“Eeet’s mees-teee,’ Maria says, overpronouncing every word and looking at her phone, “Eeet’s coooo.” She looks up at me to see if I understand, and flashes a huge grin when I smile and say yes, it’s misty and cool.
We are talking about La Gran Piedra at the top of the mountain, while we are waiting at the bottom of it for our ride up. Here it is definitely neither misty nor cool, and we have found a spot in the shade to pass the time, out of the blazing midday sun.
The four of us have been loitering here for an hour already; me, Maria and her two bandmates Miguel and Julio. There is no sign of any bus, but I am having a great time.
I am trying to get to La Gran Piedra – a huge rock up on top of a mountain 1225 metres above sea level, just outside of Santiago de Cuba. From here there are supposed to be spectacular views over the Caribbean Sea.
I asked my casa owners if it was possible to get to La Gran Piedra by public transportation, and they just about fell all over each other trying to tell me how. I just had to get a bus towards Siboney, get off at the junction of the main road and the road going up the mountain, and then get another bus from there. Easy.
This was what I’d thought all along, but with every tour agency I’d spoken to and my guidebook saying the only way to get there was in an expensive taxi, I wasn’t sure it was going to happen. But guidebooks are out of date and tour agencies are out to make money, so why not try?
After much wandering and confusion, asking people at the Melia hotel and at various bus stops, a very helpful woman gets me on a bus going to Siboney. I ask the driver to tell me where to get off for La Gran Piedra. He nods, and then forgets.
I find the right stop myself, and when I get off there are three people sitting under the shelter already: a woman in some sort of uniform and two cool-looking men with guitar cases. I ask if they’re waiting for a bus to La Gran Piedra, and one of the men says yes, stick with him and I’ll get there. Great!
So we wait, and a few people come and go in various cars, none of them headed up the hill. Maria arrives by car, carrying a set of Bongo drums and yelling out the window in English. I’m thrilled – maybe now I can really communicate!
It turns out Maria is with the two men, and she’s learning English phrases (badly) from an app on her phone. The communication I’d hoped for happens only in Spanish, which I speak only at a pretty elementary level.
After a few minutes they indicate to me that we should start walking up the road. I’m confused…it’s a steep 12km up to La Gran Piedra. Are we walking the whole way? What about the bus?
We stop at a driveway about 500 metres down the road, and plonk ourselves down on the ground. One of the men goes inside a nearby building, and after 15 minutes or so comes back, saying we have to wait half an hour. He says there’s a bus at the top, which is going to come down and pick us up to take us up there. And then it leaves the top at 5pm to go all the way back to Santiago! Perfect! This is just the bus I’ve been hoping for.
So we wait some more. Maria, Miguel, and Julio form a musical group that has been hired to play at the restaurant at La Gran Piedra. After some discussion amongst themselves, they decide that I will be the one playing the maracas today!
I look at every vehicle that drives by, but there aren’t many. A couple are jeeps, and there’s also the occasional farm tractor or horse cart, but no buses. I briefly wonder if I’d be better off trying to flag down one of the jeeps, but decide to stick to my musicians and their bus.
We talk while we wait, discussing my travels and my crazy life, our families, life in Cuba, and music venues in Santiago, where they sometimes play. We trade Spanish words for English ones and English for Spanish, practice pronunciation of both, and laugh at Maria’s app. Julio invites me to stay out at his home near the beach in Siboney, on my next trip to Cuba. We are friends now.
These three are friendly, genuine, and easy to have a laugh with. I sense none of the sleaze or scamminess that I receive from just about everyone I meet on the city streets. It’s incredibly refreshing and after putting up with so much harassment in Cuba, it revives my belief that not everyone is out to get something from me.
After waiting there for an hour and a half or so, my three new friends are suddenly discussing something intensely amongst themselves. Then they pick up their guitar cases and bongo drums and turn to me.
The bus has broken down. It isn’t coming.
I don’t know how they know this; no one went to the phone again and there was no messenger. But they know, and there’s nothing to be done but to walk back to the bus stop and head home.
So again, I tag along. Julio tells me that I could still try to flag down a passing vehicle, but I’m hesitant to do that. After sitting there for so long and seeing so few cars pass, that seems unlikely. Plus, it’s already 12:30, and I’m worried that even if I did get to La Gran Piedra, I might not be able to get back to the city later in the day. Obviously if the bus is too broken to come get us it’ll also be too broken to do its afternoon run to Santiago.
Julio shrugs his shoulders. ”Es Cuba,” he says. And he’s right. It’s Cuba, and this is just what happens.
I’m not really bothered by not getting to La Gran Piedra. I realized that I’d unconsciously only given myself about a 50% chance of actually making it up there anyway, and in return for my persistence and patience, I’d met these three wonderful musicians. They were just what I needed at a time when I was really struggling with traveling in Cuba with all of its quirks, difficulties, and inefficiencies.
I never saw my musicians again, but I spent the rest of that day with a smile on my face because of them, and they will always remain one of my happiest memories of Cuba.
Have you ever had an experience like this? When your day just didn’t work out the way you’d planned but you didn’t care because great things happened anyway? Tell me about it in the comments!