Archives for the month of: May, 2014

10 days in Cuba – what an insane place!

Arriving into Havana airport from Bogota I was harassed for a good 2 hours by at least 3 different people giving them exact details of what I was doing in Colombia and why I wanted to come to Cuba (apparently ‘tourism’ wasn’t a good enough answer but I thought it was slightly safer than ‘seeing how people live in a defunct communist state’, or ‘for inspiration to start my own communist revolution in the UK’…).  I had some books about the Colombian elections in my bag which led another few uniformed men to eye me up, beckon to each other and whisper in fast tones as I sat nervously biting my nails wondering if I’d be deported.  I wanted to assure them that I was on their side – I wish I’d had some Marx in my bag to prove it!  Anyway I finally made it into the old town in Havana where I had the afternoon alone before meeting up with Dad and Catherine.ImageImage

Havana is a crazy city.  Parts of it are absolutely beautiful but most of it is completely falling apart.  Houses are being propped up by wooden planks and a lady who I got talking too told me that most Cubans have no electricity.  Our guide one day told us that there was an extensive (yet completely undemocratic) renovation project going on after 50 years of complete neglect in Havana, focusing on buildings of interest to tourists rather than Cuban homes. 

However the bustling tourist industry transports you to a city of European-style comforts with stunning squares, aristocratic buildings and many-a smart bar and restaurant catering to international tastes (at a fraction of the cost!).  When the average weekly wage is $19, charging tourists $3 for a beer seems ludicrous.ImageImage

However the Cuban State has devised a completely logical-sounding but utterly bizarre-functioning system to balance the two income strata with two currencies: one for tourists, one for locals.  This became most apparent when driving through a small town and stopping for a pizza in a place that only took local currency.  3 beers and 3 pizzas cost less than $2 – we suddenly realised what a fortune people were making off tourists and what absolute pittance Cubans earn.

Our trip, despite the madness of the actual country, was absolutely fantastic – incredibly varied scenery, great food, lots of mojitos, many a discussion of socialism (leading to a few tantrums, mainly on my part!) and overall a great adventure.

We began in Havana.  After an interesting tour of the new town and trip to the revolutionary museum which authoritatively (not that convincingly) informed us that communism had (and was continuing to) save the Cubans from their Western fate – I soaked it up and was a nearing revolutionary as we left, Dad and Catherine balancing my opinion at every possible opportunity! Image

The next day we began our road trip, driving the 250 miles from Havana to Trinidad which started with an unfortunate diversion which coupled with the abysmal lack of road signs ended in us getting lost a good 10 minutes after setting off.  Luckily a very nice man (who persisted to rip us off horrendously!) got in the car and took us on a huge detour which ended up in the right place but caused a huge (never-ending) discussion on whether he was a con man or just a friendly Cuban….we will never know!

After driving down the pretty well-built Autopista, we arrived in Cienfuegos – an attractive sea-side town with the obligatory South American/Caribbean central square and church.  We had lunch in a strange little place where we were forced to buy a CD of a distinctly average guitar player out of pure English awkwardness! 

We continued onto our final leg to Trinidad where we experienced our second scam….two women asked for a lift to Trinidad on a road where unhelpfully the arrow on the road sign had been rubbed out so we couldn’t see which way to go.   We had to stop to ask them the way so felt bad and let them and their male friend into the car for a lift.  About 15 minutes later we stopped with a puncture.  Luckily the man got straight out and repaired it (later as Dad would say, ‘as if he knew it was coming…’).  He then informed us that we should fix the tyre before the coastal road into Trinidad which would be full crabs which could puncture the tyre again….sooooo we stopped at a random house (which he would later tell us was a non-state owned garage…) and he abruptly took the tyre saying if he handled it he would get us a better deal – obviously us tourists would be ripped off.  So a few minutes later he returns informing us that we had not one, not two but FIVE holes in the tyre which would cost around $50….I spot a scam…anyway we tried to negotiate down a bit and eventually did and carried on until dropping our friends near the entrance of the town.  We will never know if it was a scam to make some money – needless to say Hannah’s naive and instinctive trust in people has been dashed by conspiracy theories that seem more and more viable the more we discuss them…!

