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Of Horse Buses and Paladars

A Look at Cienfuegos, 27 February 1998
Yesterday we came to Cienfuegos. Today we take a look at the town.
The next morning and the group is going on an optional-extra trip to Trinidad, which seems to be a town with heritage value, like Havana. The trip includes a tour of a cigar factory and a visit to a ceramics workshop, ‘So if choo want to get some ceramics, choo can get the here’, says Alfredo our guide. Anyone want any ceramics? No.
It seems to us that Cienfuegos, notwithstanding its pall of factory-chimney effluent, looks like an interesting place in its own right, so why go from one interesting place to another for £40? And so Cienfuegos proves to be.
We start by walking down past old wooden houses to the end of the peninsula. Some of these wooden houses were once grand; they now look mostly empty. We speculate that one or two of them were used by Russian officials when there was a Soviet submarine base here, as they have a Russian look about them in parts.
The Russian influence is accentuated for us when the dustcart passes; on the back is a man whose job it seems to be to bash two empty Coke cans together and sing – this is the Cuban influence – the Russian influence is his furry hat; the temperature is probably in the 80s.
We walk back to our hotel, next to which is a Moorish-style house which was apparently a casino in Batista’s day, and which we are told we can visit for a dollar.
When we get there, some Cuban’s are getting married. From what we can gather, the old American car pulls up and out pop the guests to get the photograph taken in the grand house, then they drive away and the next one pulls up. One of the wedding parties appeared to be having lunch in our hotel, the bride in the lobby looking about 14-years-old and terrified, and mama looking pleased as punch.
We paid our dollar and had a complementary rum and coke from a plastic cup on the roof of the house, in the wind, watching the factory chimneys smoking and burning. Then Hilary went back to our room for a kip, feeling a bit low, while Penny, John and I walked to the marina, past a military boat base with a notice, amateurishly hand-painted: ‘Jamás Relinquados Nostres Principados: Fidel Castro’. Never relinquish our principles.
Back to the road where the driver of a horse-drawn bus shouts to us. OK, let’s jump on. And there, with two Cuban women in their bright pink lipstick, we rumble into town. Another Jamás Relinquados Nostres Principados, we are discussing the exact meaning of the words, helped out in her best English by the pinker-lipped of our two fellow passengers.
Cienfuegos is a town of very racially-mixed people. Some of them look northern-European, while others are dark black. Our helpful pink-lips has negroid lips but natural blond hair and a mulatto skin.
We get off the horse bus and wonder how much to pay the driver. He holds up one finger and we give him a dollar, which he seems very pleased with. The Cubans give him an unidentified bronze coin. We haven’t seen an pesos, but perhaps this is they.
Just before the bus let us off, I had spotted what looked like it might be one of those private restaurants, the paladars, with twelve seats maximum and serving, so the guide book tells us, by law only pork. Perhaps we should give it a try. I’ll go back and get Hilary.
I walk back to the hotel, past dilapidated houses, including ‘The House of the Pioneers, Nguyen Van Troy’, a name that meant nothing to me until I looked it up later, as Wikipedia tells us: ‘Nguyễn Văn Trỗi was a Vietnamese electrical worker and Viet Cong (National Liberation Front) urban guerrilla. He became known after being captured by the South Vietnamese when trying to assassinate United States Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and future ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. who were visiting South Vietnam in May 1963. (He was executed while remaining brave and so became something of a martyr.)
There was a fish restaurant opposite our hotel that had looked a possibility for lunch, but now it had a coach party of French tourists filing in. Cuba seems to be big in French tourism, presumably because it is cheap. The French do not seem to be greatly into the politics and history of the country, from what we have witnessed.
With Hilary, back into the street. Where’s a horse-drawn bus? No problem, if you’re a tourist with dollars, a driver curtails his lunch from a side street for us.
The horse-bus picks up some more people on its way into town, including a man who wants to talk to us, and a couple, the man of which shouts to the driver to stop at a ‘Rapido’ for him to buy a bottle of rum; his breath already smells a bit inflammable.
