Outsider In an illegal rave

I am in a damp dark corridor, lit only with a handful of LED camping lights. It stinks of bleach. In the murkiness, I can’t see either end of the long narrow space. What I can see is the odd doorway leading here and there with luminescent scrawl on the white walls, optimistically marking out bathrooms and a bar. Whilst I stand in the gloom alone I can hear the roars and sing-alongs of a joyous stadium full of Foo Fighters’ fans in the near distance. I knew this night was going to be ‘an experience’ but the surreal has already started.

Filming an illegal rave for a documentary about party drugs is why I’m here, in these railway arches in East London. I haven’t ever been to an illegal rave. As it’s only 10pm, I can’t yet say I’m at one. This is just the pre-amble, which basically means that all the film crew of two and I have been doing until now is hanging out in a grimy dank space more habitually inhabited by pigeons with a bunch of teenagers – and a French woman called Sophie.

Somewhere in her thirties, Sophie, a softly spoken and relaxed presence, is the only grown up involved in this venture. She is incongruous amongst the largely ineloquent teenagers styling themselves as a rave crew, supposedly running the operation. What I’ve garnered this evening about rave organising is that, if you can’t find an appropriate urban space (read large abandoned remote warehouse) in the lead up to the intended event, you find someone else who already has. Enter Sophie.

I am told Sophie is the resident squatter. My preconceptions immediately struggle with this: the most relatable person for me there, there is no way I can see myself living in this miserable place by myself. What makes someone like her capable and willing – or with no other option but – to live here? I soon find out, however, that, although she ‘squats’ the space, she doesn’t actually occupy it. Huh? She just organises her own ‘parties’ here or, like tonight, rents it to other ravers and then goes home – to her other squat or luxury rented accommodation?? Who the fuck knows – I’m being bombarded by new concepts on a minute by minute basis!

Our way in to this whole venture is via J; a skinny genial kid with large 80s-inspired glasses and little dreadlocks. Literally letting us in is Lewis; square-jawed, good-looking, he talks without really moving his mouth. He un-padlocks the chain and wedges open the hoarding boards that make up the gate for us to squeeze through behind a thick, waist-high slab of concrete.

Once inside, there’s access to three arches. Two still show signs of their previous lives as roads, complete with pavements, signposts and pigeon shit. The middle arch was converted at some point into construction workers’ temporary living accommodation – now the uninhabitable (by mine and squatter Sophie’s standards!) stinking spooky space I’m standing in guarding the filming kit. The film crew, rave crew and a handful of girlfriends and hangers-on are a hive of action elsewhere. Sophie’s gone to get a generator.

A Foo Fighters song I recognise well finishes to the immense roars of the crowd, feeling full of life. Where I am right now I feel… on edge. Jumpy. Finally, Lewis arrives with a padlock so we can secure the kit in a little room. I’m relieved as hell to get away from the perfect horror movie corridor I’ve been stuck in.

* * *

“How the fuck do you not know how to send a location pin? Fuck man! Ok, when you look at your phone, in the top right there’s a little cross….”. I don’t overhear the rest of the conversation but the apparent technophobe on the other end of the phone is the guy bringing the ‘rig’, or sound-system. He’s lost. The closed off roads thanks to the nearby concert are not helping. Neither is the fact that he’s rumoured to have prematurely started his night off with ‘too much’ ketamine. He needs to get here soon, though – the Snapchat invites have just gone out to a couple of thousand people who will be starting to make their way…

***

The rig eventually arrives, along with a handful of ravers required to remain patient for the time being. As the speakers and decks are manoeuvred into place, the levels of tension visibly reduce – anxious argumentative teenagers have given way to a well-versed cool. It is at this precise moment that a voice and some flashlights interrupt proceedings through the metal grills blocking up the arch we’re currently under. “You’re trespassing. All your activities are on CCTV. We can see you’ve got a sound system. The police have been called – they’re on the way.”. Oh.

I have a decent amount of sympathy for someone who’s just trying to do their job and I see the sense, for the most part, in many of the laws of our land. It’s also against my nature to be deliberately antagonistic. It is, therefore, uncommon to find myself on the side of the fence that I’m quite literally on tonight. But have we broken any laws? The security guard flashing his light keeps informing us that we have, thanks to a ‘Section 19’ notice that’s been served, apparently stuck to one of the outside walls. With our non-resident squatter, Sophie, absent from the scene we’ve no idea if he’s bluffing or not. Our solution for now? Apparently to keep completely shtum, move the rig under the hidden middle arch and wait to see if the police really are going to arrive and break up our party before it’s even started.

***

The security guards have left for now but in another arch another problem is unfolding. Sophie’s arrived back with a generator, cycled over on a trailer attached to a Boris Bike. Having left it to he boys, though, it looks like they’ve completely effed it up: the pull chord is stuck and the generator Just. Won’t. Turn. On…

Oblivious to the problems, ravers are starting to turn up in droves, able to slip in less conspicuously now that Foo Fighters fans are streaming past our arches, singing and exuberant. Music, dancing, fun… their evening; certainly not ours.

