An image of a Cuban carryinga sack home on a dirt path in the Valle de los Ingenios just outside Trinidad, Cuba.

The Valley of the Sugar Mills: The Tower and the Madding Crowd

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.

An image of a The pile of rubble is from a collapsed house, all too common in Cuba where homes suffer decades of neglect.

The pile of rubble is from a collapsed house, all too common in Cuba where homes suffer decades of neglect. Photo credit: Iris Gonzalez.

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.

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A guajiro, or rural man drives a horse drawn carriage past the Plaza Mayor in Trinidad, Cuba.

Breakfast, Bathrooms, and a Tower Climb in Trinidad

April 30, 2014, Trinidad, Cuba

Waking up early, I listened carefully from my guest room which faced the street to the sounds of Trinidad waking up. I heard no traffic, only the slow clop-clopping of the horse’s hooves on the cobblestones. Farmers called out what they carried in their carts.

Plantanos, plantanos,” one old man yelled, his voice trailing off as he headed to the edge of town. He had no takers for his bunches of plantains.

In Trinidad, early morning vendors call out what produce they have to sell.

In Trinidad, early morning vendors call out what produce they have to sell.

Magaly prepared a lovely breakfast for my first full day in Trinidad. The variety of ripe papayas, watermelon, guavas, even pineapple made for a luxurious breakfast.

“We are lucky to have mangoes, papayas, and bananas grow so well here,” Magaly said. “They travel only a few kilometers to our doorstep.”

A breakfast at Trinidad's Casa Magaly reveals the local bounty of tropical fruit available.

A breakfast at Trinidad’s Casa Magaly reveals the local bounty of tropical fruit.

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The waterfalls at El Nicho in Topes de Collante, near Trinidad, Cuba. Source: Wikitravel page for Topes de Collante.

Trinidad: Sugar Town, Rebel Base, World Heritage Site

April 30, 2014, Trinidad, Cuba

The casa particular where I stayed in Trinidad had a typically Cuban address: Calle Frank Pais #453 e/ Simon Bolivar y Fidel Claro.

Translated, it means house No. 453 on Frank Pais street or calle, entre or in between two other streets, Simon Bolivar and (y) Fidel Claro.

The names—Frank Pais, Simon Bolivar, Fidel Claro—are of revolutionary figures from Cuba’s history. What I discovered navigating around Trinidad is that most streets have two names.

The street signs only display one name and in Trinidad, it was the older, pre-revolutionary name that was on the street sign, not on modern maps. Sometimes for popular city streets, the old name is still used, so asking for directions can be confusing despite asking in fluent Spanish.

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The entrance to Trinidad, Cuba, courtesy of Casa La Milagrosa in Trinidad.

Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect $200*

April 29, 2014  Havana to Trinidad, Cuba

Driving on the country road, I traced my way from the Autopista Nacional westward toward Trinidad on my Cuba map. I was heading southwest toward Cienfuegos, a small city of about 150,000 on the southern coast of Cuba about 160 miles from Havana. If I didn’t have to worry about reaching Trinidad before dark I’d detour at the southern coast and turn eastward to see Playa Giron, or the Bay of Pigs, but decided against it.

Instead I focused on the status of two tanks—filling the rental car’s gas tank and emptying my full bladder.

Surprisingly, gas stations in Cuba are seemingly plentiful. Bathrooms, on the other hand, not so much.

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A vintage Cuban postcard shows a typical bohio dwelling in the countryside.

‘Turn Right at Fidel to Head to Trinidad’

April 29, 2014  Havana to Trinidad, Cuba

I resisted the temptation to wave to the Cuban security watchers at the school when I exited the gated enclosure of Ed’s house. Turning right I paid attention to landmarks so I would be able to retrace my steps in several days.

Making a right at the ruined roofless yellow church at the corner, I found myself driving carefully along Quinta Avenida. Before long I was looking at the ocean and the famed Malecon on my left, but I knew not to lose focus. Now, I had to rely on memory and look for the turn-off to the harbor tunnel.

Aha! I saw the one lone small sign and quickly made the sharp right turn into the tunnel. My shoulders relaxed a bit and I took a deep breath.

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Google Maps shows the route from Havana to Trinidad in Cuba.

