"" Writer's Wanderings

Monday, November 19, 2018

Port of Call: Santiago de Cuba--Parque Cespedes

Bacardi home
On our way into the old town area of Santiago from our stop at San Juan Hill, we passed by Revolutionary Square. There were several monuments and some modern buildings. I could not get good pictures because a lot of the interesting sites were on the other side of the bus and we were always moving.

Our driver did slow down as we drove past the big pink Bacardi house and it was on our side of the bus. In 1862, Facundo Bacardi and his brother Jose purchased the Santiago de Cuba distillery and began experimenting with the recipe, improving upon it and making it one of the most popular rums in the world. Cuba became known for the place to go during Prohibition to get rum. The Bacardis began to expand and open some places in Europe and in Puerto Rico. A lucky move for their survival as in the 1960s Castro began to nationalize all private businesses in Cuba. They lost their holdings in Cuba as did many hotels and Casinos and other businesses, many owned by Americans.

Old Town Hall
We were let out of the bus on a very narrow street and followed our guide single file down a very narrow sidewalk. Our guide warned us to stay off the street because of all the traffic and the danger of motorcycles driving fast. In a very plain building, we were led to a room that was sparsely furnished with plastic lawn type chairs for us to sit in. Before us was a group of people with large smiles who, once we were seated began to sing. It was our cultural exchange time for this tour. The voices were lovely even though we didn't know the language and their enthusiasm was appreciated by all of us.

The concert lasted about thirty minutes and we headed, again single file, a block or two down the street to the Parque Cespedes. It is the center of Old Town Santiago and surrounded by several very historic buildings.

Old Velazquez home.
The one that caught my attention first was the old city hall with a central balcony. It was from that balcony that Castro delivered a victory speech on January 1, 1959. (I couldn't help but recall standing in front of another balcony in Argentina where Eva Perone delivered her famous speech.)

Just a quick review of the revolutionary struggle: Batista had returned to power in 1952. The next year Castro leads an unsuccessful revolt which leads to his imprisonment. The revolt took place at the Moncada Barracks on July 26 which would give Castro the name for his organization, July 26th Movement. Upon release he goes to Mexico with his brother Raul and meets Che Guevera. The men return on a large cabin cruiser named Granma (enshrined in Havana) and many of them are killed. They head for the mountains where they regroup and begin guerrilla warfare against Batista until finally Batista flees the country. That's a little simplified but gives a general idea of how the revolution went.
Trovadores


On one side of the plaza was what is said to be the oldest house in Cuba. The house was originally the home of Diego Velazquez and dates back to the early 1500s. It is now a museum.


Another corner of the plaza was the site of the Hotel Granda that dates back to the early 1900s. In front of the hotel was a group of musicians. Our lecturer on board ship had mentioned groups of musicians called Trovadores who travel around playing their music for donations.

Across from the old town hall was a huge cathedral, We walked up the steps and hoped to get inside as the heat of the day was beginning to take its toll on us. A small handmade sign had a drawing of what dress was acceptable and what was not. Shorts and sleeveless blouses were not allowed. Bob had shorts on and my arms were exposed. I pointed to the sign and looked at Bob. We were about to turn away when the attendant inside waved us in. We discovered later that they must have just opened the cathedral for the tourists on the square. As soon as we began boarding buses again someone noticed that the doors had been closed. It was a cool respite though on what was becoming a very hot Caribbean day.


Friday, November 16, 2018

Port of Call: Santiago and San Juan Hill

San Juan Hill (Heights)
Santiago de Cuba is known as the "hero city" for it's role in defeating the Spanish troops in the Spanish-American War and later, the Cuban Revolution. A lot of the buildings suffered damage during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Restorations projects have been underway but to restore all those beautiful buildings will take a lot of time.

The first thing that impressed me about Santiago was the architecture. While resembling European and Spanish style it still has a flavor all its own. Definitely not the typical Caribbean structures. It is sad that so many are in disrepair. There are obvious signs (hanging laundry for one) that some of the buildings/homes which look uninhabitable still have residents in them.

