2017
03.31

Store Sign

SYNOPSIS:  RHYME AND RHYTHM AND EURIPIDES.  SANTIAGO DE CUBA.

Picture a sign for a shoemaker along one of the main roads of the historical center of Santiago and below the shoe, dangling like an afterthought, it says:  Looking for a girl friend (in English)!

This was too funny.  We just had to check it out.  Inside one of those dark and faded hallways of an old colonial home was the even darker workshop of shoemaker Euripides — no joke!  That is quite a fateful name for anyone, particularly a shoemaker working in a dark alley, I have to say.  With a big smile he welcomed us and before long we had made a date with him to meet at the Casa de la Tradiciones at night for him to lead Celi in some Salsa dancing. 

Many things in Santiago de Cuba seem familiar in comparison with all the other towns we have seen so far.  There are the main plazas lined with colonial mansions, there are the churches and stores, the restored boulevards with shops that are surprisingly well stocked, there is the obligatory ice cream park, there are the dulcerias and the ever-friendly locals. There are the tourists hanging out at the bar of the overpriced roof terrace of the Casa Granda, but the view is just too cool to be missed, and what are a few extra dollars for a mojito, anyhow. 

Some things feel different here right away.  The city is surrounded by mountains.  Across the bay there is a mountain range, and the city itself is set against a hill leading to a constant up and down of streets with some streets dead-ending in actual stair cases.  This makes for picturesque scenes and some huffing and puffing. 

But some things never change no matter where you are in Cuba.  One of them is the long lines in front of the ETECSA office.  I needed a phone card.  What I learned on my first day in Havana — where there is a long line for something, there are dealers and wheelers who can get things faster at an upped price.  I looked around and found the man, dreadlocks down to his hips: for 3, instead of 2 CUCs he had phone cards.  I wanted a 5 hour one — no problem.  He disappeared and even though everyone else had to stand in line, within 3 minutes he had the 5-hour card.  10 instead of 7.50 CUCs.  It’s a win-win little miracle.

Our AirBnB is in the Tivoli District, a hilly French-inspired neighborhood overlooking the Santiago Bay.  Our balustraded balcony is simply gorgeous.  A cool breeze and some shade — worth gold in this super-hot city — gives us a spot for breakfast, reading, blogging, all while overlooking the harbor.  Smokestacks in the distance and piled up shipping containers give the impression of a fully functioning port, but except for the occasional ferry leaving the dock, not much is going on.  A small stretch of the shoreline has been developed as a malecon or shore park, with two seaside restaurants.  But even that area seemed rather deserted. 

People here are darker than in Havana or in the Western part of the island due to more influx from Haiti and Jamaica back in the days.  That is the reason Santiago is considered the cradle of Afro-Cuban music, preserved among other places at the Casa de la Tradiciones. 

We arrived at 8:30 — way before Cubans swing into their night life, and the place was deserted.  But Euripides was there!  We had said we would get there around 10 PM, but we were early.  And so was he.  I wonder if he ever imagined we would actually show up.  I am a klutz and no good for dancing, especially salsa and the like, which demands very nimble footwork.  But Celi cuts a good figure with this sort of thing.  And when by 9 PM the live band set up, the two of them were on the floor salsaing away. 

Euripides is a classic example of the good side of a socialist system.  Education is free and as it turned out, he at some point had studied linguistics and was fluent in Italian!  And according to Celi he was quite the poet.  I am not sure how he ended up in the shoe repair business, but what he told us is that he just wanted to be happy.  And that, in so few words, captures a lot of the Cuban spirit everywhere.  They want to be happy and despite all the hard-ships they experience, they seem to manage that, for the most part.

I got stuck with a short, beer-bellied South African man named Lorenz, who obviously needed somebody to hold court to.  I was glad to be good for something…  The music casa draws all kinds of characters, aside from the gawking tourists.  Many locals hang out, quite happy to patiently teach some of us foreigners a few steps.  Others come with their partners and are obviously accomplished dancers.  One old man stood out.  With his wife he took the dance floor and soon had a circle of admiring and cheering onlookers.  He added funny moves and jumps to the classical steps and even had worked out an entire acting scene into his dance where he would cross over his feet and his wife would twist him while he was lowering himself to the floor, bowing to her, taking his hat off, and slowly rising up again.  That man was easily in his 80’s!  But he was as nimble as ever and proudly showing it off.  We live just a few blocks from the Music Casa and eventually I left, to tend to my blog, leaving Celi and Euri to the dance floor and to a surely romantic walk through the narrow alleys afterwards.  Girlfriend for an evening.  Celi made his day.

Neither one of us had slept well last night.  It’s always a crapshoot when you move from place to place.  Some places work out really well, others leave you struggling.  There really is nothing wrong with our casa.  The hosts are super friendly, kind people; the location is great, the terrace as I said, outright gorgeous.  But the beds are uncomfortable, the room is small, and the sun was blasting into our room shortly after sunrise.  We have to get adjusted. 

Something else from the 60’s happened this morning in our street.  The weekly mosquito fumigation was in progress.  First, we only heard the roaring motor of what sounded like a chainsaw.  Then, we saw blue smoke coming out of courtyards and windows, including our own.  While people were in the house — they asked us to step up to the terrace for 10 minutes — they blew fumes around which surely contained DDT or other toxic substances.  There was no escaping it!  The coughing followed.  With that in the air and the hard bed, I am not sure I am looking forward to our second night, but it will surely be better since both of us are completely exhausted and possibly full of toxins.

Good night.

2017
03.30

Nightfall over the Harbor

SYNOPSIS:  TRANSIT TO SANTIAGO DE CUBA.  ABOUT RULES, PHONE CARDS, ICE CREAM PARLORS, EATERIES AND A PLAZA THAT SHOULD BE MISSED.  A FEW LOSE ENDS FROM CAMAGUEY.

Picture a pompous-looking voluptuous lady in high heels and black laced stockings holding a fancy notebook, pretending to have some important business.  She was the one (not) greeting us at the door of the 1514 restaurant at the main boulevard in town.  This was a favorite restaurant for the locals and people who showed up seemed to have made a reservation.  We did not.  Even though the restaurant was nearly empty — it was very early for dinner — the pompous lady, without ever looking at us — made us wait in the parlor for 2-3 minutes before she graciously pointed to the door: we were allowed in.  Is this a phenomenon of a society where nobody really has any power or authority?  The little bit you are given has to be stretched as far as possible no matter how ridiculous the result. 

