Having given Puerto de Vita and its environs a fairly bad press I am now going to tip the scales the other way, because when we think back to our fortnight in Cuba it is this particular place that we remember with the most affection.
Puerto Vita is a bit of a non event – unless you happen to be there in time for the country’s biggest party.
And when would that be? Would it be the day that Castro and his pals finally overthrew the baddies and came to power? Or would it be Che’s birthday, perhaps?
No, the most important festival in Cuba is May the 1st – the day which is internationally celebrated as Worker’s Day.
May 1st is Christmas Day
“There will be a big party all over the country,” said Tina. “You could hire a car and go to the nearest town.”
Tina is, to all effects, the manageress of the Puerto Vita marina. No doubt some higher body lurks behind the scenes, but Tina is the only visible manifestation of authority in this remote corner of the country. She is the lady who greets new arrivals (with a bunch of bougainvillea!), gives them their bills, and sorts out their problems. After we told her that we would not be taking advantage of her services, preferring to anchor off, Tina continued to treat us as honoured guests – or at least as customers:
“A car would be cheaper than six bus fares. Shall I see what I can do?”
When she found that there were no cars available for a one day hire, Tina booked us a taxi.
The taxi fare to the big town and back was beyond our means, and so the good lady suggested that we visit the nearby village of Santa Lucia (roughly five miles from Puerto Vita).
“Will they be partying there, too?”
“Of course! I told you: on May 1st there is a party in every town or village, all over Cuba.”
“Lots of beer,” said the doctor, who happened to be walking past, on his way to clear another arrival through quarantine.
Well, essentially the choice was between Santa Lucia and staying at home: so off we went, on the morrow, at eight o’clock in the morning.
Our taxi dropped us at one end of a long thin plaza – a dusty brown public space decorated with small gnarled trees and dissected by pavements.
“What time shall I collect you?” the driver asked as we paid the fare, but we just shrugged our shoulders and wandered off.
Well, if this was the heart of the village the place was not much to write home about; it consisted of two rows of small, fairly modern, but rather run-down bungalows which faced each other across the plaza.
The action seemed to be at the far end of the village. A small crowd had gathered there, and others were making their way towards them. We fell in with the general pace.
It transpired that we had arrived in town just in time to hear the national anthem played. Not that we would have recognised the tune, but when the people all stopped walking and stood to attention we guessed the reason and did likewise. Then, after the music ended, we were treated to almost an hour of speech-making.
“I don’t call this a party,” said Johnson. “Where’s the rum?”
The villagers were remarkably attentive to the political speeches, which were being made from a podium at the extreme end of the plaza. Most of the speakers were young women. The majority of the people in the crowd wore red T-shirts and held Cuban flags or small hand-written placards: “Long live the Revoution”. “Together we shall succeed”.
The Mollymawks were clad in their best Ché T-shirts (newly acquired in Guardalavaca) but there was scant mention either of him or of Castro. The gist of the message seemed to be that the revolution continues. The governments of America and Europe – those evil Capitalist monsters – will be beaten someday; the people will be liberated (yes, that’s you and me we’re talking about) and the world will live as one.
They’re right, of course.
Visitors from America, having never seen true poverty, are inclined to consider the Cuban people hard-done-by, down-trodden, and down-right poor, but all things are comparative.
The Cuban people don’t have rump steak for dinner, and their kids can’t stuff their faces full of chocolate, but no one here is starving; indeed, absolutely no one goes hungry.
And no one dresses in rags, or suffers for want of medical care. We never saw a single person, in Cuba, who we felt would benefit from the gift of our cast-off clothing, and we never saw anyone with open sores, or with a filthy bandage on a swollen foot (sights which are common-place throughout Africa and South America). Compared to most Westerners, the Cubans are poor – yes – but compared to 75% of the world’s population they are doing very nicely.
Castro reckons that if only the West would share the honey then the whole world could live at about the same level as the Cubans do.
