Aug 3rd (day 1)
Santiago de Cuba is Cuba´s second largest city and is almost as far east as you can go in cuba. there´s been a long standing rivalry between it and havana, and the people of each city boast about how much better their city is than the other. i arrived at night, and the second i walked out of the station, a huge mob jumped on me. people were yelling at the top of their lungs in everywhich language and arms were grabbing me from all directions. wow, i havent experienced anyting like this since india. “5 pesos to center!!!”, “3 pesos to center!!”, “i have nice casa, come look!”, etc etc. it was serious madness… i had no room to move in any direction and was literally being crushed from all sides. i finally shoved as hard as i could and pushed through the mob. inegotiated a cab ride and was soon dropped off in the center of town. soon enough, i found a casa and then went searching for food.
within just a few minutes of walking, i ran into a guy who introduced himself as jorge. Jorge was a skinny weasel lookinhg kinda guy. he talked a million miles per hour in fairly decent english but with a heavy spanish accent. within seconds, his friend Tomas joined us. Jorge was a chess teacher and Tomas was a boxing teacher (“he is brains, and he is strong!” they kept saying). as usual, they tried to drag me off god knows where, but i refused saying that i was hungry, so they end up following me to the restaurant.
arriving at a restauarnt (or anywhere else really) w/ two hustlers in tow, is never a good idea. chnaces are, your meal will end up way more expensive cause they get commission. i had been on a bus all day and was too tired to battle it out though, so i let them come along. the restuarnt was supposed to be really cheap, the book said nothing is over 35 cuban pesos which is a buck fifty, yet my fish ended up costing 6 bucks. hmmmmm. i got myself a mojito, and the two hustlers, to save money just shared a glass of rum (on my tab of course).
Jorge spent most of the night ranting about how much of a rip-off this reastuarnt was, and how he cant believe i had to pay this much for food. he said that tomorrow i should come hang out with him. we´ll take the bus to the river and all day everything will be cheap, etc etc. “you no pay een toorist money! you pay een peso cubano! we are now amigos!”. i said maybe, but in my head decided not to go. who knows what this dude was up to. before i left to go home, jorge hit me up for 10 CUP, but i said no and took off.
Aug 4th (day 2)
I started off the next day in a tiny cuban coffeshop. here they drink tiny espresso sized coffees which are usually pre-sweetened. at the table next to me, a guy strummed his guitar and sang. it really is amazing how in cuba, music is everywhere. after breakfast i did what i do pretty much everyday here… i just wandered around and chilled. sure cuba, and santiago, has its fair share of museums etc, but i jkust ahvent bothered to go into many of them. most of my time really is just spent walking around aimlessly and looking at stuff, or sitting in parks/bars and watching people and life go by. it´s a very different vacation than i´m used to taking, but i´ve really liked it.
Santiago de Cuba, like Havana has a vibrant big city feel and also is full of grandiose colonial architecture, old cars, and crumbling houses. but, i wouldnt say that santiago is as nice as havana.. in fact, there´s just something special about the atmosphere in havana that the other cities here cant really compete with. still though, i´m enjoying my time in Santiago de Cuba very much. Park Sesipedes is the main park in the center of town here, and there is a fancy hotel next to it where you can kick it on the balcony, sip mojitos and watch the action in the park. there really is nothing like a mojito when you´re in the sweltering heat of cuba. it´s just so perfectly refreshing, nice and minty and tart and cold. ahhhh. i´ve also tried several different brands of cigar now and have decided that my favorite is Cohiba… it´s got a nice spicy kick to it.
while chilling in the park later, i spent a little time reading about cuba´s history and about the US embargo. ugh. the whole us embargo thing is just so ridiculous and insane. not only have they been doing this for over 40 years now, but they keep tightening the screws worse and worse. lately they have even passed laws to try to force other countries to act the same, like for instance, if another country´s ship stops in cuba, they aren´t allowed to stop in a US port for 6 months. the US claims that the embargo is partially to help the cuban people by putting the screws to Fidel and to get rid of him, but that´s pretyty much a bunch of crap, since this embargo is cripelling the country and depriving it of much needed food and medicine. the UN has voted time and again that the US should end its embargo, but of course the US wont listen. instead, it continues everytning based on decade old grudges even though *both* countries would benefit of the embrago was lifted.
