Sunday, January 28, 2007

Day 5 - Vinales

The Vinales Valley is home to tabacco plantations, farms, the stunning mogotes and the tiny village of Vinales, a tourist centre with little in the way of tourism facilities at all. There is no pool, no beach, no luxury restaurants or all-you-can-eat buffets. It is a simple Caribbean town with old people sitting on rocking chairs whiling away the hours with chat and cigars. What is surprising is that Vinales really is a tourist destination. There is plenty to see and do in the region, and every other house is a casa particular. The people of Vinales were the kindest and most welcoming of all the towns on our route, and Agnieska, our guest house host was very keen to speak better English (I gave her a mini-tutorial), hear about life in Europe and our comments on what we had seen in Cuba.

On the morning of our second day in Vinales after I suffered a slightly concerning digestive incident, we walked down to the Botanical Gardens. Mango trees, coffee trees, banana trees and ficus plants were dotted around the small garden and although it was winter, officially, in Cuba and so some fruits were not in season, the lush vegetation and strange looking plants were really fascinating.

In the afternoon we decided to rev up the wheels and took a rather hairy trip on pot-holed roads to Pinar del Rio. In French, pinard is a slang word for wine, and rio is obviously river in Spanish, so we were expecting a rather more fun scene than the run-down blocks of tumbledown flats, stray dogs and dirty streets. Here again the Castriste regime shows its true colours. Sure, everyone has the same, but "the same" for everyone is not comfort, it's not even enough. When a fifty year old man takes to his wobbling bike to lead you to the tabacco factory you're trying to visit, and is happy with 0.25c for his time, you know something is wrong.

The guide at Alejandro Robaina (the only privately owned cigar manufacturer in Cuba) was quite a surprise. He was wearing a Nike cap, a pair of Levis, and had a mobile phone! That phone was the only one I had seen throughout the whole trip that didn't belong to a tourist. He explained that even though the brand was privately owned by Mr Robaino, they are still obliged to sell all their production to the government first, so they have little control over pricing. The guide's French was good and his English was really excellent, he sounded like he'd spent at least a year in the United States. I asked him how he had such good English and he said, "I have friends in LA." In any other country I wouldn't be surprised, but how do you have friends in LA if you live in Cuba and they are American? Family in Miami, yes, but friends in LA? We never solved the mystery.

The trip back to Vinales was only an hour, but it seemed we chose the rush hour. We shared the road with horses, trucks packed with people, old French Canadian school buses with "Ecoliers" (schoolchildren) displayed on the front. One even had its engine hanging off. Transport in Cuba will probably be the first thing to change if the regime collapses, and if that means seven-year-old children stop hitch-hiking home from school on the backs of motorbikes without helmets then so much the better.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Swing

Really back into the swing of things now in Paris, but more news from Cuba very soon, watch this space.

Can't believe I have gone from 29° and sunshine to -1° and snow in the space of a week. Some adjustment is needed.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Day 4 - Havana to Vinales

Leaving Havana was like trying to get out of a labyrinth. We picked up our hire car from the Hotel Nacional, (in the photo) which was extremely different from our hotel: Colina, and attempted to navigate the streets of Cuba for the first time. The road along the malecon, we discovered is located in some kind of Groundhog Day loop, you can't get on or off without starting again.

Our hire car, a Toyota Yaris from the early nineties seemed to be in pretty good shape when we considered the Ladas and Chevrolets we'd seen earlier. The lack of back seatbelts worried me, especially since we'd planned to drive over 1000km around the island. If I didn't mention it earlier, there were four of us, so I was a little concerned for our safety in the back. The classic hire car guy reassured us that "In Cuba... cinturón de seguridad no es necesario". I'm not sure I agreed with him, but we looked around and there were no other hire cars with seatbelts in the back, so we thought we may as well just get on with it and trust G to drive carefully. It's true that the other cars could only go up to about 80kph, and there were very few wherever we went.

Biting the bullet, we set off and got lost immediately. In Cuba there are no sealbelts OR roadsigns, so my non-existant Spanish was quickly brought up to being able to ask for directions. Somehow we managed to exit the loop and got out onto the motorway (with a total of one roadsign between the centre of Havana and the entrance to the motorway. We literally had to look at the sun and the time and guess where the right direction was.

After an hour or so, we called at Las Terrazas, an eco-tourism site with natural swimming pools, a canopy tour (like Go-Ape), an eco-hotel and several hikes through gorgeous woodlands.

Taking the road again, we arrived (with a young hitch-hiker in tow) in Vinales. The village itself is very laid-back and the surrounding scenery is stunning. The mogotes are huge land masses which kind of pop out of the ground between tabacco fields and farms. Fringed with palm trees and coffee plants it's a beautiful sight.

