Friday, 31 December 2010

Havana in general

I am beginning to form some general impressions about Cuba. These aren't particularly well informed but are based on my first hand observations and feelings about the country and its people at this point in time..

It feels like there is a strong sense of identity and not a little pride in the 'idea' of Cuba. That said there is an appetite for more than is currently on offer. One senses frustration at the absence of products and hunger for style and choice. I heard today from a Scottish doctor in training here that there is no shortage of technical expertise and regard for patient care but they lack basics for sterilisation, even soap.

Developed world progress feels a step away. Some of the state run restaurants and hotels could easily be viable as businesses but it seems unlikely that the theatre that I attended and it's medium to lavish production of La Boheme would survive any business case test - but what price culture and opera does indeed enjoy subsidy in the UK?  So I think the question is how to protect the best whilst setting free the strongest, and enhancing the high quality knowledge based professions with comparable equipment and resources.

Service culture however is generally not well embedded, perhaps because the businesses are not reliant on customer so much as state patronage.   Today, waiting 20 minutes for a sandwich the young man serving me was clearly embarrassed but his boss didn't really understand the rules of engagement regarding complainants and desirable  outcomes of customer satisfaction or at worst dampening of irritation levels. That said the B&B casa particulares do  show the values associated with sole traders and given their oversupply they are fiercely competitive except on price which is similar everywhere. I think that the interest in the tourist currency, CUCs is a strong motivation since it affords access to more exotic products.

To it's credit Cuba is heavily invested in the arts, health and history but it's infrastructure serves it poorly and it feels politically  isolated. As yet I haven't watched much TV but I have seen little interest in newspapers nor appetite for news - except the weather, so I wonder at the capacity for Cubanos to conextualise  themselves among similar emerging economies - generally in South and Central America there is growth but Cuba's growth is stunted by its own policies and that of its most influential neighbour.

This is a easy country in which to travel and I would definitely entertain the idea of cycling around the island, perhaps avoiding Havana. Other road users are polite and friendly and the roads are generally made well enough. Buses can be overcrowded especially in Havana but they are very cheap locally and even tourist buses are reasonable in price. Roads are very clean with none of the fluttering plastic bags seen littering the roadside in other countries developing countries.

People here are friendly and polite. Most adults are happy to say hello and the children are OK. I have not once heard the disparaging shout 'Gringo' and people readily engage in conversation almost universally enquiring where you have come from. That said, a good number try and sell you something and there is a flourishing black market fed by the products needed to  service the successful tourist trade.

In a  nutshell Cuba is a fine and interesting place to visit and could be an exciting place to live, not least for the music and dance that pervades the public spaces and many bars.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Cuba 5

Leaving Havana I took a bus a little more than 100km west to the Town of Viñales in the green and fertile valley of the same name. Once we had left Havana the main highway was quiet and we made good time. I was met by La China so called because her father is Chinese and she somewhat inherited his features. She shouted for me loudly for fear of losing my trade to other Casa owners.  She seems nice if a little pushy.

As we arrived it felt very cold - it has dampened my spirits somewhat but the locals were flabbergasted at the weather and every second person I met commented how cold it was. Having missed breakfast I walked 2km to a hotel with a view and had a sandwich. The valley is surrounded by hump shaped mountains - these are the remains of a high plateau left behind when the valley was formed by the collapse of the land when underground rivers weakened it.

 Later I found a short walk to some local caves passing fields of tobacco and pineapple plants  At the caves I chatted with some young local rock climbers before returning for a home made dinner of shell fish and rice.

The next day I found a nice circular walk which passed through the valley under the first warming sun for the last 3 days. In the afternoon I mainly hung around the town's centre enjoying a cold beer and plucking up courage to take part in an individual salsa lesson under the scrutiny of the passing public.

Cuba 4

Given that today is Sunday, for a catholic country close to Christmas it feels pretty understated. After changing some money and checking out the chocolate museum for a reviving cup of thick hot chocolate  I made my way to the museum of the Revolution. I admit that I had hopes that the defining moments of this country would be well presented but I was disappointed. Although it answers some questions the exhibition is poorly curated. They nickel and dimed me with prices of $6, $2 and $1 for the visit, my camera and looking over a couple of extra rooms. There were no guides and the attendants were half asleep.

Afterwards I took some sun along El Malecón stopping for lunch at a nice grill where I had fish, vegetables, fresh orange juice, a pina colada and coffee for an economical £10 including service. Walking it off I came upon a film in the making, 'el Zombie Juan', apparently Cuba's first Zombie movie.

