Tuesday, 5 December 2017

HAVANA FINALE

11th - 13th Nov 2017


Dressed as a Taíno Indian. There are none left.
The original inhabitants of Cuba were the Taínos Indians. They were enslaved by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century and either killed off by them in battles or, the majority, died of imported European diseases, notably measles. They are extinct. Their houses were all made of mud and wattle and so nothing left of them either. The present Cuban population of just over 11 million is approximately (I read), 60% white (from the Spanish colonists), 15% black (from African slaves) and 25% mixed race. 

I was sitting in a pleasant bar, El Patio, in Catédral Plaza when I saw this old guy sporting an unfeasibly large cigar. Unfortunately he saw me taking this photo.......

















.......so he came over, plonked a Che style beret on my head, issued me with a large dud cigar and  insisted that I have my photo taken with him giving the traditional 'revolutionary' salute. Who was I to disoblige him.
I believe he is a well known 'character' in the area. 








As mentioned previously, there are noble ongoing efforts, supported by UNESCO funding, to restore many of the old buildings and streets to their former glory. It will be a very long process.
Left: Mercaderes Street in the east of the Old Town which now looks neat, tidy and prosperous. It has a couple of very smart cigar shops which sell very smart, and expensive, cigars.







...as opposed to the majority of streets which are more like this (right).

















While wandering around the Old Town I saw what I took to be an interesting statue (left). I am familiar with those often annoying 'human statues' which do something silly when you give them some money, but this one looked remarkably solid and did so for some considerable time......... 
















.........until, of course, a passer-by put a coin in the suitcase. He was just a very good human statue.
















Left: A couple of colourfully dressed ladies in Plaza Vieja.













Right: Every time I attempted to take a photo of this band at the Hotel Inglaterra (I had just given up on the erratic internet), the jolly maraca-shaking lady launched herself at me. It seemed to amuse the rest of the band.










On my last evening, a Sunday, I went by smart taxi (left) to the swanky Hotel Nacional in the Vedado district. It had to let me off at the bottom of the driveway so as not to embarrass the hotel staff. The clientele of this iconic building seemed to be predominantly wealthy North Americans. There is quite a pleasant outside bar area. I was amused by an unexpected and dramatic, albeit brief, storm which hit the area sending glasses and table-cloths flying and portly cigar-puffing guests scurrying for cover.

The reason for my visit was to go to a performance at the adjoining 'Cabaret Parisienne'. Not cheap at CUC 45 but, hey-ho, I'm  only here once. The auditorium is elegantly laid out with some tables at the front set for dinner, others dotted around the floor and a further upstairs gallery, all with good views of the stage. The entry fee included a Mojito cocktail (yuck) whether you wanted it or not. Smartly dressed waiters bustled around efficiently supplying food and drink. I got there at 9pm when the doors opened. The main show starts at 10pm, every night of the week. The place filled up quite rapidly, so obviously a popular event. After a warm-up performance by a small band the show started in earnest. Again I had stupidly chosen not to bring my camera. Most of the rest of the enthusiastic audience had brought theirs (or used smart-phones). It was an extraordinary and exuberant 2 hour performance by a 50 strong (difficult to count exactly) cast, sometimes mid-audience, featuring song and dance with immaculate and original choreography, a clever illusionist doing amazing things with walking canes, strong-men lifting each other into gravity defying positions and at the end a brilliant and hilarious bongo-drummer. The costumes, involving frequent rapid costume changes, were incredibly colourful and elaborate. They must have a large warehouse at the back to house them all. It was something I doubt can be done in any other country and another very skilfully performed life-enhancing experience. One left with a spring in one's step and a smile on one's face. I'm so glad I went.
Fortunately I found someone with whom to share a taxi for the return journey to Habana Vieja.

My flight home was not due to leave until the next evening (9.50pm) so I had another day to play. I decided on doing the Havana Bus Tour, another of the hop on-hop off services, with commentary in English (sort of). It took us through all the Havana districts. In retrospect I think I should have done this at the beginning of my stay.

Right: We passed this large cruise ship in the port (well, where else I suppose). It is the favoured way for tourists, including many Americans, to get a whistle-stop tour of Havana. Apparently the visa requirements are taken care of.









Most of the tour took us to places that I had already seen plus many hotels which were of no interest. One place I hadn't seen was the Plaza de la Revolución (left). This vast and rather drab square in Vedado is surrounded by austere Government ministry buildings. The monument at one end is, at 138.5 metres, the tallest structure in Havana (we were told). At the base of it is a 17m high marble statue of a seated, yes, you've guessed it, José Martí in a pensive 'Thinker' pose.
The square is used for large political rallies and in january 1998 one million people crammed in here to hear Pope John Paul 2 say Mass.

It was a long tour, 3½ hours, and to be frank I was a bit tired and nodded off for some of it. I therefore got a bit disorientated. I remember passing the vast Necropolis which covers several acres in Vedado. There must be hundreds of thousands buried there in often very elaborate tombs. Difficult to get a photo of that.
Right: We passed this impressive building at some point, and I can't remember where or what it is. One of the many museums I suspect. I think I had become a bit 'touristed out' by this stage.



Left: Somewhere else on route. Quite prosperous looking houses let down by the wreck of the family car parked outside. 












