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 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 prime minister but Fidel, when finally successful in his revolution in 1959, ordered them to be re-gouged…

In each town or city 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’ 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.

Outsider In Ecuador: Volunteer teaching at a rural primary school

In May and June 2011, I spent a few weeks in what felt like a forgotten part of northern Ecuador – a mountainous rural zone called Intag on the edge of a cloud forest.  I pillaged the emails I wrote home to friends and family at the time for the posts here.

It was a Thursday when I’d been filling an email to the brim with experiences of volunteering as an English teacher in a primary school in a remote Ecuadorian farming community.  I’m sure things have changed immensely in the five years since I was there but, then, slow slow internet was only available in the main village of Cuellaje; its tentacles had not spread to the farms, one of which we were staying in, dotted around the community, miles apart, separated by hills, mud tracks and very little transport.

Usually our only chance to make it to Cuellaje, and so connect with the outside world, was on a Sunday when we’d head down with our local host farming family – along with every other member of the surrounding communities. This was the day for churchgoing, food shopping, playing a variant of volleyball (very high net, no smashes) and generally hobnobbing in the village in one’s Sunday best. With only four dial-up computers available and a lot of teenagers around, it was also the day for fighting over internet.

On this Thursday, though, the teeny San Antonio primary school was closed. This wasn’t the first occasion that the children had been treated to a no lesson day since my arrival a couple of weeks before, but this time it was owing to a serious meeting. With only 17 children in the primary school, the education supervisors of the parish had deemed three teachers to be one too many, and so all had gone to Cuellaje village to decide who would be moved instead to the secondary school there.

While their fate was being determined, my travel buddy and I opportunistically made the 40min trek into the village on the back of the milk truck – the most regular and reliable form of transport around – so I could write home about my exploits… this time, school life, starting with a caviat:

An unsteady stream of volunteers with dodgy English teaching credentials is the only access to the language these children get.  English has relatively recently become part of the national curriculum in Ecuador, but it takes a long while for teachers’ qualifications to catch up, especially in rural areas.  People like me partaking in what I now see as ‘volontourism‘ doesn’t necessarily improve the situation, and potentially dis-incentivises local governments to train up teachers… still, I found myself there, happily ignorant to these ethical qualms whilst I learnt quite a lot but also felt appreciated by the locals.  (You can judge more here.)

I was teaching three groups of children, roughly divided into the 5 and 6 year olds, 8 and 9 year olds, then the 10 and 11 year olds. The school itself was pretty dilapidated but cheery and it soon felt normal, though it certainly wasn’t by western standards: faded painted concrete walls, broken windows, doors that barely locked, outside toilets and sinks, no playgrounds as such, just an uneven grassy field, and pencil-scribed workbooks to be rubbed out and used again.

None of that seemed to matter, though, as the kids made the best of it all. They were pretty up for learning, especially as I tried mostly to do games. It was a million times easier than teaching moody French teenagers which had been my experience up to that point. They could be a pain in the arse sometimes, of course, but mostly they were hugely entertaining, and wanted to play all the time. They were upbeat and adventurous, grubby and fun-loving like kids should be – even the 11 year olds who could have been pre-pubescent horrors but just weren’t. It inspired a child-like feeling in me again.

On the way home from school it could take anywhere between 40 minutes and 2 hours to walk back because of the many kids we’d have in tow. There were often various stops to scramble up mud banks and climb trees in order to scrounge whatever wild-growing fruit was obtainable. I would mainly stand at the bottom, shouting directions, giving a leg up, and catching things on the way down. Always generous, any of their fruity bounty they would share, from their grubby little hands to ours. I would accept with glee, my heart always won through my stomach… unfortunately, this was a surefire way for my stomach to also win out over my bowels…

In other food matters, before the school day even started we were fuelled with two (!) breakfasts: one at home and one at school with the kids. The latter consisted of a thick porridge-like drink tasting vaguely of banana and called colada, with biscuits and granola. We were also once treated to piglet uterus, which was a first. Like the kids, the teachers often insisted on sharing food with us and, on this occasion, wouldn’t divulge what we were eating until after we’d finished. I felt only a little weird about it.

