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Backwards to Baracoa

Backwards to Baracoa

The road had 180 degree switchbacks, sharp curves, steep hills, and random debris from a storm the previous evening. Tree branches and rocks were strewn on the Farola Highway, as the road is called, and work crews had yet to reach them. At a few places riders I’d picked up and I had to get out in a howling storm and move clods of dirt, tree limbs, and small chunks of boulders that had rolled across the highway. Then, within ten minutes, the sun shone, the roadway was clear, and guajiros milled about attending to their daily routine…

Baracoa was established twenty two years after Columbus first arrived in Cuba. It was the island’s first settlement. Its strategic location demanded towers and fortresses to protect against unfriendly ships at sea and troops on horseback. ..

I took a drive around town. There was hardly enough motor traffic for a two car collision. A boy on a bicycle steered with his left hand while his right hand clutched the frets of a guitar whose neck was perched on his shoulder. So few passenger cars traveled the streets of Baracoa that people reacted to my five year old Japanese rental as if I had driven a brand new XKE straight from a Jaguar showroom. I saw a cluster of women in a straggly queue and asked Hartman why they were there. “They’re in line to get a number so that when that store opens tomorrow there’ll be some order.” The Casa de Chocolate, the Chocolate House, tempted me, but it had closed a few months earlier with no reopening in sight. We passed the Hotel de La Rusa, established by a Russian lady who had fled to Cuba from the Revolution in her own country…

This provincial little town captured me on sight. On my way over to meet Hartman at the museum the next morning, I passed school kids in their Pioneer blues, housewives throwing buckets of water into the gutter, shoppers hoping to find something to shop for, and factory buses picking up workers. Their pace was unhurried, for rushing would accomplish nothing. Not enough customers filled the local Socialism or Death bakery to form a line. A breeze blew in from the sea, brisk and warm. Baracoa’s Malecón had few loafers; I was its only dawdler…

I spent the late afternoon in the small town square, actually a large triangle formally called Plaza Cacique Hatuey, watching and talking. Two girls about ten played chess while a friend kibitzed from the side. Next to them two men in their early twenties played checkers. A young woman in a screened in kiosk sold the provincial daily and Granma, which arrived from Havana by noon every day. Two teenagers played Ping Pong. Four old men surrounded a table playing dominoes; they looked as if they had been sitting in the park since the days when Batista was an army sergeant. From the far end of the plaza, across from a beauty parlor, a twenty five piece municipal woodwind band entertained slowly passing onlookers.

The schoolgirls had been replaced at the chessboard by two athletic boys about fifteen. As each game ended the loser walked off and another opponent showed up to play the winner, as if on cue. Three winners later I approached as if part of the daily script of Baracoa’s plaza. The last winner nodded. We took colors opposite to our skin. He checkmated me handily. The sun had set, and the park was getting dark. No one else showed up. “Another?” I said. It was the first word between us. He nodded. After five moves the recreation director came around picking up equipment from all the tables. “Until the Special Period, we played much later under the lights.” The band had not yet finished its repertoire. I drifted over as they played a medley of Broadway show tunes, movie themes, and marching songs. I was envious of the oboe player, disarmed by his station in life as nothing more than an afternoon musician for a small town Caribbean ensemble. For the moment I could think of no more noble calling than playing oboe in the Baracoa municipal band…

When the people of Maisí talk of a nearby bewildering country, they mean Haiti. I wanted to see Maisí, 38 kilometers from Baracoa, at Cuba’s easternmost tip… I set out along a couple of paved roads through small communities outside town, and finally a dirt road. The rainfall that had hampered my drive up the Farola Highway had also laid waste to the Maisí road. Foliage grew thick as the mud we drove through. Between copses of palms and dense jungle shrubbery I could make out occasional bohíos, the thatched homes of the outback. Cuba’s beauty had a soft integrity to it; comforting, almost caressing. The Nissan sloshed forward until the road proved impassable even for first gear. I abandoned the car and walked.

Soon I arrived at Abra de Yumurí, a settlement on the banks of the Yumurí River where it spills into the Atlantic. To reach Maisí we would have needed a jeep first to cross a 250-foot wooden bridge spanning the Yumurí, then to climb up a slippery hill.

Still, Abra de Yumurí satisfied my search for the end of Cuba. Its one business was the open air Cafetería Yumurí, a bare light bulb hanging over a refrigerator and a rustic stove. Four men played dominoes on the porch. Everyone knew my traveling companion Alejandro Hartman; he was greeted as a benevolent cacique, the local political chieftain who inquires of your welfare and asks about crops. We walked across the bridge. “It’s made of cedar. Its construction shows the French influence in the area.” Canoes were tied to the bridge’s girders. Hartman pointed to a spot just beyond the hill leading up from the river. “When bananas come from Maisí, they’re hauled by mule to a spot over there. Then they’re loaded onto a funicular to the bottom where they’re loaded into boats.” Hartman walked off to talk with someone. All I could hear was the faint clicking of dominoes over the sound of the Yumurí emptying into the Caribbean.

A short distance away heavy, dark women in loose dresses folded their bodies over to fill buckets with water from the mouth of the river, much as I suppose women on the shores of other islands throughout the West Indies were doing at that same moment. By the time we meandered back across the bridge, recreational activity had taken a more active turn. The four dominoes players had taken a break, but nearby, on marshland skirting the Caribbean, a dozen energetic boys under ten had started a baseball game. They played with a hard rubber ball and a stick for a bat. They had one glove among them, and an outfield that stretched to the Lesser Antilles. They all wore shorts, a couple had shirts, and one boy wore shoes. On this marvelous makeshift playing field, if you hit Haiti you should get a ground rule double. Once a foul ball popped into the mouth of the Yumurí, to be retrieved by a fully dressed woman up to her waist in the brackish backwater. These were the future stars of the Liga Nacional, and if they were good enough, the Liga Selectiva, and if they were among the best, the national team that plays against other countries abroad.

A lefty whacked his first pitch to the edge of Cuba. A barefoot outfielder ran it down among the seashells and tiny rocks in the loamy Caribbean beachfront. The southpaw crossed a pile of shells that doubled as home plate, as an outfielder heaved the ball in from the light blue sea. These kid stars were acting out passion plays with each pitch. Through all the claptrap of baseball diplomacy, defections, and amateur status versus state sponsored athletics, the screams of these dozen happy kids jumping up and down alongside the sea stood out as the most potent, wholesome vision I could take with me. I’ve kept that image in my mind, both the romance and the reality of it, afraid that I’ll never again encounter such unadulterated baseball in my life.

Trading with the Enemy
Cuba called its economic free-fall following the Soviet Union implosion the “Special Period in a Time of Peace.” Depravations and hardships were prevalent. Blackouts and empty shelves, common. The early 1990s forced the country to severely adapt to major difficulties. Author Tom Miller lived in Havana at the time, and traveled throughout the country. The result was Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through Castro’s Cuba, which Lonely Planet has said “may just be the best travel book about Cuba ever written.” In this exclusive excerpt adapted from his book, Miller visits the country’s northeast.

Tom Miller
Award-winning author TOM MILLER first visited Cuba in 1987 and has been a regular visitor since. He has written about the island for the New York Times, Natural History, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, and other outlets. He was a co-founder of the (now defunct) US-Cuba Writers Conference, leads Literary Havana trips every January, and has worked as a guide for National Geographic Expeditions as well as Cuba Tours and Travel. His other books include Revenge of the Sagauro, The Panama Hat Trail, and On the Border
April 2014 This article formed part of the April 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.

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