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An ancient Taíno marriage ceremony in the village of Guamá on an island on Treasure Lake in Cuba. Photos by Habeeb Salloum. Click on photo to enlarge.
An ancient Taíno marriage ceremony in the village of Guamá on an island in Treasure Lake in Cuba.

Visiting an Ancient Village of the Taíno, Cuba's Original Inhabitants



“Let’s go again to re-visit the relics of the long gone Taíno Indians at Guamá,” my daughter advised during our discussion of the tours that we were going to make during our stay on Varadero Beach – Cuba’s top tourist resort spot. Although I had made half a dozen tours to Guamá through the preceding years, I still yearned to see yet again that reminder of Cuba’s past.

The next morning we were on a tour bus on our way southward toward our goal - the sugarcane fields and re­created Indian village of Guamá, on an island in the midst of the waters of Treasure Lake on the southern side of an island.

Guamá had for me fond memories. Some years before, I had traveled to this Cuban island village museum with its re-created version of Taíno Indian life. Here, amid the 21 larger-than-life sculptures depicting the lives of the original inhabitants of Cuba, for me personally, a world of fantasy had been created. 

The re-enactment of a Taíno wedding, with me chosen among the many tourists to be the groom and to be wed to a beautiful Indian maiden became an obsession for me - almost real.

We passed through Cardenas, a town of  some 79,000, which like most Cuban urban centres was neat and clean with many of the buildings newly painted. Once an important urban center, it is today a ghost town during the day; virtually all its inhabitants working in Varadero’s tourist industry. Only at night does it come alive when its workers return home to sleep.

Past the town of Jovenolla, we entered a green ocean of well-shaped citrus trees; then drove on to the edging town, which for some strange reason had been named Australia. When the sugarcane industry was in its prime this small town with its large mill was a center of production. However, in the last few years the industry has been ruined due to the low prices and many of the sugar mills have been closed – among these the one in Australia.

Dancing in the sugar cane fields
Dancing in the sugar cane fields

We visited the shop where the early 20th century steam engines that once pulled the sugar trains were repaired – now a tourist stopover.

Edging the shop, we toured a former plantation owner’s home, which is now a museum relating to the days when Castro made it his headquarters, directing the revolutionary army that defeated the U.S. supported mercenary forces that landed at the Bay of Pigs. Today, tourists crowd in to see the memorabilia of that historic episode in Cuba’s history.

Outside the museum we climbed a steam-operated tourist train and were soon on our way to the sugarcane fields. In about five minutes we were tumbling out of the train to taste the hand-peeled sugarcane offered to us by the workers.

While some of us tasted the sweet cane, others danced or listened to the lively Cuban music played by a small waiting band with the sugar cane field as a background. It was a perfect tourist scene fit for an artist’s brush.

On the train again we chugged away for a few minutes, then stopped and stepped down to watch a farmer climbing a towering Royal Palm, Cuba’s national tree. He demonstrated how the farmers climb these stately trees to harvest their fruit – not fit to eat but very nourishing for their pigs.

Climbing the Royal Palm is not as easy as it looks.
Climbing the Royal Palm

When the farmer asked who would like to try and climb the tree, seemingly a simple feat watching the farmer, a young man volunteered.  However, even with the help of the farmer, he could barely make it up a few feet.  “He thinks it’s as easy as climbing a mountain,” a young woman smiled as we boarded the train for the return journey.

Less than a half hour later while enjoying an authentic Cuban meal, I reminisced about our three hour tourist style visit to the sugar fields – a chance to look at an industry enhanced with tourist embellishments, now mostly of the past.

A half hour later, at La Boca, we toured an alligator farm containing some 10,000 of these pre-historic beasts. I was truly intrigued, not with the alligators, but with two caged endangered animal species: the Jutía, a vegetarian tree rat whose females menstruate, holding the blood back with a tree leaf between their legs; and the manjuari, a fish with lungs with an alligator head and a fish body, and which has not evolved for 3 million years.

