The late-night fun of day four dissolved into one of the most beautiful mornings I've ever seen - and it was even better when I realized that it was Monday and somewhere my colleagues were going to work.
I skipped breakfast to wander on the beach a little, and even found a kayak stash that kept me motivated all day (sad news, however: the rental place closed as we got back that afternoon so kayaking will have to wait until next time).
After another 45-minute trip back across the narrow road surrounded by true-blue ocean, we landed in Caibarién. This was my favorite rural town we visited, with the streets full of people living their daily lives and no tourists in sight. (Except, of course, for our group which seemed three times as large in these quiet streets.) Our first official interaction with the residents was at this operating printing press, which was one of the most surreal experiences of the trip. No Kinko's here - this was as old-fashioned and labor intensive as you could get.
The rhythmic hum of the machines would lull you to sleep if the employees' rushed movements did not interrupt. Each movement had a clear purpose, and everyone was hard at work printing tickets for an event at a local hotel. The final product looked like a photograph I'd like on Pinterest - we work so hard here to make paper look aged, to make printing look fresh...this was the real deal.
Countless photos later, the group walked down the near-empty streets to visit a local artist's gallery. I'm not easily impressed by art - mostly because I'm always in too much of a hurry to really stop and look at it - but the diversity in this guy's talent was really amazing. It was inspiring enough that I got artistic myself and took this cool photo of him through the window.
These musicians were the kind you'd pay to see - they were enthusiastic and clearly enjoying each others' company.
And that 83-year-old conductor? I could have watched him all day. He kindly invited us back for the concert that was scheduled to occur on his 100th birthday. I, for one, plan to be there.
Click here for more photographs of the band and my wanders through Caibarién. (The photos of these buildings are my favorites from the whole trip.)
When the music stopped it was time for more bus travel - we all seemed to get on the bus a lot faster today, since we got to go back to that beach in Cayo Santa Maria when we'd finished the day's activities. Next stop: a former sugar mill turned museum.
My favorite part was watching the sugar cane get squeezed into sugar cane juice. Not something I would want to try every day, but I did manage to finish the full half-glass. I worked very hard not to notice how much anyone else drank after the museum director said the juice is considered to be a highly-effective aphrodisiac.
I'll admit that I don't remember a thing about the sugar mill process. I worked hard to listen to just about every tour, tidbit and tip on this vacation...but today I was uncontrollably distracted by several things. First, there was the thought of this:
Second, there was the fact that I was running on just a few hours' sleep. But most of all, there was this:
The stray dogs were the most heartbreaking part of Cuba for me. At home, I get sad about them and then call dog rescue people to come help them. Here, it was a way of life. These dogs wandered the streets looking exhausted, malnourished and old - regardless of age. But it was this girl that totally stole my heart, and I spent most of the sugar mill tour sitting on the ground assuring her that she was loved and life had to get better soon.
I do remember this part of the tour, though - I was happy that these workers let me take their picture...
...then ecstatic when they invited me to join them. You'd be proud of my push-cart skills - we took the cart to the end of the track and back. (It sounds much more impressive if you didn't see how short the track was.)
I've spent enough time with my nephew to know that this was COOL. Old trains everywhere, though the one we were supposed to ride on was down for repairs. Repairs get complicated since it's not like you can just go on ebay and have it shipped to Cuba.
The road trip continued to Remedios, a city that's main attraction is that it is old. Really, really old - most estimates put its founding around 1513 AD, though the details get fuzzy on exactly when the Spanish settled it. This place was definitely used to tourists, and the all-too-familiar craft and trinket carts were set up directly outside the bus door when we stepped off. I dodged most of the shopping in order to wander the streets before the next cultural event.
This guy was undoubtedly targeting tourists (he staked out a great spot next to that monstrous bus!) but I gladly fell into the trap in order to meet him and hold an Osprey. This was the moment when I realized Tilon, our driver, kept close watch over his herd even when it seemed he was taking a break. I was (as usual) wandering far from the group, stopped to admire the bird and suddenly Tilon appeared at my side, got the bird on my arm and grabbed my camera. He made the moment even better.
And then it was time for a speech on the church, which should have been amazing...and would have been, if I hadn't added "lack of air conditioning" to my growing list of distractions that day. The priest was from Mexico, the city historian was very knowledgeable and the altars were pure gold. Now you know as much as I remember about this beautiful building.
My blissful enjoyment of the oh-so-sweet cola apparently made it impossible for my eyes to stay open for a photograph.
We were the last ones back to the bus but it was worth it to find a restaurant not designed for - or expecting - tourists. We joined Remedios residents for a few moments, snapped too many photographs of the car murals and newspaper print on the walls, and then hit the road.
Lunch was at a beautiful spot right off the highway...good both because it was fun to eat picnic-style under a thatched hut and because it meant it was easy to eat and jump back on the road to the beach!