Monthly Archives: December 2015

Bay of Pigs & more

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.

The taxi rank and traffic just outside our hotel in Havana

 

Rather a lovely street in the centre of Havana 

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.

My smiling iguana friend

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!!

Mrs Doolitle at your service (BRICKING herself behind that smile!)

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.

Some of the tropical fish in the El Cenote

El Cenote – beautiful flooded cave

 

You really can’t argue with that view now, can you?!

 

Group photo post swimming 

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!

 

Farmers drying the rice on the road on the way to Trinidad 

The start of the streets of Trinidad

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!!

Mario rolls a fat one

An early start and a long bus journey out to the Vinales Valley this morning after another random round of the breakfast buffet, a strong coffee and a repackaging of the day bag to ensure that I had all that I needed for the away day. The final three joined us in the morning having arrived last night.

Marlon started filling us in on the history of Cuba and answering questions that we started wanted answering having been here over a day now. We watched the first part of a documentary but it was really quite difficult to follow it as although they spoke in English at times I just couldn’t read the subtitles. It was all about a young woman from Miami retracing her roots and trying to establish why her father (Max Lesnick – might need to check the spelling of that though)   was so passionate about fighting for his country and the revolution. I need to do a bit more reading up on who he was and see if I can’t find it online somewhere as I quite wanted to see the end. He was a close confidant to Fidel before he disagreed with his allegiance with the USSR and so for his own safety emigrated, like many other Cubans at the time to the USA and Miami.

We headed into the motorway after being pointed out many parts of the city that we had not caught on our walking tour yesterday. The American Embassy for example only in the last 18 months being used by the USA again. The barricade or rather embargo for Cubans is still in place. If they have family over in the USA, it’s not about just popping over to see them – they were only able to do so once every three years?! Even if it is to visit family there is no free travel – everything has to be done by a very restricted visa. As a result nearly every Cuban has at least one member of their family who is living in the USA.

We passed by what was the Havana Country Club and is now the University of Art in Havana. The story goes that Fidel and Che were playing golf one day and decided that the course would be an excellent location for an Arts University and so it happened and the country club and golf course were turned into that.


We asked about the motorway, it was pretty much empty and 3 lanes wide on each side. The USSR built all of the main roads on the island during their time of allegiance. Of course, not one has had anything done to it since – so many parts are in total disarray with pot holes all over the place. Only 10% of the population owns a car. If you were to buy one now it would cost (converted to Stirling) around £24,000 when the average monthly wage is £11. Shocking. It’s no wonder the old cars that came over at the time of the revolution and before are still being used as thier only mode of transport. Quite eye opening really. Driving in Cuba is hazardous to say the least with animals wandering on to the road on regular intervals, no use of lights on the cars and frankly crazy drivers. I sure as hell wouldn’t like to have to drive here at night. I wonder if they have to hold a license? Something tells me that they might not!!


Others slept or at least dozed on the way out to the Vinales region but I was taking in the views of the countryside. It was all very poor which I had expected and Marlon confirmed that most of the agricultural work was all done by hand or horse and plough. No modern machinery to help them. But the land was very green with the rainy season having just past. The earth was that rich reddy brown colour as well which reflects the sun beautifully in photos.

We stopped off for a pee and a drink not far from our walking destination of Vinales village. The loo situation was rather disconcerting as the walls between each cubicle were sort of mid chest height. Dignity out the window, if you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go! After clocking each other in the neighbouring cubicles it was down to business of the hovering over the fairly germified loo seat. It was a rest stop so to be expected in honesty. The views over the valley really where quite spectacular to put it mildly. It was here that I got chatting to the latest members of the group and established another rugby fan. Can’t ever go wrong on a holiday as soon as you find one of them. Cue discussion over the failure of the rugby World Cup and how George should have been used over Farrell whilst looking over this wonderful view. Can’t argue with that really!!

 On from here we headed to the village of Vinales in the base of the valley from where we were doing our walk, at least one of the items I went back to Bath for would actually be used on this trip – the fleece & waterproof, no chance!

