2017 was welcomed in as a group with dinner on the River Front in Touk to see the masses congragating outside as well as the fireworks which seemed to begin off all over the place including from boats on the River.
I seemed to set a tradition for myself by finding myself on water for the second New Years Day running as we took tuk tuks down to a river boat as some of us took the optional extra of taking in the views of the city skyline from the Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River over to Koh Dach which is known by foreigners as ‘Silk Island’. The life is far more rural and rustic compared to the hustle & hustle of the busy city and moped & tuk tuk laden streets.
As you can imagine from the name a lot of silk weavers inhabit this island and we were here to visit them, do some shopping and find out more about their fascinating trade. We heard all about how the silk is made and the cycle of the bug to cocoon to moth to egg to bug etc and saw how by creating the cocoons is where the silk comes from and what they have to do to get the various forms of silk – as in raw, fine, coloured and so on. It was amazing to watch the ladies at work all hand made silk and cotton that would take a couple of days work to create such beautiful end results.
It was baking hot it must be said but that deterred none of us from shopping for a bit of silk. We were told why there was cheaper & more expensive piles – one was factory made and some were handmade there. We all flocked to that table to ensure that the money that we were paying was supporting the family and local economy rather than the factory made goods. It’s an amazing craft and I could have spent hundreds of dollars on gifts for all they were all so beautiful.
From here on the island we walked on a little bit further to see the Pagoda and temple. I don’t know but it kind of gave me the feeling of being in a neglected theme park with statues all over the place looking weathered and a big reclining Buddha. We saw a monk wander past evey now and then as Art was telling us more about the religion of Buddhism and how most Cambodians have volunteered as monks at some point in their lives. Be it a day, or two. A week, or two or indeed a month or two. There is no time limit as to how long you need to be one for. He was also telling us about how he went to a school taught by the monks as a child and how his parents are illiterate which fascinated all of us.
We were all melting at this stage, the sun was at it’s peak and we were all feeling it quite strongly. The beads of sweat were even starting to appear on my eyelids which is the strangest sensation ever!! We headed back to the boat and the journey back to the mainland for mid afternoon. Did spot this guy taking meter readings which did make us all giggle!
We headed back to the hotel on tuk tuks again from the boat, many more people were on the road this time being later on on New Years Day. Once at the hotel we visited the facilities, put our scarf haul in our rooms and headed the around the corner to the Friends Cafe for lunch. Much needed and such a lovely place similar to many of the giving back style cafes that I had read about in the guidebook.
Some of us headed to the central market to pretty much take in the tat! It reminded me of the market that we went to in Beijing after the Great Wall. I managed to pick up a few bits including a hat which was going to be an absolute life saver over the following few days as well as a small rucksack as I’d not got one with me – couldn’t find it anywhere before I left. Also picked up a T-shirt, some magnets & a couple of beautiful bowls made out of dried coconut that had I seen at the S-21 museum but that I simply couldn’t buy from there as I didn’t want to remember as the place where I brought it from.
I’m not really quite sure where to start with our afternoon of culture in Phnom Phen. I had done VERY little reading on the Khmer Rouge era and Pol Pot’s regime and as a result I think I was even more shocked with all of the information that I absorbed. First off, in the heat of the day after our lunch, was The Killing Fields (Choeung Ek) where I had tried fish amok as suggested to try by H and actually enjoyed it, using quite a meaty fish makes it not quite so fishy tasting which I think might have stopped me from perhaps trying it again.
First we paid our respects at the (Buddhist) Memorial Stupa, erected in 1988, to honour the victims of the atrocities that took place here. This particular location is only one of over 300 locations currently been identified across Cambodia and it is believed that at this location ALONE 17,000 men, women & children were killed. I think I had read about the tower of skulls prior to my visit but had not really taken it in. It was breathtaking, as in a shocking way. It wasn’t just a tower of skulls, it told you on the glass as they were separated into sections by sex, age and what was presumed to have happened to them from the excavations. I spent a while taking in all that these victims were put through by reading the labels on all four sides. 8,000 skulls lie here in sections. Each individual was savagely tortured before being brutally murdered in some of the most barbaric circumstances and this was something that was happening around the time my parents were getting married and up to the first year of my life. Bullets weren’t used as they were considered to be wasted if used to murder in this way. This happened IN my lifetime.
People were rounded up, mainly from what was the prison at the time called S-21 a former primary school that we were going to visit later the same day. Mainly in the dead of night after being blindfolded and brought out here on trucks. Loud music was played from a speaker placed high up in a tree so that the noises from the victims were not heard from neighbours at the time. There seemed to be no specific criteria for those destined for a gruesome ending, if you had a job, were an intellectual and even young, tiny children were taken. All to be ‘re-educated’ they were told after interrogation to learn more – nope taken to be slaughtered. The thing I think that got me the most about this site is that it is still only part excavated. There are still remnants of bones or teeth and sometimes even clothes that have been brought to the surface of the ground through rain and so on. Only in the past few years apparently has the wooden walkway been built as visitors had commented that it was like walking all over their graves to be walking direct on the ground.
There were several mass graves here (only 43 of the 129 communal graves have been uncovered) and areas which had significance such as the tree where the loud speaker hung that played the music whilst the killing took place. The other one that was really really quite hard to take in was the tree against which the youngest children were battered. Sorry to paint such a bleak picture but LITERALLY whacked against after being held by their feet so that their skulls were crushed. Then casually tossed into the mass grave next to it. Bodies would be gayly tossed into the air and caught on spears – as if for fun. It was worryingly easy to envisage and therefore simple horrendous to think of. What totally got me was the information on the age of these Khmer soldiers. I’d imagined them to be twenties upwards ish but 20s being the youngest. Not a bit of it – those that did this to these innocent people were anything from 12-17. That’s ONE YEAR older than primary school. On what level did they believe that they were doing the right thing??!!!! They had to have been brainwashed. I kind of lost focus on the info from the guide trying to absorb all the information and more to the point process it. I have some fairly harsh reading to do on my return to fill in the gaps.
