Feliz in Cuba

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Mar 01, 2007

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Flag of Cuba  ,
Saturday, January 27, 2007

Julie and I both celebrate birthdays while in Cuba. Mine is today, but "celebrate" is too strong a phrase for what I anticipate. Our three days so far in Trinidad have been pleasantly relaxed, with nothing more exciting on the schedule than occasional trips for ice cream or to a local sight. This will suffice for today as well, though I did mention the idea of me getting out tonight to hear some of the music that floats into our room at night and lasts until at least 2 a.m.

We have a new neighbour as of yesterday, Susanne from Denmark, and she´s happy to go on the town with me. This solves Julie's main concern: me being mugged on my own. Trinidad is a quiet, safe town, but there are 50,000 people here, with reports of robberies late at night -- especially from ravers stumbling home from a party in a cave up in the mountains, which isn´t my ambition anyway.

We had our first real taste of Cuban nationalism Friday morning, attending a celebration for the birthday of Jose Marti. Instead of school, all the kids in town don costumes -- elaborate South American dresses, military greens (complete with drawn on moustaches) -- and march through the streets to Parque Cespedes for chanting, speeches and games.

I knew nothing about Marti before this event, but his life is fascinating: a Cuban nationalist exiled for most of his life, a writer of kids books and political theory, a critic of both Spanish rule and threatening American colonialism. He died more than 100 years ago at the start of the War of Independence. Judging by remarks from both Castro and ex-pats in Miami, he´s one of the few things or people all Cubans agree on.
Trinidad has two focal points. One is the tourist plagued Plaza Mayor, which despite its constant barrage of daytrippers retains a calm ambience, nestled amongst churches and museums in this historic area. Further down the hill, Parque Cespedes (the site of today´s Marti celebrations) has its own slower, more typically Cuban pace. Even with the newly renovated Iberostar Grand Hotel along its north side, the place is nicely lacking in tourists like me.

Several times over the week, I´ve come out of the modern, air-conned Etecsa Internet office and experienced a sudden jolt of displacement, stepping into a quietly bustling street of horsedrawn buggies and vendors, all kissed by the glow of a warm tropical evening.
Saturday afternoon we locate an old tobacco roller and thread through an ancient housing complex to his room for a demonstration of cigar making. His hands are as wrinkled and rolled as the leaf he works with. We take along the end product and I light up back at the casa to celebrate my 43rd year with a classic vice. The aroma transports me to my grandparents' living room, my grandfather settling into his favourite chair and tamping down on his pipe.

Susanne is a smoker, so we merrily puff away -- I make hardly a dint in my 7-inch cigar -- then we all sit down to a typically wonderful dinner. Near the end, the whole family appears and sings the Spanish equivalent to Happy Birthday, bearing me a cake. The social barriers, which have been breaking down as Lucy has followed Sandro (7) around, vanish for a magical night. Sandro and his brother Sergio (11) sing Jonathan songs, play games with Lucy, and we all take turns singing. It's a lovely way to spend my birthday.

Once the kids have settled for the night, I set out with Susanne for some music. This provides no end of amusement to Jorge (the father of Odalis, our hostess) who says some jibes I can't translate but I'm pretty sure I get the gist of.

Trinidad has a reputation for good, accessible music, so we have lots of choices. At Jorge's recommendation, we head up the to the Casa de la Musica off Plaza Mayor. Or is it the Pelenque de los Congos Reales? Either way, we join the seated crowd on the stone steps and sip mojitos.

The music migrates from salsa to son to Afro-Cuban bongo jitterism, with some eye-popping dance demos thrown in. Imagine hula dancers on amphetamines. We chat about travel, the post 911 world and possible futures for this non sequitur of a country. The stars above, the warm night, my wife contentedly reading on my return at midnight before I turn into a pumpkin. A perfect end to a memorable day.
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