I wanted to reach out my hand to Dash like a child being lowered into a lifeboat while her mother stayed behind. I'd refused to pay $100 RT for the tourist bus (the Viazul). What I'd thought was just a midnight run to the bus terminal to find out what time the local bus left from Havana to Santiago de Cuba ended up with me being shoved onto a bus and my belongings thrusted into my arms. "Keep an eye on your things so that no one tries to rob you. You're the only foreigner on this bus," Dash's boyfriend said to me in Spanish. Dash mistook the look of bewilderment on my face for a lack of comprehension and repeated this to me in English before the bus began to roll away.
I'm using the word "bus" a bit liberally here. In reality this was a camion that was surely once used to transport cattle or cargo, but someone had tricked it out with seats too close together, a roof, and a flat screen TV and speakers - the TV being the only thing that made it a step up from a Spirit Airlines plane. The 15 hour ride from Havana to Santiago cost me $12 and was spent with reggaeton music videos blaring from the speakers, a bottle of rhum being passed, rest stops where snacks I couldn't readily identify were being hawked, and people crammed in as close as they could swaying back and forth as the bus sped through a Cuban countryside dotted with patriotic propaganda.
I had chosen to visit Santiago because it was a place rich in history, music, and museums. When I arrived in Santiago at 2pm the next day, I took a cab to my casa particular, a home that offered room and board to tourists, where I was greeted warmly by David and his wife. I'd barely slept on the bus so I was grateful for a warm bed and hot shower. A few hours later, I ventured out into the fleeting hours of daylight in search of food and to get to know the neighborhood. Everywhere I walked was rich in historical significance. Posters and plaques honoring fallen revolutionary leaders, reminding Cubans of their place in history, or honoring the Castro's July 26 Movement were everywhere. The pomp and circumstance of it all reminded me of Washington, D.C.
A few blocks from my casa particular was Castro's former home located conveniently across from the Museo de la Lucha Clandestina, a goldenrod-colored museum dedicated to underground struggle that launched the first phase of the Cuban Revolution. Having grown up in Miami, I was familiar with the competing narratives of the Cuban Revolution and its impacts. However, my knowledge of Cuba also came unfiltered from the many Haitian doctors and engineers that had studied there. I will never forget one guy who was pursuing his PhD in Paris after studying in Cuba saying to me, "I liked Cuba, but I don't need the government telling me how many socks I can have each month."
This being my second time in Cuba, the impacts of the U.S. embargo against communist Cuba were just as prominently felt as the revolutionary government it had failed to overthrow.If one is paying attention when you arrive in Cuba, the first thing you notice is that the majority of the Cubans in Cuba look very different from those in Miami who support the embargo. As a result, socialist ideals couldn't prevent classism and racism from being further entrenched by an embargo that allows the Cubans abroad to send money to their relatives. That access to U.S. dollars gives white Cubans in Cuba the ability to circumvent some of the harsher daily impacts of the embargo and the cash-strapped Cuban government in order to restore their homes to open up casa particulars, buy auto-parts to upgrade their vintage cars in order to serve as taxis for tourists, own restaurants, bars, or cafes etc. Simply put, some Cubans are noticeably better off largely thanks to remittances from their relatives abroad, even as many of those same relatives insist on an embargo that cuts poor Cubans of color off from ever ascending to Cuba's middle class.
Thus, after my trip to Havana last year, I'd learned how to navigate Cuban tourist areas where Afro-Cubans were either rarely seen or routinely denied access. As I walked up the steps to the Hotel Casa Granda in Santiago, I saw the security guard maneuvering my way to block my entrance as Europeans walked on by. His posture visibly relaxed once I addressed him in English and he left me to take in the sites from the balcony. This hotel where Fidel Castro had announced the triumph of the Cuban revolution in 1959 overlooked the Parque Céspedes and the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción.
I found myself returning to the Parque Céspedes each day because it was the literal and figurative heart of Santiago. Not only did musicians and orchestras play here each night, but the Cuban government had also set up wifi hotspots in the parks and, at any time of the day, Cubans sat in the benches connecting to the rest of the world. The wifi was expensive at $2 an hour for an access card, but that didn't stop people from lining up each day to buy a card before sitting in the park to us the internet. The fact that it was so central made it the place where street hustlers, guides, and handlers alike also gathered each day to offer their services for almost anything you'd want to do in Santiago.
It was also the first of the month- payday- when I arrived and the streets were full of people spending their hard-earned government salaries of 18 CUC a month. Long lines snaked outside the stores as customers waited patiently in hopes the shelves would still be stocked by the time their turn arrived. The limitations of communism necessitates a side hustle; no one can live on a salary of about $18 USD a month. Therefore, the black market was active and clearly visible in Santiago. When the government-owned stores ran out of goods, an entrepreneur stepped in to fill that gap. Shoes, fruit, school supplies, anything you needed could be bought on the black market.
What this also meant was that the crumbling neighborhood streets were filled with Cuban men enthusiastically whistling, pssst-ing, and catcalling me each day. After 4 months of very formal Spanish classes, the imperative tense of Spanish that Cubans were fond of using initially jarred me. Every "oye" "mira" "eschuchame" and "dale" made me feel like I'd been unexpectedly dropped into a Pitbull (Mr. 305) video! Even when I ignored them, some of the Cuban men would simply stop what they were doing to walk beside me and declare their love (of course it had to be love). This was mostly amusing, and slightly annoying, but it also allowed me an opportunity to talk to people about the city. Over and over again, I was impressed at how much the people of Santiago knew about their city and their history during these conversations.
