Matanzas, Cuba "The City of Bridges"

Chapter 3

Sunday, February 19, continued

As time ticked away, our group standing with checked luggage all around us, we feared something serious was afoot with Brenda.

So what happened to Brenda? Obviously she had been retained, but for what reason? 

Finally, we saw Brenda at the far end of the huge room being checked through the scanning area. Thank goodness, though we all were wondering what the hold up was, we also were relying on Brenda to maneuver us through the final passage out of the airport. We quietly did joke, a bit, about why Brenda might have been delayed, but were cautious not to arouse any attention that might cause us to be singled out for any perceived subversive comments.

Brenda approached our waiting group, but could not freely talk about her being delayed. As we all started to finally pass toward the exit point and hand over more papers, another Customs official approached Brenda and a conversation between them ensued. Brenda waved us on, motioning us to go on without her. 

What is happening? Brenda is a seasoned Cuban visitor, why are they scrutinizing her?

Passing on through and then outside, we met Matt Smith, the trip organizer, but still no Brenda. Without too much more delay, however, Brenda did emerged to join us and began to relay the reason for her being detained. Apparently, as she was being checked in, the same Customs woman who admitted the rest of us to proceed was troubled by something she read in Brenda’s papers. That officer called in another, superior, who then took Brenda out of the line and to an area where she was questioned about her travel purpose, where she was going, etc. Still not satisfied, the Customs people took her to a separate office and asked further questions, including the contents of one of the suitcases that contained the drum set. (I don’t think glaring lights, harsh and intense interview tactics, torture or threats were employed). The Cubans were concerned and, I suppose rightfully so about contraband or illegal items being brought into their country. As Brenda believed, after her initial interviews, she had satisfied them, but the last minute being pulled from line, seemed unnecessary and maybe a bit extreme. But, this is not our country, and I would suppose all extra security concerns on the part of the Cubans was warranted.

Once the full extent of Brenda’s unfortunate singling out was known and we were free to truly begin our Cuban adventure, we gathered with Matt and our local guide, Raul, who helped us proceed to our transports on to the B&B in Matanzas.

Old cars? OH YEAH! 

It really is true about all the old cars, Ramblers, Fords, Pontiacs, Dodges, Buicks, Cadillacs and a lot of Chevy’s, plus more. Newer cars are plentiful also, but not of American makes. 

Matt had arranged for two old cars to drive us into the town of Matanzas, one a 1955 Chevrolet, that the owner, Pachito, has lovingly restored, but with a Toyota diesel engine (and a few other modifications). The other car was a ’53 Chevy that carried the rest of our travelers.

Packed inside, we first stopped for lunch at a hidden away little place overlooking the bay, The Bella Vista Restaurant. Under a canopied, outdoor table we enjoyed our lunches, the view, sangria and my first Cuba Libre (rum & coke) in Cuba. 

Matt proceeded to inform us of life in Cuba and how we might best understand and adapt to the culture. He explained the currency we would use (for foreigners) the CUC and the Cuban peso or CUP, primarily used by the natives. Matt would exchange our dollars for CUC’s upon arrival at our B&B in Matanzas. Everything is paid by cash only. There are no ATM’s, credit cards or use of travelers checks. We only used CUC’s. 

Among other things, we were cautioned about the antiquated plumbing system and that we would need to dispose of toilet paper in a small wastebasket, not flush it as we are accustomed. That does sound offensive to us, but when traveling, one adapts or deals with the consequences (which we did…).

After a wonderful, relaxing lunch and then riding along to Matanzas, the sight of old 40’s and 50’s cars driving along with modern cars was pretty incredible. But as Brenda and Matt told us, wait until Havana, there will be even more of these treasures in daily use.

 It was quite an experience, as we might exclaim, "oh, look, a ’52 Chevy, oh! a ’56 Dodge, wow, a ’54 Pontiac, oh, man, look at that ’57 Ford Fairlane, gee, a ’48 Chrysler, oh, oh, oh, a ’59 Chevy, a ’55 Chevy, another ’56 Chevy, look at that ’54 Oldsmobile, a ‘58 Mercury", as well as vintage Russian Ladas and more. And so it went. But, by far, the Chevrolets were the most prevalent wherever we went.

