A couple stand in the area between two cars for hours as we head to Santiago, their punishment for not buying a ticket. An obviously drunk black man roams the car complaining that his friends can’t sit because they can’t afford the ticket. A pair of police officers speak to him once and when they stop him a second time, we don’t see him again.
I’m really enjoying watching people get on and off at various stops, loading and unloading their luggage and other items from horse drawn carts.
We stop at Camaguey and vendors descend on us, selling a variety of beverages in refilled water bottles as well as sandwiches and cakes.
We get a few 5CUP fried fish sandwiches and a soda. As we roll along, passengers toss the bottles and wrappers out the window. Sarge tries to collect garbage in a bag, and one passenger quips “We recycle online, the train line.”
The train arrives in Santa Clara about 6 am and outside the station are a line of horse-drawn taxis.
It’s a 12 or so block walk, past a nice square, ring the bell at our hostal and wait, and wait, and ring and wait.
Back to the well-cared-for central square, sit down at a 24-hour hamburger stand and pay 1CUP each for a coldish glass of an orange-colored beverage. The WiFi is working, our host Alain responds and it’s back again.
The house is in great shape, the toilet and AC works and we sleep until lunch. Alain lives in the house with his mother, is renovating the one next door to expand his operations, and has four or five women employed cleaning and cooking. One makes a stew of beans, malanga(?a type of root vegetable) and smoked pork and sausage. That’s followed by a whole fish for each of us, served on top of fried potatoes along with rice and a salad. Dessert is a soft cheese and mango purée. Well worth the 12CUC.
The heat of the afternoon is avoided by napping and watching Real Madrid lose to Juventus but advance in the UEFA cup tournament on total goals scored.
The hammerıng sun subsıdes, so it’s time for a stroll over to see Che’s tomb where his resignation letter to Fidel is displayed in metal type on the wall.
Then, two strange dining experiences. The first, a stop at an ice cream parlor that drew lines earlier in the day. We sit down, learn they don’t have bottled water and bring us the only thing on the menu, small plates of ice cream. It turns out it’s a government run parlor where the public can enjoy heavily subsidized and delicious ice cream.
Next, a pizza place for an appetizer of small wedges of sliced ham called Jamon Viking and a Velveeta-type cheese wilting in the humidity before a pizza made with the same cheese atop a puffy pre-made crust.
That’s all forgiven by a stop in an exquisite hotel down the block where a tumbler of seven-year old Havana Club rum with one giant ice cube sets me back $1.50CUC.
That soothes the pain of my Yuban delusion but I’m convinced something is still out there. Pondering this, it’s off to one our main objectives, a Cuban baseball game. A 10-minute walk brings us to a sports complex with riverside barbecue grills and tables for picnicking, a few bars and restaurants, a playground and park decorated with an out-of-service fighter jet and helicopter and a large stadium.
Vendors line the parking lot in a row and the ticket lady explains the seats are one or two pesos CUP, and my CUC seem like a headache to her, so I buy a beer outside and get change. She says we can sit in the area behind home plate for foreign visitors and we plop down in the front row behind home plate.
The players are preparing for an upcoming international competition and are split into central and western teams. The Centrales jump on the Occidentales starter early and are up 5-0 after two innings. He seems to have settled down when I come back from the bathroom, which had a 55-gallon drum instead of running water because all of the faucets and the toilet tank were missing or never installed.
The game ends when a light in right field blows out with a tremendous pop and the officials decide to call the game in the sixth inning.
Walking back, I notice
the houses in Santa Clara are generally in much better shape and Alain dismisses Janet’s comments about stairwells and facades, saying people can pool their money for repair. The larger size of many Havana buildings makes me think that’s harder.
The next day, we arrange our scheduled 16-hour train ride to Santiago, where another Airbnb host awaits us. At the snack bar I discover what this country has is a good 4-cent cigar.
