Havana’s faded glory looks modern compared with the city of Trinidad, located in the south central part of Cuba, overlooking the Caribbean. If you want to see how some aspects of life looked before the advent of the automobile, Trinidad is the place to come.
Here, men push carts along the deeply cobbled, uneven streets selling fresh bread, onions, carrots and other fresh vegetables, their loud cries easily reaching inside the one- and two-story homes. Horses are a major means of transportation, pulling carts filled with goods and people. If there are any stores even faintly resembling a grocery market, I didn’t see them. Instead, perhaps 10-foot wide shops sell cuts of meat hanging from hooks above counters open to the streets. Construction machinery doesn’t exist. Men swinging heavy hoes, for example, clean the dirt out of street gutters, leaving piles of dirt for later pick-up.
The neighborhoods of small homes desperately need repair, their corners and facades of plaster over stone crumbling after decades of neglect.
But for all of this, there is a sense of new energy in Trinidad.
The waves of tourists now rushing to see Cuba have created a huge demand for hotel rooms, but there are not nearly enough hotels to fill the demand. So the government under Raul Castro has allowed homeowners (yes, they own their homes) to become Bed & Breakfasts, and that has caused a flurry of rebuilding and remodeling. These owners are rushing to serve the tourists, or, as in our case, Americans on the kind of people-to-people visits that are the only ones still condoned by the U.S. State Department. Rule #1: You are not there for recreation, so don’t expect any visits to the beach!
These tightly programmed visits, such as ours organized by Road Scholar, do include close contact with art, music and community projects, and visits to markets where you can buy Cuban crafts and, of course, cigars. But even when you’re dancing, oh no, be sure it’s not recreation! Such absurdity.
At Home with Cecilia
Part of Road Scholar’s program was to spend a few nights at one of these new B&Bs.
Our bus dropped us off on a street corner where we were immediately met by Cecilia, the pretty 30-something owner of the B&B that was to be our home. Road Scholar requires that the B&Bs it uses have en suite bathrooms, an air conditioner and at least cold running water. The façade of our B&B was in good repair and painted bright yellow. Flanking it on one side was a construction project which proceeded very quietly as it is done by hand, again without benefit of machinery that would be common in America.
As was typical of all the homes in the neighborhoods, Cecilia’s home had no glass or screens in the windows, only louvered metal shutters that could be angled open for air. To our surprise, there were few insects, only small, non-biting flies. This might be due to the constant campaign against mosquitos and the Zika virus.
Cecilia lives in the house with her mother, also Cecilia, and her 13-year old daughter, Leda, who was not attending regular school but instead spending a month doing community service. That is the requirement for all children of roughly middle-school age.
We were ushered into a small living room with caned wood chairs and rockers, and a three-seat sofa also of wood and cane. Left of this was our room. At first I wasn’t sure we’d fit with our 2 suitcases and backpacks. A metal-framed double bed stood about 18 inches apart from a single bed, both with mattresses about 3 inches thick and supported by two-by fours. If you like a hard bed, you’re happy here.
I had hoped to take a nap after we arrived, but discovered that the children who lived up the street shrieked like children everywhere, while their mothers shouted their conversations from one side of the street to the other. I finally asked Cecilia when the children might quiet down. She laughed and said 10 pm. And like magic, at 10, all went quiet. Custom? A local rule? I don’t know.
We read in the evening. There was a small TV with rabbit ears that sat on a small table, the only furniture in the room. Once and a while, there was an American show like the X-files on the tube with Spanish sub-titles.
We never used the air conditioner, as it was cooler in Cuba than we expected. Our bathroom had hot water in the shower, but only cold in the sink. It was fine.
Cecilia and her mother made us a sumptuous breakfast every morning, much more food than we could eat: cubes of succulent papaya, a 3-egg omelet with sliced tomatoes, fresh rolls and butter, guava juice, small pieces of mildly sweet cake, and excellent coffee served in thermoses to keep it hot. They spoke little English, but I was able to dredge up from the depths of my brain enough of the Spanish I once knew very well to get along just fine.
They didn’t eat with us and it would have been nice to talk with them more about their lives and expectations. But we did learn that Ceclia would be visiting America soon and staying for a few months with a relative.