Day 2: Santa Clara

Cuba: Notes from behind the Coffee Curtain

Day 2: The chickens cats streets of Santa Clara

Image: Photo of traffic in Santa Clara, possibly on Colombe

December 15, 2015, SANTA CLARA, Cuba — The air in Santa Clara stinks; only 24 hours since we landed and my throat feels like it did back when I was a pack-and-a-half-a-day smoker. If the official women's fashions reek of 1960s Hollywood, Santa Clara's air reeks of 1960s-era hydrocarbons.

The fumes belch unfiltered from the exhausts not just of Cuba's famous Detroit chrome, but from an armada of rusting Ladas, motorcycles and tuk-tuks and scooters, to buses and lorries belching black diesel.

But all that said, there's an awful lot to like about this crumbling old city.

Image: Photo of traffic near the Che Guevera armoured training monument.
A photo of traffic taken across the street from the Che Guevara Monument, while Raven waited for me.

The first thing one notices about the city itself is that it is old. The streets were laid a couple of hundred years before automobiles dictated urban geography. The streets are barely wide enough for two compact cars to pass one another safely, and the sidewalks are just barely comfortable for one person; two can, most of the time, walk side-by-side, but they'd better be pretty close friends.

When another person or couple comes in the opposite direction, it's time for a complicated dance, while always being sure not to descend into the street itself without checking the traffic. Cars are not quite undisputed kings of the roads in Santa Clara, but they are certainly its elite; in fact, anything on wheels should be considered a threat by the two-legged.

Vehicles seldom slow when they swerve to pass a slower-moving bicycle, or trike, or tuk-tuk loaded with 8 passengers as an aging motorcycle engine labours to pull them all behind it. A quick toot of a horn just prior to a possible collision are about all the warning one is going to get.

And speaking of slow-moving vehicles, there are a lot of horse-drawn carts around. Some pulling the remnants of former trucks, the rear end of a pick-up or jeep transformed into a cart, but most are just basic wagons, some hauling freight, but many other, passengers. Unlike the carriages in Old Montreal or (so I understand) Central Park in New York City, my impression was that many, and probably most, of the passengers of these carts are locals.

Image: Photo of traffic on a Santa Clara street.
Another Santa Clara street scene. No horse-drawn carts, but just about everything else is in view.

And yet, somehow, it all seems to work. Despite having seen only a single intersection equipped with a stop light, the piece-meal, patched-together and crowded nature of the urban transportation "system" in Santa Clara does seem to function, getting people and things from point A to point B without anyone getting crushed in the process.

It seems to me a portrait in miniature, or analog, of Santa Clara itself. And maybe, of Cuba as a whole.

Like the vehicles, the buildings have almost all seen better days. Facades crumble like rusting cars; toilets run without ceasing while taps turn, but issue no water. And yet, on the roads there is a tithe of newer and, sometimes, of new vehicles sharing the streets with the old, and a building here and there sports a new coat of paint, while another is having its roof repaired.

And everywhere you go, there are people. The streets are not just crowded with cars, they are jammed with pedestrians. People ambling, people striding; people hanging out. (People luring the unsuspecting into a really bad restaurant. No, not all is good on the culinary front in Santa Clara; there is a restaurant on the pedestrian-only Boulevard Independecia that served me a plate of espaguetis that make Chef Boyardee seem the epitome of Italian cuisine. But I digress.)

Image: Photo of the Worst Spaghetti (or espaguetis) ever.
I thought the red stuff was tomato paste out of a can; Raven guessed ketchup out of a bottle.

In short, there is energy on the crowded streets of Santa Clara that defied my media-driven expectations of (a) a hot, poor country and (b) an ostensibly Communist country.

Nowhere, is there any obvious sign of the oppression western reports so often paint of modern Cuba. As foreigners we have met no restrictions whatsoever on where we walk or whom we approach. Indeed, there isn't much of a visible police presence at all.

Image: Photo of a police car taken from the Parque Leoncita Vidal in central Santa Clara.
Policía Nacional Revolucionaria, car #266, on the 15th of December near the Plaza de Artesania in Santa Clara.

My first glimpse of a PRN (Policía Nacional Revolucionaria) car came as Raven and I approached the Plaza de Artesania, north of the Parque Leoncio Vidal, downtown Santa Clara's central square. At the curb of Independencia was an old Lada with a blue light strapped to the roof and PNR stencilled on the front door. One officer sat at the wheel while the second chatted with a young woman outside. Nothing in anyone's body language suggested anything but chatting, unless there was also some subtle flirting going on. Every cop I saw not in a moving vehicle this afternoon was engaged in conversation with one or more members of the general citizenry.

And again, as best I could tell, this didn't look like some form of carding. Neither cops nor civilians looked tense. It looked instead that the members of the constabulary here are mostly seen as members of the community, not policers of it. (No, that doesn't mean there isn't a secret police of which people are frightened, but I saw no indication that the local gendarmes are seen as the enemy by the average man or woman on the street.

Image: Photo of the Parque Leoncita Vidal in central Santa Clara, taken from north of the square.
View of Parque Leoncio Vidal photographed from the south on the 15th of December. For a so-called police state, Cuban cops are treated more like casual acquaintances than prison guards.


