December in the Northern Hemisphere and I’ve decided to have a Christmas Tree this year. Summer in New Zealand rapidly wilts the local Pinus Radiata and anyway, I have no decorations there. In London, stored in boxes is a history of baubles, fairy lights, buntings and assorted miscellaneous decorations, bringing with them memories and musings on this most pagan of festivals.
My mother in her later years shocked me by admitting that she dreaded and hated Christmas. She detested the drunkenness and rows associated with the family business owned by my grandmother and managed by my father. Somehow Mum never let on about her Christmas misery. Dad would go out on the road side and cut down a Pinus Radiata seedling – later, we were old enough to do it. The tree was decorated then my brother and I awoke on Christmas morning to a litter of presents.
There were presents from Father Christmas addressed to us boys in Mum’s distinctive hand-writing and offered with a wry smile. We were in on the joke and I don’t think I ever believed in Santa. I’d worked out pretty early on that there was no way he was ever going to get down our chimney.
It was not comfortable to have maternal and paternal grandmothers in the same room so, like many families of the age, we compromised. Paternal Grandmother came on Christmas Eve and being Scottish, preferred Hogmanay. We went to my maternal Grandparents, to meet up with cousins, aunts and uncles, sitting on the back lawn in shorts and bare feet recovering from the heaviness of a traditional Christmas dinner. There was always roast chicken with the usual vegetables, which we were expected to eat, followed by hot steamed pudding secreted with silver threepenny and sixpenny bits. We forced down the hot desert just to get the money. Somehow it was contrived that every child got a coin.
We weren’t really a church-going family – nominally Presbyterians – I’d decided around the age of eleven, that the teachings of Jesus pretty much didn’t match up with what was happening in the world and in particular, Christianity. We went to Sunday School and Bible Class to meet up with other youngsters in the village. There were little performances in church – the Strang Brothers, Alan and Jack sang Silent Night while I, wracked with nerves and a lack of talent, accompanied them on the piano. Somehow, I got through it. Some years later I sang Mary’s Boy Child accompanied by the church organist – weird.
In London, for many years, Christmas was about choral singing. I belonged to the Actors Choir and our conductor, Anthony Bowles, would have us perform the Nine Lessons and Carols – inspired by Kings College. Anthony would reluctantly allow us to do a preview only of the carols at the Actors Centre in the week before.
‘Christmas ends in Oxford Street on the twenty-fifth. In the Anglican Church it begins after Christ’s birth.’ And so, we did a tour of churches on the four Sundays after Christmas. We always started with Once in Royal, but there were rules and if we went on too far into January, some hymns could not be sung and we had to substitute. In time, some of the lessons were replaced by readings from Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales. We had a high proportion of unbelievers in our choir but somehow the music and fellowship prevailed. Once at Thaxtead Parish Church (the home of Holst) it was bitterly cold. We requested permission to wear our coats. Antony promised that we would be warmed by the Holy Spirit. Sadly, the Spirit failed most of us, confirming my lack of faith. Anthony sadly died from an HIV related illness in the early nineties. He was resigned to be going to Heaven and would greatly miss most of his friends who would be going to ‘The other place.’
Phillip arrived in my life around the same time and brought with him his box of Christmas decorations. It is this treasure trove which has set me of on these musings, some of them trivial, others joyful, but in the main they have brought a certain sadness. Dressing the tree was a ritual undertaken by Phillip, in a particular way and I’ve tried to emulate that. The tattered fairy on top of the tree is in her late sixties. She was bought from Woolworths in South Yorkshire – a cardboard cut-out dressed in now-faded crepe paper. Her wand-holding hand is missing, so I’ve distracted the viewer with a blue feather. The mostly-glass baubles of varying sizes are now classics going back to the fifties and sixties; modern baubles are now made from plastic.
Phillip had a tradition of buying a new decoration every year and we continued that. By the nineties, everything was plastic and expensive so I got into the habit of taking advantage of the after-Christmas sales to buy decorations for next year. There are enough to dress a tree now and I’ve even given away surplus fairy lights.
Whatever your beliefs and customs in these extraordinary times, be kind, remember and hope.
It’s time to top-up the compost in the raised beds at the front of the house in Stepney Green. A lot of people get pleasure from looking at my garden as they pass by and I like that. Two elderly well-dressed women stop to look and admire my red Phormium Tenax.
‘That’s from New Zealand – flax,’ one of them says. ‘We’re from New Zealand,’ she continues.
‘So am I. I’ve been here thirty-nine years.’
‘I’ve been here for fifty,’ the other woman says.
‘Are you local?’
‘I live in Whitechapel, next to Sainsburys.’
‘That’s handy. I shop there every week. Whitechapel is the traditional place for immigrants to arrive,’ I say with a wry smile.’
She smiles back.
‘It’s great that we have a new woman Prime Minister,’ I venture.
A shadow crosses their faces momentarily. ‘Yes it’s interesting.’
‘I do hope she can fix a few things,’ I’m pushing their boundaries, I can tell.
‘It’s good for Labour to be in power every now and then to make some social changes.’
I adjust my narrative. ‘Yes, it’s good to have a balance between social care and capitalism, I guess.’
‘We don’t really want to get into politics,’ one of them says.
The second one, from Whitechapel adds, ‘New Zealanders live in paradise, they just don’t know how well off they are.’
I look doubtful. ‘Perhaps a demi, semi paradise,’ I say, all the while thinking of child poverty, water pollution, housing and high suicide rates.
She continues. ‘New Zealanders just don’t realise that these issues are all over the world.’
Now this is something I can really agree with. It’s true, New Zealand, in spite of the traditional ‘Overseas Experience’ done by young kiwis, still seems to think that their problems are unique. No, they are not. They are experiences all over the world.
We return to the red Phormium Tenax, a safe conversation. I tell them how I grew it from seed (really easy) brought from my Mother’s garden in Hawke’s Bay. They are amazed that it can survive here in the UK.
‘Well if you’ve been to Otago, (they have) they grow enormous down there.’
They move on down the road and a walnut-faced old man, who has been watching us from his white van parked outside the house next door, approaches. He grins to reveal a front gap in upper and lower teeth between in incisors and canines.
‘You like to have sex?’ He nods in the direction of the parting women.
I’m shocked and surprised on a number of levels. I never consider sex with women whatever their age and briefly consider telling him I’m gay. Quite quickly I decide that it’s not worth the bother and as English is clearly not his first language, he may not get the message. I’m surprised that he has even thought about sex with these women, or has he observed my conversation and confused it with flirtation?
I shake my head and laugh. ‘No, not for me.’ and decide to move the conversation in a different direction. ‘Are you working on the house next door?’
‘Yes, my son. I watch out for parking guys.’
‘If you’re working for the council, why don’t they give you a permit?’
He shrugs. ‘There was not time to do it.’
‘What are you doing in there?’
‘My son, he is fitting new bathroom.’
‘Yes, they are always doing something in there. Where are you from?’
‘Oh. How long have you been in London?’
‘Ten years now.’