In the evening I headed for the old town finding an ample bar serving light meals enlivened by a group of young musicians with some great music. I chatted a little with some of the three percussionists, the youngest of whom told me he had been learning for about 9 years. He was good.

Much of the rest of the time was spent admiring the architecture and enjoying the vibrancy of the city.

Part 3 Cuba

Leaving Matanzas presented no real problems. I hate taking taxis so I carried a bag and rucksack to the Hershey train station. This is an electric train that started life in Barcelona but began service in Cuba for the sugar exporting chocolate company 70 odd years ago. It is actually a wreck and broke down a couple of times on the 90 km trip to Havana. That said it was an enjoyable quirky experience enhanced by chats with Seth and Michelle two fellow travellers respectively from USA and Australia.

On arrival in East Havana we took a launch across a short stretch of water and a nice man gave us the change we needed for our passage. At my Casa Maria Ellen the dentist landlady kindly settled me in and I went to dinner with my new acquaintances from the train. Fist impressions of Havana were good. The central old part is being lovingly restored and many of it's buildings exhibit a fine if somewhat eclectic mix of styles. Dinner was ok and accompanied by good Latin music. We also enjoyed a beer from a local microbrewery and cocktails at the appropriately (for me) named Hotel Inglaterra.

The next day I fulfilled my errand to deliver a Christmas package comprising an odd assortment of things to a friend's adopted Cuban family. Most precious among these was a pack of disposable nappies which are hard to obtain  in Cuba's still limited economy.

Afterwards I took coffee at Hotel Internacional de Cuba, a fine and luxurious place overlooking the gulf of Mexico. Then walked the Malecón into Town where I took a tour of the Havana Rum museum which was in fact very poor return for the £5 ticket.

In the evening I went to the theatre and saw La Boheme, shamefully my first ever opera. The quality of the production was outstanding and although as a tourist I was charged double the local rate I still had change from £15. Strangely I met a couple from Purley so we chatted smugly about the warmer weather away from snowy Surrey.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Part 2 Cuba

Today's adventures have been subject to continuing cold weather and now rain. Last night I visited an organisation in Matanzas dedicated to promoting various forms of artistic expression. Patio Colonial offered a compact open performance space wedged between buildings near the main square and close to my bed and breakfast lodgings. I arrived punctually for the alledged 9pm start but it was clearly some way off. I decided to try and buy a drink and found restuarant willing to sell me a bottle of rum.

The act was a male singer, a slightly effeminate but very good looking man who specialised in love songs. His voice was very good and although his repertoire include some badly sung Frank Sinatra numbers the Spanish songs were well performed with a light baritone and much feeling. Because of the chilly evening air I relied too much on my tots of rum and by the end found the need to make my hasty if unsteady way home.

The next day after breakfast I went to the Cadeca to change money. This was a simple process although the counter assistant studied each £20 note as though it were a fake Rembrandt. Afterwards I took a bus, locally called a wau-wau to the caves of Belamar. It was a strange journey as the bus first did a 25 minute circuit of surrounding hills before returning to where it began and then setting off once more for the caves.

The caves were impressive but the visit was spoilt for me by some English tourists trying hard to conform to a Brits abroad stereotype. Unfortunately the guide was a bit of a joker and this played to his strength so I resigned to being the somewhat grumpy member of the party. Afterwards there was the choice of a local and tourist restaurant and choosing the one with local money I dined well and incredibly cheaply with a starter of chicharones which are kind of giant pork scratchings but not as good here as they are in Peru.

I sort of wasted the rest of the day - I found a recommended bar that I intended to visit but rain and tiredness enfeebled me and I slept some 11 hours!

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Cycling for one day in Cuba

I couldn't leave Cuba without a cycling experience and it wasn't without it's moments of drama. I rented a bike through my B&B, costing about £7 for the day. I didn't expect it to be great and it wasn't. Brake function was around 20% of normal, there was a bulge in the front tyre which gradually got worse and the saddle moved around a bit. On the plus side all the gears worked  OK and it was almost big enough for me. 

I decided to set off  from the pretty valley town of Viñales where I wast staying heading for the coast. Peurta Esperanza  which seemed a to be 'hoped for' destination. On reaching it after little more than an hour I was quite pleased with the progress, mostly down hill with a breeze helping me along. 

We passed through the valley between the mogotes. Mogotes are rocky hills characterised by their rounded, tower-like structure. The  heights of these towers are generally less than 25 m  and  diameters range from 10 to 200 m. Mogotes are remnants of eroded limestone sedimentary layers and the valley from which they emerge was a once high plateau that collapsed when weakened by the flow of underground rivers.

