When I got up this morning, I would never have guessed the unexpected twists and turns the day would take. After an extremely mediocre hotel buffet breakfast attended by some disinterested staff, we all met to go on our bicitaxi tour of the city. There were 3 vehicles between the 7 of us (Monica perched on the back of one, just like a local), and it was a novel way for us to get around.
The first stop was at the church of Our Lady of the Merced to deliver a suitcase full (literally) of over the counter drugs that the Melburnians had brought from Australia to give away here. Originally, they had intended to leave it at the hospital in Baracoa but Willo had advised them that there was so much corruption there that the medicines would only reach the families of the doctors and nurses and not those in real need. Not surprisingly, they decided against it and had been giving plasters, panadol and heat treatment away as they went. Monica, however, had a contact with this church and had worked with the priest on a project that helped in the countryside communities so they decided to donate the bulk of the contents of the suitcase to the priest here.
We were all unbelievably moved at how grateful he was and at how desperately basic, over the counter drugs, were required that were unavailable. These included antiseptic cream and wipes, paracetemol, insulin (not that we had any or would have easy access to it) small needles for giving children injections and inhalers for asthmatics. It appears that the Government is very good at training medical staff but not so good at supplying the basics that they need to practise their profession. (We found out later that this also applies to schools in that there are no resources for the teachers.)
After a visit to the catacombs, which contained bones, vestments and artefacts from the 16 century, we continued on our bicitaxi tour and went to a street that was home to a number of very diverse art galleries.
Camaguey is apparently renowned as a city of art and is very different to the other large towns. Amongst the collections were statues in the plaza by Martha Jimenez, who also painted and had a gallery in which I was forced to buy a print, interactive wooden objects, leather moulded faces and, of course, a wide variety of paintings, all of which were very Cuban.
Continuing on, our last stop was at the Parque Agamonte, which was overseen by the Santa Iglesia Cathedral. We adjourned for coffee and lunch at a government run cafe, where it was very cheap, as well as beautiful, with a courtyard and veranda at the back where an archetypal Cuban gentleman with a fat cigar sat reading the paper and allowing photos to be taken for a fee. This was the first one I had seen so I was beginning to doubt whether my image of Cuba was totally wrong.
After lunch, we strolled back towards the hotel and then allowed Monica to leave us for the rest of the day so that she could visit her family. I tagged along with Deb and Mariana and we wandered the streets absorbing the atmosphere. At one group of stalls, they both bought goods and we were entertained by the stall holders, eventually agreeing to meet them for dancing after dinner, which made me somewhat nervous!
Having ‘done’ the shops, we strolled back to our lunchtime cafe for another coffee, after which we sat in the park for a while. Mariana, who defected from Hungary and went to Australia as a refuge with her young family, has done some training in Myers Briggs and hypnosis and is wanting to practice, so I had a counselling session with her in the park and this was followed by a hypnosis experience back at the hotel, after which, I was ready to dance! (Something I was certainly not before and certainly not with strange Cuban young men!)
Both Mariana and Deb love Latin music and dancing and both play the African drums. In fact, Mariana is off to Senegal next week to take part in a month long drumming workshop with a Master drummer. They are both very relaxed and happy women (as, of course, I was as well after the hypnosis!) although looking for alternatives for their respective jobs, neither of which they enjoy.
We met the other Australians for dinner and decided to go to the Government cafe around the corner that Monica had recommended. This, curiously, was a Chinese/Italian fusion and we were served efficiently by an unsmiling Cuban. In fact, I almost thought we were back in the old Russia. The spaghetti, however, was excellent and just what I had been craving. By the time we had finished, it was 9pm and we had to set off to meet the boys in the park as had been arranged.
From then on, it all got very interesting. We were met by one of the young men we had spoken to earlier, who was accompanied by his 2 cousins. He had taught himself English from books (there being no internet) and was very proficient. It was a 10 minute walk to the music place and we got further and further away from the hotel, all the while taking note of landmarks as we went. The bar wasn’t open and apparently wasn’t until 10pm. More young men appeared. Whilst not at all threatening, I was beginning to wonder where this was all leading. We were not sure about one (a real ‘motor mouth’) and the original boys seemed to back away from them. Hmmm…..
When the bar finally opened, however, it transpired that I.D. was required which neither Deb or Mariana had. At this point, the new group of young men suggested we went in on my I.D. and leave our original 3 boys outside. We decided that dancing perhaps wasn’t going to be on the agenda tonight and we walked back to town accompanied by our entourage.
Here, we headed for the bar where we knew the others would be drinking. This turned out to be quite a melting pot of people. The owners were all trained as engineers but couldn’t earn enough money in their profession so had taken to bar work. This is a story we have heard time and again. Monica is a computer programmer (in an impressive 5 languages) but earns far more as a tour guide and Ricardo, our driver, is also an engineer but earns more driving a tour bus.
The bar itself, called El Cambio, used to be a lottery shop and still has some very interesting decorations on the wall. The mojitos were excellent (the best in Cuba apparently!) and Mariana and I sat inside, trying very hard to ignore ‘motor mouth’ and left Deb outside to chat with the 3 ‘good guys’. My evening ended with a very long chat to a Cuban/Jamaican Rastafarian, named Edward James, who is a trained physiotherapist but doesn’t earn any money in Cuba, doesn’t want to practice in Jamaica because there are too many drugs, so is heading to Spain to join his sister who has a clinic there. The dream of many Cubans is to leave and go to America, which is really very sad. We have to keep telling them that the American dream is not what it seems.
By the time I got into bed, I couldn’t quite believe how the day had turned out and it took me a while to digest it and go to sleep!