Friday 28 August 2015

Cuba: Patio Passion ~ Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, Havana

"The patio was like an abbey cloister, with a stone fountain murmuring in the centre and pots of heliotrope that perfumed the house at dusk ..." 
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Love in the Time of Cholera.

Ever since reading Love in the Time of Cholera, the idea of a traditional Spanish patio has entranced me.  An interior courtyard enclosed by galleries and arcades, sheltered and intimate: this is what drew me to the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales in Havana. 

The word 'patio' conjures up an everyday part of most gardens these days, even the smallest ones. It has come to mean a hard surface, usually adjoining the house, where you can put tables and chairs. The traditional Spanish and Latin American patio is so much more romantic!  It's a place of light and shade, of cool and sunshine, of shelter from swelter, bluster and squalls.  

Imagine the pleasure of sitting on the edge of sunshine and shade, feeling the caress of both. Imagine peeking from beneath the shelter of the arcade and allowing drops of cool rain to fall on your face. Imagine inhaling the perfumes of flowering plants, heady and intensified by enclosure. Imagine the sense of secrecy, privacy and tranquility in the closeted garden. 
This kind of patio is a Spanish architectural feature that was imported to Cuba and more widely to Latin America.  It is the perfect arrangement in a hot climate where the arcades that surround it become an especially important feature.

We visited on a sultry day, shortly after a rare shower of rain.  The sky pressed down.  It was a joy to sit on the cool marble steps leading up to the galleries and listen to the bustle of activity on the Plaza de Armas outside.  I felt as sticky as the humid air: we merged into one.  Amongst the ferns and tropical greenery the King of the patio, a peacock, stood lazy with heat, the jewels in his feathers weighing him down. When, finally, he found the energy to move, he dragged his tail along the dusty ground, too oppressed to care if the silky threads got snagged and dirty.

In the centre of the patio is a statue of one of the city governors. I envied him a little: made of pure white marble, he is eternally cool even beneath a blazing sun.      
Today this former palace houses the Museo de la Ciudad with collections that would most kindly be described as 'eclectic'.  There are certainly items of interest.

For me it was all about the magic of the patio.  

Tuesday 25 August 2015

Upside Down and Grateful

I have learned that there is always something to be grateful for.  Some days it is harder to embrace this truth than others.  Conversely, on the hardest days, I often feel gratitude overflowing for the simplest of things: the breeze rustling the leaves, the song of a bird, the next deep breath of fresh air.

Over the past few days my mother has been unwell.  She has been ill with a form of Alzheimer's for almost ten years and is now severely affected.  When she has a bad spell alarm bells ring, distress and helplessness kick in, and I feel like a small child again, but without my mother.  It is a sad place.

Today I am filled with gratitude for my yoga practice.  An hour on the yoga mat this morning and all the physical signs of distress in my body have floated away.  I can cope again.

It was with my Mum that I first started practising yoga.  I was a teenager and together we went to classes in a local church hall.  I came back to it a few days before Christmas last year, eighteen months after my sister died, having lost her year long battle to recover from a devastating brain haemorrhage. I stood looking out of the window into the garden, feeling the stress I had come to accept as normal and I had a moment of epiphany.  I understood that everything had to change and knew, without question, how I would change it: through yoga.

Even as I stood there, watching a great tit on the peanut feeder in front of the window, I saw this yoga in front of me as a way of life, not a once weekly class.  That vision excited me.  And, amazingly for me, I had no doubts.  I started my practice on New Year's Day.  

My yoga journey feels personal and I don't like making a song and dance of things. Yet it is turning my life upside down in ways for which I have such enormous gratitude that it feels wrong not to share. So, when you see a post preceded by the 'Upside Down and Grateful' banner, you will know there is some yoga in there somewhere although, truly, it's all part and parcel of trying to be a hopeful traveller.

I had hoped to turn my little blue warrior upside down.  Perhaps I will manage it yet!  I think of him as a yoga warrior.  

My Mum seems a little better today.      

Friday 21 August 2015

Cuba: More Street Art from Havana

Here's a small collection of street art from Havana for you to enjoy.  What I love about so much of it is its placing and the way it plays with the features of its environment (the window above and the fish tail below).

You could spend days wandering the streets of Cuba's capital discovering the often skilfull work that artists have shared in this way.  For me, it's yet another reminder of the importance of creativity, of expressing it and sharing it.  Art is about expressing one's humanity and seems brave and inspiring displayed here on its crumbling canvas.