Santiago served as the capital of Cuba for almost 100 years before the Spanish decided to shift it to Havana in 1607. Because of its location on the southeast end of Cuba, it became a major trading post for slaves from West Africa, Haiti, and Jamaica.

Monument to 71st New York
The backdrop to Santiago de Cuba is the Sierra Maestra mountains where Fidel Castro hid while assembling his supporters for the revolution to come.

An interesting note: The city is 41 miles away from Guantanamo Bay which was established in 1903. The area is 43 square miles and an 8 mile long cactus wall was planted in an effort to keep Cubans from sneaking in and asking for sanctuary. It is the only place in Cuba that has any fast food franchises. The song Guantanamera is actually from a poem written by Jose Marti one of Cuba's heroes and speaks of a peasant girl from Guantanamo.

In 1898, Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders among several other troops arrived in Cuba and fought the Spanish in a place now known as San Juan Hill. Our guide said it is actually San Juan Heights. It is an elevated area above the city. There were no horses for the Rough Riders as they could not travel with them. The hill was taken and eventually the city when the Spanish fleet was defeated by the US Navy.

Cuban Soldier Memorial
Fidel Castro and Jose Marti are both buried in Santiago. When Castro began his revolution and came down from the mountains, he took Santiago first and then marched across Cuba to Havana when independence was declared. When Castro died, his remains were taken over land retracing his steps back to Santiago where it all started. We only saw pictures of his grave since our tour did not stop at the cemetery. It is just a plain large rock with his name on it. He did not want a monument.

Speaking of monuments, we learned that if a rider's horse has his fore feet in the air it means the rider died in battle. (Tuck that away for a trivia game.)




Thursday, November 15, 2018

Port Of Call - Santiago de Cuba

Our tour time was an early call at 8:30 AM. Armed with our passports and visas and some bottles of water we left our ship, the Oceania Sirena, to start our Cuban adventure. Everything went pretty much as our Enrichment Lecturer, Sandy Cares, had said. Immigration went smoother than I expected. Passports were checked and stamped and a transit ticket issued. (It would be collected upon our return to the ship.)

Across from the immigration building was the money exchange and again, things went smoothly. We did not need to have our passport to make the exchange but apparently things are always changing in Cuba so you never know. CUCs in hand, we boarded a very nice bus for our tour. That was another pleasant surprise. We were told that the buses are new and will be used for tourism for a few years and then replaced and retired to public transportation use.

The weather was quite pleasant but promised to heat up. We headed out for our first stop, El Morro Castle. The castle actually has a longer name: Castillo de San Pedro de la Rocco del Morro. There is also a Morro Castle in Havana. This castle or fort--it seems like they used the terms interchangeably--was begun in 1638 and took 42 years to finish. In 1898, it played a part in the Spanish-American War. The fort overlooks the bay where the US naval force destroyed the Spanish Armada.

The primary purpose of the fort was to guard against commercial and political rivals in the Caribbean region, European colonies, and raiding pirates. The fort also served as a prison for a time during the fight for independence.

The fortress, or castle, offers beautiful views of the coastline. One of the things we found fascinating was the ammunition elevator that got the cannonballs up to the top where the cannons were placed. I don't know how it worked exactly but it was impressive.

Inside the chapel door sat a trio of ladies singing. I think this was part of our people-to-people requirement--cultural exchange.

Walking back to the bus, we got a good look at the lighthouse. Playing in the courtyard there was a little boy. I don't think he was a scheduled part of our OFAC requirement.



Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Cruise To Cuba: Getting A Perspective Of History


Over the course of an afternoon and a full day at sea, we would get a little more perspective on the history of Cuba. Most of us aboard this cruise remember some of the more recent history growing up as kids but Sandy Cares, our Enrichment Lecturer, would give us an overall picture of the history from Cuba’s beginnings in the 1500s.

Of course when Columbus arrived in 1492 there were indigenous people here. Cuba was soon declared the key to the Americas. You can see a key on the country’s coat of arms along with the Royal Palm tree that is the national tree. When the Spanish arrived in full force, they used the indigenous people as slaves and between that and the diseases brought with them, the original inhabitants died off. 

