Archive for September, 2008

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September 20

September 20, 2008

Urch. The twenty hour transit days suck. Today we went to four airports and waited at two check-in counters and three baggage claims.

We were up at 3:45 to drag on the clothes we’d laid out neatly the night before, just so we could get ready in five minutes. Of course, it still took fifteen, and the taxi Rene had kindly organised for us arrived early. The last thing I said to Rene was “mucho gusto” and that was that.

Max slept all the way to the airport, and had to be prodded awake as we pulled up. When we got inside, none of the Mexicana check-in lines were open and our flight, which was supposed to be at seven thirty, wasn’t displayed. We were too early for a flight that might not exist.

After a little confused walking around and being diverted from one official to another, someone told us the electronic departures list was malfunctioning and that yes, our flight would be leaving at the scheduled time. The Mexicana check-ins opened at five thirty and we gladly discharged all our baggage. A departure tax of fifty convertible pesos (around $60) which we’d had no idea about applied, and we were forced to change Mexican pesos at an appalling rate to get the cash we needed together. Somewhere in the middle of all this we got talking to a woman from San Francisco who was just as confused as we were. Then we fell asleep in the departures lounge stretched across several seats.

Havana to Cancun was short and uneventful. We had to collect our bags again in Cancun, because there aren’t connecting flights from Havana to Miami (duh!). The San Franciscan followed us as we caught the shuttle between terminals, then there was more checking in to do, and then yet more waiting around in departure lounges. There were a wealth of duty free stores and fast food outlets, but given the food inside was more expensive than the food on the streets of Cancun by a factor of about five, we didn’t eat.

Cancun to Miami was also short and uneventful, although it was slightly amusing when the pilot got on the P.A. and told everyone to look out the window because we were passing over Cuba. Efficient air connections ‘R’ us. It turned out our San Franciscan attachment worked for a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the shareholders of public companies about how to coerce their boards into environmentally friendly business practices. She didn’t eat meat or bread either. Miami was simply a drag. Although we already had our Miami to Lima boarding passes, because it’s the US – and the US is special – you still have to collect your luggage, clear US customs, and then hand it back to your airline’s operators to be checked through to your final destination. We waited ages before our bags came around on the carousel, then another minor age in the customs queue, and then had to follow a rather humiliating “trail of yellow dots” after customs to reach the American Airlines re-checking stage. Pointless, although it was nice to know there were cheap Cuban cigars in my backpack as it went through the X-ray. On CNN in the departures lounge there was wall-to-wall coverage of the seemingly equally pointless US election campaign. “Change We Need”.

Our flight to Lima was slightly delayed. For the first time on an American Airlines flight, we were actually served food, lasagna which wasn’t even bad. The Clooney / Zellweger romantic comedy “Leatherheads”, about the early days of professional gridiron (and its power to redeem a man led into unfortunate lies about his service record – cf. earlier comments about silly American attitudes to sport), showed on the main screen.

It was about ten o’clock Peru time when we arrived in Lima. Perhaps around a thousand travellers had arrived simultaneously: our jet and two or three others. In the long immigration queue, we were savaged by a psychotic queue-jumping fifty year old woman, who after getting herself twenty places ahead in the queue proceeded to quibble with the person in front of her. The crowd was well-dressed, with an undercurrent of Europhile snobbery we haven’t experienced for a while. I felt distinctly sub-par in cargo pants three times too large for me, and a Transformers t-shirt I’d bought for $2.50 in El Salvador. I don’t even like Transformers – we only bought it because every other shirt in the store said something like “I f**ked your girlfriend” or “bros b4 hos”.

There were yet another twenty minutes lost staring at the luggage carousel, and then, the shock of the exit concourse. Here, huge numbers of transfer service drivers were crushed against the barricade holding signs with the names of arriving travellers, and still more expectant family members were with them. Two days earlier, I’d sent a hopeful email to Hostal Iquique in downtown Lima, trying to make a reservation. We caught a taxi in that direction.

In the night, Lima looked dirty and imposing, as you’d expect from a city of eight million inhabitants. Concrete apartment blocks, freeways, billboards, slums and bridges. When we arrived at Hostal Iquique, they were all still awake, and they had a room for us. That the taxi driver pretended to have no change in order to secure a 25% tip hardly mattered as we stumbled to the door and onto a sprung mattress to sleep.

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September 19

September 19, 2008

Parks, people and a mournful goodbye.

We’d cancelled our usual Casa Eduardo breakfast in preference to sleep, and it was with much satisfaction that I awoke at nine o’clock to realise I had the luxury of going back to sleep again. By ten thirty we were up and sorted, though, and heading toward Obispo for a peso breakfast to keep us going- pizza and a ham sandwich for Tom, and a hamburger/hot dog fusion project for me. Peso food may be cheap, but it leaves a little to be desired in terms of variety and nutrition.

We’d once again turned against Parque Lenin in our plans for today, not wanting to commit to a whole day out of the city when we needed to do some preparing-to-leave type things. Instead, we mapped in a few parks in Vedado and some money changing and souvenir shopping. In order to cushion the blow of the cancelled breakfast at the house, we’d booked ourselves in for another mammoth dinner, so that was scheduled to round off the day.

After asking around for a few taxis, we found one for an acceptable price and cruised out of town in our yellow fibreglass shell. Our driver was a little heavy-handed with the horn and liable to fast paced last minute pothole avoidance. Still, we were well and truly alive when we arrived at Parque Almendares on the outskirts of the central city. The guidebook had touted a recent renovation, a mini-golf course and thick wood, but unfortunately the park wasn’t quite up to that. The mini-golf course was regrettably shut and the park itself mostly overgrown, though it did house a pretty decent playground and a family of ill-kept horses. We wandered through the somewhat tended lawn areas along the river and down into wooded area, where there were some old trees covered in vines, a bunch of people fishing on the riverbank and a little stoat-eque thing, which disappeared into some long grasses when it realised we were looking at it. Before moving on we popped into the circular cafe at the centre of the park for some refreshments, downing a carbonated apple cider whilst we waited for the appearance of a bag of coffee beans. The coffee we drank there was without stretch the best coffee I’ve drank on this trip, strong, black and sweet like chocolate, and all for the princely sum of 0.5 pesos (about two cents).

