Sitting on the tarmac in Miami on Sun Country Airlines flight #67 bound for Santiago de Cuba in mid-August, I was giddy with excitement with the anticipated trip to this neighboring island country, long off-limits to most Americans. My partner Rick and I were fortunate that our friend Alan from San Francisco, whose Cuban partner, since passed, still travels to Havana to visit his ‘in-laws.’ As a visitor with a ‘Family’ designation, he is permitted to take two companions with him. Lucky us! We had ten days to explore this home of Fidel Castro’s Revolucion, and in the middle of steamy summer, no less!
Umberto, our driver for the next six days, picked us up at the airport to take us to our casa particular (a system of private accommodations roughly equivalent to Air B&B), eschewing our usual hotel accommodations for staying in people’s homes. We wanted to have a more authentic experience and learn more about this enigmatic country. Our host Jose’s apartment was located just down the street from Parque Cespedes, the city’s main central square, lined with some of Santiago’s most prominent and beautiful buildings.
Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city, sits on the eastern tip of this 800-mile long island, with Havana at its western end. Santiago’s closest island neighbors are Jamaica and Haiti. With its predominant African influence, this architecturally diverse and interesting city throbs with the beats of congo and salsa music. Santiago celebrated the 500th anniversary of its founding this year, as several other towns and cities in Cuba have done, so we were greeted with many freshly and brightly-painted and rehabilitated public buildings and houses.
After exchanging our dollars for the Cuban tourist currency called CUCs (value roughly pegged to the U.S. dollar) in a private home in one of the neighborhoods (the local black market), Jorge, an acquaintance of Alan’s, took us to dinner to a very attractive paladar – a privately owned restaurant (these have been permitted in the last few years) in a once-elegant residential neighborhood, where a semi-classical quartet played local and international music. When finished, Jorge asked, “Are you interested in going to a nightclub?” Dead tired, we eagerly said, “Yes!”
The Tropicana — what a thrilling experience! We sat at linen-covered tables under the stars in front of an immense stage with a 10-piece Latin band, complete with a brass ensemble. A line-up of full-throated singers belted out popular Latin tunes in turn, while 60 stunningly-dressed, scantily-clad male and female dancers, in feathered regalia and headdresses paraded on and off stage and among the tables. I swear I saw the ghost of Ricky Ricardo and his band performing “Babalu.”
The next day — HOT!! A wall of steamy heat surrounded us everyday in Cuba by late morning. Consequently, Cubans dress accordingly. Combine the heat, the bare essentials in clothing, and the ever-present rhythms, and I finally experienced what the term ‘sultry’ means.
Another emblematic symbol of Cuban culture is the image of the 1950s high style American automobiles. Enhancing the frozen-in-time sense about Cuba, these cars were very popular in the era before the 1959 revolution. We got a small taste in Santiago of what we would later see by the hundreds in Havana of the stylishly designed beauties, many which have become taxis.
Throughout Cuba, people were friendly and curious, especially when they discovered we were Americanos. Even short interactions were fun. On the flipside, often friendliness turned into solicitations, and in this land of few luxuries and low wages or no steady income, people are creative in their efforts to make extra money from tourists. (Yes, in cities we saw many tourists. The rest of the world can visit Cuba. Only U.S. citizens have not in general, until more recently.)
We spent a day touring historic sites in the the outskirts of Santiago. Among them, we visited the Unesco World Heritage site of Castillo de San Pedro del Morro, one of the best preserved 17th century Spanish forts overlooking the Caribbean. At the Cemetario de Santa Ifengia, with its acres of closely placed ornate masoleums and tombs for as far as we could see, we caught a goose-stepped changing of the guard that watches over the tomb of Jose Marti, Cuba’s literary national hero and revolutionary. The Cemetario contains the remains of Cuba’s rich and famous (it’s where Fidel wants to be buried). The monumental Plaza de la Revolucion, with its huge machetes of steel thrusting out of the plaza floor, pays homage to the city’s 19th century war hero, Antonio Maceo, whose bronze edifice sits proudly on his steed.
The morning before we left to begin our cross-country road trip, I got up early to sit in the Parque Cespedes to write in my journal. Immediately I was approached by Samosa, a heavy-set man in his mid-thirties, who wanted me to look at and, of course, purchase his drawings. I resisted my impulse to make him go away, deciding that engaging this man was the point of traveling. And I’m so glad I did. He told me of his life, its severity I didn’t doubt, his time in art school, his now-deceased father who was an amateur photographer who left him boxes of photos taken when Samosa was growing up. Of course, I bought one of his drawings for 10 CUCs and he gave me a second one.
At that point, he hailed two men sitting on a bench across the walkway, and Alberto and Raul joined us to chat. A man in his mid-60s, Alberto, in his white collared shirt and chino pants, is a local troubadour singing with a group of friends every night in a nearby plaza. He carried two bandaged maracas, and I asked him to sing a song. And what a song he sang with his beautiful, raspy voice soaring across the square, Samosa and Raul joining in periodically in refrain, as others gathered around us for the performance, and I happily snapped away. I graced his cap he extended with a thank you bill when he finished. This was the Cuba I didn’t know I was looking for.