‘So after the war?’
He nods and proceeds to tell me all about the former Yugoslavia. I try to show him I know about it and attempt to contribute by naming some of the regions which are now countries, but he’s on a roll. Finally he comes to a halt with ‘Croatians very bad people.’
‘Oh, I thought the Serbians were pretty aggressive.’
‘No, no, Serbians are very kind friendly people. BBC got it wrong, they told lies.’
I’m not quite sure how to answer that, particularly as he’s Croatian himself and should know. Just as I remember the current lot of Croatian military men being tried for genocide, his son emerges from the house next door and he’s off.
A few moments later a woman of South Asian origin, wearing a headscarf passes my garden with her hands, palms together as if deep in prayer. She stops and smiles. ‘I really like your garden; it gives me great pleasure every time I pass.’
Monday morning in Seville and there are a few breakfast places open for Café con Leché and Tostadas Jamon. Every eatery we’ve been to has had super friendly waiters and waitresses. We’re on our way through the narrow city streets again, looking for the Alcázar Palace. My GPS woman knows exactly where it is, but not how to get in. In the end David suggests we do that very un-male thing and ask someone. Yes we are outside the garden walls, and if we just follow the wall around we will get to it. We do that and find a medium queue. I keep our place while David looks for water and somewhere to pee.
The Alcázar Palace, begun in 1364 is a mixture of Gothic and Mudejar. It was built on the site of a former Moorish palace and mosque and incorporates many of those features. Like most palaces, it’s been added on to and altered, but it is a beautiful and serene place. We spend time thoroughly exploring the place, doubling back to make sure we haven’t missed anything. A high walk-way gives us a fantastic view of the surrounding gardens.
By the time we’ve seen everything available, it’s time for a late lunch and having identified a nearby street of restaurants yesterday, that’s where we go. Shade is essential as it’s a warm 30 degrees and in spite of asking for ‘blanco’ anchovies, none are to be had today. It’s siesta time again and I really do need to flake out, surfacing later to eat drink and hang about with David.
Nothing much happens in Seville on a Monday night, so it’s back to the Mr B&B for an early-ish night. Emelio and Manuel are still up and about, so there’s time to say goodbye. They will be gone to work early in the morning and I’m to just leave the keys on the dressing table.
Tuesday morning and I’ve got my eye on The Belle Arts Museum. It’s just down the road from my digs and I can return to collect luggage and shower before my Ryanair experience later in the day. David is up and about and says he’ll join me, so I have breakfast just around the corner from the museum.
David arrives and also needs breakfast; he says he’ll join me. For some reason, I’ve brought my passport, perhaps in the hope that there will be a discount for being officially old. Actually, my European passport gets me into the place for free. How good is that?
I must dash around Europe madly taking advantage of this while I can. I’m just starting off when David texts me in a panic. He’s got his dates wrong and has to immediately go and catch his flight to Bilbao. Just as well he realised in time.
This building was once a monastery and has gathered together many paintings from religious institutions since 1836, when they were all shut down. Built in 1594, the building has fine ceilings and architectural features. I’m not a huge fan of ecclesiastical painting, but I am interested in how mediaeval and renaissance painters depict the biblical stories and characters according to their own cultural norms. So, for example Seville Madonnas all look Spanish with dark hair and olive skin. German painters portray the Holy Family as fair-skinned and blond. Painters had never been to the Middle-east, their sitters were local people they knew. It would just not be acceptable to portray the Holy Family as Jewish now would it?
I’m drawn to a series of Madonnas ‘Inmaculada’. They are all surrounded by scores of cherubs, some of whom seem to looking for a way up Our Lady’s skirt – as if one of them can miraculously enter her womb and be born as the infant Jesus.
The portrait of Saint Sebastian catches my eye. Traditionally he’s depicted as beautiful and slim, but this portrait has him with tree-trunk legs and a thick waist.
I’m also interested in the homoeroticism of the magnificent torsos and backs of those sinners being dragged towards hell mouth. Murillo is everywhere and paints large canvases. Individually, they don’t do much for me, but en masse in the large hall they impress. Today, his portrait of a young monk looking adoringly at the infant Jesus might raise a few eyebrows. Certainly the monk is a way to close to the child for comfort.
There are also more modern paintings. As a freebie and a place to spend a relaxing couple of hours, this is great value. David made it to Bilbao and I dozed upright in Ryanair for two and a half hours.
I can not believe I’ve not been here before – Cordoba, Almaria, Granada, the Costas and the mountains but never Seville. I associate it with oranges – the delicious marmalade they make – so as a true practitioner of delayed gratification, I’ve saved Seville till now. When my good mate and neighbour, David, from Waiheke (NZ) suggested I join him on part of his 50th Birthday grand tour of Spain, I seized the opportunity and his dates worked perfectly.
Sitting in soulless Stanstead airport is arduous – there are no water fountains, rubbish wifi and the recharging stations are backless benches. I’ve done little research on what to do in the city and so rely on 4G to have a look whilst I wait for my Ryanair flight which, unlike many other destinations this week, has not been cancelled. I’ve found an app called Visit a City and I can download it all to use off line. I arrive at Seville to find the fastest immigration queue ever thanks to my EU passport and the promised free mobile phone roaming in Europe turns out to be true. I’ve booked a room with Mr B&B, a gay version of Air B&B and I’ve instructions to take the bus into the city terminal and walk for ten minutes. Emelio and Manuel are a sweet young couple, quite shy but very welcoming. Emelio immediately gets out his ipad and shows me the gay area and other sights nearby. David has been in contact via messenger and soon arrives (he’s also doing Mr B&B – a studio apartment) and we do big hugs as we’ve not seen each other since April. So it’s two gay men on the loose in Seville for a weekend and he’s already identified one of the bars where gay men tend to drink. Of course, this being Spain, it’s too early for this time on a Saturday night. We have a beer and catch up whilst checking on bars, clubs and restaurants on our phones. Most places don’t open until 8.30pm, the clubs at 10.30 and even 1.00am. We find a tapas place and have to wait for a table at 9.00 as it’s incredibly busy with staff working their socks off. We go and have a look at a few gay venues, but nothing much is happening so we return to our earlier bar for more wine. It’s busy now and there’s more to look at. I’m ready for bed by midnight. David plans to go home and nap before trying a disco at 2.00am.
Sunday morning – not too early, but early enough to leave David to sleep, I set off for Casa de Pilatos, using GPS to guide me though the narrow lanes and alley-ways of this ancient City. The Casa is a magnificent 16th Century palatial home, considered to be the first in the Andalusian style. Built after a grand tour of Europe and the Holy Land, Middle-Eastern and Italian design fuse with breath-taking effect. The stunning central courtyard on the ground floor leads off to magnificent tiled rooms looking outwards to beautiful gardens. The Casa boasts one of the first grand staircases in Seville and I‘ve opted for a guided tour of the upper rooms which display oriental carpets and portraits by notable painters of the day. No photography is allowed upstairs.
