La Serenissima

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Coco-taxi in Cuba: Part 2

Cuba: Christmas dinner at Hostal del Tejadillo

We had discovered this hotel – Hostal del Tejadillo, on a street of the same name – as a result of seeking shelter from the rain! As we scampered down Calle del Tejadillo, we were attracted by the sounds of a Cuban band in full swing. Upon closer inspection we realised that the sound was coming from a cosy bar. Well, what to do? Go inside and get stuck into a mojito of course. In the ensuing days, we would become regulars at this place and on nodding, smiling and waving terms with the band – Coral Negro.

We noticed a flier advertising Christmas Dinner there, so decided that’s where we’d go for a cool Yule. Well, it turned out to be a Christmas dinner with a real difference,

We arrived around eight and were ushered in to the dining room, but not to begin eating or drinking yet. No, the first thing was a fashion parade! The Cubans, like people in most Latin American countries, have quite a tradition of handmade textiles. In particular, theirs includes quite lovely crochet work in both natural coloured yarns and also brightly coloured dyed yarns. Most of what was featured in the parade was of the latter style, with dresses, skirts and tops, shorts and even wide brimmed hats!

The show went for an hour or so, by which time we were starving and our Christmas cheer somewhat discombobulated!! This was made worse because we could hear Coral Negro playing in the bar in the distance whilst we sat, sin musica (without music), in the dining room. Anyway, after a short interval, dinner commenced and we got stuck into roast chicken and pork with vegetables and salad.

This story cannot end without describing our taxi rides to and from the Hostal. It was no problem at all to get a cab – a Mercedes – from our hotel, the Nacional. Quite soon in the relatively short journey, the street illumination went from quite adequate along the Malecon, to dim … to totally dark in the back streets of Habana Vieja. So as we drove along (with fresh memories of the dark mystery ride at the airport) we bounced round on the potholed streets unable to see a thing!

The sounds of music (without Julie Andrews!)

Everywhere you go around Havana the sound of Cuban music is drifting through the air. It’s fabulous. The musicians and the singers are great – we didn’t ever hear a band that would have been better to stick to their day jobs. It’s infectious, captivating and the irrepressible rhythm gets your hips swinging. The popular music of Cuba is a fusion of Spanish traditional music and African rhythm. From the nineteenth century, the son (think Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan” from the Buena Vista Social Club) and the rumba are significant musical forms and in the twentieth century we hear the mambo and cha cha cha (think Tito Puente or the Mambo Kings).

Architecture in Cuba

Some people have asked me about the architecture in Cuba. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mark a creative and beautiful period of colonial architecture. There are many beautiful houses on Calle Obispo with typical houses of the 17th century that reflect the Spanish influence – thick walls, tiled roofs, wooden balconies, shuttered windows and internal courtyards.

Then from the 18th century the Cuban Baroque can seen. A very good example Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. Plaza de la Catedral is also a good illustration and there were several photos from around the Plaza in my last piece on Cuba (see again below).

Then in the early 20th century many wonderful Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings popped up in Havana. Edificio Bacardi built in 1930 is a great example of Art Deco. Sadly, I don't have a picture of this.
But I do have Museo de le Revolucion, and some lovely stone balconies on the Malecon.

Excursion the Vinales
I know I have already mentioned that the weather was inhospitable. After being soaked and even having to give up watching something on TV in the safety of our room because the “tormentas electricas” had zapped the TV reception for the whole hotel, we decided to go and have a drink in one of the many bars.

This particular bar is full of vintage photos of politicians, such as Winston Churchill, and movie stars, singers and writers, such as Humphrey Bogart, Nat King Cole and Graham Greene. We decided to sit in the colonnaded terrace, sheltered from the bad weather, armed with reading material and a yen for a Cuba Libre.

We had just had our orders delivered and settled back into the comfy upholstered cane arm chairs (which would not have looked out of place at Raffles) when a mighty gust of wind blew my full and untouched drink onto the tiled floor, smashing the glass to smithereens!!

It was against this background that we decided to take a day tour to Vinales in the hope that the weather would be better there than in Havana …  it couldn’t be any worse … could it?

