We decided to stay a couple of days at Sancti Spiritus, a smallish colonial town without the tourist cachet of Trinidad, situated halfway between Camaguey and Trinidad. Smooth ride there in a newish, by our newfound standards, Peugot, through small villages and cane fields with sleek and beautiful horses grazing everywhere. We are into cattle country now, a variety of types including the humped Brahma type we were used to in India, and other more familiar beef and dairy varieties. The most beautiful big-eyed, soft brown oxen too, pulling carts, all animals glowing with health, haven’t even seen a really neglected dog yet. We have been eating very good local cheese here, a medium aged Gouda type, but in this area people by the road side were selling large wheels of Feta which we ate in Sancti Spiritus and which was also very nice.
Casa Paraiso, home of Hector and his extended family, was our most lovely casa so far. Hector was quite the charmer, with a gravelly voice and a conviction that we could have a conversation in Spanish if he only tried hard enough. He first built two rooms at the rear of his family’s 1830 classic home, and has recently added two more. We had one of these sparkling brand new rooms, up a flight of steps from the main interior courtyard, with our own little plant-filled patio. Hector is full every night though nearly all stay only 1 or 2 nights as they pass through to break the journey between Santiago and Trinidad. Nearly everyone has a guide and or driver, and are dropped off at a casa and picked up again in the morning. Of course they move much faster than we do.
We met some interesting fellow travellers there, including a pair of itinerant Bikram Yoga teachers who go from place to place as sort of substitute teachers in Bikram studios for periods of time. Evidently it is a well organized world wide thing. They had recently spent 3 months in a couple of places in Colombia so gave us a few tips for the next leg. When they left they were replaced by a very congenial English pair who live in Kent and travel extensively. He has just retired, at age 70, from his work as a sort of fixer for companies world wide headed for bankruptcy. For instance he worked on the Bombardier near collapse. He has worked all over the world and spent all his time travelling, she only travelled to meet him occasionally, staying home with the kids when they were young. Since he always lived in a five star hotel wherever he was, be it Beijing, Singapore, or Paris, her standard of travel is quite high. However she was bemusedly coping with casa life and agreed she found it very interesting. We had a great meal with them and hope they will pass through our neck of the woods one day as they intend to visit a cousin who lives in Kelowna.
By great good luck we arrived on the Eve of the celebration for the 165th anniversary of the birth of Jose Marti, a huge hero of the Cuban people. At a young age he was part of a movement to oust the Spanish colonial government, was caught and went into exile in Mexico, Guatemala, the U.S and other countries in Latin America. While he was away for 20 years he formulated a revolutionary credo and inspired a movement to overthrow the Spanish, but even more importantly wrote poetry, literature and a philosophy of life that Cubans revere to this day. His works are studied in school and quotations from them are emblazoned everywhere. Cubans seem to react well to heroes, with so much less cynicism than we have, they will tell you they hold these people in their “corazon” (heart).
When Marti returned to Cuba in 1892 he coaxed out of exile various other revolutionaries whose names we are now very familiar with from the myriad of streets, buildings and monuments named after them; they mounted an army and began to do battle with the Spanish. Marti had sworn to wear black until Cuba was free, which after all was one of his poorer ideas as he was cut down leading his troops into battle on a white horse wearing his usual black dinner suit with white shirt and bow tie, clearly somewhat conspicuous. Che Gueverra, another hero, had not yet come on the scene to teach everyone guerrilla style warfare.
Anyway every year on his birthday towns go all out to celebrate. As we ate dinner in Hector’s casa the first night, a great din of bands started up on the nearby plaza. We went out and in the distance we could see a sea of dancing lights approaching. People in the crowd tried to explain what it was, they were all snapping photos like mad, but to no avail. As it drew closer we could see a torchlight parade of hundreds and hundreds of people. They carried home made torches, tin cans attached to sticks filled with kerosene soaked rags which they held over their heads. It was quite a sight as they paraded up the approach to the Parque and then marched around it twice before heading off down another street. All ages and stages were represented in the marchers.
That was as nothing though compared to the next morning when literally thousands streamed past. All the school children for sure, with adults of all ages, some walking with their kids others marching in groups holding flags of various themes. Many of them were dressed in period costumes with a lot of little boys dressed as Marti in black suits, white shirts and with moustaches painted on their faces. Some rode horses in the midst of the throng. Most of the children wore costumes, many inexplicable to us but clearly referencing some aspect of Marti’s life and works. The school children in uniforms carried banners with Marti quotations and waved books of his works. It took hours to go past, nothing fancy, just marching along laughing and talking as Cubans are wont to do. When it was over, life returned to normal and when we passed a couple of schools later we could hear children inside chanting as usual.
A most relaxing interlude in a small colonial place with some lovely buildings, with a small town Cuban atmosphere. On to Trinidad next, a Unesco site where tourism is in full swing.