Sunday, 19 April 2015

Who Should I Vote for 2015?

Faced with a barrage of junk mail from all political parties over the last few weeks, and keenly watching the debates on television, I was still feeling a bit stumped when faced with a decision on who I should vote for in the upcoming elections. 

In the past I have voted Conservative, Lib Dem and Green, and I have been absolutely certain in my decision-making. But this year I am not convinced that one party is capable of doing a better job than the other, so I thought I would see if there was a website that could help me make up my mind and found quite a few on-line quizzes specifically for those like me… confused and unable to separate the jargon, broad statements and hot air, from the facts. 

I did the following quizzes:   

I answered honestly and was very surprised by the results. I thought I knew where I stood politically, I thought I knew morally what was right and wrong but some of the questions made me really stop and think, and some made me very uncomfortable. Euthanasia, the death penalty and immigration are some very tough things to think about at 8am on a Saturday morning.

After hours spent filling out the above questionnaires, I am not embarrassed to say that I came out GREEN. Not a 100% Green, but the majority of my answers matched up with theirs. I was almost relieved because Green is good right? Imagine if I’d come out UKIP? Green is about the environment, about climate change, they believe in renewable energy and want to protect our planet, they want affordable housing and believe in the NHS, and those are all things I believe in, but then I read more articles and interviews about Natalie Bennet (the leader) and watched some more TV clips of her, and it’s put me off a little. I’m not sure I want her as my Prime Minister, so I’m stuck. Do I vote for the person I think would make a good PM, who has charm and charisma as well as being able to communicate well, is intelligent, believable and trustworthy… or do I vote for a party that, frankly, will never get a majority, would be lucky to form part of a coalition government, but has more policies that I agree with? 

It comes down to person vs policies in the end, doesn’t it? I think that’s why a huge majority in this country, honestly don’t know what to do until the last minute. As they stand in the ballot box, their heads filled with facts, they end up just going with their gut. 

I have a few more weeks until I make my decision but I urge you all to do some of the above quizzes. You may not be the person you thought you were!

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Cuba - Part 3

I should call this part of the trip, Cuban war wounds, because not only did we travel to parts of the country that suffered most during the revolution, but it’s also where I collected an impressive amount of my own scars!

I haven’t mentioned the revolution until now, nor have I mentioned Cuba’s history with America because it is difficult to condense the country’s troubled past into a single paragraph. I’m not about to write a historical essay and I don’t want to get too political so I will try and make it brief (ish).

Cuba’s abundance of sugar cane, cocoa and tobacco, and its close proximity to North America was always going to be an attractive prospect, and by the early 1920’s the US owned an impressive 80% of the factories on the island (Hershey’s being one of the first). Both countries prospered... schools were built, housing was improved, but after a few years some of the larger corporations got greedy and began bringing in cheap labour from home rather than using the locals! This was devastating to rural Cuba whose workforce relied on these jobs and what followed was huge unemployment and mass poverty.

In the big cities, however, life was very different. Havana was booming, but the foreign visitors and the money they bought with them was not always above board… in the 1930’s and 40’s corruption was rife and the capital gained quite a reputation for organised crime and for being a very handy base for the mafia. Batista, the Cuban president, was the perfect ally, loving money and power in equal measure, so instead of helping his own countrymen, he turned a blind eye and aligned himself to the wealthy American landowners and large multinational corporations, allowing them to invest considerable amounts of money in both legal and illegal businesses. As a reward, he received huge financial, military and logistical support from the US. But most of Cuba saw nothing of this good fortune… there was mass civil unrest, with riots and demonstrations resulting in wide-scale violence, thousands were imprisoned and tortured, and no one knew anything because Batista had censored the media!! Batista really was a nasty piece of work. Unbelievably, he managed to become president a second time in 1952, after a military coup (knowing he wouldn’t get democratically elected), and things got even worse.

With an ever-growing disgruntled working class, a certain Fidel Castro (a young lawyer and activist) decided something needed to be done. He legally petitioned the courts to oust Batista and his government but failed, so he and his brother Raúl decided to launch an armed revolution. Unfortunately the Castro brothers were ill-prepared and had little experience of warfare so were soon captured and imprisoned, but once released they knew they needed help to form a bigger and better army so they went into exile in Mexico and prepared to take on Batista from there. Word spread and the movement grew, with trained fighters joining them from all over the world, including a young and rather dashing revolutionary from Argentina, called Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.

In a nutshell, with a now organised army and great leadership, they returned to Cuba in 1956 and began to slowly overthrow Batista’s forces. America panicked and recalled its ambassador, imposed economic embargo’s on the government, and in doing so, Batista’s support among the wealthier Cubans suddenly began to fade, plus without American support, he had no money to fix his planes or arm his army. The final defeat came in 1958 in the small town of Santa Clara. Batista fled Cuba (escaping to the Dominican Republic with a huge personal fortune and living very comfortably before dying of a heart attack in Marbella in 1973!!!) and Fidel came into power.

