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Posted February 28, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Travel

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By DEIDRE D’ASARO | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Last year, AJC staffer Deidre D’Asaro and her husband, Raul Martinez, visited his family, who live on this side street in Pinar del Rio, Cuba.

Hey, that guy is holding up some kind of bird.” I yawn, sunburned and sleepy as we zoom past hopeful figures waving avocados, plantains and more along Cuba’s main highway, or autopista. “Is that a buzzard?”
“Turkey!” my husband exclaims as he whips our rental car into a U-turn, bumping over the rocky median and back toward Havana again. “Do you have any change?”
After three days frolicking on the creamy-white beaches of Cuba’s tourist playground, Varadero off limits to the average Cuban all I have is a damp $10 bill.
But now my husband, Raul, his nephew and I are heading back to the world of my husband’s family. It’s all part of my first trip to Cuba under a U.S. family visa allowing us to visit his hometown of Pinar del Rio. In my in-laws’ world, fresh turkey meat is hard to find, as is any fresh meat. Despite my lack of fluency in Spanish, I am getting a taste of that world, one unseen by most U.S. visitors.

Cuban artist Pedro Pablo Oliva in his Pinar del Rio studio. At left is his controversial masterwork, “The Great Blackout,” which Cuban authorities consider a national treasure but won’t let him display in public.

