Vincent Morin Aguado
HAVANA TIMES — When I was introduced to Eirik — who is as Dutch as his surname — I mentioned the famous corsair Piet Heyn, who’s considered a folk hero in the Netherlands. At that initial meeting, between us was established a certain empathy, which lasted until the end of his extensive tour of western Cuba.
Tall, with a nice looking face and piercing green eyes — though maybe too thin for his height — he demanded that we go find Piet Heyn, wherever he was.
Nothing could be any easier, I said, all we would have to do is go to the city of Matanzas; he’d be standing exactly in front of the bay where in 1628 he captured his greatest treasure, taking it from the Spanish for pirates and corsairs in the Americas.
After touring around Havana two days, the lanky son of Utrecht sat down with me, face to face at a table, organizing a several-day tour that would take us to Pinar del Rio, back to Havana, and then off to Santa Clara, Matanzas and finally retuning again to Havana.
Then I called Barbaro, an excellent driver and the owner of a VW van, a vehicle that fitted our plan almost perfectly. It’s a small bus that seats ten people, including the driver. There would only be three of us, so Eirik would be able to easily extend his long limbs and even doze off if he wanted.
We started off from the capital heading for Mariel, which was a much longer route than the normal “Ocho Vias”highway, but more interesting.
Eirik would be able to see the landscape of our countryside, the small villages, the isolated campesino houses and the beautiful landscape of La Sierra de los Organos. We would finally connect to the main highway to reach the Soroa enclave, famous for its waterfall and an unrivaled orchid garden.
In and around the town of Viñales, with its landscape so emblematic of western Cuba, between the gentle rolling hills and the steep calcareous outcrops, the Dutchman loved it all – especially the caves. There he could better appreciate the revolt undertaken by black slaves who fled into the mountains and on into the famous cave (now a museum) of “Los Cimarrones.”
As for Viñales itself, with 27,000 inhabitants, its people are loved for their openness and their hospitality; they’re without that exaggerated clinginess so often found in cosmopolitan Havana.
We then started heading back in the direction of Havana, but the target this time was 300 miles further east to the town of Trinidad, in the south of Matanzas Province. Yet once we got in Matanzas, we veered to the south so that we could walk barefooted in the sands of Playa Larga and Playa Giron, which are so much a part of our history.
There we experienced epic tales mixed with nature as we visited the Museum of the Victoria at “Giron” (known internationally as the “Bay of Pigs”), later stopping at a crocodile farm in the Laguna del Tesoro, and then relaxing on the beautiful beaches nearby.
For the Hollander, pure Dutch, he was strict with the money, though he never neglected the three meals a day and an occasional drink. He didn’t ask many questions, but he watched everything.
I found it intriguing that he didn’t take many photos – he said that he was going to store away everything he saw in his memory. Tourists often photograph everything, but later they themselves forget about all of them, he said.
The Trinidadians welcomed us on the streets and in their homes, which were excellently preserved just as they were centuries ago. The city is the pride of those nearly 80,000 inhabitants, who were getting ready to celebrate a half a millennium as one of the “Seven Towns” founded by the conquistador Diego Velazquez.
Heading west again, we weren’t able to make it up the Escambray Mountains, whose 1,000 meters were too much for the small motor for our VW, though we couldn’t complain – it was very economical in terms of fuel.
We returned along the beautiful south coast road, dotted with bridges that span over the mouths of lots of rivers issuing from the mountains.
We decided to stop at one of the meeting points of fresh water and salt water. Barbaro, who spoke little but did a lot, surprised me with his spearfishing gear, along with the excuse of… “I’ll be right back.”
Eirik took advantage of the stop to take in the landscape with his bright green eyes, while I slowly drank a beer, a much appreciated gift for the occasion, having come to know the habits of my partner.
After a while, on one side I saw the Dutchman returning and on the other our skillful driver, true to his name with several fish in his hands.
Needless to say we enjoyed our improvised lunch, prepared with skill by the chef at the little cafe by the river. He deserved the tip he received. The result of that long break was a nonstop trip to Santa Clara, the city of Che Guevara.
As we returned, still heading westward, we drank a few beers directly from the original containers at the brewery in Manacas. This time the son of Utrecht bent his elbow with along with us, after which time we experienced the only unpleasant moment of the trip.
On the way out of town we were stopped for a routine police check, common along Cuban highways. The officers, very friendly, requested our documents. Ours were in order, but Eirik had left his passport at the house where we had stayed in Santa Clara. This meant we had to go all the way back for that essential piece of identification.
We retraced the miles previously traveled, again passing by the Manacas brewery (now unforgettable), found the passport and doubled back to finally — at last! — make it to the much anticipated city of Matanzas.
The bridge over the Canimar River welcomed us, from which we could see the lights on in the city. We wasted no time, we went directly to the bay’s malecon (boardwalk), where he was waiting for us, eternal as his exploits, the great corsair who seized from the Spanish some 80 tons of silver, dozens of pounds of gold, thousands of pearls and other treasures from Mexican mines. The Little Holland took revenge on its oppressors, against whom it had fought with before for its independence.
This time Eirik took numerous of photos with the life-size bronze sculpture of Piet Heyn. It had had been created by another Dutchman, Willen A. Bermon, who left it to us as a gift – as he did elsewhere with statues of Desiderius Erasmus, Picasso and Churchill.
We had to pay a parking attendant extra because Eirik saw a discoteque-bar nearby where they served food, where the Dutchman toasted to his country and ours, this time without limits – except to a certain extent with the women there, dancing and inviting for drinks, and nothing more.
We returned to Havana along the Via Blanca highway, admiring the bridges over the San Juan River and the Yumuri River (with its beautiful canyon), and especially the Cumanayagua Bridge, a wonder of civil engineering.
We reached the capital exhausted but happy, and with the assurance that this Netherlands native was a different man, willing to undertake his new responsibilities as a chemical engineer for the powerful transnational corporation Unilever, after having enjoyed this college graduation gift from his parents.
Vincent Morin Aguado: [email protected]