Friday 29 May 2015

Cuba: Eating Mamey fruit

Mamey fruit sellers in Havana

One of the joys of being in Cuba was snacking on fresh and perfectly ripe 'exotic' fruit.  Exotic to my British palate, that is.  Fresh fruit for breakfast, fresh fruit for lunch: heavenly.  Not much is imported here and so fresh produce is seasonal and local.

New to me was the Mamey fruit.  I had never seen one before, and I really didn't know what to expect beneath the light brown sandpapery skin although I had understood from the seller that there was a large central stone.  

The flesh was a bright coral colour and kind of creamy but with a slightly rough texture, as if you'd made instant custard with powder but maybe not quite mixed it up properly: not unpleasant but unexpected.  I would probably say the same of the flavour.  It was, in fact, a bit like thick custard but not very sweet.  One description I read at Slow Food USA calls it a 'combination of sweet potato and pumpkin with undertones of almond, chocolate, honey and vanilla'. It probably does capture this rather unusual taste.

On a weekend in Vinales, in the Cuban countryside, we were served a smoothie made of mamey fruit with coconut milk for breakfast and this was the way I enjoyed it best, sitting outside on the terrace watching the tobacco farmers harvesting their leaves.

Mamey is nutrient packed with Vitamins C, B6 and E, and riboflavin, niacin, manganese and potassium.  It wouldn't be my 'you must eat this fruit' recommendation but it's good and, to add extra interest to a mixed fruit salad, or made into milk shakes and ice cream, probably great.

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Cuba: El Capitolio, Havana

                                                                                                                                             Photo: Andrew Holman 

El Capitolio in Havana.  Built in the 1920s, apparently with wealth generated from the post world war one sugar boom, its architectural style is described as 'eclectic': a mix of neoclassical and art nouveau, I've read.  I love architectural eclecticism, which I take to mean: 'defies categorisation, does what it likes, is a bit of a rebel'.  If I were a building, I'd like to be 'eclectic' too. Oh, and perhaps also to be constructed from snowy Capellania limestone like El Capitolio.

Eclectic is a word that aptly describes the mixture of life and activity that buzzes around the building too.  The suave, but often beaten-up 1950s taxis come and go all day long, plying their trade along set routes across the city.  These are what I call the 'shared' taxis'. (You can see the yellow taxi sign on the dashboard).  They are economical and great fun to ride, my favourite way to get around bar two feet. You feel more Cuban, less tourist when you're riding them.

                                                                                                  Photo: Andrew Holman

El Capitolio is flanked by parks which are kept clean and pleasant by park cleaners using eco-friendly brooms of palm leaves.  The brooms seem to do the job a treat and rustle soothingly for good measure.

Parks, of which there are many, are places to sit and watch the world go by, chat or eat the very sugary treats on sale from street vendors for a few pesos and adored by Cubans.  The parks near El Capitolio are by no means quiet though; the engines in the old cars and lorries are not ashamed to make themselves heard nor do they mind coughing out diesel fumes.

                                                                                                                                             Photo: Andrew Holman

The building itself is immediately reminiscent of the Capitol Building in Washington DC and, in fact, is a half size replica of it.  It was the tallest building in Cuba until the Bacardi building (see Cuba 8: Edificio Bacardi) was built in the 1930s.  Like many important landmarks in Havana, it is currently closed for a facelift.  When it re-opens, it is destined to take up its old place as the seat of Cuban government after a long spell in exile as the home of Cuba's Academy of Sciences. Perhaps its repatriation to the heart of the Cuban political system is in tune with the message of change that is on every street corner.

At present the whole area around El Capitolio is concealed from view by tall metal hoarding but this sneaky camera peek over the top gives a view of the gardens.  These were designed by a French landscape designer and architect Jean Claude Nicolas Forestier.  They are of formal layout, featuring Royal Palms (Roystonea).  The patterns on the grass in the foreground suggest that many of the formal paths have grown over.    

                                                                                                                                              Photo: Andrew Holman

What makes me smile most of all is the outdoor railway 'museum' next door.  How wonderful if it were outside the Houses of Parliament in London, the 'set' for interviews with politicians.  The possibilities for memorable sound bites would be endless.  Those relating to measures to stoke up an ailing economy would be delivered by chancellors of the exchequer from the engine room.