It felt awful taking photos of the resting places but it’s important to share the information I feel. Our local guide, Sam, has a few grandparents, Aunts, Uncles and cousins still unaccounted for from the genocide. No remains have been found so they have no inparticular place at which to remember them which, to me, must be one of the hardest things to come to terms with, but the larger memorials to all victims offer him & his family some small amount of solace. Just hearing our guide’s information from the horses mouth as it were, from someone so closely linked to the atrocities kind of made it all hit home a lot harder. Watching him take a moment at each individual board and spot on the site having told us the gruelling information was heartbreaking.
Our final but if culture for the day and indeed year was S-21 the Security Prison which was once Tuol Svay Prey High School. It soon became the largest detention and torture centre in the country holding over 17,000 people between 1975-1978 the majority of whom then all were taken on to the Killing Fields as I mentioned before. Similar to the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge kept a record of every single victim that passed through, some even before AND after their torture. One of the blocks today, B I think it was held rooms and rooms of the individual cells taken out on the bottom floor and boards with faces upon faces of the headshots of the victims of the regime like some sort of glorification or proof of their barbarism. It was sick. Utterly sick. All of them dead behind the eyes, the womens dark hair all chopped off to a bob cut about earlobe level. It was just too horrific to think that of all these faces I was looking at virtually all, bar a handful, were later killed. Even foreigners in Cambodia at the time were inflicted under this regime with some photos of Australians, Kiwis and some from USA in amongst the head shots.
In the latter stages of the Regime the insanity stepped up a level as the torturers were taken over by others who in turn them tortured them. Come 1977 the prison was claiming an average of around 100 victims a day through starvation and torture. But one of the most shocking this is for me which I really hadn’t taken on board is that a huge percentage of these barbaric beings (the Khmer soldiers) now live as ordinary people in Cambodia with few, to no one, aware of their involvement of the regime. Some are being brought to justice and the trials are on going for some, sadly too some of the bastards have since died of natural causes. I find this so grossly unfair in comparison to the number of murders they will have each completed yet they state that they had no idea what was going on.
I, for one, couldn’t do much more of the gruesome images, the constant reminders of the past with the descriptions of the types of torture that was undertaken and the ‘rules’ at the prison. Thankfully we were coming to the end of the tour with our guide and offered free time for a further 20 mins or more to take in the remainder of the site. This was just before meeting two of the prison survivors for that time. I did the tourist thing I’m afraid and had my photo taken with & paid for both of their books of their ecprriejce, memories and indeed life since. I’ve already read a few pages of the first gentleman’s (Bou Meng) who managed to survive as he was a painter and painted portraits of Pol Pot as his means of escaping being re-educated. What the hell do you do when meeting these people? I greeted him with the typical gesture of palms together fingers pointing up and quite high on my chest as a mark of respect. I apologised for what he suffered through, bloody stupid thing to say in reality but my heart was in my throat. I had tears welling up in my eyes as we hugged, squeezy BIG hug and he kissed me on the cheek & said thank you, thank you. A mere flash in the pan but it just seemed to kick me into touch. There was a second survivor Chum Mey (there were 7 originally) with his book there and I too purchased that. I have some fairly hideous films to watch on my return.
UPDATE: interview with Chum Mey 20th Feb 2017
Further beyond the two survivor was another playground area if the former school where you could just envisage the children kicking a ball around. Only in the last year or so has a memorial been built here with plaques with all of the prisoners names on, the photographs and information of whom is in existence from that time. I just stood quietly and strolled round the area. I popped into one of the buildings to see the size of the individual cells but didn’t brave it to the other higher floors where the rooms of victims were larger and more in them. The bodies of the 14 that were in the torture cells at the time of the Vietnamise invasion in 1979 lie in white coffins in the first courtyard are just outside the cells in which they were found. Quite a depressing visit to end the year on but none the less eye opening and fascinating. Looking at the population of Cambodia today there is a very small percentage of elderly and you only really see those younger than me as anyone older was simply wiped out.
Why did the Khmer soldiers slay so many? What was their motive?
What would they gain from doing this?
Why was Pol Pot himself not put on trial/murdered himself?
Our first stop of the day was to the Royal Palace which is where the current King is usually in residence. The flag was up as it is when the Queen is in residence back in the UK but I think I’ve heard on 3 different occasions that the King left for his seaside residence for new year on the train yesterday. Here we needed to be appropriately dressed, no short shorts and no shoulders showing – no need for long sleeves as I’d packed for as t-shirts will do thankfully. I’d kind of imagined the necessity of covering all skin as much as possible not just the bare minimum. I guess that as it’s so hot in the height of their summer visitors would be wearing very little as even though it’s their winter it’s still a tad sticky.
Sadly, despite being pretty warm the sky was overcast so the photos don’t perhaps look as spectacular as they could. It’s an impressive complex within the gated walls and thankfully the large majority of it has survived the Khmer Regime of the late 70s. During that period the King was kept under house arrest, not allowed out for any visits to his people as he is known for.
The Silver Pagoda was another beauty, again photos of the interior were banned sadly. Not silver in appearance from the outside however, so named because of the remarkable floor which is laid in silver tiles each weighing 1kg in weight and there are 5000 of them! Covered in carpet in the main and visitors are asked to remove their shoes upon entrance there are parts of the carpet peeled back for you so see the beautiful floor. The building was rebuilt in 1962 as the first building here was from wood in 1892. The contents are simply stunning despite being massively depleted in number since the regime when a large percentage of the contents were stolen or destroyed. The main highlight is the Emerald Green Buddha thought to be made of Baccarat crystal which sits a top a guided pedestal. Also, which was rather impressive, was the life sized gold Buddha which is decorated with 2086 diamonds, the largest of which is in the crown and is a whopping 25 carats. It was created in the palace workshops here and weighs approximately 90kg. The steps leading to this treasure-trove is made of Italian Marble, and although still early in the day a nice cooling sensation on the feet!
