Traveling back in time

Back at Marina Dársena, we regroup after our Havana excursion, do some boat chores, I read a bit, Blair noodles on his guitar a bit and we miss a very small weather window to cross to Florida. My wrist is still swollen and, although I can wiggle my fingers (and type) and do most light-weight boat tasks, I’m not yet able to firmly grasp anything (like a grab rail in a rough sea) so we decide to wait for the next window.

The marina here has two large tote boxes set up on the docks closest to shore and this is where staff wants all our garbage placed. Blair, thinking he was being a good garbage citizen, carries a bag of trash over to a dumpster at the edge of the marina property and immediately two staff members shout out a volley of Spanish including many ‘No, No, No es posible’. It appears that our garbage is considered ‘International’ garbage and must be burned every day in a separate metal incinerator, along with all the other cruisers’ garbage. All garbage must be in plastic bags, firmly tied, and staff has been instructed not to open the bags so, from time to time, we duck and look over our shoulders as we hear a small explosion from the vicinity of the incinerator and someone says ‘oh, there’s another aerosol canister!’.

Starter motor

Here on dock Blair was in maintenance mode, most of which begins when he decides to clean various areas of the boat. One thing leading to another (as usual on a boat), at one point he takes the windlass apart because the motor casing and electrical terminals are rusted and corroded. These get nicely cleaned up, soldered and painted with Tremclad. Next he re-routes the engine siphon brake because it is broken and dripping salt water onto the starter motor, solenoid and air intake (very odd place to install that brake we think). Also, our dinghy has had a hard time staying nicely inflated for long so a morning was spent patching at least six tiny holes but now six days later, it is soft again so we obviously have missed some holes.

After talking to weather guy Chris Parker about our next weather window, we decide we have time to go to Trinidad because Brooklyn has done some Internet research for us and her report on this southern city sounds like it’s not to be missed. We waffle over whether to hire a car and driver, go by bus or take the plunge and try driving in Cuba ourselves. We rent a Geely car (a Chinese car) and are assured by the rental manager that it’s a wonderful car despite the fact that when we open and shut the doors, they ring hollow (as does his assurances). I ask him if it has a good spare tire because we’ve heard many tales of flat tires while driving through Cuba so I want to be prepared; it’s a brand new spare tire and the jack and handle are still in their original packaging so we feel relatively confident. So, we’re ready – we have a full tank of gas and a stellar roadmap of Cuba that I picked up at World of Maps in Ottawa. It’s so detailed and accurate that whenever we pull it out to show other cruisers where we’re going or where we’ve been, they ask to buy it.

Mango Tree

We start out strong, following the rental manager’s instructions regarding which highways to use and which villages to look for. Shortly after Cárdenas though, our 4-lane divided highway peters out into a two-lane street where we’re between two horse-drawn carts and, more importantly, where it appears all road signs have been taken inside and been well hidden. We keep driving and eventually, someone (Rolando) flags us down to tell us that the road ahead ends and that we need to turn around. We offer him a ride home to Jaguey Grande, 30 kilometers down the road, as it is on our way to Trinidad, and bonus – he directs us to a shortcut through the citrus plantations so we see where much of Cuba’s citrus fruits come from. Rolando speaks English and tells us stories of his high school years where he and all his classmates were sent to work in the citrus plantations; they’d do field work for half the day and schooling for the other half. It was Fidel’s initial answer to the problem of finding enough farm labourers to feed the nation. He built huge high schools and dormitories in the middle of the plantations and the teens would spend 6-7 days at the plantation and then home for four days and then back again. All these schools are closed now and, as we drive along our shortcut, in the distance we see the buildings, white, square concrete with broken windows, definitely abandoned. Interestingly, this entire area of the Matanzas province has Prince Edward Island soil; a deep red and, obviously, just as fertile. After dropping Rolando off, we turn onto a 3-lane divided highway, well patched and with few cars travelling in either direction. We watch carefully for the turnoff to Cienfuegos and successfully negotiate the oddest answer to an overpass we’ve seen yet in our travels.

