Thursday 23 March 2017

Trinidad (Wednesday 22nd March)

I got up at 0700, got the dinghy launched (it’s a requirement here to have the dinghy on deck by nightfall – not sure exactly why that is – perhaps to deter theft – but Cubans seem to be the most law abiding of people – or perhaps to do with the concern that yachties may wish to smuggle Cubans out of the country), the outboard motor on, had a quick breakfast of muesli and got ashore by 0840.
The promised taxi in the shape of a classic American car complete with driver, Nelson, turned up a few minutes later. Nelson could speak as much English as I could Spanish and so communications were fairly limited. However, it was evident he was waiting for another couple of passengers. They soon arrived a charming German couple who had been passengers on one of the Charter Catamarans. Their English was much better than my non-existent German and so we chatted pleasantly on and off during the trip whenever one of us could summon up the strength to speak above the roar of what I am sure must have been a tractor engine under the huge bonnet (or should I say ‘hood’). Then we picked up another couple from one of the local guest houses and the 6 of us including Nelson we were off to Trinidad, 50 miles away.
The roads were pretty good – all two-way carriageways, but the surfaces were in general nothing worse than one encounters on A and B roads in the UK. However, I’m sure the car had no suspension at all and the only thing preventing serious injury to my back-side were the springs in the bench seats. The interior of the car was sparse to say the least with a complete absence of the bells and whistles one associates with classic American cars. The steering wheel was bare metal and apart from the seat coverings all the other surfaces inside were painted metal and judging by the way Nelson negotiated corners, if there had ever been any power steering it no longer existed. I’ve no idea what make of car it was, but it was huge and probably accounted for Nelson’s very thick arms! After a while I noticed he was using hand signals to indicate and that when on-coming vehicles flashed him (either because they knew him or to warn him of the next speed trap up the road) he would respond with a wave. It then dawned on me that the car had no functioning lights! Needless to say, there were no seat belts.
As we moved out of the town centre the (curious) colonial architecture gave way to more basic functional buildings, most but not all in a fairly shabby state. We passed schools, hospitals and blocks of flats and simple slab sided dwellings. Some were VERY run down.
Then we were in open country. Immediately after the town we drove past a vast mango orchard. Then the countryside was a mixture of rough grassland and sparse forest comprising the sort of scrawny deciduous trees we’ve seen on the other islands. Here though there were very few ‘jungle’ type trees, for want of a more informed description, except when we crossed rivers. Hazy mountains were evident in the distant spine of the island although I later realised that it was not mist but smoke. A lot of the land was being burned I assume deliberately either to clear it or prepare it for the next crops (not that I saw much sign of crops being grown – it was nearly all wooded grassland with cows and goats grazing. Now here’s a thing, pork, chicken and fish are seemingly plentiful in the restaurants, but I have not seen any beef or goat and on our trip and out and back I didn’t see a single pig or chicken!
The most enduring images of the drive out and back were the horses and their riders. The riders ranged from the very young to the very old. All boys and men (no women that I noticed) who looked like they had been born in the saddle. The rode with consummate ease. Many of them were clearly working on maintaining fences – I saw groups of them along the road working on fences with their horses nearby. Horses also ranged across the landscape in significant numbers. Others were being used to pull carts and carriages. I had noticed lots of horse pulled taxis in town but assumed they were just a response to the growing tourism industry. Clearly that’s not the case rather the horse is a major feature of Cuban life.
We didn’t pass any villages as such, just small collections of usually very featureless bungalows. Most very shabby but every now and again some were better kept and some included roadside restaurants with trees, shrubs and flowers.
The outskirts of Trinidad were little more than a shanty town, albeit it one heaving with people going about their lives. In truth, the colonial architecture for which Trinidad is so famous is restricted to a pretty small area around the pretty main square – the Plaza Mayor. What a feast for the eyes and other senses though. I felt like a tourist in an Agatha Christie novel in some exotic setting. Yes, there were lots of other tourists but the town was still essentially Cuban it hadn’t morphed into a Disney caricature of itself. It seemed every other building was either a restaurant or an Art Gallery if it wasn’t a museum and of course the museums had Art Galleries in them. The museums were a cut above those in Cienfuegos and despite very limited English signage, and probably because they were still very simple, they succeeded in conjuring up Cuba’s turbulent history and revolutionary roots.
The Art Galleries ganged up to assault one’s vision with one vivid display after another. I’m no expert but was enchanted by the vibrancy of the art to an extent I do not recall before. I shopped for a few gifts in the craft market – a cut above others I have seen and reasonable prices too. Then lunch in a charming little restaurant/bar on the square. A simple dish of rice, chicken and vegetables, followed by a gorgeous baked custard dish and a very good cup of coffee – around £15, including a cocktail and beer! Over lunch I chatted with a Haitian/American couple. She was the American and it turned out had an Uncle in Croydon! I was interested in Haiti, having sailed by without stopping partly due to concerns about its violent reputation. He didn’t think there was any reason not to visit there however.

After lunch, I drifted across the square, tried to get in the Cathedral but it was closed and then found myself sitting in another Café with another beer, listening to a street band play traditional Cuban music. Then a short walk up the hill past VERY dilapidated houses to the ruined church overlooking the town. Then more wandering until the sound of more live music drew me into another bar. This time in return for giving the band a generous tip and buying their CD, I got my picture taken with them and for a moment was a trumpet player! Shortly afterwards I met Nelson around 1700 and took the long ride back to Cienfuegos. This time I was the only passenger and sat up front. It was however, no more comfortable than the back seat! 

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