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The last time I planted tent poles, it was within pistol shot of the crumpled Presidential Palace, Port-au-Prince, March 2010. At 33 nights, it was the longest I’d spent in a tent. Given the wretched situation and endless cavalcade of sick and hungry Haitians seeking succor from the Cuban medical brigade I was covering, it was, (it goes without saying), the most taxing tent time of my life.
But a few months on, I was ready for the swelter of the carpa and clouds of (malaria-free) mosquitoes. Even the dicey baño scenarios didn’t deter. Besides, a camping vacation was the only kind our budget could handle.
Our target was the *Bay of Pigs. The snorkeling was good, the fishing promising, and the beaches we found on our 2003 island-wide adventure, camper-friendly. But in one of those travel mystery moments, as vague and insistent as a nostalgic scent or voice carried on a breeze that you can’t be sure isn’t just the wind in the leaves, we changed course. Which is how we ended up under a bridge.
As sick as it sounds (and probably is), the plastic tarp and stick structures huddled under the bridges reminded me of Port-au-Prince. The more fortunate had two-person tents and a thatch-screened area for pissing and more demanding duties. Families 15-strong cordoned off their slice of beneath-the-bridge beach using old rope, freshly-cut palm fronds and whatever else was on hand. Their dogs prowled the periphery, their bunches of plátano hung out of reach. Side by side like cubes in an ice tray, kids tucked into mosquito net cubicles rigged by red eyed fathers in knee-high gumboots. As the little ones slept, bonfires blazed and chispa burned throats. Cooking, bathing, dishwashing and other necessities of life were carried out in broad daylight. Children frolicked. Women worked. Men played dominoes. It felt awfully familiar.
We kept exploring. Every few kilometers there was another river carving its path onto the beach and feeding into the sea. Each river was spanned by a bridge. They had evocative, indigenous names that filled my mouth with marbles: Yaguanabo, Cabagan, Guanayara. Then we pulled down into Río Hondo. Claims had been clearly staked at the far side of the beach nearest the deep, green river and by the looks of it, the campamento there was hosting a family reunion of forty. Already I could feel the reggaetón and general bulla rattling my bones and grating my nerves.
We kept on exploring.
Our pocket was tucked away at the other end of Río Hondo’s sandy expanse, where the bridge curved over and away like a mulatta out of your league. Almond and seagrape trees provided shade for weathering Cuba’s brutal summer sun and we could easily improvise bathroom facilities where they thickened back from the beach; the tumble of sea stones that made up the shore gave way to a sandy, shaded patch for our tent; and our closest neighbors were 300 meters down the beach.
The site was, I dare say, perfect.
I dared say it but the shocker was our Río Hondo campsite proved to be perfect. Or quite nearly so, which for Cuba (that land of many problems and the tendency to exaggerate the possibilities, +/o progress of the solutions), is close enough.
By day, we fished and snorkeled to the throwback sounds of horse carriages clip clopping across the bridge overhead. By night, we made Godzilla-sized shadow puppets to candlelight on the underside of that same bridge. It was especially marvelous at night, that beneath-the-bridge spot: as shiny cars sped turistas (see note 1) to Trinidad and pre-Cold War trucks rumbled towards Cienfuegos, their headlights picked out the arches of the cement span’s railing. Each individual arch illuminating and darkening in quick succession made it look like zippers of light revealing and concealing celestial secrets too fast for us mere mortals to grasp. It was a rapture of sorts.
Our food situation, on the other hand, was nothing short of dire. This area of Cuba, like others, is experiencing severe drought (see note 2). Even under the best of circumstances the only things that grow around here are mamoncillo, anon, and maribú (see note 3). What’s more, in spite of having all the right equipment and being the most enthusiastic fisherman to ever draw breath, my better half can’t fish for shit. Fit for bait was all he caught after days and nights of determined fishing. Pobrecito.
Luckily, we were saved by a combination of Cuban solidarity, which is de rigueur, and honesty, which is anything but. The first came in the form of chilindrón de chivo brought to us in a pint-sized ice cream container by our neighbors. The hubby had been fishing with them a couple of mornings already so they knew what we were up against. It wasn’t until we were licking the sauce from our fingers that my guy clued me in: we were eating that goat thanks to a bus that had brought the poor fella to its untimely (and hopefully swift) end earlier that day. A tip o’ the hat to the cook (and the driver) – that was hands down the most succulent goat I’ve had since Morocco and the tastiest road kill ever.
Cubans are, how shall I put it? Infamous for their honesty. It’s a complicated issue; way beyond the scope of this dashed off post about our little camping escapade, but let’s just say that my husband – he of the rough and tumble Pogolotti neighborhood – was skeptical at the prospect of abandoning camp in search of food.
‘The propane tank is going to get vicked. We have to camouflage it.’
I hated to point out that we could easily replace that standard tank on the underground market in Pogolotti or any number of Havana barrios just like it. Meanwhile, our killer Sierra Designs tent (over a decade old and still going strong) was quite another matter. Not to mention the ThermaRest mattresses, the snorkel sets, and Stew Leonard´s cooler which may be better traveled than you.
But hunger called, which was how we came to walk away from our temporary home, its entire contents free for the vicking.
We waited until the sun headed towards the horizon, when families 15-strong started carrying their giant iron pots crusty with chivo and congris, domino table and chairs, inflatable toys, and sleeping babies off the beach. Despite our growing anxiety at leaving camp, it was fun bearing witness to these end-of-day operations. I watched as one drunk grandpa had to be hefted onto to his son’s broad back from where he lay passed out on the sand. The old sot hung there slack as a grade school backpack as his son picked his way up the vertical rusted ladder that connected the bridge to the beach.
