Throwback Travel: Snark, Sugar Canes & Sweet Cuban Ladies

**NOTE to READERS: The following describes a trip which took place in March and early April, 2016.

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Monday, March 28, 2016.

Part One.

This morning begins a bit … backwards. Perhaps “odd” is a better word. Or maybe awkward? Just follow me on this one …

So the day before, as we arrived in Santa Clara, we were taken to this historical site. It’s famous (or infamous?) for a train blockage/derailment that’s said to have been pivotal in the Battle of Santa Clara, between fighters under Che Guevara’s command, and General Fulgencio Bautista’s army. But it was, like, a passing visit; we didn’t stay very long, and Santana didn’t give us much of an explanation. I’m guessing the museum/monument was closed.

But we’ve been brought back to the site this morning to take a look around before we head out for Trinidad.

The train cars house the museum, which you have to pay admission to enter. Most people go in; I hang back with Jana and wait.

Outside the museum, Jana and I are talking amongst ourselves, trying to figure out the day’s itinerary. According to the trip info, we’re supposed to be getting a salsa lesson once we reach Trinidad. But Santana hasn’t said much of anything so far; he’s been a bit tight-lipped about the group’s plans.

So when we spot him a little while later, we decide to approach, and Jana asks him about it.

His first words to Jana are, “When you want to say ‘good morning’, you say, ‘buenos dias’. When you want to say ‘good afternoon’, you say, ‘buenos tardes’ … ”

Jana says that’s not what she’s asked, and when she tries to ask a second time – particularly the salsa lesson – he sort of blows her off and says he doesn’t know.

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Um. Okay

We drive a couple of hours out, and along the way, Santana speaks a little bit about colonialism and slavery in Cuba, which only ended in 1886 (much later than other Caribbean islands, like Jamaica, where my family’s from).

This is notably different than some of the historical information I gleaned from Daniel during my walking tour in Havana. And I would given Santana points for helping make my history lesson more well-rounded, except for the weird, condescending, passive-aggressive encounter Jana had with him back in Santa Clara.

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Our next stop is this tower, the path leading to it lined with people hawking souvenir tchotchkes – embroidered fabrics, papier-mâché cars, those topsy-turvy-like dolls (with the white lady on one side, and the black lady on the other), guys trying to sell people grasshoppers woven from grass.

A random chicken struts around nearby. Walking alongside a fellow traveller, Joe (the Aussie travelling with his mom) I joke that it’s the first chicken I’ve encountered so far on my trip that isn’t fried and on my plate.

We climb the tower – but not without a couple of head-bashes on the stairway upwards. But the panoramic views at the top of the countryside are worth the admission.

Ambling down from the tower, we head over to a nearby building, walking through the restaurant inside to the back where – under a gazebo – we’re seated in a circle around this wooden contraption. It’s a press used to squeeze juice out of sugar canes.

For the demonstration, they get several of my male travel-mates to line up along a large wooden log which acts as a handle to get the press working.

In what’s supposed to be a joke, Santana hands me his cell phone – he’s fired up an app that makes the sound of a whip – and says something to the effect of, “Now, you get white people to work for you for once.”

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Yikes aside, the idea behind the press is that the faster my colleagues move, the more juice comes out of the press. And at the end of it, we sample the fruits of their labour – combining the cane juice and some fruit juice – with the option of rum.

On our way back to the bus, we’re temporarily stalled outside of the restaurant, and just as people start to walk towards the bus, I’m stopped by one of those guys wearing the grass-grasshoppers. He affixes a grasshopper to my hat – which he’s woven on the spot – then gives me a grass rose. Then, he’s putting bracelets on my arm – first one, then two. Cost: 5 CUCs.

As I’m resigning myself to pay for what he’s given me (but I didn’t ask for), he slaps ANOTHER THREE bracelets on my arm. “Gifts for your family in America”, he says. Not happy with this, I try to tell him what I could pay for 5 CUCs (while now wearing 10 CUCs of his merch). In the end, he walks away with 9 CUCs and leaves me annoyed.

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On the bus, I explain what’s happened and – with help from a fellow traveller, Sue – am made to realize that he’s just trying to make a living, and I’m actually helping him with that. (Almost three years on, I see that much more clearly.)

As a partial consolation, Jana buys one of my wooden bangles.

Our bus ride continues through the countryside, past large swathes of farmland and palm trees, until we stop at a restaurant overlooking the valley, and hilly ranges as far as the eye can see.

Even though the sun is beating down, the view is breathtaking.

Inside the restaurant, we’re serenaded by a trio, one of whom apparently makes Jana a bit hot under the collar. (I’m having a love affair of my own – with my meal – so I don’t hear about this until later.)