Peurta Esperanza is a quiet fishing village and the harbour was off limits without a pass so I pushed on a further 40km to Cayo Jutías a spit of land and a superb beach at the end of a long causeway. This road was tough going, partly asphalt and partly dirt. Often the best strips of smooth road had been sequestered by farmers in order to dry the harvest of rice. I shared the road with the odd pig, goats and white Cattle Egrets startled by my passing. These bird share a symbiotic relationship with the cattle and oxen in the fields. People were very friendly if surprised to see me on this fairly deserted road. 

Arriving at what looked like a frontier crossing I was invited to pay an entrance of $5 to the beach. Realising that I had now covered 70km, it was past lunch time and I wasn't certain I could  manage to return before dark I was somewhat worried. The soldier, yes  a soldier attending the barrier was polite and persuasive in telling me I could visit the beach and it's restaurant and the driver of the tour bus would be pleased,  for a consideration, to carry me back to Viñales. Unfortunately it wasn't to be. The driver was a bit of a jobsworth and unwilling to include me among his clients. 

After a rapid rehydration of water and cola I set off for the 65km return journey. Unfortunately after about 40km I began to cramp badly and was needing to stop and walk every few kilometres. At one point a dog overtook me and I was in a lot of pain. 

Eventually the road levelled out and I could manage to ride but it soon became  dark. Luckily I had a head torch which at least offered a signal to oncoming traffic but wasn't enough light by which to avoid the potholes. Eventually I arrived back at my Casa to the both acclaim and dismay of it's owners that I had travelled so far and arrived back after dark. 

Overall it was a great journey impressing upon me the ease and possibility of cycling in Cuba. The next day I did see some tourist cyclists and I think it would be quite a fun journey to circumnavigate the island, perhaps skirting round Havana. Next time maybe. 

Friday, 24 December 2010

Cuba 1

I hadn't anticipated quite so much anxiety travelling to Cuba but or want of a spare part the plane delayed 12 hours and we waited and waited. The  part had  to be sourced from France via light aircraft and once fitted our pilot went to the wire trying  in vain to get us airborne before his time allowance ran out. The only consolation was a stay at the rather plush Gatwick Sofitel and the possibility of a €600 compensation claim.      

Arriving at Varedero we exited without problem. I changed some pounds into convertible pesos, the special money used by tourists and took a taxi to Matanzas, Varadero's poorer but more authentically Cuban neighbour to the East. Mira, the owner of Casa Alma had understandably let my room but found me another with her sister.  Marta is a neurologist working at the Children's Hospital and her apartment has one room given over to paying guests. She seemed very pleased when she learned I would stay 3 nights and I gleaned that her pay as a qualified doctor wasn't equal to UK equivalents. 

Following breakfast I spent 3 hours walking the town. Matanzas is a bit of a puzzle. It's colonial past is evident but in places it has been let go to a great extent. That said there is evidence of development with a strong flavour of visual arts in galleries, collectives and studios and a few nice bars. Most of the shops display only a poor selection of unbranded goods, in particular the pharmacies which are stark by comparison to most western countries. 

I think one can feel safe here. I have chatted to many locals, been given free coffee and wasn't hassled once. Traffic is noisy and smelly and there are a good number of more or less preserved ancient US cars and I even saw an Austin. Interestingly there are some horse and Cart and motorbike and sidecar taxis and a fair number of not very good cycles. 

The town is dominated by the sea and two rivers although today the former does not seem too inviting given a chill wind from the North. Walking the riverside young people were racing sea canoes and I saw a few men fishing with nets. 

Having been promised 25C and sunny we have a chilly cloudy 18C with a northerly breeze but somewhat better than at home. 


Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Sofia and friends in London

I spent an enjoyable evening in Bolivar Hall close to Warren street underground station listening to Peruvian music performed by the small but talented group of Andean troubadours. Vocalist, Sofia Butchuck from Cuzco led the evening singing in Spanish and Quechua. She sang beautiful ballads referencing the sacred properties of the coca leaf, the indigenous people's god Pachamama and the natural world of mountains and the flying condor. She was accompanied by Santiago on guitar and Paloma on charango, a small 10 string guitar like instrument. She also sang songs with a political message focusing on internal struggles on mining concessions in Bagua and elsewhere.

