Eastbound along the narrow spine of the country on the national highway. We’re headed to Trinidad, a day late because, as I understand it, our reservations were co-opted by another group who made the hotel a better offer.
Along the way, Joel is discharging his duty as a state-sponsored tour guide by giving us the company line on how badly his tropical paradise has been mistreated by self-righteous northern neighbor. We’re regaled with wonders of the free health care, the free education, the maternity leave. How the country has endured, even under subversion of the CIA, the duress of the “special period” when the Russians cut them loose and the country was suddenly deprived of 80% of its imports. Two hours of electricity per day, no fuel. We veer into politics: sure, there’s only one political party but, he says, the party is not allowed to participate in the election. I’m not sure I follow, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter.
The countryside is wide and flat, much of it fallow as pasture for horses and cows, but broad sections thick with sugar cane. The overland trucks swerve lazily past horse-drawn carts and long-suffering pre-war sedans. Nearing an interchange near the border of the Matanzas province, we slowed to give way to a crossing surrey, replete with fringe on top.
There are rest stops along the way, each with its hostal, cafe and tchotchkes shop. Everywhere people gather, there cute kids with a dog, eager to pose for a photo in exchange for a coin, and German tourists. At the open air railway+tiki themed lunch stop in Cienfuegos, the chain-smoking couple at a table behind us keeps throwing scraps to the yapping dog at their feet, trying to get it to go away. We quietly muse that if they have kids, they’re already living in their own hell.
But lunch is tasty: shrimp and veggies with rice and squash, followed by an improbable dessert of mozzerlla in pureed guava (go figure?) and always strong, sweet Cuban coffee, then we’re on we’re way again.
Once we leave the main highway for the southern coast, the landscape changes quickly. Pasture gives way to dry, heavy brush, and scattered forests begin to dot the roadside.
Joel tells us a story about when the Pope visited Cuba: the motorcade is cruising along the Malecon when a gust of wind blows the Pope’s mitre out into the bay. Fidel Castro stops the car, climbs over the railing and walks out across the water to retrieve the hat. The next day, there are three different headlines. Havana news trumpets “Fidel is a God on Earth.” The Vatican paper reports “Pope Performs Another Miracle.” The Miami Herald tops them both: “Castro Can’t Swim.”
There will be time to quiz Joel on the official line about freedom of assembly and restrictions on the press, but for now, we’re just riding along. Past Cienfuegos, now along the water, we turn east again for Trinidad. There are hills here, and lush vegetation. A mango orchard, heavy with green fruit, flashes by our window as Jeff warns us what to expect from the Soviet era hotel that will be accomodating us tonight. The best that can be said of it is that it’s near the water, where we can swim, and that we’ll only be there for one night.
The draw in Trinidad is the music: local and lively, mostly concentrated around the main square in town. Tonight is the night to indulge ourselves and follow the rhythm of the city, Jeff tells us. Tomorrow on the bus we’ll have a chance to catch up on sleep.