* * *

It’s gone midnight and our illegal drum’n’bass rave looks thus: in one archway, Sophie and a handful of ravers exchange words through or over the fencing with the police who have indeed turned up. In another archway, J and his girlfriend Lola are trying to fix the generator with the help of our director and his handy multi-tool. In the middle archway the remaining ravers are gathered. They sit in little circles, with phones playing out tinny music between them. Some of the girls are sucking on dummies (a practical trend designed to give their jaw something to do when the incessant ecstasy induced chewing starts). Along with braces on their teeth, hair in pigtails and asexuality in sports gear and trainers, it’s impossible to get away from how frighteningly young most of them are.

Their activities to relieve their boredom are far from innocent, however – smoking weed and cigarettes, snorting lines of various powders, setting light to things and starting to tag on the walls with paint pens. Despite their evident disregard for the law when it comes to their Saturday night activities, the idea of ‘grown ups in charge’ seems ingrained – one chubby, pigtailed teenage girl calls out to me from her circle as I’m walking past “’Scuse me, when’s it gonna get started?”. I chuckle inwardly in disbelief. Proving myself even more to be one of the only organised and responsible adults present, I’ve also become the unofficial snack and water point, which gets me chatting to one particularly interesting individual.

Tsar is 19 and has recently got out from a spell in jail. Complaining of his hunger, I’d given him a banana earlier in the night. Now he needs water to wash something sticky off his hands (Seriously, hours of raving with no food or drink?!). “Codeine.” he explains, gingerly holding out what looks like a medicine bottle, “Or that’s what it’s supposed to be. I was gonna sell it but someone opened it and spilt it so now it’s all sticky.”

He’s a tall good-looking mixed race kid with a small but thick afro. He tells me about how easy it is to make money selling drugs in prison and how much you learn in there. He asks me questions about work, what we’re doing here and whether or not we want any weed. He’s obviously pretty bright, as well as quite charming – later on I’ll see him dangling over the fence chatting to the police officers about football. I can’t help but think he could be doing a lot with himself. But before that thought goes any further, and before I find out what he was in jail for, I’m pulled away to witness the latest blunder the night has to offer.

Back in archway one, the final attempt at getting this rave going is underway. Someone has managed to get hold of a cannister of diesel which they are now pouring into a creaky-looking old generator heaved out from god knows where. Does this generator start? No, of course it doesn’t.

It’s Tsar that vocalises what everyone’s thinking: this night is a flop. Evidently ‘over’ their sit-down gathering in a crappy venue, the would-be law-breaking revellers start obediently queuing up at the gate to be let out. The supremely patient and pragmatic police officers who’ve been milling around outside for the past couple of hours are letting it be known that no-one will be in trouble and no sound kit will be confiscated should everyone leave now.

As I go to retrieve the filming gear from its room off the dank corridor in which I started my night, I walk into a thick fug of noxious fumes. The pen tagging that had begun earlier on in the night has metamorphosed into full aerosol graffiti. Not an area of white wall remains.

I trundle out with my suitcase of production kit, past the police. I’m not quite sure how or whether to greet them.

It’s nearly 3am by the time we’ve packed everything into the car. The train station by which we’re parked hasn’t opened yet, so the bored teenage scenes from inside the railway arches have merely been transposed to outside of them. I find Sophie there too and give the padlock key back. I wonder what her night will now consist of.

As we drive off to do yet more filming, I wonder what I’ve just been part of. It has been equal parts surreal, eye-opening, bemusing and troubling… I’d never been to an illegal rave before and, really, I still haven’t!

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Outsider In Cuba: In Varadero – reluctantly

In October and November 2016 I spent three weeks travelling around Cuba.  I returned home just days before Fidel Castro died.  These posts are written from the scribblings I made in my notebook throughout the trip.

So I’m on a three week whistle-stop guided tour of Cuba. I usually don’t travel in such an organised way but I’d made the decision to go away at the last minute, alone. I’d also been made aware of some of the complexities that could be added to ‘winging it’ alone in Cuba. For one, access to the internet is that much more tricky. For another, card payments and ATMs aren’t terribly reliable. I didn’t really fancy the idea of walking around with a couple of grand stuffed about my person like some kind of lone skinny white cash cow.

I arrived in Cuba just after a hurricane – Matthew – had torn through the eastern most province, devastating Baracoa.  Baracoa had been an intended destination on our trip and one that I had been particularly excited about. With the inhabitants still trying to build their lives back up from the rubble, it was both impossible and inappropriate for us to swing through on our shiny tourist bus. Our itinerary had had to be adapted accordingly and the alternative was now giving us two nights in a beach resort. On hearing about the beach resort, I was a little whiney. “I haven’t come to a Caribbean island to spend time on the beach”, was my ridiculous protest.

Ten days of almost solid travel later, however… We’d had no more than two nights in a single spot, bus journeys of 4-7 hours, a flight, late nights and breakfasts before 8am every day. I found that I was actually ready for some relaxation time. I put my boho pretensions of trying to make my touristy guided tour of Cuba into something authentic to one side and settled into the idea of something a little mindless – take me to the beach!

We arrive in Varadero, THE beach resort capital of Cuba, late in the afternoon. It is pissing with rain. I laugh inwardly – of course it’s raining!

