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Our destination is the small community of Playa Larga on the south coast.  To get there, we have to pass through Havana and we are a bit concerned about finding our way into the city from the west and back out again to the east.  Not to worry!  Carlos, our hitch-hiker of the day, guides us expertly, finds us a gas station and soon we are back on the autopista bound for points east.  Carlos is a Forestry Engineering student at the University of Pinar del Rio and he is traveling home for a vacation.  When we drop him off at his house he pleads with us to come back the next day to have lunch with his family.  We explain that it isn't practical for us to drive back so far.  Carlos looks so disappointed, it is like kicking a puppy.

 

Playa Larga is at the head of the Bahia de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) and along with Playa Giron, at the mouth of the bay, was the main site of the ill-fated CIA invasion in 1961.  We arrive in Playa Larga on Thursday, April 18 to find that preparations are being made for some kind of big fiesta.  We guess it is for Good Friday, the next day.  Not at all!  April 19 is the forty-second anniversary of... 

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(THE FIRST DEFEAT OF YANKEE IMPERIALISM IN LATIN AMERICA)

Museo Giron.JPG (25339 bytes)monument.JPG (40064 bytes)…and we can tell you it is a very big deal, indeed!  We tour an excellent museum in Playa Giron, devoted to the invasion, along with hundreds of local people who are making a kind of pilgrimage on the big day.  All along the road between the two communities are concrete memorials, one for each of the 161 Cubans killed in the campaign.  On the anniversary day, local people stand a Guard of Honour at each memorial.

 

 

 

Enrique and Ditalia.JPG (14238 bytes)Dailena.JPG (22094 bytes)Our casa particular in Playa Larga is very nice and hosts, Enrique and Ditalia are friendly and congenial.  But a special treat is in store.  The following day is their daughter, Dailena's, Quince (keen-say). A Quince, or “Fifteen Springs”, is a party to celebrate a daughter’s Coming of Age. According to our guidebook, “…a Cuban girl officially becomes an adult at fifteen and, among other things, can engage in sexual relationships without fear of parental recriminations.”  We don’t see any evidence of that sort of thing, but a Quince is certainly quite an occasion.  Over a hundred family, friends and neighbours come to the party and there is food and drinks for many more.  Cubans have sweet tooths and seem to be particularly fond of large decorated cakes. There are at least three of them at this fiesta.  Naturally, Dailena’s fifteen-year-old friends are all at the party, too.  Cubans, as a whole, are a handsome race of people; the young girls would break your heart!

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On the road between Playa Larga and Playa Giron we have a really strange experience.  During April, there is a massive migration of large crabs, moving from the beach to the marshes inland to breed and lay eggs.  Unfortunately for the crabs, the highway runs between their origin and their destination.  We drive through a carpet of moving crabs for nearly fifteen kilometers!  These are big crabs, five or six inches across.  It is impossible to avoid them and impossible to drive on the road without running over them by the hundreds.   The noise they make under the tires is quite indescribable.  But, los cangrejos have the last laugh!  Who would guess that a crab leg could puncture a steel-belted radial tire?

 

 

We spend a very enjoyable afternoon at a day-resort called Calleta Buena not far from Playa Giron.  An admission fee of $12.00 each gives us a buffet lunch and free beer all day.  We rent gear and Susan has another chance to try snorkeling.   It is a very attractive little bay, quite protected from the waves and a good place for swimming and skin-diving.  The free-beer counter is only a few feet away and did I mention that there are one or two pretty girls in Cuba?

 

Feliz.JPG (11782 bytes)Onward to our next destination: the City of Trinidad on the south coast.  Our hitchhiker/volunteer tour guide on this occasion is Feliz who is traveling to his home near Trinidad.  Feliz works in the Port of Trinidad, but the port is closed for repairs.  Material for the repairs is not expected to arrive any time soon so Feliz expects to be out of work for another six or seven months.  To make ends meet, he makes himself useful to tourists like us in the hopes of receiving a tip at some point. In the several days we know him, he never once asks for anything.  He is unfailingly polite, friendly and helpful and excellent company.

 

Trinidad.JPG (36469 bytes)On arrival in Trinidad, Feliz  takes us to several different places until we find a vacant casa particular.   casa particular Trinidad.JPG (30473 bytes)This one is high up on a hill; a whole second floor apartment that looks out over the rooftops of the city to the sea in the distance.   Trinidad is a UNESCO heritage city and is basically unchanged from the sixteenth century when it was a wealthy port and merchant city; tiled roofs, narrow winding cobblestone streets and Spanish colonial buildings.  It is very beautiful.  There are more tourists here, but we enjoy it very much.  We wander up and down the streets, peer into doorways and try not to get lost.   We tour a couple of magnificent seventeenth century mansions, which are now museums.  These buildings have twenty-foot ceilings, fourteen-foot doorways, internal courtyards with fountains and beautiful ceramic tiles.  Imagine living in such a style.