Banana Tree

Although we see few road signs, there is no shortage of huge billboards with poetic propaganda in letters 2 feet high. Usually they are quotes of Fidel, Raúl or José Martí, the father of revolution here in Cuba. As well, everywhere we go in Cuba we see posters with the slogan ‘Libertad para los cinco’ with pictures of five men. These are the five Cuban ‘spies’ that have been in jail in the USA for many years. Earlier in the month, CBC news had mentioned that the USA was getting ready to release one of them but, in the absence of Internet here, we’re in the dark re these men and their fate. In Havana, always on the forefront of everything, those posters are a little more hip and read ‘Obama, gimme 5’. The absence of Internet (or relative difficulty of getting it) was fine but now it’s nearing the end of the month and we have a bit of business that needs addressing. Yet, it seems that this week, there is no Internet in all of Cuba. Well – that’s not actually accurate – if you were fortunate enough to purchase an Internet card last week and had some minutes left on it, you can log in and get emails and Internet but there are no Internet cards to buy here in Cuba this week. Rumour has it that they are ‘revamping’ Cuban Internet right now and no one can say when it will be back online.

Now, after dropping Rolando off, we are back on a small two-lane road and see a young 20-something girl at the side of the road, holding what looks like a can of gasoline, anxiously flagging us down. We offer her a ride and now we are a little flummoxed as she speaks no English so we don’t know why she is anxious and all my attempts at determining where she wants to go are met with puzzlement. I show her the map and she couldn’t place us on the map either. Finally I hand her my notepad and say ‘Dónde vas?’ (where are you going). She writes Rodas, just 20 kilometers down the road, so we relax and turn up the volume on the Spanish CD we’ve purchased from one of the bands we heard in Havana. She keeps offering me things from her backpack, presumably to thank us for the ride – at one point she hands over a huge bag of Saison seasoning and then later two gold glitter mascaras. I keep saying ‘Gracias No’ so now, niceties out of the way, she relaxes and enjoys our air conditioning in the 35 Celsius degree heat. We drop her off at a bus stop and continue on. Cienfuegos, a relatively large city, turns out to be easy, peasy and we charge on only to end up at a T-junction with fields on every side and, yet again, no signage. At these junctions though, there are usually people standing around waiting for buses and happy to send us on the right path again. No one in Cuba has a car except people associated with the tourist industry or high ranking government officials so offering and accepting rides is a way of life here. Our last backseat guest was Mario who, although shabbily-dressed and carrying a sack of grain, was an electrical engineer, trained in Germany, who spoke Spanish, German and some English and worked at a sugar plantation – even he did not have a car. So, with Mario in the backseat, we wound our way up and down hills toward Trinidad and at one point I commented to Mario that there were quite a few beef cattle grazing in the fields. He said that he never ate beef; he couldn’t afford it – it was only for the touristas.

Casa particular

As we near Trinidad, the road curves closer to the south coast and we have a wonderful view of the ocean and beaches. But we also expose our Geely to a 15 kilometer stretch of road that is littered with the exoskeletons of Cangrejo (crayfish). With every full moon, the Congrejo march from the ocean across the highway to the brushland beyond, on a mission to lay their eggs perhaps. Our friends on Matador said it was carnage when their driver took them through this area a week previously; crayfish splattered everywhere and, of course, a flat tire. The sharp carapaces and claws get stuck in the tires and punctures are inevitable. We travelled this stretch long after the full-moon Congrejo crossing and the crabs were good and flat but, sure enough, the shells are still sharp enough to give us a flat. Blair puts on our brand new spare tire in short order and we continue on to Trinidad with Mario. His brother-in-law has a wonderful casa particular in the old square of Trinidad and Mario takes us there, helps us negotiate the narrow, cobblestoned streets to the casa, carries our bags in and wishes us a wonderful visit. I give him a bottle of Billy Bee honey; he is happy and so are we. Our initial impression of this well-educated professional (in shabby clothes carrying his sack of grain) was flawed and this is a good lesson in not judging a book by its cover.


