Trinidad de Cuba

This past week we travel to Trinidad de Cuba via a 1952 Dodge sedan. At $25 we think it’s a bargain to travel the 80 kilometers east from Cienfuegos and we enjoy the drive that weaves through farmland and along the coast. We ask the driver to leave us as close as possible to the old city; this area is a designated World Heritage site and no cars are allowed within. He drops us in front of the Iberostar hotel opposite a large park and I go into GPS mode to find our way to our casa particular. We haven’t made reservations but we stayed at this casa particular two years ago and liked it. It’s a picturesque place within the heritage area on a steep hill and has air conditioning, good plumbing (not always a sure thing in Cuba) and a nice rooftop restaurant attached to it. After a few false starts and wrong turns, we are at the casa particular and, amazingly, our landlady Katriska recognizes us from our past visit. We dump our knapsack in our room and head out to re-acquaint ourselves with Trinidad.

Gates to the heritage area

Gates to the heritage area

It’s one of the oldest cities in Cuba and we spend a day just wandering through the heritage area, ducking into cafes to listen to musicians and just soaking up the atmosphere. At one point we take a wrong turn and end up in an area that can only be described as ‘dirt poor’. The street is a rock-strewn path and leads up the steep hills between wooden shacks and squalor. In the midst of all this poverty, there is a young woman determinedly sweeping her front step and walkway to keep her small space clean. As we hastily make our way back down into the heritage cobblestoned streets, a woman calls out to us, pointing to her toddler saying, ‘Something for the baby?’ It was probably the first time I actually felt a little nervous here in Cuba. But 50 steps later, we turn the corner and we’re back onto a well-kept street with young girls skipping rope in their school uniforms.

Trinidad seems a bit full of tourists right now so we’re not sure if this is the high season now or a reaction to President Obama’s slackening of restrictions on Cuban travel. In addition, the number of people approaching us to ask for money or clothes is much more noticeable than our last visit here two years ago. Is that a reaction to the increase in tourists we wonder? A woman stops me on the street – she really likes my pink Athleta T-shirt and I think she wants to trade my shirt for hers. A stoop-shouldered man waylays us and holds out his straw hat looking for coins. We know from past experience that if I open my bag to offer money, soap or razor blades, a crowd quickly forms and it doesn’t feel comfortable. Trinidad feels more like Havana on this visit; more hustle, less friendly. But, then we stop for lunch and our waiter, Georges, is a delight. He speaks excellent English and shares many stories with us. He tells us that he used to teach grades 7 & 8 English but he quit to become a waiter because ‘it is better for his family’. Anyone who works with the tourists makes far more money and Georges is no exception.

Center of Trinidad

Center of Trinidad

Despite our casa particular being an above-average establishment, like all houses here in Cuba, there are no screens on the windows, just shutters. I’ve come prepared for the lack of screens, although I feel like something out of a Woody Allen movie as every evening around 5 pm I close the shutters and spray the room with Raid. I’m not taking chances with dengue-carrying mosquitos.

One day we ask a bicycle taxi driver to take us to the local cigar factory. We were here on our last visit and Blair picked up a few bundles of cigars then. But this time it’s harder to peek in the door and indicate that we want to buy some cigars because there is a fairly big guy in uniform guarding the entrance and shaking his head at us. Part of the problem is that we are so obviously tourists. I take photos of the building and various street-carts and horses while Blair walks around the other end of the building and catches the eye of one of the workers inside. Ten minutes later, a wiry, young man strolls around the corner with a packet of 25 small cigars (more like cigarillos rather than cigars). But Blair’s picky and doesn’t like the size of them so we wait around another ten minutes and our cigar-man returns looking quite serious but we don’t see any package for us and we expect him to say ‘Sorry…close but no cigar’. Instead he pulls up his T-shirt and stuck down each side of his pants front are a bundle of 10 cigars. He’s skinny and he hitches up his jeans as he digs out each paper-wrapped bundle and passes them over. Blair hands over $15 CUCs and the deal is done. Back at our casa particular, Katriska tells us that the cigar factory where we got our cigars makes them specifically for Cubans, not tourists. But Blair tells me that, although not nicely ‘finished’, they taste great and are really fresh.

One day Katriska encourages us to re-enter that ‘dirt poor’ area to see the beautiful church up on the hill. It’s in ruins but definitely worth seeing she says. We climb up a dusty path until the hovels disappear and we feel a fresh sea breeze sweeping up the hill. The church is beautiful, despite falling down. It’s behind a barbed-wire fence though because just beside and behind it European money is building a hotel – cinco estrella (5-star) Katriska tells us. On the hillside below the church and future 5-star hotel there are a number of tiny but tidy cement houses. One of them has hand-worked cotton tablecloths hung on a clothesline, offered for sale. We think these people will do well once the hotel is build. Perhaps even their houses will appreciate in value because of the proximity. Again, we wonder what changes are in store for Cuba once the US embargo is lifted entirely.