It ain’t gonna happen, alas; and to judge from the looks on the faces of the people celebrating in the plaza in Santa Lucia, they know it. But their loyalty to Castro and his beautiful idea is unshakable. As the last speaker brought her speech to a close they waved their flags and banners, shouted their hurrahs, and literally jumped in the air.
“They’re just pleased that it’s all over. Now they can get on with the party.”
Oh well… maybe I’m just a bit idealistic. As the people left the square and hurried away, their little cardboard placards and paper flags were left littering the ground.
Que Rico, Cha Cha Cha!
We followed the throng until we came upon a salsa band who were playing their hearts out at the side of the road. Immediately adjacent to the band there was a small tanker – the sort of thing which might be used, on a farm, to spray the crops – and beside the tanker there was a ragged queue.
“Beer,” said Nick, who can smell the stuff from many metres away.
Fortunately Tina had told us to take our own cups, and so the men duly joined the line-up. A round, for the five of us, cost under a dollar. (No doubt the spree was subsidised by the government.)
As the only tourists in town the Mollymawks and the Cherubim were high profile – which is to say that everyone stared at us – but we were made to feel very welcome. Most of the gathering were better equipped than we – they had brought along sawn-off plastic mineral water bottles and similar, large containers – and it seemed that almost every beer-toting villager slopped beer into our cups as he tottered past. The remainder merrily shoved their improvised drinking vessels in our faces and insisted that we take a swig.
(When we mentioned our indulgence to the immigration guys, at Puerto Vita, the next day, they were rather shocked: “You mean to say that you drank the beer from the tankers!” The doctor reckoned we would probably come down with hepatitis – or worse.)
We hung around, slurping our beer and fidgeting to the music.
Roxanne found a stall selling ice creams for the equivalent of 2p each (under 5 cents) which meant that she could have as many as she wanted.
Xoë found herself in conversation with a rather hunky guy who was something to do with the band, and she suddenly realised that a Spanish A level is a good thing after all, and not a complete waste of all that time spent studying.
Nick took it upon himself to prop up the beer tanker.
Caesar and I found another, very disorderly queue which led ultimately to the purchase of some really delicious cheesey pizzas (which are sold in the manner of sandwiches, folded in half). Five of these cost the equivalent of an American dollar
And meanwhile the band played on: salsa, cha cha cha, and merengue. The drummer banged on his bongos and congas and clanged his iron cow-bell; the trumpeter blew his horn; the girl with the maracas shook and rattled and sang.
Oddly enough, we Mollymawks were the only ones who couldn’t stop our toes from tapping and our feet from jumping. The Cubans stood and listened to the music with the same attention that they had given to the speech makers. No one joined in and no one danced.
“Funny lot,” I said to Johnson, as I poured the beer, recently deposited in my own cup, into his.
“Gnat’s piss.” said Johnson confidentially, “We need to find the rum shop.”
We wandered up the road, wending our way amongst rickshaw bicycles, horse-drawn buggies and carriages, and the occasional veteran motor car. Most of the pedestrians heading towards us were laden with strings of garlic, bunches of carrots, or baskets filled with green peppers, and sure enough we very soon arrived at a market.
The concrete amphitheatre which formed the heart of the market-place was today absolutely thronged with people. Canned music blared from a speaker somewhere, and the crowd were milling about, greeting one another with all the good cheer of folks on Christmas morning, and swigging from their communal beer mugs.
Nick gathered our cups and joined a queue which proved to lead, not to another tanker but to an open vat. The vendors dipped the various makeshift drinking vessels straight into the beer – and when, upon occasion they fumbled with the cups and dropped them, they dipped their bare arms too, like washerwomen doing the laundry.
(But yotties are tuff, and so we Mollymawks survived this second brush with who knows how many bugs, bacteria, and beastly wot-nots. Or maybe it’s just that bugs can’t survive in beer…?).
Scattered amongst the beer drinkers and other merry-makers were a handful of vendors. One sold plaited strings of garlic; one sold green peppers; one sold wonderfully rubbishy, badly-designed plastic dolls and toy cars which – we were told – were made in the town up the road, from recycled bottles.
