The Cuban Missive sans Crisis…mostly (2017)

Journeying to the Other Side of the World

Singapore – Doha – Amsterdam / 26 – 27 April 2017

S and I had tried to book our flights to Cuba early – or so we’d thought. We were both waitlisted on the SQ redemption flight (economy) to Amsterdam. As backup we’d also booked on Qatar in case the SQ flight didn’t come through. As it turned out, S got her seat on SQ and I didn’t, despite many grovelling calls to SQ. Then I got an upgrade offer on Qatar…so, here we were on separate flights. Of course it would’ve been sooo much better to travel in cattle class with my BFF instead of the hardship of travelling All Alone on Qatar business class! [not just saying as you’ll be reading this, S 🙂 ]

I got dropped off at T3 by M, stopping en route to drop the Js off at school (J2 is well on her way to being another bone-crushing hugger).

At check-in, I was told it was a ‘special flight’ to Doha today. Hopes of a further upgrade to QSuites were dashed when the chap said that the airspace over Doha would be closed for 40 minutes and so we’ll be landing 40 minutes later than scheduled. Which would give me 40 minutes before my connection to Amsterdam. Rather tight, but he assured me it would be fine and that he would label my bag with a ‘rapid transfer’ tag. Fingers crossed that the bag and I would both make the connection.

He also wanted to see my entire itinerary as I’d booked a one-way ticket to Amsterdam. He made a note of all the flights for this trip – new procedure apparently for one-way bookings.

It’s a sign! Of what I know not…

Had a pretty good breakfast at the lounge – century egg porridge – before boarding. It was a good flight. Watched ‘The Accountant’ – a slightly convoluted ‘thriller’ with Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, John Lithgow. Was still full with the porridge so opted for two starters for lunch – an Arabic one with hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, etc and a smoked salmon with asparagus. ST had a picture story about Cuba – about the crab invasion that happens annually, and which causes an increase in tyre punctures and a raging tyre repair business (using condoms – which apparently are cheap in Cuba).

Starter #1

Had an ‘afternoon nap’ then watched Star Wars:Rogue One which was pretty good. It was a very smooth landing at Hamad International at 2PM – 20 minutes behind schedule, which was better than 40 minutes I guess ; by the time we got to the gate and disembarked it was 2.15PM. There was an army of airport staff holding various destination signs as we disembarked. Copenhagen, Athens, Madrid, Paris, etc. etc. But no Amsterdam – I was directed to Gate C5; we were at the A Gates so I grabbed a trolley and walked fast towards C. Fortunately I stopped to check one of the monitors and saw that the flight was delayed by half an hour. Sigh of relief. Slowed down, stopped at washroom and made my way (slowly) to the gate.

Next big decision once I’d boarded – Arabic spiced chicken biryani or herb crusted lamb loin with couscous?? Life is tough…I went with the biryani as there actually was no choice – they’d run out of the lamb. It was a excellent biryani – very Middle Eastern.

It was another good flight – watched The Edge of Seventeen which was quite entertaining. I’d watched most of the other movies on the flights to/from London (when I binge watched 9 movies in total…) so there wasn’t much else to watch. Started on La La Land but didn’t get past 20 minutes.

So I slept – for a good four hours. We arrived at Schiphol at about 9.10PM but it was a long slow taxi to the gate. In the 30 minutes from landing to disembarkation the sky turned from light to dark. It was a long walk to immigration and baggage – and no trolleys. There was no queue at immigration but all of a sudden two of the officers rushed off (literally running) – it was slightly worrying, wonder what that was about.

The airport was So Quiet – both at the baggage area and outside. Shops were closing up for the night – and it wasn’t even 10PM. I was glad I booked a room for the night, instead of roughing it at the airport. The CitizenM, was a five minute walk away – it was cold – 7C – I was glad that airport trolleys could be pushed right up to the hotel. It was all very high tech – self-check in terminals (though there was someone to help if anyone was stuck) where you even choose the type of room – basically two choices – city view or runway view. The latter was the obvious choice.

17.1493330086.the-very-compact-roomThe room was compact and the wall-to-wall window provided a fab view of the runway from the ginormous bed. The loo and shower cubicles were part of the room – i.e. no separate bathroom. All the controls were via an iPad – temperature, blinds/curtains, lights, colour of lights (one had a choice of light colours when in the shower or loo – LOL). The shower design was pretty cool – the shower comes on only if the circular door is shut. Drawers, mirrors and plug points (whichever kind you wanted) were all very neatly integrated – so there were minimal protruding surfaces in the small space.


Runway view!

I had a complimentary drink, so went down and got a mug of hot chocolate which I had after my shower (purple lights for today). I set various alarms and checked that the time on my phone was in the correct time zone…tomorrow the adventure begins…


Going Off The Grid

Havana, Cuba / 28 April 2017
My wake-up call – very Orwellian

The best part about CitizenM (besides the runway view) has to be its pillows. I slept so well and had none of the usual neck and shoulder ache when I woke up. I woke up just before the ‘gradual alarm’ I’d set for 6.15AM went off. The TV screen said “CitizenM says: wake up”. I wondered what the “wild” and “loud” alarms would’ve said.

Some time was spent (quite unnecessarily) on deciding which colour lights I should use for the shower this morning – eventually settled on a golden orange-y hue. S’s flight had got in on time at 7.15AM so I figured if I got to the lounge around 8AM, we’d be getting there around the same time. But, she’d breezed through security and I got a ‘where are you’ message at 7.35AM. So I hurried along, and checked out smoothly without service. This is probably the first time that this ‘insider’ phrase – ‘smoothly without service’ – is being used accurately – as all I had to do to check out was to go to one of the six computer terminals, click on ‘I want to check out’, scan my key card (which the computer suggested I could use as a baggage tag) and I was done. [The back story to this phrase, ‘smoothly without service’, dates back to 1978, when S found an intriguing essay in her desk at school – probably by a student from the afternoon session. It started, “Time a time ago night be midnight and the sky be drakness…” (sic). It went on in this fashion and somewhere along the way, to describe something that had gone swimmingly, the student had written it went “smoothly without service”. Since then we’ve been using the phrase the same way…till today, when my self-checkout literally went smoothly without any intervention from service staff].

