Cuba- parte seis- Santiago
Cuban Excursion- parte – seis -Santiago
Wed. Dec. 8th, 2018- Santiago, Cuba
We were up by 7 A.M. The ship was sailing towards Santiago, Cuba. The seas were calm. We had coffee and pastry in the room. It was “una buena dia” (beautiful day.) We walked 22 laps on the deck eleven oval, enjoying the early morning sun and the dark visage of the Cuban mountains off our port side. Afterwards, we joined Barry and Diane Drevol, in the deck nine café, for breakfast. Immediately following, we listened to the dynamic Sandy Cares for an hour long lecture on Santiago and its environs.
We watched an hour of the George Bush funeral ceremony on television, enjoying as always, the eloquence of former Canadian Premier Brian Mulroney, a pal of both Bush and Reagan. BY 11:15 A.M we had entered Santiago Harbor. Castillo Moro, a twin of the Habana fortification, loomed along the headland. There was much sealand commerce inside the harbor. In the background, the dark hills set off the bright blue of the coastal waters. Santiago lies just 40 miles to the southwest of the American Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay. sS we stood topside and admired our surroundings, we talked with one Georgian who had been stationed at Guantanamo as a youth. He said that he and several of his pals had snuck through the wire fence around the base, on a number of occasions, and whooped it up with the locals.
Twelve Thirty found us assembling in the Sirena Lounge for our excursion into Santiago. We boarded a ship’s tender for the ride into port. At customs, we surrendered our Cuban paper visa and were given plastic entry passes, to allow us to leave Cuba and reenter the ship. We walked through the scanners and out into the port area. It was warm and sunny. We found Transtur bus # 8 and met our guide Dionogia. Her English was not very good. On every tour we had ever been on, the quality of your experience depends on the verbal skills of the tour guide. Today we would just have to manage as best we could.
Santiago had been founded in 1515, by a Spaniard named Diego Velasquez. One of its early Governor Generals had been Hernando Cortez, who had then gone on to Mexico, to conquer the Aztecs. The streets were alive with motor cycle traffic, the apparent mode of choice for the city. We saw several of the “old cars,” but none were very well restored. This far east in Cuba, things got poorer and poorer.
Our first tour stop was the massive brown-stone edifice of Castillo Moro. A few buses, of tourist from everywhere, had already preceded us into the fortification. The guide paid for thirty of us to enter. That fee apparently included the right to take pictures. Otherwise, it would have been an additional 5 CCU’s for that privilege. We walked up and down the massive fort stairs. They led out to a spectacular vista of the harbor. You could just imagine seeing the early Spanish gunners rolling out their cannons and getting ready to repulse some invading fleet of marauders. A walk through some of the nearby rooms was enlightening. In one “powder room” sat a large pile of lead cannon balls. They were emplaced in boxes that were hauled up to the canons above by a pulley system on an inclined plane.
Another room held a pictorial display of American warships that had fought the Spanish in the 1898 Spanish-American War. Pictures of these ancient behemoths, like the USS Brooklyn, Chicago, Helena, Iowa, New York and Oregon were fascinating to me. Many of these enormous warships were scrapped in the 1920’s, to be replaced by even larger ships that would make up the mainstay of our World War II Battle fleet. The aging warships had been led by U.S. Admiral Sampson. They had run out onto Santiago Bay on July tenth, 1898 and annihilated the Spanish Fleet in the Atlantic. Shortly after that, The Spanish had sued for Peace, in a Paris Peace Treaty. They had paid the U.S a $20 million-dollar indemnity and surrendered control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, The Philippines and Guam.
Castillo Moro had also served as a Military prison during the 1890’s, housing a rota of Cuban rebels who would later be the fore front of the Cuban revolutionary movement. It is a moving history of Cuba, encased in brown sandstone. We all took plenty of pictures and admired our surroundings. The walkway in and out was lined with Cuban vendors hawking tee shirts and all manner of tourist bric a brac. Several announced that they would take American Dollars for their wares. We were a long way from Habana, the center of government. Practical politics was asserting its economic head.
