A Travellerspoint blog

The Stars Don't Shine for Me and You

Every place we've stayed at, we could see the stars in the sky better.

Havana was a city. Maybe not as bright as Chicago, but there's enough light to stop a lot of stars from being visible. The first night, I was too interested in the fact that I was standing outside, dressed for summer, and could look up at the night sky to see Orion. I didn't care that I couldn't see much else. (It will soon become pretty obvious, but Orion is pretty much the only constellation I recognize.)

It was raining at Playa Giron.

I'm sure that Santa Clara would have had gorgeous night skies. We were staying a bit out from the city, but even in the downtown areas street lights had a tendency to go out as you were walking under them. (I wasn't too fond of that aspect of Santa Clara.) Unfortunately, it was still pretty cloudy.

Trinidad offered a pretty good view of the stars. Trinidad can't even begin to compare to Havana in terms of light pollution, and we were a kilometer away.

None of them were as good as the hotel near Cienfuegos. We were 20 to 40 minutes away from a city, and it was a clear night. Besides, the area by the pool wasn't that well lit. (I don't think that was the best idea ever, but it did make for some awesome stargazing.) I'd had no idea that there were so many stars in Orion. I lay down in one of the pool chairs and just stared up for a while.

It helped that we were only there for one night. Much longer, and that gorgeous view would have been a cause for panic. (“Where's my city? Where's my light pollution? Where are all of the people who should make it hard to see the stars?”)

In a similar vein...

The ride from our hotel to Havana was supposed to take 2-3 hours. I was preparing myself for 6. So before we left, I wanted to do a fair amount of walking around. There was a “hike” that we could take to a cave. The sign said “1000 Meters. 1.5 minutes.” I didn't trust either the sign or the people who said “yeah, it totally takes a minute and a half,” but when some people said “It's about a 10 minute walk, and it's a neat cave,” I decided I would go.

So I climbed up a fair number of twisting step and looked around. I could either take the paved steps down or the path through the forest. I took the steps down. It brought me to a cave. I took a few pictures, turned around and took a few pictures of the water, then climbed back up the steps. Then I started walking through the forest. I walked a while without seeing anything interesting, though I did irritate a bug that kept buzzing by my ear to express it. Then I turned around to walk back. The bug followed me until halfway down the main stairs I'd taken to get up. I'm pretty sure the forest was the path less traveled by, but it so wasn't worth it.

I walked around the pool for a bit and talked with Trent. He was disappointed I hadn't gone through the cave, because that had been cool. Then we ran into Wyatt, who wanted to see it since it wasn't too far. I still had excess energy to burn before our bus ride, so I went with him. (He was also curious about the forest, though he stopped exploring before I did.)

This time we went through the cave. The very beginning was the worst part, where the rocks had a variety of sizes, and it was hard to tell how stable they were. And you looked ahead and saw that you were going into a cave, and it was dark, and you started questioning your sanity. But by the time the light from the opening was gone, you were on solid ground and could see the light from the exit.

We took a number of pictures there, then started picking our way back through the cave. (It wasn't that big, but I was wearing a skirt and sandals. I had assumed I would be walking around a hotel, not a cave, when I'd left my room that morning.) We wandered around for a little more, killed some time, and then brought our suitcases down to the check-in area. (The night before they had led us up and down a number of stairs with our luggage. This morning we decided to follow the road instead. We never saw a car on it, and it was a much smoother walk.)

It was a nice excursion, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to Havana. (I'd also be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to Chicago. Then again, I've been away long enough I forgot what winter really is. Cubans shiver in their jackets and mid-60 degree temperatures and go “it's so cold!” and I'm almost starting to believe them.)

Posted by Soseki 17:06 Comments (0)

You Took it All in You May Never Be Back Again

We had a relatively early lunch (we noticed that later that night when everyone was ready for dinner an hour before it was ready for us) and drove straight from there to Cienfuegos. We probably got there around 4:00.