Sometimes it has an opinion to express, sometimes it comes from a deep emotional well, other times it's playful.  In all cases, I felt, it signalled resilience and determination.  All of the pieces have signatures but I don't know who the artists are.  I think, however, that they intended to share.

If I found these daubed on buildings in London, I think I would react very differently.  In fact, I'm sure I would.  Here it seemed to me that they were intended to instil a note of cheerfulness, optimism or to provoke thoughtfulness about their situation.  For me that made all the difference.

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Cuba: The Fabulous Fish of Havana

This fabulous fish was swimming along a wall in Havana.   I love its aqua tones and the look of wonder and joy on its face.  In fact, looking at those big eyes and the pout of its lips, I wonder if that fish is in love!

What makes the fish even more special is the pond where it is swimming.    
Take a look at the wall underneath the colonnade.  There is the joyful fish, swimming behind the white chair.  And in case you are wondering, people are living in the buildings around this tiny courtyard in Havana despite the fact that you can see daylight through the windows on the top storey.

Here are two more views. They show the wood and metal props keeping the buildings up, the jumble of wiring that brings power to the apartments, the water storage barrels, the DIY passageways that lead across from one section to another.  This is home to many people, and just beyond the facade tourists like me are strolling on a pretty square and about to choose a restaurant for the evening.

The fabulous fish has set me thinking about creativity: about how important it is for each and every one of us human beings to express ourselves creatively.  I'm convinced we all have a talent and that there is great joy to be had in exercising and sharing it, however humble we think it may be, and however hard life may be.  
It seems wondrous that in the midst of such difficult living, someone has created a beautiful smiling fish.  They have created it for joy and for the joy it brings others.  They have created it in spite of such difficulty.  I find it inspiring.  

Such creativity has ripple effects that we can hardly imagine.  At the moment someone very dear to us is recovering in hospital.  She it was, looking through Andrew's photographs, that really drew my attention to the fabulous fish.  She loves it.

Who would have thought that a fish drawn on a wall in a derelict building in Havana could make someone in a UK hospital smile.    

Friday 14 August 2015

Did Thomas Hardy grow lemon balm in his cottage garden?

I have no idea, but I like to imagine so.

When I visited Thomas Hardy's cottage in Dorset, I was entranced by the garden as much as the cottage with its simple writing desk where he wrote Under the Greenwood Tree and Far from the Madding Crowd.

As I left, dreaming of Gabriel and Bathsheba. I came across some plants for sale in the lane leading away from the cottage and bought a pot of lemon balm.    The idea of buying lemon balm makes me smile now.  It is such a generous plant, seeding itself with abandon, it was bound to find my garden anyway.
Lemon balm (left corner) rampages in my garden
That tiny plant has spread into a citrus-scented army, but I like to think it has a literary lineage.
If my lemon balm descends from the lane leading to Hardy's cottage, well, perhaps, just perhaps, its roots may go way back to Hardy's cottage garden itself!

Wherever I go I am drawn to a garden first.  I wander dreamily amongst the plants, humming to myself, happy and in a world of my own. As I have travelled this year, I have realised that the place I yearn for most is usually my very own garden.  That's the curious thing about travelling; in 'going away' you often come back to yourself.
Cinderella works in the Kitchen Garden at Packwood House.  I know how she feels!
I've been focussed on other things these past few years.  Now, inspired by the beautiful new kitchen garden at Packwood House, I have new hopes, plans and dreams for my garden.  Trouble is the lemon balm has invaded every border behind this reluctantly negligent gardener's back!

In many ways I love it.  Its fragrance is divine and the tea I make from the leaves is fresh and uplifting.  But we have to come to some arrangement, this 'possibly Thomas Hardy's' lemon balm and I.  There will always be a place for it because the birds feast on the seed heads in winter, and bees love to make their harvest from the tiny white flowers in summer.  It's simply going to have a lot less territory!

This means spending long hours cutting back and digging out roots.  I think it will take several seasons, - and I'm being hopeful here -, to rein it in.  I'm an organic gardener - no spraying it!

My consolations are the newly styled garden I'm dreaming of and 'The Return of the Native'.  All this talk of Hardy has reminded me how much I love this book.  It's my reward with a cup of Assam and a slice of cake for all the hard work.  

Tuesday 11 August 2015

Cuba. Signor Braulio's Original Photographs of Havana

At 253 Calle Empedrado in Old Havana you will find a fascinating photography shop.  It is owned and run by Signor Braulio who has been taking photographs of Havana and all around Cuba for over fifty years.

