Cuba Libre

“Cooks and Coops”

Havana

Havana! Just the name conjures images of convertibles, cigars, nightclubs, the mafia (remember Michael Corleone in Godfather 2?) … it’s all still there except for the mafia. We first had to battle the humidity and heat in the airport as we snaked our way through immigration. The air-conditioning was supposedly on but evidently ineffective. We weren’t the only ones with rivulets of perspiration flowing down our backs – the poor immigration officers were looking equally uncomfortable, some fanning themselves. Sticky and uncomfortable we cleared immigration, were met by our photography tour leader and local guide, then we hung around the crowded airport waiting for the rest of the group to arrive.

We thought we might change our currency while waiting and then realised the queue for foreigners was too ridiculously long to bother with. A quick word about the Cuban currencies – they have two: the CUP (Cuban Pesos aka ‘coop’) and the CUC (Cuban convertible pesos aka ‘cook’). Tourists have to use the CUCs (‘cooks’). It is pegged at 1:1 to the USD. However, when you exchange your USD there is an additional 10-15% tax! And that’s why we were advised to bring € or £ which gave us a better exchange.

Once everyone arrived and were introduced (there were 8 of us – 4 Malaysians, 2 Singaporeans, 2 Australians in this photography tour) we hopped onto our transport and made our way into the city. By that time, the oppressive heat gave way to thunderous rain, which cooled things considerably.

Our accommodations on this trip were all ‘casas particulares’- private homes with rooms to let. This truly gave us a chance to have a glimpse into Cuban culture and mix with the local folks. In Havana, we stayed at Casa Familia run by 3 lovely ladies who had help from their grandchildren when it came to carrying luggage and mixing cocktails:-)

The lovely ladies of Casa Familia

We got our first ‘feel’ of the neighbourhood when we walked from our casa to the restaurant where we were going to have dinner. My immediate impression – people were warm and friendly. Most did not mind our taking photos, nodding and smiling at us. Buildings were shabby and some even dilapidated; yet there was an understated vibrancy to the neighbourhood.

Dinner was at an interesting restaurant, Abel – previously frequented by the likes of Gerard Depardieu, Jack Nicholson, and other famous celebs I cannot now remember who. We had a huge lobster meal. Portions in Cuba are huge – probably American influence. From then on we sensibly shared our meals.


 Miss Havisham

We spent our first full day in Havana doing typical touristy things – a visit to the museum of art, an amble around the fort, a serenaded lunch where we sang along to old favourites like ‘Guantanamera’. San Francisco square was quite interesting as we watched life go by – boys chasing birds (the literal kind), kids running around, tourists clicking away… but it was Old Havana and it’s many classic convertibles that captivated me.

These automobiles (‘cars’ seems too common a word to refer to these beautiful machines) were gleaming and well maintained – relics of a bygone era – Cadillacs, Chevrolets (“Chebi”), Buicks, Oldsmobile. Cuban mechanics are said to be one of the best in the world because with no spare parts available due to the U.S. embargo, they very resourcefullly use household appliances, parts from Russian Ladas and Moskvichs to maintain and repair these beautiful almendrons (so called because of their bulbous almond-like shapes). These automobiles are cherished dearly here.

The highlight of the day, for me at least, was taking a ride in one of these classics. We rode in an open-top Chevy and took in the various sights of Havana, stopping at the Revolution Square for photos. Loved it.

Of course no visit to Havana is complete without a mojito (or two:-)) at Dos Hermanos the home of the original mojito. Sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Cuba. Stuff only imagined previously. And here I was experiencing it!

Later that evening, we walked along a small stretch of the famous 8 km esplanade called

Malecón. It is a favourite spot for locals and tourists alike; and Hollywood types as well – apparently a scene in Fast & Furious 8 was shot here. The Rolling Stones too held a concert near here – officially it was estimated 500,000 people attended their concert; but our local guide said it was more like 1.8million as people spilled out of the concert area onto the street. The historic concert was free!

