Friday 31 July 2015

Cuba: Revolution Square, Havana

Jose Marti Memorial
Revolution Square (La Plaza de la Revolucion) is one of the most imposing places in the whole of Havana.  Its scale dwarfs the individual.

It comprises 72,000 square metres of concrete and tarmac, exposed without sparing to the sun, which beats down from above, and the heat, which radiates back from the hard surfaces.

I'll be honest: I found it brutal and intimidating. It's the place I liked least in Havana, but the one which left the strongest emotional footprint in my memory.

The construction of the square and of the Jose Marti Memorial began before the Revolution in 1953 under Batista. When work recommenced post-revolution, in 1960, it had become the Plaza de la Revolucion with a different raison d'etre.

The Jose Marti memorial itself is 109 m tall and, standing on a hilltop, gives good views over the city if you take the elevator to the top.  Don't choose Sunday to visit.  We found it was closed, as was access to the museum inside, to the Jose Marti statue by Juan Jose Sicre, and to the garden beneath the tower.  Star-shaped, the memorial points into the sky like a rocket tethered to the ground but ready to go into orbit.  It's modernist and of its time.

Using a fish-eye lens, which has given the effect of a curve when in fact all lines are rigidly straight, Andrew took this picture to try and give an impression of the scale of the square.  You can see the tiny white car and the bus to the right.  On the other side of the square are government and administrative buildings which are many storeys high.  The one on the far right is, I believe, the National Library.

I shudder to imagine attending a rally here because of the harsh quality of the environment which gives no concession to human frailty.  Am I overstating my point?  Maybe, I don't know, but if I were giving this architectural landscape a name, I would call it 'brutalist' rather than modernist.  I found it intimidating and unforgiving.

There have been huge rallies here.  They take place on 1st May (International Workers' Day) and 26th July (the 26th July Movement was the revolutionary organisation led by Fidel Castro that overthrew Batista).

It has also been used for concerts like Peace Without Borders and for Mass with Pope Benedict. The pictures you can see by following these links show that, populated with people, the square does take on a different, softer, atmosphere.      
On the Ministry of the Interior, on the opposite side of the square, is the iconic figure of Che Guevara and his well known saying 'Hasta La Victoria, Siempre.'
On the Ministry of Informatics and Communication is the less well known Camilo Cienfuegos, another key figure of the 26th July Movement and the Cuban Revolution.  This stencilled figure was put in place in October 2009 on the 50th anniversary of his death (in a plane crash) and is accompanied by his words 'Vas Bien Fidel'.  Both figures are illuminated at night.
Revolution Square is an intrinsic part of modern Cuba and its history.  You can't miss it.  One of the easiest ways to visit is via the Havana Bus Tour.  It is also on the route of most of the private tours in swanky 1950s cars that you pick up from Parque Central.  Or commission your own trip in one of the less polished but still wonderful 1950s taxis that are always in abundance around Old Havana.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Cuba: Holy Tree, Vinales

On one of our walks in the Vinales countryside we passed this beautiful tree.  It stood out in the landscape for some distance ahead as our path led us through the russet landscape beneath a forget-me-not blue sky.

Call me a 'tree hugger' if you like, but I do find old trees inviting to touch.  To sweep your fingertips softly against old tree bark is to make a connection with history, with a living entity that has witnessed silently the coming and going of decades, even centuries.  Trees inspire awe in me, reverence even.  They are incredible when you come to think about it, but we mostly take them for granted.  

We had been following a route downloaded from the internet.  The presence of a cross on the map indicating a church, we thought, had confused us.  It was difficult to imagine where it might be in the landscape.  It was not a church but the tree: a shrine, perhaps even a place for worship, where offerings had been made.
I don't know the significance of the offerings, what they represented or the hopes that were attached to them.  I have no idea whether the heads of the two figures were broken before being placed here. You can see there are animal skulls, coins, and the small glass almost certainly contains rum.

Christianity is the principal religion in Cuba, mainly Roman Catholicism which was brought to the island in the Spanish colonial days.  There is a Catholic Church in the town of Vinales itself.

There is another religion on the island called Santeria which, as I understand it, grew up with an outward appearance of catholicism but was mixed with the Yoruba religion practised by African slaves who were brought here to work on the sugar plantations.          
Santeria is fascinating but I know very little about it.  If I get the opportunity to return to Cuba, I will be keen to learn more.  What I know is that there is greater reference to the natural world and the spirits within it.  There is also a strong tradition of healing through, I believe, natural materials like herbs and through appeal to spirits in the natural world.  There is also some animal sacrifice.  I know so little that I do not want to mislead.  I was told, however, that whatever is done in the Santeria religion is done with the intention of good and healing, never with malevolent intent.    