The man who wants to talk to us has a bit of a struggle, as he speaks only Spanish, and our Spanish is very barely existent. It appears he is not a Cuban, but we don’t quite get where he comes from, it sounds like it might be the Canaries. We give him an Oakdene business card which he seems very touched by, the horse driver too showing great interest. An advantage of driving a horse bus over a diesel one is that with the former you can turn round and cast your attention on what is going on behind you, for the horses know where to go by themselves.
(The man we gave the card to subsequently wrote to us. It turns out he was a trainee priest and was keen to make contact with people overseas to enhance his learning. Fortunately for the translation at the time I was working alongside two Mexicans. We exchanged a few letters and then the correspondence faded.)
We see Penny and John sitting on a bench and call to the driver to stop. We give him a dollar, which he seems well pleased with. Our new-found friend gets off the bus too, and before he does he gives us a crucifix, which he says in Spanish he wants to be a present by which we will remember him. He is, he explains, in a seminary, then he disappears into the crowd, glancing back as we show our crucifix to Penny and John.
To the paladar, which has tables laid, but the door is locked. We try the door. Nothing. But then a passing youth says: ‘You want to eat?’, and knocks on the door. A lady answers and does not seem to be too pleased with getting some customers but she lets us in. We try sitting in the table by the window but she beckons us to a table at the back of the restaurant, so the place will still look empty from the street. Her rationale, we surmise, is that we are now where the floor-standing pink fan is located.
It’s a bit hard working out what the lady is saying as her Spanish has a strong accent, but by pointing to the fish tank which happens to be in the room, she seems to indicate that we will be getting fish. Boyo or fileto? she asks. We don’t know, so we say fileto, just for the sake of choosing (and I still don’t know what ‘boyo’ is).
We ask for beers and ‘agua con gas’, which she doesn’t understand, though eventually she tries: agua, but pronounced with such a soft g that it comes out as a-wa. We nod our heads. She brings a bottle of water to show us. Si con gas pero. Ah! Con gas! And we get our fizzy water.
It is about an hour later that our meal arrives, served by a tall black man that we haven’t seen before. He speaks to us in French: ‘Where do you come from?’ ‘England’, we reply in French. ‘OK’, he says, ‘let’s speak in English.’
The meal he brings us is the best we’ve had in Cuba. Fried fish fillet; Moors and Christians with a slightly char-grilled taste to the beans; fried plantain, really sweet and tasty; and a plate of tomato and cabbage, the cabbage tasting like goat’s cheese for some reason, probably because it was grown next to the goat (that was our theory anyway).
We tell him this is the best meal we have had in Cuba and he wants to know hoe many we are comparing it with. He calls his wife to tell her the good news. How much? Normally my price is nine dollars per person; to you: eight dollars because I like you.
Before we go, he asks us which town we come from. ‘Cambridge’, I reply on behalf of Penny and John. ‘Ah! Cambridge’; he calls us back to sit down. It transpires that he was a gold-medalist rower for Cuba; he competed in the 1976 Montreal Olympics and in various pan-American games and in tournaments in Poland and East Germany.
Where did he learn his English? Ethiopia, he said, though why he went to Ethiopia was not clear; we decided that perhaps Cuban troops were sent there to help one of the Socialist fighting factions at some time in the past, though that would hardly have been a cause for such good English.
Our host was quite a travelled man, then, and, we were given to believe, quite a famous chap in Cuba. The reason he was so excited by Cambridge was the rowing connection. Our impression was that after we had entered the restaurant someone was dispatched to get him away from coaching at the rowing club, which is evidently what he had been doing that day, to deal with customers in the restaurant.
Our host proudly showed us his photographs – him receiving the gold medal: the proudest moment of his life; gaining the bronze at the pan-American games in Mexico: the saddest moment in his life.
So where did he gain his gold medal? He rather gave us to understand that it was in Montreal, but Cuba did not win a gold medal for rowing at that event. Cuba certainly won a bronze in the 1975 pan-American games in Mexico City, in the men’s double sculls. They have subsequently won gold in some pan-American and Central American games, but which of these applied to our host, did not find its way into my diary.
Eventually we got away from the history of rowing in Cuba. No signs outside his restaurant, what was it called? Ley Ley. The sign is inside. Perhaps outside signs are forbidden, they probably are. [I have subsequently searched the internet for restaurant Ley Ley in Cienfuegos,unsuccessfully.]
