Saturday, October 27, 2007

Santiago de Cuba/Baracoa/Bayamo, 6-12 October 2007 (Written 12 October 2007)

The first day in Santiago we walked around the dusty streets and took in the sleazy feel. Even the afternoon downpour couldn´t wash away the feeling of dirt and sweat and rum mixed into the city. The views from the higher part of the city were spectacular though, overlooking the Bay of Santiago. Groups of old men sat in the street playing dominos in small groups, and the jinetero factor was decidedly higher than in Havana. We met Vicente, a taxista in Plaza Dolores and we negotiated our trip to El Cobre. He was quick to agree to 15 CUC.

¨We want to go to the mass.¨
¨Why? Well, the mass starts at 8am but it goes until 1pm.¨
¨You sure? Until 1pm?¨
Big laugh, then, ¨Wellll maybe until 11:30am.¨
These Cubans, they need their Saturday night partying…He explained to me that well, it´s Saturday night so there´s really no way we can go earlier than…9. Even when offered a huge sum of money – equivalent of a month´s salary, they are on the brink of throwing it away so they can enjoy their Saturday night partying and Sunday sleep-in. I was starting to not understand Cuban culture as much as I had thought I did, or wanted to.

That evening we went to Paladar Las Gallegas after searching for Santiago 1900 for a long time. Totally different directions were given to us by totally different people, and finally after way too much jinetero action, we jumped into the Paladar. We had to wait more than an hour for our food, and the service was pretty meagre. Santiago de Cuba is known to be where all things cultural, music and artistically, emerged from in Cuba. This includes trova and son, and I was eager to check out some of the live venues. We went into Casa de la Trova, which was essentially tourists and jineteros and jineteras. The basic driving force between interactions between foreigners and Cubans is purely economic. Otherwise, you could say there´s sexual motivation. But even the sex is financially directed – make you fall in love with them for their sex skills and then they make you take them away back to your country and once they´ve passed immigration, you never see them again. It´s incredibly frustrating. We staved off the attacks for a little while, also because the supremely superior dance skills of the Cubans was very intimidating. The Cubans would dance and spin at a dizzying rate whilst we struggled to keep the intricate beat sitting at the table. Finally a young guy named Adrian talked us into dancing with him, in the side room with the patio so we wouldn´t have to be in front of everyone. That still meant that the workers could watch us and laugh at us. Sigh.

We walked back through Plaza Dolores at night, which fills to overcapacity as a meatmarket of unrivalled proportions. Ages varying from 13 to 80, all genders, wandering about blowing kisses, hissing, and calling out piropos.

Sunday morning we had our breakfast and met Vicente who was ready and waiting to take us on our pilgrimage. The Basilica of El Cobre is where a totally intact statue was discovered in a copper mine. It´s a small figure, but venerated throughout the country and it´s impressive to see the kind of crowd it draws. A verdant green road leads up to the view where you can see the yellow building with the red rooftops amidst the mine still used today. People of all ages come from all over the country, as well as other countries with santeria traditions, and it was the most usage of cameras and videocameras I had Cuba. There was no instrumental accompaniment to the singing in the service and we didn´t stay too long, but it was worth it to see the white robes on the assistants and the elaborate green robe worn by the main priest.

Afterwards, we went to the Cimarron, a monument to the workers of the region. The views were gorgeous, and we were also able to see a neon blue lake colored from the sulphur in the area. There was a statue of Olokun, the orisha who is half human, half ocean who has an anchor tied to his leg.

Back in Santiago, we found the peso pizza stall and had lunch. We decided to sit outside the Casa de la Trova and listen for awhile. The two cutest old men I´ve seen in Cuba thus far came to talk to us.

