Monday, 27 March 2017

Salsa lesson in Cuba

Poor girl, you could see it written all over her face - "Oh, no! Not another group of stiff uncoordinated Europeans!"  Here we were crammed into a tiny dance studio on the main street of Vinales for a salsa lesson. Our instructor's task was to teach our group of 12 three simple salsa steps in half an hour.  Easy, you might think?  Ha!  You should have seen us!  The instructor was right, we were stiff and unco but trying our best under the bemused and watchful eyes of our guide, Omar and bus driver, Eddie.  You could see them thinking "What the....!" 
Salsa lesson
 In the end Omar could stand our bumble feet no longer and disappeared.  We thought he had nipped off to play a game of dominoes, one of his favourite pastimes, but, no, he soon returned with two large bottles of rum and a plea for us to have a drink and maybe relax a bit.  Our young instructor  chewed gum throughout and spent quite a bit of time reaching under her tiny mini skirt to hitch her knickers up over her pregnant stomach. She took the lesson with an air of resignation and boredom and you could see her thinking "Why do I bother?" The whole front of the studio was open to the street giving passers by a great view of our feeble efforts.  Many stopped to enjoy the spectacle and, to be fair, some encouraged our efforts.  Eventually we learnt the 3 simple steps and then it was time to put them into practice.  Omar and Eddie joined in to dance with us, Omar pleading with everyone to "loosen up".   Ahh, but there is no competing with those Cubans who have music and dance flowing through their veins and dance with their whole heart and soul. As the saying goes "They dance as if no one is watching".

The band played, our guide, Omar, (centre)  sang with them and we danced in the street.  Fun times!
Later we crossed the street to have dinner at a nearby restaurant.  With live Cuban music there we suddenly got the urge to dance and  before long we were all dancing in the street, literally stopping the traffic and having the time of our lives.  Was it the lesson that filled us with confidence or was it the rum? I'll  never know, what I do know is that we were enjoying dancing  and after leaving the restaurant we continued dancing late into the night at the Salsa nightclub in the main square of Vinales.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Cuban tobacco farm and Cuevas del Indio, Vinales

If there is one smell I like it is the smell of a lit cigar.  I can't stand the smell of cigarettes and move away if anyone smokes one near me but when there is a cigar smoker nearby, I move closer. It's amazing how different two forms of tobacco can smell.

A tobacco farmer heading off to work

Vinales, Cuba, is where most of Cuba's tobacco farms are located and one morning we set off on a walking tour to visit one. Leaving the busy main street of Vinales we passed some brightly painted casa particulars, farmers preparing their bullocks for work, and cheerful locals who greeted us as we walked by. Within a few minutes  we were into the countryside and among fields of young tobacco, not yet ready to harvest. 

Colourful casa particulars, Vinales
Our guide, Floyd, was a happy character.  He pointed out various birds and plants and kept up a steady stream of banter and mother-in-law jokes, nevertheless he gave us plenty of serious information about how the tobacco crops are planted, grown and harvested.  Tobacco farming is extremely important to the Cuban economy, bringing in approx $430m in the last year.  Most of the farmers are part of a co-operative and the government sets firm targets of production which they must meet.  All going well, the government will take 90% of their harvest allowing the farmer 10% to sell for himself, if the harvest is not so good the government will take the lot.  Farmers are an ageing population, many well into their 70s, because young people today do not like to take on such hard, back breaking work. This is a problem Cuba will need to solve if they don't want to lose this valuable commodity. With the recent growth in tourism, and the USA lifting the embargo on importing cigars, the industry is thriving at the moment.  A good Cuban cigar is expensive and treasured as a rare treat. Locals smoke plenty of cigars but theirs is a more crude product which is very inexpensive and plentiful.

Young tobacco plants and a curing shed

Cuban tobacco farmer

The remnants from a full barn of  tobacco
 Our guide took us into the drying barn of a farm.  This is where the tobacco is hung on racks and left to cure, this farmer added rum to cure his. After a certain amount of time it is then fermented which is what gives a cigar its distinctive smell and flavour.  Unfortunately we were there at the wrong time so there was only a sample of tobacco on the drying racks, more for tourism purposes then anything else, but at least it gave us the idea.  