I wander through the area known as Barrio de Santa Cruz – more narrow streets stumbling onto tiny plazas with cafes. I have no idea where I am, but appreciate having my phone GPS to drive the Visit a City app. My recharging unit also comes in handy to get the phone though the day.
I arrive at the Catedral de Sevilla & Giralda Tower and sit down to watch the world go by. David has surfaced and will meet me here. I note the horse and carriages lining up to take the tourists for rides. The horses actually look quite healthy and well cared for unlike in other parts of the world. There is a steady stream into the Cathedral and when David arrives we take a look. There’s nothing much to see and the tower is not open until the next tour at 2.30, so I suggest lunch. David orders anchovies, hoping for the white ones he’s seen around. Unfortunately he doesn’t use the word ‘blanco’ when ordering. I’m heading for Plaza de Espania but David has other plans so I carry on to find this most amazing building completed in 1929 for a World Fair Expo. The afternoon is hot and it’s time to go back to my lodging for a siesta.
In the early evening I collect David from his digs and we look at the Metropol Parasol – otherwise known as the ‘Mushroom of the Incarnation’. It’s billed as the largest wooden building in the world, but this ultra modern ‘sculptural’
installation looks so light an airy, as if it’s made of balsa wood and could lift off at any moment. The sun is setting, so it’s a perfect time for us to look over the city at ancient monuments and the distant bridges across the river. The pictures say it all.
We’re off in search of a recommended Paella restaurant, which takes us to a more modern and up-market part of the city. David has his GPS on this time – it guides us with an Australian accent – hilarious pronunciations of Spanish street names. Sadly the restaurant is only open for lunch until four pm so we return to our usual gay friendly square for drinks. We then strike it lucky with a place that does grilled king prawns and a whole octopus leg on a bed of fantastic mashed potato. A return to the gay bar completes our Sunday evening.
I’ve driven up from Miami airport on the Florida Turnpike to this small town north of Palm Beach to visit family. It’s a hot-bed of visual arts and I’m staying with brother-in-law, Bob. His wife Lisa is a painter of flamingos – it’s her speciality and she’s part of the vibrant art scene here.
We go to a gallery which is selling some of her work and meet the owners. It’s the off season now – too hot – and all the snow birds have flown or driven back to their northern summer so business is slow. We travel south to Palm Beach to visit the Norton Gallery, currently being expanded, but not with federal funding.
Once again this is a very well curated art collection with a small collection of very significant artists. Renoir, Matise, Degas, Monet, Pissaro, Picasso and Miro are here along with American Artists, Georgia O’Keef, Edward Hopper and the New York realists. There’s a fine courtyard exuding peace but not cool at this time of year.
I’ve found the YMCA in Stuart and manage to catch up on swimming in their open air pool which confusingly turns out to be 25 yards long. Still it’s too warm both in the water and out to do my usual distance. Re-visiting Stuart beach after 7 years in interesting; it’s quite busy with bathers and sun-baskers. The same Snack Shack is there and the turtles are still laying their eggs. Their nests are marked of with orange tape so we can avoid trampling on the buried eggs.
What wasn’t here all those years ago was the newly built Elliot Museum of art, history and technology. The temporary art exhibition is ‘The History of Quilting’. Originally quilts were made with any old scraps of fabric and filled likewise.
From its humble beginnings as the bed covering of the poor, it has evolved into an art form with intricate designs and stitching.
Stirling Elliot was an inventor and made many improvements to early bicycles, steering and gears on the first motor cars. There is a huge collection of early vehicles and an extensive collection of vintage and classic cars. Many are stored on a racking system and can be brought down for close inspection. There’s his personal collection of baseball memorabilia and local history exhibits. If you are into model ships, you will be in heaven but the connection between a group of Evenrude out-board-motors and photographs of Hollywood stars, is not immediately apparent. Mr Evenrude married a starlet.
It’s time to move on – returning to Miami and then to London to find the temperatures about the same in both cities, possibly hotter in the later.
I’m getting very familiar with Miami Airport. Passing through it on my way to Dallas, I exchange travel stories with an older American couple who are on their way to Ecuador – they are waiting for their delayed pane to arrive from Bogatoa. I discover that my flight has been cancelled due to mechanical problems so I have to queue up to get re routed via Orlando. Horray, I’ve always wanted to go to Orlando … not. Fortunately I don’t have to go out of the airport, just cross over the lounge to another gate – easy. I’m staying with my niece in the suburb of Highland Park an area of very posh houses on tree-lined streets. There’s not a lot to do in Dallas, according to my niece. I’ve identified a little-used swimming pool but she belongs to the Four Seasons Golf & Sports Club in Irving and arranges for me to go.
There’s a pool there with only one other swimmer, so it’s perfect. The changing rooms and spa area are plush and almost deserted – it’s Friday morning. I’m the only one in the lunch bar afterwards and take advantage of the plentiful supply of Uber taxis in this city. On Saturday we go into town as I want to see architecture. Dallas has some spectacular pieces, but we’re also here to see the Kennedy 6th floor museum.
This is the former University Book depository from where Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. There’s no photography allowed on the 6th floor, but I highly recommend this well curated exhibition. The narrative is mater of fact, which I find more moving than schmaltz. Dallas has struggled with the reputation for being the place where a president was assassinated, and the exhibit does not shy away from mentioning Kennedy’s detractors here. I was only 12 years old at the time, but remember all the coverage – this brings it all back and I’m able to look down and photograph the spot from the 7th floor. Conspiracy theories still abound but all the evidence is presented and I’m fairly certain that Oswald did it.
Later we all take a ride on my hosts Vespa scooters and then walk along a disused rail line now paved over for runners, cyclists and dog walkers. There’s a beer at the end before we return to the scooters.
The other thing to do is visit the George W Bush Library. I’m sceptical about this as He definitely wasn’t a favourite of mine at the time. Every president since Hoover has one of these so-called libraries around the country. George W’s Library is accommodated on the site of the Methodist University – it’s very grand.
Trying to maintain some sort of neutrality in the face of the populist view of George W and all the accusations thrown at him during his presidency, I’m struck by the slickness of the presentation and suspect a gap between the fine and patriotic rhetoric and reality. A lot happened in this time: 9/11, the banking crisis, Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, but the narrative starts at the beginning; His childhood, being the son of a former president, his marriage to a librarian and his decision to give up drinking and return to his church. This exhibition dwells on the positives and the ‘honour’ it is to ‘serve’ in public office. There is a strong sense of duty to the American people and he’s cut his teeth on the governorship of Texas.
What is a surprise is that the first achievement is Education. A large display declares ‘No Child Left Behind’ – several times. George is quoted ‘to stand for office you must stand for something’, so I’m looking forward to finding that out. I’m also wondering about the legacy of this education policy and how many children are still being left behind. The passions of Laura Bush come to the fore here and it’s clear that her work as a librarian has been key.
The Bush’s are photographed often with black children and whilst George was famously photographed with a book upside-down (probably hastily put in his hands by a photographer) and there were various other gaffs in classrooms common to most politicians, I’m getting a feeling that he wasn’t quite as dumb as was rumoured. There is a statement he made whilst visiting Mexico.