Trinidad is absolutely stunning.  A 500 year old town full of character, cobbled streets, endless salsa and colourfully painted buildings.  We had a great few days exploring the town and hitting the beach with its white sand and unbelievably hot sea.  I spent the evenings being spun (at a much faster pace than in Colombia!) across dance floors to the infectiously uplifting Cuban bands in the arms of exceedingly good looking Cubans!ImageImage

After two nights staying in someone’s house we drove through the mountains to Santa Clara – the infamous Che Guevara’s hot spot.  The drive was fantastic, stopping off at a beautiful look-out point and a 4 hour hike down to an isolated waterfall with freezing cold fresh water.

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The last few hours to Santa Clara poured down with rain so arriving into the industrial town was quite tricky.  However, we were greeted at a traffic light by an unbelievably friendly Cuban absolutely soaked on a bike who told us to follow him as he peddled into the incessant storm and brought us to our hotel! (Dad has since promised to do the same for tourists in London!).

We stayed the night in the outskirts of the town before visiting the stereotypically communist statue of Che and museum.  Che is completely idolised here – not only for his heroic efforts during the revolution but I suspect mainly because he was killed at the age of 39 in Bolivia fighting for a similar cause and was therefore martyred in the eyes of those with his iconic face brazen across their chests.  Despite killing a fair few people, his dedication to ridding South America of the American influence which had been so damaging was definitely understandable – a sentiment which is still felt across the continent today.Image

Onwards from Santa Clara we headed to Vinales, the mountainous, tobacco-growing West of Cuba where we learnt about the communism that seemed so un-present across the rest of the country with capitalist ventures sprouting around the ever-increasing tourist industry.  In Vinales 90% of all tobacco plants are seized by the State leaving just 10% for farmers to do what they wish with….but not export so not sell for the extortionate prices that many cigars fetch abroad. ImageImage

After being brought to someone’s tobacco farm (which, with hindsight could have been yet another scam!) we learnt the fine-tuned art of tobacco growing and cigar rolling and headed to our hotel with a beautiful view across the peaceful town. Image

The morning brought horse riding which much to the delight of Dad and I didn’t mean doing and awful lot!  Assured by our guide that the horses were ‘semi-automatic’, we literally sat on them and they did the rest!  Other than a slightly sore bum, horse riding was a nice way to the see the country, punctuated with a farm offering fresh fruit juice and another selling us the best mojito we had had so far in Cuba (apparently the farmers make it with honey for those connoisseurs amoungst you!).Image

After Vinales we set off for Cayo Levisa, a tiny island off the North-West coast of Cuba with white sand beaches, turquoise seas and masses of wind!  We had a really relaxing few days followed by a trip along the worst road yet where Dad skilfully navigated pot holes, along the coast back into Havana, stopping at a distinctly un-touristy fish restaurant who looked completely bemused to have three Brits in their establishment!

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The Cuba of 2014 is riddled with contradictions – touts making a tidy few dollars (the equivalent of a decent few family meals) directing tourists in old Havana, whilst the Cuban population relies of their monthly ration of staple foods, a generous gift from their seemingly uncaring State.  Education is free and as renowned as the health service, yet saving enough money to repair the holes in your house is a far-off dream.  Old American cars drive past ancient rusting signs depicting traditional communist propaganda slogans such as ‘Socialism of Death’ and ‘Viva la revolucion’ (wasn’t that 50 years ago?!) reminding you that communism is the ideology of the day, yet in few other places is it truly visible. 

Cuba is certainly not living in the communism of Stalinist Russia or even Eastern Berlin, however it is difficult to see where the island is headed in terms of modernisation and change.  Despite some steadfast loyalties to Fidel, the general sentiment seems to be pushing towards a Western view of modernisation with designer shops and smart restaurants sprouting up across Havana and Cubans widening their horizons with dreams of travelling the world.

Catherine and Dad were unbelievably open-minded and relaxed about the whole trip, despite the lack of road signs and constant attempts to find ways of getting money from us (Dad reckons he spent as much on tipping bands as he did on food)!  I had a great time and am not looking forward to the cold rainy Bogota that awaits me…lots to look forward to in the next few months however, I don’t think I can’t complain too much!

