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Trip 21 -- Cuba
Part 2: Friday the 13th
Camagüey's twisted mess of streets was an attempt at confusing pirates. It failed, probably because there are also several long, roughly parallel roads and the city isn't very big. The city has churches aplenty, some with baroque paintings, some with vivid red stained glass, many with depictions of stations of the cross, and all with an offputting graphic poster trying to persuade readers that life begins at conception. I climbed one church's tower for views of the city and of the ancient but well-oiled clock gears churning from behind.
Camagüey has one delightful long pedestrian thoroughfare, República, ending in a square, with a shorter pedestrian way veering off toward another square. The city's other streets have narrow sidewalks on which my progress was often interrupted by a utility pole, necessitating a detour into the road. There was not much motorized traffic, but when it appeared it was particularly unpleasant, as it often came in the form of motorcycles whose riders honked their horns at the approach to every intersection. Most of the English out of my mouth in Camagüey was an exasperated, involuntary "Shut up!" yelled at vehicles whose drivers overestimated my interest in their presence by an infinite percentage.
More musical were the ringing of bicycle bells, the shuffle of horse carts, and the very rare tooting of a train. The station is near the north end of República, along with a railway museum (closed for restoration, alas).
I hoped to take a train from Santiago to Havana and inquired at the station about tickets. The station has three large, sparse rooms in which a lot of people always seemed to be waiting, regardless of whether a train was about to leave or tickets were being sold.
The ticket sellers didn't know how to sell a journey that didn't start or end in Camagüey and got on a lengthy call to their head office. They could sell Santiago-Camagüey plus Camagüey-Havana, on the same train but not the same ticket. It didn't matter, because the train I wanted on March 17 was sold out, along with another possibility (from Guantánamo the day before). But, they said, there are almost always cancellations or no-shows, so I should get on the waiting list five hours before departure and would have preference as a foreigner.
I spent two nights in the beautiful Casa Caridad, which had dozens of ceramic elephants in the entrance and a cozy outdoor area with white rocking chairs. The TV set got five channels, one of which sometimes showed English-language movies with Spanish subtitles and sometimes showed movies in other languages that had been dubbed into Spanish but in which they had forgotten to remove the original track.
Camagüey is an artsy town, with many galleries and studios of painters and sculptors. One contained a hodgepodge of abstract sculpture on one side, the most striking being a chair in the form of a human skeleton topped with a chicken. On the other side were paintings of green leaves and lizards by the Jewish painter Orestes Larios Zaak, born in Camagüey in 1953. It hadn't occurred to me that there would be Jews in Cuba, but with the help of a tourist office I found the Tifereth Israel synagogue, blending in with the other houses just north of the train station.
Camagüey was relaxing, and I never tired of the walking streets or the tidy parks. Once I joined the long line at Coppelia, the nationwide ice-cream chain. It's extremely popular and cheap (dishes are around four national pesos, or 16 US cents) and they let just a few people in at a time, so as not to overwork the staff. The ordering system took some figuring out -- you pay at the entrance and are given a ticket representing your order, and then you give the people working the lines the ticket and tell them what flavors you want. There weren't many flavors, and they ran out by the end of the day. I liked the pineapple the best.
Beyond that, food in Camagüey was hit-or-miss. One restaurant had an easel proudly announcing a nightly buffet and live happy-hour music and neither of those was true. One place, recommended by my hosts and my guidebook, was lacking in spice (maybe that's why they brought me seven bottles of condiments such as hot sauce and mustard) and I was besieged by flies. At a popular stand-up pizza joint I ordered pizza "a caballo," which sounded meaty even if it would probably be something other than horse. She repeated back what sounded like "uruguayo," which also seemed like it would fit the bill. What she actually said was "hawaiiano," and the pizza came with the dreaded pineapple. Good for ice cream, not for pizza.
In the house-museum of Ignacio Agramonte, I learned about his family and his fight against the Spanish. His daughter was a pianist and wrote a march dedicated to the rescue of Julio Sanguily during the Ten Years War, an event led by her father. A copy of the first page of the sheet music was exhibited, but I hadn't paid the photography fee, so I sang it into my phone for recollection later. The museum's courtyard had a set of five tinajones, large uniquely Camagüeyan water jars often partly buried to keep the water cool. A network of gutters ran from the roof down the walls to route rain into each tinajón.
