Xanadú

It would be easy to say that it all began in a dark smoky room.  A room where one’s imagination can run wild.  Right out of a movie set. Where the shadows are often people and the people are similarly shadows. Each dark mystery with own story, sometimes true and but many dripping with the half-truths that can inspire the unwitting listener to thoughts of some greater vision.

I’d like to think that’s how this adventure began.  To an island that western society has frozen in time.  Where the cars are from the 1950’s and revolution is still foremost in the minds of its inhabitants.  It didn’t though.  This trip first came to light by the glow of a computer screen and my stumbling upon some photos on of all things Facebook!  Richard Martin was a friend of a friend. His photos glowed with color and had a wonderful sense of design.  He showed imagery that I both admired and that, in my own way, hoped to emulate. Richard was leading a photo workshop and his 12th trip to Cuba.  A place I’d certainly never been and a place that one might think of as a bucket trip candidate.

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I spoke to several friends who encouraged me to go.  There weren’t really any negatives. It was a great opportunity, both photographically and culturally. Then, one night, as time was fast approaching for me to make a decision, in that dark, albeit unsmokey taproom, I stumbled upon someone with a story to tell.  A story of a grand old house, a cave and a treasure chest, a story of Xanadú.

The “Xanadú Mansion” is situated on the Hicacos Peninsula on the San Bernardino crags, and was designed by architects Covarrocas and Govantes in July 1927. The mansion was the vacation home for Irenee du Pont and his family. In 1932 du Pont installed the largest privately owned organ in all of Latin America, worth $11,000. The machinery was installed in the basement and the organ worked automatically and manually. Two shafts carried the music to the mirador and the lobby, without inconveniencing the guests in their rooms. The furniture, including the organ, paintings and piano, were supplied by Theodore Baily & Co. and Meras & Rico.

Precious woods were brought especially from Santiago de Cuba for the ceilings, stair rails and columns, while the floors and bathrooms were done in Cuban, Italian and Spanish marble. The actual construction was entrusted to the Frederick Sneard Corporation at a cost of $1,300,000 and finished on 30 December 1930.

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The gardens were planted with coconut trees. On the Eastern slopes they planted flowers and a vegetable garden, together with banana, avocado and papaya trees. Parrots and cockatoos were imported to make the place more tropically enchanting.

Although architect Herbert Strong designed the first golf course with 18 holes, it was later built with only 9 following a design by Sim Cuthrie. The first four holes were built on natural soil, while the others required refilling. The golf course was started in December 1931, and shortly after completion, in September 1933, was hit by a hurricane that swept away with greens and fairways from holes 5 to 9. From April to December 1934, over $10,000 worth of soil had to be dumped on the land and the golf course was fully operational again in 1936.

John’s story hinged upon the contents of a cave.  A cave that contained his Great Grandfather’s treasure chest.  The cave was “hidden” on the 7th hole of the golf course. It had a trap door that in its day could have the latch triggered by the thorn of a prickly pear.  That chest held a treasure, he said. Bus’ booze.

I was intrigued, a real treasure hunt. A chance to see if indeed there was yet some undiscovered booty left behind as the rightful owners left their paradise behind to Castro’s new vision of Cuba. The dye was cast I was going. If only to try to recover a bottle or two, and return them to their rightful owner.  What an adventure!  Certainly the primary reason for this venture was to make new imagery.  Imagery that not everyone might have an opportunity to make. So away I went searching two treasures.

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I’d had my boots on the ground for a week when my chance came.  I’d spent a week with Richard in Havana, Trinidad and Cienfuegos.  I’d made arrangements with my Canadian travel agent for a driver to take me to Veradaro.  Two other members of my class had asked if they might tag along.  And off we went in a red 1970s Russian Lada. It took 2 and a half hours chugging up hills and rolling down the valleys of Northern Cuba. Past Russian oil heads, past ruined fishing boats, and alongside the five star resorts that now crowd the once pristine peninsula.   And finally after passing it all trying to imagine what it was that was waiting for us.  Letting hundreds of different stories and eventualities play out in my mind, we were there. It was much like rolling up to a fancy tropical club in a junker.  The driver had to pry the doors open to let us out. And there we were with just 2 hours to discover and be back on our way back to Havana for a dinner at the Tropicana.  John and Bruce, my companions headed to the bleached white beaches.  I set my sites on the crowded golf course.  And headed out along the closest cart path. I’d made it to the 8th hole where I was stopped by a course staff member, who explained that I couldn’t walk the course. Defeated a fairway away! I was crestfallen.  But after five minutes and five pesos with one of the pros, Victor, I was back on my way with a cart and a new found hope.

After a few minutes of dodging errant golf balls that came accompanied with a number of Russian, French, Italian and American expletives, I found my way to the 7th hole. There, resting peacefully, seemingly only touched only by time and remembered by his friend neglect, was my goal. An Australian played from the trap, several times, and 4 putted his way to the next tee. I headed to the “hidden” entrance. I’d imagine something you might walk through, the door was about 2 and a half feet tall, and that it would it would lead to a passage and on to a chamber with the chest.  Ahhh… not quite.  First, I pounded upon the door. Indeed there was a hollow sound.  I pushed, then prodded, poked and sat perplexed.  There was seemingly no trigger hole.  The hinges were rusted over sand blocked the door. I pushed some more, nothing.  Two more foursomes played through, with a great deal more success than the previous “goofers.”  I looked a bit more and with a small stick pushed kept prodding. I tried another small indentation in the rock. There was a clink and then a clunk, just as I had been forewarned.  I pushed at the door, nothing.  The twins of eternity had conspired to bar me from my prize.

I’ve always been an admirer of Paulo Coelho’s book, “The Alchemist.” In it he says, “In his pursuit of the dream, he was being constantly subjected to tests of his persistence and courage. So he could not be hasty, nor impatient. If he pushed forward impulsively, he would fail to see the signs and omens left by God along his path.” But too he suggests that one open one’s heart to omens.  I took the thud and the impassable door as an omen, made some photographs of the entrance and went back to find my friends.  After all isn’t it the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting?

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