This morning we left Playa Rancho Luna outside Cienfuegos, to go to Trinidad, and from there to Sancti Spíritus.
|We started near Cienfuegos, went east to Trinidad,|
then northeast to Sancti Spíritus.
Our first stop was at the Santander pottery workshop. We got to see various craftsmen at work at their wheels, and their output in various stages of completion.
|Photo: Chris Shaw|
|Photo: Chris Shaw|
|Photo: Chris Shaw|
|Photo: Pat Dopazo|
|Photo: Anjali Limbu|
|Several of our students, and Jesús (in the long pants), in Trinidad|
|Decorative urns on the Plaza Mayor, with the tower|
of the Franciscans in the background.
At the pottery shop in the morning we'd seen copies of these
urns fired but not yet glazed.
After the museum we went to the Palenque de los Congos Reales. A "palenque" is a village founded by slaves or escaped slaves, away from European settlement. The Palenque of the Royal Congos gives a musical performance starting with the type of African music that the slaves would likely have brought over with them from Africa. It then proceeds chronologically, giving musical examples that demonstrate the evolution into today's Afro-Cuban music. About half of us got up and danced when the performers encouraged us to. (Yes, I'm sure there are pictures somewhere; I don't have any.)
Then it was lunch at a buffet-style restaurant with, among other things, excellent papaya.
|That little thing at the right edge of the fruit plate is a slice of guava.|
After this experience, I stuck to guava juice; guava itself is full of
very hard seeds that are difficult to deal with.
|If you have a friend who's been to Trinidad, you've seen|
their version of this photo.
|School discipline records on:|
Public disorder, 1905-1949
At the base of the tower there's a book store where you can buy postcards and works of importance to the Revolution.
Selected titles: The dialog of civilizations by Fidel Castro, The heroic guerrilla fighter: Che in Bolivia; Anti-imperialism and non-violence; Operation Extermino: 50 years of aggressions against Cuba; Basic dictionary (Chinese-Spanish, Spanish-Chinese). Just the sorts of things the average tourist is looking for after climbing a tower with a scenic view. Or before.
Tourism is even more of a presence here than in Cienfuegos. That city has a university (including a medical college), a port, and all the administrative functions of a provincial capital. Trinidad is an outlying city in the province of Sancti Spíritus, a former bastion of sugar wealth, forced to get by in a time when sugar is far less lucrative and has been curtailed in the region (see more on that below).
And while keeping cars out of the old city center makes a much more pleasant experience for the visitor, it further tips the balance in favor of those things that cater to the visitor. Many of the houses have been converted to art galleries, basket-weaving shops (if their customers were only the local population, it would appear that the Trinidadians have an absolutely insatiable demand for baskets), and establishments selling tchotchkes. And restaurants. And places like the Palenque de los Congos Reales.
In one former house, a group of Americans on a people-to-people exchange were getting a lecture about the religious practices of santería. In the courtyard beyond the room where the lecture was being held, we could see chickens in pens. Pat wondered how much longer they were for this world—in other words, just how vivid the santería explanation was going to be.
|Americans learn about santería.|
Chickens in the courtyard might be about to get some experiential learning.
Jesús says that the next time we come to Trinidad, this building will be a very nice hotel. Then he adds that he's been saying that for 10 years.
Back on the bus and we're heading out of town, along the way passing some apartment buildings under construction. They seem pretty cleanly done, but if you look closely, the cement is rough around the edges, which is all too reminiscent of what I was used to in the Soviet Union.
Also, it's mid-day on a Wednesday, and there's equipment but no sign of anyone working. Lord knows how much progress is actually being made at this work site.
Our next stop is Manaca in the Iznaga valley. This was old cane-growing land, and many of the wealthy sugar families from Trinidad also had a country estate out among their cane fields and their slaves.
Jesús says the government shut down cane cultivation in the surrounding valley. And they didn't just shut down the local sugar mill, they actually dismantled it, which struck him as excessive. Now there's been some return of cane to the Trinidad area, and there's no mill, though it can be brought to the mill at Sancti Spíritus.
The particular attraction at Manaca is the baroque tower that the owners built on their estate. Jesús told us the legend of two brothers who were in love with the same slave. They competed by seeing who could build a higher tower or dig a deeper well. As Jesús says, the well has never been found. And the tower was probably just a useful way of being able to survey your entire domain.
|Hartwick students survey the Iznaga valley from the Manaca tower|
|Hartwick students hard at work, pretending to crush sugar cane|
It was a beautiful machine in its way, and its product was sweet. But life for the people actually using it was a kind of living hell.
