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 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 solidarity march for refugees

Refugees: let them in!  Tory government: get them out!”

Say it loud, say it clear: refugees are welcome here!”

Twenty minutes into the march, and we are at a standstill somewhere on Park Lane, but the Young Socialists are making it clear what they’re here for.

We had started at Marble Arch, and the atmosphere for the solidarity march for refugees was festive, high energy – music, stalls, heat; the unexpected indian summer sun breaking into an otherwise grim September in London. Whistles, banners, petitions to sign, socialist newspapers. Dancing, milling around. The march was visibly starting to happen but a lot of people were observing for a while. Maybe they were all protest march virgins like me.

When I’d set out from home, I wasn’t even sure I’d get to Marble Arch, thinking it could be overwhelmed with people and the tube exits choked. When I get off the central line, though, tannoy announcements are being made – “exit three is for those wishing to participate in the march” – and police officers are already there. Good, I think, this is organised. This makes it less scary.

I climb the stairs to the first chants of “Refugees in, Tories out!”. Hmm… well, I know that we’re all pretty upset with how the government is dealing with this ‘crisis’ but I’m not sure ousting the current party at this very moment is going to help matters.

So, my first ever march. Setting off, it all feels a little… disparate. Arriving alone, I remain alone, despite walking side by side, in front, or behind many humans. We are spread out to start with, feeling more like a group of people on their way to a gig in Hyde Park, walking purposefully, bound but somehow not.

I do, though, strike up conversation with three ‘legal observers’, as their orange, hi-vis tabards tell me. I wonder what they are. “Here to monitor the police” is the answer. Mostly made up of lawyers, or other legal professions, they are volunteers who mainly attend marches to keep an eye on the police; make sure they don’t kick off and start abusing their authority in what can be, undeniably, high-octane situations. I see they carry notebooks in which they’ve penned some notes already, mainly remarking how relaxed it all is. So far, low-octane, then.

After 10 minutes of walking, our weak vein of numbers filter in to the main artery of protesters, appearing from a different direction. This is where the chants – and so the real march – starts. It’s also where any movement we had comes to a virtual standstill.

I observe the banners around me. Refugees Welcome, many proclaim, mine included, procured from an Amnesty International soul at the start of the march, who handed them out to the banner-less, visually quieter participants. It makes my hands feel less empty. It also serves to shade my unprepared skin from the sun, and occasionally leads me to feel self-conscious, despite the company: I’m not used to wearing my socio-political opinions almost literally on my sleeve.

The People’s Assembly are here Against Austerity, Stop the War Coalition tell us Don’t Bomb Syria, and the Socialist Worker wants us to open the borders and let them in. (‘Them’, in the context of this march, seems an odd way to describe people fleeing conflict and seeking refuge. I thought we were supposed to be part of the mob putting humanity at the fore, not defaulting to natural human tribal thinking: ‘us’ and ‘them’.) I also see the Lib Dems, the Green Party, and the Socialist Party, among countless others. Then there are the home-made banners:

Migrant

Refugee

Human

The bottom line

I felt was one of the most pertinent. At the opposite end of the relevance spectrum was a sign shouting, in large, gold, glittery calligraphy, that Jesus was a refugee too. Well… ok then…

I imagine it is the various messages visually and aurally on display that prompts a group of Kiwis near me to wryly observe that this demonstration serves to show just how fractured the left is. And, about our noisy, chanting, Young Socialist neighbours: “let’s hope they don’t peak too early”. I’m thinking how long are we going to be here?.

I snail past people of all ethnicities, families with their unwittingly political babies, bicycles, buggies, a Jewish octogenarian and his grandson chatting… I switch to the trickling, but faster, movement along the pavement to find some shade. I also find breastfeeding mothers and people in wheelchairs. On the other side of the road, vehicles toot their horns as they pass, which set off cheers, whistles and whoops amongst the crowd.

At this moment I realise I’m hungry and am glad of my foresight at packing a sandwich. Bloody hope I don’t need to pee, though – we’ve just reached the London Hilton Park Lane, and I’m not sure I’d be welcome in there to use the facilities.

*

Later, as I speed up my walk, I find myself behind a vocal, colourful, militant faction of women. They have battered, home-made banners which look like relics – war trophies – of previous marches, and I feel that protests must be a regular fixture on their social calendars. They are chanting:

Sisters! united! will never be defeated!

No borders! no nations! stop the deportations!”

I ponder that last part, and wonder about the organisation of society without borders and nations. I give up on trying to twist my brain around the idea, and don’t dare to ask our lady chanters to enlighten me, although I’m entirely certain that they have considered the matter in great depth…

Becoming apparent to me is a crude, resentful and extreme sentiment running through an element of my fellow marchers.  Just ahead of the militant ladies another home-made banner displays a charming and succinct, personal message to our Prime Minister: “Cameron, you’re a cunt”. Still by Hyde Park, vaguely offensive signs adorn the railings. Amongst these, hand written jokes and insults against Tories, Thatcher, Blair, Eton boys… I’m not sure I enjoy all this class anger. There are also lots of spelling mistakes. If I hadn’t already understood this about myself, I would be realising today that I’m not an extremist. And that I like correct spelling.

By the time we reach Downing Street I’ve lost my shyness and am able to join in with some of the chants – led by the militant, revolutionist women, who’ve brought megaphones. After all, I do truly believe that refugees should be welcome here. We have a sit down for a while and it looks like we might be staying put but, as it turns out, the protest is mostly at an end.

An anti-climactic tailing off, I mosey along Whitehall, ignore the Anarchists – probably inciting us to murder the rich – and join the crowds on the grass of Parliament Square. I have been informed that Jeremy Corbyn has won the Labour leadership election, and is apparently giving a speech where the rabbles have gathered. Strain as I might, I can’t see him for the crowds, nor can I hear him for the drum and bass party that the Revolutionists have started with their large speakers on wheels behind me.

*

It’s been about three and a half hours and it’s time for me to navigate physically and mentally back to my habitual life, conspicuously free to do this, in contrast to those for whom I was marching.

I have had moments of feeling elated, united, alone, cynical, emotional, compassionate, confused, ignorant, enlightened, hopeless and hopeful… but, overall, I feel a little weary and not entirely sure what I’ve just been a part of.

Naively, I had thought we would all be on the march for one reason but we were actually many there for many different reasons. I am left with more questions than before I came and unsure of the existence of any answers. And so the only role I can confidently play in this vastness is to put the questions to those whose role it is to try to find answers, whether we have confidence in them or not. Over to you, then, Mr Cameron, and to you too, Mr Corbyn.