To purchase a copy

Title: High Up in the Rolling Hills
Author: Peter Finch

Category: Biography, memoir, manifesto, sustainable living
Format: Trade paperback, hardcover, ebook
Publication Date: April, 2013
Pages: 204
Recommended Price: $17.95 softcover, $27.95 hardcover, $9.95 pdf
Trim: 8.5 x 5.5 inches
Available from: iUniverse; Amazon in Canada, United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan, Brazil; Barnes & Noble; Borders; Chapters Indigo in Canada
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Thursday, 5 March 2015

Impressions of Cuba. Part 1, Trinidad.

When we go out from our selves and wander further afield we discover out there a world of wonder as we open our eyes to the other, the exotic, the wild, and close our ears to the noise around us, streamed and screamed by those that lord over us, passing legislation we didn’t ordain…
How sweet it is to escape to where joy in living prevails and a happy greeting on the street is oh so genuine and just…understood; simple life, honest people, salt of the earth, just trying to be, resiliently.
Given the gift of life, we all need a seat at the table where love is served.

Trip planning started last summer with a perusal of airfares to Mexico, Lanzarote, Mallorca, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Chile… all $1,200 plus and most involving a stopover in the United States. No thanks. Then, this thought surfaced from the recesses of memory. What about Cuba? We had always wanted to go, with friends having recommended it highly. However, some nagging doubt always got in the way and other destinations pushed themselves to the front of the line. Mexico, the Greek islands, Costa Rica, Andalusia won out. This time, the $420 airfare and the 3-hour direct flight were a gift we couldn’t pass up. When the United States government announced a proposed easing of its embargo, we knew we had made the smart choice. Going now, we would be able to observe a country that had to date endured 56 years of punitive restrictions via a blockade led by the United States, but followed by most nations of the western world.

Power in the island nation had been doggedly held by Fidel Castro and then his elder brother Raul since the socialist revolution of 1959.  To travel there now would be to capture a rare moment in history, where the pace of change had slowed to a crawl, where life went on much as it had some sixty years prior, but where change was imminent. Through the embargo years, some Cubans have found a way to access the outside world of communications and consumer goods only through great ingenuity.

At the end of January, we departed Toronto just as the cold and snow of winter were intensifying. A window of bright green, sun-dappled vegetation opened between the clouds as the plane banked to land in Varadero. Our first casa particular awaited us in a backwater a taxi ride away from the coastal strip of endless sand beaches.  The elegant house and inner courtyard were an oasis of tranquility and charm and our host family very welcoming. Home-cooked dinner consisted of a wonderful lobster cocktail followed by succulent fresh shrimp.

The next morning, our first waking up to bright Cuban sunshine, there was an early start with our hosts kindly driving us to the bus station. Eager to get off on the right foot, we had pre-booked our 6-hour Viazul bus journey to Trinidad on the south coast. Viazul has large buses covering the main tourist destinations in Cuba, namely Havana, Varadero, Cienfuegos, Camaguey, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad, Viñales. They have a reputation for being reliable and punctual, although their routes take them meandering from town to town with frequent stops, which makes for lengthy journey times. Despite having pre-booked tickets, the check-in process was a nightmare and in my desperation to get on the imminently-departing bus, I jumped in front of a livid Frenchman to show my ticket. The first towns we drove through were shocking in their stark state of disrepair. Deserted streets, unpainted crumbling facades, no vegetation. In contrast, the countryside was a patchwork of fields of rice, cane sugar, bananas, pasture, and fallow, with horse-and-cart, bicycle, collective truck the preferred modes of transportation. We made stops in Santa Clara and Cienfuegos, both large bustling towns, and the latter is said to be very beautiful with its French grid layout and coastal location. The bus then climbed to the foothills of the Sierra del Escambray mountain range before descending again to the verdant coast and sparkling sea en route to Trinidad.

Our accommodation in Trinidad was another pre-booked casa particular. It is located on a street down the hill from the bus station, historical centre, and cultural hub. Trinidad is a small charming town best explored on foot. Over the coming days we would traverse the streets time and again, often pausing to look up, wonder, and snap shots. The town is so photogenic with its red-tiled roofs, vibrantly-coloured frontages, cobblestone paving, vintage automobiles, brightly-dressed locals, all backlit by deep blue sky. Trinidad is teeming with tourists and tourist buses, and each species comes generally over-sized and excessive in number. It is hard to find a seat when a bus unloads its contents and swarms an eatery or drinkery. The musicians love it, of course, and set themselves up rapidly at restaurant entrances, starting to play their often wonderful campesino and salsa songs, as one of their entourage goes around with basket of CDs and banknotes, prompting a frenzied fumbling in pockets from wide-eyed turistas for small bills or preferably change. The mood is festive and fun with the free-flowing mojitos, piña coladas, cuba libres, rons añejo putting all in good spirits.  Five days and nights in Trinidad was a good amount of time to soak up the delights of this sweet town. Nights were lively with live music indoors and out; the restaurants we chose served a range of foods from the bland to the excellent. We particularly enjoyed dining on seafood al fresco at La Ceiba. Ceibas are often huge specimen trees in Cuba, with an enormous spread. This one is magnificent and was flowering but leafless at this time.

The beach at Playa Ancon is a bus ride away, though our frustration at the unpredictable schedule led us to take a vintage station-wagon taxi one day. The beach is clean, the acqua waters seductive. Two large hotels here cater to the all-inclusive crowd, and the appeal of a fast, extremely reasonable getaway to Cuban sun, sea and sand is clear. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the weekly farmers market in a residential area of tatty low-rises on the edge of town is essentially for locals, but a rare opportunity for us to divest ourselves of some of the national currency. However, everything here is so dirt cheap that it is impossible to spend much, with enormous cabbages for example priced at 1 peso, or 5 cents.  CUCs are Cuba’s exchange currency, with 1 CUC being pegged at $1 US. All tourists trade in this currency except when purchasing local products from locals. Most small businesses and shop owners accept only CUCs. With the Canadian dollar having recently declined in value against the greenback, our exchange rate throughout our trip was not favourable and made Cuba more expensive than anticipated.

Trinidad’s treasures are many and are mostly clustered in the old historical centre of town around the Plaza  Major, including the Museo Romántico and the Museo de Arquitectura Colonial. We most enjoyed listening to the lilting campesino music whilst people-watching at a welcoming sunny outdoor patio, mojito in hand.