The spool comes to a dizzying end!

Santiago de Cuba provided us with more dazzling culture, and amazing people, both foreigners and Cubans. Alex and I have been astounded by the amount of Cubans who have really opened up and shared their ideas with us. Knowing our stance on the situation, they have spoken out with honesty and voracity. It is at this point that I would like to say that I do not feel that I have done a ¨complete¨ job in telling it all. As I mentioned in my first blog on Cuba, there are so many layers to the country, and trying to capture the true essence in only a few blogs is like trying to do an overnight course in learning to speak fluent Arabic! It ain´t gonna happen!

In Baracoa, we had met a Spanish couple called Juan and Maria. As we were strolling through the streets of Santiago, we bumped into them, and they invited us into the house of some Cuban friends they were staying with. What a wonderful family! In no time at all, they were making and offering us snacks and drinks, and we stayed for hours. I quickly forged a bond with Liana, who was pregnant with her first child. She was such a beautiful person, both inside and out. I promised that I would come back and visit the next day. A promise is a promise, and I try never to break them!

That night, along with Maria, Juan and Sergio (Liana´s uncle), we went to the ¨Patio Los Dos Abuelos¨ (The patio of the two granfathers), a small and intimate space where we listened to a band strum and tap out their stuff. I want to say that they were ¨amateur¨, but thus far, when it comes to talent in the music and dance field here, all we have seen is supreme professionalism.

Whilst in Santiago, we also visited the Carnaval Museum, which took us through the history of carnaval, costumes used and instruments played. We were also afforded a performance by a group of dancers. The performance, as you can rightly assume, was exceptional! We also visited the Fortress of San Pedro Del Morro, some 10 kilometres out of town. The ¨only¨way to get there is via taxi, which costs around 6 CUCs (about USD $6.00), but we defied the odds yet again. A combination of a local truck and leg power (read: walk a couple of kilometres!) got us there and back on USD 8 cents. Who said that it couldn´t be done! Yet another UNESCO World Heritage sight, of which there are many in Cuba, the fortress sits imposingly upon a 60 metre high promontory. Apart from being considered the best preserved 17th century Spanish military complex in the Caribbean, the views are breathtaking.

With now having spent almost 2 and a half weeks in Cuba, we were almost totally over the 20 cent pizzas and cucumber, tomato and capsicum salads ( that we were making from the meager produce we were able to buy from the fruit and vegetable markets). We were steadfast in our resolve to not eat in state run restaurants, but were also so very bored by the lack of variety! And then we caught ourselves in mid-bitching act, stuck our heads back in, and reminded ourselves that, in reality, we had nothing to bitch about. I closed my eyes, and longed for Teresa´s food back in Havana. Only a few days to go!

I went back the next day, and visited Liana, as promised, and along with her husband, Fernando, and aunt, Ilda, we had another relaxing evening. We were once again bestowed with drinks and snacks, and also, yet again, I was amazed and astounded by the Cubans´ generosity in the face of such adversity. The next day, I bumped into Liana in a plaza in central Santiago de Cuba. The night before I had been telling her that I wanted my hair trimmed, and she had recommended her hairdresser. It just so happened that her hairdresser was only half a block away. Not only did she take me there, and wait whilst I had my hair trimmed, but she paid for it as well! Although it only cost 3 pesos of their national money (about USD 15 cents) I was totally blown away by her selfless and genuine gesture. (The fact that I tipped the hairdresser is totally irrelevant!) I do not think that Liana will ever understand how that touched my heart! And indeed, so many Cubans have touched my heart in so many different, yet memorable ways.

It was finally time to go back to Havana, where we would spend our last weekend, before flying back to Cancun on the Monday. Our last days were pleasant and relaxing. Although we once again walked along the malecon (beachfront), wandered through Old Havana, and had a few more 5 peso pizzas and one peso ice creams, we mainly just relaxed at home with Ondina and the family. Although it had only been a short period of time, Alex and I had grown particularly fond of Ondina, and I knew that saying goodbye would not be easy! This woman was an inspiration to both of us! I really just wanted to pack her in my suitcase and take her home with me!