Right: The tour route diagram. I post this merely to remind myself.

I must make mention of the several Casas Particulares I stayed in. They were all, in one way or another, delightful, and cheap. Definitely the way to stay on a journey around Cuba. In particular I would commend the excellent Casa Niñita, on Cuba Calle in Old Havana. She, and her staff, were particuarly kind and helpful. Normally (in UK) I would avoid B&Bs like the plague and especially having to share a dining table at breakfast with other guests. On these occasions meeting other tourists, of several different nationalities and areas of interest, was most useful and frequently amusing. I remember fondly the American lady, Betty, and her son on my first morning in Havana. They provided me with much useful info and were good company, and spoke Spanish.



Left: At breakfast at Casa Niñita. She in the centre flanked by a very amusing couple; Francesco and his partner Lizet. Francesco, born in Spain now living in Germany, had been an engineer and a carpenter before setting up (by accident he told me) a very successful company making ice-cream, which he sold, and now has  enough money to travel the world. There's nothing he doesn't know about ice-cream.
Also here was Alain, a French scuba-diving instructor, who had to leave very early to get to the Mecca of Cuban diving off La Isla de la Juventud. Just a few examples of the sort of person I bumped into.

The journey home involved another CUC 25 taxi ride back to José Martí (yes, him again) International Airport. It boasts probably one of the worst departure lounges in the world. One scruffy 'fast food' stall selling sandwiches (ham and cheese of course) and tins of drink, but no cups or glasses. I had been advised to keep CUC 25 for a 'departure tax'. I ended up carrying about CUC 40. As it transpired, they had done away with the 'departure tax' in the past month, so I had to get rid of my CUCs somehow because I doubt they could be exchanged in UK. I bought a couple of Che Guevara T-shirts (I've lost one of them already) and then hit on the brilliant idea of spending CUC 20 for access to the 'VIP' lounge where I proceded to fill myself with all the food and drink freebies that I could manage. After consuming a vast quantity of wine I boarded the Iberia flight to Madrid and promptly fell asleep, and remained in that state for a large part of the 9 hour flight. Money well spent I feel.

Right: A poor photo (from my Lonely Planet guide book) which attempts to show, circled, the places I visited. Not sure if you can enlarge this by 'clicking on'.










My amateur impressions of Cuba:

1. Lovely weather. The sort of weather when it occurs in UK throws the news media into paroxysms of panic amid dire warnings of dehydration, melting roads and imminent death if you venture out of doors without suitable protection. The sort of weather during which the London Underground system, and granny State, feels it is necessary to tell you to drink lots of water, as if we are incapable of realising when we are thirsty! Its the sort of weather that people leave the UK to experience, for Heavens sake.

2. Lovely people. Despite their dependance on a 'benevolent' but restrictive socialist State, their relative inability to leave the country and lack of luxury goods we take for granted, they appear content with life (they don't have much option) and are most hospitable, especially to tourists.

3. Music and dance. Amazing, with countless talented musicians and dancers (apart from in Guanabo).

4. Cars. A living museum. 

5. Taxis. My 'bete noir'. Same the world over; they will try to rip you off. Use the ropey ones and haggle (before you get in). And don't forget; taxi drivers never have change.

6. Cigars. Famous for them and on sale everywhere, but I can't tell if they are any good because I don't smoke them.

7. Drink. Rum in abundance and of many different varieties and quality. A bit similar to Scotland's selection of whisky perhaps. I wasn't that keen on any of the 'trendy' rum cocktails. The local Cristal beer is perfectly acceptable and cheap. Wine, mainly from Chile and Argentina, fine.

8. Travel. Despite being told that the roads are a bit dodgy, I found that travelling by bus was comfortable, reliable and relatively cheap on decent roads with little traffic. The only hiccup was that some (not many) of the bus stations are inconveniently out of town, vis a vis Viazul, Havana. 
There is a comprehensive rail system, cheap but entirely unreliable. In fact I never saw a single train, either moving or static, anywhere.

9. Accommodation. I have waxed lyrical about the Casas Particulares. The big hotels are expensive and not good value for money. Their idea of 5* is not quite ours. Some are useful for WiFi hotspots.

10. Internet and Phones. At least they now have a very basic, if non-user friendly and expensive, internet service. Phone calls out of the country are hideously expensive.

11. Food. Unless you have a particular liking for basic pork, chicken, beans, rice and on the coast 'fish', oh, and sandwiches containing processed cheese, you would not go to Cuba for a culinary adventure.

I was going to mention, unfavourably, the sending of post-cards. I sent off 10, some from 27th October. None had arrived by 3rd December and I was beginning to think that they just peeled off the stamps and re-sold them. Bingo! I've just heard from 4 people to say that their's have arrived! OK, 6 weeks later, but the system seems to work. Maybe they use the Cuban trains to deliver them to the airport. 

So thats about it. There's lots I've probably missed out but this should provide me with enough memories to keep me entertained when I am senile and immobile in the Sunnylands Home for the  Elderly and Confused.

Travellin' Uncle Matt planning his next trip.


Next on the agenda is the Far East, again, for my annual 'Chrexit' escape.
Bah Humbug to you all.



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