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North by The Bay of Pigs

To Varadero 28 February 1998
Yesterday we were in Cienfuegos.
Today a 9.30am bus, for we are going to Varadero.
We buy a painting from a stall in the hotel lobby. ‘How much?’ ‘20 dollars.’ ‘Weeell, I don’t know, 20 dollars, hmmmm.’ ‘Maybe I can give you good price.’ ‘Maybe.’ ‘If you buy my paintings, I can give you good price. This is one of mine.’ It is the one we have our eyes on anyway. I offer him 15 dollars. OK, he says, looking quite pleased. The Cuban’s certainly aren’t into bargaining. Yet.
Into the bus. Back past the prisons and the rice fields, then turn left into a narrow road where the coach has to manoeuvre tight corners in villages; we are going to the Bay of Pigs.
The bay of Pigs is an area of significance to Cubans for it was here that they repelled an invasion by mercenary soldiers backed by the CIA in 1962. There are shrines along the road to the Cuban soldiers who died in the fighting.
We stop by the roadside so we can get out and photograph the houses of the local farmers, we are told, though really because we are running a bit early I think, and or maybe solely because Alfredo needs a smoke.
The local people don’t seem at all resentful of us getting out of our air-conditioned coach to gawp at them, even with them having to jack up their ancient Russian tractor to pump a flat tyre. Little boys stand at the door of our bus and look in in awe and wonderment.
The farmers locally are given a plot of land and on it they build their own house. Alfredo is not too sure of the system here but in the cities if you are granted this privilege you get an architect, really a quantity surveyor, to identify what you need in the way of materials, how many bags of cement etc, and the government gives these to you and you build your own house. It seems you get time off work to do this, as it is necessary to help deal with the housing shortage.
We also learn that everyone pays rent for their house, or flat, but that after a certain time this rent expires. Then it’s yours to live in for nothing, though it still belongs to the state.
Electricity and water used to be free, but now meters have been installed and people pay for usage; a man comes round to the house, reads the meter, and collects the money (we do not raise the potential for bunces that this system offers, there’d be no point).
Alfredo also tells us about the system of fifteen days work on the land for each citizen. It’s a way of life, he says.
Then we drive though the marshlands. Very marshy both sides of the road. Apparently it is forbidden to drive this road after dusk, as there is too much danger from crocodiles when your car breaks down and you have to crawl underneath to fix it.
We arrive at the Bay of Pigs. This turns out to be rather a surprise as it is a kind of 1950s holiday camp built by and for Canadians. Obviously it can’t have been built in the 1950s as it was presumably not there in 1962, but it is not new, that’s for sure. Rows of concrete bungalows. Now a scuba diving centre.
The beach at the bay is a nice beach, with good swimming, but just offshore is a row of concrete posts topped with concrete slabs, and the sea breaks over a concrete barrage, so that from the beach you can only see the ocean through rather small gaps in the structure. We are told that this is to make the beach safe from swimming against barracudas and sharks, bit it seems rather overkill for that.
Again we are stopped to kill time. We sit on the beach and are pestered by a drunk and a simpleton, speaking in Spanish but probably incomprehensible in any language. Essentially they want a dollar, but don’t get one.
Into the bus again, in time to get to a crocodile farm for lunch, 45 minutes early. Alfredo takes the orders for lunch: pork, chicken or ham and cheese sandwich. Oh, sorry, no ham, it will have to be a pork and cheese sandwich.
We look around the pen holding some crocodiles, then go into lunch.
Two gay men have joined our party, they are on the Jules Verne Costa Rica and Cuba trip, and we talk to them over lunch and make friendly contact. Before we arrived at the crocodile farm our guide announced that there may be mosquitoes about, and the two gay men immediately got out their insect-repellent spray, up and down their arms. This prompted one or two other people in the bus to get out their spray and start spraying.
There don’t seem to be any mosquitoes about, at this time of day.
Back in the bus after lunch, to drive north to Varadero, through extensive plantations of oranges, grapefruit and bananas.
Every few miles there are boarding schools, each built the same; a classroom block, two stories, and a dormitory block, three stories. None of them looks occupied at all, but Alfredo tells us that once children have outgrown their yellow trousers they go off to boarding school. Every day, in addition to lessons, they spend three hours working on the land under the instruction of farmers.
Agrarian economy. What do the children do in the evenings in these remote camps? No clear answer. Why do the places all look so deserted? We don’t know.
We reach the brow of a hill and look down over Varadero. More flaming and smoking chimneys.
The locality gets more industrial, and then we drive onto the Varadero peninsula
The Varadero peninsula is just ghastly; hotels, pizza, Chinese, hamburgers. It is a thin peninsula with effectively just one road in, so the high-spending tourists can be kept well away from the bulk of the population and they can all have a wonderful time seeing home-from-home in the sunshine. Or sort of, as there will be a fair number of Cubans employed, servicing these foreign tourists, so the separation is not with 100 per cent of the population.
We arrive at the hotel to find we cannot book in as it is full, a party has been delayed by a broken aeroplane and is having to stay an extra night. After some worried looks and negotiation by Alfredo we learn that we have been booked in up the road; a more luxurious place but a bit out of town.
We get in there and it is just obscene. At breakfast, in this country where eggs are rationed to seven per person per fortnight, there is a sculpture on the buffet table, of two life-size swans made entirely out of butter.
Canadian, French and Spanish tourists mainly, they will see nothing of Cuba. They will drink rum punch and lie on the beach. You can’t really go anywhere from here, it is twenty kilometers to the start of the peninsula.
At brfeakfast there is just about everything you could want, even including green beans (if that’s what you want for breakfast) but a couple of Spaniards have their own jar of olives on the table, though there are olives on the self-service spread, some mixed with frankfurter and carrot, rather oddly, but rather like the Brits who take in their suitcase jars of tomato ketchup so that the food on holiday will be palatable to them, these Spaniards had their own jar of olives.
The whole thing is just awful, but we sit on the beach, we swim in the sea, and we look around the shopping centre where we can buy Benetton and Gucci if we want, and it’s just awful.
On the path from the hotel to the beach there are palm trees, and out of a hole in one of the trees on our way past we see partly extended and peering, a small grey snake. The people pass with their beach towels. They don't see it. Not looking.


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