Those slaves who worked on sugar plantations and in sugar mills were often subject to the harshest of conditions. The field work was rigorous manual labor which the slaves began at an early age. The work days lasted close to 20 hours during harvest and processing, including cultivating and cutting the crops, hauling wagons, and processing sugarcane with dangerous machinery. The slaves were forced to reside in barracoons, where they were crammed in and locked in by a padlock at night, getting about three and four hours of sleep. The conditions of the barracoons were harsh; they were highly unsanitary and extremely hot. Typically there was no ventilation; the only window was a small barred hole in the wall.
Wikipedia, sourced back to Esteban Montejo, Biography of a runaway slave.
And remember that this work was carried out in tropical heat, and some of the work was tending the fires that were used to reduce the cane juice toward sugar.
But of course when you visit Manaca today there are no slaves. The most vivid impression from life is, instead, the gauntlet one runs to approach the tower, enter the house, or get back to your bus.
From where the bus leaves you, the road is lined with tables of Cuban shirts, hats, scarves, all manner of thing on which you might drop a few CUCs. Women behind or beside the tables entreat you to buy whatever it is they happen to have on offer. A man will ingeniously fold the foliage from sugar cane into a charming animal to adorn your hat. Another will perch a kestrel on your shoulder then charge you for having a friend take a picture.
|Hawk with kestrel|
Photo: Julia Jonaitis
Makes-Animals-From-Cane-Foliage Man saw my straw hat and approached me.
"No gracias," I said.
"No thank you."
"I won't ask for money.
"No thank you, I don't want it."
"I'm not asking for money."
"No thank you."
As we're "talking," he's been making a grillo, a cricket. Now he takes the hat from my head, sticks another reed through the weave of the hat, puts the grillo on the reed, puts the hat back on my head, and holds out his hand for money.
"I told you I didn't want it," I say, and I go to remove the grillo from the hat. He insists on me keeping the grillo on there, and on me paying him. He wins one of those battles. This is the local economy, even more so in the absence of sugar production.
And while it's annoying when you're running that gauntlet, it's an understandable phenomenon. Cuba's biggest "export" is that it sends abroad its highly trained doctors and teachers. They go to other poor countries which are worse off in health and education but better off in terms of supplies of some natural resource or other. The other country gets doctors and teachers, and Cuba gets a good price on, say, oil. (I'm looking at you, Venezuela.)
Cuba also exports rum and cigars. And those are also useful sources of revenue for the Cuban economy, run through the Cuban government.
But for average Cubans, tourism is the only way they can directly get their hands on some of the flow of money into the economy from abroad. If you're lucky, you've got a job at a tourist hotel, or you drive a cab, so you get tips directly from the visiting moneybags. If you don't have a situation like that, another avenue is to stick cane-leaf crickets onto foreigners' hats and see how far you get with not taking "no" for an answer.
There's a conundrum at the core of tourism. To some extent, people come to see "the real Cuba" (or the real France, or the real wherever), but as soon as some place becomes aware that any significant number of us are coming to see the real "it," it changes to entice more of us to come and to better please us while we're there. In short, as soon as a place is savvy enough to advertize itself as "the real thing," it no longer is.
And yet this hand should not be overplayed. In Trinidad, the center of town still has people living in it, but it also has those many houses that have been turned into art galleries, hotels, or workshops for basket weavers. In other words, Trinidad is already not "authentic."
But what was it when it was authentic? The beautiful Plaza Mayor and the houses around it were based on sugar wealth, which in turn was based on slavery. The base poverty of the slave shack out at the sugar plantation was not merely something that happened to exist alongside the wealth and beauty of Trinidad, but was rather its very foundation.
Is the inauthenticity of tourism actually worse than that?
From Manaca we drove on to Sancti Spíritus, the capital of the province of Sancti Spíritus.
The hub of the town is the Parque Serafín Sánchez, ringed by buildings mostly in pretty good repair, showing off fresh coats of pastel paint under an ominous sky.
|The back of this guy's bicitaxi makes it worth clicking on the picture.|
Victor maneuvers through the narrow streets and finds a tiny plaza where he can park, just a short block away from our hotel. Dinner is back up at the Hotel Plaza, which is only three blocks north of us on a pedestrian street.
We settle in, have an uneventful dinner, and I go back to the hotel to read students' journal entries, in a lovely courtyard, with a couple of hot tubs bubbling away in the background and the moon shining down.
Back in my room, a cane-leaf grillo perches on my hat.