The teachers were nice and pretty laid back. The volunteer ‘programme’ coordinator, an English guy named Ned who’s ‘gone native’ and become a farmer in the community, was of the opinion that they were “bone idle”. I’d rather believe it’s a cultural difference… although, it is true that, by mid-way through my time volunteering, there had already been the inexplicable days of no classes, and on National Children’s Day we just played games, ate corn and cheese and watched Ice Age

Slightly incomprehensible situations were commonplace in my life there, thanks to the giant culture differences and my not-fast-enough-improving level of Spanish. The now semi-anthropologist in me would have seen this all with quite different eyes but, five years ago, I was an English girl amused by the new oddities and contradictions I felt I was witnessing. And school seemed particularly rife with them.

Sometimes there were rules and timetables for things, other times there weren’t. As far as I could tell, it depended on the mood of the teachers.

Sometimes I’d end up taking one of the classes for an entire morning whilst, for example, the teacher put together a flat-pack cupboard so couldn’t possibly teach at the same time.

Break time could last 10 minutes one day and one hour the next.

Once a whole school lesson consisted of putting cut grass into a big hole in the field. I also believed at one point that the teachers were making the kids do gardening labour for them, but apparently it was part of the curriculum…

Monday at school was, inconsistently, the ‘day of patriotism’. The children were supposed to sing the national anthem, flag waving and hands over hearts. Extremely important for patriotism, it appeared, is having clean fingernails and ears, not wearing wellies and having a clean and folded hanky in your pocket. If not, a bunch of squats was doled out as punishment – for lack of patriotic cleanliness, I can only suppose.

Ultimately, propriety and orderliness were fighting a losing battle against a group of farm kids living on the edge of a cloud forest, where boundaries and time seemed loose. For me, this daily picture somewhat encapsulates it all:

The girls would start off the day, puffed up and pleased, with elaborately plaited and immaculately scraped back hair; the boys would have it combed, parted and plastered down to one side with water, all to stay that way for an hour at most. Their once weekly mother’s-hand-scrubbed uniforms – cold water, brush and soap against stone – stood no chance against their daily antics: they were generally ragged and torn, and increasingly dirty as the week wore on. This image was all topped – or bottomed – off by sock-free feet jammed into unmatching wellies…

The teachers reacted alternately with utter dismay, or total indifference.  And the kids, of course, spent 99% of their time not caring a single blooming jot!  And I adored them all the more for that.

To learn more about tourism, volunteering or conservation in the area, read more on their blog and Facebook page, or contact Ned Cresswell on their Cloud Forest Adventure website.

Outsider In Barcelona: First observations

Three years ago, I wrote about my first experiences in Barcelona – a city previously unknown to me that I had decided to start a new life in.  As this is where the first ideas for this blog came from, I thought it fitting to document my exploits here.  These blog posts started out life as emails to my friends and family during my time there.

I’ve been here about six weeks now, and I suppose I’m settling into some sort of routine.  I at least have a flat, some Catalan flatmates, three jobs and a few Spanish and Catalan words under my belt. Barcelona being a wonderfully human-sized city, I’ve cultivated a slight obsession with going everywhere by foot, to the extent that I’ve started to resent hopping on a metro or bus for even 10 minutes.  Not that public transport is bad here – far from it.  So, as an alien in a new world, assaulted from all sides and through all senses by my new surroundings, I share with you some of my first observations, and why not start with the most thrilling?… public transport!

The Metro

Stairs – flipping loads of them in the metro!  As there are about six different entrances to most metro stations, which can seemingly be spread across four blocks, should you make the mistake of entering into the wrong one for your line or direction, be prepared to go up and down stupid numbers of times before reaching your required platform.  This was all kinds of fun when I first arrived with my overweight, limping suitcase and no chivalrous help at hand (New-Catalan-Friend was no longer with me at that point because of the lost telephone at airport debacle – previous post).