 

 

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train in station.JPG (27345 bytes)steam engine.JPG (33957 bytes)Next morning, Feliz arrives with a bag of fresh fruit and asks if we would like to ride on a steam train.  There is an old steam engine with a couple of antique wooden carriages, which choo-choos its way up the scenic Valle de Ingenieros  or Valley of the Sugar Mills.  The scenery is spectacular and I’m nuts about steam engines so we agree to go.  Feliz takes us to the station and as the train comes chuffing in, he asks if we would like to ride in the locomotive (the engineer is a friend).  Well, I guess we would!  I have wanted to ride in the cab of a steam locomotive since I was a kid and never expected to get the chance.

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We climb up to meet the engineer and the fireman and I am going nuts looking at all the levers and valves and trying to figure out what they all do.  The engineer hands me a dirty old pair of gloves and says: “Sit there!”  And I DRIVE THE TRAIN!!!!  He shows me how to pull on the throttle lever   to feed steam into the driver cylinders and how to operate the airbrakes to bring the train to a stop.  He explains how to read the whistle code signs so I can blow the proper whistle signal at each crossing and station.  I drive the train all the way up the valley.  At first the engineer always keeps his hand on the throttle while I am adjusting it.  I suspect you could do a great deal of damage to an old steam engine if you yanked on it too hard.  Once he sees that I have the hang of it, he just tells me when to go and when to stop and if we need more power to climb a grade or to back off because there is a downhill grade ahead. 

 

 

We stop at a little station where everyone gets off for cold drinks.  Sometimes we stop to let local people on or off.  At the top of the valley, there is a wye where the train is turned around.  The brakeman throws the switch and I move the big lever, which changes the timing on the valve gear and makes the engine run in reverse.  Then I very slowly back the train across the top of the wye.  The brakeman turns that switch, I throw the lever into forward and away we go back down the valley. 

 

carriages.JPG (24057 bytes)Fireman Susie.JPG (19304 bytes)The engine was built in 1907 and was originally a hand-stoked coal-burner.  Some time between then and now it was converted to burn oil, “Because,” says the fireman, “Cubans don’t like to work that hard.”

 

It is without a doubt the highlight of my trip (If not my life so far)!  In fact, I would have gone all the way to Cuba and back, just to drive that train!  Susan takes about a hundred pictures.  She says if it wasn’t for the wide-angle lens, she couldn’t get my grin in the frame.  We wonder what the 150 unsuspecting tourists think when they see who is driving.  We reckon every male on the train is green with envy.

 

In the evening, Feliz takes us to a private home in the port-town of Cassilda, and the family serves us dinner.  We invite Feliz to eat with us and he is delighted.  We have an excellent meal of fresh camarones (shrimp) and a bottle of very acceptable local vino blanco.  It is still early when we get home, and Susan doesn’t feel like going out, so I walk into the central square on my own.  There is a large crowd of people gathered with a very good band playing Cuban music.  There is also a troupe of semi-professional dancers who are a pleasure to watch.  When the music plays, Cuban girls can move their butts in ways that seem anatomically impossible.  On the way home, I am accosted by a rather young and very polite jiniterra.  Fortunately, I have been practicing suitable Spanish phrases for just such an occasion.  So I say:  “Tengo una esposa a mi casa”, and she politely excuses herself and melts back into the shadows.

 

Next morning, we meet Feliz again and he takes us down to the beach at Playa Ancon about 10 km from Trinidad.  He has a friend who works as a lifeguard at a big beach resort who agrees to take us snorkeling.  Juan provides the gear and then swims with us about a mile out into the ocean to a coral reef.  We tell him that Susan is still a bit nervous about skin-diving because she is just beginning.  He looks after her every minute we are in the water.  When she starts to tire, he takes her hand and tows her for awhile.  Unfortunately, the coral isn’t as spectacular as some I have seen.  It doesn’t seem to be very healthy.  A big hurricane struck the area a couple of years ago and the corals may still be recovering.  In spite of that, we see enough tropical fish and other sea-life to get Susan hooked for good.  She says it has opened up a whole new dimension of gardens for her!

 

At the end of the swim we give Juan a $5.00 tip. He is so tickled, he takes us back to his house to meet his family and we get the royal treatment. Chairs are brought out for us to sit on, glasses and spoons appear. We have a drink of rum and fresh mangos picked from the tree in the backyard. We ask him if they grow coconuts. Juan harvests a couple and whacks them open with a rusty old machete so we can drink the milk and eat the meat.  Boy, they are a lot tastier than the ones at Safeways.  Next, Grandma comes out with a pail of water and a fresh towel so we can wash our hands.   Eating fresh-from-the-tree mangoes is a pretty juicy experience! 

 

This is just one of our many encounters with the unbelievable friendliness of the Cuban people.  It doesn’t have anything to do with money, although they certainly have a great need for it and never turn it down if it is offered.  They are just warm, friendly people who seem to get the greatest happiness from making you feel welcome in their homes and their country.

 

Next morning we leave Trinidad for the drive back to Havana.  As we have all day to make a trip of about 300 km, we choose to avoid the Autopista and take the older, two-lane Carretera del Norte, because it runs through all the towns.  It takes longer, but it is a much more interesting trip.

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