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Published: January 6th 2010
Jose Marti Santiago
When in doubt the answer is always Jose Marti
If you want a real history lesson, Santiago de Cuba is definitely the place to visit.
Our tour leader Natalia (who bears a striking resemblance to Shakira), gets great pleasure from randomly quizzing us for the names of certain buildings, walkways, parks, or monuments when we are at our most hung-over. We quickly catch on that while in Cuba....when in doubt...the correct answer is always Jose Marti.
Natalia loves her Cuba, and now so do we.
Symbolism is huge in Santiago de Cuba. You immediately realize it while visiting their large cemetery on the outskirts of town. Santa Ifigenia is well preserved, overcrowded yet orderly, and boasts quite the guest list. The mausoleum for Jose Marti has a small honour guard that goose-steps on the hour.
...and if you don't know who Jose Marti is, you will once you visit Cuba...believe me!
Our motley group strolls silently through the endless rows of crypts, fighting off the saturated morning heat. I am stopped dead (okay bad choice of word) in my tracks when I spy a plot that strikes dearly at my heart. Here lies Compay Segundo. RIP old fella. I love love Buena Vista Social Club.
Juans old car
our homestays cherished car
Our cemetery guide knows he's probably getting tipped no matter how much he rambles on, so we all straggle along behind him as he explains in sordid detail each symbol emblazed on each stone, each statue, each plaque, each apostle, each General, and each General's mother's gravestone.
We are told this is probably where Fidel Castro will rest when he's good and ready. Okay...now that's cool.
Did I mention Santiago de Cuba is a stifling sauna? What the freak-of-nature is going on here...we are right next to an ocean for Jose Marti sakes! Where is the refreshing sea breezes? We are told later, Santiago is the hottest part of Cuba with an average temp of 32. Noted.
During our midday outing, we went to the San Pedro de la Roca - El Morro, a very scenic Fort perched at the mouth of Santiago's striking bay, and as our guide rambles on in Spanish - peppered with non-relevant English words (also known as Spanglish), the group all drift off in separate directions out of sheer translation overload - trying to find relief from the heat. Nope, no sea breezes up here either.
Deep in the heart of
Billboards everywhere in Cuba
Santiago de Cuba, lies a series of narrow street ways with our 'Casa Particular' smack dab in the middle. The owner, Juan, has (what I am picking up as) a Dutch accent. Odd. Turns out he spent quite some time in Holland as an engineer in the 60s. Dutch chatskies adorn curio cabinets proudly, and behind the heavy wooden doors of his casa reveal a maze of rooms with open air corridors. It rains inside and out. No one minds. He and his entire extended family live together, cramped yet cozy. They feed us unbelievably great food, fresh snapper with sweet potato, a vegetable soup with okra, and rice with squash and sliced tomatoes.
The blistering humidity of Santiago de Cuba seems to bring people outside to sit on their stoops and socialize into the late evenings. We'd often find Juan out front, polishing his oldie car and shooing dogs. Now if I were a guy, I'm sure I'd be able to tell you the exact make, model and year of 'said' oldie, but alas, I am not. Whatever the heck it is, the old cars sure do add a certain nostalgic charm to this amazing country. I cannot
Santiago Church at sunset
What a beautiful place Santiago is
believe they still run!
Early every morning, the doorbell to Juan's casa starts ringing. Curiosity finally gets the best of me, I rub the sleep out of my eyes and go down to see what's up. Maruchy (Juan's wife) unfolds the massive wooden doors to greet each door ringer curtly. The stranger then opens a small cloth bag to present what they have to trade. Everything from whole milk to car batteries to shoes are bartered this way. A simple wave of Maruchy's hand and they move on to the next residence unfazed. I am excited. Natalia had earlier explained how many Cubans feel they are forced to resort to illegal activities to survive. I sit poised to see what's coming next, knowing very well I have a front row seat to the allusive cuban black market. It's weirdly mesmerizing.
The best part of Santiago for me, was hanging out in Céspedes Park to people watch. I met so many friendly locals, some latching on only to ask you for soap or pens, but once you filtered through, most would just chat or have a game of dominos with you. The Town Hall balcony looms over this park
Musican of Santiago
Lots of street buskers hanging. Music is everywhere in Cuba
and is the very place Fidel gave his victory speech. Symbolism my friend. On the other side, the breathtaking cathedral Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion towers chime out each hour faithfully. The oldest house in Santiago is also here, and I paid the entry fee just to have a quick look, and of course checked out the Barcardi family museum. Down the narrow roadways, most of the Trovas spill music out into the streets at all hours. Ambiance oozes from this town.
The Revolution really hits home when you set eyes on the peppered holes in the bright yellow Moncada Barracks. Fidel actually commissioned the bullet holes to be re-put back in exactly after they were covered over, so it's kind of fake but that's fine. This building is now a museum, with the rest being used as a middle school. A small group of revolutionaries on July 26, 1953 stormed these barracks (always Movimiento 26 Julio or M 26-7 on just about every billboard and wall in Cuba) and eventually they were able to topple the government of Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
For such a sprawling city, the nightlife in Santiago was seedy, but quaint. We visited
Amazing musican, the best!
several Trovas and the Casa de Musicas to see the local bands play. Our superstar Natalia has flirty friends in every city, so we quickly met up with them for a night of drunk and friendly. White people can't dance. Cuban people have such a great sense of rhythm and before we knew it, we took our few awkward salsa steps out for a test drive. Unlike Baracoa, we realize walking home after the bars closed is quickly frowned upon. We drunkenly decided one night to risk it, but after passing several dark street corners trying to remember where our Casa Particular was located, while some savory characters clucked at us as we walked by, we didn't tempt fate twice.
After three days of exploring Santiago de Cuba, we head off, making a quick stop on the outskirts of town at the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Cobre. It is the holiest shrine in Cuba, and Cubans and tourists alike flock here to offer small gifts in exchange for their prayers being answered. I thought it was beautiful. Even Fidel and Raul's momma placed a voto here to ensure her boys were protected, seemed to have worked - so
Policia in Santiago
hanging at the corner
far - assassination attempts included. A strange array of gifts litter the odd black doll shrine. Even old Olympic medals won by Cubans are here. I light a candle but don't ask for any favour - I already know I don't have any want for anything. In the parking lot, this kid tries to sell me a rock he pawns off as part of the Basilica - only one kook he says. I burst out laughing and pick up a matching roadway pebble from the ground and hand it to him. Same same for him. Free. He gives me a cheeky laugh before moving on to his next blonde victim. Clambering back onto our bus, we all settle in for a long drive to the city of Camaguey.
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