Changing lines – DON’T DO IT!  You may be mistaken in thinking that because lines converge or cross at one station that you can hop off one and onto another.  Nuh-uh.  Be prepared for the aforementioned stair obstacle course as well as crossing half of Barcelona in a muggy, 70s-ugly tunnel. Best to walk that bit further in the pleasant outside world to a different station and just take the one line a few stops (just choose the right street entrance…).

One amazingly fantastic super duper thing, however, is that the metro runs ALL NIGHT on a Saturday!  Brilliant!  So I guess that makes up for all the stairs.

More things about Barcelona, though:

People

There are lots of nose rings.  Various types.  Every second person seems to have one.  Or dreads, or a mullet.  It’s like being back at college again (except for the mullets).

People call you guapa and cariña all over the place.  I know this is the equivalent to being called love or darling in the market or at the pub but I unapologetically rather like it.

The economic ‘crisis’ that we’ve all been going through is evident.  My fully qualified architect flatmate is fully unemployed, along with the majority of those in her profession in Spain.  Quite a few people beg on the street with cardboard signs declaring the number of children they have to support, the lack of food…  Then there are those who sell packets of tissues, lighters or chewing gum on street corners to make a bit of change.

The self-employed bin men are also a common sight, which is a bit shocking to see in a European country*.  Like modern day rag and bone men, they seem to collect just about anything which could have even the smallest amount of second-hand worth.  They are found rummaging through the many vast recycling containers, dotted on almost every street corner, accompanied by a shopping trolley and maybe a hammer, packing in as much as they can, from cardboard boxes to old clothes and shoes, electrical goods (and bads) and metal items.  Where on earth these then get distributed to after, I have no idea. But someone must have worked out that it was worth a little something because there sure are a lot of people doing it.

*it certainly was in 2012 but is potentially a less shocking sight nowadays with persisting economic difficulties, and immigration and refugees in Southern European countries

Football

Futbal Club Barcelona is NOT just a football team.  ‘More than just a club’, it is, I’ve learned, religion and politics combined: fans more like fanatics, it is a symbol for how Catalonia could stand independently of the rest of Spain.  And any match between Barcelona and Madrid is a grudge match to end all grudge matches.  Catalans would rather sell their nans than have Madrid beat Barça!

There is even a whole TV channel dedicated to the team: if you wish, you could spend hours watching montages set to music of the best Barça goals of this season, last season, 20 seasons ago… or you can watch tiny little Barça players being coached into future Messis or Iniestas.

Buzz

Not a week goes by without a protest, fiesta or strike.  I don’t think people in Barcelona know how to manage without some mass gathering and noise-making.  I must admit, I find it all quite fun and have been tempted to grab my saucepan and wooden spoon and join in on the banging and marching, but I’m not sure I’d manage the chanting, let alone the meaning behind it all.

Apart from the protests, fiestas or strikes, there is always something going on.  And, because Barcelona is pretty small, it means you can actually participate in much of the fun – the idea of a ‘trek’ across town is, in reality, a maximum 20 min train or bus ride, even taking the stairs into account (imagine that London!)!

Buildings

The beautiful buildings – ahh.  There really are some fantastic, interesting, curious, different, crazy and beautiful buildings all over the city which can just make your day that bit brighter.  There are ugly ones too but so many that I pass only seem to get better the more I look at them, as I notice more details, more colours, more shapes.  And, be it right or wrong to accredit him entirely with the glorious architecture of the city, I say thank you to Gaudi for his part in the daily feast for both eyes and soul that I enjoy.

Weather

Finally, I couldn’t possibly end my observations without comment on the most talked about topic on the isle from which I hail… and, do you know what, it actually rains quite a lot in Barcelona.  I know, I was surprised too! Don’t get me wrong, there were still days into late October when I could careen around in a dress and cardigan and not be feeling the cold but there has been a surprising amount of water falling from the sky too.

