Cuba libre

“At last, we are now on the freeway!” said my driver, exhaling proudly, adjusting his sunglasses and revving our white Hyundai hatchback to a recklessly exhilarating 80kph. I allowed myself a little smirk at the liberal use of the term “freeway” — a bold Americanism that appeared to be over-selling the rather rudimentary stretch of road ahead of us.

Or did it? This was certainly a free way in that it was free of any number of features anyone from a capitalist country would associate with route one motor travel.

Unless you count the odd imposing, political image of President George W Bush disrespectfully annotated with a jaunty Hitler moustache and floppy fringe, it was also free of advertising billboards, all but the most basic of service stations and, apart from the odd passing Buick or belching farm vehicle, pretty much free of other cars.

Havana, city of Che, sun and salsa, had left me hungover, hot and happy but slightly claustrophobic and I was glad to leave its crumbling carnival after three days. Like Vegas and Barcelona, Havana is a 48- or 72-hour kind of place I decided and to really “get” Cuba as a country you have to leave the capital’s raucous, elegant decay and head out past the banana trees and crocodile reservations in search of other beautiful cities. We were making for Trinidad on the grandly named A1, flanked by lush plantations of oranges and sugar cane, swamp lands and jungle.

A road trip in Cuba is like no other. At every hot and crumbly junction there are plaintive clusters of hopeful and tirelessly ambitious long-distance hitchhikers (20 or 30 on any one corner sometimes). Ask a local for the nearest petrol station and before he directs you he’ll offer you the dodgy alternative of black-market fuel.

Hitching and hooky gasoline are not considered particularly déclassé, criminal or bohemian here but more often than not the only way to travel, part of the daily slog for survival that Cubans call la lucha (the fight).

Yet driving into Cienfuegos, I found a clean, prosperous city set in a tranquil, mirror-flat bay with a delightful colonial square, Parque Jose Marti, at its centre.

I wandered around the charming, rococo-ish Theatre Tomas Terry built in 1890, and sat in the front row, watching a string quartet warm up beyond the fire curtain. I walked alone along the long seaside esplanade that is the breezy Malecon, past quietly necking lovers, until it turned into the Prado on the outskirts of the downtown part of Cienfuegos, also known as the pearl of the South.

Cienfuegos was lovely, but it was in Trinidad, just 50km further along the south coast, that I really fell in love with la vida loca of rural Cuba. A colonial Spanish town built on sugar and slavery, it is now a Unesco world heritage site. All pink, pistachio and pale blue, it appeared to have taken a civic decision to halt pretty much all conventional progression about 50 or 60 years ago.

Its streets are cobbled, horse-drawn carts clatter up steep hills, courtyards are bright with colourful modern art, white linen hangs on sun-drenched washing lines … and, of course, there is music everywhere.

The driver reckoned I was lucky to have arrived in Trinidad during carnival week, but I got the impression that pretty much every day was carnival day in Trinidad … and I couldn’t get enough of it.

In the late morning when I was still in my colonial redux hotel room, my pre-breakfast constitutional would be pleasantly interrupted by the sound of musicians sound-checking beyond the yellow stucco of the balcony on the other side of the town square. When I climbed to the tower at the top of the Museo Romantico overlooking the central Plaza Mayor, I took in a rolling view of the great and green Escambray mountains and terracotta rooftops, but was most entranced by the Buena Vista Social Club sound-a-like band rehearsing in a courtyard below. And when I should have been enjoying the heroically dilapidated church of Santa de Ana, I couldn’t help urging on nightfall, when La Casa de la Musica, at the top of the flight of stone steps adjacent to the church, would open up. Or when I could sip on my first mojito and check out a live band at Casa de la Trova.

On that first night, at the friendly persuasion of its street-hawking owners, I ate a seafood dinner at a back alley casa particular and hung out at a few corner sound systems, raw with the hiss and fizz of the latest salsa.

I didn’t stay up too late because, you see, I had big plans for Trindad and its surrounding countryside — hiking trips, 4×4 adventures in butch Russian vehicles, waterfall photo opportunities, grotto dives and so on. But when I woke up the next day, dizzy with the salsa, I just wanted to walk around town watching the locals doing their thing.

In the afternoon, my slightly bemused driver, who had never encountered any tourist who had turned down cigar plantation visits and rum distillery tours, suggested a relaxing beach and drove me along the coast around Playa Ancon. He showed me an impossibly cute bay dotted with half a dozen parasols, clear water lapping at the white sand and a friendly, unhurried Cuban face manning a beach bar. I spent an idyllic afternoon snorkelling among the flat fish, drinking beer and eating lobster. On the way back to my hotel, with dark storm clouds brewing in the hot gusty air, the most beautiful thing happened.

It was the rhythmic, swirling, thwocking of the cowbell I heard first.

Then, cocking an ear out of the car window, the hissing of maracas and the beat of the batas. A young girl’s voice, plaintive, soulful and compelling, joined in. Sensing a once-in-a-lifetime moment, I shouted at the driver to stop and walked over the lawn and into the humble, jerry-built bungalow.

Inside the basic breeze-block construction, by a rusty fridge, a rickety, floor-mounted fan and some wrought-iron furniture, a young traditional Cuban folk band, complete with a bald, portly chap playing a tres guitar, was busy rehearsing.

Would they play, just for me, I asked? If I offered to buy a CD and leave some money maybe? Their nods and smiles said “yes”.

So, with the deal done and the house’s thin floral curtains wafting in the rainy afternoon breeze, they struck up a tune, Nostalgia de mi Cuba, probably something as corny as hell for all I knew, but to these ears a song so poignant and uplifting it actually moved me to tears.

Outstaying my welcome, I sat back for three more numbers, knowing very well that I was experiencing something truly memorable.

Much later that night, walking along the cobbled, carnival streets of little Trinidad, three mojitos and several beers in, a dusty little bus trundles by. I step out of the way but quite suddenly, a few cart lengths ahead, it stops dead. A familiar face, the dreadlocked bassist from the band, leans out of a window. “Hey! English man!” he yells at me. “Wanna come and hear us play some musica?” — Â

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