Adventures in Trinidad

The Great Bus of China pulls up to the pottery shop in Trinidad, which Ariadna describes as the “second-hottest city in Cuba” (the hottest being Santiago de Cuba). By “hot,” she doesn’t mean Brooklyn Hot—trendy, clogged with deluxe baby strollers and free-Wifi cafes. She means sun-beaten, breath-stealing hot.

The heat here doesn’t help the water situation. Water here, as in Cienfuegos, comes by truck. It comes from rivers, reservoirs and wells; for apartment buildings, it’s pumped up into towers that look like big concrete mushrooms. Ariadna says that, in most towns, you can expect a delivery every three or four days.

Ariadna and her sister share an apartment in Cienfuegos, and the water is often delivered early Sunday morning, around 2 a.m. Sundays are therefore Laundry Day, because there’s enough water to wash clothes. The sisters store their water in a plastic 55-gallon drum; they boil and filter and chlorinate the portion they’ll drink or cook with.

The problem with Trinidad is that the residents use more water because of the heat, so they have to be more conservative with it.

All of which makes me loathe to complain about the hotel’s morning trickle of cold shower water. It beats taking a bath in a teacup.

But back to the pottery shop in Trinidad: ChiChi Santander is descended from a dizzyingly long line of potters. His big bay of a shop is a maze of shelves stacked with plates and ashtrays, and walls hung with stylized tribal masks and pitchers. Heidi says that ChiChi hints that he fought in the revolution. It’s easy to believe—both from the prosperous look of the place, and because of all the framed photos of him glad-handing generals, soccer champions, and the Castro brothers themselves.

We watch his hired potter at the wheel, a dark, sweaty man crafting a handle-less cup, designed to hold the town’s signature potion of lemon, honey, ice, and a liquor that’s something like rum. A drink called the conchonchura. The conchonchura cup is half-glazed, pleasing to the eye and sweet in the hand; I buy a pair for 2 CUC each from ChiChi himself. He is my age or older, round of belly, light-skinned, with a brusque, imperious manner.

As ChiChi wraps other purchases, his potter tells me I should see the Coche. I follow him into an adjacent room the size of an airplane hangar. He points: in the corner sits a grand white car, an early luxury horseless carriage.

I make approving noises and turn to go back to the salesroom. The potter stops me. He places a small clay piece in my hand, an un-glazed and artfully-perforated horn-shaped thing; it might be a lampshade finial or a holder for a very thin taper.

He tells me to put it in my pocket.

I move to add it to my bag, but he shakes his head. My pocket, he insists, and puts his finger to his lips.

I slip it into my pocket.

He asks me for a coin for his children.

So. He hints that we’re stealing from his boss, the big Revolutionary—although I doubt the piece is worth the secrecy—then he solicits a donation for his part in the deed.

I give him a half-CUC, which doesn’t make him ecstatic, and walk back into the store.

I’m sipping a Conchonchura from the shop’s little bar when Heidi shows up. “I have an interesting story for you,” I say.

“Oh?” she says. “Did you lift the cloth?”

“What cloth?”

She brings me to a shelf full of kitchy statuettes. ChiChi joins us. One of the figures is of a seated man, leaning back, and there is a cloth in front of him. Heidi lifts it, and ChiChi laughs.

The man is supporting an enormous, erect limb that is not his leg.

I raise my eyebrows and pat the figure on the head—¡quel formidable!—and ChiChi roars.

He picks up an animal figurine; from the mold hole in the bottom bobs a smaller version of the same anatomical feature.

He moves to a third figure—a man with a large basket in his lap. He lifts the basket.

Guess what’s underneath.

I forget to tell Heidi about the potter’s gift.

Back on the Great Bus of China: our next stop is a museum in the center of Trinidad—which is indeed stifling hot—that boasts a collection of odd historic what-nots. I pass dusty portraits, dark furniture and a creepy collection of faded stuffed birds posed on branches in a waist-high glass case, and climb the stairs to the roof with Paul.

The roof view is spectacular. Trinidad is a World Heritage site: vintage buildings surround a plaza paved with stones. It’s dominated by a yellow church built in what Aridna calls the “neo-classical style.” Nearby stands a lone tower, the spire of another church that’s no longer there.

It is the tower on the pee-pee Coin.

The pee-pee Coin is a quarter-CUC, and you have to hand one to an attendant anytime you use a bathroom. It’s always this coin; the entire island of Cuba has united to demand one quarter-CUC to take a leak. And if you don’t have it, nobody will give you change.

I need to spend a pee-pee coin when I come down from the roof. I cross the sun-bleached courtyard, with its pots of tropical plants, past a museum clerk who sits embroidering a set of napkins—just in case we’d like to buy them for a mere 5 CUC, Senora—and locate the facilities.

This is my second day in Cuba, and I have already used several public bathrooms. They are overpriced at a quarter-CUC. They feature a toilet with no seat, no paper (unless the attendant gives you a few squares, or maybe a napkin), a wastebasket next to the toilet for used paper, cold tap water and, at most, a grubby white cloth towel that might be the source for the island’s current Cholera outbreak.
This museum bathroom has no flush and no faucet. I come out, and the attendant tells me to hold my hands over a plastic 55-gallon drum of water. She dips a glass in it and pours water over my hands. She then fills a small bucket from the drum and disappears into the stall. I hear a slosh, then a flush.

Tonight we have our first taste of Cuban food prepared in a private restaurant. There is a popular Brazilian telenovela—a soap opera—in which a woman starts her own restaurant and names it Paladar. “The word does not mean anything in Spanish,” Ariadna tells us.

When the Cuban government first permitted limited private enterprise during the Special Period, Cubans appropriated the name Paladar to describe any private restaurant.

Cuba is now in its second Revolution-era bloom of paladars. That first time around, the government restricted the number of tables and the variety of food that could be served. All personnel had to be related to the owner. The government then gradually raised monthly license/tax fees until they were so high that most paladars were forced out of business.

These days, paladars can be larger, more menu items are permitted, and the staff do not have to be cousins and uncles. The fees are more reasonable, but still high enough to boost prices beyond the means of most locals.

The paladar Villa Lagarto, which means lizard, is on the water, an easy walk from the hotel. Near the sidewalk, a young man labors under the hood of a vintage Chevy BelAir.

Every man in our group halts to ogle the car. The owner proudly explains that everything on it is original, and it has been passed down his family until, at last, it is his. His wife and kids stand awkwardly, arms full of water toys and towels, as he talks car with his audience. He starts the engine; it explodes to life with a roar worthy of its tailfins. Once his wife finally convinces him to leave, our guys turn reluctantly from the machine and we enter the Lagarto.

A big blue-green sculpture of a lizard poses over an empty pool just inside the entrance. We are given Welcome Drinks and menus that offer pork—a roasted pig leg sits on display, to Paul’s discomfort—but also shrimp, lamb, rabbit and chicken.

The shrimp are small and garlicky, a nice change from rice and beans. They come with white rice and a watery slice of braised pumpkin. Cake and a bit of flan for dessert; a tiny shot of banana liquor after, in the style of the Canary Islands.

A feast, for here. I wonder how the owners got the food.