – and being a Saturday evening, there was lots of action on the streets. It was especially easy to hang out at an intersection and get people coming and going, on foot and by car, shouting out to one another.
Tonight’s dinner was a blast. Because we were 5 people, we thought we’d have to go to the restaurant in two cabs, but we found a big ole jalopy to take all of us, with two in the front and three in the back. Top down convertible, no seat belts – can you imagine anything sweeter? And no seat belt laws (no seat belts at all) to protect us from this flashback in time! A great drive (but not quite as much fun as the one back after 3 daiquiris/mojitos each!). We found the restaurant by its address. The place was almost totally dark – not even the front porch light on. Definitely no sign! We knocked with trepidation, not allowing the cab driver to leave us until we were sure we were in the right place. We are!
La Esperanza is an old paladar (testimony: Barbara and Jon’s dinner there 11 years earlier) and retains the look of a private restaurant run out of someone’s house. The food was good (I had the house chicken which I really liked), the drinks were strong and tasty (we have had a lot of watered down excuses for tropical cocktails) and our company was lots of fun. Our “going to” cabbie was supposed to pick us up to go back, but he couldn’t. He did however arrange for another guy to get us, and it was with him on the way back that we laughed and felt ourselves teenagers from the 1950s. (All of which was way ahead of the 5 of us. The 1952 car was older than I, and I was the oldest of our group!)
It was a very fun evening and a wonderful close to a busy, up and down sort of day. (After looking at the last pictures here, click to go to the final two days.)