Havana Travel Blog

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Bathroom attendant

Landing in Havana was like visiting a movie set where everything is meant to look old. You could tell it was a police state. From inside the parked plane I watch out the window and airport employees had to be checked with a security wand to simply approach the plane and unload luggage. Another man on the tarmac of apparent authority held a clipboard jotting down stuff.  Security was both lax and tight, if there is such a thing, since I passed through customs without incident and no stamp on my passport, only on my travel visa. Drug sniffing cocker spaniels roamed the luggage claim area with their female security handlers whose fishnet stocking legs stuck seductively out of their skirts.

Capital (look familiar?)

Once I had my luggage, I exchanged a few of my Euros (the USD is taxed an extra 10%) for CUC's, short for Cuban Convertible Pesos, and are equal in value to the USD. CUC's are not an internationally recognized currency and was designed for tourists visiting the island. Cuban citizens are rationed and/or paid with the Cuban peso. The Cuban peso has an exchange value of 24 to1 USD. You can imagine the confusion this creates.
After moving though the luggage claim area and into the main airport terminal, I got my first glimpse of the primitive state of things. The terminal, with walls of plain unpainted concrete, was sparse compared to other international airports I've been in. The front ticketing area only had a small liquor store, bar and restrooms.
Old 50's car these are all over Cuba
 Although the ceiling was adorned with flags from around the world, including one from the U.S.A.

Out front I  turn down many offers for a taxi, wanting to absorb my new surroundings. Many uniformed police were staged in the immediate area. The air is hot and heavy.
Soon I accept a taxi ride to Vedado. Vedado is a section of Havana and where my casa particular is located. Traveling out of the airport and into the traffic I realized that the travel books were accurate; Cuba has been frozen in time. The majority of the cars, huffing and puffing smoke, are very old, manufactured in the U.S. in '40s & '50s. An old man on the side of the road was changing a tire on an old American car that I couldn't identify since it was older than me, as were most of the cars on the road.

As we traveled an overwhelming sense of poverty and decay gave way to more of the same. I thought eventually I would see something more modern and clean, but that never came. Old crumbling cement structures appeared one after another, set amongst beautiful palm trees. Car after car filled to capacity, belched buy our taxi, emitting a toxic blue-black cloud, oblivious to everyone but me. The air stung my eyes.
My taxi driver, not surprisingly, spoke only Spanish. He would politely point out apparently interesting landmarks, mostly run down empty buildings, and I would smile and nod. We traveled for what seemed like a half hour when my driver turned into a neighborhood that I would call a slum back in the U.S., but that would not be fair since it all looks the same here.
As I looked around the neighborhood, there are no single-family dwellings, only multi level concrete apartment buildings.

I hauled my luggage up four flights of stairs to my casa particular. A casa particular is a private Cuban home that can prove to the state that they have an extra room not needed for family,and rent it out to the ever-expanding tourist trade. The typical cost of a room is between $15 and $25 per night. The state sanctioned casas particulares are tightly controlled. The Internet was how I found Alex and his family. He is one of the few people on the island who have access to the Internet and built a website specifically to facilitate the booking of foreign travelers into their casa particulare.

I can't say I was surprised by the sparseness of the apartment, but to actually see it was a shot of "Cuban" reality, clean, but dark and old. Alex introduced me to his young wife, Katia, and then to his mother, and my host, Aleida. She had an old grandmotherly look to her. They all spoke English to varying degrees, with Alex being surprisingly fluent. Alex's father no longer lives with them, although I did meet him. He spoke with a heavy Russian accent.

Katia is a college educated marine biologist. The project she was currently involved in produces organisms that will "eat" oil from seawater, oil that is accidentally spilled in maritime mishaps around the world. The state pays her approximately $25 per week for her efforts. I was given a tour of the flat.
The living room was of decent size and was shared with a dining area. The bathroom looked like the typical 50s American style, with old porcelain fixtures. Aleida explained that if and when I was ready for a shower, I should inform her 15 minutes ahead of time so she could light the burner under the small, wall mounted, water heater.

Every window in the place is barred. My room, at the back of the flat, had a 3-foot veranda overlooking the tired landscape of Vedado. The entire porch was encased in wire mesh, and the air conditioner is surrounded by steel rebar. A Sherman tank couldn't penetrate it. I can't help but think, "Who'd scale four stories to steal a one hundred and fifty pound air conditioner?"
My room, which obviously belongs to someone else when it is not being rented (I suspect Aleida was sleeping on the couch during my stay), consists of a full size bed, small dining table, old desk, closet, and a refrigerator full of beer and bottled water.
Inside the closet is a crude lock box and padlock for my valuables, an option that took little hesitation on my part to accept.
After the apartment tour, I moved a chair from my room to the porch so I can sit and journal. Below me Cuban children were playing kick ball, laughing and yelling, and if I were to close my eyes, they'd sound like any other play group anywhere in the world; only here they have large billboards in the background touting the importance of the revolution and their loyalty to Fidel Castro. Later, I asked Aleida if it's possible for me to have dinner with them, an additional cost of $5, and she explains that they are not prepared to serve dinner, but will grocery shop the next day. She and I then agree to go out for dinner and I retire to my room to continue journaling and rest.
John Lennon tribute statue
Moments later Aleida appears at my door to explain that there is another tenant in the next room, "A Czech girl and she sick. Too much drink last night. She take shower now. I close door, OK?" I hear my door close and lock. OK I guess.
Below me, four stories down, in the dirt yard, there are chickens and goats. Parrots fly in and out of the trees. Mangy dogs are everywhere. The resident rooster would wake me every morning, a good thing since there are no alarm clocks in the house.
Around 8 PM, Aleida and I walk down a busy street to a paladar. A paladar is a private home that has converted an extra room into a dining area and serves meals to the public. It was apparent that at one time this home was a showpiece; beautiful stone pillars surround the porch, with massive eight-foot tall double doors leading into a parlor with a twelve-foot ceiling.

