Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Weekend Sandwich

Realising we only have a few weeks left there is a sudden desire to consume as many new experiences and places as possible before we go. The last two weekends have been spent as mini-trips to places near Habana. The first place was an eco-resort called Las Terazas about 60km away. Set up over a decade ago as a model village that could be self-sustainable and attractive to visitors, the small village is delicately placed in a forest valley, alongside a reservoir. Three of us stayed in the plush Hotel Moka, replete with beautiful rooms and camouflaged forest setting, whilst the other three, myself included stayed 4km down the road in what were advertised as Cabenas Rusticas (rustic cabins). Upon walking through the airy spaces of the hotel and marvelling at its views over the valley, John, Ruth and I were a little reluctant to trudge to our shacks. Thankfully many areas and places in Cuba are severely underrated and badly promoted. The cabins were handsome thatched huts balancing on spindly legs, accessed via ladders and dotted along the banks of the river San Juan. Opposite our cabins were natural swimming pools, beautiful cascades falling into deep pools for diving, sunbathing and general merriment.

For lunch we visited El Romero Restaurant, Cuba’s premier vegetarian joint where even the menu is organic. After weeks and weeks of the same tastes, smells and textures it was more than refreshing to feast on cleansing things such as pumpkin, lotus flowers, rosemary infused juice, and beetroot soup. We were overcome with profound conversations of life, and happiness, self-sufficiency and making your own medicine. It was a very inspiring place, based on the idea of ‘slow food’, whereby you should aim to experience the whole process of growing, cultivating, cooking and eating your own food. This isn’t an unusual or new way of thinking of course, but in Cuba it seems rare. The variety and availability of food is so poor that this restaurant and attitude was like an oasis in the desert. Or a quiche in McDonalds. Something like that.

After feasting on steak, sipping mojitos and many a game of cards, us cabin dwellers set off on a moonlit walk through the hills to our lofty abodes. With not a single artificial light in sight the full moon bathed the road in its ethereal glow, with the help of a generous scattering of bright stars the walk back was silvery surreal. Going back to nature after even 4 intense weeks in a city is a grounding experience that makes me feel ‘right’. A sense of belonging and all that philosophical bla bla. But really, what a perfect place. We awoke to cockerels calling and sunlight streaming in through our triangular window, the gentle trickle of nearby waterfalls. Wobble down the ladder, devour fried eggs and coffee, collapse into the empty rock pools, sun drenched and mirror smooth, and dry on a flat grey boulder. If there is a better way to start the day I’d be keen to know. We discovered a shy little plant that recoils from even the slightest touch. Its mechanism is such that if it is threatened by consumption, it will draw its water and life from the exposed leaves, so that if they do fall prey to the jaws of a mouse, the plant will still survive. So you tickle just one section and the whole stem and leaves effectively collapse as if fainting. After a little while they perk up again allowing you to repeat the process and thus raising the question, can plants feel pain?

Las Terrazas is one of the great successes of the Cuban revolution. It is the most relaxing place, far removed from the constant touting in Havana, fumes and reggae ton beats blaring from Buicks. There is a strong sense of community and purpose of life, with everyone living off of the land and having seemingly tranquil existences. There was nothing hugely tangible about the atmosphere, but because it isn’t bold and fabricated, frequented by tour buses and cigar sellers, the atmosphere took us by surprise.

If Las Terrazas was the first slice of bread, and the weekend just gone the other (possibly fresh granary bread with bits of olive and poppy seed, soft, not too doughy, crusty on the edge), then the 5 days between would be a filling akin to Iceberg Lettuce, at a push mild cheddar. I suppose at some point there was designing and studying, tutorials and Spanish lessons, but it all melts into one grey mass of procrastination. On Friday night we booked a table at the Paladar (private restaurant) of a local artist, nestled in a leafy side street of Vedado. You walk up 3 flights of a spiral stair and emerge in a jungle, a maze of shrunken corridors, flanked by odd collections of masks and dolls, homemade chairs and walls. You are treated to a short tour of the house, where the curved bathroom walls are made of concrete and old bottles, so the light filters through them. Ducking, and manoeuvring past cages of tiny birds, via the kitchen and smiling chefs, into the dining room surrounded by antiques and paintings, a sculpture made of ribbons and a collection of sake cups. Its by far the quirkiest restaurant/home I’ve ever been to, and if it was built to my scale and not that of a small child I could quite happily live there for ever and ever. Amen.

The next morning me and Ruth awoke at dawn to get a local train to the once resplendent city of Matanzas – “languishing Titanic-like beneath a thick layer of post revolutionary dust, Matanzas is Cuba’s sleeping giant.” The Hershey Electric railway built in 1917 by the US owned Hershey chocolate company, chugs its way through plush valleys and stops at countless little villages in the middle of nowhere. It takes about 4 hours, finally sliding past the sleek River Yumuri and terminating in Matanzas. The city was once a rival to Habana, and was where many art forms grew and evolved – Rumba, poetry and theatre. The atmosphere is immediately relaxed and slow, with once again no one trying to steer you towards their casa or bar. We found a room for the night and then swiftly caught a bus to some nearby caves. They were discovered in 1861 by a Chinese workman who dropped an iron bar down a whole and thus over 3 km of galleries, tunnels and subterranean lakes were found. We joined the hourly tour of visitors, with no apparent guide and walked for quite a while through the well lit tunnels. The formations were mesmerizing, the walls and ceilings covered in white crystals. There were several forks in the journey, where dark paths led away into other areas of the complex. The place reminded me of The Mines of Moria in Lord Of The Rings, so many routes to choose, zigzagging ascents, shadowy nooks to hide (so of course I did).

A wholesome feast was waiting for us on our return, of mackerel and soup, plantain crisps and fruits. Afterwards our host Manolo showed us a selection of Cigars and told us how to inspect them for their authenticity. We both bought a box of 25 for 30CUC – about £17. These were the fat Cohiba sort, and we have since seen the same box for 400 CUC in a posh Habana shop! Its hard to tell what is fake and what is not, but they don’t enarf smell lovely, mm mm.
In the morning we were going to leisurely return to Habana but then realised we were only 30km for Cuba’s most famous beach resort – Varedero. It is over 20km of pure white sands, stretching out into the sea on a huge spit of land, the hotels and prices increasing the further towards the end you go. It’s the Benidorm of Cuba, and not an ounce of culture in sight, but the sea is so beautiful that it would have been rude not to say hello. So we caught a bus and 45 minutes later were drifting in layers of turquoise and pearl. If you walk out into the water and don’t glance at the thousands of other tourists you could fool yourself into thinking you were alone in paradise. But you are not, by any means. For lunch I ate delicious seafood Paella, the 3rd best flan of the trip and was pleased to find my cohibas were not fake. Now mastering the art of not inhaling the smoke, I can almost pull off the act of cigar smoking. Ideally I should be fatter, sitting in a dark leather armchair and contemplating my successful life as the head of a multinational organisation but for now my twiglet fingers will have to do.