The provincial museum was what a museum should be -- Havana might take a lesson. It was Camagüey new and old, with modern abstract paintings, old blue spittoons, an 1855 upright piano, and an 1851 printing press used for the newspaper La Libertad. Strangely, the museum also contained an extensive world natural-history section; I didn't expect to see a stuffed kangaroo in Camagüey.
I found music in most of the places I looked, and then some: a Sunday session of pop songs in an almost unnoticeable, dark bar; a youth group in colorful clothes practicing what looked like country line dancing; a frenetic band rehearsal seen through slits in a building near the station; a violinist warming up in the back of a house; guitarists milling around at dinner; the fun band at the Casa de la Trova; the drunk guys singing on the square when I came out. As I prepared to leave Camagüey for Santiago on the overnight bus, I planned to take in the flashy performance at Cabaret Caribe, on the way to the bus station in the new part of town. In the otherwise quiet neighborhood near the club, a teenage boy was at home playing a pop ballad on an upright piano, his friends enjoying from behind.
Tuesday was one of the better nights at Cabaret Caribe, my guidebook said. Except it was open only on Wednesday and Sunday. I hoofed back to the old town center in the hopes of catching something at the Casablanca bar, but they wouldn't let me in with my backpack.
I stashed my bag at Casa Caridad and let the elephant collector talk me into taking a bicycle taxi to the bus station after I saw the salsa and dance performance at Casablanca. That part of town wasn't safe at that hour, she said, and some people have been jumped and lost everything.
Now here is something astonishing about my Viazul bus ticket to Santiago. I'd purchased it as soon as I arrived in Camagüey. They'd taken my passport information and my phone number, and the seller and I had chuckled over the fact that the odds of Viazul's calling me and my being able to answer were infinitesimal.
When I'd checked my e-mail later that day, I'd had a confirmation. Only they hadn't asked for my e-mail address. Before I'd left for Cuba, I'd registered on the Viazul Web site with the possibility of buying a ticket in advance. So somehow the system had matched my passport or phone number -- this in a company whose reservation process in Trinidad had consisted of my writing my name on a flimsy list on a pad not unlike those used by diner waitresses in the '60s.
Or whose reservation process wouldn't let me buy the connecting route from Santiago to Baracoa, up on the north coast, in advance. I had an hour to buy a new ticket and change buses; fortunately the first bus was on time and there was space on the second.
I slept well on both buses, partly because neither was very full, giving me two seats to myself, and partly because Viazul's seats have extreme recline that isn't always controllable or reversible. On the way to Baracoa I dreamed that I was driving around an airport with my college singing group. We were looking for a check-in area but kept finding departments unrelated to an airport, such as a supermarket. And so we kept turning left and right and lurching. I woke up to find the bus on a mountain road, zigzagging above particularly lush greenery. We arrived in town around 1:30 p.m.
The name Baracoa has two meanings. In the language of the Taíno, who inhabited the area for the 400 years before Columbus arrived, it meant "the existence of water," a tribute to the nearby ocean and the region's 29 rivers. In Spanish, it contains "coa," a kind of pointed hoe and also a device for splitting coconuts, and "bara," size. The bus let me off along Baracoa's scruffy Malecón, along a choppy sea, fronted by uninspired apartment blocks as well as the usual Cuban two- and three-story buildings.
Casa Orlando looked welcomingly bright and promised rooms with views of the sea, a guarantee fulfilled only upon the craning of one's head at the proper angle. Still, it had a breezy terrace, and the price was good at $15 per night. The other three rooms were occupied by Italians.
"If you want to bring a Cuban girl back," Orlando said, "make sure she has her identification card."
Activity in Baracoa centers around two main squares -- triangles, really. One, the Parque Central, feeds into a pedestrian street on one side and is backed by a church on the other. The church contains a wooden cross supposedly brought from Spain by Columbus, and the building earned a fifty-cent contribution from me for its absence of pictures of fetuses.
If you walk for two minutes along one of the side streets from the Parque Central you reach the Malecón, or if you go in the other direction you find a hill. In between are about six long parallel streets. It's difficult to get lost.