Signor Braulio is an experienced and skilled photographer and the collection of prints he has for sale is wonderful.  He loves them like grandchildren and delights in telling the stories that accompany their birth.

He is a humble and a generous man, happy to share his anecdotes and only too pleased to give tips on photography and the places to go for some of the best shots.

No matter how keen a photographer you are, you will simply not have the opportunity to see the things Signor Braulio has seen.  He has spent his life capturing moments in Havana and he has clearly loved every minute of it.  So if you would like a holiday 'souvenir', a genuine memento of Cuba, I doubt you'll do better than buying one of his pictures.

We brought home two photographs.  One, Signor Braulio's personal favourite of the moment, a shot of boys playing cricket in a monsoon drenched street.  The other, an historic black and white photograph of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and other revolutionaries striding triumphantly through Havana's streets in 1959.      

Friday 7 August 2015

Book Travels: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo

'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' made compelling reading for me.  I still haven't got the book out of my head several weeks later, and perhaps I never should.  This is real life but so far removed from anything I have known that it feels like fiction.  It would feel too trite to say it made me more grateful for what I have.  On the other hand, it should make me more grateful.

The book has also been made into a play by David Hare.  In the advertising publicity is this line:
It's not just that rich people don't know what they've got. They don't even know what they throw away.
You, like me, might not have considered yourself a rich person, but when I think about the things I throw away - recycle - and the difference it might make to people's lives in Annawadi, the Mumbai slum or 'undercity', where the 'story' of the book resides, I realise that yes, I am.  

This is a work of non-fiction, but it will affect you like the best novel.  It's the story of people: fascinating, colourful, tenacious people.  The portrait of life is raw, gripping and, often, terrible. There is grinding poverty, death, suicide, crime, brutality and corruption.  Yet, somehow, it is not a misery story because of the hope and the resilience of the people who Katherine Boo describes without judgement and in flowing, irresistible prose.

It is no wonder that this book won a Pulitzer Prize.

I love the book's dedication:
For two Sunils, and what they've taught me about not giving up
It is this spirit of not giving up which makes the book so special.

Powerful and curiously uplifting, I found much that was personally inspiring.  My favourite thought was perhaps this one:
Sunil thought that he, too, had a life.  A bad life, certainly ...  But something he'd come to realize on the roof, leaning out, thinking about what would happen if he leaned too far, was that a boy's life could still matter to himself.      


Tuesday 4 August 2015

Cuba: Breakfast at the Hotel Inglaterra, Havana

The oldest hotel in Havana, the Hotel Inglaterra was our regular venue for breakfast.  We came upon it by chance on our first morning in the city.  Fatigued from a long flight and struggling with the heat and humidity, its calm, cool interior felt, perhaps, just a little English!
Venerable, stately even, Hotel Inglaterra has the air of knowing who it is and being comfortable in its own skin.  There may be more modern, swish and extra star-rated hotels on the block, but, from behind its neoclassical facade, it has watched almost 160 years of life in Havana.  Guests of all nationalities and political persuasions have come and gone, Jose Marti amongst them.  Fashions and trends have waxed and waned.  The Hotel Inglaterra has seen it all, pretty much.  Confident in its own identity, it has no hang ups about accepting you in, whoever you are.  I loved its quiet welcome.  
It's a great place to start the day.  Opposite Parque Central and next to the Gran Teatro, it's at the hub of Havana.  As the early morning sun lights up the hotel facade and the doormen step out onto the terrace, the surrounding streets are waking up as people set out to work and children go off to school. Classic communal taxis pass in procession, picking up fares at the traffic lights on the corner.
Early morning in El Colonial restaurant and breakfast room  
Breakfast costs 6 CUC per person.  It's served in El Colonial restaurant which is decorated with colourful geometric Spanish ceramics and exudes a faintly moorish character.  You don't have to be resident to go in for breakfast. Through the louvred windows Havana begins to rev up as you linger over fresh fruit, yoghurts, pastries, cereals, pancakes, eggs, fish, meat, cheese ...  It's a pretty comprehensive buffet.

Service is relaxed, shall we say, rather than briskly efficient, but, like everywhere else in this world, a smile, a please and a thank you go a long way.
Outside, later in the day, there is often entertainment on the pavement Gran Cafe El Louvre where you can sit with a coffee and watch the world watching you.