It had rained in the night and it was a slightly chilly brisk walk to the airport, with a couple of friendly good mornings on the way. The security queue was long but everyone was friendly. The cameras had to be removed from the backpack and the chap who checked said with a big smile, “I’m intrigued, what kind of trip is this?” The patdown lady too was very polite – asking if I spoke English then very politely (and correctly) asking, “May I check you?”

The lounge was huge – and crowded. I eventually found S – or she found me. No century egg porridge here – just coffee and croissants.

The KLM flight to Havana didn’t get off to a good start – after ploughing through all the movies and making difficult decisions regarding what to watch…S’s headphone panel wasn’t working. The chief purser and stewardess both tried all sorts of things, including removing the panel altogether, but to no avail. The purser was very apologetic and said there were two empty seats but not together, but he’d see what he could do after takeoff. He was true to his word and post-take off came back to tell us there was a passenger willing to move. So all was well again (imagine the horror of a ten-hour flight with no entertainment).

Arriving in Havana

I watched Arrival – which was brilliantly mind-boggling. [SPOILER ALERT] – the whole concept of non-linear time was conveyed superbly. We had a fish thing for lunch then slept most of the way. For some atmosphere, we watched The Rolling Stones’ concert in Havana which happened a few years ago, as we came in to land at Jose Marti International Airport.

The 30C heat and humidity hit me as soon as I stepped off the plane – despite being indoors. The immigration queue wasn’t that long but the heat made it feel like much longer. The locals were feeling the heat too – I felt a bit better seeing that. The sign above the immigration officers said “Inmigration” – which I thought was a more accurate term than “immigration”.

There was a minor moment of anxiety as the immigration officer asked for my visa. I told her I didn’t need a visa – she seemed to have an ‘oh ya’ moment. I later found out it was only recently that Singapore passport holders could enter Cuba visa-free.

Maxby and our local guide Eloy were waiting for us – and 4 others. By the time the last pair arrived it was more than 2 hours later, and in that time I confirmed that:

1. there was no wifi network at the airport;
2. I couldn’t even get connected to a telco carrier to send a text message, though S could when she turned her data roaming on;
3. foreigners can’t buy SIM cards;
4. if we wanted to change money it would probably have taken another two hours – the queues were that long;
5. the majority of Cubans (of both genders) are HOT;
6. we foreigners were just hot.

Leaving Jose Marti Airport

By the time we left the airport, it had started pouring buckets which cooled things down a smidgin.

The minibus ride to our Casa took more than half an hour and we got there around 6PM. We were smack in the middle of the old part of town and our Casa was obviously a family home where the family now rents out rooms. Sort of AirBnB but with the host there too. For now it was a flurry of whose bags went where. Our room was upstairs and fortunately there was a strong young man to lug our bags up the narrow staircase. The room was basic but clean, with an air conditioner, 2 fans, a fridge and en suite bathroom.

That evening we walked to the MalecĂłn, or esplanade, which was a short distance away. The buildings were old and rundown from the outside – apparently during Fidel Castro’s time, renovation was frowned upon (as renovations = too much money = anti-commie/socialist), so the once magnificent exteriors were left shabby, although most of the interiors that we could see were quite nice. Now with the sibling in-charge, some of these restrictions have loosened and many of the homes in this old (but slightly richer) part of town were being refurbished and renovated. The roads were being dug up too to lay new pipes.

Cuban Classic

It was classic postcard Havana – the rundown but colourful buildings, friendly people sitting on their doorsteps, chatting and calling out Holas as we walked past, and The Cars – all the cameras went into overdrive especially when we got to the MalecĂłn, and the classic cars – red, orange, pink, blue Chevys, Buicks, Fords – whizzed past. Most are apparently used as taxis these days.

Dinner was at Casa Abel, which seems to be a favourite with Gerard Depardieu; judging from the photos on the wall, he frequented Abel’s regularly through his life…there were pics of young Depardieu, older Depardieu and in-between aged Depardieu. Steven Spielberg and Jack Nicholson dined there too.

All except two of our group had the lobster – a huge serving. The other two had chicken soaked in rum and beer – also a huge chicken. And since we were in Cuba, it was mojitos all round. We got to know everyone a bit over dinner – we all were either Malaysians or were Malaysian at some time or other.

Walking back to our Casa through the old streets was like something out of a 60s movie. It was quiet, the occasional vintage car driving slowly past, people still hanging out outside their homes chatting. We passed by an ‘internet square’ – where wifi is available, and here the benches were occupied by people with their noses in their phones. We must see if we can get wifi cards tomorrow to join the people on the benches and send messages home. We weren’t sure if the messages S sent earlier got through – and our silence might be cause for some concern on the home front. But for now there was nothing much we could do besides shower and sleep.

There was one downer tonight when S realised she’d left her Kindle (of sentimental value and to which she’d downloaded a Cuba guidebook) on the SQ flight from Singapore to Amsterdam. And we couldn’t message SQ or anyone to check if it had been found. Bleah. But fingers crossed that since it’s SQ, with its famed service, the Kindle would have been found and will be returned.

Why Did The Crabs Cross The Road

Trinidad, Cuba / 3 May 2017

We had a relatively early start today at 7AM – the plan was to go to the square to catch the morning light. It was indeed a beautiful morning with lovely light and long shadows. The cobbled streets were mostly empty though they soon started filling up with children on their way to school, the younger ones with their parents, some of the older ones with significant others; there were people on their way to work and a few tourists eventually.

