Today’s highlight is the road train. A big toy train with three open bogies. We leave the hotel at 10 am sharp Cuban Standard Time. All modes of transport travel right through the middle of the road. The road stretched out in front of us without any markings, roughly the width of two buses. Like a crumpled up, but proud, sash around Miss Cuba the road glistened and bore its potholes well. The trip from Playa Pascara [where our hotel is] to Guardalavaca [our destination, which means’Watch out for the cows’] takes 25 mts and costs us US$5. We pass at least 10 outstretched hands thumbing a ride. The traffic is much less on the roads and the next available mode of transport for those thumbers could be anything from our toy train, to a bus, truck, moped, minvan, car, horse buggy, horseback or cycle.
The road is lined with all kinds of tropical trees. Though rainfall is scarce, Cuba has thick vegetation, partly cultivated and mostly natural. Multi-coloured mangoes hung within reach of eager children. [My wife was particularly excited about seeing mangoes, bananas and tamarind, which brought back her memories of how she used to flex her strong arms and throw stone upon stone to bring down unsuspecting fruits.] Coconut trees looked much smaller, and ram-rod straight palm trees kept up the pride of Cuba. Beyond the trees stood huts or dwellings with rooftops made of palm leaves. Thorny cactii, dried and green, formed effective fences. I was told that the inside of a Cuban’s house is spic and span. Probably a derivative from the 100% literacy rate of Cuba. Cubans are an easy-going and fun loving lot. If you can manage Spanish, you can strike a great conversation.
The flea market in Guardalavaca is an open air affair with about 20 tables. All items are handmade and ranges from wood to coral, pottery, jewellery made of silver and animal teeth and bones. Every piece is a bargain and further haggling is permitted. The basic materials used are wood, coral, shells, shark’s teeth, animal and fish bones, clay, silver, ropes, paint, etc. Cubans are quite creative. Some of the wooden statues are quite delicate and aesthetically done. A couple of statues we bought resembled the Filmfare Awards [Indian movies] trophy.
Talent can be seen everywhere in that market, sitting behind tables and between those people. A caricaturist picked up my wife as his ‘Favourite Lady of the Day’ and set out to portray her on paper. I was quite amused seeing the outcome! [She threatened to destroy it, which I managed to salvage.] One Cuban attracted my attention by reducing the price for this particular wooden statue every time I passed his table. I walked up and down till he reached his threshold. He cannot reduce it any longer, he admits, for he has to pay 50% tax.
At everyone of these market places [even when they came to the hotel and set up their wares] there was one lady, usually, who sits with a book and a pen. She had the attitude of the ‘Big Brother’, or ‘Big Sister’ in this case, who watches over the proceedings and makes sure that her/his little folk of artisans pay their taxes to the state. After every sale the artisan will make a beeline for the lady and then she will note down something on the book.
Towards the end of the market trip, we encounter a fat Cuban who may have been watching us for sometime. He ambles up to us and strikes up a conversation. This is one of his approaches.
He talks about the skin color when he sees a brown skin. A very rare occurrence in Holguin – Proof that he is an accomplished swindler! In his opening dialogues he finds out that we are Indians in Canada. Then he goes on to the weather (favourite topic), sightseeing in Holguin and gifts to take back. He goes on to imply how the shops swindle tourists and as the collective saviour of Cubans and their pride, he can offer me Cuban cigars at less than half the price, if weâ€™d just step into his horse carriage for a short ride. Then he takes a deep breath to stop panting, at which point I manage to put my two-bit of hesitation. I grunt, hem and haw enough to give him the impression that I am out of cash at the moment.
“Will we be here tomorrow?” is his next query. “Definitely.” Both of us have that sense of victory. He passes the judgement that I am an infinite fool and will be here tomorrow, come sunrise, begging him to part with his Cuban cigars at half the price! I feel that stranglehold on my purse loosening! [We were already warned about Cuban cigars made of dried banana leaves that look exactly the same as the genuine one. All that is genuine about it is the band that comes around each cigar!]
I am now sitting at a huge highly polished wooden bar that curves around hundreds of bottles of liquor, liqueur, wines, beer and three barmen. Facing them are about 15 bar stools with low backs on which sit or overflow a few good men and women expectantly awaiting their next cocktail. Julio, the main barman, is holding court with two trainees standing respectfully a few feet behind. I am sitting at the right hand corner with a pad and pen, soaking up the evening sun through an opening in the roof of the bar.
Julio approaches me and asks my preference. “Surprise me”, I blurt out. He comes up with a cocktail that has three layers and colours; red at the bottom, yellow in the middle and bluish green at the top complete with a pineapple slice and a straw. Julio says that the name of the drink is Varadero. Varadero is also the name of a place in Cuba. Perhaps people there lead as colourful a life as this cocktail. Till the third cocktail I did not know that I am supposed to shake the cocktail before tasting it. Otherwise, all the rum will settle down at the bottom. All Cuban cocktails are laced with rum. So are some of their desserts.
The weather is balmy. It is about 33C and everyone around is wearing nothing more than single-piece or two-piece swim suits. The newer ones to arrive are white, some of them are partly tanned, some totally tanned and yet others peeling. Since I am one of those lucky few to be tanned from birth, I am wearing shorts and T-shirt. The bar forms the border of a big swimming pool in the shape of an ‘8’ and is flanked by an Italian Restaurant on one side and a Cuban restaurant on the other. The whole set up is open with very high ceilings. The Italian restaurant has solid wooden chairs with faded dark brown leather seats and backs held in place by brass studs. The Cuban restaurant has metal and glass furniture.
Just now a black bird landed on a table behind me and picked on the leftover. The bird is totally black with two bright yellow stripes on its breast in the shape of a’swoosh’ [Nike logo]. Its mate also joined the proceedings, no doubt for an early dinner before ordering their cocktails.
By 7 the bar is almost empty, all of them making their way for a quick shower and then to the buffet table which opens at 7.30. I have the bar almost entirely to myself when this beautiful lady slides up next to my stool. I am brought back to earth by my beloved wife’s face! She also asks Julio to surprise her. Julio went into this class act of throwing up the rum bottle from behind his back, between his legs, dropping it down once and finally dropping it into the blender neck down. When he’s decided on the quantity he pulls up the bottle and pours some juice and ice into it and blends it. This draws some claps and whistles from the thinning crowd, much to Julio’s delight. I tip him.
[After some discreet enquiries we found out that the average person gets paid US$8 to US$15 a month! US$1 converts to roughly 25 pesos (local currency). Cubans pay 50% tax on their income. On the bright side education is mandatory and absolutely free; even professional courses like medicine. Which explains why the lead singer, Jos?, in one of the bands that played at the hotel is a practising surgeon. A job in the tourism industry is a prized one because of the tips. So my tip went a long way in making Julio smile from one end of the bar to the other. I managed to spread cheer every afternoon and evening by doling out tips. By the end of the third day our faces were well known. So were the faces of George Washington, Hamilton, Jackson, Grant and all other worthies gracing US dollar bills!]
Just then I was reminded of good old India. One of the barmen is approached by a typical shady character with a thick moustache, shifty eyes and jet black hair. He passes a bag to the barman, who looks all around and slips three bottles of liquor into the bag and hands it back, upon which he receives a rolled up dollar bill, the denomination of which I cannot make out. Both of us are stunned, so we order another cocktail and talk about the day’s happenings.
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