Thursday, 11 August 2016

In Cienfuegos

Today is our free day in Cienfuegos and we start by taking a taxi to Parque Jose Marti which is the centre of the town where most of the principal buildings are found. As we approach the town centre we can see a cruise ship has arrived and there are already stickered tourists having guided tours in the square as we pull in. We sit on a bench to get our bearings and Simon reads from the guide book. It’s so hot we decide to begin with a drink in the cafĂ© of the Teatro Thomas Terry. While we’re there I use the very Cuban toilet – no flush, no water supply to the basin and a bucket being filled from a slow-flowing tap on the wall which the attendant will pour into the bowl between visitors. She sells me some toilet paper for a few cents and mops the floor before showing me in.

We work our way round the square visiting the cathedral whose famous stained glass has mostly been removed for renovation, and which is being extensively re-plastered. We sick our heads in the door of the theatre but the next guided tour isn’t due for a while so we move on to the next side of the square. The Casa Benjamin Duarte is also being extensively refurbished and was once an elegant house. Although it has been neglected for decades the tiled walls, marble floors and high windows are intact and there is a charming cupola on the roof that can be climbed via a spiral staircase for fantastic views of the square and surrounding city. There’s also a rooftop dining area with a pergola which must have been a wonderful place to eat in the house’s heyday.
Simon bumps into an American from the cruise ship who says it is only the 8th voyage that has sailed to Cuba from Florida; while they chat I go to take more photos.  The boys are too hot to join the queue to climb the cupola but the views are definitely worth the wait. I find them relaxing in rocking chairs in one of the palatial rooms on the floor below, both reading. Moving downstairs to the gallery it’s clear that originally the owners lived above and the ground floor rooms were used for storage and chores.
There’s another gallery on the next side of the square, this time with works for sale. Castro, Che and The Struggle are key themes but there are also several works featuring women riding chickens like the statue outside our casa in Plaza Vieja. It’s obviously a recognised cultural symbol, but of what? We could find out if there was internet. (Later a text exchange with Steve informs us that it’s a symbol of the “special period” when the break up of the USSR caused hardship and women were forced into prostitution to feed their families.” Minions also feature in a couple of pictures, and there’s a large monotone canvas of a man holding a gun and a trombone which I feel captures two essential characteristics of Cuban culture.
Next we visit the Provincial Museum which has a catalogue of Fidel’s visits to the city by date and photos of him with local dignitaries and visiting heads of state, some with dubious records such as Robert Mugabe. The other exhibits explore the history of Cienfuegos exclusively in Spanish and seem rather random, especially the two metre high pair of stilletos – carnival props, perhaps?
By this point we’re ready for lunch and head across the square to a restaurant called Polynesia whch the Lonely Planet recommends for a beer and a sandwich. We sit down at a table on the terrace to discover that they have sandwiches but no beer. Leaving, we are accosted by a woman from the actual Polynesia restaurant which is inside the next house and offers us the “offerta del dia” for 7CUCs. We’re shown to an air conditioned private dining room and choose chicken which comes with battered plantain slices, a side salad and fried rice – possibly a Polynesian reference? There’s plenty of food and we enjoy it in air conditioned solitude while the hubbub of the main dining room buzzes in the background.
Our next mission is to try and get an internet connection. This involves buying a card with a password that gives you one hour of internet if you can find a hotspot. Hotels are usually good for this and the Hotel La Union is just around the corner. Before buying a card we try to find the wifi there but can’t make a connection. We go into the telecoms office across the street to inquire and after some complicated queueing are told that there’s currently a problem with the internet and we should come back later.
We spend some time in El Bulevar, the main shopping street and then walk down to the junction with Calle Prado where there’s a statue of Benny More, a famous musician from the city. Between here and Punto Gordo the street becomes the Malecon where carnaval is taking place this week so we walk down as far as the beginning of that before getting a moto-taxi (motorcycle with a cart behind) back to the Hotel Jagua.
Alex’s room now appears to be bug-free but he’s not totally convinced so he reads in our room while Simon and I go up for a cold drink on the roof terrace. It’s still very warm but there are hazy clouds to take the edge off the sun’s heat. I’m really enjoying the skies here, the light is beautiful and the cloud formations are stunning. We’ve made a dinner reservation at a restaurant just off the Parque Jose Marti and we set off early so we can experience carnaval and hopefully get some internet time before dinner.
Along the Malecon there are many food and alcohol stalls plus some vendors selling clothing and especially hats. People are using sun loungers as makeshift stalls to sell cheap children’s toys, in particular very un-PC jet black baby dolls. 
There are wheeled cabins dispensing beer into whatever containers people bring – the cabins are covered in pro-Fidel propaganda and Alex is convinced the price is the same no matter what size of container – buying loyalty with beer? I buy a mint daiquiri from a stall for $1. There are stages and blocks of speakers, suggesting that there will be live music later. I imagine with all that cheap booze it will get pretty boisterous later.
We carry on down Prado and onto Bulevar, stopping at the telco office which normally closes at 7pm but for carnival closes at 4pm – not ideal for us. We go across to the Hotel La Union and Alex checks that the internet is working – it is – so Simon and I go out to talk to the touts that gather at every hotspot to sell wifi cards. They charge 3CUC rather than 2CUC direct from the official vendor but if the password isn’t scratched off it should be fine. The deal is quickly done and it takes only a few minutes for Alex to get connected. We settle in a courtyard with a fountain and I order some drinks. Alex has been a whole week without internet and is keen to download some more books; Simon wants to catch up on the news and I’m happy to stay blissfully ignorant of the outside world – for now, at least.
The hour of internet access coincides neatly with our dinner reservation at Restaurant Bouyon 1825. We pass through Parque Jose Marti to get there, which is quieter and more picturesque in the evening light.  Dinner is mixed grill for Alex, smoked pork loin for me and estufado for Simon. My pork is beautifully cooked and accompanied by a proper hot sauce. Various ice cream options follow for dessert. The robust Chilean reds promised by the Lonely Planet are sadly not available and we don’t trust the Spanish table wine enough to order a whole bottle but we order by the glass and it isn’t too bad. Grateful for a meal that breaks the monotony of chicken that looks like roadkill with rice and beans, we tip generously.
The first taxi we find speeds off when we challenge the suggested fare of 5 CUC – Enrique has told us it should be 3 CUC but we agree on 4 with the next driver as he explains that the road closures for carnival require a detour. As we arrive at our casa we can see a storm flickering over the bay so Simon and I go up to watch it from the roof terrace. The lightning flashes almost incessantly but we don’t hear any thunder; another storm begins to flicker off to our right.

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