A tobacco farmer's home
We went into a farmer's humble shack where his wife was smoking a huge cigar and a pot was boiling merrily over an open fire.  The farmer demonstrated the art of rolling a cigar.    We were then invited to try one so I had my first ever puff on a cigar.  I can't see myself taking it up as a recreation but it was quite enjoyable and, of course, I loved the smell. We all purchased a few cigars to take home as gifts.

The farmer is adept at rolling cigars

The farmer's wife with her long ash. (photo Diana Kim)
My first ever puff on a cigar

A stroll back through farmland brought us to a brightly painted open bar where we drank rum and coconut water from green coconuts.  Led astray and loving it!  It was so refreshing.
Our super friendly, super fun tour group enjoying coconut, rum punches for morning tea!
Later in the day we drove a short distance outside Vinales to visit the Cuevas del Indio, a cave with a river flowing through it.  I love caves for their cool, dark, serene atmosphere so I enjoyed both the walk through this one and the boat ride along the underground river where the boatman pointed out imaginative features in the stalactites.

Inside Cuevas del Indio
At the exit from Cuevas del Indio
I have to say, though, I have seen better caves and this one couldn't hold a candle to the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand.  All the same a stroll and a boat ride in the cool on a hot afternoon was very pleasurable and most welcome and the exterior of the cave was impressive with lush vines dangling down from high escarpments.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Vinales, Cuba - A jewel in the countryside

Lunch...plates and plates of food! (photo E. Eastwood)
Don't go to Cuba just for Havana, thrilling and all as it is, get out and see the country, it has so much to offer. And that is why my friend and I joined ten other people to begin an Intrepid Tour of the island. Having noticed that the local buses were ancient and pretty clapped out it was a relief to find our 15 seater coach was modern and comfortable.  We were filled with a delicious feeling of excitement and anticipation as we set off for the town of Vinales,  three and a half hours away and after a quick drive through modern Havana were soon out into the countryside.  Breaking the journey for lunch at a rural restaurant set high on a hillside overlooking a lush green valley, we encountered, for the first time, the enormous meals we had been warned we would be served in rural Cuba.  Plate after plate of  food was piled onto the table, far more than we could eat.  Our guide advised us that this is normal and that any left over food would be shared among the staff and local villagers.  It seems they have established a clever way of getting around Cuba's rigid food restrictions and as far as we were all concerned - good on them.
Later the bus left the main highway to wind up a narrow road to the Soroa Orchid Garden.  This beautiful garden, covers 7.5 acres high on a hillside and showcases  20,000 plants from 700 species including 250 plants native to Cuba. The garden is maintained by the University of Pinar del Rio which uses it for research purposes.  The orchids are spectacular but are really only a small part of the garden which includes large trees, ferny bush walks, a waterfall and river and some old stone walls, tumbling down to artistic effect amongst the shrubbery.  The garden is well worth the detour, serenely beautiful, blissfully quiet save for the sound of birds.  We were all thrilled by the several humming birds hovering about  and a wood pecker merrily pecking away at a tree.

Soroa Orchid Garden
Shortly before arriving at the town of Vinales we stopped at a lookout for views of the stunning Valle de Vinales.  The valley, 11km by 5km, nestled into the Sierra de los Organos mountain range, has UNESCO world heritage status and is famous as one of Cuba's most spectacular natural sights. Unusual and dramatic limestone mogotes, or outcrops, dot the valley with quaint traditional farmhouses nestled here and there.  It is a truly wonderful sight  and we spent some time drinking it all in.

Views of the Valle de Vinales, a UNESCO world heritage site

Ten minutes down the road and suddenly we were in a street full of brightly coloured casas, our destination, Vinales. Vinales, built first and foremost as a  farming town to service the surrounding tobacco plantations, has now become a popular tourist town.  Most of the traditional casas lining the streets are what is known in Cuba as Casa Particulars, private houses which take in paying guests, or what we would call a B and B. The streets were a real hive of activity buzzing with tourists vying for space with horse drawn carts and locals calling out to each other.  My friend and I were staying in Casa Louis, a spotlessly clean, brightly painted casa with several rooms given over to paying guests. Our room was simple, immaculate and had its own ensuite...all boxes ticked, very happy.