Out into the street, penny and John decide to return to the hotel while Hilary and I take a stroll. Look in some shops. See the people buying pizzas from a stall in the street. bring your own bag. The price is marked a $3.40 but that cannot be, the people buying would not be able to afford that, until we come to realise that the symbol for a peso is: $. How very confusing.
We pass the ice cream parlour, which has a queue with a bouncer at the door. You go inside, sit at a metal table on a metal chair, and have a waiter serve you your helados. There is a range of flavours advertised outside. Many of the people are with children. Having eaten your ice cream you leave and some more people are let in. There is an empty table. Is it waiting to be cleaned or has the bouncer just not noticed it; it is out of his direct line of sight.
We go into a clothes shop which, unlike most of the shops in Cuba, seems to be making a conscious effort to sell something. Shirts, T-shirts and dresses from Indonesia, China, Pakistan and Mexico. Cheaper than in the UK: $5 for a T-shirt, which we take it must be US dollars. The fashion-conscious of Cienfuegos are in here, looking. No-one buying but that may be chance.
Round the painted square and into a poor street leading to the military zone; we thought it looked like a park. People in the poor street not at all threatening just rather poor, though not starving; it’s mainly their clothes that mark them out as poor.
Alfredo our guide tells us that in the 1980s there was no unemployment in Cuba. Now the figure is 17 per cent. This sounds like propaganda. It’s too bland, you wouldn’t give such sweeping figures in Britain. Anyhow, it seems there is unemployment here. The people just off the painted square look like they may be part of it, though Cienfuegos is obviously a city with plenty of work.
Back alongside the harbour to the main street, we pass a rifle club. Youths walking in and out with guns in carry-cases, people milling about the door of the shed, and an occasional report of gunfire from within. Doesn’t feel too safe so we hurry on by.
At the main street we look for a horse-drawn bus to take us to our hotel. Some pass, but they are all full. Diesel buses pass too, including an ex-Dutch one with Hilversum still on the destination blind, but we have not seen any service buses on our hotel peninsula and it’s a long way to Hilversum.
The driver of a horse-drawn bus in a side street calls us over. ‘Jagua?’, he says. ‘Yes.’ ‘Dos dollar.’ ‘No, uno dollar.’ ‘OK, hop in.’ The Cubans have a long way to go when it comes to bargaining.
Our bus is drawn by two horses and has no other passengers, unlike the other horse-drawns on the road, so maybe this man is a bigger crook than the others look. It is not such a fun ride; the driver does not avoid bumps in the road and overtakes other horse-drawns with the power of his two horses. We are in a kind of sunken area at the back, with metal seats screwed to the frame rather than the benches that the other vehicles have.
The driver must believe that all this warrants dos dollars. He probably believes we can imagine ourselves as Tsar Petrovitch†. He probably believes that since we are sunk down in the carriage we have the advantage of avoiding the stink when the horse does a poo, for the horse buses fitted with a sheet slung under the horse’s tail, so that the horse’s dropping are caught rather than falling onto the road. This may be for fertiliser, or it could just possibly be a health regulation; either way it can be a bit smelly for the passengers in the bus.
† I’m referring here to the Percy French song, Abdullah Bubul Emir, that has a verse about:
Tsar Petrovitch too, in his spectacled blue
Rode up in his new crested car.
You sometimes see ‘spectacled blue’ written as ‘spectacles blue’. Ho, ho, ho. And I think that the people who write this are being quite serious
More comment on this song on my page: A Trip to Trieste.
Anyway we get there and give him a dollar he says: dos dollars, and rides off in a huff. We learn from John later that his driver too demanded two dollars for the return journey, it may be that the two-horse buses see themselves as a cut above the single-horse and expect more money for the privilege. Or maybe it’s pricing off demand. Who knows?
Drinks again with the bishop et al in the bar before dinner. A sevensome at dinner again, but we’re all a bit tired and in our case not at all hungry, so we each drift away after dessert. A somewhat sleepy meal.
A fresh contingent of French tonight it seems. Same old pork and chicken. Potatoes are nice; they have been in most places; they have taste.
The story continues with North by The Bay of Pigs.


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