In October and November 2016 I spent three weeks travelling around Cuba. I returned home just days before Fidel Castro died. These posts are written from the scribblings I made in my notebook throughout the trip.
I’m suddenly in Santiago de Cuba, just 24 hours after landing in Havana. A one hour flight with Cuba Air got me here – thankfully. The other end of the country (east) and the second city of Cuba, it feels completely different to Havana: quieter, cleaner, better kept and, to my delight, with far fewer tourists.
In Santiago, it’s less about the cars and more about the motorbikes. Classic, of course, from the 50s. I wonder what foreign collectors would give for some of these models. Here they serve an entirely practical purpose as motor-taxis, getting Santiagans(?) from A to B. Everyone riding them wears, frankly, very cool little peaked helmets – black, often with a thick red or blue band going over the top of the head.
A wander down to the quayside and beautiful young Afro-Cuban boys are hurling themselves energetically and joyously into the sea. They all look under 13. A few have their noses pierced. They ask for things but don’t pester, and I give them the water bottle I’m carrying. They clearly want to talk and I hear one boy quietly practising English phrases but is too shy to use them. In Spanish, one tells me that they don’t have running water and so that’s why they are bathing here. I know that they’re actually having a great time in the sea but I also think there’s a high chance what he’s telling me is true.
I fulfil my Santiago tourist obligations by being bussed around to various ‘must see’ spots on the outskirts of the city. In fact, here there was a real must see for me, inspired by my Fidel Castro interviews preparatory readings*, and that was the Moncada Barracks. For, in the otherwise somewhat dry first few chapters, it’s Fidel’s account of the failed attack on these military barracks in 1953 – and so failed start to the revolution – where things really get going.
Startlingly mustard coloured, the building is now a school, with mock bullet holes decorating the facades in reminder of what took place here. After the attack, the original bullet holes were quickly filled in by the then president, Fulgencio Batista. When Fidel was finally successful in his revolution in 1959, he ordered them to be re-gouged…
In each town or city in Cuba there is a Plaza de la Revolucion – ‘Revolution Square’. More of a gigantic roundabout in a nondescript part of the city, Santiago de Cuba’s revolution plaza is a slightly strange monument of humungous machetes, a giant man on a horse and a small memorial area. Impressive, in a slightly frightening Soviet sort of way, it feels stark and bleak as opposed to inspirational.
One of the tourist ‘highlights’ in Santiago is the city cemetery, Cementerio Santa Ifigenia. It is packed to the gills with some of the most important figures in Cuban history, including 50s revolutionary martyrs, family members of the Bacardí rum dynasty and, since my visit, the ashes of Fidel Castro. Of central importance is the mausoleum of José Martí, the father of Cuban independence.
My real high point is watching the changing of the guard in front of this tomb. Taking place (an excessive) every 30 minutes, I would say it’s 90% engineered for tourists.
Performed by the young men somewhere in their two year compulsory military service, they high-kick march to a tune that makes me feel like I’m watching a musical. Their choreographed moves only add to the effect – pauses, slow motion elements, slightly comical gun and elbow waggling… I want to applaud at the end!
I enjoy their lack of real discipline as the boys in uniform can not help but wander their eyes over to our small group of tourists and crack a smile of gleaming white teeth. It seems that Cubans can’t help but flirt, even when they’re on military duty.
Another trait revealing itself, is the curious and talkative nature of many Cubans. Thirsty, it seems, for knowledge, a foreigner is the next best thing to costly internet and hard to come by international newspapers. In just two days in the country, I’ve had conversations on streets, in plazas and casas and on planes, with intelligent Cubans who seem well-informed and hold strong political opinions. They have been keen to share and open up their way of life and confirm if what they know of the rest of the world is accurate – and maybe prove that they’re not so isolated after all.
Enjoying a conversation in the main plaza of Santiago, I notice a police officer from afar gently discouraging my friendly and polite interlocutor, attempting to break up our interaction. Tourist bothering is something that the police are obviously made to crack down on, but I don’t feel bothered at all. I do realise that it may work both ways, and the Cubans are being ‘protected’ from me just as much as I am from them… It’s a shame because I crave these exchanges in the hope of obtaining some real insight into Cuba.
Finally, food must always get a mention, and one pleasant food discovery I make in Santiago is a sapote when I am given a half one at breakfast to be eaten with a spoon. It is like a giant avocado with a large stone in the middle but with a harder brown shell. The flesh is similar in texture but rust coloured and has a pure sweetness in flavour, in a way that a date is so very very sweet.
My other food adventure in Santiago is when a travelling buddy and I make a Cuban’s day by buying his nuts. I have been noticing little conical twists of paper littering the streets in many places and so, when we come across someone selling them, evidently with edible goods inside, I want to know just what they are.
Our Cuban salesman is quick to open up one of the little cones and pour roasted, salted peanuts into our hands. We know we have to pay, of course, and his response is as for everything Cubans sell on the street to tourists: “1CUC”, equivalent to $1. Our smallest denomination is 5CUC. Spotting an opportunity, he gives us six more twists for our $5 and trots off smiling ear to ear whilst the Cubans in the shop in front of which we are standing look on in bemusement tinged with horror.
To put it into context, in one transaction we’d just given him the equivalent of nearly half a month’s salary for the average Cuban in a menial state paid job. Well, lucky for him coming across us pair of wallies that day – I hope he enjoyed spending his mini-jackpot!
*Fidel Castro: My Life, Ignacio Ramonet