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.
Breakfast is amazing and curious. A collection of miss matching antique china and glass is laid out on the tables. I have a plate cup and saucer from early 20th C Europe. My fried egg is on a faded plate from England; honey and guava marmalade in etched wine glasses.
Nothing is really collectible, especially as demand for old china has disappeared. There’s lots of fresh fruit – missing from the Miami breakfasts – cornflakes, toast and butter and a thermos of strong coffee. There’s a plate of cheese and fruit jelly, all more than can be eaten.
Heading out to look for the centre of the city I have to watch my step as the pavements or what remains of them are hazardous, and there’s the dog shit. Water trucks are on the street delivering to houses and evidence of road and building works is everywhere, but not much sign of workmen. I guess it’s complicated. Ringing in my ears is the cry from people when you mention travelling to Cuba. ‘Yes I must go there before it gets ruined.’ They have a point, but being here in these once elegant streets it’s obvious that the infrastructure has already been ruined by US lead sanctions over thirty years.
It’s not that buildings are more important than people; the landscape supports and nurtures. I am astonished at the morale of these people in their semi ruined city. I make my way down Avenue D’Italia with a notion that this will take me to the centre. A man offers a city tour with his horse and trap – one hour for 30 cuc. I make a mental note for later.
I pass supermarkets and shopping centres, of sorts with not much in them. One stall is selling only joints for plastic piping though the window display suggests fabrics and haberdashery.
I turn left under the arch of what was once Chinatown.The Chinese have long gone – maybe to Singapore or Hong Kong. Suddenly I am in a huge square dominated by The Capitolio which is nearing the end of 16 years of restoration. It will be the seat of government again and apparently houses a gigantic statue of the Goddess Athena.
Adjacent is what turns out to be the newly restored Opera House, currently showing Carmen – the ballet. In the block behind there are the ruins of the Teatre Capitolio. I peek though a gap in the wall to see what once was the stage growing palm trees.
I see no sign of any tourist information centres but next to the Opera House at the Hotel Ingelsia I find a desk selling city maps. It’s retro time and in the absence of 4G and google maps, I’m in business, old-fashioned style. As a bonus, there’s a map of the whole country on the other side and after locating the tourism booking office inside the Hotel Ingelsias (Hotels always book excursions) I sit down and work out what options I have for one day tours. There are two and I go for Vignales tomorrow. I spend some time in the Parce Centrale looking at the workmen repairing/replacing the fountains and paving at a laborious pace.
One workman, restoring a bird bath takes a five minute rest between applying each trowel full of plaster. Giving him the benefit of the doubt I cite the heat in the middle of the day and the possibility that he needs the plaster to ‘go off’ before the next application. I wonder if the priorities are correct.
On the one hand, people living here need their dwellings restored, waterproofed (rain cascades off temporary tar paper roofing and is carried through plastic piping at cornice level to drop to the street in much the same way as mediaeval cathedrals) ahead of repairs to this square.
Clearly this slow process begins in the centre of the city for the tourists who bring their dollars to spend on the meticulously restored classic American cars. Chevrolet, Dodge, Fords and so on are all lined up in this square touting for tourists. As I sit in the square an old man speaks to me. He’s selling today’s Communist Newspaper (Granma), which of course is in Spanish.
We talk, sort of as I have only a few words of Spanish which includes ‘No Espanol’ He likewise has only a few words of English. He points to an article about Trump dumping the Paris Climate Change Agreement. I nod and offer ‘Trump bad?’ ‘Si’ he replies. ‘Obama OK?’ I ask. After a moment’s hesitation he nods. ‘Si.’ I buy his paper for 1CUC ($1).
I stumble upon the Museo de los Orishas and without a clue as to what this is, I buy a ticket following the example of a young woman who seems keen to see it. I find out that she is Spanish and working with a middle-eastern performance group in London. She’s able to explain that this is all about African rituals and gods.
There’s a black and White photographic exhibition of Brazilian Africans dressed in their white clothes doing a festival of the sea. The rest of the exhibition is the depiction of various African gods and deities from Nigeria, Kenya, Gambia and so forth. They travelled with the slaves and were of course forbidden by the Catholic Church but were eventually converted into Christian saints for convenience.
I’ve spotted Belle Arts on my newly acquired map and head towards it, refusing the pleas from the Car Men.
Outside the Belle Arts a chap is trying to drum up business for the Museum café. He ushers me upstairs and I vaguely wonder if there is free entry. I decide that a plate of ham, cheese and olives might make a light lunch with coffee. Afterwards I wander out to explore and find the main staircase blocked with scaffolding – more repair and restoration is taking place.
