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Santiago de Cuba’s Carnaval 2013: Perfect July Destination

Colorful characters on stilts are just one attraction in Cuba. Colorful characters on stilts are just one attraction in Cuba.

 

We Americans are good at lots of things—making blockbuster movies, peacefully transferring political power, and sparking global financial crises. But we have our weaknesses, and let’s be clear about this one: We do not know how to party.

I won’t attempt to name a worldwide winner in that category; only a liquor-fueled, scantily-clad, Jell-O-lubricated, booty-shaking, nonstop, 72-hour international throwdown with live animals could determine the true champion. I can tell you, though, that the Cubans, particularly the ones who party at the annual Carnaval in Santiago each July, are strong contenders.

Carnaval, in the steamy little city of Santiago de Cuba, on the southeast coast of the island country, doesn’t enjoy the same fame as its sister celebrations in Brazil and Trinidad, perhaps because it’s smaller and harder for Americans to visit. While smaller in size, it’s just as large in spirit, and its under-the-radar status means you can be one of the few gringos participating in this decidedly local affair.

The noisy observance we watched outside the cathedral—with a priest and flowers and all the celebrants fully clothed—was barely a tame taste of what Carnaval had in store.

Cuba’s biggest carnival is a week-long extravaganza of music, costumes, dancing, and debauchery that possesses an entire city day and night, with mini-festivals erupting around every other corner. Carnaval is also where I saw the most amazing ass of my life—an ass so spectacular that even this decidedly hetero gal wanted a piece.

And if you look closely (not at the ass, you scoundrel!) between the lines of the fiesta, you can read the oddities and contradictions of Cuban politics and life.

My friend Jeff and I went to Cuba in the sweltering, sticky heat of July, accidentally arriving just in time for Carnaval (this year’s event runs July 20–27). Technically, the U.S. blockade on doing business with Cuba outlaws any American who has no close relatives there from visiting without a government-issued license for religious, educational, journalistic, or certain other purposes.

Although President Barack Obama recently loosened restrictions, the ban is still in place and Americans caught breaking the rule can face hefty fines. But the Internet is full of advice on how to skirt the restriction. Let’s just say it’s perfectly legal to buy a flight from the United States to Cancun, Mexico, and also perfectly legal to buy a flight from Cancun to Havana, so many Americans take the travel ban as more of a suggestion than a law. What’s a little federal embargo to keep us from all the fun?

We rolled into Santiago early in the morning, after a bouncy, unglamorous 16-hour bus ride from Havana (you can fly, but guidebooks warn of the domestic airlines’ poor safety record). We dropped off our bags and meandered through the heart of town, where crumbling colonial homes slope down to the shores of the Santiago de Cuba bay, the site of significant battles in Cuba’s various Wars of Independence against Spain in the latter half of the 19th century.

In Parque Céspedes, the central square, musicians strummed guitars and worshippers marched a statue of Saint James up to the doors of the town’s historic cathedral. This little procession revealed the roots of Carnaval, which originated hundreds of years ago from the Spanish colonists’ festival for James, patron saint of Santiago.

Seemingly every Cuban woman and girl I saw could shimmy her ass as if that part of her body were completely detached from the whole.

As the Spaniards conducted their ritual inside the cathedral, their African slaves partied in the streets. So exuberant was the music and dancing that Carnaval earned the nickname Los Mamarrachos, or “the mad ones.” The noisy observance we watched outside the cathedral—with a priest and flowers and all the celebrants fully clothed—was barely a tame taste of what Carnaval had in store.

Shake It

As evening approached, around 5 p.m., Jeff and I shouldered our way among the thousands of Cubanos gathering on a wide boulevard called Victoriano Garzón to watch the annual children’s parade. Cubans travel from across the island for Carnaval. From the bleachers lining the street, we watched hundreds of children dance down the boulevard in vibrant hats and dresses, propelled by drumbeats. One band of boys wore green military fatigues and carried fake rifles, a walking tribute to Fidel Castro’s Revolution.

And here’s where I learned one more important lesson about us gringos: In a booty-shaking competition (and yes, these do take place at Carnaval), we don’t stand a chance. Seemingly every Cuban woman and girl I saw could shimmy her ass as if that part of her body were completely detached from the whole. To outsiders it looks alarmingly sexual; to Santiagueros, it’s just dancing.

Night fell, and the adults started readying for the height of the celebration. Parade floats looking like brightly lit layer cakes on flatbed trucks lined up on the avenue. Glittering, oversized flowers made of metal, foil, and cardboard framed the floats’ most important feature: platforms for the dancers, who were decked out in wild headdresses and elaborate, colorful, ruffled, skimpy, sexy costumes. The sounds of salsa beats, guitars, maracas, and trilling voices surrounded us.

And there—there was the ass. It was only half-covered in tiny orange shorts, round and muscular and luscious, adorned with delicate fishnet tights and attached to a smiling woman illuminated by strings of lights on the float above me. I gazed, mesmerized. I lingered. In the sea of incredible asses, this one achieved a higher level of sublime. The dancer looked down and smiled at me. Maybe she knew that even a fellow female and a gringa can appreciate perfection.