The food at the 1514 restaurant was delicious.  We had it two nights in a row.  Smoked chicken, rice, tomato salad, flan, and locally brewed beer.  The first night the bill came for 87 local pesos.  We had no idea what to do with this.  The waitress converted it for us into $/CUC 12. That seemed a bargain.  This time, the food was equally delicious.  Instead of 3 beers and one flan we had 2 beers and 2 flan and the bill came to 67 local pesos which this waitress converted into $/CUC 5!  Something was very wrong with this kind of math. But either way it was a steal.  We could not quite believe it.  Elevator music throughout, bathrooms without soap or toilet paper — the usual.  We wondered if there just is no point in putting movable amenities into the bathrooms.  Would they be stolen?  There is toilet paper around.  We have seen it.   Soap can be found in any of the stores at the boulevard.  Why are Cubans putting up with something like this?

The lady in black laces reminded me of a brief moment in town yesterday.  A museum we wanted to visit was closed for construction.  From the entrance hall I could see that it had a very beautiful colonial court yard.  I asked if I could take a picture.  The lady guard pointed to a latticed door: from there I could.  Obviously, that was impossible.  Why not from over here, I asked, pointing to the wide open door leading into the courtyard.  It is not allowed, she responded.  Says who?  I asked.  She had no answer and so I stepped right in front of her, taking that forbidden picture of the courtyard, shaking my head.  Was she serious?! 

She probably shook her head after us obnoxious Americans, too.  What BS!    

Stupidly, I wish I knew how, I had lost my 5-hour phone card that was to last me throughout the trip, allowing me to connect to the internet in those wifi plazas to at least check email.  No problem I thought, I will just get another one.  Yesterday I stopped at one of the ETECSA offices, the government run monopoly company of communication in Cuba and was told the cards would be available “maybe tomorrow”.  What was that supposed to mean?  They are out of cards?  Today, I headed for the even bigger ETECSA office at the other end of town and guess what: I was told the cards would be available “maybe tomorrow”.  The third largest town in Cuba without phone cards!  No cards, no email.  I am sure there are some wheelers and dealers around, prepared for such a situation.  But since I am not a local, I did not know where to find them… Patience.  Let’s see what Santiago will bring.  Maybe tomorrow?

Yesterday, since we had nothing but time, we ventured to the one last plaza of note which we had not seen:  The Plaza de Revolution.  It is not part of the historical center and as the name indicates, was built much more recently.  It was not worth the hike.  A few busts commemorating revolutionaries, one to honor the work of teachers, a gazebo, somewhat out of place, a replica of a cave, a small zoo (we did not go in), the stadium, and a cultural center for rent.  The park had no soul, no charm, no center, except for an over 100-year-old tree which was spewing nutlike seeds around which really hurt if you got hit.  The best of all was an old man on his bike who in a home-made taped-up cardboard box sold ice cream sandwiches, sherbet between real dough.  Delicious!  They were 3 pesos for a huge piece.  He was overjoyed when we paid him 1 CUC, or the equivalence of 25 pesos since we had no smaller change. 

Speaking of ice cream.  Cubans love it just as much as their cup of coffee.  We discovered an ice cream parlor for the locals which we just had to try out.  Where there are long lines, something is happening, something is available.  I remember that rule from East Germany. It was always a good idea to get in line and then ask what was for sale.  And if you had the time, it was an even better idea to get whatever it was they had, as it may come in handy as a barter commodity if you did not need it yourself.  That’s how I felt when I spotted a place with a long, fast moving line, a sort of a cafeteria in which people consumed ice cream, for the most part. 

We entered a dark, tiled room where an old lady was perched in a high chair with a cash register in front of her.  We had to pay for something; we did not even know what.  Why not?  We held out a $20 note and she threw up her arms.  So I pulled out a $1, and got quite a lot of change, but I don’t know for what.  She handed us two greasy pieces of faded cardboard and sent us on our way, into the cue.  At the moment when it was our turn, we handed over our greasy tickets and were served two scoops of ice cream — vanilla or strawberry, take it or leave it — with some sprinkles, some fake whipped cream, and a bit of caramel sauce — the old lady had chosen.  We happily ate.  25 cents for both of us.  Celi had spotted some cake as one other option and so back we went to the old lady.  Torte — dictionary to the rescue.  And again we paid 25 cents and this time we got cake.  What a system.  I wonder if there are different choices each day or if that’s just it.  It was very tasty.  These were our first encounters with local eateries.  Not bad.

Our casa mates, a French couple, were lucky — they had rented a car and were on their way this morning to Santiago de Cuba.  They even offered to take us along.  But with all of our luggage that would have been too much of an imposition.  We had to wait around until the afternoon, when our bus (Havana-Santiago) made a stop at Camaguey.  The bus was full.  Some of the passengers on it had been on this bus already for 1/2 day or more to get this far.  The ride was uneventful. 

It was dark when we arrived in Santiago, and as I had hoped for, a taxi was there to pick us up.  You’ve got to love those Cubans!  No matter how messed up their country, how maybe, perhaps tomorrow, or never things are around here, they are reliable.  And that, even though I did not have an answer back about our transport from the bus to the casa. We just put our trust in them.  And it was and is well placed.

Good night.

2017
03.29

Mosaic at Entrance to Historical District

SYNOPSIS:  ABOUT CUBAN ART.  ABOUT A COUPLE OF LOCAL ARTISTS.

I said it before, art is everywhere.  But art does not equal art.  From Havana to Trinidad (and I expect from here on out) we saw about one art gallery per street in the historical quarters, doubling and tripling up around the central plazas. Artists seem to be in cahoots about what to produce, which has the undesirable effect that the wandering tourist soon is in no mood any more to step into yet another gallery displaying the same stuff:  American oldies in quaint old streets, Che and/or Fidel, colonial architecture, Cuban scenery, surreal beasts and lots of naked ladies, with a few abstracts sprinkled in between, done in shrill, bright primary colors.  Paint by numbers comes to mind.  It takes a good eye and lots of patience to find anything worth your money amidst the abundance of mediocrity and production line.  It is more of a surprise then to stumble across a gallery with unique and distinct art works.  And when you do, you most likely are onto something. 

Camaguey is different.  We had more of the extraordinary and less of the cookie-cutter art here, than elsewhere.  Advertised in every guide book is the local celebrity couple of Joel Jover and Ileana Sanchez.  Their work is in collections the world over and we had the good fortune to meet Joel in his studio.  The studio at the Plaza San Juan de Dios alone is worth a visit.  It is the oldest and most authentically preserved plaza in town.  His studio is housed in one of the 1750’s mansions, and some of his works were outright breathtaking.  He combines historical personalities such as Hamlet and Ulysses with his own central motive, a zick-zack half-face with a twisted tongue sticking out — evoking everything from limits on free speech to gossip.  He uses a variety of techniques and color palettes for various thematic series.  One monochromatic series was about all the places he dreams to visit someday.   

Another, a series of 21 images of the Madonna, is collage-based in blue-greens.  That was my favorite and the most creative series on display.  It is hard to describe art, but he used bottle caps enhancing the glittering effect of an icon and flattened soda cans to frame images of the Madonna.  Each of them is enhanced in 3D by book pages to evoke a palimpsest effect.  It was simply stunning!  Price tag:  $1000.  In the US you would have to add a zero to something as large, complex, beautiful, and creative as that, done by a nationally recognized artist.

