Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cruising Memories - Santiago de Cuba

We came here for the music as this city is reputed to be the birthplace of the best Afro/Cuban music in the country.

On the south coast of Cuba is the historic port of Santiago de Cuba. This was the first capital of Cuba under the Spanish in the early 1500's. A spectacular fort was built overlooking the entrance to the harbour to defend Santiago de Cuba from pirates. The fort served its function well as pirates did not even try to invade after this formidable structure was built. The most recent international battles that took place here are the battle of San Juan Hill of Teddy Roosevelt fame and the entire annihilation of the Spanish Atlantic Fleet by the American forces during the Spanish American War. Both of these events have had long term repercussions for both Cuba and the United States. In the fort is an excellent museum with a very well displayed overview of the battle of warships. Cubans remain appreciative of the American intervention in the first battle of Independence led by Jose Marti. This intervention led to the independence of Cuba from Spain and ultimately to the revolution led by Fidel Castro.

Sailing in our first Easy Go we coasted along the south coast and entered a number of ports before arriving in Santiago. We had heavy easterly trades around 25 knots over a east bound counter current creating a very steep and choppy sea. Easy Go dropped off each wave heavily as we slowly beat our way towards the fort at the entrance to the harbour at a maddeningly slow pace. We finally and gratefully reached the lee of the cliffs on which the fort was perched at the entrance to the harbour and sailed in calmer water to the marina located about one nautical mile inside the entrance. The facility was in the process of reconstruction with concrete wharves and minimal services. With the creative placing of fenders we were able to keep ourselves protected from the concrete during the minimal rise and fall of the tides along with the surge that comes in from the Caribbean Sea. As in all of Cuba, at this time, water and electricity were sporadically available. Easy Go was a basically self sufficient boat producing all our electrical needs and carrying our basic food needs. Water was acquired from the dock as available and was of the highest quality.

Entry procedures were extensive as this port is a international port of entry. Seldom used as a port during a circumnavigation we noted that certain fees were not applicable to us as we had already payed them when we entered Marina Hemingway the previous year. Our cruising permit was evidence of payment and was updated accordingly. For the first time in our Cuban experience items such as our portable radio, portable GPS and all our flares and flare gun were placed in bond for the duration of our stay. This was described as an anti terrorist procedure and was not inconvenient in any way. These items were placed in a heavy plastic bag and sealed with an official tape that in theory could be checked any time during our stay. In fact this was never checked. The day before our planned departure I asked if we could break the seal so that I could plot our course on the GPS and there was no problem with the security people. Always friendly and as accommodating as they could be the people here made us feel welcome.

The health inspector checked recesses in the boat for mosquitoes. There are concerns that mosquitoes coming from other islands can bring diseases that have been controlled in Cuba such as malaria. A mosquito was found in the berth area, captured and identified as a Cuban variety and not a problem. I think if a malarial mosquito had been found the boat would have been quarantined and fumigated. Malaria is rampant in nearby Haiti. This same doctor cleared our physical health by observation.

Customs and Immigration were the same simple processes as in other Cuban ports with multiple forms to fill out and many official looking stamps. This legacy of the long colonial occupation by Spain will last for many years to come.

The whole clearance process took less than an hour and was actually a great way to get information on markets, local attractions and transportation. Buses are available as are inexpensive taxis. There are official taxis and unofficial taxis. Using ones judgment here is valuable for safety. We've never had a problem but we have heard stories of others who were robbed and worse using unofficial taxis. While we have heard the stories we have never met anyone who personally had a problem.

A few boats entered the port during the night and were denied entry until morning when all the officials could be brought together to go through the entry process. These boats were required to stay at anchor off the wharf until morning when procedures were completed.

Now we were free to check out the local area for markets and restaurants. We had the very good fortune of meeting Rosa and soon after her husband Pedro who reside just outside of the gates of the marina compound. There two little girls and teenage son were a joy to be around. Using very poor Spanish we were happy that Pedro had a much better mastery of English. Pedro invited us to take meals with his family and use him as our local shopper and guide. He bought all our food for us at significantly less than we could have purchased it. We gave him the difference so that he could by some cloths and other necessaries for the family.

Institutionalized holidays are different in Cuba than in North America. Two of the largest civic celebrations we experienced were Mother's Day in Havana and Valentine's Day in Santiago. As a civic holiday stores are closed, people get dressed in their best clothes and parade in the old cars or on foot. We had become quite friendly with Pedro and Rosa as Valentine's Day approached. Pedro asked me if he could buy Kathy some silk flowers for Valentine's Day as a token of his friendship. I responded that he didn't need to ask my permission although I thought it quite considerate of him to do so. Apparently it is impolite to give a married woman a gift without her husband's permission. To reciprocate I asked Pedro what I might be able to give Rosa that would be useful. His response, with a large smile, was immediate. She would like to have a pig.