The night before we left, Alex and I emptied our backpacks and left anything which we knew would be useful: things such as toothpaste, antibiotic ointment, tiger balm ointment, soap, shampoo, conditioner, cotton buds, olive oil and vinegar. Many of these products are either really costly, or non existent in Cuba. For Alex and I, it is about giving as well as receiving! Remember that you cannot receive if you are not willing to give, and vice versa.

Alex and I woke up early on the Monday morning, and said goodbye to Teresa, Pucho, Diana and Dionis. Teresa came back soon afterwards, and our final hugs and goodbyes, were to her and Ondina. Of course we cried as we said goodbye, and as I hugged Ondina one last time, I promised her that although I did not know when, that we would return one day! Remember what I said about promises!

A taxi had come to pick us up and take us to the airport. My head reeled the entite half an hour it took us to get there. The events of the last 3 weeks were spinning around in the now very congested space between my ears (the memory was on overload!), as I tried to grasp onto what I had seen, heard, experienced, felt and lived! It was without a doubt overwhelming, and I was having trouble processing it all. Rarely do I put things in the too hard basket! Congratulations Cuba, you are one of the very few active participants in that basket for me!

We boarded safely, and as the plane took off, I took a deep sigh and said goodbye to Mars!

¨……..a thing is not seen because it is visible, but conversely visible because it is seen…..¨- Plato.

NOTE: Although an exceptionally confrontational book, with rather crude and blunt references, I am in the middle of reading a book by (a now dead) gay Cuban exiled writer called Reinaldo Arenas. It is titled, “Before Night Falls”. If you want to enter the real world of Cuba, as seen through the eyes of a Cuban, it’s rather enlighteening! Thanks Sam (my new “pommie” friend I met in Mexico) for giving me the book.

Ombi

(Photos: 1.- Ombi with some street musicians, Santiago de Cuba. 2.- L to R: Sergio, Ombi, Liana, Fernando, Maria, Juan and Giselle, infront, Santiago de Cuba. 3.- El Morro Fortress, view as seen from the top tower. 4.- Santiago’s main cathedral, overlooking the bay. 5.- Ondina & Ombi, in Havana. 6.- “Flying” classic car, Havana’s malecon.)

The reel keeps unravelling, the Cuban odyssey continues.

Our next destination was Trinidad, heading further east. What a beautiful and delightful colonial town. It is actually classified as a world heritage sight, and it truly deserves the title. The centre is full of cobblestoned streets, gorgeous colonial houses and tiled colonial courtyards. It is also a town full of places that you can go and listen to bands, singers and music, and watch some mind blowing salsa as well as congo and other forms of traditional Cuban dance, rooted in African traditions. We certainly did out fair share of that!

One of our favourite places was La Casa de la Cultura (The House of Culture), which was an outdoor venue that you could hang out at and watch various bands perform. The variety and talent, yet again, left us astounded! When some of the locals danced to the tunes of Cuban salsa, I could only watch in amazement! I had lots of fun dancing along with them, but their dexterity compared to mine was…….well, incomparable! Oh, in my next life, when I come back with one of those butts……I want to be able to dance like a Cuban too!

There were some pleasant walks to undertake around town, and they offered some great views of Trinidad. An aerial view always seems to give another perspective. It´s also nice to be alone and be able to reflect!

Whilst in Trinidad, we also went to the beach for a day. Playa (or beach) Ancon was only a 12 kilometre ride away. We negotiated a ride on a bus to get there, which drops you off at a big resort like hotel, which sits smack bang on the best part of the beach. So, OK, we negotiated that and sat on the breathtaking beach, where we spent our day swimming, sunbathing and walking along the turqoise edged water. Caribbean waters really are all that they are cracked up to be! The thrill for us, however, was the ride home! As we waited for the bus to take us back, we noticed (and had been told about) another pick up truck that would take the resort workers back into Trinidad, at the end of their working day. When we saw all of them jump in the truck, we just followed suit. It was wonderful to sit with a bunch of Cubans and do it their way! What a sense of exhilaration and achievement! We did not have to pay anything, but we really did not care. It was not about saving money! The thrill was in the achievement……we are supposedly not allowed to do this, but we did it! I am so incredibly defiant!

