Day 3: Plaza de la Revoluccion

Cuba: Notes from behind the Coffee Curtain

Day 3: Che sera, sera

The Note that wasn't

Image: Photo of a mural featuring face of Che Guevara and the slogan, Hasta la victoria Siempre

January 1, 2016, OTTAWA, Canada — Author's note: The following is a bit of a cheat. In part because I type my drafts using manual HTML coding, when doing a series of articles that re-use elements like images or headlines, I have a habit of starting a new entry by typing over the old. This is fine so long as one remembers to re-name the file.

When I returned home from a long shift at the survival job early this morning, I began to read over and to edit the file called "cuba003.html". I was a little perplexed to see that the byline date was December 17, not 16. At first I presumed that I had written the entry a little late and just forgotten the fact.

But the entry I was editing was not the entry I expected to find. Not the entry I remembered writing. About half-way through I stopped editing and just scanned the rest. Nope. Nothing about how one gets access to the internet in Cuba; nothing about our visit to the Che Guevera Mausoleum; nothing about getting caught in the rain; nothing about taking a horse-drawn cart back to our casa.

I had committed the modern diarist's cardinal sin. I had forgotten to rename my file and had over-written what had gone before. O! for the days of a manual typewriter, when fire was the diarist's only enemy!

And so I must cheat. I have strong memories of what I did write, and plenty of visual aids to remind me of the details, but what follows was not, in fact, actually written on the day indicated, but is only my best effort at a reproduction, a best-guess, a sketch drawn from memory. Mea culpa.

Breakfast at Damari's

Image: Photo of statue of Che Guevera under a rainbow. The author stands in the foreground.

December 16, 2015, SANTA CLARA, Cuba — I wouldn't mind the missing luggage so much if I had thought to pack a spare pair of shorts with my carry-on luggage, but as it is, my long pants are getting a little, er, ripe after four or five days and now, so much walking about in 30 degree heat.

As I wrote yesterday our hosts, Carlos and Damari, have gone above and beyond in trying to help us find out what happened to the bag. In fact, they've gone so far as to involve Damari's sister, who lives in Toronto and through whom Raven found Hostal Oasis. (It turns out that Cubans can use email via smartphone, but it's strictly text-only, no pictures. And Carlos' copy of Wikipedia is just that: a copy, installed on his laptop via CD-ROM.)

Image: Photo of our breakfast at Hostal Oasis. Damari is a fantastic cook!

This morning after another incredible breakfast (see above; beneath the napkin on the small plate lies a delicious ham and egg panini; and the biscotti at centre were as moist and — almost — as sweet as Fanny Farmer's old-fashioned sugar cookies), Carlos told us that Maria, the sister in Toronto, had spent about an hour dealing with WestJet's customer service and had learned that our bag was still in Ottawa. And further, that WestJet had sent Raven an email requesting instructions.

So it was we learned that, in fact, as foreigners, we could get access to the 'net. What we couldn't get was a pair of shorts for me. When I asked Carlos if he could recommend a place where I could buy that basic item of clothing, he just shook his head.

"Nowhere," he said. He smoothed his t-shirt and slapped the sides of his own shorts. "Everything I have on Damari's sister brought us from Toronto."

Real life in Cuba, apparently.

No shorts, no luggage, no internet!

Image: Photo of the Hotel Santa Clara Libre, over Parque Vidal.

Our plan had been to walk east today, instead of west, but first we returned to the Parque Leoncio Vidal and the Hotel Santa Clara Libre, on the south-east side of which lurks the Hotel Santa Clara Libre, the roof of which is crowded with a copse of ominous-looking satellite dishes.

Parque Vidal itself is a busy meeting-place for young and old and, as we learned, one of the only places in town with Wi-Fi access.

Well, Wi-Fi access for those with (a) a foreign passport and (b) 2 CUCs for an hour.

I accompanied Raven to the entrance, where she handed over her passport so that the clerk could laboriously enter her credentials into a notebook, then provide her with a plastic card with a username and password, good for one hour or 30 days of internet access, whichever comes first. For tourists only!

Image: Photo Wi-Fi access card, good for one hour of connection to the internet for up to 30 days. For foreigners only.

I left Raven with her tablet and went across the street to exchange some Canadian dollars for CUCs, thus getting a chance to put my own passport to use once more.