A cat, a train, a bulldozer ... and moi

Image: Photo of cat guarding the Batista's armoured train.
Che's cat. No more need be said of this gratuitous shot.

Wandering, we managed to find our way to at least one touristy landmark, the Monumento al Che, a small park which commemorates the battle of Santa Clara, one of the final battles of the Revolution, in which Che and his guerrillas ambushed a Cuban armoured train and captured a horde of arms and ammunition along with no small number of government soldiers.

The monumento, incidentally, is guarded by several old women, who demand payment for entrance into the railway cars on site. And also by a rather striking cat.

After the abstract monument itself, the main attraction is a bright yellow bulldozer, said to be the very machine the rebels used to tear up the tracks on which the train travelled. There were also four cars from that train, now converted to four small museum rooms.

Image: Photo of bright yellow bulldozer used during Battle of Santa Clara to capture an armoured train.
Che's bulldozer.

I paid a CUC for the right to enter, and didn't feel like I'd been ripped off, but in truth, this "museum" isn't going to compete with the Louvre (or even the ROM) any time soon.

Image: Photo of monument and two of the cars of the captured armoured train.
Che's armoured train.

That was about four hours into a walk that had seen us break only for the aforementioned terrible meal at a restaurant whose name I can't recall, though I suppose I ought to try to relocate it, as a service to others who might venture in. (In fairness, though my espaguetis seemed to consist only of over-cooked noodles, a scattering of lumps of Havarti cheese on one side, and a similar scattering of canned "meat" (labelled spicy sausage on the menu), Raven's fried rice was better than adequate. But the Cafe Americana came in a cheap plastic goblet, and they over-charged us by about about 20% when the bill came. (Raven checked and the waitress quickly brought us another, with another calculation.) Also, the lone bathroom had a leaky sink and no toilet paper for its filthy toilet, almost as if the restaurant was meant to confirm a westerner's expectations of a Communist country's hospitality industry.

But I digress. Again.

Image: Photo of jungle-gym in the shape of a carnivorous dinosaur.
Who says Communists don't have a sense of humour? A set of dinobars across a creek from the monument to Che's victory.

Right across a creek from Che's Monumento is a small park, on which are built a plethora of slides and swings and even a tyrannosaur set of monkey-bars. The park was busy with small children and parents when we first passed it; when we returned (by way of a farmer's market that is clearly meant for locals and not tourists) as the sun was lowering and the shadows growing long, the little kids had mostly given way to older ones, young lovers snuggling on the double-seated swings, a group of boys hanging out on another.

But there was more life in that park than the merely human. Across a faulty fence lay a row of casas, and their yards. In which lived a lot of poultry! In Santa Clara, free-range chicken seems to be the norm, not the exception. The fowl ambled two and from from the residential area to the park, pecking away at the grass, leading chicks and (yes) cock-a-doodle-dooing.

Image: Photo of chickens in a children's park.
These cute chickens in fact represent a very near thing. After the fall of the Soviet Union, and the end of that country's shipments of cheap oil and oil-based fertilizer, Cuba came extremely close to mass famine. Urban farming was part of the solution that saved them.

Which reminds me. Blocks from any visible sign of a park, when I woke in our casa particular this morning, it was to the sound of a cock crowing.

This urban farming developed during the hungry years Cuba experienced after the fall of the Soviet Union, when shipments of cheap Soviet oil stopped coming, as did the inorganic fertilizer on which Cuba's "modern" farming system depended. ( has a good introductory overview on the period and its results.) The country came very near to mass starvation as it retooled its farms to grow food largely without artificial fertilizers and pesticides. According to a (pay-walled) article in Harper's Magazine Cubans collectively lost a lot of weight but didn't starve and, through hard work and ingenuity, they rebuilt their farms on a mostly organic basis, replacing the ostensible efficiencies of the petro-chemical industrial complex with human labour and more sustainable methods.

Judging by the girth of our host, and of the people we've seen on the streets, nobody is starving in Cuba today.

In a nutshell, Santa Clara is a busy, safe and bustling little city. Its people are poor, but they are not destitute. If the shops and restaurants have little on their shelves, and if the masonry is crumbling, we saw almost no sign of beggars or homeless people, and even the artisans at the Plaza de artizania were very quick to take "No" for an answer.

The city stinks, but after a day walking around in it, the air is my only real complaint.

Image: Photo of the author standing in a Santa Clara street, with an old auto in the background and a mural on his right.

P.S. Supper was back "home" at Hostal Oasis, where Damari's cooking was every bit as delicious as yesterday's meal had been. Our hosts also spent a lot of time trying to help us contact the airport about our missing suitcase; the number of phone calls needed to discover the phone number that should have been on our lost luggage claim sheet would have made Franz Kafka weep. Or maybe laugh. Either way, the bag is still MIA.

Tomorrow: More streets, more toilets, and some insight into life where you need to show a passport to access the internet.

Next up: Day 3 – Che sera, sera

Previous: Day 1 – A jet plane, a Lada and food! Glorious food!

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