Almost Cuban


For my last days in Santiago de Cuba, I made an effort to “infiltrate” the life of the city and, as Rolf Potts urges in his book, Vagabonding, “say ‘yes’ as often as possible.

It is a testament to the efficacy of this technique that my fourth day found me lounging around the living room of someone else’s apartment, late on a Sunday morning: well-rested, freshly-showered, cocoa-buttered, and barely dressed in a slinky full-length nightgown of vivid cerise, with see-through lace breast panels (also someone else’s!)

In the tiny kitchen, the owner of my risqué nightie was squinting in the morning sunlight, and cooking up a storm: soaking beans, skinning pigs’ feet, pounding spices, squeezing oranges, steaming rice, chopping onions, roasting bell peppers, and nattering on the phone. All at once, it seemed. The pressure cooker, that musical instrument of the kitchen, provided the background rhythm…chika-chik-chik-chik

Lupe hadn’t changed out of her negligee, either. Hers was peach, with white ribbons and small bunches of embroidered roses. It was more playful than mine: every time she stooped to rummage inside the refrigerator I would look up from the book in my hand to contemplate her wobbling bum in ruffled panties, and marvel.

Not at her bottom (two middle aged women on the plumpy side of life and in the grip of Newton’s laws of gravity are not very fascinating.) Rather, I marveled that I had come, in just 4 days, from being a tourist and spectator on city streets to spending the night in someone’s home, and was now drinking coffee, flipping through local TV channels, and scrutinising photo albums on the doily-draped couch, while the pink polish that Lupe had applied to my toenails dried.

cuba on tv.jpg
photo by Alex Harris, from his book The Idea of Cuba

A couple of days before I had been browsing a display of music CDs in town, and got into a conversation about son de Santiago de Cuba with the woman standing next to me, also buying CDs. She introduced herself as Lupe, and helped me pick out an excellent sampling of local musicians, many of whom I eventually met at different venues around town. She was very up to speed on the music scene.

“There’s a group playing at La Trovita on Saturday night that you must not miss…the Septeto Turquino. They’re incredible!”

“I would love to hear them,” I told her, “but I can’t stay in the city past 5 p.m., because I have to catch the ferry to Punta Gorda, where I live on a sailboat. I can’t afford to stay in the tourist hotels around here.”

“You’re a tourist? Argentina?”

I told her, and she gave a little squawk of surprise. “But you look perfectly Cubana!” Then her eyes lit up with excitement as she formed a plan. “Mira, meet me at La Trovita on Saturday, at 9 p.m., and after the show you can spend the night at my place…the neighbours won’t know you’re a foreigner.”

It is still illegal for Cuban citizens to take in foreigners. It can be done if their homes are registered as privados (they pay heavy taxes to the government for the right to turn their homes into boarding houses) or if, months ahead, the visitor applies to stay with a specific individual (on the grounds of being a relative or close friend.) Approval of such an application can take a long time while the Cuban citizen is subjected to questioning, security checks, and surveillance during the visit to ensure that she is not running an illegal business, or salting away hard currency.

old Cuban photograph

I was in town by noon on Saturday, because of the ferry schedule, with nine hours to kill. Waving down a motorcycle taxi from the esplanade (they carry an extra helmet…you strap your helmet on, get behind the driver, and put your hands on either side of his waist. Putting your hands on his shoulders implies a more intimate relationship. I only learned this afterwards) I jokingly asked for an experience “con emoción“, and he obliged me by practically flying over the tops of steep hills, leaning deeply around corners, and weaving through vegetable carts on market streets. I loved it, though my heart was in my throat the entire time. When I alighted, my cavalier motorcycle stuntman kissed my hand and proposed to me. I have never walked around a city, laughing, as much as I did in Cuba.

I bought some black and white photographs—anonymous adopted relatives, I decided—from an old man with a shoe box full of them. At Manolito del Toro’s I picked some poetry books, and the late Oscar Hijuelos’ last novel, Una Sencilla Melodia Habanera. I drifted through parks where angry geezers were slapping domino tiles down like gunshots. It was with a sigh of gratitude that I sat down to listen to Chely Romero’s afternoon performance at the Casa de La Trova…at least I didn’t have to go anywhere for a while. By five I was back on the street, peckish (but after buying books and giving money to Chely and Nando, I was close to being broke) and adrift again. In the Parque Cespedes locals and tourists strolled about in the cool air of evening. I read for an hour, by the park’s blazing lampposts. Santiago’s symphony orchestra assembled, and treated the public to an hour of waltzes. I walked slowly past La Trovita twice, to see if Lupe had turned up, but the place was closed.