Ten or fifteen minutes later, I found her, not in the hotel lobby, but across the street in Parque Vidal. The signal, she said, was supposed to be stronger here. But she still wasn't able to connect. Firefox told her there was a "catastrophic" security problem with the connection and it just wasn't going to allow her to put herself at risk like that.

She tried her phone and I tried mine, with the same results. "It's a shame we don't have a copy of Internet Explorer," I said, "that would probably work."

"I do have Internet Explorer!" she exclaimed and proceeded to try it. (I did too; I hadn't realized IE came standard on older Android phones.)

All praise to Bill Gates' crappy, non-standards compliant technology! We were in!

Raven checked her mail, found WestJet's letter and replied, telling them in no uncertain terms NOT to forward the bag, but to leave it in Ottawa. We would pick it up on our return; the last thing we wanted was for it to get lost trying to find us during our travels in Cuba! (Spoiler alert: WestJet did not pay any attention to those instructions. More on that in a future entry.)

And so that was our one and only connection to the outside world during the nine days of our trip. We had no other net connection, no email, no English newspapers or radio, nothing. We were completely cut off from the digital noosphere, in my case for the first time since I got my first email account more than 20 years ago.

Cigars, Che and Viazul

Image: Photo of Viazul sign, just inside the bus station in Santa Clara

Our encounters with autocracy done for the time being, we bought some bottled water, dropped that off at Hostal Oasis, then headed back out into the sun to play tourist again.

We had in mind the Viazul bus station, the tourists-only inter-city service we had been told is reliable and modern, whose coaches include toilets, along with the Che Guevera Mausoleum, which our map suggested weren't too far from one another.

Image: Photo of a church in Santa Clara; the door was open and there a few parishioners in the pews

We opted to take a random calle heading East in hopes that Lady Serendipity would serve us well. And she delivered. We encountered a dilapidated old church that would have been condemned here in Canada. The doors here, though, were open and people sat in the pews.

Image: Photo of the interior of a church in Santa Clara

From there, we wandered into the poorest-looking neighbourhood we had seen yet. It was in that barrio that we had our first run-in with that stereotype of third-world travel: the really persistent huckster. In this case it was a young man who first asked where we were from, happily announced that he had a sister in Ottawa (! what a coincidence, eh!) and did we want to buy some authentic cigars?

Image: Photo of street-side vegetable vendor, Santa Clara

For a block or block and a half, he kept at it, ignoring my increasingly curt replies of, "Gracias, no!". He wasn't threatening in the sense that he was waving a weapon around, but neither did he leave us alone. Walking through an area that looked more and more like a slum, as well as one with far fewer people around, I suddenly felt like exactly what I was: a rich tourist in a very poor country.

We didn't take many pictures on that stretch. There were a few people around, but too few for their anonymity. Photographing them would have been more like voyeurism than documentation.

But still, here is a photo of a school we took yesterday, for a taste. If you look close, you'll see the head of a student in the middle window, second column from the left.

Image: Photo of Santa Clara school.

Still, we presently found ourselves back on a main road, hot and hungry and was again reminded that Cuba has no rules or regulations (at least: no effective rules or regulations) controlling tailpipe emissions.

The bulk of Santa Clara's Viazul station, including the entrance and waiting room, is a big Quonset hut, with a more traditional square building attached at the back that contains a cafeteria, baggage area and bathrooms.

Image: Photo of bus station waiting room in Santa Clara.

A number of young men loitered near the entrance. I thought at first they were hucksters, but one made it clear the office we wanted was right inside. And indeed, there was a sign on the closed door that read Viazul. This was the ticket "line", a clump of three or four foreigners, waiting egress. When our turn came, we were ushered into a small office and took our seats on a sofa while an earlier customer was finishing up her business.

Buying a Viazul ticket turned out to be a complicated affair. Though we needed to show our passports, and received a dot-matrix print-out showing our departure time, we did not, in fact, buy our tickets today. We merely reserved our tickets. The woman at the counter told us we would have to buy them tomorrow, Make sure you get here two hours before the departure time.

And that was that. We left the office and went looking for a bathroom and, maybe, something to eat.

We found both. In a manner of speaking.

Except for the fact there were three men working the small counter in a room with about a dozen tables, the cafeteria looked like the sort of small-town gas-station restaurant you might still find somewhere off of Highway 17 in the deepest parts of Northern Ontario.

