I am looking for the photo that would make all the difference in my life. It’s very small and subject to fits of amnesia, turning up in poker hands, grocery carts, under the unturned stone. The photo shows me at the lost and found looking for an earlier photo, the one that would have made all the difference then….
…O photo! End your tour of the world in a hot air balloon. Resign your job at the mirror-testing laboratory. Come home to me, you little fool, before I find I can live without you.
—excerpt from Lost and Found by Maxine Chernoff
With just one week left, it was Santiago de Cuba that found me.
I was in the marina’s bathroom, after a shower, and the cleaning lady asked me if I’d enjoyed the New Year in the city. I told her that we had stayed home, which she thought was a shame. “Well, I go into the city most days, walk around, I draw sometimes; I want to get to know the real Santiago, but I don’t like doing tours of museums or getting steered around by jineteros…and I don’t know anybody, so I don’t know where to begin…”
Scandalised, the cleaning lady told one of the marina’s security guards that I needed help. Jorge was the friendliest of the guards: a boyish, pudgy, cheerful face, and a smile like Gary Coleman in the 80s. He was the only one I ever had normal conversations with. He asked me what I wanted to discover about the city. I told him that I had gone to most of the sites recommended by the guidebooks, but didn’t want to keep on being a tourist, paying for contrived experiences, or knowing the city only through photos.
Jorge understood completely. He loved that we had bothered to learn the language before coming, and that I wanted to get to know his home city on a deeper level. He offered to take me around, said he would plan a day of unusual things, and insisted that we go on foot in order to wander the smaller streets. I grabbed the chance to walk the streets of Santiago de Cuba with a local. I asked, but Kris didn’t want to go; he’s not a ‘people person’, he was exploring his own version of Cuba by going off alone on his bicycle, riding a different road into the surrounding countryside every day (he even went up to Gran Piedra, the highest point of Cuba, on bicycle).
I went into town by myself at 6 a.m. the next day. Jorge met me at the ferry landing, and we set off for the Santa Ifigenia cemetery to watch the change of the guards…
…visited the tomb of Santiago’s most famous trovador (troubadour) and sonero, Compay Segundo.
Note: Son cubano is a style of music that originated in Cuba and gained worldwide popularity during the 1930s. Son combines the structure and feel of the Spanish canción with Afro-Cuban traits and percussion. The Cuban son is one of the most influential and widespread forms of Latin-American music: its derivatives and fusions, including salsa, have spread across the world.
Compay Segundo lived 96 years, eating mutton and drinking rum till the end…
We paid a visit to the monument and tomb of José Martí, father of Cuban independence, whose dedication to the themes of freedom, liberty, and independence were hugely influential throughout South America. He is also the author of the poem that later became the famous song Guantanamera…
And we cast a quick glance toward the family tomb of the Bacardí family. (Bacardí rum was made in Cuba from 1862 until the family moved, around the 1960s, to Puerto Rico…taking their famous trademark with them.) The same rum is still made in Santiago de Cuba, under the label Ron de Caney.)
Leaving the cemetery we walked right across the city, going down little side streets that, in the 40s, had been the most dangerous streets in the city (Jobito, Paralejo). Here the houses, beyond the scope of tourism and shopping, stood unrestored. Looking into the large open windows revealed humble courtyards in shadow—washing on the line, pot plants, a toddler’s plastic ride-on toy, sleeping dogs—and heavily worn antique furniture, still performing their everyday functions without fanfare.
Emerged on Trocha (Avenida 24 de Febrero). Breakfasted on cafecitos (shots of sickly-sweet coffee served in thimble-sized cups) from an old man with a white beard and the star of david around his neck, standing in the open door of his home; then we had roast pork buns from a burly vendor further up the street who shaved the hunk of roast pork with a thin, flexible strip of metal in his bare hands, and crammed a fistful of the paper-thin slivers of meat into the buns with his thick fingers. We washed our sandwiches down with orange-flavoured drink, served in tumblers made from sawn-off beer bottles.
Fortified by food, we continued up the steep road another hundred metres, when Jorge led me away from the sidewalk to the doorstep of a tall, narrow, townhouse from the colonial days…the first in a row of eight. He rang the doorbell a few times, and a woman’s head looked out from the tiny balcony above us, disappeared again; as we waited for someone to come downstairs and open the door I looked at Jorge, one eyebrow cocked up questioningly. He gave me one of his big, happy grins.
<<Es una sorpresa … te vas a gustar, vas ver.>> (It’s a surprise…you’ll like it, you’ll see.)