BAYAMO

23 02 2011

 

At the weekend we went to Bayamo. I was able to take advantage of my student ID card and travel using the Astro bus network at a cost of 26 CUP (£0.84) for a journey of 129 kilometres. Normally foreigners need to use the Viazul network, which costs about seven times as much. The Astro journey took longer, as it stops at lots of small towns en route. The other difference (apart from the fact that I was the only non-Cuban on the bus) was that at these stops, people would be waiting to sell food, like I have seen in films of trains in India.

Bayamo occupies a very important place in Cuban history. It was the birthplace of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, known as the father of the fatherland. It was he who, in 1868, freed his slaves and launched the first War of Independence against the Spanish. When, at the beginning of 1869, the people of Bayamo sensed that the city was about to fall into the hands of the Spanish forces, they burned the city to the ground rather than allow the Spanish to occupy it.

It was these events that gave rise to the Cuban national anthem, La Bayamesa, which contains the stirring line: “Que morir por la patria es vivir” (to die for the fatherland is to live). This sentiment and the events that gave rise to them give a good insight into the Cuban national psyche, into which Fidel and his guerrilla army fighting in the Sierra Maestra fitted perfectly.

Fortunately, Bayamo is a lot more tranquil these days. In fact, it is the most tranquil Cuban city that I have visited, as well as the tidiest and best-maintained. This is interesting because, unlike Cienfuegos for example, it is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nor is it a major tourist destination. It is maintained for the benefit of the local people. The very popular First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party in Santiago, Lazaro Exposito, was formerly in charge here and is credited with much of the improvement to the town.

The main street, known as El Bulevar (The Boulevard), is pedestrianised and decorated with art installations along its route. It is also well-stocked with shops, restaurants, cafes and bars. Nearly all of the restaurants, cafes and bars are priced in the national currency (CUP) rather than the convertible currency issued to tourists when they exchange their foreign currency (CUC).

In addition, the shops are well-stocked. In the kitchen at my friend’s house are two lights with circular fluorescent bulbs. One of them needed replacing. For the last seven weeks we had searched every shop in Santiago – not just in the city centre but everywhere – and could not find one. In Bayamo they were everywhere. It is not clear to me why shops in a provincial city like Bayamo should stock such bulbs whilst the second city in the country has none, but such is the nature of bureaucratic planned economies.

El Bulevar, Bayamo

The restaurants were impressive. On the first night we ate in a very smart restaurant in El Bulevar named La Sevillana. We had two starters of chick peas with chorizo; two main courses of beef roasted in juice; two portions of rice with chorizo; two salads of beetroot and tomato; two beers (Cacique); and a soft drink. The bill came to a total of 113 CUP (£3.39).

The following night we came across a new paladar opposite the main church, called the Bayamo Social Club, that had just opened it doors that week – on Valentine’s Day (which is a big event in Cuba). It was very smartly decorated, with old photos of Bayamo on the walls. The tables were candle-lit, with incense as well. There was a guitarist and a singer, playing boleros. The menu was described as a fusion of the four cultures that have created contemporary Cuban cuisine: Spanish, African, Taino Indian and Chinese.

The food was excellent. We had a chicken chop suey; pork chop suey; a salad; a dessert of milk flan with ice cream; two cocktails; two glasses of wine and a soft drink. The menu was priced in CUP but said that you could pay the equivalent in CUC. Our bill came to 360 CUP (£11.80). There were two European guys eating there, but everybody else was Cuban. The paladar had been opened in accordance with the new regulations, which now allow a maximum of twenty seats. If this is an indication of what the new regulations will mean for dining out in Cuba, then it is very good news both for Cuban people and foreign visitors.

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