Then there were all the one peso coffees we had (that is one peso of the national money, which is about USD 4 cents). The tourists were paying 1 CUC (about USD $1.00), but we knew where to get the cheap ones, and if we didn´t, we asked. That simple question one day got me into someone´s house. I asked a lady right in the centre of Trinidad, and she invited me in. Not only did I get a coffee, but we had a terrific chat about lots of different things and issues, which added to my growing repertoire of Cuban history and stories. What I found was that nobody actually comes out and ¨bags¨ (as we would say in Australia) Fidel, but they almost always imply that what they are given is not enough to live on!

Baracoa has often been hailed as isolated and intriguing, so although it was a long ride away, to the extreme east to be exact, we decided to go there. This entailed an all day trip of 13 hours, arriving at Santiago de Cuba at almost 9.00pm, spending the night in an illegal house close to the bus station (again, we gave our money freely, knowing that it was going directly to the woman who lived there), and getting up early the next day to catch an ongoing bus to Baracoa, which would take another 5 hours. Our night in the illegal house was fascinating. It was easy to befriend the beautiful woman and her sons who lived there. They all had some hairy stories to tell, and it was perhaps the first time that we had categorically heard someone say how much they despised Fidel and his regime. They all agreed that they lived in a country whose future was bleak , and their regime oppressive. One of the sons was so disenchanted that he cautiously shared with us that he was part of an anti-government group, and was working with the American Special Interests Group, to try and leave the country. His mother stated several times that she feared for his life, as there was no knowing what could and would happen to him if he was found out! Again, I inwardly sighed! How inhumane that people should have to live that kind of a life. We go full circle, and again come back to freedom of speech! Such a short time spent together, but more hugs, good memories and heavy hearts as we said goodbye and wished them well for the future……what future!

We arrived at Baracoa just after midday, the last two hours winding through spectacular tropical jungle and cliffs with sheer drop offs. Just a few kilometres before arriving, we stopped by the side of the road to buy some famous Baracoan hand made chocolate and ¨cucurucho¨, a sweet which is a combination of grated coconut, sugar honey and guava. Excessively sweet, but excessively delightful! We made our way to a place that we wanted to stay at, but the room was occupied. Nilsen, the super friendly and helpful host, actually went out of his way to ring around and help us find a place within our budget, and then walked us there! Another thing that I so love about Cubans is their solidarity and the way in which they help each other out. It´s all part of their survival.

We arrived in Baracoa on the Friday before Easter Sunday, and there was a big festival lined up for the weekend. The ¨carnaval¨ is actually to commemorate somebody or other landing somewhere close by, rather than Easter, as I would have expected. I actually was not even sure if it was Easter, as it is not formally celebrated in Cuba. Although people are now ¨allowed¨ to have and practice a religion, years and years of not being allowed to seems to have somewhat dampened the spirit….so to speak!

The carnival was indeed raucous. It mainly consisted of lots of alcohol consuming, music, bands and people chatting and having a good time. Alex and I did our best to mingle among them. It´s amazing what people will tell you when they have had a little too much to drink. One man told me how unfair he thought it was that I could do more things as a foreigner than he as a Cuban! I bowed my head down in shame and agreed! Another exceptionally well dressed couple told me that they had earlier tried to get into the cafe of an upmarket hotel, but had been denied…….until the gentleman showed his passport! (Which, by the way, he possessed only because of an organised marriage to a Canadian, in order to flee his own country!) I asked his Cuban girlfriend how she felt about this, and she basically said that, as a Cuban, all she could do was live for today! Another guy, a professor told me a joke: ¨There´s a little old and drunken man sitting on a park bench with his friend. He sees an Astro Bus (there are only 2 bus companies in Cuba) go by, turns to his friend and says, ¨I don´t know why they took the C away from the front of Astro…….we all know they belong to him!¨. This is life in Cuba, as seen by the Cubans!!!!!!!!

