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Madcap Sailing
Time to Leave
17/04/2011/5:33 pm, Varadero

So little time left. We were both feeling so torn. We have loved being here in Cuba, and yet there is a longing for home that is starting to rise. We want to see our family and garden and our "home friends". And the weather window this week looks excellent. Yet when Rick went off down the road to get the weather files from the internet, I was hoping that he'd come back and say - "Nope - can't go till the end of the week."

That didn't happen of course so we all moved into departure mode. I used up my bananas in muffins, and made chocolate chip cookies for those middle of the night pick-me-ups. Donna and I were both making bread, and I dug out my last package of hamburg to make a pot of chili for quick food on the crossing. I got a few more eggs from Debbie to boil and have for instant food if the weather was rough, and we stowed everything that could slide around. Speaking of sliding, our table has come off its base and Jim doesn't have the right screws or tools to secure it properly. So, when we are sailing, we wedge a boat pole between it and the wall, and when one of the officials sat down to write on it, I quickly sat on the other side and held it in place with knees and hands, praying that he didn't want me to move around and sign anything!

We sold our remaining pesos and CUC's to Debbie - our local banker - who will then resell them to the next boaters who need them. We were also able to sell her some of our remaining food - things that she can't get readily here - and she lives here 10 months a year so food "from home" is welcome. We left her with the remaining give aways to disperse - a few soaps, razors, paper and markers. And she gave us the lobster that Gail and Peter had left. Oh - lucky us! Thanks Jabiru! Jim plotted our course and he and Rick compared waypoints. He topped up the fuel tanks and water tanks and made sure all our lines were where they should be.

We signed the table - thanks for the dremelling tool Tom! We took our last round of pictures. We gave our papers to Maria, the Customs lady in the form fitting short skirt and jacket (and she had the figure for it too -no dowdy uniforms for female officials here) We asked Jordie the Immigration man (who looked all of 18) what was the earliest time he could be there in the morning. (He showed up at 6:30!) And then we went up to the on-site restaurant with Rick and Donna to make the last of our plans over pizza. Sam and Alex joined us and we were able to learn about their trip, and the fact that Sam almost lost his life in an avalanche in the Zermatt last summer, but managed to get on a little sailboat and sail across the Atlantic two months later. And we think WE are brave??

And then it was time for bed. One last Cuban night.

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One More Day in Havana
Beth - 90's
16/04/2011/5:31 pm, Havana, Cuba

It was a big day in the city: the 50th anniversary of victory at Playa Giron - what we recognize more readily as the Bay of Pigs. We saw signs and heard from our hosts of the big gathering at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Vedado. Over breakfast, we watched Raul Castro give a speech and saw the beginnings of a parade. We had naively thought we could just follow the people to see where the parade was going but we were wrong.

We got ourselves out on the street by 8:30 - and headed for Av Simon Bolivar, that turned into Av Salvador Allende, that led to the plaza. When a pedicab driver offered to take us there for 3 CUC, each couple hopped in a cab and took off. We passed lines and lines of buses parked along the street and when we got as far as we could go, we saw masses and masses of people leaving the plaza. We could see the 138.5 m tall tower with the 17 m statue of Jose Marti seated at its base in the distance, but that was about as close as we ever got. As we searched about for the best direction to go (there were people coming and going on every street in sight) we spotted a line of military trucks and tanks speeding by ahead of us. It was all over. Things happen early here - perhaps because of the heat? We ended up standing on a corner and watching hundreds and thousands of people come flocking past us - waving placards and shouting. There were school children and workers groups and many other groups that we couldn't identify - thousands of them. We had heard there would be a million people there, and we believed it!

One really funny incident was when the rather bullish looking motorcycle cop ahead of us reached under the seat of his motorbike, pulled out a mickey of rum and took a swig before replacing it and lighting up a cigarette. I sure wish I had been faster with my camera! We did get to see some of the tanks as we walked back to the foot of Av Salvador Allende and there was surprising little fuss around. Soldiers sat atop them and there were lines of men and women in white 50 anniversary T-shirts keeping people on the sidewalks, but picture taking seemed to be just fine.