Being the official residence of King Sihamoni there are only a few buildings actually open to the public. The Throne Hall being the main one is tipped by a 59 Meter high tower which was inspired by the Bayon at Angkor an tod was inaugurated by the king in 1919. It’s used for coronations and ceremonies such as the presentation of credentials to diplomats. Whilst the building was kept in tact as I mentioned by the Khmer Rouge the contents of some of the buildings that were on display were destroyed. You weren’t allowed to take photos of the room itself. It was long and had a splendid full length carpet in the same style of the mosiac on the floor surrounding the room. The throne as you can imagine was incredibly ornate and golden and the ceilings were adorned with paintings of a Cambodian story similar to an English one (at this moment I can’t remember what it was). To the right of the Throne Room was a separate house that is still used for meetings today that was also where the King would once alight the elephants – his chosen mode of transport for centuries for when he went out to the countryside to visit his people, however clearly modern modes of transport are more viable in this day and age!
The Silver Pagoda complex itself is surrounded by a mural depicting the classic Indian epic of Reamker (as it’s known in Cambodia). Created in around 1900 there are many parts of it that were destroyed or defaced during the Khmer Rouge regime. There are also several stupas within the complex which are shrines, ashes of the deceased are kept inside them one housing the previous King in a stupa dedicated to his 4 year old daughter.
Just before the exit was the Elephant Room which had a whole load of the seats that the various kings and dignitaries would have sat in over the years on top of the elephants. Some were more ornate than others as you would expect. Quite strange in a city so full of mopeds to think that elephants were once the choice of transport for the royalty.
From here we headed to the National Museum of Cambodia which we could have actually walked to from the hotel if needed as it was just round the corner, I’d stumbled across it the previous evening on a stroll having had a tactical nap and shower after the flight over. It’s a terracotta coloured building built in the early 20th century with a beautiful courtyard garden. The sculptures from across the centuries are in chronological order and we had our own guide that showed us round with our own commentary. It seemed that the majority of the pieces had come from Angkor Wat and surrounding temples which kind of made you wonder of the was actually anything of any significance left at the sites! Many Buddha, Vishnu, Shiva, Laksmi statues, enough to make you feel some what lackadaisical about them come the end of the tour. I’m sure that they will feel more beautiful and relevant when we see any at the temples themselves later on in the week. The religion in Cambodia is a real mid of Hindu and Buddhism as far as I can work out, quite confusing initially to be seeing Vishnu statues in a country I thought was Buddhist bit according to our guide they celebrate all gods. Buddha is seen usually in 4 different forms, teaching, meditating, and I can’t remember the other two (will fill in later!) and we saw enough of each in the museum to sink a ship!! It was getting ridiculously hot by this stage but we still had one more thing to visit before our lunch stop Wat Phnom which we got back on the bus to head out to.
Wat Phnom is the only ‘hill’ in the city standing at 27m high on top of which is a Buddhist temple and multiple shrines at which there were many of the locals laying gifts to Buddha and to other gods as it is new year this evening. Lions and naga (a mythical serpent) adorn the eastern staircase which was how we accessed the temple. Many of the locals come here to wish for good luck and if it comes true then return to bestow gifts to the gods such as lotus flowers, fruit, suckling pig (this might have been an exception to the rule tho!) they also set free birds to take away their bad luck (they often return to the cages as they are trained to so the guide book tells me). It was ridiculously busy and there were numerous beggars and so on trying to sell us things with signs in English about how they are trying to make a living. On the one hand one wanted to buy abut the cautious soul in me avoided like the plague, mindful of tourist scams and the fact that is then be surrounded by others trying to sell me similar things.
Lunch was on route to our afternoon cultural activity that I was mentally preparing myself for. I tried the fish amok as recommended by H to try as it was delicious. Made with quite a meaty white fish it’s a very flagrant mild current with a lot of lemongrass. I rather liked it – for a fish dish!
There are possibly very few that would land from a holiday the other side of the world in polar opposite conditions to the UK on a Monday evening and even contemplate recovering from a sleepless flight, jet lag & post amazing holiday blues to be up at 2am to shower and be in a taxi for a bus to Gatwick at 3am on the following Friday morning. But then I am of course unique!! (Many would say ‘special’ but let’s steer clear of that term shall we?!!)
Last here in mid November for a long weekend without rugby owing to the atrocities that occurred in Paris on the 13th of November, it felt only right to me to be making the return trip to this rather beautiful town of Toulon in the South of France. Temperature 10 degrees higher than the UK and far sunnier (nothing tho compared to what I had left in Cuba last weekend however). Time flies so quickly and one can only live to regret. This time (Fri eve) last week I was in a deserted island – white sand crystal blue waters in the Caribbean. This week I’m in the South of France and next week I’ll be preparing my house in Bath ahead of it being photographed to go on the market on the 18th of this month – all being well. Pretty sure that the rest of this year will not be quite as jet set but it certainly feels like my feet have hardly touched the ground in 2016 thus far!
We are in the same hotel and so the sights sounds and surroundings are, thankfully, all to familiar. I think that this helped in my decision to book to come out with Bath Supporters Travel without consulting friends if anyone else was coming too. Having booked it was great to hear that I won’t be ‘alone’. I tried a nap on arrival which failed miserably thanks to some maintenance work including a drill taking place in the next room just as I was nodding off. I headed out for a walk and a beer before heading to a familiar pizza place on the harbor for some food. The water appeared calm, yet the masts of the boats in the harbor were all dancing away. Sitting watching them all dancing around in the harbor did make me feel a little bizarre – couldn’t work out after a while (or was it the wine?!!) if it was me or the boats that were bobbing around when time came to get the bill!
Saturday was a lazy day for me. I’d decided against the Supporters’ Travel trip to Marseilles and wine tasting as I wanted some relaxing time on my own and not to be rushing around like a loon. Having already been to this city I didn’t feel the urge to sight see. Instead I wondered around the harbor a little and had coffees and hot chocolates and people watched. By far the best activity. The day was somewhat overcast as well and so the photos would not have beaten those taken on the last trip. There were certainly not the mass of Bath shirts present in every bar and cafe as there were back in November and I had traveled over only with 17 others and not the previous 40 odd. it was rather sad but then also understandable that those that came last time might not have been able to have made the return journey.