Whilst in Baracoa we also did a wonderful day hike that took us through sub tropical areas, full of banana trees, coconut groves and clapboard houses. Ah, we had finally been able to see some of the delightful Cuban countryside, that so many tourists never get to see, because there are no tours there! Again, my theory is that they keep the tourists in little groups…where they want them! Heaven forbid that they should see something that ¨does not exist in Cuba!¨. We also visited some caves, including the Cueva del Aguas (The cave of water) , with a sparkling, freshwater swimming spot. Whereas Alex took a dip, I declined. It was a liitle too small, dark and cozy for me. The other caves we saw were more like huge, open caverns hugging the very steep cliff face. The stalactites and stalagmites were amazing, and our guide explained how the caves had in the past been used by several pre-Columbian cultures. At one point, we also reached a vantage point that looked right out onto the sea. On a clear day, you can supposedly see Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Some of the fine people we met in Baracoa: An elderly man called Aquiles, who was so sweet. We were supposed to go and have coffee with him, but unfortunately it never eventuated. He was an extremely knowlegeable man who seemed to know more about Australia that I did. Eugenio and Daniel, a couple whom we met on the beach, and chatted to for ages! A real bond formed, with these two men, who also opened up and told us lots. Ah, and then there was ¨la senora de los pollos morados¨ (the woman with the purple chickens). As we walked by her house, I commented on her dyed purple chickens, and before I knew it, she had invited us into her house with a dirt floor and was offering us bananas. She told us that she had dyed the chickens, as the feathers, despite washing, no longer looked clean! That was a magic moment! Despite the little they have, Cubans are so truly giving.

Cuba, the land of extemes, has both dazzled and bedazzled both Alex and I, but surely its crown jewel (when they open up) is its people!

I am sorry, but I just have not been able to fit Cuba into only a couple of blogs, and so the final one will be on Santiago de Cuba, and Havana.

¨We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.¨ – Martin Luther King, Jr

Ombi

(Photos: 1.- Eye to the past, Trinidad. 2.- Main church in the historical centre, Trinidad. 3.- Ancon beach, Trinidad. 4.- Dancing in the rain, kids on top of a 15th century Spanish fortress, Baracoa. 5.- Kids having fun at the Baracoa annual carnival. 6.- Amazing caves and caverns, Baracoa. 7.- On the way to the caves, Baracoa. 8.- ¨La senora de los pollos morados¨ and her amazing purple chickens!)

Cuba – 100 years to see, 1000 years to understand it.

My, my I do beleive that I have caused, and am continuing to cause, quite a stir with my last entry on Cuba. As I stated, no promise was ever made that I would not offend! Some thought that we had not enjoyed Cuba. Quite the contrary, we enjoyed it immensely, and met some amazing people as well as made some phenomenal friends. But, we did it Cuban style…..no resorts, expensive drinks or hotels….we tried to do it like the Cubans do it….or try to do it. Doing it this way, opened our eyes to many things, and the reality is that every time I hugged a new person goodbye, I could feel my heart breaking and sinking. As I walked away from many of them, my eyes filled up with tears (as they are doing so now), as I struggled to truly understand the emptiness behind their eyes, despite the smiles on their faces!

The following will reveal the places we saw and the people we met, which I will treasure forever! Cuba may be another planet, but it is certainly worth seeing, and trying to understand.

On arriving at the airport, and picking up our luggage, we taxi -shared to central Havana, or La Habana as it is known in Spanish, with Segovia, a north American we had met in Cancun. From the airport, taxis are pretty much the only option. And you guessed it, the price is pretty steep. Remember, there is not much you can do when you only have one option!

The trip into the city centre did not take that long, but it was certainly long enough to begin to absorb the visions our eyes were beholding. It was like seeing, in real life, the typical pictures you so often see of Cuba; of old pre -1960´s North American vehicles cruising roads lined with palm trees. As we neared central Havana, we were also presented with the often viewed and famous old and colonial houses. It was like stepping back in time. The city looks like it never made it past 1960! Very imposing, however, and very grand.

