There are two reasons we are making the six-hour journey to the farthest end of Cuba to Baracoa, firstly we have not been bowled over by Santiago, and secondly, I’m adamant that ‘there must be’ some tasty food somewhere on this island of 11.5 million people, and Baracoa is renowned for its ‘special’ Caribbean spicy sauce.
We pass through Guantánamo, famous for two things to the outside world, Guantanamera (there’s only one Guantananera-a-a), the patriotic song about the girl from Guantanamo (Guantanamera is the Spanish for Guantanamo), and,
the American sponsored Muslim holiday camp, in no way illegal and a breach of any human rights, this for me is like Trump getting elected, an illegal interrogation (Interrogation is American-English for torture!) centre, by a prozy country that hates you, and the people in power in the country you are detained in now have the other Castro brother in charge, that have both survived dozens of assignation attempts (although Fidel was the decoy for Raul), that would quite happily torture, the torturers happily torturing! (Wheels within wheels, outside wheels! – You can’t make this stuff up!) For this reason and many more I crane my neck as we get somewhere near the GITMO naval base, home to nearly ten-thousand American service personnel, allegedly protecting the Panama Canal – I wonder if the Chinese will set up a naval base to protect their investment in the Guatemala ship canal they are building to rival the Panama one? – We all know the answer already! All I can make out from the distance is a watch-tower and defiant stars and stripes flying aloft in the breeze.
Apparently, inmates, both captives and interrogators were subjected to thirty-hours of the same song on a loop; Queens, We are the Champions of the World, Take Your Best Shot by Dope and Fuck You God, by Deicide, I understand the irony of the first two, but the last one is sending out very some mixed messages to monotheistic religions with the big fella at the pyramid! Saturday Night Fever is a strange choice, surely, Stayin Alive would have worked much better?
But there is one, that baffles me, and it’s one of my very favourite tunes of all time, David Gray’s, Babylon. Chosen because of its biblical connotations, eh up, surely after a day of listening to this on a loop very loud, you realise there is not much ‘religious connotation’ in it, unless love and ecstasy are a new religion?
I could quite easily listen to this on a loop interspersed with being force feed through a tube and waterboarded – total disclosure, I have never tried it! If you’re as baffled as me by all this, read more here: https://mic.com/articles/87851/11-popular-songs-the-cia-used-to-torture-prisoners-in-the-war-on-terror#.63IUyMIGw
Baracoa is a strange but enchanting place, sometimes as a traveller/tourist you step outside your body and observe yourself observing the new environment/culture/people. Here feels like that to me, the people going about their everyday business and you watching them in a Truman Showesque way. Baseball is the national sport of Cuba, at the end of pretty much the only sandy beach in the town is a baseball stadium, it is an impressive structure, especially from a distance, enormous in relation to all around – pretty much only a few low-level houses, a bit of sand and a flat sea, it rises up incongruously, white and spectacular.
It draws you in, but as you get closer and up to it, it’s fighting a constant battle against the briny sea air, and looks like it’s coming off second best, inside it’s just as impressive. This stadium, and I exaggerate not, is actually on the beach! It is ‘Fields of Dreams.’ ‘Build it and they will come!’, but there are only about 80,000 people close enough to come. This stadium will stay with me forever, I get chatting to a craftsman inside the empty stadium and he fills me in with lots of facts, they can’t obviously compete with the big cities; Havana, Santiago, Cienfuegos and Camaguey, they are the Leicester City of Cuban Baseball. He tells me there are trials in a few days’ time, free to the public. I would be there, but we have booked onto a tour of the Alejandro de Humboldt National Park – I would love to see and hear the thwack of leather on wood in this mesmerising place – I’m so tempted to cancel the national park – I have no interest in baseball normally, it’s just ‘men-rounders’ and I have a degree in Ecology and a love of natural history. This is how captivating this stadium on the beach is!