¨De Japon…(using his pointer to demonstrate hard thinking, followed by enlightened revelation)…Akira Kurosawa!¨
¨De Japon…Toshiro Mifune!¨
¨De Japon…Nissan!¨
This continued for awhile, until he said, ¨Y de Santiago de Cuba…Antonio!¨, and introduced himself. What a character. His companero was Oberlin, and they were going over to Parque Central to play some son music. Shortly after they were on their way, I saw an old man take a hat away from another old man. Both looked to be in quite bad shape, with torn clothes and beaten shoes. I convinced Molly to get the hat from the man who had stolen it and give it back to the rightful owner. As she snuck up behind him and grabbed it, he gripped it firmly and shook his finger at her, saying no. After a few minutes of playful argument, he finally did give it back to the other Viejo. He then came over to us and showed us his card that showed he belonged to the Asociacion de Sordos – he was deaf. He had index cards with different countries written on them so he could ask people where they were from. He finally came to Estados Unidos and Molly nodded. We told him to wait for us and we would return with something for him. We rushed home and grabbed some shoes, clothes, and toiletries. He was really happy, and so were we as we headed towards the next place we could hear music reverberating. In Hotel Venus, a group of 8 musicians was practicing their salsa routine. We stayed outside for awhile listening to them practice until they convinced us to enter. They took turns dancing with us, and it was fantastic. Not having other people watching you (it was easy enough to ignore those passerbys on the street who stopped to watch and undoubtedly laughed), and having a private full band perform was a luxury you don´t get to enjoy often. As most interactions in Cuba, it ended with them asking us to buy the whole band drinks, and seeing as how they had entertained us and put up with our dancing, we were obliged to say yes. It´s a Catch-22 no matter how you put it and it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I realize that it´s not highway robbery for somebody to ask me for a soda, but it´s also pretty shitty that people are only nice to you because they think that they can get something from you. What´s worth noting is that this type of opportunistic situational manipulation is missing from interactions with old people. There was a couple at artehabana in Havana that was super friendly and we spoke for some time, after which I offered them a beer, and to which they profusely refused. So where does this huge divide come from? Is it the old people that remember a time when socialism actually worked? Do they see personal interaction as more valuable than a soda, or a bottle of nail polish? As far as I can see, Cuba isn´t socialist. It´s created a society that is more capitalistic than most others I´ve ever seen. Everyone is trying to gain, financially or in status by which they can guarantee some sense of prosperity.

That evening, we decided to go back to peso pizza since our budget was routinely going over what we were hoping to spend. It was also raining heaps, so we went back to the casa. All of a sudden, Vladimir was being really nice, coming to tell us that it was his 38th birthday but with this rain he couldn´t go out. He started to tell us of his family with 7 children in the country and essentially how poor he was. I was sucked into his sweet, unassuming nature and we shared photos with him. All of a sudden, the 3 women who lived in the house who had previously shown negligent interest in us came out to talk to us and were being friendly. I think this served two purposes: watch Vladimir to make sure we weren´t getting too friendly, and to try to get on our good side so that we would recommend their casa to other travellers. I was a bit put off by both motives that I perceived…we decided to go for a walk since the rain was letting up a bit. When we came back, Vladimir was waiting on the porch in his nice going out clothes, and didn´t hesitate at all to ask me for a dollar because he was going to the countryside to visit his family the next day. I felt…used. Manipulated. Fooled.

The next morning we got up early and Vicente was waiting for us. We were headed to Baracoa, population 65,000, oft referred to as Cuba´s Shangri-la. The bus ride to Baracoa was stunning. The most impressive thing about the Cuban landscape I´ve seen thus far is the variety of flora on the island. There were steep rock cliffs on which grew various different types of cactuses, and soaring high above were multiple species of palms. How these plants kept their roots firmly planted in the earth that was subject to endless tropical storms amazed me. The bus driver stopped apparently at whim numerous times during the drive, making it probably 45 minutes to an hour longer than it needed to be. When we finally did arrive in Baracoa, the woman who Vladimir had called was waiting for us. She explained that her house was full that day so that night we could stay in a friend´s house, and the next day we could return to her house. I explained that we really didn´t want to change rooms and I also tried to bargain about the price a little bit. It resulted in us staying with her brother, and her leaving quite annoyed. I told her it was just as annoying to be told that we had a reservation and then not have a room, and the expectation to have people change houses without any compensation, or without kindness in fact was unfair.