Match day finally came around and I sat in the Harbor with a beer before hand soaking up the match day atmosphere. There were many more Bath Supporters around town now in all of the bars and restaurants as well as the Touloun fans – the harbor had returned to the hive of activity that it was the last time that we were here. The sun was out – your couldn’t really ask for a more glorious day for rugby. My friend Virginie had driven all the way over from Montpellier (which I later found out was a 4 hour drive – had I known it was that far I would not have suggested her coming all that way!) and arrived about an hour before the game and so I waited for her in the Reception of the hotel as it was going to be easier for us to find each other there with the amount of people milling around.
Once inside the stadium we found our seats relatively easily and caught up and took in the ground and the surrounding area. While the city is beautiful, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the stadium has lots of beautiful views, its mainly several blocks of flats many of whom would have excellent views over the ground, for free! The seats were as uncomfortable as ever. I still don’t understand why the French stadiums never have the supporting back to the seats – just the scooped out seat. It was interesting to notice as well teat the crowd was once again fenced in. I assume to stop anyone from running onto the pitch either during or after the game? We had ordered our tickets from Toulon direct and so we were not surrounded by Bath fans, but there were a few dotted around us. Before the match was anywhere near started we had sung both of the National anthems of both teams. I found this rather strange but apparently it is what they do at Toulon before each European Match. We had a song that was sung by about 6 gentlemen int he middle of the pitch which Virgine had described as the song of the Provencal region. That seemed to go on and on and not a huge amount of audience participation but there were still quite a number of supporters from both sides to enter the stadium. The final chant before the kick off was the Pillou Pillou essentially – Toulon’s version of the Hakka. I have no idea what he is saying or if indeed it is meant to be understood but it was sung/chanted by ALL of the Toulon crowd with him. And then kick off happened and we were under way.
As per usual many confused looks from near by supporters over the volume of the shouting out of the mouth of a female, but I was, as always determined that the Bath boys would hear that though we might not be mighty in numbers we were mighty in noise and passion. A fairly even match was played and certainly a performance from the boys that as a supporter you could be proud of. We may not have ended up in winning but we showed that we CAN play as a team and show some passion, something that has been sadly lacking from our game as of late. Spirits weren’t too down heartened post match as we could have been slaughtered. Sadly we are highly unlikely to win or even come runner up in our group to progress any further in Europe this season, but then maybe that what we need a a team at the moment – just to concentrate on one competition?
An early start on the Monday morning did not leave me partying all night on the Sunday evening, I spent some time with Virgine and her mother post match, followed by dinner and then bed for me whilst I left others to carry on showing the French how the Brits drink post rugby. The last European weekend of the season for me – I wasn’t heading on to Dublin next weekend. Who knows where we will end up next season supporting the boys, hopefully another new city to explore for me!
The last day of the holiday was an opportunity to catch up on a load of things that we still wanted to do or see more of that which we saw on our first couple of days in the capital. For many of us the first stop of the day was the Havana Club Rum museum. So we headed out there on foot only to discover that it was closed owing to New Year and the holidays. Gutted! We still took a few pictures and if course couldn’t resist a mojito at 10am in the morning – well some of us did anyway!!
Managed to lose whoever it was I had planned to do various other bits & pieces with and so I ambled around slowly on the way back to the Parque Central not far from the hotel where I got lots more photos including of Hotel Ingleterra as well as the Grand Teatro and the Capitolio Nacional which was covered in scaffolding sadly so didn’t look as majestic as I had hoped. I partook in a coconut water – fresh coconut which was in ice with the top lobbed off and a straw in. I took in the busy-ness of the square in the heat of the midday sun. It was awesome.
Several if the others were partaking in the atmosphere on the terrace of Hotel Inglaterra as we said goodbye to a few that were not leaving on the main flight majority of us were booked on. I coordinated to head out in the open top car ride in one if the awesome retro cars (originals mind). Ivor chose a fantastic bright pink one and off we went on a tour of Havana. I had my bearings ok for most of it as our guide wasn’t brilliant at being, well a guide! The trip down the Malecon with the huge waves crashing over the wall were amazing – managed to miss them all when trying to film them in my phone – mighty irritating!
I also headed to Paseo del Prado which was not far from the hotel and meant to be very picturesque – glad I did amble down there as it was indeed stunning. I headed into Sloppy Joe’s for a final mojito before heading back to the hotel for a final shower and packing before heading on the long journey home to 2016 in the UK.
After an early start of dragging what felt like a dead body in my case across half of Trinidad (ok so we were the closest possibly but pulling a case on the cobbled streets at stupid o’clock in the morning = not my idea of fun and made the whole short walk feel endless!) we headed out to a scenic viewpoint of the surrounding area and posed for a quick group photo before heading on to Santa Clara.
Santa Clara is one of the largest and liveliest cities in Cuba – so the guide book tells me – essentially owing to its large student population I guess. It is also the sort of main place of pilgrimage for any Che Guevara fans too as it is here that his body was finally laid to rest. It’s inland from Trinidad in a sort of north west direction almost in the centre of the island of Cuba (that would be of course, Linda, the infamous LANDLOCKED island of Cuba!)
The main focus of the city now really (bar the University) is the Complejo Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara. Its on the south west side of the city about 1km from the centre and it is here that gigantic, no seriously, MASSIVE monument (pretty classic Cuban revolutionary style – big, bold & concrete!!) to Che lies. There are grey steps leading up to four big chunky monoliths atop the tallest is the impressive, dominating statue of Che – dressed in his usual military gear and on the move with his rifle in hand. Spreading out in front of this is the Plaza de la Revolución – similar to that in Havana and mainly just an open space with two huge poster boards the far end of the square to the monument with revolutionary slogans inspired by Che himself.
