April 12, 2014 by vivalafiona
I am sitting on our newly completed verandah, listening to Osiel singing for our first foreign guest, Simon Harris. There are Cuban beers on the table and a bottle of Chilean Syrah and the two weeks of winter have passed us by so it is balmy and very still. The cold north wind brought millions of insects and pollens with it and depleted any humidity we had left over from summer. The temperatures dropped to 16 degrees and I was shivering along with all the locals and reaching for the fleece. Sadly this occurred during Trinidads cultural week in late January, and its 500th Anniversary Celebrations, mostly outdoor events.
Cultural Week is centred around one of the large squares/parks with local musicians and dancers performing day and night. Nearby there are street fairs selling handmade cowboy hats, mens, womens and childrens shoes, jewellery, Cuban toys and imported sunglasses are set up. One entire street is dedicated to fast food outlets and bars selling beer and pina colada’s. There is a ‘pop-up’ fun park next to the Art School (former Spanish built train station), which this year was minus the big ferris wheel Osiels daugher Erika loves but did come with fairy floss, jumping castles, ice cream sandwiches, 1950’s era merry-go rounds and rides, pop corn and plenty of very loud electronic reggae/rap music. Erika got herself a Minnie Mouse tattoo. Large bands from Havana and other cities also appear in dusk till dawn shows in a park on the outskirts of town. It is quite typical for them to play for 4-6 hours straight through the wee hours, a musical marathon.
Australia Day was celebrated at Casa de los Mangos with some of the family and friends. We had a sheep on the spit, of course, served up with green salad, guacamole and coleslaw. We bought a sheep from a local farmer and then discovered it was pregnant so we swapped it for an older sheep owned by another local farmer. Technically we had mutton, not lamb, which was to my Aussie palate rather tough but everyone else enjoyed it, some never having eaten roast sheep. The dogs had an absolute feast because although Osiel is a man of many talents, a butcher he is not. There was some pretty strange looking bones, nothing like the lamb chops or cutlets I am familiar with that had pieces of meat trapped between which only canine teeth could access. Nevertheless the well done meat went down very well with the last of my mango chutney.
Spring rains have come early. Which is fantastic for our mango trees. If you are planning on visiting and enjoy eating a mango or ten, May through to July is the time. The trees are already fruiting and they are covered in a carpet of flowers which is fruit in the making and an indication of a bumper crop. You can hear those buzzing bees at work. I have already started collecting plastic bottles to store mango pulp for later in the year. Cuban freezes always contain frozen fruit stored in soft drink bottles or yogurt containers. A freezer full of frozen meat is a luxury reserved for Casa Particulars (B&B’s).
New Years Eve seems an eon ago. We did indeed indulge in the typical festive meal of roast pig with a cousin and then spent the evening at Maritza’s house having another ‘family dinner’ waiting for the clock to tell us 2014 had arrived. At 11.00pm Osiel was falling asleep in the rocking chair so we walked towards home and to bed, only to be stopped halfway by a friend who invited us in and asked Osiel to sing to his family. So at midnight we were celebrating with a group of mostly strangers and watching their neighbours turfing bucket loads of water into the street, a local tradition to see in the new year that I was not previously aware of. We heard the sound of one solitary firework.
The 14th of February is celebrated as the day of love in Cuba and incorporates all those you love; friends, children, parents, romantic partners and/or spouses. Osiel was singing to a Chinese couple from Bejing, a Swiss couple from Geneva and a Turkish couple from Istanbul, whilst Maritza and I taught them some salsa steps. Afterward we headed off to Casa de la Trova for some more dancing and music . The streets were packed with people celebrating but it was a pretty dry affair as Trinidad was all out of local beer. We were bizarrely treated to very strong Bavarian beer by the Swiss couple which was for sale in one of the local restaurants. Heinekin has been the only beer available in local shops for some weeks now.