While in Trinidad, we wander through the old city and take in the ambiance and, again, sit in cafes and listen to wonderful music. We decide to visit the national park about two kilometers from the city to see what the really rural areas of Cuba are like. But it seems that both Blair and I have gotten clumsy while in Cuba; me taking an extra big step down our companionway stairs and Blair almost slicing his baby toe in half while barefoot and quickly striding past a sharp bit of deck gear. So we decide to ‘take it easy’ and hire a guide and his horses to take us into the national park rather than hike up there ourselves. The guide actually picked us up at our casa and when we followed him out the door, I think we were expecting a car waiting to take us to the stable, but no, there are three horses standing in the cobblestone street at the front door. I get manhandled into the saddle like a sack of oats because I still can’t grab anything to help myself up. Blair, despite this being his first time, performs well and soon the two of us are upright and heading down the street on Mulato and Canaria, two small but sure-footed horses. We follow our guide out of town and then down a dirt track and into the backcountry of Trinidad, eventually ending up at a small stand selling sugar cane juice. This time, we enjoy the juice as they’ve cut the sweetness with lemon and, despite the early hour, added a dash of rum. We continue on into the park and finally stop to tie up the horses and hike 10 minutes further to a deep swimming hole. It’s normally fed by a river and picturesque waterfall but it hasn’t rained in weeks so there’s no waterfall. Teenagers are climbing the rocks and diving 10 meters into the deep hole but Blair and I are content to just stick our feet in the cool water. The entire ride to the swimming hole and back, it felt like we had gone back into the 1800’s, on horseback, riding past thatched-roofed houses, dirt roads, no billboards and quiet save for the crowing roosters. Definitely a neat way to see a different part of Cuba, however, four days later, I’m still sore to sit so perhaps this wasn’t quite the best way to take it easy. Blair feels great and is eager to ride again so we think he may be a natural cowboy.

Cigar factory

Later that day, we walk out to the edge of Trinidad’s old city center, where the cobblestones give way to pot-holed concrete, and we find a cigar factory. It’s an obscure little building and we almost miss it except the smell of tobacco wafting out to the street catches our attention. The word factory is definitely a stretch – it’s a small room with about 20 men and women sitting at small desks, more like little cubbies, each with a stack of fresh, flat tobacco leaves about the size of printer paper but fairly ragged. Next to the flat leaves is a pile of tobacco ‘shreds’, sort of like shredded coleslaw. We watch as the worker roll the shreds up inside the leaves. Not so tight that the cigar won’t provide a long slow burn – not so loose that it burns hot or, worse, falls apart in your hand.

Early the next morning, I steal up to the casa rooftop with my camera and watch Trinidad unfold as the sun rises. First awake are the roosters, then the dogs, then the tradesmen going off to work, picking their way carefully down the rough cobblestones. The school children come out next, all neatly dressed in school uniforms with their hair brushed til it gleams. There’s no honking of car horns or squealing of brakes as this entire vieja area of Trinidad is a no-car zone and has been designated a World Heritage site. Despite the activity, it’s still quiet which surprises me because the previous night there was a constant hum of loud voices and vendors calling their wares. My favourite was the macaroon seller. He has a small hand cart full of macaroons that he pushes up and down the streets, all the while calling ‘Macarron, Macarron, Macarron’. At the risk of generalizing too much, it seems to us that Cubans are a vociferous nationality. They speak fast and loud; it’s like the John Hyatt lyric says, they ‘carry on a conversation like some mothers call their children in’. It must be the Spanish in them. They gesticulate and are definitely persistent; when you don’t understand, they’ll say it again, just as fast and just as loudly. Yet, as soon as we attempt to communicate in Spanish, without exception, their eyes light up and, all of a sudden, they’re patient, trying different words and exaggerated miming to help us understand. And, when we finally ‘get it’, there’s a look of pure joy on their face. And then they go on to the next phrase. It’s exhausting at the time but when we’ve had a conversation where we’ve come away with a useful bit of information and, as well, been understood, we’re really proud of ourselves.

