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"'You're right.' he proclaimed, and proceeded to take our partially eaten food over to the next table."
- Kirk Stephan

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Cambodia

An Iowa Yankee in King Castro's Court
by Kirk Stephan, in Cuba, from Iowa, USA
Mar 29, 2000

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We reached the charming but run-down town of Ciego de Avila and spent a couple of nights. Not much to say about this slightly drab community with as many horse-carts as cars. I decided to take the local bus for Cubans , the "gua-gua", from there on. This clunker took twice the time the tourist bus did but the open windows and conversation with Cubans made the trip a pleasure in comparison. The fat turkey buzzards perched on telephone poles were cool. The snowy white ibis in the fields sat on the backs of their Brahma bull partners and contemplated the world of tasty bugs...

The people grab their freedom and independence where they can, so the non-motorized road traffic is a sight: Bicycles, pedestrians and horse or bull-driven carts vie for possession of the highway. Just before what seemed like an imminent crash, our bus would blare its horn at the upstart, then brake to a stop with a sigh from the driver as they failed to take notice. I never saw one person move over, swerve, or even flinch at these risky encounters. We were hours late but the ride was great fun.

Holguin in the early evening was fascinating; hundreds of people milled about the close, quiet, streets and parks. The bicycle-taxi man said it was known as the "city-of-parks" and they appeared regularly every 2 or 3 blocks. Jose, my seat-mate on the bus, lived here and showed me to a great apartment about a mile from downtown. I slept like a log there every night, the only sounds coming from my goat, pig and chicken neighbors.

One day we were sitting at the patio table talking when the neighbor-woman fell off the roof. The sudden crashing 'thud' was horrible. No one knew what had happened until she moaned. Then we all screamed and yelled and men from the neighborhood rushed over to try to extract her broken body from the rubble.

The poor lady broke both her legs, one arm and a little finger. The only nice thing about this scene was watching the quick, helpful neighbors and hearing later that she'd reached doctors and hospital within minutes. We all worried over and discussed her pain and whether she'd be able to breast-feed her new 2-month old baby. Two days later she's recovering nicely because of that immediate attention; and her milk is flowing!

These people respond to and accept anything and everything with an alacrity that stupefies this hesitating and cogitating Yankee. The "bici-taxis", all over the country, aren't allowed to carry foreigners but take the chance anyway. They risk a huge fine and possible loss of their vehicle, but if anything at all they're gamblers at heart.

The people have been ordered not to socialize with us and usually have a grim countenance (if any eye contact at all) until spoken to. Then their huge smiles shine out and warm you right up. Of course there are some too nervous to do it in public. This is a shame, being here.

I'm staying in Holguin with Pedro, who has a large 1946 Chevrolet gasoline truck which he uses to transport people back and forth to nearby towns. After fuel and special license costs, he ends up making about what everybody else does: about $18-20/month. His daughter Illeanna is a dynamo and runs the house-hold. She's a great cook and organizer. It was she who took charge of the neighbor-rescue mission the other day. She stayed with the woman and held the baby throughout the ordeal.

Her husband Rolando, and son, both work in a bakery, making the fairly tasteless Cuban loaves of bread that I won't miss, but those folks I truly will.

After a week and a second thwarted attempt to jump the national train down to Santiago, I gave up. Both times the train was broken and not running. I ended up hiring a 1969 Muscovy (Russian cars, along with the old Yankee ones, seem to proliferate) and driver for $30.

The scenery in the far Oriente province suddenly became spectacular. Most of Cuba is relatively flat and monotonous. It's also rather depressing as it lacks agriculture and livestock. Here, though, the fields became lush with tropical food and fruits. Bananas everywhere. White Brahma cows roaming about. But the shape of the land is what really took my breath away. Sudden drops into valleys and rises to steep mountainous highs show the tumultuous volcanic history of this region.

Then, down one bend and up a single rise, we were in the real tropics. The cool cloudy sky was left behind and we were in the hot, steam bath of true jungle climate. The temperature rose 20 degrees in that mile...

Heading back to Havana

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