Jesus took me to the bus stop on his motorbike
I have not yet been to Bhutan or to Tibet, and many years ago I got within striking distance of Timbuktu … but did not quite get there …
I have been, however, to Kathmandu and Kashmir, but not to Kalamazoo. With the possible exception of Kalamazoo, most of these places have an elusive, almost indefinable allure – a promise perhaps of magic, of mystique or of times-gone-by. Into this exclusive little gathering of travel destinations we must add Cuba – it has all the requisites for platinum membership … but as it is a desperately poor country (thanks JFK? Dwight D?) perhaps tin-plated membership may be more appropriate.
My three or four weeks of travelling around the country were great fun – jumping onto or into trains and bicitaxis, horse-drawn taxis and “dollar” taxis for tourists not allowed to use the “collectivos” – the very photogenic 1950s Chevrolets, Chryslers and Fords held together with string, gaffer tape and a prayer or two. Then there was Jesus.
There are large and relatively luxurious hotels in Cuba, but I did not stay at any of them, preferring instead to use the jungle telephone system established over the years by the landladies of the numerous small guest houses scattered throughout the country. I had booked the Hostal Valencia for my arrival in Havana, knowing that I’d want to have a shower and a snooze – only to find that they had no record of my reservation and had no vacancies. A few telephone calls later and I was established very comfortably in the nearby Hostal el Commendador, whose interior courtyards, massive thick doors, exposed ceiling beams and claw-footed bathtubs all hinted at the glories that the eighteenth-century Spanish mansion had been, before restoration and conversion into a delightful place for a quick snooze.
When I left the Commendador several days later, a phone call to my next town organised my next accommodation … and from then on, I’d ask my landlady if she had a “friend” in whichever town I was heading for, and of course she always did. One of the nicest houses I stayed in, and the place where I had the best meal in three weeks of travel (a lovely grilled lobster), was run by the delightfully named Senora Cecilia Lago Lago in San Fernando Street in Santiago de Cuba. Sra Cecilia then referred me to Sra Rosalba Leyva in Holguin, and her son, Jesus Guerra Feria, loaded me and my luggage onto the back of his motorbike when it was time to move on again. Yes – Jesus did take me to the bus station. On his motorbike.
In Spiriti Sanctus some days later I was met by Fitico, another landlady’s son, who came fully equipped with two bicycles (no motorbikes), two umbrellas and a welcoming smile. We then pedalled through the rain to his mum’s house. No Jesus this time – although perhaps I did call on divine help from time to time to help me negotiate an alien bicycle, a suitcase slung over the shoulder, an umbrella dripping down my collar and the slippery cobblestones.
I don’t know where Sra Cecilia found the lobster: there is certainly no local branch of the Harrods Food Hall in Santiago de Cuba. While it is true that Santiago de Cuba is very close to the sea, it is even closer to the US military base at Guantanamo Bay. There is some sort of irony here: US-sanctions have crippled this tiny nation, the USA has control over about a hundred square kilometres of a foreign nation, the USA has established what is perhaps the world’s most infamous military prison on the south-eastern most tip of the country, the USA has launched ineffectual invasions against its almost destitute neighbour and US citizens are banned from travelling to the country unless like other guests they are wearing the latest fashion in bright orange jumpsuits with matching wrist and ankle shackles – yet I had a lobster dinner with Sra Cecilia. Waterboarding was not on the menu.
A baja la mentira!
Cuba’s economy tumbled when it became a communist country in 1959 and continued to crumble when Fidel Castro came to power in 1976. Not because – or not solely because – of ideological economic decisions, but because the US did not want what had been a flourishing Caribbean country as a communist foothold or toehold within spitting distance of Miami. One day during my travels, and in response to an unpleasant speech by George W Bush in Miami, there was a massive, nation-wide, spontaneous demonstration in Cuba of solidarity. Fitico took me to the Plaza de la Revolution where we joined the entire population of Sancti Spiritus cheering for Fidel, calling for long life to socialism and pouring scorn on President Bush’s lies: Viva el socialism! A baja la mentira!
And so all public transport was cancelled.
When I was in Cuba, doctors were relatively well paid at US$20.00 per month. The average wage was $10.00 per month. To get to the lovely city of Trinidad despite the nation-wide ban of all public transport – just to show George Dubbya who was really boss – I did what any stranded traveller does: I hired two doctors.
I paid them US$25.00 (total) to take two days off work, to drive their little car and me to my next town, and promised to keep the windows up so the police would not see me in their car as we passed police checkpoints. In Australia and the UK, paying two doctors $25.00 would not quite get them to open their appointments diary. Which self-proclaimed super model was it who sniggered “I don’t even get out of bed for less than $10,000”? Perhaps she needs to work for a week or two on a crowded ward in a Cuban hospital.
With wages as low as they were, and with ration books, a daily bread roll and fourteen carefully counted monthly eggs, it was no wonder that food in Cuba was not much of a fine dining experience, nor one that was going to attract too many Michelin stars. As one walked down streets, tiny windows in blank walls sported hand-painted cardboard signs: “Today we have chicken” And “Today Yes Pizza”. But despite all that, a goat’s knuckle dinner in Camaguey was a delicious treat, and one I was able to review for many subsequent hours as my vomiting and diarrhoea battled each other for my undivided attention:
– No! You went first last time!
– It is my turn to drag him to the lavatory this time!