It was a good walkabout and by the time we got back to the rent at 8.30AM, I certainly was ready for breakfast. The four of us who were in this rent had breakfast together in the other room – which was even more of a suite than ours. Our very pleasant landlady, Anabelle, made several trips up and down the stairs to serve our brekkie. Here too breakfast followed the formula – starting with coffee, mango juice and fruit – the mango, papaya and guava were particularly sweet. Anabelle then brought an egg up to ask how we wanted our eggs done – by now we knew that tortilla meant omelette, and frito was fried; now we learnt that ‘vueltos’ (or something that sounded like that) was scrambled – that’s what I had. This was the drier version of scrambled eggs – more like Indian scrambled eggs, not the moist English version. I still haven’t found a better version of scrambled eggs though than the one I had at 22 in Cape Town. That was beyond perfect. The cutlery was a blast from the past – we had a similar set growing up!

This Casa also did laundry so we got 8 items cleaned, for all of CUC5. All set for the next few days at least.

The programme for this morning was a visit to a sugarcane plantation at Manaca Iznaga in the Valle de los Ingenios – or Valley of the Sugar Mills – another World Heritage Site (they come fast and furious in Cuba…by the way, one of the car race scenes in Fast and Furious was filmed at the Malecòn in Havana – cause for much excitement – there was a F&F fan in our group). The little town of Manaca is named after the Iznaga family who owned the plantation. It seemed to be more of a tourist spot than a working plantation, thumbnail.large.17.1493769600.aguardiente-aka-fiery-water-eeksat least from what we saw. There was a manual sugarcane press – for tourists to try, after which we could try a glass of alcohol-laced supersweet sugarcane juice. The alcohol was simply labelled Aguardiente – which apparently is a generic name for anything containing between 30% and 60% alcohol – and literally means ‘fiery water’…but all this I only found out post-ingestion. The main attraction for us though was trying to get a photo of a turquoise blue and green lizard that was hanging out in the rafters.

There were loads of stalls selling cotton and linen dresses, shirts, table cloths and runners – all very Trinidadian we were told. So we got most of our gifts from here. Bargaining is mandatory, we were also told. We’re hopeless at it in the best of times and worse than hopeless here as the stall ladies, in a mixture of Spanish and sign language, told us how they have children to feed and we’re from Singapore…

A rather hunky coconut seller offered me a complimentary ‘very sweet’ banana (“for you” said he)…he also sold bananas in addition to the coconuts. We got a coconut as well – the sweet fresh coconut water direct from the coconuts was just what we needed. It was another scorching day.
ChĂ© was everywhere – here he’s got her back

Lunch was back in Trinidad. No restaurant had been booked or decided on so we had to resort to the guide’s guidebook (the logistics on this trip especially where meal planning was concerned have been strangely absent…but more of that later – maybe). We then chanced upon an Italian place which served ridiculously huge portions of pasta and meat. The sun must’ve fried our brains – we ordered individual portions instead of our usual ‘to share’ (‘compartir’) portion. I certainly didn’t make even a dent in my seafood spaghetti.

By this time it was too hot to do anything – except to get back to the rent and have a siesta,which is exactly what we did.

At 6PM we met for dinner. Early dinner today as we were going to see the crossing crabs. In my first entry on this blog, I’d mentioned the ST article about the crabs crossing the roads in Cuba. I’d mentioned this to our guide, saying we’d like to see that. He then mentioned it to our (‘photographer’) guide who then announced that “we’ll go and see the crabs tonight”, having not seen them himself. According to the ST article, the crabs cross the road at dawn and dusk to get to the sea to spawn. Our ace driver knew the spot, which was about 10km back in the direction of the Bay of Pigs (or rather Triggerfish), so we were all set.

But first, dinner. Once again, no plans had been made, so we pretty much went to the first place we saw, and ate quickly, as by now it was past 7PM. As we got closer to our ‘point of interest’, we saw several lone crabs making their way across the road. Our driver, David, was doing a slow slalom to avoid crushing them. Most of the other vehicles we saw had no such noble compunctions and drove right over them. There probably were more dead crabs than live ones at this point.

Crab crossing

Eventually we got to a spot closer to the sea and there were far more of these red and black crabs. Our drivers and guide jumped out with a bucket and quite skilfully started catching them alive. We thought they were taking them back to cook or to present an offering to the landladies at our rents. But no, they were collecting a large enough number so that they could let them go on the road – and we could get a decent photo of the crabs crossing – good thinking on the part of these non-photography chaps.

The crabs were pretty strange looking characters – black eyes that seemed like eyes on a human caricature, bright red legs on a black body. Many crab photos later, we headed back to Trinidad and our rents. I’d earlier written that the ST photo was a ‘sign’ but a sign of what I didn’t know. Well, I know now. If not for that ST photo we may not have gone off the tourist track this evening.

We initially had planned to go see the dancing at the Spanish Steps tonight but then decided we were too tired. We thought we should go let our guide and drivers know about the change in plans before they got dressed and drove up to our rent. We didn’t know which rent they were in, other than the fact that it was on the same street as ours. It was a surreal walk down the dusty street. There were a few street lights but the street was mostly illuminated by the dim yellow lights that streamed from open doorways, where their occupants sat chatting. A few residents were leaning over their balconies watching the little street slowly go to sleep, and watch us obvious tourists wander by. Then a young man in a cowboy hat galloped past on his horse. Quite out of this world.

Just as I was wondering how we were going to make ourselves understood and find the correct rent, a tall black man walked by and in perfect Cuban-accented English, said, “Can I help you?” This certainly was a first in all our days here. I pointed to our bus which was parked on the street, and said were looking for our drivers. He asked for their names and now I realised we’d been mispronouncing them all this time. I said “E-Loy”, he said, “Ah, Ell-loy”. I said, “David”, he said, “Dah-vid” Anyway, he then proceeded to call out, in that sleepy street, “Eloy, David” – to which a man standing on his second floor balcony, said something in Spanish, our helpful man replied and just like that, we were pointed to the correct house. Brilliant! The old kampung life…I haven’t seen this sort of ‘minding everyone’s business’ in the cities – definitely not in Singapore.

