Tuesday 28 April 2015

Cuba: Edificio Bacardi, Havana

The Bacardi building - or Edificio Bacardi - is Havana's landmark Art Deco building.  It's astonishing, another piece in Havana's rich mosaic of architectural styles.

Built in 1930 by the Bacardi family, it became the beacon of their Bacardi rum empire which began its life in 1862 in the town of Santiago de Cuba on the South East of the island.

It was designed by architects Rafael Fernandez Ruenes, Esteban Rodriguez Castell and Jose Menendez, and although it was once the tallest building in the whole of Havana, it is surprisingly good at concealing itself.  When you are standing at ground level on one of the surrounding streets, it disappears.  So here's a good pointer: if you're trying to squeeze into Floridita's for a Daiquiri, you only need look up to locate it!

The building shows its true personality in the early morning (when those who were at Floridita's last night are still asleep!).  In the glow of the sun rising behind it, it turns to gold.

Of course, the sun shines in Cuba most of the time but there is something very special about the quality of light as the day is 'born'.  Perhaps it's a photographer thing!

On top of the tower sits the 'bacardi' bat, the symbol of the company.  It looks as if it's presiding over Havana from a pile of gold ingots.  The bat was chosen as Bacardi's logo because of the fruit bats that gathered around the first distillery in Santiago de Cuba, attracted by the sweet smell of sugar molasses.

The facade of the building is decorated with enamelled terracotta panels of water nymphs and flowers by an American artist called Maxfield Parrish.

During Prohibition in the US, Havana became a weekend party destination for the rich and famous. The Bacardi building and its nymphs were born into a dancing, singing, drinking world of colour and celebration.  It's hard not to feel sorry for them now.  The attention they enjoyed then has been lacking for decades.  This is very clear when you get to the top of the tower.

You take a lift and one flight of stairs to get there.  It will cost you around 1 CUC, paid to the security guard in the lobby.  The price is a little variable, depending, maybe, on what kind of day he's having or, perhaps, how nicely you smile.  It's well worth the small consideration. The panoramic views are great and gave us yet another perspective on this vibrant city.

Having raced up to get a bat's eye view of Havana and its many contradictions laid out before us, the building demanded that we linger on the way back down.  The art deco lobby areas were gorgeous.

I have read that some people have been lucky enough to get a peek at the Bacardi Cafe within the building, even that it is going to re-open again. We were not so lucky, but it's always worth asking. And smiling a lot.  You never know.

Friday 24 April 2015

Cuba: A day in the life of a bicitaxi, Havana

Bicitaxis are a popular form of transport in Havana.  As a tourist, you can't go far without being offered one or getting in the way of one.  And where there is one, there is usually a swarm!  

They transport local people all over the city, particularly around the older districts with narrow streets which are awkward to negotiate, and where there are few cars.  Children going to school, women with clean shoes going to the office, men with fishing rods going to the Malecon, wreaths of brown paper and fresh flowers going to a funeral: we saw them all riding on bicitaxis.  They come in various states of repair and 'swankiness' but the format is always the same: a bicycle and two seats for passengers.  The ones in Havana also have sound systems with attitude.  

Bicitaxis were introduced in what Cubans refer to as the 'Special Period', a euphemism for the time of dire economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Pedal power was a resourceful response to the lack of fuel and indeed most things.  Some of the bicitaxis look quite smart today but some still do look very down at heel and 'cobbled together'.  You use whatever you can get your hands on in Cuba.  They are privately run, some appearing to be individually owned, others operating from the yards that have sprung up in the yawning cavities where buildings used to be.  You find them waiting for a fare on every street corner.

Bicitaxis are licensed by the state but supposedly not for tourists.  I think though there is a grey area here and perhaps, increasingly, a blind eye turned when tourists use them.  We could have taken a ride about a hundred times a day, there was no backwardness in coming forward and touting for our business.  And actually, now, I wish I had.  So do, if you get the chance.  Even as a tourist it should be inexpensive.  I'm sure they'll let you choose what you want on the sound system too!  

The constant cry of 'taxi, taxi' and the constant cacophony of whistles, birdcalls and hooters urging you to get out of the way as they moved along the streets at surprising speed could become wearing on hot days (and all days were hot in Cuba), but these guys earned our respect.  They weren't ones to let potholes, trenches or a myriad of other obstacles get in their way.  

And if the said potholes, trenches and myriad obstacles damaged their vehicles, which they did day in and day out, they carried out running repairs with a smile.

Sometimes though, when the trials of the day became relentless, even for a resilient Cuban, there was nothing for it but a siesta.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Cuba: Digging for water, Havana

Replacing Havana's failing mains water system
On our first night in Havana there was no water in the room we had booked.  It was not the best start on a hot and humid night and after a journey of about 12 hours from Gatwick.  The 'excuse' that half of Old Havana was without mains water rang hollow.  How was it that the inferior room we had been given with access to a shared bathroom did have water?  How was it that the en suite room we had booked would have water by tomorrow morning but didn't now?  Oppressed by the humidity, fatigued by the flight, these seemed imponderable questions.

