Lightning and thunder

Trip Start Nov 03, 2004
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Trip End Nov 23, 2006


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Flag of Cuba  ,
Saturday, August 27, 2005

After a few days we bussed to Cienfuegos into the clutches of the
accommodation Mafia again. Pedro, alerted by Therese, was lying in
wait armed with an accurate physical description for identifying us
and a sign to catch our attention.

Cienfuegos is, again, a colonial town (although quite a bit of it is
falling down) augmented with an unlovely pedestrian mall and ringed
by a giant shipyard, the bulk of Cuba's shrimp fishing fleet, a
nitrogen fertilizer factory, a cement works, a paper mill, an oil
refinery and a thermoelectric power plant (its smoke clouds and
stacks dominating the colonial centre skyline). [They also have a
nuclear power plant, identical to Chernobyl, which, thankfully
(given Latin American standards of maintenance, the commitment of
USD10 a month employees and the unreliability of the regular power
generation), has never been brought on line.]

In Cienfuegos we visited the Museo Provincial and the Teatro Tomás
Terry (built as a memorial by his sons). This was a dead waste of
money (as the museums of Trinidad should have warned us). The
exhibits fell into two categories: opulent things from before the
revolution (haven't been repaired, maintained or dusted since the
revolution); and revolutionary history. Since every town has a
revolutionary museum and there are naturally a limited number of
revolutionary artifacts, some of the exhibits are only limitedly
related to the characters or events of 1959. Additionally, "guides"
will follow you around occasionally providing such helpful
information as, "a floor tile", thereby apparently earning a tip for
expanding your experience of the museum. Gallery, theatre and
museum attendants will often try to sell you an "old" peso, with a
picture of old Habana on it, actually just a national currency peso,
for a convertible peso.

We visited the art gallery in Trinidad where pushy attendants
followed you around trying to sell you one of the art works or foist
upon you some of their own handicraft. Art and culture in Cuba is
strongly supported by the government. It's very modern, distinctly
Latino and, like art the world over but usually not in controlled
states, challenging and often uncomplimentary of the government. In
Cienfuegos we watched artists working outside a government run
gallery. Many of them, turning a Cuban life skill into a job, were
making beautiful things from recycled junk. All of them were
working at their official job, artist, and their unofficial job, "if
you buy this piece here I have to pay a commission to the gallery
but I can bring it to your house for $15 less than the marked price".

One (slightly more than) balmy evening we strolled down Punta Gorda
looking for some relief in the sea breeze. This tongue of seaside
land is like a step back in time. The streets are lined with 1950s
fibrelite "bachs", festooned with exactly the furniture that would
be retired to the holiday house verandah, the cars parked in
driveways with heads under the bonnets are winged, chrome detailed,
muddy pastel Plymouths, Impalas and Chevvies. The men discuss
engine improvements over beer from the bottle while guarding the
sizzling grill, the women wear old fashioned floral sun dresses and
shelter, fanning themselves, in the shade, children squeal in the
street with scrawny dogs. We opted for a drink on the rooftop
terrace of the Palacio de Valle, a magnificent Moroccan folly built
in the 1930s.

During another power cut we rented a car in Cienfuegos. We drove to
Santa Clara to visit the memorial to Cuban hero Ernestno "Che"
Guevara. [Che, of course, was Fidel's right hand revolutionary
man. Middle class (so's Fidel), Argentine by birth, together they
organised and ran a revolution many Cubans bless them for today.
After Fidel came to power, Che held various positions in the
government and then got bored with the non-revolutionary life. He
was captured in Bolivia (leading a group of revolutionaries) and
executed in 1967. His remains were discovered in 1997 in a mass
grave and returned to Cuba.]. Cuba would be a much more likeable
country if they spent more money on road signs and less on "Up the
revolution" billboards.

Having approached our target in the usual circular "left, no right,
no, the other right, shit, it's one way, watch out for that bloody
ox cart, arrgh" fashion we arrived frazzled, sweaty and over the
whole revolutionary fervor thing. It started to rain. Che is
immortalised in monstrous bronze and marble, looking forward into
the socially just future of ideal and surveying a giant military
parade ground. A polite security guard told us, "The museum is
closed for some minutes, perhaps thirty or an hour. You may wait".
We didn't. On returning to Cienfuegos Pedro told us they were
renovating the museum and it's been closed for two months.

Playa Ancón was such a success we decided to while away a day at
Playa Girón (or the Bay of Pigs to you). It's renowned for its
snorkeling and ridiculous stretch of snowy beach. That was the day
the fringes of Katrina swept across southern Cuba. We crawled,
blinded up the deserted highway in torrential rain, peering past the
frantic, failing wipers. We sat, huddled, in the car and
went, "Wow, look at that!", "What?", "You know, that piece of
history that might be on the other side of the windshield", "Yeah,
OK, I'm bored, let's get lunch".

We left the car overnight with Pedro's son, whose unofficial job is
watching your car and who indulged in his unofficial unofficial job
of siphoning gas out of the tank overnight. We headed off to
Viñales in the highlands of Pinar del Rio province at the western
end of the island. Katrina had really set in. The highway was
flooded, visibility was zero, the only traffic were us, ancient
Russian tractors, oxen and pony carts and lunatics on bicycles.
[There is no real public transport in Cuba but you are legally
required to pick up hitch-hikers (rental cars exempt). All
transport (with the exception of the classic cars which can be
privately owned) is owned and allocated for work related purposes by
the government. At certain points along the highway (usually under
motorway underpasses) crowds of bedraggled people congregated with
soggy luggage trying to flag down a ride. Some would wave money
although there is no requirement to pay. At very busy stops
officials would force traffic to stop and take an allocation of
passengers - they usually stop the high sided, open top, lorries and
jam in as many people as can stand. So another contributing factor
to Cuban business inefficiency is your workforce will arrive when
it's managed to flag down a lift! In Habana there are buses that
look to be at the end of their lives and articulated trucks (with
windows cut in the sides but no seats) that look like a one way trip
to the gulag.] All roads lead to Habana and there are no ring
roads. Cuba would be a much more likeable country if they spent
more money on road signs and less on "Up the revolution" billboards.
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