We went to search for a peso meal and found a super super greasy pizza stand. We ran into Jen, a Canadian girl we had met on the bus. We decided to head towards the beach that afternoon. The sun in Cuba is a raging force, beating down relentlessly and even the strongest must wither in its strength sometimes. Walking past the Malecon, you pass the baseball stadium to walk along the black sand beach with waves gently lapping the shore. There is a sporting ground where children gather to play baseball and run around in green fields with the jawdropping backdrop of the Escambray Mountains and the Caribbean Sea. Continue your walk along the beach and pretty soon you have two choices; walk on the sand, or on a small path weaving through palm trees and tropical fruit trees. We chose the latter for the spotty shade that the towering palms provided. Many different lizards and geckos darted about. We were looking for Playa Blanca, which supposedly has white sand. We were walking without water and even though it was past 3pm, it was way hotter than any day I have ever recalled. We gave up on the beach, settled for the black sand, and headed back towards town.

Back in town, we got some guarapo, pressed sugar cane juice. Incredibly refreshing and rehydrating, exactly what we needed. We still had some time so we wandered around this small town that has been likened to Macondo of Gabriel Garcia Marquez´s novels. The Plaza de la Independencia on Maceo Street is the lifeline of the town, with people of all backgrounds gathering to chat, rest, or meet others, and the proximity to the Casa de la Trova means you can enjoy the music drifting by from the refreshing locale of a park bench under a tree.

We met Jen for dinner at Paladar La Colonial that night, and Molly and I shared some shrimp and ¨Tati¨, tiny fish about 1.5cm long that is cooked by the hundreds. It´s a Baracoan specialty and I did struggle momentarily with consuming so many tiny creatures…afterwards we grabbed the bottle of rum Molly and I hadn´t drunk in Santiago and we situated ourselves in Plaza de la Independencia. Over the next few hours we were spoken to by a dozen young hopefuls which eventually led to us dancing in the square with no accompanying music. We then proceeded to dance in the street outside La Terraza, and then we invaded a domino match and the players probably found us more entertaining than the domino game.

On Tuesday we met Jen at cubatur for our trip to Bahia de Taco. Our guide, Karel, was a super sweet 26 year old. On the way to the Bahia, we stopped at Finca Esperanza where there is a good variety of plants to demonstrate what kinds of crops are being cultivated in the area. We tried coffee, cacao, guayaba, and saw the zapote (mamey). We arrived at Bahia de Taco and met Yoannis, the boat driver and guide. The Bahia de Taco is where manatees are said to be seen, but extensive research hasn´t been done due to lack of funds. The bay is beautiful, with mountains all around, and one small opening to the sea. It still serves as a refuge for boats out to sea when tropical storms hit. We stopped in one part of the bay to walk around. The variety of life we saw was remarkable. Tiny hermit crabs that eat fruit scattered across haphazardly. Polymites, which resemble ancient snails, and who have brillian purples and whites mixed in, rested on giant leaves hanging from trees. Yoannis knew a great deal about the medicinal plants in the area. Tapon is a small plant that in an infusion works against diarrhea. Verbena, which has small purple flowers, can be used to make a drink that works for babies that refuse to drink their mothers´ milk.

After the Bahia tour, we stopped at Playa Maguana on the way back to Baracoa. A small stretch of white sand beach with aquamarine waters at the perfect bathing temperature; comfortable enough that you´re not cold, but not hot enough that you feel like you´re in a hot spring bath. We arrived back in Baracoa and we went for a long walk through the lesser explored part of town, where the greenery seems to be an extension of the dilapidated concrete. We ate dinner in our casa, a delicious meal of chicken cooked in coconut milk, tostones, okra and corn salad, and rice. We went to the Casa de la Trova afterwards where there were several dozen European tourists and a few Cubans scattered about. Molly and I made our exit quite quickly and turned in after walking around for awhile.