The next morning the truth was plain to see.  The streets were being dug up. The sound of pneumatic drills ricocheted off the buildings.  Old and failing cast iron water pipes were being pulled out and replaced by plastic ones.  Rather slowly.  Half of Old Havana probably was without water.

A Bicitaxi driver clambers over a 'filled-in' trench
People were relying on water tankers to deliver their supplies and they were barely keeping up.  The low rumble of their diesel engines soon became a familiar sound to us, and the thick cloud of black smoke from their exhausts a familiar smell.  They struggled to negotiate the narrow streets of the old city, lumbering up and down the pavements around tight corners, leaving trails of splashed water behind them.  They worked almost round the clock.

Hospitals, schools and large hotels had priority. Ordinary residents were at the bottom of the pecking order.  This included our 'Casa' (bed and breakfast) whose owner had to beg, plead and pay for water in order to keep running.  The tanker would often arrive late at night, honking its horn in what we came to think of as celebratory style although in truth the driver was simply in a hurry to make the delivery and get away.  The noise of water being pumped into the house was deafening.

We had several more evenings without water although there was always a bathroom somewhere in the building that had some.  Different storage tanks seemed to feed different parts of the building. We never quite worked it out.

The inconvenience we suffered was minor.  At the end of three weeks we knew we would come home to a water supply that we never question.  How often do we feel true gratitude for water at the turn of a tap?    

The power of dustpan and brush: resilience in the face of chaos
As we left, the problems seemed to be getting worse.  Once pipes had been replaced and a trench filled in, it did not seem to follow that the water supply in that area was back on.  And, researching the subject at home now, I realise that this is a massive infrastructure headache that has been throbbing not for weeks or months but for years.

A few days ago there were elections in Cuba for municipal assemblies.  Municipal councillors are responsible for things like water supply and street repairs.  There has been much discussion in the media about the two dissidents who stood for election.  They were unsuccessful this time but change is in the air.  Perhaps it can start with a dustpan and brush.

Friday 17 April 2015

Cuba: Down the Havana rubbish hole

With so many wonderful sights and sounds and smells in this most vibrant of cities, it may seem petty for me to focus on a pothole full of rubbish.  I want to tempt you to visit and experience Cuba for yourself, not put you off!

As you are researching your trip, you will come across countless references to the poor condition of the streets, to the holes that are waiting for you to drop into; potholes, drains with no covers, trenches being dug to replace the water mains.  The permutations are endless. The result, if you drop down one of them, could spoil your trip.  I saw so many people, tourists and locals alike, with sprained wrists and ankles, the result, most likely, of tripping over or falling down hazards like this.

So the advice to carry a torch is good advice.  You might see them coming in the day, but at night, with very little street lighting, these monsters may just swallow you whole.  And that's without taking into account the mojito effect!

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Cuba: Feast your eyes: 1950s cars in Havana

After a few days in Havana you can become blasé about scenes like these.  And that would be a shame. So here are a few of my current favourites from Andrew's collection of over 14,000 pictures. 

These truly are ordinary, not extraordinary, street scenes but you won't find them anywhere else.  

Parked on every block, on every street corner are these wonderful 1950s cars. Tourist clichés? I would describe them as iconic.  

Some are battered, some are shiny.  Some swagger with sharp cut quiffs, others curve voluptuously. They ooze sex appeal and they are wonderful.

Tuesday 14 April 2015

Cuba: Architectural dreamscape, Havana

Havana's architecture was breathtaking.  For all kinds of reasons!  There is so much to admire and so many styles reflecting different periods of the city's flamboyant history and culture.  We found ourselves awed but also deeply concerned.  Street after street of imposing buildings revealed themselves in all their beauty but also their decay.  Sometimes it felt like being in a surreal dreamscape or on a troubling film set.  And we wondered how all this devastation had come to be.  As any kind of artist - painter, photographer, writer - you could find a romance in the decay, in the fading colours, the crumbling balconies and the whispers of the past.    

Who wouldn't want to paint this art deco (I think) balcony?  Or place a lonely figure on it and write a poem?  The architectural landscape was inspiring and part of its attraction was the melancholy of its decay.  Plots of moody novels chased me around the streets as I walked in wonder.  But these buildings are not fiction, many are people's homes.  How on earth do they live and stay safe in some of them?  Cubans must be resilient people.

Not every building in Havana is in this terrible need of repair.  There has been a lot of restoration, dating, I believe, from 1982 when Old Havana was made a Unesco World Heritage site.  The large squares - Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza de Armas and Plaza de la Catedral - are beautiful and would grace any city.  It is a joy to spend time in them and the surrounding streets.  Currently the Capitolio and the Grand Theatre (home of the National Ballet) are also under restoration.  As a tourist, I like to think that tourism is a big driver for this; I'm sure it must be.    