We tried to hitchhike for about an hour but being late in the day and 3 hours away from Habana, the traffic was thin and unwilling. Instead we missioned it back to the bus station and managed to wangle our way onto a posh tourist coach, only paying peanuts thanks to our ID cards. In fact our taxi to the train station on the first morning cost more than the train and 3 bus journeys together.

Weekends like this can quickly cloud previous thoughts about Cuba. I have to keep reminding myself that I am in a Communist nation where people can’t go on holiday or buy samosas or spend a 50CUC note without being cross-referenced. We have had about 4 or 5 inspections in our house in just 2 months. One lasted for a couple of hours, where the atmosphere was cold and intense. These bastard inspectors come along and go through every single piece of paper, searching for any mistake that they can fine you on the spot for. Our landlady was once fined the equivalent to £130 because a guest hadn’t signed the right piece of paper. I really hate the bare bones of communism, the idea of collective thought and actions, it being impossible to make your own way and be free. A few times Cuba has tried to initiate a way of thinking and doing, Las Terazzas for example, which is so successful, a model village. Apparently due to the ratio of land to population, Cuba is the only nation on earth that can be fully sustainable if it wished. This fact may be a bit fragile, but still quite inspiring. Cuba is beautiful enough, and the people ambitious enough to be able to stand on its own feet economically and be at the forefront of sustainable thinking but there are much bigger fishes to fry. Embargoes, dying leaders, severe poverty, buildings collapsing left right and centre, plus a whole generation of people who want change. Not the most stable platform yet then. I’m not really sure how to articulate all this thinking, so I will leave it in part up to Mr. George Orwell:

The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because the are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed. Physical rebellion, or any preliminary move towards rebellion, is at present not possible. From the proletarians nothing is to be feared. Left to themselves they will continue from generation to generation and from century to century working, breeding, and dying, not only without any impulse to rebel, but without the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is.”

There are only four ways in which a ruling group can fall from power. Either it is conquered from without, or it governs so inefficiently that the masses are stirred to revolt, or it allows a strong and disconnected middle group to come into being, or it loses its own self-confidence and willingness to govern. These causes do not operate singly, and as a rule all four of them are present in some degree. A ruling class which could guard against all of them would remain in power permanently. Ultimately the determining factor is the mental attitude of the ruling class itself.”

I’m not sure where Cuba fits into all of this, it could go any of those 4 ways. The first is probably the most unlikely as the leaders manage to keep the people on a plateau of happiness with no extremes to jolt the senses or stir up the counter-revolutionary pot. Being conquered from without is a strong possibility but a long way away, and a slow process. Cuba is not yet a political danger to warrant invasion. An emerging middle class with aspirations of power seems viable too. An eventual unwillingness to govern? The generation of the revolution is dying out, and with it a lot of the passion and thought that was so strong in the 60’s. I’ve never thought too deeply about politics and what I’ve been writing about lately, but living in a country like Cuba you can’t escape these thoughts, or the analysis of governments. It has certainly made me appreciate my own country more. I still really hate the overriding apathy in England, and that is one thing you could never say about Cubans – they are never shy, or quiet, prudish or un-opinionated. In England people are so content with being discontent that they will quite happily roll over and let an aggressive police state take control.

I’m just throwing this all out into space. We’ve been having discussions like this every day, and never to any conclusion. Sometimes we realise we are just talking shit and don’t really care so we play snap, or adult snap which is a hardcore game to say the least.

Around your strongest mantras choke
A contradictory hand of oak.

*Attractive youths nonchalently bathing in pristine pools of joy

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Talkin' About a Revolution

Rain, rain go away, come again another day. Or not, you choose, its not really up to me is it?

It’s the 23rd of January and I can’t remember what’s happened in the last 2 weeks. I’ve had a lot of lie-ins, fried eggs for breakfast, salt-filled snacks for lunch and disappointing dinners – Alice has been slacking of late. We have been speaking to Alice and Cheri about Fidel and their views of the Revolution. In short, they really hate him and what their lives have become. This weekend it was the main election and we went with Cheri to watch her vote. I don’t know what we were expecting- hundreds of impassioned people waving flags and/or denouncing the government? Instead it was just a simple room in a warehouse watched over by 3 kind-faced but heavily indoctrinated ladies. Alice ranted on for quite a while about how ridiculous the whole election is. Being a one-party state, Fidel wins anyway but ‘the people’ year after year are told that their vote counts. They haven’t seen him on TV for 2 years but if you read the local newspaper you could easily be fooled into thinking he is a sprightly older gent, going about his business as usual, strong and articulate. No one here knows and the boundaries between extreme propaganda, blind admiration, nostalgia and hushed opinions blur constantly into a dizzying array of faces and views. One thing is for sure, and that’s that most people aren’t relaxed about their present or their future. None of it is certain but because nothing has changed for 50 years the very thought of change terrifies most people, so they cling onto the victorious past, scraping the proverbial barrel for stories of heroism and patriotism, whilst churning out fear-inducing stories about the USA, and exaggerated thoughts on Latin alliances. Some of the news stories are really admirable and its certainly more refreshing and inspiring than the Daily Mail, but you have to wonder how much people really believe? For all his failings, Fidel is/was a very intelligent man. In today’s paper was printed a good article which I would like to think he wrote. This is a little snippet:

I am not physically in the condition to speak directly to the citizens of the municipality where I was nominated for our elections next Sunday. I do what I can: I write. Writing, as many people know, is an instrument of expression that lacks speed, tone and the intonation of spoken language, and it doesn’t use gestures. Writing has the advantage that it can be done at any time, day or night, but one doesn’t know who will read it; very few can resist the temptation to improve it, to include what was not said or to cross out what was said; sometimes one has the urge to throw it all in the waste basket since you don’t have the interlocutor there in front of you.

To the youngest of our revolutionaries, in particular, I recommend them to be extremely demanding of themselves and to observe an iron-clad discipline. They should avoid being ambitious for power, presumptuous or vainglorious. Be watchful about bureaucratic methods and mechanisms and avoid succumbing to simple slogans. Recognise in bureaucratic procedures the worst obstacle. Use science and computation without falling prey to the excessively technical and unintelligible jargon of elitist specialists. Always have a thirst for knowledge, and perseverance, and both physical and mental exercise.