We had a quick look through the gates of the cemetery, which was almost a city in its own right and is meant to be good for strolling in, but felt a little uncomfortable with the death-tourism aspect and decided instead to move straight on to Parque Lennon, about twenty blocks away. The streets we passed were very suburban and looked like nice, relaxing places to live, most of the houses were old and grand, sporting iron gates with dogs of all shapes and sizes poking their heads out. The Beatle-dedicated park was of the usual concrete-and-garden-bed type, a square with seating on all sides facing a central podium. What made this one different, of course, was that one of the seats had John Lennon sitting on it, or at least a life-sized cast-iron statue of him. We were reading the Spanishised “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one” quote when a small old man in an official-looking vest and cap scuttled over with a pair of lenseless round-framed glasses and slipped them in to custom-made slots on the statue to make sure we got a view with impact.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking back (it took about two hours), stopping for a little icecream on a roundabout hosting the biggest, most popular and most confusing ice-creamery I’ve ever seen. We then scoured the old-town waterfront for some souvenirs, picking up a hat each, a screen-printed movie poster for “Protest Song” and various other bits and pieces. We even managed to squeeze in a drink at Cuba’s only microbrewery (a nice, flavoursome brew according to Tom), where we noticed a young guy in a t-shirt that said “Down with tourism! Apartheid in Cuba!” staring intently at Tom. It turns out he was a caricature artist, and had made an amusing (and flattering) sketch of Tom, who decided to go over and chat with him. When Tom returned, he reported that the t-shirt was a gift from a friend, and the guy wasn’t sure if it would be bad for business or not. He also said it would get him into trouble if the police could read English, which, luckily for him, they could not. He’d had a narrow escape from the police recently when they noticed a Barack Obama badge on his bag, though he’d explained it away, saying the man was a famous Italian singer. It seems the price of rebellion is rather expensive in a country that prides itself on revolution.

The day ended spectacularly with roast chicken and parsnips with salad, potatoes and rice, the meat and spuds covered in some marvellous crack, and we both once again ate much more than we would think possible. We’ve had a very enjoyable time here, though our experiences have made me wish we had more time to get out of Havana- little forays into the countryside and some of our conversations with locals have made me think of the country as schizophrenic, and I’d love to get to the bottom of the actual Cuba.

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September 18

September 18, 2008

We stepped right off the tourist trail today and sowed confusion across an unsuspecting Havana Province.

Our plan at the start of the day was some dots – names of places – and a vague idea we had of connecting them. “GUANABO (Penas Altas – baja)”, the Infotur guy had scrawled on a piece of paper yesterday, and we also had “Hershey” (or was that “Camilo Cienfuegos”?), “Santa Cruz del Norte”, and “Jaruco” as clues.

The general idea was to find the Hershey Railway, built in 1917 by the Hershey Chocolate Company, which might or might not be the world’s first electric railway, and take it between the towns of Camilo and Jaruco, near the coast of Cuba about fifty kilometres east of Havana. If that was possible. The best information we had was that it might not be running after the damage done by Hurricane Ike a couple of weeks ago, so we thought we’d just head off in its general direction and see how far we could take things.

To get on the train, we had to get to the station first. This meant finding transport out along the “Via Blanca” which runs along the north coast, hugging the shore. A lot of tourist buses head out that way, because that’s the direction for the beach resorts of Varadero, the Che memorial in Santa Clara, and the east end of Cuba in general, but we’d decided these vehicles were needlessly expensive for a short, fifty kilometre hop just outside the city. Instead, we walked to Estacion Central, where we’d heard you could get collectivos to Guanabo, on the outskirts of the city, and from there catch another truck to Santa Cruz del Norte.

Our language difficulties began to emerge rather quickly today. Although both of us speak a bit of Spanish now, Cuban Spanish is a different thing. Most ‘s’ sounds, both final and internal, are unpronounced. Vowel sounds are noticeably shifted, and the locals speak quickly and indistinctly. Also, most people we run across don’t have regular contact with people who don’t speak Spanish as a first language, and so they don’t slow down or clarify their speech with us. They tend to just assume we’ll understand, and they don’t know what to do when we can’t.

We ended up asking three people in succession how to get to Guanabo, proceeding in short hops following pointed fingers, towards a tree under which several clapped out classic cars – share taxis – were parked. A lot of lower grade taxis in Havana are still pre-Revolutionary vehicles: American cars that were sold prior to 1959. So they’re nearly fifty years old, and still used on a daily basis. If you remember the Havana scene in the Godfather movies (part II, I think), I’m fairly sure these are the same cars. They’re just thirty years older now.

A tourist transaction followed. First, a young guy offered to take us to Guanabo for ten convertibles – about twice what we’d been told to pay. We went off a few steps to deliberate, and he offered eight. Then another chap recognised that we weren’t quite that stupid, and offered to take us for five convertible pesos. This was probably only a quarter to a half more than locals would pay, so we agreed.

Together with three women, the driver, and another man, we jammed ourselves into a 50s Chrysler with fancy, but faded all-red interior, and a surprisingly comfortable bench seat in the back. The car rattled like a maraca, but seemed to run fairly well. After about ten kilometres, two of the women and the man in the back seat with us hopped out, and things got much easier. After twenty-five, we were being dropped at a service station somewhere near the coast in the middle of nowhere. Exfoliating apartment blocks lined the road on one side, dune vegetation on the other, and we were being pointed by the taxi-driver at a big blue truck with two long pews facing each other across the tray. We’d explained to him that we were shooting for Santa Cruz, and he’d kindly dropped us off where we could actually get a connection.

From this point on, it became thoroughly difficult to spend money. As it turns out, Cuba is a very cheap place outside of the tourist circuit, although it must be difficult to find a lot of commodities that we’d think of as necessities. I wouldn’t want to try to buy suncream here, for example. After five or ten minutes, the “camion azul” filled up and took off. The ride to Santa Cruz cost us ten Cuban pesos, which is about forty cents.

The Caribbean was visible from the highway drop-off point at Santa Cruz del Norte, so we decided to walk through town in its general direction. Max hadn’t yet had breakfast – she hadn’t been able to stomach some greasy “pan con hamburgue” thing we’d got for a single CUP just next to the central station in town – so we kept our eyes out for a cafeteria* as we walked.

(* “cafeteria” in Cuban means “hole in the wall eatery which sells cigars, bread rolls, orange drinks, cola, and beer, but does not sell coffee”.)

Well down the road, we found a place that sold ultra-basic steak sandwiches with real steak, so Max got her fill and continued out along the waterfront, marvelling at the blue colour of the ocean in these parts. I’ve seen a lot of photographs of the Caribbean in advertising, and have in the past generally assumed the colour of the water was enhanced. However the real water is a vivid aquamarine. Perhaps water is also particularly clear on this section of the Cuban coast because it mainly washes against solid rock, with very little sand.

For more than half an hour we’d been studiously avoiding the question “How do we get to Hershey?”. Max wanted me to ask someone; for my part I was feeling a bit stressed about interpersonal communications, because of the aforementioned odd Spanish of Cuba. Not only are Cubans difficult to understand – they often don’t understand my crude, loudly enunciated words either, which gets embarrassing. Finally we ran out of patience and asked a big guy working one of the shop counters, who pointed us up the road to an intersection a few blocks away, where another camion-azul for Camilo could be hailed.

