2000: When I think of Santiago de Cuba, a few things come to mind. First, its contribution to the arts: it is the birthplace of legendary Cubans such as Desi Arnaz, José Martí (a great writer, poet and a revolutionary known as the ‘Apostle of Cuban Independence’) and Compay Segundo; it is also the birthplace of Trova music, as well as home to the world famous Casa de la Trova. Second, I think of the history of the city: the second largest city in Cuba, it being one of the oldest settlements in Cuba, the still beautiful fort, Castillo del Morro, looking over a cliff to the sea, and the role the city played in the revolution, known as the 26 July movement. Third, I think of a certain Russian plane and a hysterical two-hour flight. Vidal sold tours to his clients to many places around Cuba, including a day trip to Santiago by plane. Naturally, we had to experience it ourselves, and were we ever glad we did. It was historical, and hysterical.
Vidal hated to fly. When we got to the Varadero airport and saw the small, ancient Russian Aeroflot propeller plane we were about to get on, he was ready to turn around, but he did not. There were eight of us; we were to be met in Santiago by our tour guide. We sat up front, a loud propeller right outside our window (quite possibly duct-taped), the emergency door was on our left with full instructions and we had a close-up and personal view of the cockpit. But let’s get back to the emergency door instructions. They were in Spanish and translated into something that resembled English, but which made no sense whatsoever. I read it, giggled, guffawed and nearly choked on my own laughter; Vidal looked at me like I was crazy at first until he read it, and followed suit.
BREAKING WIRED IT PULL
HANDCUFF UNTIL THE IT COLLIDE
AND WITHOUT LOOSING IT PULL THE HATCH
I do believe the last line has a major typo. I am convinced they meant to say, ‘Without LOSING it, pull the hatch’; I know I certainly came close to losing it when I read it! We would occasionally stop to breath, wipe our tears and desperately hold our stomachs in for fear we had each bust a gut, only to fall back into fits of laughter for pretty much the entire two-hour flight to the southeastern part of Cuba, a stone’s throw away from GTMO Bay. At least it was that close to it on the map.
We arrived, met our guide, and we all headed out, thankfully, by bus. We visited many places in the city, first going to the Castillo del Morro. Built in the 17th century to protect the city from pirates, it was a marvelous structure which almost looked Greek to me, as the backdrop of the Caribbean looked more like the Mediterranean with its shade of blue. We also visited the center of the city, marveling at the colonial architecture; although not exactly in the best shape, it seemed some of the buildings of Santiago were better maintained than those of Havana. Or maybe it was just the area we were taken to on the tour, I am not sure.
We went by the Caney rum factory, built by the Bacardi family for its rum (the grand exterior still bears the name); the Bacardi family took its name and fled the country right before Castro started to nationalize all businesses and property. We toured the Plaza de la Revolución; a huge monument dedicated to Antonio Maceo- the ‘Bronze Titan’ hero of the Cuban independence wars, showing him on a horse reared on its hind legs and 23 machetes coming up out of the ground. We went up to a rooftop to view downtown Santiago and its magnificent cathedral from above, and went to a 4-star hotel for lunch. The latter part we could have done without; as hot as it was, I did not care about seeing a hotel that had no historical significance whatsoever and had no desire to swim; I would have preferred that extra time to have stayed in the city, to have eaten near La Casa de la Trova so we could have time to see it. As it was, our guide took us past the famous home of trova music and the museum of the Carnival, we only had time to snap a photo (he rushed us to do that), and we were off to see the military barracks, still riddled with bullet holes from the famous 26 July Movement, otherwise known as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. We toured the cemetery, where many illustrious Cubans were buried, the most important (to me) being José Martí. The last part of our tour was of the mercado; I was at least excited about that, hoping to see how different it would be. It was larger than the mercado in Cárdenas for sure, but not a whole lot more to offer. I did pick up a few veggies I had not seen in Cárdenas, so I was happy.
In the end, I was disappointed in the tour, partly due to the guide, but mostly because I had wanted more focus on the music that I loved. Maybe I am not the typical tourist and the typical tourist just does not care, but seriously- why program a tour to spend more time in a silly place such as a hotel, and leave out a place that is has so much significance to the recent history of Cuba? What, after all, are Cubans, if not inextricably intertwined with their music? Okay, so maybe La Trova does not allow tours within, but what’s to stop tourists from going in to have a cold drink, even if it’s just a soda? I would have even skipped the mercado for that!
So, we headed back to the airport, helped give the propellers a spin to get it going, gave it a push down the runway before running to get on board, and promising the pilot not to laugh so hard this time around.
- Excerpt from: What’s a Taco Doing on the Forbidden Island? Taco’s Adventures in Cuba, Chapter 5