The colourful casa particulars in Vinales

The Cubans love rocking chairs and every porch seems to have them. I enjoyed a rest on the porch

Dinner that evening was a short distance away at an organic farm.  Our guide seemed particularly proud of this farm, developed on purely organic principles and now growing so much food that not only does the owner provide free food to schools and hospitals but has also turned it into a profitable business.  Once more a mountain of food was served, including a whole pig, the pig to serve the whole restaurant, I hasten to add!  Ordering mojitos was a novelty, the mojito was served without rum and then two bottles of rum were placed on our table so we could make our drinks as strong or weak as we liked.  Needless to say our group managed to drink all the rum!
Our guide at the organic farm
But the night was still young and we were in a party mood so it was a no brainier when our guide mentioned the nightclub in the Vinales town square. At 1CUC ($1) admission the best value for money ever.  The roof covered only the seating around the sides of the dance floor which was romantically open to the stars.  There was a band playing irresistible Cuban music, friendly locals happy to dance with anyone purely for the love of dancing, a floor show, singers and an absolutely fantastic atmosphere.  We all danced and danced with anyone who asked, doing our best to salsa but being no match for those lithe and rhythmic Cubans, their absolute pleasure in dancing was a joy to watch. And I kept thinking that I couldn't remember a time when I had had so much fun. I ended the day very happy....and very tired!

Saturday, 4 March 2017

On the trail of Ernest Hemingway - Havana

If America's esteemed novelist, Ernest Hemingway, had created himself as a character in a novel that character would barely seem plausible. Lets face it this larger than life, swash buckling, war correspondent, bull fighting fan, deep sea fisher, big game hunter, heavy drinking, ladies man and Nobel prize winning author all rolled into one almost stretches the imagination too far but, there you have it, the macho man himself.  If he was alive today his exploits would be plastered all over the internet and would fill many column inches in the gossip mags. As it was he became a huge celebrity in his day.   An adored and adoring adopted son of Cuba he is celebrated in Havana probably more than anywhere else and since I was in Havana  an Ernest Hemingway crawl was high on my 'to do' list.

Bodeguita del Medio - 
crowded even in the morning

Tourists leave their mark

Inside La Bodeguita del Medio - as Cuban as you can imagine
Armed with a map my friend, Hilary, and I headed off to La Bodeguita del Medio (the little bar in the middle) famous as one of two bars Hemingway most frequented. It is easy to find, just look for the crowds spilling out onto, and dancing in, the narrow dusty lane in front, day and night.  Famous for its mojitos and cigars the tiny  bar  still manages to squeeze in a live band and is hugely popular with tourists who autograph the walls both inside and out in a kind of  'Kilroy was here' sort of way. I was told locals avoid this bar as it is too touristy. We managed to wiggle our way in to take photos and soak up a little of the lively atmosphere  before moving on to the nearby Hotel Ambos Mundos.
Lobby of Hotel Ambos Mundos
A corner of the lobby dedicated to Hemingway with many photos and framed signature.
Having gained fame in the USA Hemingway found the constant stream of visitors and journalists to his home  in Key West, Florida, an annoying intrusion on his writing time. He fell in love with Cuba on a fishing trip there so moved to Havana and the Hotel Ambos Mundos in 1932. He lived  in the hotel's room 511 for seven years, on and off, the room chosen for its expansive views over the old town and out to sea. It was there that he wrote the first few chapters of For Whom The Bell Tolls.
View from the roof top terrace at Hotel Ambos Mundos
Hotel Ambos Mundos

When we arrived at the hotel we were a little dismayed to see a long queue at the elevator but tagged along anyway. The elevator takes guests to the roof top terrace bar and restaurant and we soon realised that that was where everyone was headed.  We spent a few minutes admiring the view but then made our way to Room 511, now conserved as a museum to Ernest Hemingway with his belongings, furnishing and memorabilia still in place.  It was somewhat of a surprise to find that there was only one other person waiting to see the large, airy corner  room. Having it almost to ourselves was great because this meant a personal tour with the curator and plenty of time to hear about his life in Havana and examine the room's artifacts.