Our host in Vinales was a young girl named Agnieska (the name doesn't sound very Cuban but she was), who had only opened her casa particular just a week before. She was a great host, making sure everything was ok, telling us about the region and cooking us our very first real Cuban dinner. She told me she was a chef at the local (government owned) restaurant, but wanted to branch out, I suggested she try to open her own restaurant and she said "In other countries, it's possible, but not in Cuba." That was the first time anyone we'd met had in any way criticised the regime, and even then she said it with a smile and briskly changed the subject.

A small frog and a cockroach were our room-mates that night, as well as the snorts from the pigs and cock-a-doodle-doos from the roosters on the neighbouring farm. We were really starting to see the real Cuba.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Day 3 - Havana

I was starting to get used to the place by day 3, the crumbling buildings were no longer shocking, but surprising, the food no longer bland but variable, depending on the temperature of the rice and the greasiness of the chicken. The beautiful 28°C weather was very easy to get used to!

We decided to visit the Museo de la Revolucion, which was an extremely interesting place. It was full of information about what led up to the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and all that. Preceding 1959, it also tells of the harsh conditions under the US-appointed dictator Batista. These conditions are thoroughly shown (and perhaps exaggerated), as the current Cuban leader has played on the horrific lead up to his own rise to power in order to continue convincing Cubans today that really, "Vamos Bien".

The propaganda in the museum is pretty impressive, and you can almost start believing that Cubans are better off now than they ever were before 1959. In fact plenty of the "socialist" systems were in place in the constitution of 1940 anyway, but I won't go into that in too much detail as you can see for yourself on other sites like this one.

Just for a taster of the general pro-revolucion advertising (because there is no other), here are some of my pictures:

On the evening of our last day in Havana, we visited a Paladar, a privately owned restaurant. The Hurón Azul restaurant was like a drink of water in a desert. I'm not one to turn my nose up at a bit of muck, but walking into the plush furnishings, sitting at a table with a table cloth and choosing from a menu which wasn't wet or dirty was just wonderful. The restaurant was great, delicious, interesting food and friendly service. This is Cuba as it could be, I think.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Day 2 - Havana

The city of Havana is truly amazing. There are parts of it which look like a run-down favela but other parts which have been lovingly restored to their former glory. Havana vieja (the old town) is almost fully restored, and offers a glimpse of what the rest of the city and many other cities on the island could look like if they spent some government money on reconstruction. There are some squares in the capital which are amazing - fully restored gleaming buildings standing next to a run-down apartment building.

Then there is the malecon, a long sea wall built by the Americans at the turn of the last century, which protects the city from the wrath of the sea. While we were there, certainly at the beginning, the sea didn't seem to angry at all, although we did slide around on the concrete pavement which was made slippery by a combination of Havana dust, seawater and algae which grow in the warm, wet conditions there.

In the evenings, it seems all of young Havana (70% of the city's population is under 20 years old) convene along the malecon to laugh, dance and chat with their friends. Chatting to tourists and seeing how many pesos they can get from them also seems like a popular pastime... We enjoyed a few bottles of Havana Club and the boys enjoyed many a cigar along this long sea wall during our time in Havana.

In the evening on the second day, we went to a government owned restaurant. In Cuba there are two kinds of restaurant, the government owned kind and the paladare - strictly regulated, but privately owned. We soon discovered the best kind. In the restaurant service was slow and almost rude (understandable given that salaries are less than 20€/month), the food was greasy, tepid and basically not at all good. We decided to try a paladare the next night, and we were not disappointed.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Day 1 - Havana

It's January 17th today, I'm back from Cuba now, after a truly amazing holiday. Here's my account of our pursuits, dated as it happened.

After a rather rude awakening this morning at 6.30am, we set off for Orly airport, with only the mist and darkness for company. Our taxi whisked us there in under 30 minutes, a record for us.

The flights (changed in Madrid) were pretty uneventful, Air Europa is quite similar to Air France, except that it's run by the Spanish and not the French. I watched In Her Shoes which was surprisingly good, and Cinderella Man which wasn't bad either.

Arriving in Havana was amazing. The air was hot, humid and smelled like fuel. Our taxi driver whisked us to our city centre hotel in what seemed like the only post-1970 car in the area. We drove past hundreds of hitch-hikers having what looked like a roadside party - later we learned that the side of the road in Cuba is frequently a venue for get-togethers of all kinds, but mainly the numerous crowds are just waiting for a ride.

I'm sure I'll mention them again, but the cars in Cuba are truly amazing. There are old Buicks, Cadillacs, Beetles and Chevies all over the country. Every street is like a classic car rally. Here are just two examples...

We went to a restaurant in the Vedado area of Havana, near to our (basic) hotel and experienced our first rice and chicken of the holiday... there would be much more.