On the appointed morning, the skies were cloudy but it had stopped raining. We marched outside and into a minibus that already had about 10 people from other hotels, all smiling cheerfully. Upon closer inspection, the minibus had certainly seen better days …

We decided to sit down the back (which wasn’t that far from the front – it was a minibus after all) and sitting in the middle of the back seat gave Julian more legroom. All good so far, and off we set. We had just gone a block or two when we realised that there was a small puddle at our feet, caused by a 2 inch hole in the floor. Oh well, what’s another bit of water?

The driver took us on the main highway heading west, which masquerades as a motorway, complete with overpasses. Except these overpasses were obviously built when there was some money for such things; they just didn’t have roads connected to the overpasses yet. So the bridges acted as a shelter for people to stand under whilst waiting for a bus or a lift. We realised pretty quickly that the custom is for buses, public or private, to stop and pick up waiting people. So we were joined several times by cheerful locals commuting between towns.

 As we sped along the road became very slippery and wet and our puddle in the back of the bus turned into a small lake! That was the least of our problems. The tyres on the bus weren’t all weather slicks, and we were slipping and sliding a bit from side to side. And of course, there was just a bit of drizzle …

Then, as we were looking steadfastly straight ahead (praying that the road would improve soon) we were both struck by the fact that there appeared to be a four wheel drive, on its side, tumbling over and over … and heading straight for our bus!!!

Our driver, to give him credit, was onto this immediately and started braking gently but firmly. We pulled up and the tumbling 4 wheel came to a stop about 15 feet in front of us!!!

Our driver, and a couple of our new friends we collected from under the overpasses, leapt out to see the damage. The driver of the 4 wheel climbed out of the passenger window, now facing towards the sky, assuring everyone he was ok. Then some other people appeared from nowhere, and a merry band of five or six people started rocking the vehicle and pushed it back into its wheels. Who needs auto club roadside assistance when you’ve got community participation and muscles??

Disaster averted and smiles all round. Of course, there was the internationally accepted way of analysing the situation afterwards. It turned out that the four wheel drive had been travelling in the opposite direction to us, on the other side of the median strip, and lost control on the wet road, hitting the median strip and then turning onto its side and spinning towards us … all this and we hadn’t even got to our first stop yet … yikes!

The day’s touring consisted of a stop at the town of Vinales, which has colourful porticoed houses with tiled rooves; a drive down to a town called Pinar del Rio, one of its main claims to fame being its Catedral de San Rosendro; a coffee stop ostensibly to look at the steep and narrow mountains in the distance, called mogotes – ancient limestone pillars left after millions of years of underground aquifer erosion. The only other place in the world that has these rock formations is China. Sadly, due to rain and low cloud, we could only imagine these wonders of nature! We took a shot anyway – on reflection, not too bad.

This was followed by a stop at a tobacco plantation and cigar making enterprise, where we saw all stages of life from leaf to finished cigar, and a great boat ride into a large network of underground caves.

During the course of these activities, we stopped for lunch outside Vinales. The table was laid with various roasted meats, such as chicken and beef, and salads. 

I might say that we often felt awful being fed things that ordinary Cubans could never afford to eat. Anyway, our merry band consisted of English, Dutch, Spanish people, and us.

Now, fairly quickly we realised that an English couple in the touring party were vegetarian. They picked over the salads, but of course nothing else. You can imagine my consternation when the two Spaniards sitting to my left kept offering said vegetarians the plates of meat. So, I whispered discreetly to the Spaniards that the English people were vegetarian. One answered, “yes, we know, but we are Spanish!”

And so, we ended our tour; arrived back at the Nacional tired but happy. We decided to admire the Christmas decs in the foyer, reminisce about the Revolution  and gnash our teeth because Compay Segundo would be playing there on New Year’s Eve.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A “coco taxi” in Cuba

What do you think of when you here the name Cuba??

If you are over 70, you might think of Cuban dance band music, the great casino in Havana and the glamour of 20s and 30s society from the US and Europe, whooping it up in Cuba. My parents were a great example of being totally enraptured with Cuban music and dance – which they were very good at incidentally – and I grew up to the sounds of Cuba and Latin America.