So Eloy and David were found; I think they were relieved that we’d decided not to go out again. When we got back to our rent, our landlady Anabelle was on the verandah. She must’ve thought we’d just gone for a walk – she approved and said it’s good for the health. We had a quick tutorial in Spanish – buenos noches (good night) buenos dias (good morning), manana (tomorrow)- the last one as she was taking our egg orders for tomorrow.

Tomorrow we leave for Camaguey.

Charming Camaguey

Camaguey, Cuba / 4 May 2017

After breakfast at 8AM, writing in Anabelle’s guest book, and taking pics of…

1. her cute grandson (who was quite the poser),
2. her equally cute but shy granddaughter, and
3. a rickshaw driver called Bici (that’s what it sounded like) with film star good looks but also quite shy…well I thought that was his name, since Anabelle referred to him as Bici…I later realised the rickshaws are called Bicitaxis. Sigh.

…we were on our way to Camaguey. It was a four and a half hour drive. At the first loo stop there was no water or flush, so we who weren’t desperate (which was all of us girls) gave it a miss. One of the chaps in the group tongue-in-cheek asked the driver, “No McDonalds’?” and got a frosty, “This is Cuba.” for a reply. Ouch.

Camaguey is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is aka the city of claypots as it used to regularly suffer a shortage of water, and the people of Camaguey used to collect water in claypots. This town looked a lot more modern and wealthy compared to Trinidad and even Havana. The architecture looked different and the buildings a lot more ‘prosperous’. There didn’t seem to be many tourists around – apparently most don’t go beyond Trinidad. The streets were a bit of a maze – apparently designed as such to confuse attackers – though some locals say it’s a maze as a result of poor (or no) planning.

Our lovely room at the Casa Guerra

The owners of the rent met our bus in town and led the way on their mo-ped. This rent, the Casa Guerra, is by far the most luxurious of the trip so far. It’s a huge colonial-style home, high ceilinged with a central courtyard, stained glass windows – and quite modern-looking bathrooms – with a rain shower (let’s hope the pressure is good…at the Trinidad rent, it was a trickle and showers needed much manoeuvring). The owners on the mo-ped are brothers and the one I spoke to (his name sounded like Ismail) said it was a family business. They’ve obviously done well. The person in our group who was travelling ‘single’ and had complained the most about his rooms at the casas, now had a huge room with three beds. He received several suggestions on how he might use each of these.

A girl (a sister?) from the rent led us to our lunch venue. The food at the Meson de Principe was great – the best meal I’d had in Cuba so far. S and I shared the house special – pork (which was very tender), breaded fish and 17.1493856000.banana-chips-and-saladprawns in Cuban sauce. We all shared a Spanish rice with chorizo and bacon, and a plate of very Indian banana chips. The Cubata was great too.

Camaguey really is a pretty different town. There were quite a few big hotels, many cafes and a street with several cinemas (their West End?) – there was one which had Mohenjo Daro showing in Hindi. The clothes and groceries in the shop windows looked like a throwback to the 70s and early 80s. It was too hot to wander around so we came back to the air-conditioned comfort of our rooms for a snooze-ette and went out again in the evening. The light was beautiful and the people oh so friendly, which was brilliant for portraits.

Once again we (er…I) had an encounter with a local. This time it was someone called Miguel who declared it was his birthday. Birthday greetings were duly proferred. He said he’s a tour guide and has a diploma in Science. All good, till he started following us…initially behind us, then from across the street. Sigh. He eventually left us, thankfully.

We had dinner at a restaurant near our rent. As was customary throughout this trip (and probably throughout Cuba), the food took more than an hour to come. When in Cuba, wait like Cubans…unless you know the boss, then everything happens quickly – as we saw playing out at the next table – they came after us, someone who looked the boss-man greeted them, they got their food first and got their bill while we were still trying to attract someone’s attention to get the bill. It was quite funny.

Back at the rent – good news – the shower was fantastic- really good pressure and nice hot water. Best shower I’ve had since coming to Cuba.

We start early tomorrow to catch the morning light in the streets.

Four Thousand Steps to Holguin

Camaguey – Holguin, Cuba / 5 May 2017

We were up early today for a 6.30AM start to catch the early morning light. As always, it was very satisfying roaming the streets as the town started waking up and the sun’s rays cast lovely long shadows. We were taking photos in front of a school, watching the morning routines that seem to be universal…parents dropping their children off (here, most of the children are walked to school), the Very Neat kids and the ones with shirt tails hanging out; a boy who was dropped off by his mum on a bicycle seemed to be getting a long list of instructions before he finally gave his mum a peck on the cheek and ran in. The school looked to be part of an old church – we went in, sat for a while and said a prayer.

(Part of) breakfast at Camaguey

We returned to our casa for a nice breakfast in the courtyard before setting off for our next stop – Holguin. We passed the Lenin Hospital, the University of Camaguey and the Universidad Pedagocica Camaguey on the way out…how interesting that the teacher training university is actually called a pedagogical university!

It was a long and bumpy ride, and I discovered a new way to get 10,000 steps…sit in a bumpy bus. In the four and a half hours or so that we were on the bus, I clocked 4,000 steps! Maybe a bumpy bus ride is a toning table equivalent.

There were two bits of excitement on the way:

1. When we came to a standstill as the road was blocked by a large herd of cows, being herded by some cowboys on horses. As our benevolent driver inched his way through, an oil tanker barrelled past and into the herd, scattering the cows and startling the horses, and us. It’s a miracle there were no casualties.

