Thursday, March 7, 2013

On the Road to Bayamo

Our road to Bayamo began in the early morning, just as the sun began to chase away the fog from the mountain tops which ring the city of Santiago. Our guide told us the trip would take a couple of hours to reach our destination, so there was nothing to do except sit back and watch the scenery unfold through the window.

Barely underway, we were stopped at the first checkpoint outside the city, waved over by a police officer who apparently was not very familiar with the traffic rules that he was hired to enforce. Our driver, angered that he had been waved over, argued a bit, then jumped back onto the bus to locate his rule book for driving in Cuba, then jumped back off the bus to confront the policeman. What came next was an argument in Spanish that moved way to fast for this language challenged American to follow. I can only tell you that our driver did most of the talking, while the policeman stood there like a little kid being chastised by his principal for some grade school infraction.

The discussion, if you want to call it that, ended as abruptly as it began when the policeman apologized to our driver, who turned and jumped back onto the bus and took off, still a little huffy that he'd been stopped in the first place. Trust me, traffic stops don't happen like that in the states. Saying anything other than “yes sir” in the right tone of voice, to an American cop will usually land you in handcuffs,

During my stay in this country, I saw many police, where ever we went. We were surrounded by officers and what I would call “rent a cops,” the cop wannabes charged primarily with crowd control or running after shoplifters. They don't wear guns or tasers or mace, at least not visibly. Yet I had no doubt they were there to serve and protect.

Guarapo, drink squeezed from sugar cane
Things settled down to road trip rhythms once we got past the checkpoint, and the scenery changed from city to rural in the space of a city block or two. We traveled past fields banana trees and sugar cane, two of Cuba's biggest crops. Bananas were in short supply in the cities, more plentiful in the country, where they are grown. Abel, our guide stopped the bus to buy us fruit, tangerines and bananas, and guarapo, a local drink that you won't find anywhere else in the world except next to a sugar cane field.

It is sold at little stands positioned near the sugar cane fields. The liquid is squeezed from the sugar cane and usually poured and served over ice. We took ours without ice because of the cholera scare pervading the country. It was very sweet, but it is also very perishable and cannot be bottled. Which is why you will never find it anywhere else in the world. According to Abel, guarapo begins to oxidize as soon as it is poured, losing its bright green color and good taste, making it undrinkable.

Guarapo can be considered fast food, but like everything else in Cuba, fast is a misnomer when compared to “fast food joints” in the US. The guarapo man literally squeezes the sugar cane in front of you and pours it into real glass, not plastic or styrofoam. And you don't drive off with one hand on the wheel while the other holds the drink as you try to keep from spilling it. No, you sit there and finish the drink, and once the glass is empty, you return it to the stand. The person at the stand then washes the glass to be used by the next customer, as you resume your travels.

We made other stops along the way, primarily to replenish our water supply, as we drank only bottled water, which was necessary because of the cholera outbreak. For this reason, we also only ate fruit that could be peeled such as oranges or bananas. Actually the cholera scare was over before I got there, according to state officials. However everyone was still being cautious and we were no exception.

We traveled on through many nameless small towns, people-watching people, who watched us back. My unintentional masquerade as a Cuban national remained intact until I opened my mouth to answer the questions directed at me. It wasn't just a city thing. Always when approached, I was never greeted in English or with the question of nationality. I was always addressed in Spanish first, assuming I was one of them, apparently working or traveling with a bunch of tourists. I was never mistaken for a tourist. The question that always followed my halting explanations about my nationality remained, “But your family is from Cuba, yes?” To which I explain in the negative, leaving them puzzled and sometimes disbelieving in my wake.

I've been working on family genealogy for a number of years now and none of the distant strands that came together to form me passed through Cuba. At least so far that I can find.

It was hot by the time we got to Bayamo and La Trova, the city's oldest establishment with most of the day still in front of us.

More to come...

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