Wednesday 15 February 2012

Beautiful Baracoa

“I could tell you a thing or two about Cuba!” the middle-aged man in the cafe slurred, eyes glazed, his dark-skinned face right in Dan’s. It was lunchtime in Baracoa on January 2, and we were sitting in the middle of tequila-swigging locals refusing to finish their New Year celebrations. The man had helped himself to a seat at our table - but we were all ears – expecting a drunkenly honest account of life under Fidel.  Instead, he got distracted by my leftover spaghetti and processed ham. “That’s the best part!” he yelled, grabbing my plate, finishing it off without asking. “Do you have any pens?” he asked, wiping his face. “I’m an English teacher.” Dan produced a biro, and the man jumped up, beaming, and embraced him in a bear hug. We didn’t quite know what had hit us.

Every traveller we met had told us Baracoa, a 20-hour drive from Havana on Cuba’s Atlantic coast, was the friendliest place in the country.  So it seemed. Maybe it’s the isolation. Baracoa is Cuba’s oldest town, but it was pretty much cut off from the rest of the country until 1964, when a road from Guantanamo was finally completed.  It’s not a pleasant journey – we endured hours of stomach-churning switch backs across an endless mountain range, but the scenery was so gorgeously exotic it was spellbinding: wide valleys blanketed in palm trees, and small villages fenced by cactuses and filled with tropical flowers.

If the rest of Cuba felt like a time-warp, Baracoa was something else. Walking down the dusty main road fringed with peeling weatherboard houses felt like being in a western. The local taxis were horses and carts complete with yellow “taxi” sign. The ration store still weighed out its goods on ancient scales. “Vive Fidel y Raul!” proclaimed a somewhat ironic sign on its wall. Justice was openly being done in the 1970s-style courtroom, whose doors had all been flung open to the street, revealing two young perpetrators sitting uncomfortably in the dock.

We stayed with Ykira and Ozzie, in a basic house where Ykira whipped up her amazing fish curry using a simple gas ring. Coconuts and chocolate are the main currency in Baracoa – giving the food a flavour like nothing else in Cuba.  Each breakfast was a feast of hot chocolate, fruit salad of mango, papaya and melon, herb omelettes, strong Cuban coffee and fresh guava juice. After a month of ham and cheese sandwiches it was heaven.

Ykira and Ozzie, however, lived on rice and beans.  Despite being in tourism, money was tight. The government takes 150CUC a month from casa owners (US$150) for each room they rent out, whether it’s occupied or not. We paid 20CUC a night. Ozzie earns a measly 270 pesos a month (US$11) as a security guard. He said he hoped life would get better – but with Cuba’s history of dictators he was scared about who would take over once the Castro reign was over.

He wasn’t the only one keen to chat frankly. We hiked into the tropical wilderness with a 30-year-old guide, an encyclopedia of Cuban wildlife, and a rich source of information about what life is like for people our age in Cuba. He’d given up his job as an English teacher because he couldn’t survive on the salary of 346 pesos a month (about US$14.) Many of his colleagues are now taxi drivers – it pays more.  As he pointed out darting hummingbirds and a black snake sunbathing in long grass, he lamented the state of his country. All Cubans want, he said, is a slightly bigger salary to buy them more freedom.

Baracoa was the only place we went in Cuba where the locals were overwhelmingly hospitable – and didn’t want anything from us. On a country road south of the town we passed a bare-chested, sinewy old man chopping foliage. He came after us with two oranges, offered his machete for us to cut them, and went on his way.

One night, as we drank mojitos outside the Casa de la Trova, two young guys stopped to chat. They plied us with shots of straight rum from their bottle (all Cubans bring their own rum to bars!) and when Dan tried to return the favour by buying them a beer, they weren’t interested. “No cerveza!” they shouted, as they took us on to a nightclub: “Nosotros hombres – we’re men!” 

It was my favourite place in Cuba – and had the man at the bus station ever answered his phone so we could change our tickets, we may still be there.


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