Back in Havana for the last few days of our trip, our antennae were more in tune having seen the tree so that we picked up on aspects of Santeria in practice around the city.  We noticed Santeria services being conducted in ordinary front rooms, the doors and windows wide open to let in the air.
We spotted the Santeria priests 'in training' who spend a year dressed all in white after their initial initiation into the religion.
And we paid more attention to the array of religious artefacts on sale in specialist shops.  The business of human faith is intriguing.

Within this context, it's easy to imagine why one might choose a tree like the one in Vinales to be a holy place or a shrine.  It has a strong presence, standing tall and visible from all around and providing shelter from the sun and rain.  If you were to describe its character in human terms, you might choose words like calm, still, reassuring and strong: qualities most of us seek when we're in need of support.  


Friday 24 July 2015

George Bernard Shaw's writing hut

This is the interior of the writing hut where George Bernard Shaw wrote many of his plays.

I read recently that the 'swankiness' of a kitchen is inversely proportional to the amount of cooking that takes place inside it.  Shaw's writing hut proves perhaps that the rule applies more universally. In this simplest of sheds, he wrote prolifically for decades and produced an inspiring body of work.

My desire to create the perfect writing space may, it seems, be counter-productive.  The message is: write, wherever and however you can.

I saw the hut first on a TV programme: 'Shed of the Year'.  It was entered in the 'Historic Shed' category.  It didn't win.  Not 'swanky' enough, I'd say.

Look again though, and those of us who have failed so far to produce 60 plays, 5 novels, collections of short stories and essays amongst the bags of compost and broken pots in our garden sheds, may feel we can cut ourselves some slack.  Shaw's shed, - sorry, writing hut -, may be small and simple, but it is perfectly equipped.  Behind the chair, out of view, there is even a small day bed for a creative nap!  Swap the typewriter for a laptop and what more would you need?

I like to think the phone was for ringing the main house and requesting a cup of Assam tea, but I may be wrong.  Certainly, I would not recommend bringing into the shed its modern equivalent - a mobile - therein lies the route to distraction and procrastination and rarely to the aforementioned 60 plays, five novels and so on!

My favourite item on the desk is the golden monkey.  I believe he sharpened pencils for Shaw, but if he were on my desk, he would be required to listen attentively as I read out loud my latest lines.    
Humble though it appears, Shaw's shed is also perfectly located, tucked at the bottom of his country garden in the small village of Ayot St Lawrence.  Surrounded by Hertfordshire countryside, it feels remote even today: the perfect hideaway from distraction.  The shed's piece de resistance?  It can be swivelled around to catch the sun!    
We missed visiting the inside of the house as it is closed for re-wiring until 19 August 2015.  We did, however, use the throne-like toilet at the side of the house to which Shaw himself perhaps repaired now and again.  On its capacious seat, one could easily write a poem or two!    
Looking for inspiration
It's a lovely place to visit.  Shaw himself was clearly very happy here.  Of it he wrote:
This my dell and this my dwelling.
Their charm so far beyond my telling.
That though in Ireland by my birthplace.
Here shall be my final earthplace.
For more information about visiting see here.

Tuesday 21 July 2015

Cuba: Horseriding in Vinales

It was undoubtedly the presence of 'cowboys' riding across the Vinales plains that made me feel as if I'd arrived on the set of a Western.  This fine looking horseman could have been waiting for the clapperboard before riding out in search of a sunset.  Horsepower is real here, not notional: it's used for labour around the farm, for getting around and for earning a living from tourism.

