June 20: Day 9

We are now well into the second half of our trip. This morning we had to wake up at the very early hour of 6:00 a.m. Breakfast was the usual mixture of fresh fruit, strong coffee, and yawning teenagers. Once we finished our meal, we were quickly swept onto a bus for an exciting day in Santiago de Cuba.

The trip to Santiago from Holguin is a relatively long journey, and we made a pit stop on the way which made it even longer. However, unlike the United States, Cuba does not have a well maintained system of superhighways. Our route consisted of winding, narrow, two lane roads which meandered over the tall, lush mountains. The chauffer mastered the hairpin turns and challenging roads which allowed for a relatively nice ride. About halfway through our journey we traveled a bit off course to the birthplace of Fidel and Raul Castro.

Upon entering the compound it was impressively plain. There were no swarming crowds as you would expect at an American National Monument, there were only a few guards, a tour guide, and a couple of simple buildings waiting for us. Now, it is important to understand that the Castro’s are heroes in Cuba, so their birthplace carries a lot of significance to the Cuban citizens; As Fran described it is similar to Monticello, hold the ornate architecture.

We were given a tour of the grounds which consisted of a tomb, a schoolhouse, a house for the teacher, the main house, the grandmother’s house, Ramon Castro’s house, a post office, a few restaurants, and a lot of farmland. The guide told a detailed account of the family history as we explored the monument which was interesting because it was influenced by Cuban bias instead of the American bias that I am used to hearing. After our tour was finished, we embarked once again in our comfortable, air conditioned bus.

As our group approached Santiago de Cuba the roads became wider and wider and eventually transitioned to the Cuban version of a highway. Now think about I95 or the interstate nearest you. The road is divided, there are nice white-dotted lines which separate the roadway into lanes that provide plenty of room, and there are relatively few or no pot holes. In Cuba a highway consists of a wide stretch of macadam with no divider in the middle, no white lines to divide the road into lanes, and there are more potholes on the road than cars (Note: there were almost no cars on the road). While we had a safe journey, it is an interesting contrast to the luxurious interstates of America.

After 2 ½ hours of driving we finally reached our first destination, a beautiful little village on the southern coast of Cuba. We walked up a broad path which was lined with vendors on either side and reached a beautiful Spanish fort, surrounded by a deep moat (without water). Our tour guide gave us a brief background on the history of the fort and its purpose in the Spanish American war and the Cuban Independence movement. Next, we were free to walk about the outside of the fort and take in the beautiful views that it offered. To one side, the stone walls of the castle faced the deep blue Caribbean Sea, where the water continually crashed into the rocky shores far below. On the other side, there was a beautiful vista which displayed the Santiago Harbor and the entirety of the downtown. After basking in the views, we were taken to a restaurant overlooking the Caribbean Sea for lunch. We were served a simple meal of rice, vegetables, and meat paired with delicious mint chocolate ice cream for dessert. Once we were stuffed with food and ready for a siesta, as they call it here, we boarded the bus and traveled 30 minutes to the historic center of Santiago.

Once downtown, we walked to the central square of the city. Historic monuments surrounded us on all sides. Our tour guide explained that to one side was the Santiago Cathedral which underwent much damage whether it was by hurricanes, earthquakes, even pirates (they stole the bells from the towers). On the other side stood the oldest house in all of Cuba which was built in 1515, City Hall, and the Casagranada Hotel. After a brief history lesson, we were allowed to go off in groups for shopping. The area that I went to was a vibrant pedestrian only block. One of the streets was lined with your typical stores (grocery, shoe, furniture, etc.). The other street was a little bit less ordinary. It was lined with tons of different vendors selling everything from bongo drums, to key-chains, to leather baseballs. This was a really cool experience because the prices were all negotiable and I managed to perfect a technique of getting the lowest price possible. After an hour, I was getting all of these knick knacks for half of the original asking price. Once everyone shopped to their hearts content, we boarded the bus again and went to see a few different monuments across the city.

First, we visited a primary school which used to be an armory in the pre-revolution era. This building was Fidel Castro’s first major attack which actually ended up being a failure. Hundreds of bullet holes still remained on the face of the building, left there as a reminder of this event. Second, we visited the second largest cemetery in Cuba. I never thought I would say this about a cemetery but it was actually stunning. Massive tombs yielded the names of famous and important political, economic, and social figures such as members of the Bacardi family (as in the alcohol) and even the massive monument/tomb of Jose Marti who was the most important individual in Cuban Independence. Marti’s tomb is guarded 24/7 and the guards switch every 30 minutes. We had the privilege of seeing the changing of the guard ceremony where 3 guards marched from the main building out to the tomb, accompanied by music, and relieved the guards standing duty who consecutively marched back to the main building. This was a really cool experience because it was another demonstration of how passionate and protective the Cubans are of their history. After this affair we once again boarded the bus and made one more stop at a massive monument on our way out of town.

We began the long trek back to Holguin after a long and tiring day. We were greeted by a delicious dinner of pulled pork, rice, salad, orange tang, and arroz con leche (rice pudding). On our trip to Santiago de Cuba we got to see several significant monuments and places and made memories that we will all take back with us upon our return to the United States. We have six days to go and several memories left to make. See you all soon!

Sincerely,

Fritz Hillegas

P.S. Mom, Dad, and Logan I miss you guys and I hope you have polished up on your Spanish speaking skills because that is all I will be able to speak when I get back!

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