Beni had made a noon lunch reservation for the five of us for a restaurant I had found on Trip Advisor, Restaurant San Francisco, located on San Francisco St., not far from Eduardo’s shop. (They had an air conditioned room, so he wanted to make sure we would be able to get a table there, so we could dine in comfort. Santiago de Cuba is hot!)
We cleared Cuban customs early enough to take in some sights before lunch. Eduardo was anxious to experiment with his new glass, so he and Grisel agreed to meet us at the restaurant.
Since we missed seeing Santa Ifigenia Cemetery during our last cruise visit, we thought it would be interesting to go and see where Fidel Castro was laid to rest (or burn in hell, depending on your perspective and religious beliefs). It was reputed to be a beautiful and interesting place to visit, so Beni flagged down a taxi for the three of us.
If Bruce and I as tourists had hired a taxi just outside of the port terminal gate, the cost would have been $10-$15 each way. Just across the street and up one block, the taxi driver Beni flagged down agreed to $5 each way. It helps having a local do the negotiating!
Although I could have spent hours poking around the cemetery and enjoying the views, we only had time for a brief stop to shoot a few photos. The Cuban government forbids photography of their military and police, but thanks to the marvels of wide angel lenses, I pointed my lens toward Fidel Castro’s monument and caught the unsuspecting armed guard as well.
Beni’s father, Aurelio, was also laid to rest at Santa Ifigenia, and Beni had an interesting story to tell about him. During the revolution to dethrone Fulgencio Batista, the brutal and corrupt dictator who ruled Cuba from 1940-1944, Aurelio brought 89 men with him to the mountains to fight with Fidel. Ultimately, as you know, they were victorious, and Fidel became the new leader of Cuba. As a reward, Fidel made Aurelio a lieutenant in his army. (As brutal as Batista was, Fidel seemed like the better option at the time; however, history tells us that Fidel was no angel either…)
After leaving the cemetery, Beni asked our taxi driver to give us a short city tour on the way to the restaurant, so we could see some typical neighborhoods, and observe how people live. I wish there had been more time, because I would have loved to have done some in-depth photography rather than just grab the few shots I snapped out the window.
As it turned out, Beni was so careful with our time, we arrived thirty minutes early to the restaurant! To make the most of those extra minutes, Beni took us on a walking tour to see some things we had missed on our last visit to Santiago de Cuba.
Particularly memorable was a music venue where Cuban music legends had performed over the many years the club has been in existence. Hundreds of pictures covered the walls, and hand-tooled leather chairs lined the floors in perfectly neat rows. For $1 cover charge, you could occupy one of those chairs and take in the sounds of Cuban music. (I dare you to sit still, though; the Cuban rhythms will make you want to dance!)
In a side room, a chair was hung up on the wall along with a photo of Paul McCartney. When the famous Beatle visited Santiago, that was the very chair he sat on to enjoy the sounds of the band performing the evening of his visit.
We made our way back to Restaurant San Francisco and were led into a tiny air conditioned room with two tables where Eduardo and Grisel were waiting for us. It was exactly noon, and it was quite apparent you could set your watch to Beni!
This was a private restaurant (not a mediocre one run by the government), so the prices on the menu were in the old Cuban Pesos (CUP) rather than CUC, the newer currency. After some quick calculations to make sure we brought enough CUC’s with us (and after realizing just how little this lunch for five would cost), I told our Cuban friends to order anything they wanted.
Good fish is very difficult to find for Cubans, and if they score some at a store, the price would be too high to afford. All of the best fish is reserved for the tourist restaurants, and most Cubans get paid too little to afford to dine in one. In addition, the harbor of Santiago de Cuba is not somewhere you would want to drop a line to catch your own fish.
Everybody else ordered fish from the menu, but I opted for shrimp. After singing happy birthday and toasting Beni, we settled in for a tasty meal and interesting conversation. Eduardo shared some cute videos of his little grandson on his cellphone (At the age of two, the tot is already learning to cook and work with glass like his grandpa. The knife skills of this kid were amazing!), and Beni shared photos of his family.
In all, our lovely meals and non-alcoholic drinks came to less than 23 CUC (about $23)! Bruce gave the waitress 30 CUC and told her to keep the change. I’m guessing that tip was the equivalent of ten days of income.
We all walked back to Artesania Art Deco to Eduardo’s shop where Bruce and Eduardo talked about glass with the help of Grisel’s translation, and I photographed the other artists to help promote Artesanias Art Deco on Trip Advisor, and elsewhere on the internet. We also visited with Beni’s friends where Bruce had an opportunity to play catch with another baseball enthusiast. Then, when Beni and Bruce broke into another duet, I couldn’t help asking them to start over, so I could catch it on video!
I also recorded an interesting interview with Beni, which over the coming days, weeks, months, and, hopefully years will become part of an on-going series of blog posts about my new friend. I have saved every e-mail of substance he has sent, and at the rate we have communicated, I’m sure there will be many more.
Our goodbyes at the end of the day were difficult, because our bond and affection for each other had grown stronger. It was especially hard for me to say goodbye to Beni, and for Bruce and Eduardo bid farewell. Eduardo’s last words through Grisel were, “Next time, you come to Cuba, you come to my house and have a meal with my family.” It was delivered with such bravado and pride.
Beni walked us part-way to the ship. We stopped him at a private spot where we were assured nobody would be watching us, because Bruce wanted to give him a parting gift, beside the bag of items we had brought for Beni and his family. Since Beni isn’t a licensed guide, we didn’t want him to get in trouble with the government for receiving money from tourists. We hadn’t hired Beni, and he wasn’t expecting payment; but we wanted to help him out as our friend. When Bruce shook his hand, Beni felt the money Bruce had passed off to him, and Bruce told him to put it in his pocket. Beni protested, saying he didn’t want this to be a business transaction. We were touched that he was most concerned about our friendship enduring. (I think I calmed his fears when I reminded him of all the e-mails we had sent back and forth before we knew we were returning to Santiago. We never thought we would see him again, and our friendship stuck. If anything, it has grown stronger!)
Someday, we hope to return to Cuba and have him guide us around his country. Until then, I would like to help Beni by referring people to him to be their unofficial guide when they arrive in Santiago de Cuba. As long as you keep it on the down low and use discretion, you all will stay off the police’s radar. Even if he is stopped and questioned, you are friends of mine who have come to visit him at my request. Right? The Cuban government doesn’t check up on its citizens on the internet, so he has given me permission to give out his contact information. Write a comment after this post with your request, and I will reply with an e-mail including all of Beni’s contact information.
Until then, here are some memories from our day in Santiago de Cuba:
Coming up next: Our Third Visit to The Dominican Republic; Sixth and Seventh to Chocal