So, Lechita sauce (coconut, tomatoes, garlic and spices) is one of the reasons we have travelled to the farthest end of the island from Havana. In all honesty it is tastiest food I’ve sampled in Cuba, but it is no better than you would get in a supermarket packet back home, we are discussing this when the proud manager of the restaurant with the best Trip Advisor reputation (not much competition) sidles up to our table and asks, what we think of the food, as I’m about to give an honest considered opinion, The Wife espouses,
“It’s, just okay!” He turns and with a humph of his shoulders, disappears to more agreeable patrons from North Korea!
“Have you got Asperger’s?”
“Well, it is, just okay, isn’t it?” (Total disclosure, she does not have Asperger’s syndrome, just a poor filter and lack of tact.)
We are setting off from Baraco to Santiago, a five-hour journey, the bus is well over an hour late coming into the station and when it arrives the rear side front and stairs have been partly mangled, the lights smashed, and the windscreen has a crack running through it and the door is held shut with string, it has hit a lorry in the mountains and come off second best.
We have been happily chatting to an English couple from London, the husband has per-chance bumped into a Cuban-national friend he met here 15 years before, it is heart-warming to watch them at the station, like they are off to war on opposite sides, they are very unlikely to meet again, that’s sad, but this is the gripping hands across the divide stuff – ‘And we made our love on wasteland, And through the barricades,’ I don’t know why I think of the lyrics from this Spandau Ballet song as I watch two men hug and depart, probably forever, this is humanity acting locally, but thinking globally, something the people that run our countries could heed… That was a party-political broadcast from the ‘Global Common-Sense Party!’ The English couple have two very young children, a nine-month and a two-year old, I know what fun looks like, and two under twos travelling independently is not ‘it’, e.g. The wife is juggling a whinging the nine-month old later on the bus, whilst trying to read a novel, this looks like extreme reading to me, and could only be harder if she were trying in to do it under water and ironing at the same time! My wife says maybe we should help, I inform her I’ve done larval stage with my own children, and just watching this couple is absolutely exhausting.
After an hour and a half, we stop at the brother in laws place in the hills for refreshments, my bowels are corrugating. I try to relieve them, but they are like a lone-wolf misanthrope and refuse to be relieved. I think I hear them say, ‘keep your friends close, keep your enemas closer still’, I know which I am! The bus sets off again, then my bowels ebb and flow with greater potency and I’m caught in the bob and swell. Total disclosure, number three, there is a toilet at the back of the coach, that you can smell every time the door opens and what is about to depart from me should not be inflicted on humans with any sense of smell, never mind those in unfortunate close proximity to the washroom, believe me Americans, you would not wash in there afterwards, even euphemistically! So, for the second time I approach the co-driver and in my best Spanish taught to me by a Nazi (see last week’s blog), I proclaim, ‘Estoy un poco enfermo’, (I’m a little ill), forgetting the bus is held together by string. They inform me the bus will stop in San Antonio, I know this is before Guantánamo, so I think I can hang on a few minutes, a few minutes turn into twenty-five, The Wife is holding up a 5 CUC coin and asking me what it is worth in Cuban pesos, this is not a difficult calculation, but the bus has pulled over and the driver has climbed out of his window, I’m thinking I should do the same, he has gone to buy bananas, it is a national holiday the next day, inconveniencing fifty passengers and one in particular, I think this is it, toilet nirvana, and as I get up, he jumps back in and drives off again, the bastard! The Wife is still wittering on about the coin’s value held between us like a two-year old, she has an O-Level in maths! I get up and proclaim louder and more assertively this time to the co-driver, ‘Mi poco enfermo’, they feel obliged to pull over at a row of modern double-storey hoses, I’m watching like a hawk a very old-man leave his dwelling while the co-driver disentangles the string to open the door, I leap from the bus, just as the old-man turns the key in the lock and places it deep within his jacket pocket – the bastard!, by the time I have explained and he has unlocked it, it will be too late – if a siren is not going off, it should be! So, I burst through the open door of the house next door to the surprise of a startled middle-aged women watching tele. ‘mi poco enfermo’ and I vigorously rub my stomach, whilst looking pained, which is not hard, ‘oh,’, she replies and thinks I have come to call for her son!! She shouts up the stairs for Estevo, I’m very close to the worst of all social embarrassments now and I’m thinking the toilet has to be upstairs and just making a dash for it, I repeat my plea and pathos to Estevo as he descends into the living room, and thankfully he understands the strange gringos urgency and points to the back of the house and right, I just, only just, make it, relieved I get up only to have to sit down again, I’m in toilet-nirvana, now, eventually, it’s safe for everyone, if I get back on the bus. I try to give them money but ironically only have my emergency bus station toilet money, about twenty pence, the lovely Cuban people in the middle of nowhere with a flushing toilet are obviously offended, but I have made the gesture.(StCP!)
