I find Santiago de Cuba underwhelming, I will explain. I’ve done my research, Santiago is the cultural capital of Cuba – try telling that to Havanans. It’s closer to Haiti and the Dominican Republic than Havana and is heavily steeped in Afro-Caribbean culture. Entrepreneurial and rebellious are adjectives to displace poor, and as the second city you can only compare it to the capital. We have coincided our travels to be in Santiago, the far end of the island from Havana, for the festival to end all festivals some would have us believe! We have fantastic central roof-top accommodation that looks westerly over the harbour, with only four ships of any size berthed, two of these are Chinese (Americas loss, I sense) below the distant rolling hills, it looks spectacular from afar.
A couple of people contacted me to question if the $25US/month Cuban wage was in fact true, it’s an average. We are told a story of a high school English teacher that earned $50CUC/month, who gave his job up to conduct culture walking tours, the day I spoke to him he had led ten people at $10CUC each, he had made twice is monthly wage in one day! Tourism is the bag to be in. I speak with another teacher when we are browsing in the large indoor market, also an ex high school teacher, that now has a shoe stall and makes $60CUC from that - more when tourists are around, and still does private tutoring, like he said – who can survive on $25CUC/month!
I have learnt my Spanish from a set of cds on the way to work and back for two months. I have smashed the Luminar beginners course – if ever you are a representative of a food company attending a trade-fair in Madrid – I’m your man, although I felt a little cheated that the sexual chemistry between Mr Hanendez and Miss Roberts never conjugated in the present tense! – maybe it does in the advanced course when they get married, have relationship counselling, and eventual divorce? I moved onto intermediate (bought cheap on eBay – it’s my own fault), which consists of what I imagine to be an exiled Nazi war criminal giving Spanish lessons in South America somewhere (sorry I cannot be more specific than that), at least he sounds Germanic, male and life-weary, he spends most of the time berating his English university students, he does also appear to have a Weinsteinian favouritism to the females, his two catch phrases are ‘no, no, no, no, no one will understand you,’ and ‘you must get the push of the verb correct, to get the correct tense, it’s consssensual, not conselssual. Occasionally he reaps praise on one of the women and you can sense their utter relief that they have eventually appeased him – Stockholm syndrome comes to mind. So, one day we set off on a cultural walking tour as outlined in the Lonely Planet, we walk in the general direction of the farthest point to start and will work back towards Plaza Céspedes, near our casa, but half way to the start, we discover we have left the guidebook, containing the detailed route to navigate, it is 35C in the shade and neither of us is willing to go back for it, the blame game starts and we both agree that it’s the other persons fault! I have a good grasp of the route in parts of a foreign city that I never ventured into ever before and I have intermediate Spanish-Nazi to fall back on. I know Pedro Pico (a street named after PP himself – is the starting point, and with a few ‘Donde esta Pedro Pico?’ We’ll have no problem finding it, two problems here, no local seems to know where Pedro Pico is, if he is a peak, a person, a priest, a shop, or a mime artist we are meeting or trying to find! Secondly, what Herr Eichmann has failed to tell me is that the people will not only not know what/where/who Pedro Pico is, but they will do so in machine-gun Spanish. After my third enquiry of PP and blank faces and machine-gun Spanish, at least I think it’s Spanish? The Wife is like a little dismissive echo, ‘fucking Pedro Pico!’ We eventually find Pedro Pico, it is a little forgettable side road, but not for us! Even now when the Wife is sleeping, and I whisper, ‘donde esta Pedro Pico?’ she will murmur back, ‘fucking pedro pico!’