It is hard to believe that just a couple of hours earlier I had spent a serene and contented forty minutes with flippers, mask and snorkel (hired – not to be thought too much about) absorbing visions of tropical fish and coral off a rocky beach under the beating sun. This was in Playa Giron, otherwise known as the Bay of Pigs. It is less well known for its crystal clear waters than it is for a US sponsored invasion that took place in 1961. The intention had been to overthrow the recent revolution led by Fidel Castro et al. It failed miserably and was put a stop to within 72h. I’m sure it has acted as some sort of source of Cuban pride and fuel for propaganda ever since.

The morning after arriving in Varadero, the weather, though windy, is on our side. Despite my desire for relaxation, I know a whole day on the beach is out of the question for my lily white limbs (and natural restlessness). A travel buddy and I decide to hop on the hop-on/hop-off bus to ride along the peninsula. Varadero draws thousands upon thousands of visitors every year – it is to Canadians what the Costa del Sol has been to many a Brit. I want to see if there’s anything more to this place than sun, sea and sand.

Straight to the upper deck of the bus for what I expect will afford me spectacular views – and cos the top deck is just better. Effing hell! This is like being on some horrendously perilous fairground ride! My hat instantly comes flying off, thankfully caught by more experienced open top bus riders behind. There then follows many a moment of ducking and flattening myself horizontally to the seats to avoid having my face wiped off by overhanging tree branches. By the time we reach the coast road, I am sure my contact lenses are going to get blown behind my eyeballs and I fear for the integrity of my eardrums. When I finally decide I can no longer hack it, removing myself from my plastic seat feels like having sellotape ripped off the back of my legs.

The top deck views, by the way, have been entirely unworthy of my malaise.  They are predominantly of the back end of how the other half lives – or, rather, holidays. We sweep past giant four and five star hotels and resorts that block all sight of the beach and sea beyond. They have cheesy aspirational names like “Memories” and, even better, “Grand Memories”. Disappointingly for the “Four Palms” one of their trees must have died because there are only three palms outside the entrance. These all-inclusive luxurious monstrosities all but quarantine their guests from local Cuba(ns). They starve the rest of the town of the life and wealth that the vast number of tourists should confer as, quite frankly, Varadero town itself is a dive.

We sweep into the fancy pants marina at the tip of the peninsula. It has recently been renovated big style and we feel too shabby to be there. As our bus clearly starts making its way back from whence it came, we decide to jump off at the surprisingly placed ecological reserve; a chunk of preserved nature amidst all this grotesque-feeling luxury.

We wind our way along a shady trail over jaggedy limestone rock, identifying flora and fauna thanks to the help of a mini guide sheet. Highlights include a bat cave where bats swoop almost but not quite at our heads, trees which look to have been infected by cactus giving a gigantic hybrid tree/cactus mutation and little lizards that look like they move in stop motion. There is also some rather eggy smelling stagnant water where mangroves grow, that even luxury developments can’t escape from! The reserve is perfect to wile away an hour or two out of the midday heat and away from the characterless over-developed surroundings.

Back on the bus we head back to town for a late lunch and then finally, finally, it is beach time. Far away from the giant resorts, we weave between smaller more discreet and run down hotels. It is still not yet high season so there is a semi-deserted feel in this part of Varadero.

The beach, after everything, does not disappoint. The so soft, almost white sands are fringed by palm trees. The water is every bit the clear turquoise of every Caribbean island dream that’s ever been had. I step and then swim into the never ending shallows, where I experience pure joy at floating, splashing and marvelling at this wonder of nature…

That is until a couple of very small transparent jelly fish float by me! They abruptly put an end to my carefree cliched frolicking as I’m now paranoid that more of these little menaces are going to cut a stingy path straight through me to get to wherever they’re going. Fine, you can have the sea, you tiny jellied fiends!

I dry off in the late afternoon sun and then end the day walking along the foamy waters’ edge for about a kilometre back to that night’s casa. The sun is near to setting, sending colours into a surreal spin… the beach and sea are photo negatives whilst the sky is filled with intense pastels. I feel relaxed and content. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve enjoyed my one day Caribbean beach holiday much more than I was expecting.

The next morning and it’s time to leave Varadero. We’ve just heard the news that Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States of America… The paradise beach holiday is well and truly over.

Outsider In and about Trinidad de Cuba

In October and November 2016 I spent three weeks travelling around Cuba.  I returned home just days before Fidel Castro died.  These posts are written from the scribblings I made in my notebook throughout the trip.

Trinidad, almost halfway along the southern coast of Cuba

…is cobbled streets rolling up hills, Unesco bollards, brightly painted colonial buildings, wooden doors and shutters, wrought iron bars to glass-less windows, terracotta tiled roofs.

It’s blue blue blue skies and fabulous views of green.

It’s a still heat so hot you have to slink along buildings to keep to the shade and avoid melting in the sun.

It’s horses clip-clopping in the street.

It’s getting ripped off and finding great deals, and new experiences in great places…

It’s dinner in a surprise location; in someone’s front room with grandma watching TV next to us.

It’s roof top bars serving Canchancharas, one of my new favourite drinks: honey, lime, white rum.

It’s good service and it’s bad service.

In every bar, it’s music.  It’s a night club in a cave.

