April 30, 2014, Trinidad, Cuba
After our entertaining lunch, we decided to drive the short distance from central Trinidad to the Valle de Los Ingenios, once the largest sugar-producing region. The Valle or Valley of the Sugar Mills was home to Cuba’s sugar cane fields, plantations, and the ruins from more than 70 formerly operational sugar mills. The entire Valle de Los Ingenios is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, preserved so visitors can imagine how this verdant valley once bustled with the hard work of African slaves and later, Cuban workers toiling around the clock to harvest sugar cane.
Walking back to the casa particular to get into my rental car, Wade, Camille, and I passed homes that were crumbling from years of neglect. This being resource-poor Cuba, the construction materials from one disintegrated house was in a heap, waiting to be repurposed.
We paused to watch a Cuban carving a piece of wood in his small workshop, his bare arms well-muscled from using hand tools on native wood. From a discreet distance, we peered inside an elementary school room, its door wide open to allow the class in session a chance at a passing warm breeze.
Wade navigated using the road maps he had downloaded onto his iPhone before arriving in Cuba as I drove the rental car out of Trinidad. As we approached an old sugar plantation, we found ourselves on a dusty, rocky path rather than on a paved road. Trinidad is a colonial town, not urban—yet we quickly found ourselves in empty countryside.
We noticed the absence of services—there were no road signs or government buildings however humble. Glancing at the Cubans plodding on the dirt track beaten down in the tall grasses, we were met only with scowls.
“This doesn’t feel really…friendly, does it?” Camille murmured from the back seat.
Only fifteen minutes by car from Trinidad and we could see the people here were much poorer. Homes were ramshackle, and in many cases, tiny handmade cabins or shacks. The people were more worn than in Trinidad, wearing dirty, ill-fitting clothes and broken-down shoes in decades-old styles.
Not a single person smiled.
We parked under a looming Ceiba tree and made our way to Manaca Iznaga Tower, the tallest lookout tower ever built in the Caribbean sugar growing region. The plantation owner built the tower in 1750 so overseers could watch and control the slaves working in the sugar cane fields. The tower’s bells rang throughout the day to let slaves know when the workday started and ended. At seven stories high, its 136 steps to the top rewarded climbers with a 360-degree view of the entire valley.
The stone walkway leading to the tower was lined on either side with women selling traditional crafts, mostly handwoven textiles. We did not stop to shop, intent on climbing the tower.
The ladies gossiping in the shade of the tower’s base gave us only a cursory glance, despite the lack of tourists.
“How much is it to go up the tower?” I asked in Spanish.
“What you didn’t ask is how much it is to come back down,” the woman who took our money snapped at me as she looked over my hair, my clothes, and my shoes while giving me change. Motioning with her head where to start climbing, she turned her back to us to continue gossiping.
The wooden stairs must be the original ones built in the last century, as I couldn’t help but focus on the many spots where I could see through the supporting wooden slats in many places and spotted wood rot on practically every step. At the top, I forgot our rude welcome and enjoyed the breezes on the hot April day while taking photos.
Our first mistake was stopping to look at the wares the ladies were selling on our way back to the car.
Camille wanted to buy a shirt but lacked enough tourist currency or CUCs to pay for it entirely, and I didn’t have any change. As the only fluent Spanish speaker in our trio, I stepped in to negotiate the sale.
“Does anyone have any change?” the vendor yelled to her fellow sellers. All I saw was a sea of shaking heads in response.
“I really need her to buy this shirt,” she pleaded with me in Spanish. “It will feed my family this week.”
As curious vendors came over, they started to focus their energies on me, since I was the only one who could talk to them.
“Amiga, trade shoes with me!” one woman begged me. In 21st century socialist Cuba, I had been noticing how ‘comrade’ or compañera, in use immediately after the 1959 revolution, had evolved into the seemingly innocuous use of the word ‘friend’ or amiga.
Another woman grabbed my arm roughly as she told me, “No, trade with me, my feet are smaller than yours.”
The shoes the women were fighting over were an old pair of Croc sandals. I had brought nothing new or fashionable with me on my trip to Cuba.
Camille still wanted the shirt, but we were short on cash. Not wishing to bargain the price down, I thought to give the seller one of the gifts I had brought with me.
The women were closing in, busy fighting over my shoes. Keeping my eyes on the growing crowd while searching inside my camera bag for one of the culinary gifts I had packed to give away, my hands found a pair of silicone pot holders. I offered them to the vendor as a way to make up the difference.
The second mistake was tossing chum into the shark-infested waters.
“What else do you have in your bag?” “Do you have any pencils? It’s for my children, they have none for school!” “Candies, do you have any candies?”
“What else do you have you can give us?”
The women were closing in, pawing my camera bag and yelling in my face. Looking over at the vendor, I saw she was surrounded by four or five women as they puzzled over the two silicone hot pads.
No one there had ever seen a pot holder made of this odd material. Turning them over, I heard the vendor tell her friends, “I have no idea what this is, but I’m sure I’ll find a use for whatever it is.”
“It protects your hands from hot pans or handles, and you can put it under your hot pot, so it doesn’t burn your table.” I tried to explain.
“She must think we have fine furniture to even care about a pot burning a table,” one of the sellers snickered, elbowing a friend while pointing her chin at me.
Still yelling, one wizen woman pushed her way back to thrust her open hand at my face, “Candies, give me candies, I know you have some!”
Grabbing Camille by the arm, I abandoned the pretense of ending this social transaction on a pleasant note and walked as fast as we could to get to the car without running. The other female vendors rushed past us to the one seller with the mysterious pair of artificially-made squares no one had ever seen before.
Locking us inside the rental car, I could feel the sweat soaking through the front and back of my shirt. On our return trip to Trinidad, only the air conditioning’s whine filled the silence inside the rental car.
Did you miss my first post in the Cuban travelogue series? You can read it here.
Featured image is of a Cuban man carrying a sack home as he walks on a dirt path in the Valle de Los Ingenios near Trinidad, Cuba. Photo credit: Camille Davis.