Friday 22 May 2015

Cuba. Antonio Gades watches La Plaza de la Catedral, Havana

Antonio Gades leans on a column in the Plaza de la Catedral and stares out at the square. His gaze is penetrating and he cuts a confident figure, even as a bronze.  I am drawn to him every time I pass.  

To me, he looks more like the bullfighter he might have become, but he is immortalised here on the square, subject of tourist photos and the perch of an occasional pigeon, because he was an incredible dancer and choreographer; flamenco and ballet.  It is said that he possessed a sensuous fluidity of movement and I am astonished at how much his statue insinuates that ability: the reason, I suspect, for its magnetism.

He was Spanish, not Cuban, and grew up a communist under Franco's fascist regime.  Perhaps Cuba could be described as his political home; he supported the Cuban revolution and received, from Fidel Castro, the Order of Jose Marti, a state honour here. He danced with Alicia Alonso (see my post Cuba 12: Ballet Nacional de Cuba), married in Cuba and his ashes were scattered in Santiago de Cuba.*

A performer on the world stage, he is reported to have described himself as 'the greatest male dancer alive'.  After a life in the limelight, he stands now in the shade of a beautiful arcade, a spectator.  But he does have a lovely spot from which to watch the world.  The Plaza de la Catedral is one of several beautifully restored squares in Havana.  This one has an intimate feel.

It is dominated by the cathedral, known as 'Havana Cathedral', the 'Cathedral of San Cristobal' or the 'Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception'.  I note the different names because they confused me; I wondered if I should be looking for three different places to visit.  They are all the same one.

Havana, with its diverse menu, has whetted my appetite for architecture, and so I can tell you that the cathedral, started in 1748 and finished in 1777, is considered one of the best examples of Cuban Baroque.  It reminds me of a squatting toad and, for the record, I love toads, but that's not the recognised definition of baroque style.  I believe this is more regularly characterised by the use of curves, pilasters and pediments.  The interior is simple by comparison.
For 1 or 2 CUC you can climb up the bell tower; it's a grand spot for taking photographs of writers with notebooks down on the square.

*  For two fascinating accounts of Gades's life, take a look at these obituaries from The Guardian and The Telegraph

Tuesday 19 May 2015

Cuba: Meet my Havana ~ Cristo de la Habana

El Cristo de la Habana
We take the ferry across the bay to El Cristo de la Habana with Alexis Cardenas.  Bright, articulate and passionate about the city of his birth, we have asked him to show us around for a day.

Before we board, the guards at the ferry terminal check our bags.  They linger over the roll of soft white toilet paper inside mine, squashed after walking the streets of Havana for three weeks.  It's not what they're looking for, but they're curious, distrustful even.

As the boat grumbles across the brown water, Alexis explains the security.  There was an attempt, he says, to hijack the ferry at knifepoint and 'escape' to Miami.  It was packed with ordinary people; families with children.
'They didn't want to go to Miami that day,' Alexis says.  Then his face breaks into a wry smile, 'well not like that.'  
I don't ask what happened to the would-be hijackers, but later I read of yet another hijack attempt with a weapon smuggled on board in a cake.  The penalty that time was execution.  

But today is not the day for such stories.  Optimism is in the air and this morning Alexis is full of it, qualified, cautious optimism, of course, because this is Cuba, but the future has perhaps never looked brighter.  He is starting the business he has been dreaming about for so long: a bespoke tour guide company called 'Meet My Havana'.  We are his first customers.

As a Caribbean breeze blows across the ferry deck, I imagine it is carrying change upon it.  That's how it feels, that's what everyone's talking about: the changes that are coming to Cuba. Even as we dock at the Casablanca side of the bay and climb up the hill to reach Christ, bureaucrats are busy working on the reinstatement of ferry links between Florida and Cuba. One day, with luck and a fair wind, those guards will be looking for new jobs.

The Cristo, sculpted by the Cuban Jilma Madera from Italian carrara marble, gazes back across the bay towards Old Havana and the port.  The crown of his head has been blasted off by lightning and lies in the grass at his sandalled feet.  It is said this happened on the very day Fidel Castro entered Havana during the Cuban Revolution.  The storyteller in me smells an irresistible myth.
El Cristo watches over Havana Bay
It is Cristo's view of Havana Bay that we have come to share. He has been looking at it since just before the Revolution.  What changes he has witnessed and is yet to behold, this omniscient viewer, although technically he has no eyes to see: the sockets are empty.

