Chevrolets, shrines and Santiago

Changing of the guard
Changing of the guard

FEBRUARY 19, 2015 – We skip the pre-arranged excursions in Santiago de Cuba, seeing as we’ve been there twice before, and opt to do our own thing. Our morning destination is Santa Ifigenia cemetery where Cuban late great military leaders, politicians, poets, doctors and musicians are laid to rest.

Outside the port entrance we run a gauntlet of taxi drivers and their agents vying for our attention. Our first notion to find a van to transport four of us to the cemetery is not an option and we have to choose from air-conditioned small cars, such as a Peugeot, some beat-up Ladas and an assortment of old American cars with no air con.

Our ride - a 1949 Chevrolet
Our ride – a 1949 Chevrolet

We opt for a pea soup green 1949 Chevrolet with red leather upholstery and soon are on our way to see dead people. The cemetery is a beautiful place dotted with towering royal palm trees and surrounded by black iron fencing. We pay our pesos and are set up with a guide whose English is still a work in progress and she has only worked there for two weeks. Between her limited English and my limited Spanish, we meet in the middle.

The main reason we have come is to watch the changing of the guard, a spectacle that happens every 30 minutes during the day from 8 a.m. The toll of a bell is the signal, and amid pomp and circumstance, a trio of serious young men in military dress carrying ceremonial rifles with bayonets march down the walkway to the tomb of Jose Marti, a Cuban national hero who was a poet, writer and lawyer. The young officers’ precision goose-stepping is impressive and I’m sure their gluteus muscles are equally impressive from lifting their legs so high all day long.

Erected in 1951, the hexagonal mausoleum is oriented so that Martí’s wooden casket receives daily sunlight. In one of his poems, Martí said he would like to die not as a traitor in darkness, but with his visage facing the sun.

Several symbols incorporated into Marti’s mausoleum signify the six original provinces of Cuba and there’s a statue of him made of Italian Carrera marble peering down at his flag-draped casket. While the Marti monument is a centrepiece, the rest of the cemetery is beautiful with numerous elaborate sun-bleached white marble headstones, markers and monuments honouring military heroes from the 10 Year War and the Cuban Revolution, members of the Bacardi family, a doctor who pioneered a type of eye surgery and Compay Segundo, a musician from the famous Bueno Vista Social Club.

By the end of the tour, the breeze has died to remind us just how hot it can get in Santiago. We pile back into our pea green carriage and head back to the ship.

In the afternoon, we trek up to Santiago’s central square. We have to run the gauntlet of taxi drivers again, cross a wide intersection while dodging motorcycles, bicycles, trucks and horse-drawn carts and make our way up the long steep hill to the city centre at the summit.

Santiago, as historic and colourful as Havana, sadly has not been as well tended as her prosperous sister on the north shore. The ravages of time and the battering of recent hurricanes have taken their toll on many of the city’s beautiful Colonial buildings but we are encouraged to see some restoration taking place. The streets are narrow, the sidewalks heaved and the pavement broken and pitted but it’s part of Cuba’s unique character.

The buildings surrounding the central square have been restored and are lovely. The square is not large but is a pleasant place to plop down on a bench and watch life go by. I remember my visit there seven years ago when a short, squat elderly woman in a bright red dress and running shoes was in the square smoking a cigar. I took her photo and she demanded money for allowing me to do so – but I didn’t oblige. You can take pictures of people, houses, buildings, etc. without permission if you are on public property. As the photographer, I also owned the picture so I should have demanded a peso or two from her and sent her a copy.

In downtown Santiago de Cuba
In downtown Santiago de Cuba

We notice that some people are on the roof of the Casa Grande Hotel and figure that would be a great spot to capture some panoramic shots of the city. We take the hotel elevator to the fifth floor where there is a rooftop bar and wide terraces offering views in three directions. It provides a wonderful bird’s eye view, a Cuban band is playing in the bar and a nice breeze keeps us from overheating. We can also see our ship and the easiest route to get back.

My significant other made the trek into central Santiago earlier in the afternoon before enticing me to join him. An English speaking local help him locate a Cuba tee shirt in a local store (there’s virtually no souvenir shops to be had) and took him through back streets to somebody’s house to show him some alleged 15-year-old rum that could be purchased for $10 convertible pesos. He returned back to the ship rum-less, explaining that the rum was in a plastic bottle and the label looked less than official.

That’s a typical Cuban experience – locals wanting to sell you rum, cigars, home-cooked meals or show you their artwork – and part of the fun.

