With my well being restored through medication and Esther’s remedy of white rice and boiled plantain, I was ready to move again. Today I left for the eastern Cuban town, Santiago de Cuba. This town is considered the most ‘Caribbean’ in Cuba with its mixture of various origins and cultures. I took the Viazul bus on an overnight journey. I was depressed looking at all the uncultivated arable land. It was not covered in jungle but vacant, an indication of past cultivation. With agricultural inputs and working machinery out of reach for most Cubans, cultivation had halted. Cuba is now an importer of basic produce.
The roads were good but the journey was slow as the drive ventured into rural roads and interior roads. The speed is further reduced by other road users – horse carts, bicycles, old slow moving cars and even pedestrians. I was concerned as the day’s light diminished, no one used lights on the streets, apart from the cars and trucks. As the bus journey continued into the twilight, there were acres and acres of sugar cane cultivation as far as the eyes can see. A few men on the road wiled machetes. I could not see any villages or nearby towns.
I arrived at Santiago de Cuba around 9pm after a 12 hour bus journey. I was tired and just needed some sleep. I had not booked my accommodation. I just took my chances on one Casa suggested by Lonely Planet, Casa Terraza Pavo Real. I thought, when I get there, if not available, he or she would put me onto one nearby. I had been handed over from one casa to another. Well that was the plan. At the bus station, I was approached by a few street hustlers. They offered accommodations and taxi rides. I was not in the mood. I just took one, a classic old car. Yes, as tourist, the charge was 5CUC. Not knowing where I was, late and tired nor where the Casa was, and with limited ‘negotiation skills’, I was exposed.
When I picked my backpack from the boot, it came along with powdered rust. Juan greeted me at the door. Quite reluctantly, he offered one room. The room had already been booked by someone but had not turned up. The interior was amazing. Filled with old world memorabilia, beautifully decorated lounge and dining. I couldn’t fully appreciate as I needed to get some food and sleep. Nearby is an ‘associates’ restaurant. I found the place and had some food. I nervously retraced my route as there were many narrow lanes and alleyways in this part of town. A shower and off to bed.
This morning, I explored my casa. Antique furniture were placed strategically around the dining and lounge. Sounds of birds in cages came from everywhere. An open patio area with a water feature and creeping plants created an ambient garden environment to relax. Not today though as some workman were working on an extension. A rustic spiral staircase took me to the roof terrace with amazing views of Santiago – the waterfront and shipyards, red tiled roofs of the nearby homes and the domes of the old quarter. Surrounded by painted walls and ceilings, I enjoyed my huge breakfast spread. This had been the best casa so far. A grand casa indeed for 25CUC. Just would have liked to stay here longer.
Santiago, the second largest city in Cuba, is regarded as “cuna de la Revolucion”, or the cradle of the Revolution. Two years after Castro’s return from exile in 1956, he announced the victory of the revolution on January 1, 1959 from the balcony of the present day Town Hall in Parque Cespedes. Santiago was also the place for the first revolution by the black African slaves. Today, Santiago has the largest Afro-Cuban population.
I needed to organise my bus ticket to Havana. Juan suggested that I walked down to the waterfront and catch a Horse Cart taxi. I passed this city famous streets, the steep steps of “Escalinata de Padre Pico”, Padre Pico steps. It is famous as it was built in 1899 by Emilio Bacardi (the popular rum distiller) and named after a santiaguero priest. A row of houses painted in soft pastel and blue line this steeps. I continued until the waterfront street, Paseo Alameda. This main street was busy with motor vehicles. A small green lung hugged the waterfront, Parque Alameda. I hailed a horse taxi and just mentioned Viazul Bus Station. I had no idea where and how far it was. This slow travel was great to capture in the sights. People embarked and disembarked continuously. The driver yelled “amigo” and I knew what he meant. I hopped off. My ride cost 10 CUP. (I paid 5 CUC for a taxi). As I entered the station, a lady asked me to stop. Then she sanitised my footwear. I was bewildered. She explained that this was to keep the station hygienic. I looked around and there were flies everywhere. However, the station was relatively clean. I entered an air-conditioned room and purchased my ticket. Nearby, is the train station. On the main street, there was a large warehouse – the Bacardi Rum Factory. I contemplated a visit. I gave it a miss. There were many motorbikes parked on this street. I caught another horse taxi and headed back to Parque Alameda. The clock tower was my marker to get off. The harbour looked ‘dead’ with a few ships at the yard.