Pie Fights over the Lost Highway On Shark Attacks and Looking Good


Pie Fights over the Lost Highway

On Shark Attacks and Looking Good

Dawdling At Length

Renting a room from the secret resistance.

Santiago de Cuba
25th May, 2001

It´s pathetic. Here I am in Cuba´s second city, home to Son and Salsa, filled with monuments to an ancient past and a vibrant present. All I keep thinking is: "What a stinky sweat-hole."

I am not a good traveller. The bus to Santiago took twelve hours. I am in a difficult mood. The heat, traffic fumes and constant hassle on the streets bothers me more than it should. Plus, I was spoilt rotten, in Trinidad.

Trinidad is an old colonial town on the south coast of Cuba, once rich from the 19th Century sugar boom. Two wars took away that prosperity, and the town was simply forgotten. Today it appears much as it did 150 years ago. Ancient cobbled streets, red-tiled colonial mansions, gammy toothed old crones muttering "You be a fine young gennleman, squire, and no mistake."

The Trinidad Sanction

When I went to buy my bus ticket for Trinidad in Havana, I went to an employee in the station to find out where to queue. She anwered my question in a slow, loud voice. "Yes, this is the queue, for Trinidad." Then she glanced around, and whispered "Quick! Do you have a place to stay in Trinidad!?" A conspiracy! There was nothing to do but play this deadly game to the end.
"No, I have nowhere." I pretended to read a notice over her head.

"Yes." She was loud again, "you must stand in a line and wait to buy your ticket, for Trinidad." Then, pretending to shuffle some papers in front of her, hissed "Take this address! She will meet you! Now go!" I walked away, clutching a small card thrust into my hand. I had to stop myself from exclaiming "I will not fail you!"

I didn´t know whether I was being sent to a bed and breakfast, or a resistance safe house. I just had to find out. Competition is intense in the private accomodation business. When the coach arrived in Trinidad, the bus parking lot was already surrounded by a mob of screaming landladies, baying for our custom with shrill cries of "hot water", "breakfast", maybe even "frilly curtains with a charming sea view!"

The handful of foreign tourists huddled together. We were afraid to leave the laager of the bus company, in case our legs should spend the night in one quaint air-conditioned room, very central , while our arms went to a superior lake-side dwelling, close to all the amenities.

I heard a voice call my name. The resistance network had passed it to my mysterious contact. My new landlady. Only she could bring me through this screaming crowd, this wealth of choice accomodations, alive. She executed a stunning series of body blocks, and brought me to her house. She lived in a Spanish mansion in the centre of town, and gave me with an entire floor to myself. (And shamefully cheap, of which I took shameless advantage.) Every day she fed me, breakfast and dinner. Each consisted of ten seperate plates that I could hardly stuff into myself. I loved it.

I visited the town, climbed some hills, went to the beach, scuba dived on coral reefs. And a wall! I´ve never dived a real wall before, scudding along the top edge of an immense coral barrier at 30m depth, looking down to see the wall fall below you for 300 metres in great troughs and valleys into the dark gloom below. The face of the abyss. It still sends shivers up my spine.

Santiago Slowdown

And so to Santiago, and once again the daily Cuban struggle to find anything resembling lunch. Once again the taxi pimps and hustlers. Ho hum. Coming here was a bit of an accident. I meant to go back to Havana, but I missed the bus, so I took the next one leaving Trinidad station. Destination Santiago, three hundred miles in the wrong direction, and here I am.

But Santiago is growing on me. I fell in with a couple of English girls last night, and we went to the Casa de la Trovas, a music house where the local talent come to play and sing. And they were good. In England they´d be playing concert halls with their mixture of dance rhythms and mellow sons. But in England they wouldn´t have an audience of Cubans, adding encouragement and standing up to dance in front of the bandstand together. This was Cuba. It was good to escape the salsa bands that play for tourist. Although talented, they play the same songs, over and over, usually outtakes from the Buena Vista Social Club album.

Once again, food fills my thoughts. I located some spaghetti last night, cooked to the same high standard I would have employed as a first year undergraduate in my Hall of Residence. I felt glad to get it. Most of the restaurants here are run by the government, so the waiting staff resent actual customers, who come in and ruin their well-earned kip.

Sometimes, at night, I try to pass as a Cuban in the dark to avoid the cigar peddlars. But I never bring it off. I can'to slow down to a real Cuban pace. They´ve had a lifetime of practice at dawdling to nowhere in particular to do not much of anything in order to be paid a packet of peanuts. I should have to post my legs back to Trinidad to take up residence at a spacious period house in order to slow down enough. However, European speed can be useful. Whenever a hustler comes up behind me crying out "Hey amigo, where you from?", all I have to do is accelerate to a gentle Sunday afternoon stroll, and he´ll soon be left behind, gasping and clutching his chest, complaining that I no like the friendship of Cuban people.

But here is the real friendship of Cuba. When I arrived in Santiago, it was late, and already dark. A bad time to wander around with a rucksack on my back and two years average wages in my pocket. I went to a casa particular recommended by a Belgian friend, but it was full. Time was getting on, and the night seemed suddenly filled with doubt, and strange threatening shapes. But the owner of the casa smiled up at me and said, come and we´ll see, and insisted on walking around with me until we found a house with a free room, and I was sorted out. I have a lovely double room, and a whole bath to myself. Santiago? Great town.





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Viazul Tourist Busses: comfortable and easy, though you have to pay tourist prices.