Around me tourists were hurrying in droves toward a street party one block away…frenzied crowds and costumed mascots with giant cartoon heads whooped and gyrated in the spotlights to mad African drumming. I paused; I didn’t feel like diving into that crowd of drunken revelers. I was standing in front of the Casa de Las Estudiantes and caught a faint bolero drifting from the balcony. The stairway was deserted and unlit, though the doors were open and a weak light came through the windows. I left the crowds on the sidewalk, and slipped into the building.

It was like coming upon a scene from The Twelve Dancing Princesses, except that all the princesses and their courtiers were in their seventies. In a corner the band was playing slow boleros. Wooden chairs ranged against the walls, encircling the dance floor where elderly Cuban couples—the men in formal white guayaberas, the ladies in floor-length evening dresses and crocheted gold slippers—wheeled in a slow circle around the room. Heads turned when I came in, then looked away: I was just a tourist in the wrong building, and they seemed neither glad nor irritated that I was there. I didn’t exist.


I moved discreetly onto the balcony, where I could watch from the shadows.The salon was under a spell. There was no laughing, smiling, or animated conversations. Tilted faces murmured to each other inaudibly, gravely, as though this shuffle-dance demanded the utmost concentration, and nobody was here to merely socialise.

It was beautiful and melancholy, like something from a Garcia Marquez novel…as though the dancing were driven by instinct, something the body was compelled to do, even though old bones were now infirm and the heart, in its wintertime, had been through so many gales that smiling was unthinkable.

In a town overrun by thousands of young Cubans and tourists swept up in the craze for salsa and Afro-cubano beats, this cluster of elderly people was weathering the storm in intimate gatherings that they kept to themselves: no announcements, no foreigners, no flashbulbs going off, no passing a hat around, afterwards.


Not long after 9 p.m. Lupe turned up, and we went next door for three hours of awesome, big band salsa music by Septeto Turkino. My hostess was somebody in the music industry (I never found out what she did) because she entered La Trovita for free, and musicians and band members came up to her all night to pay their respects. At two in the morning we decided to leave while the party was still at its peak (I learned this from Cubans: don’t wait for things to go stale or stupid…get out when things are at their best, and take away an undiminished experience of the evening!) We caught a 1953 Chevrolet taxi to her apartment block, the wind streaming through the old car as we rolled along empty streets. Wearing the absurd nightgowns, we crashed in our respective beds like two teenaged girls after a wild night out.

old Cuban photographsAnd that, dear reader, concludes what I have to say about Cuba!


I was going to fix this video up some more, before posting it, but we are now in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia (actually, two weeks) and life rushes forward, every day is busy, I can see there will be no time to tweak this short film, despite its many, many flaws. So here it is, in all its unedited, unrefined glory. Don’t stress over the Spanish, it’s not that important.

This is just a messy, noisy bunch of video clips, with lots of slow, boring parts, that I made, using my DSLR,  during the last afternoon I spent with the musical ladies of La Casa de La Trova, drinking Bucanero beer, talking in-between songs, and making lots of promises to come back to Cuba soon.

La Casa de La Trova

Juan, at La Casa de la Trova
Every major city in Cuba has a Casa de La Trova…an old house or building dedicated to trovadores and their music (bolero, son). In Santiago de Cuba, on 208 Calle Heredia, the former home of the composer Salcedo was used, and it is called the Casa de La Trova “Pepe Sanchez”.