MIG 27 at the side of the road

While we’ve been gallivanting around Trinidad, the owner of the car park has taken our flat tire to the Ponchera (tire) shop to get fixed. When we collect the tire, we’re surprised when the repairman asks for $20 but when we see what he’s had to work with, we gladly pay it. The tire was so badly damaged that he had to rebuild the tire wall so now our Geely tire looks like it has three 4-inch long blobs of thick tar stuck to it. The car had been steering poorly from the minute we set out from Veradero but about a half hour after Mario, a very big man, got in the back seat it began steering even worse. Reflecting on the whole tire incident we realize that we’d put the slight degradation in performance down to the size of Mario and didn’t stop, so we’ve made a classic first-time teenage driver mistake and have continued driving on the flat tire and completely wrecked it….. Oops. If this was anywhere else the tire would be thrown out but this is Cuba where most everything gets fixed. We’re definitely not putting it back on the car so it goes in the trunk. But, the next day as we are driving out of the old city with very good directions to the highway, someone gestures at one of our front tires (not the new spare) and when we get out to look we see it’s not flat but it is low. The Ponchera tire man doesn’t have air but there’s a house down the street that has an airpump and some pretty rudimentary tools for fixing minor punctures. It turns out that we have three puncture holes due to those dratted crayfish plus an embedded horseshoe nail. They all get fixed and now we’re wondering if we’re going to have any more tire issues before we get back to Veradero and Strathspey.

Because our tire fix is in an actual neighbourhood, the neighbours are out watching and see me give the mechanic a package of disposable razors. His assistant asks Blair for a T-shirt so we rummage around in our bag in the trunk and pull out the only clean one he has left, a faded one with a restaurant logo on it (sorry Evan, it was the one from Dixie Crossroads!). Now we have all kinds of people around us wanting clothes, not threateningly at all, just hopeful. I empty the small bag of soaps that Lynn from First Edition gave me to hand out in Cuba and everyone is happy. When the mechanic’s assistant spots Blair’s New Balance running shoes in the trunk, he wants them…..badly. Every few minutes he asks Blair if he can have them and it isn’t until Blair writes their Canadian price on a scrap of paper does he agree that he can’t have them. Unlike Havana, no one here asks us for money. They are just asking for what they don’t have.

Guamuhaya mountains

On our way home from Trinidad we take a different route and drive through the Sierra Escambray mountains. The road is winding and climbs higher and higher. There are no guardrails and the drop-offs are sheer and heart-stopping. The road is narrow, with no shoulders and when we meet oncoming traffic, we watch carefully to make sure they stay on their side of the road because we’ve noticed a tendency for Cuban drivers to straddle the middle. As we wind our way through the mountains, the vistas are breathtaking and we have our favourite Spanish CD playing – a collection of Cuban ballads by a band we spent much time with in Trinidad. On this mountain road we’re following in Che Guevara’s footprints as this is how he and his rebels approached Santa Clara, with his countrymen providing food and shelter for them along the way. The scenery and music are so evocative; it’s overcast and the mountains fade into smudges in the distance and we imagine Fidel as a young man hiding in the mountains of Granma province planning his revolution 54 years ago. When we begin our decent,

Tobacco plots

Blair shifts back and forth between first and second gear to prevent the Geely brakes from failing and we take our time, sorry to leave this area. We pass emerald green tobacco fields, banana trees and palms on our descent and soon we are back on the main highway to Cárdenas. This day is the high point of all our time in Cuba and we make plans to return again and spend time in the mountains, hiking the trails between all the lakes and rivers.

2 thoughts on “Traveling back in time

  1. Hi Mary and Blair- Derek is right Mary- you should write a book!
    Hope your hand is on the mend and good luck on your passage to Florida.
    In the meantime- dolce vita!

  2. Fascinating ! Hope your hand is getting better ! We are in Treasure Cay waiting for yet another front to pass ! H&K’s Mireille and Christian

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