It’s the ‘hardest sell’ in Cuba so far – although still quite soft: cotton clothes, trinkets and souvenirs to buy; “drink in this bar”, “eat in this restaurant”; “taxi, taxi”; trips to the beach and days on a catamaran; horse riding excursions with cowboys.  Speaking of which…

It’s the day of my Trinidadian horse riding experience into the countryside surrounding the city!

It’s another day of blue skies and sweltering heat.  Getting away from the cobbled streets and out along dirt paths on horseback brings a just perceptible breath of air.

Cowboy style, I have the reins in one hand whilst the other remains free – for toting my imaginary gun or swinging my imaginary lasso around my head?  More likely it’s for grabbing on to the nobbly hand-hold at the front of the saddle if things start to get a little exciting.

Most of the time our horses seem to want to go for a not particularly exciting but not particularly comfortable trot. My thighs feel quickly achey from rising up and lowering myself in the saddle, and my jeans rub disagreeably. The other option is to stay put, sat in the saddle, and be bumped around with every movement of my horse, Mojito. I alternate between the two, realising very quickly that the end point in any case is going to be one of all around thigh and backside pain.

At one point the horses collectively, and surprisingly, decide to break into a canter. I lose any of my horse-riding swagger, along with my hat. It’s flown off behind me while I cling to the reins and the now essential nobbly hand hold in order to not fly off myself!  Just as suddenly, and collectively, the horses chill out back to the bumpy trot.  We are all, more or less, still in our saddles.  My hat is nobly retrieved by our cowboy guide.

This is the guide who’s decided very early on in our outing that I am the best bet for him to spend his time flirting with. This has started to become a staple part of my experience in Cuba, which is more amusing than threatening or flattering, especially as in this instance it is just me and a German couple on the trip. I resist his (most unprofessional!) repeated offer of the gift of my first ever Cuban kiss and, when he finally understands he’s at a dead end, he is just friendly and happy to chat if I have any questions.

Our bums get a break for a bit when we tie our horses up in the shade of some trees and walk up a trail to a waterfall and two natural pools so we can go for a swim. Set up on the rocks is a made-for-tourists but nonetheless charmingly makeshift bar selling rum cocktails and fresh coconuts. The requisite guitarist, maraca and bongo players are in situ, serenading us with Cuban hits.

Looking forward to a dip, I get changed quick sharpish, unwittingly doing so standing on an ants’ nest. The little buggers quickly let me know my error and with a foot now on fire, getting into the fresh water becomes even more desirable.

I plop into the deeper pool off a small rock, lamenting not having brought a more practical swimsuit as I watch the small group of tourists already arrived demonstrating the main attraction: jumping off a high up rock into the deepest part of the pool.

I can’t actually tell if I want to jump off the rock into the pool, but now I’ve seen the damned thing, I realise I have no choice – self-bully mode has set in. I dutifully tighten my bikini (one that was involved in a nipple-reveal incident in the summer), clamber out of the pool and up the rocks, and plan to just jump without thinking. The plan fails when I get to the top and, rather than just jump, I do start thinking – thinking very much how my tummy is telling me ‘no’.

So there I sit, like a lemon, not massively high up, but high enough to feel thwarted. I feign drying myself off in the sun whilst realising that I can’t hang around on this rock for too long – I’m one of the whitest people in the world, and will very quickly get burnt. I dither but my pride won’t let me climb back down. Nothing to it then but to take one step, two steps, jump off, and aim for the spot everyone else has been plunging into…

What a fuss over nothing! Really, five metres is not high at all – I can’t even tell I’ve jumped and I’m already hitting the water. I emerge with a stinging hand where I must have slapped the surface on my way in and my sinuses feeling that they’ve had a good old flushing out. Bikini is still in place, though. In this puny battle of wills, my more courageous side eventually won – hurrah. Time to get my horse swagger back on, stinging hand, bruised butt and all.

On the last part of the excursion, we ride to lunch at a farm and sit under a thatch canopy where hens scratch around and a skinny determined tabby cat makes enough fuss for me to throw it my leftovers. I chat to the German girl who eats a sandwich. I’ve paid 9CUC (9$) for organic chicken, rice, black beans, yucca, plantain and freshly pressed sugar cane juice. The German girl’s humourless boyfriend sits mostly quiet and consumes nothing, declaring the food to be “too expensive”.

Jelly-legs, raw inner thighs and sore bum, I sit nonetheless content and warmed, not just from the heat of the air blowing gently through our shaded terrace, but from my full-stomach and the peace I feel looking out at fields leading to lush hillsides and small mountains under an eye-splitting pure blue sky… a moment of genuine bliss.

Without a doubt, a good four and a half hours – and 25CUC – well spent. I don’t bother asking the German guy if he agrees.

***

Trinidad is, and has been, a multitude of things to me.  It’s tourists, tourists, tourists, of which I am one.  There are too many of us here but undoubtedly because it is so beautiful and so easy to love – which I, along with probably everybody who visits the city, do.

Outsider In interviews for jobs in TV production

This was my third interview.  Would it be third time lucky?

Interview number 1.