Baracoa's food is different from the rest of Cuba's, owing to its rich supply of coconuts and chocolate and heavier influence by African cuisine; it feels more Jamaican than Cuban.
I had a lunch of tetí, a fish the size of a pinky cutting. It tastes of whatever sauce it's in -- in this case, the coconut sauce found all over Baracoa. Like most meals in the area, it was served with rice and beans; a salad of tomato, cabbage, and cucumber that did well with a little oil; and dry fried plantains that did well with a bit more. I sat and watched the easygoing bustle of Baracoa's street life and ate a thousand fish.
The problem with restaurants in Baracoa was that either I was the only diner, which was awkward, or the place was filled with tour groups, which rendered service inconsistent. In one of the former, the waiter must have thought I was so bored that he brought the tomato salad twice. In one of the latter, I had lobster in chocolate sauce. It sounds vile, but as the dark sauce wasn't particularly strong, it gave a satisfying raw, bittersweet edge to the meat.
Late my first afternoon I walked up the hill to a series of Taíno cave dwellings, some of which were used as burial sites and still contain preserved bones and stones that indicated the social rank of the deceased. Baracoa is the capital of rain in Cuba, and when I was about to emerge from the last cave it was pouring -- the first bad weather I'd encountered on the trip. Two European visitors were up there, and, as seems to be the custom, we lamented the needless decline in USA-Cuban relations and uttered a few words of nostalgia for Obama before the rain stopped and we could descend.
Baracoa is a base for some beautiful excursions into the countryside. My tour to the Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt consisted of two people from Paris, two from Toulouse, a Dutchman, a woman from Vancouver, a man named Bob, and me. We all met at the Gaviota tour office along the Parque Central.
"Yo soy de Virgínia," Bob said to me in a slow, friendly American drawl.
"I'm from New York," I said.
"You're the first Amer...first person from the United States I've talked to, knowingly, in ten days in Cuba," he said, being just careful enough to remember that Canadians are Americans, too. He had traveled by himself in Costa Rica and picked up some Spanish, but he had joined a tour to Cuba, unaware of how easily US citizens can still visit the country independently.
Bob was probably around 60 years old. He had been in the military and gone to the University of Kansas, and I worried that our politics might clash. When he mentioned thoughts of attending a Trump rally wearing a "Make America Great Again" shirt, I prepared to change the subject, but I was relieved when he revealed his plan to remove it, showing a Ché Guevara shirt underneath.
Our guide, Benny, led us around the corner to where our vehicle would be waiting. We approached a blue, seemingly clapped-out Jeep-like contraption with an open back.
"This is it," I said jokingly. But that was, in fact, our vehicle.
Five of us sat in the back section along the sides, facing each other. The window was open behind us but we were covered. Then there was a middle row of three seats, with climate controls installed upside-down above them. Benny sat in front with the driver.
We sped out of the city. "The suspension is better in this car than I expected," I said. Then the pavement ended, and we bounced around for an hour until we arrived at the park entrance.
"Estamos aquí!" Bob cried, eager to utter something in Spanish whenever he could.
It was a fairly strenuous hike of seven kilometers, the first half going up through tropical forest and the second half going down in rainforest. At times the path was steep or slippery, and the mud was red with iron and nickel.
There was a symphony in the forest: the national bird, the Cuban trogon, piping three flute-like blasts at a time; the "k-k-k" of woodpeckers; the red-chinned Cuban tody, clicking like a train; the honking of pigs; a chicken clucking arpeggios like a bassoon; and a brass ensemble of Cuban crows. "Haree, haree!" called one.
"May alokwee! May alokwee!" answered another.
And one at the entrance riffed on a wild solo, squealing up and down the scale like a saxophone. Was this forest jazz?
There was also a walnut-sized nest of emerald hummingbirds with two tiny, moist three-month-old babies inside. And green parrots, which eat the fruit of the guasima tree. For humans, there were almonds, cashews, mangoes, avocados, breadfruit (like yuca), red semi-sweet Cuban pears, and guavas, with their rich supply of vitamin C in the skin. Plus two kinds of coconuts: the green Creole variety and the orange and yellow Indian kind.