In Trinidad, we always eat breakfast at our casa particular because it’s a known quantity and for $4 each we’re provided with such a big meal that we aren’t hungry until late in the day. Coffee is always served in two delicate little flowered teapots the size my sisters and I played house with as children. One is full of black sweetened coffee, the other contains hot milk and I drink mine as a latte while Blair has his black and strong. Without fail we are served two thick slices of jamon, a processed ham that is just way too much meat for me. Accompanying that are two equally large slabs of gouda cheese, two wedges of flan, a big basket of toast, a tall pitcher of freshly-squeezed mango juice, omelettes and tomato slices. As we eat breakfast each morning, our waitress from last night has a bucket of water and sings lovely, gentle songs in Spanish as she hand washes the stairs leading to our bedroom.

On two nights we eat dinner at the casa particular’s restaurant and each meal we are served Arroz Moro (dark rice). We love this rice and discover that Katriska is responsible for making the rice in large quantities each day. She shares the recipe with me and explains that she uses her pressure cooker to make it; she tells me everyone in Cuba cooks with a pressure cooker, especially los frijoles (beans) – an important ingredient of Arroz Moro. She’s very specific about cooking the beans; 30-40 minutes of cooking time and then 30 minutes to sit before opening the pressure cooker. This seems like a long time for the beans and I’m thinking they must be mush by the time the pressure cooker is opened but I guess the purpose is not to have distinct beans with the rice but just use the beans to make the rice dark and give flavor. Her bean rinsing instructions are also very precise; rinse the beans five times with one cup of water each time, no more. Another odd ingredient is one can of evaporated milk but there’s a language barrier so I’m not sure if she means that I should measure the bean rinse water with an empty can of evaporated milk or to actually dump a can of the milk in with the cooked beans; I’ll try it both ways I think.

Side streets in Trinidad

Side streets in Trinidad

The taxi driver who took us to Trinidad returns for us on Saturday and we are happy to be back aboard Strathspey and sleeping in our comfortable bed. In our absence we see that Strathspey is covered with a thin film of ash because of the various fires that burn here. There is always something burning here in Cienfuegos. A neighbouring boat tells us that often they burn sugar cane fields to encourage new growth. But someone else tells us that sometimes it is just garbage that is being burned. Regardless, at least twice a week there are big clouds of smoke in the sky above Cienfuegos.

We are waiting for some good weather to continue further West to Cayo Largo but in the meantime we are also stocking up on provisions, as Cienfuegos is probably the last city we will be near until we arrive in Havana in March. We make trips into the agromercado to pick up fruits and vegetables and each time we ask for papas (potatoes). After two months here, both Blair and I daydream about foods we miss most and top of the list is a big baked potato with butter and, if it isn’t being too greedy, a dollop of sour cream on top. Potatoes are hard to find. They aren’t ever displayed in any of the agromercados we visit and certainly not in any of the vegetable carts seen down side streets. Periodically, we ask the marina errand boys, ‘Donde puedo comprar papas?’ (where can we buy potatoes). The cruisers tell us that papas are only available via the black market and we’re not quite sure why. A neighbouring boat confides that they have potatoes. They tell us that someone motioned to them outside the agromercado and offered them potatoes so now we’re on the lookout for them.

We’ve also walked over to the nearby Hotel Jagua to get Internet a few times. Yesterday, on our way there, we see a big crowd gathered in front of a concrete shed. There are horses and carts and bicycle taxis and dogs and you name it. On the sidewalk are stacks of beef ribs but these aren’t any kind of beef ribs we’ve ever seen. They look like the entire rib cage of a cow and there is next to no meat on any of the ribs. Four or five rib cages are piled up, money is handed over and the ribs are thrown in the back of the carts. I dig out my camera to record this very odd spectacle and someone shouts very loudly ‘No!’ and shakes a hand negatively. I immediately put my camera back in my purse and gesture a sorry to the man. We draw nearer though and Blair asks someone what the ribs are for; we can’t believe people would eat them as there is no meat on them. The young man tells us that people buy the ribs for their dogs and it is definitely black market and not allowed. This is when I really wished I could have captured those images.

