Sunday, 29 March 2015

Cuba - Part 2

I was quite glad to leave Santiago. Not only had I experienced the slightly seedier side of Cuba first hand, but it was also (officially) the hottest place in the country! Now, for Cubans, March is cool… a balmy 32ºC means long sleeves and jeans. For me, 32º is bloody boiling and my body does not hide it well. My hair, in the majority of photos, is in a damp topknot, my face is glowing (polite for moist) and my body sticks to everything... clothes, people, objects. It was embarrassing because Cubans are so tactile, going in for a kiss or a hug or a handshake all day long, and I was very aware of leaving damp patches on cheeks, hands and clothes, it was dreadful. I also made another huge linguistic mistake for the first 5 days in reference to the heat, until Roger overheard me and duly corrected me with a chuckle. I would say, ‘Soy caliente!’ for the upteenth time, responding to people’s greeting of, ‘How are you?’ and, ‘How’s it going?’ with, ‘Muy bien gracias, pero soy mucho caliente!’, which translates as, ‘I’m great thanks but it’s so hot!’ or so I thought. Roger informed me that I had actually been going around telling everyone how hot I was, not how hot it was, and the way I had phrased it meant hot sexy, not hot temperature! Oh dear. No wonder I was getting big smiles and knowing looks!

Day 8-10 – Camaguay

A 7-hour drive to Camaguay meant a long time sitting on our minibus… and so began seat-gate! Now in most groups of people you will have a few who have longer legs and another few who may suffer from travel sickness. You politely accommodate them because it’s the right thing to do. But when you get a mix of personalities and nationalities, rules seem to go out of the window and world war 3 breaks out. The Brits are renowned for being polite about such things while muttering, passively-aggressively, about the unfairness of it all. So began several days of unbelievable pettiness, between team South Africa and team England! Helga, our gorgeous 6 foot-tall, ex-military South African, took on Chris and Mary, retired teachers from Watford.

Helga had plonked herself in the front seat of the bus from day 1. It was a dream seat… right in the middle, looking straight through the vast front window, enough leg-room for a giraffe and the perfect position to ask Roger questions all day, as he was in the passenger seat. Everyone wanted this seat but Helga got there first, saying she not only needed the leg room but also suffered from travel sickness. Fair enough. But oh no, the jury quickly discovered that her travel sickness couldn’t be that bad because she tended to read her book for long periods of time, and as anyone that truly suffers from travel sickness knows, you couldn’t possibly read a book while feeling nauseous! Strike one. Mary and Chris were also tall with long legs and would have loved to have sat in the front seats but instead of actually speaking to Helga about it, and telling her how they felt, they muttered and whispered behind her back, trying to gain allies as they discussed the problem over dinner and breakfast, asking me to interfere, asking Roger to take action, when all they needed to do was ask her themselves. Helga had no idea this was going on, she also had no idea that anyone else had a problem with her sitting there, because no one bloody talked to her about it. Did I mention she was 6 foot tall, ex-military and quite intimidating?? Maybe that was the reason! A teensy tiny problem grew and grew over the next few days until it came to a head during a much needed loo break. Mary quickly followed Helga off the bus and we watched her turn into a red-faced demon. She shouted at Helga for being selfish, that she couldn’t possibly suffer from travel sickness and that she should give up her seat immediately. We all went quiet and shrunk down in our seats as the drama unfolded outside. Blimey! But the result of the confrontation was not what any of us expected. Helga was so taken back by this sudden outburst that she said nothing. She frowned, shrugged and walked over to Roger and began chatting to him. Uh oh. Was this going to create an awful atmosphere on the bus, was everyone going to fall out? Nope. As Mary and Chris moved to the front seats, Helga simply picked up her stuff and went and sat in Roger’s seat, next to the driver. Roger then moved to the back of the bus with a bewildered look on his face. So... I take my hat off to you Helga, you know what you want, and you are damn well going to get it!

We reached Camaguay in time for a quick walking tour of the city. It was by far the most cosmopolitan in feel with wide paved boulevards and pedestrianised shopping areas, and completely tourist free.

Not many visitors venture to this southern town but they should. Beautiful art galleries and cathedrals, wonderful restaurants and bars and fresh fruit sold on every corner.

There are sculptures everywhere and I luckily found this cheeky chappie sitting next to the very piece in which he was the subject!

Camaguay is also home to Cuba’s most celebrated ballet company (after Havana’s national ballet). We were lucky to have Roger, a born and bred Camaguayan, and his little book of contacts. I had asked him about the possibility of seeing the ballet while we were there, but after a few phone calls Roger told me that the company was on tour but if was keen, I could possibly see a rehearsal or their review show… would I like to go to that? Ooh yes please. In fact, we were a cultured bunch because every single one of our group also wanted to see the ballet, so we had an early dinner and set off for the theatre. Roger hadn’t explained exactly what we were about to see but I think we all imagined that it would be the best of the rest, who weren’t on tour. As we left the restaurant, Chris rashly announced, ‘If there are any bloody children on stage, I’m leaving! I’ve had 18 years of seeing my daughters flounce around the stage and I don’t need to suffer any more!’ We got to to the theatre with minutes to spare and filed in to the stalls. It was like no audience I have ever seen… families were sitting with plates of food and drinks, kids were eating popcorn and checking their phones, chatting away as the music began... it was chaos! And then I heard a low groan from behind me as the curtains opened. A stage full of toddlers! Poor Chris. For the next 4 hours, yes 4 hours, we not only sat through children dancing, we sat through every age group from 3 year-olds to adult. Don’t get me wrong they were brilliant, and we may well have seen the next Carlos or Yonah Acosta, but some of us were less enthusiastic than others!!

