And back to Cuba we go!
Ross and I had read that Santa Clara was historically, a significant place for Cuba, as this was where El Che won La Revolucion. It was the final battle that sent Batista and his men running for the US with their tails between their legs. Naturally, we had to check out where El Che had derailed the train passing through Santa Clara, which essentially cut off supplies to Havana. I think the most tourism Ross and I did, was here in Santa Clara. As I mentioned before, I was a huge fan of El Che, so this was huge.
It was incredible to see the dugouts, and hill that the rebel army occupied in Santa Clara, and how strategically, they had won Santa Clara. Unfortunately, the train museum was closed, so we just got to see the outside of the train, and imagine what it looked like inside. El Che and his men derailed Batista's train with a Caterpillar tractor. Maybe, only I see the irony in that. At the Che monument, they had the letter he wrote to Fidel, when he resigned and started his campaign to liberate the poor against tyranny. While El Che's campaigns were violent and aggressive, there was a sensitivity to that man that is engrained in the deep poetics of his writing. I remembered why I was drawn to this immensely polemic figure.
Santa Clara itself was sleepy. Vane and Yovany arranged a casa at a retired percussionist, Arturo Luis, and his pediatrician wife's home. This couple stole our hearts. I was still suffering from a little jet lag, but we stayed up late talking and laughing, and learning about the revolution, and what it was like living in Cuba in the 90s. Arturo told us that his mother had tried to dissuade him from going to rehearsal the day El Che won the war, and that he was dodging mortars, and bombs being dropped by Batista's airplanes. One of Ross and my favorite things to do is listen to stories, and histories of times past from people, especially "old" people. Arturo may have been in his 80s but he outdid me in energy, and spirit. When he spoke, his eyes would sparkle and when he spoke of music, he would start scatting rhythms, and singing. It was intoxicating.
I was reading, "Telex from Cuba" by Rachel Kushner, at this point, and had just gotten into the meat of war. I had a total fan girl moment one night when we walked pass the Radio Rebelde office. Maybe it's the journalist in me, but I continue to be amazed by how communication and technology have evolved but how the basics are still the same. In war time, in peace time, we are still use these greatly different channels in very much the same way throughout time to unite.
One of the first things people ask us about Cuba, is "How are the beaches?" Honestly, the ones we went to were great but they were crowded. For the life of us, we couldn't find the deserted beaches of our Caribbean dreams, so we came to the conclusion that either we just need more time to explore or they were all taken already. The truth was that beaching wasn't our priority but we did sneak onto the beach at a hideous hotel resort in Cayo Santa Maria. If you want to do Cuba wrong, this is the resort to go to... Their monopoly of the crystal clear water was really all it had going for it. Gratuituous beach photo... Here you go.
On our way out of town, Arturo Luis suggested that we take the scenic route to Trinidad via Topes de Collante, as long as we thought our little Chinese car could make it up the big mountain. Growing up in the Sierra Nevadas, this seemed comical to me, but I was being arrogant. It was not going up that was the issue, it was coming down.
While I do eat pork, I have a complicated relationship with pigs. I grew up with a Vietnamese Pot Bellied pigs as a pet. They are, if they aren't obese, and are well cared for, such cute, clever animals. I really have a soft spot for little cerditos. I will never forget our baby Billy hopping up the stairs each night to sleep with my brother. So on our adventure to Trinidad, when I spotted a little litter of piglets in the campo, with the most spectacular New Year's Eve muñeco, I just had to stop. In reality, every campesino's home we passed had some cerditos but these were especially cute. Also, we needed to figure out what this weird doll/scarecrow was with cow teeth, and a rum bottle was doing posted outside their gate.
We then discovered that the funniest, cutest little red-headed brothers and their mother lived in the house above. One of the sunburned brothers was a talented weaver who makes funny bug sculptures, intricate lamps, and rustic furniture. Their quaint little house was tidy and surprisingly chic. I swear Martha Stewart would have been proud.