In a surprisingly sombre office, the first interview barely counted: 15 minutes with my interviewer, which I mistakenly took as being a good sign. I thought that it meant my CV and application had just screamed out ‘Hire Me!’ and that the face to face bit was a mere formality.  After all, it was for a receptionist job – a position I’d held a good three times in the early years of my working life – and I’d been called for the interview the very same day I’d applied.  I probably went in feeling over-confident and quite possibly treated my interviewer as an equal rather than my potential future manager; she can’t have been three years older than me.

What I hadn’t yet understood is how TV recruitment works: fast, casual, and on feeling. Although we both knew that I could do a receptionist job standing on my head, her feeling might have been that I wasn’t cut out to be her subordinate.  At least I got some feedback – competent, intelligent (!) but probably more suited to production.  Oh, and not available quickly enough.  Like I said, TV recruitment needs arise, and need to be sorted, fast.

Interview number 2.

Interview number two was for a slightly more challenging role: Office and Executive Assistant.  These probably don’t sound very much like telly roles to a non-TV person, and quite a lot like your average ‘office job’, which I’ve been steadfastly avoiding for the whole of my working life…  Well, they pretty much are office jobs, but in a bit more of an interesting and creative environment.  I’ve worked out that I’m good at organising, coordinating, anticipating, communicating – doing all the bitty things.  And creative industries need people like that to Get Shit Done.

So, whilst I work on flexing that less tangible creative muscle (known as editorial in TV-land) or picking up the technical aspects of production through personal pursuits, I’ve decided my best path currently is to play to my strengths within the industry by making myself utterly indispensable on the logistical side.  Especially as I’d be laughed out of the room if I tried to get anyone to take me seriously as a producer or researcher at this point in time!

I left my second interview high as a kite, feeling like it couldn’t have gone better.  One of the interviewers was finishing my sentences, and so I let her believe everything she wanted to about me. There were no awkward moments, I got to ‘sell’ myself, and I was in there for double the time they’d initially said. By the end I was being asked about my hobbies and holidays. Surely things don’t get any better than that?

I skip out of the bright, young, funky and friendly office, fully expecting to be asked for a second interview the following week, as that was the timeline I’d been given. I even start researching and preparing for the next round.

A week goes by and, no matter how many times I refresh my inbox, no ‘We’d like to invite you for a second interview’ email arrives.  Inexplicable!  I was awesome!  Wasn’t I…?  I start to panic, as the ‘no news is good news’ mantra isn’t doing it any more.  A quick google of ‘what to do when you don’t hear back from a job interview’ and I feel somewhat reassured.  I plan for a follow up email in a few days time, cos I’ll surely get a response either way, right?

Well, apparently, three weeks can go by since an interview, two weeks since you were told you would hear back, and a week and a half since a follow up email, and it is acceptable in the TV industry – or from the interviewers of this company – to not respond.  At all.

No time to dwell, though, as, in the meantime, another company has got in touch with me to conduct an informal phone interview AND I’ve made it through to the second face to face stage…

Interview number 3.

This company and its offices are the biggest and most impressive yet, although a bit more traditional feeling.  They also smell of someone’s curry lunch.  I’m here to try to become the Development Team Assistant – the best title I’ve interviewed for thus far.  On arrival I find that my phone interviewer, and one of the intended interviewers of today, is off sick.  Consequently I’ll just be meeting with the Director of Development.  He is the person I probably have to impress the most but the one I will have less contact with of the two.  I have no idea if this is a good thing or not.

On leaving the interview, I still have no idea.  I feel, bizarrely, like I haven’t had an interview at all.  Not in the standard sense, in any case.  As in, I’m not actually sure if I was asked any questions, or particularly had the opportunity to talk about myself…

I learnt a lot about the company and the details of the role and about the person (my interviewer) and people whom I would be assisting.  It is as if it were purely down to me to decide whether or not the role and company appealed.  Whether or not I appealed to the company is, well, a mystery to me.  When it came to the inevitable end question of ‘do you have any questions for me?’, I almost returned it straight back!  I chose, more diplomatically, to ask him if he wanted me to elaborate on anything, as it’s difficult to shoe-horn in one’s carefully prepared responses to all those standard interview questions that you’ll definitely get asked when you actually don’t get asked them.

I’m left, then, with no sense of where this is going.  Is it possible in this case that my CV and initial phone interview really did scream ‘Hire Me’ this time, and the face to face was literally that: ‘Hello, here’s my face, my arms, my legs, the expressions that I make’, and how bright, calm or personable I am?  And how will my face, arms, legs, eyebrow wiggles and general persona compare to those of the other people coming in for this non-interview interview experience?  Is this more of the casual TV, ‘on feeling’ way of recruiting?

I won’t know for a few days yet, but I’ve been sincerely promised that I will hear back either way.  On this note, I decide it’s time for me to follow up on the ghosting experience I seem to be going through since interview number two: it’s time for the phone call.

Big anticlimax: my main interviewer is in a meeting.   I leave a message and she will ‘hopefully’ get back to me. We shall see.

***

It’s been three months since I actively started my intensive job hunt in TV and I’m three interviews down.  I remain decidedly not employed in the industry but still sure that it will happen… although where, when and how, even when an interview is staring me in the face, I am, evidently, still in the dark about!*

*Two weeks later I get offered the job from interview number three, so I’ve taken it.  Interview two has still never got back to me.  Their loss.