2. We stopped at a rest-stop for a bio break…and the rest-stop sold English books! There were several interesting titles – Motorcycle Diaries, ChĂ©’s memoirs, one on the Cuban Mafia, etc. We bought 9 or 10 books between us. They all looked like good reads. Our names and passport numbers had to be recorded before we could get the books! I wonder why this is done and how the information is used. No one seemed to know – though various theories were bandied around.

It was past 2PM when we got into Holguin town, and we were starving, so first stop was lunch at Calle Cuba, a place we supposed was frequented by the locals as prices were also listed in CUPs. The food had an oriental ‘look and feel’ – possibly because soya sauce was a main ingredient – it was pretty tasty.

We finished lunch but the bus hadn’t returned yet. After much waiting around I suggested calling our guide – turned out that I was the only one with his number (hmmm, last time I checked, the organiser of this trip sure wasn’t me). Anyway, the restaurant owner helped make the call, and the boys were there with the bus in a few minutes.

The casa that ‘the girls’ (as we four ‘girls’ were by now known as) were supposed to be at had some electrical problems so we were shown to another casa nearby. Renovations were underway and piles of cement greeted us. I was slightly worried as to what these ‘replacement rooms’ would be like, especially as we were led through a narrow corridor just slightly wider than the width of my bag. I needn’t have worried – the narrow corridor opened out to an airy patio with a dining table, sofa and kitchenette. Our room was quite large with a fridge, aircon and an ensuite bathroom with a glass door and panels…this is going to be interesting.

The neighbourhood we were in seemed middle-class with renovations happening at every other house. Alina, the landlady at the Casa we were supposed to stay in, was a smiley lady who brought some chairs out to the verandah for us while we waited for the rest (who were in different rents in the vicinity). We chatted with Eloy who told us about his 19-year old sister who was doing Arts at the university but did well enough in her first year to switch to Dentistry, which is what she wanted to do but didn’t qualify for earlier. He seemed very proud of his sister which was sweet.

In the evening we drove up to the Hill of the Cross – the easy way up – the other being a climb up 465 steps. The huge cross was first carried up by a Father Francisco in the 1700s and every May the ritual is repeated – though these days the cross is not carried by a lone monk.The cross we saw is not the original but replacement #2 as the first two crosses had deteriorated (either due to bad weather or to their not being properly ‘sanctified’, depending on which story one prefers). This transfer of the cross from the hill to the square and back is part of the May Festival which is happening this month. It was nice and cool up on the hill, and on the way up and down, we saw lone female joggers – this must be a relatively safe place.

Dinner was at 1720, recommended by Lonely Planet and which had paella (which some of us were craving) on the menu. The restaurant was part of an old colonial building. Four of us shared a paella, a steak and a bottle of wine – which was just nice. I’m quite glad this hasn’t been a food-focused holiday. Maybe, for once, I’ll go home from a holiday without having had put on the kilos.
No May festivities

We went to the square after dinner but there weren’t any May Festival festivities happening so we decided on some square surfing, and looking at locals looking at us… I didn’t see any other obvious foreigners here; we are probably well off the tourist track. A few minutes later the rain started coming down and everyone scattered for shelter.

Our bus was a bit late in coming to pick us up, and (surprise surprise) “no one” had our guide’s number – so we waited and took some rain shots, till our bus (by now noisily recognisable from quite a distance) arrived.

Here at the Holguin rent too, the shower was a good, normal-pressured one. The air conditioning was surprisingly COLD at 25C and so we went to sleep at a comfy 27C.

Bookends to Fidel’s Life

Holguin – Santiago de Cuba, Cuba / 7 May 2017

Today we leave for Santiago. Further repairs were made to our bus this morning and we were on our way. Our ace driver was in a good mood and well rested, as evidenced by his smile-and-wink greeting (as opposed to just-a-smile when he’s tired)…possibly because he had visited his (very pretty) girlfriend in a nearby town; we picked him up on the way.

It was another good, hospitable breakfast at the Serranos, with Manuel and Alina bustling about making sure all was in order. It was a pity about the short circuit the day we arrived. It would be been a good experience staying with them, I’m sure. Photos were taken, gifts given for the grandkids, goodbyes said and we were on the road again.

It was a cloudy day today and the weather a tad cooler. It’d be good if it stays this way in Santiago – without raining.

17.1494177241.fidel-s-childhood-homeWe stopped at Biran, to see the house in which Fidel Castro was born. It was a large estate – with various yellow wooden buildings – the house in which Fidel was born, the house his father built for him but in which he never stayed, the Bar Paloma which his brother Raul looked after, a shed with omnitheatre-like wooden seats and a circular area for cockfighting. (Fidel didn’t like cockfighting and used that area for boxing instead). An old Ford belonging to the Castros and which was driven by Fidel’s mum has also been preserved.

One of the first roads ran through the estate and a nearby building (also a royal yellow) was a hotel. A post office and school was on the estate too. Fidel didn’t go to this school but apparently when he was four he used to go sit in the classroom. A teacher noticed his potential, and advised his dad to send his very intelligent son to a bigger school nearby.

There were also some white wooden buildings – these were where the Haitian workers stayed. These workers were the ones who built the yellow buildings and worked on Fidel Castro’s father’s sugar plantation. At 13, the young Fidel incited these workers to rebel against his father as he thought his father wasn’t a fair employer!

The graves of Fidel’s parents and his siblings are on the estate, while his is in Santiago de17.1494177241.castro-family-tomb Cuba, our next stop. One of his sisters lives in the US and is a quite vocal opponent of his. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go into the house. When it rains, and conditions are slushy, the house is kept closed to prevent it from being ruined by muddy shoes tramping through it.