The city of Matanzas, a shipping port, is a step back in time much earlier than the automobiles. According to Raul, our guide, Matanzas is called the City of Bridges, for the seventeen bridges that cross the three rivers that traverse the city (Rio Yumuri, San Juan, and Canimar). For this reason it was referred to as the "Venice of Cuba." It was also called "La Atenas de Cuba" ("The Athens of Cuba") for its poets. Matanzas is known as the birthplace of the music and dance traditions danzón and rumba

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Scores of buses were everywhere, as public transportation is very common, but old and new vehicles also crowd the streets. Unlike most cities in the US, this is a very old one with ancient buildings, in what appears to be various stages of decay, but that have incredible details, many with balconies overlooking the crowded streets below, iron work, huge doors weathered over the decades, many without windows, only shuttered doors and windows (being in tropical climate and having been built long before air conditioning, this is common for older parts of the cities). Yes, air conditioning is in use, and our B&B’s had it, even if the rooms in the homes had only wooden shutters. We would close them at night and turn on the a/c to remove the stickiness of humidity, allowing us to sleep more soundly.

My photos, I hope can convey a sense of the ages of things in the cities. Although the streets are narrow, cars, trucks, busses, bicycles, bicycle passenger carts, motor bikes (some with sidecars), pedestrians and horses and carriages, all scurried about over the narrow streets. Having arrived on a Sunday afternoon, traffic was not nearly as hectic as it would become the next morning on Monday. Then it became very, very busy.

Culture shock is what I felt but not in an uncomfortable way. Seeing dilapidated buildings, narrow streets, bustling with activity, a throwback to another time, all mixed together with cars of several eras, horses, bikes, buses and people was exciting and, yet, not threatening.

I am not sure what I had expected of the Cuban people, but, despite their governmental policies, I would say nearly no one looked in despair, downtrodden or suffering. These citizens appeared to be content and, as in our country, busied themselves with their daily lives. They were polite, no threatening looks, thoughtful. 

Our B&B in Matanzas was a house built in 1904, one of many along the street where all the buildings are continuous, no spaces between homes, no green lawns with trees.  Doorways, mostly weathered and worn, opened into homes that might contain a small business in the front from which a vendor would be selling merchandise, jewelry, a beauty salon, flowers etc. Only in a few areas did we see buildings that had plate glass windows stocked with merchandise, more like what we have in our country.

The three of us, Mark, John and I shared a room with a private bath, Kevin and Tom, father and son from New Hampshire, shared the adjoining room and Brenda had another room. Matt stayed at another place nearby. Our hosts were a young couple with two young boys who lived in the rear portion of the house. He had more English speaking experience but communication was not a problem. 

After arriving, and getting settled in we went on a walking tour of our area. The old buildings, some crumbling or in what I would call disrepair, were fascinating. Streets were narrow, some were two way, others one-way and alive with activity. There were many, many buses, trucks collecting garbage, bikes, motorbikes, horse carriages, and other motorized vehicles called Coco Taxis, bicycle taxis, and pedestrians galore. Children might be playing in the streets or coming from school in their smart little uniforms, people sitting in doorways, all busy with their lives and hardly paying notice to we Americans. Raul and Matt, in our walking tour explained things about the area, places, customs, etc.

We soon found one of the many bridges by which this city is known as The City of Bridges. Next to the first bridge we encountered, was a very old stone building that contained fire engines. Raul arranged for them to open it up and show us their vehicles. This little treasure was a working firehouse with firemen (bomberos), but also was a museum with a very small collection of old engines; including an old steam powered one.

Concluding our short walking tour and introduction to Mananzas, we return to our lodging and prepared for and walked to dinner at Restaurante Romantica San Severino. Housed in an old home, the staff were vere attentive, our meals delicious and our beverages tasty and plentiful.

Across from the restaurant was a park where we could use our purchased wifi cards and attempt to connect to the internet. That resulted in mixed reception, sometimes on, sometimes not. The cards had numbers on them which, when entered, enabled one to connect (maybe) and were good for an hour each. From the park we walked back to our lodging and along the way passed a bakery, it’s aromas having reached us before we passed by. We peeked in the open doorway and saw several young men rolling out dough for loafs or buns, but continued on our way, the scent of fresh baked bread lingering in our nostrils, returned “home” and turned in for the first night in Cuba.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Matanzas comes alive.

The next morning, our hosts had prepared breakfast, which was waiting for us. Being the early bird, I was up but waited for others to arise before starting to eat. It was a simple meal of a small plain omelet, lots of tropical fruits, bakery fresh bread, juices, coffee or tea and usually a meat. Most of our meals were similar to this at both the places we lodged. 

Following breakfast, Matt and Raul told us the day’s itinerary. Outside awaited our carriage that was to be ours for the duration of this visit to Cuba.  Our driver, Frank, has a 1948 Ford that he lengthened by a meter to become a bus/van taxi. This work he did himself with help from friends. He called his truck Big Blue (Grande Azul). The engine a diesel, he had a/c, tape deck, and other improvements. We could slide the rear windows, which allowed us to photograph as we drove along.