Joel was a modest, open, kind man and happy to chat with us.  He showed us around, allowed us to photograph and recommended a stop at his house at the central square in town, also open to the public. 

There is no better location to live or display your work than the Parque de Ignacio Agramonte.  Of all the plazas it is the most stunning and developed one in town, with a central equestrian statue on a marble platform lined with marble benches.  Every visitor will make it here.  Every local lingers here.

The house, likely as old as his studio, was filled top to bottom with antiques and works for sale done by him and his wife.  His wife’s work goes more into the brightly colored, popular, cartoonish direction. We did not buy anything, but I sure wish I had a space in my luggage or in my house for one of those big Madonnas.  Joel told us the story of one American who bought a large piece by him.  He could not check it onto the airplane in Havana.  It had to come all the way back to Camaguey and be shipped via a freighter.  I guess, that added another chunk of $$ to the price tag, but still would be worth it.

Martha Jimenez is another successful artist whose studio is right next to the plaza where her full-size work is displayed:  Plaza del Carmen.  Again, we had the fortune to run into her.  When she realized that Celibeth is an artist and I am an art historian, she happily talked to us in detail about one of her printing techniques that baffled both of us.  She called it colagraphia.  The point was that she created a template from cardboard covered with a specific kind of glue, rather than from the more traditional linoleum or wood.  Instead of using multiple plates for multiple colors, she creates each multi-colored print for an edition from one template.  That ultimately means that each piece is part of an edition, as well as unique.  For better or worse, uniformity just can’t be created with just one plate.  Sorry for the technicalities, but these things are fascinating for the two of us.  🙂

We both appreciated her historic home, the whimsical fountain in her court yard, the creativity and the variety of media.  Her style… I in particular, did not care for it that much.  It was a bit too contrived and a bit too cutesy.  But it worked really well in the life-size sculptures that lined the plaza in front of her house. 

As we continued our stroll through town going plaza hopping, we came across two more studios of note.  Each time, the artist was right there working, and only too happy to chat and to show us around.  These better-to-do artists all had hired English-speaking gallery assistants who were able to explain the work of the artists for us; a great sales technique.  As I know from teaching, you will appreciate what you understand.  And all of these artists had put a great deal of thought into their work, which could easily be missed without some inside information.  One artist used leather and crated life-size figures and objects from layering leather.  The scraps he transformed into jewelry and small hanging objects of great beauty.  The other artist worked in wood.  He stripped old crumbling mansions of their old beams and from those 200 year old cured, hard-wood  pieces, he crated sculptures such as abstracted tea pots, animals, smoking men, and cranking “machines”.  He too, worked in an 18th century studio which he and a friend of his had restored and rescued from crumbling. 

I am sure if we had roamed the streets of Camaguey for a few more days, we would have stumbled across a few more of these unique artists, working in the shadows of 18th century alleys, hidden from the limelight.  But for us it is time to move on. 

And first of all, it is time to sleep.  Good night.

2017
03.28

Street Sign

SYNOPSIS:  EXPLORING MARKETS, CHURCHES AND PLAZAS

Today we experienced Cuban free enterprise … at its best? … or to the extent possible?  Hard to tell.  It was marked on the map as the Mercado Agropecuario  El Rio, or the Commercial Center.   On the ground it was a gated plot with several rows of small blue-green wooden stalls selling local produce.  At home we would probably call it the Farmer’s Market.   The market opens at 5 AM every day for two hours, and again in the afternoon. We got there in the early afternoon and overall it was a very low key operation.  But I can picture it filled with hundreds of people and pickpockets (the guidebook warned!), as well. 

Onions and garlic were plentiful.  Perhaps they are in season, perhaps they are just a favorite local crop.  A few stalls sold more exotic items such as small packages of fresh or dried herbs, sauces, apples, pineapples, tomatoes, soaps, bananas, flowers.  Dogs roamed in between the stalls and a few people busied themselves cleaning or stacking items.  In so many ways this market was a glimpse of what the future might bring.  A freer or even free market economy with an overlay of socialist ideas, following in the Chinese footsteps, perhaps?  The owners of a few stalls seem to want to indicate their loyalty to the old system in spirit even though they were subverting it in practice by putting up some affirmative socialist slogans in the back of their stalls.  In other ways this market was a pathetic example how little is happening and how few things are available despite the socialist belt loosening a bit.

Camaguey is another one of those towns built back in the days to confuse the pirates and the British with weird street angles, dead ends, unexpected turns, etc.  It is so bad, that somebody had the kind foresight to put up some walking-route signs for the increasing number of confused tourists.  We dutifully checked off about 8 of the 10 historical plazas, each lined with a church, some mansions, a museum, a monument, a restaurant, or some other things of note.  The older plazas date from the 1700’s, most everything else from the early 1900’s but a few structures actually go back to the 1500’s.  Quite amazing.  Just like Havana, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad, the entire city has been declared a UNESCO protected ensemble.

What stood out in the Plaza del Carmen was the addition of life size, realistic, contemporary bronze sculptures: a man was pushing a cart of water jars, three women were gossiping, an old man was reading the newspaper, a couple was smooching.  That was a breath of fresh air and a great way to go beyond the air of stagnation that goes hand in hand with preservation.  Well done!

Some things remain, but others have definitely changed over time.  No Beatles in the 60’s.  That was treason.  Today though, right around the corner from us is a popular beer garden called “Yesterday”.  If that is not enough of a Beatle reference, picture the entire Beatles band memorialized in life size bronzes on stage!  Just the expense is mind boggling, let alone the implications.  Who had the money for something like this?!  Who would or would not regulate if anything like this is appropriate?  I wish I knew. 

Camaguey’s colonial feel is different from the other colonial towns.  It is lacking the ostentatious villas and palaces of Cienfuegos and it is lacking the charming cobble-stone streets of Trinidad.  It is also lacking the one big plaza; the plaza Mayor, which provides the focal point of so many other towns.  What is most noticeable is the large number of churches.  Each of them provides an excuse for another plaza.  And the city is dotted with church towers, some of them accessible for beautiful views across town. 

The churches are surprisingly sparsely decorated in comparison with Mexican Baroque churches.  Is that due to the difference in local wealth?  I have my doubts.  Even in the poorest countries the Church has always been able to extract riches from its population.  I wonder if it is due to a different denomination or a different sensibility of Christianity that was practiced here, or if some of the wealth was stripped under early communist rule.  If I only had google….!

Windows and doors as well as crumbling walls and textures provide photo opportunities everywhere in Cuba.  But one tiny unique feature of Camaguey, easily overlooked, was some old copper street signs which in addition to the names of the people also displayed their heads in small bronze medallions.  We stumbled across a few.  I wish I had the time to search out more.  It would have been cool to trace them and to combine them into a poster of little heads along with some information of who they are. 

