We tell our host we want to go to the beach and he organises a car and driver for us. His name sounds like ‘Biento’. “It’s a Jeep”, he says. Now I don’t know why, but I was thinking of a Jeep Cherokee. He leads us around the corner and there is a little rusted out Jeep that you might take out on the beach. Ok! we laugh and Gilbert gets in front while Ren and I jump on back. Gilbert tells us later it’s at least sixty years old and an old war one. The steering is so shot he has quite swinging motions and does well to keep it on the road. So…. I said it was stinking hot and the streets are rough. You can now just imagine us careering along, with the wind in our hair for 15 or so kms and he’s going to take us to some sights before the beach. I wrap my sarong around my arms as we go, thinking I better be a bit careful of the sun.
First stop is where we were yesterday on the train and this is hilarious as he takes us right to the guy selling coconuts who wanted to come home with Ren yesterday. We buy coconuts again and jump back on, Ren offering the extra one we have bought for him to our driver who declines. He doesn’t much like coconut. Non gusto. I’m so thirsty I drink a whole coconut and this ones maybe half a litre. Gilbert takes a sip and screws up his nose but they are really refreshing and good for you. Next couple of stops are more scenic and then one to an old sugarcane plantation. The guide there explains they are restoring the old home of the rich landowner as a museum.
The tower is so they can keep an eye on the workers.
The workers live in 3×5 brick rooms but we have just the footprint outline to show us a whole series of these huts, all adjoined so no windows for airflow. 1500 workers for a 200 hectare plantation. The sugarcane is grown so easy here and it is harvested and boiled down into molasses and then made into rum as well as perfecting the next stage of sugar cones that the world is crazy about, but it’s not until Columbus finds this place in 1492 that the world knows. Columbus writes back that ‘this is the most beautiful place anyone has ever laid eyes on’, but isn’t so in love once he realises there is little gold and silver. It soon becomes a trading route and the Spanish set up the plantations, buying slaves, selling sugar, which is like gold on the trading route. The slave trading runs for around 350 years until finally abolished in 1886 but they get round it in other ways.
The sugarcane is processed into each stage by boiling down. Imagine how hot it is to work these pits.
The slaves come from Africa and for a start, a slave purchased from Africa may have once been a free man and he doesn’t accept being ‘owned’ easily. He also hasn’t grown up here and can’t speak Spanish. They realise very quickly they are better to breed them by encouraging them to have families. They can then have them working from around six years old. They speak Spanish and they know nothing else. There are ways around ‘keeping’ slaves also as they say they are teaching them reading, writing and Christianity, in exchange for labour. Looking around the site it feels eerily quiet with just the trees rustling in the breeze and the loud chatter of what looks to be a Raven. Perhaps he is telling us something? We leave this rather sombre scene for the beach. Just before we arrive at the beach, Biento stops at a roadside stall where a guy has about ten mangoes for sale. Biento buys five. He hands us one each and keeps two for himself. Next stop we are at the beach. Biento asks us what time we want to leave. We signal 4 pm and he seems happy as we dash off to find shade. The sand is burning hot and the water is warm. We have been spoiled by Varadero where the water is crystal clear. This is still lovely but slightly murky and there’s something hairy below when I put my foot down. Probably seaweed but I’m outta there like a cat on hot coals. The other two fall asleep so I decide to go dip again and will keep my feet off the ground and am happily relaxing there doing my ‘fat burning’ exercises in the water when a man with a shirt and hat on appears to be swimming towards me. I look around but there’s no one round and he’s looking right at me so I’m not really sure what the hell he wants. He stops immediately in front of me and brings his hands up in front of him and looks down motioning me to look at what he has. I’m a bit nervous but look down. Be hard not to let’s face it, but I’m ready to run or at least dog paddle. In the water you understand. He has shells. Big beautifully coloured polished curly shells. $5cuc for the big one and $3 each or two for five for the small ones. No, I shake my head. He persists and I answer no again. Still he persists so I turn my back on him. When I look behind me he has gone. I noticed he kept them almost under water like he’s not supposed to sell them. Ren had told me about not being able to sell a particular tortoise shell and stopped me buying earrings that were gorgeous. Maybe this is similar I wonder.
Who knew Cuba had beautiful beaches like this?
I resume my exercises when I notice a little commotion on the beach. The lady who ran over to a child with what Ren though was antiseptic earlier, is now with another group with her bottle. I had assumed the boy had cut himself on a shell but she had pulled the girls bikini bottoms down a bit and was rubbing on the girls buttock. Turned out people were getting stung by jellyfish. I tell you I was dog paddling like I was in the olympics and as soon as my feet hit the ground, seaweed or no seaweed, I was out’ve there. I lay back puffing when I was approached by more people selling shells. No thank you. Couldn’t get them into NZ without a fuss in any case and I don’t need fuss!
The ride home was hot and I felt and looked like I had been in an oven on fan bake, and my hair looked like it was about to dread. All good I thought, I’ll wash my hair first thing in the morning and be ready for Havana. I wish I had got a photo of Biento as he was lovely. We tipped him well and he smiled from ear to ear. He deserved it Gilbert said. Not like the bastards who go to a counter to get us a drink which is their job! Tipping is a constant discussion about what to do at every turn.
Dinner is delicious, again in someone’s front lounge. I’m not kidding. Many people open up their front lounge. Family photos on the wall above the china cabinet. In 2011 there were just three government owned restaurants here and now there are around ninety private ones like this one, or even just one table in someone’s lounge. We sit while the family serves us. It’s very cool. Dinner is followed by flan for me, ice cream for Gilbert, and flan with ice cream for Ren. We finish a bottle of red and decide to wander up to the square where we hear there is dancing but while there are hundreds of people and loud music blaring out the crowd is just milling. We enjoy people watching for an hour when Ren says “Well, I’m pretty sure nothing’s going to happen here tonight. May as well head home.” “I feel like they just need someone to start the ball rolling Ren. How about you and me get up?” “No way!” she says as if I had asked her to ‘pole dance’ in a night club. “My you are getting old”, I say to Ren as we start to walk back. “I feel like you guys have aged me about fifty ” Ren laughs as we head home.