The song accompanying this post is Guantanamera performed by Manos Libres, a musical group we loved in La Habana Vieja. Guantanamera is one of the most well-known songs of Cuba — played every day, all over the island — with lyrics by Cuban writer and national hero José Martí. With this post we’ve come full circle — from Carnaval in Santiago de Cuba, to Havana, to Trinidad, and now back to Santiago de Cuba.
Santiago de Cuba ambles down the hill toward the port. The view from above is stunning in every direction — ocean, mountains, and a mishmash of architecture with a collective appearance that doesn’t immediately communicate its location. This could be the view in quite a few cities around the world. But the accompanying rum, searing heat and ever-present music reveal its identity as unmistakably Cuban.
We’re staying in an elegant casa particular in the Vista Alegre neighborhood outside downtown. The grand dame of the house is Bérta — a highly successful, retired arts educator in her eighties. The home is quietly welcoming, just like Bérta who stands to greet us upon arrival. She speaks a bit of English and seems happy to be hosting travelers from all over the world.
Bérta’s daughter Nani and son-in-law Reynaldo run the guest house business, among their other pursuits which include writing about and documenting Cuban history. Their office is a treasure trove of preserved newspapers from many important days in Cuban history. In the hall outside our bedroom, moments of the Revolucion hang on the walls in frames, frozen in time.
In one frame: Buscan al Camilo — Searching for Camilo, the headline from October, 1959. Camilo Cienfuegos, a key figure of the Granma expedition and Revolucion, went missing on a night flight to Havana. He was never found.
In another frame: Proclamado Presidente El Dr. Urrutia with a photo below of Fidel Castro. Urrutia was proclaimed president of Cuba in January, 1959 and served for six months before resigning due to disagreements with then Prime Minister Fidel Castro. If this home and its archives could talk, and if I knew more Spanish, there would be epic stories to uncover here.
We stay at Berta’s casa particular for two nights and then move on to another one a few streets away. At the next casa particular, we meet our hosts Oti and Adalberto. Through Adalberto’s very limited English (and a Google search later when I return from the trip), I learn that he’s a former colonel of the Guantánamo Frontier Brigade, who studied in Russia many years ago. And his wife Oti? She was in the Cuban army as well — and looks like she could totally kick some ass. But Adalberto is irresistibly gentle in his old age, with soft hands the size of baseball gloves. We ask to eat dinner at the house one night so he proceeds to cut plantains from the tree, scale a fish, fire up the charcoal barbecue and roast the fish on top of the plantains. He serves the fish with a magnificent marinade — some magical creation of garlic, lemon, oil and Cuban miracle spice — that is better than any marinade I’ve ever tasted. Unfortunately, the recipe is lost in translation, to remain captive in Cuba.
I laugh when Adalberto pantomimes later that making the fish dinner for us gave him a few new gray hairs. He’s new to this casa particular business but seems entertained enough to give it a chance. He asks what he can do better. Nothing, Señor. You have done plenty.
While we’re in Santiago de Cuba, we make a day trip to climb 450 steps up Gran Piedra — one of the biggest rocks in the world. Its weight is estimated at 63,000 tons and you can stand right on top of it for a panoramic view of the entire southern end of Cuba. On a clear night, they say you can even see the lights of Haiti.
Getting to Gran Piedra requires a really good vehicle because the road is steep and rough. Nani helps us locate just the guy we need. He owns a truck made by Willys-Overland, an old American car company that used to make military vehicles. Our driver pulls up with his vintage ride and we’re off to Gran Piedra, through verdant fields and up the mountain, passing a few cars that have overheated along the way. He drops us at the hut where we pay a small fee and begin the short climb to the top.
At the base of the final staircase to Gran Piedra, I buy a few bracelets from a father and son. We continue to the top of the rock where we find another couple of vendors selling their crafts in what is one of the most splendid settings you could wish for on a clear day. We’re lucky to have missed the fog. The lush, green hills fall away from us in every direction, the clouds are suspended like pillows and we can see all the way to the coastline where bright white crescents of sand look like little slivers of deserted paradise.
With so much beauty in every direction, it is difficult to fathom that Guantánamo Bay — the American prison — lies just beyond the hills to the southeast of us. We’re essentially looking right over it from where we’re standing. With such dark history, my mind expects to see a shadow, some kind of ugliness, some malevolent indicator of its location on the view in front of us. But here, the darkness of history has no power against the beauty of nature and all we can see is infinite blue and green.
We descend Gran Piedra, wave goodbye to one of the women at the top, and depart with the experience of having seen beauty and history in an evocative duet. It seems like every step we take in Cuba is accompanied by this pairing, which I think is what has made Cuba so compelling to me in the span of 12 days. History is always just right there at the surface.
Back in downtown Santiago de Cuba, we meander down the hill from Parque Céspedes to the Padre Pico steps. This is where Fidel Castro fired the first shots in his movement against two-time President of Cuba Fulgencio Batista. Batista was the incumbent until he was ousted by forces of the Revolucion — led by Che Guevarra — on January 1, 1959. Not far from the top of the Padre Pico steps is the childhood home of Fidel Castro.
A brick and mortar path leads to the home’s simple square facade. Pastel tints of pink and yellow seem a thousand shades away from a man we’ve seen in a lot of army green. The home shows no signs of life but an elderly woman sits on the front porch of the adjoining home, as a little boy looks at us over its railing. J gives him a toy Matchbox car. He is over the moon.
A few men (landscapers?) linger in the front yard of the woman’s home, enjoying the shade of the flame tree. One of them asks me for a ballpoint pen. He is delighted when I present him with the one, very nice, extra ballpoint pen I have with me that, for some reason, I placed in my backpack right before I departed for Cuba. The pen has found its more appreciative new owner. Small gifts go a really long way in this country.
While I’m taking photos, J strikes up a Spanish/English/charade conversation with the woman on the front porch. She presents J with a photograph from many years ago when Fidel Castro returned here to his former home. This woman is about the same age as Castro is today (90) and her children are pictured in the photograph. From what we can gather, this woman has lived here her whole life and was Fidel Castro’s childhood neighbor. Guantanamera!
We are reminded yet again that Cuban history is right there at the surface, alive and well, waiting to be discovered by whoever seeks it out.
I’m sad to be wrapping up my stories of Cuba. I hope you’ve enjoyed them, lingered over them, like a good Cuban cigar.