Saturday, 30 January 2016

Cuban Crunch

Rest is needed, really needed, after yesterday's jaunt across the island of Cuba, roaring about in a 1957 Ford Falcon, rumbling over decripit roads transversing the island in a wander from village to village. The highway network in Cuba is neither a network, nor does it have highways, other than one, the main highway which starts in the west of Cuba, runs to the center before giving up to local roads, then picks up again fair on the east of the island. The rest of the roads are two lane affairs ranging from reasonably passable to completely forlorn.

It's not just the roads themselves which make a 260 KM drive a five hour affair. It's the other traffic, conveyances of every imaginable description, suddenly appearing from behind a hill or around a corner, inevitably well over the center line, assuming one exists on your particular stretch of asphalt. On a typical Cuban road you will find everything from the classic cars for which Cuba is famous, to heavy trucks mostly of Russian or Chinese origin, to buses crammed with touristas, to horse carts for farming or local transportation, to ox carts rumbling at oxen pace, to bicycles of every vintage possible. Pedestrians abound, generally assuming that thier space is right in the middle of the road, regardless of who or whatever else may be there. Then, of course, there is the perpetual presence of livestock; horses, cows, goats, chickens, dogs, and even the occasional pig.

This cacaphony of traffic exists not just during the day, but during the nighttime too. The key difference is that during the day you can see the others. At night, lighting of any sort appears optional for most everyone and everything except for the cars. And the others on the road assume you can see them, so why worry? It takes a great deal of skill and attention to drive in Cuba, especially at night.

Fortunately we had a good driver, and our guide from Wednesday. We were in good hands all day, and well into the evening. We ended up getting back to our hotel at 8:30 PM, a couple of hours later than planned. We have traffic, and a couple of wonderful stops to thank for this.

Our first stop of the day was in Trinidad De Cuba. Cubans know there are other "Trinidad"'s, so while the city is called Trinidad by locals, they well recognize the need for the Cuban distinction. This city is over 500 years old, the first established city in the New World, having been chartered in 1514. It is an old Spanish city, with cobbled streets weaving their way up the hillside on which the city is located, those cobbles pressed and pressured into undulations and warps by a million footsteps, tens of thousands of horse hooves, hundreds of cars, and wagons beyond measure. The stones, while not smooth in pattern, are worn smooth along their surface, creating an appearance of almost softness.

The town is built in the classical Spanish pattern, with a ancient central square with the obligatory church at the upper end, shops around the edges, and the governor's house at the bottom end of the stepped and gardened gathering place. Up and down from the square, and sideways too, small house crowd narrow streets. It's a tourist mecca, primarily serving those who come to see what Cuba was like before the revolution, before industrialization, back to the early days when sugar cane was king of the island.

We had a wonderful lunch in a small, local restuarant, and then heaved me back into the taxi. The rest of the crew clambered aboard and we were off to Cienfuegos. This relatively new Cuban city was settled in the early 1800's, primarily by the French, coming from Bordeaux and Louisiana. Eventually the Spanish absorbed the local French population, although many of the streets still bear their francophone names. The city itself shows it's blended heritage with a mix of Spanish and French architecture, splashed with faux Greek columns, overhanging porches and wide inner courtyards. You could be New Orleans.

It was in Cienfuegos where we had what I have come to see as a truly Cuban experience. I wanted a coffee, with milk. Katherine wanted an espresso. We stopped at a local coffee shop where we found we could get coffee, and espresso, but no milk. We stopped at a second coffee shop. Once again, coffee but no milk. Finally at a third shop, we managed to get a coffee with milk, and an espresso for Katherine. This is fairly common in Cuba, these random outages of normal supply. On day it's milk. The next day its eggs. The next day it might be cheese. Who knows? Welcome to Cuba!

Our drive home, as the evening settled into darkness, was where the real knuckle gripping adventure began. The horse carts, prevalent during the day, remained on the roads at night although in less number, most with no lighting whatsoever. The same with the bikes, pedestrians, horses, goats, whatever. They loomed out of the darkness, unlit, suddenly blocking the road, completely believing in their own invincibility. Lurch to a stop. Curse. Go around. Do it all again a few minutes later. At one point, on Cuba's ONLY major highway, a bicyclist slowly angled his way across three lands of high speed traffic, narrowly escaping death. We stopped and our guide called to him to get of the Autopista. His response was that he was going home, only a short distance away. I hope he made it. We did, late. Now I am recovering with a Mojito. This is how I need to relax.

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