We wriggled through the throng, still intent on meeting Paul’s need for rum. Beyond the scrum we came upon a chaos of horses and carts and men selling carrots. Carrots, peppers and garlic were the veg of the day it seemed; nothing else was on offer except for those awful plastic toys and a wide variety of bits of dead animal.
“Over there,” said Nick, pointing at a small concrete hut which was the focal point for a gathering of old men. “That’s got to be a rum shop.”
We forced our way between the carts and amongst the ponies – all except Johnson who, despite his great thirst, could not bring himself to go near the hooved beasts. (Seemingly, he only likes white horses.) By the time he had joined us again Nick had managed to negotiate the purchase of a bottle of rum – purchaser to supply the bottle, as is usual in the third world – and thus was the old sea dog’s need fulfilled, for the rest of the day at least.
A Fat Pig
We wound our way back through the crowd again – past a pig, held by the hind legs, which seemed to be living its last few minutes; past a man trying to sell crutches (with not a cripple in sight); past more stalls with more bits of dead animal; past ponies and traps; past men and women sheltering under umbrellas in the midday sun.
As we regained the roadside one charming fellow came hurrying after us, insistent on giving away an enormous catfish. It was the very last thing that we wanted to lug around the fiesta with the temperature now 100 degrees F (38 C) in the shade – and precious little shade to be found anyway, except under those brollies.
Eventually, having had enough of the heat, we decided to head for home. But how were we to get there?
During the course of the day it had become plain that Santa Lucia is not on the tourist route and that – in consequence – there were no taxis for hire. Of the half-dozen vehicles that we had seen moving around the village the most modern was a Dodge dating from the late 50s. Government taxis, by contrast, are shiny new things with Made-in-Japan stamped all over their character.
The only public transport available was the ubiquitous horse-drawn carriages. Essentially then, it was either pony-and-cart or shank’s-pony – for six miles.
Since the drivers of the pony traps are only accustomed to weaving circles around and across the town it was hard to find one who would agree to the undertaking – and most of those who agreed in principle were unable then to name a price – but we eventually found a fellow with rather more initiative than the regime approves of, and he agreed to ferry us home for the equivalent of the taxi fare. We threw in the catfish, by way of a tip.
A ride in a pony and carriage for eight bucks (£ !). The natives would no doubt have found it hard to understand the attraction, but we reckoned that we had struck a marvellous deal. When did you last get to ride in a horse-drawn carriage? For the Cubans, hopping on a “coche” (as they know them) is the equivalent of stepping aboard the number ten bus, whereas a ride in a modern, deluxe “carro” (or car) would have been a treat.
One man’s homespun jumper is another man’s ethnic fashion item.
For the Mollymawks this adventure was a first, and we clambered aboard eagerly. No matter that the cart looked as if it might fall apart on the way home; we would just have to hope for the best.
Some concern was expressed concerning the poor beast who’s fate it was to drag us along under the heat of the afternoon sun. Was he up to the task? Would our chauffeur drive him too hard?
Luckily, the man happened to have the best looking pony on the block – which is to say that it’s ribs did not protrude to the same distressing extent as those of its fellows. We reckoned that he would hardly be likely to over-tax his four-legged investment and sole source of income… but, then again, we certainly wouldn’t have wanted to go for a jog in this excessive heat.
As it turned out we need not have worried. Delighted, no doubt, to be liberated from his usual boring cycle of trips around the plaza, the little pony set off along the road at a full clip. If his driver had not been hauling on the reins he would have galloped, and after his cargo had been deposited outside the marina gates that was just what he did: he set off for home with his tail flying and his head outstretched and the carriage rattling along behind. The scene looked like something out of a Western.
Regardless of the pony’s remarkable eagerness, I have to say that the thing which struck me most about my first expedition behind a horse was how slowly one travels, compared to the cars. The other things which I had overlooked, before my initiation, were the general bone-jarringness of this form of transport and the way that one’s luggage, if not restrained, goes disappearing over the back of the cart onto the road.
