Cuba won my heart from day one. Isolated and yet so welcoming, it has so much to offer to the wanderer. Each day is an opportunity for new encounters and experiences.
It is a challenge to one’s perspective in a place where vintage ways meet contemporary desires.
I’ve spent the last few years travelling around the world, but have always been back home in France for Christmas. Last year, as I had been in Cuba for 3 months and wasn’t emotionally ready to leave the country yet, I was joined by my mom to spend Christmas in the sun. I wanted to go to Remedios, in Santa Clara province (central region of Cuba). Remedios is famous for its parrandas. I had read about it, and every Cuban I met, even if they hadn’t experience it themselves, confirmed me it was an event not to be missed. It was my first Christmas abroad, and it did not disappoint.
But what is a parranda you ask ? Basically it is a party, a fiesta, something Cubans are quite good at. Las parrandas de Remedios are famous because of their fireworks, and as a big lover of loud, coloured sparks in the sky I was sold pretty quickly. Historically, in Remedios the parrandas began in the 19th century, when the local priest tried to arouse enthusiasm among its parrish to celebrate Christmas, by improvising a kind of booming march with kids. It later evolved as a friendly competition between the neighbourhoods divided in two districts, San Salvador y El Carmen, working all year long to make the biggest impression.
The center of Remedios is pedestrian-only during the celebrations and is bustling with activity, the three main streets becoming large markets. The area west of the main square is mostly for plastic toys, dolls, plushes and all kinds of non-essential but fun to look at items; phone cases, glasses, and the like. Another area is dedicated to street food, mostly pork-based but also churros, pizzas and other finger-licking greasy delicacies. Every stand is colorful and has a witty name or motto painted on. Every other block there is a sound system blasting salsa, reggeaton, or a band playing : music everywhere!
There are also children’s attractions: small merry-go-rounds, inflatable structures, trampolines, electric cars… It is so entertaining to see families having fun together, the parents taking pictures of their excited kids! And even though the rides seem to date from some decades ago, they sure do provide as much fun as super fancy fair machines!
And on the main square, two gigantic structures face each other : a rooster representing the neighborhood of El Carmen and a spiderweb standing for San Salvador. They are made of lightbulbs and it is quite impressive to see all the electric cables hanging in the scaffoldings and managed manually backstage. As with everything in Cuba, the latest technology may not be available but they know how to be creative to make the magic happens. There are also two parked floats decorated, one with an oriental theme for San Salvador and the other Venetian themed for El Carmen.
On the 23rd of December, the serious business begins. As the night falls the streets are getting more crowded. You can hear music from every corner, families and friends are wandering in the markets, buying food, dancing at the sound systems spots, it is so joyful and noisy! Everyone is all dressed-up: the girls are parading in their finest dresses, highest heels, hair straightened and make up on; the boys have their tight jeans and best hair-do! My mom and I didn’t get the memo so we are wearing shorts as we are planning to wear nicer clothes on Christmas Eve…when everyone will be dressed casually, and for a good reason…
The animation and parties last long in the night and we go back to our casa already really happy to have come to this place for an unusual Christmas.
On December 24th, we decide to spend the day at the beach on a small island called Cayo Santa Maria about an hour from Remedios by car. As it is the end of my trip it is nice to lay on the sand doing nothing but watch pelicans diving for fish. On our way back in the late afternoon, while still on the road, we begin to see smoke from afar.
We arrive to the main square in the middle of a crazy war-like scene, as illumination flares seem to be thrown from the roof of the church. It is mayhem! People are laughing and screaming, and I do the same, totally astonished by the noise, fog and the fallout of the flares on the ground. We decide to take some steps back and watch the scene from an adjacent street. As the crowd disperses a little, we return to the casa to have a generous meal prepared by our hosts.
After dinner we go back to the main square where the show is about to begin. The place is packed, the atmosphere cheerful, with groups parading amidst the fire flames. The two huge structures are lit up. El Carmen gets the honour to open the festivities and the giant rooster attracts all the attention. Its colours are changing and twirling to the sound of strong wind blowing effects. Coming out of loudspeakers, a deep dramatic voice tells the story of a “storm of victories”, and celebrates the strength of the remedianos who overcame hurricane Irma a few months ago. The narrator excessively rolling his r’s, the crackling sound and the amazed public, transport me to a vintage fantasy fair…
The voice goes quiet and the lights turn off, it is time for the firework magic! I am in awe before the show and enjoy every moment of it. My Cuban friends from other parts of the island thought that I would probably not be as impressed as with fireworks in my own country for instance, but I am delighted and I wish they could be there with us to see this performance. The atmosphere is ecstatic, this is a beautiful celebration!
But suddenly a horizontal launch comes from across the square and I can see everyone around me wondering if it really is part of the show or if something wrong just happened.
Unfortunately the second option is proven to be the right one, as the fireworks come to a halt and the voice returns, much more serious this time. We are informed that there has been an accidental explosion. By chance there is no fatal consequences but several persons including minors are badly injured. To my surprise there is no movement of panic among the crowd, as can happen during popular events, and the injured are rapidly taken care of and transported to the hospital. I furthermore notice that the voice insists on precising that the accident did not occur because of careless behavior, but due to lower quality materials, which were used in replacement of what had been prepared before the recent hurricane who severely damaged Remedios.
As a result, the party is put on hold as officials are gathering. The final decision is that no more fireworks will be launched that night. People are still waiting for the rest of the festivities to happen which seems unlikely to me, but if there is one thing that I love about Cubans (along with their humour, education, warmth…) is their patience. After waiting for an hour, my mom and I resign ourselves back to our casa at 1am.
In the morning we learned that we missed the floats with the dancers who did their show around 3 am, which only gives me a reason to come back for another crazy Christmas as soon as possible. As we head back to the centre to find a transportation back to Havana, we see people running around the square singing and dancing, because whatever the circumstances, the party is never over in Cuba. I should know, a few months earlier I have danced salsa in the street, in the dark, when there was no electricity because of the hurricane, our feet lit only by cellphone light.
But that’s another story…
This Christmas story was put together by Ophelie Logie.
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