In the new era in which we live, capitalism is not even a useful instrument. It is like a tree with rotten roots, from whence only the worst forms of individualism, corruption and inequality sprout. Nor should we give away anything to those who could be producing and who don’t produce, or who produce very little. Reward the merits of those who work with their hands or their minds

From An Epiphany Gift
Fidel Castro Ruz, January 14 2008

I like what he says. He may be a dictator of sorts, and obviously has power that is not always wisely used but he’s a darn sight better than most leaders I’d say. Its just a shame that the world can’t happily accommodate such a way of thinking, or rather, America can’t stand by whilst an entire country rejects its policies and intrusions. How very dare they!

Things that could possibly be interesting but most likely aren’t and so don’t deserve the effort or the web-space:
* An amazing card-based magician.
* A pig,beached opposite, and now rotting.
* Intertwined brass bracelets causing embarrassing street situation.
* Posh hotel pool-shame.
* Hours and hours of daydreaming.
* Writing our names in wet cement.

1 month left, gotta gotta gotta cram it all in.

Question: Why do people brush their teeth before breakfast? Like the smell of egg and coffee won’t linger in your gums all day. Brush after, always after!

city centre area
One of hundreds of amazing paintings/graff's that are dotted all over Havana by a very talented artist.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Declare Independence

The last week has gone very quickly and was largely bland, days of procrastination and post Christmas blues.

On Boxing day as Larissa’s family were leaving they saw Bjork checking in/out of their hotel. She was wearing rainbow stockings (from the collection designed by her pal especially for her mammoth 18 month tour) and a long t-shirt. She was with her husband and child and apparently looked beautiful and happy. Jude Law was also on Larissa’s sister plane. Havana is clearly the place to be at Christmas time. I felt a pretty strong pang of jealousy at missing Bjork, and have no shame in admitting I did stroll by 9 days later in the vain hope she might still be there – suffering from a severe bout of paralysis I assume.

Back in November of last year, 6 weeks ago we handed in our passports and went through a ridiculous process of administration and forms so we could obtain a temporary Cuban ID. This is necessary to extend our Visas and prevent us from living here illegally. All very well and good. Yesterday we went to uni to collect our cards, complete with photograph and fingerprint. They took 6 weeks to be made and we then found out that we have to return them 1 month before we leave so immigration can put a departure stamp in our passports. And so after all this travel and panic and expense, we will have our ID cards for only 10 days, the irony being that we could have gotten 3 month tourist visas for a fraction of the price – the only things we have been discounted on anyway is ballet and cinema.

During our last Spanish lesson the topic of anatomy came up and what started as an education tour of body parts – cabeza, brazo, barriga, estomicho, gradually turned into a sexual educational lesson. Some very disturbing drawings appeared on the board – one of the lady area with a myriad of names ranging from polite to vulgar. At first this was quite funny but after 15 minutes I appeared to be the only one sitting uncomfortably. Pedro crudely drew a penis and vagina, facing one another, complete with a double headed arrow to indicate movement. This was just to illustrate the word “singa”. You can guess. I suppose it was funny but then it got unnecessarily detailed, and I don’t trust a single man living alone with 2 white cats that have the squits.

From our casa the sea front curves gracefully around to the lighthouse atop its rocky outcrop. During last weeks storms the waves were crashing around its base, bursting up at least 15 m into the sky in a roaring white froth. The same happens sporadically along the length of the Malecon and if you are unlucky, or stupid enough, a wave will hurdle the concrete wall entirely and land on your head. This is a very atmospheric sight, and I would love to see the sea in hurricane season – moving like boiling water, the horizon an ever-changing mass of dark blue rises and falls.

2 nights ago we were roused from our evening work by explosions, and rushing out onto the balcony we were greeted with the best fireworks display I’ve ever seen. Over the lighthouse and fort, 2 to 3 miles away a plethora of fireworks burst in the sky for over 20 minutes. Some of which I had never seen – like giant orange dandelion flowers (the ones you blow into the wind). Another set of fireworks exploded and their lights remained for some time, shimmering like a cloud in the sky. If you looked at it sideways, like you would at a kissing couple, then it appeared as a hovering mass of glow worms, or like the wave of starlings over West Pier, all with a tiny light bulb attached. It was so stunning. Hundreds of people had rushed out of the streets and lined the Malecon for the event. The final explosion was a huge, white cloud of ice and snow lingering for a few seconds before fizzling out. And the occasion? – the anniversary of the day when Fidel Castro arrived in Havana and overthrew the Batiste government. I think. If he is dead that was one huge waste of gunpowder and ego!

At some point last week we went to another open-air dance/concert opposite the American embassy. These are pretty huge events, largely populated by pimps and ho’s but as long as you keep your wits about you, smile and dance its all rainbows and joy. The dance culture here is nice and free and it’s not uncommon to just grab a woman’s hand and show her your moves even if she is taken – her hubby will of course by watching with clenched fists. Observing, you realise that the man has to take complete control, appearing nonchalant whilst the woman seemingly does all the work. I thought that my 1 hour lesson of salsa from Vinales made me a pro so I grabbed two rotund twins and danced them silly for a few minutes. They clearly loved it despite my fumbling feet.

We also had a poker night and I won and it was great!

Poker Face
Pedro's Trinkets

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Feliz Anos Neuve

For New Years Eve dinner we had really good roast pork, Xmas pudding and flan for desert. We walked into Old Havana and sat in a bar on the harbour wall for midnight celebrations. On the opposite side of the harbour canons were fired a random number of times – 18 or something, setting off all the car alarms nearby. We met up with Larissa’s entourage and had lots of Mojhitos and spoke about eyebrows and facial hair until it was very late/early. Then we walked back in the early hours of 2008 along the Malecon – a stretch of land that in 5 years time may be completely different to how it is now. So I quietly registered this fact and collapsed on my bed, which I had missed. Muchas.

Monday, 31 December 2007

Maria La Gorda and San Diego de Los Banos

3 hours away from Vinales is the Dive Resort of Maria La Gorda. It’s almost the furthest west you can go on the island and to call it remote would be an understatement. I haven’t dived for 2 years but I’d heard the reefs here were good and it was a cheap day trip so why not. The boat only had to go out about 1km to the reef and we all geared up pretty quickly. Looking down I could see that it was special and when I jumped in and put my eyes under the water I couldn’t believe it, the visibility was insane. We all descended to about 25m, popping our ears and adjusting our buoyancy then leisurely floating around a huge coral wall amongst shoals of blue and yellow fish. When you dive normally visibility is reduced by suspended particles in the water and obviously the murkier it is the less you can see. Down here though it was pristinely clean and you could see for over 40m in places, which was very surreal – it felt like being in a fish tank more than the sea. Turning on my back I looked up at the waters surface, a shimmering blanket of silk with 8 sets of bubbles shooting 25m upwards like ethereal stacks of diamonds. It was so beautiful and when we were back on dry land I felt very grateful to have experienced it before it is overrun by hotels and dive centres. If this were in Thailand, Egypt or Australia it would be hugely popular. One dive master there said the diving here is the best he has ever known.

