Thursday, July 30, 2009

¡Que Calor!



19 to 27 July, 2009 – Viñales and La Habana, Cuba

¡Que calor! The common greeting of Cubans at this time of year. How hot! Really, I don't need the reminder. Trickles of sweat down my spine are one reminder. Drinking three to four litres of water a day (and the subsequent need to find toilets) is another. The magnetism I feel to fans and air conditioners is yet another. We aren't going to miss this aspect of Cuba.

We have come to know Cuba as the land of lobster and pork. You work it out. Yum! Ye will miss this aspect of Cuba.

We ended up spending almost a week in La Habana the second time. What a city. We sat most evenings on the roof of our building, cigars and rum, enjoying the views and the breeze and on one occasion, a storm that glanced past us. We walked a lot, and started to establish some regular haunts. On the last day, we went back to some of our favourites. Pork sandwiches, oyster cocktails, peso coffees, Bucanero beers, and half litre tubs of icecream.

And a final collection of photos.


“Always Towards Victory”
“Always Towards Victory”
Che looks over the Plaza de la Revolución in La Habana.


Approach To Viñales
Approach To Viñales
Limestone formations create a backdrop to Viñales.


Very Cute And Very Tolerant
Very Cute And Very Tolerant
Lizard on a fence post.


Beer O'Clock
Beer O'Clock
On the roof of our casa, with our Cuban regular beer, “Bucanero”.


Three Peso Note
Three Peso Note
Che graces the Cuban 3 peso note. This is the “Moneda Naciónal”, the local currency, as opposed to Convertible Pesos for foreigners.


The Forts
The Forts
On the other side of the bay from downtown La Habana, the twin forts of Morro and Cabaña.


Diving From The Malecón
Diving From The Malecón
From the the sea wall of La Habana.


A Cuban Feast
A Cuban Feast
A visit with a great Cuban family – friends of some very good friends (most of you know, or know of, Ombi and Alex – they insisted we go and visit this family). Succulent roast pork, tamales, pasta salad, avocado salad. ¡Que Rico!


Monument To The Firefighters
Monument To The Firefighters
A very beautiful monument to fallen firefighters inside La Habana's necropolis (3rd largest cemetery in the world, I heard – about 1,000,000 people buried).


Graves In The Necropolis
Graves In The Necropolis
The necropolis of La Habana is a beautiful sculpture park. Many marble and granite graves, with a heavy emphasis on angels, and overall in a pretty good state of repair.


Street Music
Street Music
Music, singing, and dancing. La Habana.


Fidelling With Ourselves, Fidelling With New Friends



10 to 19 July, 2009 – Bayamo, Santiago, and Playa Girón, Cuba

There are a lot of dogs in Cuba. Outnumbering all others, though, is the Dachshund. Maybe they are especially loved because they look like cigars with legs?

I did talk in the last blog about rationing, and shortages. This time, I want to talk about buying things from peoples houses. A number of things, well a lot, are bought from front windows and doorsteps. Often unadvertised, and sometimes (we think) illegal. To find these things, you need to ask around, or be asked in. At the simple end, it is things like coffee. In some cases, we have been invited by the seller to come in to their lounge room, pull up a rocking chair, and enjoy our peso coffee. The time we bought beer from a house, it was a little more hush hush, wink wink. We were invited to come in and sit with the family watching television while we consumed our beverages, but we declined as we were waiting for a bus. In any case, we really thought it was not supposed to be sold in this way. The cigars, that was a bit more of a production, but no less bizarre. In to their house, through the living room, and a bed room, out in to the dining room where boxes of cigars were laid out. (Cheaper cigars packaged as expensive, known brands; not a problem as long as we are all well aware what is going on). We wheeled and dealed as per normal. They pretended they had little margin to work with, but managed to come down “just for you”, while we feigned some disinterest and a need to think about it, when we were pretty sure we were going to buy. We bought. Everyone smiled and shook hands. One of the sellers gave us a rendition of the “Skippy” theme song (including whistle), as it was his favourite show when growing up. We left via the bedroom again.

We have been Fidelling. First, near Bayamo. Castro ran the revolution from a hideout in the mountains. Although not easily accessed, it can be visited.


The Steepest Road In Cuba
The Steepest Road In Cuba
This is not an angled photo. That really is how steep the road is. It is known as the steepest road in Cuba, and certainly one of the steepest in the world. It has a slope of over 40 degrees. This is in Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra, climbing to Alto del Naranjo.


