After much indecisiveness, Marcos and I decided to leave Havana for a few more days. But we'd already missed both buses for the day, so we had to cough up about $40 a piece to take a taxi for a three-hour ride to Trinidad, Cuba. Along the way, a friend of our cabby’s pulled up alongside him and the two decided to stop for a beer.
Trinidad is a small colonial town that boomed with Cuba's sugar industry in the 1600s. But when the industrial revolution hit, the trains didn't run through Trinidad so the town sat stagnant for almost 400 years. Today, horse-drawn buggies still outnumber the classic American cars that cruise the colonial streets, which were laid brick by brick.
But before we got there, when we stopped for a beer, Marcos and I met the other cab driver, Pelon, (baldy) who claimed to have been a Cuban secret service agent who did three tours, two in Africa -- where he earned a bullet scar, and one in Miami, where he claims that he killed a police officer. Pelon seemed like the type of guy you'd always want on your side. He was about 6'2”, 225, maybe 250 pounds, all shoulders. Although he is probably in his early forties, the graying hairs that sprouted from his crew-cut made him look closer to 50. Marcos and I finished our beers and jumped back in the cab.
After an illegal fuel stop where our cabbie bought a can filled with gas and pulled around the corner to fuel up out of site from his vendor’s illegal business, a couple of cigars, a few pieces of fried pork and a couple lightning storms, we pulled into Trinidad after dark and followed Rasta's referral to a casa particular before running off to dinner and mojitos.
Trinidad is small, but it's famous for the Casa de Musica, (House of Music), a small venue that could best be compared to a mini, man-made Red Rocks. Like the streets of Trinidad, it was built stone-by-stone.
As we were walking up to the venue, I spied a beautiful young woman whom I knew I needed to speak to. She had long, dark hair, down to her yellow mini skirt, she wore a nose ring and a tight black top. I knew she was probably too young, but I prayed she was closer to my age.
“Ahorita mami, voy a volver,” I told her, “Right now mommy, I'll be right back.”
She looked at me confused, Mexicans use the word ahorita and I don’t look like a Mexican. For about ten bucks I got a bottle of rum, three sodas and some ice and cups. I sat down with a couple of Cubans whose acquaintance I had recently made and started pouring drinks. I was on my second when I finally walked up to the beauty and learned that her name was Isabel, who, as I suspected, was too young. One of the other women with her was her mother and the other two were her best friends. I struck up a deep conversation with Isabel's mother and invited them to come and have a drink with us. But they don't drink, so I offered to get them a soda or a juice, which they also declined.
Prior to meeting Isabel and her crew, no Cuban had refused anything that we'd offered, in fact, they were far from shy for asking us to buy them stuff. I was amazed and eventually the women joined us at our table, where we listened to music and chatted for hours. About the time that the Casa de Musica was closing, our bottle of rum ran dry.
For after-hours, Marcos and I wanted to go into a bar called the Piano Bar, even though there was no piano. Our new friends preferred to return home, so we accompanied them through the streets, carrying all four pairs of the women's high heels in my hand. But the women were still nervous, just as they are in the rest of Cuba whenever they are in the vicinity of foreigners because they fear that the police will suspect prostitution.
Throughout our conversations, the women had told us about a beach and a botanical garden and a waterfall nearby, but the following day they were heading to a spot where the river meets the ocean under a bridge. They had rented a bus and invited Marcos and I as their guests. We accepted their invitation and decided to check out the after-hours bar, even though we had agreed to meet Isabel and her family at their home in about four hours.
Piano Bar was packed with jiniteros and jiniteras, one of whom was wearing a Colorado Rockies jersey, another who asked Marcos to buy his girlfriend a beer and another who tried to pull the money swap scam on me. It was hotter than hell in there, so we finished one beer and went back to our place, where the owner told us that the beach and the botanical gardens were far more enjoyable than where the river meets the ocean. But Marcos and I had told our new friends that we would go and even more important to us than Cuba's natural treasures, was spending time with the people.
About 40 of them had rented a bus called a wah-wah for the day, it was filled with children as young as 4, adults as old as 70, and every one of them was screaming as if a new year had just arrived, even though it was just another Sunday trip to the beach.
Again, they refused to accept any money from Marcos or myself.
So we decided to carry the giant steel pot that they had filled halfway with water to make stew later that day. We were hungover and running on maybe three hours of sleep, but we carried that 65 pound pot for about thirty minutes, up and down muddy hills, to the spot under the bridge where the river meets the ocean.
I ran into the ocean and swam and did handstands. Then I carried Isabel around on my shoulders and then I carried her younger cousin on my shoulders and Marcos and I taught them how to chicken fight. Then I took a nap and had a little soup.
We planned to return to the Casa de Musica with our new friends that night. But a storm stranded us at their house, so we spent the night under a canopy out back, watching the rain fall, drinking coffee and telling jokes. We were there until about 2 a.m. Five hours later we came back, at their invitation, to hike up to the waterfall, about five miles through wet, muddy trails usually cruised on horseback.
The waterfall was a heaven on earth, cool, cool water after a long, hot hike. We jumped off the cliffs, swam through the caves and under the waterfall itself. Isabel mentioned to me that her mother's birthday was the following day. They had done so much for us Yankees, we had to do something for them.
I recruited a 14-year-old boy who went along with us, whom I called Chico, to show me the way to the lone cake baker in Trinidad. When we arrived at his house/bakery, the cake man wasn't around, but his lovely wife was. She told us that they were closed for the day, I told her that it was very important that we get a cake tonight, she asked when the birthday was and Marcos almost told her the truth.
“Tonight,” I interjected. “Her birthday is tonight and we need the cake, it is very important.”
Not completely a lie, considering it was after midnight and officially her birthday.
The cake man's wife pulled out a flat cake that was far from anything special, but as Chico told us, in Cuba, the tradition is as much about throwing cake in the birthday person's face as it is about eating the cake. The woman agreed to pull together something for us by lacing the flat cake with meringue frosting.
“Perfect,” I told her. “I'm heading to the liquor store and I'll be back in fifteen minutes.”
When I returned, her husband the cake man was there. Talking to him was what I imagine talking to Pablo Picasso would be like. His brain waves were so far off the scale to the left side that I was surprised his skull could contain his mind. He busted out a photo album, showing us pictures of his cake-baking master and his son, also a cake baker, as well as dozens of pictures of beautiful cakes ranging in form from cars to butterflies. All of which he created to be smashed in someone's face before being eaten.
The cake man's favorite authors were Gabriel Garica-Marquez and Ernest Hemmingway, two of my personal favorites as well. We had much to chat about, although I was so exhausted I was barely standing. He took out a book of poetry, in which his translation of John Lennon's words into Cuban Spanish had been published. He took a picture of Marcos and I and agreed to bake us a fresh cake for $3. With more time, he could produce a more sophisticated cake design, but we only had 90 minutes, so he agreed to bake us a cake in the shape of a heart and frost it up in Isabel's mother's favorite colors. Then he told his young daughter to give Marcos and I each a kiss on the cheek before we left.
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When we returned to the cake man 90 minutes later, his young daughter came running up to Marcos and I to give us each a kiss on the cheek again.
The cake was baked. Marcos and I tipped the cake man another $3 and went to our adopted Cuban family's home, finally not empty-handed. Isabel's mother cooked us a wonderful spaghetti dinner with ham from a pig that was slaughtered out back, and feta cheese.
We sang happy birthday at midnight and then we smashed the cake.
Westword staff writer Luke Turf traveled to Cuba for a week and encountered pimps, prostitutes and an irate mute with a nasty uppercut, to name a few. This is his tale.