What I discover is that some tastes are definitely worth missing. After gagging on some spongy government-ration “mystery meat” the week before, I understand my husband’s eagerness to stock his parents’ larder. And so we shop like thrifty locals, ready to leap whenever opportunity waves.
But our turkey windfall runs into a snag. The seller, a farmer with a wrinkled face and screechy voice, says he does not have change for a $10. El Nio, as my husband likes to be called, is scandalized by my blithe suggestion that we make the man’s day and let him keep it.
“Eh, Nia, you don’t know what you are saying,” he grumbles, reminding me a $10 bill is worth about 270 pesos, for many Cubans the equivalent of a month’s pay. So Nio, his nephew and the farmer walk off gesturing to the farmer’s home. They return with three plump, trussed-up white chickens in addition to the turkey, all very much alive and less than thrilled about a car ride.
My beach towel is soon covered with feathers and droppings. Worse yet, one of the chickens escapes its trusses, and then another, just as we enter the Pinar city limits. Pedestrians are startled by glimpses of a wild-eyed turista, covered in feathers and more, chasing chickens in the back of a Peugeot.
Tourist trail
Adaptability is a key survival skill in Cuba, for visitors but especially for residents. Utility services can cut off with little or no notice, for days at a time. And while access to goods and services has improved since the pereodo especial, or special period right after the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of Russian subsidies, the quality is poor and deliveries unreliable.
So shortly after we arrived in Cuba, when the water trucks failed to show up for the third day in a row (thanks to the U.S. trade embargo, we were told), and my in-laws’ cistern ran dry, we took this as a sign. It was time leave the city for a few days and follow the well-beaten path of European tourists to the surrounding province of Pinar del Rio.
For those willing to take a one-hour side trip off the main highway between Havana and Pinar, lush Soroa awaits in the foothills of the Sierra del Rosario. The 60-foot waterfall is well worth the hike, and visitors can swim in the pond at its foot. The town also features an orchid garden and botanical park.
Next, we checked out the legendary tobacco fields and nubby limestone mogote formations of Viales Valley, a 17-mile drive from Pinar del Rio. At the hotel Los Jazminez, which boasts an amazing view of the valley, a sparkling pool and working bathrooms restored our faith in plumbing. (A double room without breakfast usually goes for $48.)
An unfortunate dining experience at the Don Tomas House restaurant in the historic town of Viales reminded us of the fundamental flaw of most Cuban restaurants: They’re government-owned. When we ordered the house specialty, seafood paella, at the hefty tourist price of $10 each, the bowls came out half full and bereft of seafood. We found out later that the employees have a reputation for taking the seafood home to their families.
Most Cubans who want to dine out (and tourists in the know) seek out paladares, or mini-restaurants, in private homes. Often connected to the Cuban equivalent of a B&B, paladares are among the few private businesses that Cubans can operate, and they are heavily taxed. They must rely on word-of-mouth advertising, and many owners hire runners to watch for tourists.
In Pinar del Rio city, we visited Pasimon paladar/B&B and feasted on fresh seafood and vegetables cooked by the owner, Papito, and his wife, Belkys, all for a fraction of the cost of our dismal Don Tomas experience. (Dinner is $5-$8; a room for two plus breakfast can cost $20.)
Hitchhikers welcome
On the trip from Pinar del Rio to Varadero, we see a man on a moped catch a free ride, saving gas by hanging on to the side of a horse cart as it creaks down the highway.
Huge open-air trucks double as buses and are required to pick up hitchhikers between loads. The number of Cubans we see walking and traveling is in sharp contrast to tourist-only Varadero, where police patrol the streets regularly, requesting IDs. Cubans who don’t work there are told to leave within two days or risk being shipped out to the far provinces.
Tourists are pretty much left alone, and since blond Nio and his nephew look like Germans, both can walk into many of Varadero’s resorts without being challenged. My husband, a new American citizen, even qualified for free drinks at an all-inclusive resort, much to his delight.
“Fidel Castro buys you a drink, Nia!”
Cuban motorists are encouraged to pick up hitchhikers, and groups of people surge into the highway attempting to flag us down.
El Nio is reluctant, given reports of robberies of some generous tourists, but we stop on a trip about a mile outside Pinar to pick up two women, one carrying a child with a bandage on his heel. It’s an ugly gash, thankfully on the mend, but the women are more concerned over some unexplained puffiness on his face. They are heading to the city to look for a hospital with more supplies than the rationed bandages at their country clinic.
“If we didn’t pick them up, who knows how long they would have had to wait?” Nio said. “One hour? A day?”
Art and politics
Before visiting Cuba, I was intrigued to learn that several Cuban artists popular in Europe and South America live in Pinar del Rio. Often, collectors from these countries will combine a trip to Cuba’s beaches with a side trip to buy directly from the artists.
A childhood friend of my husband, Maikel Martinez Polo, a painter who specializes in oil landscapes, arranged for us to visit several artists, including the nearby home of one of Cuba’s more famous names, Pedro Pablo Oliva.
Oliva, who studied in Pinar and Havana and has exhibited internationally for three decades, is known for his whimsical works combining childhood images with a surreal edge.
Even though his pieces have commanded top prices at Sotheby’s and Christie’s art auctions, Oliva is a Cuban patriot who has chosen to stay to be near family and friends. He has a beautiful villa and studio in downtown Pinar, thanks to government recognition of his stature. But his precarious relationship with the regime is on view as soon as you enter his studio.
There hangs his huge and controversial canvas “El Gran Apagon” or “The Great Blackout,” considered by some to be his masterwork, the Cuban version of Picasso’s protest piece, “Guernica.”
In Oliva’s work, a caricature of Castro sits in a long tunnel with his eyes shut, surrounded by real and imaginary figures, including floating eyeballs. Oliva painted it in the early 1990s during the worst of times that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 1996, the painting was displayed in Havana’s National Museum of Fine Arts, generating such strong reaction among Communist officials that they barred it from public view. It has hung in his private studio ever since.
Despite the somewhat somber tone of his work, Oliva was open and welcoming, showing off his latest projects and even introducing us to his grandchildren. He hinted he might be willing to sell “The Great Blackout,” as long as it went to a place “where it can be seen by all.” But since the government has declared his masterwork a national treasure that must not leave the country, his options are limited.
Tomasina the turkey
Near the end of our two-week visit, I finally noticed that even though the chickens we had bought on the highway were long gone, my mother-in-law’s freezer contained no poultry. I later discovered the meat had been stored with various relatives to spare my feelings.
The turkey, which I had named Tomasina during our wild ride together, still stalked the deck, solemnly pecking at bread crumbs. My in-laws’ willingness to humor my softness for animals was touching and somewhat embarrassing. Everyone seemed to have developed an aversion to eating turkey.
“Nino, it’s not a big deal,” I urged. “I know they need that turkey for food. Please, just tell them they can kill it if they need to.”
“My father says there’s no hurry, Nia, they can wait. He knows you like the turkey,” Nio said. “Besides, he likes Tomasina’s name.”
Finally we decided to take Tomasina to a friend’s farm in Viales, where she could run free with other poultry. The farmer’s wife, Maria, stared at us, frankly baffled as Nio explained the situation. You could see the turkey’s life span shorten to the amount of time it would take for her to get us out the front door, and a pot on to boil.
“Oh, and her name is Tomasina,” Nio added in Spanish.
“Tomasina?” Maria paused, considering, and then broke into a grin. “Bueno, Tomasina!”
“Eh, Nia, she likes the name,” Nio said, as he drove through malanga fields on our way back to town. “Maybe you’ll see your pet turkey next year.”

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