It was rather warm as we headed out passing past some of the local houses and spotting some more awesome cars. A new local guide – Flo – was taking the helm for the walk and his party trick was mother in law jokes. I think we were on seven before we lost count! The scenery was amazing, totally different to what we had seen before. Not really all that surprising seeing as this was out in the countryside and we’d previously been in a city!!



Snapping away as we all trundled along the path up to a tobacco field and were explained about the tobacco leaf drying process that goes into making the infamous Cuban cigars. There were some old men out working in the fields taking the top shoots out of the plants that were growing in the field that we walked through- this helps the plants to grow fuller. We even saw a caterpillar happily munching away on a leaf – not entirely sure I’d want that included in my Cuban cigar!!

You can just about make out the two workers in the field

 

The Catepiller on the tobacco leaf having a good old munch

We walked in past the house which was so picturesque with the bright blue against the blue sky – really quite proud of this picture taken on my iPhone I must say!

 We headed on to the barn where the crops were all drying off after being picked fresh from the ground and explained a little more about the cycle of the tobacco plant. The growers have to give a percentage of what they earn through selling cigars and so on to the state – I think that he had mentioned around 90% goes to the state. Shocking really that they can take so much. We think he must have made more money selling 10 cigars to tourists such as ourselves at 25 CUC a bundle.



From here we walked on up to another farm house where we were going to see a cigar being made and find out a little more about the fermentation process which helps to create the taste of a Cuban cigar. Whilst we waited for a group before us to move on we took in the surrounding scenery and found out a little about what was being grown around us. It was primarily what we translated (we think) as arrowroot – they gave a lot of root vegetables in their diet! We also tasted a fresh (what I’d call a finger banana) mini banana – you can see Claire elegantly posing whilst pulling a banana off (not sure she realised that I had taken this!)


The Cuban cigar maker was an awesome experience, Flo was in full flow with his one liners and jokes, giggles were going all round. Below is a video I took of him rolling the cigar that we then went on to try smoking. Slow on the uptake, yours truly stepped in first off to try it.


From here, as time was pressing on, we headed down to a country bar as it was referred as, it sold fresh coconut related cocktails – Pina Colada and Coco Locos. Far too good to miss that opportunity and so we all voted to stop here for a drink instead of having one in town before heading on somewhere for lunch. They were amazing and FULL of rum! I could definitely taste it to put it mildly!


  

We headed back into the village and waited for a few people to change money as the queue was not bad here as it was in town. I stood and watched all of the old cars going past in the village, it was amazing – like being in a time warp again. It was absurdly hot but then it was the heat of the day at this point! After heading off for some lunch at a Cara particulares about a 20min drive away we headed back to Havana.

It was a long drive and of course Bilando was played again, we were getting better with the words and I managed to record Marlon singing along up and down the aisle of the bus. It was funny. I do think it was a ‘you had to be there’ moment but here it is anyway! We were also taught how to dance to reggaeton style music (essentially Cuban hip-hop) you kind of circle your head and then at the same time, put your hands to your shoulders and circle them too – I’m not explaining it very well but I also wasn’t dancing it very well either!!

 

It was a band featuring Marc Antony (JLo’s ex) as the singer and of course in Spanish so literally no idea what it’s about!! Here it is from YouTube – you can see what I’m trying to describe (BADLY)!

We headed out to Sloppy Joe’s across the road for a sandwich and a beer before bed (or dancing if you were going! Clearly I wasn’t) I was just bloody glad to get back into my air conditioned room and needed to pack ready to leave in the morning for our trip to Trinidad via a swimming opportunity in the sea – not to be missed!!

Old Havana – walking tour & salsa class with cocktails

Sleep I think happened at some point during the night. The air con was keeping me cool if nothing else! I was awake well before my alarm and dozing so I must have had some shut eye.