The next morning I awoke to the sound of a pig being slaughtered. When pigs get fed they make a similar noise so I presumed it was in fact feeding time but no, just 10m away 3 men were crouched around a large pig, one with an axe, chopping the animal into segments. I was curious to go over and watch but thought the sight of intestines being pulled out and a ribcage torn open might spoil breakfast. After a paid my bill for the last 4 days I said my goodbyes and my “nice to have met yous”, bought 10 cigars for £2.50 and was on my way to San Diego de Los Banos – “Cuba’s premier spa resort” where you can go for hot mud massages and brief soaks in thermal waters, rich in salty nutrients. I got a taxi there because there is no bus and the journey was grand. The scenery and mountain villages on the way were more beautiful than the Valle de Vinales itself, I thought, but not on the tourist circuit. I got dropped off at a nice casa in the spa town and very quickly went for a walk to acquaint myself, feeling relaxed and looking forward to 2, maybe 3 days of indulgence. As it was the whole complex was closed for the new years holiday so I was pretty gutted. Despondent and in a quandary I dragged my feet back to my room only to be accosted by a man called Luis, wearing a bright hat and brandishing a large set of binoculars – the combination making him look like a simple man, with dreams of wild adventures, explorations into the unknown. He said we could walk together to a nearby park I had read about. So we did and I had a really good day that made me forget all about the lack of mud baths and thermal waters. We drank copious amounts of neat rum and he was very willing to be photographed in the desolate remains of a once magnificent set of sculptural gardens – one was a relic of a Japanese garden and it must have been a wonderful place. We walked to a military restaurant up the hill – one of the nicest buildings I have ever seen, and up a spiral brick tower to the top where we looked around the hills through his binoculars. On the way back we stopped to listen to some impromptu music event that I did not understand and thought sounded offensive to ears. Really quite drunk we walked the 4km back to the village along the main road, hoping to get a lift but being unsuccessful the entire way. Partway we ran into a really nice couple (Tony y Barbara) and their newborn son Tonyquito. We talked about all sorts but mostly family and what I was doing in Cuba, and then I took a photo of them where we forked to our different destinations. They gave me their address to send them the photo one day – it was something along the lines of; Tony Manuel Gomez, half a mile from SD d Los Banos, Cuba. For the last stretch of the journey our conversation was reduced to drunken ramblings and singing. He asked me to sing something so I sang the Smiths-Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now. I didn’t consciously choose such a moody song but I like singing it, and he couldn’t understand English anyway. He was so drunk he just joined in with some salsa-esque beat – not a good combo. That night I sat alone in the Hotel Mirador opposite the hot springs. I drank a Mojhito and I watched a small boy play with a balloon. Then I realised it wasn’t a balloon but a blown up condom. I laughed and went to bed.

The next day was New Years Eve and I had a sudden compulsion to return to Havana 3 days early and celebrate with my friends. There were no official buses so it was either pay 60-80 CUC for a taxi or hitchhike. So I chose the latter which turned out to be considerably easier and less ‘gritty’ than I had expected. I wanted to be shoved in the back of a rusty Cadillac or in a sidecar but it was much less cool than that. I ended up catching 2 local buses to the outskirts of Havana and a taxi to my house. But it was fun and my 5 days of independence were over in the blink of an eye. That afternoon, sitting back on the Malecon in the golden light of 4pm I felt a lot of love for Cuba and the people. I’m halfway through my time here and I still feel like I have a lot to learn. Its sunny and beautiful, a bit fucked up but very proud. Viva La Revolution!

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Valle de Vinales

Early in the morning on Boxing Day I caught a 3-hour bus to a town called Vinales, in the west. The Valle de Vinales is a beautiful national park of towering limestone cliffs (called mogotes here), the type you see all over the world, rounded on their summits and hanging with palms and vines, brushing the sheer walls and exposed caves. The earth in the valley is a rich orange and most available land is blanketed by tobacco plantations and vernacular shacks shaped like tents. I was greeted at the bus stop by a woman called Lila who I immediately liked. We walked to her casa and she pointed out all the important sites along the way. The main street in Vinales is flanked by rows of Scots pines, which fill the air with one of my favourite smells. In Vinales there are over 200 casa particulares (in a town of barely 2000 people that’s hefty) which means competition is high. My dinner was expensive but when it arrived and I tasted it I would have easily paid double. I looked around, expecting the whole family to join me – surely you’re not expecting me to eat all this? I had 7 plates of food including a whole fish, rice, salad, potatoes and fruit. It was the best meal I’ve had in Cuba but I was so full I had to go to bed immediately – at 7.30pm!