Off limits to humans, but edible by birds, was the onion-like fruit of the "strangulator tree," whose roots grow down from their high branches, forming ropes strong enough to support humans and eventually suffocating whatever tree it surrounds -- possibly even its own. In the final fights against the Spanish, people would etch notes into the large, durable leaves and women would use them as fans, displaying the secret messages underneath to their troops.
Down on the ground were the highway-building leaf-cutter ants; termites, whose hills farmers used to chop with machetes in order to feed the insects to chickens; and a large, curled millipede, which sprays its urine when threatened. The cedar trees are good for making furniture and preserving tobacco; the mahogany flower is used for shampoo; the ladybug-like "devil's eye" is the sound in maracas; and a spiny palm, endemic to eastern Cuba, would cause a painful prick if you grabbed onto it for support.
Benny made the forest come alive with his animated descriptions of its inhabitants, and with the explanation of every mammal, bird, and bug, he'd say, "And it's delicious with coconut sauce."
We waded through a river three times; I kept my shoes on, as the rocks were slippery. The other crossings were done by oxcart, the clumsy beasts barely staying upright as they stumbled through the muddy declines into the water.
We were lucky with the weather; Benny had dealt with rain on this tour the previous day. I was planning a different tour for the following day. "The best tip you can give me," he said, "is to go to Gaviota and ask for me tomorrow." The Humboldt tour was long and tiring and he didn't want to be assigned to it three days in a row. I made the request when we returned to town, my shoes still squishing.
Baracoa's Parque Central is especially lively in the evenings, with performances at the Casa de la Trova each day at 5:00 and 9:00. I went all three nights, but Thursday's was particularly of interest, as the latter group -- Maravilla Yunqueña -- was highly recommended to me by a friend of my uncle, Ned Sublette, who has written a comprehensive account of Cuba's music. I learned of his brilliance too late to acquire the book before I left, but in a quick e-mail exchange he said I must try to see this group. Some of its members are in their 80s and they've played together since childhood.
The Casa de la Trova is a rustic, intimate affair. It caters to tourists, and there are always a few expert male Cuban dancers ready to ask visiting women for a dance. By the end of the set many of the tourists have gone and the locals take over. The usual rum cocktails are served, at the usual price of $3, but there's no pressure to drink.
The sextet played quintessentially Cuban son music, the hybrid of African and European music unique to the island. It's similar to but not as aggressive as salsa, although the lines have been blurred. They also presented some calmer trova and chachacha. Maravilla Yunqueña lacked the table drums and the trumpet or trombone of some of the other son bands I'd seen, but it had the usual pair of guitars, upright bass, maracas, and guiro. In many of the songs one guitarist, wearing a yellow hat and with a sticker on his instrument that said "GRAMPA'S MUSIC," would come out for a solo. His face was devoid of expression but his fingers were delicate and nimble.
This is the only band I've ever heard that fades out its songs in live performance. Plenty of groups do it on recordings, and it invariably leaves me unfulfilled -- imagine a book or a movie doing the same. Music should tell a complete story, and a fadeout is a cop-out. The leader had to start the applause awkwardly every time he deemed the song over. Apart from that, I enjoyed the session thoroughly.
I introduced myself, and of course they remembered Ned. The leader asked me for a rum, and I complied -- twice. He said I looked Cuban, which was quite the compliment for this somewhat sunburned, otherwise pasty Ashkenazic Jew. He announced each song with enthusiasm and looked as if he might wobble over at any moment, even before the rum (perhaps he'd had a few before the set).
As they were winding down, Benny appeared, with his friend Alex. "We're going to a discotheque," Benny said. "You want to come?"
It was a few buildings down, along the Parque Central. Its sign also advertised karaoke, but they were missing the accompaniment element. When we entered, a man was crowing out "My Way" a cappella. Then the club music came on.
I bought a round, and another -- easy to do when drinks are $3 or less -- and met more people. I found myself dancing with a young woman with fairly dark skin and short shorts and an arresting smile and briefly wondered whether she was carrying her identification card. Then a couple more drinks. How many?
At some point I went outside. The park was still lively with people of all ages, a couple of hours into Friday the 13th. I talked to someone. What did he look like? We walked a little bit, still within earshot of the park but on a less populated and less well-lit block.
