Thursday, 7 January 2010

Baracoa, wild and wind swept!

What a palaver Sunday was, failed to reach Guantanamo, but managed to make Santiago de Cuba. Being precise, it was Monday by the time I made it there, 00.30 am. I had no food from breakfast and was danger of running out of money. Having been careful with the information about train times I went out to Guayos for the train to Guantanamo, only to find there wasn’t one until 1.30am Tuesday and I wasn’t about to wait over 36 hours. 1 2hours might have seen me settle down for the duration, instead I done a quick rethink and decided to strike out for Sant de C, by bus. Financially it made little difference! Lonely planet had quoted $10cuc for taxi fare, so I waited outside a central hotel waiting for a passing cab, in vain. Eventually a woman from the hotel walked me round the corner and got a Bici-taxi to take me to the hospital, where he sorted out a cab for me. I didn’t even have change to pay him so had to change a $10cuc note with a cabbie, getting $240 peso. The taxi out was only $15 peso, a return on an empty bus $10 peso, there and back only cost $1cuc, bargain. After a wait of 3 hours, I was on a bus. This dual currency lark can be beneficial once you deal in peso, it can also be a pain. Tourist tickets must be paid for in CUC, CUC and pesos must balance for independently in the ticket office. They were $1cuc short of the change I needed so couldn’t issue the ticket, despite saying I’d accept the change in peso, because the currencies wouldn’t balance. Never mind it worked out eventually, the guy tried real hard for me and came out trumps in the end.

The ever shifting scenery lay under a deep blue sky with clearly defined, puffy clouds, under slung with foreboding grey. The weather remained clear, they were some distance away and showed no signs of closing in. It was only as we came over the pass, nearing Baracoa, the weather closed in and the rain came down, since then it has continued to rain, or should I say drizzle. Temperatures have stayed OK and the rain, minding the flooded stretches of road in the town, poses no problems, I didn’t even have to go paddling, although I was tempted. Travelling east has brought about very different scenery and a different emphasise on food production. Initially, once clear of the immediate urban surrounds, Sugarcane stretched to the far horizon, with unseen refineries belching smoke into the atmosphere. A number of derelict sugar mills marked an end to the large scale sugar production, since then very little has been seen. Only the odd patch of cane, not enough for sugar production. Of course the cane itself is still valued in its raw state, a delicacy to suck or chew. From the layout of the land I think it was mainly sugar cane, for processing. Knowing this took a downward spiral due to the harsh environmental effect, it would appear to have become more grazing for cattle now. Not that there are huge numbers of cattle around, now and again there are smallish herds, more often there’s just a thin scattering of them. And there appears a lot of empty land previously cleared, maybe it’s just being left fallow.

Towns and villages have a hotchpotch of tightly packed compounds as soon as you leave the urban sprawl, each with a small patch of bare earth, space for chickens and pigs. Leaving the immediate vicinity small holdings make the most of extra space, larger compounds bordered by an acre or so given over to the production of one main crop, seemingly destined for local markets. Most common are bananas, maize and beans. Often an assortment of other produce can also be seen, smaller patches, which I assume are for personal consumption. Root veg must be commonly grown, they’re for sale all over the place, I wouldn’t be able to identify them though. Of the produce seen in the markets, sweet potatoes, onions, peppers, garlic, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, yams and a number of other tubers are the basics. Fruit seems pretty much restricted to mango, papaya, fruta la bumba, pineapples and citrus, whose variety depends on the region. There is all you need for a healthy diet, yet you’ll only find local produce, seldom are goods transported needlessly over great distances. As in Vinales, Baracoa has mobile merchants plying their wares, by Bici or cart they thread through the narrow streets calling out the produce they have for sale; just like they used to at home, even in my life time.

From Santiago de Cuba the land becomes less cultivated, much more natural, a matter of necessity as the terrain is much rougher. Hilly land, short lumpy hills laced by waterways, backed by steep rock densely wooded. This was even more pronounced after Guantanamo where a bluff of rock followed the road for a number of miles. This offered some interesting opportunities for climbing, though bare rock was less frequent than steely forested crag. It’s all more interesting than seen elsewhere in Cuba, which has been widely cultivated. Before the only natural aspects seem to have been where the land itself made ensured agriculture was impractical, which I guess is the case over here in the east, just that there is a lot more rough terrain. If there is a crop in abundance here it’s bananas, small plots of dense banana groves. To me they all look the same, whether plantain or banana I know not. I’ve been lead to believe they are the same, depends when they’re harvested. I don’t believe it, you get finger, or fig, bananas which are small and invariably sweeter than the larger ripe ones. Plantains tend to be fairly large and can get to be huge, much bigger than the imports we have at home. They are different though, cooked differently, one size favoured when cooked in a particular manner.

A few more observations on the people of this delightful country, concerning attitudes, situations and behaviour. Equality of the sexes is a weird one! Apparently women are seen in official positions as frequently as men, administratively I’d agree, or would I. No I wouldn’t, men are rarely seen serving in government owned shops or service centres; like the Etecsa (telecommunication centres). As waiters, in bars or behind counters in shops there is an even distribution; tills are the domain of women exclusively. A majority of bank clerks are female, but there isn’t an overwhelming majority here. Doormen are always men, and I don’t mean bouncers. Entry into all public buildings and service centres have men attending to entry, restricting numbers whenever necessary. Taxi drivers, coachmen (the ones with horses), drivers and attendants on public transport are men, always. In the home women seem to spend the vast majority of their time washing, cleaning and cooking. Put simply the men do bugger all, except smoke and drink. The number of homes without a father present is staggering, in my estimation it’s more the norm than an exception. I’d go as far to say they are not expected to hang around for long, and this is not just the younger generation, it’s prevalent throughout all generations. Whatever age they can also be seen ogling and propositioning women of any age, however relevant. Probably why there are so many gorgeous young women with fat, balding, foreign sugar daddies.

If pushed to declare a nation form of dress for Cubans I’d have to say muscle shirts for men and crack splitting shorts for women. The latter are worn by the vast majority of younger women and a large percentage of the slightly more mature, whatever their size. Whilst they present a constant distraction most the time it is a bit much being subjected to the more rotund. From the youngest age possible it’s their daily dress, for the more provocative they’re suitable for the disco. A distinction must be made here, more often than not jeans are favoured by the lasses accompanied by their boyfriends. When not in sandals the guys tend to wear those elongated shoes with the square toes, the ones I detest the look of, so guess who won’t be buying a pair of them?

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