Travels with V

Cuba

Cowboys in the wild east

Oriente

Ahead of us now is a very long bus ride from Cienfuegos to Oriente, the easternmost part of Cuba. In Havana you can sometimes hear people say that the Oriente people are a bit “weird”. We have a stop-over in Las Tunas, a crossroads town bordering to Oriente. There we stay in a psychedelic dungeon of a casa particular, with dreamy art on the walls and a cranky parrot in a cage. Behind in the garden some men are preparing an asado by sticking a long pole through a whole pig.

A few miles east of Las Tunas there’s a small and sleepy country village called Omaja. Say that in Spanish and it sounds a lot like a US city, and that’s not accidental, the town in Oriente was founded by methodists from the US in the the early 20th century. Their congregation still exists and they still have a small church in Omaja.  It’s the only protestant congregation in the catholic Cuba.

But we’re here to find some remnants of Ponnistus, a Finnish utopian settlement on the outskirts of Omaja. The settlers were socialists and came here a hundred years ago to create a society based on economical  and social equality. But it was a short-lived experiment. The tropical climate, the meagre earth, farmers inexperienced with farming, and the constant drought killed the dream and most settlers moved away after a few years.

SETTLERS IN PONNISTUS
CHILDREN FROM OMAJA AND PONNISTUS 1920

But we do find some traces of the pioneers. Visiting Omaja resident William Ortiz Ray we see some furniture that are said to be made by the clever woodworkers from Finland.

If You can read swedish, the story of the Ponnistus settlers, written by V for the Finnish newspaper Hufvudstatsbladet is here.

“Sugar barons, stinking rich”

There was once a Swedish settlement in Oriente, in a village called Bayate. They had a sugar factory where some 400 settlers from Sweden worked. It was during the sugar boom in the early 20th century, when sugar was produced all over Cuba and the owners became “Sugar barons”, stinking rich. But after the end of the second world war, the sugar price fell and the factories were abandoned. Today Bayate can’t even be found, most of it lies at the bottom of a large irrigation dam.

NEWSPAPER AD FOR "GOOD FARM LAND", AIMED AT SWEDES IN THE USA

Omaja was anyway an exciting experience for us, like a movie type wild west town. Men in cowboy hats rode on horses, the wood-paneled houses were crackling in the heat, and siesta-sleeping ox-cart drivers were parked in the streets. At the train station men were hiding in the shadows, waiting for a train that would arrive, eventually. Time seemed to have stopped in the trembling mid-day heat.

In contrast to all this – a bunch of teenagers with laptops and smartphones sitting in the street outside a hotel in the nearby town of Las Tunas. Why? Becasuse the turist hotels are the sites most likely to have wi-fi for their customers, and the network spills out on the street a few meters. That’s where you can check your Facebook or Instagram without having to use the expensive state internet.

Now we’re almost all the way down to the southernmost part of Cuba where tall mountains and deep jungle make up the Sierra Maestra National Park. Where we find Fidel’s old base camp. We ride on horseback, swim in clear pools and endure tropical rains. In the next chapter!

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