Many of the city plazas are spots of wifi access provided for cheap by the government.  What costs us foreigners $3 and $10 dollars (1/5 hours of wifi access), costs the locals 3 and 10 pesos.  Here it is possible to skype, to text, to check the internet (the limited access there is).  Old and young gather.  The lucky ones who live near the plaza can go to their roof tops or sit at their doorsteps to tap into the action.  It is quite a sight.

One day is definitely enough to explore Camaguey.  But when I planned this trip, that was hard to gauge.  I gave every city 3-4 days, to avoid rushing.  This is the first time I wish we could have moved on the next day.

Oh well.  We will have a slow day.  Not a bad idea once in a while.  And I have to say, because of the heat and because we are on our feet every day, we easily sleep 9 and even 10 hours when we have a chance.

Good night.

2017
03.27

One of those Beauties

SYNOPSIS:  TRANSIT CAMAGUEY.  ANOTHER VIAZUL TRIP, ABOUT SOME PEOPLE, TRAVEL EXPENSES, ANOTHER AIR BNB.  TEA, AND A FEW OTHER THINGS.  TWO BLOCKS APART, TWO WORLDS APART –  A NIGHT STROLL.

1.5 thumbs up to the Viazul station in Trinidad!  It was the first one we encountered that was clean (except for some trash corners), not overcrowded, and had a system in place that indicated that somebody had put a thought to something as simple as: check people’s luggage as they arrive at the station rather than scramble with it when the bus is there and time is in short supply.  Duh! 

Now we got the hang of the system.  We look for the Viazul check-in counter no sooner than 1/2 hour before scheduled departure of our bus, and all goes smoothly.  Standing in line for the actual bus, we made a few friends.  An odd couple from Britain:  The guy, an older weather-withered man, was an antique dealer who had traveled for long stretches of his life:  following The Grateful Dead around for 6 months, driving a jeep through Africa and that sort of thing.  Cuba broke his bank and he and his very young girlfriend headed home one month sooner than expected.  Yes, traveling in Cuba is by no means cheap!  First of all, there is that already mentioned price gap between CUP and CUC.  But on top of that, prices that are charged to tourists are comparable to home and at times borderline extortion!  In Trinidad I would have been charged $5 for each of the lousy museums to take photographs!  In one of them, the clerk charged me two (without giving me a receipt).  We both won.  In the other places I tried, but gave up; therefore, no photos.  This $5 charge stood in no proportion to the $1 entrance fee and according to the museum staff had been steadily raised by the government over the last few years.  Why?  Just to piss off tourists? 

The other cost that quickly cuts into one’s budget is having to resort to taxis for transportation.  By this incredible chance, 6 weeks ago in January, I realized that I needed to pre-book buses; something I have not done ever in all of my travels.  Celi thought I was crazy; I felt really weird doing it, but I followed through.  It saved us hundreds of dollars in transportation, dozens of hours of time, and an uncounted amount of uncertainty and stress.  We got lucky; others around here did not.

And food…  One night in Trinidad, we ate at one of the roof-terraced restaurants, overlooking the central square.  Clearly a private place catering to tourists.  We paid nearly $35 for both of us, including a drink and dessert.  Not too much if you measure it by American standards, but if you multiply that by one month, it is too much to sustain.  The next night, we stepped from the House of Beer into a small Pizzeria, still catering to tourists, but also locals.  Including drinks we paid less than $10 for both of us.  In other words, it can be done, but takes some luck, some searching, or someone who knows. 

The other friends we made were a lovely, older couple from Germany in their 70’s, Bernd and Karin.  Both of them radiated a warmth and kindness, looked so hip in their baggy, comfortable travel clothes, and they joined our conversation, waiting for the bus.  I took an immediate liking to them.  They are experienced travelers, hobby artists, and a true inspiration as human beings.  I hope I can be on the road like this when I am in my 70’s or 80’s!

I not only pre-booked all the buses and AirBnB’s, I also asked each host to send a taxi to pick us up from the bus station.  So far, each and every transition has been smooth.  People here really try their best to make things right.  They are relatively new to AirBnB and I hope they won’t burn out.  This time, Fidel (not Castro, as he quickly added), picked us up in a shiny, new car with AC — the first one of those I have been in since our arrival.  We live smack in the center of town with Maryl, who has designated the two upstairs rooms of her compact home into guest rooms providing her with an income to live on.  A small roof terrace with a few garden chairs provides space to sit and look at the beautiful restored towers of a nearby church and across a few clay-tiled roofs.  We are in walking distance of everything.  The place lives up to its online description as, by the way, every other place did so far.

Myra is a bit older than we, and obviously a fashion lady.  She was envious of Celi’s snow-white hair and pointed to mine, stating, that she just cannot bring herself to look like that.  She keeps dyeing her hair.  No, I did not take this as an insult. 🙂  She made us some wonderful coffee, a drink beloved by seemingly all Cubans.  They obviously are not into tea around here, so I have adapted to drinking coffee, too.   And if you are a tea drinker and want anything but Chamomile tea, you’d better bring your own tea bags.

It was getting late and we strolled up the main drag in town.  Stores here seem to be stacked more fully than in the other towns we have been to.  Camaguey (pronounced Cah-ma-way), is the third largest city in Cuba and throughout history has been known to produce rebels and rebellions.  To us the people were as friendly as everywhere.  Particularly when Celibeth comes along with her outgoing smile, greeting everyone cheerfully in Spanish, they all want to engage in conversation, and at times it is hard to move on. 

Just for the variety we picked a parallel street to the boulevard to head back.  Wow!  If Cuba would not be known to be safe, we should have been afraid.  No streetlights anywhere.  Small alleys and open doors emitted dim lights, exposing sparsely furnished living rooms, outdated furniture, crumbling fixtures, and desolate people.  This is how the other half of Cubans lives…  Some of these houses were lining the train tracks.  Others were just a few blocks away.  Only the poor would put up with this.  It took us almost 15 minutes until we reached civilization again — one of the restored plazas with public wifi, filled with young people and their smart phones.  The social stratification in Cuba is nowhere near that of the US but it is present.  It can be seen in the difference between urban and rural areas as well as in the various quarters of town.

Good night.

2017
03.26
Equipment

Equipment

SYNOPSIS:  ABOUT SUGAR, BEER AND A FEW CHARACTERS:  EXCURSION TO THE VALLE DE LOS INGENIOS; A BLOG DEDICATED TO MY BROTHER AND MY GRANDSONS.   

We headed in two directions today.  Celi is always up for a swim and some time at the beach and boarded the Cubatur bus which conveniently left one block from our casa, taking tourists to the Playa Ancon, a peninsular East of Trinidad, considered the best beach of the South Coast.  It is really the North that is famous for unsurpassed  beach resorts but Playa Ancon is as good as it gets around here.