The bus pulled into the parking lot of a beautiful hotel we wish could have been ours. Ornate wirework, stunning mosaics, stained glass (it wasn't anything special, but I think it was the first time I'd seen stained glass in Cuba) and just an overall gorgeous building. We ogled the outside and took pictures like the tourists we were, then we ogled the inside and took as many pictures as we could, ideally without disturbing the people eating, and then we went up to the rooftop balcony and ogled the views (and took a lot of pictures, including a few too many selifes and one group picture.)

We enjoyed a drink there, and then we left. We got back on the bus and were dropped off in another plaza near the center of town. We got to look at a house that used to be the governors, though if forget its current purpose.

Then we were set free. For forty-five minutes. Once that time was up, we would get back in the bus to drive “twenty minutes” (really 40) and never return. Possibly ever. (Ceinfuegos only has two hotels, and we'd just seen one of them, so even if we could travel freely to Cuba, price would be a huge issue.) So off we went to explore as much as we could in 45 minutes.

Cienfuegos was more commercial than any of the other cities we'd been in. I mean, Havana was its own kind of commercial, with the “you have money. You know capitalist. You give us money for good/service.” Cienfuegos had the most non-tourist stores in a compressed space that I'd seen.

We walked into a few of them. Some sold goods from U.S. companies, others sold off-brand versions of that. I'd gotten used to the taste of Tukola (basically a mix of Coca Cola and Pepsi, a product of Ciego Montero, the state company that sells all waters and sodas and can therefore be found everywhere) but I'd only once tasted Ironbeer (cream soda crossed with root beer that I'd seen in Havana and nowhere else) and wanted to find it again. I couldn't, which meant I'd need to wait the extra day or so until we were back in Havana, because I remembered where I could buy it there.

While other people bought cookies in one of the stores, I noticed how expensive potato chips were. One of the adults on our trip had already made the comment “you should go into the store [attached to our hotel.] A can of Pringles is more than a bottle of alcohol, It's funny,” so I knew that they would be high. But even off-brand potato chips were expensive. I started musing both about the lack of potatoes at meals and the kind of climate that potatoes grew in. It makes sense, but it's a little sad. They probably had potatoes when the Soviet Union was helping them, which would have made their absence hurt even more.

After we left the store, Ian offered me a chocolate and strawberry cookie, which was good enough to make me forget how much I miss potatoes.

After that we went to a “craft fair” that sold the same products we'd been seeing in tourists shops all over Havana and Trinidad. I found myself studying the materials that went into the products. Some of them were made of real sea shell. Others sparkled with cheap glitter, or had as a focal point a glass bead that are probably literally a dime a dozen in the States. I know less about wood, but just feeling the materials, some of them felt to be noticeably higher quality than others.

Ryan noticed how unwilling they were to barter. At Trinidad, he'd gotten several people great deals with craftsmen and artists. Here, they would either say they couldn't set the price lower (because they weren't the creators) or make a fake deal. (“Tell you what. You buy two of these, 1 CUC.” The bracelets in question were .50 CUC each.)

And then we left. Probably never to return. Well, Cienfuegos, it was nice to see you, I guess.

Posted by Soseki 17:05 Comments (0)


The walking tour of Trinidad was much less extensive than the walking tour of Havana had been. The walking tour of Trinidad consisted of walking down one street, meeting in the central square, getting a brief history of the houses to each side, learning all of them were museums we could tour, walking through a really pretty church, and then being set free.

We did learn the history of the Vera Cruz in Trinidad. There had been an extraordinary elaborate cross built for a church in South America. However, as it was in the boat to be transported,, a huge storm came up, and they needed to dock in Trinidad. It stayed there long enough for the storm to pass, then got on a boat to continue. And another storm appeared. Eventually they gave up and built a gorgeous church in Trinidad for it to stay in permanently.