From them, I learned to follow the sound of the tamboos/tumbas/tambors/drums carried by the wind on a path from the Casa de las Tradiciones to the Casa de la Musica and then to the Museo del Carnaval. Every few feet, I'd stop and walk into an establishment to listen to a live band playing and someone singing passionately. These spots were filled with Cubans and tourists who'd also wandered in off the streets. Soon a bottle of rhum would be passed around and I'd be swept up by a stranger to dance. One man proposed to me on the dancefloor and the music stopped as everyone awaited my response. "I don't even know your name," I said in bewilderment. When he brushed this off, I reminded him that he didn't know mine either. He then proclaimed that he didn't need to know my name to know that it was true love. The room erupted in a cheer and the music started up again.
Potentially newly engaged, when I finally made it to the Museo del Carnaval, for a moment, I thought I was back in Haiti. The music here had crossed the small ocean separating Northern Haiti and Eastern Cuba with the enslaved Africans who'd been brought to Cuba by their French masters during the Haitian Revolution and again in another wave of Haitian immigration to Cuba in the early 20th century, but it was all West African.
In Haiti, we call it racine (roots music) and in Santiago it has various names deriving from the main dance, tumba francesa. The sounds and movements were immediately familiar to me so that when the women pulled me out of the audience to join in on their final dance, my body recalled the movements from a time long before ours.
To escape the humidity of Santiago, the next day I went to Siboney Beach in a taxi. Here the ocean was lined with smooth pebbles and the shore was filled with activity. As I was wrapping up a late lunch of freshly grilled lobster (my favorite Caribbean meal), a fight broke out amongst 2 drunk teenage boys. At first, a few beach-goers tried to break them up, but it soon became clear that they were brothers who were too afraid of what the consequence would be with their mother if they actually harmed one another. Thus, looks of concern were quickly replaced by cell phones to record the scuffle.
When the cops finally showed up, I watched curiously to see how the oft-demonized Communist State would handle drunk and disorderly behavior. In the U.S., this would almost certainly result in being handcuffed and thrown roughly into the back of a police car, followed by a criminal record that would haunt you for decades. The Cuban police, however, simply separated the boys and made them walk home in two separate directions. That was it.
That night, I went to a local club that one of the handlers had invited me to. Reggaeton and salsa music filled the open air club as Cubans moved to the beat. I've always been impressed with the way Cuban men dance as if they possess complete control of the music and their dance partner, but after a while I noticed that a lot of the men were dancing together and touching provocatively. Santiago's queer scene was alive and well here and the gay Cuban men openly reveled in it. There were many questions running through my mind, but this was not the time nor place to ask about being openly gay in a country that sent homosexuals to re-education camps once upon a time...
The next day, David, the owner of my casa particular, took me out to see the historical sites outside of the city in his vintage Peugeot. We started the day at the Plaza de la Revolucion, where a statue of the 19th century war hero, General Antonio Maceo, looked down at everything and everyone in Santiago from atop his horse. Then we drove through the countryside to the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de la Caridad del Cobre, which holds the black Virgen de la Caridad del Cobra (Our Lady of Charity), Cuba's patron saint, inside. Outside, however, I ran into a jolly Cuban man who insisted that we must take a photo together in order to make my alleged boyfriends jealous. He enthusiastically threw his arm around my shoulder and grinned for the photo once I acquiesced. Even though I told him I wasn't Catholic, he gave me a small photo of the patron saint as a gift before I left "because we're black".
After the basilica, we wound our way up a cliff to the Castillo del Morro, a huge fortress at the entrance to the Bay of Santiago. The fortress was large enough for me to find a few spots to sit alone and gaze out onto the ocean, keeping an eye out for potential attacks from the sea.
The day ended at Cuartel Moncada (Museo Historico 26 de Julio). David explained to me that in 1953 rebel forces led by Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara launched a failed attack on barracks to seize weapons. The facade of the building, pockmarked with bullet holes, was just as fascinanting as the museum inside. Here, what was to become known as the Cuban Revolution could have easily been abandoned for good.
We made it back to Santiago late in the afternoon. I'd been planning to leave on the midnight camion back to Havana that night only to find out that, in typical Cuban fashion, the midnight bus had left at 9pm and, since the camions adhere to no real schedules, I would have to leave in the morning. Thus, when Necee, a fellow member of the Nomadness Travel Tribe, called my casa particular and invited me to hang out with her, the Cuban dancer Yolain, and some friends in the cespedes, I gladly accepted.
There, in the cool night air, strangers became lifelong friends as we laughed and shared stories. In Santiago, I was wrapped in the familiarity of a shared African identity that was as ingrained in the people around me as it was in the Haiti that birthed me. I recognize that anything you write about Cuba is immediately politicized, but the Cuba I've seen is innately imperfect. It's people are simply trying to make it each day and reach out to the rest of the world. All around us, Cuba was evolving despite the embargo, despite their government, and despite those who wanted it to be trapped in time.
(In response to criticisms of this post, check out my piece in Ebony on the role of the diaspora here.)
Info for my Casa Particular:
Habitacion de David
San Carlos #26 entre Virgen y Callejon
Cuba is a particurly tough place to plan a trip to because of the confusing information online and within to country. Don't fret! Let my experience in Cuba and personal contacts guide you on an amazing trip to Havana! This guide contains:
Background history and important facts on Cuba.
Personal tips to plan your trip.
Full daily trip itinerary.
Links to restaurants and hotel recommendations.
Special tours and cultural activities for an unforgettable experience.