May 30, 2019

ROB O'NEAL/Paradise
Francisco Cuayo and his family have been in the organ building business in Holguin for more than 80 years.

ROB O'NEAL/Paradise Francisco Cuayo and his family have been in the organ building business in Holguin for more than 80 years.

Like most people, I love stumbling upon or into cool things on my own, but that doesn’t mean I leave the guide books at home, particularly 15-20 years ago. Back then, long before cellphones and GPS, navigating Cuba, especially beyond the well-worn tourist loop, was quite the challenge. It seems crazy now, but armed with three books (”Moon,” “Lonely Planet” and Fodors) and an actual, folding, paper map, a reporter and I, along with my amazing friend and brilliant guide from the Cayo Hueso section of Havana, set out on a truly ambitious, four-day journey through Cuba’s most remote areas in 2005. Why? Well, the idea was, and is, to put all this mess into a coffee table book one day. How can you do a book on Cuba without visiting each corner and as many places in between as possible? Not only were there no cellphones, but it had been decades since the government had posted directional signage. Back then, there weren’t even any legible signs for the turn-off to Vinales, arguably the most touristy town outside of Havana. You either knew where to turn or inadvertently ended up in Pinar del Rio city looking for a place to pull a U-turn.

So, after photographing a lively Fidel Castro speech from an amazingly close distance of 20 feet or so in Havana the night before, we were ready to hit the road to Cuba’s southeasternmost regions, a trek that would log nearly 2,400 km (about 1,500 miles). On the list were the cities of Manzanillo, Bayamo and Holguin, with brief stops at historical spots like the mangrove swamps where the Cuban Revolutionaries’ “Granma” yacht landed in 1956 (not recommended), the spot where Cuban patriot Jose Marti fell in battle while fighting the Spanish in 1895 at Dos Rios, the Castro birth home in Biran and the spot where Carlos Manuel de Cespedes freed his slaves in 1868 at the Demajagua. To me, I’d much rather visit a place than read about it in a book.

Having said that, had I not been flipping through the pages of a guide book on our way out of Holguin that hot July afternoon, we’d have missed a few very memorable photo opportunities. We had already visited the eye-popping, cobalt-blue waters of Playa Pesquero, a beach frequented almost exclusively by Cubans, which was fine with this reporter. The last thing I want in the few beach photos I do make is some pasty Euro-tourist with brown, knee-high socks and sandals; besides, they have their own resort-lined beaches at Guardalavaca. Moving along, I let out a loud, “STOP, turn around!” There was no way I was going to miss the chance to see “Pancho, the Beer Drinkin’ Donkey.” We’ll get to him in the coming weeks, but right next to that entry into the “things to see in Holguin,” was an organ factory. A musician I am not, but it sounded interesting and I can certainly appreciate handcraftsmanship, particularly when there is an historic, 80-year background. Within minutes, right at closing time, we rolled up on the place. From the wide open door, we could see a couple of the hulking instruments in various stages of completion. Standing about 6 feet high and resembling a huge, wooden hutch, there were belt-driven wheels, wooden organ pipes and the long, cardboard punch cards that are cranked through the organ to produce a wide variety of musical notes. The instrument was introduced to the island in the mid-1800s by French visitors and caught on immediately. A few years later, several Cubans travelled to Paris to learn how to repair and build the organs.

Even though we only spent 15 minutes or so at the place, the photos have always made the editing cut for my (eventual) Cuba book and it was a great “find.” Fast forward to this morning, where, on a whim, I Googled “Holguin organ factory,” and boom, not only did the place come up, but the same guy, all these years later, was smack dab in the middle of a Google search. Sr. Francisco Cuayo, pictured, is part of the original family that brought the knowledge back to Cuba and, according to a 2014 Trip Advisor post, he continues his work today.

I have every intention to return to Holguin in the next year or so, and not just because my recent internet searches revealed a somewhat eerie doll factory. How did I miss that one? If it’s still there, I gotta shoot it, and assuming “Pancho” is still pulling wagons instead of being “on the wagon,” I’ll need to revisit the Mirador de Mayabe and knock back a Cristal or two with the resident donkey. Now there’s a sentence you’ve never read before.