But there are so many crumbling buildings and some of them are clearly beyond repair, home, in some cases, to nothing more than dusty ghosts, tortured tree roots and feral cats and dogs.

Friday 10 April 2015

Cuba: 10th April 2015

Today's is the date that sent tourists flocking to Cuba.  By the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, (10-11 April 2015), Barack Obama announced earlier this year, he hoped to have open a United States Embassy in Cuba.

We wanted to see something of Cuba before that happened.  And we were not alone.  Many tourists we chatted with over coffee, over dinner and in the street had made a snap decision to visit based on the announcements of a rapprochement between the United States and Cuba. Cuba was going to change, perhaps quite rapidly.  For many, the symbol of that change they feared the most (forgive me, my American friends) was the opening of a first McDonald's in Havana.  We wanted to see it before that.

Perhaps this is selfish, also superficial.  But it is true that Cuba has, for over half a century, occupied that rare thing: a unique position in the world.  Having caught a glimpse of the hardship and deprivation that have accompanied that position, the desire to see it feels less comfortable.  But, from a purely superficial point of view, there is a charm in the faded glory of the buildings and the fifties cars, in a countryside still worked by ox-drawn ploughs.

It was also very naive.  Change is always happening, everywhere, no matter what.  There is already a lot of private enterprise, for example.  There are private restaurants and hotels and 'casas particulares', 'bed and breakfast' establishments, have sprung up everywhere in people's homes.  Apparently, around 50% of the population has a government job, paying little by pretty much any standard, but there is lots of business and entrepreneurship running alongside.  That directed at tourism must, I think, be the most lucrative and for many Cubans the working day must be very long.                  

Many times we travelled along El Malecon, the seafront of the city, past the American Interests Building which will become the Embassy; once in a pink cadillac, twice in an open-topped red tourist bus, once in a Dodge Coronet (like the one above) being used as a shared taxi - a taxi 'colectivo'. Opposite the Embassy was daubed a single word: 'Venceros'.  We will overcome, we will be victorious, we will win.

I may be utterly naive, but I hope the victory will be in the realisation of the hopes and dreams of the ordinary Cubans we met who want to build a better life for themselves and their children.  Just like everyone.          

After a three week trip, I find myself fascinated by Cuba and fond of its people, some of whom I now call friends.  However, I am no expert.  Please forgive any unintentional inaccuracies.  I still have so much to learn about the history, culture and politics of this country. 

Wednesday 8 April 2015

Cuba: The streets of Havana

We came to Havana to 'live' streets like these.  And we did!  Over three weeks we paced and photographed 125 miles of them (according to my FitBit) in the cooler temperatures of late winter that still topped 30C every day.

It's difficult not to stand out as a tourist when you're armed with a camera, protected with sun cream, hats and glasses and always carrying a bottle of mineral water.  Those things, while necessary, set you apart and make you feel cosseted from the challenges and difficulties which face Havanans every day in this beautiful, but neglected city.  But we tried to overcome the tourist/local barrier, to smile and chat and learn about life in Havana with anyone we could.

There is great spirit and friendliness here.  We felt safe and welcome. Yes, we were sometimes asked for things which we had to refuse but this was was never a problem.   I was surprised at the lack of resentment of tourists who are so visibly privileged when life here is so difficult. 

On the hottest days I sometimes felt that deep-seated resignation hung in the air with the dust but not everywhere.  There is also tremendous ambition and hope for the future.  We met some amazing young people, bright, hardworking and passionate.  As we wait to see how the promise of a rapprochement with the United States pans out, we will have our fingers crossed for them.  That is one of the great things about travel; it makes you care about people.

But back to the street ...

This one is called 'Compostella'.  It's in Old Havana; a street full of heart and soul like pretty much every one we walked along.  You could sit on a bench all day and watch life being played out here.  You would not be bored.  Much of life is experienced in the street. There is not the same boundary between indoors and out that exists in cooler climates.

You can see how vibrant the street is: the colours of the old buildings, the blue of the sky and in the foreground the ubiquitous 1950s American car; this one a more unusual Desoto Fireflight. 

You need to use your imagination for the rest.  Feel the heat of the sun, the dust in the air, the humidity.  Hear the sparrows, the caged songbirds, the pedlar crying his wares as he comes around the corner, shouting loud enough for the whole street to hear him coming.  And be ready to dodge.  A piece of crumbling masonry is about to fall from one of those balconies at any moment.  Or someone is going to throw a bucket of water out.

As an old man observed wryly after a loaf of stale bread flew over a balcony narrowly missing my head:  'Welcome to Cuba.'

After a three week trip, I find myself fascinated by Cuba and fond of its people, some of whom I now call friends.  However, I am no expert.  Please forgive any unintentional inaccuracies.  I still have so much to learn about the history, culture and politics of this country.