If you are a horse rider, then Vinales is a place where I'm sure you will love to jump into the saddle.
Throughout the day, we made way on the trails for small groups of pony trekkers, often families with young children.  The lack of safety hats worried me, but none of the horses looked likely to move any faster than was necessary or to have the energy to be alarmed enough to bolt.  I'm guessing that providing you don't topple yourself out of the saddle, you would be highly unlucky to get thrown off.
Many riders were clearly novices, others looked 'comfortable' though sedate, while more experienced solo riders enjoyed longer hacks with local guides.  All seemed to be enjoying themselves and were happy to be caught on camera.
Amongst the locals, riding starts young and looks fun but if traditional agriculture remains at the fore here (and the Unesco World Heritage status, premium tobacco production and tourism may help to keep it so), then this young boy will be using his horse skills to earn a living one way or another.
The horses used for tourists looked in fair health to my, admittedly, untrained eye and a good living from visitors may be an incentive to look after them well.  They waited in the shade, saddled up and ready to ride, and were rested and swapped with other horses.
Some of the horses used for other purposes looked very hard working and less well cared for.  They pulled carts and small gigs, sometimes driven in the evenings by young men who raced up and down the streets at breakneck speed, showing off as young men in cars might do in the UK.  On those occasions their treatment could be rough.  It was a reminder that behind the rural tranquility we enjoyed as visitors, there must often be very hard lives.  

Friday 17 July 2015

Book travels: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Sometimes, when life gets stressful, I wonder how it would feel to fill a backpack with life's essentials and set out on a long distance trail.  The idea of making this kind of journey, step by step, focussing on nothing further than the path directly ahead seems appealing.

I'm pretty sure that my 'essentials' would require an enormous pack!  I imagine too that every piece of so-called 'emotional baggage' I've ever possessed would come along too.  I think that's the point. Step by step, as the landscape unfolds, life unfolds too and, with luck, you see things more clearly.

You can see then why I was drawn to this book.  It charts a great journey: a gruelling physical one complete with steep mountains, deserts, snow, rattle snakes and bears, but also an internal one. It's my favourite kind of literature journey: a quest for understanding.  The fact that it is told with such honesty and openness is what makes it work so well.  Cheryl reveals herself to us with absolute candour as she walks 'from lost to found'. That's a brave thing to do.

She walked 1100 miles of The Pacific Crest Trail in the USA, a long distance path which, in its entirety, stretches 2600 miles.  Her journey begins in the Mojave desert and ends at the Oregon-Washington Border on the 'Bridge of Gods', a portentous destination if ever there was one!

I was looking forward to reading 'Wild', it comes recommended by many, but still I was surprised at how much of a page-turner it is.  Walking is, by definition, slow paced but the book definitely isn't. What happened to Cheryl as she hauled her backpack, nicknamed 'Monster', over the mountain ranges of the trail mattered so much that I had to keep reading.

At the poignant heart of the story is the loss of her mother who was only 45 when she died.  I lost my sister two years ago.  She was the same age.  The candour with which Cheryl describes the gamut of conflicting emotions that 'are' grief was especially moving and also refreshing,  I felt grateful to her for putting them into words.  

This is the story of one plucky woman who writes in a beautifully engaging manner about a journey through the mountains and through her life.  I loved every step.      



Tuesday 14 July 2015

Cuba: Coppelia: Havana's legendary ice cream parlour

The long wait for ice cream
Coppelia is an ice cream legend.   'People queue for hours to get inside', the conductor of our orchestra had told us before we left for Cuba.  He'd been to Havana on honeymoon ten years before. 'It's a must,' he declared, before dashing off to his next rehearsal.

Our itinerary snaked onto another page.
Nearly there!
It took a few days to realise that the crowds milling around a leafy park in the Vedado were those queues he'd described.  They were not the rigid English lines I'm accustomed to. Cubans have a particular way of waiting their turn.  They ask who is currently last in line, the 'ultimo', and remember this is the person they must follow.  Each person who arrives does the same and then waits wherever they fancy.  It's exactly the same system in banks when you go to exchange money. You may step up to the cashier in the bank, or through the gates into Coppelia, only after the 'ultimo' person who joined the queue before you.  You can ignore everyone else, you just need to remember who that person was.

As a visitor it is hard to understand the willingness to wait for hours for ice cream.  Familiar Nestle favourites are yours for around $2 straight from the ice cream cabinets that have sprung up in shops and private restaurants: no waiting necessary.  Even Coca Cola, once a 'no-no', is making an appearance to rival the Cuban brand 'tuKola'.