Spanish art is on this floor, so imagining that the rest of the museum is closed, I make the most of it. It’s astonishing what art treasures are to be found in out-of-the-way parts of the world. A whole room of Bastida (Valencia) is the first impression. There are several by Velasque, including bloody bull fights where the bulls are having the best of it. They are quite amusing as they are full of injured bull fighters and disemboweled horses either dead on dying with guts all over the place.
I descend to look at an exhibition of sculpture by a German called Tony Cragg. It’s good but one of the attendants has spotted that I’ve got my rucksack on my back. With limited means of communication, I explain how I got in for free without checking in my bag. She shows me to the lift and accompanies me to the 5th floor, having, I think, suggested that some tip is expected. I’m thinking about my declaration to support the Cuban people and perhaps this might be a good ruse.
Here on the 5th floor there are Germany and Holland – followers of Cranich are here along with a few real Rubens and van Dycks. There’s an Italian section and Great Britain with the prolific Reynolds (faded as he is wont to do) plus Gainbrough, Raeburn, Romney & etc. I also get an obscured view through scaffolding of the sensational stained glass ceiling above the stair- well. Down to the 4th floor there are collections from antiquity: Rome, Egypt and the Etruscans. I have no need to re-visit these and pass on to France, but there’s not much of importance here. I take the lift back to the German Sculpture room and tip the woman who showed me the 5th floor. She’s pleased, not expecting me to return; apparently government employees are very poorly paid. I head down towards the Museum of Revolution to check it out. There’s a modern pavilion in the leafy avenue with a collection of weaponry outside it and I stop to look.
Suddenly a man, neatly dressed in white with his wife and young family similarly attired, attracts my attention. He thinks I need directions, he doesn’t know where New Zealand is, but I try to make conversation, telling him what a lovely family he has. This immediately brings out the story of milk rationing and how difficult it is for the baby. Thinking back to my visa declaration – ‘supporting the Cuban people’ – I guess he’s after a hand out. If milk really is rationed he won’t be able to get any more with the 5 cuc I offer. He tries it on, asking for 3 more’ for the Mother’, but I’m firm and say no as I walk away. Before me is the Belle Artes of Cuba but there’s only thirty minutes until closing – it will keep for another day.
I make my way back to the corner of Ave. D’Italia, but the horse and cart rides around the city have gone, so it’s back to Parce Centrale, where I’d been offered a tour in a bright yellow Courvette – guaranteed original engine. That also is away, so I decide to go gay and take a pink Chevrolet. It’s 50 cuc for an hour but hey, I’m supporting the Cuban people here.
My driver literally trumpets his glee to all the other drivers by playing on his valve (as in trumpet) driven car horn. Off we go around the city – he’s pointing out all the hotels and buildings of Cuban Pride.
He has a special signature phrase on his horn when ever he passes an attractive woman. They’re use to this and studiously ignore him. ‘They’re not taking any notice of you,’ I tell him. He shrugs.
We stop at the big José Marti Memorial (there are several to him all around) and I take photographs of him and the cartoons of Ché and Fidel. We pass a huge cemetery and though the suburb of Vedado, where houses are modern and not crumbling, down to the beginning of Malecón which sweeps around the bay, past high rise housing back to the old city.
After a beer at Café Neruda on the Malecón, I try out Castas &Tal – recommended by Barbara at Cassa Densil and only a few blocks away. It’s very well presented and very reasonable. It’s got notices in trip adviser.
With the streets clear, my Uber app announces one minute to arrival at the Hotel. I barely have time to wheel out my bags onto the pavement. It works and quotes a fraction of the price to the airport. I’ve been told that visas have to be applied for at the port of destination, so I’ve come out early to suss it all out. There is in fact a special check-in/bag drop area for anyone going to Cuba. I check in on the machine, pay for baggage and trundle off to find somewhere to write and recharge the laptop. When it’s time to collect the visa, I find that it’s $100 – a far cry from the on-line charge of $16 a few months ago before the US election. I just wonder who is making the best of this deal. I note with amusement that in the list of reasons for travelling to Cuba there is no ‘Tourist’ option, the best one seems to be ’To support the Cuban people.’ I’ve decided to pay for two bags this time but once again, the gate desk is asking people to voluntarily check in carry on bags for free. No one is taking any notice of the weight or dimensions of bags. I probably could have got away with it. The flight to Havana is only forty-five minutes and immigration is fine. On first inspection the airport looks modern, perhaps a bit frayed around the edges – like some of the Heathrow terminals. The toilets are operated by infra-red sensors and there are extendable gantries for planes to hook up to. There is, however, a long wait in the baggage hall and during the time, the lights go out, plunging us all into darkness … twice.
