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.

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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 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.

Outsider In Ecuador: Living in a farming community

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.

As with every Sunday, we squeeze in to the back of the community milk truck with grannies, children, a dog, urns full of hand-drawn fresh milk, and anything/one else needing transporting to the village.  For the locals, Sunday in Cuellaje was The Main Social Event of the week; for us it was a chance to write home.  Hard to believe the place had internet – when we’d first arrived before moving to the even more remote farm that became our home, we were astounded the village even had electricity!

We bump down the hilly mud paths, giggles and shouts as things and people bounce around and nearly out. Despite the moist and muddy setting, everyone looks at their best, defying the six other days of the week where it’s impossible to be anything but filthy, us included – we spend most of our time running, jumping, climbing trees with the kids from the school I’ve been teaching at and of our host family.

The family we live with are a young cattle farming couple and their two daughters, 8 and 10, doing well for themselves compared to neighbouring farming families struggling to get by with up to 9 children.  The six of us – the family, my travel buddy and I – squeeze into their two bedroom bungalow  which sits at the side of the mud road.  It’s made of breeze block with mostly concrete flooring inside, and a kind of shed attached at the back with a mud floor where food is kept for the animals (and us) and a cooking fire occasionally is occasionally lit.  Normally, though, they use the gas burner in the kitchen – cum dining area cum entrance to the house.

There can only be three other farmhouses within 1km but we can’t see them; just beautiful hilly surroundings.  We are in a bubble of our family, the school, and the odd passerby, dog, visitor.  The only gringo we see is when we tramp the kilometre or so up to the farm owned by Ned, the only native English inhabitant who settled as a farmer and then started the volunteer and eco-toursim project here.  Almost total immersion then, and very much a different way and pace of life…

Daily life

That week I had mostly been:

– dirty. Yes.

– wearing wellies – because of the mud, of course, and rain..

– ..getting rained on – being in a cloud forest means that it’s a pretty wet and humid place and we arrived at the tail end of the wet season.

– riding to school in the mornings on the back of a motorbike with the engine switched off to save petrol as it’s all downhill. Other modes of travel have included the milk truck – of course – or a cattle wagon, for long journeys to the village, horse, mule, quad bike, or just our legs.

– getting up at 6am and going to bed before 9pm. As farmers, our host parents get up at 5am to milk the cows, and get all their work in before it gets dark at 6pm-ish. Being on the equator, these hours of light and dark are the same year round.

– sleeping in a fleece, down jacket and socks. Partly because it was a bit cold but mostly to stop the damn ‘no see-ems’ munching my feet and ankles and arms – tiny little bastard flies that bite A LOT but you NEVER catch them in the act!

– trying to keep out the millions of actual visible flying insects that want to get into the bedroom at night, including a moth the size of a sparrow – not a joke.

– spotting tiny bright black grasshoppers. Hundreds of them, everywhere (except in our bedroom – the only insects that aren’t!). They don’t seem to have the common grass or mud-coloured variety here.

– watching animated barbie films over and over and over… Thanks to living with an 8 and a 10 year old. It’s helping our Spanish though, so..

– ..getting a bit better in Spanish – yay!

– doing the washing up with a child’s sock. It being the preferred implement is somewhat representative of the kitchen situation as a whole – not a sterile aesthetic environment, but one that prioritises the storage and preparation of food, a proportion of which comes from the immediate environment. To be blunt, my old food tech teacher would have kittens over the dirt and grime! We won’t dwell on that side of things, rather, let’s talk about…

..Food

Things I’m getting used to:

– Eating shedloads of rice.

– Eating shedloads of rice and potatoes – now a totally normal combination on a plate. Or rice with any of a seemingly infinite variety of tuber/root/potato vegetable they have here. Still can’t get my head round pasta and potatoes though.

– Using corn for feeding everyone and everything in more ways than my imagination had ever previously stretched to: dry and crunched up with hot milk; ground up into a paste and cooked in its own leaves to make a sweet or savoury cake; toasted and salted; rubbed and boiled so it inflates twice the size; boiled and eaten with fresh cheese; used to feed the pigs; used to feed the chickens…  tons and tons of it.

– Eating fruit that we don’t even have names for.

– Drinking hot fresh milk.

– The new, quieter cockerel as we ate the one that used to wake us up! Bit of shocker when the mum told us he was in the soup we had one evening. I think he was getting on a bit, though. And he really was very noisy.

– Drinking boiled water that tastes like the pot we boil it in. As for the water situation, then…

Personal hygiene

There’s no hot water. None. Not a drop. Water to the house is sourced from the nearby river, and there is no system to heat it so it is Mountain Fresh. I might be going on a bit about the dirt thing but we really are chuffing mucky. Because, of course, it’s not fun having cold showers.  I realise that a warm shower is such a pleasurable thing, and being able to have one every day and be clean, such a privilege. Probably, if only cold water existed in the world, we wouldn’t waste so much of it as the bathing rate would dwindle from every day to every other (or three or four!) days.  Going on from this…

I’ve seen that cleanliness and hygiene, do not – of course! -, have a universal standard. When you work outside in the mud or dust and you get dirty just by stepping out of the shower, and when washing clothes is hand-grinding time-consuming work, what’s the point in making yourself clean too often?  Here, walking down the road you get dirty; sitting down, eating, picking up a bag, you get dirty; boiling a pot of water, YOU GET DIRTY. You may as well keep your clothes on for a few days running, including sleeping in them, and have a shower for special occasions, like Sundays, when you go into the village.

So this is where we find ourselves. Everyone trying to up their Sunday best appearance as we cling to the sides of the milk truck, rattling, rolling and windswept past farms and lush, hilly fields

I’m looking forward to having Cuellaje’s concrete under my feet for a little while, a home-made fruit ice cream, and writing home about all this different wonderfulness.

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 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.