My Jeep


A 1940 jeep pulled up this morning in front of our casa.  Weathered and rusty, it was a workhorse of a vehicle.  At maximum capacity, it could hold 10 people, two in the front, and four each on sideways benches in the back.  But it was just me and the driver, since Celi had to back out at the last minute, to make the excursion into the mountains.  Dencil, my driver, spoke not a lick of English.  And my Spanish sounds like this:  I take an English word (if that does not work, a German one), and pronounce it the Latin way, articulating every vowel and if it sounds good, I will add an ‘a’ or an ‘o’ at the end.  It actually produces some results and occasionally, I get a point across.  Not much could go wrong anyway.  This was a standard tour, including a stop at the biggest and tallest boulder which gave the region its name (Gran Piedra), and a stop at the earliest coffee plantation, now a UNESCO protected museum. 

The landscape along the road between Santiago and the entrance to the Gran Piedra is relatively flat, the grass is brown, there are some small houses along the road and not much is going on.  However, a surprising number of revolutionary monuments line the road.  Each of them announced 100 meters ahead of time and all of them kept clean. They feel like mini graveyards with boulders, rocks, or steles inscribed with the names of some heroes.  Are these indicating spots of executions, or guerrilla fighters dying at the battle field, or markers, just because?  This region, after all, is the birth place of Fidel’s revolution.  It’s the Sierra Maestra Mountain Range that can be seen along the entire southern coast of Santiago where Fidel and his handful of comrades were hiding out and organizing their revolution. 

As the road begins to wind upwards, you feel how the climate is changing.  It is getting cooler, the trees are greener, and the vegetation is getting lush.  It almost feels like the rainforest, tropical for sure.  For botanists, ornithologists, and ecologists this is a region of special importance.  It has been protected for a long time nationally, and more recently by the UNESCO as a special biosphere.   The most spectacular part of the road is when you have reached the summit.  For 14 km or so, you are riding along the rim of the mountains.  Turning some of the curves will allow you to look down into the valley to your right all the way to Santiago; turning some other turns you look into the opposite valley towards Jamaica.

This is where coffee was grown after French settlers came here, imported slaves, and on their backs, cultivated the mountain.  Coffee production peaked between 1800 and the 1820’s when Cuba became the #1 world producer and exporter of coffee.  What happened?  The absence of slaves alone does not explain why not even enough coffee is produced today to cover the national demand.  Fidel had his hands in the coffee decline too, by an ill-fated decision to move growing from the mountains into the valleys; what does a lawyer revolutionary know about coffee anyhow.  But something is wrong with this picture.   It repeats itself everywhere:  Under colonial powers, the Cubans produced and were successful.  Now, it’s a mess.  Slavery and colonialism were abolished elsewhere, too.  Is it really socialism that solely is responsible for this?  The core ideas of it are good.  If human nature could just live up to it.

The first plantation in this region, the Cafetal La Isabelica, founded by Victor Constantin Couson in 1792, has been turned into a museum.  As everywhere else, there are no labels and nothing is being done beyond the bare minimum to deserve even be called a museum, except charge entrance fees, and exorbitant prices ($5!) to take pictures.  There could be some original photographs of the plantation in operation, there could be explanations in 2-3 languages, there could be some demonstration of the process and some local coffee to sample, even for profit.  All it takes is an entrepreneur.  Where are they?  I know there are young people, perhaps even older ones, just aching to do something, to be creative, to be productive, to get ahead.  Will they stage yet another revolution when the time is right?  I am not holding my breath.  There is too much complacency all around and too much deep-seated reverence for Fidel and Raoul.

The two-story home of the French coffee baron along with some of his furniture, the workshops, three large platforms for drying the beans, an ox-drawn wheel for crushing the beans, pounding and roasting equipment, some tools and shackles have been preserved and can be viewed.  The museum is small and unless you are in no hurry on your trip and don’t mind spending $60 for the jeep, I would not exactly recommend this trip.   A more economical way would most likely be to rent a regular car round trip, up to the point when the road turns from pavement to dirt, and then hike the remaining few kilometers.

Once you are in the area you should not fail to climb the 450 some steps up to the humungous Gran Piedra boulder from where you have an impressive 360 degree view into the mountainous landscape which fade in different shades of blue into the horizon.

Since I had the car, I added just another $10 to make a second excursion to El Cobre.  It is the Basilica de Nuesta Senora del Cobre that draws visitors and locals. El Cobre was a copper-mining town run by the Spanish from the early 1500’s to the 1630’s when the mines were closed and the slaves set free, only to have their descendants enslaved again in the 1730’s, until they too were freed in 1782, a century before the slaves working in the sugar cane industry.  This, I read in my Moon Handbook guide on Cuba.  I can only try to imagine the lives behind those few sentences.  What happened?  Rebellions, torture, military might? 

The Basilica de Nuesta Senora del Cobre is an impressive triple-towered, mountain-top church erected in 1927 on the spot of a former hermitage honoring the legend of three fisher boys who in 1608 got caught in a deadly storm when small raft appeared.  It carried a small black madonna with a black child clad in a golden cape, who calmed the sea.  Many more miracles have been ascribed to her since, and in 1916 she was declared the patron saint of Cuba by the then presiding pope Benedicto XV.  Crutches and other medical braces left behind attest to her miraculous powers and numerous silver votive offerings to the devotion people feel for her.  The Cobre Madonna can be found on display across the country and the belief in her traced to even the Castro household.  An offering by Castro’s mother is said to be among the displayed items.  Religion and Socialism seem to co-exist in Cuba a lot more peacefully than in the communist homeland of Russia, or in its East European offshoots. 

Good night.