Outsider In Cuba: A glimpse of Santiago de Cuba

In October and November 2016 I spent three weeks travelling around Cuba.  I returned home just days before Fidel Castro died.  These posts are written from the scribblings I made in my notebook throughout the trip.

I’m suddenly in Santiago de Cuba, just 24 hours after landing in Havana. A one hour flight with Cuba Air got me here – thankfully. The other end of the country (east) and the second city of Cuba, it feels completely different to Havana: quieter, cleaner, better kept and, to my delight, with far fewer tourists.

In Santiago, it’s less about the cars and more about the motorbikes. Classic, of course, from the 50s. I wonder what foreign collectors would give for some of these models. Here they serve an entirely practical purpose as motor-taxis, getting Santiagans(?) from A to B. Everyone riding them wears, frankly, very cool little peaked helmets – black, often with a thick red or blue band going over the top of the head.

A wander down to the quayside and beautiful young Afro-Cuban boys are hurling themselves energetically and joyously into the sea. They all look under 13. A few have their noses pierced. They ask for things but don’t pester, and I give them the water bottle I’m carrying. They clearly want to talk and I hear one boy quietly practising English phrases but is too shy to use them. In Spanish, one tells me that they don’t have running water and so that’s why they are bathing here. I know that they’re actually having a great time in the sea but I also think there’s a high chance what he’s telling me is true.

I fulfil my Santiago tourist obligations by being bussed around to various ‘must see’ spots on the outskirts of the city. In fact, here there was a real must see for me, inspired by my Fidel Castro interviews preparatory readings*, and that was the Moncada Barracks. For, in the otherwise somewhat dry first few chapters, it’s Fidel’s account of the failed attack on these military barracks in 1953 – and so failed start to the revolution – where things really get going.

Startlingly mustard coloured, the building is now a school, with mock bullet holes decorating the facades in reminder of what took place here. After the attack, the original bullet holes were quickly filled in by the then president, Fulgencio Batista.  When Fidel was finally successful in his revolution in 1959, he ordered them to be re-gouged…

In each town or city in Cuba there is a Plaza de la Revolucion – ‘Revolution Square’. More of a gigantic roundabout in a nondescript part of the city, Santiago de Cuba’s revolution plaza is a slightly strange monument of humungous machetes, a giant man on a horse and a small memorial area. Impressive, in a slightly frightening Soviet sort of way, it feels stark and bleak as opposed to inspirational.

One of the tourist ‘highlights’ in Santiago is the city cemetery, Cementerio Santa Ifigenia. It is packed to the gills with some of the most important figures in Cuban history, including 50s revolutionary martyrs, family members of the Bacardí rum dynasty and, since my visit, the ashes of Fidel Castro. Of central importance is the mausoleum of José Martí, the father of Cuban independence.

My real high point is watching the changing of the guard in front of this tomb. Taking place (an excessive) every 30 minutes, I would say it’s 90% engineered for tourists.

Performed by the young men somewhere in their two year compulsory military service, they high-kick march to a tune that makes me feel like I’m watching a musical. Their choreographed moves only add to the effect – pauses, slow motion elements, slightly comical gun and elbow waggling… I want to applaud at the end!

I enjoy their lack of real discipline as the boys in uniform can not help but wander their eyes over to our small group of tourists and crack a smile of gleaming white teeth. It seems that Cubans can’t help but flirt, even when they’re on military duty.

Another trait revealing itself, is the curious and talkative nature of many Cubans. Thirsty, it seems, for knowledge, a foreigner is the next best thing to costly internet and hard to come by international newspapers. In just two days in the country, I’ve had conversations on streets, in plazas and casas and on planes, with intelligent Cubans who seem well-informed and hold strong political opinions. They have been keen to share and open up their way of life and confirm if what they know of the rest of the world is accurate – and maybe prove that they’re not so isolated after all.

Enjoying a conversation in the main plaza of Santiago, I notice a police officer from afar gently discouraging my friendly and polite interlocutor, attempting to break up our interaction. Tourist bothering is something that the police are obviously made to crack down on, but I don’t feel bothered at all. I do realise that it may work both ways, and the Cubans are being ‘protected’ from me just as much as I am from them… It’s a shame because I crave these exchanges in the hope of obtaining some real insight into Cuba.

Finally, food must always get a mention, and one pleasant food discovery I make in Santiago is a sapote when I am given a half one at breakfast to be eaten with a spoon. It is like a giant avocado with a large stone in the middle but with a harder brown shell. The flesh is similar in texture but rust coloured and has a pure sweetness in flavour, in a way that a date is so very very sweet.

My other food adventure in Santiago is when a travelling buddy and I make a Cuban’s day by buying his nuts. I have been noticing little conical twists of paper littering the streets in many places and so, when we come across someone selling them, evidently with edible goods inside, I want to know just what they are.

Our Cuban salesman is quick to open up one of the little cones and pour roasted, salted peanuts into our hands. We know we have to pay, of course, and his response is as for everything Cubans sell on the street to tourists: “1CUC”, equivalent to $1. Our smallest denomination is 5CUC. Spotting an opportunity, he gives us six more twists for our $5 and trots off smiling ear to ear whilst the Cubans in the shop in front of which we are standing look on in bemusement tinged with horror.

