Santa Clara slap bang in the middle of Cuba was liberated by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and his bandoleros in 1958 when he derailed a military train carrying 350 government troops and munitions, it sounded the death knell for Batista and Guevara is such a hero in these parts that a massive statue is located 2km from the city centre on the outskirts of town. It is the statue, and the museum that marks the spot of the derailing we have mainly come to see, although the museum was shut the day we tried to visit. Santa Clara is supposed to be an artsy edgy cultural centre, it was lovely, but no great shakes if you are on a tight schedule.
Carlo, the casa owner in Trinidad has arranged the next three accommodation places, this is a massive relief for us. I’m not sure if it is because of this, but Maria the owner of the Casa welcomes us like we are her children returning from a bloody war. The bon hommie is smothering, she speaks no English, so we are reliant on my pigeon Spanish, which is fun, but very tiring after a while.
We hired taxi from Trinidad, that we have paid 60CUC (*StCP! – see last week’s blog for average wages in Cuba – $25/month!) and takes an hour and a half, to drop us at the Che memorial first before Maria’s. The imposing Che is keeping watch on the very outskirts of town and fields – in case the local farmers rise up! Unsurprisingly it’s a very impressive memorial to the cigar smoker of the year 1959.
Fidel Castro won it the year before in my completely made up poll to save time, Winston Churchill had a good run before, J F Kennedy did well just after, if George Burns is still alive(?) I should put him somewhere! Che smoking cigars was quite bad idea as he was a severe asthmatic! Dipping them in honey would have helped very little, but it gives you something to do when your waiting for another guerrilla battle to fight or a train to derail!
With no internet we cannot book a bus at the station for the next day, but like the way of the world, Maria knows someone and we are sorted. If you can get a local to book your bus it saves a lot of hassle and queuing. The bus station toilet is up to public Cuban standards, they don’t do minus-star ratings in Cuba for obvious reasons. There is a cubicle designed for a pit pony and men at urinals nonchalantly ignore me, like I’m a naughty dwarf that has been sent out of class for tampering with himself! Until one fella looks in, not hard to achieve, and I reply a belligerent, pitiful ‘hola’, to which, thankfully he does not reply or strike up a conversation! Surprise, surprise, the toilet does not flush and I take the cistern lid off as experience of two previous casas gives me a good idea how to fix plumbing in Cuba, it is half full of water and disintegrating toilet paper! I maybe misguided, but I’m public spirited! Other urinators look on at the gringo on holiday trying to the fix plumbing! My Spanish isn’t good enough to do dismissive Spanish swearing, but I have a GCSE in International Body Language, so I know it is not something the casual toilet visitor would be prepared to undertake! I tell the attendant that the toilet is ‘se rompe’ it is broken, and begrudgingly he brings a bucket in to flush my embarrassment away in what appears to be a pilot episode of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm!’ I make a quick(ish) exit. The toilet opens into a café and the there’s one door with inadequate plantation shutters, health and safety would be apoplectic!
The bus takes 7 hours instead of 4, not helped by stopping at a Bali Hai type service station for nearly an hour and a half while the tourists held captive are fleeced or go hungry. We eventually reach Camagüey, everyone’s preferred destination except the drivers – there’s always two drivers on a bus in Cuba, the unions would not have it any other way!
This looks like an extensive, efficient rail system – don’t be fooled! The reality is below.
There’s a train system in Cuba, honestly, it is mainly a single track between major towns and cities and here the station is literally crumbling to such an extent that it has a metal fence around it for fear of falling debris, although you’re chances of suing someone is about the same as a train arriving on time. I suspect when a train eventually passes through the town people throw a party! I eventually hope to catch the train back from Santigo de Cuba all the way back to Havana, when I suggest this to the casa owner she just belly-laughs at me with contempt. When I eventually see the ‘tourist train’ it has broken windows and looks like it has not moved for months. Avoid the trains, when they run, they usually breakdown, not surprising as they are mainly from the 1960s.
We like Camagüey, Cuba’s third biggest city, it has a real buzzy soul to it, although it takes us all our time there to learn to pronounce it right!
My sandals that I have had for nearly ten years have flopped, unbound and become a severe tripping hazard. I bought them in Australia ten years ago, I have become attached to them on the occasions when it’s warm enough to wear them. So, I have to buy some new ones, we traipse around shoe shops losing the will to live until I settle on a pair of leather Adidas slip-ons, that would not be my first choice, but needs must, when otherwise you look like a homeless nomadic sadho! With them being new, cheap and hard to keep on, my feet turn tide-mark brown. I walk around like an oversized Hobbit, and the locals think it’s some form of British holiday ritual. If you want them they are size 9 UK, and would not fit the wide feet of a hobbit.
The happy looking fella on the right must have been on holiday we I visited!
We love this city, my favourite place is Bar El Cambio in the corner of Parque Ignacio Agramonte, graffiti splattered walls, a few tables, very surely waiters (even when you order in Spanish!) I have visited this bar before through the writing of Hunter S Thompson, The Great Gozo himself used to drink in here. This for me is better than the tourist trap of the Hemmingway Bar in Havana, this still feels fresh, like he might wander in and join the surely bar staff in misanthropic banter. I could quite easy get pissed in here and be carried home as homage to the great man, wake up with a festival hangover and still smile. Instead of that we have booked a ticket to see some authentic Cuban music on the back of the great music we have sampled in Trinidad. When we get there, it is empty apart from three tables of tourist. It’s Cuba and eventually I have to visit a sit-down toilet, never expect to find a toilet seat and you won’t be disappointed! This toilet, for a mid-range venue does not surprise me and when I return to the table and report on the state of the toilet –The Wife says, “Image what the men’s is like?” I’ve been in the women’s pity pony cubicle, auditioning for yet another episode of ‘Curb your Enthusiasm’. The answer is pretty much the same – where are all the toilet seats? Are there endless gurning competitions occurring in Cuba?
Then the venue starts to fill up, the band start a two-hour sound check/tune up. It’s student night, there must be some promotion at the university as everyone is under the age of twenty-five and knows everyone else. They all do the Cuban drinking thing; two-litre bottle of cola and a full bottle of Havana Club per table. It is a surreal evening, the band cannot be heard above the chatter of completely uninterested students, it is like a Venereal Disease waiting room! We feel like middle aged tourists (full disclosure – we are!!) at one of our children’s twenty-firsts. It is absolutely fascinating, I get chatting to a few of the students about Cuba from their young educated viewpoint. They want little of the ‘Old Cuba’, they are looking far beyond the shores for change. They love their country, but as is the prerogative of the young they want so much more than their parents and grandparents had. They become disinterested in me when I tell them I have no sexually transmitted contagions to share, not since 1987 – it was dark, a lot of alcohol was involved and I think it was another human, the clinic told me it was definitely mammalian! They are not sure if I’m being serious, and neither am I after so much Havana Club and an afternoon in Bar El Cambio!
Next time: When it’s gone, it’s gone: Santigo de Cuba.
* StCP! = Supporting the Cuban People
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.