Keys to the city

Santiago de Cuba

 Didn’t rain choke the animal throats
of the cathedral      sputter
against the roofs of the city      didn’t the flight
of stairs rise up above the cobbled street
didn’t the key clamor
in the lock      flood
the vestibule with clattering    didn’t we climb
the second flight
toward the miniature Allegory
painted on the ceiling
and touch the flat-faced girls
winged      part animal
who did not flinch and did not scamper
—Keys to The City by Richie Hofman

Santiago de Cuba

I must confess that I kind of wasted my first three of weeks in Santiago de Cuba. The first two, we visited some tourist attractions, and I took a ferry to the city of Santiago five times, but didn’t venture very deeply into its daily life.

Santiago de Cuba

I stayed on the cobbled streets, snapping photos of building facades, sitting—somewhat lost—on park benches, browsing the souvenirs or galleries, looking respectfully at monuments in squares, having coffee at one of the many places that serves only tourists, taking portraits of willing or unconcerned subjects like this little street pup…

Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba
But, after days of this, I remained on the outside. I was sick of taking pictures of every candy-coloured building and curly lamppost, tired of lugging a camera around, of being a spectator. I was looking at the city through a glass wall. I knew there was more to this 500-year-old city than the sugar-paste facades of beautifully restored buildings, the smooth English-speaking jineteros (‘jockeys’…so-called, because they ‘ride’ tourists) touting cigars, tours, cheap rum, or a room and a quick tryst, the charming sidewalk tourist-only establishments serving mojitos and cuba libres at 9 in the morning. I wanted the city’s beating heart, it’s radiant soul, it’s humanity…but where/what was it?

Santiago de Cuba

And then I spent the third week (from Christmas till New Year’s Day) on the boat with the flu, watching the distant fireworks blossom soundlessly from the direction of the city square at midnight on New Year’s Eve, feeling quite miserable. With just one week left, I desperately wanted to get in touch with the real Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba
Promised myself, that last night of the old year, to throw myself into the search with less reserve, to take more risks, to reach out—again and again, if I had to—until a door opened somewhere, somebody took my outstretched hand, and pulled me in…
Santiago de Cuba

26 thoughts on “Keys to the city

  1. Nat, Love, are you aware of the dread Zika virus that was in Haiti while you were there? Please take every precaution against mosquito bites! It’s spreading like wildfire! Take care!
    Love, Dad


    1. LOL minus people, as always, because I will never work up the nerve. Never. Unless they become friends, first.

      Elmer, may facebook ka ba? Ayaw mo akong i-add? May short film ako, nakapost sa fb, pero for friends lang kasi di pa ‘ko tapos mag-edit, but I would love your constructive criticism of the thing. Check the filtered messages in your message inbox? I’ve messaged you a few times.


    1. Thanks, Rose…it’s not my poem, you know that. But I love it when a poem hints at something, comes at me from a different direction, saying roughly the same thing. Every time I find one like that I feel it is a great universal convergence, destined, and not just some random similarity…I sort of live in a LaLa Land of magical events, the air is a-roar with the wingbeats of strange angels.


    1. LOL If I put it all on at once, it’ll run to 5,000 words! Anyway, I am still writing the rest! And I’d like to space posts out for the period we’ll be at sea and I can’t post anything.
      The house is, funnily, the oldest house in all Cuba…it dates from the 1500s, and belonged to the Spaniard Diego Velasquez, who originally took Cuba for Spain. It’s a museum now.

      Liked by 1 person

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