Heart of the revolution

With backpacks and beer, Dervla Murphy and her family head south to the nation's 'other' capital: Santiago de Cuba.

Capital cities and "the next biggest" tend not to love one another: London and Birmingham, Rome and Milan, Dublin and Cork, Havana and Santiago de Cuba. Doubtless social anthropologists have secured lavish grants to study this phenomenon but in the Cuban case one needs only to know a little history. Santiago was founded as the capital of Spain's new island colony - a long time ago but Santiago hasn't forgotten.

On Cuba's central highway from the "new" capital Havana to Santiago in the south, the traffic is light. At 10.15pm we park outside an imitation of a US fast-food joint on the edge of an anonymous town. Here most passengers sup and I saunter to and fro with an earnest, young Australian journalist, tanned and long-limbed and puzzled by Cuba. How come so many Habaneros are so jolly and welcoming when they're so deprived? On the bus he'd been scribbling a list - most couldn't afford essentials like cosmetics, detergents, deodorants, vitamin supplements, shampoo, hairdryers, toasters, electric kettles, cell phones, computers. He loves Cubans, is upset by all those missing essentials, is keen to promote the tourist industry. At the end of a very hot day I have no energy to spare for argument - beyond asking why, given Caribbean sunshine, Cubans should need hairdryers?

Later I reprove myself for not having tried to educate that young man. He had been commissioned to write a series of articles on "Cuba in transition" and, as climate change works its way up the political agenda, journalists should be emphasising Cuba's energy-saving habits. Little things do count. When one buys a home-made fruit juice from a pavement seller here, it comes in a glass to be handed back - not in a "disposable" mug.

Throughout the long night I envied my sleeping companions. As greyness replaced blackness, low humps replaced flatness - the Sierra Maestra foothills. Now the Trio are awake and hungry and thirsty. Promptly Rachel, their ever-ready mother, provides oranges, nuts and water while I furtively open a tin of Bucanero - but not furtively enough to avoid Zea informing the general public: "Nyanya's having beer for breakfast!"

An extravagant sunrise celebrates our arrival, all gold and crimson, surging upwards from the horizon to fill half the sky. In Santiago's suburbs tropical vegetation almost overwhelms the solid little tiled houses. Fiacres drawn by smartly trotting horses are taking people to work - or towards work, because these vehicles are excluded from the narrow Old City streets.

A dozen taxis, parked at random outside the Viazul bus terminus, compete for emerging passengers by playing jolly tunes on their horns. Most are government-registered, their takings therefore taxed quite heavily. We choose an unregistered veteran, bright red where it isn't rusty. "Cadillac 1954!" boasts its beaming black owner as he packs our rucksacks into the boot, where chicken-wire replaces the lost floor.

As we drive uphill Rachel exclaims, "There's the Moncada barracks!" pointing left to the place where an armed attack led by Fidel Castro in 1953 is regarded as the start of the Cuban revolution. Moments later Rose, pointing right, exclaims, "They've a Coppelia here, in that park!" referring to the ice-cream parlours throughout Cuba. Beyond this wide, busy boulevard one descends to the quiet, sloping streets and alleyways of the Old City.

Discreet logos mark casas particulares and it is easy to find No. 197 San Pedro - a single-storey, late 18th-century home, washed pale blue, its finely carved double door opening off the street and protected by an elaborate wrought-iron grille.

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We're welcomed by Irma - aged about 60, blessed by the sort of bone-structured beauty that changes but never fades, looking elegant in a house coat. She hugs us on first sight, as is the Cuban way, then leads us through a short hallway into a spacious drawing room, rarely used, where the burnished mahogany furniture is 19th-century imperial and the high ceiling, of collar-and-beam trusses, has been copied, we later realise, on Casa de Diego Velazquez. Here dozens of frighteningly valuable china ornaments are displayed on window ledges, in wall niches and corner cabinets, on numerous frail occasional tables. Urgently I warn the Trio: "Never run through this room!"