Bullet In A Tree
Bullet In A Tree
During the late 50's, when Fidel Castro and his men were based in the Sierra Maestra, fighting, they established a base. Comandancia La Plata. It is said that Fidel personally tested every weapon before letting it be used by his men. A tree near his hut, still alive, was his usual target. It is riddled with bullets.


Fidel's Place
Fidel's Place
The Commander's hut, largely as it was. This was where Fidel lived when the Cuban revolutionaries created a base in the mountains. The refrigerator is the one he had there (and I believe it still works). We don't know the story about how it got a bullet hole in it. This location remained undetected by the army, and Fidel lived and commanded from here until the revolution succeeded.



The second trip we made was to his childhood home.


A Day Trip With New Friends
A Day Trip With New Friends
Sorry to anyone who cares, but I forget exactly which brand of Russian car the body is. Our driver for the day was quick to point out that the motor was, however, a Lada. We did a trip to the property where Fidel Castro was born and spent his youth. We did it with some new Dutch friends, Anne and Sepkje.


Fidel As A Toddler
Fidel As A Toddler
Fidel Castro. Age: 1 year and 10 months. Cute ringlets, Fidel.



And finally, some general pics.


Our New Cuban Friends
Our New Cuban Friends
Okay, so they had been hitting the rum pretty hard. Then they wanted us to have a shot or two. When I started to take a photo of the motorbike, two jumped up. They were certain they would enhance the photo.


A Revolutionary Ride
A Revolutionary Ride
Complete with Cuban revolutionary star.


Mangoes For Breakfast
Mangoes For Breakfast
On the rooftop of our Casa Particular, with the cathedral of Santiago poking out in the background.


A Cuban Supermarket
A Cuban Supermarket
These shelves looked well stocked. In reality, they are all stocked with tinned milk. There are a few other products available, but 3 or 4 kinds of tinned milk are stacked on about 16 shelves. In total, excluding the alcohol, there were no more than 10 or 12 products available in this supermarket. And this is an upmarket one, hard currency only, and no ration books needed.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

“A Toast To Cuba And All Its Quirks”



4 to 10 July, 2009 – Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Santa Clara, and Camagüey, Cuba

Sometimes you feel you want to laugh. And then there are the moments you feel you could just about cry. Cuba thrusts many trying moments upon you. However, when they are at their worst, it is necessary to remind yourself that they are only passing annoyances for us, while the Cuban people live with things day to day.

Rationing is enforced on many products. Not rum or beer, which flow freely from every shop at every hour. Walk into a small grocery shop, and you are sure to find shelves of alcohol, and cheap, too. Nobody would look at you twice if you bought a bottle of rum at 9 in the morning. In fact, they get taken aback if you ask for something else, like water, and they gesture at their shelves telling you that there is no water, but surely a bottle of something stiffer will compensate.

Aside from alcohol, and a few other select products, almost everything else seems to be rationed or in short supply. Rows of empty shelves, or full of the same products. Just today I went in to a “supermarket” with pictures on the windows of dozens of fancy items. Aside from the alcohol, there were only 5 or 6 other products available, spread out so that each one took up an entire counter or multiple shelves. There was a queue out the door and down the street of people lining up for galletas – crackers.

Why do scenes like this seem to be synonymous with Communism? It's almost expected in countries with full-on Socialism. We have wandered the streets for hours looking for things which should be easy to locate in most countries. Fresh milk is impossible to find. Powdered milk is only available with a ration book.

Service standards are appallingly low. Service is not generally offered, you need to ask for assistance. There are exceptions, but most shop attendants and wait staff seem less than interested in performing their functions. They don't complain, but they don't go on a limb. Stand at a counter and look expectant, and you will be ignored. “Disculpe”, and someone will turn to you and smile. Ask a question, and they will answer. It is an uphill battle to get to this point, but you finally have them engaged. In most countries, they would now wait until you have indicated you have no more questions, that you need no more assistance, before they would leave you. They would probably confirm it with a “Can I help you with anything more?”, but not here. They answer the question you ask and turn or walk off, requiring effort on your part to re-engage them. In a restaurant, if you want to ask about three dishes, you may lose your waiter while taking a breath between questions.

It is so draining. And after three or four incidents in a morning, you feel wrung out. Do you laugh? Do you cry? No, you sit with your spouse and vent over an espresso. These are generally available, and generally very cheap (like 6 cents, or as low as 1.5 cents). This in itself starts restoring and revitalising, and after a bit of venting, things seem to slip back in to some sort of perspective. Except, of course, if the 24 hour coffee bar which only sells coffee and cigarettes, has run out of coffee. Yes, that happens too. Then you are just about pushed over the edge.