We then got back on the road for the just under two hours’ drive to Santiago de Cuba (the ‘de Cuba’ is a common suffix, Trinidad had it too – so as not to confuse them with the other same-name cities). Eloy distributed biscuits…always a sign that lunch wasn’t coming anytime soon. We got in to Santiago past 2PM and stopped at Revolution Square for some photos. There was a humongous statue of Antonio Maceo aka The Bronze Titan, on his battle horse. Maceo was one of the leaders of the Cuban Army of Independence; he was wounded 27 times in over 500 battles and always bounced back to lead his men, until he died in 1896, shot by the Spanish army. The memorial also had 23 huge machetes/swords and an eternal flame nearby.

Lunch was at a place that was discovered by one of the participants on a previous trip here – St Pauli’s. We four girls shared a pork ribs and a lamb – both done ‘St Pauli style’. Both were absolutely delicious – definitely the best meal of the trip so far. For the first time too, the meal was served in half an hour! For drinks, we had fresh lemonade (also good – not too sweet) and a Cubata with Santiago rum (the mafioso’s rum of choice) – it was Strong! One of our group didn’t realise a fly had fallen into his (neat) rum- till he picked it out of his mouth. Poor guy was quite traumatised – especially as the fly was still alive and staggering – possibly from the rum. On doctor’s (my) advice, he had another rum, neat, to disinfect his mouth.

Getting directions to the cemetery

Next stop – the cemetery where Fidel and JosĂ© Marti are buried. Marti was an early advocate and fighter for Cuban independence from Spain, and one of Fidel Castro’s heroes. Marti’s was an interesting story, as quite early on in his life, before he was even 20, he was exiled from Cuba. He lived in Spain, Mexico and even in the US – he was quite taken with the American way of life, till at some point he realised that for Cuba to be independent, the Spanish needed to leave, and the Americans needed to be prevented from taking over the country. He returned to Cuba in the 1890s, with the intention to overthrow the government, and have a country run not by just one group or class. He was killed soon after and is now remembered as an inspiration for revolutionaries …there are monuments to Marti in Delhi and in New York’s Central Park. Marti was also a writer and poet, and ‘Guantanamera’ (which we had heard so many times on this trip) was adapted from one of his poems!

Marti’s memorial at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery is a huge, quite elaborate one with a statue of him; Fidel’s is a large granite rock, meant to evoke Sierra Maestra (the mountain range from which he launched his guerilla war against Batista in the late 1950s) – his ashes are interred behind a copper plate that simply says FIDEL. One has to pay CUC3 to see Marti’s memorial while it costs nothing to walk past Fidel’s (though we were told to ‘move along’ despite there being no queue). I thought it was an interesting coincidence that we visited locations from the start and end of Fidel’s life in the same day.

Three of us paid (all of CUC3) to go see the Marti memorial and were treated to the changing of the guards ceremony at 4PM – many of the goose-stepping guards were long-haired, very fit-looking women. It seemed to be a ‘first time’ for our guide and drivers as well, as they were taking lots of pics too. The cemetery was well maintained and quite posh-looking with some very elaborate tombstones, especially those belonging to the Bacardi family (yes, Bacardi as in the rum). Next to Fidel’s stone was a memorial to the young insurgents who died in an earlier attempt by Castro to overthrow the government.

We then drove to the Santiago’s MalecĂłn. No big waves here as there were in Havana – here the water was practically still. Two young boys were jumping off some bollard-like structures into the water – they started showing off a bit when they realised several cameras were trained on them. After a few increasingly reckless dives we thought we’d better move on before they injured themselves.

The bus then had to manoeuvre through some extremely narrow lanes to get to our rent. So narrow that if we’d stuck a hand out, we would’ve touched a wall; so narrow that a large woman on the very narrow pavement had to turn sideways to prevent any protuberances from making contact with the side of the bus.

Our Casa was under renovation and there were piles of glass and tiles in the living room. Our rooms were up some treacherous steps. Once again we were in Room 3, as we were in Havana and Cienfuegos – is this a sign? Of what?? The room was okay – with a double bed and two singles – we were spoiled for choice! As we weren’t expecting company we spread out. As with all the other bathrooms, this one too had a slippery tiled floor which necessitated careful moving around. And as with all the other casas, rocking chairs were standard fixtures here too (including a little baby-sized one) – though none were chained together so there was no need to rock in unison.

17.1494177241.santiago-s-commercial-streetWe had a short snooze before heading out again. Santiago somehow had a different feel to it – the people less friendly, the neighbourhoods rougher. Here I don’t think I would feel comfortable walking around the way I did in all the previous places. Even as we walked the pedestrianised ‘commercial street’ it felt prudent to stick with the group. Our guide too said there here in Santiago, there are neighbourhoods we should stay away from. I guess Santiago’s piracy-filled past has spilled over to the present.

The central square had some beautiful buildings around it – in particular the cathedral with its art-ensconced pillars. Dinner was back at St.Pauli’s with its huge bouncer. It says something about the neighbourhood that a restaurant needs a bouncer – maybe he’s more required for the bar section of St.Pauli’s.

I was really tired by now – and hot! A few sips of Cristal (a local beer) later and I was ready to fall asleep right there. We (the girls) started our meal in reverse – with a coco glacĂ© to cool off. We weren’t sure if it would be coconut or chocolate ice cream – it turned out to be coconut ice cream served in an actual coconut shell, topped with sprinkles and caramel sauce. And there was coconut flesh to eat off the shell once one got through the ice cream. For mains we shared a grilled fish and…chocolate-coated chicken – the chicken pieces were actually coated in chocolate sauce!! Probably not something we’d order again.

There was more drama post-dinner – it was another wait for our guide and the bus. We were all quite tired, if not we just may have found it funny, but instead things came to sort of a head tonight…the whole sense of deja vu – for the third time in almost as many days, we were standing on a rainy street waiting (today I had my raincoat, yay!)…and our guide couldn’t be contacted as once again, the only (much touted) ‘use-able’ phone had been left at the rent. I was reminded of a principle we have at work – making a mistake is okay, making the same mistake twice is not. Or as smarter people have said, “Make mistakes of ambition, not mistakes of sloth” (Machiavelli).