In the patio, cooled by much potted greenery, life-size plaster statues of a smiling black couple wear 19th-century cane-cutters' attire. On three sides stretch long corridors tiled and pillared, their walls replete with stags' heads. Our accommodation takes us aback: two enormous bedrooms, each with two double beds, bedside lamps, a large fridge and efficient (unless the electricity goes off) standard fans. One motive for our journey had been to introduce the Trio to another way of life and this is another way in the wrong direction - incomparably more luxurious than their own spartan home near the top of a mountain in Italy's Dolomites. However, the water supply here is sluggish at best, non-existent at worst and the electrical fittings - mostly in unexpected places - make sounds not normally associated with plugs and switches.

The Trio devour their four-course breakfast in a long, narrow dining room across the patio from our bedrooms. This is also the living room where Irma and Antonio watch television in the evenings, seeming genuinely interested in what Fidel has to say.

Parque Cespedes (originally and more accurately, Plaza de Armas) is Cuba's first town square, a space left free of buildings for the convenience of the military and never encroached upon over four centuries. As the Trio romp, Rachel and I share the sparse shade of palms with Carlos Cespedes on his pedestal, the Cuban landowner who freed his slaves and led the Ten Years' War against the Spanish in the 1860s.

On all sides stand buildings so often photographed I almost feel I've been here before. The sonorously named Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion, built in 1922 on 400-year-old foundations, has quite a pleasing neo-classical facade but can't compete with Casa de Diego Velazquez. This Andalusian-flavoured stone building has a fortress-like solidity, relieved by many Moorish gratings and wooden latticework shutters and balconies. It took 14 years (1516-30) to build as the conquistador's official residence and in 1965 was restored. Santiago presents it as Cuba's oldest surviving residence, a claim contested by Havana, though it seems not implausible. Less convincing is Santiago's assertion that Velazquez's bones lie beneath the cathedral.

On the park's west side rises the dazzling white, four-storey Hotel Casa Granda, a tourist base since 1920, agreeably conforming to Cuba's eclectic style of colonial architecture. The blue-and-white ayuntamiento (town hall), simple and dignified, was built in 1950 to replace an earthquake victim but had been designed 200 years earlier by an anonymous architect whose drawings were found by chance in the Indies Archive. From its short central balcony, on January 1, 1959, Castro first spoke to the Cubans as their new leader.

It's too early in the day for tourists (at no time were they numerous) but on a bench under a weeping fig tree two youths are sharing a cigarette and, we sense, measuring us up as a possible source of pesos. When Rachel inquires about the nearest cambio (cash exchange), both offer to escort her up steep Calle Aguilera. The Trio stay with me; they are developing a group allergy to queues.

As we lie under a palm drinking pints of water I tell the girls about another Trio, Santiago sisters aged eight, nine and 10, whose ordeal is still remembered because Graham Greene recorded it. One night in 1957, soon after their father had joined Fidel's guerillas in the nearby mountains, they were lifted from their beds by Batista's soldiers and, still wearing pyjamas, carried off to a military barracks to be held as hostages.

In Greene's words: "Next morning I saw the revolution of the children. The news had reached the schools. In the secondary schools the children made their own decision - they left their schools and went on the streets. The news spread. To the infants' schools the parents came and took away their children. The streets were full of them. The shops began to put up their shutters in expectation of the worst. The army gave way and released the three little girls. They could not turn fire hoses on the children in the streets as they had turned them on their mothers, or hang them from lamp posts as they would have hanged their fathers."

Rachel is soon back, having been thwarted by one of Cuba's legendary power cuts; the cambio can't open today. Later, we go shopping and at first we're baffled. As tourists it seems we can't buy bread (easy in Havana) and two tiendas (shops) deny us water - visible in both fridges. That evening Irma explains - when items are in short supply (delivery problems because of petrol problems), regular customers get preference.

Before Rachel takes off for a night of son, salsa and conga, we plan an early-morning departure for an undeveloped beach - Playa Siboney, 19 kilometres east of the city.