Underneath this monument and sort if behind was where you entered the Mausoleum and the Museo and Memorial al Che. No bags and obviously no cameras were allowed at all in either of these and in the mausoleum itself, clearly no talking. The queue was long and it appeared that those of us wantibg to go in, pay our respects and so on were all lined up according to tour group and were being called up a group at a time.
The mausoleum is a softly lit (and cool which was very much appreciated at this time if day as I was melting) the atmosphere of respect and reverance was moving. Che’s remains lie in a kind of tomb in which has an eternally flickering flame, also here are the remains of several of the Peruvians, Bolivians and Cubans that died with him in Bolivia, each of whom are commemorated by a simple stone portrait which has been set into the wall. An ideal place of remembrance for such an icon in Cuban history and indeed culture.
The small museum dedicated to his life was fascinating with a whole load of photos on the walls showing Che from his early childhood through to his life as a rebel in the Sierra Maestra to his role as a Cuban statesman in the early years of the revolution. It was amongst these photos that I spied him playing rugby and it transpires that he once played for Argentina! This made me chuckle a lot. Other than photos there were other bits and pieces that he had owned and worn throughout his life as well as a plethora of his guns, I’d switched off by this stage as while interesting, I’m not sure I wanted to see lots of the guns that he used in combat but still it gave you quite a good picture of his entire life rather than just the sections linked to the revolution.
Once we had finished looking around there I popped out to see the memorial cemetery which was further back behind the monument. Here were the memorial graves of a number of the casualties of Che’s rebel column – Column 8 which he led from Sierra Maestra at Santa Clara. As they pass away even up to now they are being added with their rank and dates of their life to the cemetery. Quite moving.
Our next stop before we carried on to Havana was another monument that is key in the history of the city. The Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado. Essentially it’s the derailed wagons of an armoured train that have laid in this spot since they were toppled off the tracks during the Battle of Santa Clara back in 1958. That was between the dictator of the time – Batista‘s forces and about 300 rebels led by Che & is believed to be one of the last military encounters of the Revolution. Batista had sent over 10 thousand troops to the centre of the island from Havana to try and prevent the rebels getting any closer to the city – one of the main components of the defensive manoeuvre was an armoured train. Che took the upper hand by using only a small number of his troops to use a bulldozer to raise the rails of the tracks where upon the train crashed and they advised 408 officers & soldiers within it who soon after surrendered. The train it’s self was used by the rebels as a base for further attacks. It’s quite a weird monument for such a historic moment as it’s essentially sort of strewn all over the road with traffic passing close to it and almost as if it’s a stumbled upon monument rather than a site of huge significance to the Cubans. Clearly a must for a photo or two – it literally has been just left where it had fallen.
From here we headed to the same hotel as we were in for our first few in Havana a shower and some severe repacking was needed before I went anywhere or did anything! We had our last meal altogether with Marlon as well of course and no trip on the bus was EVER going to be without another rendition of Bilandos and so we sat – right outside the hotel all of us partaking in one final sing song before heading in (or out!).
Im not sure if there really is a better way to spend the first day of a new year other than chilling out on a deserted island. This was one of two optional extras some of the group had made the choice of a trek into the countryside and a visit to a waterfall over a catamaran trip out to Caya Blanco. As much as I’d have loved to have had the time to do both I had been looking forward to this trip especially from the moment I booked the trip.
It was a fairly smooth ride over to the island where we were to be spending all day. There was the option to go onto the island straight away or stay on the boat and do some snorkling a bit further round. A few if us decided to settle on the beach over the snorkling. I’m not a massive fan and there were not that many to go round the entire boat. We got the drinks in and enjoyed the peacefulness of the island.
I made a run for the sea – it was just calling me – mid way through a conversation with Dot. Throwing clothes off as I got closer. The water was warm and crystal clear and the sandy beach was white. Picture postcard beautiful. The only disturbance was the massive amount of hermit crabs crawling literally everywhere. Quite off putting in case one randomly climbed over you.
There was another lady not from our group who was enjoying the tranquility of the location as well but when some of the others were chatting and giggling in the sea she shushed them. Never shush a giggly girl – it will just make it all much worse! I think the house level raised a notch after that!!
We had lunch on the island as well and it was lovely to be in such heat by the water. The iguanas behind the kitchen were really quite amazing, such prehistoric looking creatures surrounded by a carpet of the hermit crabs of all sizes.
Once we had our fill of the sunshine and turned a wee bit pink we headed back to the mainland on the catamaran and thankfully the coach was waiting for us to take us back to the main square. We went to try and find the place that we saw selling ice-creams yesterday but sadly it was closed which was a real shame. We did, however find some pretty impressive Pina Coladas which most definitely did the job and as a result we had to have two rounds of them!! Delicious
Didn’t have too bad a nights sleep with the air con on full blast and the mozzie killing machine whirring around too I was quite surprised all things considered! Breakfast was find out on the balcony and we met the owner – well I assume that she is as she introduced her self to me as Lydia.
We were having a walking tour of Trinidad this morning with Marlon as our guide. The fact that we had pretty much seen most of it last night int he dark meant that the walk was relatively quick! We met at the usual spot of the green hotel in the square (thankfully the shortest walk for us) before heading off to tread the cobbled streets of the rather quaint colonial town. One of our food stops was at the local ration provisions store.
Like most communist regimes food is rationed in Cuba. Everyone is issued with a booklet for their rations which they take to a special store where they can collect their rations on a monthly basis. Prices and amounts per person are set by the government. This is to ensure that no one in Cuba starves. It is the basics so that you wont starve but it is not enough to live on. Whether young or old, in employment or not, sick or healthy – everyone gets provisions of rice, corn flour, sugar, salt, soap, coffee, fruit preserve, eggs, toothpaste, evaporated milk, oil, pasta and some meat. The get for example – 5lb of rice a month for 0.25 pesos. As good as that sounds they don’t always have everything available all of the time. They have, for example, at the moment a shortage of salt and no evaporated milk so instead they ave powdered. Once you have your monthly allowance (which gets checked off in the ration book) that’s it. No more. There are other stores where you can buy goods, buy they are a lot more expensive. Cubans are all paid in pesos by the government and only a few CUCs. The pesos are used for the rationed items mainly as well as for paying the household bills and the CUCs are for buying the ‘luxury’ items.
