Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rusty Jewels

We've made it clear across the island, to the easternmost city of Baracoa, where Columbus first landed in 1492 and planted a wooden cross that foreshadowed a seismic shift whose ripples we are still riding. We had to ride through Guantanamo province to get here, military checkpoints and dry scrub giving way to a verdant valley flanked by ocean and mountains. We are closer to Haiti than Havana, tucked into a sweet little village that was only accessible by sea until the 1960s. Fresh sugarcane juice for sale on the sidewalks, trumpets and percussions treating us to a Cuban rendition of "When the Saints Go Marching In" as we sip our Sunday morning espresso on the triangular plaza, just a slow minute stroll from the crashing waves. It's one of those places you never want to leave.

It took a total of 24 hours by bus to make it here, stopping in cities aglow with filth and beauty. A quick run-down of the places we've called home, if only for a couple of restless nights:

Cienfuegos, city of a hundred fires, which the hyperbolic Lonely Planet called "the Paris of Cuba," and which we quickly renamed "the Fort Bragg of Cuba"on account of its treeless dishwater hue. We walked around, sticky with sweat and car exhaust grime, until the punishing sun forced us into pool-crashing at the lovely Hotel Colonial. After a dip and a hamburger in the plant-filled gazebo, we were restored, but still ready to move on.

Next was Trinidad, a little glowing ember of bright colonial homes and pineapple every morning for breakfast. We swam and shell-collected on the beach by day. At night, under the eerie swooping bats, on the hardscrabble yard of a run-down compound, we swayed to the infernal rhythms of a six-piece acoustic band playing for an audience of eight. Their eyes were all alight, their joy palpable, not missing a beat even as babies cried from the doorways and chickens scratched amongst their feet.

It's safe to say that Camaguey, the labyrinth city designed to foible invading pirates, was the best place to leave. Chewed-up streets clogged with hustlers and sad parks, but luckily a few hushed churches to escape the constant car bleating.

It was a long six and a half hour bus ride to Santiago, a lively artsy Caribbean-vibing city, where the people are darker and the mood lighter. We explored a vast cemetery where Cuba's hero of independence, Jose Marti, is buried (his tomb is guarded round the clock) and where countless revolutionaries are at peace, at last. We walked around the plazas at night, watching boys play crushed-can soccer (no limit to Cuba ingenuity) and girls play tag around ancient statues.

And now, off to pry into the secrets of Baracoa....


  1. Wasn't Baracoa some kind of "pirate" enclave? Or am I thinking of something else? Everything you've seen and done so far sounds amazing. I am certainly living vicariously through you.

    Oh, and there was a woman at the Petals and Bones Workshop yesterday who had found your blog somehow, and she read about your experience going to the last one, and it made her want to sign up. So she did, and she was fantastic. Her name is Christina and she is Welsh but has lived her for many years. So rad!

  2. Hey Jess, as usual, your writing makes me feel like I'm right there in the scenes you've seen. It sounds like your adventure is unfolding with much to offer. Camaguey sounds like it would be a cool city to look at on a map! I hope you get to keep some of Baracoa's secrets, but maybe tell us a few ;-)

  3. Hey Jessie, good news - I got permission to go to your wedding! So I'm going to be making travel plans soon. Unless I decide to go on the run to Camaguey first.