Wednesday morning we got up early to go on our respective photo shoots. I found the cemetery on the other side of town and wandered around the area for awhile. We had breakfast and then met up with Jen to go to the Archaeological Museum. It turned out that it was closed for the holiday because it was October 10, but they were able to find someone to open it. It´s inside a cave and displays skeletons and tools used by the indios that no longer live in the area, and it was mildly interesting. The walk to and from it though was extremely muddy and slippery and with the humidity hovering around 98%, there were plenty of other places I´d rather have been. We went to the Casa del Chocolate where Molly and Jen had watery hot chocolate. Back to the casa to pack, and Molly and I discussed our plans as we´ve both been struggling a fair amount with various things in the country. It´s tough because being alone kind of sucks, but being with another girls calls even more attention to us. It seems like it´s necessary to always be on guard and it can be difficult to know when an interaction with someone has crossed the line from a friendly conversation to an obligation to compensate financially.

Right around the time Molly and I were talking, there was a torrential downpour and the streets were flooding within minutes. I was unsure whether the bus would leave, but it turned out to be ok. It did rain most of the journey, though, and when I picked up my backpack in Santiago de Cuba it was soaking. I made it to Bayamo on the 7:30pm bus and arrived at 10, with Giral waiting at the station. He´s a great guy, and I instantly felt at ease with him. He had brought a bottle of grapefruit juice that he had made for me at home. We went to the casa that he had found for me and then went for a bit of a walk.

This morning it was still raining so after breakfast, I took a nap. I spoke with Antonio, the owner of the house who talked and talked and talked about all things Cuba with me.

Giral came around 11:30 and we walked, dodging puddles and sharing an umbrella to the city center. Bayamo has a very artistic feel; along the main thoroughfare is Calle General Garcia, with giant sculptures of acrylic paint tubes replacing the ordinary boring telephone poles. Galleries are everywhere, and we visited the art gallery where he works, as well as several other studios. The university displays some original work by students which was great to see – artists able to survive receiving high quality materials without paying at all. I remember how expensive photo equipment in Los Angeles was, and having to select the courses I could take in the photo program based on how much I knew the course would cost me in required materials.

We went to Parque Cespedes, also known as Plaza de la Revolucion, and the tranquillity and serenity of this town continued to amaze me. There were a few people scattered about and it was lively; it didn´t feel dreary or anything like that, but it was free of jineteros and catcalls. Wow. We continued on to lunch at Restaurante Vegetariano, and I was super happy. For US$2 total, we ate a feast of vegetable soup, vegetable rice, okra, green beans, pumpkin, cucumber, soy protein picadillo, and fried plantains. So great to get that many vegetables at once! It was pouring rain so we waited in his gallery for awhile then headed back towards my casa. We stopped at a guarapero and had some of the refreshing icy cold drink.

I was ready for a nap, and after a quick one walked around alone for a bit. I visited the site of the supposed oldest cemetery in Latin America, and although the looks and catcalls did increase a bit, it wasn´t nearly as bad as it could have been. I then went to Giral´s house where I had been invited for dinner. After an attentive origami lesson, I was served a huge meal of chicharon soup (small white beans – super tasty), rice, potatoes, fried flour with spinach, cucumber, and…ground beef. I was really confused about this, since all sources have been telling me that it´s illegal to eat beef in Cuba. Giral shrugged off the question so I´ll need to do further research on this.

Molly called to say that the bus couldn´t leave Baracoa because it was raining too much…she managed to find a good cheap place to stay but it must suck to be stuck there in that weather…it was bad enough being here with a friend who has an umbrella…

And now it´s Friday morning and I´m using Giral´s computer to type this up. The impressions of Cuba I have are so positive and so negative. Seeing the preservation of culture through music and visual art is pretty phenomenal. But to think of all these talented people, and the older ones, having to struggle to survive and fight to feed themselves and their families is absurd. I like the Cuban self-assuredness, honesty, and bluntness, but at times it goes too far. Asking for sodas, beers, clothes, money…when I told Daniel, the leader of the salsa group in Hotel Venus in Santiago that we´d get him drinks but we weren´t having any (I already had a bottle of water and I very very rarely drink soda), he looked me straight in the eye and said, why, because you don´t have a lot of money? These sorts of interactions make it even more obvious that they only associate with us for economic gain.

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