My day in Bayamo started with a horsecart ride, continued with a trip to a casa de la trova and ended with a baseball game (with a few meals to boot).
BAYAMO, CUBA-We’re here at Estadio Martires de Barbados to watch three innings of baseball. Yes, three — not nine. If a Cuban game gets rained out, like this one did last night, it simply continues the next day where it left off.
That means I miss hearing the national anthem, which is always fun and stirring, but not the rest of the hoopla surrounding the national sport.
Baseball plays hard to get here. Every town has a stadium. Getting details on games, professional or otherwise, is a challenge.
Tickets are dirt cheap but rarely sell out. You can pay double (pennies for locals and dollars for tourists) and sit in the special netted area behind home plate behind the guy filming the game for TV. There are seats on the side of the stadium where people are rooting for the visitors if you’re desperate.
We wander into Bayamo’s stadium during the day — while touring the city in a traditional horsecart — and head unchecked to the bleachers to watch players practise, staff spruce up the banners and kids gawk at their heroes. The ticket booth seems to be open.
At night, vendors set up tables and stalls outside the gates, and hawk mostly pollo asado (grilled chicken) and roast pork. Get a roast pork sandwich on a soft bun and say yes to a sprinkling of salt.
The popcorn guy will come to you. Don’t worry if the popcorn is sealed in a clear plastic bag for dried Spanish fideos noodles. The pizza guy will also come to you. Don’t expect it to resemble Canadian pizza.
The only thing missing at this game is the stench of beer. Apparently it’s banned in the interest of player and crowd safety. I’m told that if anyone throws something to the field, the home team automatically loses. Special police commandos are on hand in case things get wild. They don’t. It feels like we’re chilling in a giant Cuban living room.
Baseball is easy to follow and this stadium has a digital scoreboard. I’m sitting with two Cubans who share all the inside baseball stuff, like who is “the horse of all horses” (best player) and how the two team managers are doing this year (one is the oldest manager in the country).
Each team represents a Cuban province and is made up of players who were born in them or live there. Tonight, in early January, the home team Granma squares off against Matanzas in one of Cuban National Baseball’s semi-final playoff games.
The player who was born in Granma but now plays for Matanzas gets a gentle ribbing. Musicians stationed with the fans play conga when Granma is at bat. Matanzas’ musicians play another style of music.
Three short innings are over too soon, with Granma triumphing 11-3. They go on to win the series. The cheering, whistling crowd and their musicians march triumphantly to a park across the street.
Music is the thread that sews Cuban life together.
It blares from shops along the city’s main pedestrian street, where we stop for spicy croquets and a flaky pastry that may or may not be called dobo. (Even with a translator, this was tough to nail down.)
Two musicians wander into Meson La Cuchipapa during a casual pre-baseball feast that starts with ajiaco, a national meat and vegetable stew made memorable here with corn.
“This is the real Cuban sandwich,” declares my Cubatur guide Ricardo Zaldivar Rodriguez, layering roast pork and hot sauce on casabe, a cassava flatbread that we also feed to the restaurant’s resident parrot.
Just as every Cuban city has a baseball stadium, every city has a casa de la trova, a casual venue with a revolving, all-day roster of musicians playing traditional music.
At the Casa de la Trova la Bayamesa, we’re welcomed with the house cocktail full of guava, papaya and banana.
“Drink a little bit and make some room for the rum,” advises host Mike Morales. “Trova is like jamming, so people can go and show their talent.”
The musicians are used to tourists on tight itineraries and cheerfully spring to action for a quick but full-throttle show.
Just like the three-inning baseball game, though, my trova time is limited so all I get is one drink and a handful of songs. We buy a couple of Enhorabuena Tropical Show CDs for the road. The next morning, when we want more to take home to friends, Morales pops over to our hotel after breakfast to deliver them.
Jennifer Bain was hosted by the Cuba Tourist Board, which didn’t review or approve this story.
When you go
Watch baseball: It’s hard to get information about baseball games. Ask your hotel about local stadiums and game times or try baseballdecuba.com.
Get there: I flew Cubana de Aviacion airlines (www.cubana.cu ) direct to Santiago de Cuba and flew home with a stop in Camaguey. WestJet, Air Canada, Air Transat and Sunwing all fly to various spots in Cuba.
Get around: Get to Bayamo by car or bus. I travelled with a guide and driver from Cubatur (www.cubatur.cu ).
Stay: I stayed at the Hotel Royalton in Bayamo’s city centre.
Eat: I had lunch at La Bodega, where the specialty is vaca frita (fried beef) and special coffee with honey. I loved my dinner at Meson La Cuchipapa. Both were near my hotel and the main square.
Know: You can only buy Cuban convertible pesos (CUC) in Cuba. Wi-Fi is limited to public squares and some hotel lobbies. Buy a 60-minute Wi-Fi card for 2 CUC (about $2.75 Canadian) at the airport or your hotel. North American plugs don’t work in all hotels so bring an adaptor for the European 220-volt system as backup.
Do your research:gocuba.ca
Jennifer Bain, thestar.com
March 15, 2017