pizzas and music
later in the afternoon, i did a quick tour of the rum museum which was a bit dissapointing, but you do get a free shot of rum with your tour. interestingly enough, bacardi rum is actually originally from cuba, but tthe bacardi family left cuba and are now suing their old factory here (which has since been renamed to Rum Caney or something). walking down the street, i head some really loud music and followed the noise. it was coming from Casa de las Trova, and there was a band in there practicing for tonight´s show. dude, they were amazing! people were literally dancing in the streets, and others were pressing up to the open windows adn listening to the tunes. nearby, there was a long line to get the 25 cent pizzas from someones house. a lady would run down the stairs every once in a while witha huge tray with a bunch of pizzas on it and then run back up inside while a lady downstairs quickly sold the pizzas to the waiting cubans. it´s funny, i partially really enjoy buying these pizzas because i hardly ever see other tourists do so. it´s like a little secret that you can buy pizzas from someone´s house and i feel like a local when i do it. so i ate my cuban pizza (folded in half in the cuban way), and listened to the amazing salsa from casa del las trova. nice.
as i mentioned before, cubans love their ice cream. apparently, they especially love this chain called coppelia, and today i decided to try it out. i had read in the book that there arew often long queues here, but i wasn´t prepared for what i saw when i go tthere. there were two “lines” (remember, people dont line up, you just “el ultimo” here), one of them havinga bout 150 people and the other having a out a 100. dayum!! how good could this ice cream be for people to wait ages out in the flaming hot sun to get it? i decided to skip it.
the music scene
at night i decided to go out and listen to some cuban music at casa del tradicionnes. this was a small place that played classic cuban stuff. it was a long walk to get there and i ended up a bit lost when i got pretty far from the center. i was just thinking about how dark the streets were, when al lof a sudden all of the streetlights (the few that were there) completely went out. crap. here i was lost in the ghetto, in the pitch black, and it was too dark to read the map in my book. i ended up finally finding my way, but i was pretty sketched out for a bit.
the music at this place was ok. it truned out to be some night where they play mostly ballads, which was a bit mellow for my taste, but it was still decent. it was a pretty interesting scene though. i think most opf the people there were musicians themselves who would take turns singinging. most of them had shrink wrapped cds that they were trying to sell, and i definitely go tthe feeling that a lot of these people were artsy types who were there more to promote themselves than to actually listen to the music.
some of the people there were really digging it though. they were miming and gesturing and pretending to sing to the music. some people were making the record store face and everything. they were hyped! it was then that this older guy came up to me and introduced himself. i can´t recall his name, but i think it was something something Wilson. “i am a poet”, he says and hands me his business card. s ure enough, on the card it says “wilson – poet”. i never knew that poets had business cards. wilson left, but then came back after a litle bit, dropping off two small books in my lap, and walked away again. on the cover, there was Wilson, looking off in the distance and contemplating something very deeply in a poet-like fashion.
i flipped through the books, but my spanish really wasn´t good enough to understand them. abit later, another guy (probably Wilson´s friend) casually walks by, looks down and when he sees the books in my lap, his eyes go wide and he gets incredibly excited “Ahhh!!! i see you have the books of Wilson!!! he is the greatest poet in all of Santiago de cuba!!!”. he sits down for a bit to examine the books, nodding approvingly the whole time. heh, i get the feeling i´m gonna have some serious pressure to buy these books.