We had a quick briefing from Marlon after an interesting selection in the buffet breakfast laid out in the rooftop restaurant on the 5th floor. Freshly made eggs & pancakes, what looked like blamonge, an array of breads some which were sort of drizzled with chocolate. A couple of pastries amongst cold meats etc and some suspicious looking vegetable and pasta dishes. An array from potentially every potential guest from around the world! Met the rest of the group that were already here & had a few bits of info given to us and background. Thankfully he had cheered up considerably from the night before, I was already drafting the complaint letter as I tried to get to sleep! We had the money explained – essentially Cuba has two currencies in circulation. Convertibles – used every day & what we changed money into and then the Cuban Pesos which is mainly used to pay for state run things and so unlikely that we would need it if at all. It was the Cuban pesos that Cubans are paid their wages in and bills etc and some transport. It’s not just tourists that we would see queuing at the exchange houses but Cubans turning pesos into CUCs. You can withdraw from a cash point and would be charged 3% of withdrawal as a fee and when paying for anything on card – 11% He explained that he had encouraged us to change at airport as no commission rate and also he would show us the queues today – they would be long. Cubans queue for everything. We’d need passports to change money but didn’t need to carry them with us all the time.

He came out with some great sayings – my favourite which I think could potentially sum up my experience being ‘In Cuba – everything is maybe!’ meaning everything happens as its meant to less than 50% of the time. Need to keep that in mind me thinks! We talked about lunches and were told that in Cuba we have only 2 types of sandwiches – ham and cheese or cheese and ham. Good job either will do really!

We headed off and I could tell I was literally going to melt. Grateful that I had only brought with me the clothing for the sweltering heat! I’m not a shorts person and I failed to pack my skorts but this would have been the time for them! Flip flops a go go and went with lenses today (having discovered at the Hilton at Gatwick that I had 5 days of 1 lense and 15 days of another – I’m going to have to restrict when I can wear them!) and was grateful as my glasses would have slipped off my nose in the sweaty state I was in!

The old school American cars were everywhere – it was awesome. Next to our hotel (The Plaza Hotel) is a new hotel being built and upgraded to be the most expensive hotel in Havana to be able to accomodate the expected American influx in the next couple of years if the restrictions and so on ever get lifted and current political issues solved. Marlon’s first job was in the 5th floor teaching English as a foreign language to secondary kids. It’s not far from El Floridita which is the bar that they say Hemingway drank his daquiries from. I have a feeling we might well be partaking in one this evening!

Walking down into the old centre I soaked in the surroundings, from street sellers trying to flog you hats and fans to the extensive queues outside the exchange houses. The cobbled streets and fine architectural fronts of buildings, often a facade for a dilapidated building in behind. The noise of the Spanish Cuban being spoken at top speed by the locals to the occasional loud American accent. It was a bustling vibrant centre awash with locals and tourists alike. We paused every now and then in the shaded areas (thank god) to hear a bit of the history of the location or what the buildings were that we were seeing. We walked mainly down pedestrianised streets, it wasn’t until we were walking down roads with the cars that the time warp effect kicked in. It was as if you were walking on a film set of say Casablanca or Grease even – clearly the Caribbean version of the films of that era.

Our walking tour took us primarily to the four main squares in the old town. The first being the Cathedral Square where we heard a little more about the religion in Cuba. Primarily Catholic but there is also Santeria. It stems from the beliefs of the Yoruba people of Western Africa who would have originally come over to Cuba as slaves. As they were forbidden by the Spanish to practise their faith the slaves used to find ways of hiding images of their gods behind those of Catholic saints to whom they we forced to pay homage. It was because of this that for example the patron saint of Cuba is the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre and she also embodies the orisha known as Oshun who is the goddess of femininity and are both believed to provide protection during birth. She is always depicted in yellow to represent honey and sweet things and of course, fertility. The cathedral was dedicated to her. A rather baroque looking building with rather splendid three other sides hat formed a courtyard effect. It was here that we established that Cubans always spot the tourists and are always wanting a contribution for their efforts. The two ladies who planted smackers on one of the gentlemen on the tours face to the elderly gentleman in all his finery pretend smoking the biggest, fattest cigar that you’d ever seen!

Old Man smoking a cigar – mainly as a tourist trap for money

 

The Cathedral Plaza

From here we moved on to the Plaza Armas another stunning square with beautiful architecture all of different styles this time however. The centre was full with greenery and surrounding this were hoards of second hand book sellers. Serious revolution magazines and artifacts (the cynic in me doubted their originality) as well as the books were for sale.