And so, patient folk, began the incredibly long rule of the Castro’s. Fidel until 2008, and his younger brother Raúl to the present day. They introduced communism, they gave power back to the people, and they were adored for it… mostly. Many wealthier Cubans, who had enjoyed the spoils of the 1950’s and had a great life under Batista, left Cuba for Florida, taking their money with them. 
The Americans were not happy either. Not only were they highly suspicious of communism and worried how popular the movement was becoming as it spread throughout Latin America and Asia, but they were also slightly miffed that Castro had decided to nationalise all US property! No surprise there! The Eisenhower administration decided to freeze all Cuban assets on American soil and tightened its embargo’s. They also began planning a future invasion of Cuba by giving the CIA $13 million to train up Cuban exiles in secret camps in America. 

JFK became president and in only his second week in office gave consent to invade Cuba, at The Bay of Pigs in 1961. It was a messy and doomed invasion and the Americans were overwhelmingly defeated in a matter of days. It was an embarrassing loss for the Kennedy administration… stories circulated about stupid mistakes; unexpected coral reefs sinking ships; leaked CIA operations being broadcast on Cuban radio; even errors with timezones. But what was even more bizarre was what Fidel Castro finally asked for in exchange for the 1,113 US prisoners… 500 large farm tractors and $51 million in food and medicine. Cuba and the US continued to bait each other after this… Che Guevara even sent a hand-written note to Kennedy that said: “Thanks for The Bay of Pigs. Before the invasion, the revolution was weak. Now it is stronger than ever!” That did not help relations! Castro began to get more chummy with the Soviet Union! Both for protection and a shared dislike for the US. In 1962, when the Soviet Union discovered America had placed nuclear missiles in Turkey and Italy, pointing in their direction, they retaliated by putting nuclear missiles in Cuba, pointing at America. The Cuban Missile Crisis had the potential of becoming a full-scale nuclear war but after a period of incredibly tense negations between Kennedy and Khrushchev, an agreement was made. If the Soviet Union agreed to dismantle and remove all its weapons from Cuba, the US would agree never to invade Cuba without provocation, and also, to stop pointing their own missiles at the Soviet Union. Phew!!

So there we have it… You are probably wondering why I needed to even mention all that when you simply could have googled it yourselves, but this recent history is so much part of Cuba. They still live and breathe the revolution. Posters are painted, books are read and songs are sung. 

Bearing in mind what is happening as we speak, with the new ‘friendship’ between Castro and Obama flourishing and embargo’s about to be lifted, it will be interesting to see how everyday Cubans react… if the revolution is put firmly in the past or not? I don’t know if or when they will ever fully embrace Western democracy especially while the Castro’s are still alive, because for now all they really want is decent cable television and the internet. Both are still restricted. I couldn’t even check my emails while I was there because my address is hotmail, and hotmail is owned by Microsoft, and Microsoft is American. There are no American brands in Cuba, there are no Starbucks or McDonalds, there are no Nike trainers or Coca-Cola. There is very little advertising at all because Cuba is still a communist country, and the government still controls, up to a point, what their people see and hear. They still have ration books. They still have ration shops.

Each person get an allocation of eggs, meat and bread every day (being vegetarian is bewildering to them). The Cubans therefore, will never starve, but you also will never see anyone hugely overweight either. Everyone is given free education, free healthcare, and free housing, although I have to say, the housing is shockingly bad for most. Money is desperately needed to do up the housing, to fix the electricity (high on my priority having experienced electric shocks) and the plumbing. But in contrast to haphazard wiring and bodged decor, the streets are spotless. I think a lot of it is is down to the lack of packaging… food is bought and cooked fresh, so there is hardly any waste or a need for designers for that matter. Most people were utterly bewildered that I could make a living from designing food and drink packaging, because it really is utterly meaningless to them. They buy what they can get, bugger the brand! 

Don’t worry, I’m not suddenly turning into a red-shirted commie but from what I saw and witnessed in Cuba, some of it seems to work, and many of the ways they live their lives, simply and honestly, I respected and envied. But then again, I envy any country where they rely on community. Friends and family are everything... and when you don’t have money, you rely on other things to make you happy. I have always believed that my most valuable possessions are experience and memory (anyone that has been in my car or flat can attest to that!). But comrades, the main reason I wanted to talk about all this, about communism and the revolution, is because of Che Guevara. 

Che (which was his nickname, literally translating as ‘friend’) is everywhere... he is painted in giant portraits on houses, there are statues and sculptures on every street corner, there are museums devoted to him, t-shirts, hats and socks are printed with his beautiful face! Everyone knows the famous image of him. He is on backpackers faded t-shirts, on student’s walls all over the world. He is beyond revolution or communism, he has almost become a brand himself. A brand for freedom, for the fight, for standing up for what you believe.