Another Rum Do
We had now seen everything that was to be seen in the vicinity of Puerto la Vita, but before we could move on one small task required our attention: the task of supplying Johnson’s need for rum. On our first day here Paul had worked up such a dreadful thirst that he had found it necessary to slake it in the marina bar. Since each shot of Havana bought in this fashion cost more than a bottle filled, under the counter, in a rum shop it was clear that the crisis was urgently in need of resolution.
Equipped with Johnson’s collection of eleven empty bottles, Nick went ashore to research the possibilities. After hunting around in the local, one street village he eventually came across a skinny little fellow who we had met that morning – to whit, the vendor of the crummy plastic toys. When questioned concerning the whereabouts of a rum shop, the man offered to deal with the matter himself. Nick duly handed over the Cuban equivalent of 25 dollars and the two arranged to meet up again in four hours time.
Four hours later, in the still of the tropical night, we went ashore to collect our purchases, and found… no rum, and no little man.
“Well, what do you expect,” said I. “You gave the guy two months wages, and more. You even told him that we were leaving tomorrow morning.”
“He seemed nice enough…”
“Yeah, well, I’m sure he’s nice – but by now he’s probably nicely drunk, too…”
And at that very moment a dark shape came hurtling towards us, from out of the black, and a breathless cyclist dragged his feet along the ground (no brakes) and brought his machine to a halt right in front of us. His hunched back carried a burden which rattled in a most pleasing manner.
“Am I late? I’m so sorry.” The man’s shoulders and arms shone with sweat. “I had to cycle to Santa Lucia. ‘Had to borrow the bike. (‘Can’t afford one myself. ‘Must give it back quickly.) Here you are now.”
The little fellow wriggled his arms out of his rucksack – I’m not being patronising, by the way; he really was only about 4ft 6″ high – and he gave it to Nick. Then he put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a handful of coins. “And here is your change.”
It was difficult to know what to pay the man for this service – and he had no intention of naming a price. Perhaps he had already made a cut on the rum, but if so it must have been a very small one. On his first encounter with Nick he had mentioned the fact that he was a fisherman and had hinted at the difficulty of buying monofilament line. His sister-in-law, meanwhile, had bemoaned the|Cuban people’s need for coffee, cheese, and soap: “We only get one bar of soap each per month, you see.”
The little man had shuffled the woman out of the door and apologised for her rudeness.
Nick was for giving the fellow the fishing line, and not the soap – and I was for giving him the line, the soap, a couple of T-shirts whose colour no longer appeals to me, a packet of coffee, a handful of lead weights, and a box of 50 fish-hooks which I got ten years ago and which I have never been able to use because they have spade ends instead of eyes.
The problem here is that generosity – or fair payment – is actually nothing of the sort; it’s just a disruption of the prevailing financial structure. We had no idea of the price of a roll of monofilament line – either in Cuba or anywhere else – but we did know that a bar of soap costs 1 CUC. And 1 CUC was the equivalent of three days pay, to this man.
Was it right that we give him a super-abundance of goodies, to the value of a week’s pay and more, in return for just four hours hard labour?
Was it appropriate to elevate a working man so that he earned more than a doctor?
Was it a good idea to give him the impression that tourists are filthy rich?
Or was it better to be “mean”?
In the end we compromised. We gave the man a small spool of fishing line – and he was overjoyed. Then I also popped into his hand 20 of the aforementioned fish-hooks – and he was thrilled. Finally I handed over the bar of soap, and he went into raptures. He actually held the packet to his lips in both hands and kissed it!
The thing that puzzles us is this: the Cuban folk get a bar of soap per person each month, as part of their ration. Well… we generally find that one bar of soap lasts this whole family around three months. Admittedly our standard of hygiene is pretty low – about as low as it goes, in fact – but all the same; how much soap CAN a person use in a month?
Our next article really will discuss Cruising Cuba’s North Coast…