The Cubans on this truck seemed to have some clue what we were trying to do, so they booted us off next to a field on the outskirts of a rural village with friendly smiles and winks. In the distance loomed a dilapidated factory with two huge smokestacks, behind a line of trees. We walked a little way up the road and found the train line, and an old man stopped to tell us that a train would be past at twelve o’clock headed towards Jaruco. After he walked away, the countryside became very quiet again. For a few minutes we waited at the tiny station, no more than a platform five metres wide and a small closet for railway-related stores. We weren’t feeling terribly assured about the train’s eventual arrival.

Setting off again, we followed next to the train line, which ran in the direction of the rusted-out factory. As we arrived at its outer fences, we saw a proper little township, and what was recognisably a train station. On the factory’s walls were Communist Party slogans about the sugar production targets that the workers must strive to meet, with fewer costs. Conferring with locals, we were able to confirm that a train would be heading out in the direction of Jaruco at a quarter past twelve. Which was pretty thrilling, actually. We’d set off into the middle of nowhere to do something that wasn’t in the guide, and in a roundabout way it was working out.

Of course, we had a long, boring and quite anxious wait before the train actually did show up. And then, despite the pretty countryside, once we stepped on board and dropped into the comfortable green velour seats, neither of us could help dropping off to sleep intermittently. The train carriages weren’t as old as the railway – probably 60s or 70s I would guess – and I think they must have been of Spanish making, because the cars were labelled “cotxe”, which isn’t an orthography you see much in the Americas.

After what seemed like a short time, because I was unconscious for most of it, we arrived in Jaruco. At first glance it was a copy of Santa Cruz. A grid of calles criss-crossing each other into the distance, with more or less the same shops and eateries. Few houses had been painted in the last twenty years, although one or two showed signs of recent attention to bourgeois details like tiling and mortaring. In the small square in front of the church, a gaping rectangular entrance led to what must be a bomb shelter, long disused.

We were hungry, so we thought to try one of two restaurants side by side on the main street. The first was a pizzeria with a sign saying “Se Prohibe Entrar En Camiseta”, and seemed to have a complex “el ultimo” Cuban queue waiting outside, so since we were both in singlets we gave it a mess and pushed through curtained double doors into the murky interior of the Restaurante Dorado.

We were forced to take a table as far from the door and the sunlight as was possible, and soon a cheerful waitress came out to take our order. What followed was pretty hilarious. Looking through an impressive list of dishes, I said “Todo el menu es disponible?” and she assured me that yes, everything was available. I ordered Uruguayan steak, a beer, and some platanitos, and Max asked for what she wanted. When Max asked for a glass of wine, the waitress gestured towards the small enclosed bar just to the left of us, where some locals were being served drinks. Everything seemed to be going fine, but then the waitress shot off a barrage of high-speed Cuban about side dishes and salads, which neither of us could understand. We had her repeat it four or five times with no luck! Eventually, I said as clearly as I could “Favor elige lo que tu piensas gustarnos” (“Please just bring us what you think we should order”), and with all of us laughing, she went off.

Max went to the bar to buy wine. Shortly thereafter, she came back and said “How would you like a – po’t’re?”. And “Tenemos ____ rellenados con queso, le gustan?”. I agreed with everything she said. The barman stomped out of the bar looking confused, and after conversing at length in the kitchen, returned to the bar where Max was waiting and extracted a bottle of red wine from the fridge. Through the door, I could see him trying to open the bottle on his under-bar bottle-opener, and of course failing. Two minutes later, Max came and asked me for my multitool, which has a corkscrew. When she finally came back with two glasses of wine – in tumblers, with ice – she reported that the bartender had measured the wine into them using a shotglass- two level shots of wine per glass.

We had no idea what would happen next, but the food when it arrived was excellent. Instead of Uruguayan steak, we got two pork-pies with cheese, a side of black beans and rice, with a sweet papaya preserve to finish. “Po’t’re” was postres … dessert. Awesome, and ridiculously cheap: the bill for everything was less than $2. Having travelled in a few very cheap countries, I can safely say it would’ve been at least two to three times as much in, say, Cambodia, Nicaragua or Nepal. Conclusive proof that Cuba’s economy isn’t normal.

The day was won, the game of negotiating ourselves around the place was over, so we headed for home. We waited for another camion-azul to get back to Santa Cruz. There, a blue-coated “transport inspector” flagged down a passing goods-carrying vehicle to give citizens a lift, and we shared a tray full of tires with a few locals, a trussed goat, and half a dozen chickens tied by the feet. This got us as far as Guanabo again, and our service station in the middle of nowhere. Another five pesos, and we were in another, even more clapped-out 50s car – a Ford this time – on our way back to Estacion Central. We shared the taxi with a Cuban emigre living in the US, who flies to and from Cuba once a month, via the Bahamas, and spends all her hard-earned. If US Treasury knew about it, she’d be fined out of existence, but she’s been doing it for three years without them suspecting a thing. She told us she lives in Miami because she doesn’t want to raise her kids in Cuba.

We’d finally arrived back in Havana at around six o’clock, and were pretty much exhausted. We skipped dinner – lunch had been more than enough – and just had a couple of drinks, chatting to Eduardo. Later on I went to a fancy hotel to use one of the only public internet centres in Cuba. Net access was very, very slow, and oddly so for Google’s services in particular. It took more than five minutes to send an email via Gmail, for example, but half an hour on the network still cost twice as much as our entire lunch.

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September 17

September 17, 2008

We tried to get to Parque Lenin today, but were foiled by a museum. More precisely, after a long and misdirectional wander, we found the Cristina train station where our train was meant to depart, only to find it had been turned into a museum since our borrowed guide was researched. Granted, that was 2002, so we weren’t that amazed, but still. We gazed briefly at the train museum whilst the friendly guardian told us we were mistaken and we explained that our tip was a little old, before deciding it was a bit late to continue with our original plan and decided instead on exploring Vedado.

Our enthusiastic host, on our arrival three days ago, had donated a map to our cause, and had drawn a line on it and said that west of there could be dangerous, a line confirmed by the Lonely Planet. Unfortunately, that line precluded over half the city, and all of Vedado, where the seat of government is currently placed. As we wandered, though, we found the biggest danger to us was from the intense midday sun, and deduced that “potentially dangerous” meant that “this is where the real people live”, as opposed to the heavily policed tourist-and-tout zone.

We directed ourselves firstly to Plaza de la Revolucion, which was conveniently marked by a tall, evil-looking tower circled by buzzards, looking like something lifted directly from a sci-fi movie. As the grey star-shaped tower loomed closer it became evident that it was a memorial to Jose Marti, one of the philosophers behind the revolution. A giant white pondering statue of the man himself marked the entrance to the tower, which was located on a traffic island. A sign at the base indicated that there was a mirador on the top floor, and after a short debate we decided we’d make the trip up to the top. The building was blessedly air-conditioned, and the foyer tiled in jade-green mosaics, with gold lettering spelling out slogans and dates. The foyer was crawling with besuited men and women who piled into the elevator with us to take in the view from the top.