‘The United States has no more important relationship in the world than our relationship with Mexico. Each of our countries is proud of our independence, our freedom and our democracy. We are united by values and carried forward by common humanity.’
Now, although this is the sort of diplomatic speech required for the occasion, It is strikingly different from the rhetoric coming out of the current administration regarding US/Mexico relations. No walls mentioned in this speech – note the underlined passages.
Next we get to 9/11 which seems to be accurately reported. It happened on his watch, and doesn’t mention his failure to turn up, but instead memorialises the event. 9/11 eventually leads to the Iraq war/invasion and here the justification is that although no weapons of mass destruction were found, they were convinced that Sadam had the ‘capability’. Hmm. This is of course leads to the launch of ‘The War on Terror’ which continued though his time and strangely, is on-going as I write in 2017.
I think Bush was probably unable to resist pressure from the military, pubic opinion etc urging him to go into Afghanistan and Iraq. I compare this decision with Obama’s not to put troops on the ground in Syria. Neither seems satisfactory. Moving on there are key policies in other areas: Expand Free Trade; Strengthen Alliances; Prevent the spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction & Encourage Democracy.
I just get the impression that the current administration is going in the opposite direction. How did that happen? There’s some great photography here and walls of images depicting the US as multicultural, which is of course true, especially in the southernmost states where everyone seems to be speaking Spanish.
A replica of the Oval Office allows visitors to sit in the presidential chair and be photographed making a phone-call. There’s a replica of the rose garden, but the climate in Dallas doesn’t suit roses, so you have to look hard to see the few struggling specimens.
The second half of the exhibition gets more personal with an account of the visit of Elizabeth II, An interesting map on the incidence of HIV around the world and a section on Protecting the Environment – neither of these are supported by the Trump Administration. There’s a participatory game where we get to make presidential decisions. Each participant has a desk and console and first up we have to choose an issue for which Bush made a decision.
Thinking that my answers to things like the Iraq war might be pre-determined, I choose the banking crisis having momentarily forgotten the outcome. The majority of the players also go for this. They are mainly young people, so it’s interesting that that’s on their minds. The game involves listening to various different agencies and opinions and the basic question is weather to let the banks fail and cope as best they can or to throw federal dollars at them in the hope that they will recover and be able to repay. We have limited time and get interrupted with updated information from news sources. My decision is to use the Federal Dollars, but surprisingly the majority of players go for the Darwinian option. It is now revealed that saving the banks is what Bush did and I’m vindicated.
Finally we are treated to a cute video story fronted by the bush twin girls, showing family life and the importance of Camp David in entertaining and getting to know world leaders. The whole experience is a great example of storytelling from which the Museum of Revolution in Habana could learn.
On the other side of the huge entrance foyer are George W Bush’s portraits of Veterans of the Afghan and Iraqi wars. He’s had various tutors and you can see a development in the style. The images are confronting and often include full length representations showing prosthetic legs and wheel chairs.
I’m undecided about George as an artist, but the work is definitely superior to Churchill’s water colours, which were never meant for display. This project seems to be an act of atonement – to somehow apologise for the wars, without actually doing so. I find it quite gruesome and don’t want to spend too much time here – worth the look though.
My last evening in Dallas is another Vespa ride around the real estate of Highland Park – ranging from 2 – 10 million. I get to see some typical Texan homes – the contrast with Habana is dramatic.
Jean-Paul and Alicia are at breakfast, its their last day here. She works for a diamond firm doing admin and assessing gems. Shes held some very expensive diamonds in her hands and tells me that they come in all colours. When I mention the synthetic diamonds, shes quick to point out that even though occlusions can be fitted into the gems, they can be easily recognised for the way their points are slightly rounded whereas the real thing has sharp angles.
Its a long walk to the other side of the Old Town. All along the way repair and restoration work is going on sporadically. Many large 19th century buildings have been gutted and remain fenced off with an architects photoshop of what its all going to look like.
Many, like the Palace of the Ursulines remain untouched.
I pass the Central Railway station which looks as if trains dont run here any more. The terminal building was once impressive and there are pictures of it being built in the 1900s and an impression of what it will look like when restored. Martís birthplace is around here somewhere.
Its a small house brightly painted in yellow and blue. Theres a bit of a panic when I enter as there is no ticket office and the entrance fee is 3 cuc. The place is over staffed and they dont seem to know what to do with me while they go and get change. I suspect its free for Cubans. This modest house contains photographs of Martís parents, his childhood and personal items he may have used, like cutlery. The captions are entirely in Spanish, so theres a bit of guesswork involved. There are pictures of Martí at different times of his life and in different countries, but no sense of narrative about his work.
With my trusty map, I head off in search of Simon Bolivar, another hero of South America. I fancy walking along the Bay of Havana, where the piers are. The offers of taxis continue unabated, particularly as I approach regenerated pockets. I spot a huge warehouse which seems lively.
Its full of arts and craft stalls; painting, leatherwork, woodwork and of course tee shirts and souvenirs. I decide its time for me to get a Ché Guevara tee shirt and spot a green one; its very good quality. Ive already resolved to go though a green phase, so even though I pay too much for it, Im content. I continue my search for Simon Bolivar, thinking to look at the ancient Convent of Santa Clara. It is indeed crumbling and closed in spite of being marked as a museum on the map.
I do find the house of Simon de Bolivar, but its not open to visitors I have to make do with a statue of him across the road. I discover the delightful Plaza Vieja where the heat overcomes me and I have to sit down. The Coffee place is over subscribed so I order a Limonada naturel at the almost deserted café next door.
A local woman sits at my table complaining about the crowded coffee shop and the heat. After a moment she starts going on about coke. I get the impression that she wants me to buy her a coke, but I profess no Espanol. She persists, asking for 2.50 cuc and eventually I relent but go into the café, find a can of coke from the refrigerated cabinet and take to the counter. Its actually 2.75. I tell her coke is very bad for her, full of sugar, but she takes no notice and disappears the moment shes got it. I imagine that it was the 2.50 she wanted and not the coke. Time to move on to the Plaza di San Francico di Asis where theres a huge bank over the plaza from the church with a funky sculpture of a seated couple.
This part of the city really is the place for tourists, most of it has been restored and if youd not been in Central Habana, you would have a very different impression. This is where the cruise liners berth, guided tours are everywhere and its difficult to find a café that doesnt do a full course lunch. A plain looking place, with cheaper prices looks worth a try. A few back-packers are eating. One couple have to go up to the counter and the service is hopeless. I do manage to attract the waiters attention and order a beef burger and a beer. The local beer listed on the menu is not available, only the more expensive imported stuff. Its still reasonable and the burger is very hot.
I have to go up to the counter to pay as there is no hope of attracting the waiters attention.
Ive lost track of the number of times Ive been offered cigars.