Malecón

On our way to dinner, as the bus turned a corner we were somewhat startled when we saw a crowd had gathered blocking our way and folks were cheering and shouting; we then realised that a street boxing session was happening right in front of us! We quickly and excitedly hopped out of the bus to take photos of this unique moment. I don’t know too many places where boxing is an evening past time. Two young boys were slugging it out and others were waiting in the wings. Boxing is very popular in Cuba and apparently there are 19,000 boxers in Cuba today (Wiki)! More on this later.

Havana to me seemed like Miss Havisham (of Great Expectations). Dressed in a once splendid gown, but which had lost its lustre, frayed, faded and yellow. Buildings were shabby and in disrepair, probably not had a lick of paint since the 1950’s but despite that the city still retains her charm. An old world dignified charm that cannot but sweep you into a nostalgic state. That’s the effect Havana had on me.


 Havana Highlights

An early start today. Sunrise at the Malecón but it wasn’t so spectacular. As the sun rose, we went walking along side roads and watched and photographed as folks started their day – some to work, some hanging out their laundry, vegetable vendors pushing their carts out … a quiet bustle. No one minded us. Some nodded, others smiled, and we nodded and smiled back.

Our peaceful walk was suddenly interrupted by a skinny chap covered in tattoos who took to S and asked where she’s from. He called her ‘Singapore’ from then on. He introduced himself as Lazarus and he was proud of his tattoos and he readily posed for her (of course I stood next to her firing away shots).

Cubans I have to say are one of the friendliest people in the world (like the Bhutanese). We were to encounter many people in their homes and in the streets who were genuinely warm and friendly. And so we had a very pleasant and rewarding morning of photography and slowly made our way back to our casa and breakfast.

Breakfast was standard and quite generous in all the casas we stayed at. A plate of freshly cut fruits, salted biscuits, bread, eggs any way you like, coffee. That’s more than I would have on a normal day at home.

After the 1959 revolution, Cuba adopted socialism and the system ensured subsidised food for everyone. “Every Cuban family registers with a local supply store, where they use a ration book. This typically provides about 10kg of rice, 6kg of white sugar, 2kg of brown sugar, 1 cup of cooking oil, five eggs and a packet of coffee per person per month, along with 2kg of meat (usually chicken) every 10 days, a bun every day and a bag of salt every three months. Milk is provided for pregnant women and children under seven years of age. The basic products are guaranteed, but they are not enough – so people often have to travel to several places on several different days to make up the shortfall. Where to find eggs is a common problem.” (Guardian)

Yet, we as tourists did not face any of these issues as the casas for tourists seem to have special access to these commodities and everything including eggs were plentiful.

Today we did various bits and bobs. A walk down the tree-lined Prado Promenade, as artists were setting up their stands. It’s another popular place to gather and shoot the breeze. Cuba has a unique home-swapping or house exchange concept. And apparently house swap deals are often made along this promenade but we didn’t see any, probably because we were there too early. The way it works is houses are exchanged rather than bought or sold. Titles are then swapped. I was curious to find out more and read that this practice came about after the revolution. Buying and selling homes became illegal. The goal was to bring about equality and curb the excesses of the wealthy.

We drove by Havana’s Chinatown – there are no Chinese there now – probably the only Chinatown in the world with no Chinese! We stopped by at the Havana forest. A beautiful spot with a river flowing by. A ritual of some sort was in progress by the river and we kept our distance and watch from afar as a cockerel was sacrificed and prayers offered.

The big item on today’s itinerary was to watch rumba at Hamel Alley. That’s where we headed next. The heart of afro-cuban culture. Festivities were in full swing. We waited in the scorching heat for the high-energy rumba to begin. It did not disappoint! You just couldn’t help but sway to the pulsating beat and boy did these dancers ham it up!