Most memorably when I was with a friend watching a fantastic light show being projected on to one of the more notable Gaudi buildings, Casa Batlló, with hundreds of other people all crammed in the street to watch.  Not five minutes of the show had passed when an absolute torrential downpour started, resulting in almost flash-flooding of the street we were on. Masses of people rammed together and desperate to keep from getting wet only resulted in hundreds of mini umbrella waterfalls, so it was rather like having a cold, temperamental shower attacking you from various angles!  When the lights from the show went off because a thunder erupted, everyone screamed and decided that was the time to panic-scramble, with umbrellas now as weapons to barge through the crowds…!

So for everyone suffering from a bit of SAD back in the UK, or just the usual shit-weather grumbles, be comforted that the grass is not always greener on the other side (or that the sun doesn’t always shine in Spain), and that we sure are a lot more stoic about rainfall; for when the skies open here, the city closes: never is it emptier on the streets than when it’s wet outside.  I’m starting to suspect that Barcelona’s residents share a certain attitude towards water with Oz’s most villainous inhabitant…

Outsider In a world of limited mobility: Supermarket shopping on wobbly legs

This series of posts harks back to summer 2015 when I broke my foot, the first time I’ve ever experienced a debilitating injury.

After my minor outing to the opticians, I was craving a bit more going out time and so hit upon the rip-roaring adventure of a supermarket shop: food needed to be got and I needed an exit from the house, so it seemed like a good idea.

Of course I couldn’t make it to the supermarket alone, so I hopped (literally) into the car with my mum who’d promised me that the nearby Morrisons had wheelchair trolleys, as crutching it around the shop with my novice ability was going to be tiring, dangerous and completely useless (see first entry about carrying stuff).  Oh, and slow.  So, so, so slow.  I reckon it that I’m at least four times slower on crutches than normal moving about pace.

We arrive at the supermarket and I start to get the willies.  This seems to have been a bad idea.  The supermarket seems big and awkward, with lots of other people in it, and we’ve accidentally coincided with school kicking-out time.

As I stand at the entrance while my mum searches out the wheelchair trolley, I feel in the way and vulnerable.  My mum is taking an age and I’m now anxious that my decision to come along is causing an unnecessary fuss, and that I am going to be a bothersome nuisance; I could have just stayed at home.

I learn from my mum when she arrives back, tutting that the motorised wheelchair trolley was wedged in an area at the far end of the shop and getting it out was causing a considerable amount of difficulty.  Whilst this only serves to compound my embarrassment and certainty that it was a mistake to have come, my mum has only criticism for the incompetence of the staff and the store for not being immediately ‘disability ready’.  A motorised wheelchair, though?  I feel like a complete fraud!  I’m ok, I want to say, it’s only a temporary break after all; I’m sure I’ll manage…

Some moments later, my mother loses her patience: off she goes again, and comes back instantly with a bog standard, push around wheelchair.  With relief I plop myself into the chair, grab a basket to go on my lap – this chair will get me around the supermarket but it sure as hell ain’t got no trolley attached – and wheel off with half the list, determined to be an aid in this shopping expedition, rather than a complete encumbrance.

Half an hour or so later and I’m positioned by the checkouts in an attempt not to get in anyone’s way.  There are a few last bits and bobs to pick up, and my mum was deemed the more capable of retrieving them.  It transpires, you see, that supermarkets are not really designed for wheelchair users (not an original discovery, I’m sure).

I’m not talking about the fuss and the faff at the beginning, nor the layout of the aisles with obstacles of piles of specials, pop-up mini frozen counters or pretend market carts, chicane style all over the place… what I’m saying is that a lot of stuff is just too darn high up!  And not just too high up to reach but too high up to even see.

In some cases this impedes just my brand or price choices: Happy Eggs, supermarket’s own eggs, or the oh-no-I-can’t-reach-them-so-I-can’t-have-them organic farm eggs.  And as I wheel along the booze aisle I have the choice of three, rather than five, shelves worth of wine.  Boo.  But in the rice section, the powers that arrange the selection of bags of dried grains are clearly telling me that I shouldn’t cook paella, way over my head as those little pouches are.

