Cuban Culture & Reflections from Trinidad to Cayo Jutia

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I had just feigned a perfect pout when the pudgy Frenchman grunted at his wife – he was clearly not satisfied by how long I was taking in the bell tower window.

“You should’ve seen how long I waited for the last guy,” I mouthed off. “You can be patient.”

The interaction left such a bad taste in my mouth, however that a grimace was the only expression I could muster in my self-portrait. I vacated the space immediately, hoping all three of us could forget the conflict.

But it wasn’t three seconds into my next photo shoot, in the adjacent window, that the woman contributed her two cents. “Is this professional,” she pointed to my tripod set up, which was likely the most complex in the entire city of Trinidad that day, “or are you just playing?”

I rolled my eyes. “I am a professional,” I explained, annoyed less by what she was saying, and more by the fact that my selfie had once against been interrupted. “But I carry a tripod and remote because members of the general public generally don’t know how to use cameras like these.”

She recoiled. “Oh, I wouldn’t dare suggest me helping you out.”

I felt like a genuinely shitty person in that moment, a fact that the moment or so of silence that followed it – and the woman’s impossibly kind goodbye after that – compounded. It was such a stupid thing to get upset over, and an even stupider one to get mad about. It was a stupid situation and I felt like a stupid person.

“I think it’s because this is a tourist town,” I explained to Dora as we sipped coffee on one of Trinidad’s rooftops, breathtaking panoramas around us in each direction, “and we’re all ‘competing’ for the same thing, as it were.”

“Selfies?” she snapped one with her iPhone.

“Well, that too.” Just then, I noticed the couple – that couple – was walking up the stairs toward our table.

Once I was certain they weren’t going to confront me, I continued. “But I mean yes, we all want postcard-perfect pictures – and selfies – and evidently, we all want to have coffee on the same rooftop restaurant, with the same traditional Cuban band playing.

“And Trinidad’s tourist potential, unlike in Havana or even Vinales, is being fully capitalized on,” I concluded. “Which means that the stuff in the city everyone wants is finite – the more people there are here, the less there is to go around.”

That’s no excuse for the way you reacted, I scolded myself, as Dora returned to her own selfie.

I considered walking over to the couple’s table at many points during the course of the several coffees Dora and I downed, but couldn’t summon the courage.

Especially, I noted, as they disappeared and I lost the chance to right my wrong, since you aren’t actually sorry.

“You’ve spent a lot of time by that tree,” Dora said, as she puffed her cigar and turned the page of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which she’s been attempting to get into for our entire trip. “Did you get any good shots?”

I fiddled with my tripod’s height, then moved it to an ever-so-slightly different spot in the sand. “I’m having a difficult time composing it in an interesting way,” I flipped through the last few selfies I’d taken. “The palm fronds aren’t framing me quite right.”

After a long walk down Playa Ancon, located about 15 minutes south of Trinidad on a narrow peninsula of the same name, I’d been intrigued enough by the stubby palm to decide it was where we should make our home for the day. But something about the beach just wasn’t impressing me.

It wasn’t nearly as disappointing as Cayo Jutia, to be sure, nor was the weather bad, even if the sky wasn’t yet as vivid and dramatic as I’d hoped it would be.

“I just need to wait for better lighting,” I concluded, and flagged down the man who’d been harassing us to buy fresh coconuts from him. “In the meantime, let’s hydrate.”

The coconuts in Cuba aren’t terribly juicy, which means they only last one or two good sucks on the straw. By that time it was barely 10 a.m., which means that I had at least two hours before the sun would be at the position in the sky where I wanted it. So, I took a walk.

One thing that has surprised me during this trip, on the rare occasions Dora and I have split up for any length of time, is how differently I’m treated as a single traveler, rather than part of a “couple,” which is what most people assume we are.

My decision to walk down the beach with my camera in tow clearly weirded out the majority of Cuban beachgoers – and this was Saturday, so there were a ton – even though I was clearly never zooming in on any one person, or people in general. I had my wide-angle lens on, although I suppose it’s foolish of me to expect anyone to realize that.