Government subsidies provide items that are astonishingly low-priced for foreigners: a four-cent cigar, eight-cent baseball ticket, 24-cent beer. That also helps maintain a low-cost workforce for the tourist hotels, shops and attractions that their employees will never patronize. In some ways, this seems no less bizarre than the out-of-control San Francisco real estate market that spawned Airbnb.
Unlike earlier, the station is crowded when we arrive 90 minutes early. Sarge made sure we lugged a doggy bag from lunch along with a few water bottles and napkins. I opted to see what awaited us: a tray full of sandwiches with a painted metal sign next to it reading “Pan con Puerco 123.5 g $5.00.” That turned out to be the price in Cuban pesos, not CUCs, or about 20 US cents each at the 24-1 CUP/CUC exchange rate. They were delicious, just one bit of grizzle in the moist, roast pork sandwiches served on the buns that are sold everywhere.
I go to the bathroom and on the way out a guy sitting on a chair counting bills makes a hissing sound to get my attention and says I have to pay.
“Depende, de donde eres?”
So, I tell him I’m from NJ but of Spanish parents. Meanwhile, a soldier/police man in khakis wanders over to see what’s going on.
“Really? I have a twin in NJ. Ok, give me something small.”
I tell him my friend has change and I go and get some.
We settle in to wait and the train before is delayed, worrying us a bit. Our train comes in on time but we have to cross the tracks behind the delayed train and step onto the platform, all while a steady rain starts to fall, blowing into our cabin through a cockeyed window we can’t fully close.
The conductor comes back a few minutes later and I ask her to let us know when we are getting close to Santa Clara, which should be about 1 a.m., according to the schedule. She tells us flatly that it will take eight hours, not four.
Underway, our burly cabin mate shows us photos of his son, his ex-wife, his current wife and her two children. Yovani says his father left in the Mariel boatlift and he hasn’t seen him since. He plans to join his wife in Florida in a year or so if all goes well. His wife talks to his father, he’s not that interested.
A vendor comes by and Yovani buys us a beverage in a bag we open with our teeth and suck out through the hole.
The kids in the next cabin are heading to a nearby city for a music festival, paying 10 pesos for their ticket, or about 40 cents, while ours cost 10 CUCs.
We fold down the seats to form the six seats into three beds of sorts. Our cabin mate warns us to push our shoes under the seat so they aren’t stolen, despite the fact two officers are patrolling constantly, and we watch lightning flash over the sugar cane.
New intelligence on the elusive Yuban comes our way today.
We get our tickets for the train ride to Santa Clara after stopping to drop off some art supplies at the studio of a Cuban artist known by the nickname Choco. He isn’t there, delayed in returning from Guadalupe, where he was visiting his daughter, we are told. We’re given a tour of the studio and discuss his work in collagraphy, a type of printmaking using heavily textured plates.
A revelation comes at the end when I’m given a pamphlet from an exhibition at the University of Missouri two years ago.
The first item in Choco’s exhibition is an orisha, a spiritual being in Santeria, the religious practice that emerged from mix of Yoruba slaves brought to Cuba and Spanish Catholicism.
Yuban, meanwhile, was a brand of freeze-dried coffee in the 1970s that had nothing to do with Cuba… So, noted.
Choco was among the first wave of artists to study at Havana’s National School of Art, established by Castro after the 1959 revolution. He credits the school with saving him.
“It picked me up, a little country boy and taught me art,” he told the university.
One of the first Cuban artists exhibited in the US after the revolution,
Choco’s early work celebrated rural life and became associated with the black consciousness movement.
His status as an Afro-Cuban born in 1949 in the far-eastern port city of Santiago gave him both an insider and outsider’s view of Cuban life, the pamphlet tells me.
“When I paint, I don’t think in terms of white, mulatto, black or Chinese,” Choco said at the time. “The person I portray has body, limbs, soul, heart, grey matter.”
The next day, we stop again and Choco, still strong and imposing despite his 70-plus years, arrives a few minutes later, pulling two large objects out of his car. He says they are car tires, stuffed with supplies and wrapped in plastic, creative packing techniques learned during travels to Japan.