As we entered, we politely nod to the other patrons who were seated and waiting in queue, or cola for a table. Aleida quizzed the other waiting patrons as to who was last in line and we sat in two very old French provincial type chairs that encircled the room. As we waited a small cat leapt through the open window, bounced off my lap, and ran toward the back, in the direction of the dining area I guessed.
A cola is an invisible waiting line, invisible because it's hardly ever a straight, orderly line. People may be sitting, standing, or missing all together with someone being paid to hold their place. Proper etiquette dictates that you find out who is last in line by asking "ultimo?", who's last, when you arrive. You simply have to remember who you're after, and when someone new arrives, you'll indicate that you're last when asked.

As we waited for a table to free up, I could see from the corner of my eye other patrons staring at me. When I would look up, they would politely look away, except that is, one teenage girl, she couldn't help herself, she was locked in, and her gaze fixed. My guess is that most of the tourists visiting Cuba stay on the coast in posh hotels, and choose not to eat at inner city paladares, so I apparently stuck out, looking like an American movie star.
Our table was finally ready and we were led down a long hall over elegant floor tile, past a bedroom painted in bright beautiful colors with a young girl on the floor playing with the renegade cat, and into a very cramped dining room.
Plastic lawn chairs and tables, each having a soiled tablecloth, filled the tiny dining room.
 The menu was dirty, as were the utensils. I immediately ordered a Cuba Libre, threw it down the hatch, and was ready for another by the time the waiter came back to take my order of pina pizza. I wanted alcohol to kill any corkscrew type organism I may ingest. The pizza was terrible, doughy and with little cheese, but the Cuba Libres were muy bueno. Again, the travel guides were correct; the food in Cuba is generally sub par. We had leftovers, and as we walked home, Aleida carried my bag along with hers, which I thought was kind...I never did see my leftover bag again...

Day 2
A crowing rooster wakes me.

kids off to school
My room faces east and the sun is peaking over the high-rise apartments of Vedado. I open my door a crack and peek out, and I can see into the room next to mine...it's empty..."Czech girl gone".
Breakfast, oh, oh, I'm not going to like this! Not so fresh fruit, roll, egg with runny whites and yolk, and guava juice, I think...  All utensils are old, very old; the cafe thermos is from the 60´s. I chew and swallow mas rapido. The cafe is very strong, the half of cup of leche I poured into it has disappeared...I feel my brain buzzing...I'm praying it all stays down... 

My plans are to tour Vadado today after exchanging my remaining Euros for CUCs at the bank.
Aleida drove me to the bank in her 1974 Lada (Russian). She told me she bought it new. It was housed in the basement and doesn't get much use. The car doors protested when opened, as did the motor when being started. I unlocked the large sliding door to let her out. Locks, by the way, are a very important item here in Cuba. You find them everywhere; on every door, window, or gate, bar none.
I see young school children walking to school. All have white shirts or blouses with the boys wearing mustard colored slacks, with the girls in the same colored skirts. It was apparent that some of the girls had altered the skirts into a mini fashion, short and revealing. Judging from what I've seen so far, the women and girls of Cuba grow up dressing seductively, even at the middle school level.
Slaughtered pig
Sensuality appears to be an important part of the Cuban fabric. 

As we putted down the road, Aleida expressed some concern over of my presence in the car. The law dictates she must either rent a room or a car, not both at the same time. But she said since we were only conducting business, there should not be a problem. By the way, I look as American as they come, although Aleida said I didn't.
The Lada rode as smoothly as an old radio flyer wagon. Once at the bank, we got into the usual cola. Exchanging my euros was a little disconcerting; the teller apparently didn't like the fact that I had an American passport, but was exchanging euros. Aledia stood next to me at the teller window, talking to the her in Spanish.
The teller seemed reluctant to deal with me.
Before leaving the states, shortly before my adventure here, I had purchased $500 of euros and carried them here because I knew they penalized the American dollar with a 10% fee, and credit cards issued from the U.S. do not work in Cuba.

The teller ran a check on my passport, and eventually exchanged my Euros for CUC's. 
We next stopped to pay Aleida´s monthly taxes to the state and I bought some flowers at a corner booth to replace the dead ones that sat on her dining room table. This is where I experienced my first "peso switcheroo". I'm in a neighborhood rarely visited by tourists, so most little shops and corner stands accept the Cuban peso and have signage reflecting the same.
old box 1915 box camera
A small bunch of flowers was advertised at $12.00 pesos (about fifty cents). The young lady tied together my choice of flowers. "Cuanto cuesta por favor?" I ask. "Doce pesos" she answered. I pulled my CUC's from my pocket and separated a $1 CUC note, knowing I would receive about 12 Cuban pesos in change. But she now insisted that total cost was $12 CUC, not pesos. Not wanting to cause a scene, I handed over $12 for a small bunch of flowers and chalked it up to a life moment, knowing she would benefit from the $12 more than I would.
Later we visited a nearby park dedicated to John Lennon. There is a statue of him sitting on a park bench to pose beside. There now is a custodian guarding it because John's glasses keep disappearing? Go figure?

Later, after we returned home, my next excursion was on foot.
Bill board
Walking down a busy street I spent some of my Cuban pesos (purchased from Aleida), the regular Cuban currency, on a sandwich from a street vendor. Foreigners typically don't use regular pesos, but this is the only way for me to eat the food the locals do or ride in a Cuban taxi, the old vintage kind.

