As we walk up the steep hill leading from the port of Santiago to its main square, Plaza Cespedes, we hear what sounds like an explosion.
It’s a car backfiring, an ancient Soviet-era Lada, probably dating from the early- to mid-60s, trying desperately to get up the hill. It explodes again, juddering almost to a halt, but the driver, much older than the car, does not seem overly concerned.
As each explosion propels it a few feet further up the hill, police on corners and kids playing in the street turn to watch. The car finally makes it to a junction, and there are a few cheers from the onlookers as it slowly inches down a sloping side street, still backfiring into the distance.
Day 3 of my cruise round Cuba with Cuba Cruise, and it’s incidents like this that makes a trip to this Caribbean island unique. It’s part of the fabric and color of Cuba, people just trying to get on with their lives with what little they have.
Santiago is Cuba’s second largest city, at the far eastern tip of the island, and our second stop. It has a population of around 1.2 m people, and much more of a Caribbean feel than Havana. It’s noisy, bustling and polluted, an onslaught to the senses after the countryside we saw at the last port of call.
Motorbikes and scooters shoot up the pot-holed streets, their drivers shouting to friends they pass by; big old Russian trucks – the public transportation round here – blasting out diesel fumes and blaring their horns; and the Plymouths, Fords and Dodge taxis, all dating from the 1950s or earlier, with their drivers calling out to the turistas: “You want taxi?”. And there are people everywhere, cramming the narrow pavements, hustling, selling, hawking, trying to get a few pesos.
The ship docks at the bottom of town and then it’s a short walk to Plaza Cespedes, flanked on one side by the 500-year-old Museo de Ambiente (closed); the Cathedral (under restoration); the Town Hall and the town’s most famous hotel, Hotel Casa Granda, where 3 pesos convertibles (the tourist currency, which is pegged to the US$) gets you great views and a drink at its rooftop bar, which overlooks the bay.
Cuba Cruise has been running this itinerary for just about seven weeks, so the arrival of the ship into town is still a huge deal for locals and we are waved in as we pass by the harborfront. Despite this, when we disembark, there is just a Cadeca (Bureau de Change), and a man selling some postcards. That’s it. No vendors that are commonplace on other islands. The government has clearly not loosened its grip on private enterprise here.
The great thing about doing a week-long cruise round Cuba is that Louis Cristal gets stays in most ports till late, so you get to sample a taste of the famous Cuban nightlife. And tonight the ship sets sail at 9 pm, so there’s plenty of time to soak up the ambiente.
You can take an organized shore excursion, but we decide to lose ourselves in the side streets. Once you’re off the main tourist drags, the hustlers melt away and you can get a glimpse into people’s lives.
Buildings lie collapsed in the street. Others have so many extensions they look as if they could collapse any moment. Kids play with flat footballs and tin cans. Families cram into front rooms sat on battered wooden chairs. Old men play dominoes in the streets. There is no advertising of any sort. There are some discreet “Se Vende”(for sale) signs, now that selling your house has become legal, and the only graffiti is “Viva Fidel” or the Revolution in general.
The average Cubano leads a very basic existence still, and it feels strange carrying my iPhone and the equivalent of several month’s wages (the maximum wage is $28 a month; the average is around $14) in my wallet. Despite this, at no time do I feel threatened. As my colleague points out, if this were the back streets of Rio, for example, we wouldn’t last long.
There’s a difficulty I find balancing being a voyeur, and genuinely inquisitive about a way of life that is all but lost elsewhere in the world. Cuba makes no sense, it shouldn’t work, but it does, somehow; it also enthralls and captivates you.
We wind up in the Plaza Dolores, another square, crammed with bars and people – locals and tourists alike – sipping the local beer, Cristal, and watching the world go by. After a while we blend in and stopped being asked if we want to hear ‘Guantanamera’ again.
As night falls and the temperature eases, the square fills up, but time slips by too fast. It’s soon 8.30 p.m. and time to go, and even though we know good food and a comfy bed awaits, it’s still a wrench to leave.