Before coming to Cuba I had no pre conceived notions about the country or it’s people. Other than Fidel Castro, Communism, the embargo, Guantanamo and a romanticized past, and the tips that I read, that was the extent of my knowledge. It was good to come in with few expectations. To what I have witnessed, here and other places I have traveled outside of the US, the people are what make up a nation and it is they that leave the lasting impressions on travelers.

Outside it was very, very busy on that Monday morning. Shops were opening, children were on their way to school, painters painting a building, buses, cars, trucks, bikes of all kinds and the people were all going about their daily lives. The amount of hustle and bustle was just not what I might have expected. It was good to see all the activity, but caution was needed if stepping out into the street as rapidly moving vehicles just might tag a person if not being attentive. 

After seeing more local sites, we boarded Big Blue and headed East out of the city to the small town of Limonar. Where we visited was very rural and the first stop was a place where they restored old cars. Not having all the fancy, time saving tools available to us, one man was scraping paint off of a ’55 Chevy - with a huge bowie-like knife! One can only imagine how time consuming that process might be but how much more quickly a power sander would complete that work. 

 Along the way into the rural landscape we passed many cows and horses, several tied by a rope to a fence  (which was cleverly devised by having planted small trees in a straight row and attached the wiring to that). What a pitiful sight. The animals looked pretty emaciated, although the grasses were plentiful all along the roadways. Interestingly, we passed a few billboards announcing a cattle breeding company producing super cows (vacas). By the looks of the scrawny cows we saw, their genetic breeding program might need to be beefed up a bit.

Then further into the countryside, we stopped at the home of a musician friend of Matt's whose family hosted a lunch for us. This included a traditional pork stew, Caldosa, cooked in a large caldron over an open fire. Included were fried banana chips and plantain and an unending supply of bootleg rum which they referred to as “rat poison”. I can vouch for its' being non-poisonous as I did imbibe a fair amount at the urging of our hosts. Who was I to refuse their hospitality and graciousness? 

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When asked if anyone would like to help with the stew, I jumped in and mashed cooked vegetables which were added back into the soup to help thicken it. Working by that hot fire, got me thirsty. 

Time for a bit more rum, I’d say. 

And so I did.

Our traditional country Cuban lunch was outstanding (and not just because I had lent a helping hand). We ate, we drank, we ate, we danced, we drank, we ate, drank, drank, drank, danced…After a bit I was moved by the sultry salsa rhythm which beckoned me to move my groove with one of our hosts. 

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However, in representing an authentic feel of Cuba and part of its’ culture, the best entertainment was by our muscian host and Matt. Matt sang along in both Spanish and English as our host strummed his guitar and sang. It was dreamlike to sit back and listen to the music. There out in the countryside home of this modest family who welcomed us and shared a part of their lives with us, captured an essence of being Cuban. Music, as we found out, is a significant part of thier lives. This was the first of several instances where we were privileged to hear and appreciate the melodies of this Caribbean island.

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Regrettably, time did come for us to part ways with our new Cuban friends. They left us all enriched with their graciousness, sharing, hospitality, music and song, traditional foods and friendship. It had been a decidedly memorable early afternoon.

With more places to visit, Matt soon had us load up in Big Blue and on to another small town, where we strolled about, met several locals, one very engaging and philosophical man who came close to expressing deep political feelings concerning our current leadership in the US. Obviously, this little village seldom sees Americans, or most likely other foreigners, so having an audience to express himself had to have been meaningful for him. Having little time for deep discussions, we strolled on, discovering a little Guarapera shop that dispensed sugar cane juice. For a few CUC’s several of us tried this sweet beverage after having seen it being squeezed from the cane. Tasty and sweet.  

On our return to Matanzas, I believe I might have dozed off after the considerable intake of rum that afternoon. Over the whole week in Cuba, it is possible that I drank more than I do in a year. But, I never had a hangover, headache or felt upset. This certainly was not the demon rum referred to by pirates and drunken sailors.

After dinner we were dropped off at Liberty Park, the wifi hot spot where we tried to connect to the outside world. Again, I met with only sporadic success, before we walked several blocks back to our B&B. 

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Along the way we passed the bakery again, but this time I poked my head in the door as the young bakers were rolling dough, listening to music and having an enjoyable time with their work. Through Raul, who translated, we were allowed to come inside, see the ovens and the baking and baked bread while I video taped some of their work. Following me outside I showed them the short video as they crowded aroung me. To my surprise they offered me a freshly baked roll which was soon devoured by our group and me. 

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This ended an outstanding day, experiencing more of the Cuban culture, food, drink, dance, music and fresh baked bread. 

The delicious aroma of baked bread followed me home and into sound sleep.

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Next, Cuban county music, roasted pork and on to Havana.

u © Donald E. Kline 2012