Sitting in my wheelchair I feel a number of things: uncomfortably conspicuous and a bit of a nuisance – I’m not sure I like being more noticeable in this way -; somewhat indignant (or even self-righteous!) – why should I not be able to independently shop and have access to the same choices as my upright counterparts? -; and a little bit tired in a kind of powerless and vulnerable way – what a faff and palaver to go through, just to half-achieve something so run of the mill!

Then, suddenly, I feel something else: a girl, whose uniform denotes that she works at the supermarket, goes whizzing by me on a pair of crutches at some super speed to reach her till and start running things through the checkout.  She had moved with two crutches planted ahead of her then swung both feet through quite a distance where they limply, but effectively, propped her up long enough for the next purposeful crutch plant, allowing the swing to happen again.

I deduced that she must have some form of muscular disorder, maybe from birth, rendering her legs unable to take strides by themselves.  I also reckoned that she must have steely-superwoman arms and hands from the nifty way in which she got herself about.

Looking at her I feel humbled and, quite quickly, a little ashamed.  What fusses and new discoveries I’m making, what new difficulties and obstacles I’m experiencing, what new grievances I’m venting, and how temporary my impairment…

My mum arrives with the last bits to go through the till.  I abandon my wheelchair and manoeuvre my way through on limbs and crutches.  Six weeks.  I’ll probably forget all about it once I’m ‘back’.  Well, I determine, I better just write some stuff about it then, that way I jolly well won’t forget, will I?

Outsider In a world of limited mobility: Cabin fever

This series of posts actually harks back to the summer, but I wrote them fresh as the experience unfolded, so I’ve kept them intact here.

Temporarily (and serendipitously?) living at my parents’ at this point in time, I couldn’t be in a better environment for this period of enforced convalescence. Both parents retired, I awake to breakfast laid out (quite a decadent affair*), have lunch fully prepared and dinner seen to, so no complaints possible there.  Makes me wonder, though, how anyone can manage with the loss of use of a lower limb without a parent or two around… saintly housemates or a devoted partner, I suppose.  Or with an immense amount of difficulty and no choice but to just get on with it.

Nevertheless, comfort and care though I be in and under, vaguely bored I have not escaped being.  The number one rule of working from home, as I do, is to bloody well make sure that you get out of that home once a day to avoid ‘rat-in-a-box’ syndrome.  So, again, without forgetting a) how lucky I am to be surrounded by unconditionally loving carers (M & D), and b) that my unfortunate accident (one dodgy moment in netball) has not unduly interrupted my working routine (er, yay..?), it has most definitely royally arsed up my ability to GET THE HELL OUT OF THE HOUSE which is undeniably necessary to my equilibrium i.e. sanity and, in seriousness, happiness.

With usual activities off the agenda of netball, a long walk, popping up to London to hang out with boyf, getting in the car to see friends, yoga, rock climbing, tennis, going to a gig, walking over to brother’s house to pester him and potential future sister-in-law (blah blah, doing active, social stuff)… I have had to settle for other ways of breaking up the periods of: sitting in front of computer; sitting down for a meal; and crawling, bum-slipping, or actually using my crutches in the correct and incorrect manners up and down the stairs.

Yesterday, therefore, I demanded to be taken to the opticians. Oh yes, the opticians. My new glasses are too loose on my face and constantly slipping down my nose, plus, being larger than before, they end up getting smudged by my eyebrows (bit weird) and so they’re constantly a bit foggy.  Ergo, I absolutely MUST be taken to the opticians.  Quick trip in the car, stumble stumble of crutches, chat chat, momentary blindness, glasses returned, better fit, which size bottle of glasses cleaning spray should I get (medium)… and then I’m back home again.  Oh… balls; that wasn’t as momentous or distracting as I’d hoped. A new plan needs concocting for tomorrow… oh yes, I know – The Supermarket!!

(*muesli pre-soaking, at least three types of pre-cut fruit, a selection of juices and tea in the pot if I’m up early enough for it to still be warm!  Spoilt?  Yes.)