We left Matanzas behind on the 20th after several days filled with painting a home for disabled individuals and delivering rice and beans to handicapped and elderly people. Afterward, we headed farther south, down to Cienfuegos. Along the way, we visited the Bay of Pigs and snorkeled in the pristine, blue water while observing Christmas tree worms, tubular coral, and many other underwater wonders. The Bay of Pigs marks the spot where the U.S. attempted to invade Cuba on April 19,1961. The force was made up largely of Cubans who had emigrated to the States so that the invasion was from ‘within.’ The operation failed due to the decision of the current President at the time, JFK, to not send in full air support to avoid evidence of U.S. influence. While in the museum, we saw the Cuban perspective on the “mercanarios” that came and viewed photos of the invasion including a final message one solider wrote simply stating Fidel along with weapons used and pictures of the Cuban military who perished.
After this dramatic insight into foreign policy and its affects, we headed to Cienfuegos. The next day we hopped on bicitaxis to view the city. A fascinating example of Microfinance, these bicycle taxis with a driver’s seat up front and 2 seats in the back are purchased through small loans ranging from 400-600 USD. Although this does not seem like much, at an average monthly governmental wage of 25 USD, this loan is a very large amount for Cubans. Over the course of the year, the bicitaxi drivers repay this loan which is then used again to help another Cuban. I asked one of the drivers how much he makes and he said that in a good month he makes 100 USD working 5 days a week for 10 hour days. On our bike tour we pass several elaborate houses (some owned formerly by the Castros) and many old restored buildings in the beautiful center square. We also pass several hotels that our driver tells us cost 250 CUC(Cuban convertible peso) per night and are owned by the government. We see a house that is in prime real estate and worth well over 2 million dollars yet the owners refuse to sell it.
We finish our bicitaxi tour and meet our guide, Jose’s, parents. They are both doctors in Cuba. We got permission to see a clinic (a rarity for visitors, let alone Americans). Cuba has 3 levels of health care. The first is clinics such as this with preventative care such as Dentistry or Maternity checkups and some X Rays. These facilities are run in a two part system. There are the home visit doctors who check up on around 120 (this is Cuba’s stated goal but is likely more) families and report back to the clinic. The doctors at the clinic see 20-30 patients per day. The next level is hospitals if something is immediately wrong. The last is institutions for major surgeries and specialties. Jose’s parents praise the quality of doctors and education and the human capital as a whole but distress poor physical infrastructure. While in the clinic we see dentist chairs that are turning from white to yellow with age and many charts instead of technology on the walls. They also explain that doctors make only 60 CUC (closely equivilant to 60 usd) per month and explain that they do the job “because of their love for the people not the money.” There is a growing amount of international clinics catering to foreigners for plastic surgery and other operations such as liposuction. These clinics are often open 24/7 and have many more medicines and tools not found in public clinics. It is very difficult to find medicine and in stark contrast to Chile where we saw a pharmacy on every street corner. Che Guevara (the revolutionary right hand man to Fidel Castro and mastermind of Cuba’s healthcare system) once distressed Chile’s poorly lit hospitals and bad healthcare. Jose’s parents conclude with lauding the effectiveness of preventative care as contributing to the reason Cuba has one of the highest life expectancies in all of Latin America. After this enlightening discussion we head to the beach for some sunbathing and swimming.
The next day is Sunday and 6 group members head to church. The others will head to the square to check up on news using wifi cards. We expect to head to the large church in the square but instead head for a small church in the house of one of Jose’s friends. We are welcomed in and sit down on plastic chairs at the front merely 5 feet from the pastor. The service alternates between singing and dancing lively and listening to the female pastor and attempting to read along in Spanish. We notice there are few men in church and learn afterwards that the men are building a second story to the church. After a traditional Cuban meal at a restaurant consisting of creole fried chicken, ropa vieja, and beans we embark on our way to Trinidad.
We arrive in Trinidad and drive through the commercialized new town and drive on rough hewn cobble stone streets through the historical old Trinidad. We arrive at our casa particulares (privately owned houses that rent out rooms and function as hostels) and are greeted by mango and tamarind juice. We explore the immeasurable shops and street vendors, have dinner and trivia led by our Profe of the week, Johnny, and head to bed using Soviet air conditioners to stay cool. The next day is the 23rd. It is Carlos’ Birthday and he fortuitously is in the hometown of his grandmother. We have a special day planned ahead. First up Carlos is off to get a massage. After a cake filled lunch (our host’s daughter was turning 9 as well) and more wandering the streets we enjoy a meal together of ropas viejas and even more cake that tastes like Lucky Charms marshmallows.We rest after being well fed but not for long. We head out to the salsa club set into a hillside and watch dancers wearing traditional robes and dress perform a variety of African and Spain inspired dances in a traditional Cuban mix of cultures. We leave the salsa amphitheater and wander up moonlit streets watching each footfall on the uneven cobbles until we reach the cave. We pay the 5 CUC entrance fee and descend down the stairs into a massive cavern. We spend the night dancing, laughing and taking shots of Red Bull. Eventually exhausted we wander the quieted but interestingly not quite still streets. Many of the tourism shops are still open at 1 am. We say goodnight and crash in our beds.
The next morning we wake up well refreshed. We will be going on a excursion on horse and buggy to a sugar cane plantation and up to a waterfall. We embark on the horses and Buggies (a mode of transport we have grown used to in Cuba) and make our way through the countryside. On our way we see the old slave barracks Phil informs me that he learned from one of his podcasts that Cuba used to have large plantations of African slaves. Cuba was and still is a producer of tobacco and sugarcane. Hershey’s company used to own a sugar mill and railway line in Cuba until the trade embargo. We stop at a restaurant and they demonstrate making sugar cane juice by threading the stalk through a large metal gear like press. They repeat this process until there is enough sugar cane nectar. We enjoy the refreshing drink and gnaw on raw sugar cane stalks while listening to a lively older gentleman sing tunes before we get back in the buggies and head to the waterfall. There must have been 100 horses at the base of the waterfall. We walk to the waterfall passing a man offering a cubita (a Cuban version of an espresso shot) and a cigar for 3 CUC. We reach the waterfall and take turns jumping off a small rock into the pool below and watching locals climb and jump from higher up on the cliffs. Refreshed we head back as the rain starts to drizzle breaking the heat of the day for a moment. We enjoy a meal and company of a parrot before heading back to Trinidad. We enjoy our dinner and play trivia created by yours truly. The next morning we will get up and leave the lively town of Trinidad behind as we head back to Matanzas to continue volunteering and experiencing Cuba!