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Bulletin - Vol 9 No. 1
January/February 2006


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Los Faros de Cuba - Part II

by Garry Searle, SA representative LoA Inc

If only I could wake up to this every morning - Varadero

Cubans never let a chance go wanting. Within an hour of my arrival in Maria la Gorda, I was in the bar, easing the midday heat with a cool beer, when the receptionist called out, "you had a phone call from a lady".

"Oh, I did? What was her name?" But she didn't know. So who was calling me? No one knew where I was, I thought. 

An hour later the phone rang again, "It's the lady from the car, do you want to talk to her?" Now I had had several female hitch-hikers that day, but for some reason, I thought I knew which one it was, but I just couldn't make myself understood. Spanish one way, English the other, just didn't work. I apologised and hung up. 

Checkpoint on the road to Cayo Jutias

An hour later, another call and reception asked if I wanted the call. I explained that the language barrier made it useless, so she offered to translate. Lesandra wanted to meet me the next day on a beach outside of the resort as she was not permitted in the resort grounds. I had already planned my trip to Cabo San Antonio, so I apologised and declined. I suggested I could drop in on the way back up the coast, and the meeting was arranged. 

What was I getting myself into?

I drove back into the small town of Manual Lazo and there was Lesandra, waiting. I pulled up and in she jumped, motioning me to drive on. It was a strange feeling, I was now experiencing the 'real' Cuba. I spent the next hour in the backstreets, visiting family and friends. Manual Lazo is a poor town and Lesandra was showing me off like a prime catch, her 'international friend'. I bought the souvenirs offered, took photos of the family and eventually got my tongue around the Spanish for "I need to go now". I had come prepared with that translation. As I went to get in the car, Lesandra also jumped in, "Vamos".

Lighthouse at Cayo Jutias

Vamos? I grabbed for my phrase book but quickly realised by her hand movements, that she was saying, "Let's go". Lesandra was a good deal younger than me and her father made me aware that she had her ID card with her. Well, now I was getting uncomfortable! Madly flipping through my phrase book, I said I was going to Havana, and she nodded approval, "I'm going to Havana" I repeated, "how will you get back home?" - "Autobus" she replied. I wanted no chance of ambiguity, once again I said, "I go to Havana, you return home on the bus?" "Si", she replied. I was still unsure, but we headed off toward the north coast and my next lighthouse at Cayo Jutias.

The countryside was lush and green as we crossed the mountains, making small talk now and then. In every second town we detoured to visit another friend or relative, which made the trip very interesting but long. Cayo Jutias is a small island joined to the mainland by a man-made causeway. A small resort offers white-sanded beaches, a bar with food, hiring of snorkelling equipment, and tents for those that brave the mosquitos. It is a popular holiday spot for locals. Nestled amongst the mangroves on the north side is the old lighthouse built in 1902, easily distinguishable by its yellow and black bands.

Faro Rio Santa Ana, 20km from Havana is actually a lighthouse atop of a water tank

It was getting late, and Havana was still a long way off. Local law meant that Lesandra would not have been able to stay with me in Havana and I was getting worried as to how she would get home. She struck up a conversation with a lady at the resort, who I understood to be a relative. I was offered a room for the night. $15 to stay plus $8 for a meal. 

With some reluctance I accepted, but the experience would turn out to be one of the best of my trip. The house had a bare cement floor, but, it was the cleanest piece of cement I have ever seen. It shone. Very basic items of wooden furniture, timber shutters and a thatched roof. Cooking was done in a separate room annexed to the main house, and the stove burnt wood. I was asked if I wanted a hot shower and realised when I turned the tap that the barrel of water on the floor and a cup was my shower. A smaller barrel held the heated water. The room I stayed in had a bed and one small cupboard. A shelf on the wall held several items of make-up and that was all. The Cuban people have so little, yet they are so happy. Our western ideology of more, more, more might make us feel like we have a lot, but a night in the Cuban countryside certainly raises doubt.

Faro Punta Maya - Acesso Prohibido

I said a sad goodbye to Lesandra the next day, promising to write, and made my way back to Havana and next morning headed east toward the holiday town of Varadero. On the way I picked up two locals, a lady and a man that worked in customs at the local airport. He spoke reasonable English, which was welcomed. 

Faro Punta Maya

As we drove and we approached where I thought there should be a lighthouse, I questioned him, "Do you know of a lighthouse around here"? He knew of it and soon we turned off the main road, luckily he was with me because I would never have found it on my own. As we approached we saw the large signs across the gates - "Acceso Prohibido" - and he said, "oh, no good - Military". I suggested that maybe I could ask permission to take a photo, to which he promptly replied, "I think I better come with you for that!" 

We approached the gates and caught the attention of two small children were playing in the yard, asking them to get their parents. Two men came out, motioned forward, and we walked inside. Instantly their arms went up, Stop! and pointed to my interpreter, "Only you!". The lady and myself gingerly stepped back outside the gates. 

The causeway to Cayo Coco 30kms over the horizon

After a few minutes of negotiations, the message was relayed to me, that I was able to take a photo, but only from outside of the gates. Faro Maya is a modern lighthouse, built to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the revolution. It first shone on 30 December 1988.

Cayo Coco is the jewel of the Cuba. Separated from the mainland by 26km of man-made causeway, it is inhabited mostly by tourists. Apart from the resort workers, Cubans are effectively banned. An airport accepts international flights and sadly, for some tourists this is the only Cuba they see. 

Faro Paredon Grande was a 40km drive from my resort and when I arrived I opened the car window and was 'attacked' by dozens of mosquitos, the biggest most ferocious mosquitos I have ever encountered. I quickly shut the window and swatted as many as I could. They were so bad I almost decided not to get out of the car. I pulled round closer to the tower and picked up the courage to step outside. This was also a military base and I called out to the guard in my improving Spanish. They were far less 'official' here and he called the lightkeeper, Ricardo, who greeted me with a friendly smile. 

Faro Paredon Grande

Watchroom at Paredon Grande

The rusted balcony of Paredon Grande overlooking the "poste militar"

Ricardo led me past the pigs basking in the sun, and up the rickety stairs to the base of the tower. The exterior of this poor lighthouse has not seen fresh paint in many years. Built in 1859, and standing 41m tall, the black and yellow chequered tower has huge 2m high steel-windows on every level. The view from the watch-room was spectacular. The 'tower guard' motioned me to go out on the rusted balcony, but I was content to stay inside. After the inspection he invited me in to his house to meet the other keepers and have a cool drink of water.

The lens at Paredon Grande

The "Tower guard" in front of the huge windows

Inside the lens of the Paredon Grande

Small beacon on Cayo Largo

As my trip neared its end, I was disappointed I had not been able to visit more lighthouses, but now I know what I am up against and I'm already planning my return. Cubans are a wonderful people and despite 40-year old sanctions, they lead the world in some areas of medical research, health and literacy rates. For fourteen straight years the UN has urged the United States to end the embargo, with the vote in 2005, 179-4. It is inevitable that one day soon, the country will open up, and while this will be good in many ways, the first McDonalds sign will scar the old-age beauty forever.

The room maids on my first night left me a note - "Drops of water can drill a stone, not because of its strength, but because of its consistency" - words that describe the enduring nature of Cuba perfectly.

All photographs by Garry Searle

Email Garry Searle

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