So back to the sandwich, it was made of some kind of meat being hacked off of a bone sitting right on the counter in the hot sun, with tomatoes, lettuce and a secret sauce that came from what looked like an old oil tin. And although I have a limited Spanish vocabulary, I would practice what I was going to say right before I would order so it came out quickly, and pretend I was Cuban...yeah, right. The vendor was a little miffed (´cuz I was obviously not Cuban, yet paying in pesos) but he accepted my 11 pesos anyway, about 50 cents.
The sandwich was yummy! Mmmm, maybe not...

It's a little confusing, the dividing line between the Cuban citizens and the foreigners visiting here. The Cuban citizens are not welcome to patronize establishments geared toward the tourist. For example, they are permitted to work at a beachfront hotel, but not allowed to vacation there. The irony is pretty obvious; they cannot vacation at a resort in their very own country.
I walk down the street eating my sandwich and the sun is wonderfully hot. I leave inedible bits and pieces of my sandwich on the curb. A mangy dog follows me.
Next was to hail a Cuban taxi (as opposed to a tourist taxi), and looking as Cuban as I could, (ha, ha) I execute the Cuban-taxi-hailing-hand-wave-maneuver.
It's very important to get this right, or you'll be standing for a very long time as taxis wiz by you. To illustrate the modus operandi, you extend your arm in a right angle, level with the street, and forming a "gun" shape with your hand, and rotate it several times down toward the road in a flicking action. Not like New York City, let's say, when you simply hold your hand in the air.

I've read that if you're Cuban, and since only 1% of the population own cars, it's a law that they must pull over, if they have the room. They even have taxi "spies" to check and see if the rules are being followed. Cars, taxis and busses are always packed to over capacity!

An old Chevy pulls over and I jumped in. ¨Capitolio por favor¨ I say to the driver.
..and on we go. It's very hot outside and even hotter inside the cramped cab. There are four of us in the back seat and three in front, including the driver. I'm sitting next to a woman and I can smell her perfume, it's good. From the corner of my eye...yes, I'm staring...I see that her shiny jet-black hair is pulled back tight against her head and she is wearing large gold hoop earrings. She is speaking to another woman in the front seat; their Spanish is delivered in machine gun fashion. I cannot pick up a single word. They're both laughing, so I assume she's saying something funny? I'm a little uncomfortable because there was no room for her arm between us, so she had swung it around, resting it on the top of the bench seat behind my head. Our bodies are now tight together.
As the minutes pass, I'm becoming intoxicated by the wonderfully exotic smell of perfume and body heat in the cab. I'm detached from the conversation in the cab; obviously I'm not apart of them, and only a grateful observer. Soon the woman removes her arm from the back of me, and turning, she speaks directly to me, in Spanish. Her large eyes are amazing, deep brown, transcending into black. Her skin is perfectly smooth, polished brown. She is stunningly beautiful, her voice is melodic...oh no!, my brain is paralyzed...Spanish words coming at me...all thinking has stopped...again she speaks to me Spanish, even faster this time...more blank stares from me...question mark on my forehead...finally someone in the front says in broken English "Senor, she needs to get out". 
Only pre-revolutionary cars can be bought and sold amongst the citizens, like the old Chevrolets and Buicks.
And all of them, as far as I could tell, are used to make money as a taxi. Newer ones, European, Russian and Japanese models, are awarded by the state for good behavior and performance, and cannot be sold or traded, only handed down to family members. Cubans put forth heroic effort to keep the old cars running.

The Capitolio is a building near Old Havana that is a replica of our (If you're from the U.S.) nation's capitol.
On the steps is where I experienced one of my top moments. An old Cuban was taking photos of tourist in front of the building with an old 1915 wooden box camera that had a leather cup on the lens as the shutter. He sat me down and for $1; he exposed the film for 5 seconds, with me holding very still, and then put the film in solution to develop it!! It was awesome; five minutes later I had a black and white photo of myself that looks like it came from the past.
I have a surprise for the old man. I printed his picture in my room later that day with my portable printer and will deliver it tomorrow to him. 

Included in my camera gear is a battery operated HP 4x6" printer and I've made a lot of friends all over Cuba by printing instant photos of people as I met them. Each photo has a sticker with my name, address and email on the back. I hope to hear from a few.
Inside the Capitolio I'm in cola waiting for the Internet machines. $6 an hour. I write to my family and friends and then walk the streets for several hours, stopping into a small shop to purchase a bottle of Havana Club rum, the premium rum of Cuba for 150 pesos, about $6.

Dinner is at my casa particular tonight at 6 PM.
Fried pork, rice and beans. Yummy, can't wait.

Day 3

The resident rooster again wakes me this morning and I have 4 hours to explore before I catch my bus to Trinidad, Cuba. Trinidad is a town on the western part of the island that my guidebook described as one of the oldest colonial towns in the Americas. So besides Havana, it will be my only other destination in Cuba during my one-week stay.
Breakfast is done and my head is buzzing again.
Backpack on and out the door. On the curb in front of my building is an old ´56 Buick taxi, big and black with snow tires. Snow tires in Cuba¿?, hmmmm? Antonio and Miguel, soon to become mis amigos, are working on getting it started, with Miguel under the hood yelling delicate ignition instructions, I assume, in Spanish to Antonio, who is sitting behind the wheel, bent over placing two wires together.