One of the group chatted to a security guard at a bank and established that he was paid 300 pesos and 26 CUCs a month. As you will be able to see from the image below – the total amount for the food for a month is only 8.67 pesos. There are other expenses that are really cheap for the locals, such as bus tickets. The real value of things in in CUCs and it is really only those that deal with tourists that are paid in this ‘luxury’currency. We tipped local tour guides on average 25 CUC on our day trips for example and our bus driver got 200 CUCs (he was with us all week) as suggested by our guide for the week who got 310 CUCs from donations from all of the group. Its really only these people that can afford to have mobiles (an iPhone handset cost around 600 CUCs) and rum and smart fancy clothes. One CUC is worth 24 pesos. so if you are wanting to buy a bottle of rum or 3 CUCs but don’t have any, you can also buy one for 72 pesos. This is another reason why the lines are so long at all of the exchange houses as it is not only tourists changing money but Cubans changing from pesos to CUC and the other way around. 300 pesos doesnt really last you very long at all. Private businesses(self-employment) were allowed and encouraged by the government in the early 90’s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Cuba’s main trading partner) left them in a dire state. Cubans don’t get to keep all of their hard earned money though – they still have to give a percentage of what they own to the government (I see this as taxes but Marlon our guide was adamant that no Cubans were taxed). (Thanks to Val – a fellow traveller – who remembered most of this info in a post of hers that I have ‘borrowed’ the info from)
It was a really heartening experience I must say. I was pretty taken back by the poverty and the fact that in the 21st century here was a country still surviving on rations. Another sample of living in a time warp – I thought all of the old cars and joy of no advertising splashed everywhere was enough! Opposite this shop was the shop where you could also go and buy your bread and the the markets were the places for fruit and vegetables. Though most of their vegetables seemed to be root veg and the rest such as carrots and green beans were tinned. You would have thought in a country that uses their land so much to grow their fruit and veg but yet no green veg seemed to be grown – maybe it was the wrong time of year or climate – I don’t know. Their fresh fruit though – amazing!
From here we headed to a museum which was, as so many of the museums are, a former accommodation for one of the rich families of the area that has now been turned into Museo de Historia Municipal museum logging the details and items from the various years of living in Trinidad and included several rather fine pieces of furniture. You had to pay 5 CUC to take photos (seeing as you only pay 1 CUC to get in I wondered if this was just a ploy to get tourists and that maybe they didn’t need to give much of this money to the government? Is that a bit too skeptical of me? Well I coffed up none the less! There were amazing views out over the red slate roof tops of colonial Trinidad in the tower where we saw the only example of health and safety in Cuba thus far this trip as people were being restricted from ascending the tower too many at a time. The staircase was wooden and pretty steep, but definitely worth it as you will see from the photos below.
From here we headed up to visit a local artist and his wife not far from Plaza Mayor and look at the work in his studio. It was absolutely boiling. I was literally sweating buckets and made use of one of the chairs in the small gallery as we listened to Marlon translating for us what the artist was explaining about his fascinating work and immense talent. He took old plains of wood that had been thrown away from the shutters and used these to create his masterpieces by using them like lino and creating these frankly amazing masterpieces which he used photos of the elderly of Cuba that he had taken randomly on the street and once he had created the piece he used acrylic on it to help bring it to life even more. I was blown away by the detail in them. They take anything between a week to a month to crete and the one that has no pain on is the one that he was currently working on and had so far spent 15 hours on it. He was preparing for an exhibition, I forget where that was going to be but I had already asked Marlon how much the pieces would be sold at and he said anything from $350 – $500 dollars. I’m not sure I was taken enough to want to buy one but they were fascinating and simply incredible pieces of art. His wife was also a crafty lady and created embroidery tops and crochet tops as well. Unfortunately (and fairly unsurprisingly) ladies with a larger chest were not really very likely to be able to find a top which was sad as I wanted to support them by buying something and the tops were beautifully made. I ended up in purchasing a small bag that was made out of ring pulls from cans that were crocheted together. Not sure when I will use it but I can see it being used at some point! Its only tiny anyway and they had been so welcoming, I felt I wanted to support them.
After our trip to the artist we had free time before we met up to go and book our trips the next day. I pootled around a little getting incredibly warm int he sunshine and all too aware that I didn’t have any suntan lotion on. Wasn’t needing burnt shoulders ahead of our potential visit to the beach tomorrow. I ambled down streets there and there soaking in the beauty of my surroundings, the cobbled streets, the brightly coloured houses the sunshine and of curse the beautiful blue sky. The views were simply sublime. So surreal and such time warp, so untouched by tourism it was beautiful. When i say untouched by tourism I think I mean more that there is not hordes of hideous advertising everywhere. No coke signs everywhere, no beer advertising in windows. When the Americans break back into his country that is going to be one of the most noticeable changes I think. Places such as this will totally loose their charm. It makes me feel so sad that this beautiful colonial town is going to be so ruined by commercialism in due course.
After our free time we were all meeting up outside the green hotel on the square, I made a visit to the El FLortidita here to cool down with a daiquiri – not sure I really need are reason, made of crashed ice it was a welcome cooling drink! As I sat there with a couple of others from the group that I found in there who had a very similar idea. There were loads of the locals coming in an out while we were sat at the bar getting handfuls of cool beer and we were convinced that there was a guy that was doing home deliveries of boxes of beers. It was quite amusing just watching the comings and goings!
Having caught up with the rest of the group in the square we went to the HavanaTour office to book our day excursions for the following day, a separate expense. I was not torn in the slightest. There was a walk in the valley with a waterfall trip and other exciting sending things, or a trip on a catamaran to a deserted island for some swimming white sandy beaches and crystal clear turquoise sea. It was a no briner. Out of the two I had made my choice when I had booked this trip back in April. From here the salsa dancers went off to there additional class, not my cuppa and so the remained of us, nearly all I think headed into the green hotel for beer, lunch, air con and some wifi!