Its founder was Virgilio Palais. In the 1950s, hard times had hit Cuba as the Batista regime bathed the country in his own people’s blood…and it was much worse in Santiago de Cuba, which actively resisted Batista, than elsewhere. To augment his income, Palais set a table up in the small room at the front of his house, selling snuff, tobacco, biscuits, and whatever he could. He sat there all day, and was known to sing when he was bored, to pass the time (a terrible thing, it is said, he didn’t have much of a voice.) Friends of his, trovadores (troubadours) and cantantes (singers), started to hang around, bringing their instruments, and accompanying him; they passed the day sharing music. The place was “discovered” by the taxi drivers hanging around Casa Granda Hotel, and the daily crowd grew with time. Eventually, it became a well-known, well-loved place for Santiagueros to hang out and hear good trova.

For a while, the Casa moved next door, to a bigger building with a second floor, but locals lamented that it was not the same.
Casa de la Trova Santiago Cuba.jpg
Casa de la Trova Santiago Cuba” by JialiangGao www.peace-on-earth.orgSelf-photographed. Licensed under GFDL via Commons.

Eventually the original little front-room auditorium was fully restored—all the old paintings and photos moved back onto its walls, the old chairs with leather seats and the legend “Casa de La Trova Pepe Sanchez” printed on each one—and now the Casa de La Trova occupies both buildings: intimate acoustic gatherings, free to attend, take place in the old Trova in the afternoons, and then a bigger, showier band performs at around 9 in the evening in the bigger La Trovita—with a dance floor, a bar, waiters—in the building just next door, upstairs, for an entrance fee of about $5.
La Trovita: Septeto Turkino playing
La Trovita: Septeto Turkino playing

Lost & Found

The atmosphere is much the same as always…rows of creaky wooden chairs covered in bald cowskin are arranged around a low wooden “stage”. There’s a shop in a back room that sells drinks and cigarettes. You buy a beer, light up a cigar, and sit down to hear whoever is playing that day. The front row is so close that you touch knees with any musician who’s sitting on the stage. Often, fellow musicians are in the audience, their instruments standing quietly beside them, and they will join in. People in the audience who know the second and third voices to a bolero, or the coro (refrain) of a son, will accompany the trovador. It’s very intimate, very welcoming, very special.
Juan, at La Casa de la Trova
I went every day for a week, after Jorge took me the first time. I made friends with some trovadoras. It’s easy: you listen, you don’t call someone on your phone, or have a loud conversation with your friend, while someone is singing their heart out in front of you. When you go to buy a beer for yourself, ask the barmaid what the musicians drink, and pick up a few cans for them, too. Try to appreciate the music—I know it’s hard when you don’t understand the language—and maybe buy the artist’s CD if you like their music, or leave a little money in their hat or bowl. The daytime trovadores don’t get paid for gigs or anything like that…basically, the Casa is just a place where they are welcome to busk, and its history attracts an audience they’d not find on a street corner.

Still, it’s a wonder they are still doing it, so few people give the artists anything. (Though they take plenty of photos…I have found so many photos of people I met, many are on stockphoto sites, for sale, and not even mentioning the person’s name. As these individuals have become friends that I care about, I feel a twinge of pain for them, and rage at how they’re being trivialised by photographer-tourists with cameras.)
Chely Romero & Nando at Casa de La Trova
One afternoon I arrived to meet the veteran cantante (singer) Aracelis “Chely” Romero, and her (gorgeous…sigh) accompanying guitarist. It was a bittersweet session…in between songs, they were having a heartbreaking argument: Francisco was sick of playing at the Trova…the horns and shouts and hubbub from the street, the insult these musicians suffered as busloads of tourists clomped in, twice a day, snapped their photos and selfies and GoPro videos—never stopping to listen—and then rushed off again in 15 minutes; the fact that Chely’s little basket was so often empty…he didn’t want to do it, anymore. It wasn’t worth the trouble.
Chely Romero & Nando at Casa de La Trova
Chely fretted, because she has been playing at the Trova for 40 years, and even though it’s hard for her, and doesn’t pay, she is loyal to the house and what it stands for. But no other guitarist was willing to accompany her, Francisco knew her entire repertoire, and she was torn between tradition, and understanding that a young man, like a son to her, needs more, wants more out of life. They weren’t including me in this conversation, but I was waiting for the music, sitting just to one side, and managed to pick up enough to understand what was going on. It made me so sad.
Chely & Nando

