Sunday 25 December 2016

The one where we went on an old steam train, Cuba part 3

So what did we actually do while we were there?
Cayo Levisa. You have to get a little boat out because it's actually an island. I'd decided this is where I wanted to be for my birthday. It was on the way there that the announcement about Fidel was made. They call him Fidel, not Castro.
You already know about the horseriding. We took a bus and a boat to an idyllic Carribean white sand beach, where the clouds were thunderous, the wind was fierce and it spotted with rain.
On my 50th birthday. It was a bit cold and windy, but I went in the sea anyway. I'm British for goodness sake!
We went to an amazing hotel with a pool and scenery to die for, which Fidel had visited. In fact it was his idea to have a hotel there.
La Boca, a little fishing village near Trinidad. Where the river meets the sea, that's where our little casa was, complete with its own balcony, so we could just sit and watch. Every now and again our  Casa owner Guillerme would walk past and say 'Todo bien?' and his wife Viola would come by laughing 'Pintura, pintura, pintura!' with paint all over her hands. All that work-witnessing wore me out. I only moved to go for a swim or to go up the road to the pizza shack for lunch.
We took a steam train to the Valley of Sugar Mills, high above Trinidad. We went to Hemingway's house as you've seen. We chilled at the seaside. We saw Cuba through the windows of our collectivo taxis.
It's not even a one horse town, it's just a little fishing port where the locals go for a dip at dusk and then they go out in their boats looking for a haul. 
We kept moving. In Havana you have to keep moving. There's always somebody saying 'Where are you from? Do you want to buy lobster? I know a restaurant, I know a disco. Do you want to buy cigars?' And after you've said all the 'No gracias', they simply say, 'Well, can you give me some money for food then, because I haven't eaten for two days?'
That's a condor up there. They're everywhere. We also saw hummingbirds. So tiny and beautiful.
What can you do? You give them some money, with a smile, and thank your lucky stars that you live in a country where there is hot water and supermarkets with food and the right to vote.
But what of Fidel? On the 25th November, at 10.30pm he died. Within hours he was cremated and his ashes were on display for the people. People all across the land queued for hours to sign the Book of Condolences.
That's one of the towers from the old Sugar mills in Iznaga. A picturesque shot on the left, but that's closer to reality on the right.
The country went into nine days of mourning, which involved: no music (aside from political music played at one town hall), no entertainment, no museums open, and most of all, no alcohol! We firmly believed Ron (as they call rum in Cuba) would become our new bff, but no. Ron was on his best behaviour. We hardly saw him. One of our Collectivo friends said, 'Thanks Fidel. A free detox.'
I could have managed without the music, in fact when we heard the news, I felt quite touched and sad, and was impressed with the scale of the respect being shown. When the lady said, 'Our esteemed Commandant, our beloved Leader has died', I felt for her.
But I can confess that it wasn't until we went to a bar that night, my birthday, to meet friends for a few drinks, and was told 'No alcohol for nine days', that I properly went into mourning!
Slightly joking; we did actually look at each other and burst out laughing. Hysteria probably.
When anyone thinks of Cuba, they think of music and Rum. Well, we did it neat. No music, no rum. And I can report it's still a fine place, a special place. In fact, I'd say we had a deeper experience of Cuba if anything.
So if you go, enjoy, but be prepared. You might need to adjust a bit, but if you are able to, you will be rewarded by meeting wonderful people and having a unique, eye-opening, possibly life-changing experience.
So long Cuba, I wish you all the very best.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

A Cuban adventure part 2

Welcome to the countryside. This is just outside Vinales in the beautiful Pinar del Rio province. Despite the climate it is verdant, with mountains which look like a herd of elephants which have been half buried. There are palm trees and waterfalls. I really loved looking out of the window when we were travelling around. Once you arrive in Cuba, it becomes very clear that you are in the Carribean, which is one of those things you tend to overlook before you get there.
Collectivo taxis became part of our lives. Every time we needed to move town, from Havana to Vinales, Vinales to Trinidad, Trinidad to La Boca, La Boca to Cienfuegos and Cienfuegos to Havana, we took one.

Forget buses, this is the way to do it. The price is similar, but they don't take as long and you get thrown together with other people who become new friends for a few hours.
Our very own cowboy, Manuel, who took us out for an amazing bum-numbing 5 hour ride, to a tobacco farm, a cave and a coffee plantation. He first got in the saddle aged one and a quarter. Q actually looked amazingly comfortable on his horse Morro. Every time Morro went to the toilet, Manuel would exclaim, 'Muchas cervezas, muchos mojitos!'

