I retraced my steps back, uphill, towards Padre Pico. This spot also marked the gateway into the French Quarter, Tivoli neighbourhood. The sounds of kids chatter guided me towards a primary school. Inside a colonial buildings with poorly lit rooms, kids were being kids. This is a great area to wander and catch the far away sights of mountains and water. I wandered into the Museo de la Candestinidad. Unfortunately it was closed.
Here, I met Diana, a beautiful lady with a story to tell. It was personal. We talked about family- where they were and why I was travelling solo. She has two young girls and the usual story, separated from her husband. Tears fell from her eyes. She asked if I drank alcohol. She looked straight into my eye and asked if I was looking for “la chica”, girls? She was relieved with my response. Not your normal tourist ‘conversations’. She had been through tough times in her young family life. She meant well. Diana worked as a security guard at the museum. She wore a sturdy steel caped boots which she received when working in the nearby shipyard. She looked to be in her late thirties. She had a sweet darkened complexion with an infectious smile. I could not help but to compliment on her beautiful looks. She felt appreciated. Alcohol addiction as well as promiscuity seemed prevalent amongst men. Is it the social and economic pressures? The lack of jobs and income? Perhaps contributed by the limited housing options or rather the lack of it, where several families, including in-laws, lived together. Perhaps, the ease of getting married and divorced. However, for a single working parent anywhere, life is tough. Let alone in Cuba. I sympathised with Diana.
I returned to my casa and packed up my bag to move into another casa which Juan had organised. It was just down the street. Not sure of the name but met with Antonio, an Italian with a Cubano wife, Day. I continued to explore Santiago. This time I headed towards Parque Cespedes. On a hilly and congested narrow street, I ended at the “Balcon de Velzquez”. It was a former fort with a grey exterior and arches. From a ‘terrace’ like open area, there were panoramic views of tiled and tin roofed homes, harbour and the mountains beyond. Parque Cespedes seemed to be the heart of Santiago. My initial experience was the fume chocked streets. Local trucks masqueraded as public transport puffed out huge amounts of black smoke together with lorries and cars. This is Calle Santa Toms. The La Catedral de la Nuestra Senora De La Asuncion rose above the street. A set of step led up to the large wooden doorways.
Parque Cespedes is quintessentially a kaleidoscope of people and colonial buildings. Musicians entertaining on the streets, queues at the local telecommunication office, and classic American cars as taxis waited for passengers, hustlers looking for a quick sale and local women in tight fitting lycra and singlets parading for a ‘conversation’. It is an open space with a little green. Banks and museums also occupied this square. Visited the Casa de Diego Velzquez – the former residence of the Governor built around 1516 and 1530. Loved the balconies and windows. The architecture is amazing. It was worth a visit.
As I walked out to Parque Cespedes, the usual “jinteros” offered cigars, rum, girls and so on”. One guy offered tours. “Where do you want to go”. They seemed keen to plan your holidays by suggesting places to go and sites to visit. I just ignored some and just said no to the others. They are just looking to make a buck.
I had lunch on the terrace of white washed Hotel Casa Granda. This elegant but faded building was built around the early 1900. The terrace had a great views of Parque Cespedes. Musicians played below on the street curb to earn a few dollars from the wealthy tourist. The service, however, was questionable. People queued at the telecommunication office to make payments, calls and internet service.