The next stop on our tour, was the fabled “San Juan Hill.” Everyone had heard of Teddy Roosevelt’s charge, with his rough riders, into the Spanish infantry. The guide told us that only Teddy and his immediate commander Col. Leonard Wood were mounted. The rest of the s had been left in Tampa. Still, this iconic site, like JFK’s PT 109, had launched a presidential career. The small hillock is less than 50 yards across. The trenches, for the Spanish infantry, had been left intact. They and the walkways around the hill, were lined now with stones and a metric array on the tops of canon shells. It looked ship-shape and squared away from, a military perspective. A small, two-story, wooden block house commanded the center of the area. It had probably been the observation post for Spanish guns. It was now surrounded by an eclectic array of monuments commemorating those who had fought here. General William R. Shaffer had been the American Commander, under whom Wood and Roosevelt served. One monument commemorated the 1stDivision U.S. Army for its service here. Another proudly announced that the Battery F, Second U. S Army had been in action here at 4 A.M on July 2nd, 1898, Capt. C.D.Parkhurst commanding. Several large artillery pieces were sprinkled amidst the monuments. Curiously, next door to San Juan Hill, a Chinese company had erected a large Ferris wheel and amusement park. It is a temporal anomaly that caused me to smile. Lastly, even Christopher Columbus had a stone here commemorating his landing in Cuba in 1492. It was a brief stop, but fascinating to those of us who enjoyed history. The hillock over looked the harbor. It must have been quite a battle sight in the hot Cuban sun so long ago.
Next, we were to visit a Cuban cultural venue that had us all scratching our heads. The Macuba Theater sits in the midst of busy Santiago. We filed in to the one story building and sat at café tables, not knowing what to expect. A troupe of Cuban-African players performed an energetic and colorful pantomime of carnival scenes that occurs every July in Cuba. Unfortunately for us, the vocals were in Espanol and muis rapido.(very fast) We were all wondering WTF? Later, the cast sat in front of us. An interpreter explained what we had been seeing. It was a graphic reenactment of the celebrations, jealousy between partners, rage and other emotional entanglements that occur every year during the Carnival celebration. It was certainly something you don’t see on the regular tourist circuit.
In the streets around the theater, we saw lots of really old cars. Most had not been reconditioned like those in Habana. The Soviet Ladas, and others joined the occasional 1950’s Chevy or Ford. These vehicles weren’t for show. They were the main conveyance for those lucky or skilled enough to maintain them. Locals called them Frankensteins for their multi-sourced composition.
Our last stop on the tour was Cespedes Square. The Casa Grande Hotel here looks both prosperous and busy. The imposing Banco de National de Cuba joins several other imposing structures. Motorcycles buzzed all around the square. Either there was another “oldest house in Cuba,” or my age-related memory had placed the facility both in Cien Fuegos and Santiago. A few mendicants implored us for donations, but none were overly offensive. “No gracias” or “no Comprende” usually fended them off. The Police were nearby to chase away the obnoxious ones.
The day was waning and we were tiring. The bus brought us back to the customs shed, where we surrendered our plastic pass and walked through the scanners. A welcome ship’s tender ferried us out to the ship, where we passed through the ships I.D. check and into to the welcome air-conditioned bubble of the Sirena. We repaired to our room to enjoy a glass of wine and write up my notes. We then cleaned up, and by 7 P.M, had decided to dine in the ships deck nine “slop chute.“ The Lobster tails, shrimp, fish and sushi were above average in quality. It was an informal dining spot, but the quality of the food was superb. An awesome, molten, chocolate cake was over the top.
We ventured topside, to enjoy the warm and misty dark of a sailing ship at sea, admiring the lights of Santiago along the shoreline. Then, we stopped by the Deck ten Horizon’s lounge and joined the Burtons for a last glass of wine, enjoying the conversation and trading stories of what we had seen that day. It had been a long day and we were tiring. We repaired to our room, to read and enjoy the last hours of the day. The Ship’s Captain announced that the waves in Punta Cana Harbor, Dominican Republic, our next destination, were running six to eight feet in height. It would be unsafe for us to try and land ship’s passengers there. He opted for sailing to the Jamaican port of Ocho Rios. The great ship set sail, south and eastwards for Jamaica. Hey mon, tally me bananas! Vaya Con Dios, Cuba!
( 1,665 words)
Joseph Xavier Martin