Santiago day 2

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Salsa is both a style of music and a style of dance, and it was beginning to get under our skin. Susie had harboured plans to book some salsa lessons, and it was in Santiago de Cuba that these plans were finally hatched. Our host, Arnulfo, phoned a local dance instructor to take us through the pasos basicos (basic steps) on the terrace that afternoon, to avoid the worst heat of the day.

We left house with Arnulfo, who escorted us to the Plaza de Martes and then showed us where the Moncada barracks were. This is where the first shots of the Revolution were fired.

A band of guerrillas led by Fidel Castro attempted to storm the barracks on 26 July 1953. The attack did not end well for the guerrillas, but it sparked the uprising that would eventually lead to the overthrow of the Batista regime. The uprising came to be known as the 26 July movement, and this date was stencilled on buildings from one end of the country to the other, and embroidered on the caps, uniforms and flags that were displayed in museums across Cuba.

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Cloth badge, 26 July Movement

The entrance to the barracks was peppered by bullet holes but these had been patched up by Batista’s forces after the event. After the revolution, the Castro regime turned the building into a school. They also set aside part of it for a museum and restored the bullet holes for historical effect. So these architectural scars are the first exhibit that visitors see when they arrive, and it does give you some pause to consider what it must have been like to try and storm a building full of armed soldiers.

To our surprise, the museum was free because it happened to be International Day of the Museum. So we gratefully entered and inspected the various exhibits, which were generally of a much better standard than those in the Museum of the Revolution in Havana. There were a couple of exhibits in common, including a detailed model of the Moncada barracks and surrounds, showing the route of the assailants. The photos of the aftermath were gruesome, and there was a detailed plan showing where each guerilla had fallen (or where they had been strewn after being summarily executed, depending on whose version of the story you believe). I now understand why Castro’s speech after the event was called ‘History will absolve me’.

When we were finished at the Barracks, we went to the terrace on the Rex Hotel where Clare checked for messages online. We then explored a street that we had not found before called Jose Saco. It was blocked off and had a lot of interesting shopfronts. Clare’s sandals broke as we were leaving the barracks, so she took the opportunity to buy a new pair at a hole-in-the-wall shop. The exchange seemed to draw a crowd of spectators, perhaps because Clare looked like a movie star in her floppy 1960s hat and retro sunnies.

After Clare was re-shod, we found our way back to Parque Céspedes where we entered the Museum of casa De Velásquez, again for free. This is reportedly the oldest house in Cuba. (According to some claims it is the oldest house in the whole of Latin America.) The layout was reminiscent of a place we visited with our other daughter, Ruby, in Seville in Spain, but on a smaller scale. It was clearly inflected with Moorish and Turkish influences, and it was notable how cool and breezy it was inside despite the blazing temperature outside. There was a lot of carved mahogany, including an impressive writing desk that was inlaid with vignettes from the myths of Ancient Greece, carved into ivory.

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Casa de Velazquez (detail)

As we left the museum, the security guard at the door gave us directions to Museo de la Lucha Clandestina (Museum of the Underground Struggle) just a few blocks away up a flight of steps. This was located in a light, breezy building that has spectacular views across the port to the Sierra Maestra mountains beyond. There were individual displays for key figures of the resistance that led up to the Revolution. Frank País featured prominently. His Lugar pistol and Tommy gun were each presented in an elegant case.

País was the head of the Department of Sabotage. According to a prominent quote on the wall, he distinguished three phases of revolution: 1. conspiracy; 2. clandestine subversion, and 3. the true revolution. The third stage presumably refers to armed uprising and wholesale insurrection of the populace; but the phases give due acknowledgement to the ground work for which País was famous and which earned him a summary execution. I resolved to read some more about this famous son of Santiago, and his co-conspirators.

Having soaked up the third free museum visit, we walked back up the hill to the casa. At 4 PM our dance instructor showed up. He spent a couple of hours teaching Susie and me the basic steps of salsa. He seemed determined to push us beyond the basics, which was beyond both his brief and our limited abilities—both linguistic and corporeal. But his enthusiasm and love for the dance were irrepressible. In fact, it seemed impossible to bring the lesson to a close. As the lesson progressed, his Spanish got faster and faster, just like the music. I tried to let it wash over me, hoping that some of the meaning would stick. But much of the time, I was just bewildered.

Susie was captured by a moment in which we were dancing, looking into each other’s eyes, with a backdrop view of the bay and the afternoon sun lighting up the Sierra Maestra mountains beneath a dramatic cloudscape. It was one of those “point X” experiences which vindicate her ambitious plans. What does it matter if you can’t dance, when you can be giving it your best shot on the roof of a house in Santiago de Cuba with a stunning view as a backdrop while you gaze into the eyes of your beloved? Susie eventually snuck away on the pretext that she had to see Clare for some reason or another. And later—foolishly, perhaps—I committed to continue salsa lessons on our return to Sydney.

Clare and I went out to buy some water and beer and scout for a Tukola Dietetica for Susie. We succeeded in bringing back beer and water. Later in the evening Arnulfo served us a lovely meal of slow cooked pork, a salad of cabbage and tomato, rice, and a viande that we could not identify. It was probably a variety of sweet potato unknown to us. The meal was delicious, if a little scary in terms of calorific content.

After dinner we rested and then set out in search of music. The ballet Folklorico was temporarily based nearby, but the premises were deserted, so we figured that it must have returned to its original locale. We went to the Plaza de Martes but there was only canned music blaring out of speakers. This had little appeal, but it was lovely to see the square full of people enjoying the cool night breeze. The pop-up rides for the children were a festive site, all lit up with fluoro tubes and coloured lights.

We walked down the closed off street again, deciding against the jazz club in favour of something outdoors. At length we found ourselves again sitting in the Parque Céspedes. There were lots of people about but still no live music. Susie ascertained that a music venue called La Casa Trova was nearby, so we made our way in that direction.

It wasn’t long before a bar announced itself with music spilling out onto the street. We paid the one CUC entry fee and found a seat in a row of chairs that were crammed up close to the stage. The band had six or seven musicians, including a manic viola player, an impressive percussion section, and the usual Cuban guitar with three courses of steel strings. They played dance music and did their best to interact with the audience, which was a mix of Cubans and tourists. One of the highlights was the dancing: we watched this with new eyes in light of our lesson that afternoon.

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