The clean air of Havana is great for vistas, and the mirador provided intensely colourful three hundred and sixty degree views of the city and coast from each of the points of the star. The view was guarded jealously by hordes of circling buzzards, who swooped and reeled astonishingly close to the windows as the thermals dragged them up and around, making me quite glad for the presence of the glass.

After we’d stepped back out of the air-conditioning and into the heat, we decided that instead of walking we’d catch a coco-taxi (a three-wheeled motorbike with a yellow fibreglass shell as shelter, roughly the shape of a coconut) to the Malecon, the sea wall that protects the city from the ravages of the sea, albeit not too effectively in rough weather. We strolled along the waterfront in fierce sunshine, sneaking glances at the local kids snorkelling and the local men fishing in the flat and clear turquoise water. One man walked past us with a hook full of small octopi and well-sized fish. After a while we decided the heat was too much, and veered inland to search for the thin shadows of the buildings, discovering an amazing variety of architecture. Directly behind the Malecon at one point was an elaborate sporting complex, built with sail-like roof sections in an early sixties style and horribly disused, the fields overgrown and the red and pink paint peeling and flaking. Further in the streets were packed with people, and the grand old buildings in various states of disrepair.

As we neared our section of the city, we turned back to the waterfront where we stopped for a drink at a sidewalk bar to spend some of our pesos. Our mojitos were impossibly strong, about three shots of rum in a tumbler with a handful of ice and a dash of lime juice, but as with most peso-priced things, also impossibly cheap. The duel pricing system here is phenomenal- when we eat and drink for convertibles a meal can cost seven or eight dollars each easily, but eating and drinking for pesos will feed us both for one. Accommodation, taxis and the like in the city, however, are always charged with convertibles, though if you’re on the ball in local joints the price for your wares drops. We’d asked how much our mojitos were and been told four pesos (convertibles, that is, both currencies are slanged as pesos), but when we said we wanted to pay in moneda nacional (peso pesos), the price was fifty pesos, or two convertibles. What this adds up to is a lot of difficulty in spending pesos. It’s easy enough to say you want to spend them, but you never get rid of many with what you pay for. It’s also difficult to decide which “pesos” you’re being asked for, as two pesos (eight cents) for a ham-and-cheese roll seems to cheap, but two convertibles (two dollars fifty) seems a bit expensive. I should think that the country would be a ridiculously cheap place to travel outside of the big cities.

The rest of the way to Habana Vieja was spent passing empty shops, something I’ve not had much experience with until now. There are a lot of shops about- tiendas, clothing stores, supermarkets and farmacias- but none have more than half their shelves filled. A space in a small Coles at home that would be packed with and dedicated only to Coke, for instance, would here hold twenty bottles of shampoo spaced delicately across the shelves. The sum total of goods of a whole shop here, say one the size of your local deli, would be put side-by-side in the space behind the register at home. Or indeed in Mexico or Guatemala. The resulting effect, from a participant in an advanced Capitalist society, is downright spooky. I’d never realised exactly how much I rely on that riot of colour and shape that packs shops at home to sell me things, or provide me with a “choice” I don’t need.

We deferred our homecoming with a jaunt in the Museo de Bella Arte (museum of fine art), which was a large, clean lined, four-sided building centred around a courtyard with a keyhole sculpture fountain. The galleries exhibited solely Cuban art from artists both Cuban-born and adopted, with many styles represented. The top floor was dedicated to Colonial art of the typical religous-themed and portraits-of-rich-people type. Some paintings which caught my eye here were three portraits of girls and young women by Federico Martinez, super photo realistic portraits which gave interest to what I usually find a fairly dull art of style. Martinez’s rendering of texture was flawless to the point of being off-putting.

The second floor was more to my taste and housed some very interesting modern art. The galleries began in the late fifties with Warhol-esque portraits and collages of Marti, Fidel and Che Guevara, followed by a variety of recognisable styles such as Picasso-esque abstracted figures, and a sprinkling of lino prints, which were nice to see as the print mediums generally seem quite under-represented in big art galleries. Something I wasn’t expecting were two crowd scenes that ran very close to Nolan’s Ned Kelly series- the same flat landscapes, caricatured figures and bold colours, only with the Australiana replaced by Cubacana, donkeys and rum taking the place of tin helmets. The war themes among the early 1960s works disappeared quickly, and the most up-to-date works were installation pieces dealing with themes of displacement, such as a collection of wooden shanty-houses built on old rowboats and lifesavers.

By the time we’d finished at the gallery it was six o’clock, and we’d been walking almost solidly for eight-and-a-half hours. It was time for a bit of a rest, then a shower and change to catch some music.

We failed to find anything in the slightest bit raw (we think a bit more dedication would be required, but we’re not quite sure how dedicated we should be, given that neither of us know salsa or can even dance passably), but gave up trying and took in some bars on Obispo, starting with sangria and flamenco, in a big wooden wine cellar filled mostly with tourists. We turned up at the end of the first set but managed to catch a few traditional numbers with a spectacular dancer in a burgundy dress, whose delicate moves, stomps and claps were perfectly timed. The band’s second set moved into the rock-covers zone (almost reggae-ish renditions of Hotel California and Zombie) and we became disinterested and moved on. Our next stop was for overpriced Cuba Libres in a hole-in-the-wall local bar that sported a kicking salsa band. We were considering dinner, but when we asked for the menu after another table had done with it, the waitress made a not-so-subtle swap of the local menu for the tourist one, and we thought it best not to go there. We caught a few tight numbers from the band before they finished up and we decided to call it a night.

It turned out to be a long day and a late night for the early morning we’re planning tomorrow.

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September 16

September 16, 2008

I am what I ate – or at least I’d guess I’m mostly what we had for dinner, a ridiculously huge meal at our casa particular here in Havana. A massive leg of porco asado between only the two of us, glazed potatos, fried yucca, avocado, peppers, rice, and cucumber, with a postres of papaya for dessert and a vegetable soup for starters. Although delicious, it was rather expensive and honestly far, far too much food.

Havana – I feel pretentious calling it La Habana – continues to weave its spell. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what is clearly a pretty damn interesting place. Aside from everything else, it’s quite difficult to determine just how anything actually works here.