Spark, grumble, spark, grumble, varroooom, black smoke billows out of the exhaust. Miguel slams the hood, looks at me. I yell over the roar of the old V8 "Malecon por favor"! He motions me into the front bench seat and slides in beside me. Lurch, belch, lurch and we're off.
Miguel: Where you from?
John: Soy Americano.
Miguel: AMERICANO!!  Whooo Hoooo!
Antonio: Whooo Hoooo! AMERICANO!!!
Miguel: Americano, you want rum?
John: No gracias.
Miguel: You want cigars?
John: No gracias.
Antonio: You want chica, girl?
John: No gracias.
Miguel: We get you girl!
On this went for a while in our Spanglish as we headed for the ocean. In Cuba drivers will honk just before they mash someone or thing into an ink spot on the road.
Antonio didn't have the luxury of having a horn button since much of the cab was stripped of its accessories (mirrors, ignition switch, turn signal switch, windshield wipers) you know, the unimportant things, so he had a wire with a bare end that he would touch to the steering column to activate the horn. This would usually take several attempts to find bare metal. He would honk the horn at anyone or thing within 100 yards to warn them he was coming. This meant taking one hand off the steering wheel of an already unsteady one ton piece of pig iron hurling down the road with tie rod joints that must have had six inches of play. I stare at the floor to distract myself, but the visible road below, through a gaping hole, didn't provide me any more of a sense of security. I ask if they have the exhaust hooked directly into the cab and I get a look like I'm from outer space, so I decide to leave my Americano humor at home.

Upon arrival at my destination, we make plans for them to return a few hours later, so they can bring me to the bus station for my trip to Trinidad.
Taxi fare: 25 Cuban pesos ($1)
After exploring and taking photos for several hours, I duck into a small bar to wait for mis amigos. I order a mojito and one for my new friend sitting next to me. 

New Friend: Where you from?
John: Soy Americano.
NF: AMERICANO!!! Whooo Hooooo!!!
John: Si
NF: Americano, you want cigar?
John: No gracias.
NF: You want rum?
John: No gracias
And so on....
My new friend and I are on our second Mojito when I hear a spastic car horn and "CARLOS, AMIGO, WE HERE!!!"
Man, I love Cuba!

Upon our return to my casa particular, I print out a photo of Antonio, Miguel and the big black 56 Buick.
Our friendship is solidified, they wait for me to gather my backpack, and they drive me to the bus station. We make plans to meet up upon my return from Trinidad, Cuba.
At the bus station, waiting for my bus to Trinidad, I'm eating another mystery meat sandwich. I pull some foreign object out the meat, can't identify it, but the mangy dog looking sadly up at me enjoyed it. I pour the rest of my agua out for the dog. 30 seconds of bliss for dog. Lo siento...
The bus pulls out of the station and I drift to sleep. When I awake, the landscape has changed from barred windows on tired concrete buildings to mostly neat and orderly farms with mountains for a backdrop. I see boys riding bareback on horses, men tilling the soil and young girls pumping water from pumps in the middle of the yard.
No tractors. No silos. No modern anything. Chickens, pigs, goats, horses, oxen and cattle make up for most of the farm animals I see. We make several unscheduled stops. At one stop, the bus driver disappears into a small farmhouse near the road. He stays inside for about fifteen minutes...no clue?

Several hours later we pull into Trinidad, barred windows return, but this time with delicate wrought iron twists, turns, and swirls. The one-story adobe type buildings are built up tight against one another, smooth, and painted with bright vibrant colors. The blue sea is visible in the background. The low afternoon sun washes over cobblestone streets and smooth brown skin of the handsome people leisurely walking on the same. We slowly pass a horse pulling a cart full of people, and through the bus window I can hear the horseshoed clomp of a trot on cobblestones.
The loveliness of this scene is breathtaking, I push my sunglasses tight to my face, I'm embarrassed, and I don't want the other passengers to see the my tears...

I remember reading that Trinidad was founded in 1514, and purposely built far enough away from the sea to avoid the pirates that roamed the waters. From what I see, little has changed. Nothing I've read or experienced prepared me for the primitive beauty of Trinidad. I know I'm in a special place.

The bus stops in a small parking lot with a throng of friends, family, casa particular owners, jineteros and jineteras waiting for the passengers to disembark. Aleida had called ahead from Havana so that my casa particular host would be waiting for me, to escort me to the home, for fear that I would be intercepted by a jinetero.

A jinetero is a street hustler, though I find it too sinister of a description for what they really do. Granted, they may mislead an unsuspecting tourist to make a buck or two, mostly by selling counterfeit cigars, trading worthless Cuban pesos for dollars or intercepting travelers already booked at a casa particular and delivering them to a different home where he will be rewarded for his efforts. But their offers usually have to have a willing participant, with a motivation usually fueled by greed, looking for the "bargain".
Jineteras, female hustlers, usually have something more to offer, like a date, for the foreign traveler looking for the same.
Katuska, my host, is waiting for me with a sign with my name on it.
I greet her with the customary kiss on the cheek. I've enjoyed this custom and have watched closely to learn the rules. Typically, the first time you greet someone; it's a peck on their left cheek. A close friend will get two, one on the left and one on the right. A very close relationship, or long time absence of the same, will get three, one to the left and right, and back to the left. Not a lot of embracing, but I do like the kissing part. I personally never witnessed a kiss directly on the lips in public.
After an exchange of a few pleasantries in English, Katuska asked me if I would like to take a taxi rather than walk, and I said yes. She turned and hollered someone's name and a man ran over to us and she apparently gave him some instructions in Spanish.
Moments later he pulled up with a three-wheeled bike taxi. He roped my backpack containing camera gear on the back, slipped my tripod onto the floor deck, motioned us into the rear bench and he hopped into the driver's seat. Katuska must have sensed my stiffness because I kept looking back to check to see if my backpack was still there, plus the fact that we, strangers, were crammed so intimately onto a bench that had only enough room for 1.5 persons and she said "Relax, you're in Cuba, there's nothing to worry about".
The rest of the ride was kind of a blur, mostly caused by the brain stem injury produced by a three-wheeled bike bouncing over cobblestones hundreds of years old. Holy crap did this guy work, considering the town was built on a mountainside! He was grinding away on those bike pedals, with the chain audibly crying out in pain.
And every time he'd slow, Katuska would yell at him in Spanish and he'd give extra effort. I was thinking, if I were him, I'd jump off and say, "Screw this, you pedal, I'm outa here, I'd rather beg for a living." But he didn't and he soon pushed a cassette tape into the player and beautiful Cuban son flowed from the speakers directly mounted above and behind our heads, powered by a 12-volt battery under my seat.
Unloading my bags at my casa particular, I pay the fare, $2 CUC's.