As well as provisioning for food, we have an opportunity to stock up on Cuban CUCs as there is a big bank here in Cienfuegos. Banking is always an interesting task in Cuba and today it was particularly enlightening. As we approach the bank, we see that there is a group of six people standing outside the door; this usually means that there is another group four times this size standing inside the bank with the entrance controlled by a guard. Blair says ‘Ultimo’ (who’s last in line) and we determine that we are behind the guy with the red cap. Shortly after, red cap guy turns to Blair and says about ten sentences in Spanish with much gesturing and pointing to a guy in yellow shirt beside him. We understand this to mean that red cap guy is behind yellow shirt guy but he wants to run an errand so we are to watch yellow shirt guy to determine when to go into the bank ….oh, and yes, red cap guy is emphatic that he is still ahead of us. Blair says ‘Si’ and we settle in for a wait. Blair counts seven people sporadically leaving the bank and then the guard sticks his head out the door and motions us in. We are given a number (#348) by a clerk sitting at her desk beside the front door. She tells us to sit down and gestures toward six rows of chairs, with all but two chairs filled with customers. Now we understand that we’ve been allowed entrance to the bank only because there are two empty chairs for us to sit in. We take our place with the 20-odd people sitting waiting for their number to be called. Number 324 is displayed and we look at each other and grimace at the fact that there are 24 people ahead of us. After 30 seconds though, our number 348 is called and Blair goes up to one of the tellers to make his transaction. About two minutes later, number 325 is called. We can only surmise that when they gave us our number, someone also put out the word to move us through quickly. We’re a little embarrassed that we’ve jumped the queue but also a little happy that we aren’t spending the next two hours waiting our turn.

On our way out to the bank we see a small fruit and vegetable cart sitting outside the marina entrance. There’s no getting past these vendors. They’re pretty persistent and want to show you all their wares but Blair just says ‘Papas’. He really wants a potato I think. This time though, the vendor says ‘Si, pasado mañana’ (day after tomorrow). This is encouraging we think. But when we return from the bank, the vendor motions us over behind his cart and he has five pounds of potatoes for us. He wants $12 for them which is pretty pricey by Canadian standards but we don’t quibble. We’ve been asking people for potatoes for two weeks now and everyone has made a face as if to say ‘Are you crazy’. So, potatoes are on the menu for the foreseeable future and Blair’s happy about that.

We’re finding that there are few things you can’t buy in Cuba. In fact on our last trip into the center of town to buy some excellent but very inexpensive Argentinian wine, we find that there’s some pretty interesting things you can buy on the street here. In the wine/cigar store, I am perusing the various brands and Blair strikes up a conversation with Juan, a Cuban wearing all sorts of Canadian logo clothes. Juan says he loves Canada and to prove it he pulls off his T-shirt to show Blair his Canadian flag tattoo. Juan is a ‘facilitator’. He speaks four or five languages very well and he says in an undertone, ‘You need lobster, fish, something else?’. The something else is hard to distinguish because of his accent but as he sees me approaching, Juan says, ‘That your wife? We talk later’. I go back to picking out wines and Juan asks Blair again if he wants this something else but the accent is too thick so Juan opens his jacket and, from an inside pocket, pulls out a packet of pills in a push-pill bubble package. Turns out it’s Viagra. Potatoes and Viagra, who knew?

So here is a sad/happy story involving our dinghy and Honda outboard here in Cienfuegos. The sad part of the story is that someone tried to steal our dinghy and outboard motor two nights ago. The happy part is that they were thwarted because we had our dinghy locked to Strathspey via a braided steel cable and the outboard was aboard Strathspey and locked to our pushpit with a Stazo stainless steel super lock. Every night, we had grudgingly hauled the outboard motor off the dinghy and onto its stern mount on Strathspey. And every night we’d complained about the extra task, often made difficult by high winds and waves in the harbour. At the same time we lifted the dinghy out of the water as well; sometimes we put it on our forward deck and sometimes Blair used the spinnaker halyard to position it on Strathspey‘s starboard hull. As time went on we saw that other boats were not lifting their dinghies up so we got lazy and began leaving the dinghy in the water but snugged up to Strathspey‘s stern and locked to one of our stanchions with the steel cable. But yesterday morning, we see the Honda outboard bridle is missing, and one of the outboard toggles is unfastened. The Stazo lock on the other toggle is intact and this is what has prevented the loss of the motor. We also see obvious signs of a hacksaw blade on the plastic casing of our dinghy’s steel cable. The marina staff suspects a fisherman (or two) either rowed or swam out to Strathspey to do this and they are very upset and have increased their nighttime patrols. There are many, many boats anchored here now and we wonder what attracted them to Strathspey. It’s creepy that we didn’t hear them at all, although I did wake up around 1:45 am to use the bathroom. Perhaps they woke me up…perhaps I scared them off. It gives us a bad vibe for Cienfuegos now, despite how much we’ve enjoyed being here. Now it’s definitely time to leave Cienfuegos to head further West.

Fresco in Teatro Terry in Cienfuegos

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About Blair

I'm one half of Strathspey's crew - the one that keeps her seaworthy. I'm also the ship's purser, surgeon, musician and skeptical inquirer. If you think you heard bagpipes in the anchorage last night, it might have been me.