Wilson returns shortly,a nd i tell him that i cannot buy his books. i dont know spanish first of all. he tells me to have them translated. i tell him that i am from america and i cannot legally bring them to my country. he says he´ll lower the price. i tell him, really, i just cant. Wilson takes his books and sulks off, but the battle is not yet over. a few minutes later, his friend come over with a very concerned look on his face, a look taht tells me that i am making a huge mistake and passing up the opportuinity of a lifetime. he sits down and says “i am sorry. i just cannot understand this. please explain to me why you cannot buy these books”.
i tell him that i would get in trouble with the government and mime my throat being slit along w/ the appropriate sound. the guy thinksfor a while. along time actually. we sit there in silence. finally, he picks up a nearby pieces of paper,a nd places it on top of the book saying i should cover the book so my govt doesnt find it. i mime a customs official taking the paper off and findinng the book, and make the throat slitting gesture again. wilson´s friend looks very glum by this point. then he says that i could tell them that the book is from mexico. i flip the book over and show the back cover where it clearly states that Wilson is an amazing poet from Santiago de Cuba. it´s pretty difficult to explain to this guy that i am pretty scared of smuggling anything back to the US, much less a book by an author i´ve never heard of and in a language that i dont understand. finally, he skulks off. i look into the next room, and see Wilson witing there looking both grim and thoughtful at the same time. finally thoug, later in the night, he comes by, shakes my hand, and says that he completely understands.
so we meet again
around midnight, i´m beat, it´s been a long day and i head off home. at some point i hear the usual “hey amigo!” yells, but i ignore them as usual until i feel someone grab my shoulder. oh shit. it´s jorge. jorge´s looking pretty drunk at this point and starts asking me why i didnt meet him today to go to the river etc etc. i tell him i was busy and now i´m tired and going to bed. “you sleeping!!! no sleeping! ees vacation! you sleep in america, after”. hrm, jorge wouldnt take no for an answer and after a bit, i decided, fuck it, why not. i knew he had some hidden agendas etc, but whatever, i may as well see what the night had in store. plus, this guy was just so funny and entertaining, that if i spent a little extra cash to buy him beers or whatnot, who cares.
“today i make love.. 5 hours! i see beautiful lady, me no sleeping!!” he says. i hear this from him at least a couple of times a day, each time he follows this by lifting up his shirt and pointing at his stomach, though i´m not sure why. jorge then starts appologizing for asking for money yesterday. “you my amigo!! i cant ask for money from an amigo! no ees possible! i am so stupid. what was i thinking?!”. and later launches into a rant about the restaurant frmo last night “you know what i find? i ask seester. she say that fish cost only 2CUC. and you pay 6CUC. you know why?” yeah, i´m betting that it´s because he was there, but just for fun, i ask why. “ees mafia” he says witha straight face. “ees mafia. shoor”. wow, this guy really was a piece of work.
i go over to buy some cigarettes and jorge gets a pack too, on my tab of course. he says we should go drinking, but only in the “real cuba”. we head off and soon end up wayyy far frmo the center. he tells me that back inthe center, that crap is just for toursists, but this area, this is the real cuba… and in a way it is. i couldnt imagine any other toursist venturing out here. it´s dark, and kind of ghetto. vagrants walk around, a group of gay dudes menacingly flick their tongues at me, buildings are ten times more ramshackle than elsewhere. we sit down and drink beers (my tab) at a streetstall, where jorge unloads all of his thoughts about castro, cuba, che guarvara, chess, and everything. afterwards we venture off to this other streetstall. here they sell rum by the mililiter. they give you a ghlass and then pour rum through a funnel into it until it reaches a certain point. the people hanging out here are mostly old men, and al of them look completely tanked. we get about 5 shots worth of rum for like 50 cents , it must be the high quality stuff (ha!), and go sit on some steps with one of the drunk old men.
it´s been a hell of a random night. i feel like i´ve really seen and experienced some stuff that many others will never get to see. jorge once again brings up going to the river tomorrow. i know there´s gotta be some big time scam here, but i´m curious to see how it plays out and what the deal is. so, i agree. jorge leads me out of the ghetto, and i stumble home.