After heading back to the casa for a spruce up and a bit of a lie down before the evening s entertainment it was apparent a little shut eye was really not going to happen as the household had music blaring, we heard it as we were walking from the square and I said it sounded like it was coming from our place. There were to only youngsters but some oldies as well sitting on the steps outside the house with a guy that we assumed they would be burning at midnight. I had a shower and lay in the air conditioning for a while just having some quiet time.
The evening meal I had ensured that we had together for and was not far from the ‘Steps’ where we were planning on being for midnight. Marlon had done a good job at managing to get us in – there are 20 of us with him and the driver after all. Another buffet style meal with several salad type things and a soup choice for starter. Everything seemed to have peppers in bar the sucking pig and chicken that was on the roast. Essentially my last meal of 2015 was meat, meat and more meat!
We headed to the Steps which had way more people than anticipated on them and that Marlon had though, possibly because there were more tourists? Hard to tell. We ordered drinks in their masses. I am NOT a fan of New Year. Never have been. It not my thing at all. Too many nasty memories and ‘looking forward’ new starts and all that bollocks. The depressive in me shines through like a beaut. I was proud of myself. Ok I may have been a little quiet in the half hour lead up and not be stand and chatty and driving and laughing but Im always in bed well before the fateful hour. I may have been spotted at one point and suggested (jokingly) that I might like to stand up and join in at some point. But I managed to survive it, mojito in each hand. No one was calling it and so decided that would be my focus. Used the timer on the iPhone and kept a close eye letting the remainder of the group that I would start us (which then turned out to be the entire of the steps) in the countdown into 2016. The music never stopped it was just yours truly. I thank you (curtseys). I lasted about 45 mins before heading home, via a rather large diversion s the short cut I thought would work easily without a map, well it didn’t! We wondered through a small few gatherings on the streets as we treaded the cobbles trying to find our way home and to our beds. Tired but excited to be heading out to the island in the morning.
Another early start but I was all organised – today we were leaving Havana and making our way towards Trinidad in east of Havana. On the way we were going to be stopping at a spot for some swimming and onto the Bay of Pigs museum and Ceinfuego before ending up in Trinidad. I was a little nervous about the evening accommodation for the next three nights as we were all going to be in Casa Particulares (essentially B&Bs) and as I am booked on as a single traveller I didn’t know who I would be in the same place as. Give me something to worry about and I’m there!!
I got to the bus early to ensure that I got a front seat (more of a view!) others were tending to nap on the bus and I was looking forward to having a fuller view of the road and country life as it whizzed past us on our journeys. There was also the chance that I might have been able to have read the subtitles on the documentaries that Marlon was showing on some of our trips. Some were readable further back but others definitely not.
Our first stop was at Finca Fiesta Campesina where we made a facilities stop and had the opportunity to grab a coffee. It was so blooming hot the last thing that was on my mind was a coffee! We were told there was a mini zoo here as well so a few things to potentially look at. As we walked in we were invited to join in Guinea Pig roulette. Really? Not my thing at all and so quickly walked on past and further in to find the loo. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy seeing the animals here after that greeting! I wondered round and had a nose at the animals anyway – thankfully most of them were in the shade anyway so it was slightly cooler than in the blaring heat. I met a friendly iguana in a pen who almost seemed to smile for my photo. They really are the most prehistoric looking creatures it must be said. Quite evil looking as well. There were several pens with animals in: Guinea pigs, pigeons, chickens, a tree rat and more. There was also the opportunity to ride on a bull, rather a scrawny bull who was mainly skin and bones who, in the whole time we were there never seemed to move a millimetre from his spot.
I found a beautiful little orchid garden and spent a little time in there taking some photos of the beautiful plants. It was also incredibly shaded and so nice and cool as well. There was not an over abundance of them in there but I’ve no idea what the best time of year is for growing orchids?! I stumbled across a pen with a crocodile in it that was there with its mouth wide open, I am sure I’ve read somewhere the reason for that, sleeping or trying to cool off or was it when angry? Next to the pen was a keeper with a snake around his neck and holding a baby crocodile. Not sure why or indeed how but I ended up with the snake around my neck and holding the baby croc. It moved on my hand and I squealed as it tried walking up my arm. The photo is quite amusing as I look quite calm, all things considered – but trust me I was bricking it inside! Having purchased the last of the chocolate ice cream cones I then made my way back to the coach for a a bit of a clean down with wet wipes and antibac!!
On from here was our much anticipated swimming spot of Cueva de los Peces, also known as El Cenote. We had been hugging the coastland for about two or three kilometres before we stopped and so I had been getting snippets of the beautiful crystal clear Caribbean Sea. The El Cenote tho was an added treat, it was a flooded cave that was full of tropical fish down a small rocky path from the main road and although so close, very secluded and stunning. It was around 70 meters deep – not that I was going to be testing that out!! The changing rooms were small and there were all of us to change so I decided not to bother and to use the skill of changing underneath a towel without flashing, knew boarding school would come in handy at some point!! The steps to get in were very wide apart and so I kind of stood on the top one and belly flopped in, thankfully not managing to empty the entire pool. It was cool and refreshing and salt water which I had bet really expected! I didn’t spend long splashing around in here before I gathered up by bits, flung a sarong round and awkwardly, in wet flip flops, made my way out to the open to cross the main road before slipping into the sea. It was wonderful – this was the life!! Bobbing around in the Caribbean Sea. We all wished that we had longer to do so – but there’s always the trip to the island later in the week. As we bobbed around chatting we had tropical fish weaving inbetweeen us in twos and threes. Amazing! I tried using goggles from someone to have a peak at the world underneath us but wasn’t overly successful as they leaked and salt water went into my eye and I gave up. I lay in the sun taking over bag duty from someone to keep and eye on all of the bags and was almost dry by the time it came to change back into clothes for lunch and then the onward journey.