Coffee bars without coffee. Bars without beer (or only warm beer). Restaurants with twenty choices on the menu, but “we only have the fried chicken”. These we have encountered not just once or twice, but often. The extensive and useless menu is actually par for the course – we have now come to expect that the dishes we have decided upon will be unavailable. The waiter doesn't tell you this when you order. No, you start to imagine that you will actually get those oven baked ribs you chose. And then, five minutes later, the waiter wanders out from the kitchen, and you know they are heading your way. Sorry, there are no ribs. There is roast chicken or fried chicken. Yep, should've known.

Ooh, that restaurant looks popular – look at the queue. Hmm, ten tables, and only four occupied. Door is locked, but nobody minds. They wait. A couple leaves, and a waiter lets a few more in, and the queue shortens a bit. Later, some more leave, nobody let in just yet. Then randomly, five minutes later, some more go in. This is definitely one to make you laugh.

Only in a Communist country can you serve a plate of dry chopped cabbage and tell the customer that it's the salad.

30 cent street pizzas. These never run out. A slab of dough with tomato sauce and cheese. For a bit extra, some ham or chorizo. No cutting these. Fold them in half and start. 3 cent icecream scoops. Give me 4. The queues for these go half a block. The line seems disorderly. “¿Ultimo”, “Who's last?” you ask as you approach. Someone will smile at you, or raise their hand. They may not be at the back of the queue, as it is not a strict line, everyone just mills about. Anyway, you just keep your eye on them, and when someone else arrives, let them know you are the end of the queue. It just works.

So, a lot of the street food can be bought in street money, or monedas nacionales. When you deal in these pesos, expect everything to be cheap. Cuba, however, has two currencies. The second currency is known as Pesos Convertibles, or CUCs. These are for foreigners, and this is where you can watch your money disappear. Technically, foreigners are expected to pay for everything with convertibles. And sometimes it is quite clear. Entry to a museum – 3 pesos for locals, 3 CUCs for foreigners. Oh, a CUC is worth 24 to 25 pesos. Some waiters will try and insist that the price of the coffee must be paid in convertibles – 1 peso for locals, 1 CUC for foreigners, effectively trying to force us to pay 25 times what locals pay. You need to be clear before you begin that you are expecting to pay in pesos. Sometimes the CUC makes something sound cheap. A taxi for 3 kilometres – only 5 CUCs! Bargain hard, and still expect to be paying way too much. If you get him down to 2 CUCs, and sometimes you can, you know that locals probably pay 5 to 10 pesos. At least you are only paying 4 or 5 times what they are, not 15 or 20.

Sometimes you can't do much to avoid paying the inflated price. Locals pay a fraction of what foreigners do for buses. Many routes have one or two buses a day with tickets payable in CUCs only. When these buses exist, you are not just steered away, but practically barred from taking the bus with the locals. There is not a lot you can do in this situation, but then when the person putting your bag on wants a tip, and asks brazenly for a CUC per bag, which is hours work for most Cubans, ooh, that gets my back up. I politely decline, but most foreigners seem happy enough to hand it over.

Some locals seem to have the attitude we are made of money, or that value for money is not a priority for us. That we should be just willing to hand out what they ask, because it is only money, and we are not discerning. Some pout at the tip which you know is a decent amount.

And foreigners handing out small bits of money here and there, small to them and big to locals, have created an interesting by-problem. We read somewhere that a beggar in a touristy spot, particularly in Havana, can make more money than a Cuban teacher or doctor. No wonder they come out in droves to hassle us when we are trying to enjoy the sights. “Just one CUC?' they ask. They only need 4 or 5 a day and they are doing very well.

My goodness. Sorry about all that. Time for a change in topic. Better keep it brief, hey.

Che. Ernesto Che Guevara. Oh, maybe I'll let the photo captions say it, as I have already put some thoughts down. Let me just say that he pops up everywhere, on all sorts of things. I'm sure he wouldn't mind that his image and his memory are used to continually promote the revolutionary cause. However, the amount of commercialism that uses his image, and that one particularly famous high contrast image, they may be considered counter to what he stood for.

This week has been about Colonial towns, music and dance, food, and history. The photos tell some stories.


The Ubiquitous Che
The Ubiquitous Che
Poster boy for propaganda everywhere. “Your example lives. Your ideas endure.”


Slave Watchtower And Bell
Slave Watchtower And Bell
Manaca Iznaga, in the Valle de los Ingenios.


View From Slave Watchtower
View From Slave Watchtower
Manaca Iznaga, in the Valle de los Ingenios.


