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Monday, 19 January 2015

A Cuba Story 1: Palma!

Read the Complete Story @ On The Road in Cuba!

March 1996



My adventures in Cuba continue: There was a long weekend ahead at the Toronto Friendship School. Willy, Ramon and Mati offered to take me on a tour over the mountains to visit the interior of the island. We hired an older gentleman, "Popo" (means papaya...) who owned a beat up old Polski Fiat. There aren't any post 1961 embargo American cars in Cuba. Was an option. Turned into a good adventure. Not your usual tourist tale. Indeed, allow me to share with you my real life Cuba Story

Popo showed up about 6 hours late. No big deal in Cuba, the "land of waiting." A popular joke claims that at first everyone was waiting for the revolution, then for the workers' paradise, now for Castro to leave. Waiting is quintessentially Cuban. Popo had stopped along the way to pick us up at a party. My tour guides were glad for him. Glad he had a good time at the party, even though we'd be left stuck waiting! They thought that was great! Because he stopped at a party? And now we were running late! 

To his credit Popo brought me a bag of fruit from the party. No token gesture in a land where most everyone goes hungry! I'm boiling mad but what do I say? Anything? When in Rome, or in my case Cuba, how does the saying go? Oh well. O.K. Climb aboard! We're off! Up into the foothills of the Sierra Maestra and onwards and upwards into the mountains!

We are soon high up overlooking the 500 year old crumbling city of Santiago de Cuba. The glistening late afternoon Caribbean sea. On the other side of the mountains, we drive down into the valley of "El Cristo", permanently shrouded in cloud. Only moving silhouettes are visible to the eye. Strangely beautiful. Quite unreal! 

We continue puttering along in his car, out onto the plains towards the small old Spanish colonial town of "Palmas".  Tall swaying palms dot banana and sugarcane plantations stretch as far as I can see. We drive past a huge run down sugar mill into the sun bleached ruins of a town where everyone and everything is moving in slow motion, in the sweltering late afternoon heat. I thinking this is all right. Very picturesque. Quite hot, but hey; our trip is indeed looking like an adventure!" 


Sitting in our sweat soaked shirts, dust swirling about, we proceed into the town square .... where the radiator boils over! Psssssssssss! And dies. So much for the Popomobile! The hood's up. A crowd gathers. Everyone peering in as the long late day shadows stretch across the square. What to do? 

Once again we are engaged in the great Cuban past time of waiting! Fortunately, a friendly family invites us to stay overnight in their simple overcrowded quarters. Folks walk through all hours to check the gringo out. Hola! Hello there! It was different. It ended up being quite the party. An End of the World Party! 

The End of the World Party is another great Cuban national past time. What else have they got to do most of the time? We are stuck waiting again too. Well, hooray for the End of the World Party! Tinny salsa music blasts in the back alleys under a Habana moon. Hips sway. Hand rolled cigars are passed out. There's much story swapping and good laughter. Then, an electrical blackout grinds everything to a halt. Damn those Yankees! Ha! We laugh. Call it a night

Next morning Ramon finds another chico with a car! A beat up old baby blue 1956 Chevy with a cracked window shield. A Madonna sticker on the dashboard. The cheap fan barely works. A dumpfy kinda charm! Not unlike Palma. Yes Palma is different than Santiago. Like small town Ontario is different from the big city. Let's drive on further inland to see more of what it's really like.......................


 The early morning heat builds quickly. Sometimes I don't feel alive until it hits 30 degrees Celsius. Even in far less than ideal conditions like these. Am I a stickler for pain? It's a case of quality verses quantity.There's a trade off. In the First World we've got most of the wealth. Yet we often seem to forget how to enjoy the simpler things in life. Not so the Cubans, whatever else they lack. Everyone is out on the street to see us off -the whole community! There's old folks. Young amigos y amigas. Toddlers too! The End of the World Party isn't over. All of them are like family now, so sorry to see us go! 

Fortunately, I suppose, there's no electricity still. So no salsa music. Or they'd all be dancing. Cuba's like that: it doesn't matter where you are or what you're doing. Any time's a good time to dance. I kid you not. We'd have never gotten out of Palmas! So we toss whats left of Popo's bag of fruit in the back seat. Mucho kisses. Warm embraces! With a wave we rumble down the street. Off on day two of our Cuba trip!


From the holy to the profane: The Sierra Maestra mountains recede behind us, along with El Cristo valley. We drive down the streets of Palmas past the towering palms back out onto the plains. The banana and sugarcane groves stretch outward past the horizon. Sitting with the windows rolled down. Drinking it all in. Still quite enchanted. However, soon there are warning signs that's about to change. The once lush vegetation grows increasingly sparse. Half starved cattle, matted hides hanging on boney frames, stand placidly along the roadside, nosing about in the sun dried grass, occasionally swishing away the hordes of flies with their tails. Is that a buzzard circling around and around overhead? We motor across a swaying bridge hanging precariously over a very deep river valley. A great divide of sorts for what lies ahead.

To be continued .......

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