Friday, 27 March 2015

Cuba - Part 1

Cuba is hot, passionate and beautiful. The heat is not only in the air but it is in the soul of the country… a heady mix of Spanish and African. The indigenous aboriginals were wiped out soon after Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the island in 1492, dying both from shock of the violent invasions and also from European diseases! Centuries of Spanish colonial rule followed and as the hugely profitable sugar plantations developed, so did the importation of over a million African slaves. Ironically, when slavery was finally abolished in the late 1800’s, the slaves actually outnumbered the European Cubans and now the descendants form nearly 60% of the population. This mix of cultures influences everything in Cuba from the music, dancing and cuisine, to the look of the people… light-eyed and dark-skinned are as dominant as dark-eyed and light-skinned, and as we traveled around the island we experienced how these two backgrounds have made the pulse of the country so incredibly intoxicating.

My introduction to Cuba did not begin well, however. The only information I had been given in regards to my arrival at the airport, was that I was to be met by someone holding a sign. As it took me 2 hours to get through security and claim my suitcase, I didn’t hold out much hope that my greeter was still going to be there. But of course, he was. Holding a crumpled piece of paper that said Juliet Sells, I could have had a very different greeting if English had been the first language, but thank God it wasn’t and instead I saw a very relieved but very sweaty taxi driver. I shouted, ‘Hurrah’ when I saw him and shook his hand excitedly, exclaiming, ‘Hola, como estas? Lo siento para el tiempo!’ trying to apologise for my tardiness. And so began one of my greatest mistakes in Cuba. By confidently saying a few words in Spanish, people presume you must speak fluently and rapidly start a very one-sided conversation. As my driver began telling me his life story (or the time he once successfully kidnapped an English tourist!), I nodded, smiled and said, ‘Si’ a lot, as if understanding every word. Then he shouted something and stopped the taxi in the middle of the motorway. Actually he stopped the taxi in the fast lane of the motorway and hopped out, rushing round to the front of the car and flinging open the bonnet! He was frantically talking to someone on his mobile phone and I managed to catch a few words that translated as, ‘The engine is dead’. Oh joy. He came back to the car, apologised and switched on a tape player. Careless Whisper by George Michael boomed out, filling the car! A few minutes later, his brother (also a taxi driver) arrived on the scene and quickly jump-started the car and we were on our way again. We were now listening to Last Christmas by Wham, a version of which I had never heard, because the driver was making up his own words and singing them at the top of his voice. Last Christmas, I gave you my heart, became La triste, yo oye mi art! which roughly means The sadness, I hear my art! He must think the English are a very surreal bunch! I tried to correct him but he was having none of it. A few minutes later he screeched to a halt in the middle of a roundabout and ran off, with no word of explanation. At this point, I had slid down in my seat and was only semi-conscious so I wasn’t that concerned. He soon came back, sweating even more, and offered me a white tube that resembled a giant spliff! Wow, this was definitely an interesting Cuban welcome... just get the tourist stoned out of her box, then rob her! I held it aloft and looked at the taxi man with a raised eyebrow, and he tutted and grabbed the tube, tearing off the top and pouring out a handful of tiny seeds! He had actually bought me a tube of salted nuts to keep me going!!!

Safe to say, I arrived an hour later in old Havana and was expelled onto the doorstep of my first casa particular (a Cuban B&B if you will), very relieved to be out of the car and having heard enough 80’s pop to last me a lifetime. Unfortunately the confusion began again when the family, again not speaking a word of English, attempted to explain that I was not staying with them, nor was I going to meet the rest of my group until the following morning. The husband grabbed my suitcase and motioned for me to follow him as we stumbled down high pavements, across piles of rubble from unfinished streets, tripped over loose cobbles, weaved our way through people, dogs, bicycle taxis, the odd horse and a few motorbikes, until we reached a 2-bedroom apartment on the 5th floor of a crumbling building. As most of Havana’s buildings are faded, derelict or crumbling, this was not unusual in the slightest… what was unusual was how spotless the streets and squares were. No litter at all. 

The apartment door was tentatively opened by a Kiwi girl called Clare, who suddenly looked very relieved at the sight of another person, having had a similar rude awakening on arrival but without the benefit of understanding Spanish. We talked each other ears off for the next 2 hours, had a meal and went to bed, ready to meet the rest of the group and our guide the next morning.