I dont smoke I say several times until they get the message. Gave up 25 years ago, I say. Theres a few that suggest I buy gifts for friends, but I cant think of anyone who smokes cigars. I decide to take a tricycle taxi back to my digs for the experience and its hot. I spot one at a corner. They line up in order like regular taxis. This guy is eating sweet corn for lunch. He knows where my street is and its a fair way. Hes been on holiday to Moscow although he didnt seem to think there was much for him to do there and he found the Russians very dull, not like the Cubans, he says.
Hes only in his twenties and I wonder how a Tricycle taxi driver can afford to go there on holiday. Later in the evening I return to Café Neruda. Wayne is there alone out the front looking very red in the face possibly sunburn. He doesnt recognise me from yesterday, so I go in and find a table in the shade. Travelling alone, Ive become a watcher of people their body language tells a story. A very beautiful young man, tanned and skinny comes in with a pretty blond girl. She gently caresses his forearm as they wait for their food. There are a couple of young English guys who have come out smelling of soap in crisp shirts, shorts and loafers. I can tell they are English by the shapes their mouths make when they speak. English public school I think. They have a relaxed familiarity in close proximity, but not quite touching. They may be a couple, but more likely to be school chums. The taller one is fair with slightly curly hair and an ironic, hard to amuse air about him. Hes not handsome, a bit like a younger Jeremy Paxman. The shorter one has dark-brown hair, olive skin and a charming smile. He looks up somewhat adoringly at his friend as they flick through their Cuba guide-book.
A family is near the entrance steps. Shes pretty and breast feeding her son. Hes tall, skinny, bearded wears glasses and anxiously looks after his urchin-like daughter. They are eating dinner and the wife is having a glass of red wine. They are Spanish-speaking and are fully engaged in entertaining and comforting their children. Suddenly Im aware that he has fingers and parts of fingers missing from both hands. I imagine some sort of accident as a child. Amongst this diverse clientele the middle aged waiters saunter, balancing three or four bottles of beer in one hand. Traffic passes on the Malecón and the sun goes down. Back on the b&b roof terrace yet another couple from New York have arrived. Hes a red-head and shes originally from Venezuela. They are having money problems. They are used to travelling with credit and debit cards and hadnt imagined that there would be so few opportunities here. American express, which they use, is not accepted here at all. Shes talking to Barbara about the problem but the b&b cant do credit cards the bookings are all done from abroad, somehow. Suddenly he shouts out that hes got his magic money and flips out 5 £100 bills. Ive got the money from my magic trick. Hes a magician. I thought that was fake money, she says. I recon the audience would want to check it out. I add. He nods in agreement.
I think Ive just about exhausted Habanas treasures and set out back to the arts centre for more t-shirts and decide this time to stick to the water-front known as the Bay of Habana,
I look at random artists studios as I go and pass a statue of Cervantes. Theres a modern building with an up-stairs café where locals gather. Its patronised by women in Department of Customs uniforms on a break. I get a coffee and watch. Along the bay is a huge wharf which is in need of restoration and I can spot a gold onion dome of what must be a Russian Orthodox Church. The ferries also dock here, ancient vessels that chug across the bay to the other side. I take some time to look at the embarkation of passengers, not dissimilar to the Waiheke Ferry bikes, shopping and people.
Theres a disappointing collection of garbage collected in the water around the ferry building. Making my way along the road, I find the Russian church is open and, more because Phillip would have had a look, I go in. Further on I discover another plaza restored for the tourists, with the colourful black cigar women and I find a statue of the father of Cuba de Cespedes in Plaza de Armas. This also contains the Castillo de La Real Fuerza, which Id failed to find yesterday. Its full of Spanish history revolving around the Amada. There are models of Spanish ships, samples of gold and treasure plus some good views from the battlements. On one side of the Plaza is the palace of the Governors of Habana the Cassa de Gobierno Palacio Municipal from 1791 – 1898.
Later it becomes the municipal offices of Habana to 1959.Its got carriages and guns on the ground floor. On the upper floor surrounding a peaceful courtyard are the state rooms. A female attendant wants to point everything out to me.
Theres a green room, a smoking room etc with French china vases, Italian marble and so on. It is beautifully presented and of course she gets her tip in support of the Cuban people. There is also art and a collection of marble busts from the Roman era.
I notice an impressive building once belonging to the Bank of Nova Scotia and think of my cousin there who loves this country.
My last images of Cuba have to be this street art on the walls Banksie style.
Cuba Post Script
Just as Im leaving the USA 16 June 2017, I post on Facebook.
Sitting here eating empanadas and trying not to throw-up. Trump is live on CNN revoking Obama’s deal with Cuba. Using the most disgustingly patronising propaganda. Backed by a cheering clapping crowd he manipulates with emotive language and the Star Spangled Banner on a single violin. Think I might have been to Cuba just in time.
Hes talking about human rights abuses and his concern for the best interests of the Cuban people who have been repressed. I didnt see any of that though they probably exist. I also havent seen the overcrowded US prisons with thousands on death row. Cuba is about ordinary people making the best of what theyve got. As my driver, Maria, said on the first day Its complicated and listening to the President on the television, he clearly has no idea.
Finally it’s the day to check out the Museum of Revolution, housed in the magnificent and almost-restored former presidential palace. Most museums charge 5 or 3 cuc but this is a hefty 8 cuc so I hope it’s worth it. I tend to look into corners – places around the back. A personal exhibition by a Cuban artist catches my eye, but it’s overtly reverential to the current government. It does, however lead me around a corner to see a set of four cartoon characters. Starting with Batista, the last president of Cuba, then three US presidents: Reagan, Bush Snr and Bush Jnr. Each are thanked (ironically) for ensuring the continuation of the revolution. It’s vicious propaganda – on the edge.
It is the case that history is always written by the victors and in the case of Cuba, they have not yet lost their struggle. They can still claim to be the victors of this fifty-year war, particularly since Obama’s decision to end the travel prohibition. I’m expecting to find out their story as to date the US has not told their side. It is as I expected, except there is no mention of the so-called Cuban missile crisis presided over by JFK. Did the know about it? Surely Fidel would have known about the Russian installations?
We have to go back to Carloss de Céspedes, the ‘Father’ of Cuba. He was a wealthy land-owner who freed his slaves, inspired by Abraham Lincoln. Cuba’s struggle for independence from the Spanish Empire shadows the American war of independence. He was in fact killed by the Spanish.
Even more important is José Martí, he was imprisoned in Isla de Pinos but escaped to found the Cuban Revolutionary Party. His writings are said to be hugely influential. He also was killed in 1895 in the struggle against Spain. There are statues and monuments to him everywhere. Somehow, with a period as a colony of the US and a series of ‘Dictators’ ending with Batista, the Revolution continues in the late 50’s. The Museum doesn’t start at the beginning of the story, choosing to jump right into a ‘History of Improvements’ post revolution. Raúl is put in charge of the armed forces; teachers and doctors are trained and sent to rural areas to improve health and education. Former army barracks and mansions abandoned by the rich (who left thinking the revolution wouldn’t last long) were converted into schools which you can still in Havana.