Did he ask for a business card? For some reason I must have had my wallet out. And then he was running away with it. I chased him for a couple of blocks and gave up. Suddenly everything was quiet.
A group of youths, maybe in their late teens, were the first people I found. They were in a building, talking.
I interrupted them and then realized I didn't know what to say. Something urgent, more aggressive and less vulnerable. "Someone robbed me. When I find him, I will kill him. Do you understand me?"
To my surprise, they took my laughable threat seriously. "You should go to the police."
But what would the police do? Ask me to describe the thief. Medium-tall man of obviously African descent, with short, curly hair. That describes hundreds of people in Baracoa. No idea what he was wearing. I took some pictures of the street and surroundings, but to what end?
I still had my passport and phone, and most of my reserve euros were in my lodging. My credit cards wouldn't work in Cuba. Better to go back and sleep than embarrass myself in front of the police. Some visitor doing professional research had too many mojitos and got careless. So what? I calculated the loss at about $400 -- more than I should have been carrying. In Havana and Trinidad I'd gone out at night with the maximum amount I was prepared to spend, about $100. In idyllic Baracoa I'd foolishly let my guard down.
On the way to my guesthouse I ran into Benny and told him what happened. "I will kill him." But of course I wouldn't recognize him even if I were face to face with him. And this crime wasn't kill-worthy. Maybe a few hours of Batista-style genital torture, vigorously invoked by me, with Mozart's requiem playing in the background.
I woke up in bed with the lights still on. I had planned the Yumurí Canyon tour and was due at the Gaviota office at 9:30. But now I needed money. I walked to the exchange office, a few blocks down from the Parque Central.
Friday the 13th -- this is when I started seeing people wearing masks in Cuba. I was greeted at the exchange office by a man with his mouth covered. He poured hyperchloride solution on everyone's hands as they walked in. This would be the new norm entering buildings.
I handed the teller my passport and €400. While he was counting, another worker at the office approached me.
"Excuse me," he said. "Do you know anyone who might have lost a wallet?"
The incident had happened very close by. The thief had taken the cash and thrown the wallet in the street, and someone had turned it in. The local police post was a couple of doors down, and the wallet was being held at the main police station, back up near the end of the peninsula.
They sent me in a bicycle taxi. It would have been easy to walk, and maybe even faster, but I wanted to be sure I was heading to the right place. On the way we passed what seemed to be a high-school orchestra warming up.
Everything but the money was there, albeit strangely rearranged in different slots. He didn't even take the Nauta Internet cards. My New York transit card was present but dirty; I wouldn't have to try to board the bus at JFK Airport with a handful of euros or join the queue to get dollars in Havana on the way out.
More sentimentally, a scratched-up goofy picture of my brother, his friend, and me was tucked in there. We had taken it in the instant-photo booth at the long-closed Siberia dive bar in Manhattan. The photo had survived the previous time my wallet was taken from me, the only time I've been mugged, in Denver in 2007. In a similar outcome, the cash had been lifted and the wallet had been thrown into a car, whose owner sent it back to me.
I was determined to catch the tour and move on; missing it would make me dwell on the incident. I arrived at Gaviota at exactly 9:30, having listened to a few phrases of the orchestra rehearsing something maudlin, maybe a danse macabre, with the kind of almost-tuning and sluggish effort unique to a high-school ensemble at that hour.
The Yumurí tour was considerably less demanding than Humboldt. We would see a demonstration of chocolate production, followed by a boat ride through the canyon and a couple of hours at the beach. When we got to a checkpoint on the outskirts of Baracoa, our passport information was recorded.
"Starting today, this is the new process," Benny said: It was part of the virus-control effort.
"Does anyone in Cuba have the virus?" I asked.
"Three Italians tested positive in Trinidad."
My mind instantly focused on the three Italians at Casa Orlando, and from then on I found myself holding my breath whenever I walked past them.
We learned about chocolate a half-hour out of town, at the Casa de Zoila. Banana and mango trees surround Zoila's cacao trees to give them shade. The fruit containing the cacao beans comes in three colors, green, red, and gray, and all turn yellow when ready to be harvested. The fruit is cut into to reveal the large beans with white flesh, which can be eaten and tastes a bit like lychees.