Lunch was back in Old Havana. By now we realised that food is not served pronto as it is in our part of the world. One has to wait as long as one hour for a simple grilled chicken. I have no idea why it should take that long. I never found an answer to that. It’s just the way it is. This was the same in all of the cities we visited. We just had to sit and wait patiently. So we always started with either a mojito or a cuba libre or cubata and the waiting wasn’t so bad after that.

We poked our heads briefly into the Il Floridita, which was one of Hemingway’s favourite watering holes but it was too crowded and filled with way too many tourists.

Il Floridita

We walked in search of cuban women in traditional garb and we were told we may find a few near the old church. And so we did find a couple of them – very interesting looking women colourfully decked up, sitting with their cigars waiting for customers. They were fortune tellers. Might have been interesting, if only I knew Spanish! For a couple of CUCs they were happy for us to take their pictures, and we were happy were weren’t going to leave Cuba without seeing at least one woman in traditional clothes.

   

I didn’t expect to be off the grid but here I am in Havana and OTG again! I had assured my folks that I would get a local SIM and call them regularly. (They didn’t like that I was out of touch when I was in Mongolia). I was surprised, as were my fellow travel companions, that foreigners aren’t allowed to buy SIMs. Not much I can do about that now. I’ll just wait till we’re in a wifi zone and call home. Er … nope. Wifi is not easily available either. Only selected public squares have wifi. It was a common sight to see the tourists and locals alike sitting on benches checking messages, mail etc. This would be an almost daily activity for a few minutes either in the morning or in the evening throughout our trip – a search for public squares with wifi and sociably huddle with our phones in front of our faces.

WiFi central

Our programme for the evening was suggested by moi. How can we leave Havana without going to the famous Buena Vista Social Club? Cuba has some of the best music inthe world. It was put to a vote, tickets were bought and we had a lovely cultural experience (even if somewhat crowded as tables were placed with hardly any space to squeeze oneself in and out – a veritable fire hazard). Two of our group joined in the dancing while the rest of us were happy nursing our mojitos and enjoying the live music.

Buena Vista Social Club


 The ‘Paris of Cuba’

Cienfuegos

Here we are in a socialist country on Labour Day and we were going to give the May Day March a miss. Hmm. What a missed photo opportunity! Would have been quite spectacular I’m sure.

Instead, we were leaving Havana and heading east to Cienfuegos, the Pearl of the South, the Paris of Cuba. Our itinerary will take us through the length of Cuba right up to the eastern shore of Santiago de Cuba, stopping at various cities along the way.

CubaPhysicalMap

Our first stop was the famous Bay of Pigs (Playa Giron as it is locally called). In April 1961, the CIA launched an invasion of Cuba by 1,400 American-trained Cuban exiles who had fled their homes when Castro took over. The invasion took place in the Bay of Pigs. The invaders were badly outnumbered by Castro’s troops, and they surrendered after less than 24 hours of fighting.

Bay of Pigs

We visited the museum, took in a documentary of the failed invasion, took a short walk on the beach (the waters were a dazzling turquoise), had lunch and set off again.

On our way to the Bay of Pigs, we passed through an old sugar village called Australia. No one knew why this village was named Australia, but it generated excitement as there were Aussies among us (I later looked it up but there’s no clear information as to why this village on the other side of the world from its namesake, was so named.) It was from here that Fidel Castro ran his operations during the invasion.

Cienfuegos had a New Orleans feel to it. I have never been to New Orleans mind you, but that’s what it distincly felt like. It was only later that I realised I was not far wrong as Cienfuegos was founded by French settlers from Louisiana!

It is distinctly different from Havana. Here horse-drawn carts were a common sight. The architecture is also quite different. The buildings clean, elegant and well maintained. The historic centre is a UNESCO heritage site. It’s quite a pretty place.

Cienfuegos main square

Cienfuegos waterfront

We walked around the centre and to the waterfront, taking in the relative peace and quiet of the place. We had drinks and listened to a live band at the Palacio de Valle. Yet another distinctive building with distinctive architecture. Moorish perhaps? Mosaic floors, beautiful ceilings, impressive arches – it was an imposing building.