Foreign enterprises were nationalised ‘in the face of US economic aggression.’ Renters suddenly became home owners and peasants acquired land. It’s the usual story for newly established communist governments. The narrative continues with the lowering of phone charges – communication is affordable – explaining Alicia’s family calls from Cuba. Beaches are free to all – a situation much prized by New Zealanders. A revolutionary tribunal is set up to deal with the ‘crimes of Batista’s henchmen.’ Details of what happened to them are not mentioned. By now the US has banned all imports from Cuba so the huge sugar cane harvest goes to the USSR in return for oil.
Who take the cigars is not mentioned, but they continue to be the best in the world – so they say.
On the third of January 1961, diplomatic relations are broken off, although Guantánamo air base will remain from which to mount ‘US aggression.’ A large section of the exhibition is devoted to the so-called crimes of the CIA. Now as the CIA never admits to anything and the US has never told their part of the story, none of this can be proved. There is an astonishing list: Operation ‘Peter Pan’ where 14,000 Cuban children were kidnapped to the US put in institutions and re-educated; The blowing up of a French ship carrying arms to Cuba from Belgian; the largest department store in Habana deliberately torched, with great loss of life. By now there are stories of bandits or counter revolutionaries supported by the CIA.
These are apparently eliminated by the Cuban Army by 1965, but the claims continue until ’69. By 1975, if anyone remembers, Cuban troops are involved in Angola. Sugar production is booming until 1990 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Unlikely CIA attacks in the 80’s, to my mind, include: The introduction of dengue fever, pig fever, blue moss – mould on the tobacco crops and mildew on sugar cane. Maybe some of these things happened and you can easily imagine the young jocks in the CIA sitting around thinking up dastardly schemes. On the other hand, it’s always convenient to have an enemy who can be blamed for any disaster that occurs. The US psyche also requires villains. Russia, Korea, China and Iran are currently in favourite positions for the Trump administration.
Evidence is presented for the intimidation of Cuban athletes travelling to the Central American Games. I skim over the black & white photographs of the war. Fidel Raúl and Ché figure prominently. There are also biographies and photographs of other heroes of the revolution, the women, who later became politicians with portfolios, the ones who didn’t make it.
It’s the way the language is used which is interesting. One photograph is captioned ‘the forces of tyranny captured’. It sounds very heroic as indeed it is meant to be. I’m about to collect my bag from the coat-check when the woman indicates the memorial building outside. Here is to be found the mystery of Ganma which has been worrying me for days. Without internet and trusty Google to fact check I feel I’m picking up pieces of the jigsaw in the wrong order. Granma is a province in the south named after the yacht of the same name. Castro sailed with 82 men in this dilapidated luxury yacht built for 20 passengers to re-start the revolution.
It’s confusing because the replica of the yacht has ‘Granma’ on the stern. Whatever the story, it’s a wonderful piece of subterfuge. Who would suspect such a vessel to be harbouring a revolutionary army? There are also relics of planes captured or used in the fight, along with remnants of a US bomber shot down.
The pilot’s body remained in Cuba for 19 years as officially there was no US action taken and the body was not requested until 1979, then the body was returned. I have to admit that as moving as the Cuban story is, it’s not well told, with huge gaps to be filled in. I move on towards the old part of town passing a seminary on the river bank with a cool courtyard.
I find the Cathedral and a trendy modern bar for a cheese and tomato salad. I’ve found one of those streets which have been restored and painted for the tourists. It’s time to return to Cassa Densil for siesta but an image of Trump pasted onto a corrugated iron fence surrounding a building site catches my eye.
My routine, after siesta is to go to the roof and write, then walk around the corner to La Neruda for a beer.
There’s a band playing and for some reason I’m ushered to a table outside on the pavement where I sit watching a young man fishing from the pavement of Malecon. He has no rod, just a circular plastic roll of line. He baits up and, checking that there are no pedestrians, swings the line, lasso-like into the sea, holding his roll of line to the sea as it reels out. Quickly, he makes a catch and elegantly pulls in his line, laying it carefully on the pavement to avoid tangles. His catch dealt with, he wipes his hands and baits up again. A white haired man with a, slim Cuban woman in her late 30’s or 40’s,dressed in white, in tow, asks if he can share my table. Wayne is from Niagara, the Canadian side. Taking the opportunity, I ask him why Canadians come to Cuba. ‘I’ll tell you,’ he says. ‘It’s three and a half hours flight from Toronto.’ He then goes on to tell me that he comes around three times a year, since his mother died. He’s seventy and has found a gym he can go to here. He hasn’t really answered my question, but does introduce me to his companion, who seems disinterested in him and listens to her phone via earphones. Wayne and I chat about travel and agree that this is a good time of life, the Epicurean time. I take my leave noting that the young man is still fishing and give Castropolo, along the road another try for dinner. It’s still not fantastic food, though there is enough of it.
Jean Paul is on the roof again wanting to talk. Barbara, turns on a huge fan to keep us cool. I tell him about me and he confesses that he hated his mother when she was alive, telling her that he would spit on her grave. Only when she was dead did his suddenly realise what an amazing woman she was. We agree it’s a classic case. I show him the cartoon of Trump on the prickly pear and he loves it.
At breakfast I meet a couple from New York. Jean Paul, when I comment that his name sounds French, he tells me his mother was Irish and loved France, even though she’s never been there and his father was Columbian. Alicia, his companion has Cuban relatives somewhere here. Her father got away and she remembers crackling phone calls from when she was a child. Maybe she will find them, but has no idea where to start. My first chore this morning is to change money.
The hotels will do £’s but not $’s so I recon that a trip to the bank is in order and luckily they are open on Saturday mornings. Having spotted a bank on the first day, I know where to go. The security guard asks what service I require then tells me to sit while the only teller doing exchange comes free. It’s all efficient orderly and quick. Cuba is more expensive than I’d imagined and credit card opportunities are few and far between – none of the bars or restaurants have VISA facilities and surprisingly, nor does the tour office in the Hotel Inglesias where I’m booking another excursion for tomorrow.
Coming around the now familiar corner of the Opera house, I decide to see if it’s possible to look inside. It is, at a charge of 5cucs. A very sweet looking young man asks me to wait for a few moments for the next tour, but no one else arrives, so he takes me on a personal one.
One side of this ornate building built in 1830 was the Galecian Club (Spanish Colonialists) and at some stage the two were merged. It was closed for restoration from 2012 – 2016 and consequently looks pristine inside and out. I ask questions and often pre-empt my guide’s prepared narrative. He’s very sweet and loves his job – having only been doing it for six months. The auditorium seats 1600 and although the stage doesn’t look that large, the orchestra pit is gigantic. Many famous names have performed here: Anna Pavlova, Carouso; (there’s an amusing story about a shot being fired as a prank while he was performing.
Running out into the street, he was arrested as a pervert for wearing strange clothing) the Bolshoi Ballet of course has also been here. Domingo rehearsed but cancelled due to the death of Fidel the next day and most recently, Obama addressed an audience on this stage.