I had agreed the night before to do some horse riding and in the morning a cowboy called Abel picked me up, and we walked to his ranch where I met 3 other tourists – Anya and Nicole – 2 Swiss girls who you would call ‘bubbly’, and Yuta – a 60 year old German lady who’s previously beautiful face has been marred by a forlorn and tragic deterioration. I was given a starving mule to ride which meant I had to look forward to hours of my bony arse bouncing on his bony spine. We lightly trotted through the plantations and arrived at a farmer’s house where we had coffee and watched Abel roll a cigar, which we then puffed at approvingly. We continued around the base of a huge cliff and followed the dusty trail through the fields and deeper into the valley. It really was beautiful, so quiet and majestic and the sun bathed our shoulders perfectly. After a couple of hours we tied the horses to some bamboo and walked to a nearby cave. All the other cowboys bring their tourists here via other tracks and when there are enough – say 30 of you, you walk into the cave with torches lighting the way. The cave runs for 3km through the side of this mountain, emerging on the other side along with its own subterranean river. After about 300m you come to a lake that you can swim in. I wasn’t going to but its not every day you get to swim in a cave. About 15 of us swam 100m through the pitch black cave until we came to a slippery mound where things turned rapidly sexual, everyone rubbing cave mud on each other. It is clearly just an excuse for horny cowboys to lure slender females into a dark cave, using ‘medicinal mud’ as an excuse to have a thorough feel. On our return swim, washing off the mud and howling into the dark recesses of the caves for eerie effect it dawned on me the sheer filth I was in. This was a still body of water in a shadowy cavern. At least 50 people a day swish around in the water, possibly urinating but definitely scrubbing off sweat and scabs whilst scouring themselves with second hand mud and writhing in the murky lake. I emerged into the sunlight feeling nasty.
Hopping back on the saddles we circled back the way we came and had a pit-stop at some guys love shack, an event ensuing that at the time didn’t seem that weird.
The man’s name was Oman and he had the most terrifying eyes of lime and gold. I massively regret not taking a photo of him. In fact I sat there composing the shot in my mind, and the request in Spanish. There were two photographs I wanted – one where he was casually leaning out of the wooden doorway with his cigar smoke strikingly framed by the dark of the room behind. Another where he was sitting against the wooden slats of the door. To the left the cracks between planks allowed 4 or 5 strong bands of light to slice diagonally to the right. He would have sat there with these bands crossing over his chest and face, one powerfully highlighting a single terrifying eye. These 2 photos exist in my mind only, but they are amazing photos and I will kick myself for a while to come.
Oman split open some coconuts and deftly made us some strong rum cocktails. Nicole and Anya could speak very good Spanish so I just sat there trying to follow the conversation which thanks to the rum turned inevitably towards sexual banter and before I knew it I was acting as Anya’s father in a wedding ceremony there in the porch of a tiny wooden shack, surrounded by fields of tobacco and soaring mountains. Abel had taken a liking to Anya and by the reciprocal rubbing of fingers and arms I guessed it was mutual. It was a very strange event and I felt increasingly awkward. A few times I was worried the situation was going to get nasty and I formulated a few escape plans in my mind, one shamefully involved me running from the scene, leaving the two Swiss girls to their drunken fate at the hands of two randy cowboys. Another one involved me brandishing the machete and fleeing with all the horses, taking the girls to safety and possibly getting a back massage in return. As per usual, none of my situations materialised and instead we left after two hours, Abel teased within an inch of sanity, possibly sporting an unfulfilled erection. The return leg was so painful and I felt an equal measure of resentment towards the horse’s spine and guilt at whatever pains my bum may be inflicting in return. Upon dismounting the newly weds had a sloppy embrace, we paid our fee and stumbled off to our houses.
After dinner we all met up again and had some beers in a bar. I revived my German and had a tri-lingual conversation that left me feeling like a pretty intelligent human being. We were all shattered from the day so made it an early night. Thankfully there were no awkward goodbyes at the girls’ house, we’d never see each other again but we had shared a very good day. Abel followed Anya to her room and at first I was a bit disgusted, but then realised that it was all light-hearted fun. She’s on a 3-week holiday in Cuba and she’s about to shag a cowboy, good for her. If I had fewer inhibitions and didn’t have such an unapproachable expression perhaps I would meet more interesting people. As it is, I am doomed to a life of bitter solitude and brief encounters that go nowhere. Still, tomorrow is another day. And a damn good day it was.

It started early with a fantastic breakfast, the sunlight pouring through the front door and warming my legs under the table. Fried eggs, fruit, coffee, I knew it was going to be a good day. I walked to a botanical garden I had read about, the entrance gate covered with fruit fresh from the trees. Behind the dense hedge lies a gorgeous little cottage owned by two elderly sisters who’s father set up this garden almost a century ago. It’s a mesmerising maze of paths weaving between trees of all heights, density and occupation – mango, kumquat, Guava, pineapple, aloe Vera, hyacinths and orchids, massive buttress roots spilling onto the ground like a freeze-framed giant squid climbing the trunk. A nice lady walked me round pointing out all these unusual additions and what is best in what season. You end back at the house in a surreal little patio, given a plate a fresh fruit and left to contemplate at your leisure. I loved the house. It was ramshackle and quirky - a tree made of business cards, a chicken wire fence covered in dolls heads and mouldy newspaper clippings of nothing in particular.
I rented out a bike and cycled off into the valley, past tons of creaking porches, weather beaten faces smiling from rocking chairs, the smell of cigar smoke strong in the air and a constant stream of tourist busses sweeping past me, belching out exhaust fumes roaring on to the next ‘point of interest’. Over the crest of one hill was a massive car park at the base of the cliff, with no cars parked. A cave here leads 150m through the mountain emerging on the other side at a restaurant. Walking through the tunnel I got more and more excited, imagining what delights would emerge at the other end. It was a large restaurant who’s conical thatched roofs pleasantly block out the other car park containing maybe 5 or 6 tour buses. On arrival the entire group is seated en masse and served swiftly but unaffectionately. Being solo I was herded to a lonely table on the sidelines where a nice couple from the Basque Country gave me some cheese and ham. It was all so impersonal and obviously they carved a new road around the mountain and made a second car park because as much as tourists are happy to eat their set lunch together, the idea of walking through a cave to get there is obviously too much to cope with. This is a mentality I still can’t get my head around – package tours. If you are strapped for time then theoretically doing a whistle-stop tour (of what someone else thinks you will like) of the area is a good choice but you’re never going to experience anything too real or challenging.

On this negative note I will leave Vinales for a moment and return to Havana. The wonderful Bush Administration already has a plan set out for Cuba when Fidel is finally declared dead. Probably contained in a spiral-bound dossier the plan involves allowing tens of thousands of Cuban exiles to return to Cuba – this invariably will include the mafia in Miami and many many tales of “The American Dream” and how much better life is under capitalism. A mixture of emotions will ensue – people haven’t seen their families for years and years and this joy of being reunited coupled with a sudden onslaught of feedback and criticism of their own lives under communism will result in a great deal of unrest. In fact unrest and dissent is all part of the grand plan. It is planned that there will BE a counter-revolution, people will demand change upon hearing how wonderful it can be to have any job you wish and travel at will. Already in the youth here you can see an affection and yearning for the American culture of consumerism and wealth. It’s not hard to picture the scene in Havana when it all changes. A certain amount of violence, demonstration and death will be allowed to occur under the watchful eyes of the US, at which point they will swoop in, ‘liberating’ the poor souls who have been trodden on by the evil dictator Castro and the army will restore peace, imposing their own form of temporary government with the sole intention of turning Cuba into a capitalist economy. Cuba will become an ally of America (possibly another state) and stop being so friendly with China, Russia and Venezuela, and fat balding men in bad suits will slouch in their leather armchairs in Washington a little more content that one more part of the world has been forced over to their way of thinking. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. McDonalds and Starbucks have already chosen their plots along the Malecon for when this all occurs.
On a side note, a short tale that makes me smile: A few years ago Cuba’s baseball team came 2nd in the Pan-American Baseball League and won the princely sum of $22 million. This is clearly a huge amount of money and could have been ploughed back into the game, or spent on a new stadium etc etc. However Hurricane Katrina had just struck and it was decided to donate the $22 million to New Orleans instead. This tremendous gesture of charity aside, its also a smack in the face of the Bush Administration who didn’t get their arses in gear quick enough to save the lives of their own citizens (but when a Hollywood neighbourhood is in flames it’s a different story). Venting complete its back to the stillness and tranquillity only found in the countryside.