Our young guide had actually come to the restaurant at the appointed time but as our food hadn’t come yet, he and the drivers decided to go have their dinner, leaving a message with the bouncer to let us know in case we were done before they were back. As it turned out we were done fairly soon after, and came out to the rain, and no bus. And, aforementioned usable phone was unusable. To add insult to injury, one of the girls almost got sent out with an umbrella to look for the drivers…till the other girls put a stop to it – not the cleverest thing to do in a foreign, somewhat unsavoury, city. The bouncer (who actually was a bit of a gentle giant), then left his post to look (leaving us at the doorway, like bouncers), and then the group ‘leader’ set off too.

The boys were eventually found, and from some of their looks, had been severely chastised it seemed…fairly or unfairly I don’t know. At this point, many possible ‘lessons’ for use on the work front in particular, were forming on the edges of my sleepy mind…on leadership, communication, coaching…but for now, these half-baked ideas would have to wait – as our ride back to the rent had been located and I was off to shower and sleep.

ChĂ© & The Kids – Punching Beyond Their Weight

Sancti Spiritus – Santa Clara – Havana, Cuba / 9 May 2017

Our breakfast Casa

It was a 7AM start today – we had all agreed on an early start so that we could stop at Santa Clara to see the ChĂ© monument and memorial, and get to Havana in time for the boxing (more about the boxing later). We were packed and ready when Eloy and Alain, our other driver, came to get our bags. Bags were loaded while we joined the others for breakfast at their casa. Another nice family, this time with a Dalmatian. Breakfast was good – a new addition to our standard menu was yoghurt, which one of us mistook for milk and it got added to Milo (brought from home!) – not something I’d recommend. The scrambled eggs were really good – with cheese, onions and tomatoes – though could’ve been a bit lighter on the salt. Think I’ve gotten used to the low-salt diet at home – everything tastes a tad too salty here.

We took a few quick photos in the square – lots of shadows and light – before getting on the bus for the day’s journey. We fortunately were still in the square when we realised my camera bag wasn’t where it normally was (on the seat adjacent to us)…minor panic. Rushed back to the rent with Eloy to check (though I was pretty sure all the bags had been taken – Eloy was equally sure he hadn’t taken my bag) – it wasn’t there…but it was in the baggage compartment of the bus. Phew!

It was less than 100KM to Santa Clara and we were at the ChĂ© Monument by 10.30AM, with half an hour to look around and get back to the bus. Santa Clara was the location of the last battle of the revolution that overthrew the Batista government – ChĂ© Guevara led the onslaught here, and because of this connection, his remains are buried here. There is a huge statue of ChĂ©, and a little museum – it had his original notebooks (remarkably neat, legible handwriting for a doctor), his guns, boots and uniforms, his inhaler that he used while in the jungles (he was asthmatic) and loads of classic black and white photos. What a handsome man…this no doubt increased his follower base manifold! …his ideals were noble, but I’m sure the clincher was his looks…even one of the (very sensible) girls in our group sighed, “I would’ve followed him.” 🙂
The memorial was in another room – a very cool (temperature-wise) room, where the remains of ChĂ© Guevara and six other insurgents are buried. ChĂ© was killed in Bolivia in 1967 and his remains were found in Bolivia in 1995 – or what are thought to be his remains – identified by the fact that the skeleton that was found had no hands (ChĂ©’s hands were chopped off after he was killed – and were sent for fingerprint identification – a bit excessive?!), the dental records matched, and in a uniform nearby there was a tobacco pouch which was known to belong to him…so in all likelihood we were filing past the remains of Ernesto ChĂ© Guevara, the kind and gorgeous doctor who had no qualms killing for a cause, the socialist whose iconic image is plastered on thousands of walls, doors, t-shirts and fridge magnets…I wonder what his reaction would be if he knew how much of a capitalist commodity he’d become. photography wasn’t allowed in either the museum or the memorial. We got back to the bus in good time, and were in Havana for lunch at about 2.30PM – back to our paella place. While there we did our rum shopping in the government shop next door. After lunch we walked around old Havana – there seemed to be large numbers of Americans about…a cruise ship must be in town. We visited the Hotel Ambos Mundos – Room 511 – which was Hemingway’s room. He spent a fair amount of time there, and because of a bad back, had his typewriter on a table that could be moved up and down – so he could type standing up. We also went into a pharmacy that seems to be stuck in time – it had esoterically-named medicines and herbs in old-fashioned urns, and even a real skeleton.


Next stop – boxing school. This originally wasn’t on our itinerary, but our ‘group leader’ had shown us some of his photos from a previous trip – and we, of course, wanted to go…despite it potentially being “a disappointment” (!) The boxing school was in a poorer part of town – and yet it didn’t feel unsafe as it did in Santiago…Cuba doesn’t seem to be a place where ‘economically poor’ neighbourhoods can be equated to ‘safety’ or lack of.

Inside of random house

The boys who attend the boxing school come by after their regular school hours – we were early and training hadn’t started yet. There was another gym around the corner, where some taekwondo was going on. The boxing coach was sitting around waiting for the boys – turns out he was a silver medallist in the Cuban national championships. He quite happily put on some gloves and posed for us – until the boss (a no-nonsense lady) put a stop to it, reprimanding both him and our guide in Spanish – no photos in the gym (which was actually a warehouse-like space). Oops. So our silver medallist came out to the road and we took some pictures outside the gym…also no go, and our guide got another dressing down.

By this time the boys had turned up for training at the first gym so we went back there. The kids ranged from 6 years to late teens, plus a big Russian/East European-looking adult who incongruously was training with the kids. The warm-up exercises were led by one of the older kids before the trainer took over. The little ones were really cute, trying hard to look fierce and boxer-like. There was one wiry kid, maybe 9 or 10, who looked like he really had potential; he had perfect form and looked the part. Then there was Antony, who kept getting called out to ‘do properly’ – he was chewing gum and looking really ‘bo-chap’ about everything.

