Trinidad - Two Prostitutes, a Horse Whisperer and a Wedding
Stepping out into the cobbled sunset streets of Trinidad was a magical moment. Live music filled the air as I made my way past huge pastel-coloured colonial homes. Cowboys trotted past on their horses following a hard days work and women could be seen preparing rice for dinner through kitchen windows.
As I dropped my heavy backpack to the floor in front of Casa Julio Munoz and peered in through the 12 ft window, my jaw dropped. Inside these old stables come mansion was a museum of antique mahogany furniture and ceilings that soared at least 10 metres high. Seriously, £8 a night?
Rosa our hostess greeted and welcomed us into her home. As we sat down to complete our registration details, Rosa's daughter, Maria welcomed us with an invitation to her wedding which was taking place in a few days time. Rosa said "this is your home now, you are our guests, please treat this as your home and like we are your family." I needed this - this feeling of family and belonging. It's something you lose a sense of when you're living in the City.
On Rosa's recommendation we went to a restaurant not far from our Casa for dinner. By this time we were used to massive portions of food for about $6 CUC (£3.50), so when the main meals started at $10 CUC we were expecting something pretty special. Not so. We left the restaurant feeling hungry. The food was good but came on a small plate - Trinidad is EXPENSIVE!
Tummy's grumbling, wallets nearly empty we tottered off up the street in search of a good bar to sink a few beers, hoping they would fill us up. We stumbled into a place that seemed good enough and took our seats at the bar.
A Tale of Two Prostitutes
The bar was called 'La Bodeguita' - a framed photograph with Hemingway's famous quote "My mojito in La Bodeguita and my Daquiri in El Floridita" hung above the bar. Of course - this wasn't the famous Bodeguita Ernest Hemingway wrote of, but a replica. The original is in Havana - but anything to draw the tourists in, hey.
It was alright here though; drinks were a little overpriced but the barman was sweet and there was a band that played some of what seemed like their own music, rather than the famous touristy songs that foreigners go nuts for. Seeing as we were 2 of only 4 people in the bar I guess they were playing more for themselves which was really nice.
I glanced over at the other couple sitting in the corner of the room. Definitely European. The blonde haired, red faced man in white suit trousers and pale pink shirt sat slumped in his chair, legs apart, chuffing away on a cigar, drinking rum. His giddy girlfriend was dithering over her lobster and bobbing away in a her own little bubble. A few minutes in and the man strutted up to the bar and in English said to the non-English speaking barman "what rum would you recommend for me?" The barman didn't know what to say and so pointed to a whole row of bottles. "No, no, no which one is strongest - how about that dark one at the end?" Confused, the barman pointed again to another bottle. The arrogant red-faced man settled for something in the end but I just couldn't believe that someone could behave like such a twat.
I offered the barman a sympathetic smile and ordered another drink...in my best Spanish.
Enter stage left: 3 VERY overweight European ladies (probably in their late 60s) wearing tight white shorts and flannelette floral blouses. They plonked themselves down heavily and comically at the table behind us and ordered a round of cocktails, and with the click of a fat finger summoned the band to the floor to perform songs on request - the classics.
Oh good God, I thought to myself, as the atmosphere suddenly changed. What is this place?
From the corner of my eye I saw that the largest of the 3 had her arm draped around a Cuban man of about 35-40 years old. With one hand rested precariously on her knee and the other hand firmly gripped around a bottle of beer, he just sat and stared ahead, dead behind the eyes, as the ladies chatted. I nudged Seamus to look. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. There's prostitution, and then there's prostitution. I mean, I felt really sorry for the man. I then noticed a younger guy, perhaps 17 years old, sitting at the same table, only a safer more respectable distance away from the other ladies. It was embarrassing and hysterical and wrong. Just wrong! I was surprised and shocked at how open this was.
Wallets and stomachs empty, we went home to our Casa and sat on the roof terrace looking out over Trinidad, smoking our cigars, wondering what the next few days would bring.
I was keen to meet our host, Julio Munoz. One of the reasons I had chosen Casa Munoz over all the other Casas in the area was because of what I had read about this man's work. Julio wears many hats - mainly a cowboy hat - reinventing himself with every economic and political shift that has threatened to sink his Island since the 1980s. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union Julio ditched his career as an electrical engineer to run a Casa and photography workshop. Julio is also a horse whisperer and founder of 'The Diana Project' - a charity for horses.
Julio - Entrepreneur and Businessman
After a filling breakfast we headed for the door to see what day-time Trinidad had to offer. Julio stopped us and enquired after our evening. He cringed when we told him what bar we ended up in - clearly a mistake. He asked us what we thought of Cuba so far. I wasn't sure what to say really as our experience had varied and it was way too early to get into a conversation about politics, so I said "I love it!"