In the warehouse-like provincial bus terminus hundreds of passengers sit on rows of metal chairs with their bundles by their feet.

We're lucky: behind the building a Siboney bus - a vehicle at the other end of the scale from our Viazul coach - is about to depart. Rushing toward it, we find the doorway blocked by a rotund woman brusquely demanding "chits". We assume she means tickets - but no, one pays on the bus, chits simply entitle one to board it and are issued free from a distant kiosk. Such Soviet-type procedures expose Castroism to ridicule as Cuban youngsters note - and replicate - foreigners' scorn for this bureaucracy gone mad.

Anxiously the Trio and I watch the bus loading up: will it disappear before Rachel's return? The rotund one seems not on our side but the black driver, seeing us peering through the door, waves reassuringly and shouts, "OK!" Relaxing, Zea comments in a discreet whisper on the fascinating (to her) tyre of bronze flesh protruding between the jacket and trousers of the door-blocker's uniform.

This short, juddery bus ride is the Trio's introduction to how the other nine-tenths travel. Zea sits on Rachel, Clodagh sits on me, Rose stands in the tightly packed aisle unable to see out but as ever uncomplaining. Nor can I see much; the bulky man beside me is embracing a large sack of empty bottles and Clodagh obscures the view ahead. Approaching a junction, our neighbours chorus, "Siboney! Siboney!" - for our benefit. Out in the fresh air Zea asks, "Why doesn't Cuba make more buses?"

A mile-long tarred cul-de-sac leads from the junction to the sea, winding between forested ridges and level scrubland where large piebald pigs root vigorously. Only two horse-buses break the deep silence. Zea loiters to study tiny black crabs in a stagnant roadside creek, then trots to catch up, trips on loose gravel - and we all pause to commiserate about grazed knees.

A garish new wayside notice briefly alarms us: HOLIDAY VILLAGE - VILLA TOURISTICA. But this proves to be a local aspiration far from the agreeable reality of wonky wooden trestle tables and benches under a tattered awning overlooking a mile-long crescent of beach - half-stony, half-sandy, uncluttered by "amenities", fringed by royal palms, sheltered to the east by sheer black cliffs.

Grandmotherhood can induce character change. Although emphatically not a beach person, I thoroughly enjoy the day. The Trio are ecstatic, emerging at frequent intervals from the clear green sea to report on the marine life seen through their goggles, then being constructive with sand, then underwater again, then shell-collecting, then back to the sea, then climbing the low, contorted sea-grape trees. That evening I write in my journal: "For how much longer will Siboney survive in its simplicity as a naturally beautiful place of sea, sand, shells and silence?"

On the way back, as the junction comes in sight so does a Santiago-bound bus. The younger generations gallop towards it, Nyanya cantering in the rear and Rachel yelling, "Wait for the granny!" Which it did.

Edited extract from The Island That Dared by Dervla Murphy (Eland Books, $49.95).

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Havana is the gateway to Cuba. LAN Airlines flies from Sydney to Chile's Santiago via Auckland, and then once a week from Santiago to Havana; you stay overnight in Chile at your expense. Fares from $2096 from Melbourne (Qantas to Sydney) and $1996 from Sydney. Cuba must not appear on any airline ticket in which a US airline or city also appears. (Fares are low-season return excluding tax.) Cubana Airlines has one-way fares from Havana to Santiago de Cuba for $US100 ($155). There are frequent trains, taking 13-15 hours; the trains have no sleeping cars. Australians require a visa for $100, for stays of up to 30 days.

Currency

Foreigners used to pay in US dollars but in 2004 the Cuban Government announced that US dollars would no longer be accepted. Instead, dollars, pounds or euros can be converted into "convertible pesos". A 10 per cent tax applies to conversion of US dollars into convertible pesos but not to conversion of euros or pounds sterling into pesos. Cuban citizens use "Cuban" or "national" pesos.

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