So I spent the whole afternoon there, listening to them as intently as I could, chatting with them. I bought them beers…which made the little bird-like Chely so happy that she sang a traditional drinking song, walking around the room (and even into the back room), touching cans with every single person that was there. Finally, all three of us were laughing again, and Fernando hugged me, told me “You saved us…by being here, by listening, by giving us your time and your good heart…” I wanted to sob. I went to the bathroom to clean my face up…slipping two five dollar bills into Chely’s basket while they were packing their instruments and things. When I came back from the bathroom they’d found the money, and each one just came up to me, “Ay, mi amor…gracias.” and hugged me a long time. I waved it away, and went in the opposite direction from them as we left the place because I didn’t want to cry anymore.
Chely Romero & Nando at Casa de La Trova

Dicen que murió la trova
La trova que a todos nos deleitó…

La trova no ha muerto, no…

Que surjan más trovadores
Que la trova es inmortal.

They say trova has died
Trova that delighted us all

Trova has not died, no …

More troubadours will arise.
The trova is immortal. 

“La Trova”, a son by Francisco Repilado (Compay Segundo)

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

El Morro fortress

El Morro
Santiago de Cuba

The first week we were in Santiago de Cuba, we did the tourist thing and paid a day’s visit to the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca fortress, at the entrance to the harbour.
El Morro
Instead of taking a tour bus or a taxi, however, we caught the inter-island ferry from the stop near the Marina Marlin to the next stop, Ciudamar. From here, we walked the winding road only as far as Los Veleros beach resort. If you cross their beach to the overgrown hillside opposite, you find yourself on a narrow trail that will take you into a side entrance in the fortress, halfway down the hill.

El Morro
You’ll still have to go from here up to the entrance (if you get caught, anyway, and if you want to see the exhibits inside the main part of the castle) to pay the fees. CUC 4.00 per person (about $4), and an additional CUC 5.00 per camera.
El Morro
Designed in 1637 by Giovanni Battista Antonelli, and more or less completed in 1700, El Morro was taken, or repelled attacks by several of the notorious privateers that plagued the Caribbean.
El Morro
El Morro
El Morro
During the 20th century the Rock fell into decay, but it was restored during the 1960s by Francisco Prat Puig.
El Morro
The fortress was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, cited as the best preserved and most complete example of Spanish-American military architecture.
El Morro
El Morro
El Morro

Santiago de Cuba

Santiago web02

Greetings from Santiago de Cuba! Internet access is, once again, difficult. We are anchored off a marina at Punta Gorda (you aren’t allowed to put your boat just anywhere…there are prescribed government marinas where all foreigners are required to stay) and it’s an hour’s trip by ferry to the city of Santiago…and it only goes thrice a day, so I had to get up at 5 a.m. to post this.

I get wifi in the park, having purchased a card with password, but my tablet battery only lasts an hour, so I am racing to get this out before it dies on me! No idea where I can recharge the device, but if I find some place, I will be doing better posts. For now, please enjoy these pictures of the beautiful city, second only to Havana in architecture, culture, and even more historical.Santiago web05Santiago web14

The fort of El Morro is the best preserved in Latin America, a glorious structure that greeted us when we sailed into the protected harbour of Punta Gorda. We have yet to get ourselves over there and have a look inside.Santiago web28

Loving Cuba. The people are warm and friendly and quick to strike up a conversation. It’s good to be able to speak Spanish, if I come into town alone I get taken for a local. I can sit in the park and nobody bothers me. It’s such a beautiful place, orderly and clean, no rubbish anywhere, Cubanos take such pride int heir country and such good care of everything. Santiago web32

I love that they work with what they have, and manage to live well despite the ridiculous U.S. sanctions against them. Their old cars are spectacularly well-preserved, and about 80% of the old buildings have been restored perfectly.

There are lots of tourists here…Canadians, especially, because their close relations with Cuba afford them all sorts of privileges. But we let the tour groups drift past, we come into town on the morning ferry, and sit in the park like the old men, reading the papers and munching on street snacks, taking it all in slowly, giving the city time to unfold and reveal itself to us.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, you guys. I hope to be able to post more and  at length, some other time.

By the way, Dad, tried to send you an e-mail, but Gmail doesn’t work in Cuba, so we’ll have to find some other way to communicate…hope you are well and all set up to have a nice Christmas. Love, N.