From here it was a short stroll to Plaza de San Francisco which had a whole load of highly decorated sculptures in it that reminded me of the Shaun figures and so on that have recently been in Bristol. It’s just off this square where the cruise ships dock  as the Terminal Sierra Maestra pretty much takes up one full side of the square making it feel rather open. The St Francis of Assisi church is also found in this square – though it’s now more of a museum and concert location rather than an active church. There’s not much to this particular square it must be said and as a result we passed through it quite quickly and on to the Plaza Vieja (Old Square – though ironically not actually so).

Plaza Vieja

The Plaza Vieja is the most redeveloped spots in Habana Vieja having been repaved and the majority of the facades of the buildings returned to their original state. A large fountain at the centre of the square was bizarrely surrounded by fencing but I couldn’t quite work out why. It was clear why this square was seen as the focus for the local community, ideal for a market day or festival and is now a  centre for urban activity. Just off this square is the Cafe Taberna where we would be returning a little later in the day for our salsa class and quick cocktail making lesson.

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun and it was time for some food as we were starting to get peckish and also rather thirsty. I was sweating bucket loads, it was most unpleasant. Marlon took us for a cheese & ham or ham & cheese sandwich at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, a well known hotel and Havana classic built in the early 20s that was a base for Ernest Hemingway for around 10 years from 1932. It’s thought that it was from here that he wrote Death in the Afternoon and possibly started For whom the bell tolls (I’m not sure I’ve ever read a Hemingway book I must say to all of these references to him, despite knowing who he is are rather going over my head! On the to do list I think for the new year). There are amazing roof top views of the city from here as the bar was on the top floor. Most of us decided not to wait for the lift, instantly regretted that decision on about floor three with tired and aching legs from the extra burst of energy in the heat. The lift that had clearly been there since the building was first built was a rather spectacular caged elevator and it was around this that we essentially wound our way to the top. Mojitos all round pretty much and there was slightly more of an option on the food front but I stuck to the cheese and ham sarnie as that fitted the bill for me perfectly. It was seriously warm, with an hour of free time I was a little unsure what to do but decided on a stroll rather than heading back to the hotel.

They weren’t all mine – promise!!

My first mojito

I ended up in just wandering around the Plaza Armas again and down one of the streets that led off it past the castle and sort of did a loop down a few of the roads that we had not already walked down this morning spotted a lot of the old style cars ready for customers to take on rides around the city. I think that there will be a lot of us doing those tours at some point! Trying to take in the street life of Havana. The roads are so uneven it’s absurd – the suspension on all the cars must be shot to  pieces.

We headed early to the Salsa dancing location, Cafe Taberna, looking for a drink before the class, only to find that several others had a similar idea. We were the only ones in the bar really and the class went quickly as the band was ready to leave. Dressed all in white, many with dark glasses on they looked like a typical band from Cuba. All elderly gentlemen too it must be said. Honestly, dancing is just not my thing. I can do a very good funky chicken but that’s about it. Salsa dancing was really something that I was suddenly going to find an unbridled passion for. I hid out of sight as much as possible (from the instructor) to avoid being picked on. Over tired and over heating I could sense a sense of humour failure was rapidly approaching. Three forward steps, three back three to the side and then the other and foot behind. Oh this is easy was being muttered, oh god we have an audience – but they are just watching my arse as well. As hard as I tried to concentrate on my footwork, this was going to be an unmitigated disaster. The others went left I went right they went forward I was going left. Never have I been more grateful for a class to end (well bar the one with the Ofsted inspector watching & my class just misbehaving at EVERY turn – but I digress). Then came the bit of the prebooked activity that was more up my street – the cocktail making class. This was more of a watch me make 15 mojitos type of affair if I’m honest. I’m not arguing – I mean we drank them. There seemed to be a hell of a lot of rum going in them all it must be said. Apparently you count to ten when pouring it??!!!! It must be watered down for tourists or something as despite it tasting strong, it had little effect on me? We had a few more and a few were made by members of the group – mainly as a photo opportunity more than anything.