We drove around into neighbourhoods outside the city centre. Families could be seen sitting at their doorstep, talking and watching the world go by. Some waved, others just looked on curiously. The place had such a laid back feel to it that you couldn’t help but be the same.

Dinner was back at the restaurant adjacent to our casa. The mojitos here were strong and one of the best we’ve had so far. The young lady mixing the cocktails was perhaps a tad too generous with the amounts …


Caught in a Time Warp

Trinidad de Cuba

Our casa in Cienfuegos was pleasant enough, Casa Gardenia Blanca. But to our horror, not one but four sizeable rats scurried out in quick succession from a hole in the wall and into in the bathroom of two of our friends! We were quite put off by that, and wondered about the cleanliness of the kitchen … too late to worry or fret about that now though.

After our standard breakfast, we walked about in a different part of town this morning, getting shots in the morning light. An activity I simply love. Just watching and shooting as folks went about their business.

The drive to Trinidad de Cuba (so that one doesn’t confuse it with the other Trinidad) was relatively short and we were there in slightly over an hour. The thing that struck me was how different it was from the previous two cities we were in. Trinidad is a well preserved 16th century town and is also a UNESCO world heritage site. The Plaza Mayor and the side streets off it is the main hub of activity.

We were all split up into different casas here and S and I had no issues with ours. It was the home of the lovely Annabelle and our room was on the first level and had a separate external staircase entrance up to it. Actually it was more than a room – it had a dining room and a balcony with a view of the main road.

It was truly a cowboy town. Boys and men were clip-clopping along the cobbled main road, thus amplifying the sound of the hooves. It was surreal!

We arrived at lunch time and as it had started to rain, we stepped into the nearest restaurant. It took more than an hour to be served, as is the norm in Cuba. The thing to do in Cuba obviously is to plan ahead and to be at a restaurant an hour before you get hungry … we never did get our timing right. We always ended up waiting hungrily.

After filling ourselves, we walked about Plaza Mayor but it was way too hot to really enjoy the walk. The group had split up and wandered about in different directions. S and I were together and we stumbled onto a square and we found Jesus … and his friend Oscar. They had such beautiful faces, with twinkling eyes and friendly smiles – we stopped to chat with these kindly gentlemen.

Plaza Mayor, Trinidad

Jesus

As we continued on our walkabout, we chanced upon a small primary school. We were waved in by a teacher and shown around a classroom of really sweet children drawing, writing and smiling abashedly at us. Once again I wished I knew enough Spanish to converse with these kids. We asked permission to take photos and the teacher readily agreed. I generally travel carrying small gifts of crayons, colour pencils, pens etc for just such an occasion as this – we distributed them to the children and how lovely it was to see their happy smiles. We readily and happily made a small donation to the school which, from the reaction of the teacher, we gathered was not considered a small amount. She was effusive with her gracias.

To put it in perspective, government servants in Cuba earn approximately the equivalent of USD25-30 per month. I can’t tell you how astonished we were when we first learnt that. I read up on this on my return. The average Cuban does not earn a lot of money but the State however does provide basic food needs. Additionally, healthcare is free. Cuban healthcare system is reputed to be one of the best in the world. Education is also free right up to tertiary level. After graduating, students are expected to fulfil a social service obligation for two years by working in a government job. Thereafter they are free to stay on or move on and apply for other jobs.

That evening, we were hoping for some traditional dancing at the Spanish steps. Our guide, Eloy and driver, David were certainly dressed and ready to rumba. Unfortunately, it rained heavily and there was to be no dancing.

Spanish steps – no rumba tonight

The next day was another photographer’s morning i.e. up and out early to catch the golden morning light. It was considerably cooler than yesterday afternoon and we had a lovely walk around the Plaza Mayor and the side roads. The arts and crafts stalls were just being set up, women were sweeping there front porches, the doors of beautiful colonial buildings were thrown open, cowboy farmers were loading up their horse carts, parents were accompanying their small kids to school … it was a lovely morning.