And then we wandered around the city. One of the things that our professors told us about Trinidad was that the art there was beautiful. Fine art joins educational material as what the U.S. Allows its citizens to bring back from Cuba. So we went to art stores.

There was one piece I fell in love with. It was realistic in two different ways. The foreground was a picture of an old woman smoking a cigar. It looked almost like it had been made with pencil, though I believe the artist said they were all oil paintings. The background was like a wall, only it had more graffiti than any walls I've seen in Cuba. There was a partial Cuban flag that faded away, other sketches, and words in Spanish. It was a juxtaposition of what was obviously a wonderful drawing with what looked like a city wall that I absolutely loved.

There was a tower in the middle of Trinidad which we wanted to climb. We were told that from the top we could see Trinidad, the surrounding areas, and the ocean. So we paid the one CUC and climbed. And climbed. And climbed. It was an old bell tower, but we'd been told not to read the bell, so it just provided a nice view of the city. The very top was a disappointment, because we had to climb a ladder to see a large metal device with the light from windows that were too high up for me to be able to see out of, but the penultimate level was cool.

For lunch, we ate a paladare. Ten years ago, there were 4 paladares in the city. Now there are 87. There are a lot of different ways to interpret this, but from the perspective of six students out looking for lunch, it meant we could find it easily.

The food at the place that we ate wasn't the best, but part of that might just be me getting tired of Cuban food. It tends to use less spices than I'm used to. By this point I've had enough fried plantains and rice with black beans that I can not only tell which ones taste much better, but those are the only ones I really want to eat. There's a bit more variety in terms of meat and fish that they have, but I'm kind of looking forward to the greater overall variety of restaurants in the United States.

The waitress did come by and ask us if we wanted to go up on the roof and take pictures, which was nice. It wasn't as pretty as the tower, but it was a lot less steps, and a lot less crowded. It would have made a terrible replacement, but it was a nice supplement.

We went to look around Trinidad for a bit more after that, but had to leave, too soon in my opinion. It was a nice town, equipped for tourists, but nowhere near as eager to catch them as Havana. I would like to be back, and I would like to be back, and I would like to be able to wander around to all of the different art shops, but I know that right now it seems impossible.

Posted by Soseki 17:02 Comments (0)

Wild Horses I Long to Run With You

So the hotel we were staying with near Trinidad had the option of horseback riding. After a lot of back and forth with the receptionist, every single student, our professors, and the tour guide, we finally settled on the eight of us riding to the waterfall nearby at 3:00 the nest day. It was 15 CUC for the horses and an extra 9 to go to the waterfall.

We got back with not a lot of time to spare, so those of us who needed to change changed quickly, we filled water bottles, those of us who needed to change money did, and then we went out to wait for the horses.

Saddling them was a little awkward. Not too bad, there was just the slight worry of “can I swing one leg over the other without kicking the horse. But then I was up, and got to watch everyone else struggle with their horses without worrying about mine.

My horse was a little slow to get started. But once she did start, she liked being in the lead. Like, right away worked her way so that she was second, which was just enough that when there was a dog to startle the first horse, it wasn't her. But after that, she was in the lead.

We went onto a narrow natural path right next to a sidewalk. Every other horse stayed there, but mine took a giant step up to go on the sidewalk. It wasn't an issue because the sidewalk ended soon after so she was back on the same walk as all of the other horses.

The guide stayed in the back, shouting out directions and urging the horses that were closest to him to go faster. Whereupon we learned that all of our horses behaved like Chicago drivers: they would speed up whenever another horse tried to pass them.

Mine remained in the lead. I did not want to be in the lead. I didn't want to be the one who needed to be guiding the group the rest way. The only fork in the road where I thought I knew what to do (take the path that didn't go through a pond) I was wrong. After I re-guided it towards the pool (which was already a deeper part) I discovered my horse was thirsty. She kept drinking until we were last of the students, at which point I finally managed to make her move.

