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Leading the crowds into 2016

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.

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

  

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