I gather my belongings and follow Katuska into a courtyard fronting the house. She unlocks the wrought iron gate leading down the side of the adobe style one story building to the back. Here, a one-room extension of the main house awaits my arrival. She unlocks it and invites me in.
I set my backpack on the bed. Inside there is a double bed, a small table, chair and a bathroom. The bathroom has a toilet, absent the toilet seat, a sink and a shower with an "electrified" showerhead to heat the cold water as it passes through. Attached to the showerhead is what I now call a "bidet on a rope", a miniaturized showerhead, hanging from a 5 foot rubber hose. The importance of this shower extension doesn't make sense to me, although I've seen it in other parts of Central America, until my visit to Cuba. There is an absence of toilet paper in most of Cuba. I'll now let you draw the obvious conclusion.
Checking the fridge, I'm relieved to find it full of Bucanero! It appears that Cubans lack many things, but rum and beer in cans adorned with pirates are not two of them.

Katuska informs me that dinner will be served at 7:30 PM.
Dinner of chicken, rice, fruit, salad, pineapple juice and coffee is served to me on a patio table under the twinkling stars of Trinidad, Cuba, outside the backdoor of her home. The food is good. As I eat, I am facing the open door of their personal dining room, and am in direct line of sight of her young son, Jose, who is also eating with the family. A cat meows loudly in the near distance and I make a "scared" face, meant for Jose's benefit. He covers his mouth and giggles. The cat meows again, and I make the scared face again and he giggles again, it's now a game. Meow...my scared face...giggle, and so on. No one at the table notices our game.
Jose and I never spoke for the duration of my three-day stay, but I received a kiss on the cheek the day I left, just before he departed for school.
"El gato" he whispered in my ear, "El gato?!" I answered, with a panicked look. He giggled and ran off.

Following dinner I informed Katuska that I would like to walk into town and purchase a bottle of Havana Club rum. She told me that there was a store a few hundred meters from the house that would be open. I asked her to accompany me, pretending not to be concerned, but she picked up on this and said, "Don't worry, you're in Cuba, you'll be safe".
I'm walking, warm tropical air flows over me. My eyes are trying to adjust to the dark streets since the only light is coming from the homes that border the edge of the cobblestone street. As I pass by homes, residents are sitting in the front rooms and bedrooms, so close to the street, I could reach in and touch them.
Together as a family, they are watching what appears to be the only station available on TV, since I hear the identical sound from each open window or door.
Following Katuska's directions to the store, I hear a frightening sound, like a huge steel dumpster being dragged across concrete. The sound is deafening, More screeching. The sound is deafening, uninterrupted and overwhelming. As I close the distance in the dark to the sound, I realize that it's a pig, a very upset pig, and it's being pulled off of a truck, down a ramp and into a building that I can hardly distinguish. Bad day for pig...good day for John, I'll have rum soon.
Thankfully, I find the store. The sound is behind me now and I make my purchase, Havana Club for me and candy for Jose.
Once back at my casa particular; a shot of rum and a silent salud to the pig!

Day 4

Today is my first full day in Trinidad and my plans are to take a train out to El Valle De Los Ingenios, The Valley Of The Sugar Mills. Although the sugar mills have long been closed, they once were the most productive of all of Cuba in the 18th and 19th century, supporting as many as 60 mills at one time. It is now a destination for tourists, and at its center is a 150' bell tower built in 1845 that once tolled to signal the beginning and end of the workday for the slaves working the sugar cane fields.
A crowing rooster wakes me at sunrise. I mosey over to the bathroom door and peek in, "OK", I think, "Yep, there it is, the toilet with no seat, mmm? How bad do I need to go?? Let's see, is there really no toilet paper??" "Yep, no toilet paper.

..mmmm? OK, let's get this over with.... 
As I spend more time in Cuba, I'm acutely aware of how I've become complacent with the luxuries afforded to me back home, like toilet paper, soap, instant and seemingly never ending hot water.  I'm now painfully aware, and ashamed, that as I holiday here my hot water heater back home is churning away, using precious fuel, heating 50 gallons of water 24/7 in my absence. I will never again take for granted these "simple" things. Never in my life have I had to decide as I shopped "Do I buy soap or food"?

That said; let's visit the customs of Cuba in regard to el bano. First, you do not flush (if it's even available) toilet paper. You discard used paper in the wastebasket that is ever present next to the toilet.

Cuba, on the whole, other than the coastal resort hotels, does not have sanitary sewer systems comparable to ours and cannot handle paper waste. Public restrooms are few and far between, and if you do find one, you're not welcome to simply walk in and use it. Depending on where it's located, there are a few basic rules. The cola rule always applies, regardless, and there is usually an attendant orchestrating this in addition to handing out little squares of paper and a community bar of soap as you enter. Usage of any public restroom is not free and is considered a privilege. There a few ways to gain this privilege and one is to be a paying customer at the establishment, like a bar or restaurant, but you still usually tip the attendant after you use the bathroom. The other is to tip the attendant directly before you use it, knowing that you entered the building only to use the bathroom.
Having an attendant doesn't always equal a clean and orderly restroom, and the few that I experienced without were downright frightening. 

I'm now finished showering and have about two hours for exploring before I catch the train scheduled to depart to the sugar farm at 9:30 AM. I gather my camera and head downtown Trinidad, a five-minute walk, to explore and photograph in the early morning light. As I make my way, the streets are busy with cars, horses, school children and vendors selling various food goods. One in particular is a man with several large white plastic bags attached to his bike filled with large loaves of bread, and is singing sing-song verses in Spanish announcing his presence, I can only assume, and referring to his goods to be sold.
He systematically stops at certain houses, handing a large loaf through the wrought iron window bars to his paying customers.

