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Towns That Go Down a Storm
Trinidad, Cuba

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Even when it can't offer postcard-perfect skies, Cuba has charm to spare, says Sarah Shuckburgh.

As we arrive in Havana, a hurricane is approaching from the west. The Atlantic ocean looks grey and menacing, and huge waves splash over the 6-mile Malecón seawall. Shops and galleries are closed, and my friend Orna and I wander the streets, watching as workmen nail plywood across doors, and stick parcel-tape on window-panes. Caught in a sudden shower, we shelter in an aptly-named bar, La Lluvia de Oro – golden rain. The bar is packed with smiling Habaneros, shaking maracas and dancing to the music of a nine-piece band. Hurricanes are part of life for Cubans, and nothing can dim their extraordinary exuberance.

We decide to head east, out of the path of the storm. Leaving Havana, we drive along empty roads, past mango and orange groves, through straggling villages of one-storey shacks. People wave at us from their rocking-chairs. Others sit on their porches having their hair cut, or playing music. Isolated blocks of flats loom, grey and bleak in the barren countryside. There is almost no traffic apart from the odd bicycle, some horse-drawn carts laden with hay, occasional tractors carrying passengers. Clusters of people wait on verges and under shady bridges, hoping for a lift. Vultures wheel in the blustery sky.

After several hours, we cross a scrubby ridge and drive down to the coast road, where surf crashes on to a rocky beach. This is the Caribbean, but it looks like the North Sea - opaque and churning, with white horses rising with the gusts of wind. Tree stumps and ruined shacks mark the path of another recent hurricane. High winds end any hopes of snorkelling in calm turquoise waters.

We are heading for the colonial town of Trinidad, now a World Heritage Site. Trinidad was founded by pirates in the early 16th century, but its golden age came with sugar plantations in the 1700s. When slavery ended, the town fell into decline but the colonial architecture survived and many buildings have now been restored.

Our driver drops us at a sky-blue ‘casa particular’, an 18th century sugar-planter’s house. Our landlady, Yolanda, answers the door wearing a nightie and slippers, and welcomes us into a series of lofty rooms with stenciled walls, wooden ceilings, chandeliers, and tall windows fitted with wooden grills instead of glass. The house is crammed with religious bric-a-brac, plastic flowers and family mementoes. In our bedroom at the top of a narrow stone staircase, flimsy drapes billow with each gust of wind, and the awning on the terrace flaps noisily. A green, curly-tailed lizard eyes us from the flaking ceiling.

We set off to explore the enchanting maze of narrow streets and leafy plazas, colonnaded courtyards and dilapidated two-storey houses with startlingly bright stucco and windows outlined in broad white or terracotta stripes. The town is often crowded with visitors, but today, after several days of wind and rain, we are almost the only tourists here. At a tiny grocery shop, we watch locals hand their ration books to the elderly shop assistant, and come away with a few white eggs, a small loaf or a bar of soap.

Trinidad’s main square, the matchless Plaza Mayor, is edged with pastel-painted colonial houses. White picket fences divide the central garden from the cobbles. The Museo Romantico is a two-storey mansion in warm yellow stucco, once owned by a sugar baron. The interior is furnished as an affluent 19th century colonial home, with Spanish four-poster beds, Venetian chandeliers, Bohemian glass, Wedgewood and Meissen china, as well as local woodcarving, painted friezes and white embroidered linen. In the kitchen, blackened pots sit on the charcoal grate, and a stone water filter stands in a wooden cupboard.

The Museo Histórico Municipal was once the home of another sugar-baron, who inherited a fortune by killing a slave-trader, marrying his widow and then murdering her too. The house has lofty rooms with intricate wall paintings. From the tower, we get magnificent views over the jumble of roofs, corrugated iron awnings, washing lines and water tanks, and into tiny courtyards where women are doing laundry, cooking on outdoor ovens and serving meals to their menfolk. The sound of ‘son’ rises from a scrubby yard, where a group of musicians has gathered under the trees. Beyond, to the south, stretches the shimmering silver Caribbean, and to the north rise the wooded slopes and knobbly ridges of the Guamuhaya mountains.