After some of our group had tasted barbecued alligator meat that they said tasted like chicken, we boarded a vessel, which takes visitors across Treasure Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Cuba, to the Indian village.  After about 15 minutes we docked by the museum-Indian town full of statues reflecting Taíno life - a reminder of the totally eliminated non-violent people.

A recreation of an ancient Taíno village
A recreation of an ancient Taino village

When, in 1492, Columbus landed on the northeastern shore of Cuba, the peaceful Taínos received the Spaniards with hospitality. However, the Indians who had greeted him and his crew with food, drink and something new - tobacco - were soon to learn that the Spaniards were without scruples. In the ensuing decades, the savagery of the Conquistadors was without parallel. 

The Spaniards then proceeded westward slaughtering the Indians who offered any opposition. In less than 40 years, disease, war and being forced to mine for gold in brutal conditions had virtually exterminated an indigenous population of some 100 to 300 thousand.

The years rolled by and, until Castro came to power, not many Cubans were aware that their island was once the home of peaceful Indians. Among Castro's first acts was to personally supervise the construction of a 16th century Taíno village that was named Guamá after the last courageous Indian chief who fought the conquerors.

As for myself, now I was in Guamá again in search of my fantasy world - of a marriage to a Taíno bride.  Alas! The Indian wedding had not returned.  Like the Taínos who once called Cuba home, the make-believe wedding had disappeared from the face of this earth.  It was the end of my world of dreams, yet I had truly enjoyed that event-filled day.

One of the steam engines that pulled the sugar trains in the early 20th century
One of the steam engines that pulled the sugar trains in the early 20th century

Facts to Know About Cuba:

Even though still reasonably priced, Cuba has become more expensive for tourists. It is best to take an all-inclusive package deal offered by travel agencies. Autos are expensive to rent - about CUC 70.00 per day and up and gas is around CUC 1.35 per liter for the top grade. In spite of all types of shortages, Cuba is still safe; thefts are rare.

The best buys in Cuba are rum and cigars. Beware of black market cigars - often they are not authentic. Seven year-old Havana Club is the top rum in Cuba. It is smoother than brandy and sells at around CUC 12.00 a bottle. Keep your pockets full of CUCs – you need to tip for almost any service.

The only non-tipping service are the elevators – they are automatic! Food in most ordinary Cuban restaurants is quite dull. The meals in people's eating-places run from CUC 8.00 to 15.00; top restaurants charge from CUC10.00 to 30.00 for a meal.

Take bug repellent with you to protect against 'no see-ums' insects - their bites are very itchy. The best time to travel to Cuba is from December to the end of April during the dry cool season. Be sure to save CUC25.00 in cash for your departure tax at the airport.  

An alligator farm in La Boca
An alligator farm in La Boca

Currency:

Visitors to Cuba must use convertible pesos (CUC – at present 1 CUC = $1.12 Canadian). The Cuban peso, which can only be used by tourists to purchase such products as fruit and vegetables, converts at about 1 CUC to 25 pesos.

For Further Information, Contact Cuba Tourist Board:

Toronto: 1200 Bay Street. Suite 305. Toronto. ON. M5R 2A5.  Tel: (416) 362-0700.  Toll Free: 1-866-404 CUBA (2822).  Fax: (416) 362-6799 e-mail: info@gocuba.ca

Montreal: 2075, rue University, Bureau 460 Montréal, Québec, H3A 2L1 Tel: (514) 875-8004 Fax: (514) 875-8006 e-mail: montreal@gocuba.ca Website: gocuba.ca

 

Habeeb Salloum

Habeeb Salloum is a travel and food writer, as well as the author of eight books, who lives in Toronto, Canada.This year he published two new cookbooks: Bison Delights: Middle Eastern Cuisine, Western Style with more than 100 recipes for cooking buffalo Middle Eastern style, and The Arabian Nights Cookbook: Great Goodies from the Gulf with "multinational" recipes from the Gulf States.

 

Visit our Habeeb Salloum Page with links to all his stories


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