Cafe Taberna – salsa dancing location

Tat shopping followed the salsa affair on our way back to the hotel. A very tat-tastic market was spotted on the way into the old town area and so that was what we tried heading back to find. A few fridge magnets and key rings purchased and a couple of beautiful mounted photos which I intend on framing once home. Our last bit of shopping before heading back to the hotel was to stock up on some water, we would need some for the walk tomorrow in the Vinales region if not just in general for when in our rooms to try rehydrating from the heat. We hit the supermarket round the corner from the hotel. This was a smack of reality in the face to put it mildly. If not really appreciated a lot of things about Cuba, this one was the food situation. Not only was there no water (sold out and this was 4pm) but it was absolutely nothing like a conventional UK supermarket that you are possibly thinking of in your heads. It was a large room around the edge of which were glass cabinets with some goods in and shelves behind with more. Each was manned and your goods would be given to you from behind the counter & paid for by the looks of things. All that we could really see on offer were rice, rum, soft drinks, dried pasta, tins of things and honestly that looked about it. We went into the next door supermarket and it was essentially the same situation. This one had a hideously pungent smell of meat that had been left out in the heat. Still no water however. There are fridges in the rooms which we had water in and could pay for so we, as tourists, were lucky. I couldn’t quite believe that this was actually their supermarkets.

We had a meal altogether in a restaurant not far from the Plaza Cathedral and was a rooftop terrace – nice to have a bit of a breeze. There were 15 of us at this stage and so it was a case of trying to remember who the hell was part of our group as we trundled our way through the streets of the Old Town. Normally I’m pretty spot on with my sense of direction and I knew where we were headed but had not consulted the map – too damned tired to do so!! It was a pretty decent set menu but I can see that I will indeed be having a pretty staple diet out here of chicken, rice and black beans. There were nasty peppers lurking in pretty much everything else or it was seafood. I will never get the idea of, in a climate like this, offering soup on the menu as the only option. Trying to establish if there were peppers in that too or shell fish ended up later in the week just getting way too difficult and I’d pretend to sup the soup from the spoon but have no more than a mouthful at that. Of course we had the musical accompaniment during dinner which blatantly none of us were listening to but yet the tips basket was waved precariously under all of our noses until someone threw some coins in so they would also stop trying to sell us their cd as well. This, we could all tell, would become a regular thing soon enough!

After dinner drinks were just around the corner from the hotel at El Floridita which was one of Hemmingway’s regular haunts in his hay day. It was here that he supposedly drank his daquiries and chatted on the corner of the bar. There is a statue of him there now and several black and white photos of him with famous people. Him with Fidel being closest to the statue. There was the bar itself and then the seating area was all sort of in pairs with tables all seats facing the bar. All heavy iron, what I’d imagine back in the UK put out out on the decking not really in a bar. It looked like they served food as well, not that we needed anymore after our meal out. We all supped our frozen daquiries and I hit my brick wall of tiredness and headed back to the hotel with one of the others. We left them all there with rumours of some planning to go dancing and more drinking. Normally you don’t really need to ask me twice if I want another drink but my usual response of ‘oh go on then’ was just not going to happen this evening. Bed called. Hopeful that I wouldn’t get stuck in the lift like one of the other ladies did this morning (lift was funnily enough still out of service and never came back into service even by the time we left?!), that none of my stuff had been knicked and that my room hadn’t turned into a hothouse for mozzies! (Thankfully no to all of the above!)

Ernest Hemingway’s bar of choice for daquiries

  

Arrival in Cuba

First impressions are all important and mine of Cuba weren’t exactly complimentary! Expecting the 5 degrees at night Id read somewhere was a little taken a back by the 21 degrees on landing. Yeah, so maybe the Boxing Day morning fleeting return visit to Bath was going to be unnecessary?! Thankfully no bus needed on arrival and we walked straight into the terminal to a room full of pissed off flyers faces who were clearly in the around turn flight out. It was warm, very warm and sticky. 