To put it into context, in one transaction we’d just given him the equivalent of nearly half a month’s salary for the average Cuban in a menial state paid job. Well, lucky for him coming across us pair of wallies that day – I hope he enjoyed spending his mini-jackpot!

*Fidel Castro: My Life, Ignacio Ramonet

Outsider In Cuba: Lessons from Havana in 24h

In October and November 2016 I spent three weeks travelling around Cuba.  I returned home just days before Fidel Castro died.  These posts are written from the scribblings I made in my notebook throughout the trip.

I’m in the taxi from the airport. My extremely accommodating driver is my first Cuban voice into the Cuba of today and the changes the island is going through. His words are accompanied by dark, damp urban views affording me a frustratingly low-key visual entry into the country: I glimpse palm trees, squat blocks of houses, a few other cars.

He explains that now having internet access, and the opportunity of meeting more tourists and speaking with Cubans who travel, have given him a newly positive view of his country. The free education and healthcare, so frequently cited, for example. Now that private enterprise is allowed there’s also generally a lot more hope. Being enterprising seems to be in the Cuban nature. He tells me that he taught himself English from scratch, and driving tourists to and from the airport every day is how he practises. He works seven days a week and has taken just eight or nine days off this year. His English is excellent.

Reaching Old Havana, we pull up in a back street. In the drizzle and low lighting, everything is a picture in sepia until I step inside my casa. This first casa particular, akin to a bed and breakfast, is quite something: marble staircases, furniture from 19th to mid last century, highly decorative tiles all worth taking pictures of (so I do), and ceilings three times the height of an average person. This house also happens to be chock full of religious (Catholic) paraphernalia.

I don’t ask too many questions of my hosts; my Spanish is frazzled, as am I. My low key start to Cuba continues in the same vein with bed calling. The spectacular, I hope, will start tomorrow.

***

Morning one and it’s pissing it down with rain. Biblical levels of rain. Most of the streets have turned into small rivers. Spectacular scenes, yes, but not quite what I was hoping for. Committed to a walking tour of Old Havana that I am already on, we find ourselves taking shelter in a warehouse type building that happens to be hosting a jiu jitsu and taekwondo competition for children and teens. I notice that there are some blind and partially sighted participants as we watch the warm ups and tumbling exercises across the multi-coloured mats.

Waterfalls are cascading in through the windows, doorways and holes in the roof. Small lakes spread across the concrete floor threatening the activity but the Cubans are unfazed.

A judo instructor befriends me and gives me some tips on where I can find salsa clubs to go dancing. He doesn’t ask me for anything untoward in exchange but perhaps a donation towards the martial arts centre. He doesn’t insist, though, and is quite happy just to chat and then leave me be.

Sheltering in the martial arts warehouse turns out to be the best insight into Cuban life of the day, as the rest of it is spent… surrounded by tourists. The centre of Old Havana seems strangely quiet save for the sheer masses of guided walking tours. I find myself mostly observing other tourists in horrified fascination. Being part of the mass of tourist numbers doing guided tourist things was, ignorantly, and arrogantly perhaps, an experience I wasn’t expecting.

One sight I had been expecting, and am not disappointed by, are the promised classic cars – American, from the 50s and 60s, mostly Chevrolets and 80s Russian Ladas. At the airport, my taxi driver had pointed out a car that used to have the honour of being a security vehicle for Fidel Castro. Russian built, bullet-proof, apparently. Now it carts tourists around.

By the end of the day I am having my first in depth chat with a young Cuban. Denis is 28, Afro-Cuban. Very quickly going past the pleasantries, he is telling me about living conditions and his views on Cuba. With so few jobs around, he feels young Cubans have become unmotivated, and just do what they can to get a fast buck. He tells me that he is opposed to the government, describing it as a dictatorship. Despite having trained as a nurse, he no longer works in the profession and, instead, goes house to house selling bleach. He makes more money this way. It also means he’s not working for the state.

We talk about housing conditions. In fact, it was in catching me taking a picture of his house that our conversation started. I saw a photo opportunity in the dilapidation. He, along with many others crammed into the space, has to live in the dilapidation. I don’t go inside but through the glassless barred windows I can see that the state of reparation is appalling. In fact, driving back out of the city, past more and more buildings, it strikes me that never before have I been somewhere where such a great proportion of the buildings are in such dismal condition.

Eventually Denis and I come to be discussing the dream many young Cuban men have – escape from the island via a foreign woman. Marriage to a foreigner is the best passport for leaving the country to a more economically secure and democratically free life. It seems that love is an unnecessary bonus for the Cuban men who salsa their way into the beds and hearts of these women but for him, he tells me, it must be the basis of any relationship. However, when five minutes’ later he’s telling me that he may be falling in love at this very moment on the street, I decide it’s time to bring our conversation to a close.

So from love, to food, which actually is a love for me. Unfortunately, it is currently only remarkable in that I’ve eaten virtually the same bloody thing for every meal since touchdown: sandwiches. My midnight snack on arrival at the casa was a reconstituted ham toastie.  Breakfast included a roll with egg.  Lunch was a tuna sandwich.  My afternoon snack, a round hot crunchy bread with sweet tomato sauce and cheese, masquerading as a pizza but folded into a sloppy sandwich.  And dinner? Cheese and ham toastie. Lesson learnt – when you have the choice don’t go for a sandwich because there are probably many occasions when it will be the only thing available to eat!