We walked up the street and decided to have a look in the Carlos III shopping mall. It was very modern, had a ramp circling the food court (yes - food court) and rising three floors. Chris and I checked out the prices at an appliance store - a little more expensive than home - blenders 60 CUC (these were neat ones, with spigots (for pouring off the pina coladas?), a 3-D TV for over 5,000 CUC!, a 19 inch flat screen for 800 CUC. Hair dryers ran about 30 CUC. What we need to remember is that these prices are far more than the average Cuban can afford. Marcelino told us later that 50% of Cubans have relatives living abroad and sending them money, and these are the folks who shop there.

It was in this mall that one of the shopkeepers asked if we had been to the Plaza. I said yes - as close as we could get - that it seemed to be a big event. He replied excitedly, "Si - that is the day we kicked the ass of the Americans!! Is right? Kicked the ass?" "Yes, senor. Kicked the ass!"

Another pedicab ride later, we were back in Habana Vieja. The district of Vedado - the city's commercial area, more modern than the areas we visited, and home to the jazz clubs and what skyscrapers there are, will have to wait for the next visit.

After enjoying refreshing mohitos with a young Cuban couple (who would like to have been treated to lunch as well, had we not declined) in the bar where Buena Vista Social Club was filmed (so she said), we walked to the waterfront, and strolled the seawall, watching the children splash and play in the shallows created by carved out areas of the rock. It seemed a poor substitute for a beach, but there was a lot of laughter happening there. Once more we made our way through criss-crossing streets, admiring the old and the modern, peeking down alleyways to see what we could see, and exchanging greetings with the always friendly locals.

We had arranged with Dagoberto for a 50's car to take us back to Varadero. It would be about the same price as the bus (no need for a cab on this end to take us to the main bus station, or on the other end to take us from the terminal back to the marina) and we could pick the time. Until then we chatted with Marcelino in our Casa. His grandson played on the street with a bunch of his buddies - running in periodically for a drink of water from the used and reused pop bottle kept just inside the front door. Again, it brought home to us that there is so very little that is thrown away here. When the day comes that there is more money and more freedom, I sure hope the careful husbandry of resources, the sharing, the reduce/reuse/recycle practice doesn't disappear. We can learn so much from them in this area.

Marcelino told Jim that things are very different from the days when the soviets supported the economy. He echoed what our guide in Santiago told us - the black market is alive and well. People must get involved in it in order to survive - and they are really adept at it! He commented on the absurdity of earning 25 CUC per night for providing a bed for us for one night, while his son earns 27 CUC per month - with all his education and responsibility. He told us that the Casas can lose money on providing breakfast if they are not careful. They can buy fruit and bread and eggs for pesos, but they must pay CUC's for coffee and milk and cheese and meat. Yet the meals provided for us were always lavish - limited in variety perhaps, but lavish in quantity and quality. As always, along with the shakes of the head and the wishes for the system to be better for the next generation, there is a huge pride in the people for their country. They are very happy we come to visit. They want us to like it. And I am dead sure it is not just because they want our money. Marcelino told us to come back in December to have dinner with his family on December 31. Wouldn't that be an experience?

The young man in the 54 Chevy picked us up at 5:30 and we set off in the direction of Varadero. Oops - but first we had to stop at his home on the outskirts of the city for diesel. He and his brother poured gallons of diesel into the tank, using a cut off pop bottle as funnel. I had a few markers left so I gave them to the children in the yard, and then we were off again. It was a lark to arrive at the front door of the marina a couple of hours later and tumble out of the car.

And then of course, it was time to sit at the picnic table on the dock and tell the others about our travels and our experiences. Richard (Sanctuary) had arrived from deeper in the Caribbean, and Sam and Alex (-oops - can't remember their boat) from England were here for a bit before they head up to Boston and back across the Atlantic. Debbie was planning a fishing trip the next day, and Donna and Rick were making plans to leave with us on Monday - if the weather was right.

I feel exhausted at the end of writing all these blogs about Havana, and I know I haven't half done justice to our visit; interestingly, it reflects the way we felt at the end of our trip. There was so very much to see and do and hear, and we ended the trip tired right out. A few days at a time is probably a good way to experience Havana, but now, having looked back through my notes and consulted the guidebook, I realize there is so much more to see and I want to go back - right now! ... but here I am in Florida. Next year ... next year ...

