Store Sign


Picture a sign for a shoemaker along one of the main roads of the historical center of Santiago and below the shoe, dangling like an afterthought, it says:  Looking for a girl friend (in English)!

This was too funny.  We just had to check it out.  Inside one of those dark and faded hallways of an old colonial home was the even darker workshop of shoemaker Euripides — no joke!  That is quite a fateful name for anyone, particularly a shoemaker working in a dark alley, I have to say.  With a big smile he welcomed us and before long we had made a date with him to meet at the Casa de la Tradiciones at night for him to lead Celi in some Salsa dancing. 

Many things in Santiago de Cuba seem familiar in comparison with all the other towns we have seen so far.  There are the main plazas lined with colonial mansions, there are the churches and stores, the restored boulevards with shops that are surprisingly well stocked, there is the obligatory ice cream park, there are the dulcerias and the ever-friendly locals. There are the tourists hanging out at the bar of the overpriced roof terrace of the Casa Granda, but the view is just too cool to be missed, and what are a few extra dollars for a mojito, anyhow. 

Some things feel different here right away.  The city is surrounded by mountains.  Across the bay there is a mountain range, and the city itself is set against a hill leading to a constant up and down of streets with some streets dead-ending in actual stair cases.  This makes for picturesque scenes and some huffing and puffing. 

But some things never change no matter where you are in Cuba.  One of them is the long lines in front of the ETECSA office.  I needed a phone card.  What I learned on my first day in Havana — where there is a long line for something, there are dealers and wheelers who can get things faster at an upped price.  I looked around and found the man, dreadlocks down to his hips: for 3, instead of 2 CUCs he had phone cards.  I wanted a 5 hour one — no problem.  He disappeared and even though everyone else had to stand in line, within 3 minutes he had the 5-hour card.  10 instead of 7.50 CUCs.  It’s a win-win little miracle.

Our AirBnB is in the Tivoli District, a hilly French-inspired neighborhood overlooking the Santiago Bay.  Our balustraded balcony is simply gorgeous.  A cool breeze and some shade — worth gold in this super-hot city — gives us a spot for breakfast, reading, blogging, all while overlooking the harbor.  Smokestacks in the distance and piled up shipping containers give the impression of a fully functioning port, but except for the occasional ferry leaving the dock, not much is going on.  A small stretch of the shoreline has been developed as a malecon or shore park, with two seaside restaurants.  But even that area seemed rather deserted. 

People here are darker than in Havana or in the Western part of the island due to more influx from Haiti and Jamaica back in the days.  That is the reason Santiago is considered the cradle of Afro-Cuban music, preserved among other places at the Casa de la Tradiciones. 

We arrived at 8:30 — way before Cubans swing into their night life, and the place was deserted.  But Euripides was there!  We had said we would get there around 10 PM, but we were early.  And so was he.  I wonder if he ever imagined we would actually show up.  I am a klutz and no good for dancing, especially salsa and the like, which demands very nimble footwork.  But Celi cuts a good figure with this sort of thing.  And when by 9 PM the live band set up, the two of them were on the floor salsaing away. 

Euripides is a classic example of the good side of a socialist system.  Education is free and as it turned out, he at some point had studied linguistics and was fluent in Italian!  And according to Celi he was quite the poet.  I am not sure how he ended up in the shoe repair business, but what he told us is that he just wanted to be happy.  And that, in so few words, captures a lot of the Cuban spirit everywhere.  They want to be happy and despite all the hard-ships they experience, they seem to manage that, for the most part.

I got stuck with a short, beer-bellied South African man named Lorenz, who obviously needed somebody to hold court to.  I was glad to be good for something…  The music casa draws all kinds of characters, aside from the gawking tourists.  Many locals hang out, quite happy to patiently teach some of us foreigners a few steps.  Others come with their partners and are obviously accomplished dancers.  One old man stood out.  With his wife he took the dance floor and soon had a circle of admiring and cheering onlookers.  He added funny moves and jumps to the classical steps and even had worked out an entire acting scene into his dance where he would cross over his feet and his wife would twist him while he was lowering himself to the floor, bowing to her, taking his hat off, and slowly rising up again.  That man was easily in his 80’s!  But he was as nimble as ever and proudly showing it off.  We live just a few blocks from the Music Casa and eventually I left, to tend to my blog, leaving Celi and Euri to the dance floor and to a surely romantic walk through the narrow alleys afterwards.  Girlfriend for an evening.  Celi made his day.

Neither one of us had slept well last night.  It’s always a crapshoot when you move from place to place.  Some places work out really well, others leave you struggling.  There really is nothing wrong with our casa.  The hosts are super friendly, kind people; the location is great, the terrace as I said, outright gorgeous.  But the beds are uncomfortable, the room is small, and the sun was blasting into our room shortly after sunrise.  We have to get adjusted. 

Something else from the 60’s happened this morning in our street.  The weekly mosquito fumigation was in progress.  First, we only heard the roaring motor of what sounded like a chainsaw.  Then, we saw blue smoke coming out of courtyards and windows, including our own.  While people were in the house — they asked us to step up to the terrace for 10 minutes — they blew fumes around which surely contained DDT or other toxic substances.  There was no escaping it!  The coughing followed.  With that in the air and the hard bed, I am not sure I am looking forward to our second night, but it will surely be better since both of us are completely exhausted and possibly full of toxins.

Good night.

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  1. I wonder if Celi is going to show up with another tattoo !