We met people from all over the world, and had the most wonderful chats. In fact that's a feature of this type of travelling. Everyone is open to chatting. We met people from France, Germany, Lithuania, Canada, America, Nicaragua, Mexico, Cuba, America, China, and had really great intense conversations.
This is what the barns look like where they dry out the tobacco. They have just the right amount of humidity. Each area of the island is good for growing different crops. In this part of Pinar del Rio, the crop is tobacco. Farmers have to grow the designated crop or they will have their land taken off them. They also have to sell 90% of their crops to the government at a fixed price. The remaining 10% is theirs to smoke, to share with family or to sell.

Politics was favourite, with Donald Trump always raising his head at some point. In fact quite quickly. Within minutes most times. I'm sure we do a lot more small talk here before we get down to the nitty gritty. 

I can report that we didn't encounter any Trump supporters. 'He's mad, right?' our American friend, Lavinia said. Our Canadian friend Joy, who is black, reported that her relatives were looking at how to leave the US because they no longer felt safe.

You know that nubile virgin who hand rolls your cigars for you on her thigh? Well, there she is on the left. Don't be disappointed. Everyone has off days.
That's a revolutionary on the right. They dip the cigar end in honey before you start puffing on it. I'm not a puffer normally, but you know, when in Cuba...

There was great concern amongst everyone that we spoke to about the rise of the right wing all across the world. I found that rather comforting. 

Coco Loco, a drink as big as your head. It's got coconut water and various other bits in it, then they plonk down a bottle of rum on the table and you stick as much as you like in. Imagine the dilemma. There's no alcohol to be had for love nor money, and then you get access to some, but you're riding a horse with stirrups which are too long. Your feet only just reach if you point them as hard as you can, so you feel out of control. Meh. I had a tiny capful just because and then trotted home with all the grace of a sack of onions.

But I guess that people doing what we were doing would be like-minded. I guess if we'd gone all-inclusive to Varadero for two weeks, maybe we might have met people with differing points of view? I don't know.

This was the cave part of our excursion. You walk about 250 metres in and then there's a natural swimming pool. Pitch black apart from torches, but absolutely heavenly. What an adventure. There were about 30 of us there, and I was the only one who went in! Crazy. They were all papping me. I was just on the point of executing some Ethel Merman synchronised swimming moves for their viewing pleasure, when then this German guy joined me with a headlight on, so we went off to explore instead.

I think my absolute favourite thing was chatting to people. Our Cuban friends were remarkably open and it was very clear that they are thoughtful, politically-aware people.

The left is the view of our street from our roof terrace in Vinales. There's always something to see. If it's not an old car, it's a pair of oxen and cart or the man who comes round on his onion-adorned bicycle, shouting, 'Cebolla! Cebolla!'

One Casa owner told us that Venezuela was very important to Cuba, that they get all their diesel from them, and that financial disaster in Venezuela means ruin for Cuba. No diesel means lorries can't transport goods across the country, farmers can't collect their crops. Really basic stuff. I couldn't help but feel rather worried on his behalf because from what I've read in the news recently, Venezuela is not looking good.

There you go, the oxen I told you about.

I overheard someone say, that in the early 1980s Cuba was doing well. Russia was there, supporting them. 1 CUP equalled 1 dollar. But then Communist Russia went bankrupt and they pulled out of Cuba and now 25 CUP equals 1 dollar, but the wages haven't gone up.

That's our room there, with the white door. The kitchen is to the side of it, and that's the sitting room just in front of it.

Yes, they need change alright. I hope they get it. It doesn't feel right that things should be so unequal, that we should be able to afford a nice holiday there while they struggle to get loo roll and basic medication. It just doesn't feel right.

So what can we do? I guess, listen to what they are saying and be empathetic. This is their life. If you can do something to help, do it, whether that's giving tips or leaving presents. It's really difficult for them to get hold of so many things even if they could afford them, so any gifts are really useful and welcome.

We left all sorts. Medication, toiletries, jewellery, make up, clothes, shoes, accessories, batteries. If you're out for the day with a guide, buy them something to eat or drink. We're not rich in British terms, but in Cuban terms we are, so we need to help if we can, and in a sensitive way.

One more post to come. It must be time to go to the seaside, surely?!

Friday 16 December 2016

Our (Wo)Man in Havana

The view from our balcony in Havana. You look into houses and they may have props holding ceilings up or look derelict, but then a couple of floors up, people are living. Our Casa hallway was full of broken chairs, but inside, it was so beautiful. One of our new friends told us that Havana is so dusty, you have to clean the whole apartment every day.