Trinidad, Cuba
Trinidad, Cuba
Above Plaza Mayor, in Trinidad, on Cuba's south coast.


Music And Dance On The Streets Of Trinidad
Music And Dance On The Streets Of Trinidad
Various bands, various styles, lots of rhythm.


Taxi, Santa Clara Style
Taxi, Santa Clara Style
Public transport in many Cuban towns relies on horse drawn vehicles, or trucks for longer stretches. It is hard for us to not romanticise these sorts of things.


Monument To Che
Monument To Che
When Che's remains were recovered from a secret grave beneath a Bolivian airstrip , they were placed in a crypt beneath this memorial. It is a very moving and beautiful memorial with an eternal flame. There is also a small museum with photos of Che from childhood to the last days of his life, as well as many personal effects.


Che
Che
Ever determined.


Towards Victory, Always!
Towards Victory, Always!
Santa Clara was where the revolutionary forces one a significant and decisive battle, with a 18 men under the leadership of Che Guevara taking a 22 car armoured train defended by 350 soldiers, in a battle lasting just 90 minutes. Che became synonymous with Santa Clara, and there are monuments and posters of him everywhere, much more-so than in the rest of Cuba. It is why his remains were eventually brought here, too.


Revolutionary Training
Revolutionary Training
Maybe I've found a cause! (BTW, 20 shots for 6 cents).


Revitalisation By Caffeine
Revitalisation By Caffeine
Street coffees cost about 1.6 cents. Espressos with a dash of milk in a coffee bar like this cost about 5 or 6 cents. Sometimes we splurge.


Kissing Couple
Kissing Couple
A bronze man kisses his bronze lover in the streets of Camagüey, Cuba.


A Typical Cuban
A Typical Cuban
Difficult to understand, hospitable, and always with a cigar in his mouth. Maybe that's part of what makes Cubans difficult to understand!


Of Classic Cars And Cigars



1 to 4 July, 2009 – La Habana, Cuba

We nearly didn't get here, to Cuba. Well, not on our booked date. The day before flying, I seriously thought I may have had the flu. Well, I certainly was displaying some flu-like symptoms. We took my temperature, and it was a little high, not worryingly so, not fever, but higher than normal. And there was my nose and throat and all that... I felt like a train had hit me. Oh, not sleeping the night before didn't help, but was that because I was sick which made me feel hot, or because I was hot which made me feel sick? Suffice to say this is not a great time to hop off a plane from Mexico with flu-like symptoms. We prayed.

I woke up feeling like a new man. No temperature, no throat pain, no aches, just a bit of a runny nose. We caught the flight, and we filled in our health cards on arrival. I didn't lie or exaggerate, just ticked the boxes to yes or no in terms of which symptoms I had. And soon we were on our way to La Habana.

La Habana, (or Havana to us English speakers). What a fantastic city. It has been a while since we have been in a city with this much soul, this much character. We wandered for hours, each day, aimlessly at times, just snapping photos and drinking in the atmosphere. No agenda, no sights to “tick off”, just a city to be experienced. Bars and cafés and restaurants, squares and parks to sit in, peso pizza and ice cream, churches and palaces and museums.


Capitolio Nacional
Capitolio Nacional
There are a number of picturesque parks and plazas in downtown Havana, and many beautiful buildings. This building, formerly the seat of Cuban Congress (i.e. before the revolution), is quite stunning. Many families come out of the claustrophobic backstreets to enjoy the open spaces around it, just sitting and sunning. There was often a game of soccer in one corner or another, but the biggest surprise was late afternoon, when there were a number of group exercises occurring. Some appeared to be practicing Tai Chi, while younger groups worked through combinations of stretches, martial art moves, and dance steps.


Statue Of The Republic
Statue Of The Republic
17 metres tall and weighing 49 tons, she's a big bronze woman.


Feeling Like Jack
Feeling Like Jack
Feeling like Jack, of beanstalk fame. Side entrance to Havana's cathedral.


A Colonial Courtyard
A Colonial Courtyard
Beautiful and fairly typical.


Palacial Interior
Palacial Interior
Apparently Tiffany had a hand in the interior decoration tips of this palace in Havana, now a museum of the revolution.