Aida and Octavio Garcia had given us their family´s address, and true to our backpacker form, we found it without incident. As we jumped out of the taxi, we were greeted by Dora and Gilberto (Gilberto is Octavio´s brother who lives in Miami, and whom we had met for the first time only months prior in Miami), and who were also in Cuba on vacation. Coincidence, or destiny, would have it that we would all spend the night together, before they would fly back to Miami the next day. As we entered the beautiful and old colonial house where Ondina (Octavio´s sister) and her family live, we were immediately greeted with the same love and warmth that the Garcias have always so freely given me. As I hugged Ondina, I felt like I had met a long lost family member, and the warmth of that hug was as natural as if it had been awarded me a million times before. We also met Teresa, Ondina´s daughter and her teenage children, Dionis and Diana. We had a very special night together, and Teresa, your cooking was fabulous! It must be a Garcia trait! We all wished that the Australian Garcias could have been there for this special moment. They were not, so we managed the next best thing – representing the Garcia family was a bottle of Kahlua liqueur. Kahlua has always been, and still is Rita´s favourite drink. (Rita and I also have quite a long history with this alcoholic beverage, which I will not go into right now!)

On arriving at Ondina´s house, I noticed that the top part of my backpack had been opened, and the contents sorted through. Yes, it had a lock, but that had not been opened or broken. They had obviously prised the zip open with a sharp object. Fortunately, nothing was stolen. Also fortunately, several years of backpacking has taught me never to leave any valuables inside checked in luggage. I would also later find out that in Cuban airports this is quite a common occurrence. When we eventually left the country we had to seal our bags – the plastic wrapping service that seals your bags is not only free, but compulsory! Somebody once told me that desperate people do desperate things! And in Cuba, I saw a level of desperation that I had never encountered before. It truly is virtually impossible to describe, unless you see and feel it for yourselves.

We spent the next few days exploring Habana Vieja (the old and colonial part of the city), which lies right on the malecon, or beachfront. Havana truly does look like it has been caught in a time warp. It´s as if the clock stopped in the late 1950´s, and in many ways it has indeed. The buildings are old, but beautiful, despite their mostly dilapidated status. As we wafted through the city centre, I closed my eyes and wondered what life had once been like here. It would not take me long to work out that I would not have to wonder very hard, as we were living it! How much had changed? Had anything changed? As the sounds of salsa wafted through various establishments, along with some phenomenal voices, I felt like I was in a dream. Or maybe I was! And then suddenly we would be snapped out of that dream by a jinetero/a, the famous touts! No, we do not want to buy cigars! No, we do not want a mojito! No, we have no bad habits! No, we do not need a restautrant! These touts will try and sell you anything to make a quick buck, and whilst I can understand where they are coming from, it can become rather annoying and sometimes aggressive. With a good command of the Spanish language, however, and an immediate and firm response of no thanks as you walk away, you can usually ward them off.

I would like to point out here how incredibly talented the Cuban people are. One very positive aspect of the revolution is that education is free. The result is a very intelligent and learned nation. Quite apart, I have never come across a nation which has so many talented people, including singers, dancers, painters and writers. If you are wondering if there is a Cuban that cannot sing or dance, the answer is NO! Categorically! And the darker their skin, the better they move! I feel this lies in their African roots. They don´t hear the music, they feel it! And when you watch them, the energy is electrifying! You should see those gals (and guys) move their booties, which by the way are not a size 8! I have already told Alex that I want to come back in my next life with one of those butts! Forget that size 6 anorexic rear which has become so popular in first world countries!

That´s another thing I loved about Cuba…..having hips, a butt and curves is……….NORMAL!! Concerns about weight in this nation rate appallingly. And besides, both men and women think that stick thin is unattractive. You have to love that! I certainly did! How wonderful to be a size 12 – 14 and feel normal! Not that I have hang ups about my weight, but it´s lovely to be surrounded by ¨care factor 0¨ pertaining to weight! Twelve inches gap between the thighs, move over for muffin tops! (Thanks Alex – he wanted me to add this).