After returning my bike I had a 5 o’clock appointment with a local masseuse called Onasis. He works at one of the big hotels here but said it would be cheaper and more convenient for me to have the massage at home. I suppose that’s true but I didn’t feel entirely comfortable stripping down to my boxers and lying face down on my bed whilst a stranger lathered me up. In a designated massage environment I’m fine, but the bedroom scenario just seemed too personal. The back massage was good, shiatsu he said, but the head and foot work left a lot to be desired. Its always hard to tell whether a masseuse has accidentally brushed your scrotum or not, and of course you’re not going to bring it up because that could be mortifying. Instead you just lay there tensing your thighs every time the hands move that way, in nervous anticipation of more clumsy contact. I paid him still standing in my boxers and waved goodbye feeling slightly used.

During dinner there was Salsa music playing and I was asked my opinion mid swallow. I was starving and in these situations I tend to just say yes to everything in the hope that the questioner will shut up and let me enjoy my food in peace. So all my nods and “ si, muy bien, entiendo, si” led to me agreeing to leave somewhat abruptly and have an hours salsa lesson with an ageing dance teacher. Earlier on in the day I had walked back from my bike ride merry and smiling, a slightly camp old man eyed me up and said “buenas dias” as I ambled by. Nice I thought, always good to have a bit of attention even if it is a bit wrinkly. So when the door creaked open and there stood the same gentleman inviting me in for a dance I had to chuckle to myself.
Rosendo’s modest house consisted of 2 bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. In the kitchen was a very good looking guy around my age, wearing only his shorts and smoking a cigarette. We moved the table and chairs into the bedroom and used the kitchen space for the lesson. The young guy who I will call Rico sat in the doorway holding the remote for the stereo, selecting the tracks for our dance. At first I was awful and awkward, embarrassed, stiff and apologetic. But I soon started to master the simple steps that all the complex spins revolve around. You just have to free your hips and your arms in salsa. So there I was gripping the naked back and hand of a wrinkly salsa teacher, tripping over myself trying to dance. I really enjoyed it in the end and was praised quite highly considering it was my first attempt. Rico complemented me a few times and I felt watched, but not judged (twice I received an air-kiss). They were definitely queer. They can’t have been lovers, the age gap was too great, but when I left, Rico definitely acted different to any other Cuban male I’ve met so far. It’s a strange mix of sexuality and a guarded tension that underpins unwillingness to be too forward – just in case I’m ‘not’. Rosendo turned off the front lights as I left and peeked out the door,
Porque?”, I asked
Es Cuba”, he replied.
Si en Habana, perro no en Vinales, si?”
Si, si. Ok, chiao”.

Maybe I was reading too much into the situation but the thought of this lovely old man, possibly gay, possibly in a relationship with someone too young for him, wary of coming out of the house at night, hmm. As I was walking up the street to a bar I realised I had left my shirt in the kitchen ( I was wearing a shirt over a T ), at the moment I turned round to go back Rosendo was a few meters away jogging topless with my shirt in his hand. “ ahh, gracias senor, Buenos noches”, I said. When I turned back to walk up the street a small group of locals gave me a sceptical look – I guess if he was the only gay in the village and I’ve just emerged from his house late in the night, being handed back my clothes it deserved a look of “Uchm, I see.” I found it quite funny though and sat at the bar smiling to myself. Then some local drunkard sat down with me and tried to talk to me about English football. I had no time for that shit, pretending I care about Liverpool or Michael Owen. There’s a time and a place for entertaining foreign drunks, and that was not it.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Feliz Navidad

On Christmas Eve some of Larissa’s family and friends flew in from various corners of the earth, staying at a beautifully restored hotel in the old part of town. For dinner we were all treated to a 3-course dinner in the square, serenaded by a very good band, who got the intimacy levels just right. There were 14 of us at dinner and although the food was a bit poor the atmosphere was fantastic. I was in love with each and every one of them - I could almost taste the red wine, mature cheese and rich chocolate just hearing their French accents. On the cobbles, perched comfortably on metal chairs we sipped Mojhitos well into the night, and all was merry and bright. Sometime after midnight we all retreated into slumber, apart from James, Bonzo and John who stayed up until 5 am drinking rum on the Malecon. It transpired that in the drunken haze; James heaved all over his shoes, and Bonzo bought what he thought was a modest pouch of weed, but it turned out to be a clump of grass that the dealer had clearly torn from the kerbside – it came complete with roots n’all. He also awoke to find he had vomited over himself whilst sleeping. Upon hearing this on xmas morning I was glad I had an early night.

On Christmas Day we all met up at the beach and had a very serene day, imagining what it would be like in England, warming round the fire with full bellies and board games. We shared our secret Santa presents, which was surprisingly successful. James got a mini- baseball bat from Ruth and we had a very fun but tiring game of baseball as the sun was setting. In the evening we all convened on another restaurant, the 14 of us feasting on lobster and flan washed down with yet more Mojhitos. Once again the elders of the party paid the bill and it was very much appreciated.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Close But No Cigar

Tuesday we leisurely joined a small queue to purchase tickets for the ballet. As with most queuing systems in Cuba all rationality was hurled out of the window to be replaced by totally unnecessary waiting times. We were there for over 3 hours with only 15 people in front of us. There are 2 ticket prices for the Ballet – 20 CUC (£12) for tourists and 5 Cuban pesos (15p) for locals. With the help of our temporary student ID’s we were able to exploit this little bargain but only by waiting 3 hours. Meanwhile a tourist can just waltz in with their 20 CUC and buy a ticket immediately. Its hardly surprising that they choose to sell a ticket that is 80 times more expensive than the pitiful pennies of the local ticket, but it must be such a smack in the face for all the Cubans lining up for hours.
Once we eventually got served we then squeezed into a bus bound for Guanabacoa. We spent quite some time last week constructing a questionnaire to take to the town. Walking around asking all sorts of people all sorts of questions, we ended up with over 70 pages of answers and opinions about architecture, social and private life and ideas for improving the town. This is all very well and good but the project is moving so slowly still and at some point we are going to have to throw a proposal into the air knowing full well it will be shot down like a fat duck, but will hopefully initiate impassioned discussion.

A 10-minute walk from our casa is the more residential area of Vedado where we lived in the first week. It is home to a series of massive hotels and a steep street called La Rampa that would not look out of place in San Francisco. Along La Rampa are many clubs and restaurants, the cinema we go to, banks and ice cream parlours. Just off this street is a humongous tower block that used to be a top hotel but is now 35 stories of flats. Perched at the top is an amazing little French Restaurant. Having spent 2 weeks budgeting tightly I decided that a pre-birthday treat was necessary. In the restaurant your tables are pushed right up against the glass which folds around all 4 sides making it impossible not to let your eyes wander over the vast city of Havana. At night it is especially beautiful and was a perfect place to turn 22 with a chocolate cake and red wine. At midnight we had tequila shots and I strolled home happy as Larry, possibly more so.