Day 2 – Havana

Claire and I met the rest of our group at 9am and began an all-day walking tour of Havana. Our guide was the brilliantly bright and charming Roger, or Rrrrrohhairrr, as it is pronounced in Spanish. He didn’t seem to mind how we said his name to be honest, because he said it helped him know who was trying to get his attention by the way we pronounced it. Rodge or Rodga was invariably one of the Brits or Antipodeans, Rawgerr would have been an American or Canadian, Rocher a European other than Spanish, and anything else was anyone else. We actually had no Americans or Canadians but we did have quite a mixed bunch; Sue (68) and Ruth (50) were mother and daughter from Scotland, Chris and Mary were a married couple in their late 50’s from England, Kuno and Michelle were partners in their early 50’s from Australia, Bob (50) was from England, Helga (50) was from South Africa, Nikki (47) was from Turkey but living in England, Clare (39) was from New Zealand, Rosy (31) was from Australia and Ellie (28) was from England. The age range was quite extreme as you can see, from 68 to 28 but amazingly, we all got along really well. Well, we all got along until seat-gate!! I won’t go into this now because it is worthy of its own paragraph later…

So the day in Havana was packed with history, architecture, religion, revolution, cigars, coffee, chocolate, markets, vintage cars, rum, chatter, laughter and complete exhaustion.

It was a long day and ended with a brilliant ride along the coast and through the leafy suburbs of Havana in three American 50’s convertibles… followed by a gorgeous meal by the Malacon (the sea wall).

Day 3-6 – Baracoa

In a country like Cuba, many things do not stick vehemently to any kind of structure or schedule and you have to be a little flexible in your planning, so when Roger announced that we had to do our entire trip backwards, simply because the furthest destination on our route, Baracoa – on the far Eastern tip of the island – needed to be reached by plane, and for some unknown reason they had canceled our return flight to Havana, we just had to go with the flow. We flew in a tiny propeller plane from a tiny airport in the middle of nowhere to another tiny airport, refuelled and then flew to the final tiny airport. We were transported in an old chicken truck and arrived in the gorgeous and totally unspoilt coastal town of Baracoa. Hands down, this was my favourite part of the whole holiday. Not only was Baracoa almost completely tourist-free, but it had the friendliest people, the best dancers and the most fabulous food, not to mention the beaches and waterfalls and lush landscape. Just stunning. 

We did eat like Kings throughout the trip… which was completely at odds with all the friends that had told me how awful the food was and to be prepared for the worst. Maybe it was because we ate home-cooked meals or were completely off the tourist track, but we ate lobster, crayfish, giant shrimp, red snapper, mahi-mahi, succulent pork chops and tender lamb casseroles, all beautifully cooked and seasoned to perfection. We didn’t get bland, we certainly didn’t get boring. The only one that suffered was poor Ellie, the only vegetarian of the group, who had to make do with rice and beans or simple salads of tomatoes and cucumbers. Breakfasts were perfection too… fluffy omelettes, local honey, homemade salty butter and cheese, white rolls and fresh fruit and juice of every variety. The coffee was the best I have ever had and was so strong it would wake you up with a single sip! There was no low-fat or diet, no preserved or packaged, it was all fresh and cooked from scratch. A meal may take an hour from ordering to eating purely because it is cooked to order, so you certainly can’t be in a hurry for anything!! 

In fact, the Cubans are very aware of their own attitude to time… in response to how much further, or at what time are we doing this or that, the response would be a number of minutes, followed by a knowing smile and the words… Cuban tiempo (Cuban time). Ten minutes might be 20, an hour may be two, so you learned not to rush or be impatient, you just had to relax and not worry about it.
The guesthouses we stayed in were fairly basic but immaculate, with en-suite bathrooms that usually had water, and a loo that usually flushed. It wasn’t a guarantee though and I had several incidences where a bucket of water was needed to be thrown down the toilet after a heavy night of rice and beans. The toilet paper became a standing joke because you might as well have just used your hand it was so ineffective, as were the napkins at mealtimes... one swipe on the mouth and you had nothing left! Some of our bathrooms had hot water which seemed incredibly luxurious until I tried to adjust the temperature on a particularly loose connection one day and got a horrible electric shock. From that moment on, I did not adjust the temperature and made do with whatever came out! The casa’s are also usually run by the mother or grandmother of the family and you are treated like one of their own… fussed over and protected, always waiting up for you until you came home each night. The majority of the country is also Catholic so you see a lot of courting and holding hands in public but not so much kissing and groping!!! Maybe that’s why the salsa and rumba are so raunchy in Cuba... it’s the only way you can get that close before marriage!

The first day at my casa was a prime example of how over-protective my hostess was. She was a tiny sweet lady called Eloya and let Roger into the house because he had wanted to see if we were happy with our rooms. As he brazenly walked into my room, she stood outside the door with her arms crossed and a pinched face, muttering under her breath until he left. She was definitely not having any funny business under her roof!!!

The next day we went in jeeps through gorgeous green forests and fields, passed cocoa farms and sugar plantations, to the most beautiful white-sand beach, fringed with palm trees and backed by a few wooden shacks where you could get drinks. 

Once again, the hospitality is incredible and we were soon welcomed into a makeshift restaurant at a local house and ate freshly caught shellfish in their back garden, amidst scratching chickens, snuffling pigs and a few dogs. 