From here we headed on round the Bay of Pigs to Museo Girón which was a two roomed museum that was dedicated to the time of the invasion and the invasion itself when Castro and his men over came the advancing American forces and captured 1180 prisoners who they, in time swapped for Baby Powder and medical provisions so desperately needed by the country at the time. There were some fascinating artifacts and military bits and pieces such as guns and ammunition from the time as well as tanks and other vehicles. Out the front of the museum there was one of the fighter planes that was used to attack the advancing Americans of the time.
Once I had finished at the museum I nipped across the road to the shops in search of an ice cream. It was utterly roasting and I was literally dripping thanks to the humidity. There were two very small fans in the museum that were more swirling around the hot air than blowing out any cool air. I gave in and headed to the bus to try and cool down. It felt far far hotter than it had been in Havana but I am not sure if that was actually the case or not! The gap from the rip in my trousers was getting bigger, but this was actually turning out to be rather to my advantage even if there was skin exposure evident now!
On from here we headed to Cienfuegos which was established in 1819, far more recently than most cities in Cuba and it was founded by French settlers – I’m not sure that I saw too much of their influence in the architecture however, but maybe we didn’t go through enough of the city to see. We stopped in Pargue Jose Martin to stretch our legs and get a drink if we wanted and to have a look at the buildings around the square. There certainly were some very fine ones including the school which has a sort of Greco-Roman facade that looked far too smart to house a school! There was the Catedral de la Purisima Concepción in the corner next to the school which I didn’t go in to as I couldn’t do everything which is still used by resident worshippers as well as tourists and has, according to the guide book, some rather splendid stained glass.
The building that I chose to go inside and spend some time in was the theatre – Teatro Tomás Terry which has been in the northern side of the square since it was built in 1890 and musical and dance productions are still put on here, in fact there were some dance rehearsals going on whilst I sat in the auditorium taking the surroundings in. The entrance hall has a fresco on the ceiling and on some of the walls and there were the original decorative ticket booths from the 19th century still in the entrance hall too, there were also some beautiful ornate lamps as well. Moving on in to the auditorium the seats were all wooded and there were three tiers of balconies each with their same wooden chairs I imagined from when it was first built. There was a large Baroque- stayle fresco on the ceiling and the stage was framed in gold and sloped down towards the audience to help give them a better view. It was a wonderful find.
Before heading on towards Trinidad we made a trip out around the small peninsula – spotting the seaside on our way and many of the expensive looking mansions along the way. Just before the end was the Palacio de Valle with, as described in the guide book, ‘mismatched twin turrets, chiselled arches and carved windows, it looks like a cross between a medieval fortress, an Indian temple and a Moorish palace.’ Originally built as a private home in the early twentieth century it is now nothing more than a restaurant and has a rooftop bar apparently giving the best views in Cienfuegos. Back up the promenade and out into the road to Trinidad.
Along the road on our journey we saw farmers bagging up rice on the side of the road which looked rather strange. Marlon explained that they were drying the rice out using the warmth of the Tarmac to help speed up the process. It went on for a good few miles at one point and there were several of them bagging it up in areas. Drivers were not really bothering to avoid it on that side of the road (the left, as they drive on the right) and you often saw them driving over the drying rice – most certainly very organic!
Trinidad sort of arrived upon us, we had started noticing the more built up are but hadn’t realised that this was actually down town Trinidad?! We passed through a main square with the green hotel that we would be meeting at later but first we needed to be ‘sorted out’ with our Casa Particulares. It was like waiting to be picked for a team at school! I was concerned as to where I’d be and who with, not that it really mattered as everyone in the group was lovely. I ended up with Nic and our Casa Particulares was apparently a 4 min walk front the HavanaTour office where we were being collected from. Well that’s what Nic had been told / understood anyway. It wasn’t that much longer but it certainly felt it as we dogged our cases over the cobbled streets!! Prob a 5 min walk from Parque Cespedes where the green hotel was that we were meeting in front of later. Casa Lydia was basic as expected and despite being welcomed and shown our room there was no other explanation, something that we could have done with if honest as we struggled every time in how to open the front door from the inside and outside and which key was for the front door and which for the room and why did I have an extra key on mine? What was that for?? We each had our own bathrooms and a shower but no holder on the wall to hold it as always! There were two ac units much to my relief and I even had a little patio area outside my door where I assumed we would be served breakfast in the morning. There was a fridge in the room as well full of cold drinks which you could take and pay for on departure. We were asked for our passports, as the lady didn’t speak any English or even enough to get by we had no idea when we would be seeing them again. I thought that they possibly needed to prove that they had tourists staying and so needed to note down the number and so on for authorities to check. We checked with the others all of who had the same thing and that they would be given them after breakfast the following morning. I felt a lot better having heard that!
Our meal that evening as at a place called Vista Gourmet and was another paladar. Another buffet option, none of which really looked all that appetising and so I opted just to have the main course (and plenty of drinks!). It took what seemed like hours to get a drink despite ordering first out of the tables of ‘us’ we were getting more and more desperate as the entertainment that we were also going to have to endure during dinner became closer and closer and from the looks of things it was going to be excruciatingly embarrassing. Apparently my face literally said everything. Totally unimpressed. Some crappy dancers and then male dancers joining them, the compare singing possibly THE worst rendition of Ben E. King’s – Stand By Me that I have ever heard and the rather cool fire dancer. The highlight of our evening though had to be when a member of our group (Jo) got up and out of the blue started fire dancing – there is no way that she would have so easily been allowed to get up and do that in the UK – way too many health and safety restrictions!! It was a great evening full of giggles and hilarious stories all which I shan’t repeat as it was a case of you had to be there. For my own sake and any reading that were there – Julia and the fire and lift (more Ivor’s fits of giggles) and the cerveza & mojitos from Kate. We headed to the steps (Casa de la Música) and had a further mojito whilst some went salsa dancing before heading back to the Casa to establish that we had no idea how to use the key to get in, only to have the door opened (we were possibly a little giggly) from the inside by an 8 year old girl! We did think at one point that we would have to sleep in the street as the door wouldn’t budge!!