Saucy Santiago de Cuba

Our journey from Bayamo on the ViaAzul bus was smooth, we enjoyed the rural scenery as we rolled along. We were met by a taxi sent by our casa (they do this to prevent you being stolen away by jineteros who take you to another casa) and you pay the taxi. This time it was an ancient Lada which struggled to make the uphill route from the port where the bus station was to our casa in one of the old streets bordering the Centro Historico.
Again we have a most cheerful and obliging hostess, Carmen, and her sweet sidekick Nena. Carmen starts off slowly but is convinced I can pick up the pace if need be, and I usually have to halt the torrent of words two sentences in to beg, “Despacio por favor.” She has lots of helpful information and we are doing very well. Our room is comfortable and large and there is a small roof terrace where she brings dinner when we stay in for the meal. A French couple was here for a few days, we attempted to communicate in Spanish as they did not speak English and I do not want to think about French because as soon as I do the French words begin getting in the way of the Spanish vocabulary. Weird how the mind functions.

Santiago is busy compared to the somnolence of Gibara and the tranquil pace of Bayamo. Still not that bad by our standards. The Parque Cespedes the main centre of the historic area is just a few blocks uphill but the sidewalks are narrow and the motorbikes are maniacal. Many antique cars on the roads here, and extremely venerable trucks. Although they are masters of ingenuity and craftsmanship in keeping these clunkers looking spiffy and functioning well, emission control leaves something to be desired.

History happened here — from 1868 to 1959 it was basically one battle for independence after the other. Originally the Spanish, then the Americans, and finally this is where Fidel’s forces consolidated their control and where he began his victory march. The inhabitants were known for their revolutionary spirit apparently.

There is an interesting racial mix in this city, the whole gamut from black to white and everything in between. Slaves were brought by the Spanish from West Africa, and when there was a slave revolt in Haiti the plantation owners moved their operations here and brought their slaves. So Africans of several origins, plus mestizo the mixed race people, right up to blue eyed blondes descended from the Spanish. There used to be a distinction between Spanish born in Spain and those born in Cuba, not any more obviously. The constitution of 1992 enshrines racial equality, some say with noticeable success.

Caribbean influence is strong and music is huge here, all kinds of Cuban music and dance. One of the tenets of the Revolution is that culture is for everyone, so kids get musical training and the tickets to all kinds of cultural activities are dirt cheap. Same goes for sports which is why their Olympic athletes are so disproportionately successful. Every town has many cultural centres which post schedule of performances of music and dancing. Anyone can go and they happen at all times of the day. There are lots of bands playing around the square and in the streets leading up to it. You walk along a street and hear the most wonderful jazz playing, peak in the open windows and it is an empty classroom with a group rehearsing with amazing gusto.

Hurricane Sandy inn 2012 heavily damaged this city. 15,000 people lost their homes entirely. Carmen and her family hunkered down in their kitchen while their roof blew away and they lost the roof top terrace completely. They had no power for 3 days (not bad by Maple Ridge standards) and there was water and garbage everywhere. The government came in and cleaned up all the debris but they had to do the main repairs on the house themselves. Three years on she has her guesthouse running and you would never know there had been water damage in the house. From the terrace though her roof can be seen to be a conglomeration of old corrugated sheeting, bits of asphalt roofing and other odd bits and pieces, as are many of her neighbors’. The house is very long and narrow, the stair case to our room is so narrow you can barely get up it straight on. Apparently families divided their houses for their children, and since everyone needs street access the result is a series of very narrow houses.

We have, as usual, walked our legs off finding all the interesting museums, the wonderful cathedral, sights of this and that, lots of street scenes. Every evening we decamp to the roof of the picturesque Casa Blanca, a grand hotel dating from 1914 with surprisingly reasonable food and drink and helpful wait staff. We have come to love our pre-dinner Ron Collins, and afterwards we go back to the casa or to a paladar for dinner. The hotel is crawling with tour groups, the first influx of tourists we have seen. Mostly German and French, but the occasional American. Surprisingly since Canadians make up more than 1/3 of their tourists, have yet to meet one here in Santiago. I guess they just come for the all inclusive and then go home. Everyone here is convinced that Canada is a complete ice box, and when Doug tries to tell them the west coast isn’t, they ask the temperature and still think we live in an ice box!

The museums commemorating the main events of the underground movement and the beginnings of the revolution are fascinating. Of course I wish my Spanish was better, we get the gist of the descriptions but it is exhausting work. It would help to know more than just the simple present tense. We visited the site of Fidel’s initial attack in 1953 on the Moncado Barracks which was almost a complete fiasco partly due to getting lost in Santiago’s confusing streets. His second in command was captured and he and his men summarily shot. The ensuing uproar meant that when the others were eventually captured, the army officer refused to shoot them and arrested them instead. They were put on trial where Fidel made his famous “History will Exonerate me” speech and got 15 years in jail. When Batista, in an effort to regain some public support lost through disgust with his bloodthirsty tactics, including assassinations of underground leaders, let them out and they immediately escaped to Mexico where they met Che Gueverra and plotted their return in 1956. Bloody photographs of victims and various implements used in the jungle in their field hospital and the clothing used to smuggle in food and supplies are preserved.