Contrast this with how little mind anyone paid me as Dora and I had first made our way down the beach, however, and it’s clear that it wasn’t just my imagination. It’s unfortunate that the sight of a single man (read: not a boy) with a camera makes so many beachgoers uncomfortable, seeing how this – a single man with a camera – is my favorite travel costume.

Oh well. Fuck them.

Literally, in some cases. Who the fuck is that? I thought I was going to literally start salivating as the God-like man strutted by in his black speedo, the only thing more magnificent than his beard his pectoral muscles, the only thing more magnificent than those…well, didn’t I just get finished decrying the label of “creepy guy with the camera”?

In any case, I was back at the palm tree, whose fronds the improved lighting had made glow near-neon green, a hue that perfectly complemented the water, which was now practically incandescent, and the deep, indigo sky.

“Any luck now?”

“Almost,” I said, setting the focus and pressing the shutter button to start the self-timer. “I just need my pose to look more natural in this one,” I put myself into position, “and I’ll be good.”

The shutter went off six times as I sat under the palm tree, pretending to drink from my long-depleted coconut, and looking off into the distance toward the man I wished I had the balls to approach.

The good news is that he probably wasn’t Cuban, news that’s only “good” due to Cuban’s obsession with machismo – even more, in my experience thus far, than in any other Latin American country I’ve visited, which is saying something – and aversion to any male sexuality that doesn’t totally objectify females.

The bad news, his banana hammock and his keen awareness of his sexiness notwithstanding, is that he probably didn’t play for my team. I based this assumption less on any solid facts I had and more on mathematics: The vast, vast majority of men in the world are completely straight – it’s one of the most unfortunate things I’ve discovered traveling the world the past decade.

Even though I knew I wouldn’t so much as make eye contact with the man, I decided to swim out to where he was floating, on the off chance he felt like approaching me.

Who the fuck am I kidding? I sighed and begin paddling back toward the shore. That man wouldn’t look at me if I was up in his face.

 “You don’t need to pay now,” the young waiter said as he cleared away our empty glasses of sugar cane juice. “After the waterfall, when you come back for lunch.”

Dora put away her cash. “That’s nice of him – you don’t hear that a lot around these parts.”

I don’t think he’s just being nice, I thought as he winked back at me, not that I dared mention that out loud. “Yeah, especially considering how many tourists pass through here.”

We were on our way to a waterfall the owner of our casa in Trinidad had been going on about for days and days, a caballo, as he suggested.

Unfortunately, the horseback ride left something to be desired.

“I hate to compare this to the ride we took with Domingo,” Dora said as she was mounting her horse.

I made my on to mine. “But it’s inevitable – the excursion he took us on was better in every way – certainly more special.

“I mean it’s beautiful here, don’t get me wrong,” I continued. “But this horse isn’t even comfortable.”

Dora cringed as her horse began to gallop at a decent pace, her breasts bouncing up and down like coconuts from a shaking palm tree. “At least you’re not a girl.”

I might not be a girl, but riding a horse – this horse, in particular – evokes a certain something some of you ladies might be familiar with.

How do I put this in an un-crude way? It’s like, for those of you who’ve been penetrated by someone else, imagine a partner who’s really poorly endowed. Ever had one of those? You can barely feel anything, except his public bone crashing up against your pelvis.

That was what this horse felt like, to say nothing of the slavery horseback riding constitutes, for horses, anyway. People have criticized me for visiting tiger temples and elephant orphanages but for me, the indentured servitude of horses is a much more serious offense, if only because of its ubiquity.

It was especially disappointing, and not just because the pain of riding the horse prevented me from fully appreciating the splendid scenery around me: Rolling mountains carpeted in emerald; colorful farmhouses and wild livestock dotted all around; and strange, colorful flowers I’ve never seen anywhere else.

Those I’ll remember especially: They were covered in thorns and one cut me.