There are lots of things to love about Cuba, here´s another one…….good, strong expresso coffee!!! Hallelujah, someone saw the light! After months of wondering why Central America and the Caribbean simply could not get it together, coffee wise, when they are the producers of fine coffee beans, Cuba was the light at the end of the tunnel. I am sorry if I offend some Italians here, but Cuban coffee was right up there, and available everywhere, using, I might add, the best Italian coffee machines. My only qualm is that sometimes they add too much sugar, making it a little too sweet. But hey, I am not loking a gift horse in the mouth, good cofffee is good coffee!

Signs, physical signs I mean, of the Revolution were to be found everyehere. Alex and I got to the point where we wanted to see if we could walk more than 2 blocks without seeing some form of propaganda….impossible! Fidel, El Comandante (The Commander), Che Guevara, the 5 Heroes (or the 5 spies, depending on how you see it!)……professional signs, hand written signs, new, old, worn, whatever……..there was no escaping. There was no possible way that you could either forget the revolution, or not be reminded of it! One of my favourites, was a billboard mocking George Bush, as the lead actor in a film called ¨The Assassin¨ (picture posted on the last blog). Most of you would know that I am certainly no fan of Georgie´s, but I do think that people need to look in their own backyards first! What´s the old saying? The pot calling the kettle black!

Our first visit outside of Havana, was a place called Cienfuegos, to the east. We just opened up our guide book one night, did some reading, and figured that it sounded like a tranquil and interesting place. We had made our way to the Astro bus station , before finding out that ¨for the time being¨ they had suspended foreigners from using the service (so, we can spend more on Via Azul, of course, which is the only other bus service! Surprise, surprise, yet again, I know!). We ended up travelling in a privately owned car. Of course its illegal, but as the driver stated, ¨I need to eat too!¨. He told us that although there was a small risk involved, for him it was worth it. I can understand this – Alex and I paid 15 CUCs each. Quite apart from the fact that it would have been 20 CUCs each on the bus, this man had just earned 3 months worth of money in a few hours! Did Alex and I have a problem with that! No way! We would indeed spend the rest of our trip doing just that, trying to put our money in the pockets of the people, where it was most needed, instead of in the pockets of the state!

The ¨communications¨ network in Cuba is phenomenal, as everyone tries to help everbody else, as most people are in the same position. The guy who drove us to Cienfuegos told us that he had a contact there, some friends who owned a ¨casa particular¨, or particular house. These places are much cheaper to stay in, usually costing roughly between USD $15.00 and $35.00. They are mostly very clean and comfortable, have a private bathroom, air-conditioner, fan, fridge and sometimes kitchenette. Although it was included in the price, we never used the air-conditioner, as it bumps up the price for the people renting it. The ¨owners¨ (the state actually owns the houses they live in, and you cannot buy or sell a house…in theory) of the houses that have rooms that foreigners can rent have to go through a rigorous process. The houses which have rooms for rent have a blue sign above the door saying, ¨Arendador divisa ¨(or rent in CUCs). The symbol, I beleive, is supposed to be that of a house, but to Alex and I it seemed more like an eye…….Big Brother is watching you!

We ended up staying at ¨Chin Isi¨, with Jenny and Isodoro. The location was great and the hosts superb. It would not take us long to forge a friendship. The couple had a teenage daughter and young son. Jenny´s sister, Esperanza, also visited frequently, as did her parents, Ines and Gallego, on weekends. They treated us like family, and Jenny was often giving us samplers of her amazing food, which by the way, was excellent. Along with Teresa´s food in Havana, it was the best food we tried in Cuba.

We spent a few days in Cienfuegos, walking along the malecon, or beachfront, admiring its old colonial buildings, drinking good coffee, watching some Cubans entertain themselves, watching other Cubans dancing in salsa halls, playing with local children near the beach, visiting the local Sunday fruit and veggie market, which required having several blocks closed off, and just observing life in general. We also visited a place called Palacio del Valle. Built in 1917 by a Spaniard, its most outstanding features are its jumble of Moorish tiles, and the fantastic view of the Cienfuegos Bay, as seen on the upstairs balcony, or terrace. The woman who was singing and playing the piano downstairs also gave it that extra zing, and we once again, had to remind ourselves that we were actually in 2007.