Katuska will have my breakfast ready at 9:00 AM, so I head back to my casa particular. On my way back, I travel down the street that was the scene of the screaming pig the night before. As I pass by the building that was the animal's final destination I discover its demise. Spread out on a counter facing the street were parts and pieces of the now silent pig. In the sun, with eager flies landing on it, the animal was now being parted out for sale with a young couple in charge. The young man was diligently cutting the pig into sections with a large knife, his wife at his side dicing up a pineapple for a snack. I stopped to share with them my scary experience of the screaming pig.
In my limited Spanish I told my frightening tale. Blank stares. I continued, posturing and vocalizing by adding sound effects, like squealing to mimic the frightened pig. More blank stares.
However, once the uncomfortable misguided humorous tale ended, they politely offered me a big piece of fresh pineapple. I graciously accepted and devoured the sweet fruit. It wasn't until after I took some photos and said my goodbyes that I realized that my time spent in Cuba was desensitizing me in regard to our "obsessive" American hygiene, evident in the fact that the pineapple I just consumed was handed to me with hands contaminated with raw pork.

Arriving back at my room, I immediately take a swig from my bottle of Havana Club rum. I now consider this a cure-all for anything that may ail me.
Breakfast is done, and it's almost 9:30 AM, so I hurry out and down the street with my backpack so as not to miss the train. I'm a little disappointed in myself for not allowing more time to get to the station. As I round a corner, I can see the station, and can hear a train whistle miles off in the distance. "Oh great" I think, "Late as usual and you missed the train". Oh well, maybe I'll take some photos of the depot. Walking toward me is a man who is obviously an American. His skin is pasty white like mine, but that's where the similarities end. He's wearing open toed Teva sandals with white socks, an explorer type shirt with hundreds of pockets, quick-dry hiking pants that can be turned into shorts by unzipping the pant legs, topped off with a high tech Eddie Bauer hat.
All-important items if you plan to traverse a Cuban river, camp in the jungle, or look like an idiot.

John: Hello.
American Tourist: Hola and Buenos noches senor.
John: Good "morning" sir. You're American?
American Tourist: You betchya...(he takes a puff from a cigar as big as his head).
John: Late start today, I missed the train.
American Tourist: No, you didn't miss it, hasn't arrived yet.
John: Oh, good. Are you here with that group over by the tracks?
American Tourist: You betchya...(another puff)...I'm with the Minnesotans For a Better Today, and Tomorrow...and the Next Day too...(I'm just kidding, but it was some kind of hokey sounding group).
John: Wow, that's great.
Are you enjoying your trip?
American Tourist: Nice place to visit, but I don't think I could live here.
John: No, I don't think you could.
American Tourist: Too hot and noisy at night, all that music and dancing.
John: Yes, it can be noisy; did you hear the scary squealing last night, the really loud squealing?
American Tourist: Squealing? What squealing? Where?
John: There was this big pig...and it was dark...and a loud screeching....
American Tourist: Blank stare. Uhhhh, listen, I think my group is looking for me...I'd better go...
John: No, no, it's OK now, it's not squealing anymore...it's in pieces...wait...it's a funny story...wait...

Cuban time is different from what I'm used to.

This means that if your train is scheduled for 9:30 AM, it may show at 10:30 AM, if at all.
Heading into the depot office, I hope to purchase my train ticket, $10 CUC. Back outside, and near the tracks, tourists are waiting for the train to arrive. Ticket in hand, I head out to wait with the others. Minnesota man is whispering something into his wife's ear and she's looking at me funny...11:00 AM, off we go...

I've been on trains before, but not a real old one, pulling wooden passenger cars with open-air windows. You could walk anywhere you wanted as the train rolled down the tracks...even dangle your feet off of the back stair area if you felt like it. No rules. The three conductors stayed up front, mostly smoking and talking. It was great, and whenever the train stopped to shoo a horse, cow or other animal off the track, I'd jump off and get nosey.
I'd mimic the conductors, when the train was ready to move, I'd stand on the bottom step and lean out holding the handrail, just like them...then I'd swing myself up into the carriage toward the Minnesotans and give them that look of "Yep, I'm with them, the conductors, we're just hanging out, doing our job".
Much of my visit to Cuba has exposed me to many sights that my consciousness didn't want to acknowledge, and the excursion through the countryside was one of the most perplexing. The landscape was as pristine as I've ever witnessed, with rolling hills, palm trees, and handsome homesteads sporting tidy fields of pineapple, tobacco, or sugar cane, with mountains for a backdrop. But dotting the landscape were rural homes that resembled more of a squatter's existence, built crudely out of lumber and tin with muddy, garbage-strewn yards.
This poverty appeared to be crushing. It was hard for me to imagine that they even had a toilet, let alone a toilet "without" a seat. My thoughts were; "What is it that allows these people any hope, and what thoughts do they have as they lie down at night"? ...my hot water heater is churning away in my absence...

The train travels everyday out to the sugar farm, delivering visitors from around the world. When I boarded the train back at the depot, I ran to the rear, wanting to claim one of the wooden benches so that I would have a panoramic view to facilitate picture taking, but a Russian couple beat me to it and claimed both benches, one on each side of the train, with both setting their personal travel bag on their respective seat. How rude, I thought, taking two seats, when they're obviously traveling together, and should share one.
I stood on the back deck, rather than settle for a wooden bench with a lesser vantage point. A few minutes later, the Russian man spoke to me in perfect English, asking me if I would be more comfortable in his seat that he was willing to give up. A short time later, the conductor came by collecting tickets, and the Russian man spoke to him in what sounded like perfect Spanish, with a Spanish accent! Russians, don't they know it's rude to show off.

