Santiago de Cuba

Friday, 15 May 2015

After we had taken leave of our host family in Baracoa, we walked to the Viazul bus station and exchanged our online reservations for three bus tickets to Santiago de Cuba. The bus needed mechanical attention so our departure was delayed. We killed time mooching around the foreshore admiring the views of El Yunque, the curious table-top mountain that is Baracoa’s iconic landmark. At length we retreated into the shade of a large tree, and then into the bus station where mercifully the staff switched on the air conditioning system to provide some relief from the intense humidity and heat.

The bus pulled out of town onto La Farola, the remarkable paved cement road that was Fidel’s gift to the people of Baracoa after the revolution. We wound our way through rain forest with cedar trees and palm trees aplenty; through hamlets with banana trees and mango trees, government buildings painted blue and white, and cottages built from cement bricks with corrugated fibro rooves and colourful washing hanging out to dry. We sped past Stobie poles and fences made from sharpened sticks lashed together with wire. There were campesinos sitting on guard rails and carrying hessian sacks, and women by the roadside selling sweets in cones fashioned from banana leaves. Occasionally the bus had to slow down where a section of the road had been washed away.

We soon found ourselves surrounded by pine forest. The bus laboured up steep slopes with views of verdant hills scoping away into the distance. The houses were painted pink and green, and the guardrails were formed from cement and painted white.

We slept fitfully in the bus’s arctic air conditioning and woke on a road that ran between the sea and low, barren, rocky hills. By the time we reached the border of Guantánamo province, the stench of piss cycling through the air conditioning had become overwhelming.

We passed through Guantánamo city. The eastern side looked poor and ill kempt. There were some prettier localities around the centre, but it was hard to take much in, as the bus set a cracking pace. We stopped briefly in bus station where I got off to thaw out, but I was only partially de-frosted by the time we had to get back on the road. We were aware that somewhere nearby lay the infamous gaol at Guantánamo Bay, which is still occupied by the USA, and which has become notorious for human rights abuses, including the prolonged, illegal detention of an Australian citizen, David Hicks. To this day, Cuba is still trying to negotiate return of the facility.

Not far out of Guantánamo we took a right-hand turn onto a road that connected us to a four-lane highway with a median strip. A wide river appeared on the left hand side of the road. Susie and Clare remained firmly plugged into their earphones as we crossed the border into the province of Santiago de Cuba. The highway took us past farms with open fields under cultivation among partially wooded hills. We passed banana plantations, cornfields, smouldering cane fields, and brahmin cattle behind hedges of what looks like cactus, but which is actually a relative of aloe vera that is poisonous to livestock. There were campesinos selling mangos by the roadside, campesinos on horseback and campesinos in cane harvesters. The bus made several stops so that the drivers could buy produce from roadside stalls. Even out in the countryside you see the ubiquitous political slogans on billboards, or stencilled onto the sides of buildings: Viva Fidel y Raul!

Our arrival in Santiago de Cuba did not go entirely according to plan. We learned later that our host, Arnulfo, had turned up when the bus was due with a sign bearing our names, but the bus was running two hours late. He turned up again later when the bus arrived and waited outside, but we were probably inside the bus station using the toilets and trying to get our bearings without being pestered by the taxi drivers who had gathered outside. I looked out of the window a few times to see if someone was there to greet us, but I must have missed Arnulfo in the throng.

We took a taxi into the old part of the city. When we arrived at the casa we were greeted by a young girl who turned out to be the housekeeper’s granddaughter. Before long, Arnulfo turned up and we sorted out the formalities. We settled into a small room with two double beds. Susie had chosen this casa because there was a terrace on the roof. We were not disappointed: it had sweeping views of a quarter of the entire city including the port, and beyond, the magic Sierra Maestra mountains to the west. The view was every bit as enchanting as the view from Alberto’s apartment in Havana.

As is our custom, we spent the first afternoon wandering around the old city like lost sheep, getting a feel for the layout of the place. We located a lunch spot in the hope of ordering something small or at least a dish that was suitable to share. We ended up with three enormous servings of crumbed beef, prawn skewers and rice with ham, plus three additional servings of rice. It was way too much!

We headed for a main road that ran east-west, downhill from the centre to the port. We found ATM machines and a number of main squares where people congregated and where some of the main tourist attractions were situated. The port proved to be a powerful magnet, but it was a work in progress: we ended up in a construction zone being stalked by a man in a uniform, so we wandered back out onto the Alameda, picked our way through neighbourhood games of football, and then started heading back up the hill through the French Quarter.

Steps in the French Quarter

Clare and Susie could hardly contain their cameras. There were amazing streets and buildings at every turn. It took us a while to find our place because of an error in the guide book—specifically, a mismatch between an old and a new name for a street (many streets in Cuban Cities have pre- and post-revolutionary names). We got there in the end. Later in the evening, I headed out with our host, Arnulfo, to purchase beer and drinking water.

At around 8 p.m. Arnulfo served us an enormous meal of chicken, Moros y Christianos (black beans and rice) and a salad, but we were still so full from our late lunch that we could only pick at it.

In the evening we climbed up to the terrace on top of the house, eager to take on the views of the city at night. I took the travel guitar. The neighbours were having a noisy party on the adjoining terrace, however, so we decided to go back downstairs where there was a sitting area with a couch and some armchairs. To our dismay, we found that we had been locked out of the house. The housekeeper or perhaps her granddaughter had padlocked the gate at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the terrace, and then gone home. We called out to no effect. Arnulfo was out socialising somewhere with his friends on a nearby street. Eventually I hit on a plan to ask the neighbours if I could jump into their terrace, go downstairs, and let myself in from the front door below. This worked, but I still could not find the key to unlock the padlock to get Susie and Clare back in. Eventually I located it on top of the fridge, which was not where it was supposed to be. It all ended well, but we had to draw on reserves of cunning.

Glad to be inside again, we soon retired to the bedroom with its noisy but effective air conditioner.

Sassy muchachas de Santiago


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