When we finally arrived at the waterfall, Dora sat down on the first rock she could find a lit up a cigar. “That’s the cascada Jorge hasn’t been able to shut up about?

“It’s not terrible,” I removed my shoes and shirt, then made my way toward the pool at the bottom of the waterfall.

“It’s definitely not worth all the hype he built up around it,” Dora said, taking a deep puff and blowing out plumes of smoke.

I splashed her. “Are you going to get in?”

She got our her book. “I’m good.”

The waterfall was beautiful, two-tiered with a brilliant turquoise pools at the bottom of each cascade, with dramatic cliffs covered in lush vegetation around it on all sides. Was it the most spectacular waterfall I’d ever seen? Absolutely not. But it was fucking beautiful, and that’s always enough for me.

Indeed, it wasn’t so much the waterfall or the surrounding scenery that soiled the experience – at least not the natural scenery. It’s that there were no less than 100 tourists crowding the pools, most of them totally wasted off rum drinks from the stand one of Cuba’s countless communist entrepreneurs had set up.

It presents an interesting picture of what more-developed tourism in Cuba might look like, especially considering my previous experience in Trinidad itself. I imagined the special excursion Domingo had taken us on back in Viñales marketed and commoditized and became deeply sad.

I swam for about 15 more minutes, at which point Dora was more than ready to go. Just as we began walking back toward the area where our horses were parked, I noticed a familiar – and extremely sexy – set of eyes.

I tapped Dora on the shoulder “Did you see who that was?”

She shook her head.

“It was that hot guy from the restaurant on the Malecon in Havana the first night.”

She chuckled. “You mean that night the senior-citizen tried to pick you up?

I didn’t laugh.

The waiter had been making eyes at me throughout our lunch, although he didn’t say much outside taking our order and asking us how our food tasted. At one point, I made sure to very conspicuously smile back, at which time he stopped what he was doing and changed the music from the cheesy 80s Cuban songs that had been playing the entire time we were there.

I don’t remember the exact lyrics to the song – other than that they were in English – but I do remember that it was one of those cheesy surfer-dude-to-valley-girl love songs you might’ve heard on The O.C. back in the day. It made me blush a little bit if I’m honest, if only because of how conspicuous it was.

But then, I became deeply sad.

I mean, how much must it suck to be young and gay and live miles and miles outside a small city in a provincial country where every element of a man’s worth is based on his ability to get pussy? I felt endeared by the gentle flirting – though certainly not turned on, he was way too young – but I also felt sad that I wasn’t going to be able to provide anything else for him.

I briefly toyed with the idea of giving him my business card, on the off chance that he had semi-regular Internet access and wanted to see the pictures I took of his country, but even that made me think twice.

Sure, he could’ve been really happy to make an online penpal out of the (much older) man who made his heart flutter when he was riding past his home in the middle of nowhere. But he could also grow sad knowing how far away I was and pine for me to come back – I know this from experience. It might hurt him to think of how far away he is from a place where he can truly be himself.

So, I kept it simple. “What’s your name?” I asked as I set down some Cuban pesos to pay my bill.

“Mario,” he smirked, and make change for me. “And yours?”

“Robert,” I took my change. “Roberto.”

He laughed. “Hablas español?”

“Not really,” I sighed. “Only when I have to.

“Anyway, thanks for the delicious meal,” I put my bag on and smiled at him one last time. “Good luck to you, Mario.”

He didn’t say anything else to me as I walked back toward my horse, but I felt satisfied. my good work was done for the day – and indeed, that I had counteracted some of the shade I’d thrown at tourists during my time in Trinidad.

I did look back over my shoulder, just briefly, as the horse’s saddle began pounding at my tailbone, but then I remembered the advice friends had given me so many years ago.

I guess I should stick to the rivers and the lakes that I’m used to,” I signed, and rode off toward the town.

Note: Trinidad is a town in the province of Sancti Spíritus, central Cuba. Together with the nearby Valle de los Ingenios, it has been one of UNESCOs World Heritage sites since 1988

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