If you’re a baby boomer, you probably think of things like Che Guevara, Fidel Castro (and more recently his brother Raoul), the Cuban Revolution (July 1953), the Cuban missile crisis/Bay of Pigs/President John F Kennedy, US trade embargo on Cuba, Cuban cigars, Cuban rum, Spanish colonial architecture, crumbling but elegant art deco buildings, sugar and palm trees, poverty, huge 1950’s US cars with lots of chrome trim and fins, the song Guajira guantanamera (yo soy un hombre sincero etc), Cuban music, especially exuberant dance music like rumbas and salsas.

Whether a boomer or gen x you might recall that in the early 90’s, Gloria Estefan, who popularised salsa music in the US with her Miami Sound Machine, released her album “Mi Tierra” which celebrated Cuban music and its different styles.

From the late 90’s, you might think of the Buena Vista Social Club, the wonderful assembly of veteran musicians and singers whose cd and concerts we owe to Ry Cooder and the film that documented their journey from obscurity to stardom to Wim Wenders. Great names – Compay Segundo, Ruben Gonzalez, Eliades Ochoa, Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo and assorted other gifted people –graced our screens, effortlessly and expertly.

If you’re gen y, you might think of the sparkling waters of the Caribbean and being there, relaxing, surfing … 

It’s not a bad level of impact for a small country – and I’ve only scratched the surface of the “what do you think of” question.

Well, because of my exposure to the music since age 2, I always had a soft spot for Cuba. Julian, being fluent in Spanish and having done some Latin American studies at uni, also had an interest. So, in 2000, we winged our way to Cuba, via Mexico. Because of the US embargo, you still can’t fly from the US direct to Cuba. We decided to spend Christmas there, 10 days in all. We would be based in Havana, but travel around to other nearby towns as the whim took us. Well, that was the plan at least …

We caught a plane from Los Angeles to Cancun Mexico, and then transferred to a smaller aircraft for the flight to Havana. When I say smaller, it was actually a DC9 – remember them? The bandaids and string were not visible (!) but what it lacked in modernity it made up for in air conditioning. To say that the thermostat was set to FREEZING would be an understatement.

Anyway, as we had experienced a lengthy delay in Cancun, we were a tad peckish on the DC9. As luck would have it, there was food – the best (at least at the time) sandwiches we’d had for some time – happily washed down with Cuban rum and coke. The rum you understand was a medical necessity due to sub zero temperatures … after enjoying these comestible fortifications; our eyes were drawn to a scantily clad couple in the seats opposite. The female of the pair was barely dressed at all – THE shortest shorts we’d ever seen and a tank top. Her male companion also featured a tank top, but his shorts at least had some fabric. They had enquired about blankets, but alas none were forthcoming. As we watched on, we were both struck by the size of the woman’s hands … and come to think of it, the width of her shoulders … hmm. More about them later.


So, we land at Havana airport, and then begin taxiing … past the new sparkling terminal … further away from other buildings and hangars … further into the dark. We pulled up somewhere, had to walk down the stairs to waiting buses. Well, some of you might recall that the stairs and door in a DC9 are at the back; as we were sitting further forward, the bus was full when we got to it. So, after some conferring, the staff waived on the bus and we, along with about 4 other people, climbed into our very own bus! … which proceeded to overtake the first one, racing further into the darkness. Julian and I did not say anything at the time, but comparing notes later we both had the same thought … god, we’re being kidnapped and probably going to be shot! (We learnt a few days later that Putin was in town so for security reasons, he had the new airport building to himself and we were relegated to the old terminal).
 Eventually, we stopped outside a very big tin shed with 2 wooden doors. We marched on through (preferring to get the shooting over with). Presto! 3 wooden cubicles, a cross between a confessional and a ticket booth, awaited with ex KGB types inside, stylishly illuminated by bare fluorescent bulbs. One of the men signalled to me to come forward; Julian explained from behind the yellow line that he was my husband and spoke Spanish, but was told firmly to stay put. So I stumbled through with my not so good Spanish, got immigration clearance and was waived through an old wooden door. I was spat out on the other side to the baggage collection and customs area, decorated with more bare fluorescents. Julian appeared not long after.