The air in the valley was refreshingly sweet and pure, a sharp contrast to the stinging smog of Havana. As we clicked down the tracks, a Cuban musician was playing his guitar and singing American cowboy songs. He had a set of maracas and would hand them off to a willing tourist each time he'd switch up a song. I have to admit, it was comical to see a Japanese woman shaking Spanish maracas to an American song being sung by a Cuban.
sugar cane syrup

At about 1:00 PM we pulled into a small depot where we tourists would get off to explore the historic sugar mill. The area was quaint with houses near the depot looking neat and orderly. The main attraction, the bell tower, could be seen off in the distance and is where all of the tourists headed, except for me of course. I had seen a farm that hugged the tracks a few hundred meters back that had a farmer hammering away on an anvil. I immediately headed back in that direction. As I walked, I realized that I'm now heading into a more private area, away from the designated tourist area, and with my limited Spanish, I didn't know if I was going to be able to explain to anyone what I was doing there. As I neared the farm that I was interested in, the ground began to slope steeply down and away from the tracks, toward where the farmer was working.
processing sugar cane
He sees me and stops what he's doing. I wave and ask if he would permit a photo? He nods in agreement and I start down...whoops, sliding now...OK, got it now...no, sliding again...OK, got it now...no I don't...my feet are out from under me, I'm on my ass...blank stares...I pull myself up with the help of the barbed wire fence separating me from the blacksmith..."Ouch! Shit! That hurt!" I yell as two barbs poke my palm...more blank stares...
Arriving back at the parked train, I see that the conductors have wandered over near a farmhouse where a man is selling liquid refreshment that I later find out is called guarapo. Guarapo is the jugo or juice squeezed from stalks of sugar cane with the help of a massive roller-type press. The vendor would take a stalk of sugar cane, from a large pile in the yard, and insert into one end of the roller press.
sugar cane
Large steel rollers positioned one above the other would grab the stalk and draw it in, squeezing the liquid out. The liquid would then dribble down a dirty gutter and into a dirty bucket that held a huge chunk of ice.
Cold juice would then be transferred from the dirty bucket into a dirty pitcher. The vendor would then clean previously used glasses by swishing them in a bucket of water and then fill each with the sweet nectar to be served to the eager Cuban patrons waiting in cola near his fence. Cost for Cubans, 10 pesos, and my cost, 1 CUC. It was sweet and delicious. I purchased two servings. The other tourists seemed less enthused...they obviously have not yet discovered the healing power of rum.
Finding a belt in Cuba proved to be nearly impossible, until, one particular vendor approached the train.
At first I didn't notice him because I was sitting in the parked train eating some fruit, bananas I had purchased from a vendor next to the guarapo stand, and taking a break. From my vantage point I can see the head conductor talking to someone, and out of curiosity I stood to see whom. To my amazement it was an old man selling straw hats and leather belts for 1 CUC each. What a stroke of luck, out of nowhere I now have a chance to get that much needed belt. I quickly climb down off the train and approach the two men. The vendor immediately shows me the straw hats, but I point to the belts and he eagerly scoops them up from his wicker basket for my inspection. Each one is tooled with a different design with some of the artwork being familiar, like the Levi logo for example. As I sifted through the different belts, I happened to look at the belt the conductor was wearing.
It was similar in fashion to the ones I held in my hand, but with the likeness of Che Guevara tooled into the leather, along with the word Cuba. Using my best Spanglish, I asked the belt vendor if he had a Che belt resembling the one the conductor was wearing, and if so, I'd purchase it. Regretfully he didn't and I was resigned to purchase a "Levi" belt merely to have one. But before I could make a selection, the conductor removed his Che belt and placed it in my hand, instructing me to try it on for size. It fit perfect; its leather wrapped buckle came to the second notch.  "Cuanto cuesta senor?" I ask. "Dos CUC's por favor" he answered. "Gladly" I thought, a true bargain, not only am I getting a much-needed belt, but a Che belt for only $2!

Removing my last note from my pocket (I rationed the amount of money I traveled with each day), I offered up a $5 CUC.
He shook his head and gave me a perplexed look that said "Why would I have change for a $5?
Turning immediately to the belt vendor, I ask him for change. Another "look"...Oh no, think fast...wait...yes...the guarapo vendor, I saw lots of CUC's in his cigar box. "Un momento por favor" I say to the conductor and run over to the guarapo man. Again, I get the "look" when asking for change. "OK, OK, muy bien," I say, and order a glass of juice. But there is a problem, he's digging through his cigar box and mysteriously he now only has $2 in change. Damn, I see my Che belt forming wings. "OK, OK, quiero dos vasos mas por favor" I say, ordering two more servings, for a total of three glasses of guarapo. I take my $2 in change, hastily drink the second glass of juice and hand the third glass to an unsuspecting Cuban waiting behind me.
Gracios, the man said as I dash off.
When I return to the belt salesman, the conductor is making his final selection from the belts. Now the three of us are ready to close the deal. I'm first, handing the conductor his two CUC's and he hands me the Che belt. He then turns to the old man, handing him one of the two CUC's, and accepts the new belt. Both men, the conductor and the old man, pocket $1, and the conductor and I don our new belts.
It would be shortsighted to assume that this whole transaction was motivated by $1. In retrospect, the three of us were better off for having all come together, and more importantly, the conductor understood how much that belt would mean to me, and that simple, selfless act contributed to the spell that Cuba holds over me.

Sporting my new Che belt, I head toward the more touristy area looking for a few photo ops. Many vendors are selling various handmade items near the old bell tower, with the hand-embroidered linens being the most beautiful.

