Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Road to Villa Covarrubias

Shortly after arriving home from Cuba, I got a "welcome home" email from my friend Sherwood. In replying to him, I said, "I haven't blogged anything about it yet because I am still trying to figure out how to put my thoughts and impressions into some kind of coherent order."

Having relatively recently come home from his own month-long trip to Ireland, he wisely replied, "If my experience with that other island can be any constructive guide, just ditch the 'coherent order' business and get on with the pieces as they come to you. There's just too much to try to distill into a junior-year term paper!"

He's right. You can't write an essay about Cuba, you can only tell stories, describe vignettes. Not only the vastness of the gulf between my daily existence in Canada and daily life in Cuba forbids any kind of comprehensive description of a trip there, the very nature of the culture there - the informality, the overwhelming sense of "expect the unexpected" defies order and structure.

The traffic alone gives an impressive snapshot of the casual chaos of Cuban life. Everyone in the country, apparently without exception, drives like a mad bastard, and the cabbie who drove us the hour-and-a-half from Holguin to Puerto Padre and then our resort was the King of the Mad Bastards. We got in the cab and pulled seatbelts across our chests only to find there were no anchor buckles. The cabbie waved his hand airily. "Is not necessary," he said. (What he meant was, "Is not possible.") Then we were off at 80 km/hour through some of the twistiest, turniest, bumpiest road I have ever seen in my life, weaving through the unbelievable diversity of vehicles and people that populate the city streets of Holguin, through the countryside, into the heart of the town of Puerto Padre, through a large agricultural district (its unfortunately scrawny livestock collateral victims of the chronic shortages, no doubt), past a military installation and then to Villa Covarrubias.

Our determined driver passed everything he encountered at breakneck speed, demanding everyone and everything in his path give way with an impatient "beep beep!" of the 4-wheel-drive cab's horn. Some of it was not-kidding white-knuckle scary time. But as I whispered to Husband, "If I gotta check out, I'd just as soon it be this way - on an adventure in a foreign country - as any other!"

If someone asked me what side of the road they drive on in Cuba, my response would be "All of them." Hundreds of 1940s and 50s-era "Yanq tanks", most dented, painted, and patched almost beyond recognition (although a few we saw were in stunningly well-preserved condition) jostled for road space alongside Soviet-Union-era cars (notably Ladas) and large Soviet-made trucks and vans, newer and older European vehicles (Volkswagons, BMWs, Mercedes), tractors and farm machinery, many horse-drawn wooden carts, motorcycles and scooters of every description (many customized or modified with jerry-rigged sidecars or extra seats), the occasional brand-new European car (rentals, for tourists - which was a bit like seeing a laptop in the middle of the Sahara), and vehicles which seemed to be entirely unique creations made up of bits and pieces of other vehicles; and bicyclists and pedestrians weaving in and out of all the above.

And when I say "pedestrians weaving in and out of all of the above" I'm being literal. Cadging rides to and from work, school and errands seems to be every Cuban's second vocation. Large clusters of people gather in the shade of trees at crossroads, hitchhiking or negotiating rides with those in vehicles. Hopeful would-be passengers dash into traffic to shout out destinations, and if a driver is going in that direction and feeling charitable, he'll offer a ride. The entire country seems to get around on this system as much as on the bus system. Our cabbie, to our initial alarm, stopped to pick up a young woman at the side of the road and drop her off a few kilometres later. "She is student," he explained, shrugging.

How we made the trip without killing ourselves or anyone else, including the dogs, turkeys, chickens, goats, cows, pigs, ducks, horses and oxen which seem to wander about with no type of containment at all, is still a mystery to me. But what an incredible glimpse of everyday Cuban life.

I had no idea what private dwellings in Cuba would be like, but they were revealing. Most are small, square and modest, and the louvres over the windows meant to let in air and keep out the sun's light and heat initially lent an undeserved air of utilitarian shabbiness to the spoiled northern eye used to double-glazed picture windows.
What I noticed most is that most of the houses are very run-down, very faded, and very clean and neatly kept. Houses where the door is nearly falling off its hinges and where the paint has long ago faded to a memory will have spotlessly scrubbed doorsteps and tidily arranged chairs, and nearly every single home we saw had decorative plants carefully tended in the front yard.

Many also had surprising personal political expressions - "Viva Fidel" tidily written in small white stones in the front yard, the iconic portrait of Ché Guevara painted next to the front door, or short revolutionary slogans painted on the front porch. One had a statue of José Marti in the front yard. It all spoke pretty clearly to the lack of resources and supplies for home repairs as opposed to the effort people put into the upkeep of their homes where they were able.

Halfway to Villas Covarrubias, we passed the only gas station we'd see for the whole trip - "Oro Negro". "You want something? Water? Beer?" the cabbie asked amiably. No - we were good, thanks. Getting to the resort alive was pretty much our main goal at that point.

Everything after that amazing slice of Cuban life would be a bonus.

more later,



Blogger Xtreme English said...

this is one great post!! thanks to your friend for encouraging you to jump right in! wonderful photos!

12:39 a.m.  
Blogger Mike said...

Good stuff -- You keep writin, we'll keep readin'

7:06 a.m.  
Blogger Sherwood Harrington said...

When you hit a home run in the leadoff spot, that sets kind of a high bar for what's to follow -- but I'm sure you're up to it!

I thought the Irish drove like mad bastards, too, but it sounds like your islanders got 'em beat.

And I agree with XE re the photos.

11:34 a.m.  

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