Travels to the Oriente

Trip Start Sep 25, 2007
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Trip End Jul 25, 2008


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Flag of Cuba  ,
Monday, November 19, 2007

Camaguey and Playa Santa Lucia
 
So about 5 weeks into my time Cuba, I started my travels around the Eastern part of the island, and was joined by Adrien, the French dude we made friends with in Vinales. I had just been suffering from a bad stomach so after a diet of coke and white rice, we set off by coach.
 
Camaguey was our first stop, about 6 hrs from Havana. We arrived at night and wondered the quite and quaint streets for a Casa Particular. The place really reminded me of San Cristobal in Mexico, as the streets are narrow and windy, and the colonial houses are painted different colours.
 
It felt really refreshing being somewhere peaceful after Havana. After a tedious search for accommodation, we decided to stay with a sweet woman called Nina. We ended up getting on really well with her, and after 2 nights I was actually sad to say goodbye. On our second night, we cooked dinner for Nina and her husband...well I attempted to make aubergine curry, but I thought it went horribly wrong as the spices we bought had no flavour, and the salt was extra strong...oh, and the tomato sauce we found had fermented in the bottle. Our conversation was really fascinating. They are clearly strong supporters of the revolution, but were quite open with the fact that some things need to change. For example improving efficiency in the countryside by letting small businesses open. But then again, they (along with so many other Cubans) stressed that with the embargo, things have been so difficult in Cuba, and it basically has to survive on its own. They were even more interested in hearing our own views about the world and our countries...
 
Walking the streets of Camaguey was confusing...The roads are shaped like a labrynth, complete with sharp bends and curves. Anyway, I decided not to hold the map, and was quite content to just follow. This is how we spent our day there...just wondering around. By night, we went to the Casa de la Trova (a venue where live bands play traditional music) to dance and sip mojitos. Scattered about the place, we could see some graying foreign men with young pretty Cuban girls eagerly drinking their rum.
 
Tourist Resorts in Cuba
We decided to venture to the coast for a day, and ended up going to Playa Santa Lucia, a stereotypical Cuban tourist resort. We flagged a private car to take us to Nuevitas, and our driver was stopped and fined on the motorway. Our fare more than compensated for the fine, and since its not really extortionate, both the drivers and the state can benefit from this kind of activity. Dragging my huge suitcase along with me (I really should have brought a backpack), we caught a local buss to a crossroad where we then flagged down a big truck to take us to Santa Lucia. After a bumpy, windy ride, we got to the resort...I wasn't too impressed with the clouds, rain and complete isolation. The streets were empty, and there was nothing Cuban about the place. Around the corner we saw the big, decaying blocks of flats where the hotel and resort workers lived. I guess seeing this really made me appreciate the fact that I was living and traveling in the real Cuba most of the time. Cubans aren't allowed to visit tourist resorts such as Varadero, Santa Lucia, Guadalavaca and more. Supposedly it's to do with preventing Cuban thiefs and prostitutes hassling the tourists, and to control information flows etc. I guess I can see how having so many hustlers trying to sell things to tourists may really put them off coming here in the first place. It really is a shame that Cubans aren't allowed into some of the nicest hotels and prettiest beach resorts in their country.
That day, we checked into Hotel Escuela, a hotel-training-school for students of tourism, where I was bed bound for the whole day after suffering a bad stomach. After more rice and coke, watching TV, long political conversations with Adrien and listening to a few of his monologues, I woke up much better...and ended up scuba diving before we set back off to Camaguey.
Scuba diving was excellent...and incredibly cheap. As I hadn't been for about 6 yrs, the instructor held my hand. We dived to about 35m and entered a cave at first...we saw a small barracuda and a moray eel...and the water was quite warm...and nothing went wrong either!
 
Nice people back in Camaguey
That day we caught the guagua (Cuban term for a bus) back to Camaguey, where we played chess in the local club and danced salsa in the Casa de la Trova (where we saw Alberto Alvarez, a famous Cuban musician amongst the audience) before catching the night bus to Santiago. They have a chess club in every city and town, and every time I have passed one, there are at least several games going on. The players there were so welcoming to newcomers, and during my match I had this Cuban guy peering over my shoulder saying with utter confidence how I was winning the game...neither of us could see how! Adrien offered to leave some money with them so that they can buy some more boards, but they flat out refused to accept anything. It really felt good meeting so many kind and helpful Cuban people, as opposed to the small minority of the population that approach you in the streets for favours. In fact throughout these last 3 days traveling, many Cubans had so selflessly helped us. Perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised because I have come across so many normal and helpful people in Havana anyway...despite the few "jineteros" (hustlers) that are always around.
 