Our day continues.  We walk and talk our way around Old Havana.  Alexis tells me about the Cuban Santeria religion.  We attend the rehearsal of a community orchestra because he knows we are musicians.  We eat ice cream at Coppellia because, well, he knows we like ice cream and Coppellia is a Cuban institution that we have not yet had time to visit.  He even takes us to the market where he bought his satchel so that I can buy one just like it!
Havana from the top of the FOCSA building
Our final view of the day is better even than Cristo's.  We take a lift to the cafe restaurant at the top of the FOCSA building, the tallest in the city, to find the whole of Havana spread at our feet.  We are higher even than the turkey vultures circling the Habana Libre hotel.  It is breathtaking, if a little dizzying!

As we ride back to Parque Centrale in a 'shared' taxi that Alexis has hailed for us, I reflect on the day as the sun-strafed streets pass beyond the open windows.  What have I enjoyed most?  I realise it is not one thing in particular.  Rather, it is Havana as a whole seen through a different pair of eyes, those of a young Cuban, looking hopefully towards a brighter future.  That is what will stay with me.


Find details for Alexis Cardenas's 'Meet my Havana' bespoke tour guide service at:

The ferry terminal is on Avenida del Puerto, opposite the Our Lady of Kazan Russian Orthodox Church (Catedral Ortodoxo Nuestra Senora de Kazan).  Ferries run frequently to Casablanca and Regla.

Friday 15 May 2015

Cuba: A photographer takes a stroll along Calle O'Reilly, Old Havana

by Andrew Holman

Just to prove what a photographer's paradise Havana is, here is a sequence of photos shot in just under eight minutes as I wandered eighty yards down Calle O'Reilly in Old Havana.
At the top of the street, this guy has given up in the 32C heat.  Hard to witness. 

Ten paces further and here's a sneaky shot of one of the watch repairers.  Note the Zorki 4K camera on the shelf at the back. 

Next to the watch shop, beautiful old moorish tiles left over from a bygone age and 'mullered' by water pipe installers.  

Then a shot down the busy, narrow street that is Calle O'Reilly. 

Ten paces further and here are some of the fruit and vegetable sellers you find on every street corner.

The watch mender's rival only twenty yards away.  Note his glasses, - there's no actual glass -, with a custom mounted homemade magnifier.  I think he got the idea from Google Glass!

The watching man.  Interesting to do a Sherlock Holmes on him.  Nice, expensive shoes.  Clean, well-fitting clothes.  Large scar on his hand and buckled fingers.  ID badge.  Chair: home-made from rebar with a plywood seat.  Wrapped water bottle hanging on the back? Often means rum concealed inside.  The three colours on his wrist band?  Friends in Sicily?

The egg lorry - just delivered to the shop and you can see the queue beginning to form.

Anyone fancy a pastry?

At this point I am not even half way along the street.  Why does anyone wonder that I managed to take almost 15,000 shots in three weeks!  

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Cuba: Ballet Nacional de Cuba

In Cuba, ballet dancers are royalty.  Evidence: the Gran Teatro de la Habana, a sugar-coated castle worthy of any fairy tale prince or princess and home of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.  At night its lights twinkle over the Parque Central in Havana, filling the air with the promise of magic.

One of the highlights of our first visit to Cuba was a Sunday matinee performance of this Ballet company, revered in Cuba, renowned in ballet circles worldwide.  The performance took place not in the fairy tale castle but at the Teatro Nacional de Cuba because the Gran Teatro, like El Capitolio next door, is currently closed while renovation takes place.

The Teatro Nacional de Cuba is adjacent to the Plaza de la Revolucion, a modernist concrete square of epic proportions that appears as brutal as ballet is delicate.  But the dancers had brought their fairy dust with them and the performance was exquisite.  The theatre itself, though modern and far less 'pretty', was blissfully cool.

Alicia Alonso
Before the dancing even began we shared a privileged moment with Havana's ballet aficionados, the appearance on the balcony of Alicia Alonso.  She was captivating.  Her slight frame, elegantly attired, was regal.  A charming gentleman, seated next to me in the front row, told me about her as he applauded rapturously with the rest of the audience.    Later, in the interval, he would introduce me to his eye surgeon with equally generous plaudits.  His desire to share the pleasures of the afternoon transcended the boundaries of our alien tongues.