The transport team arranged by Densil’s air b&b are there to greet me. ‘Cambio’, I explain, and they point me to a long queue outside. I wait for about 15 minutes until suddenly they realise that there is a money change desk at the other end with no queue and I’m hurried towards it. My driver, Maria, is middle aged and in charge of a bright yellow Peugeot. At first she says little, but I find out that she’s educated, her mother was a teacher and her daughter, an accountant has married an American. They are waiting for her residency in the US. I ask Maria if she is tempted to go, No, she loves her country and wouldn’t go. It’s just that she can earn more money doing airport transfers. Often her answer to my questions is ‘It’s complicated’.
I ask about the increase in tourism. ‘Is it good?’
‘Yes, but they have to respect the way we do things here and follow our rules.’
I wonder how the country will cope with a flood of foreign investors. Suddenly a huge bunker type building appears in the distance with a rather stunning spire. Maria tells me ‘That’s where Raúl works.’ The spire, once we are past it, turns out to be a memorial to José Marti a founding hero of Cuba. Facing him on tower blocks are cartoons of Ché Gevara and Fidel, whose picture is still to be seen, pronouncing ‘we love Fidel’ or’ long live Fidel’. I notice all the classic and vintage cars on the road. Everywhere there are ancient Ladas from the USSR era. Old American cars from the 50’s and 60’s are mainly used as taxis, but there are modern cars and yellow taxis as well. The sense of a make do and mend economy is everywhere. Cuba must have the largest collection of classic cars in the world, probably worth a fortune.
Cassa Densil is a block an a half away from the sea-front. The street is crumbling almost bomb damaged. Some houses are brightly painted; others are in a state of near collapse. The road has been dug up to lay something but piles of rubble remain and black bitumen has been partly laid to cover up the excavations. Denzil’s, as advertised on the Air B&B site is old-style colonial. These streets look to have been built in the early 20th or late 19th centuries and the place is full of antique-like furnishings. Whilst not exactly dusty, there is an air of decay as if Miss Haversham will appear at any moment. My hostess is an Italian woman called Barbara. She visited several times and fell in love with
a local. She has a little English and I have to slow down for her. She takes me up onto the roof, where breakfast is served to give me a panoramic view and orientate me. I get directions to local restaurants and pointed in the direction of the Parce Centrale, where I’m told I can get a map of the city. It is somewhat disconcerting to be without wifi connection or even a mobile network – no whipping out my phone to bring up google maps. I attempt to contact the Orca water polo guys, but it doesn’t work even though I have all bars showing. I guess the world will carry on without me for a week. The possibility of Trump-free days is attractive and I realize that the British election will happen while I’m flying from here to Dallas.
It’s still light and I make for the sea-front, a long sweeping street called the Malecón. In the fading sun-setting light the sight is stunning, but turning around to look at the once-grand Edwardian era houses, crumbling away, the extent of neglect becomes clear.
There’s a new sea-front bar called La Abadia where I stop to have a beer. It’s been built with modern a sail-like roof structure in a gap in the terrace. As I sit and watch the sunset, a brightly lit blue-sky gap appears in the darkening clouds suggesting a way forward, a good omen. I’m heading east towards Castropolo – a restaurant recommended by Barbara.
Suddenly a striking new sculpture appears. This blackened female bust has a shocked expression at her own disintegration, but there is also an air of defiance about her. I choose the downstairs section of the restaurant as Barbara says it’s cheaper. Locals seem to be the main customers and there is a party of five who scrape their left-overs into a real doggy-bag. Later they also get bags for their un-touched food. It seems nothing is to be wasted. A large party arrives with a very elderly grandmother who can hardly walk – I’m happy to sit at the back of the restaurant just watching and listening to the live music. My mixed grill of fish is a bit chewy, but tasty and more expensive than expected. It’s time to walk along the sea-front as I’ve eaten too much. I can see people on the wall on the other side of the road but before I can cross, I’m approached by a prostitute
who is quite young and very pretty. She’s nicely dressed and does the usual, asking where I’m from. Not many people here have heard of New Zealand here and the best I can do is say near Australia. ‘Ah’ is the reply, but I add – ‘but not Australia. I quickly tell the girl ‘I like boys’ – I should really be saying ‘I like men’. This seems to work and saves wasting her time. I cross the road and immediately am approached and gently touched on the arm by several more attractive women. The same exchange happens and I decide to abandon my walk and re-cross the road back to Cassa Densil.
