Following Hurricane Matthew - Winter 2017 travel blog

Santeria lady


sugar cane cutter

cane field

sugar mill valley

door carving

door carving











We woke up at 6am to the sound of a band rehearsing in the plaza outside our hotel. There's some sort of holiday next week they were preparing for. This sound was no more welcome than the early morning church bells and calls to prayer that we've endured at other locations around the world. What time you wake up should be your business. We've also heard what sounded to our American minds like gunshots in the evening. Turns out they were fireworks shot off because Cubans love shooting off fireworks whenever they're in the mood.

On the must-see list when you come to Cuba is a visit to a cigar factory. For some unknown reason we were not allowed to bring in bags or cameras. What we saw today remains pretty much unchanged for the last 300 years. Cigar rollers are skilled labor and it is a good job to have especially if you haven't attended university. Workers sit at individual tables in a pecking order: good rollers at the front, trainees at the back. Each factory rolls cigars for a variety of international labels as well as domestic consumption. They work about eight hours a day and earn an hourly wage which is sweetened with a piecemeal bonus if their output exceeds their daily quota. Many earn more and occasionally increased demand means they work extra hours which also gives them extra compensation. A good worker can roll a cigar in a bit more than a minute. A quality control machine measures each cigar for air flow and some don't pass. When cigars are boxed they are put with cigars of a similar shade, but this is for aesthetic purposes; they are all of the same quality. Because this is mind numbing labor, one worker is designated as a reader. She reads books, newspapers or whatever the group decides they want to hear. To give her voice a rest they also turn on the radio. The smell of the place got to us after a while. The air was thick with the smell of damp tobacco leaves. Worker surprisingly don't get respiratory diseases, but often suffer from carpel tunnel syndrome.

On the bus our guide gave us a lecture about Santeria, an animistic belief system brought here with the African slaves. They were forced to be Catholics and forbidden to worship the old way, so they merged their old gods with Catholic figures and even today Santeria lives quite amicably here with Catholicism, and many profess to believe both. It involves rituals with shells and feathers and was impossible for me to comprehend. Fervent adherents dress all in white.

After a two hour drive through land that grew increasingly green and hilly, we found ourselves in Trinidad de Cuba, a much more touristic town that gets cruise ship visits. It has a beautiful historic square, but all the English and European voices made it feel much less like the "real" Cuba. The streets are not paved and the rough cobblestones made some of our fellow geezers nervous. You'd hate to end up in the hospital here. We climbed to the top of a bell tower for panoramic views of the city and could see how close we are to the coast. Afterward we found out we were supposed to pay to do this, but had just drifted in with a cruise ship tour. We just have that well-fed cruiser look. Most of the impressive homes belonged to colonial Spanish who came here to make their fortunes in sugar or tobacco and sailed home again. The whole downtown is a protected UNESCO area.

We visited a local artist who graduated from art school during the "special period," that time after the Soviet Union fell and our blockade prevented the rest of the world from bringing in supplies. People literally starved to death. Because this artist had no art supplies, he began carving faces into old cedar cabinet doors that had been discarded. He reveres senior citizens and photographs the hard working country folk from the revolutionary generation before carving their images into the wood. Their heavily lined faces and gnarled hands are portrayed in the old wood so vividly, they look like they are going to come to life. Some of us wanted to buy one, but he is preparing for a show in the US and refused to sell. Probably his price of $15,000 per portrait was a bit steep for most of us; you could see the hours and hours of work that went into each portrait carving.

Although Trinidad is a touristy town, it has few hotels so we find ourselves staying in a sort of B&B called casa de particular. There are about 1,000 scattered around the city. We were brought there on a pedicab, so we couldn't bring our big suitcases. We were promised decent bathroom facilities and A/C and that we have, but otherwise, this is as close to camping as we have been in a long time. All the members of our group are here and there in similar digs all over town but none of us are close to the central area, because those B&B's cost more than the budget allowed. Theoretically we can wander through the twisty streets on our own to the local jazz clubs tonight, but that will be much easier to do once we get to Havana. It would be nice to chat with our host, but he speaks no English and communications what time we want him to cook dinner for us tonight and what we want to eat was challenging enough.

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