Off to work

Late for school

After breakfast at our respective casas, we visited a sugar cane plantation in a place called Manaca Iznaga. I had visions of an actual plantation and taking photos of workers chopping sugarcane etc … instead this was more a tourist trap. Loads of stalls selling local handiwork, the main plantation house converted to a bar and restaurant and a large gazebo with a sugar cane squeezing machine that tourists could try their hand at. We sampled the sugar cane which was very sweet and tasty. We didn’t even realise that the ones we bought supposedly had 48% alcohol in it!

The evening programme was suggested by S, who had read in the Singapore Straits Times about crabs in Cuba that make a dangerous road crossing from the hills to the sea to release their eggs. Our driver David, knew where the spot was and we took a vote and since everyone was interested, we planned to go after an early dinner. No arrangements were made for dinner so we just walked into a restaurant, had dinner (after an hour’s wait for the food of course) and set off to look for crabs.

It’s the annual spring migration of the crabs in the Bays of Pigs area. They (the crabs) set out at dawn and dusk. It is a perilous journey as thousands are crushed by vehicles (many a vehicle end up with punctures too). Birds are another menace to the crabs. We didn’t see the dramatic crossing of thousands of crabs but we did manage to spot a number of them. Our drivers decided to stage a bigger crossing for our benefit and collected a few in a pail and released them so we could photograph the crossing! They must’ve thought us a bunch of nutters who needed to be amused:-) It was very sweet and thoughtful of them.

Cuban crab

Crab crossing


Pirates of the Caribbean

Camagüey

We left Trinidad after another sumptuous breakfast at Annabelle’s and got to our next destination, Camagüey.

This city had yet a different look and feel. Clean with imposing and elegant colonial buildings. It seemed more prosperous. A stop here was to break what would otherwise have been a very long journey to Holguin. I’m glad we made this short one day stop. It was a pretty place worth exploring.

Most tourists do not venture this far east of Havana and so the Ministry of Tourism made significant investments into making Camagüey a tourist destination. That explains the refurbished and renovated buildings. This city’s historic centre is also a UNESCO heritage site. Its labyrinthine roads are unusual and were apparently designed to confuse marauding pirates. Pirate attacks was a scourge and the city suffered many attacks and many legends were woven around it – the real pirates of the Caribbean.

After lunch at a very pleasant restaurant, we were given little claypot souvenirs at the end of our meal. Camagüey is also known for its claypots as there was a time when there was acute shortage of water and the local folk made claypots to contain whatever water they could collect.

We tried to walk about this pretty city but the heat was intolerable and enervating. We just couldn’t do much. There was no choice but to head back to our casa and come out again in the evening. Siesta in this heat is the most sensible thing to do. We really ought to adopt this practice in our part of the world.

The casa we stayed at was a lovely colonial building with high ceilings and airy interiors. This was the best accommodation so far. We also had our first really good shower with decent water pressure.

The evening was spent exploring and walking down the maze-like roads and taking lots of photographs of course. Like the other cities, folks here were friendly and didn’t mind their photos being taken. It’s truly a great country for street photography.

Kids were happy to pose for us

Later we had our longest wait yet for dinner – one and a half hours!! Unbelievable. Cuba will teach us patience yet …


“… the most beautiful land that human eyes saw.”

Holguín

We set off to Holguín that morning after a cosy breakfast nicely laid out in the courtyard.