We dragged ourselves back to the hotel (our only hotel on the entire trip) in a ballet coma, and promptly went to bed. I had the most amazing room on the first floor, a huge space overlooking downtown Camaguay and the bustling streets below, and I fell into a deep sleep lulled by a cacophony of sounds from soft salsa music, the hum of motorbike engines and the chatter of street vendors. At 1am, half an hour into my deep sleep, I sat bolt upright, thinking I was experiencing some kind of noise torture. I got up woozily and wandered over to the window. There below me, an open-air nightclub had just opened its doors and the sound system had been turned on. I must congratulate the club on its acoustics for I have never ever ever experienced that sort of volume. EVER. It was a boppy fusion of salsa and pop, something that may be enjoyable during normal hours, but not when you have had little sleep the previous few days because of the heat, and just want some peace in a beautifully air-conditioned room!!! I rummaged in my suitcase for ear plugs and placed a pillow over my head. All this managed to do was increase the bass for some reason so I decided to read for a while. At 4am, on the verge of tears, everything suddenly went quiet. I cried out in sheer relief and quickly snuggled down into my soft sheets. Moments later a group of revellers decided to stop below my window and carry on partying. The music came tinnily out of a mobile phone, bottles of rum were produced, motorbikes turned up and a small after-party began. Maybe it’s something to do with the narrow cobbled streets of Cuba but the smallest of sounds echoes off the walls and erupts into an explosion… it was as if someone was in bed with me shouting down my earhole!!! So, what did I do? I did what I would do in London if faced with a similar dilemma… I went and had a quiet word!

So picture this is you will. It is 4:10am in a strange foreign land. I am dressed in pyjama bottoms and a vest. My hair is in a wild ponytail, my face is lined with pillow creases and my eyes are red-rimmed. I storm down the marble stairs, walk past the bewildered-looking security guard and stand with hands on hips before a group of maybe 8 locals. My face needed no translation and I think they gathered what the problem was before I even spoke, as I sighed dramatically and said, ‘Buenas noches. Estoy meurto. Yo no duermo. Es quatro horas y yo no duermo. Por favor, por favour, por favor, mas tranquillo porque yo quero dormir.’ And then I sighed again and said quietly, ‘Gracias.’ I’m sure most of you can figure this out, but in English I said, ‘Good evening. I am dead. I do not sleep. It is 4 o’clock and I do not sleep. Please, please, please, more quiet because I need to sleep. Thank you.’ It wasn’t a speech that will go down in history but it got a reaction. Two of the group burst out laughing while the others stared open-mouthed. I think I looked so frightening that I had scared them into speechlessness. Then one of the guys on motorbikes said softly, ‘Lo siento,’ motioned to his friends and they left. Bloody hell, I wish it was that easy in London. If I tried the same approach with one of my neighbours, I would either get a door in my face or a torrent of abuse! I now like the Cubans even more.

The next morning, after 3 hours sleep, we all had breakfast and then went on a bicycle tour around town. Not us cycling, that would be madness, we actually were taken on these 2-seater rickety contraptions, ridden by very skinny-looking men with very strong thighs!

You would think that on mostly cobbled roads, bicycles would not necessarily be the the optimum mode of transport as a lot can wobble and jiggle about… maybe that is why there are so many horses.

Men riding horses (never women.. not sure why), horse-drawn taxis and horse-drawn local buses (basically a cart with bench seats) vie for space amidst the other modes of transport. There are vintage american classic cars, boxy Russian Lada’s, motorbikes with sidecars, bicycle taxis, bicycle delivery vans and noisy tuktuk’s. They are prized possessions and everyone seems to have a mechanics degree in order to keep these deathtraps going for as long as possible.

Animals are also a great source of income. Chickens and pigs are walked on leads, some chickens are even carried round in a sort of pet-carrier, a little canvas hammock with leg holes, and are not eaten but kept for the eggs they produce. In fact, chicken was the only thing we were told not to eat when we spotted it on a menu… frozen and imported apparently, and as tough as old boots. Cows were not eaten either but used for the milk, and goats similarly were kept for their milk alone and the delicious cheese made from it. We would frequently shout out, ‘Pig on a lead,’ as we drove through a busy town or village, interrupting our long drives.

The only other thing we shouted out, with great enthusiasm, was, ‘Crop top!’ The way the Cubans dress was quite mystifying to us. In most hot countries, the inhabitants tend to wear looser clothes made of natural cottons or linens. In Cuba, however, the dress code for woman seemed to be tight leggings or spandex hot pants, with an equally tight t-shirt or plunging vest top. No matter what the size, it was quite acceptable for everything to be on show, curves exploited to their full advantage. For me especially, this was brilliant. Living in a Western culture, where curves and a bigger shape is frowned upon, I rarely find my body appreciated, let alone desired, but in Cuba I got a lot of attention. The Cuban men are not backwards in coming forwards and have no qualms about coming up to you and telling you how beautiful you are, or how they like your body. It’s not creepy either, it is simply a compliment, and Roger kept telling us that it should be taken as such. The men don’t seemed phased by the heat when it comes to clothes either, and a typical outfit was jeans, boots or trainers, and a t-shirt. When the heat of the day reached its peak between noon and 3pm, the crop top reared its ugly head. To cool off, men would simply roll or pull up their t-shirts exposing their mostly sizeable tummies, and walk around as if nothing was out of the ordinary... hence our cries of ‘Crop top!’ when one was spotted. The bigger the bellies the more ridiculous it looks, but once again size definitely doesn’t seem to matter here and it’s all deliciously refreshing! They do have one expression for the larger bellied male in Cuba, and that is, ‘Mango elefante!’ When I asked Roger why, he said the round belly was like the shape of a ripe mango but with an elephant’s trunk below. Say no more!

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