Sunday, December 24, 2006

A Day in Trinidad

Climbing along a dirt path, past roosters running around, past kids playing a game of tag barefooted, past a woman hanging laundry on a wired fence, there is a hill that overlooks a colonial town. Lying on the southern coast, Trinidad is probably the most-visited town in Cuba outside of Havana and Santiago de Cuba. I wouldn’t have known it standing on that hill with the beautiful view of the narrow cobblestoned streets and bright pastel-colored buildings with red-tiled roofs. There were a few young boys flying kites and arguing when one string got tangled with another, oblivious to me or the old dilapidated church on the hill.


I wandered down a path and met a young boy, Daniel, who was fixing a rope around his horse’s nose so he could ride it home. I took a picture of him sitting on his horse. He couldn’t stop smiling when I showed him the picture and told him I’d mail it to him when I returned to the United States. A group of smaller kids gave Daniel jealous looks as he rode by them. The smaller kids had asked me for money. Daniel didn’t ask me for a thing. I didn’t give them money; I didn’t take their picture.


***

It happens each day here at the same time. Yet few visitors give it more than a passing glance. I learned a lot on a basketball court on the edge of town. It was a typical slap of concrete next to a dirt field with patches of grass, where local children congregate for games of basketball and baseball. I wandered over, intrigued. My guidebook didn’t even mention this area, but it was across the street from the town cigar factory so it’s not completely obscure.


I joined the young men, high school and college aged, in a pickup basketball game. At the end of the first game I asked the tallest player on my team why he and many others played barefoot. He said they couldn’t afford shoes. His answer surprised me; it was my third day in Cuba. A few games later a shorter player challenged me to a game of one-on-one. I gladly accepted. Tourists come to Trinidad for its pastel-colored buildings and red-tiled rooftops. They come here for the traffic-free cobblestoned streets and old churches and beautiful Carribean beach. They don’t come here to play basketball. That’s why the other kids gathered around to watch us play. One kid kept taunting me in a playful manner, calling me “The Soviet.” I won the game but it felt inconsequential. The kid I beat had borrowed a friend’s old sneakers to play me. After the game I shook hands with the kids I played with and said goodbye. As I walked away the kid I beat said they play every day at the same time. He asked me to come back the next day. I wanted to return with sneakers.

***

It took me a while wandering the dark cobblestoned streets but I found her house. I had met Yilieny in the weirdest way. The day before I used a port-a-potty on a bus. While peeing, the latch on the outside of the door locked me in. I knocked on the door and Yilieny opened it. She was a good-looking Cuban girl. She spoke no English. She was the first person I had ever met who had never heard of Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, or Pele. However, as a writer I was glad she knew of Ernest Hemingway. Now it was the following night and I was returning to give her a small gift, a T-shirt with a map of Illinois and its landmarks on it. I had stopped by an hour earlier to say hi. My gift paled in comparison to the one she had for me. Her father, Osmany, had cooked a huge dinner for me. I hadn’t met him yet. He prepared the traditional rice and beans, and the cucumber and tomato salad. But he had given me the best he could offer – two large lobster tails, and two hamburgers with ketchup on the table. I smiled inwardly knowing he had cooked hamburgers because he knew I was American. I was taken back by the whole meal. For visitors, Cubans put each dish on a separate plate with an empty plate for you to fill as you eat. The rice is in one dish, the beans in another and so on. So half of the table was full with these dishes and it was all for me. I thanked Yilieny and her family profusely and asked them to join me, but they said they had eaten while I was gone. When they asked me what I had done with my water bottle I had just purchased, I told them I left it back in my casa particular. Then they sent Cesira, Yilieny’s younger sister, to a convenience shop to buy me a bottle of water for my meal. I said they didn’t have to, but they insisted. Before I had finished dinner, Yilieny said goodbye. She had to finish her homework.


***

I was upset I didn’t bring my camera. As I walked up the same hill where the young boys had flown kites, I didn’t know what to expect. It was dark now and I walked past the dilapidated church where the children had flown kites and around a bend to a set of stairs leading down to a discoteca entrance ... inside a cave! Called La Ayala, it is often referred to as La Cueva. The long stone stairway built into the ground some fifty feet or so leads down into an area where you can go right or left. The bathrooms are to the right and the discoteca to the left. The sheer size of this cave complex is overwhelming and only believed if seen in person. Photos might do it some justice....

There is a large dance floor with round tables and chairs set up around it and a set of multi-colored disco lights on various spots along the cave’s ceiling, anywhere from thirty to forty feet high. On one side is a normal-sized bar lined with colored lights and on the other side a long stairway built into the cave that leads to the highest point where the DJ booth is. It was like nothing I had ever seen before in my life. At the bar I saw the tall kid on my basketball team from earlier. We shook hands and sat down and had a drink with his friend. My tall teammate was the DJ from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. seven days a week. He also woke up early in the morning for school. I didn’t know how he managed to attend classes, go play basketball and DJ on a regular basis, but he said he enjoyed it.

Later on, I climbed the stairs and chatted with my friend in the DJ booth. It was fascinating looking down on the crowd, a mix of locals and foreigners mostly in their twenties, dancing to music pumping from loud speakers while drinking inside this giant cave in an old Cuban colonial town. Whoever decided to turn this enormous cave into a discoteca instead of another daytime guided-tour spot was a genius, I thought. My DJ friend must have had at least a hundred records, playing Cuban songs with a mix of American pop songs. (Although Cubans enjoy salsa and son, much of the younger generation listens to reggaeton music – a mix of hip-hop, reggae, and dancehall music. It had a much different sound to it than the reggaeton played in America. Perhaps more Cuban. However, many Puerto Rican artists are popular in Cuba, in particular Don Omar. His name or face appears on T-shirts and tank-tops all across the country.) He also had a button to turn the lights on and off, and another button that controlled whether the colored lights blinked, rotated, etc. So this was where all the tourist money went, I thought.

The lights were not nearly as impressive as what happened next. At 12:30, a few Cuban males, in their twenties and buff, stepped onto the dance floor. They wore Cuban-colored pants – red, white and blue – and one of them wore a Cuban flag bandana. They were shirtless but it wasn’t just for show. They cleared the dance floor and performed various stunts – chewing glass and breaking empty Habana Club bottles on their heads without any blood or marks. One guy chose a big, husky white male to stand on his chest while he lied on broken glass. No marks. They also lifted a normal-sized table without moving drinking glasses on it. Oh yeah, they lifted it with their teeth! When they were finished, the music played again. With a Cuba libre in hand, the only thing missing was my camera.



This story first appeared at The Traveler's Pen in March 2007.