Art Cubano is well worth the visit. This entire 60’s building with ramp walkways which take me up to the third floor tells the story of Cuban art. Beginning from the late 1800’s this floor concentrates on pastoral/agricultural scenes. One artist (Landaluze) in particular stands out as the only one to depict the Black slave population. From the 1700’s there are low quality religious paintings and the Mezzanine houses prints and cartoons.
Down on the second floor, everything springs to life with the 60’s the time of the revolution. Even without being exactly sure of my dates, there is no doubt. The works are colourful, vibrant and angry, many depicting suffering others politically defiant. It’s interesting to see artists like Andy Warhol referenced and one female artist has painted the annunciation swapping the angel for a winged devil about to rape the virgin.
There are some very dull specimens of abstract and cubist art from the 50’s – possibly reflecting the repressive Batistsa ‘dictatorship’. Maybe the 50’s were universally dull. The 60’s continue with the surreal and in the later part of the decade we get representational and comic book. Artists experiment with vastly contrasting styles. Suffering is still depicted, but there is a new confidence now that the USSR is supporting.
During the 80’s, collage and mixed media appears. There is confusion, trying to make sense of everything. In the end there is a return to the ideas of Revolution, which according to the propaganda, is on going. Finally there is patriotic art – the last canvas, called boomerang, depicts a large number of these disguised as weapons of war. The implication is clear that whatever seeds of war you sow, they always come back at you. The USA has yet to learn this as do many other politicians around the world who don’t know their history and don’t listen to artists.
My decision to patronise the gallery café for lunch is not a good one. The Cheese and ham sandwich comes in a huge soft white bread roll. After a siesta back at my air b&b I go up to the roof to write. It’s near the beginning of the hurricane season and it rains every day at some time. Moving down to the lobby I continue for a while. As Jean Paul enters, I ask him it their air conditioning has been fixed – a battery in the remote was needed. He stops to chat and ends up telling me his life story. He begins with an apology for his President and how embarrassed he is. Hillary was also not an option for him and so, he didn’t vote. The use of a private email server was a huge issue for Americans, which I didn’t really get. I commiserate. He’s an electrician and loves his job, but is driven by his romantic passions, causing him to follow the love of his life to Los Angeles for a year, to no avail.
He talks fondly of his Irish mother and his adoptive father who brought him up. His biological father, he describes as a Latino apple-seed (one who likes to spread it about a bit) but was often in and out of gaol. He keeps returning to his mother, a defining influence in his life. She’s taught him tolerance and made it clear that whoever he brought home as a partner, they would be welcome. He describes his impossibly handsome gay friend in LA and being comfortable in the gay-frequented Mary’s Café. He’d felt huge rage when homophobic abuse was hurled at his friend by passers by. The gay friend just shrugged – he was used to it. The moment passes for me to tell him about me, but I’m sure he’s guessed. We continue to philosophise, and in the end he thanks me for the conversation.
It’s supposed to be a 6am collection from the Hotel Inglaterra, so I’ve woken at 5.15 and set out in the street lighting armed with a packets of peanuts and biscuits standing by for breakfast. The coach is late and I chat to a Mexican couple from Chicago, Jose and Rosa. He’s having trouble changing money without his passport. ‘How did you get here?’ I ask. ‘On our ID cards. I never travel with my passport and they won’t accept the photocopy,’ he says he’s brought. The last pick up point is near the harbour where a cruise liner is berthed. Three good looking women from New York get on. Two of them are Latino Spanish speakers and the other one sitting next to me is African American. They haven’t go off the cruise liner but are having a great time checking the photos on their phones – there’s not much else to do with phones here unless you buy a local sim card.
A middle aged Japanese couple are on this tour. The wife wears a diaphanous neck to ankle green and blue floral garment with long sleeves. She floats around photographing everything: The ceramics in the pavement outside the hotel; a panoramic video of the sun rise at the harbour … several times, all on her iphone. A very tall young man, who looks and sounds northern European is with a short woman of Indian origin speaking with a London Accent. She comes up to just about level to his ribs.
I’m going to see what the sunshine holiday makers do on this sand-spit of a place not much more that 1km across. It is explained that we will check into a resort hotel where food and drink (not spirits or wine) are free. It takes two hours to get here and after ‘checking in’ to this Spanish style resort (probably built by the Spanish) it is time for the breakfast buffet. We’ve all exchanged our passports for a waterproof orange wrist band and been left to amuse ourselves as best we can. The breakfast is plentiful, looks good but is low on taste. At least there is fresh fruit. I’ve got a plan in my head to investigate the swimming pool for a training swim but it turns out to be made entirely of curves and is tepid. I’m also full of breakfast and decide to walk on the beach.
This turns out to be hot exercise with my rucksack on my back. I return to the loungers and palm shades connected to our resort, have a brief swim in the slightly cool sea, then take a snooze. I’m unsure if we have to pay for the loungers as we’ve been told that everything on the beach is public. I ask the tall Scandinavian, who turns out to be Norweigian. He doesn’t know either, but they are going snorkling on a catamaran shortly. This sounds like a good idea as I don’t really want to sit here, even under palm leaves, for the rest of the morning. There are five of us on the Cat – the others are a Canadian couple. They say sorry about the attacks in Britain. I tell them that I texted my son in Manchester to check he was OK. ‘No,’ they say, ‘this was yesterday on London Bridge and Borough Market.’ They’ve seen it on the news at their hotel. I really am in a bubble here and the world has gone on being mad without me.
The news doesn’t really sink in immediately and just now travelling under sail out to join other boats on the reef, all seem right with the world as we all chat. The Norwegian works as a seaman and the London girl sells real estate in Fueguerola, Spain, where they both live. She tells me the market is busy. I ask if there has been a post Brexit drop-of of Brits buying. A bit but Europeans are also buying as Fueguerola is still cheap. The Canadians are speaking French so it’s no surprise to learn that they come from near Ottawa in Québec. When we get to the reef, there is an abundance of fish. The other boats are feeding them bread, so no wonder they flock around.
Our boat-man leads us in an exploration of the area, inviting us to dive down and look. Some have kept their life jackets on and so are stuck on the surface. The depth is only three metres, but that’s enough for me to feel it in my sinuses and it takes a few dives to get my breathing together. There are some amazing small fish near the bottom, dark blue with white stars. Others are camouflaged against the rocks. Schools of fish hover under ledges near the bottom and nervously disperse when looked at. I inspect the remains of several large anchors. The pressure has driven all the gunk out of my sinuses and the pain has gone. Now it’s time for us to feed the fishes and we’re handed stale baguettes to dangle just at the surface. The large fish scrabble to take chunks, sometimes inadvertently brushing against me. I even get my finger nibbled. The trick is to hold the bread with one hand above the water and keep your head under to see what’s happening. The smaller yellow fish underneath the aggressive ones on top are collecting up the smaller crumbs as they drift downwards. Presumably even smaller fish below benefit in some way. No wonder they all look fat. I’m sure that bread is not good for fish in the same way that it’s unhealthy for ducks, but hey, it’s better than feeding plastic into the ocean.