In the morning with a dull hangover I gratefully opened my presents but couldn’t stomach much breakfast. I tried to work over some maps on my laptop and come up with some ambitious urban plan but what’s the point when it’s your birthday and its sunny outside. So me, James and Larissa walked to a nearby fish restaurant and had lobster for about £2.50. I’m not exactly an expert but it was damn fine lobster, so succulent and meaty, with a really beautiful shell. Strange observation but he looked like he was a healthy happy lobster, and then he was boiled alive and silently screamed in pain until his fishy brain melted in agony. Pudding consisted of an ice cream on the Malecon, which dissipated in the noonday sun faster than I could eat it. The afternoon was relaxed and I read my new book and sipped a Chilean red wine that we can buy downstairs for tuppence – a very welcome addition to our culinary growth. Bonzo and James came from their house around the corner to eat dinner with us and Alice provided quite a spread – including one of the best soups ever created and a plate of plantain crisps that piss all over anything Kettles can make. I acted ignorant but was quietly expecting a cake, and lo and behold Larissa appeared with a spongy layer of joy. Mm, mm what a splendid dinner we had. Afterwards we hailed a taxi and sped to the National Theatre for an evening of pirouettes. The show comprised of 3 parts with a 10 minute interval between each, which meant that I rushed 3 bottles of beer and almost wet myself during the 3rd, final and most amazing section. From nowhere about 10 new dancers came on, all with incredible bodies, and moved in perfect unison. There was one main lady called Alicia Alonzo and her dress was a rich Indian turquoise. The main male dancer was courting her and at times I felt like I was intruding on quite a personal moment. Her balance was incredible and when he leapt he appeared to delicately land without a sound, slowing slightly upon impact giving the illusion that he could subtly subvert gravity. It was great. Afterwards we went to a bar that has become famous because it was Ernest Hemingway’s favourite joint. We all sipped his favourite cocktail – the Daiquiri – and enjoyed more merriness. Near our house on the Malecon is our local drinking establishment – a swish new cocktail bar facing the sea where a Mojhito costs a pound. We all got bici-taxi’s here and I realised, smoothing moving westwards along the seafront that this was exactly how I spent the last part of my last birthday – getting cycled towards Buckingham Palace with my buddy Rachel. It definitely beats stumbling through rotten back streets.

A short-lived post birthday comedown was soothed when we attended our first ‘work do’. In the main courtyard of our work place (by the by, apparently the restored convent in which we work was once on a list of the worlds 100 most endangered buildings!) a live band were playing and you could buy a couple of litres of homemade beer for 40p. It was pretty good and it was nice to get to know our bosses a little more, even the previously hard-nosed Mario. A persistent lady of advanced years grabbed my hand and forced me to embarrass myself with a cringe worthy salsa attempt. I was sort of getting into the groove when I looked up and saw a Cuban man looking at my jerky feet with such bewilderment. He might as well have just said “What the HELL is that? You are an embarrassment to lithe dancers everywhere!”. Eventually she gave up trying and even after 5 minutes my hips were killing me. In the evening we got a taxi a little way out of town in the search of a reggae night. It was closed but we did get to see somewhere that interested me before I arrived in Havana. There’s this little park, called Parque Alemendares, in which resides a giant tree with hundreds of hanging roots and vines. The place has been nicknamed ‘park of the hanged’ because people used to (and may still do) hang themselves from the boughs. I thought that was quite beautiful. As we were leaving, the heavens opened and we sheltered whilst the rains subsided. Afterwards the ground smelt amazing and the forest glistened.

I could see through my Xmas wrapping paper the Ferroro Roche logo and although these nutty nuggets aren’t a patch on Lindor, I once again had a low moment and chain-ate all 4. Larissa’s family are flying in tomorrow and are apparently bringing several boxes of Belgian chocolates with them, hopefully sustaining me for at least 2 days. I am being a typical Englishman and haven’t bought any presents yet. We are doing secret Santa, the mystery of which was quickly shattered by the loose tongued among us.

Yesterday we had the first of probably many Spanish lessons. Pedro is his name, and he is a psychologist living in a poky house near work with 2 gorgeous cats. I was seriously hung-over from 3 consistent nights of rum and found the 3 hours fairly hard going. By the end of it I couldn’t understand a word and felt like I had come full circle. And worse than 5 weeks ago. It’s costing us about £2.50 per session, which is a really good deal, even by Cuban standards. A course here could set you back a few hundred at least. Today we mostly worked on pronunciation which naturally brought about several laughing fits with 6 people all going “ YA, YEH, YI, YO, YU, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Ka, ka ka ka. And Pedro didn’t waste any time in getting us to say the Spanish word for vagina over and over and having quite the laugh himself. Given half the chance I would happily make 6 Spanish people say fanny fanny fanny, none the wiser. Ha!

Monday, 17 December 2007

Si, entiendo!

I went to see a film called London To Brighton on my own two nights ago. Despite knowing it was about prostitutes escaping their London pimps and fleeing to Brighton I was still shocked. It was not a happy film at all. The Brighton scenes pulled at my heartstrings but a few things irritated me. They got the train at Victoria from platform 10 ish, and it should be 16. The seats on the train weren’t right at all and you don’t get polystyrene cups for coffee. They went from Brighton Station to the beach and in order to do so got a bus from the Marina to the Pier. Clearly quite wrong. There was a short scene shot outside the all-night diner and it made me yearn for a drunken fry up at 3 am.

On Saturday we got a taxi to the beach and it was the best day yet, the waves were gently tickling the shore and the water was marbled with various hues of blue. A local lifeguard called Alberto swam out with John, James and I to a coral reef. It was very beautiful and completely unexpected. At the edge, the reef just sank away into darkness and swimming around the side of it felt like floating around a spaceship with the vastness of space at your side visually dragging you away from the safety of the rock/ship. I remember when I did scuba diving that at times I couldn’t control where I went, if I was moving alongside a coral wall then I would just float towards it like a magnet, subconsciously trying to avoid drifting too far into the darkness. I think a coral reef is the perfect example of a place that is simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. And understanding the fragility of a coral reef ecosystem it pained me to see Alberto steadying himself on rocks and snapping off bits of soft white coral to give to us as souvenirs. The swim back was exhausting, as we had drifted about 300m out. Collapsing on the sand I then felt a burning desire to be ‘one with the beach’. So I half buried myself in the sand and let the waves slowly immerse me, smoothing out the edges until, looking down, I appeared to be a large item of flotsam/jetsam, stuck in the sand – like a shipwrecked corpse or a severed tree limb. I try to just lie there and burn like everyone else but its so satisfying to cover yourself with sand, throw yourself back in the sea and repeat the process until the novelty has worn off. I could quite happily design a modest dwelling in the tropics that laps the ocean with its creaky jetty, live day to day spearing fish for lunch and working sporadically so I can visit huge cities like Tokyo, New York and Rio DeJeniro, feeling a good balance between wide-eyed wonder and rural nostalgia.