We were later offered home grown and roasted coffee at their neighbor's. The son of the coffee farmers was in university studying English. He is planning on becoming an interpreter. This was one of the things I found most incredible about Cuba. Someone explained Cuba as "We are equally poor", and while this is true, with hard work, the opportunity to study is granted to everyone. There are many nuances about the Cuban politics that I cannot pretend to understand after only 2 short weeks in the country, but one of the overarching things all Cubans were grateful for was their education. My heart always breaks when I see families here in Indonesia, and even in the US, needing to decide between eating, and an education. I know that struggle first hand, and know the sacrifices my family had to make to ensure, me and my siblings all have had access to an education. I felt proud for this young man, and for Cubans in general.
As we finally started descending down into Trinidad, the sun was starting to set. This meant the likelihood of cars coming through the pass was dwindling, so Ross and I picked up three security guards that were guarding a museum that was previously Batista's summer home. I've never met a set of more mismatched people in my life. A tall soft-spoken baritone, a stoic silent middle-aged man, and a creaky, chatty mousy fellow, all piled into our car. The choir of voices in our car guided us down into Trinidad while Ross artfully maneuvered our little tin can down 20 miles of concrete moguls.
Trinidad was the first place we truly felt the pain of the embargo as Americans. Ross and I suspect a few hundred CUCs were stolen from us in Havana, and we started to sweat that we were running out of money. Of course, as US citizens, and holders of only US bank accounts, our options were slim. We ended up having to enlist a kind, young Cuban to allow us to use their name to accept a Western Union transfer from the US (Thank you Graham!). It was several days of waiting in line, asking everyone questions to which no one knew the answer, and finally working the system to our benefit. We discovered this was how Cubans really live; craftily, and patiently.
Trinidad itself is vibrant, and beautiful. It definitely felt like one of the more touristy cities we had visited, but it somehow maintained a level of genuineness. A friend from childhood connected us with a lovely family, Yanaika, Luis Manuel and their adorable little daughter Olivia, who took us under their wing. They directed us to the best restaurants, beaches, sites, and clubs in Trinidad including, an evening dancing in a cave! Yani and LuisMa have a beautiful casa, Casa Cubana, but they were booked through the high season. We are notoriously last minute planners. (We, as in thanks to Ross, who always convinces me I'm stressing over nothing...He's usually right). Luckily, Yani is a travel consultant, so she arranged our stay in Trinidad, at a new, and superbly clean, casa. They also invited to an evening of caçanças, and some amazing home cooked aperitivos. It was one of the best little meals we had. I'm now a huge fan of those honey lemon cocktails!!
We ended up staying 4 nights in Trinidad, partially due to the money SNAFU, and also because we loved it so much. The crowds can get overwhelming in the middle of the day, so we bugged off to get some sun at the beach during this time, and instead explored the city at sunrise and sunset. One thing we do wish we had booked early was scuba diving. Just next to Hotel Club Ancon, lies a little dive shop. Apparently, there are all kinds of fun animals in the water, and the visibility was around 30M when we were there. Lesson learned. Some things aren't always sorted out on a whim.
Every morning our breakfasts were so huge that we often skipped lunch, and then were ravenous by 5PM (So unlike my "Spanish in his last life" husband). It actually ended up working out great for us! At the recommendation of Yani, (and trip advisor as it turns out) as soon as it got too dark to shoot, we were the first ones at Restaurante San Jose every night. After 7PM, the line is down the street. It's worth the wait as long as your partner can handle your "hanger". The ropa vieja, and the langostina enchilada are amazing! Ross also really liked the Lomo, but I had more than my fill of pork by then. We also liked the Camarones Reposados, deep fried shrimp!!!
We left Trinidad with a heavy heart. Between Topes de Collante, Trinidad, the beaches and leaving our new friends, we packed up our bags and headed through La Valle de los Ingenios on our way to Santiago de Cuba... Stay tuned for the Valley, and Santiago next!