Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cuba: Trinidad

Trinidad is a town on the South coast of Cuba, a couple of hours by bus from Cienfuegos. Our new German and Israeli buddies from the El Nicho trip were on the same bus, which made it even more fun than usual as we passed donkey carts and classic cars, seeing glimpses of the blue Caribbean through the hills.

The bus creaked and groaned as it pulled into town, barely squeezing through the narrow cobbled streets. We were met at the bus station by the Casa Particular owners, and followed them to another gorgeous high ceilinged old house, with antique telescopes and barometers in the main room and a beautiful inner courtyard with an old well and lots of shady plants. Our room was just off the courtyard, and (hooray!) had a reasonably comfortable bed - although our attempts at sleeping were interrupted by one very loud and persistent cricket!

We set off immediately to explore this beautiful town. Another UNESCO world heritage site, it was simply gorgeous. We wandered the back streets for a while, getting brief glimpses into some of the homes, and even finding a woodwork shop. Mr E Man spent a very happy half hour comparing techniques with his fellow carpenters in a mixture of Spanglish and hand gestures! Mr E Man has been buying antique carpentry tools from eBay, saying that the quality of the steel for the price is much better than modern tools, and he was just in heaven in this shop. He said he was very impressed with the products they were making with such old-fashioned equipment.

Stopping every so often for a drink in a bar, accompanied by bands invariably playing the best music we heard in Cuba, we gradually made our way around the main sights.

We'd taken some pens, pencils, paper, and other school supplies with us, and went into a primary school on our second day to donate them. The school was pretty basic, and they were very glad to receive some extra supplies, but the kids were great - noisy and energetic, in the good way! Their volleyball court and football field need some work though.

The nightlife in Trinidad was much more happening than in Cienfuegos, and we spent many happy hours in various music venues listening to excellent Cuban jazz, rumba, and an amazing display of Santeria drumming and dancing, outside on the cobbled steps leading up to the church.

The only problem with Trinidad is that it's a small town, where tourism is the only real industry. Unlike industrial Cienfuegos, or the busy capital city of Habana, hustling tourists is the best source of income for a lot of people. We seriously couldn't walk for more than thirty seconds without being offered cigars, or a meal, or rum, or a taxi, or a necklace, or soft currency in exchange for hard. And these people were persistent, unlike in the other cities, where a smile and a "sorry, I don't smoke" or "sorry, we've already had dinner" were enough to discourage your new friend. These guys did not want to take no for an answer - although it was always done with a friendly smile! Even in the museums and art gallery, we were followed around by employees trying to sell us something or other. One walk up a hill to an old ruined church was like running the gauntlet; people asked us for our clothes, our shoes, the address of our Casa so they could come by and get our other clothes from us, all that. We handed out candy to a couple of kids, and suddenly found ourselves swarmed by about twenty of them! We spent about half an hour or so talking to one group of women about what their lives were like and what they needed; thank goodness for Mr E Man being able to speak some Spanish, as he explained that no, we weren't going to give up our shoes, because it would be very very cold when we got back to Canada! He also explained that we'd given supplies to the school, and a laptop to the University*, and we were sympathetic to them, but wanted to keep our clothes... but here, take all the coins we have.

When we talked to the Casa owner, she said that tourism has been both a blessing and a curse. Lots of money now comes into the town - but only to the people who have direct contact with the tourists. The other residents are very envious of their fellow citizens who have access to the tourists and their hard currency, and many people have quit productive and useful jobs as they can make more money selling black market cigars to tourists. She told us "people here need many things". "Food?" asked Mr E Man. "No, we have enough food. People need the things they see that the tourists have, the nice clothes, the nice shoes, the jewelry".

As much as I can understand the impulse to hustle the wealthy foreigners, the constant barrage was exhausting. We escaped back to our Casa's courtyard a few times each day, and on the third day we decided to get out of town and head to the beach 6 km away for a swim in the Caribbean. It was warmer than the Atlantic side, but without the big fun waves to play in. But the change of pace and relaxation were a lovely way to spend our last "proper" day in Cuba, before taking the Saturday bus back to Varadero for an early morning flight on Sunday.

*about four years ago now, our old laptop died. Three years old and completely stone cold dead. A friend gave us $20 for it so he could use it for parts. Then, in September of this year, he gave it back to us, fixed - once inside, he'd discovered the real source of the problem, which was much easier to repair than he'd thought. Of course by then we'd replaced the laptop with a desktop PC and MacTavish, and had no need for the old laptop. So we took it with us to Cuba and gave it to the University opposite the primary school we'd visited. Given that internet connections are thin on the ground in Cuba, it really had to go to someone who already had a connection set up - and we saw someone using a PC in the front office of the University. When we told them we had a gift for them and opened up the bag, we first pulled out the remaining New Scientist magazines we still had, and they started to thank us profusely. When we handed over the laptop... well, it was a good feeling!


  1. Super nice posts Cath!
    You guys were very well prepared with all the useful gifts and trade-items! Good to know what actually is needed. I would never have thought of the guitar strings but that is really a wonderful idea.
    I'm waiting for the post on how you punished Mr. E man for his behaviour concerning your guitar-solo ;)

  2. Thanks Nina!

    We had lots of good advice from friends who'd been to Cuba before. The guitar strings were a last minute stroke of genius from a musician friend.

    I punished Mr E Man by making him dance in public!

  3. Hi
    I'm planning on going to Cuba in summer 2010 and am hoping to help teach English in a primary or secondary school. Do you have any details of the school you visited in Trinidad?

  4. Sorry, I don't - we literally found it in a back street by following the sound of children playing! I would imagine you have to go through the government rather than an individual school though - that seems to be the way it works...


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