In the morning, after a very large breakfast, we visited the Pantagas cigar factory opposite the Capitolio, three or four blocks southeast of the casa, and went on a forty minute tour of the facility. The process of cigar manufacture goes like this:

  1. Tobacco plants are grown, and their leaves are harvested. The leaves of plants grown in the shade under special covers are taken to be used as wrappers for the cigars. From the plants grown in the sun, the leaves nearest the ground become the part of the blend used for extra combustion, those from the middle give aroma, and those from near the top contain the most nicotine. Some leaves — “capotes” — are used as binders.
  2. Within the factory, the wrapper leaves are dried, stripped of their central veins, and classified by size and quality. The other varieties are blended in various proportions and qualities according to their destined brands.
  3. Cigar-makers undergo a one year apprenticeship after which only about one third of students go on to become professionals. We saw some very average-looking half-made cigars in the apprentices’ hall.
  4. Each cigar is made from leaves to finished product by one roller. The roller mixes a blend of the three leaf types – nicotine-rich, aroma-rich and combustion-friendly – together with binding leaves, rolls the blend out, clips one end, and places the rough, unwrapped cigar in a mold that will hold about twenty such. These roughs are pressed for fifteen minutes on each side in a special press a little later, to compact their contents.
  5. Following compression, the uncovered cigars are given a “test blow” by a quality control machine that verifies the degree of air circulation they permit, before being returned to the roller.
  6. The roller then neatly packages the rough cigar in a wrapper leaf, using various cutting implements to get a neat, pointed end, and gluing the open leaf down with an odourless, tasteless chemical. This final process was almost mystical – you could see the exact moment when a rough, organic mess went to being a neat, mass-produced commodity.

We observed the process from end to end. Our guide, a very neat trilingual Cuban who split his attentions between two groups of French and English-speaking tourists, informed us that the workers at the factory do eight hours a day, five days a week. They are required to produce a certain minimum number of cigars. They are also permitted to smoke as much of the product as they like on the job, and take home up to three cigars of any brand at the end of a work day.

The factory, of course, smelled pretty awful, particularly in the room where wrapper leaves, which have to be kept very humid to preserve their springiness before they are used, are classified. We saw a handful – perhaps one in twenty – workers smoking on the job. Some were smoking cigars, and others rollies hand-made from pure tobacco leaf. The majority were probably sick of the smell.

This Pantagas factory produces cigars for the world’s most famous brands – e.g. Cohiba and Monte Cristo – and once made, the cigars are sorted by colour for aesthetic purposes before being painstakingly banded with their marque and laid out in plywood boxes for shipment. The jobs of colour-sorting and boxing looked the most boring of all in an establishment full of mind-drillingly boring jobs.

I’ve only ever smoked one cigar – I was eighteen I think, and made myself sick by actually inhaling the damn thing – and don’t know much about them. We’d been thinking of buying a box for the novelty value while here, but they’re fiendishly expensive. For the more expensive brands such as Cohiba, a box of twenty will set you back four hundred convertible pesos, or about AUD550. The cheapest you can get “over the counter” in these tourist places are still nearly five convertibles each. I don’t know whether sanity will win out over novelty, but we haven’t bought any yet.

Cuba is provoking thoughts about race relations because it has such a thoroughly integrated society – black, Hispanic and mestizo (?) people live side by side and no racial group seems to enjoy a noticeably privileged position. To walk onto a factory floor and see all these people working the same job, as Cubans, not as whites or blacks or whatever, was very interesting, and very different from the sorts of divisions I have seen in San Diego, or in London, in some of the countries we’ve just visited, or back home.

In fact, here in Havana I’m constantly aware of the fact that I’m amongst post-revolutionary people, for want of a better term. It’s hard to deduce what that means, although we had a few insights into the subject at the Museo de la Revolucion yesterday. Much more so than other countries that have had communist revolutions, Cuba still preserves the sense of that revolution thanks to the US trade embargo. There is no Coca-Cola here, and until you’ve experienced a place with no Coke, it would be hard to explain it to you. In every country that we’ve visited in Centroamerica, there have been “Disfruta Coca-Cola” signs on the street corners and corner stores. Here there are none, and no McDonald’s, or Wal-Mart, or indeed any recognisable brands at all, really.

Life still revolves around money. As we walk around, we are constantly touted by jinoteros trying to scam a commission by getting us to walk into a restaurant or paladar behind them. Museum guards give us impromptu guided tours and then ask for tips. There is no shortage of beggars. But it’s not quite so clear what you can actually do with the money once you get it. You can’t, for example, accumulate a vast amount of money and then buy a big fancy house in Habana Vieja, as I understand it. But then, Habana Vieja is still a seemingly typical, and typically free-market, tourist ghetto, full of restaurants, hotels and cafes targeting visitors and charging in convertibles.

Generally when people in Australia discuss Cuba they want to do so in terms of whether the revolution led by Castro’s liberating army was a success. I had a few conversations at uni along these lines, and occasionally you would run across a Resistance member or a Green Left salesperson (or a hardline ISO member *cough*) who would swear blind that Cuba’s education and health systems were the best in the world, and so forth.

But I think the proper approach is to interpret political revolutions in terms of their causes and not their effects. When these revolutions occur, the circumstances that provoke them are much clearer than any plans the revolutionaries may want to enact after they gain power.

From the Museo de la Revolucion, which provided ample documentary evidence of the repression of the Cuban people under Battista and those who preceded him following the “Yankee occupation” of 1899—1905, including evidence of widespread physical brutality, detention without charge of all types of dissenters, assassinations, unionist purges, and censorship of the press, it’s easy to derive the why of revolution. At the museum, the displays themselves became much less interesting, and much less convincing, once the narrative changed from exposing the sins of the pre-revolutionary regime to extolling the virtues of Castro.

I wonder if there has ever been a political change that was more about its effects than its causes.

After the cigar factory, we undertook a walking tour in Habana Vieja. We first headed east on San Rafael to the Plaza de la Catedral, where Havana’s gloomy, grandiose limestone cathedral looks onto a wide square. From just inside the front doors, it didn’t seem impressive enough to warrant a paid tour, although we were amused by a proliferation of signs advising us that premarital abstinence was the ONLY safe way to avoid AIDS.

As we left the cathedral, we witnessed an unexpected celestial event. In the blue sky, the sun was surrounded by a wide grey disk about ten times its diameter, as if a circular portion of the sky was shadowed. Through this shadow, we could still see the sun itself as brightly as normal, and no corresponding shadow was cast on the ground near us. The edges of the grey disk were rainbowed. We took several photos of it, but found it hard to get anyone else around the place interested. If anyone knows what it would’ve been, please advise! The best theory I could come up with was that one of the planets, Mars or Venus, had only partly blocked out the light from the sun and was casting a shadow on the Earth. I don’t know what they would’ve made of it in ancient Chichen Itza, but I suspect a lot of innocent Mayans would’ve ended up dead.