We settled into the Casa’s rustic wooden chairs, sipped mojitos, and lapped up the intricate, soulful sounds of classic Cuban music: salsa, trova, and son.

Revelers of all ages filled the streets. We jostled with them up to the wooden beer shacks where about 50 cents bought a used plastic mug that the sellers would refill all night. Whole roasted pigs lay prostrate on little street carts, where vendors would plunge their bare hands beneath the crispy skin, grab shreds of meat, and stuff it into greasy sandwiches (forever altering my definition of pulled pork).

Salsa Picante

Hours later, wandering east from the center of town, we stumbled upon a neighborhood fiesta, where a live band sizzled and dozens of people danced in front of a raised stage. A young man named Cairo in a green Puma shirt took my hands and flung and spun me through long minutes of some of the fastest, wildest salsa I’ve ever danced. I grew exhausted and winded, but Cairo showed no signs of quitting.

When I fumbled a move, he walked me through it. When I lost the rhythm, he helped me count it. What I liked best about him, though, was that when I finally said I had to turn in, he didn’t protest or badger me to marry him and take him back to the States like Cuban men sometimes do with American women. He just smiled and said goodnight.

The next day, nursing hangovers, we soaked up Santiago’s other charms. Chief among them is the Casa de la Trova, a mecca for traditional Cuban music. The painted portraits lining its walls, depicting musicians who have played there, are a who’s who of the island’s musical heritage. We settled into the Casa’s rustic wooden chairs, sipped mojitos, and lapped up the intricate, soulful sounds of classic Cuban music: salsa, trova, and son.

While in town, we also witnessed a quintessentially Cuban event, the annual reenactment of Castro’s botched attack on the Moncada barracks in 1953, his first assault on the dictatorial regime he would eventually overthrow. Never mind that the attempt was, as the Rough Guide puts it, “an unqualified fiasco.” It catapulted Castro to stardom. His revolutionary quest was dubbed the 26th of July Movement, and the attack secured a hallowed place in Cubans’ culture of Castro-worship, which today holds stronger in the eastern provinces around Santiago than in the urban capital of Havana.

The observance occurs at the exact time of the famous debacle, just after 5 a.m. (why not stay up all night, while you’re at it?). As we watched, a motorcade of 1950s-era American cars rolled up. Dozens of children, playing the role of revolutionary fighters and carrying rifle-sized pencils instead of guns, sprang from the cars and stormed toward the yellow barracks. Beneath my cheers and laughter, however, I felt a tinge of anger. Walls, windows, and billboards across Cuba are plastered with images of Castro and slogans about the glorious victory of La Revolución, but citizens still beg tourists for basics like soap and clothing.

About the best way to spend any afternoon is intentionally getting lost in the Havana neighborhood of Centro Habana.

Between outings to such sites as San Juan Hill, where Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders executed a tide-turning triumph against Spain, we chatted in broken Spanish with our hosts, Marilin and Pedro. The Cuban government licenses private homes, called casas particulares, to rent rooms to foreigners (for listings, see casaparticular.info or cuba-junky.com). They run about $25 a night, including breakfast, and are a great way to get to know Cuba.

Pedro and Marilin wouldn’t say a critical word about Castro. But their warmth further illustrated the most powerful impression I took home from Cuba. I heard it in the people’s music, saw it in their dancing, and felt it in their friendly chatter on the street. It was simply this: Despite the poverty, propaganda, and political power plays that beset Cubans (the U.S. embargo included), their vivacious spirit—along with their incredible ass shaking—cannot be stifled.

Getting a Shave, Havana-Style

About the best way to spend any afternoon is intentionally getting lost in the Havana neighborhood of Centro Habana. Jeff and I did this one day, wandering the surprisingly mellow streets of San Rafael and San Martin, where even at midday pedestrians far outnumber cars.

Underemployed people—of which there are many in Cuba—hang out on stoops and sidewalks. Children play baseball in the road with sticks as bats, and old men hunch over dominoes games on folding tables. The weathered wood, faded paint, and crumbling façade on each colonial house tells a story of a city that once was glamorous and now has decayed.

But we had an ulterior motive that day: to get Jeff a traditional shave.

We came upon a little hole-in-the-wall barbershop (almost everything in Havana is a hole in the wall). It was a spare, fluorescent-lit place with two old barber chairs and only a tiny handful of grooming products on the wooden shelves. The available barber was a slim, white-haired gentleman wearing the classic Caribbean white cotton shirt, the guayabera. He took to his work with a serious manner.

Silently, meticulously, he wrapped an old pink towel around Jeff’s neck and brushed on a very thin lather. The water was cold, and the sour-smelling towel was one “you wouldn’t deign to wash your dishes with,” Jeff recalls. (The Cubans, through no fault of their own, don’t have much to work with.) The barber gripped a straight razor in his right hand, pressed his left against Jeff’s chin, and deftly scraped away the stubble. He’d been doing this job for decades.

When he finished, the barber wiped Jeff’s skin with the pink towel. Then he stood back, surveyed Jeff’s smooth face, and pronounced the verdict: “Muy suave.”

© Copyright RosebudMag.com, 2013



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The scene at Carnaval in Santiago de Cuba is wild and crazy.
Last modified on Monday, 08 July 2013 21:39

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