Outside Room 511
Hemingway's bed at the Hotel

His typewriter under cover to protect it.  His desk could be altered to be used either standing or sitting which he felt difficult after several serious back injuries
A cup of coffee in the cool, elegant lobby bedecked with many photos of Hemingway and then we were off to our next and final destination, just along the road, the bar and restaurant, El Floridita,  Hemingway's favourite hang out spot in Havana. We arrived just before mid day so were lucky enough to find a table in a great position for people watching.  What a fantastic place, little changed since Hemingway's day. The elegantly dressed bar staff  mesmerised us as they expertly prepared two dozen daiquiris at a time in order to keep up with demand.  A live band was playing toe tapping, hip swaying, Cuban music and there was a comfortable buzz of happy conversation.  A life sized bronze statue of Hemingway leans against the bar and his bar stool is lovingly protected by scarlet cords. A group of men happily puffed on cigars at the next table, fortunately I love the smell of cigars.  Hemingway's favourite drink was a daiquiri and he is said to have drunk untold quantities at El Floridita.  His were grapefruit flavoured doubles, Hilary and I ordered lime singles  and sat back to enjoy the ambience and the whole experience.  I was absolutely in my happy place and this was the first time in Cuba that I thought to myself  "I am as happy  as it is possible to be"
The bar staff prepare two dozen daiquiris at a time at El Floridita.  Wonderful ambience.
Far left of the photo a woman is embracing Hemingway's statue.

Daiquiris at El Floridita - I'm in my happy place, and, no, it's not because of the drink!
Since I have returned home I have read his Nobel Prize winning The Old Man and the Sea, probably for about the 6th time.  I still find Hemingway's story of a man's struggle against life, nature and the elements and of pure love and determination  as powerful today as it ever was.  Many years ago I read A Farewell to Arms and it has stuck in my mind ever since.  Hemingway's style was sparse, direct and to the point and yet he was still able to convey so much.  He told F Scott Fitzgerald in 1934 " I write one page of masterpiece to 91 pages of shit.  I try to put the shit in the waste paper basket"  He also mentioned to a friend that he rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times because he was "Getting the words right"  Love his work or hate his work, and there are many in both camps, Hemingway was a great and important writer of the 20th century.  I felt privileged to be able to follow his footsteps around Havana.

NOTE:  Hemingway lived for 20 years at Finca la Vigia, 15km out of Havana.  Visitors may explore the grounds but cannot enter the house which is much as he left it.  You are, however, permitted to look through open windows and doors.  We did not get to see this villa.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Classic Cars of Cuba

Go to Cuba and you will think you have walked into an all encompassing car museum. Today one of Cuba's biggest tourism draw cards is the classic cars filling the streets. They are an example of something born of hardship and necessity eventually becoming a unique and precious asset.   The 60,000, mainly American, classic cars thronging the streets range from beautifully restored and gleaming, to dented, rusty and 'I-hope-I-can-make-it'. They are a sight to behold.

A normal street scene in Havana
 Although now a major and proud feature of the country the Chevrolets, Fords, Dodges etc, mostly dating from the 1940s and 50s, have remained on the roads as a result of the trade embargo placed on Cuba by the US government in 1962 which forbade US companies from doing business with Cuba. Then Fidel Castro decided that in his socialist model Cubans would not be permitted to buy cars, that they would only be given to them by the government if a car was a necessity, and it was usually deemed that they weren't. During Cuba's soviet era some Ladas came into the country and while you can still see a few on the roads they didn't last the way the solid American cars have. The old American cars have mostly been in the same family since purchase and have been proudly handed down from father to son.

Under the hood
Mind you, it has taken incredible ingenuity to keep them on the roads plus a dose of good luck.  Many have parts missing, some have boat engines installed under the hood and I was told some are even powered by motor mower engines. In poverty stricken Cuba many have been converted to run on the much cheaper diesel fuel.  Don't be surprised if the classic car taxi you hire has string for a door handle or a steering wheel worn right down to the metal and the glove box held together with duct tape.  

On a long bus trip along an intercity highway we passed many of these old cars broken down by the side of the road however all were being worked on and would, no doubt, be up and running again before long. It is not uncommon to see  relatives visiting from other countries arrive at the airport, their luggage bulging with  spare car parts eagerly awaited by the locals. 

 Our guide told us that Raoul Castro  now permits Cubans to buy foreign cars but that the costs are so prohibitive no one can afford them.  A car dealership opened in Havana a year or two back but soon closed down through lack of sales.