Raven was hungry enough to risk ordering a filet of fish, but I decided I had sufficient reserves to stick with a bottle of Buccanero. As I expected, Raven reported that lunch was awful, but she was hungry enough to eat it any way.

The bathrooms, on the other hand ...

The bathrooms reek of urine, the stall walls are only shoulder high (and remember: I am not a tall man), the doors don't lock, the toilets (of course!) have no seats and the handles are broken. In the men's room, there was a constant trickle of water from tank to toilet, but Raven reported that, in the women's, the attendant would empty a bucket into the toilet once the user was done. (For documentary purposes, I don't have visual evidence to show you; for aesthetic purposes, I'm glad I don't. You should be, too.)

In short, taking a piss was an exercise in bravery; taking a shit would have been an act of desperate heroism.

Image: Photo of a woman standing near a mural featuring the Cuban flag and the slogan, 'Unidos en la construccion del socialismo

Keep in mind that this station serves tourists.

And meanwhile, the attendant asks for 1 CUC (about $1.40, at the current "exchange" rate) for the privilege of entering the sacred space.

But still, you can't say they don't have a sense of humour. The cartoon below was prominently pinned to a bulletin board near the doors to the bus platforms.

Photo of cartoon posted in Viazul Station, Santa Clara, Cuba. Cartoon shows Doctor asking an obese naked person their sex. The reply, 'I think I am male'.

Forgive me father, for I have laughed at fat-shaming ...

Plaza de la Revolución at last!

Photo of Che monument atop his mausoleum with rainbow, with the author pictured in the foreground.

The Plaza de la Revolución is one of those things you expect to find in a dictatorship: a shrine to a hero, with space enough for tens of thousands to rally. In the west, it would be a place devoted to the worship of brands; in Cuba it is a shrine to a martyr of the Revolution, albeit one who was nearly persona non grata for many years, rehabilitated in the 1980s.

Beneath the heroic statue is a mausoleum containing the bodies of Che and 16 of his revolutionary comrades, who were murdered in Bolivia in 1967. There is a also a small museum dedicated to him, with relics from his childhood through to his death.

Image: Photo of the entrance to the Che Mausoleum, left, and museum, right.

In neither place are cameras permitted, so I must pass over them in relative silence. If you've seen one mausoleum or one museum, you've seen 'em all, I suspect.

But the Plaza deserves more. Like so much else in Santa Clara, the constraints of poverty lie close to the relative glitz. Walking along the road up to the Plaza, one sees horses grazing on the left. And walking to the far end of it, we passed shoeless kids kicking around a worn soccer ball and, in the flats below the square, what look like rural slums.

And of course, the traffic consists of Santa Clara's usual mix: everything from horse-drawn carts, to bicycles, to motorcycles, to buses and to cars of every vintage.

For this, I think a video is in order.

And perhaps, another photo or two.

Photo of road-sign directing visitors to Che monument.

But not everyone stands on ceremony, or pays much heed to the fallen hero of the Revolution.

Photo of grazing horse with erection near Che monument.

After we finished, it began to rain. We shelter beneath the monument for a while, then took our chances when there was a break. But that didn't last long. And so we decided to take a cab back to our casa downtown.

And what better cab for a pair of Canadian tourists, than one used by the locals. We negotiated a reasonable fee (4 or 5 CUCs, I think), then clambered aboard.

Photo of the author on four-wheeled horse-drawn taxi in Santa Clara.

But I think a video or two will give you a better sense of what it was like, than any description I can manage at this late date.

And this one offers a better look at the streets deeper in the centre of the city.

There really isn't much more to tell about the 16th. Or about Santa Clara. Over the course of two full days, we probably walked 25 kilometres through the December heat, we'd been feasted like royalty and had our first encounters with the quiet authoritarianism running the country.

As it had been when I visited San Francisco last year, the dense urban beauty of Santa Clara made me loath to leave it so soon. I could easily enough image settling in for a month or a year to really get to know it. If I could tolerate the air pollution at ground level.

But we are Canadian tourists on a timeline. And so tomorrow we must be off, back to the Viazul and, from there, to to the capital. To Havana!

So I'll leave you with a reminder of just how different life is in Santa Clara compared to what I am used to in Ottawa: Thank you, horse!

Photo of horse in front of taxi-cart we used to return from Che monument.

And adios! Santa Clara!

Image: Photo of a Santa Clara street after the rain.

Next up: Day 4: Havana ho!

Previous: Day 2: The chickens cats streets of Santa Clara

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