June 18, 2010

Myth grows in Baracoa

The June 2010 issue of Jetwings International, the inflight magazine of Jet Airways, carries this essay I wrote on a fabulous little town in Cuba.

Comments welcome!


The Hotel La Rusa, painted a bilious yellow and brown, is the distinctive feature of the Malecon, or seafront boulevard, in Baracoa. When we got to this sleepy town, we made our way unerringly to La Rusa and asked for the room that Fidel Castro had used.

It was spotless and tidy. But the bed so filled the tiny room that we wondered: how had Fidel manoeuvred his extra-large frame in and out?

The hotel was built by and named for a glamorous but mysterious Russian lady ("La Rusa": "the Russian woman") who fled the Soviet Union and turned up here. Part of the mystery is that while she was repelled by the USSR, she became curiously enamoured of Castro and his Cuban Revolution.

But nobody tells you her name. She is forever La Rusa, just another of the myths that envelop Baracoa.

Only 40 km from the eastern tip of Cuba, Baracoa was cut off for generations from the rest of the island by a range of mountains. Access was only possible by sea. Havana is over a thousand kilometres away and must have seemed even further for years -- so the town retains a certain rusticity, a bedraggled appeal.

Just a few blocks from La Rusa, facing the church in the Plaza Cacique Hatuey, is a bust of a remarkable man. By the time we got to Baracoa, we knew his name well. Cuba's only beer is named after him; every can carries his picture. As an inscription told us, Hatuey was Cuba's first rebel. This valiant native chief led guerrilla warriors in running battles with the Spanish conquistadores of the late 15th Century, in a brilliant campaign that would echo half a millenium later, in Fidel's Revolution.

But it couldn't last. Spanish firepower finally wore down Hatuey and his band. He was captured and burned at the stake. About to be set alight, he was asked if he wanted to be baptised, so that his then Christian soul might ascend straight to heaven. "Are there Spaniards in heaven?" Hatuey wanted to know. When told that there were, he said he preferred to die a heathen. He had spent years fighting so-called Christians from Spain, why would he want to meet more in a place they called heaven?

Thus did Cuba's first rebel die, rebellious to the last.

In Baracoa's plaza today, Hatuey's handsome head leans forward under a towering tree. His long nose presides over a splendid scowl. You can almost feel his contempt for his Spanish captors. Yet I couldn't help wondering if some of it was reserved for the modern-day banality of naming beer after a proud hero. Beer!

Later, we met Castro. Not Fidel, but a short and cheerful look-alike. Miguel Castro, historian at the Matachin Museum in town, was acting as guide for a team that had come from Havana to make a film about Baracoa. Why not join them, he asked us. No charge, and we could even star in the film. So it was that early one morning, he met us at La Rusa, bundled us into a rattletrap bus and off we went.

The team called themselves "Los Locos" ("The Madmen") and it wasn't hard to see why. In minutes, a bottle of strong rum made the rounds. Castro and the madmen downed the stuff neat, gulps at a time, more loquacious with each gulp. Winking Orlando regaled us with outrageous tales from his experiences in Angola, where Cuba sent thousands to fight the war of independence in the '70s. In each one, Pedro, another of the madmen, played a prominent part. Pedro, said Orlando, was always afraid of wild animals (wink wink making noises (wink roar wink), but Orlando would tell him to relax (wink) and have some rum (wink wink chuckle wink).

And so we rode, arriving at a small chunk of Paradise: a tiny cove on which two people would be a crowd. Gentle waves from an intensely blue sea rolled onto the little beach. Above it was Villa Maguana, a hotel with all of four rooms, all empty, against a backdrop of trees. Loveliest spot in Cuba, said Castro.

The madmen readied their equipment, steady and professional in spite of, or maybe because of, the severely depleted bottle of rum. Besides bringing us to the loveliest spot in Cuba, Castro had also enlisted a girl he said was the loveliest in all Baracoa. Teenaged, fresh-faced, smiling Marlena needed little persuasion to change into shorts and a swimsuit for her role in the film.

And while she swam and looked pretty for the cameras, we sat down for a drink of menta -- a strong mint drink -- with Alejandro Hartman, historian and curator of the Matachin Museum, also along for the ride. Hartman has attained a measure of fame for his knowledge of the area. Guidebooks that mention Baracoa invariably urge visitors to meet this soft-spoken sort who is happy to talk about Baracoa, Cuba, Fidel, Marxism, anything at all.

He narrated Baracoa's most enduring myth: that this was where Christopher Columbus first set foot in Cuba in the early 1490s, carrying a cross from Spain that now sits in the church. But opinions about the story vary wildly. While the cross has been dated to 1510, a study in the '80s concluded that it was made of very Cuban wood. Still, Hartman is a believer. According to him, Columbus's diary description of what he saw matches Baracoa's surroundings.

I don't know. But if he did come here, it's no wonder Columbus wrote this in his diary: "A thousand tongues would not suffice to describe the things of novelty and beauty I saw, for it was all like a scene of enchantment."

I understand, because we felt that enchantment too.

Now I want to see the film winking Orlando and the madmen made, but not because we starred. They assured us that films turn out best when shot on numerous gulps of Cuban rum. Another Baracoa myth. Or is it?

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