We diverted from the walking tour in the direction of the waterfront, and came back in to town via a maritime museum at the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the oldest colonial fortress in the Americas, and quite an awesome building. Inside there were some of the most impressive scale models of sea vessels that you would ever find, as well as antique sextants, astrolabes, crossbows, conquistador helmets, pieces of eight, suits of armour, treasure chests, cannon, and so forth. The Spanish words for “prow” and “poop” are proa and popa.

Thereafter we wandered quite aimlessly, passing through another civic square full of secondhand books, including plenty of copies of Castro’s revolutionary narrative “History Will Absolve Me” and a classic cut-out-and-paste cartoon History of the Revolution, which unfortunately cost twenty convertibles. We visited a self-described “experimental gallery of graphical art” where an artist’s collective has been producing novel lithographs, calciographs and xilographs for thirty-five years. Some of the work there was very cool, and it was fun to look at a series of works by several artists identifiable by their thematic obsessions, and observe the way each artist’s work developed in relation to that of the others.

By this stage, I was beginning to flag a little, and suggested we head back to the casa for a break. Max, however, wanted an icecream so we wandered up and down Calle Obispo and then claimed “el ultimo” (in context “last in the queue”) at a very popular heladeria, and ended up swapping tastes of five-scoop “ensaladas” (of icecream) over a couple of steel trays, in conversation with a couple of bored-looking habaneras.

We really were ready to collapse when we did get back to the hotel, and we spent perhaps an hour lying around before wrenching ourselves out of bed to finish cleaning the tent. By this time tomorrow the whole thing will be sweet-smelling, which is a joy deeply felt.

We probably could’ve gone out and crammed in one more tourist expedition before evening, but we decided to kick back instead, and before we knew it it was dinnertime. After a preparatory rum and lemon, Eduardo began to appear with dish after dish, leading to our current bloated condition.

Our stuffed-ness was only mildly abated by an hour-long post-prandial, again around Habana Vieja. On every other street corner here there’s a pocket-sized bar with a salsa group inside it – the fancy restaurants all have classical groups, and I’ve even seen a couple of bassoons around the place. Even the cheapest of bars have live music, which is amazing. The more touristy places have groups dressed in matching mariachi-style waistcoast singing calypso, and the more lively places have banging son with a couple of semi-pro dancers thrown in for good measure.

The cobbled back streets of Habana Vieja are lined with locals doing all manner of things – brushing their teeth, sitting on the kerb and chatting, begging, dancing into and out of the doorways of the bars, hassling the tourists, emptying buckets of water over their balconies, and just generally loitering. On one of our last three nights here, we’re going to have to try to get out and really mingle.

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September 15

September 15, 2008

Necesita escriber mi historia. o’ blog post, pregunta, as it’s probably distinct enough to be a loan word. Anyhoo.

What a wonderful day. We woke at eight in preparation for our eight-thirty brekkie at Casa Eduardo, which was a grand affair composed of sweet bread, eggs, sausages, coffee, juice, fruit and honey. I was still feeling a little off from last night, but my mild fever had broken to leave me with a little shakiness and a diminished appetite, so I ate what I could and Tom ate what I couldn’t. We then set off- into La Habana!

Our first stop was to Museo de la Revolucion, which turned out to be basically next door in a grand old building of immense proportions. It was, however, still only nine-thirty and the museum didn’t open ’til ten, so we took a distracting walk past a large black-and-white reeling-horses type monument to the waterfront, where we spent a few minutes on the pier. The water was calm and blue, the start of a short canal, I think, and was relatively free of rubbish. Across the water was a peninsula that had the look of being man-made, with a huge lighthouse and walled castle giving way directly to the sea on three sides. The armed patrolman put us off going over there, though. On our way back we poked our head into a maritime museum with an open, solid-oak door, but the guards chatting idly at the entrance told us it was shut until tomorrow, so we continued back to the Revolutionary Museum, which was now open.

After checking our bag at the door we went straight up to the third floor where the exhibition began. The museum was ordered chronilogically and consisted mainly of black-and-white photographs and historical artifacts, starting from just before the Ten Years’ War in the 1860s when Cuba were trying to free themselves of the Spanish. In the years following the country dove, and US companies invested heavily, insuring the dependence of Cuba on US money, and driving the Cuban elite to support US annexation. The Spaniards surrendered at the very end of the nineteenth cenutry and the Americans staged a miltary occupation, eventually using this as means to secure the right to intervene whenever they saw fit and thus grab Guantanamo Bay in 1903. Nobody ever consulted the Cubans in this process, and a heavily US-dependant government resulted from interference. The coverage of these early years was a bit thin, but included some interesting political cartoons, including a particularly passionate drawing of Uncle Sam holding the chain of a Cuban slave against the protesting crowds. The names of the revolutionaries from this era were wasted on me as I didn’t know enough about the history.

The museum mentioned in passing the boom US prohibition brought to the gambling, drinking and sex tourism industries in Cuba, before skipping quite dramatically to the 1940s, when Batista was elected president out of the army’s chief-of-staff. The majority of the exhibition was based between 1953 and 1959, when Fidel Casto, Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos (meaning “one hundred fires”, the coolest surname I’ve ever heard) and Che Guevara led the modern revolution against a series of corrupt governments. The displays were again mostly captioned photos, showing the evolution of Castro’s appearance from the start to the end of the war and the rather good-looking Che Guevara and Raul Castro (now president, or acting president, at least, due to his brother’s illness) in military outfits and underground meetings. There was also an array of artifacts that made me feel incredibly close to the history: Batista’s ornate, gold-plated and engraved pistol, Fidel’s revolutionary pants, Che’s favourite smoking pipe.

The revolutionary governement took hold in 1959, pissing off a lot of landowners, the vast majority of which were US companies, by nationalising any landholdings over 400 hectares. The US then backed and cultivated a counter-revolutionary force, which was foiled by some relatively small military actions and a retraction and reprinting of currency, which lost the counter-revolutionaries, who had fled earlier to Miami, a total of over 400 million pesos (I’m not sure how much this was at the time, but using today’s exchange rate it’d equate to around 20 million US dollars).

The museum then covered the beginning of the US trade embargo of 1960, centring around the refusal of US companies to refine Soviet-supplied crude oil, and the consequential Bay of Pigs conflict in 1961. The US loss there prompted a full trade embargo. There wasn’t much about the Cuban Missile Crisis (perhaps it wasn’t such a crisis from the Cubans’ point of view, as they’d again not been consulted in talks with the Soviets about dismantling), and the displays passed on to the policies Castro’s government had enacted in its time, medical programs, literacy prgrams and the like. This section turned a bit propagandistic for my liking, and we skipped through the photos of people getting their teeth examined and so on for the most part.