 

The highlight today was that we found what we think might have been the best rest-stop in the country. Not only was there water and loo paper, the lavatories were also clean. I haven’t commented much about our various rest stops because, well, what can I say … our bus journeys were long, we had to drink a lot of water as the heat sapped us, so when you are desperate you will use whatever facility is available. They weren’t the best … but least there were doors and didn’t involve balancing over a deep hole in the ground. After my trip to Mongolia, my world view of lavatories has changed some what:)

That was not the only reason why this was the best rest-stop. There was a small bookstand with books in English! There were some really interesting titles and I think between us we bought all the English editions they had – “The Mafia in Havana”, “My Life with Che”, “The Motorcycle Diaries”, “Reminiscences of the Cuba Revolution” … the poor lady was overwhelmed and didn’t have enough copies for all of us. The process of buying the books was quite interesting. You had to hand over your passport and your details were faithfully written down into a book which is apparently audited by the government!

We got to Holguín past lunch time and so we bee-lined it to a restaurant and an hour later our famished selves were sated. The food here was rather unusual as it had soya sauce in it. Let me just say that you wouldn’t add Cuba as a gastronomic destination.

Once again the group was split up and we were in three different places and breakfast was at a fourth place. It was in a middle-class residential area. Many of the houses in the area were being renovated. I presume in the expectation that they will be converted to tourist casas. There is an expectation and hope that the economy will open up more under Raul Castro. And now that Fidel is dead, he will have a freer hand at allowing more private enterprise which was severely curbed under his brother’s rule.

Four of us were in one that was still being renovated. We had to pick our way through newly laid cement as we entered. Our room was at the back and we had an airy verandah with kitchen facilities and dining table.

There were three main attractions in Holguín – the Hill of the Cross (Loma de la Cruz), the May Festival (it is the month of May so we were hoping to catch some of the festivities) and Bariay where Christopher Columbus is supposed to have disembarked in 1492.

The Cross was carried and placed on the hill by a friar Francisco Antonio de Alegría in 1790. The May Festival is still celebrated every year on the hill, involving a procession up to the summit. We made our way up to the summit too … by bus. No festivities were happening up there – just families and couples hanging around enjoying the cool breeze.

Loma de la Cruz

We relied on Lonely Planet to tell us where to eat and ‘1720’ turned out to be quite good. The ambience, the lavatories, the paella but it still took about an hour to be served. (We were to return here twice more – for dinner the next day and on our drive back to Havana a couple days later)!

The next morning we ventured into the town looking for a bookstore where we might get the titles we saw at the rest stop bookstand. No luck with the books. However, as we were going to the bookstore we chanced upon a street performance – a dramatisation of world unity/peace on stilts and again when we were leaving the bookstore we caught another performance I am not sure what they were actually trying to convey … they were in blue, the women topless and drew a fair crowd. Little kids found it amusing and I caught a few giggling and pointing as only little children would.

 

Lunch was an hour and a half’s drive away at the seaside town of Gibara. A pretty place but unfortunately the heaven’s opened and we weren’t able to walk around in the downpour.

So we carried on to Bariay where Christopher Columbus was supposed to have landed and on landing he is supposed to have said “it is the most beautiful land that human eyes saw.”

The rain had let up slightly and so a few of us got off (the rest didn’t want to risk their cameras getting wet) and took some photos. I’m sure the view must have been spectacular for Columbus to have made that famous observation but it wasn’t on that miserable rainy day.

Columbus landing point


 Fidel

Santiago de Cuba

Today we journeyed to Birán, to Fidel’s family home. It looked like a typical plantation home, not unlike the early plantation homes of the 60’s in Malaysia. It reminded me so much of my uncle’s plantation home in Johor.

Rural Cuba is not unlike rural Malaysia, just replace paddy with sugar cane and pineapple. The green fields, railway lines, no-barrier railway crossings, kids waving, farmers toiling were reminiscent of a time long ago in the 60’s and 70’s when we used to make long family drives to visit relatives. Once again a nostalgic wave swept over me as I looked out of the window.

The Castro home is now open to visitors but we weren’t able to go into the home as the grounds were slushy and our shoes wet with mud. So we walked around the grounds listening to the caretaker’s tales. It is interesting that Fidel’s policies are now widely accepted as failed but not once did we hear any criticism of him. In fact the freedom fighters are revered. It is Uncle Sam who shoulders much of the blame with their punishing embargo crippling the country.