That these kids were poor was obvious. Most of them wore shoes that had seen better days, some had holes in them. We were told that boxing gloves were in scarce supply and the kids often practised with just one glove. Kudos to the coaches and trainers for doing this, giving the kids something to do and keeping them off the streets…though personally, I am not enamoured by this sport.

This gym had a proper boxing ring and we took I-don’t-know-how-many-shots of a sparring pair. Today, was a good day for photography instruction – with advice on settings and to get in close to focus on details. We spent about an hour or so at the gym, making a small donation before we left.

Back at the rent – the Casa Familia at which we’d stayed on our arrival – we were greeted like long lost relatives. There was much pointing at our faces and exclamations of “Mucho sol!” – I guess we really did get ‘much sun’ and have all acquired a tan (gained colour? Or lost colour??…depends who asks?)

Tonight’s farewell dinner was a treat from our ‘group leader’, which was very kind of him. The restaurant was opposite the Capitolio building (which looks like it was fashioned after DC’s Capitol) – no reservations allowed so we had to wait about 15 minutes for a table. The food here was great – and came in ridiculously large portions. One of the group had a lamb leg – which literally was the whole leg – femur and tibia inclusive. S and I sensibly shared a lamb stew which was really good. We got through a fair number of jugs of deceptively mild sangria.

Havana by night

Tomorrow we start our homeward-bound journey!

The Bar Is Open

Havana, Cuba / 10 May 2017

Our last morning in Havana. We slept in, finished packing, and passed some postcards to Eloy for posting…they might take about two months to reach, we were told. At breakfast, Eloy appeared and gave a sweet little speech – thanking us for being nice and kind to him, and apologising for any boo-boos – he then gave each of us a bracelet with our names on them – and my name was spelt correctly! Something he needn’t have done but the fact that he did…full marks to him.

The family too gave each of us big hugs and gifts – Cuban key holders, complete with recipes (in Spanish) for mojitos, Cuba Libres and Cubatas – perfect!

After breakfast we all went to the nearby hotspot for some square surfing and to finish up the remaining value on our wifi cards. We were a very focused group. Wifi cards done, we hung about to practise panning (also very focused) before heading back to the casa to shower. We were all packed and ready by about 11AM and were informed that ‘the bar is open’. The casa had a little bar area up front – we’d been saying we should have a drink before we leave, but all the nights that we were here, we were too knackered and had gone straight to bed. But today, the bar was open (very!) early and Alexi (one of the sons) was bartender. We later figured that this was the son who did triathlons and to whom the lightweight bike (mentioned in one of the earlier posts) belonged – he certainly looked quite the athlete…and was very generous with the rum!

This was a perfect end to the two weeks. Everyone was in high spirits and many a photo was taken, and email addresses exchanged. We had already said bye to the drivers and our bus which transported us the length of the country, the day before – transport to the airport was in two taxis driven by fast and furious cabbies.

Immigration took a fair amount of time – I was asked the purpose of my visit (in Spanish) and managed to convey it was a holiday, S was asked for her non-existent visa, and some of the others had their passports taken away for a while. At the lounge, there was a minor crisis, as S mistakenly gave in her boarding pass instead of the lounge pass (both looked similar) – we realised this as we were leaving the lounge. The ladies insisted they didn’t have the boarding pass, we insisted they check – eventually after much persuasion they found it. And then at the gates we were all checking our exit stamps in our passports – I didn’t have one, and neither did a couple of others. One had a stamp with no date. Anyway, not much could be done at that point, other than to hope this doesn’t cause any issues sometime in the future.

After these mini-crises, it was a relief to settle in on board, watch a movie (‘Allied’ which was not bad), eat a little and sleep. 10 hours to Amsterdam.

Back on the Other Side of the World

Singapore / 12 May 2017

And so this Cuban missive ends – a couple of ‘crises’, but no show-stoppers. It was strange to be back home, not least because for the first time in a long long time, I was coming home to an empty house. But also because the past two weeks were spent in a whole other world, travelling the length of a country that was unfamiliar, and yet familiar in parts.

It was two weeks of being disconnected and having to plumb the depths of my memory to try and recall Cuban history, details of (“history shall absolve me”) Fidel and the cult of ChĂ©…all without the aid of Google. Instead it was quick flipping through Eloy’s Lonely Planet guidebook or asking him or the others in the group…and then trying to discern fact from fiction.

It was two weeks of two-eggs and 5 servings of fruit for breakfast each day, grilled chicken (on every menu), paella (several times), and Mucho mojitos, Cubatas and Cuba Libres. It was two weeks of super-cold airconditioning, spring beds and silky sheets; slippery bathroom floors and luck of the draw accommodation; almost learning to ignore the flies – but not quite – maybe if we’d stayed another two weeks.

It was two weeks of thinking about the different personas one journeys with – from the easygoing, to the jokesters and the complainers – each inspiring copious ‘notes to self’ and opportunities for reflection…”that’s a great trait to emulate”…”kick me if I ever behave like that”…and many reflections in between.

It was two weeks of good fun photography – I’ll deal with the stiff thumbs and aching wrist later. The highlights of this journey were definitely the people – the smiley old men and women who so readily agreed to be photographed, every single one curious about where I was from (they almost always started with a South American country – “Argentina?” – more than one thought I was Cuban!!), the younger people – also curious but a bit shyer about being photographed; and the children – the biggest posers…no different from children across most of the world; and, of course, Lazarus, who deserves special individual mention!

And it was two weeks of travelling with my best friend to a place we’d always wanted to visit – we’ve been very fortunate in life and I hope we’ll have many more ‘two weeks’ to explore all the far-flung corners of our wonderful world.

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