A friend once told me that when her parents split up and her mother was going through her photograph albums with her new partner, and she was telling him about events with her ex-husband, it meant nothing to her knew partner – why should it, it was a previous life. I always remember this story when I’m living in my car just to ‘get away’ for a few days and it’s these little almost inconsequential events to the rest of the world that are invisible glue – we will always have Pedro Pico and The elephants at Kuala Lumpur Zoo! (https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog_posts/6946206-28-a-woman-in-bloom-travails-through-life-sometimes-avoiding-the-p)
We visit the Museum de Carnival, an aperitif to the carnival proper, the procession is the same night and we are excited after the museum. We have wandered down to have a pre-cursory look at the floats, thinking more will appear later (they don’t). Temporary spectator stands have been erected along the main wide road down by the docks where the flotilla sets out from. When we return for the allotted start time it appears that everyone apart from the stall vendors are still getting organised. We wait around for a hour and a half, eventually they set off on Cuban time, then appear to stop for another half an hour, there are several ensembles of dancers, we watch most and a few floats – we are underwhelmed and bored, this is dubbed one of the greatest carnivals in the world, there is obviously no trades descriptions act in Cuba. We both agree, ‘Is that it, let’s go and do the other Cuban festival thang and get pissed on rum!’ And pissed we did get, mightily so. We had befriended a young male salsa teacher, Rico, the night before and half-arranged to meet up again with him. He has informed us he will take us to his ‘ghetto festival’ but is baffled to why we would even want to go when the main events are in the centre. I do the Cuban thing and buy a bottle of run and a two-litre bottle of coke, all of a sudden I have lots of friends, people Rico knows, if they’re a friend of Rico, they’re a friend of mine. We have no objection sharing drink with locals, we are in Delores Plaza, a professional sound system has been set up and dancing is occurring, ranging from professional salsa teacher all the way down to inebriated middle-aged gringo on holiday dancing! It’s great vibe, we still want to visit the ‘ghetto carnival’ but Rico is still baffled, he says this is much, much better, so we stay and buy another bottle of rum and coke and we gain even more friends. It’s a great night and we swim home, once home I casually vomit in the toilet, as I do so I think to myself in mid-reflux, ‘this is quite pleasant!’ – that’s when you know you are beyond pissed on Havana Club – I deserve to feel much worse the next day, but I have ejected most of my hangover into the Santiago sewer system.
We are hassled by the same eccentric drunk the next day, I think his name is Mr Bidido, we endure him the first time, but he hassles us again, forgetting he has hassled us before and The Wife politely says, ‘We just want some privacy’ to which he replies ‘Well, fuck you then!’ in English.
I foolishly have a three-meat bird dish in a restaurant overlooking Delores Plaza, that consists of two unknown fowl and luncheon meat – this is again one of the better tourist restaurants! It can mean only one thing: Imodium on the trip to Baracoa, via Guantanamo, there’s a lovely bay there with a huge military complex on. This ‘bunged-up’ ride will pale into insignificance compared to the bus ride back and the ‘walk of shame’.
We go and observe the bullet holes in the wall of the military barracks, where the first bungled event of the revelation occurred, almost terminating the path to the victorious republic before it was even born, if you want to an exemplar of how not to lead a guerrilla attack, read about this one, the then barracks is now a high school, has been from 1963, and you can casually wander in and take photos while school is in progress, no one asks us for a police check, DNA sample and two references, like they would in the UK, they are patriotically proud of the bullet holes next to the books.
We struggled to find bottle water at one point one day, and we had to ration what we had. The food often ran out in the restaurants. For example, in one of the better restaurants, next to the museum of carnival I order two dishes from the menu, the waiter says they’re not available, then we spend a few moments choosing an alternative to be told they’re not available, this feels like a sketch from Monty Python, so I ask him what is, he points to three dishes off the extensive list, there is no rice, chicken, tomatoes, green beans, etc, etc, we decide to get a sandwich, to be told the bread has run out, I’m not making this up, this in the second biggest city in Cuba! The answer to the scourge of food is, ‘it’s festival time!’ I semi-sarcastically ask if more people have turned up this year, it shoots above his head when he replies, ‘no, the same.’
Santiago is a long, long, way behind Havana. I wanted to like it so much more, the pollution is absolutely horrendous, and although there are not many vehicles on the road the belching ancient lorries can instantly reduce your life-expectancy by six months as they pass. Not since India have I experienced pollution so choking. We did eat at one great Caribbean restaurant, St Pauli. It’s a double-edged sword, with more money and freedom, less embargoes, the food would not only be better quality, but actually available, tourism would be better organised, money would pour in and it would be a fantastic destination, but that is obviously not what everyone wants, I’d just be happy with decent available food and drinking water, then I could forgive the carnival to end all carnivals, which I’ve seen better in Moss Side, Manchester.
P.S. So adamant was I at the time, without the guidebook to hand that it was Pedro Pico, I later realised it was Padro Pico, which makes much more sense, as this is a prominent unmissable tourist attraction, and not an insignificant side street! The Wife never re-checked the route later as I did, and it will always remain my secret – ‘Fucking Pedro Pico!!’
Next time: THE bus toilet incident (The walk of shame!)
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.