***

Looking back, I can see that, in under 24 hours, I had stumbled across some of the main themes that were to recur throughout the trip, onto which I would build a bigger picture of Cuba today. The positive and negative aspects of the revolution in evidence: good health, socialist practices and education; disenfranchised youth, but a hope for the future; the important feature of tourists to this isolated country, offering a means of escape from poverty or a literal escape from the island. The friendliness and willingness of Cubans to talk and share, and to praise and criticise Cuba – and flirt! – in equal measure. And the former glory, the faded grandeur peeking through crumbling facades and infrastructure…

I was determined that the food situation was going to get better, though. I wasn’t eating just sandwiches for the next three weeks!

Outsider In Cuba: Pre-take off, post-touch down

In October and November 2016 I spent three weeks travelling around Cuba.  I returned home just days before Fidel Castro died.  These posts are written from the scribblings I made in my notebook throughout the trip.

It started at the Cuban Tourist Embassy on High Holborn in Central London. Well, actually, it started with a phone call to a travel agent and then another one and then some internet surfing… but let’s say it started at the Tourist Cuban Embassy; a small, brownish building, quiet and unimpressive, highlighted by a Cuban flag and a little plaque. I’m here for my tourist visa.

I’m buzzed in and feel as if I’ve walked into.. I’m not sure what era, but one before I was born. I wonder if any of this is representative of what lies ahead on my three week trip: brown and cream flock wallpaper of leaves and trees, thin brown carpet, leatherette wine-coloured sofas and armchairs. There is a mild sense of shabbiness and not much light, incongruent with the colourful idea I have of the country.

The uplifting element in the room is the friendly receptionist, who patiently repeats to each tourist-to-be approaching her window: “Do you have your visa form and postal order?”. Postal order?! I’ve managed over 31 years on this planet without procuring such a thing, and thought they were now defunct. Evidently not alone in this thought, there is a constant trail of people back out of the embassy to the post office, which is thankfully close by.

The post office clerk is not surprised by my request. I Imagine that Monday to Thursday morning, the hours visas are processed, at least 50% of this post office’s trade must come from the Embassy. The £17 thirty day visa costs, as a postal order, a random £19.13… There’s no ‘sell’ on currency – they know as well as I do that you can’t get Cuban money outside of Cuba.

Back in the embassy I go past the receptionist’s post to another little shabby waiting room, with three visa processing windows, all occupied by women. In my preparatory reading before heading to Cuba, I’ve been grinding through My Life: 200 hours worth of interviews with Fidel Castro conducted and transcribed by Ignacio Ramonet. Fidel has taught me that women make up to 65% of the Cuban technical and scientific work force. At one point, quotas had to be put in place to ensure enough men were entering university! Having seen only women so far in the Tourist Embassy, it makes me wonder whether they also dominate in civil service roles.

My mind wanders further.. is it considered an immense privilege as a Cuban to work in an Embassy in London? The earnings must be considered eye-watering. It would also be a way out of a somewhat isolated country, even if it’s to immensely uninspiring surroundings with minimal natural light and little real human interaction – stamp stamp, photocopy, process, next please, stamp stamp. Morning after morning after morning.

I will never know the feelings of these women towards the streams of us making our way to their fascinating little island. And, although Fidel has talked of the high levels of political and cultural education of the population, with control over the media and limited internet access, I wonder how enlightened the island’s inhabitants really are – and what they will share with me once there.

***

It’s a week later and I’m on the plane having my second dealing with Cuban bureaucracy; a customs declaration form. It’s been a while since I’ve filled one of these out but it seems that Cuba has some unique customs items concerns: satellite communication equipment, walkie-talkies, pornography(!), and other, simple, miscellaneous articles, like footwear, clothing, toiletries, etc etc. Good quality versions of these latter products are hard to come by in Cuba, so visitors are often encouraged by tour agencies to bring something of the kind as a gift or donation. Looks like the government isn’t quite so encouraging.

In the final part of the declaration, I’m told that if my answers are all ‘no‘ then I am to ‘sing‘ and hand over my form at the customs area. I imagine joyfully singing a tune and salsa-ing through customs celebrating my non-criminal entry into the musical, rhythmic Caribbean island of Cuba! Ah, no – I realise it’s only a typo. They just want me to sign and enter the country with little fuss – I get a “Welcome to Cuba” as my passport is stamped.

I step past the officials, my eyes wide open, devouring the newness of it all. The women look glamorous, if a little tacky, with gold jewellery and glittery eye makeup. Fishnet tights are a thing. I walk past an open office door and catch my first glimpse of the Che Guevara image and another of Fidel Castro. As I wait for my bag a guy by me is collecting first one, two then three squat cylindrical shaped packages off the conveyer. He is patiently awaiting the fourth – a set of tyres, presumably like gold dust in Cuba.

Into arrivals, all red and cream and seventies, a sea of foreign faces, a humid warmth. I find my taxi driver. A friendly handshake, good English. He’s keen to go. I step out to the damp outside. The next three weeks stretch deliciously ahead of me.