We took a day trip out to the end of the port to see El Castillo del Moro, a fort started by the Spanish in the late 1500’s but not completed for another 40 years which was designed to repel the pirates who terrorized the region for a couple of hundred years. It has been restored beautifully, and in addition to an interesting pirate museum containing pistols, swords, and pictures of the most bloodthirsty ones, there are a number of displays of the various ship wrecked vessels in the straits overlooked by the Fort including various American ones from the post Spanish period. We went with a guy called Armando in his pride and joy, an amazingly well preserved 1958 Opel, a station wagon model not sold in Canada. He had taken a complete wreck and refurbished it with fastidious care. A very nice man. We finished off the day with a trip by ferry to a small island off shore, Cayo Granma, a poor place as it turned out, severely damaged by the hurricane but interesting for a circumambulation.

Yesterday we walked what seemed like miles through the busy streets with their heavy air pollution to find a small museum of the Santeria religion. When the slaves were brought from West Africa they brought with them a variety of local religions, the slaves brought from Haiti and workers from Jamaica added their beliefs. The ensuing religion is based on a pantheon of Orishas, or spirits, who embody certain characteristics and who influence life on earth. Though communication with the dead is part of their ritual, there is not much emphasis on the after life. Each person has a sort of patron orisha. Because the Spanish imposed the Catholic religion, and banned the native religions, each orisha became identified as one of the Catholic saints. That way people could pray and make offerings to their particular spirit without alerting the Spaniards as to their true beliefs.

The small museum was in a lovely old house in a relatively wealthy area of Santiago, formerly an upper middle class suburb taken over after the revolution by wealthy Cubans and military officials (always the way.) A guide offered to show us around for $1 and initially I was dubious but she was patient and went slowly and I got enough to get the gist. There are more than 400 of these Orishas but some of the main ones were represented by wooden carvings depicting their qualities. Offerings were placed to various of them — some with animal sacrifices and very smelly, others with bottles of pop and candles and flowers. You’d really want to be identified with one of those if possible. The guide was trying to explain how we all have an Orisha so she showed us with her birthdate how she had figured hers out. Then she did mine and Doug’s. She did seem to be spot on with the characteristics but I always think fortune tellers are just really really good observers. She told us our spirits were extremely compatible, that we have a “tranquillo” relationship and that we would never be split up until one of us dies. Rather nice to know. Then I gave her the daughters’ dates and it was downright creepy how she described each one’s characteristics. We didn’t say anything about birth order or any details about ages or occupations or anything that might have given a clue. Really really strange.

When we were finished, I was too tired to go all the way back so we decided to look for a taxi when we got back to the main street, a considerable distance away. A very nice woman who just happened to be walking in the neighbourhood and who helped us find the rather obscure museum and came in to see it with us, just hailed down a passing car and asked them if they would take us to Parque Cespedes. Sure they would, a reasonable price was quoted, and off we went! Sure beat walking.

Today we went out of town to a beautiful Basilica dedicated to the Cuban patron saint La Virgen de Caridad (Charity). People pray to this Virgin for help in reaching goals, for improving health, for successful reproduction and so on. They leave all manner of items with letters of thanks — there are numerous sports trophies, uniforms, signed baseballs and bats, Olympic medals, as well as piles of theses and diplomas, even Ernest Hemingway’s Novel Prize medal and citation. He wanted to give it to the people of Cuba when he won it in 1954 but didn’t want it to fall into the hands of Batista and his thuggish mob so gave it to the Virgin where it is safe in the Basiica.

Even more interesting though are the piles and piles of crutches, prosthetic limbs, back braces, paediatric orthopaedic braces and shoes, models of limbs (representing injuries I suppose) stethoscopes, pictures of infants and baby clothes, medallions representing various body parts, nurse’s hats and on and on. I didn’t spot the asthma inhaler mentioned in my guide book though. We stayed for part of the mass, the acoustics were wonderful and the people who sang parts of the ceremony remarkable. Lots of people attended, carrying bunches of yellow flowers and all wearing yellow, the colour of this Saint/orisha. This is the one associated with me, so I will have to buy some more yellow attire. All the little girl babies had broad yellow headbands with sunflowers on them. Such cute well dressed children in this country.

We have really enjoyed this town and six days was not too much. We are off to Camaguey tomorrow in a taxi “privado” ie someone’s personal car. Our driver from today will take us in his venerable but sturdy Lada. We could not obtain reserved tickets for the bus and were unwilling to go standby for an 8 hour trip. It will be a shorter trip by car, and though expensive compared to the bus, actually fairly reasonable considering gas costs here what we pay at home. Looking forward to the next adventures!

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