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I’m writing this from Bogota’s equivalent of a ‘greasy spoon’ – a seedy cafe playing very loud radio and offering huge, deep fried breakfasts that for some reason I feel I deserve…

Since Mum left, tensions have been rising in Colombia in the build up to the elections on 25th May.  I’ve applied to be an international observer so hopefully I will be able to spot firsthand the corruption, vote-buying and concept of ‘El Voto Blanco’ which has received so much press recently.  Various public figures (including prolific Colombia critic Fernando Vallejo) have been encouraging the public to ‘Vote Blank’ so as to engage with the system but publicly demonstrate the lack of viable candidates for presidency, initiating some sort of revolution that I’m not sure many have given much thought to.

Anyway, el Voto Blanco in my mind shows greater engagement and awareness than the traditionally high abstention rates and the law which requires parties to receive a minimum of 350,000 votes in order to remain in the democratic system.  We will see how it all pans out.

El Paro Agrario (farmers’ strike) is now in its second week with students joining the ranks of farmers throughout the country, blocking roads and initiating public disturbances in the hope that the government will finally listen to the agrarian sector and enact policies to ensure its fair treatment.  I’ve been caught in tear gas twice so far – not a particularly nice experience but probably my own fault for seeking out the protests!  There was a great march on May 1st with representatives from lots of trade unions and workers organisations.  As always in Colombia however, peaceful protests are infiltrated by people who just want violence and ended up being suppressed by disproportionate police violence.  It is difficult to tell how this strike will end as politicians seem unwilling to negotiate with the farmers who they see as disruptive violence initiators, but I sense the farmers won’t back down as they feel their demands are not being listened to or taken seriously.

In other, more positive news, Bogota has hosted some incredible art exhibitions recently and the Feria de Libros (book fair) is currently underway.  It is a hugely impressive conference with exhibitions, book launches, talks by authors and masses of activities for people of all ages.  The guest country this year is Peru who have put on a fantastic exhibition of art, photography and poetry and many celebrated Peruvian authors are here giving talks and workshops.  I’m off again today to catch a couple of talks.  On Saturday it was so great to see so many children queuing to get their favourite book signed or sitting listening to readings.  A sight not too common in the UK!

I was asked by the editor of the City Paper to write a piece on the British boy who died taking Yaje in the South of the country.  Such a sad incident but an interesting article to write through my perspective rather than that given by English press.  Here it is for those who are interested.

http://thecitypaperbogota.com/news/yaje-a-dangerous-trip/

I managed to get an article in and Australian magazine – Green Left Weekly (great title!) – and hoping to publish as much as I can about what’s going on in Colombia in it.

https://www.greenleft.org.au/node/56328

A couple of weeks ago Lorena and I went to buy a load of materials for her to make me some clothes!  The joys of living with an artist!  Yesterday she emerged with a bikini and two dresses, beautifully made and they fit me perfectly!  Another huge reason to visit me….!

My lovely friends Tilda and Roo bought me a Nigel Slater recipe book for my birthday so I’m trying to do a dinner party every week.  So far I’ve done two and they have been pretty successful – Nigel Nights!

I’m off to Cuba in 6 days to meet my Dad which I’m so excited about!  I’ve been reading up lots about it and can’t wait to see my Dad salsa dance!  He has assured me he will point blank refuse but I reckon after a few mojitos there’ll be no stopping him…

Everyone’s getting very excited about the World Cup now with most people filling the Panini sticker album with the teams from all the countries.  One of the funniest sights I’ve seen here is groups of suited business men crowding in public spots at lunch times swapping stickers and crossing off various names on their meticulous lists and tables in an almost clandestine way as though they know what they’re doing is wrong…but it feels so right!  Reminds me of pokermon cards – but whenever I say that I’m brutally shot down by defensive men upholding their right to spend a fortune on a sticker album….

English lessons have been carrying on as usual and work at the NGO has been interesting.  I’m looking into the impact of Free Trade Agreements on human rights in Colombia. 

I’m past the 6 month mark now which is pretty terrifying!  I had an interview for a role with PBI a few weeks ago which if I get would start next January – so my plans are definitely to stick around for a while but we’ll see what happens.  George will be here in 5 weeks which I’m really excited about followed by Jess the month after!  And hopefully lots more visitors to follow…