So that's it. I'm 50 now. After months of milking it, with various different events, we went to Cuba for my actual birthday.
I really don't know where to start. Cuba is such a full-on experience. Our time there was multi-layered, with each day adding something new to the experience. In fact I'd call it an adventure, rather than a holiday.
Vintage cars are everywhere, not just in Havana. They are symbols of resilience and ingenuity, belching out the most awful fumes. Flower sellers on the corner. This is how things are sold, in an apparently impromptu fashion on the move, but Cubans understand how things work. 
Bicycle taxis and horses and carts are even more common than the big old cars. Everyone is remarkably considerate of each other. They are really good drivers, there is no road rage, no anger, everyone just works together.
The education is good and you see school children in their cute little uniforms everywhere. We met lots of highly educated people. Unfortunately professions such as Engineers and University Lecturers are not so well paid, so instead or as well, they take jobs serving in bars or driving taxis, in order to earn more money. They told us it hurt their hearts that this is the case.
We stayed in cities and in the countryside, spent time at the beach and on the road, and every day was full to the brim of sights and sounds and people. 
This tiny dot wasn't worried about a lack of music. She was wiggling her little hips for all she was worth, singing to herself, oblivious to the world and full of joy. That dog made me laugh. He's clearly seen it all before. Trinidad, Cuba.
Cuba is a noisy, busy place, possibly one of the most difficult places to take photos, because everyone is on the move constantly and there are always people around. You take a shot and before the clicker goes, a bus has whizzed by or someone has arrived in the deserted hallway you thought looked attractive.
Our Casa for the first night, run by a lady called Reysa, who was very kind and motherly and probably saw in our eyes that we were daunted and needed a little help. It transpired that she was friends with our next Casa and the final Casa, so we saw her at a party on our last night. This is a very Cuban looking Casa, with high ceilings, an internal Courtyard with rooms off it, Saints, and the ubiquitous rocking chairs. Everyone has rocking chairs in Cuba, whether they are very simple wooden affairs, cast iron or antique bergere style caned chairs. So nice to sit in. I'm a convert.
Because so much of it is deprived and in a state of degradation, it feels voyeuristic to take photos of people and their homes. What we consider to be faded grandeur or poetic decay is actually real life hardship for the people of Cuba, and it doesn't feel right to enjoy that. So, often, you keep your camera in your pocket.
Plaza de Cathedral, Havana
We went now because we thought that Cuba might change and we wanted to see it in its 'authentic' state. But the reality of that is that this so-called 'authenticity' is hardship.

The truth is, Cuba needs to change, but in the right way for them. The people desperately want progress. They want the internet, decent wages, trade with America so that they can get things like parts for cars and goods in the shops, freedom to travel and generally to be up to date with the world.
Casa number 2, known as Casa Blanca, for obvious reasons. This is right on the Malecon, the sea road in Havana, where everyone comes at night to meet up and promenade. We watched from the balcony
They are incredibly intelligent, well-qualified people and they don't want to be patronised. They understand that they are living in a time-warp and whilst they are fiercely proud of their country, they want the chance to be current and modern.
It's a really clever mix of antique and modern. With everything painted white, everything fits together very nicely. I took a handful of outfits and wore them on repeat, leaving most of it behind as gifts when I left.
So, what did we do? We elected to stay in Casa Particulares rather than hotels. These are homes belonging to Cubans, where you stay in an ensuite room and effectively live with the family. They cook you breakfast and dinner, do your laundry, organise your trips and transport, and look after you like you are their children. All you have to do is enjoy the luxury of being on the receiving end of all this precious care and loving attention, try to speak a little bit of Spanish and fall in love with them. They make it so easy.
Hemingway's house, about 10 miles outside of Havana, a real little oasis, but possibly a dilemma. Here he was, this rich American living in a beautiful house, set in huge grounds, and his neighbours all live in the simplest, most run-down shacks. Not sure how that would feel. 
The number one tip I would give to anyone thinking of travelling to Cuba is to learn Spanish. Cubans have very few opportunities for International travel, in fact a lot of them haven't even had the chance to visit other parts of their own country. So us privileged members of the English-speaking world need to do a bit of work.
Plenty of evidence of his passion for huntin', shootin' and fishin'!
Luckily for me, I love languages. Many years ago, I used to teach English as a Foreign Language, and it struck me that in order to understand what my students were going through, maybe I needed to learn a new language. So I went to Spanish evening classes for a term and, my goodness, it has held me in good stead.
Havana by night. This was the night that the period of official mourning came to an end. There were people everywhere, drinking rum and dancing. A fellow called Paulo came and started chatting to us. He told us he didn't like tourists, and he didn't like capitalism. But he did clearly like Ron (rum) and Q's beard. Kept leaning over and stroking it in wonder!
More often than not, we stayed in Casas where they only spoke Spanish, and somehow we managed. I was seriously punching above my weight, but somehow, we understood each other and had conversations about really meaningful things and on occasion laughed until we cried. I have no idea how. I think it might have been magic. I know it felt like it.
Our final casa for the last night in Havana
When we first arrived, it felt really difficult. On our first full day, we walked here there and everywhere trying to get bus tickets to take us from Havana to Vinales. A fruitless task. We were dismissed, sent from pillar to post, so that when somebody offered us a different solution, we were willing to take it regardless of what it involved.
Up the stairs to the roof terrace for breakfast
We booked our first collectivo taxi. The man at the office said, 'I just need to tell you that there may be one or maybe two other people in your taxi.' We said, 'That's fine'.
Of course he was having a fine joke at our expense. There were nine of us in the taxi, which when it turned up was a 1940s Dodge. Straight out of the film Casablanca, with a steering wheel from a Seat, seats from a 1970s Lada, handcarved wooden door handles, and all manner of ingenious extras. Truly the Turner Prize of Heath Robinson inventions. I absolutely loved it. Spent half the journey chuckling to myself.
After a few days, something shifts and suddenly it starts to feel OK. Even seasoned travellers that we met said the same thing. From then on, you're fine. It looks chaotic. It looks like there's no system, but somehow, with a beer at lunchtime to help proceedings, everything works.
I spent months preparing for this holiday. I spoke to everybody I knew who had been to Cuba. I spent ages, trying to sort out accommodation and travel and excursions. All I needed for any of them to say, (which strangely none of them did) was, 'Don't worry, the Casa will sort out everything for you'. I mean really. They sort everything. If only I had known, it would have saved me so much worry and hassle. Those ladies are AMAZING. They know everyone and everything. Don't waste your time. Let them look after you. It's their job, their talent and their pleasure. They really want you to love your time in their country.