First things first was passport control. Would they accept the visa and entry card with out The middle names written on it? Would I get a stamp in my passport? Would I get through in time to make it to the loo? The lady on the desk was fine, despite being convinced that I came from a flight from Africa (Cuba may be a landlocked island according to my boss but Madrid is a fair distance from Africa?!) and the need to see me without my glasses on as in my passport photo. I was done fairly quickly. 

Cuba seems to do things cos they bloody well feel like it. So all our hand luggage was put through an X ray machine AGAIN and we were handed a form but told nothing of what to do with it. I, of course, beeped on the way through. I really don’t think they understood me as they looked somewhat bemused when I pointed to my boobage and suggested it was highly likely to be the under wiring! Sultry lot it seemed. 

A trip to the facilities and the location of the hand gel and wipes and loo roll was established instantly as I hovered over the first of many loo seats on the journey trying not to let a milimeter of bottom skin touch anywhere that might have any remote possible germ lurking. And then came the fun. Apparently if you are a female European looking woman, standing ANYWHERE near the carousel is just a no go. It was a cameraderi of testosterone to show who could pull their heavy bags off there the quickest. Women, well from where I was standing, were allowed no where near! We stood, when I say we I think I mean THE ENTIRE FLIGHT, waiting for bags for around an hour with the same 5 going round & round. Some were being collected but at a rate that the baggage handlers were collecting them from the plane one by one and putting them on the carousel. It was getting hotter. I was loosing patience. I couldn’t see the couple I’d met at Madrid airport and still had no idea who was on our tour to see if it was just me. After at least an hour and a half the belt stopped and a mass rush of people seems to transcend towards a neighbouring belt were LOADS of bags were going round. Amazing. But still not mine. Still the testosterone flowed and I was smacked in the face several times by those unaware of their rucksack being the size it was. Obviously not English so no apology – not even when I tapped them on the shoulder and said Hola?!!! My bag finally appeared. In the mean time whilst waiting the extra 20 mins at the new carousel I’d spotted loads of people going through nothing to declare filling in forms up against the wall. From my skin reading I thought that the form we were given just after passport control was only if we had anything to declare. Apparently not. We had to let them know how much currency & electronic items we had with us and their value?!! Why? Possibly best not to ask. Once I had my bag I walked triumphantly through about 30 people frantically filling in their forms as I handed mine to the lady at the exit who took a glance to see if written down thing on it but not enough to see what and in I strode into the arrivals hall to see Marlon out guide for the week. 
Not really a happy smiley welcome to Cuba face but more a sarcastic, yay you’re here face. I had a feeling the poor sod had been at the airport for hours (later confirmed that he had been here since 6pm – I got through at around 1130pm!) his face was a picture of I SO can’t be arsed with this. He suggested going & changing £200 into CUC which I queued to do so. Normally, a guide knows what they are on about on these sort of things and if they suggest – you do. I’d read the queues to exchange in the city were mental EVERYWHERE. Frankly what’s £0.01 difference?! There are always some people, despite never having been to the country that know better. Let them get on with it. 

Claire and John were last through with bags and into the exchange queue which had doubled by the time they got there and didn’t seem to move far. Essentially one of those behind the screen had gone off for a fag break. Amazing! There were 7 waiting and Claire & john so 9 of is only but the group was 18 in total. Transpired that there were some that had already arrived and there arriving tomorrow afternoon. Mainly women with only 3 men. Age wise – pretty mixed but I’d say a fair few around my age range – shall we call that 35-45? So hard to tell. 

A short bus trip to the hotel and he filling out of more form last with passports and I finally made it to my room. Not too shabby – bathroom ensuite thank god and I sorted my buys out for the morning, set about 5 alarms and went to bed. I think it was 0215 with alarm set for 7am to shower and wake up sufficiently before a group meeting & the walking tour of Havana.

I’d already got over excited about all the old cars which really are a sight to behold. Intermingled with newer versions obviously but some utter beauties around! Never saw myself as much of a petrol head before!!?!! 

The joys of flying 

I was packed to perfection with my hand luggage. That was until I needed to get anything from my bag and then everything had to be turned out as it was invariably at the bottom! The copious amounts of shopping I managed to squeeze in at Gatwick South really didn’t help either. Breakfast at Wetherspoons with a glass of bubbles – just because.