Without doubt, Che is still the most beloved figure in Cuba, even more so than Fidel or Raúl Castro (gosh I could be shot for saying that!), but I think I know why. Che was not Cuban, he came from Argentina and volunteered to fight for a revolution that was not his own, boldly leading the guerrilla army alongside Castro. He was selfless and kind, he fought with the soldiers, taught them to read, he saved lives (as a trained doctor) and he lived in the same awful conditions as them. He loved Cuban cigars (even though he suffered terribly from asthma) and was passionate about literature, and he charmed the pants off everyone he met. At every museum (there must be at least 2 dozen) we visited around the island, the staff ALL commented on how handsome he was, how charming he was, how wonderful he was. Women guides physically blushed when they talked about him, and when you look at all the photos of him, from before, during and after the revolution, others in the photo seem to just gaze at him in awe. I’ve read extracts from his diaries, and from journalists that interviewed him, and they all remark on his soft but impenetrable gaze and his ability to make anyone he met feel important. He was a genuine hero and mattered to so many, still does. Not many years ago Nelson Mandela was quoted as saying: “He was an inspiration for every human being that loves freedom.” 

It’s quite funny actually. Poor Fidel and Raúl were not blessed with the pretty stick, but it is still rather odd that Cuba’s own Presidents have so few depictions of themselves around the country. Maybe when they die, things may change. Of course, Che died young and we always seem to idolise those taken in their prime, before their looks have faded, the tragedy of it all. Che was only 39 when he was caught in Bolivia by a CIA operative and shot. Before he died, he was reported to have said: “It’s better this way. I should have died in combat.” Fidel is still alive, old and frail and in a wheelchair but still going at 88. Raúl is a sprightly 83 and still has a TV channel devoted to his and his brother’s political speeches. We see them daily in the news of late, shaking hands with American politicians and trying to move on from their turbulent past. There is resentment on both sides, there always is when those involved are still alive, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

But enough of politics and swooning over Mr Guevara, and on to Trinidad.

Day 11-13 - Trinidad

Trinidad is not the Trinidad of Trinidad and Tobago... we didn’t suddenly fly to another Caribbean island, we simply drove from Camaguay to Trinidad, a beautifully picturesque, colonial town on the south coast of Cuba. It is so pretty it hurts. It hurts more that other tourists have also discovered it. 

Unfortunately it is close enough to Havana, that huge tour buses can reach it as part of a day trip! But don’t get me wrong, when I say tourism has hit, I don’t mean it in the same terms as visitors to Stonehenge or the Statue of Liberty, I just mean a few big buses were spotted and there were more white faces than we’d seen before. It was quite a shock. We stayed here for 3 days so it felt quite relaxed but my God, we managed to fit a lot in… sugar plantations, waterfalls, beaches, and for me, a rather interesting visit to a Santeria temple. 

Santeria is a religion mainly practised in the Caribbean islands, brought over from Africa during the slave trade. It has been likened to Voodoo because of its rituals, animal sacrifices and healing rites, but they also worship Catholic Saints and believe in baptism. It is a rather peculiar mix. I happened to go into the only Santeria temple in Trinidad when I had a couple of hours to myself one morning. There sat Israel the high priest, on his – what I can only describe as – throne. He looked at me, I looked at him. I sat down on a bench and looked at the very peculiar black baby goddess that was perched in the middle of the room.

Israel continued to watch me as I noticed some rather nervous-looking chickens scurrying about. A young man walked into the temple and then began shaking and rattling some bones as he muttered and chanted in front of another altar next door. He then sank to his knees and bowed several times before reaching into his pocket and putting some coins in a little dish to the side. Oh, a donation. I had now been sitting quietly for about fifteen minutes, but as soon as I put some coins in the dish, Israel got up, walked over to a bucket, dipped his hand in, then walked over to me and flicked liquid on my face. Oh my God. Was it blood, was it chicken blood, human blood?? 

I gulped and he smiled at me and kind of wafted his hand, indicating for me to go. I walked out into the sunlight, convinced something was on my face, but several people walked passed me and didn’t look at me strangely so maybe it had just been holy water or something. I got back to the casa in time to go on an excursion to a sugar plantation and explained to Roger what had just happened. He looked absolutely horrified when I said I had been flicked with something. He checked my face and said, “Well, I don’t know, it could have been anything... I mean anything! Ugh. Let me know if you feel funny won’t you?” Oh blimey. I felt fine but God knows what Roger thought he may have flicked on me because he kept studying my face and asking if I was all right every blooming half an hour! The mind boggles!