A car repairer on a Havana street

My friend, Hilary, and I hired a bright pink 1952 Chevrolet convertible with gleaming white upholstery, complete with driver, for a tour of Havana. ($40US) It was marvelous fun touring the city with the wind in our hair reliving our teenage years, well, not really, more how we wish our teenage years had been! 

Reliving my teenage years?  I wish!

Some people are concerned that with the opening up of Cuba to tourists these cars will disappear from the streets.  I have read that this is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons.  Apparently the cars have been so altered and tampered with, just to keep them running, that they are no longer desirable to collectors.  Secondly, they are a proud symbol of the Cubans independence and survival and a nose thumb to a world that cut them off.  Cubans who own these cars are also immensely proud of them, as not only part of their heritage, but for providing them with work as taxis and helping draw in the tourist dollars.  I am so pleased to have seen these cars, a definite highlight of the trip.   I wonder how long Cuba can hold on to them before they really are beyond repair?

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Cuba - You've stolen my heart

Cuba!  It is near impossible to aptly describe  the atmosphere of this amazing country.  Picture a place where sunlight shafts down into narrow streets lined with colourful but crumbling plaster buildings, where you dodge huge 1950's Chevrolets  competing for space with horse drawn carts and cycle taxis.  Imagine then suddenly bursting out into a magnificent square edged with elegant and gracious colonial buildings.  Reply to the many calls of 'Hola' as you pass by and envy the locals who sit on their doorsteps at the end of the day gossiping and calling up and down the street to one another.  Let yourself go and get into the music and dancing which fills the air from dawn to the next dawn while sampling a few mojitos and daiquiris which flow like, well, like wine. Channel Ernest Hemingway while drawing on a big fat cigar.  Revel in the fact that in Cuba people actually talk to each other, where the only heads you will see bowed over cell phones or tablets will be those of tourists. Admire the proud, independent spirit of the Cubans, who, despite years of economic sanctions, have made their own way in the world against all odds. Cuba is how the world used to be and  a visit is a precious insight into so much of what the modern world has lost. For a people who are economically very poor their good fortune has been to maintain a rich and abiding culture.

Catedral de San Cristobal de la Habana, Plaza de la Catedral, Havana (Habana is the local spelling)

As Lonely Planet says: ' No one could have invented Havana.  It's too audacious, too contradictory, and ...too damned beautiful. How it does it is anyone's guess' (pg60 Cuba)  From what I saw this quote equally applies to  other parts of Cuba too.

Back home in New Zealand I know for certain that I have left a piece of my soul in Cuba.  As someone who has traveled to close to 50 countries, and has favourites, Cuba has affected me like no other.  It may be just the sheer energy and spirit of the place, or the fact that time has stood still there, or perhaps the music has entered my blood. All I know is that on two particular occasions in Cuba I thought to myself ' I am as happy as it is possible to be'  While in Havana I messaged my family,  that I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

Obviously, after just 10 days in Cuba I cannot presume to know or understand what life is truly like for a Cuban.  I did have some lengthy discussions with our local guide who offered lots of interesting information and it would seem life can be pretty tough.   The average income for everyone, university professors down to street cleaners, is 25CUC per month, that is equal to $25US.  On top of that every family is issued with a ration book for a monthly supply of staples such as flour, sugar, oil, salt and beans, but nevertheless the mind boggles as to how they survive on such a low income. Our guide, in his mid forties, was a university lecturer but is now a tour guide finding the generous tips improve his quality of life.  He has never been able to leave Cuba
Outside, always ready for a chat
 Or afford a car so has no passport and no driver's licence. We were constantly asked for soap and shampoo, which are scarce commodities and there are no supermarkets in Cuba.  The country has an excellent free education system and health care is also free but there is, apparently, a thriving black market and now that tourism is opening up there is a myriad of opportunities for locals.  Tourism, while wonderful for the local economy will, no doubt change the very things people go to Cuba to see.  Americans are now permitted to visit Cuba but the Cubans, understandably, have not forgotten their recent history and made no secret of the fact that they were delighted to find we weren't American.

Stand by for many more posts on Cuba.  It will be a pleasure for me to relive my travels!