Sunday, February 8, 2015

We love you just the way (we think) you are (Day 3)

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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.
Much of the first leg of the drive is on the Caribbean, weaving along the coast, taking bridges over small valleys where streams reach the sea, or where streams would reach the sea if there were more water in them at the moment. Along the way, Jesús narrates some of the history of the region, include Trinidad's role in the sugar trade.

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
The entryway to the potters' shop had a wall full of pictures—the proprietor with Fidel, with other Cuban notables, "los Cinco" (the Five, the Cubans who had been convicted of espionage in the U.S. and later released as part of the warming of relations that Obama and Raúl Castro announced in December).
Photo: Chris Shaw
The lobby also had some dangerously comfortable metal rocking chairs,
Photo: Pat Dopazo
in front of what appeared to be one of the shop's trademarks, a ceramic bell from which hangs a spiral net of smaller bells.

Photo: Anjali Limbu
The historical core of Trinidad is a jewel, filled with buildings from the colonial area, emptied of cars, which are kept away from the old center. So you walk through cobblestone streets, surrounded by the hues of old Spanish-Cuban architecture.
Several of our students, and Jesús (in the long pants), in Trinidad
Our first stop is the city architecture museum, which probably doesn't sound that interesting if you're not into architecture. But it's actually interesting, since the guide there ties the different building styles into the economic and social roles of different people in the city's past.
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.
The gracious buildings around the Plaza Mayor (including the former mansion which is now the museum) of course belonged to the wealthy sugar planters. If you had the means, you could build a house with high ceilings and thick walls, that kept you tolerably cool even in Caribbean heat. The slaves who worked out in the cane fields lived a very different life.

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.
After lunch we had some free time in the old city center, and several of us climbed the tower of the Franciscans, which provided great views out over the city to the hills beyond.

If you have a friend who's been to Trinidad, you've seen
their version of this photo.
On the way to the tower we passed a room containing what can only be described as a whole lot of old documents, bound up and stored on shelves, open to the air, but protected behind iron grills.

School discipline records on:
Disrespect, 1917-1963;
Disobedience, 1957-1963;
Public disorder, 1905-1949
Paperwork of who knows what possible utility, exposed to the warm, humid air of the Caribbean. But kept for over a century.

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.
After our free time we gathered back in the Plaza Mayor and headed downhill to meet Victor with the bus. Along the way, we passed a derelict colonial building of some kind of former splendor, with cranes and cement-pouring booms looming above it and metal walls keeping passersby out of the work area.

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
At the backside of the masters' house (which is now an elegant restaurant), there was an area to roast a pig on a spit, and a conical thatched roof over a piece of machinery. On closer inspection it was a cane crusher, and the two long wooden arms reaching out could be driven by animals, or humans, to drive the wheels of the press.
Hartwick students hard at work, pretending to crush sugar cane
On closer inspection, the machine had traveled about as far as we had.

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
The students were understandably taken aback by the aggression with which this trade is plied. On our way out of the former mansion, Kestrel Guy approached one of our students. She said no, but he put the bird on her and, as she continued to say no, took her camera from her hand, snapped a picture of her, and then was offended when she wouldn't pay him. She was unsettled, though she did get her camera back.

Makes-Animals-From-Cane-Foliage Man saw my straw hat and approached me.

"No gracias," I said.

He persisted.

"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 manages to pull the bus sort of out of traffic so that Jesús can hop off and find out where we're staying. It's either the Hotel Plaza (the blue building at the right edge of the frame above), or another hotel that's run by the same management. It turns out it's a third hotel, just recently opened.

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.


  1. It is a lovely cane cricket, even if the experience of acquiring it was less so.

    1. The experience was frustrating at the time, but educational.