Meanwhile The wife is telling the inquisitive bus that think I have a long-lost friend here, like the English guy earlier, about my toilet abrupta exploits, someone is translating for the benefit of the Spanish speakers (I am not making this up for comic effect, unfortunately!) As I leave the house fifty pairs of eyes are fixed on me as I make the walk of shame up the path of the house, and then the full length of the pavement adjacent to the bus, I feel obliged to report back to the whole bus when three people ask if I’m ok now? – as I make the second walk of shame back to my seat in the middle. The Wife is confused and I’m reticent to tell her all the full details unless she stands up and broadcasts it to the other passengers to be followed by laughter, then a second wave of laughter when translated!
“Did you go behind a bush?” The Wife asks.
“No, in the house there.” I point to my toilet facilitating friends stood in their open doorway waving as we pull off. (Again, I’m not making this up!)
“Some strangers house, what did they say?” She tries to clarify, bemused.
“Not sure, I was trying not to shit myself in a complete strangers Cuban house!” She laughs unkindly.
“What, you just burst in?”
“Yeah, the alternative consequence did not bear thinking about, needs must when the devil drives.” She laughs further, unkindly, then snorts out even more laughter for good measure.
“Did you not just go behind a bush?”
“Can you see any bushes in their front gardens?”
“What, a Complete strangers house?” She is still bemused, or the world’s best actor.
“Estevo was a complete stranger a few minutes ago, not any more, still not sure what mama’s called.” She carries on laughing like an unkind lunatic.
“I’ve never met anyone with such a delicate stomach as you.”
“I have the constitution of a royal, I’m descended from Louis the Fortieth and Beau Brummell, not peasant’s like you.” Occasionally over the next thirty minutes before we pull into Guantamamo, she just looks at me shakes her head and smiles – unkindly.
“At least I can do basic maths, it’s 1.25 pesos, you retard!” I reply, when I’ve have had enough of unkind admonishments.
This is The Wife’s favourite travel anecdote of the jaunt, normally her eyes glaze over when I recount a story from the various slings and arrows of embarrassing misfortune that have befallen me in my existential struggle though life, but this one delights her perversely, to such an extent she will actually say, ‘Tell them about the bus journey in Cuba’ then laugh beforehand, if The Wife laughs with just the strap line it has to be funny, and involve discomfort social-embarrassment and self-effacing parody on my behalf. Then as I start to recount the story, that even I’m getting bored with, she will start to laugh ahead of me and everyone else… unkindly!
* StCP! = Supporting the Cuban People
Next Time: Then the food changed into technicolor!
Ian M Pindar writes books, and also about himself in the third person sometimes, so it looks as though he has a large team of dedicated professionals working around him. His latest book is in fact a novella and has the strange title of: ‘Foot-sex of the Mind’. It is not a Mills and Boon, but about finding out what is important in life far too late.
Key Words: Baracoa, Guantanamo, Guantamemaro, walk of shame, Field of Dreams, Build it and they will come, Lechita sauce, Spandau ballet, Cuba