I’d given myself the luxury of staying in the Hilton at the airport as I was due to check in around 7/730am. Quite early enough thank you very much. Parked in Purple Parking which was most confusing as its where the Airparks car park was that I always parked in for my flights to Sharm. Think I must have done meet & greet last time I went. I wondered why the journey seemed so darned familiar. Was upgraded on arrival at the Hilton – helps when you ask to add points to your Hilton Honours card (only ever collected points in Sharm before now!!). The bed was comfy & I promise you it was quieter than sleeping in the room above the garage at my parents. There were JUMBO JETS flying over my head all night & I heard not one.

Aware that I wasn’t likely to get online in Cuba I spent the eve & morning messaging loved ones & putting generic message on Facebook. I’ve read the guide books – there’s little to no wifi & even then you have to pay as mobiles etc are such a recent thing in Cuba. Despite this, my gorgeous brother who of course is always right let’s not forget, proceeded to inform me after I mentioned the lack of wifi that things had changed there in the last 2 months & there was going to be wifi everywhere. The infrastructures in this landlocked island of Cuba were reputable screwed at the best of times with ROADS incomplete. The likelihood of wifi suddenly – in 2 months – being available country wide was about as likely as, well a very unlikely thing. But readers please do not think that this is the only time he has been proven wrong, I feel inclined to share the time that brother dearest tried to tell us all that we were actually pronouncing limas incorrectly and it wasn’t as we all pronounce but instead pronounced – leeeemuuuure. It’s why he will forever be in my phone as that. Pillock. (Love you H!! Xxx)

Flying the Spanish equivalent of easyjet I’d already read it was basics only. I was expecting to pay for food & drinks. The flight to Madrid to get the onward connection was exactly this. Surrounded by screaming children and snotty noses I sprayed the First Defence up each nostril (thanks Father Xmas) and pulled out the adult colouring book to keep me occupied. Couldn’t get food or drink as had no card machine working. Amazing.

When I’ve been on these trips before you do always seem to look at everyone on the flight wondering if they are with Explore or not. The only time it was easier to do this was having got off at Madrid to get the connection. Having been very randomly wiped in severely odd places with a piece of cloth – palms, crease of elbow, wrist & shoulders (in that order) I was looking somewhat bemused at having been searched by a male security & thankful it was no more than that (the underwire in my bra is usually a beaut for setting the alarms going!) I passed a comment of some form to the couple in the queue behind me before walking on to the gate, only for them to appear behind me & on asking established that they are on the tour too. Double bonus tho as they had spotted that the flight was delayed so at least I had some company for what turned into the two hour delay. I’d have been quite happy on my own mind as I’d logged on to the free airport wifi & was following the Bath match. (We won about 5 min before boarding – hoorah!!)

I’d been given a middle seat in the middle – the girl next to me promptly fell asleep even before take off & I got the air stewardess to find me an aisle seat as it thankfully wasn’t full. My fellow passenger who I nicknamed Huff in my head, was NOT impressed that I was now sat next to him & proceeded to huff constantly. He was a German engineer – spotted only from his landing card, not by actual communications – I’d have just had a huff. Lady behind me kept stretching her leg out and raising it up as if it was actually going to hit my face – most disconcerting! We were fed & watered and all things considered it was pretty decent. But then I was expecting slop – oh no, sorry that’s what I’ll be on all week!!

The sound didn’t work on the audio thing – we were going old school with the screens in the middle and a big one at the front. Wasn’t just me tho it appeared. Not actually sure why they bothered keeping it going?!! The landing cards came round with a sheet of paper in Spanish. I will never know what the piece of paper said as when I asked if there was a version in English, reasonable request I felt?!, I was told ‘No’ & it was taken off me! Charmed.

Watched Building Jerusalem on the way over on the iPhone. I’m sure I was reacting to watching the coverage perhaps even talking to the screen at points and I know I laughed at one point as I got some looks!!

Only a 2 or so hour delay into Havana and hate to think what time we start in the morning. Sod the coffee first thing – mohitos all the way!!

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