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.