After dinner on the ship, we take in a Cirque de Soleil type show. We are on the way to Jamaica and the sea is rough tonight. I am astounded at how the acrobats are able to keep their footing and perform their routines given the movement of the ship. The performers are part of the Louis Cristal crew and the level of talent is impressive, from the singers to the dancers to the musicians. They’d be the ones to beat on the X Factor or The Voice. And Danny, the cruise director is an Energizer Bunny of a man who speaks seven languages, makes the announcements during the day over the loudspeaker (“Your kind attention please ….”), hires the performers, emcees the shows and even has some dance moves. If only you could bottle that kind of energy …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Paradise Found

 

Morning concert
Morning concert

FEBRUARY 18, 2015 -Our day in Antilla begins by lining up and loading into one of the Cuba Cruise/Louis Cristal’s lifeboats. The ship is still afloat and there’s no emergency – it’s the first stage of our trek to Cayo Saetia (Paradise Island) to see Fidel Castro’s former private hunting grounds and his assortment of imported game animals, followed by some snorkelling and swimming.

The sun is burning off the fog and Nipe Bay is as still as glass. Our lifeboat drops us off at a concrete pier where a group of Cuban musicians and dancers are very lively for 8:30 a.m. After a short walk, we and our 47 other cruisers pile onto a catamaran with an open bar and a lively tour guide named Joe.

It’s an hour and 40 minute ride to Paradise Island. The sun is warm, and the liquor is flowing. We spot the occasional fishing boat with Cuban fishermen out to score the day’s catch, see a few jellyfish and a couple of flying fishing jump out of the water and skim along the surface right in front of us.

It really is paradise
It really is paradise

Paradise Island lives up to its moniker – unspoiled, lush and green with a beautiful white sand beach. We load onto Russian military trucks and bounce off through the interior looking for game, armed with cameras. Just minutes in, the trucks screech to a halt and we see what the excitement is about – an ostrich! He’s trotting with purpose down the red dirt path but one of the drivers grabs him and brings him over to the trucks for a look-see. We grab our cameras and are shooting away when I remember that I live less than five minutes from an ostrich farm in Canada and can see them any time I want.

We catch the odd sighting of groups of antelopes in fields and among the trees and the driver points to what looks like a herd of black cattle. They are actually water buffalo – some Chinese, some African – and true to form, a bunch are wallowing in a muddy pond.

After a few more antelope sightings and passing a herd of grazing horses, we stop by a very tall wooden corral and are invited to disembark to meet Jose, the resident giraffe. Jose is very tall and happily accepts treats of leaves from the visitors. His long blue tongue deftly wraps around the offering and he brushes my hand with soft lips. Apparently Jose doesn’t live on the island alone. There are other giraffes but we don’t see them.

Jose the giraffe
Jose the giraffe

Next, a bunch of us get back on the catamaran for a short ride to the reef for some snorkeling. The visibility isn’t perfect today but we see a lot of sergeant majors and grunts, some blue tangs, butterfly fish, some needlefish that invade my personal space and come a little too close for comfort with their pointy appendages, and some varieties of parrotfish we haven’t seen before. There are also quite a few white and black sea urchins. Joe wisely warned the rookie snorkelers not to touch or step on the reef or rocks as the sea urchins tend to hang out there. If you want to know why to avoid touchy-feeling moments with them, just ask my sister-in-law Norma who three years ago had a too-close encounter with an urchin-inhabited reef and had to have the nurse at our resort remove numerous black spikes from her rump and legs.

As our snorkel time is nearing an end, we do get a thrilling sighting: a large barracuda about four feet in length. I manage to snap a couple of photos with my underwater camera before he gets tired of spectators and swims off.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Back on shore in the rustic pavilion that was Fidel’s lodge, we chow down on a Cuban-prepared lunch of chicken jambalaya, fish, rice, pizza, eggs and white pasta with choice of thin tomato sauce or cheese and chopped up ham.

After lunch, we have an hour and a half to soak up the beautiful Cuban sun. Most people head for the sand beach but after a brief barefoot walk, I hang out in the shade of the pavilion, watching iguanas come and go and a brief showdown between a youngster and an older alpha male. When the head bobbing begins, you know an iguana smack-down is brewing. The little lizard wisely sees that he has no chance and scurries away from the challenger.

We have been on a few of these type of Cuban island excursions over the years and can tell you the ride home is always the same: the tunes are cranked and the tour guide dances with the innate rhythm all Cubans seem to possess while the not-so-gifted tourists try to keep step.

Back at the dock where we wait for our lifeboat to take us back to the Louis Cristal, there’s more music and dancing as a smartly dressed Cuban band springs into action and two pairs of dancers dip and swirl around the pier.