I have vague memories of university undergraduate days when such experiences were referred to as “playing the porcelain tuba” … but music of a much more tasteful variety was really everywhere
At one of the scale were the sexy women (in spray-on garments vaguely covering the areas that needed to be covered) dancing with lizard-hipped young men, while the blind old man singing in a small bar as his wife played the out-of-tune piano, pausing to flog mono cassettes of their music, was at the other end. I am not sure where in this sliding scale of music a military band in Santiago fits in. The band was playing at a funeral, and its not-so-solemn march was a tune that sounded remarkably like the old British music hall song “Oh I do love to be beside the seaside”. Perhaps the two coffins were going to go out on a boat for a burial at sea.
Somewhere in the middle were the bands playing in every city’s and every town’s public squares, where at sundown the oldies gathered to sit and chat and smoke a cigar or two (and there were disturbing numbers of men with holes in their throats where cancers had been cut out), while the youngsters paraded in their finest gear, checking each other out, and the very young just played around, ignoring sex, signs of age, the perils of smoking. And mortality.
The 1940s Buena Vista Social Club may have been made famous to modern audiences by Wim Wenders’ film, but its essence is on just about every street corner and in every bar. A part of the Cuban music scene not known to many and a far cry from the steamy salsas is its tiny but vibrant organ industry.
In Holguin there is a tiny workshop named the Fabrica de Organos where hand-cranked organs are produced. I think I must have been the only person for several decades to drop in to the factory where a handful of workers produce an even smaller handful of organs each year. The boss was very proud to demonstrate his work – and when writing this article I came across a much more recent YouTube video that gives an even better idea of the place. And the old man is the same one I met when I was there. Or perhaps it is his son. Please see www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_g8HlEEaAk
Hitchhikers, crab killers and others
I mentioned earlier the lovely variety of transport available. I took an overnight train from Havana to Santiago de Cuba and hereby promise never again to try railway karaoke at 3.00 am. Buses and other “standard” forms of public transport were fine, but at different times I also hired a motorbike, a car … and a taxi that took me to Playa Ancon, twelve kilometres from Trinidad. The crazy taxi driver gave me a fast and furious ride down to the peninsula, swerving wildly, squashing as many of the migrating crabs – which were everywhere – as he could, and giggling as he did so.
Plenty of giggles were also to be found on my hired motorbike. My baseball cap blew off (full-face motorbike helmets? What dey?) as I was speeding along at 30 kmh and by the time I had managed to stop and wend my way back to pick it up, a woman had collected it for me. She then joined me on the bike, little knowing of my total inability to ride a motorbike or to transport a fellow human being in any safety. Still, as we zoomed along at breath-taking speeds up to 25 kmh, she kindly straightened my shirt collar, kept one hand on my head to make sure the cap did not fly off again, and then tapped me on the shoulder when we reached the fork in the road leading to her village. I felt as if I had just driven my old mum home from her weekly shopping.
My hire car a few weeks later led to similar scenes. I had learned quite quickly that NOT picking up a hitchhiker was NOT the done thing. It actually made a lot of sense: if you could afford a car, you could afford to pick up those who could not afford a car.
My car had pretty dodgy windscreen wipers – an Arthur Daley car? – and a low top speed that was still too fast for one unhappy passenger. Other trusting passengers included a farmer, a nurse and a 23-year-old young man celebrating his birthday (Hey! For a good time – try Chris Hall’s Taxi! An experience never to be forgotten!) and his uncle. Numerous others just seemed to pile into the car whenever I stopped to check a map, to pause for a passing train or to have a pee. My notes tell me that I somehow drove 900 km in Cuba but I do not quite understand how this could be. Of course, I did get lost quite often … and I did have to take hitchhikers off the main road to their villages to save then getting drenched in the torrential rains …
Cuba is all of these things – music, guesthouses, poverty, food, innovative transport – and it is also a place with a vibrant and fascinating history influenced, directed, battered and hammered by the Spanish, by the USA and even by its own rulers.
So many Cuban cities have fascinating stories to tell, historically rewarding buildings to explore and music and food and dance and a sense that tomorrow is just around the corner. Or perhaps the corner after that. Old Havana and several other towns are UNESCO World Heritage sites and while many buildings have decayed too far to allow restoration or renovation, many glorious old places are being dragged back into the future as buckets of cement are hauled by ropes up to third floors and donkeys trudge through the street with barrows of sand.
Bullet holes are gradually being patched up as revolutions become less politically correct – although the numerous police, army, special guards and political protection agencies are still there to tell leisurely travellers not to dwell too leisurely in front of politically-sensitive buildings: I made the mistake of trying to capture THE definitive photographic moment of a soldier passing in front of the huge Che Guevara mural on the Ministry of Interior and was told by a slightly amusing small sub-machine gun to move on …
Peer through any doorway into a courtyard and you will see twenty or more electricity meters and steep staircases and narrow corridors leading off the courtyard. There is an air of pride of ownership – forbidden until quite recently as houses could only be swapped – not sold or bought.
There is a huge billboard near what used to be the US embassy: Senor Imperialist: We are not afraid of you! Recent developments suggest that the bad old days may be gone – or at least may be starting to fade – as Raul has taken over from Fidel, and Barack has taken over from Dubbya, and as Cubans are again allowed to travel and perhaps even the CIA and Guantanamo Bay do not loom so ominously for travellers who decide to visit – and to celebrate – the spirit of a beautiful and a free country.
Jesus could not ask for more.
- Words and photographs © Christopher Hall 2014
- Date of journey: May – June 2002
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