Soon it was time for the train to continue down the tracks. With all the original passengers back on board, the train departed the sugar mill. We were only five minutes down the tracks when the train slowed to a stop at a small depot. Unbeknownst to me, a coach bus was waiting, ready to transport everyone on the train, back to Trinidad. Not understanding why, I asked one of the English speaking tourists "Why the bus?" and he explained that everyone on the train that day were part of a tour package and the bus was arranged for a more timely return to Trinidad and beyond to their resort on the coast.
"I don't want to ride the bus" were my thoughts. Therefore, as passengers disembarked and filed into the coach bus, I made my way to the front of the train and found the conductors busy filling what appeared to be an oil reservoir and asked them if the train was returning to Trinidad, and if so, could I stay aboard? Speaking in Spanish, muy despacio, very slowly, he indicated it was and I could, although, the turn-around for the train was yet an hour down the tracks. Muy bueno, very good, I answered.
Shortly, the air-conditioned bus drove away, minus me, and disappeared down the dirt road.
As I sat, waiting on a wooden bench, alone in the still and silent passenger car, I gazed out over the sugarcane fields that stretched for miles, terminating at the base of a distant mountain.
Thick, hot tropical air gently washed over me from over lush green crops. And at that moment I didn't need Katuska telling me "Don't worry, you're safe here", since I've never felt more so.
"Hey, what are mis amigos up to, I haven't seen them in a few minutes?" I think as I'm walking to the front of the train. I find one of the three conductors standing on the ground next to the engine with a short length of heavy gauge wire in his hand. He's receiving delicate ignition instructions, I assume, in Spanish from the head conductor sitting behind the wheel, inside the cab. He's touching the wire and closing the circuit between two metal terminals...spark...low grumble...spark...grumble...spark...more grumbling that crescendos into a whirring roar, making the earth tremble beneath my feet.

"Subete, por favor" he yells at me over the noise of the motor, motioning me to climb up and into the engine cab. The head conductor points at me, and then points to the driver seat. Apparently it's my turn to drive!
Operating the train didn't prove to be difficult, there's no steering involved, only accelerating or decelerating. A powerful horn was available and at my disposal to scare off renegade farm animals standing on the tracks to avoid smashing them into an ink spot. My comrades apparently were confident in my driving abilities since they sat behind me smoking cigarettes and only occasionally standing to look and see what I was blasting the horn at. Only when they discovered that dead ahead, on the tracks, were three free wheeling Cubans, navigating a homemade motorized-train-track-transporter, did they ask me to relinquish the controls.

The end of the line was a triangle of tracks, and as the train slowed, the conductor guided it down the right side of the triangle and stopped, waiting for his partner to open(?) the second side of the triangle. The conductor then backed the train to a point that the train was now facing down the third side of the triangle that would deliver us back onto the original set of tracks, heading home.

Cut to the next scene, I'm sitting by the side of the tracks, our last unscheduled stop, waiting for the conductor to return from inside of a home near the tracks. A woman, who I assume is a friend, invited him inside...pie and coffee maybe? The other two conductors are performing minor preventive maintenance on the train engine. As I wait, a young man sporting a machete walks out from a sugarcane field, carrying a stalk of the same.
He walks toward me and says hello in Spanish and I do the same. He continues speaking to me in Spanish until I inform him that I cannot understand most of what he is saying.
Without saying another word he pulls out a large knife and begins to strip the cane of its bark, exposing the white pulp. He then splits it lengthwise, breaking off a carrot-sized portion. Next, he holds it up in front of us, to draw my attention to it, then places it in his mouth and bites a small piece off, chewing it. He then hands me the sticky plant, gesturing for me to do the same. I do, and begin chewing. The firmness of the plant forced my mouth to place it back between my molars, allowing them to crush it. The texture is woody, with fibrous strands and is foreign to me, although the sweet juice it exudes is not.
Each bite brings a burst of flavor, albeit short lived, so it becomes a methodical dance of bite-chew-spit.

We sat for a long Cuba-time in silence, sharing, chewing and spitting. Whenever I'd finish a piece of cane, he would cut another and hand it to me. "How is it that I merit such kindness?" were my thoughts as I studied my new friend. His aura was solid, black and knowing.
Since I couldn't completely understand his language, it was impossible for me to know how he came to me from the middle "somewhere" in Cuba. Soon he handed me the final piece of sugar cane. "Mucho gusto senor" he said as he shook my hand goodbye and I said the same to him, much pleasure sir.
Hot, humid, diesel tainted air washes over me now as the train chugs home, uninterrupted, to Trinidad.
I'm sitting alone in a wooden train carriage, on a bench with my professional Nikon digital camera stowed away in my backpack. No more pictures for the duration of the return trip. Leaning back, with my legs draped over the wooden seatback in front of me; my mouth is enjoying the last piece of sugar cane. I'm chewing and spitting out over the window rail.
Gentle people, strong coffee, beautiful women, angry pigs, delicious rum, and sugarcane have impressed me so far.

naomisarah says:
you are a fantastic writer, I loved Cuba too :)
Posted on: May 12, 2014
yowza says:
I soooo appreciate the effort you put into this. Very moving, very useful.
Posted on: Jan 27, 2013
pinkjule says:
Wonderfully well done!!!! Thank you for sharing!!
Posted on: Dec 29, 2010
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Bathroom attendant
Bathroom attendant
Capital (look familiar?)
Capital (look familiar?)
Old 50s car these are all over Cu…
Old 50's car these are all over C…
John Lennon tribute statue
John Lennon tribute statue
kids off to school
kids off to school
Slaughtered pig
Slaughtered pig
old box 1915 box camera
old box 1915 box camera
Bill board
Bill board
sugar cane syrup
sugar cane syrup
processing sugar cane
processing sugar cane
sugar cane
sugar cane
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carnival ferris wheel
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photo by: mario26