Well, seems I had plenty to say! And there will be more...

Saturday 29 October 2016

We are family, I've got all my sisters with me!

Once upon a time, there were three little girls. They were often dressed in the same outfits, shared a bedroom and divided their time neatly between playing nicely together and tormenting the very life out of one another. It can only mean one thing. They were sisters.
But that's the beauty of all that childhood stuff. It knits you together, irrevocably, and when you get to a certain age, you realise how very precious that is. As adults we rarely get the chance to be together, all three of us at the same time and in the same place, due to distance and commitments, so when we do, it's a real treat.
About a week ago, we all converged on Salisbury in Wiltshire. It's on a train line for the other two, so it seemed a good place to meet.
Update, thanks to Fiona: Those are mating swan towels on the bed!!

I was the last one to arrive as I had a four hour drive to get there (and a five hour drive back, horror of horrors). They were waiting for me, with a drink at the ready. Half a cider. Haven't been a cider drinker since I left Somerset thirty years ago. Turns out it's just like riding a bike, got straight back into it as though I'd never stopped.

We then popped up to drop our bags off and check out our rooms. Wow! Rather special! But then I knew that already, because Mim only went and stayed there last month! 
When we were kids, after mass on a Sunday, the priest, Father O'Brien would come round and say hello to everyone as we chatted outside. Every week he'd come out with the same questions. 'Who's the clever one, Mum? Who's the quiet one? Who's the naughty one, Mum?' We'd give each other the side eye, and shove someone other than ourselves forward for that last category. 

As kids, we generally accepted that Fiona was the quiet one. Well, this week we re-evaluated the situation. Turns out that number 1 daughter Fiona was the naughty one all along! When faced with our pristine beds, she launched herself, like kids do into freshly fallen snow. Look at that face. I can't look at these photos without laughing.
So eventually we set off, in search of lunch. My little sister, who had planned and organised all of this for me as a wonderful birthday treat, had also brought some bits and pieces she had found in a folder from our Mum and Dad's house before it was cleared out, so we looked at old photos and documents and generally reminisced and marvelled at what she had found.
That's a 1930s handmade cotton dress I'm wearing there, bought when I went on an adventure with Serena a while back
After that we all agreed, it was time to hit the chazzas. Amazing that all three of us like doing that. Salisbury was pretty good. I got a Jaeger velvet skirt, a tweed skirt and some plus fours!

Early evening, we went up to enjoy our fancy rooms and get ready for dinner, which Olivia had booked in the restaurant at the hotel. The food was lovely, and we washed it down with Peach Bellinis. All very delightful.
We had sweet potato chips with our salad. Delicious!
Olivia had brought a whole loads of snacks for after tea, just in case we were still peckish, but we really weren't, so we just hung out in her room, watching TV and chatting until bedtime.
It was the best birthday treat I could have hoped for, and I loved it, loved it, loved it!

The only downside to all this wonderful celebration is that you get to be what feels like much older at the end of it. I'll be Five-OH next month! Yikes. Guess I'll just have to go somewhere nice to soften the blow...