I later discovered that had probably all been part of her plan. She liked being in the lead, but she also liked giving other horses false hope. Once we were on the open path, she worked her way to the front pretty quickly. Then there would be periods of running for a bit., walking for a bit. When the horses behind her started to run she would wait long enough for them to get a decent lead, and then she would run and end up in front of them.

She wasn't always nice about it. She tried biting another horse once, and I was spending way too much energy trying not to let her cut off other horses, because she would. But it was kind of funny when there were three guys with various competitiveness vying for the lead, urging their horses on... and then I would come up without doing anything about it and beat them.

It took a while, but eventually we reached the place to anchor the horses. Getting off was even more awkward than getting on, and but I managed after finally figuring out what the guide wanted me to do.

He said it was a five minute walk to the waterfall. It wasn't.

It wasn't a terrible walk. We needed to go up, and the ground wasn't exactly even, but it wasn't too steep, and provided you were paying attention you wouldn't trip. No one in our group did, which was a good sign.

Then we got to the waterfall. It wast a huge waterfall by any means. It was more of a gentle trickle than a rushing pour that comes with the stereotypical image of “waterfall.” Probably I've been spoiled by Niagara Falls. I'm not even sure how well I consciously remember it, but it's worked its way into my conception of what a waterfall should be.

At the base of the waterfall was a nice little pool that you could swim in. Some parts were shallow enough you could stand. Other parts were about 20 feet in. there were nearby rocks where you could sit on and get a good view of the people swimming.

There were two ways to get into the water. Jake and Trent (two of the more adventurous people I'd taken a secret satisfaction with beating on horseback) chose to jump. Everyone else who wanted to swim went from the dry rocks to the rocks that were covered in a couple inches of water, slowly walk forward (holding on to the rocks because it was slippery) sit down, scoot forward a little, and then finally take a deep breath and just swim forward. I was the last of the swimmers to get in the water, but I did go in.

Jake had been the first person to get in, and he'd said the water was nice and warm. When Emily got in, she shouted”Jake, you liar! It's freezing in her!” Personally, I'd put a bit more stake in what my foot had told me the temperature was when I'.d dipped that in than what my fellow students had told me the temperature was (it's not that I'm not that I don't trust them, it's just that they're not very trustworthy) so I wasn't surprised by the temperature.

The water was pretty cold, but you didn't notice it too much if you were moving around. There were some caves that looked dark and shady, and a couple people made half hearted attempts to look at them. The rest of us took the less adventurous approach and just swam to touch the waterfall part. It was really cold there,and also deep, so it didn't take long for us to go back to the warmer, shallower ground.

Then Jake wanted to jump from farther. After talking with the guide who had come with for a little bit, he climbed, shouted down to the guide until the guide confirmed he was at the right spot, and jumped. Then he jumped again. The rest of us watched (while, most people watched). I squinted and wished I could wear my glasses) with mixed reactions. The third time Wyatt, Trent, and Emily went up with him. They all said it was a lot of fun. A few people wnet up one more time. I considered it, but decided against it. I have a really hard time jumping off cliffs even under the best of situations (attached by ropes to trained professionals.) Besides, the rocks were pretty slippery by that point.

Then we crawled up onto the rocks to dry off before riding the horses back.

Now, I need to take a moment to give credit to Wyatt, because he was the only person who had had the foresight to bring a towel on this excursion. I need to give him that credit, because it puts the next thing he did in a bit more perspective.

Wyatt was drying off, and Emily asked if she could borrow his towel. According to Emily, he frustratedly threw it over her head. According to Wyatt, he threw it at Emily but she didn't catch it. In any event, Emily had been standing just a few feet away from Wyatt, with another person in the middle if it had been too far to hand over directly, Wyatt decided to throw the towel instead, and the towel ended up in the water instead.

It was his towel, and he was the one who needed to carry it back. This didn't stop the rest of us from making fun of him. We eventually promised we'd stop and not mention it again. Except to tell everyone else about it at dinner. And then as a description for the picture that had Emily swimming out for the towel. And in all of our journals.