Returning, we have the wind behind us and make good progress. Lunch is still on buffet style as was breakfast but even less inspiring. I have another sea swim. Plan B was to swim up and down parallel to the beach, but I’ve just had lunch and it’s now too warm in the sea. I find shade under the palm leaf shelters. Later I try out the pool, but don’t have the energy to do more than a few strokes. One of the resort entertainers is rallying the guests –Butlins style – to a game of quoits. Who can get even one over the bottle? Only two make it to the final – most of the participants are Canadian. There isn’t really anywhere to change out of swimming costumes, so I improvise in the toilet. It’s time for an espresso in the main lobby of the hotel before catching the return bus back to Habana. I eat at Costas&tal on my way back to the b&b as it’s late – the waitress recognises me from a few days ago.
There’s a small table free by the window and I can see what’s happening on the street. Young men are on the look out for whatever might come their way. A beautiful young black man with diamante earrings in each ear looks at me as he passes the window. I look left at the next window along as he passes by. He glances back. Next to me a Russian family is finishing their meal. Mother and daughter both have badly bleached yellow hair while the husband talks all the time. The daughter takes little notice, consulting her Russian Spanish phrase-book. They seem to be enjoying themselves. A couple of women are pissed of that they can’t have a window seat then a party of five youngish Europeans of some sort come and two of the women are vegetarian. Their choices are limited. Couples come and go at the b&b. there’s a pattern going on with pale northern European type men with Spanish-speaking girlfriends of Latino origin.
Pick up time at the Hotel Inglaterra is 7.30am, so breakfast is ‘not possible’ says Barbara. The coach goes around the hotels and picks up customers. As we get the suburbs there are grand villas where the wealthy moved out from the old city. Some are recently painted, others faded and flaking.
Even further out, there are more modern dwellings, flats and houses of the 20th C, their drab architecture suggests Soviet lack of imagination and a new coat of paint wouldn’t go a-miss. We head out West on the Russian-built motorway towards Vinales. Our guide reports that the motorway stops near Sancti Spiritus in the East exactly at the time that the USSR collapsed.
From Habana, we pass though the province of Artemisa which is supposed to be one of the main agricultural producers for the country. I’m somewhat surprised by the lack of agricultural activity, spotting some small-scale sugar cane fields, haphazard banana plantations and quite a few dairy cows. From the 60’s USSR was Cuba’s main trading partner and large quantities of sugar were required by the Russians.
After the collapse, is known as the ‘hard period’ when few would trade with Cuba. Canada came to mine the nickel and Spain to build resort hotels. There is a great shortage of housing – It used to be illegal to sell your house so they were kept and rented out. Now it is possible to sell though there is still a large rental sector. We pass the ubiquitous Royal Palm trees which have many uses – the fruit is fed to pigs. There is nothing of interest in Pinar del Rio the major town of the region.
Arriving in Vinales we can see first hand the rental market in action. Just about every house in the town has been brightly painted and advertises rooms for rent to tourists. Obviously the Air b&b industry has taken over and is an opportunity for families to make some decent money. Government jobs pay so poorly here that tourism seems the best hope to get ahead.
Our guide explains that the order in which we visit places depends on how many other buses are pulled up at the same place. I’m hoping for lunch sooner rather than later and regret not buying a banana from the street trader, when we stop at a Liquor factory.
This is an unashamed retail opportunity which you can expect on any bus excursion, anywhere in the world.Our guide whips out a pan full of fermenting berries from a vat for us to taste. Apparently this place is the founding site of a now-extensive business and we are offered samples of Dry and Sweet versions of the Liquor. It turns out to be brandy, perhaps not the perfect beverage on an empty stomach. We are crowded into the sales room of the factory where the brandy is sitting on shelves ready for purchase. The Sales woman also does a fairly heavy promotion of cigars which become cheaper, the more you buy. On the coach, I’m sitting next to Malcolm, a retiree from Worcester on holiday with his wife and 19 year-old son. He has a 40 year old son and grandchildren as well.
I comment that he had a bit of a rest between sons. He laughs. They have a property near Orlando in Florida where they come every year. The family apparently love all the Disney stuff, to which I offer no comment. He also loves Florida and I avoid enthusing by telling him it’s one of the places in the world in which I gets lost – it’s so flat – no mountains for directions. It turns out that we’ve been to many of the same places in the world.
He’s probably a conservative voter, but is unsure about Theresa May, except that she seems efficient. Having missed (on purpose) hearing her recent broadcasts, I can only say that as Home Secretary, she seemed rather dull. ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ by contrast, ‘seems to want to take us back to the 40’s’ he tells me. I’m thinking that perhaps that might not be as bad as he imagines, but also that it’s impossible to turn the technological clock back.
Lunch is postponed because there is a gap at the caves we are to visit. The district is littered with rounded hummocks of eroded limestone covered in vegetation. They are similar to the ones in Hanlon Bay, Vietnam and in southern China.
The cave we enter is likewise full of strange shapes formed by stalactites. There is a river through the cave, but no glow worms as in New Zealand’s caves at Waitomo. We take a boat up river and return to another entrance.
There is an opportunity at the tobacco farm, a gap in the buses.
This is a shed in the middle of a field used to dry the tobacco leaves. Ninety percent of the crop is bought by the government leaving the rest for the farmer to do with as he will. This one does demonstrations of how to roll a cigar after which we are invited to try it out and possibly buy some, although the farmer is not able to have a brand name, but this means they will be cheaper.
Once the test cigar is lit, there is a noticeable evacuation of the area by the non smokers. Surprisingly quite a few of the young women are having a go.
At last it is lunch-time and it’s a sit-down en mass affair with crusty bread, a salad of red cabbage, rice and beans with some quite acceptable roast pork. There’s a young man with a London accent travelling alone, sitting at our table, next to the wife from Worcester. He thinks Jeremy Corbyn might win the election. The wife looks worried. He says he’s buying and selling property but this turns out to be not in London but Milton Keynes. We talk about the state of the pound and how expensive it makes travelling. The Worcester family think it will improve after the election (they’ll be able to afford Florida) but I think that it probably won’t and will get worse with Brexit. The young man nods in agreement – interesting to meet a young leftish-leaning capitalist. On my other side is a Frenchman from near Avingon. He is also travelling alone and we manage to make some conversation about the Palais de Pape and the famous bridge. Canadians are also on this tour – Cuba is a favourite destination. Perhaps this connection traces back to the nickel trade, or is it a psychological act of defiance against the US policy? Until last year US citizens were forbidden to travel here, so maybe the Canadians got one up on their neighbours.
Our lunch destination is sited under what is claimed to be the largest mural in the world. It depicts evolution and is possible the worst piece of art I’ve seen. Malcolm from Worcester agrees. I can only hope that vegetation will encroach and hide the work from the eyes of future generations.
Later after a two hour journey back I return to my sea-front bar on the Macón and try their menu. A dish of fish and shrimps sautéed in white wine is delicious.