After a long afternoon of walking and driving up dusty tracks to abandoned sugar plantations, we stopped off for some freshly squeezed sugar cane juice (with added rum of course) followed by a much needed swim, a few Cuba Libras on a deserted beach and an exquisite sunset. 

This was marred only by a sudden paralysis as I was treading water after a final dip. I thought I must have caught my leg on something but then I felt another sting and numbness on my arm! Bloody hell, I shouted. Owwww. The others had already got out and were looking at me with that awful expression of people that really don’t feel like saving your life. Another sting. Owwwww. And another. Ooooh. I swam to the shore and limped out of the water noticing immediately long red welts on my arms and legs. “Jellyfish,” Roger said nonchalantly, smoking a cigarette and watching the sun. Oh ok. Um… “Roger, do I need to do anything? Does someone need to pee on me?” He look at me with such a horrified expression that I realised this practice may not have reached Cuba… first a man flicking god knows what on my face and now wanting someone to pee on me, Roger was appalled. “What?” he spluttered, “Noooo, just rub sand on it and it will go down in a day or two.” Oh ok.

So as well as looking like I’d been whipped, my body was also covered from neck to toes in unexplained bruises. My only explanation for these was the fact that we were in a different room almost every night and in my nocturnal wanderings (going to the loo), I must have bumped into various items of furniture before finding the bathroom. I woke up on several occasions wondering where the hell I was… 8 beds in 16 days was definitely challenging! My body was tragic.

Day 14-15 - Cienfuegos and Havana

I added, quite dramatically, to these surface wounds with a fairly serious open wound. On our final days drive, from Cienfuegos to Havana, we stopped at the most beautiful bay, to swim and snorkel. Cienfuegos had been brief but beautiful, the newest of Cuba’s towns, it had yacht clubs, huge mansions and gorgeous restaurants on the water. 

I didn’t want to leave but with only a day left to reach Havana we needed to move on. As we arrived at the aqua cove, 2 hours from Havana, several of us dove into the water as soon as our clothes were off. 

We oohed and aahed at all the fish and the beautiful coral reefs and then nipped over the road to a natural waterfall and an 80 metre (honestly) plunge pool to wash the salt water off. The pool was so deep that it was rather frightening, you couldn't see anything below you and a few of the others got a bit freaked out. I, however, dived in and swam around, oblivious to any hidden dangers. The hidden dangers turned out to be jutting rocks below the surface and I had caught my ankle on one as I took the plunge. I only realised what I had done when I got out. The freezing water had numbed the pain and the sharp rock had sliced my ankle so cleanly that it wasn’t apparent what had happened until I stood drip drying on the edge of the pool, with blood pouring out of my foot. Uh oh. Luckily we had a recently qualified GP in our group, who sprung into action with another lovely lady Mary, who had the most incredible first aid kit packed in her suitcase. 

Elly, the GP, was ready to perform surgery but I wasn’t sure my un-anaesthetised foot and screams would go down well with the locals, so we opted instead for a bodge job of steri-strips. As 2 people held the wound together, Elly applied the sticky plasters. We were all unsure it would work but with a large piece of gauze over the top, a cotton wool pad and a stretchy compression bandage holding it all together, we hoped for the best. So bruised and battered, with red welts everywhere and now limping and sore, we made it to Havana.

I had hoped that my last day would mean further explorations around the cobbled streets and a chance to buy all the souvenirs I had wanted but with only one functioning foot, I had to make do with a whistle-stop tour on a bicycle taxi and some photos. My very sweet bicycle taxi rider helped me on and off whenever I wanted to take photos and I promised him more money if he would show me Old Havana. I meant to say ‘historic’ but he took my translation literally and we ended up heading out of town and into some very interesting ‘old’ neighbourhoods. One of them was a Santeria area… and I gulped at the thought of the ‘face-flicking’ and what might be given to me as some sort of healing potion! 

Luckily my taxi driver was quite protective and refused all offers of food and drink as we limped around the painted streets. And then that was it… my time was up. I packed and headed off to the airport, with no more dramas, thank God.

I absolutely adored Cuba. I am so glad I opted to do it in a sort of rough and tumble way, staying at local’s houses, eating in roadside, coastal and rooftop restaurants, staying off the tourist route and seeing and hearing what the island is really like. It is changing, and I’m not sure how much of old Cuba will remain in a few years time. I urge you to go now if you have ever fancied going… try and stay away from the hotels and the more touristy suggestions in the travel guides and wander a few streets away, and talk to the locals to find out the best places to get food or dance… they will probably invite you in. I know the country will benefit from foreign money if it is used to preserve and protect and not just build big resorts and bring in chains and brands. Most people there do want to be able to make a living and have a better quality of life but they are also very aware of what they have got in terms of an unspoilt country of such beauty and certainly don’t want to lose that in the process.