“But Wyatt, if it makes you feel any better, your roommate did literally follow you off a cliff.”

Our drying off was slightly less effective after that, so we basically just had to pull on dry clothing over our wet swim suits. The guide helped us wring out the towel, but he seemed to be anxious to get on the road. It was getting kind of late. So we changed and walked back to the horses. By this point everything was starting to hurt. Even the bottom of my feet, which (probably because the water had softened them) were feeling the rocks it was walking over.

I got onto the horse and realized just how little I wanted to be doing. But it's like any other time that you're committed to something, whether mentally or “I need to get back. I don't have a choice.” I kept shifting around in the saddle to find less uncomfortable places,, especially when the horse started running.
The good news is that our horses were as tired as we were. My horse settled for fourth. Once near the end she took the lead, but she relinquished that without too much fuss. She still tried to bite a horse that wanted to get to four, and cut those horses off if I let her. But she was trying less hard, as was everyone else's.

Most of the ride I was just trying to distract myself until we were back. Probably the best part was when I realized we were literally riding off into the sunset.

Right now, I'm torn between “wow! That was a really great experience!” and “what on Earth was I thinking?” When I'm less sore, the latter thought will probably go away. But right now I'm still having moments like “huh, there's a bruise near my left ankle. That's weird.” (Feels right ankle.) “There's one there too. I blame the horse.”

Ultimately though, bruises fade faster than memories. I swam in a waterfall and rode horses into the sunset. In Cuba. It was worth it.

Posted by Soseki 17:00 Comments (0)

Las Abuelas de Fiesta

The advice we got for Cuba was to think that we were camping. Because if were expecting to be camping, we'd be pleased each time we got a bed, or electricity. If we thought we would be staying in a series of four-star hotels, we would be very disappointing.

I will say this for the hotels: you can tell that they're nice hotels. I mean, it's no Amsterdam Hilton, but they've at least been trying to be nice. So it's frustrating when there are things like windows that don't close all the way and let bugs have free access to the room or water that cuts off completely, but you can tell the hotels are trying. And I give them a lot of credit for that.

The camping mindset is good for more than lodgings, though. Things change. All the time. Hotels, restaurants, scheduled activities... We'd been planning on meeting with the university students, had carried around pounds of weight for them, and they only confirmed with su the morning before we were scheduled to meet them. The itinerary is very fluid.

The other fun part of this equation is that we're going for educational reasons. The United States needs to see an itinerary that has enough scheduled to keep us busy learning and not... actually, I'm notl sure what exactly they're worried about. But when we talked with Joel the tour driver (interestingly enough during free time we only had because CENESEX canceled) and told him “we might have the time at some point, but not right now,” he said “they tend to keep Americans pretty busy.” (Also: Joel's English makes a lot more sense after I met with the University students. If their English was that good after a year and a half, they'd probably sound like him [or of that matter us] by graduation.)

So when a group cancels, we usually need to find something else to do. And by “we” I mean “our tour guide and professors.” I'm glad I'm not the one who has ot deal with what to do with 13 college students and 5 adults that doesn't involve them literally camping .

Sometimes nobody really knows what they're doing. So it was when we arranged to meet “Las abuelas de fiesta.” Nobody really knew what that entailed, apart from the guess that they'd be partying grandmas. I don't think anybody really expected much, but it was a way to kill time.

We entered the room we were supposed to meet in to find 3 people playing music. They all looked about old enough to be grandparents. OK.

We came in, sat down, and were told that the organization that had organized this (presumably the organization our tour guide worked for) had told us to come at 9, but told them to expect us at 10. so we had some time to wait around, because not everyone was there yet.

So the “grandparents” (there were more of them, like 6 or 7) played more music. Then the 3 or 4 of them who weren't playing started to dance. And they came up to the audience and each brought one person back to dance with them. One grandma brought 2. And the students who were up there looked to the rest of us and sometimes pointed. And after enough people were up there, we got a first-hand course in how peer pressure works.