The traffic around South Beach Miami is in grid-lock around midnight, so my taxi has great difficulty reaching the Breakwater Hotel on the sea-front. The area is a vibrant party with people everywhere on the streets. My room is in a block accessed across a courtyard with live music and party-goers – through a corridor and into an ice cream parlour, where a lift takes me to the third floor.
It’s been a long Thursday – thirteen hours from Auckland to Houston then a six hour wait before flying on to Miami. Wifi at the airport fails to connect me to Uber and there’s nowhere to find a US sim card. It’s still only just Thursday as I hit the shower with the intention of going downstairs for a night-cap. I’m too knackered for that and, breaking all my rules regarding hotel mini bars, I open the half-bottle of Cabernet Sauvingon on offer. It’s just what I need,
because there’s a hip hop festival going on outside. I fall asleep synchronising my heart beat with the music coming through the windows – briefly waking at 4.30 to note silence. Awaking somewhat refreshed and after an average, but global type, hotel breakfast of scrambled eggs and chicken sausages, I decide to explore. Just across the road is the Art Deco Information Centre, where a helpful woman hands me the usual brochure, pointing out locations of the Jewish Museum and the Watsonian.
‘Is that related to the one in Washington?’ I ask.
‘No, that’s the Smithsonian.’
‘Of course it is.’
‘That’s OK, everyone confuses them.’
‘What’s in it?’
‘Art and design.’
I’m hooked and make a beeline as it’s literally two blocks along 10th Street. It’s too early – time to walk and look at Art Deco architecture. There’s much more that I’d imagined and I get the feeling that this might be the true Art Deco Capital of the world – sorry Napier (NZ). I check my balance at the Bank of America ATM – my usual procedure – just to let my bank know where I am. Passing a phone shop is an opportunity to get a US sim card. This takes longer than usual as the guy is only experienced with iphones, but we get there. The Watsonian is an excellent and well curated collection over two exhibition floors.
A gigantic metal sculpture of a nude muscle man in Deco style dominates the ground floor lobby by the lift. The sixth floor is dedicated to Dutch design and art from the late 1800’s to the 1940’s. There are propaganda posters covering the range of political views, architecture, furniture and interior design. Of particular note are examples of Nazi art and graphics. I spot a chap giving a young man a personal tour and eaves-drop on some of his comments. Some of the art and graphic representations are examples of how the European colonisers depicted native peoples in idealised ways which the subjects would not recognise, or identify with. The collection continues in the same vein on the 5th floor with studies for wall murals with overt political messages. Here is proof that the struggle of the left is recognised and recorded in this ever right-leaning country. Further down the building, a library (collected by the founder) occupies an entire floor.
It’s coffee time and I’ve spotted the French bakery, recommended by the woman from the Information Centre. Yes they can do a late, but it’s too cold, weak and full of froth – a great disappointment. I’m missing New Zealand Coffee and in particular my favourites on
Waiheke Island. Lunch at the gay Palace Bar – ‘because every Queen needs a palace’ – is seared fresh tuna on a salad – just right and proving that you can eat healthy food in America. Time for a snooze before setting out to do my Out Games registration – there’s been an update email directing us to The
Lowes Hotel seven blocks away. There has been no signage around the streets, advertising this world event and only when I get to the hotel lobby do I see a sign by the escalator. At the top I find Rob Wintermute from Out To Swim London, enjoying his complimentary bap after registering for the Human Rights Conference (he’s a human rights lawyer) which is a part of the games. He’s also doing athletics as well as swimming. He tells me that there are two women here from OTS so there might be a chance of a mixed relay team. We exchange US phone numbers. I head to the check in area where guys are milling around looking confused. Suddenly Ivan, the Games CEO, who came all the way to
Auckland months ago to drum up support, comes out of a door. He doesn’t remember meeting me at a drinks reception Team Auckland organised, but he has a hassled look on his face. Apparently, swimming is registering at the Marriot Hotel a few blocks away so I set off with an Australian Swimmer, only to find that the Marriot hotel we need is miles away in Coconut Grove, near the swimming pool. We both decide not to bother as registration packs are always available at the pool on the day. I go back to the hotel and find an announcement on facebook that all WOG sporting events have been cancelled except Aquatics, Soccer and Country Dancing. No wonder Ivan was looking sick.
OK, time to attend to the jet lag which is catching up on me. The consequence of this is that I don’t sleep well later. Admittedly the music is very loud tonight and the streets are heaving with African Americans doing ‘The Cake Walk’ – having a great time and looking everything from outrageous to fabulous. Too many things are running through my mind – my return to London and what has to be done. I’m busy planning ahead.