Castro family home

Below is an interesting extract from a Washington Post article:

“Not long after Fidel Castro’s new government began seizing farms and cattle ranches in a voracious expropriation campaign, his mother, Lina Ruz, looked out the window one day in 1960 and saw bearded soldiers in her orange groves. She went outside to confront them with a rifle. They asked her to put the gun down and call her son. Castro had nationalized his own parents’ land.

Today the family’s former estate is a tidily groomed government historic site open to the public. It also serves as an unintentional monument to the economically ruinous changes Castro brought to rural Cuba, starting with the fiefdom of his immigrant father.

Set at the foot of mountains overlooking a green sea of sugar-cane fields 500 miles east of Havana, Angel Castro’s 25,000-acre plantation was a microcosm of the semi-feudal rural economy that Castro’s revolution would go on to destroy. With its own hotel, school, doctor’s office, market, butcher shop, movie theater, cockfighting ring, pool hall and lumber mill, it was known as “El Batey de Castro,” or Castro Town.

Castro replaced the old order in which his father had thrived with a state-dominated Soviet model that became one of his government’s most chronic and costly failures.

Cuba’s rural economy is so dependent today on horse carts and oxen that its farming towns look as if they’re drifting back in time toward the 19th century. Annual sugar production is less than 2 million tons, down from 8 million in 1989. The coffee harvest is one-tenth of what it was in the 1950s. Cuba imports some 70 percent of its food, and one of the primary tasks facing the next generation of leaders will be to figure out how to get the country to feed itself again.

Castro’s mother and sister Juanita never forgave their brother for ordering the nationalization of the family property. His mother died in 1963. Juanita turned against her brothers, worked for the CIA and fled to Miami in 1964.”

From there we carried on eastward to Santiago de Cuba. Santiago is home to Bacardi rum and Santiago Rum (not to be confused with Havana Rum. Santiago rum is much stronger and was the Mafia’s rum of choice:-)).

After lunch at St Pauli’s – best food so far in my view and the shortest wait – 40 mins,
we visited Fidel’s grave. His ashes are interred inside a boulder from the Sierra Maestra mountains with a copper plate with a simple “Fidel” on it. Somehow there is a dignity to it that is absent in the more ostentatious tomb of José Marti nearby.

Our timing was perfect, we caught the changing of the guards. This is the first time I’m actually seeing goose-stepping soldiers – was quite thrilled about that. We missed the May Day march in Havana but caught it on a tiny scale here.

Before checked in at our casa, we went by the waterfront and were entertained by boys diving into the water.  Always a fun sight and pretty similar all over the world!

I don’t know how our driver manoeuvred the impossibly narrow streets to our casa. I am not exaggerating when I say that if we had put our hands out we could have touched the walls of buildings! Our casa was not in a neighbourhood that invites a walkabout. In fact we were warned about walking around unaccompanied and that it isn’t ‘so safe’ here.

This was our fifth city in Cuba and once again the look and feel of this place was so different from the other four!

Since this was not a safe city we spent the evening walking around the city and the main square as a group. Even so, we had one of our group accosted by a strange man who grabbed his arm.

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption

It was back to St Pauli for dinner. This time however food was served on Cuban time – more than an hour later. We were later picked up and safely deposited back at our casa. There were pesky irritating flies in our room which annoyed us no end. Lights off and blankets over our heads, we soon fell asleep, flies forgotten.


On the Road Again

Sancti Spiritus

We had a leisurely breakfast the next morning. The GPS in the bus was not working and the HQ called to ask the drivers where they were! They were told to report to the local office and get the GPS fixed. So this meant a later start.

We were told by our tour lead that the journey to Sancti Spiritus would take 5 hours but it actually took 10 hours. We finally rolled into Sancti Spiritus at 9pm. Unable to even think of an hour’s wait for dinner, we rocked up into a pizza joint and had pizzas and lasagnes. Once again we were in different accommodations and in different streets.

