Of my recent trip to Cuba, I can think of a hundred ways to tell you about my experience that make more sense than where I’m choosing to begin my story. I could write a logical day-to-day account from start to finish, or prioritize the sights I saw in a narrative path around the island. But Cuba isn’t linear and exploring the country is more akin to falling in love than to following an itinerary. That’s why I’m starting my story in the middle, taking you straight into the heart of Cuba through the experience of Carnaval.
Getting to Carnaval isn’t quite as fun as being there. Carnaval takes place in the city of Santiago de Cuba, but all flights are booked so my husband and I, and the two close friends we’re traveling with, sardine ourselves into the “big” and “comfortable” taxi booked for us by the host of our casa particular. We depart Havana at 6:00 a.m. and drive all the way across the island, arriving in Santiago de Cuba after an epic 13-HOUR trip. In Cuba, affordable taxis are never “big” or “comfortable,” so the journey is a meditative exercise in patience, yet it allows us to see this gorgeous country (and all of its potholes) from top to bottom.
We dive into Carnaval on our second night in Santiago de Cuba. Carnaval lasts for a week, but very little information exists about what happens each night so we decide to just show up and see what happens. Our taxi driver drops us at the port around 9:30 p.m. and the spectacle begins to come alive.
The evening starts with a parade of muñecones (papier-mâché characters) and a curious dance with the devil. Sensual, suggestive, intimidating … Carnaval is not shy. Yet the kids are not at home with the babysitter, either. No wonder an entire city of people — young to old — know exactly how to step their feet and sway their hips when the primal rhythm of a comparsa goes thumping down the street. Cubans have been doing this for a very long time.
Carnaval traces all the way back to the 17th century, and what happens in Santiago de Cuba these days is likely an interpretation of past summer festivals called Los Mamarrachos. Mamarracho translates to “sight” or “mess,” and Carnaval is certainly both in grandeur and color. As the night goes on, the costumes get bigger and more ornate. By 11:00 p.m. the early parade of novel characters has transformed into an extravagant runway of creativity.
In between the flowers, wings and ruffles, out come the big drums and percussive ensembles that beat me back into the elemental bliss of feeling the rhythm of Cuba. This alternating between congas and paseos — groups of musicians and lavishly dressed characters — keeps bringing the whole experience back down to earth, while building the anticipation of what comes next. As much as I love the fanciful costume designs, the drums and the passion surrounding them are my favorite part of Carnaval.
The corneta china squeaks out its distinct horn sound all night long, sometimes in ear-piercing blurts over the sound system. The instrument was introduced to Carnaval in the early 1900s. If I close my eyes and listen to the horns and the drums, I can imagine being at Thaipusam in Singapore. The corneta china adds a worldly dimension to this uniquely Cuban festival.
Just as we think the evening might be nearing its end … nope. Carnaval kicks it up another notch. We’ve migrated from the grandstands to the staging area and a new parade of the night’s most elaborately dressed characters begins to appear from out of nowhere. I love this vantage point — in the middle of traffic, in full contact with the pride and joy of these amazing performers.
And then we see it — the first float and the dazzling men and women standing on it. There has been so much to look at, we haven’t even noticed this new addition to the parade approaching us from the far end of the route. A man with a flame shooting from his head marks the beginning of the next phase of Carnaval.
By 1:00 a.m., the sensuality and decorum of Carnaval is fully revealed, and the heat of Cuba manifests itself in a non-stop display of scantily garnished performers on floats. Even the dancers from earlier in the evening have stopped to revere these celebrities, perhaps aspiring to someday achieve what seems to be the pinnacle of Carnaval.
Are these Tropicana performers we’re seeing? Guantanamera, I think they might be. The Tropicana has a long history in Cuba, and cabaret dancers remain an iconic part of Cuban identity as a symbol of liberation. Here’s an interesting (if somewhat poorly edited) read about the Tropicana, the role of Santería in its performances, and a note about the post-show disco that’s “hot enough to cook the pork.”
By 1:30 a.m. our pork is cooked and our minds are blown. Our evening taxi returns to shuttle us home from one of the most memorable nights in all of our world traveling.
As an American, I arrived in Cuba with the naive expectation that the country would be barely developed, hardly getting by, in dire need of help. As I saw from our 13-hour taxi ride, this is true by some standards — infrastructure and transportation among them. But by the standard of human spirit, Carnaval shows me that Cuba is flourishing, with an old soul that’s more expressive and better company than many of its closest neighbors.
Up next, the music and magic of La Habana Vieja.