I opted for a tour to the Valle de Los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills).  It is a UNESCO protected valley which still has some of the remains of the once 43 sugar mills that dotted the landscape, and that is the reason for the wealth of Trinidad.  You can get to the valley by bus or a horse ride, but best of it all — once every day it is possible to reach the valley via a 1907 train with a steam engine!  I find that fascinating enough, but I especially am thinking today of my brother Christoph, whose fascination with trains led to a life-long career; and of my grandsons Arthur and Tillman, both fans of trains who already have memorized the entire Thomas Train clan!

Trains used to be major means of transport in Cuba in the days gone by.  Somewhere I read that until a few years ago, there were still over 200 steam engines in operation on the passenger train routes through Cuba.  If that is not a hangover from the 19th Century, more even than the American Oldies!  Much of the train infrastructure has been lost for various reasons and many steam locomotives are now out of service, rusting away somewhere.  A few passenger lines are still in operation and notorious for their unreliability.  Every guide book warns you — stay away from the trains in Cuba!  Some fellow tourists told us that it took them 6 hours for a stretch of 180 km.  That would take you by car 3-4 hours on a mediocre road, 1.5 hours on the German Autobahn, or 50 minutes on a Japanese Shinkansen train.  Just to put this into perspective.  And since we did not want to be stranded somewhere, we are not planning to use the train as a serious means of getting around.

Trains must at one point have crisscrossed this valley, transporting sugar from the mills to town.  One small stretch still operates and is maintained as a tourist attraction.   It starts at a small blue platform near the once glorious, yellow colonial train station in Trinidad, and ends at Feneta with an hour stopover and on the way back stops again for an hour at Iznaga for sightseeing. It is meant to be taken as a round trip and takes about 5 hours in total.

Given the throngs of tourists in Trinidad, I should have known that this train, just like the ferry the other day, would be completely overloaded.  Even though I was 20 minutes early, I was too late for a seat but early enough to snatch a spot between cars with a wooden post for my back to lean against, rather than being crammed into an aisle.

Near the ticket counter a chalk board provided some information of the program.  If you overlooked that or forgot to take notice, or you can’t speak Spanish to clarify anything later, you were probably among the 1/3 of the passengers who accidentally got out at the wrong stop: Iznaga on the way out, rather than on the way back.  That means, you would have missed what I considered the highlight of the trip:  The ruins of one of the most important and biggest sugar mills of the entire valley at Feneta.

Picture once colorfully painted pipes that go nowhere, gears without motors to belong to, huge metal tanks, flat-beds, and tubes set into a landscape dominated by two gigantic chimney stacks and flanked by a humungous building that in miniature would resemble a multi-drawer curiosity cabinet with some unhinged doors, serpentine parts and gaping holes.  It was fascinatingly surreal.  Now you charge 1 CUC and call it a museum.  That is what the mill at Feneta was like. 

Somebody had dug up a 1517 steam locomotive and decided that it should be fired up when the train stuffed with tourists arrives, blowing black wads of stinky smoke into the air; very impressive.  It rounded out the “museum”.   I had a field day, photographing. 

Iznaga is a small village once ruled by one of the most powerful sugar barons of the valley.  To showcase his wealth and to exercise his might, he had built a 7-tiered tower from where he could overlook the valley, and observe, control, and sum his slaves.  His mansion now is a restaurant into which the crowd of the train flocked for lunch.  Villagers set up tables selling traditional, hand-made linen cloths that are laced or embroidered.  I made a stroll through the village.  Some of the wooden homes even now are no larger than the slave quarters at Monticello.  The village clearly is poor.

On the way home I was able to get a prime spot at the very end of the train looking out on the tracks and the landscape.  15 km takes the train nearly 1 hour.  You can calculate the speed.  Nobody seemed to worry about safety.  You are on your own.  People sat on the iron steps of the wagons; one lucky person had their feet dangling down the spot of last wagon used to hinge the next car to.  And I can picture the daredevils who in days gone by would have jumped on and off the cars while the train was moving.  One bridge, one little tunnel, a few screechy turns and lots of loud, loud whistles later, we returned back home to Trinidad.  This was fun even if a bit contrived.

But the real fun was yet to come.  One of Celi’s new beach friends works at “The House of Beer” in Trinidad and she wanted to check it out.  It was right down our street.  We had passed this intriguing shell of a ruined theater before.  It had been converted into a beer garden/dance club with a bar, wooden tables, and flashing disco lights; all under the dark, starry, full-mooned night sky.  Loud and lively, filled with mainly young people, this kind of a hangout could have been anywhere in Berlin or New York.  The racially mixed crowd of youngsters was enthusiastically singing along, drinking loads of beer, and dancing the way only Cubans can dance:  evocatively swinging their curvy bodies of all sizes and shapes.  Some people danced regardless of their surroundings, others have their bodies pressed tightly on somebody else’s and live in a world of their own.  And there are those already so hammered, they don’t know where they are any more and it is up to you to keep them at bay and from falling right into your lap.  There is a lot of groping going on but nobody cares. 

The two of us already raised the age average by a substantial margin but there was “the Buddha Lady”.  I will just call her that, as she sat with her spindly legs crossed in the middle of the dance floor where she had positioned a wooden bench just for herself and her stuff.  She seemed to preside over the crowd even though she was the tiniest, most emaciated creature you could imagine.  She commanded a presence.  Once in a while she got up, a cigarette dangling in her mouth, grabbing one of the full bodied guys to dance with, stroking their big beer bellies.  They all humored her for a while and eventually led her back to her throne.  She was a fixture and somewhere “out there”.  Was she 60, 70, 80?  It was hard to tell.

For an hour I almost forgot where we were.  This was Cuba?  Well, it was.  Along with all the dimly lit, half-empty government stores, the colonial mansions, the sugar plantations, and the American Oldies.

Good night.

2017
03.25

Cobblestone Road

SYNOPSIS:  TRINIDAD.  A CITY OF COBBLESTONES AND CROWDS.

What makes Trinidad such a charming city is not just its narrow alleys, colorful colonial homes, churches, and plazas, but the fact that all the streets in the center are still “paved” with cobblestones.  If you think European-style cobblestones, think again. These stones are not the same size, evenly laid out as in other places I have seen.  Here, the stones range from small splinters to larger boulders patched together left and right of a center row of larger stones that forms the low part of two inward sloping sides.  Walking around here is a challenge.  Forget high heels and not for a second take your eyes off that road as you walk. 

