26th July School
Notice the bullet holes
On the 19th headed to Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city & home of the Buena Vista Social Club. I couldn´t wait to get out of this place as it was dirty & polluted, totally without character unlike Havana, and the people were aggressive and unfriendly. It was a bit of a culture shock after being in the smaller towns. Did a city tour visiting the Plaza de la Revolucion, Jose Marti burial memorial, and the Moncada Barracks which Fidel and 118 students unsuccessfully attacked on the 26 July 1953. The place is now called the 26th July School, with bullet holes still in the school walls.
Went to the El Morro fort for the cannon firing ceremony and flag lowering at sunset, which was a welcome and peaceful respite from the city. Our tour leader organised a huge lobster dinner at an illegal paladar, which was the best meal of the entire trip. The father is a fisherman and caught the lobsters fresh that day. It´s serious business going to these type of places as the family could be imprisoned if caught and our tour leader could be blacklisted & not allowed to return to Cuba. As this
Jose Marti burial memorial
It´s under 24 hour armed guard as it is a terrorist target by ex-Cuban exiles
was going to be her last visit to Cuba it didn´t worry her a bit. Presumably the family has to pay hush-money to the neighbours too. Then finished up with music and dancing at a bar on the outskirts of the city with only local Cubans and no tourists. A great night had also celebrating the 26th anniversary of Marisa and Russet - aka Doc & Granny - a couple of chain-smoking and chain-drinking ladies in our group.
The 20th was a full driving day of almost 12 hours to Santa Clara - so damn boring. We have covered heaps of miles on this trip, which would take at least 3 weeks if we travelled by local buses. The tour used to fly from Santiago back to Havana but the safety record of the local airline is really bad. As they´re worried about the possibility of hijacks to the USA, they only put in enough fuel to get back to Havana, so you´re screwed if you run into a head wind or there´s some delay. Planes have been known to just fall out of the sky.
There are only 2 things worth seeing in Santa Clara - the
El Morro Fort
Cannon firing ceremony at sunset. Love the old army uniforms
Che Mausoleum, and the site of Che´s attack against Batista´s last offensive that signalled the end of the regime.
Che´s Mausoleum was really tasteful, with plaques on the wall & an eternal flame commemorating him and his fellow comrades from Cuba, Peru & Bolivia that were also killed by the CIA in 1967. There is also a museum documenting his entire life from a lad in Argentina, to Cuban revolutionary, to politician & statesman, and to his last revolutionary efforts in the Congo and Bolivia. It was erected 20 years after his death, and 10 years before his remains were discovered. There´s the obligatory statue & full copy of his last letter to Fidel. Che is regarded as a bit of a demi-god, and it is drilled into the kids (brainwashed?) that they must grow up to be like Che, and follow his ideals and morals (ie. true socialist who fought against imperialism). Whilst we were in the museum there was also an excursion of schoolkids, and it was interesting to see how quiet and respectful they were whilst perusing the exhibits.
Next up was the site of Che´s attack on Batista´s troops on 30 Dec 1958. As
part of the "FF" plan (Fin de Fidel or Fin de Fulgencio Batista depending on which side you were on), a train full of 408 soldiers and arms were on their way as Batista´s last offensive to defeat the revolutionaries in the east of Cuba. Che received secret information of this and derailed the train by using a bulldozer to open the rail tracks, and then attacking the garrison at Santa Clara over the next days. Batista fled once he heard that Che had captured Santa Clara. The rail carriages are still in the same place where they were originally derailed, albeit tarted up a little, plus the infamous dozer.
Stayed in Vinales on the 21st and 22nd. On the way we visited the Soroa gardens, with lots of unusual plants and beautiful orchids. Vinales is renowned for the limestone mogotes (looks a bit like Guilin in China), and growing the best tobacco in Cuba. Did a couple of hikes through the valleys and visited some tobacco drying barns; it was really peaceful. Quite a lot of the local farmhouses have an illegal power line attached from the main road. If an inspector comes, the locals just hang washing
Tobacco is hung in the drying brans for up to 3 months. Every couple of years there is crop rotation with maize and beans. The whole process is tightly controlled, with the seeds distributed by the govt inspectors who also monitor crop output. So there´s no sneaking any leaves to make a few personal stogeys.
Spent the rest of our stay dancing the night away at the local music house, and trying to hitchhike like the locals without any success.
Then it was back to Havana for the last 4 nights. Stayed at a casa particular (Cuban homestay) in Old Havana and basically chilled out and soaked up the local music scene. Hired a reproduction 1928 classic car to visit Hemingway´s House (main house was closed for restorations because of termites, which was a real bummer) and the fishing village of Cojimar which was the setting for his novel ´The Old Man and the Sea´. Went to the Museo de la Revolucion (the propoganda and dig at the bad ole Yankees was an absolute hoot), the local handicrafts markets (behind Castillo de la Real Fuerza), the Gran Teatro, the Coppelia ice-cream park (where there are
Statue of Che
Located on top of the Mausoleum with the phrase he always used to sign off his letters with - Hasta La Victoria Siempre (ever onwards to victory)
queues of Cubans lining up for a fix), and to Chinatown for a feed as we were in need of a cuisine change (Shanghai owner and chef).
Cuban men are so smooth. Everywhere we went they called out ´Chine!!´to us. Plus their usual pick-up line is to say "I´m a dance instructor" which is a huge laugh since they obviously dance better than us anyway.
A few more Cubanisms to finish off this blog. As part of the Social Period, Cuba set up trade links with other Latin American countries by providing qualified doctors for a fee. This proved really lucrative, plus the doctors got to travel abroad and also earn US dollars for their families in Cuba.
Every family has a ration book where they get a monthly ration of the essentials like bread, milk, flour, cooking oil, etc. Any extra´s can be purchased on the black market or local farmers market.
The govt has set up an energy efficiency programme, where the locals must replace their old Russian refrigerators and other appliances running on kerosene or LPG to electricity. A new fridge will set you back 6250 Cuban Pesos, and a new TV 3000
pesos, and you can repay monthly if you don´t have the cash. This appears to have the effect of keeping the populace indebted to the govt, particularly as there´s nothing wrong with the old Russian stuff.
I have loved being in Cuba, and feel like I´ve seen and experienced enough of the country and culture to move on to the next destination. I would definitely like to return someday, say 5-10 years time to note if there´s been any significant change. But I might not be so keen to return if the US lifts sanctions in the near future.
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