Cuba is the 17th largest island in the world and has a population of around 11 ½ million. It consists of one large island and a smaller one called the Island of Youth. It also has thousands of small cays.

Velasquez who colonized the island started out by creating seven villas. In 1540, as more Spanish galleons arrived, they decided to build forts to protect them from pirates. In 1762, the British captured Havana but in the Treaty of Paris of 1763 Spain got back Cuba in exchange for Florida.

As Velasquez was trying to colonize the island, a native, Hautey, who was fleeing from Hispaniola and the Spanish there arrived in Cuba with 400 others in canoes. He tried to warn the Taino people of Cuba and organize them against the Spanish. Eventually he was captured and burned at the stake. Before they lit the fire a priest asked him if he wanted to accept Jesus so he could go to heaven. Basically he said if there were any Spaniards there, he'd rather go to Hell. Hautey is memorialized on the labels of some cigars and beer.

In the 1800s, sugar and tobacco production flourished but led to many slaves being brought in from Africa. Eventually, in 1886, slavery was abolished but the number of Africans remaining in the country led to a strong mix of African and Spanish culture. 

Cuba remained loyal to Spain despite the revolutions in other countries around them. The fight for independence was started by a wealthy landowner, Carlos Manuel de Cespedes. In 1868 he declared independence for Cuba and thus began the Ten Years War. At the end of the war, inhabitants of the island began calling themselves Cubans. 

Jose Marti was another figure that is recognized in the struggle for independence. There are several monuments to him. He was a poet and journalist as well as a patriot involved in the movement for independence.




Our lecturer told the story of Evangelina Cisneros, an attractive educated young woman who tried to free her father from his exile to the Isle of Pine in Cuba. She was imprisoned when she refused the advances of a colonel and was declared a rebel. The publisher, Hearst, heard about it and decided it was a great story that would boost his newspaper's circulation and outdo his rival, Pulitzer. He appealed to the Spanish government with petitions and letters to no avail. Finally he sent in a "swashbuckling" reporter named Karl Decker who rescued the damsel in distress--basically breaking her out of jail. She was disguised and put on a ship for New York where she began fund raising for Cuban independence.

The Hearst story of Evangelina's escape would soon be overshadowed however with the explosion of the USS Maine which along with Spain's brutal treatment of the Cubans and the continued losses of American investments in Cuba would begin the Spanish-American War. That war ended with another Treaty of Paris in 1898.

One of the final blows struck the Spanish was in Santiago de Cuba, the first of our stops in Cuba. In the bay of Santiago was where the US naval ships defeated the Spanish Armada.


Monday, November 12, 2018

Cruise Time: The Beach And The BBQ

Our first stop on the way to Cuba aboard Oceania’s Sirena was the private island beach of Stirrup Cay. We’ve visited before but this time our ship was the only one there and since it was a smaller vessel there were less people to fill all the lounge chairs along the beach.


We picked two chairs in the shade and settled in. There would be no swimming. The direction of the wind was sending waves crashing into shore. If I remember correctly, the last time we were there we had the same problem. With a new knee that is still healing I didn’t want to take a chance on not being able to get in and out safely. Others did brave it, laughing when they spilled into the water and sand.

Something that I’ve never noticed before was a shark watch. One of the lifeguards spotted something suspicious and that sent another guard out on a wave runner to check. They warned people to stay out of the water until they deemed it safe. The wave runner went back and forth in a grid and to my knowledge didn’t see anything although I think some people were still a little leery of getting in after that.

Our BBQ was typical cruise beach cuisine: hamburgers, hot dogs, salads, fruit, ribs, chicken and fish. We ate and headed back to the ship. We aren’t really beach people. All that sand and sun, you know.

Our day would continue with more information about Cuba. I would learn more history in these next few days than I remember assimilating in high school or even college—especially since I didn’t like the courses I took. There is something about traveling and putting together places you see with events from history that sheds a whole new understanding of it.

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