As the sky shot pink and purple through the fading blue, we made our move. Jumping in the car, we drove a handful of kilometers up the road, to the seaside hamlet of Yuagananbo. There, high above the road built into the side of a mountain of rock, is a casa particular with rooms for $6 a night and meals for two.
My husband was as nervous as a guajira touching down at MIA, her packet of ‘definitive exit’ papers in trembling hand, the farther we got from Río Hondo.
‘Should we go back?’ he asked.
And eat what?
‘Let’s get the food to go,’ he said.
We’re already here. If they’re gonna steal stuff, they’re probably already at it. Let’s enjoy ourselves.
Which is exactly what we did: gorging on pork chops and rice, salad and plantains, washed down with provincial tap water that would undoubtedly reacquaint me with my old friend giardia (see note 4). I didn’t care. We were gone about an hour and a half. Upon our return we peeked around the pylons. It reminded me of that feeling you get when you bound down the stairs and through the door in New York or San Francisco to find your bicycle no longer chained to the pole where you left it. We held our breath briefly, unconsciously before realizing not one tent pole or pot holder in our camp had been touched.
The next day, we took it a step further. We had to. This time we left early in the morning and made our way 20 kilometers down the road to Trinidad and the promise of a market. It was a dicey proposition not only for the length of time we’d be gone, but more so since it was Sunday. Markets close early on Sunday. Worse, every single Cuban that is able to get to the beach on any given summer Sunday does. Río Hondo would be mobbed. Already the ’56 Chevy’s and loaded down horse carts were disgorging baseball team-sized families near our camp. But we are, when all is said and done, people of faith (which can probably be said for the majority of people who choose to remain in Cuba -although they might not call it that). So we left.
Trinidad was good to us – which isn’t always the case. In spite of being a gorgeous colonial town and World Heritage Site with white sand beaches within easy cycling distance, it has a rep. Women hold infants begging for milk (in spite of state rations until age 7 and a nationwide breastfeeding program with WHO-certified hospitals for teaching same), children plead for pens and candy, and spousal-hunting is a recreational sport – in Trinidad, they’re on you like white on rice. T plates or no. But we laid in a slab of pork and some okra, a couple of avocadoes, onions, string beans, and limes with nary a ‘hey fren! Where you from?’ to be heard. A few stares gripped me as I wolfed down a paper cone of chicharrones, (my guilty pleasure), and a strapping dude offered my husband a private room as he sucked down a cold Bucanero, but that was it. We even visited my old friend who’s living large since I listed her house in the edition of the Lonely Planet guide I wrote.
But after four hours, it was time to head back to camp. When we got there the beach was in full summer swing with folks launching themselves off the bridge into ‘Deep River’ and couples necking in the shallows between pulls on a plastic bottle of cheap rum. Hubby’s foot was heavy on the pedal as we neared. I laid a hand on his thigh.
Famous last words, which in this case turned out to be true: our camp, once again, was undisturbed though scores of people frolicked about. My guy prepared a tasty pork chop feast and as I dug in watching the lightening storm on the horizon, I was happy that the human race could surprise me like that and happy still, that I live in Cuba. Now had we been camped 20 kilometers from Havana…
You almost never hear ‘Bahia de Cochinos’ in Cuba, which just goes to show you how far apart the thinking is between here and there. Forget coming to terms on human rights issues, immigration, or sovereign state concepts: the two sides of the Straits are even at etymological odds, having different terms for the embargo (know as the bloqueo here and occasionally as genocidio, which I have a small conceptual problem with), the Spanish American War (called the Guerra Hispano-Cubano-Americano here which makes eminent sense: the Cubans, after all, played a pivotal, indispensable part), and the Bay of Pigs (here referred to as Playa Girón).
1. In Cuba, rental cars brand tourists via telltale scarlet letter ‘T’ plates. There is no “passing” with one of these babies, though I often wonder what happens to Cuban Americans who roll up with T plates. Do they get the same hustle and show as the rest of us? The same offerings of lobster dinner, private rooms, and pretty young girls from ‘frens‘ trotting alongside the moving car in bad Ed Hardy knock offs? More interesting still, what happens to Cuban Cubans – those who live here – who pull up in a T job? It’s only fairly recently that these folks have been allowed to rent cars and I wonder whether it’s splintering the social hierarchy even further? And if so, is this is a move towards normalcy or away?
2. Ironically enough, three of the 10 (or 12 or 16, depending on your source) golf courses underpinning Cuba’s new tourism strategy are strung along the coastal stretch of which I write.
3. The last is a nasty, invasive, thorn-studded mess that reaches tree proportions and blankets huge swaths of the island’s arable land. Anón (which tempts me to make a writerly joke about unattributable fruits or nameless queers) is something you can find in your exotic fruit section but for which the name in English escapes me. Readers? Mamoncillo, on the other hand, I have only seen in Cuba. It’s a cherry-sized fruit encased in a thin green shell; its slimy texture and unremarkable flavor is reminiscent of a lychee nut. In the summer, Cubans of all sizes and stripe walk the beaches and streets clutching leafy branches heavy with the fruit; they peel and suck (mamoncillo literally means ‘little sucker’) the flesh around the pits which they spit out wherever.
4. I’ve had giardia twice already in eight years here. To be fair, once I caught it in a Pakistani tea shop while covering the Cuban docs working there post-quake so that doesn’t count, but this nasty microbe does like our water. Most Cubans I know have had it. So my traveling friends: don’t drink the water unless it’s treated, boiled or bottled. September 2010