A pig for Valentine's Day! Now this is unique and led to one of the greatest experiences we had during our time in Cuba. Not knowing how to interpret this request I asked Pedro to expand on his request a little so that I fully understood where we were going in this conversation. He wanted to be able to have a grand fiesta for his family and friends on Valentine's Day with a full pig roast, vegetables, rice, fruit, cake and of course rum. In addition we needed to have lots of charcoal to roast the pig. To get the process started Pedro would need to go into the mountains and select the right pig and get a truck to bring it home. This was all starting to sound a little expensive so it was time to ask for the bottom line. How much is this going to cost? Pedro, again very quickly, said fifty dollars would cover it all. It seemed like a small amount to feed a dozen people? I gave him the money and waited to see what would happen.

A few days passed by. We visited the Morro Castle and hired a vintage automobile to take us there and into the city of Santiago the following day. The marina is about two miles by road to the castle fort overlooking the entry to the harbour and closer to ten miles to the city of Santiago further up the bay. In Santiago city proper we visited a museum in the home of the first governor of the island. Built by the Spanish in the early 1500's it looks far more Moorish than the Spanish architecture we had seen in other cities. The manager gave us an excellent tour. A highlight was the smelter that was originally built in the kitchen to melt down the gold and silver that was found locally and brought from abroad. This smelter had more recently been used as an oven in the kitchen. Recent archaeology had found its original use and it required little restoration.

While in the city we went to the bank to get some cash. The guard at the bank entrance quickly escorted us to the front of the line where we were given the cash we required after the production of our passports. We have found that passports are required in many countries as basic identification and use them frequently. A visit to a rooftop bar on the hotel opposite the governor's residence and stroll around the city streets ended with a meal and drinks in a small bar with live Afro-Cuban music. A violin was playing the coronet part until a German tourist with a coronet stepped in to fill the void. The music was very creative and enjoyable. Our taxi returned shortly after for the return trip to the marina. We had not paid the taxi for the trip in as payment was refused until the days travels were ended. Such honesty and trust is rewarding.

After a few days Pedro met us as we were heading out for the days touring and asked us to visit his house to meet the pig. Meet the pig? OK. We walked on over and into the house. In the closet sized bathroom resided the pig, alive breathing and complaining loudly. Did we have a knife that he could use to dispatch the pig? No, okay he could borrow one from his uncle who would also come to help prepare the pig for the roasting the next day. Could I come and help? Sure, never seen this done before so it would be a new experience. Did I have a camera to record the preparation? No, I didn't think I need to record this for posterity.

The next morning we went over for coffee and got the pig ready for roasting. A large charcoal pit was dug in the neighbour's front yard. Pedro's home fronted right onto the street and had no place to do this type of cooking. A large bag of charcoal was placed in the pit over some kindling and wood then lit. Now the fire would have a chance to heat up and we could progress to the next step.

The children were taken inside by Rosa and Kathy and other children in the area were also taken inside so that they would not see what was going to happen with the pig.

Very quickly a knife was produced and a quick incision at the base of the neck then a downward thrust to the heart provided a quick ending to the pig's existence in this life. There was quite a bit of squealing, as only a pig can do, during the hog tying and although disconcerting did not last long. Using boiling water and a very sharp knife the hair was scraped away leaving a pink flesh. With evisceration completed the pig was mounted on a hardwood pole length wise with a few nails strategically placed to keep it from slipping. The rotisserie mount was two steel chairs straddling the charcoal pit and a primitive handle nailed to the end of the spit for rotating manually. We figured it would take eight hours to cook the pig on a hot day, over hot coals, in the sun. We needed refreshments. Rum and various citrus juices were produced and the real work began.

The day was hot and sunny with the heat from the roasting pig requiring numerous refills of the glasses of rum and juice. As a public holiday with no one working there was a parade of cars and people out for walks dressed in their finest clothing. A tour bus stopped at the Marina entrance and the visitors piled out to take pictures as quickly as possible. I was the designated pig turner attending this chore with a glass of rum in one hand, the turning handle in the other, a Tilley hat on my head and what likely appeared to be a sleepy look on my face. Lots of pictures were taken of this traditional Cuban pig roast with one gentleman finally asking if I was Cuban. He was somewhat surprised to find this Canadian sailor hard a t work with the pig roast.

Rosa in the meantime was preparing vegetables, yucca, cakes, rice and beans over a charcoal cooker to compliment the meal. The pig was finished roasting in the late afternoon as was set aside to rest until dinner. In the meantime we went for a shower and changed into more suitable clothes to return for dinner. We came back to a room full of people, a dozen or more, sitting down to a feast that lasted for hours. Georgio came up from his boat in the marina along with many neighbours. Conversation was abundant in English and Spanish. A late night return to the boat satisfied and happy with the days events was a comforting reward.

Our departure from Santiago came a few days later with a gift of food, including remnants of the pig roast, from Pedro and Rosa. Many tears were shed as we said goodbye to our new found friends. I will always remember their waving arms from the balcony of the marina as we put up the sails and left the dock. The spectacular Morro Castle was passed slowly to port as we headed to sea and points further east.

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