Out the back was a pavilion of vehicles important to the revolution, including a tank that Castro sat in to shoot to missiles at American war ships in the Bay of Pigs conflict (only to realise his reach wasn’t long enough and to move to something bigger), the wrecked back fin of a plane disguised with the Revolutionary insignia (it was found with the remains of two pilots, whose bodies were not recalled by the US for thirty years so as not to admit involvement in the conflict), and the yacht “Granma”, built for twenty, that carried eighty-two revolutionaries from their base in Mexico to Cuba to start the revolution. It was really bizarre to touch a tank that Castro himself had shot from over forty years ago.

I was a bit dizzy after so much walking around, so we retired back to the casa for an early afternoon rest. By two thirty I was feeling fine, so we took back out to get some pesos (the local currency, as opposed to convertibles which are the hard currency and used mostly by tourists) allowing us to get access to street food and other such small-denomination joys. We immediately gave in and got two hamburgers and two refrescos (basically cordial) for lunch, costing a sum total of one dollar.

The dual pricing system here is the most bizarre of any I’ve come across and is, like many things, a response to the continuing relationship with the US. The US dollar has been in and out of legality here, its presence allowing an influx of cash and its absence resulting in, I guess, ethical superiority, along with a country without economic development. The convertible was introduced as a counter force- the US dollar can now legally be changed to convertibles, but is taxed at a massive ten percent. Prices for local people are in pesos (twenty four pesos is equal to a convertible), but for unwary tourists can be charged in convertibles. For entry to museums, the official prices are the same, but again tourists pay in convertibles and locals in pesos. Both currencies are displayed using dollar signs, so you have to think very hard before purchasing, and if you’re eating out it’s necessary to confirm beforehand whether the prices displayed are in pesos or convertibles, else you can end up paying twenty four times the price that you expected.

After the Casa de Cambio, we took up a walking tour suggested in the guide that Eduardo graciously lent us, which took us past some very interesting, elaborately decorated and above all expensive-looking buildings before leading us to the Capitol, the old parliament building in use back in Batista’s day. No disrespect to my countrymen, but these guys knew how to do a parliament house.

We entered into a grand foyer composed of a central domed chamber and two halls extending eighty-five metres to either side. The dome was as tall as those we’d encountered in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and the ceilings of the halls were curved and at least eight metres tall. Directly opposite the entrance was a giant statue of a women warrior holding a shield and staff/spear, who we assumed to be Athena. The ceilings throughout were six metres high and all elaborately decorated with plaster mouldings in gold and pinks, blues or greens, the floors tiled with pale marble, the halls lined with tall, green marble columns. There was a beautiful ballroom two-storeys tall, lined to one side with french doors onto a balcony, and on the other with tall mirrors. It currently houses a celebration of the 60th anniversary of North Korean government, including a number of paintings not to my taste and photographs of various soberly besuited Asian government officals in a line with Kim Jong-Il wearing a khaki safari suit and looking a little unhinged.

The best rooms were definitely the Presidents’ suite, which was entirely decorated in gold and cream and had a desk that made me look small and insignificant sitting behind it, and the parliamentary chamber. The chamber was of a typically semi-circular fashion, with plush burgundy leather and mahogany seating behind desks that centred around an impossibly large raised podium. The podium was backed by a giant marble slab into which was cut a small door leading directly to the Presidents’ office. The ceiling was domed and had light bulbs set behind small stained-glass panes to give the impression of a beautifully sculpted skylight. The effect was marvellous and incredibly belittling. It certainly helped me undertand why a revolution took place, when the wealthy lived and worked in buildings like this whilst the poor relentlessly starved.

We spent the rest of afternoon wandering around Habana Centro, which is an amazing place, before ending the night with some impromptu Spanish revision over a few rum and citrus on the terrace at Casa Eduardo.

This place is an absolute mystery to me, and it’s hard to match up what I’ve read with what I see. In Russia, there’s a despondency and kind of nationalised depression that seems to come from losing their Communism and thereby admitting they were wrong. Of the people we met there, however, there wasn’t a great disparity between living conditions, some people were better off than others, everyone tried to make money everywhere, but there was some sort of obscure sense of everyone being the same. Strangers, but similar. Cuba is a different kettle of fish. For instance, housing is nationalised and free (and therefore, I assume, assigned by the government), but there’s a huge difference between the quality and maintenance of different buildings. So how can someone come to live in a three-storey terrace like Eduardo’s while someone else lives in a crumbling three-room apartment above a seedy shop? If people can find a way to earn convertibles rather than pesos they increase their income twenty-fold, but when food is rationed and housing nationalised, how does this translate to a change in lifestyle? And how do Cubans get food? We went to two different supermarkets today, not tourist affairs, in fact it was hard to get in as we had to check our bag at the door, and in order to do that we had to present our Cuban National ID, which took some talking around. Each, though in a big building, had lines of empty shelves, and the things available were only luxury items (though you might object to my use of the term)- pasta, sauces, UHT milk, flavouring, juices and alcohol. There was no rice, no corn, no flour, no sugar, no eggs. The milk we bought alone cost the equivalent of three Australian dollars. Where do the staples come from? I’ve a lot to learn here.

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September 14

September 14, 2008

Cuba! We’re here, but we still haven’t really done anything.

It was a pretty hot and muggy night at Hotel Las Palmas in Cancun, and even with the fan trained upon us, or perhaps because the fan had been trained upon us, I woke feeling dehydrated and tired. We had a wonderful, sweet-smelling batch of clothes back from the laundrette down the street, and after showering we repacked them lovingly. Among other things, my sleeping-bag liner no longer smells like the wet decomposing corpses of a family of rats, and I’m thankful.

An odd incident occurred a little later, as we walked down to recon the bus terminal for likely breakfast spots. We’d just decided that there wasn’t anywhere that looked really good when a woman of about forty or so, wearing a peaked cap in a 60s style, a floral shirt, and tight lycra-ish pants, approached us and began talking rapidly and quietly in a thick Southern US accent that I could barely understand. She was acting as if something had upset her, and as I concentrated I made out a tale about having her purse stolen on a bus, together with the only means she and her husband had of securing local currency, and not having eaten for two days. As she spoke she became increasingly distraught and finally worked up a few tears.

I looked over to Max with a “what do you think?” expression on my face and she nodded assent, so I gave the lady one hundred pesos, which is enough for about three square meals for two people if you spend it with moderate care. I asked if she had someone back home who could wire her some cash – assuming she was from the US – and she claimed, all of a sudden, that her father was going to get to Western Union and do that, but she wasn’t sure when. A hotel tout then popped out of nowhere and began making disparaging remarks in her direction. He said a few evidently nasty things I didn’t catch, and then said in Spanish “you should see her husband, he has a big bag full of stuff – it’s not as if they don’t have any money”. Of course the American woman reacted badly and a moment later they were both calling each other liars, so Max decided to cut our losses and walk back to the hotel.

We weren’t sure if we’d been generous to someone in need, been scammed by a con artist,or been partly scammed by someone in a difficult situation embellishing the facts.