Choco asks how we heard of him and Sarge mentions an exhibition he attended in Baltimore. I suggest that despite the difficulties in getting supplies in Cuba, the lower cost of living allows artists to be creative without as much pressure to make money.
“Yes, but first you have to be able to eat,” he says, noting there are places in Africa where hunger prevents people from doing anything but look for their next meal.
We explain we’re taking the train east and that prompts chuckles all around, with suggestions we could spend all night stuck somewhere along the way. I say it’s more about the adventure and they all agree we are in for one.
The plan is to take a train into the interior after orienting ourselves in Havana for a few days.
The cab from the airport costs 25CUC, pronounced kooks, and short for Cuban Convertible Pesos, which traded one-for-one with the dollar minus a conversion charge of 10-15%. Euros aren’t charged commission.
The cabbie isn’t interested in trading the fare for a 16 gig memory stick, which he says are in demand for listening to music and watching movies but doesn’t need, and
drops us at a building that looks war-torn. We enter, adjust our eyes to the light and a voice calls out of the obscurity to us. Sarge points back to the doorway, and a youngish man dressed in a lime green work suit is high up on a ladder painting the wall the same color. He points to a door and tells us to ring the bell for the elevator. Inside two women are chatting and stop to say they’ll call our Airbnb host after they drop us off on the second floor.
We wait a few minutes in a hallway looking at the wrought iron cage encasing the entrance to the next door apartment. Once inside the apartment is thoroughly modern, except our host Janet asks us not to flush toilet paper, because the plumbing clogs easily, and instead put it in the trash, which will be collected each morning.
The next morning, I decide on a paperless poop, and shower after my morning ritual.
Janet hasn’t heard of the Yuban and warns that the train service is slow and unreliable. Undeterred,
we take a cab to the train station, a temporary shed-like building behind a grand station under repair, take a photo of the schedule board, chat with the help desk and walk back amongst areas that range between opulence and complete urban decay. The buildings remind Sarge of his childhood in wartime Beirut.
It’s all very pleasant, though, no one is trying to sell us anything other than a taxi ride, people stroll about, kids play soccer. We stop for refreshment in a luxurious Iberostar hotel, and then later at another hotel to use the internet and eventually pick our way past the crumbling buildings and up the century old stairway to our apartment.
At breakfast, Janet tells us she can fix her apartment but the building is owned by the government and she can’t repair the stairwell or the exterior.
The work so far has been concentrated on the Prado and nearby historic areas where we stopped the night before. Janet said she is waiting to see what happens with the crumbling buildings across the street.
She’s a dentist who rents her home on the side to make ends meet because she earns 50 CUC a month. She doesn’t pay property taxes, health care or student loans, but doesn’t have much leftover for luxuries, if they are available.
Her husband, however, makes more than her renovating apartments and houses. Two years ago, the government allowed sales of private homes. The apartment we’re staying in cost 15,000 CUC. She furnished it with items bought in Venezuela, where she lived for six years as part of an exchange program that traded Venezuelan oil for Cuban medical care under the Chavez regime. The Cuban government waived import duties and shipped the goods for her.
Her sister lives in Canada, and she would like to visit the US if it’s allowed, but is worried about violence there.
“I never saw a gun on the street until I went to Venezuela. Here you can walk anywhere, anytime,” she said.
I don’t feel insecure at all as we walk the streets and I don’t feel any tension when members of various races interact, most likely because everyone is being screwed equally. I tell her, shootings in the US are primarily drug-related or domestic violence cases, but that doesn’t seem to comfort her.
We must find the elusive Yuban people. Apparently, they were an African tribe that escaped from slavery and preserve their culture and music up in the Cuban hills, including the first freeze dried coffee.
It’s an ancient African technique that is lost to time.
They must’ve found a way to do it with Vibranium they brought from Fecunda. I mean geranium, I don’t want to step on Marvel’s toes.