Monday, 18 February 2019

Further adventures in Cuba

Well, posting yesterday seems to work so let’s try a bit more.

On Thursday, having had a most satisfactory light lunch in the hotel and having had a (mostly unsatisfactory) walk down into town to investigate wifi and money changing, we did not feel like looking further afield for the evening meal. So we headed for the hotel restaurant, expecting to find the same selection of light snacks or more substantial stuff available, depending on one’s requirements.

But it was the 14th of February and they had organised a Valentines’ Day buffet. 15 CUCs a head and drinks extra. More than we wanted to eat. And besides, the place was heaving. We had to wait ages for a table and felt rather shanghaied into something we did not really want. What is more, having waited so long, the choice of food was rather limited.

When we sat down to eat a Cuban lady asked if she could join us? We had no objections. In fact we quite appreciated the chance to talk to a local. She worked in education, had a masters degree in primary education and had responsibility for a lot of schools in the area. She quizzed us about what a primary teacher in England earned, expressing amazement at the huge amount, maintaining that when her salary was converted from Cuban pesos into the currency available to tourists, CUCs, she earned the equivalent of about £20 a month. How true this was we never established. We labelled her the bitter lady as she seemed so disgruntled with the whole system and rather jealous of the fact that we, both retired teachers, could manage to travel so freely.

Friday would give us a different view of Cuban society. We had booked ourselves onto a walking tour but first we had to tackle to Cadeca money exchange once more. We were due to meet the walking tour guide at 9.00am in Viñales town. So we got up bright and early in order to have breakfast and get down into town for the Cadeca opening at 8.30.

We did our bit. Cadeca was an abject failure. At 8.35, when we arrived, the doors were firmly closed and a queue had formed outside the door: tourists and Cubans. People drifted away and more joined. At 8.55 we were told that it would open in five or ten minutes, when they had had time to count the money which had been delivered to them. Too late for us, so we went to our rendezvous point.

We explained the situation and our guide declared herself happy to wait while we changed some money. This we managed without too many problems, but with some officious grumpiness from the lady in charge of the Cadeca! And off we went into the Valle de Viñales hinterland. Our guide, Elin, was an enthusiastic, eco-conscious, eco-friendly young woman. She was happy to be doing her bit for her country. After having received a university education for free, she felt quite prepared to work for the state for a few years, in her case working in museums and giving guided tours to English speaking tourists. She maintained people lived well in the country.

We walked into the heart of the valley, where farming is carried out on traditional lines. No machinery. Oxen pull ploughs, wooden-handled hoes and other implements are used, insecticides are forbidden. All this by order of the government, working to maintain a kind of conservation area park. The farmers co-own the land with the government and cannot sell it on without permission. But they can build houses for themselves and their family: wooden shack-like houses with palm-thatch roofs, very rudimentary but they were happy to show us that they have certain electrical devices such as microwaves and rice cookers.

 The first place we visited concentrated on coffee, demonstrating how the beans were pounded to remove the outer skin, roasted and then ground - using a hand grinder, of course. We were offered a free sample and then given the opportunity to buy a plastic bottle full of their roasted coffee beans. This was an interesting way to recycle plastic bottles.

We moved on, looking at flora and fauna, admiring the red soil, skirting muddy patches and eventually coming across fields of tobacco. Tobacco plants grow to about three feet tall and then flower. The flowers are removed to promote better leaf growth and eventually the leaves are harvested. And so, armed with this information we visited a tobacco drying shed, where the leaves dry for about three months and are then put through a fermentation process to make them rollable and ready to make cigars. 90% of the crop, we were told, must be sold to the government. 20% can be kept and used or sold by the grower. Yes, the maths was crazy! How we laughed!

 And the we had a demonstration on cigar rolling. Most impressive! This led to the sales pitch. We could buy a dozen cigars - much better for you than cigarettes - wrapped in bundles of palm leaves, for 15 CUCS. My travelling companion bought some for her ex-husband in a fit of amazing generosity. I know nobody who would appreciate a giid cigar and so I restrained myself.

 And we moved on again, making a circuit of the valley. We saw a mocking bird! We saw a dead tree underneath which people leave offerings if they want a wish of some kind to come true. This is connected to a religion of African origin but catholics also do it for luck.

When we had walked far enough we stopped for refreshments at yet another farm house. There we treated our guide to a a piña colada without alcohol ... and had one ourselves. Amidst the jokes about our not opting for a shot of Vitamin R (rum) in our drinks, the farmer told us about the specialised rum they make in the valley using guava instead of sugar. Would we like to try some? And buy some? Not me, but my friend bought a bottle!

 I began to see why the guide was happy to wait while we changed money before setting off! Back in Viñales town we found a nice place serving an interesting salad embellished with a variety of fruit. But their internet connection was useless!

In the evening, we found the hotel restaurant serving yet another buffet, just an ordinary 10 CUCs one this time! We did however get into conversation with some Germans from Hamburg! I helped them with their Spanish - they were puzzled, as are many Spanish learners by the difference between “por” and “para”!

Life is full of interesting stuff?

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