 
Salsa en Santiago
I arrived to Santiago, the second city of Cuba in the far South of the Oriente. Its streets are so vibrant, and the place is hilly so they incline steeply at points giving you such great views of the Sierra Maestra mountains. It has been raining here consistently for the last 20 days, and now that it has stopped, there is a real atmosphere of a town that has just re-awoken.
 
Immediately I fell in love with the city, and I knew I would stay there for several days at least. The people seemed more tranquil...or maybe we had just become more accustomed to ignoring the jineteros and giving them a dismissive look. Every street corner yielded new music groups playing salsa, and the music programs for each venue was filled by the hour!
 
We stayed in a Casa with another really lovely woman, and wow, did she love to talk! The next couple of days we adopted the routine of sight seeing by day, having a salsa class with Jorge (our salsa teacher and friend), practicing our new found moves in a Salsa club...and eating bread with mayonnaise (kebab replacement food) before crashing.  I was quite impressed by our progress, as by the end of it, we could put in about 6 plus different moves into our sequence. It's always more difficult when you are dancing as two beginners...without the support of a professional or advanced salsa partner to dance with. Anyhow, I still have a long way to go before I am as good as the Cuban dancers here...
 
Youths like to party  
One night we hung out with Jorge and his friends...and it was a surprisingly normal experience, reminding me of a night out back home. We went to a house party where they played all music from techno to R&B in the backyard  (but strangely no one was drinking), after which we were wondering the streets for some other club to go to (and failed miserably...as you do in London too). In the end we ended up at a 24 hr café talking and playing drinking games. One of the guys lost so miserably I think he finished about ¾ of a big bottle of Havana Club rum! A couple Jorge's girl mates were with us too, and girl-guy friendships are something you don't see so often in Cuba. It was refreshing to see that they DO exist!
 
It is strange though that the youths don't have that many places to go out in Cuba's second largest city. You can see them in hordes wondering the streets as most of the clubs here charge in CUC, completely out of the normal Cuban budget.
 
Other sights in Santiago  
The sunset at El Morro (the fort) was stunning. Perched on a hill over looking the Caribbean Sea on one side, and the bay of Santiago on the other, the views were incredible.
 
We also went to the Museum of Religion, but as it was under restoration we ended up having a conversation with a fortune-teller about the Yoruba religion (carried over to Cuba by the African slaves). Its still widely practiced here, and the Orishas (Yoruba gods) are represented in a wide variety of Cuban music and art. To continue to worship their Orishas and hide their devotion from the Spanish, the Yoruba followers gave each Orisha a duplicate name of Christian saint. Apparently Adrien's saint is Chango (war) mine is Ochun (goddess of love), and the woman explained that I "get possessive and jealous" in relationships. Yeah right! Well I guess if she says that to any Cuban girl (or guy), about 99% of the time it will be true...
 
After Adrien left Santiago, I decided to stay a couple more days, and Ondina took it upon herself to take me to visit some of her family members. How sweet! I also met Deniz and Hana, a couple from Harvard who I spent my last day in the city with, climbing La Gran Piedra. It is meant to have an incredible view, that at times allows you to see Haiti and Jamaica. Unfortunately we saw nothing but clouds. After a final Salsa session at the Casa de la Trova, I continued my journey to Baracoa in the Guantanamo region.
 
La belleza de Guantanamo
 
I took the 5 hour bus to Baracoa, on the far eastern tip of Cuba. The descent through the mountains was incredible to see...with the views of the coast, sea and leafy vegetation. From what I saw, most of Guantanamo is like this...really lush. My time in Baracoa was split between lazing on Maguana beach, a pretty crescent shaped white sand beach with plenty of natural shade,  and hanging out by the Casa de La Trova with some Spanish and Italian travelers. I must have had about 6 cups of coffee one day, at it was the best I have ever tasted..... seriously! Really dark and has an earthy taste.
 