The Church of the Holiest Trinity is locked for most of each day, but luckily we find a volunteer with a bunch of keys. The church’s twelve side-chapels each have a wooden altar intricately carved from local timber. In one, a rare seated Jesus mournfully awaits crucifixion, his knees bleeding after dragging the cross to Calvary. Another side-chapel contains the miraculous Jesus of the True Cross - looted by local pirates from a ship wrecked on its way from Spain to Mexico. My favourite is a carved scene of the region’s most revered saint, the mulatta Madonna of Charity, saving three fishermen in a storm at sea. Legend has it that this miracle occurred in 1628. The fishermen - an African, a native American and a Spaniard, illustrate Cuba’s multi-cultural heritage.

Orna and I stop at a Taberna for papaya milkshakes and guava-filled pastries, and enjoy an impromptu performance by locals on drums and maracas. A rusty old American car lurches past, belching black exhaust. We wander on, peeping into courtyards and alleys. Inside one doorway, white-robed devotees are placing offerings at a Santería altar. This curious Cuban religion blends African tribal beliefs with the Catholicism of Spanish plantation owners. On the altar, a black doll is surrounded by symbolic offerings of blood, rum, food and water – this is Yemayá, a black Madonna, goddess of the sea and mother of all other deities.

We pass a school, where children in blue and red neckerchiefs jostle at a window, staring at us and reaching through the bars. A teacher beckons us in, and proudly shows us the shabby concrete classrooms where rows of uniformed children are copying from blackboards, chanting in unison, or performing eurythmic exercises. On every wall hang posters of Che Guevara, whom pupils pledge, each day, to emulate.

Later, we hail a taxi-carriage and the horse sets off at a trot over the huge uneven cobbles, as we slither and bounce on the wooden seat under the canopy. The streets are free of dung because horses wear effective canvas nappies. Our cart hits a skinny dog, which yelps and scuttles to safety.

We pass makeshift stalls selling fly-strewn slabs of pork, wheelbarrows of brown bananas, young girls sitting by baskets of herbs, pizzas cooking in charcoal ovens, and an old woman dragging a black piglet on a string. Locals crouch on doorsteps, men in straw hats, women in colourful turbans, enjoying the cool breeze. The streets are lined with one-storey houses, the once-vibrant yellow, blue, green or pink stucco peeling and flaking. From this vantage point, we can see through window grids into dark, sparsely-furnished front rooms.

The horse halts outside a tobacco factory, a grim, open-sided sweatshop where rows of workers – mainly women – produce fat cigars, rolling a blend of tobacco in a binder leaf, pressing in wooden racks, and gluing a soft outer layer of fine leaves, specially grown under cheesecloth. From a lectern at the front, a worker is reading aloud – state news in the morning, and literature in the afternoon. Brands of Cuban cigars are sometimes named after books that the workers have enjoyed – Romeo y Julieta, or Montecristo.

As dusk falls, we stand on the breezy terrace outside our bedroom, listening to the sounds of dogs barking, car horns beeping, children calling, the rattle of homemade go-karts on the cobbles, the judder of a motorbike and chickens clucking. Palm trees jut above the red and yellow roofs. Small birds dart through the violet sky, as distant hills darken to a misty grey.

Yolanda cooks us supper – thin soup dotted with chunks of potato, a whole red snapper with fried plantains, yucca, rice and beans, and, for pudding, a dusty pink jelly made from local guavas, served with salty curd cheese.

After supper, Orna and I venture out again, following the throb of ‘son’ music through the cobbled streets to a small plaza by the Casa de Musica. Here we find hundreds of locals dancing to a nine-piece band, a crumbling stucco wall behind them forming an artistic backdrop. The atmosphere is electric. Elderly gentlemen in natty suits and white shoes perform passionate salsas with their snowy-headed wives, and younger dancers throw their partners with elegance, abandon and skill. We find an empty table at the open-air café and order mojitos - gaudily striped green, white and red rum cocktails garnished with mint.

The wind is getting up, and twice a power-cut plunges us into darkness. But the musicians continue undaunted, as spectators light flickering cigarette lighters or small torches. At first reluctantly, and then more confidently, Orna and I dance with an assortment of partners, old and young, groping our way back to our table with each blackout. The lights are still out at midnight as we stumble over the cobbles to Yolanda’s, and candles light us to bed. Wind and rain rage until dawn, and in the morning the electricity is still off, the flowerpots on the terrace have crashed on to their sides, and there is no water in the taps.

But outside, Trinidad glistens like a polished gem. The sun is shining from an azure sky, and a fresh breeze brushes our cheeks. The storm has passed.

First published by the Telegraph

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