The beans are ground into a paste, which is inedibly bitter. It is molded and placed in plastic wrap for preservation. To prepare it for consumption, sweeteners such as sugar, honey, milk or milk powder, or banana powder are added. White chocolate is derived from the "fat" that rises to the top when chocolate is boiled; on its own it is a kind of salve, and sweeteners make it tasty. We each had a chance to create our own chocolate recipes with honey, milk, and sugar; at Benny's recommendation I also added a small but strong red chili pepper.
In "Yumurí" you can almost see the Spanish for "I die," "yo muero." Rather than submit to the Spanish, the inhabitants would cry "Yumurí!" as they leapt off the 137-meter cliff and into the river -- hence the name of the canyon. We were paddled to a small island for a short walk among tropical almond trees. There was a hummingbird nest there, too, but its occupants had just recently become independent. This was also the place to see the now-endangered Polymita snails, in bright yellow, brown, and red colors -- everything but blue -- which feed on a tree fungus.
Our final stop was at Playa Manglito, Little-Mangrove Beach. A one-eyed white dog came up to me and sat down.
"The other dogs must have talked to you, but I don't have anything for you," I said.
I had a lunch of grilled langoustines and enjoyed some time in the greenish sea, which was so clear that the shadows of the palms could be readily made out on its surface in the late-afternoon sun. Here the water was quite warm and shallow. "Don't go past where the waves break," Benny warned us. "There's a big undertow, and it's full of sea urchins." But that was a good hundred meters out.
For my final morning in Baracoa, I walked along the beach and across the wooden pedestrian bridge to the little village of Boca de Miel. The dirt road, with its one-story houses and chickens running around, took me to the entrance to the Mayajara protected area. Here I hired a guide, Inauri, to take me up to the Balcón Arqueológico.
These limestone caves were left when the water receded millions of years ago, and the Taíno lived in them. To reach them, we climbed an almost-vertical ladder and then made do with the natural handholds and footholds. Inauri showed me exactly where to place my hands and feet as we ascended, and I made sure not to look down. It was just a few minutes before we were at the top.
The remains of faded Taíno petroglyphs could be seen, as well as fossils of snails and sea creatures. Along the high terrace, a heart-shaped cutout neatly framed the sea. We crawled through a few openings and minded our heads. We descended from the balcony -- not nearly as arduous as going up -- and walked along the old pathway the Taíno used to carry water from the Cueva del Agua. We lowered ourselves into the cave; the water was crystalline-clear and would have been good for a refreshing dip.
Our walking took us past goats and guava trees. Inauri picked a few of the fruits and handed them to me. They were small and sweet and somewhat juicy. Why were the sliced garnishes of guava in restaurants always so dry and tasteless?
It was around there that I slipped on a muddy patch. If it was going to happen during my time in Baracoa, that was probably the best place. It wasn't on the sharp limestone, or the ladder, or in a cave, or where my hand would be pierced by the palm needles. Most annoying was that the nice people at Casa Orlando had just washed the shorts I was wearing, and I crushed the two guavas I'd been saving for the bus ride to Santiago.
That bus was two and a half hours late. That gave me time for a leisurely lunch across from the bus station, in an old fort where the two sides of Baracoa's peninsula converge. The bus had come from Santiago that morning, and when it finally arrived, I was surprised how quickly they readied it to go back. The passengers had barely disembarked when our hands were sprayed with hyperchloride and we boarded. The two Parisians from my Humboldt tour were riding with me, intending to catch the night bus to Havana; Viazul promised to hold it for them. There were only about ten other passengers with us. We did not experience a document check leaving the city.
Once again I dozed as we wound our way through the mountains, and the sun set as we were heading west along the southern coast toward Guantánamo and then Santiago. We arrived just before ten at night, and I walked the fifteen minutes to the center, searching for a place to stay. It wasn't an hour when I wanted to keep ringing doorbells, so I looked for houses where I could see people awake inside. The first one I tried was full, but at another, along the long and busy pedestrianized Enramadas, I saw a kid with giant headphones on, watching television. He saw me and got his father, the friendly José, and I had my home in Cuba's second-largest city.