Well, I don’t know about you, but generally when you’re at a baggage carousel you see an assortment of cases, maybe some golf bags, the occasional child stroller … Not this one. The first thing we saw was a full sized upright stove, then a couple of air conditioners, then some bags and bicycles. While we were waiting to get our stuff, we casually turned around to see our erstwhile scantily clad amigos being escorted away by a doctor and nurse … when I say doctor and nurse, we were left in no doubt about their official roles – the doctor wore a long white lab coat with mandatory stethoscope around his neck; the nurse in crisp starched white nurse’s dress and matching hat. They were straight out of a 50’s soap opera. Sadly our amigos probably wished they were in one too – instead they were whisked through another wooden door and we never saw them again.

Our checkout through customs was uneventful (thankfully) although we did notice a long table where untoward types had their luggage searched. Their latest find were the undies of a Che Guevara look alike … always a mistake to dress up like a local cultural icon.
The evening weather was just how we’d hoped – warm, balmy air fragrant with tropical flowers. We checked in to the Hotel Nacional – a bit of an icon itself having played host to royalty, movie stars etc from the 20s to early 50s.

The next day we decided to do a city tour to get the lie of the land and then we’d tootle about ourselves going to the places that interested us most. It was a perfect day; blue sky, light breeze and we were taken by the commentary of our tour hostess. She explained the various parts of the city as we toured on foot and in a bus: old Havana, la Habana vieja, was classified in 1982 as a UNESCO World Heritage site; the Marina – where Ernest Hemmingway lived at one time, when he wasn’t at the Hotel Ambos Mundo; the colonial fort, la Fontaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana; the Plaza de la Revolution; the Plaza de Catedrale de San Cristobal de la Havana, the Malecon (the esplanade along the seafront) etc. 

She also spoke of the fact that Cuba had entered a “special period” after Russia collapsed during the late 1980s and Cuba lost 80% of its GNP overnight. Tourism was now a critical though still emerging industry which brought money (notably US dollars, the currency for all tourists) into the country.

We were quite captivated by the colonial and Baroque architecture in Habana vieja. It is truly beautiful and in some ways the buildings yet to be renovated just add to the allure.  The crispness of the kid’s school uniforms and the whiteness of their shirts is also quite startling, especially when you remember that they don’t have all the mod cons at home like we take for granted. The outward health of people under 45 and the whiteness of their teeth is also striking. It’s certainly confirmation that Cuba’s emphasis on health care and education are pretty effective. Both areas are leading in the Latin America countries and Cuba “exports” doctors to a number of neighbouring countries.

On the other hand, many doctors drive taxis because their professional wage is so low. We took a ride in a kind of rickshaw with a young Cuban man who was quite despairing and critical of how things were in Cuba. He had relatives in Miami and thought they had made the right move.

In the following days we poked around the place and went for walks around the town. One of them was to Habana Centro or central Havana, where many local people live, which has plain architecture, crumbling streets, very basic shops – some with earthen floors – with very little to sell; and where the ‘feel” is of lots of people doing their best to get by. We wondered how much longer the US would continue it’s embargo; it seemed so out of proportion when you saw the unrelieved poverty. Yet there was also a great sense of pride and drive to survive. But it looked like a struggle nevertheless.

On one of the rare fine days (more about the weather below!) we took a Coco taxi from outside our hotel, the Nacional. Basically it’s a 3 wheeled motorbike with a fibreglass shell shaped like a coconut. We drove around Havana, zipping along side streets and only inhaling a modest amount of pollution, diesel fumes and dust!! That is, enough for a small country! But it was fun!

I mention the weather. Well, apart from the first and last days, when it was fine and sunny, it rained solidly every other day! So we had to stay focused, act chipper and just carry on. That was hard some days when by 11am you were soaked to the skin! And it was pretty breezy – so much so that we were not only trying to hold up an umbrella, but we were bent in half into the wind a la Buster Keaton in his silent movie vignettes!!

There is a reason why Julian is leaning in under the umbrella and all of the nearby chairs are leaning against the tables – empty!!. Essentially, we were the only ones left in Plaza de la Catedral!! We decided to just sit it out, to the accompaniment of a Cuba Libre (rum and coke) to fortify ourselves!

When the sun was shining, it was quite lovely … 

And some of the building interior details were elegant and beautiful … 

 Next episode:

A different kind of Christmas dinner

Excursion to Vinales (west of Havana)