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 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…