So we were all up there dancing, or at least trying. Too much of it involved bobbing our heads, which isn't quite what dancing should be. But there was good music, and a few skilled dancers, and it was fun.

Then the remaining people arrived and they could all introduce themselves to us. They were between 72 and 81 years old. They talked about what jobs they'd held before retiring (everything from schoolteacher to chemist for medical companies) and about their families, especially what their children and grandchildren were doing.

Next, we learned some history of Cuban dances. It used to be that for a mother would send a chaperon around before letting her daughter go to a dance. The guys would need to ask the chaperon for permission to dance. Challenge breeds ingenuity, and the girls soon found a way to communicate with the guys using their fans that didn't let the chaperons know what was going on.

Those symbols ranged from simple to brilliant in a way that a mother never wants her teenage daughter to be. A gentle fanning motion towards the body while looking at a guy would be an invitation for him to ask her to dance. If a boy was looking at,another woman, the girl would start closing and opening the fan in an agitated manner that would increase if he didn't pay attention. And, when the boy was looking at her, she could point lightly at hours of th spokes for the hour that she wanted him to meet her.

Two of the people there had met each other at a dances 60 years ago. They were still married.

After that, they wanted to teach us a dance. One of the grandpas came up and reached out his hands to me, so I got up and tried to mimic the steps tolerably. I'd assumed it would be like last time, and we'd all dance soon. It wasn't it was just me, one other girl, and three other guys. There were a lot more eyes on me than last time, but at least I knew what my feet were supposed to be doing this time.

We then learned what kinds of things the grandparents do to stay active. Besides dancing, which we'd already seen, they walk, do Tai Chi, and play other games, including Kumbubia. A short description of Kumbubia could claim “it's like Baseball,” but a longer description does away most of the similarities.

Kumbubia, like baseball, does have a “home plate.” Unlike baseball, there's only the one plate, and there's only one person on the “field” at a time.

The “ball” is a stick of wood that is tapered at both ends. The point is to hit one end straight down, and then swimming the bat around to hit it while the “ball” is still in the way. I didn't get a chance to try, but it looked very hard. Once you manage a successful hit, you guess the number of lengths of the bat that the ball landed. If you get that number or lower, you get the number you guessed if you go over, you get no points.

We have a father/son pair on the trip, and we made them play against each other. The father gets credit for being the only person to successfully hit the ball on his first try, but the son made a “home run” (it hit the wall. Once we were done with the game, Ben (the son) was presented with it as a keepsake.

And then we were able to go around browsing the souvenirs, jewelery, and bags that were for sale. The grandmothers had crocheted some bags, so after I bought some things I went up to them to try to communicate. They didn't speak English, and I didn't speak Spanish. I pulled out my knitting and hoped that would prove to be some kind of universal language.

It kind of was. I managed to gather a number of people around going “ Que linda! Que linda!” (How pretty/beautiful! How pretty!) Someone asked a question, and another person kind of pointed at the foot. “Si, si.” I held up the partial sock to my foot.

After some of those people had sipersed, I lightly touched a piece that was sitting on the table. It was a lot of soda can tabs crocheted together with gold thread. (I'd seen a bag where the bottom part was made with those tops with one of the women in our group who had bought it.) I mimed a purse hanging off my shoulder, and the woman nodded, so this piece had the same future.

Then the woman who I'd been kind of communicating with picked up another can tab, picked up the thread and crochet needle, and started crocheting. It's what I'd been trying for when I'd pulled out my knitting. “Look, I make things too. I understand. Show me.” And she did.

Like the dancing, or playing one of their games, it was a different kind of communication. It's not as direct as what we had with the students, but it's still friendlier than the people who want my money, and hope that I want something that they're selling. It would help if I knew Spanish, though.

Posted by Soseki 16:58 Comments (0)

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