Sofia's musical performance was followed by the that of Jose Navarro.  Jose performs a ritualistic dance of scissors and is a puppeteer an mime artist. The scissor dance is an acrobatic and, as can be,  seen highly costumed performance.

The theme for the evening held some irony since the recent bicentennial independence celebrations in south America pay scant attention to the 500 years of oppression of it's indigenous communities. Unfortunately the event was not well attended but this was more than compensated by its quality and ambiance.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Peru Support Group is organising a public meeting on: ‘The Outcomes of Bagua: The Peruvian Amazon One Year on from the Violence’

This Blog is not only about my travels in this beautiful country, I also try to focus my interest and support on its culture and politics. I recently attended a meeting organised by the Peru Support GroupSpeakers included Amnesty International and CARE Peru.
On 5 June 2009, Peru witnessed probably the worse loss of life since the end of the country’s internal armed conflict in 2000, following protests by indigenous groups against a series of legislative decrees, collectively known as the 'Law of the Jungle' (Ley de la Selva). These were approved by President Alan García in 2008 to make Peruvian law conform to the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States.

 The protest by Indigenous Peoples against the exploitation of natural resources on lands traditionally occupied by them, which had been going on for 50 days on the stretch of road known as the Curva del Diablo leading to Bagua and Bagua Grande in Amazonas department, was broken up by police and resulted in the deaths of 33 people.

Twenty-three of those killed were police officers, five were local townspeople, and five were indigenous people. The fate of one police officer remains unknown to this day.

On 26 May 2010, Alberto Pizango, the leader of one of the Peru’s main indigenous organisations, AIDESEP (Asociación Interétnica de Desarrollo de la Selva Peruana), was immediately detained by Peruvian police when he returned from exile in Nicaragua. He had been granted asylum by the Nicaraguan government after the Peruvian authorities accused him of being responsible for the violence which led to the deaths in Bagua. He was released on bail the day following his detention, pending trial for the charges of sedition and conspiracy.

On 19 May 2010, Peru’s Congress passed the Law on the Right of Indigenous People to Consultation (Ley de Consulta) - a law providing for consultation with Indigenous People on matters that affect them. The law still has to be enacted by President García. If he observes it, the law will return to Congress and be subject to a parliamentary debate.

You can see the 2 presentations on the Peru Support Group website. Essentially they sum up the lack of progress to date and the need to establish some robust and trusted processes of investigation and some for of reconciliation for the loss of lives on both sides. The issue of rights to consultation of the indigenous peoples is still not resolved and there is therefore a need to continue to hold all sides to account and to ensure better process to resolve such hotly disputed land usage problems.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Last few days in Lima, Peru

I generally try to pay attention to endings of trips. I had reserved 5 days in Lima thinking that there would be no end of things that I would like to do, but if truth be told, given an open agenda I have faltered somewhat in my motivation. My attention has turned to coming home, so a note to myself to always finalise in fully active mode with planned events and activities. That said, I have enjoyed some diversions; dabbled in a little salsa, spent 2 evenings at a jazz club, enjoyed cerviche with Maria Ynes and her family and tested some gourmet foodie places. Most notably I swam with sea lions, 'los lobos del mar'.

This latter trip was to the somewhat textured community of Callao about 8 miles up coast. Callao is a very large suburb but the part I visited is a commercial sea port, marina, army fortress and naval barracks. More than anywhere that I have visited in Peru people were very direct in their warnings for me not to stray into the barrios beyond the clearly defined limits around Plaza Grau a small tourist and commerce centre.

In view of the pending boat trip I lunched lightly on an empanada, tasting of Cornish pastie and fruit juice. This was the most costly tour of my time here in Peru and at $35 I was told it would last 4 hours. The company, Ecocruceros and the boat seemed of a high standard and I was joined by a group of 14 happy Belgians, a Flemish flag-waving group from the North who had been in Lima for a festival and were now in relax mode. It seems that flags and waving them are quite popular in Belgium something of which I was unaware.

We had to motor out for about an hour towards a collection of hilly brownish uninhabited sand islands, one of which was home to a high security prison back in the days of the 'Shining Path' revolutionaries, La Isla el fronton and the other, La Isla San Lorenzo we were told is the largest Island in Peru. Behind it were some smallish islands, Islas Palomino where a colony of sea lions reside. As we drew closer occasional groups of heads popped out of the water checking us out as if to welcome us to their home. We arrived to a cacophony of barking and a nauseating stink. The smell was from the next little island which is made mainly of bird poop or guano, now quite fashionable as a fertilizer on organic farms. The combination of the the sea swell and smell was too much for some of the flag wavers who heaved productively but without the aid of their flagpoles.