Corruption of the Bureaucracy
After wondering the town and doing the usual sight seeing, I met a tourist guide who I started talking to about farming here. As always, he was really worried about talking and told me to keep quiet as its so dangerous for him. In town, he said you have to be extra careful as the CDR (Committee for the defense of the revolution) are everywhere. These are the smallest denomination of bureaucrats - elected representatives of the state for every several blocks of streets. He pointed to the nearby flat hills, where there are a shortage of cows...and where the government have allowed some small enterprises to develop (mainly cow farming). No one in Cuba wants to own or to have cows as the risk to them is huge - if someone steals one from you, you are fined heavily...and additionally the farmer is always the initial suspect. The prison sentence for stealing or killing a cow is 12 years!
He then went on to talk resentfully of the CDR, who supposedly benefit from their positions. They apparently always hold back a little of what they distribute, and generally look plumper than other Cubans. All the way up the bureaucracy, he said, the state hold back money, earn higher salaries etc. When I asked why after serving their terms nobody says anything, he explained that after their positions they are secured with good jobs (as managers or chiefs) and recurring rewards so that they can live indefinitely better in the future.
 
 
Tourisim in Trinidad
 
So after 15 hrs in a freezing bus, I arrived in Trinidad. I got there just after sunrise, so I witnessed the whole town waking up and slowly springing to life. The Caribbean city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the cobbled streets and grand colonial houses in the centre show you why. As with every city, there are some crumbling houses scattered about, showing the remains of what used to be really exquisite . Apparently the government are continuously repairing the old houses one by one in serveral old cities like this.
 
This is definitely the most touristic city I have been to yet. I hadn´t seen such a concentration of travellers in Cuba before, and it was clear that the town had changed because of it. There were a lot of old and young people shamelessly begging for things on the street (some who were even dressed quite well), and the youths generally looked qutie materialistic - supporting Adidas trousers, designer labels and sunglasses that they had received from tourists (perhaps in exchange for something of theirs).
 
Walking down the streets, there was the usual "where you from?.....friend, do you have something for me from your country?". Sometimes you would just enter a normal conversation with someone, and 3-4 minutes into it, they would ask you for something. Having said that, only a minority of people in Trinidad are like this, but it was all really exposed.
 
The morning I arrived, I ended up going to Playa Ancon with a Swiss couple (Phillip and Sarah) who are renting a car for a month. My first experience on a Carribbean beach was really something. The water was crystal clear, and as calm as a lake. After spending the day relaxing on the beach and snorkelling, we drove along the coast to catch the sunset. The place we stopped at was rocky with a lot of coral, and Phillip decided on a pre-dusk swim. As he was changing, he dropped his car keys into the water....and we completely freaked out! Luckily he managed to find them again before it got dark, so we were OK. In the evening we sat by las escaleras (the steps) outside the church, where everyone gathers to dance and listen to live salsa music...before moving on to a club deep inside a cave on the mountainside. This was really impressive as you had to go down a couple of flights of stairs until you were quite underground. The DJ box was perched high above the dance floor, almost hitting the roof of the cave.
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Comments

peacefrog
peacefrog on

A written monologue ;-)
In Yorùbá mythology, Sango (Xango, Shango, Changó in Latin America, also known as Jakuta[1]) is perhaps the most popular Orisha; he is a Sky Father, god of thunder and lightning. Sango was a royal ancestor of the Yoruba as he was the third king of the Oyo Kingdom. In the Lukumí (O lukumi = 'my friend') religion of the Caribbean, Shango is considered the center point of the religion as he represents the Oyo people of West Africa. The Oyo Kingdom was sacked and pillaged as part of a jihad by the Islamic Fulani Empire. All the major initiation ceremonies (as performed in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Venezuela for the last few hundred years) are based on the traditional Shango ceremony of Ancient Oyo. This ceremony survived the Middle Passage and is considered to be the most complete to have arrived on Western shores. This variation of the Yoruba initiation ceremony became the basis of all Orisha initiations in the West.

The energy given from this Deity of Thunder is also a major symbol of African resistance against an enslaving European culture. He rules the color red and white; his sacred number is 6; his symbol is the oshe (double-headed axe), which represents swift and balanced justice. He is owner of the Bata (3 double-headed drums) and of music in general, as well as the Art of Dance and Entertainment.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shango

peacefrog
peacefrog on

And here is the rest
Ọshun, in Yoruba mythology, is a spirit-goddess (Orisha) who reigns over love, intimacy, beauty, wealth and diplomacy. She is worshipped also in Brazilian Candomblé Ketu, with the name spelled Oxum.

Ọshun is beneficient and generous, and very kind. She does, however, have a horrific temper, though it is difficult to anger her. She is married to Shàngó, the sky god, and is his favorite wife because of her excellent cooking skills. One of his other wives, Oba, was her rival. They are the goddesses of the Ọshun and Oba rivers, which meet in a turbulent place with difficult rapids.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oshun

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