Alicia Alonso is Cuba's queen of ballet, the reason the company exists.  Even now she knows how to command an audience. She was Cuba's finest prima ballerina, founded the Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1948 and still plays a key part in its artistic direction. All of which is remarkable in itself, but when you add that she became partially blind in her teens, danced solo into her seventies and is now 93, well, the idea of ballet as magical seems much less fanciful.
Curtain call for Amaya Rodriguez and Luis Valle who danced Diana y Acteon
The dancing itself was spellbinding: dynamic, accomplished, inspiring.  The programme was a selection of pieces, a 'something for everyone' box of delights, some of them choreographed by Alicia Alonso herself:  En las sombras de un vals; Pulso romantico; Percusion para seis hombres; Esmeralda; Diana y Acteon; Raymonda; and Sinergia.  Of them all, 'Percusion para seis hombres' was perhaps my favourite, an explosion of energy captured in a dance for six men.

After the performance we chatted to a Canadian couple who had come to Cuba on the spur of the moment, desperate to escape the winter that had buried them in snow for so long.  Then, as we strolled away in search of a taxi, we passed men, their whole lives contained in plastic carrier bags, who clearly lived, day and night, in the park.  Life in Cuba, as everywhere else, is full of contradictions.      

Practical:  The Ballet Nacional de Cuba is currently based at the Teatro Nacional de Cuba, Sala Avellaneda, near Plaza de la Revolucion.  Performances are given at the weekends on Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons.  Our tickets cost 25 CUC each, purchased from the box office immediately prior to the performance.  Getting there.  The red Havana tourist bus, 5 CUC for an all day ticket, stops on the Plaza but check the time of the last bus.  We took a taxi both ways but it wasn't easy finding one post-performance.  It might be worth booking your return journey.            

Friday 8 May 2015

Cuba: Al Jazeera report on Cuba's health professionals

More than anything else perhaps, we were struck by the resilience, the ingenuity, the tenacity of Cubans.  While one noun should ordinarily suffice, three do not seem excessive in this case.  And that old adage springs to mind: in Cuba necessity truly is the mother of invention.

According to a report by Robert Kennedy for Al Jazeera, this is as true in Cuba's Healthcare system as anywhere else.  It makes fascinating reading.  I find it difficult to imagine my own doctor sucking fluid from my lungs with his mouth.  But then he wouldn't have to.

Healthcare is free at the point of delivery in Cuba, although, as our new friend Alexis was keen to point out to us, it is paid for in taxes, the equivalent of our National Insurance in the UK.  It is, according to him, a common misconception that Cubans pay nothing at all.

Potential life savers though they might be, medical professionals are paid the 'basic' government wage of $30 a month: a staggeringly small amount by our standards.  It goes a lot further in Cuba, but still, I have read of the need to moonlight as taxi drivers, waiters etc. to make ends meet.

Still, for all that, Cuba, it seems, has a robust health system with highly trained and very caring professionals.  According to Robert Kennedy, Cuba provided more doctors and nurses to help cope with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa than any other country.  And he quotes Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, "They are always the first to arrive and the last to leave."      

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Cuba. Cruising along the Malecon, Havana

Cruising along the Malecon in the back of a red V8 cadillac.  Ok, so it's a bit like taking a gondola ride in Venice (except gondolas have been cruising the canals for centuries): it's a very touristy thing to do!  But, hey, it's fun.  Yes, you're going to feel like you've been fleeced but once the haggling over price is done, sit back and enjoy the ride because you'll probably only do it once in your life. Unlike this cool guy who owns the car with his brother and knows every inch of pothole and tarmac along the Malecon like the back of his hand.
El Malecon is Havana's face to the sea, a long esplanade that calls to Havanans and tourists alike to come stroll, dream and watch the ships drift by into port.  This morning a one-legged man is doing his daily press ups on the sea wall, and a turkey vulture is scavenging along the coastline.  The early morning sun is warm, the cream leather seats cool.  The sky is the colour of my favourite delphinium and a group of pelicans is gliding through its cloudless expanse.  It's a moment of sheer privilege.

