The random, flat thud of mangos falling from the trees form the backdrop of my morning soundscape for my first morning back in Trinidad, Cuba. Coupled with the gentle chatter of song birds, and the not so gentle clucking of chickens and roosters echoing from all directions, I awaken feeling life happening everywhere around me. Waking to this world again fills me with a deep peaceful comfort I’ve nearly forgotten. The clickity clack of horse hooves on the street and the familiar harkings of “Caballo,” from the horse’s driver breaks the morning’s stillness. Soon after, the first motorcycle whirs by and the day has begun in Trinidad, Cuba.
Today’s Cuba is about to begin unfolding for me. Savoring my last few moments tucked under the mosquito net in my cozy bed, I feel ready to take my first walk through the streets of Trinidad and see for my own eyes what I’ve been seeing in photographs and hearing about from friends. My taxi driver and friends here have prepared me a little bit. I’ve been hearing tons of stories of those who died during the CoVid heights and the stories of the challenges Cubans are facing today. Many of which are the same as those they’ve been enduring for generations. Some challenges are new, brought on by the economic crisis and very poor choices made by the Cuban government that are having devastating impacts on the people. Stories of hunger, of unrest, of lack of medicines, and of uncounted thousands leaving the island through dangerous routes to try to find something better. Stories of death, illness and also of overcoming.
As I leave the front gate of my casa particular, the first thing I see is a large cluster of Cubans waiting for part of their monthly rations. On occasion, the government sends extra supplies for the people to receive. It might be feminine products, or personal care items, or sometimes an extra food item to supplement their rations. They wait in long lines, or more accurately, large clusters, to get their items. Often these clusters are rife with frustrated voices, but equally as often, you’ll hear laughter and people just sharing and catching up on their daily lives with each other. More often than not it’s uneventful and just a normal part of their daily life here. It’s worse in some ways, but the same as always in some ways too.
The street is active but not bustling as I remember it. Walking from the edge of town into the center, I just slowly let the energy sink in. It’s hard to imagine how horrible it must have been here in the height of the pandemic. Being stuck inside these concrete buildings, with little air circulation, in the heat, for months on end with very little relief or entertainment and living in such close proximity to each other, I can only imagine how challenging that must have been. Most people don’t have computers or wifi, some have phones, but many can barely afford to keep them charged and working. People live right on top of each other. Most homes do not have air conditioning, some may have fans, but others maybe not.
The street is flowing with water, from a recent rain and the muck and mud and trash of the town above here has found its way down hill to settle into the cracks and holes in the street. The huge crack in the concrete of Calle Desengano is now filling in with plants as the big black tube they never got buried sits on top of the street making it impassable to anyone but pedestrians and brave cyclists who can pick their bikes up over the broken road where needed. The street has been broken up and unfinished for atleast 4 years already and still no fix or end in sight.
The energy is calm, reserved, and very different than I remember it. There is a reticent desperation in the air, a sort of apathetic fury about the situation that Cubans are now finding themselves in. It feels sad, desolate and like it’s on a decline heading towards decay. Walking through familiar streets, I move slowly just to absorb the energy of the now, here in Trinidad. Entering the center, it is surreal to see it empty. Once a bustling tourist hub, today’s Trinidad is quiet, calm, and feels more like a ghost town than the place I remember being so full of life and music. There are no musicians sitting on the corners playing for tourist tips, no horse guys trying to sell me a horseback trip, no one offering me cigars and only a few guys offering me “Taxi a la Habana, Varadero, Vinales, o Chico Cubano.” I am not that surprised, but it is still a little sad.
It feels much more like the Cuba I remember from 2012, the first year I came to Trinidad. Very few restaurants, very few tourists, quieter and more of a humble place.
Along my path, I stop in to see friends and listen to their stories. I am relieved that most of my closest friends made it through CoVid well and are strong and relatively healthy. The stories I hear all day are the same. Very limited supplies of needed items, meat prices skyrocketing to the point where people are becoming vegetarians, eating beans and rice and veggies and skipping the meats. Pork, once around 60-80 CUP, now at over 250 CUP, eggs once 5 CUP, now at 25 or 30 CUP. Most people feeling sad and alone as many of their friends either died or have left Cuba to seek out a better possibility for their lives. Horrible stories of deaths and robbery from some whose friends sold their homes for passage to the USA via Nicaragua, Mexico, etc. One friend’s friend shot in the head when asked if he could use a bathroom after the coyote (the name given to human traffickers who move Cubans across borders) had collected his $13000 passage fare. Issues with water, lack of medicines, electricity and infrastructure overlaid on all of the personal economic issues creating a time for Cubans more frustrating than any other most of them have known.
Everyone wants to leave, but many are afraid to take that journey after hearing so many horror stories. Most simply do not have the money to go. Some of my friends are noticeably thinner, having lost weight not being able to have access to meat and some foods they had previously been accustomed to. In some cases parents sacrificing their own dietary needs to feed their children.
The day goes by quickly listening to my friends stories, catching up, hugging, and crying together. By the time I wander home, I am exhausted mentally and emotionally. I am grateful that tonite I can dance it all away. I can’t help but wonder who will still be around to dance with. Entering the gate to return to my little paradise world of banana trees and falling mangos, my heart feels heavy, sad but also somehow comforted to have been able to see people I love and share stories with them in this intense time in Cuba’s history. Over a decade of memories, over a decade of friendships here, and still the Cuban people teach me so much about perseverance, survival, and more than anything, love.