The Road to Trinidad is Paved with Good Intentions

April 29, 2014  Havana to Trinidad, Cuba

After a Cuban coffee-fueled breakfast, it was finally time to take out the large detailed map of Cuba I brought with me to guide my driving in Cuba.

Without a cellphone (deemed too risky, I left mine home lest Cuban security spooks riddle it remotely with spyware) or GPS (no Wi-Fi outside of the limited tourist areas in Old Havana), I would have to use a map for driving across half of Cuba.

If you have a navigator or co-pilot along for the drive, then folding and unfolding a huge map and reading the small print is doable, of course. But I would be driving alone.

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Empty grocery shelves in a grocery store in Havana, Cuba.

Food is Optional: Grocery Shopping in Cuba

April 28, 2014  Havana, Cuba

After a disappointing lunch in another Cuban state-run restaurant—mystery pork meat that reflected the sad life the pig must have lived before reaching my plate—David and I return to Ed’s house.

It was time for David to go shopping for the household and Maria insisted that I, Ms. Americana, come along for the excursion to Supermercado 70, located near the Russian Embassy. This is the only full-fledged grocery store I will see in my entire trip across Cuba. Havana only has a handful of large grocery stores and I discover their selection is rather anemic on any given day.

A former diplomat-only store, the Supermercado 70 has security guards in the crowded parking lot and at the entrance to the busy store.

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Cubans relax on the famed Malecon or seawall at dusk.

Everything in the Toliet

April 28, 2014  Havana, Cuba

After a fitful night of sleeping and waking intermittently to listen for Cuba security skulking outside the house, I wake up before the maid and driver arrive at Ed’s house.

The gated fence to enter the compound of Ed's house and school across the street where Cuban "spooks" watch the house and all who enter.

The gated fence to enter the compound of Ed’s house and school across the street where Cuban “spooks” watch.

Walking through the empty house I look in the kitchen for a glass to drink some water. Sure enough, near the cabinets where the glasses are kept is the bulky water treatment tank where the potable water for the household is purified. Ed had already warned me not to drink untreated water anywhere in Cuba, so I carefully pour myself a glass of water from their large purified water dispenser.

In the 1950s, the Cuban middle class enjoyed all the civilized comforts of modern conveniences, including a then-modern plumbing system.

Havana was also a popular travel destination. My mother had told me stories how she and my dad had honeymooned by taking the ferry from Key West to Havana to visit Cuba in the very early days of the revolution. You can watch a short clip of the ferry docking in Havana here – the dresses and purses the women wear in the video brought back memories of my mother’s closet.

After 50-plus years of infrastructure neglect, Cuba’s plumbing and sewer systems are as cracked as the lines on the sun scarred face of a campesino farmer toiling on a Viñales tobacco farm. With every flush of a toilet, wastewater leaks and contaminates the country’s supply of drinking water.

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Two Cuban boys call out to a friend in Callejon Hammel.

Black Beans and Being Watched

April 27, 2014 La Habana, Cuba

Although my plane took off at 2 p.m. from Tampa, I feel like I’ve traveled a million miles and almost 60 years and it’s not even dark yet in the Miramar neighborhood west of Old Havana.

My luggage sits inside the official residence of the U.S. Coast Guard liaison, my friend Ed Porner. The house sits directly across from an elementary school on a corner verdant lot, the one story home nestled under coconut palms that shelter the gated property in this upscale Cuban residential neighborhood.

I am hungry and alone in the house. Well, not exactly alone.

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Street view of Old Havana from Ed's Prius

Driving Ms. Americana

April 27, 2014  Havana, Cuba

After filling out an arrival card and getting my passport stamped by a grim young female customs official, I left the small sunlit arrivals room with its huge tarmac-facing windows and entered the gloom of the dimly lit baggage claim area.

The gray light cast by the single light fixture in the baggage claim only made the walls, the fading posters, and the cracked tiles in the floor all look like a hospital in some forgotten tropical country. We waited by the one working baggage claim carousel as it creaked round and round.

Capitalism is highly illuminated—it takes money to be brightly lit.

Emerging into the bright daylight and crush of eager families shouting for their loved ones, I blinked, then scanned for my driver, David.

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