CUBA LIBRO – May 16, 2016

How hot is it? It is fucking hot, it is. Too hot to use an active verb. Though it has been exceedingly warm since we arrived, this is our first exposure to ‘beastly’. We’ve got a field trip planned to the city of Trinidad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Back on the bus, writers: hats and sunblock all around.

Tim leads us to a shady courtyard where we listen to Nancy Benitez, the former head of Trinidad’s department of historic preservation, describe the vicissitudes of funding a restoration project of this magnitude in a country this complex. The city was a third municipality established by the Spanish in the 16th century and long thrived as a center of the sugar industry. Numerous factors led to its decline and, by the 19th century, its complete isolation from the rest of the island. As a result, Trinidad contains one of the largest repositories of vernacular earthen Caribbean architecture in the world. This brings busloads of tourists, whose impact is a mixed blessing.

From there, we skitter through the scorching streets to a Santeria holy place, Templo Yemalla. The antechamber has cool whitewashed walls with blue lines and symbols. It is empty, except in the middle of the room sits a black doll in christening robes on a small chair. This is perplexing, spooky, and off-putting. Santeria is an Afro-Cuban religion that seems to nestle within Catholicism. Yoruba deities were carried by slaves from what is now Nigeria and given the trappings of Catholic saints, allowing their beliefs to hide in plain sight. The rituals and practices of Santeria align with the forces of nature. Five primary gods correspond to the natural elements.

Yemalla is the Great Mother. Yemalla shares many of the attributes of the Virgin Mary, however, she has power over the moon, the oceans, and fertility. In the corner of the next room, a shrine to Yemalla rises almost to the ceiling. A figure of a black woman wears flowing blue robes that drift down to the floor. Her symbols lay at her feet: an anchor, the phases of the moon, flowers, and water in crystal goblets. And in her hands, a white baby. Tim has arranged for the Templo’s santero to explain the precepts of Santeria. The two of them perform a captivating duet in Spanish and English, Cubano y Norte Americano. Any misgivings I might have had are laid to rest, yet despite the santero’s protestations, I know chicken sacrifice continues to play a significant role in Santeria.

Before lunch, there’s free time to wander the burning streets. I poke my head into a couple souvenir shops that all carry the same crap. Tourist tchotchkes never vary. I hear music. Around a corner, I spy Alden sitting under a tree next to a trio of heartbreakingly melodious musicians – guitar, maracas, strange sit-on bass – playing Yolanda. I buy the CD. This is where I confess to loathing Guantanamera. Cubans believe tourists never tire of it. Often, in restaurants, the house band will play this song in heavy rotation with itself. I am tempted to request Edelweiss or In the Year 2525.

Tim lures us, sweaty and cross-eyed, to yet another locale in Trinidad, a B&B whose owner has an interesting story. No one gives a shit. The one thing I remember is that he had two horses, one he kept as a house pet. I submit to bobble-headedness, while Dona dials it way way back from behind her Capitol One shades.

From there, we wobble to 3794. Airconditioning! Before we return to Rancho Luna, it is ordained we stop at a ruined sugar plantation. Dedicated Cubans from Cienfuegos are trying to restore the plantation to tell the story of sugar on the island. It was owned by a family of Bostonians, bulwarks of the Cuban-American sugar trade for seventy years. Sugarcane and its refining was the source of Cuba’s fantastic wealth for centuries until the Revolution brought the industry down. This plantation seems romantic and bygone even though it is a mere shell. Tim buys us all chocolate ice cream, which we squeeze and slurp and dribble spoonlessly from plastic cups while cooing with contentment. Intimations of refreshment.

We flee Rancho Luna’s restaurant yet again and, on our way to Cienfuegos, Bus 3794 stops to pick up a guy who’s organized what amounts to a local Little League. As we bounce along, he describes the state of the game in Cuba, baseball in Cienfuegos (its team is called the Elephants), and his own career. He’s got some hats and shirts from Cuban teams to sell and some of us, as instructed, have brought along batting mitts to help alleviate the grievous equipment shortage.

Our second-to-last meal is a pig roast and our destination, Palacio de Valle, is Moorish Castle cum restaurant that is as fabulous as anything Scheherazade might conjure up. A sugar potentate had built this for his wife. Its grounds are much compromised by a parking lot and a blocky hotel, but the mansion harkens back to a time of great extravagance. In the shaded patio, a pig turns on a spit. Roast pork, cracklins, and conversation – delicious.

We’ve spent a week with writing on the page, so, with Alden’s encouragement, we meet in a gazebo on the beach to give our short pieces a voice in the moonlight. This gathering is a perfect culmination to the workshop. I read my page-long description of the Lady Yeti’s performance at the Slipper Room. Buenas Noches, mis amigos.

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