Rooftop view

Ours had a lovely roof-terrace and we went up for a bit. We were quite tired and needed a shower and bed badly. But lo and behold as I turned on the tap the water that flowed was coffee-coloured. Ugh. We called the land lady and she said (we think) that the water in Sancti Spiritus is like that. We had to give it a while and allow the water to run before we could finally have a shower.


Che

We didn’t get to see much of Sancti Spiritus as we had to push on. Early start. Breakfast at 7am at yet another casa. Really nice folks. We left at 8am after a quick walk around the town’s square.

Our next stop was Santa Clara. I was looking forward to seeing the Che museum and memorial.

Ernesto Che Gueverra. Icon. Martyr. Hero. A drop-dead handsome man. An Argentinian doctor who travelled South America extensively as a medical student (I started reading the Motorcycle Diaries on this trip) and he was dismayed at the widespread poverty and oppression that he saw. He blamed this on imperialism and capitalism. Corruption was rife. He thought communism was the answer.

He met the exiled Fidel Castro in Mexico and joined the Cuban revolution and never looked back. He fought alongside his Cuban comrades in their pursuit of a just and fair society where education and healthcare are a right. Well they did achieve that but economically the country has not progressed or achieved its potential. This can partly be attributed to the crippling U.S. embargo but partly also to failed communist polices.

In 1966, Che incited the Bolivians to rebel against their government (he was quite the instigator). Che was captured and taken as a PoW by the Bolivian army but apparently on the orders of the U.S., he was murdered and his body buried in a secret location. In 1997 his remains were discovered, exhumed and returned to Cuba, where he was reburied in Santa Clara.

Che mausoleum

We only had half an hour at the Che mausoleum and museum before we had to pile back into our bus and make that final stretch to Havana arriving in the early afternoon.

This was our last day in Cuba, we went souvenir shopping – cigars and rum. We walked about Havana – Hotel Ambos Mundos, where Heminway stayed and wrote some of his famous books, the old square, side streets which were full of tourists and many Americans on their ‘cultural exchange’.

That afternoon we visited a local boxing gymnasium – the Rafael Trejo Boxing Gym, one of the oldest boxing gyms in Cuba. We were early and were told to wait till after school when the boys come to train. We hung about the neighbourhood, found another gym and a friendly boxer who said he was once Cuba’s silver medalist. He readily posed for us but was told off by the stern gym manager that he was not to do that. So we went back to the first gym and hung around till the boys came after school.

The gym was spare, bare-bones. They could really do with an upgrade of their equipment. The gym itself was a ring with stadium seating. The government subsidy was clearly insufficient to maintain the gym to international standards. Gloves and punching bags were cracked and worn.

What they lacked in equipment, they more than made up in spirit. The dedication of the coaches and the determination of the boys were admirable. Since the 1960’s Cuba has won more Olympic golds in boxing than any other country. The ‘boys’ ranged from men down to little 6 year olds who tried to appear fierce as they took their stance during the training session.

I am no fan of boxing, but it’s great that these programmes give these kids structure, discipline, a sense of belonging and a supportive fraternity that keeps them safe and off the streets. We watched two youngsters spar. I wonder if one of these boys from such humble backgrounds would one day become an Olympic champion. I will certainly be rooting for them.

Our tour leader treated us to a farewell dinner that night at a really nice restaurant called Los Nardos. We may have had our eye-rolling moments and frustrations with the many organisations blips on this trip but despite that we did have a lot of laughter along the way and it all ended well and on a high note.

There were more farewell rums at the casa the next afternoon before we left for the airport. What an experience this has been. What wonderful people, with such rich culture and heritage.

Cuba has been on S’s and my bucket list for ages, and it was simply wonderful that we were able to do this trip together.

As the old slogan goes – “Viva Cuba Libre!”

If you would like to view more photos of this trip, click on the following link: http://www.shobhagopinath.com/Travel/2017-Cuba/

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