"Really?" was his response. I paused..."It's complicated" I said.
"In half an hour I am delivering a lecture to some Americans in the house - you should join us" said Julio. Something told me this was too good an opportunity to miss, so I waited for the Americans to show. Half an hour later 20 or so Americans entered the house to hear Julio's life story; what it meant to be a Cuban living in Trinidad, his work as a photographer and a horse whisperer.
Julio has worked with some of the best street photographers in their field: Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey and British photographer Keith Cardwell, to name but a few. He runs workshops from his home in Trinidad, taking people out on photography expeditions around town. Another one of his passions is horses.
Julio explained how he started his career as an electrical engineer, specialising in telecommunications. His career sadly ended in 1992 (The Special Period), when the Soviet Union collapsed, leaving Cuba in a state of economic crisis. The government had to act quickly to overt a complete economic meltdown and allowed the opening of small private businesses, for example private accommodation (B&B style Casas), and paladars (restaurants). Julio couldn't afford the salary the government was paying him and so decided to convert his home into accommodation for tourists.
However, the government didn't like people earning their own money, as money represented power and the seed of the evil capitalism, and so they imposed strict rules to prevent people from making too much money, according to the specific business they ran. If you rented rooms in a Casa for example, you could only rent a maximum of 2 rooms with a maximum of 2 people per room. People were also limited to running 1 business, and in some cases people who had set up a business, subsequently had it shut down because the government decided that there were too many of the same business in that area.
In the last 5 years, since Fidel Castro's brother Raul took the reigns, a system of change has slowly been introduced and the strict regulations have been lifted somewhat. Now Julio can rent any number of rooms he wants and hire staff. Since this political shift, Julio has renovated and now rents out 2 additional rooms, and is planning to extend and build another 3 rooms. He also has plans to open a restaurant.
A Cuban's Fight for Every Opportunity
Later on that day I gave Julio the low down on my experiences and opinions of Cuba. I told him about the wonderful people I had met in Cuba so far, and the Jineteros of Havana. I told him how amazed I was at how passionate and determined the Cuban people are.
Julio explained that Cubans have to seize every opportunity that passes them, as there is simply no telling which way the government will turn. There is every possibility that the government will take everything away from the people again, depending on what happens after Raul.
Now the Cuban people have been given the opportunity to build lives for themselves they live in fear of the threat of it all being taken away from them. The threat is very real.
The Cuban Wedding
Women ran around the house shouting for the bride, "Maria, Maria!" Doorbells rang, people came and went. Preparations were well under way for the Munoz event of the century!
This event seemed a bigger deal to Julio and Rosa, who explained to me that when they got married there was no photography, no party, no event. They got married in the early 90s during The Special Period, so this really was a huge event for them too, and I could sense Rosa's tension as she busily went about making sure everything was perfect.
Our invitation said 6 pm, so naturally I assumed that our invitation was for the evening reception only...oh no, we were invited to the whole event which was to take place on the roof terrace of the best restaurant in town, with views over Trinidad and the Caribbean.
We arrived at the venue, nervous and not knowing what to expect. A lady who was staying at our Casa, who I knew spoke English caught my eye. We smiled and I thought that later I would go and chat to her and see how it was that she and her husband who she was with knew the Munoz family. Were they in the same position as us? Strangers invited to a small, intimate family wedding?
Maria arrived at the venue at 8 pm. Weddings start late in Cuba!
The vows, the speeches, performances, cutting of the cake, the first dance and a special ceremony involving an exchange of candles between parents of the bride and groom, was all over with in under an hour! It was really beautiful but over so quickly!
When the music started blasting and the party really started we headed downstairs. I saw the lady from our Casa and headed over to introduce myself. Her name was Liz and she and her husband, Brendan were friends of the Munoz family. They travelled from Vancouver with their young son especially to attend the wedding. It was also an opportunity for Brendan to research and update some of his writing for the next edition of Lonely Planet.
This is what happens in Cuba. You meet amazing people, you find yourself in amazing, unexpected situations. Every day you learn something new. Cuba is one of the craziest countries I have ever been to in my life. I have never wanted to leave a country so much and yet 2 weeks after leaving I am still thinking about it. I miss the people, the food, the Casas. I miss it!
However, it's time for a mental rest, it's time for Mexico. I'm not sure if I will ever return to Cuba again but I appreciate what this country has given me, in so short a time.
Cuba is a ride I will never forget. Long live Cuba.