I just sat down with my landlady Cheri (not Sheila it seems) and had a good 5 minute conversation in Spanish telling her I am going away in 11 days for 8 days to a place called Vinales and I would like to pay a reduced rent. She agreed, all was muy bien, and I even said that the meal we had today was the best so far, because the chicken was delicious and there were potatoes and beetroot and yummy salad. There was lots of smiling and understanding and now I am on such a language high! Woohoo, I could so easily have grabbed Larissa and asked her to do the whole conversation for me. Ah, good feeling. I am also very much looking forward to my birthday because in the evening we are going to the ballet and I have presents and I am going to have lots and lots of Rum. and then mroe rum. And then Alice will have to look after me. talking of which, she is making me an omlette tonight because she saw me trying to steal some of Ruth´s. Can´t wait. Also, Bruce Willis brought some flan over that his mother made and its possibly one of the best puddings Ive ever had. thats saying something.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Food Glorious Food

We have been here a month already and the first week seems like distant past. The days are rolling by and aimless wanderings have been replaced by the sweaty commute – a one hour stroll through littered Centro Habana , past the looming Capitolio, plunging into Habana Veija with its narrow grey veins skirting quaint plazas and finally arriving in the tranquillity of Santa Clara convent. We spent most of last weekend compiling another presentation and in the end it was postponed for 3 days. Mild irritation at this delay was soon overtaken by the ravenous joy of finding delicious hamburgers on a menu closeby. It’s been a good week for food with the added discovery of an Arabic restaurant that has humus and pita, and the tastiest flan ever made, just down the road. It was sitting there gorging on egg-based puddings that we noticed a man who looks like the guy on the front of the Lonely Planet guide. Pulling the aforementioned book out of my bag we were taken aback in realising that it was indeed he. The situation was quite apparent – some years ago he must have been snapped smoking a cigar and obviously looking utterly Cuban, then chosen as the face of the new edition and since has decided to sit around waiting to be noticed by Lonelyplanet-wielding tourists. He even had a ‘pimp’ with him- a mute woman who presumably hung around with him to get a cut of the earnings. It would have been stupid not to take a photo so of course I did. I wanted him to hold the book over his face, which I knew would be comical, but he decided was slightly degrading. Either way it was a short-lived moment of happy surprise that earnt him some pennies from my pocket. The novelty was crushed the day after, when returning for 2 more puddings we saw him sitting in the same spot. Grrrr. Still, easy way to make a living I suppose.

On Tuesday we were supposed to get a boat across the harbour and then walk into Guanabacoa, with enough time to meet an important man who would tell us some important things. The boat was naturally out of order so we walked for half an hour to a bus stop where no buses stopped and eventually compromised and paid the extortionate fee of 3p to get a brand spanking new Chinese bus with the most comfortable bus seats in the world. We were dropped off somewhere further away from our destination than where we started, and somewhere in the middle of 1991’s Olympic Village. Hunger, sweat, delays and excessive walking makes Jonathan a sour-faced boy, but thankfully I spotted a patisserie before it got out of hand. The mood change was abrupt and I enthusiastically stated “ Quiero muchas senora” – I want lots, senora. I probably bought one of everything and two ├ęclairs. The best was a cinnamon swirl number, which was partially soaked in coffee and caused me to stop and compose myself. ‘Yollum’ then decided it would be best if we just walked the rest of the way instead of waiting for another bus. He didn’t know the way and we had to retrace our steps a fair distance, eventually tramping into town, parched and unenthused. We met a hideous lady with hairy thighs and a dry perm, and she walked us around the main museum in Guanbacoa. As an overview of a town with centuries of rich colonial history the musuem seemed strongly biased towards cult-based doll-worshipping religions. There were several glass cabinets full of dusty displays, ranging from stuffed owls to stunningly embroidered dresses to terrifying manikins with sinister eyes. In another room hung a dozen amazing still life paintings by two local boys aged 12 and 13. They all consisted of fairly imaginative arrangements of inanimate objects – a watermelon holding down a piece of string that is wrapped around a feather, whilst a violin nestles comfortably next to some avocado stones balancing on the edge of a jug. In a few restaurants you see paintings like this and it’s a refreshing change from ‘pizza hut art’ in England – a soft focus macro photo of a tulip, printed onto canvas and then brushed with a transparent paint that when dry gives the tacky illusion that the photo is a one-off painting by a romantic artist. Its best not to dwell on these things though, I don’t want to be a miserable old man yet.

When we want clean clothes we can just give Alice a bag of smelly rags and she brings them back clean, ironed and folded. This is a welcome convenience but the handing-back process is not right. The first day there was a knock at the door and Alice appeared with our clothes - joy, muchas gracias Alice. However, instead of just laying them down and leaving she picked up each item separately, held it in front of her face so her eyes were poking over the top like a bashful Arabian minx, and guessed who’s it was before being told if she was right or not. At first John and me found the clothes game funny and kind of sweet but when you’ve got 10 pairs of boxers and each one is manhandled before being returned you end up feeling a bit exposed. I also noticed my red Converse had gone missing and in the evening Alice waltzed in very please with herself, holding out my trainers, freshly washed and sparkling like new. I didn’t quite know what to say. I don’t like new shoes, and it was very kind of her to clean them but I didn’t think they were dirty, just worn and full of character. Now they are just SO clean, and so pristine. I now hide my other shoes when I go out because if she does that to my favourite trainers I might have to strike her. Yesterday she entered our room and came over all nervous, started giggling and had to hide behind the wall for a few seconds before we discovered she had made orange juice. She’s just mental! For a visual – maybe 5’2”, larger upper body, always a pair of orange or denim shorts and a black vest. Long black curly hair in a ponytail and a rotund face that can only be described as cheeky – one my least favourite adjectives.

When our presentation finally rolled around it was a massive anticlimax. I had spent a couple of hours translating two paragraphs I’d written into Spanish and was pretty proud out the outcome, especially this bit; “Y si eso esta bueno para social interaccion y un sentimiento de la communidad – una superpoblado area ponen un grande presion en los services publicos, especialmente donde una area estaron neglectado”. Yeah! In the end I just recited it without thinking and we had very little feedback on the whole. Everyone was getting involved with a discussion on urban planning and the failings of urban theories by such greats as Corbusier, but I decided to sit back and let it all wash over me and nod convincingly. Yollum looked at me and said “ eh, Yonatan doesn’t say much, si?”. I think I just smiled in agreement which turned out to be a wise choice. Now Yollum considers me to be the silent genius, perhaps. He brought up a Buddhist or Taoist quote – “If you are going to say something, it must be better than silence”. I thought that was quite profound and immediately added Yollum to my Christmas Card list.