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Havana, Day 2
Beth - 90's
15/04/2011/5:26 pm, Havana, Cuba

After breakfast at Marie Elena's (fruit plate, buns, egg, coffee) we set off for the Museo de la Revolucion. It is housed in the former Presidential palace, originally decorated by Tiffany's of New York, and containing the still grand Salon de los Espejos (Hall of Mirrors) reminiscent of the one at the palace of Versailles. It is pretty much a must do visit and fortunately most of the exhibits are labelled in English as well as Spanish. I thought there would be more extensive Cuban history there, but it was all revolutionary - not surprisingly. By the time we had seen a few hundred photos and guns and letters and news clippings and the odd blood stained uniform, we were museumed out, although it was quite something to review the events leading up to and during the revolution. What a passionate, fiery and committed band of rebels these people were!

The Hall of Mirrors must have been gorgeous in its day, and it still echoes that. In the Havana version though, the elegant chandeliers and murals and stonework and mirrors, are side by side with crumbling plaster and broken shutters and peeling paint. Oh and let's not forget the bullet holes in the marble walls of the grand staircase. It is interesting how we became accustomed to the grandeur and pride running hand in hand with decay and lack of money. Like all else in Cuba - there are layers and layers of reality. How can you put the dollars needed into restoration when you have people to feed and educate? And yet how can you let the buildings that reflect your amazing history and culture crumble? The answer is to do some of each, and that appears to be what is happening in Havana.

The Granma, the 18 metre yacht that carried Fidel and 81 revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba sits inside a glass enclosure beside the museum, and it too made us think about the revolution and the struggle to free themselves from the rule of dictators like Batista. They made plans in the mountains of the Sierra Maestre, they recruited and proclaimed in Santiago, they carried out their plans and when something didn't work, they found another opportunity and tried again.

In the afternoon, we strolled the streets of Obispo and Mercaderes until the heat made us join dozens of others on the benches at Plaza de Armas where booksellers set up their stands and people sit in the shade and children play on the plaza. On this day, we discovered music and dance! We were about to wander away after an hour or so when Jim discovered a group of Spanish bagpipers around the corner. As we stood to listen, a whole troop of beautifully costumed mimes on stilts gathered around us. We had stumbled into part of the festival of dance. What luck!

We watched another pipe group - two pipers and a man with bongo drums - it put a new flavour to Celtic music. I mentioned to one of the pipers that we have a CD by the Spanish Celtic singer, Carlos Nunez and he told me they had played with him several times. We went back around the corner to take in a dance performance back at Plaza de Armas. The women wore brilliant yellow, and white and green and purple satiny dresses with flounces and frills, while the men wore white pants and coloured shirts. A percussion group beat out the rhythm and a purple shirted man sang the story of the dance. We didn't understand a word of it, but it kept us enthralled. What energy, what rhythm. There must have been 30 people involved between dancers and drummers; their smiles were wide and their enthusiasm bigger yet. As that dance ended (and it must have lasted nearly half an hour) one of the mimes sounded a horn and the troop led the crowds down Mercaderes to a little plaza where two women were performing a modern dance - their sinuous bodies and athleticism making it look seamless. The horn sounded, the troop moved off mingling with the crowd and we ended up in Plaza Vieja where the pipers piped again. It was with regret but with weary bodies that we pulled ourselves away and went home for a wee rest before setting off again for dinner and whatever the evening would bring.

What the evening brought was more good food although it was slow coming - at La Torre de Marfil on Mercaderes (can you picture Cuban food with an Asian flair? It happens!) Unfortunately, it was so slow that by the time we got to the Plaza de Armas afterward, the Celtic music we were hoping to hear was over. We did find more dancing though - in a large outdoor area. It was dark and the place was crowded but we wiggled our way in to where we could see, and watched several performances. There didn't seem to be many tourists there, and the crowd was intent on the dance. One was quite funny - a number of muscular young men with bare chests and military type pants seemed to be finding their feminine selves. Their movements changed from abrupt and competitive, to flowing and cooperative. I must have chuckled at one point because the dreadlocked man beside me smiled and whispered, "You like?" I responded, "Very much" and his next question was, "You understand?" to which I said, "I think so!" and he nodded and smiled some more.

We finally tore ourselves away, walked home along the darkened streets, feeling safe, exhilarated, exhausted. What a city! What sophistication of culture and attention to art and dance and music. What amazing architecture. What an array of museums and historic buildings. We were barely scratching the surface of it and yet we were feeling saturated with Habana.

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