We had the most remarkable day.
We decided when we arrived in Cuba to spend a day off the resort getting to see some of the real Cuba so we booked a day long trip billed as, The Spectacular. It was an early start, boarding a bus at 8 AM for what I thought was going to be a visit to Moron and Ciego de Avila, two cities 20 and 50 kilometres from the resort. It turned out to be a lot more.
After boarding the bus and getting the first of several Cuban history lessons from our guide, Alex, he told us our first stop was for a high speed boat ride through a channel of mangrove trees. “Did you know this was part of the trip?” I asked Dan.
“No,” he said, “but it sounds like fun.”
“Um,” said I with a bit of trepidation. I’m not much of a boat person.
We loaded on to three speedboats, eight to a boat. Ours was the last to leave the dock. About 500 metres from the dock, one of the engines died. We drifted a bit while the captain attempted to restart it. Several times. I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of the expedition when he finally got it going and we suddenly flew across the water. It was surreal going at such high speed, as if we really were flying.
And then we hit the channel, a narrow waterway with mangroves on both sides, reaching out to create a canopy overhead. The channel, we were told, is 25 miles long. It was hot and still. Spanish moss draped down from the trees over the water. Every now and then we’d see enormous termite nests set slightly back.
Our guide, I think, was playing the let’s-see-how-many-times-I-can-scare-the-women game as he pounded on the side of the boat yelling, “crocodiles!”, waved the moss in our faces yelling, “spiders!” and leapt off the boat to swing back and forth from branches as if he were some sort of Cuban Tarzan. He succeeded. One woman shrieked each time, much to his delight. As we headed back, one of the other passengers leaned over and asked if I had my camera. “Your husband is driving the boat,” he said. “You might want to get a picture.” Sure enough, there was Dan at the wheel and the captain grinning, giving a big thumbs up. Then he let me drive. Now that was scary. Particularly since I was too busy looking around to realize I was steering us back out to open water. The captain took over to make sure we docked, flying in at an alarming speed for one last scare before cutting the engines and drifting in exactly in place.
On to Ciego de Avila, the larger of the two cities we were visiting. It’s a busy, vibrant place, colourful, a mix of old and newer. Cars competing for space on the narrow roads with 3-wheel cycle taxis, horses & buggies and bicycles everywhere.
Unlike other towns in Cuba, Ciego de Avila built sidewalks and porticos so that the homes and shops don’t open directly onto the streets. Shops sit side by side next to homes with tables out front with goods for sale. One table we passed was full of bits and pieces, screws, bolts, light switch covers, aluminum plates made from old pop cans and more. All items that have carefully been recycled thanks to the years of embargo and isolation.
We were able to wander a fair bit and were even welcomed into the homes of two Cuban families, homes where the front living rooms were opened for craft sales although the rest of the homes were open to explore. In one, a woman who is 100 years old sat in a rocking chair crocheting items for sale. In the kitchen, the counter was filled with fresh vegetables, laundry hung in the back courtyard and three other family members watched television in a bedroom/sitting room. In the second house, there was a small pool in the centre courtyard filled with turtles. The turtles, we were told, are for protection, absorbing evil or harm. A lot of homes have them apparently.
In the back of the house was a workshop where four young men crafted beautiful jewellery and artwork from melted down cutlery. For each project, they would carefully comb through huge tubs of old tarnished knives, forks and spoons, searching out the right pieces until they had what they needed to begin work.
I made purchases in each of the homes: a crocheted sunhat and a handcrafted silver ring. We could have haggled, according to our guide, but chose not to; the items were inexpensive by North American standards and we appreciated the work and care that had gone into them.
We also explored a market, a couple of shops, sat for awhile in the town square to watch the people and wandered into the lobby of an old hotel.
It looked like something from a movie set with lovely Spanish style architecture. A faded beauty with parts of the walls and ceiling crumbling, the hotel was still vibrant getting ready for a busy lunch crowd.
Back on the bus, we headed for Moron. But not before a stop on the way for a real pina colada. Dan, of course, engaged our guide at every opportunity to learn about him, about Cuba, about the people and, it turns out, about pina coladas. He learned that a real national pina colada is made with Cuban rum, Cuban coconuts chopped and blended, separated from the milk which is added later and generous chunks of pinapple and cinnamon to taste. And, it just so happened, there was a place that makes these drinks on our route. Before lunch. On empty stomachs. After baking in the heat of Ciego de Avila. Nonetheless, when the guide proposed the stop to everyone on the bus, it was greeted with enthusiasm and I must admit, the drinks were spectacular. Dan claims he’ll never have another pina colada again. Unless, of course, it’s at the Motel de Salvador on the road to Moron.
Once in Moron, we stopped at Don Papa’s for lunch, a family-run restaurant frequented by locals. Lots of families, live music, great food served at long tables. And then it was on to the Cuban bar with a band that insisted on audience participation. Dan won’t let me post the video of him singing and dancing with the band. Let’s just say he has his own style, one that I suspect the band leader won’t soon forget.
Our last stop for the day, another I didn’t know was part of the trip, was a visit to a crocodile farm. The crocodile population , we were told, has been vastly diminished thanks to commercial hunting so there are now 65 farms in Cuba where crocodiles are bred and protected. They’re mighty scary, throwbacks, sunning themselves with their mouths wide open, not to snap a bite out of an unsuspecting visitor but to even out their body temperature. The Cuban variety are smaller than the American ones but have longer legs and can travel at up to 60 miles per hour. They definitely slither fast and leave wavy trails in the sand from their tales, creating a strange sand art. Even the crocodile farm is a tourist opportunity. For a peso or two, you can hold a baby croc. Their mouths are taped closed because even those little jaws can cause damage. Dan held one; I did not.
We boarded the bus for the last time, 24 tourists from different parts of Canada who laughed, shrieked occasionally, shared a meal and assorted beverages, and bonded over a spectacular shared experience. Oh, and the entire trip was recorded on video, packaged and delivered to our hotel door the following morning along with a CD of Cuban music. I’m grateful to have had the experience and we’re looking forward to reliving it when we’re back home. Except maybe for the crocodiles. Them I can do without.
Note: I plan to write about my impressions of Cuba in a separate post, impressions and feelings of this beautiful and resilient country, a post for after I’m home when I’ve had time to process. I’ll post photos as well, adding them to the various Letters from Cuba.