Four of us, myself included, gamely elected to swim with the guide and to brave the surprisingly cold waters. By this time they were teaming with ducking and diving mammals cheered on by hundreds of their neighbour onlookers from the vantage point of the island behind. Whilst I wasn't too frightened neither was I overly brave. I happily kept to the rear of our group but even so was approached and under-swum several times by these apparently playful and curious creatures. We were reassuringly told that they had never attacked tourists but nevertheless we should stay in a group so we appeared bigger. With the cold water and a certain rush of adrenalin 15 minutes up close and personal with these 7 foot doggy faced beasts was ample and truly exhilarating.

After our swim we returned to land enjoying Inca Cola and banana crisps in the fading afternoon sun. I returned to Miraflores by combi but was aware that the scent of bird shit was carried with me such that at least one person changed seats.

This is the last of my blog entries this time round and I am already thinking about next year. If you have followed any of these scribblings, my deepest thanks. I enjoyed the trip and writing about it and it is great to have a small often encouragingly positive audience.

Saludos, Alan

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Kuelap and Gocta, historic and beautiful Northern peru

Chachapoyas is the capital of the region Amazonas and as such reasonably busy. The plaza is pretty and from here one can take tours to the pre-Inca fortress of Kuelap. Setting off for the tour with a group of mainly younger tourist from European countries it felt strange to be in such company. Some of them had bussed through the night from Trujillo, about 12 hours and were immediately driving off on a tour – not my style of travel. The drive was about 3 hours on a narrow unpaved road with some great views as we took a wide arc to return high on the other side of a deep gorge.

Kuelap is impressive but probably doesn't have the wow factor of Machu Pichu. That said it is very much worth visiting and our guide made it all the more interesting with great descriptions of its purpose and the Chachapoyan culture. It is a huge complex with the remains of many circular dwellings and attractive angular and diamond details in its construction. On the way back we had lunch and in all it was a very successful tour.

The next day I set of for my 2 days of relative luxury at the Lodge/hotel belonging to Lluis my friend from Tarapoto. This is a newish project within sight of waterfalls at the little known Gocta. To get there I shared a car on a fast road following a river down deep gorge to the dusty hot bus interchange of Pedro Ruiz. In the car was a young Israeli woman working to conserve a species of monkey and doing her PhD from Kent Uni. By coincidence she is married to a man from Tooting and I was sorry that I didn't have time to visit their project which sounded very interesting. You can check in out HERE

The waterfalls are the 3rd highest in the world and are reached via a 2 hour walk along a recently constructed path from the village of Cocochimba. I had a companion for this walk, Javier, one of 15 local guides. He was great, pointing out interesting plants, explaining the method of processing sugar cane and recounting local legends about the waterfalls. On route I had a slight fall and was glad he was around. The walk was great and the whole area provides beautiful views of the surrounding cliffs and mountainside.

On returning for a light lunch I had no specific plans but managed to while away the rest of the day spotting various birds, listening to music and watching the sun set, until the Cusquena hour! Great day except for falling on my butt!

The next day I set off solo to see if I could reach the upper part of the waterfalls. Initially this needed a 12km walk to San Pablo on the other side of the valley. The road to San Pablo is crossed by a handy but steep path or iff you are lucky (I wasn't) you can catch a car going up.On the pathe I came across the smallest church ever. From San Pablo there a newly constructed path takes you to the falls. Passing first through small farms of cane, banana and maize the surface turns to white sandstone with tall erect cliffs on which there are ancient petroglyphs. From here you an see the hotel a white speck across the valley. Eventually it is expected that the two paths from Cocachimba and San Pablo will link up at the foot of the falls offering a 5 to 6 hour trek from one village to the other.

Presently the path enters a longish section of virgin forest giving an indication of the area prior to the now predominant farming. At this point I was somewhat worried by the possibility of bespectacled bear which I knew lived in the area so was pleased to come upon a upon a gang of workers completing the paths. I was the only walker out that day and they seemed surprised to see me without a guide. The last section is a bit of a scramble but I guess will be improved within a few months. The view of the upper falls is if anything more dramatic than seen from below and if you enjoy a walk provides a fulfilling tartget. I returned the way I came and stopped off at another viewing point which is where the path will eventfully descend to the base of the falls.

Arriving back at dusk I had been walking about 9 hours with some significant climbing and felt tired but happy that I had completed this journey on my last day at Gocta before returning the Chachapoyas and then Lima by way of a 22 hour bus ride!