Santiago day 4

Monday, 18 May 2015

On Clare’s last day in Cuba, we enjoyed a sumptuous breakfast on the terrace and then walked to Calle Saco where we checked out some bookshops, hoping to find some reading material in easy Spanish or our native English. We struck out on the books, but Clare and Susie joined a long queue of locals buying small cones of soft-serve ice cream for a few pesos each.

We then made our way across town to La Maqueta, which is a scale model of the older parts of Santiago along the lines of the model by the same name in Havana. We had a beer on the terrace out the back, which afforded a great view of the port and the Sierra Maestra Mountains beyond. Afterwards, we retraced our steps and found some books in English for sale on a stand at Velasquez’s balcony. There we purchased a short history of Cuba which turned out to be informative reading.

At length we headed back up Calle Saco where Clare sampled a five peso pizza. This is a variety of junk food that is enormously popular in Cuba. It’s messy, delicious, and cheap.

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Clare (with the black hat) on Calle Saco

When we got back to the casa we collected Clare’s bag and Arnulfo called for a taxi to take us to Antonio Maceo airport. There was an interminable wait to check in. Susie eventually insisted on some attention from the airline staff, explaining that Clare was travelling alone and spoke no Spanish. They allowed her to check in early. We learned that the plane was still in Jamaica, which meant that Clare was in for a long wait. I also began to understand a cultural difference that we were struggling to adjust to. Cubans expect delays as a matter of course, and when they occur, they simply wait them out. Tourists like us, on the other hand, find waiting tolerable only if we are kept informed—which rarely occurs.

We took leave of Clare as she disappeared into the departure lounge with boarding pass in hand. It was one of those moments where you smile and wave and say confident, hopeful things whilst fighting back tears. We would not see her again until we returned to Sydney.

The taxi driver had been waiting patiently for us. He drove us back to the casa where we freshened up for our next salsa lesson.

Later in the afternoon, two impossibly good-looking young Cubans turned up and installed themselves on the terrace which Arnulfo made freely available. They brought  a small speaker half the size of a beer can, and connected it to a mobile phone via Bluetooth. We began with some basic steps, and the instructors gradually took us through our first dance, combining basic elements.

The female instructor had a somewhat unusual teaching style. When I struggled to bring off a basic move she would glare at me ask in English (with a heavy Cuban accent) Do you have a problem with that? Alas, the answer did not need to be stated.

Quirky pedagogical methods aside, they were both experienced dance teachers and we managed to execute a basic routine at the end of an hour. Susie had a ball. I lost about two litres of sweat, which was disgusting. The teachers seemed genuinely amazed that previously we’d only ever had one hour of lessons (or perhaps they were just good at flattering middle-aged tourists). Arnulfo appeared from time to time to give us an update about Clare. Late in the afternoon he informed us that her flight to Havana had finally taken off.

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Salsa lesson on Arnulfo’s terrace

After the lesson we freshened up again. I took a shower in my shirt to try to rinse it out as best I could. At 8 p.m. Arnulfo served us a delicious meal of chicken, potaje (black bean soup) with viands, rice, and a salad with roast capsicum and fried plantains. We offered him a beer and he chatted with us after dinner. The potaje was delicious, and it topped the list of Cuban dishes we learned to cook when we returned to Australia.

Santiago was one of the happiest and most memorable stops in our six-week journey accross Cuba, and this was in large part due to one of Santiago’s best kept secrets: our host. Arnulfo is a retired school teacher and spouts facts and figures about Santiago, Cuba and Latin America more generally. He worked on a literacy brigade in Nicaragua about the same time we were there in the 1980s, and he has also worked in Angola. So he is well-travelled for a citizen of Cuba.

In casas particulares, the degree to which hosts socialise with their guests is variable. Arnulfo appeared to enjoy the contact with his guests. He was certainly one of the most engaging and affable hosts we had the privilege to meet. When we were out and about with him, everyone seemed to know him; and when we mentioned we were staying with him, people would nod their heads knowingly and say Es un buen hombre.

After dinner we packed and wandered out for our last excursion in Santiago. The Plaza de Martes was quiet so we opted to pay the cover charge at a nearby venue called Los Dos Abuelos where an excellent salsa band played to a pitifully small audience. To our surprise, Arnulfo showed up to tell us that the morning bus to Bayamo would be leaving 6:30 a.m. rather than 8 a.m. as scheduled. He had sought us out just to make sure we knew. We bought him a drink, but he did not want us to pay for his cover charge so he left soon after. We bought a CD from the band, and we walked back to the casa counting 1-2-3… 5-6-7… like our dance instructors had taught us.

We had a half-bottle of Santiago de Cuba rum in our room, so before turning in for the night, I went downstairs and polished it off with Arnulfo. When I finally shuffled off to bed, I set the alarm for 4:30 a.m. It was going to be hard to tear ourselves away from Santiago de Cuba.

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Detail from the footpath outside the Jazz Club, Santiago de Cuba

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