My Heart Belongs to Santiago de Cuba



Havana is a sprawling city by the sea with cultural institutions and happenings to keep a visitor busy for weeks if not more. But, don’t miss out on other towns and villages across the Caribbean’s largest island. I’ve travelled twice by road from Havana east by road, ending up in Santiago de Cuba, its birthplace of culture and the revolution which makes the nation famous, a friend to social justice movements and activist around the world and the U.S., but anathema our U.S. government in the mid 20th Century and the Cuban exile community who supported efforts to sabotage the revolution’s success.

The value placed on history in Cuba whether you’re visiting museums such as Museo de la Revolucion  or watching television. But, history touches you in a different way in Oriente, the eastern part of Cuba in the Sierra la Maestra mountains, in El Cobre, the town which gives one of its grandest churches its name, and especially Santiago de Cuba, the birthplace of its culture and the revolution.

My friend Lynn and took the ride to Santiago on the Viazul busline, Cuba’s version of Trailway/Greyhound. We could have travel via plane in a couple of hours. But, making the journey on high ways and roads linking towns and villages, seeing the lush green countryside and the movements of people, doing what we do all over the world in our hometowns, but in the colors and with the scents and sounds unique to this place. I wanted to make the journey again to see what remained the same and what had changed since I’d like came this way in 2011.

Our vehicle on the first trip in 2011 was private chartered for two dozen or more people. We stopped to eat at fast food type restaurants and a couple which were more special sitting back off the road in a grove of trees, a buffet of pulled pork, chicken, and the Black beans and rice, Congri it’s commonly called, that is omnipresent. We watched and listened to music videos on few screens throughout the bus. On the public bus, the stops are at stations and terminals. The range quality from one facility to another was all over the place. One might have a chance at buying a full meal and even a beer or rum. Or find a restaurant bar with a few bottles or this or that and warm cheese sandwich, being the only food available.

The facilities vary wildly. But, nearly all toilet use requires that you pay an attendant a peso or less. They aren’t there just to mind the door. You sometime need them to hand you soap, pour the water for washing, provide paper or cloths to dry with, and flush the toilet. Sometimes the toilet was in a cubicle with a door, sometimes a length of cloth was hung like a curtain on a wire. I not only flashed back to similar situations in developing regions of the world, but East Tennessee in the sixties when some of our kin and villages still lacked indoor plumbing.

The bus itself had nicely cushioned seats that reclined and big windows so you could gaze up at the stars at night or sleep. I travelled with a buddy and we felt safe. Fellow passengers, Cubans and a few White & European backpackers, were quiet, and sleepy. In daylight, I never tired of the scenes outside the window: Clusters of houses from town to town which seemed recently painted, spruced up a bit in the six years since I went this way.





Church in Santiago

El Morro







Santiago landscape

In Santiago, we rented the second floor of a private house, Casa Sueño in a residential neighborhood with a 180 degree view of the mountains, verdant crown, a lovely church blocks a way and one of the towns few high rise hotels, The Melia.  We are a few blocks away from main roads, including rows of indoor and out door vendors, restaurants and shops. We are a nice walk to Revolutionary Square with its statue of Jose Marti on horseback and larger-than-life photo of Fidel.

On Sunday we attended a Rhumba, held weekly in the courtyard of the Caribe House, a beautiful cultural arts institution, one of many standing one after the other on the same beautiful avenue. A few houses down is a gallery showing modern art, then there is the Museo de la Religion Populare. Cuba values her art, culture, history and it is beautiful and confident in itself. The bar for dance, music, art is set high and on a solid foundation of African, indigenous and European.

I visited for a second time the Cathedral in El Cobre where a representation of Osun overlooks the sanctuary over representations of Christ and Mary. On the first trip my group hiked up the steep incline to the ruins of the old copper mines in the hills and up to the memorial to the enslaved standing above it.

Memorial of the enslaved, Cuba





My 2011 trip wasn’t so much about seeing major sites, but rather learning folkloric dance and music. I travelled under the leadership of La Mora, Danys Perez aka La Mora, founder of a fantastic New York-based Oyu Oro Afro Cuban Experimental Dance Company. She was a dancer in Cutumba, one of Cuba’s most renowned folkloric dance groups for 18 years and became a primera ballerina and primera professor of the National Dance Commission of Cuba in 1994. She takes a group down annually–all levels, from professional dancers to amateurs–for two weeks of study and immersion in the culture. We took three dance classes per day, including orisa, Rhumba, and social dances such as Mambo, Casino, Salsa. And a fourth daily class taught us traditional and original songs out of the Cuban tradition. When we weren’t doing that we were experiencing the culture through performance and also ritual. A high moment of the trip was trekking up to a Haitian Cuban village in the mountains where we were invited to a ceremony and a feast of delicious meat, vegetables, fruit and bread they raised, sacrificed and prepared, from Earth to table.

The bonus lesson I gain from Cuba ,no matter what brings me there, is how to sustain a . The people show you how to do everything with so much less than we—from the land of the freed and the greed—could ever imagine. They work hard, they play hard, they do it looking good and never leaving out the sexy. We’re fortunate that we had Barack Obama to make the steps to normalize relations with Cuba in the time that we have. And every other Cuban we met expressed appreciation for him and their love of American people. They have a rather opposite feeling toward the current president. His efforts to reverse the progress Obama made and raise more restrictions again was the talk of Havana by the time we reached back to spend our last night in Cuba…until next time.



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