We arrive in Trinidad mid-afternoon … but not before Santana FINALLY tells us that our introductory salsa class will be at 6 p.m. that evening. Jana and I do not say a word.

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Santana takes the group to a “home-base” casa, where the owner contacts several others in the immediate area, and we sort out who’s staying with whom.

Jana and I stay with a woman named Julitza. She barely speaks English, but she’s the sweetest lady we’ve met so far. We also catch glimpses also an older lady at the casa, who we think is Julitza’s mother. She lives in the other half of the house.

Our room’s on the second floor. It’s bright orange, with cream colour-blocked walls, twin beds, a really nice shower and access to the rooftop, which is decked out with a metal porch swing and a view of nearby rooftops. Pret-ty cool.

I think I might like this place already.

Stay tuned for Part Two!

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Photos taken are mine. Please do not re-use without permission.

Throwback Travel: Trip to the Centre

**NOTE to READERS: The following describes a trip which took place in March and early April, 2016. 

Sunday, March 27th, 2016.

2016-03-27 12.48.39I meet a few other members of my tour group briefly at breakfast – among them, a mother-son duo from Australia – but don’t really get into deep conversation, because we’re supposed to leave at 8:45 a.m. for Santa Clara. And while I can’t speak for the others, I’m not fully functional before 9 a.m., anyhow.

I unfortunately hold up the group by several minutes because I realize that I’m missing my yellow fleece sweater and have to return to the casa for it. (Way to go, ding-dong.) For this, I thank my trip leader – nicknamed “Santana” – who lets me go back to look for it. (But more about him later.)

First stop of the day is a monument to Che Guevara (in Villa Clara province) and the adjoining mausoleum.

(Blogger’s note: knowing how contentious politics in Cuba are, even today, what I describe below are observations, not editorializing.)

The sun is blazing hot. The statue of Che is enormous, and doesn’t really provide any shade. We’re told its sculptor constructed it with its back to Santa Clara, because Che was Argentinian. Around it are walls with etchings of other revolutionary fighters, including one stone slab etched with Che Guevara’s last letter to Fidel Castro.

The short, squat building next to the statue is the mausoleum – dedicated to Che and some of his fellow fighters, as well as a sort of small museum describing his life. Some parts of the exhibit are translated into English – particularly the items on display – but others are only in Spanish.

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For lunch, we head into Santa Clara to a buffet restaurant called “El Quijote”.

It’s quite good – so much food, and so many sweets (which I try – and don’t quite succeed – to keep to a minimum).

In Santa Clara proper, we get a bit of a walking orientation/historical explanation of the town. Well, sort of. Santana isn’t entirely giving us a full talk.

At our local casas, we’re assigned our rooms, and Jana and I get to bunk together, which is nice.*

2016-03-27 17.11.35Our casa is super-cute … if a wee bit pink.

Like, princess-bubble-gum pink – right down to the shower curtain.

Our host (and his cute little dog) meets us with “welcome” glasses of juice to cool off.

After a couple of hours to ourselves to unwind, it’s dinner time!

But – in what will turn into an underlying theme during this trip – there’s confusion over dinner plans.

Santana wants the group to have dinner together at this one restaurant he’s recommended. But only part of the group agrees to reservations. The other part of the group – which includes Jana, me, and a Belgian couple, Lieven and Anick – want to head to a rooftop bar at a hotel in the town square.

And Santana? Well, he isn’t happy about it.**

I personally find his reaction kind of odd, as I’ve been on other tours where people make their own plans separate from the group without much fuss. But I put it out of my mind, and our quartet heads for the square.

Our plans for drinks, however, are foiled: turns out the hotel bar is closed. A local tries to lure us to this hole-in-the-wall, but we don’t take the bait. We wander instead into a local joint with a balcony that overlooks the square. But there’s not much there – and the locals don’t look at us (mostly the others) terribly fondly.

So we end up at this upper-storey fast-food place, where we chat over mojitos, beer, burgers and sandwiches. The food and conversation are what the four of us all really need on our first real evening of our tour.

Jana and I are back in our casa room at a respectable hour, lulled to sleep by the coolness of our air-conditioned room.

Tomorrow, we head to Trinidad – the town, not the island. (I’m not that rich, guys.)

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Photos taken are mine. Please do not re-use without permission. 

* Our pairing up almost didn’t happen. Jana is originally supposed to bunk with another traveller – a Brit named Charlie. But because of the confusion and disorganization at the start of the trip, Charlie’s ended up with her parents … for the duration of the trip.

** Talking amongst ourselves later, we surmise that Santana has an arrangement whereby he brings his tour groups to certain businesses in exchange for some sort of commission. Or maybe they get the commission? I’m not sure.