September 8, 2014 by vivalafiona
Sancti Spiritus, our state capital and the fifth of the seven original spanish settlements founded by the Spanish conquistador Diego Velazquez, had a very colourful makeover to celebrate its 500th Anniversary. Like Trinidad the town/city contains some architectural jems including the only arched (romanesque) bridge in Cuba. We often come here on shopping trips and to visit the Immigration office when needs be. Normally we are dashing from one errand to another without taking time out to admire the city and explore its historical district. So, when Osiels aunt had an appointment at the hospital we offered to take her and spend the day being tourists for a change. We were both presently surprised at what we discovered, especially Osiel who had studied music here for a few years but had never visited any of the tourist attractions. How often does it happen that it takes a visitor to your parts for you to explore your own back yard. Sancti Spiritus is now definitely on my list of recommended places to visit.
The Museum of Colonial Art alone makes the 1 hour drive worthwhile. Up until the 1970’s it was still a private home, owned by descendants of an extremely wealthy family once related by marriage to one of the queens of Spain and the infamous sugar barons of Trinidad, the Iznagu’s. The house was built in the late 18th Century but most of its contents are 19th century artifacts. Apparently everything in the museum, every piece of furniture, crockery, all the musical instruments, paintings, chandeliers etc belonged to the family and have been well preserved. It contains some of the most beautiful furniture I have seen in Cuba, a bedroom suite made of mahagony and inlaid with ebony that is exquisite. It apparently also contains a well stocked library upstairs but the second floor is yet to be opened for the public. One of the rooms contains an assortment of items found at the bottom of the latrine, most of them in pieces but amazingly a crystal perfume bottle survived intact. I wondered if an angry slave threw this down there to spite her mistress or perhaps it was a naughty child.
A few doors down the road is the Yayabo tavern and wine bar, with a very well stocked cold room underneath. The tavern overlooks its namesake, the river Yayabo (many towns, rivers and even cities have indigenous names), with an outdoor terrace to enjoy the breeze. One of its best features is the bar stools made of tumbadoras, african style drums, a popular cuban percussion instrument. Needless to say a snack and a cold beer in this atmospheric ‘pub’ will be included in all our future visits to SS.
It rained last night, thank the goddess. So today I have a reprieve from carting watering cans all over the property. We do have hoses weaving through the banana trees but water only flows from the aqueduct twice a week, hence the need for lots of water tanks and a swimming pool size cistern. The mountains are also suffering a drought which does not bode well for the waterfalls at Guanayara, El Nicho or Caburni, popular local tourist attractions. They are usually at their best this time of year although getting to see them can be a slippery affair. Fortunately Cuba seems to be leach free.
I am currently reading Hugh Thomas’ Cuba a History and was highly amused to discover his list of dangerous creatures on the island at the time of the British invasion in 1762. These include a swamp crocodile, an ant, a scorpion, a sand fly and the mosquito. Apart from the later none of these could actually kill you and they make up the extent of the dangerous creatures list today. People tell me there are sharks and I did recently see a dead one caught by a local fisherman but it was small by Australian standards, maybe a metre and a bit long but as most Cubans can’t swim these would never pose a threat, except perhaps to fishermen.
To celebrate International Womens Day our CDR (Comite de la Revolucion) President (every neighbourhood has one) hosted an ‘activity’ on Saturday night where one of the male neigbours made a rather impassioned speech about the importance of recognising this day and about Cuban women and their role in the struggle for the revolution. Afterward we feasted on merengue covered cake and rum, sugar and distilled sugar – Cuban staples. Osiel sang a few popular Cuban and Mexican songs accompanied by some of our neighbours and then a lively 78 year old woman held the floor with a few old revolutionary ones. Its not a party if Cubans aren’t singing and dancing. Unfortunately there was one rather inebriated male neighbour who kept hijacking the festivities demanding that Osiel play tragic Mexican ballads which Cubans tend t o be very fond of when the rum is free flowing. The women made it very clear to him that this was their night and they wanted to party not wallow in misery, so he was sent home.
A very interesting funeral procession passed our house the other day. Rather than the somber funeral sight of mourners walking in silence behind the hearse, a crowd came swaying down the road almost conga style, with over half a dozen carrying the wooden coffin, following an Afro Cuban band of musicians. Almost all the mourners were in white , the colour of Santeria’s santeros (priests and priestesses), suggesting the deceased was an important religious leader. The neighbourhood were mesmerised by the sight of such a joyful procession, something Osiel claims to have never seen before in Trinidad. Our elderly neighbour was thrilled at the spectacle and told me this was how she wanted to depart – with singing and dancing not silence and mourning.
Osiel was on the local radio station today performing two of his own compositions, one about Trinidad which was shortlisted for a song competition earlier this year and another he wrote when he was 17. During the interview he talked about how hard it is to make a living as a musician in Cuba now. We have friends that play 6 days a week, for up to 6 hours a day and barely scrap together enough to live on. They are paid a tiny sum by the state but in truth rely on tips to live above the poverty line. A sad state of affairs when you consider that it is the unique rhthyms and musical talents of this Caribbean island that put it on the tourist map.
There are more music programs on Cuban television than sport or even Brazillian soap operas indicating just how popular music is regarded by the state, not just the people. One program in popular has become my favourite, El Gran Escena (The Great Scene), which sources film clips from all over the world and presents every genre and era you can think of. Imagine Freddie Mercury followed by Julio Iglesias, followed by Cindy Lauper singing with the Eagles (most popular foreign band in Cuba), followed by a Mexican crooner Jose Jose, followed by Amy Winehouse live, followed by Abba, Shakira, Frank Sinatra, Carlos Acosta, Andrea Becelli, Michael Jackson, a chinese opera, and 70’s Spanish pop group Los Formula Cinco for example. There was a time when popular music was censored by the state and even the Beatles were prohibited. Imagine.