Trinidad is the third oldest city in Cuba founded by notorious conquistador Hernandez Cortez himself!  When Velasquez, another conquistador, needed manpower for his conquests in Mesoamerica, he recruited the locals, leaving behind little to nothing and little to no one.  Trinidad survived mainly because pirates and the British discovered it as a safe haven for smuggling slaves.  In the early 19th century, over 100 French fled from a slave rebellion in Haiti and settled in the area, setting up dozens of small sugar mills.  And the economic upswing began.  But it only lasted until the War of Independence, which devastated the fields through fighting and fires.  There was no recovery to former glory, but the boom had lasted long enough to enable the colonists to build showpieces of their wealth.  As one of my guidebooks put it:  Trinidad slipped into a life-threatening economic coma.  Tourism started around 1950 and rescued the town from near-certain death.  These days, the scale seems to have dangerously tipped the other way:  tourists seem to outnumber the locals in the center, certainly now, during high season.  Hopefully, they won’t choke Trinidad out of its charm.

Everything of cultural value in Trinidad is within a stone’s throw of Plaza Mayor, the historic heart of the city.  In vain, I searched for amiga Celi.  I had lost her talking to an artist who had a studio at one of the fancy colonial mansions flanking the plaza, which also served as the state-run Galeria de Arte.  As I was still sifting through the piles of art upstairs, she had gone downstairs and before we realized it, we had lost one another.  So it was plan B, everyone on their own. 

Earlier, we had strolled up the hill to a former Spanish Military Hospital chapel, the now ruined Ermita de Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria de la Popa.  A hike up the hill behind the church promised a grand view across town.  But the chapel was under construction, fenced in so thoroughly, that continuing on the path was impossible.  The sun was beating mercilessly and it was midday.  The view was a disappointment.    

If it were not for the tallest tower in town, a bell tower of a former convent San Francisco de Asis, we would have never entered the Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Bandidos, that is housed there today.  Photographs of comrades, a few guns, hats, backpacks, dozens of photos of men without labels or information, a Russian truck, parts of a shot-down airplane.  We floated in the information vacuum and decided it did not matter much.  Some counter-revolutionaries had been beaten back by Fidel at some point, somewhere.  So many opportunities to educate all those willing and interested foreigners are lost.  And there is no google…

We had a funny encounter at the tower.  At the top platform, we met a couple from Iowa.  They and Celibeth engaged in a spirited conversation about our two states, some movie stars, what brought them here, and so forth.  I looked around.  A single woman, about my age, had sat down in one of the arches and just about as I smiled at her, she jumped up saying in a British accent:  I just can’t stand those Americans talking pop culture!  And off she stomped.  I was flabbergasted, but had the presence of mind to respond:  Of course not.  That would be way too much for a Brit to handle.  You’d better run!   That, in turn caught Celi and the Iowan’s attention and I filled them in on the outraged Brit who just could not handle our presence.  It reminded me of a British friend of mine who too, can blow the fuse at the weirdest moments and over the most insignificant things, turning from a most pleasant individual into a pouting pain.  Are Brits just like that?   I met her two more times.  The first time we were heading toward another and I jokingly said:  Oh, oh!  Here they come again, the Americans.  She responded something like:  Too bad for me.  And turned a corner.   

The third time I saw her, I just smiled.  She actually came up to me and apologized, admitting, that she tends get upset easily. And then she poured her heart out over the loud voices and the bombastic nature “Americans” projected.  I defended “Americans” and told her that I was both American and German and that Germans are not exactly known either for tactful and considerate behavior abroad.  Turns out, she is not British either but South African.  I told her how pleased I was that we actually met.  Her name was Rebecca and we had a pleasant 5-minute conversation about Trinidad’s architecture, the frescos, the town.  And we parted with a smile.

The most promising place in town, the Museo Romantico, had not opened its doors.  As usual, there was no sign, no information, no nothing.  Was it under construction?  Did it close permanently?  Would it be open tomorrow?

Now that I was on my own, I ticked off the three remaining museums aside from the one we had done together already.  There was the Museo de Arqueologica  Guamuhaya, the  Museo de Arquitectura Trinitaria, and the Museo Historico Municipal, all of them underwhelming. 

Two darkish rooms with some bones and stuffed animals — don’t even bother.  The architectural museum had a few floor plans and a few architectural fragments of doors, walls, and ceilings and could actually have been a real gem if information had been prepared in English.  The most interesting feature was an original gas tank in the courtyard that provided the house with hot water.  A 19th-century shower apparatus that looked like a cave of tubes and pipes was also cool.

The fanciest of them all, the Museo Historico Municipal had fully preserved frescos, wooden ceilings, and furnishings giving the fullest insight into the living standard of the wealthy during the 19th century.  That was worth a look.  It had been owned by a doctor whose patient, a wealthy sugar baron, mysteriously died.  After he married the widow of the man and put his hands on all of her wealth, she too, died rather suddenly…  The house attests to how well he did for himself with all the money that now was his. 

Celi and I united at our casa for a wonderful dinner out on one of the terrace restaurants near the central plaza.  Obviously a favorite spot for tourists, we had a great dinner that almost could be called classy!  Boneless fish, a crab cake appetizer, home-made flan.  And all of that under a full moon! 

Good night.

2017
03.24
Day 10-11

Transit Trinidad

SYNOPSIS:  TRANSIT TO TRINIDAD.  MORE ON HOW VIAZUL OPERATES.  FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF TRINIDAD.

Our Viazul bus ride to Trinidad was less than two hours and on time.  It does not get much better with Viazul.  We got a bit more insight into the workings of this bus company and there were fewer surprises this time.  Soon, we will be experts. 

The bus terminal was crowded, sticky, filthy and chaotic.  This time I was the one who had to get in line to get our tickets.  Even though we already booked and paid for our bus tickets, Viazul still requires us to get “real” tickets at the point of departure.  Last time, Celi had stood in line forever only to be told that she was too early.  This time, we planned this right.  We showed up 35 minutes before departure.  I reached the front of the line only to be told that I should have been one line over.  Of course, no information, no signs, no whatever.  I have no idea what the line was for that I had started in. 

Thankfully, the second line was short.  When I reached the clerk I was hardly surprised to find out that once again, I was in the wrong line.  This time, he pointed to a small door to his left.  That is where I should be.  But the door was closed?  I finally understood that I had to stand there until the door would open, which should be shortly.  Fine, if that is what it takes…. 

Four Canadians had already sat down next to that door and got in front of me.  Within minutes the line behind me was substantial.  We chatted.  The Canadians had tried to take the bus from Trinidad to Cienfuegos, but to their surprise (not mine), they found out that all the buses (that is the few that go) had been reserved and were full.  They had to pay for an expensive taxi to move on.  I told them from what little I knew, that they were in the wrong line. This was the final check-in line for the next bus that would actually leave and for people who had already booked and paid for their tickets.  They did not even know when a bus would go to where they wanted to go.  But they did not want to believe me. Promptly they were told to just step aside when the door finally opened.  They were not pleased.   I have a feeling that their experience with this bus company will not improve much.  I am just so glad that by accident I stumbled on the fact that these buses would fill up weeks ago back in the States.  What a costly nightmare we could have faced.