In Havana, there are some newer cars and buses on the road. Some. There are some modern(ish) motorcycles and moto-taxis (called coconuts because they have a round shell). There are a lot of older vehicles. In the mid-age, there are Ladas and Trabants, with a few Fiats and an occasional Toyota. Then there are the old cars. Most of these are from before the revolution. And Cubans just keep them going. I guess about 40-50% of Havana's collectivo taxis, plying fixed routes, are Buicks, Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, Fords, and so on, all from the 1940's and 1950's. Every now and then, maybe twice a day, a car from the 1920's rolls by, or is found parked on a side street. Motorcycles are generally from the 50's through to the 70's, and all bar a handfull have sidecars. Those 1950's taxis are the eye catchers. Some are barely road legal and have seating for 10 or more. They are kept rust free and running and that is all that matters. While others are lovingly maintained, polished and gleaming, a car enthusiasts dream purchase. Most owners seem happy enough to let you photograph their car, no matter what condition it is in. Many of these cars are parked for a stint in an area on Prado. This stretch is sometimes affectionately referred to as “Jurassic Park”.


A Cuban Taxi
A Cuban Taxi
A collector's item in most of the world, but an economic necessity in Cuba. Pre-revolution cars of U.S. origin ply the roads.


A Well-Cared-For Cuban Taxi
A Well-Cared-For Cuban Taxi
Some of the taxis are given more love and attention than others.


An Older Beauty
An Older Beauty
One of the occasional older cars that can be found on the streets of Havana.


A Typical Havana Motorcycle
A Typical Havana Motorcycle
Few and far-between are motorcycles without sidecars in Havana. Often with a spare wheel strapped on the back, and usually ridden with a pillion and one or two passengers in the sidecar, they are a common sight in downtown.


Taxis Wait In Jurassic Park, Havana
Taxis Wait In Jurassic Park, Havana
Affectionately known as Jurassic Park, many old taxis wait in this stretch of Prado (Paseo de Martí), Havana.



We are staying in a “casa particular”, which is a private home which rents out rooms. So, it is in a residential street, although we are only two minutes walk from some of the major downtown sights. Almost all streets are residential to some extent, here, or at least there are apartments within a block. So, when walking around, you always get some great insights into the lives of Havañeros. Communicating with neighbours, for instance, rarely seems to be a private affair. Sitting or standing on their balconies, residents bellow to people on other balconies, above, below, or on the other side of the street. Sometimes a rope is dropped in to the street. There, somebody will tie on a basket of things, a bag of stuff, or a bottle of something. A whistle or a wave, and the resident above pulls it up, avoiding trips up and down stairs. Door keys are a hazard, being tossed down to friends or relatives who have yelled up to announce their arrival. Kids play in the streets, and sometimes their games seem to include rules to allow for traffic. Hitting a tennis ball up against a wall on a narrow street, for example. I would have thought this was a game that would stop when a pedestrian, motorcycle, or car needed to pass. However, the game we observed seemed to have a rule that you were required to hit bigger or wider so that there was no interruption. I did pass with concern we might be hit, but there was no such incident. Marbles is still a big hit, with pairs of children flicking those little glass balls in all sorts of places. Amazingly nostalgic just to watch some of the simple things.

Music. Music of one sort or another filters out to most streets at most times of the day. Thankfully, we are getting a break from the 80's soft rock that we were bombarded with in Central America (although we did here Toto's “Africa” once today). We assume a lot of what we are hearing is local. Sure, there are some big Latin names that we can identify, but beyond that, there are many well known rhythms and styles that evolved here and are Cuban through and through. Music is a big part of Cuban lives.

Cigars. They are a part of everyday life for many Cubans. Overall, Cuban people are fairly heavy smokers. To see employees in service industries smoking even a cigarette is a sight we are not used to. This is certainly the first time we have seen waiters smoke cigars while standing in front of a restaurant, trying to get potential customers to frequent their establishments. We have seen fathers smoking cigars while walking hand in hand with their children in the street. We witnessed a woman smoking a cigar while hanging her washing out. Couples smoke cigars in the squares. Groups of men drinking bottles of rum in cafés – well, that is at least one place you expect to see Cuban cigars being smoked.


Smoking A Cuban
Smoking A Cuban
We snuck out on to the roof to have our first Cuban since arriving in Havana. It was a gift from the restaurant where we dined, so it was probably not an expensive one. It was pretty damn good, still.



And to finish our blog on Havana, a photo to make you laugh.


The Unknown Story Of The Blue Dog
The Unknown Story Of The Blue Dog
Downtown Havana. Jo didn't believe me at first. “Look, a blue dog", I had said. Had she misheard me? Was I exaggerating or referring to something other than a living animal? Was I majorly confused or delirious in the heat? Or was there a sad canine to be seen? No, it was a blue dog. Obviously the blue all over the pavement is part of the story – but the sequence of events that ended with a blue dog and a blue pavement are a mystery. If this dog could talk, it would have had a great story. Maybe we should have a story competition?