When you remember that the average salary is $20 a month in Cuba, which would make a $2 ice cream cost the equivalent of about three days' salary, the waiting becomes easier to fathom.  Ice cream at Coppelia costs a few national pesos.  It is a cheap, sugar-packed treat.        
Bird's eye view of Coppelia from the Focsa building
I was taken aback by the scale of the operation, and I think 'operation' is the right word.  It fills a whole block and can accommodate around 1000 ice cream licking customers at a time.  There are entrances for foreign visitors with tourist currency (waiting time shorter and choice of flavours allegedly greater), and others for Cubans with national pesos.  As a foreign visitor, you can also take the Cuban entrance and, given that we could buy an ice cream for $2 and sit in splendid isolation anywhere in the world, it seemed pointless to do anything but join the 'locals'.
Taking some home for later
It might be advisable to 'train' for the experience. When we admired this lovely couple's stamina - they had seven or eight dishes of ice cream lined up to share between them - they explained they were taking some of it home for later and produced a tub to carry it.  This is common practice.  Then they tucked in enthusiastically, polishing off about half of them.
Too much of a good thing with Alexis Cardenas 
That day's flavours were vanilla and almond.  Alexis Cardenas, our friend and tour guide from Meet My Havana suggested that an 'Ice Cream Salad' was the thing to choose from the menu.  It is the most popular choice.

I won't deny it, I ate all six scoops of ice cream buried underneath those cookies, but boy did I feel sick afterwards.  The use of the word 'salad' does not confer any redeeming features on what is simply a huge bowl of sugar and fat.

Don't let me put you off!  The ice cream was lovely, but no matter how cheap, you might prefer a smaller helping.  Or, even better, I wish I'd scooped half of mine into our neighbour's tub.

Memorial to Celia Sanchez at Coppelia
Coppelia opened in 1966 at the behest of Fidel Castro, said to be an ice cream 'addict'.  The huge scale ice cream operation was overseen by Celia Sanchez, a key figure in the revolution herself, and a friend of Castro.  Her favourite ballet was Coppelia, hence the name she chose, and, during the revolution, she was known for hiding secret messages in a butterfly flower explaining, I think, the design of this memorial in her honour.

In its heyday, Coppelia served upwards of 26 flavours of ice cream.  The number has wavered to reflect differing times and differing struggles.  It dipped during the 'Special Period' with the collapse of communism in Europe and, at only two or three, is at a low now.  Throughout that time, the cheap ice cream must surely have been a crowd pleaser and a crowd appeaser.

Amongst Cubans now working in private enterprise, Coppelia seems to be considered 'old hat', but it's a legendary institution, a part of Cuba's history.  Perhaps its ice cream has even helped hold the fabric of Cuban communist society together.

All of that has to be worth queueing for.

And that prompts a confession.  Five o'clock on our last afternoon in Havana, time slipping away ... I'm afraid, with the aid of a small payment, we jumped the queue.  It was that or not go in.  Part of Cuban life?  Undoubtedly, yes.  Proud of it?  No.
A stroll around Coppelia

Friday 10 July 2015

Cuba: Fresh Cuban Pineapples

One of my greatest pleasures in Cuba was fresh pineapple for breakfast every morning.

Supermarkets here in the UK are piled up with pineapples, they are not a novelty, but what a difference in flavour!  The Cuban pineapples were delicately perfumed, less acidic: gorgeous.

This beautiful example was growing on an organic farm in Vinales.  There was a whole field of them, each plant bearing one fruit.  The pineapple itself is composed of up to several hundred flowers that have joined together to create it.  I had no idea!

Why was the pineapple in Cuba so much nicer?  One reason has to be the freshness.  Another must be that the fruit is sun-ripened and harvested at its natural peak.  In intensive production elsewhere, the pineapples are sprayed with a chemical that accelerates ripening so that the whole crop is ready together (and in time for shipping, one assumes.)  That said, I think some are also harvested 'green' and can take days, even a week, in a fruit bowl at home before they seem edible, despite the label that proclaims them 'ripe and ready to eat.'

Then there's the variety.  I'm pretty sure the Cuban pineapples are a variety called 'pernambuco'. They have creamy white flesh and a sweet perfumed flavour, just like the ones I ate for breakfast. They are sublime.  Pernambuco is a variety which doesn't ship well.  That's why it's not a regular here in the UK.

If I had a pineapple pit, like the Victorian gardeners, pernambuco is the variety I would grow.  It may not be the reason people visit Cuba, but it's not to be missed while you're there.      


