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.

2 comments so far

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  1. Thanks for all the pictures!

  2. You always manage to find some special things wherever you go, even on a rather slow day. Markets are always one of my favorite stops where I can usually find a surprise or two.