Cuba. It meant nothing to me. Even in the days of my fascination with the Spanish language and then in the months when my feet found delight in salsa beats, it meant nothing to me. But I soon discovered the world of salsa cubana, son, and rumba; I stumbled on the history of Afro Cubans, the travel of my beloved Yoruba, and the making of Santeria. Then it meant something.
So I travelled to Santiago de Cuba. So bent was I on getting there that I braved sixteen hours of travel from Havana, in a vehicle without a restroom. This may only be appreciated in the light of my burden of terrible motion sickness and an anxious bladder. But you see, I was bent on getting there. I got there excited quickly forgetting any discomfort suffered and I was delighted to play la santiagüera—that was more believable for many than a dark skinned tourist—for a few days even though as soon I opened my mouth or put on my Mexican sombrero, the real los santigüeros would call my bluff. Many things fascinated me about this proud city and I could write you pages about their food, climate, houses, jineteros, and some. But my sum up of this place central to Afro Cuba, Santeria, the Cuban revolution, and the connection of Cuba with its Carribean neighbours came to this: “there’s not much in Santiago de Cuba, not the brilliant night lights of London nor the flamboyance that defines Lagos. But, its charm lingers still, on its paved streets where you can hear the chorus of its son and see the gayness of its people; there lies the beauty of this place that sees itself the city of heroes”.
Next stop was La Boca. This was pure accident, or providence. I was supposed to be in Trinidad the town 15 minutes away. But I found myself in the village La Boca. La Boca was full of surprises. I arrived in time for breakfast at my casa particular, which I had in front of the private coral reef beach, and while I was waiting to be checked in, I wandered around Carratera Ancon, the major road connecting the village to Playa Ancon the neighbouring resort. I had thought myself alone with just the occasional bird flying by, the gentle sea calling to me, and the mountains giving me a bland stare. I almost had a fit when I realised what else was sharing this surreal space: for the first time in my life, I, who was born and bred in the city of Ilé-Ifè sang of in songs as the source of the Yorùbá people, saw my very first òrìṣà (well, they will call it ochá) ritual, in Cuba! and the soundtrack was in Yorùbá. It was like in the movies. They were by a tree clothed in white wrappers tied as appropriate for their respective gender with a goat waiting its turn and some fruits and flowers. It seemed like a healing ritual but it felt rude to stare or even listen too seriously so I moved on but thinking deeply about this experience.
I dare not forget about the teasing stretches of Playa La Boca—little beaches in plain speak—with hardly ever a soul but mine, the blue green sea’s and those of the beings that live in the coral reefs. But theirs is a story better heard in person. I would instead tell the story of Pedro el cubano. It was quiet and peaceful on this stretch of beach as I sat on white sand under a palm tree after a dip in the sea looking at fishes and sea urchins. Nothing extraordinary there, just me being on holiday. Then came Pedro and his bunch with their cubaton and salsa playing loudly from their stereo, and I was about to move on to walk the last kilometer to Playa Ancon when the drama that unfolded—drama only to me, mind you—got me to linger. Pedro dove into the sea with nothing but his red shorts that were hanging on his hips; he came back out with a fish about my two thighs long in his hand! I stared on, with mouth open, as the bunch gathered palm fronds and stones, made a fire village style, and went on to grill the fish. They were kind enough to invite me, which was very tempting when I learnt that one of them was studying to be a chef in Switzerland. But I gracefully—by this time, my mouth was back in proper pose—declined, and seeing the sun go down the other side of the sea, I started my walk back to La Boca instead.
“…Havana city. Havana crazy. Havana, bienvenido, welcome to the capital…”—a song by Los Van Van. I certainly saw the city and the crazy, but I didn’t feel as welcome! That is however a story best left for after a second trip; I reserve the right to then change my mind about this strange capital. It is no secret that I love bodies of blue, green, grey water but the Atlantic against the Malecón sea walk was a climax for me. Angry green monster—I believe the green was the doing of the coral reef—that made the skies grey, brooding angel that ran its salty arms over every face around, it was beauty to behold—no wonder Yemayá (Yemọja in proper Yorùbá) is adored in Cuba. Metal pillars and rails within about a hundred meter were corroded; nearby plants were rotting, the colour of rust with hardly any memory of green left; and my lips tasted like a salt factory after twenty minutes; but the sea just went about its business of spewing out every lifeless being in its belly over the wall of Malecón. After what seemed like an eternity watching its restlessness, I could no longer bear a grudge against Havana: the sea had spoken for me.
So, I was back where I had started but with all these memories, and, as in the ‘Cuba Isla Bella’ song of Orishas (the Cuban hip hop group), la caricia de ese mar, and a place in my heart for this island. Cuba.