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.
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.
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 …