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.