We have been affected by quite a few shortages this year including deodorant, milk, eggs, white paint, mirrors and brooms. Perhaps this is because of all the 500th Anniversary Celebrations that are taking place in the seven original towns, founded by the Spanish conquistador Diego Velasquez in 1514. Trinidad was the 3rd, before Havana and Santiago de Cuba. There are certainly plenty of tourists here, large groups and independent travellers of all ages. The tourist vehicles are almost outnumbering the classic cars on the road. Plenty of Peugeots and I have noted a new style of MG, not a convertible one. Did the Chinese buy MG from the UK I wonder?
Trinidad got itself a complete makeover for it’s 500th birthday. Roads were repaired, buildings painted, the mansion that houses the Romantic Museum was restored to its former glory (it was once owned by one of the richest sugar barons in Trinidad) and the cinema in Trinidad has reopened thanks to the numerous restoration programs around the town. I didn’t even know that Trinidad had a cinema so was pleasantly surprised to discover that a new Cuban film was showing which had been recommended to us recently. Conducta (Behaviour in English), set in Havana is a surprisingly honest and, I think, rather controversial portrayal of contemporary life here. It focuses on a group of primary school children and their elderly teacher and the life education they receive in and outside the classroom. My bet is that it will appear in many international film festivals and receive many accolades if it hasn’t already. The children are dazzlingly talented actors and Havana is a film makers dream location. www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/movies/conducta-to-open-havana-festival.html
One evening we found ourselves listening to 5 heavy metal rock groups including a local one playing in the park across from the 5 Star Iberostar Hotel. I bet their guests were head banging away with glee until 3.00am just like the crowd outside. I discovered a sub culture I didn’t know existed in Cuba let alone Trinidad as long haired, black t-shirt wearing Cubans appearing from the various barrios. There were quite a few ACDC t-shirts amongst the crowd which put a smile on my face. I remember seeing Bon Scott growling out Jail Break and TNT at a free gig in Martin Place, Sydney, oh many moons ago. The bands which hailed from Canada, France, Brazil and Cuba were touring the island in a local bus, reminiscent of the 70’s style roadshows.
I made it up to the Havana Book Fair again, housed in the old Spanish fort overlooking Old Havana. This is a fantastic venue for many reasons but especially becuase it catches the sea breeze, most important when you are queuing for long periods of time. Thousands of Cuban’s attend the fair each year mostly with the intent to buy books in both local and tourist currency, for their children. The highlight for me was finding a pile of spanish language Diary of a Wombat in paperback. I also managed to pull a Michael Connelly for Osiel and a Stella Rimington for his mum from the much sorted through piles of books in the Mexican publishers stand. Simon discovered the Saudi Arabian stand with a Ude (a one string boxed violin made from camel hide) playing Bedouin who didn’t speak Spanish or English but was very friendly and gave Osiel some lessons. Not an easy instrument to master. If not played correctly it sounds a bit like screeching cats.
Afterward we escaped to the tranquil beauty of Pinar Del Rio, the tobacco growing centre of Cuba (and the world really) for a few days to play tourist and check out our competition. The gorgeous karst valley of Vinales always appears on the list of top 10 places to visit after Old Havana, Veradero and the Cayo’s (Keys) and Trinidad etc. We received an education in tobacco farming, swam in a pool deep inside a very dark staligtite filled cave, rode horses through the valley surrounded by limestone mogotes (think Glasshouse mountains or Halong Bay in Vietnam) and lay on an almost deserted fine white sand beach.
The best thing about foreign visitors is that it gives you a good excuse to revisit the local sights and enjoy the music scene. Simon hired a car for a weekend and we headed into the Escambray mountains for some hiking and a swim in the Melodic River which flows amongst a forest full of orchids, bamboo and coffee trees. On a snorkling trip I spotted a scarily large barracuda and a manta ray. The later became dinner which pleased our cat immensely who dined on leftovers. We haven’t got there yet but a new rock and roll venue named after the Beatles has opened in town. A little surreal to hear the guitar rifts of Led Zeppelin over the rooftops of a 500 year old town whilst sipping a glass of red on our verandah.
We located paint in Mantanzas and Pinar del Rio on our travels and a mirror in Havana. It appears that all of Cuba is out of deodorant although to my disgust people were selling it on the streets for a profit outside stores in Central Havana. Luckily brooms are back in stock and Simon is enjoying cuban beer again.