Back at the hotel, we picked up our bags and checked out, and began walking back to the bus terminal. On our way, we passed the lady again, who was in conversation with a guy wearing a backpack and eating some takeaway food. As we passed she called out “see I wasn’t lyin’! Here’s my husband!” and I wished her good luck. I suppose one theory was that they’d just gone off with the pesos together to get breakfast, in the fifteen minutes or so we’d been away. I don’t know.

We got on board the next shuttle to Cancun’s airport in a few minutes, and arrived there half an hour later. After checking our bags in, realising we needed Cuban tourist cards, paying for those elsewhere, and then cutting back into the queue for our boarding passes, we went through the security checkpoint – where no one bothered to confiscate the large bottle of water in Max’s daypack, which was nice – and spotted a Burger King.

We haven’t really had Western-style fast food in some time, and we felt like we had been missing it, so we both bought Whopper combo meals. Well, actually mine was something called an X-Treme Grande, but it was basically the same thing. We then sat and ate them, and both realised about halfway through our meals how wrong we’d been about missing that sort of food. Firstly, it felt like way too much, and secondly, it was so rich with chemicals I began to feel queasy and slightly shaky almost straight away. I was like a Mongolian hordesman high on a lump of sugar. I don’t think we’ll be heading to any other McDonald’s equivalents in the near future.

During the remaining two hours of our waiting time we became a little confused when we realised our passports hadn’t been stamped and we hadn’t passed any sort of immigration kiosk, and spent twenty minutes wandering around asking airport staff what to do, in case we’d missed something. As it turned out, in Mexico they don’t do anything to your passport when you leave the country, they just collect your tourist card at the departure gate. It’ll be interesting to see whether we can make our whole trip to Cuba under the radar. For a while now we’ve been hearing about it being quite easy for US nationals to visit Cuba via Mexico, even though if the US Treasury discovers they’ve spent money in Cuba they can be liable for $50 000 fines when they return to America.

Our departure was delayed by ten or twenty minutes and then we finally boarded the jet, an all-economy Fokker 100 belonging to Air Mexicana. Not sure if I’ve ever flown in a Fokker before. It immediately made me think of “Biggles of the Camel Squadron”. I also wondered if the lack of first and business class seating was a consequence of Cuba’s communism, but that’s probably reading too much into things.

The plane was rattly and juddery, and as we taxied off the tarmac it made a huge grinding noise as if the pilot had forgotten to drop the clutch changing gears, which was a little disturbing. But the one hour flight went off without a hitch, and after a few minutes during which we could view variously hilly and pastoral regions of the Cuban landscape, we touched down in La Habana under a cloudy sky.

When you visit a country with a reputation like Cuba’s you immediately begin looking for differences. The airport was quite typical, if a little faded, with red decor. We had to wait for some time in baggage claim for our last backpack, which took us back to the difficulties we had in Kathmandu a few months ago. It’s a fact that baggage handlers can cock absolutely anything up, even if you check in hours in advance of a short, direct flight. There were two cute drug-sniffing dogs hanging around, that gambolled jubilantly among the piles of luggage and on the carousel, trying to detect crack and weed. It half looked as if their minders had just brought their family pets from home. As we reached the entrance foyer, a sudden and vicious rainstorm had blown up and was assaulting the palm trees lining the road outside, prompting thoughts of Hurricane Ike.

We changed money at a rate that wasn’t as good as we’d hoped for our remaining pesos, and bought a handful of CUCs – Cuban Convertible Pesos, a.k.a. “dolares” or “convertibles”. Then we shared a taxi into Centro Habana with a guy who turned out to be a Canberran, leading to lots of small-worldish conversations. He was a recent graduate of ANU who’d been travelling since April like us, although without covering so much ground. One very cool thing he’d done, though, was spend a month as one of only six passengers on a container ship making passage from Adelaide to San Francisco. It costs around $3000 apparently.

The rain had already died away, and as we traversed the grid of the Centro, we saw grander and more faded buildings than we’ve seen anywhere before, including some remarkably faded and grand places like Panama Viejo, and Granada. Everywhere you look there is a beautiful pre-Revolutionary mansion, or apartment block, and although many are in excellent condition, many are also crumbling, paint peeling off beautiful ten foot window shutters, iron balcony railings rusting, their rendered exteriors exfoliating gradually. It was what we’d come to expect from touristic descriptions of this city, but still impressive.

In Cuba, “sharing” a taxi just means that the taxi driver gets paid twice, and we had the mildly scary experience of shelling out our total daily budget for travel in a country like Nicaragua or Nepal on one cab ride. We’d pulled up outside number ___ on Refugio Prado y Morro, the address of the “casa particular” where I thought I’d made a phone reservation yesterday. Fortunately, our host Eduardo arrived at the door quite promptly and seems to be a very amiable and helpful type.

The “casa” is a series of connected rooms on the first floor of a building in reasonable condition, with a couple of balconies overlooking the street. The floors are tiled, the ceilings are about twelve feet, with ornate cornices and roses, the living areas have Cuban rocking chairs in abundance, and our bed is one of the largest I can recall sleeping on. The fittings are not new, they are old, but they’re quite luxurious. Our bathroom is very spacious and tiled in black with cream trimmings.

We were given a rough tour of the place, past the fridge, TV, dining room, etc., and then Max, who had been feeling a bit average, with odd muscle pains, took herself to bed while I sorted out registration with Eduardo and was treated to a very thorough preparation for tourism in La Habana (a.k.a. Havana, but I’ll use the Cuban name). This included details of the most common scams unscrupulous locals try to run on tourists: such as selling fake notes, fake cigars, and demanding milk be bought for supposedly starving children. Eduardo has a little English, I have a little less Spanish, and we both have a little more French than English or Spanish respectively, so I was gifted one of those enjoyable mash-up conversations I’ve had a few times now, where sentences are started in one language and end in another by way of a third.

It was now around dinner time, but when I returned to Max in our room armed with maps and info, she’d begun to run a slight fever, and so we both stayed around the hotel all evening. I watched a Jackie Chan movie with Eduardo’s son Rene, and around eight o’clock I popped out into the mean streets to try to find a place that sold food that could be taken away. It was dark outside – no electricity in the ornate lamps that run along the Prado just near our location – and a lot of young people were milling about under the eaves of the old buildings in all that darkness.

It was a little unnerving to be honest, and I think we might do most of our exploring by daylight. I certainly couldn’t spot anything that looked like a diner or a shop, but I did find a corner bar selling a lot of beer and cigars, and playing loud, trumpety salsa to a minor throng of chatty locals, that could give me a mandarin-flavoured refresco to take back to Max. That was all we needed after our earlier bathetic gorging on Burger King anyway. Here’s hoping she’ll be better by breakfast tomorrow.