Che, Fidel and Short Stories from Cuba

Post of the Day: Adding a bit of light to the darkness as we get through the pandemic together.
This series features travel photos from my archives, shared with you while staying at home.

July 12th, 2020

Everywhere in Cuba, the faces of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara remind the country of its past and everything that changed on July 26th, 1953 at the start of the Cuban Revolution. The Revolution and its figureheads still feel very much a part of day-to-day life and identity. Here are three short stories from Santiago de Cuba.

**

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.

Fidel Castro's childhood home

Fidel Castro’s childhood home

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 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 in her childhood was a neighbor of Fidel Castro.

***

We’re staying in an elegant casa particular in the Vista Alegre neighborhood outside downtown. The grand dame of the house is Bérta — a 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 (often an option of staying at a casa particular) 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, Colonel. You have done plenty.

***

Tomorrow, one more day in Cuba then we depart for our next destination.

Until then,
Kelly

18 comments

  • Interesting stories about the history of Cuba; thanks to your mind always ready to pull the thread that leads to something unexpected.

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  • Love the stories; there are so many of them in this tiny, enigmatic country. I struggle to understand the legacy of Castro and Guevara in Cuba, a place of great culture, pride, intelligence … and intractable poverty.

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    • Well said, Lex. It feels like no matter how long one stays in Cuba, there will only be more stories and deeper history to discover. Such a lingering past, and nation of mystery and misfortune. I so wish our government held a different posture — or merely continued the progress that had started prior to 2016.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Great photos, great stories, which reminds me I have to tell you my “whole fish” story one day 🙂 Have a great week ahead Kelly.

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  • Great post. We found it so amazing how the Cuban people are so warm, friendly, and caring. They make you feel so at home in their Casa Particulars. When we were in Cienfuegos for 3 days over New Years Eve, the host family had a lodge-style place on the ocean and made a traditional Cuban New Years’ Eve dinner/Party for the guest and their family. It was the highlight of our 2-week trip.
    We can’t wait to go back.
    Cheers

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    • WOW, that sounds AMAZING! What a special experience! Send me the link if you blogged about that. Would love to read and post it here for others to as well! I totally agree — Cuban people are so friendly and go out of their way to make you feel welcome. We could learn a thing or two from that here in the US. And lucky you — it’s probably a direct flight! Cheers to that, Pazeras! 🙂

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  • As so often, it is the people that add spice to the journey. Much history tied up there. (I still remember the Cuban missile crisis. It was scary!) Thanks for the tales, Kelly. I may yet make it to Cuba. –Curt

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  • Your lovely stories of Cuba warm my heart and prompt me to spend the day listening to the Buena Vista Social Club….my heart aches for Cuba and in my “pandemic reading” stack of books Cuba is prominent in both fact and fiction. I have also re- read some Ernest Hemingway. The times here are tough but we could all do well to take a page from the collective spirit and soul of the Cuban people.

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    • Well said, Mom! So happy you got to experience it for yourself. Cuba seems to have done fairly well through the pandemic too — and no question when compared to the US. There’s a lot we can learn from!

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  • Your stories just add to the adventure, and I’m learning a lot from you. I didn’t know the term casa particular, but I do now, and I want to stay in one as elegant as the one you photographed! An interesting trip filled with memories for you!

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    • So nice to hear, Rusha! Love it when readers learn new things from my posts. If you ever go to Cuba, get in touch. I can probably dig up the contact details for Berta’s casa particular. Although you’ll have to go all the way south!! Quite a journey but so much fun. Thanks for your comment!

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  • Your posts make me want to go back and learn more. Such an enigmatic and confounding country. Berta’s house looks luxurious, especially compared with those we saw from the streets. The casas we stayed in were all quite comfortable but not that level of luxury or sophistication. The old lady, and Berta and the colonel all sound so interesting.Oh for more Spanish.
    Alison

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    • Yes, more Spanish! I would have loved to hear stories. Berta’s house was really welcoming, historic and comfortable. Oti and Adalberto’s was comfortable, nice neighborhood and the outdoor patio was great. He was like the Godfather of the block. Numerous people stopped by while we were there to say hello. Such an interesting look into their daily lives. Thanks Alison! Hi to Don! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  • Such an interesting set of characters. It turns tourism into traveling.

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