When You Go to Cuba, You Must Expect the Unexpected

February 17
Dateline: Trinidad, Cuba

One of the greatest pleasures of traveling is meeting local people. And one of the best places to encounter them for a chat is a hotel lobby. That is where this morning I met Juan Matos, an 86-year-old resident of the Cuban countryside, who had traveled to Havana to take pictures of his relatives and bring those precious photos back to his village.

As we talked, Matos, who seemed pleased to be the same age as Fidel Castro, cradled his prize possession, a Japanese camera that he joked was not quite as old as he was. He said he was staying for two days for his photo sessions. “I like Havana, but it is not my home,” Matos said. “I am of the country.”

Matos said he had not been involved in combat during the Revolution. “I worked during those times; I was not a fighter,” he said. But the octogenarian  had a succinct reply to the modern history of Cuba. “Fidel is much better than Batista,” Matos said.

I asked him how he had learned to speak English. He gave the answer that I had heard from several taxi cab drivers and Havana shopkeepers. “I get to speak English by listening. We Cubans are good talkers, but some of us can be good listeners, too,” Matos explained.

“You are now my friend. Travel well,” Matos said with a wide smile, as I excused myself to board the bus for our five-hour trip to the colonial city of Trinidad.

A few miles outside of Havana we encountered the noted bumpy roads of rural Cuba. It was an encounter that was to continue for the next four hours. “There are some things I won’t miss about Cuba,” said Bill, who was traveling with his partner David. Both had been involved in Broadway theater and now spent much of their time traveling the world. This was their first time in Cuba, and like Judy and myself, had definitely become enchanted with Havana’s sites and people. Now we would be seeing and reacting to some vastly different parts of the island.

As most of my fellow travelers decided to ignore the bumpy ride and nap, I read a series of newspaper articles collected in a notebook that Tom Miller had shared with me. One from the New York Times was about the old cars in Cuba. Another from the LA Times told the story of Hemingway and his Nobel Prize. There was a story from Cigar Aficianado that featured the Melia Cohiba, where we had been staying in Havana; a Smithsonian magazine article about the sinking of the Maine; and another LA Times story about Omara Portuando, the last remaining living member of the Havana’s famed Buena Vista Social Club music group. Finally, there was a lengthy piece by black American writer Langston Hughes, who had spent time on the island as a 28-year-old. It was entitled “Havana nights and Cuban color lines – 1930.”

Between my article reading and gazing periodically out the window, I was definitely deepening my understanding of Cuba. My window glimpses showed views similar to that of any Caribbean island with one major difference. The roadsides were dotted with signs in Spanish heralding the great benefits of the Socialist revolution and the contributions of Che and other revolutionary heroes.

As we neared Trinidad, a harried-looking Hilary had an announcement for the group. ‘Remember when we warned you to expect the unexpected. Well, things have been going really well up until now,” she said. The hotel in the seaside resort of Cienfuegos where we were supposed to be staying for the next two nights said we couldn’t have the rooms. She said she and Luis had been conducting a series of phone calls and promised we would have accommodations by the time we left Trinidad.

“Relax, enjoy your visit, and know that we will get rooms,” she said.

As we prepared to get off the bus, Tom Miller said that we would now be viewing a historical attraction that was truly “frozen in time.” Tucked in between the Sierra del Escambray Mountains and the Caribbean Sea, Trinidad is often referred to as Cuba’s colonial treasure. Founded in 1514, Trinidad was Cuba’s third settlement and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. Vehicles are banned and life proceeds much as it did nearly 500 years ago, complete with the clip-clop of horse hooves on cobbled streets.

Despite its calm, quaint look, the area has been the scene of much violence over the centuries. After the establishment of Havana, Trinidad become an outpost for smugglers, pirates, and slave traders. From 1959 to 1966, the area around the city served as a staging area for Fidel’s forces as they fought to eradicate counterrevolutionaries based in the Sierra del Escambray.

Now maybe it was the heat or the dust or the fact that I have always been a city boy, but while I could appreciate the history, I really didn’t enjoy the hours we spent in Trinidad. Perhaps it was the pervading sense of poverty that permeated the town. Unlike Havana, here everyone appeared to be hustling for a buck. That hustle was best encapsulated by the scrawny young boy with an even more emaciated dog who kept approaching us, and pointing to the trembling canine, asking “Senor, you buy? You buy?”
Back on the bus, Hilary announced that accommodations had been found. We would not be staying at the promised plush seaside resort in Cienfuegos, but instead in a more stark, severe hotel of Russian five-story block construction on the far outskirts of the resort. Some of our group expressed their displeasure, but I liked the idea. It would be a chance to experience another part of Cuban/Russian history, a history that could only be experienced in Cuba.  For her part, Hilary tried to put her best spin on our upcoming adventure. “It will be like being in a college dorm again but without all the drinking,” she said.

To Follow Our Cuban Trip in Chronological Order

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