We never found the key to Cienfuegos. Our stay was so vanishingly short.
We saw the way that families gather on the malecon at night, the sea-side walk, to drink and laugh and talk.
We walked the city in the day when the sun was so hot and the touts tried to steer us into the restaurants and the bicitaxi drivers called out to us.
I walked the city one night when I was more camouflaged by the dark and could wander through the dense neighborhoods away from the districts where visitors go and I could pass through the crowds of people passing the chattering night.
Cienfuegos is not a city of devices. It is not a place of zombies who are forever lulled into inanimation by the screens in their hands. I am not romanticizing the non-internet-saturated state of Cuba, but just noting how strange it first seemed when people in other cities began to serve their screen masters before all other things, and how strange the earlier condition now looks when you see it, of an entire city that is not filled with people who are mostly staring at their own hands.
I saw that in the 20 years I have been gone spandex has gone firmly out of style in Cuba. Demure dress has however not declared itself. The customs agent at the marina wore the most shocking combination of smart uniform jacket, short short skirt, and bondage/hooker stockings that I have ever seen in nine and a half years of having dealings with customs agents in various ports of the world.
Male drivers, which appears nearly to be a repetitive usage, still honk their horns hopefully/appreciatively when passing women of reproductive age. Our taxi driver made the sign of the cross before setting off on the journey back from the colonial city of Trinidad. Great, I thought to myself. Even in this land of perpetual revolution, we still get a taxi with no seat belts and a driver who trusts in equal measure to fatalism, extremely fast driving and passing on blind curves, and the sign of the cross.
We saw the way that visitors here are from another planet, are from places where the basic conditions and expectations of life are very different.
The touts and taxi drivers pursued us with great determination, but also with politeness. Cienfuegos appears to be a place where people are struggling mightily to get by, and wealthy foreigners who do not know the price of things are a great natural resource.
We were shown many restaurants priced in hard currency when we went for our one lunch out. The places were as fancy as they were deserted. When we demurred at the prices the staff immediately offered to bargain.
We found our way to a place priced in Cuban pesos that was both dirtier, though clean enough, and much busier than the hard currency places. Here my Spanish failed me when we were face with the choice of rice dishes to go with the meal. (My Spanish is, charitably, crap, and the accent is dramatically different here than it is in Chile.) Half the restaurant ended up being involved in our choice as I was reduced to pointing at plates on other tables. When the light went on and I dug up "morros and christos" - beans and rice - from my last visit here, there was a round of smiles and recognition all around the restaurant. The foreigner, he can make an intelligible sound!
When I had to run out to the bank to exchange for more pesos to pay for our meal, the teller absolutely swooned over my Australian passport. What a beautiful country! The kangaroo on the front cover!
We learned that the great Benny More, who gets regular play on our iPod, was from Cienfuegos.
And we learned that Cienfuegos is not the metropolis. It is not La Habana. There is not an easy selection of places to go hear fantastic live music that doesn't quite fit your pre-conceived notions of what you might hear in Cuba, as there was when I visited Havana 20 years ago.
We learned a few brief things about Cienfuegos. We made friends with a bartender, talking about baseball, who gave me the great heartwarming compliment of saying that my Spanish was better than his English. Alisa dove into the provisioning, as is her wont and her lot, and had a dozen little insights, buying produce from streetcarts with their ancient balance scales in pounds and standing in fruitless queues in the hot sun for eggs.
(She learned to mistrust any man wearing hot pink pants after both the bicitaxi driver who dropped her and Elias at the tchotchke market even though she was sure he had understood that she was looking for eggs [to devil for Christmas Eve] and the man making the undercooked pizzas that had her fleeing for the shade of the closest alcove, certain that she was about to vomit in the street in the middle of the packed noontime city, both were wearing hot pink pants. The alcove turned out to be the entrance to a kitchen. A kindly worker found Alisa sitting on the ground and Elias hovering uncertainty, and showed her to a chair and fanned her face until she recovered.)
Elias loved our meal in the peso restaurant unreservedly. We each had a salad and a heaping plate of rice and a plated of grilled pork or fish and boiled yucca and a pitcher of guava juice to go around. The pitcher of water that we began with elicited an idle family conversation about microbiological provenance. Alisa and Eric ended up paying the price, heavily and for days. Elias and I got lucky. That was the best lunch I ever ate, he said immediately after we were done and I had returned from the bank to pay. He didn't have to regret at the experience the way that his brother and mother did.
We saw the way that people in the restaurant treated us with dignity. Foreigners weren't unknown there, in the middle of the old city, but they weren't an everyday occurrence in that particular peso restaurant. The man and girl working in the restaurant weren't used to dumbing down their Spanish for visitors, and were visibly amused at our incoherence, but also dealt with us as individual people and not one of a class of not-quite-humans of another sort.
And, ultimately, we learned once again in Cienfuegos that we are not city people. After a few days we were quite ready to bugger off for the first deserted anchorage that we could find.
This post was sent via our high-frequency radio as we're far from internet range. Pictures to follow when we reach internet again. We can't respond to comments for now, though we do see them all!