Tuesday 7 July 2015

Cuba: Share a taxi in Havana

Communal taxis are the way to get around in Havana.  One of my favourite sights in the early morning was Havanans hailing them to get to work.  These are not just any taxis, of course, because this is Cuba.  The people of Havana go about their business in the fleets of 1950s beauties that have become the country's trademark.  Most of them have been around the block a bit, literally and idiomatically. They ooze character: 1950s glamour that has acquired a shabby chic patina of age and experience. ie. dinks and dents!
The communal taxis drive set routes through the city and people get in and out along the way. They're like small buses that ply back and forth, or round and around, picking up and setting down on request. As they approach junctions on busy streets, (where people tend to wait) the drivers give hand signals to show where they are going - not just left and right, but at which junction up ahead. Fares, paid in national pesos, are cheap.

It's a great way to get around.  At first I was nervous about how to 'do it', but there's no need to be. The drivers were friendly, helpful and more than happy to take the fare in tourist currency: the CUC. You'll pay more than the locals that way but it'll be considerably cheaper than the yellow 'tourist' taxis. Cheapness is not the reason to do it though.  It's a fun and enjoyable way to travel the city.
Most routes begin or end somewhere near the Capitolio and Parque Central, the hub of the city. When we had visited somewhere and wanted to get a taxi back into the centre, we found a road that went in the right direction, hailed a passing taxi at a junction or lights, and asked if he'd take us to Capitolio. Simple as that.
We travelled along, letting people in and out.  The taxis were generous and spacious with bench seats made for lounging.  The driver took up the least space of all!

Everyone seemed content to watch the world of the street passing by the windows and enjoy the breeze coming in.  There was something very companionable about sharing the ride, strangers travelling the same way for a few minutes before carrying on with our individual journeys.


Friday 3 July 2015

The Authentic Traveller

Mural.  Havana. Artist Unknown. Photo: Andrew Holman 
What is authentic travel?  And what is an authentic traveller?

I've been writing about an amazing trip to Cuba with Andrew, my photographer husband, for weeks now and there are so many more fantastic photos and experiences to share.  Today though, I'm pausing for thought.  

My friend and travel writer, Louise Vargas, wrote recently: 'Why I Hate The Term 'Authentic Travel' 

She challenged travel snobbery and got me asking myself the question 'What is authentic travel?' Unusually for me, because I do love to write reams - my texts look like emails - I came up with a short answer. 

Authenticity lies not in the travel but in the traveller.  It's a state of mind rather than a destination.

Probably, feeling rather pleased with myself, I should stop there, but off I go!  Is it that simple?  

So, I could travel into my nearest town right now, strike up a conversation with the woman whose apples have just fallen out of a hole in her shopping bag as she got off the bus, discover that she wants them to paint a still life so she doesn't mind that they're bruised, and then be delighted when she invites me to her art exhibition next month.  Or, I could travel to the other side of the world, lie on the beach all day, speak only to order food, and not do or see anything else.  Which is most authentic?

My instinctive answer is the first scenario, even though I might not usually consider going to the nearest town as 'travelling'.  The idea of going somewhere 'just' to lie on the beach challenges me and, blush, my own travel snobbery.   On the other hand, which is more 'authentic': to spend a fortnight on the beach, listening to the ocean, feeling the sun on my back and reading some fantastic books or, to trail around 'sights' because I feel I have to, and hate every minute?  On the other hand ...  I could push at my boundaries, go and see that ruined temple, although I'd rather stay on the beach, and discover, even amidst the crowds of other tourists, something that speaks uniquely to me.

'Authentic travel' happens anywhere, any time.  I think it's about embracing what you're experiencing: it's not about the destination but the traveller.  

But in the context of this discussion, it's perhaps mostly about marketing.  Louise talks about travel companies using the word 'authentic' to promote holidays.  And I guess it's at the root of all of this: an attempt to get you 'seeking the new buzz', the 'inaccessible to most other people', the 'special if you go right now and with us'.  Authenticity or one-upmanship?

Another of Louise's points really struck home: "Often people mean 'evidence of poor people' when they say they want 'authentic' travel.  I think that's often true and it's curious.  Do we feel, deep down, that our consumer society is less than authentic?

You see!  Perhaps I should have stopped with my short answer: Authenticity lies not in the travel but in the traveller.

My own mission, my personal answer, is to try to travel with an open heart and an open mind, to try to be spontaneous and enjoy the moment.  Oh, and to try not to get too pretentious!  To travel, anywhere, is a privilege.

Meanwhile, I'm off to buy Alain de Botton's 'The Art of Travel' for more erudite philosophising and then into my garden: there's a whole universe out there and summer has arrived in the UK.

See you in Cuba again next time.
Head in the clouds: Vinales, Cuba