The road from Cienfuegos to Trinidad winds along in the foothills of the Sierra del Escambray Mountains, in parts parallel to the ocean shoreline.  The landscape was gorgeous.  The mountains in the back, rolling hills, steppes with grazing animals, fruit plantations, palm trees, here and there a hut nestled against the hill, and once in a while a small village.  The sky was blue and filled with a few white clouds; picture perfect.  Whatever the scenery was between Havana and Cienfuegos — I missed it all as I was so sick and out of it.  I am glad I could enjoy this one.

The ride went by fast. 

At the other end we were met by a bicyclist who managed to pack both of our heavy suitcases as well as our two backpacks, one camera bag and both of us onto his tricycle.   The roads in the center of Trinidad are all made of cobblestones of the most irregular sizes and shapes.  The tricycles here have extra wide tires; nonetheless, I cannot believe how hard these guys are working! 

We were at our next AirBnB in no time.  I had chosen this one for its traditional, colonial architecture, once again the reason why Trinidad achieved UNESCO status.   But already way before that, under Batista, it had been declared a protected city and later, under Fidel, it became a national monument.    

Trinidad has a lot of one-story colonial houses.  At first glance, it seems more homogenous than Cienfuegos.  The ostentatious villa-mansion-palaces are missing.  These houses however, are quite stately.  People around here leave windows and doors open freely and it is possible to get a good sense of how other interiors look.  The main feature of these homes seems to be a huge square parlor, the public space of the home.  Four rooms are arranged off the parlor; two to the left, two to the right.  The back of the parlor opens to the garden.  Our host Flor and her husband inherited the home from his father and remodeled the yard.  They added on a single row of five rooms with an overhanging protective roof along the full length of their yard.  Despite that loss, the yard is still sizable and allows for several seating areas, laundry, a water tank, and a well remaining in the middle of it all.  Perhaps, this was a double lot?  This is a lot of property in the middle of a city.  This remodeling allowed the family to rent out several rooms to tourists.  Our room is small, but not tiny.  Our bathroom is adequate but not spectacular. It is the garden that takes the prize.  Sitting here, shaded by fruit trees with a breeze going through, is so relaxing!  Writing my blog here will be a delight.

It is only a short 10 minutes to the main square.  We reached it just before sunset.  It was completely crowded with tourists.  I don’t remember anything like this from 15 years ago.  Tourism boom.  And that before American visits have been completely deregulated!  I can only imagine what Cuba will be like when — or should I say, if —  Americans can travel freely. 

Travel days are not the most exciting ones.  I am glad we are traveling without rushing.  Slow days are needed here and there to catch our bearings.  This was one of them.

Good night. 

2017
03.23
Art Gallery

Art Gallery

SYNOPSIS:  About rations, ferries, trash, art, yacht clubs, tattoos, and more.

The sun was beating down on us much stronger than in Havana.  But I guess that beats the Michigan winter by a long shot.  We were only a few blocks away from the central plaza via the boulevard.  Much of the shopping that is above and beyond the government-allotted monthly rations — happens here.  Cubans have their basics met.  Housing is either cheap or free entirely, medical expenses and educational costs are met by the government.  And rations for all necessities are given to every citizen; they last for about 10 days.  Roysito in Havana jokingly commented:  In most countries, 95% of the population work, 5% are unemployed.  In Cuba 5% of the population works, 95% do nothing.   But 20 days have to be covered somehow, and if you desire luxury items of any sort, you have to work above and beyond.  And let’s just say this:  Most Cubans, even with connections to the West, with opportunities to make CUC (or hard currency), are not rich.  But some are!

Cienfuegos runs an exclusive, high-end athletic club and the yachts parked in the bay are nothing short of spectacular.  Celi bought a day pass for the club and spent the afternoon swimming and making new fateful friends, while I explored a nearby castle. One of her new friends, Michael, a Cuban-Canadian, sported a Cuban-Canadian flag on his chest — Celi just had to have a flag, too… Yes, last night she took off with Michael and his family to a friend who runs a tattoo parlor and got a Cuban flag tattooed right on her sunburned skin.  I can’t even imagine the pain.   If anyone needs a Cuban flag for life though, it’s Celi. This is her fifth trip to Cuba and it surely will not be her last.  She was obviously born in the wrong country.   

But back to shops and stuff:  In government-run stores, restaurants, or for transportation services, you see two price systems:  CUP and CUC.  The ratio is about 1:25. Yesterday, for example, I took a ferry to a nearby castle where I had to pay 1CUC ($1 or 25 Pesos).  In comparison, the locals paid 1 CUP (1 Peso, or 2.5 Pennies).  That ferry was another example of total chaos.  Obviously, not enough ferries run between Cienfuegos and Jagua, where the neatly restored 18th century Fortaleza de Nuestra Senora de Jagua is located.  It is the 3rd most important castle in Cuba and was built to keep pirates and the British out.  Jagua is also a fishing village and the entrance to the large bay preceding Cienfuegos. 

Already an hour before the ferry departed, a line had formed.  I thought at first I had gotten the departure time mixed up and dutifully got in line.  1/2 hour before departure a small door opened and like the storm of the Bastille, the piled up sea of humanity made a run for a tiny, rusty, old boat.  That was the ferry?  OMG!  By the time I got on, I thought it was crowded.  But people kept piling on and on and on, until the boat was a death trap.  Now I understood that 1 hour in line got you a seat, or as in my case, a standing spot in the shade. Some people ended up in the beating sun on top of the ferry for this 1-hour ride…  Miraculously, we all made it.  The ferry departed from the “harbor”, which hosted a few other rusty fishing boats and the most imposing 2000 people (or more) yacht that had anchored here for the second day.  The contrast could not have been more ridiculous. 

The bay of Cienfuegos is beautiful.  The town itself has a Malecon, or seaside promenade, but as you come closer, you realize the inescapable stink caused by all the trash floating ashore.  People on the ferry tossed everything from cigarettes, to paper to plastic wraps into the water.  Unfathomable!  Why do they think this is OK?  This is their water?  The town itself is very clean.  But when we walked to one of the cemeteries, we passed the downtown area and walked through a dirt-road shortcut which might as well have been called the city dump.  The most fascinating “trash” were three old steam locomotives that were rusting away and in part had been demolished to create garages, front doors, or sheds around the neighborhood.

Here in Cienfuegos, as elsewhere in Cuba, tourists are a main source of income.   People are creative.  They open small, private restaurants, provide good food, services, often live music, and are able to charge only CUCs (even for the locals).  We met an artist who had a studio right at the main square that would be the dream of any US artist:  four rooms that in part doubled up as display rooms.  I have to believe that it is this prominent location that allowed him contact with tourists and connections abroad. His work is displayed in over a dozen western countries and he is planning a trip to Switzerland soon.  He seems to do well for himself.