This is one of the car 'pimps': the guys who sell the rides in these beautiful cars.  They are stationed on Parque Central which is, in many ways, the tourist hub of Havana with its suite of large, expensive hotels.  The price of the ride depends on the type of car you want, the circuit you want to drive, and, probably, how brisk business is.  It is always possible to negotiate on price and you don't have to choose one of the fixed circuits on offer.  You can make up your own. We drove along the Malecon and over to 'El Morro', the Old Fort on the other side of the harbour.

At present, it will cost you at least 25 CUCs to spend an hour in the company of one of these 1950s supermodels.  It's difficult to begrudge the money.  Cubans have kept all of these 1950s cars on the road with what little money they had and a vast investment of energy, ingenuity and sheer determination when parts -  any parts, let alone the right ones - were virtually impossible to find.

There are cheaper ways to cruise the Malecon: in the open-topped red tourist bus, in a 1950s 'ordinary' taxi, either shared or as a private hire, in a cocotaxi, on a bicitaxi, or, - always a great option -, on your own two feet.  Then you can stop and look at everything you fancy.      

Looking back at the Malecon from 'El Morro', the Old Fort (Castillo de los tres Reyes del Morro)  
Kelly x

Friday 1 May 2015

Cuba: Giving

Our plan was to travel light.  That plan changed when we began to read about the many things that are either not available in Cuba or prohibitively expensive for most Cubans.  We ended up using every last gram of our baggage allowance on small items to give away, toys in particular.

We soon understood that while our intentions were good, giving was not as easy as we had imagined. Sometimes it felt like playing God.  We did not have a gift for everyone, so we had to make a choice. Who was most worthy, most needy? That's not a comfortable decision, nor one we were informed enough to make.   Without wishing it, giving sometimes made us feel patronising too:  look how big we are, how rich we are and how good we are to give this to you.  None of that was part of the plan.  
I think yours is better than mine!
The most fun thing we gave away was a collection of toy cars.  We took about sixty of them, bought on Ebay from a young English boy who had grown out of them.  After purchase, we sent him a note to tell him where they were going.  The word 'Cuba' triggered the suspension of our Ebay account. We had to promise to this American company that we were not trading illegally with a country that was embargoed by the U.S. before our account was freed again.

The cars were sponsored by my mother-in-law who insisted she wanted no birthday present this year. Instead we were to use the money to buy gifts to take on our trip.  They were received joyfully by sixty Cuban children.  And that gave us joy too.          

Catch!  You can play with this when you're older
Andrew had a mission to give away music.  Cuba has a very strong tradition of music but sheet music is hard to find.  He spent a lot of time getting music to as many musicians as he could. That felt like a really positive thing to do.  Musicians also need strings, reeds, rosin: all of which are light to pack.  Even professional musicians here rely on these kinds of thoughtful gifts.

We took books too. Spanish to English dictionaries are highly prized by young Cubans who want to improve their English because they know it will improve their future.  The second hand pocket dictionary and phrase book we bought from the Willen Hospice Bookshop in Stony Stratford, slightly dog-eared and yellowing, were received as if they were the greatest gifts ever.    

As an engineer and designer, Andrew knows the value of a good tool.  He took with him some light and inexpensive (to us in the UK) diamond sharpening files.  They found grateful homes in honest, hardworking private enterprises.  The response in every case was to give us something in return. Those are stories to be told.

The point of all this?  Well, you may detect a whiff of justifying our actions here.  And you'd be right. I have been reading an article which suggests you should think before you gift in Cuba.  It made some interesting points: in summary that there are much poorer (and thus more deserving) places on earth and that random giving is encouraging begging and scamming which is not a good way of life and not pleasant for tourists.

I don't have a ready answer for this, except perhaps to ask how you square it with your conscience when a man sits hungry on a park bench opposite while you tuck in to your lunch?  I will certainly write more about giving with some more of our stories and, I hope, some more constructive thoughts on how one might 'give responsibly'.

Off the cuff it occurs to me that for a sort of rule-of-thumb moral 'giving compass', a combination of conscience, compassion and a huge dollop of common sense works pretty well.  For example, in supermarkets we were approached by couples, blinged up to the nines, wanting to 'help' us.  In return for this unsolicited help, they did not want money for themselves, they explained, but money to buy baby milk.  If we had any doubt after the first request, by the second, third, fourth ... common sense could only come to one conclusion. They were scammers.

They were, however, in the minority by far.  Most people, needy or not, asked for nothing.