Cats are quite unusual in Cuba, not sure why, but dogs they are passionate about. It’s very unusual to see a stray... most dogs are pets and absolutely doted on, wandering from house to house and getting fed and petted by all. In fact, it’s quite a good way to work out who is related to who in each town and village. If you watch the pet dog, it will usually wander between the family members houses and because every casa has an open-door policy until bedtime, you can spot the pets in at least 5 different places during the day. Family is everything in Cuba and they usually live close together with the children staying at home until they marry (Mama and Pops... just imagine that)!!!

The following day we got back in the jeeps and went further into the forests for a 3-hour hike which led us through little villages, schools with only one or two pupils, passed single wooden bungalows with immaculate gardens, and finally to these amazing waterfall and rapids. 

Crystal clear water poured into deep pools that were light aqua blue from the pale rocks underneath... breathtaking. We swam all afternoon and lay on the hot rocks to dry off. Bliss.

Day 7-8 – Santiago de Cuba
I’m not sure where to start with Santiago. It immediately felt different from the other places we’d visited – slightly more wary and watchful. I was in a casa on my own this time, and when I got there a very sinister-looking chap was waiting on the stairs, blocking my way. He introduced himself as Max and said he was also staying at the casa and could show me a ‘good time’, but I got the immediate gut feeling that his ‘good time’ would be very different to mine and suddenly felt very uneasy. I decided to check out the room, at least, but the next thing I knew there were these squeals from the hallway and I went out and found Max pinning a girl up against the wall. They both just stared and me, and I was about to ask if the girl was OK when the door on the other side of me opened, and out stepped a very young skinny Cuban teenager followed by an old white guy, who brazenly handed her a wad of cash as she smoothed down her micro miniskirt and adjusted her wig. Um hello! Now I had heard there was quite a bit of sex tourism going on in Cuba but I didn’t realise it would be on my doorstep!! Now I’m not a prude in the slightest but this place just felt wrong, so I went and spoke to Roger and asked to be moved to another guest house, rather than a knocking shop, and he moved me immediately.

My new abode was with a gorgeous mother and daughter who gave me a lovely room overlooking a quiet street where the only activity was people doing their washing. 

It was a quiet street until 1am and then all hell broke loose. I found out the next morning that the 5-hour fight that continued through the night, was between two brothers, quarrelling over a girl (of course). One of the brothers had just been released from prison and had found out that his old girlfriend was now happily in the arms of his sibling!! Latin men are passionate but my God... these two men went at it, shouting and screaming, slapping each other, then hugging, then screaming, then crying, then wrestling, then drinking, then hugging again. The whole family seemed to join in at one point and, of course, as the noise increased the whole street woke up. Children cried, dogs barked, police arrived, neighbours opened doors and sat on their doorsteps watching and gossiping... and I was so exhausted trying to follow what was going on (through a narrow crack in my shutter, I hasten to add) that I looked like I had been in a fight myself by 7am. It really was the most amazing soap opera I have ever encountered, especially as I had no idea what was actually happening until I got the rundown from my landlady, via Roger, at breakfast the next day!

The good side to Santiago were the salsa clubs. We had been given an impromptu spanish lesson by Roger and had eaten a fabulous dinner on the main casa’s roof terrace, accompanied by some very strong Cuba Libra’s, and so a few of us decided that a dance was next on the agenda. We had been given an afternoon’s salsa tuition in Baracoa with some of the islands top teachers, and hadn’t had a chance to put our moves into action, so Roger and Reydi (our driver) escorted 4 of us (all girls) to a local open-air club. I was so excited to dance that I sat up like a lemming, smiling at anyone that walked passed me, but it soon became clear that our chaperones, Roger and Reydi, were the ones who should have been dancing with us. When it became apparent they were too knackered to dance, the owner of the club asked me to dance with him. So he’d probably been dancing since he could walk, and was about 60, so his hips were definitely more experienced than mine, but a funny thing happens when you dance with someone so good... they guide you with the slightest of hand movements or a shift in weight, and they make you look really good. He growled at me at the end of the dance (which I think was in appreciation) and asked my name. Julietta I said (it sounds better in Spanish). Raymondo he replied with a shake of the hand, although that seemed very formal considering he’d spent the previous 5 minutes with his groin thrust against me! He leapt back onto the stage and rabbited on about something, suddenly throwing in the word, Julietta, in the middle of the sentence. Roger and Reydi turned and grinned at me and Raymondo carried on talking. Suddenly everyone in the club turned around to look at me and started clapping. Um. I immediately turned puce and asked Roger what he had said. Raymondo was quite taken it seemed, and was dedicating the next song to me, a ballad, which he was going to sing himself. He had told the audience that I danced really well and was a beautiful english girl that was like a lollipop dipped in pepper. Now I was relying on Roger’s translation but I presumed that meant sweet with a bit of spice... I like to think so anyway!!!


Anonymous said...

"A lollipop dipped in pepper" - brilliant ! One of your best Jules, looking fwd to Part 2, and 'seagate'…

Anonymous said...

"seaTgate", sorry…