Cienfuegos has an art school and art is just simply everywhere; not only here, but everywhere in Cuba.  Contemporary art is held in high esteem.  The more surprising then, to see absolutely horrible trash on people’s walls.   Kitsch does not even begin to capture the stuff that is on people’s walls.  Naked ladies, weird flowers, meaningless landscapes and most of it in heavy black and gold, baroque frames…

Transporting foreigners is another lucrative way to get CUCs.  Taxi services of all sorts are provided by the locals in regular cars, American oldies, horse-drawn carriages — some from colonial times for which you have to pay extra, of course — and the ever-present bicycle taxis.  I took a ride to one of the cemeteries on that one.  My driver took me off the beaten path, proudly showing off a suburb with new construction.  To me, the houses looked nice, but overall the neighborhood had the feeling of a housing projects.  He obviously envied the people who lived there for their peace, quiet, safety, their neighborhood school and hospital.  Someday, he would love to move there with his two kids.  I could not quite figure out on which basis these apartments are allocated.  He mentioned the military and a few other groups of people — but my Spanish and his English both fell short at that point.

Cienfuegos is a laid-back, colorful, cultured town.  We enjoyed our time here and I can only recommend a visit.  For most tourists, this is at best a stopover.  More likely the town gets passed over altogether.  It deserves better.

Good night.

2017
03.22
Reina Cemetery 2

Reina Cemetery

SYNOPSIS:  About the French and other Colonizers, a theater, two cemeteries and a few other things of note in Cienfuegos.

Our AirBnB’s location is perfect.  We are one block away from the pedestrian shopping boulevard leading to the Central Plaza and we are kitty-corner from the Prado, the most famous thoroughfare of Cienfuegos leading to the Malecon and the Punta Gorda.

But before exploring what is going on today, I thought it fitting to talk about those who are dead by now.  Cienfuegos owes its 2005 UNESCO status to a cluster of well-preserved colonial homes built most likely by one or the other of the 116 (or is it 137) French settlers who came here in 1819 from Louisiana in the US, and from Bordeaux.  They started this town.  The city commemorates some of them through large marble monuments lining the Prado.  If I could, I would provide you with more information, but I don’t have google.  You probably have no idea what that means unless you try it for a week, or a whole month if you want to feel my full pain!

Historical information is scarce around here.  This may have to do with the strange Cuban’s sense of humor, of loving to leave their counterparts in the dark, or it may have to do with the socialist economy; which means that nothing much is available when and where you really need it.  Expecting something like that, I jumped at the opportunity to buy some maps of the cities we were going to in a dusty, mostly empty bookstore in Havana.   There is no chance you would find these maps in the actual cities.  We would be completely lost without our American guidebooks (Lonely Planet and Moon Guide) which are pretty much the only source of information we have.

The French brought their know-how and their drive.  Italians, British, and Spanish followed.  Some of them came penniless but with their European and military advantage, turned entrepreneurs, sugar barons, bankers and who knows what else. The locals provided the cheap labor on whose back these colonialists got rich, super rich.  So rich, in fact, that at least one of them, a Venezuelan named Tomas Terry, seemed to have felt a bit guilty and built a theater for the town in 1887 which bears his name and stands unchanged to this day.  It is the coolest thing to sit in one of the old wooden fold-down chairs, arranged in a rising circle facing a slightly tilted stage.  A three-tiered balcony wraps around, making a total of 900 seats.  The fixtures, the furnishings, the amenities — all date from the late 19th Century.  Yet, world stars and ensembles like Enrico Caruso or the Bolshoi Ballet, have performed here.  The ceiling is painted Italian style and a carved head of Dionysus is watching over it all.  If the ticket clerk had not tried to rip us off — collecting money without receipts and overcharging me for the use of my camera — I would mark this the highlight of the town.

Most of the other rich guys only built mansions and palaces for themselves. Under the Cuban Revolution many of these seemed to have been appropriated by the government, and today they house the local TV and radio station, sport and private clubs, restaurants, hotels, art galleries, cultural centers, university or government offices, etc.  Many of them decayed over time. But with UNESCO status comes UNESCO money which seems to have found its way to some of the buildings already; they stand in pristine condition, renovated, and freshly painted in the so typical local pastel colors.  A feast for the eye.  But much needs to be done.  There is no end to the photo ops in the center of town and all the way down to the tiniest tip of a peninsula called the Punta Gorda.  Even in their dilapidated states, actually particularly then, these villas are fun to look at.  Idiosyncrasies such as corrugated roofs, or makeshift doors are unavoidable and have their own charm as much as they indicate the still dire situation of Cuba.

The most outlandish of the villas ever built anywhere must be the Palacio del Valle.  What started in 1917, as a modest house of a trader turned into a gaudy, yet fascinating imitation of Moorish architecture down to the Arabic writing (if that is Arabic at all!).  Today, a restaurant is housed in the main floor.  The roof terrace can be accessed via a spiral staircase.  We enjoyed a sunset with a drink up there feeling rather transported into 1001 Arabian Nights.  What else could these people do with all their money?

Well, they could make sure they would set themselves apart in death as well.  In 1837, the older of two famous cemeteries in Cienfuegos was founded; the Cemetario La Reina, a district of Cienfuegos.  A nondescript wall and gate lead into a compact, spectacular cemetery.   Quartered by avenues, graves seem to have been put on top of each other, certainly way above ground; an anomaly due to the high water table in this area.  Spanish soldiers are interred in the squares lining the wall of the cemetery.  The wealthy commissioned graves are decorated with statues, leaving a legacy even in death. 

Our delightfully charming, and entertaining, self-appointed guide Carmen told us that photography was not permitted — wink wink — she was willing to turn a blind eye as long as I was shooting from the hip.  Needless to say, the quality of the images suffered.  And once again I had to ask myself why this rule?  For what?  Who can enforce this in the days of smart-phones?  And who would come running after some tourists who are not accompanied by a guide?  Why not charge an honest photography fee?  It did not make any sense.  But I won’t expect rules to make sense any longer.  Not in Cuba.

Reina is the oldest cemetery, but another cemetery was opened in 1926, the Necropolis Tomas Acea.  It holds the record for being the largest one. It is also the more active and current one for local residents.  It is called a garden cemetery but unless some source of water is found there — not even the toilets flushed (!) The “garden” feels more like a desert filled with white stone monuments.  One single strip of green sprung up along a seemingly haphazard path.  It must have once been a stream, long overgrown.  Tomas sports a gigantic Greek facade and some pretty pretentious tombs.  But it also shows the local funerary traditions of family graves with small movable book or stone blocks indicating the various individuals who are buried here.   That is a style I have not yet seen elsewhere.  And with that I will conclude my entry on the dead in Cienfuegos.  May they rest in peace.

Good night.