Cuba is a rather large country, or island for that matter, and certainly the biggest in the Caribbean. We knew that, with travel taking a large proportion of time here, that if we did not keep moving we would not get to see at least some of the other places that we had picked to visit.

When we hugged Jenny, Isodoro and their family goodbye, I had a tear in my eye, and Jenny one in hers. I thanked her for being part of our Cuban experience. As we walked towards the bus station Jenny waved to us from the balcony, and I kept turning around and waving goodbye until she was out of sight. I had a smile on my face, but my heart felt heavy! Is this how Cubans must so often feel? I hoped that one day, we would be able to meet again, and inwardly cried. What destiny had given us two so very diferent paths!

A Cuban´s response to my question of whether something he was about to obtain was legal –

¨In Cuba, nothing is legal, but anything can be organised”. – Anonymous

Ombi

Dedication (English): I would like to dedicate this blog to my new family in Havana, and especially to Ondina Garcia. We will always remember the love and care you showed us. Please know that you will always hold a very special place in our hearts. We will see each other again!

Dedicacion (Espanol): Me gustaria dedicar esta publicacion a mi nueva familia en la Habana, y especialmente a Ondina Garcia. Siempre recordaremos el amor y cuidado que nos brindaste. Por favor recuerda que siempre ocuparas un lugar muy especial en nuestros corazones. Nos volveremos a ver otra vez!

Next: Trinidad & Baracoa (on Cuba´s eastern most point)

Ombi

(Photos: 1.- El Capitolio, Central Havana. 2.- The Cuban Garcis (L to R): Diana, Dionis, Pucho (Tere´s partner), Teresa, , Ondina (Octavio Garcia´s sister), Dora (Gilberto Garcia´s wife), Ombi (the adopted Garcia!), and in the front Gilberto Garcia (Octavio´s brother), and of course the bottle of Kahlua!. 3.- The facade of a house in Old Havana. 4.- A typical Cuban car, and in the back, typical Cuban trasportation for the locals ( and which we also got to use), Habana. 5.- Street musicians, Santiago de Cuba. 6.- Billboard close to the the USA Special Interests building in Havana. It implies that George W. Bush and Luis Posada Carriles equals Hitler . 7.- On the way to Cienfuegos. 8.- Roof top view from the El Palacio del Valle, Cienfuegos. 9.- Having Fun with local children on the malecon, Cienfuegos. 10.- From left to right are Jenny, Ombi and Ines.

Understanding life on a different planet -destination Cuba.

Nothing could possibly prepare us for what we experienced in Cuba! We spent 21 days there, and only just returned a few days ago. My mind is still reeling from the experience, as is Alex´s. To be truthful, my head is in a bit of a scramble, as I try to collate my thoughts and ideas. What do I write? What do I tell you about? Alex suggested that I write it as it is, as we felt and saw it. Although it is not my intention to offend anyone, I can make no promises! Follow my thoughts and feelings as I try and unravel the most intricate web I have ever been caught up in; Cuba was both everything and nothing we thought it would be! No amount of reading or investigation could ever have prepared us. So, this is how we felt it, warts and all! Destination Cuba!

For me visiting Cuba had been the dream of a lifetime for many years, and as we boarded our flight from Cancun, I felt a surge of excitement. My dream was about to become a reality! I met Rita Garcia when I was only 12 years old, in my first year of high school. Rita was born in Cuba, and migrated as a young child, with her family. We soon forged a special relationship which still exists today. Over the years I also developed a special bond with Rita´s family, and to this day, they regard me as the 4th Garcia daughter, a title which I am very proud of! The Garcias often talked about life in Cuba, and it always seemed such an exotic and different destination, despite its obvious turmoil. So, I had made up my mind years ago that I would visit both their country and their family one day!

The flight was only a little over an hour, and we travelled with an airline called Cubana de Aviacion. Very basic! Nothing remotely modern about the plane, and even the upholstery was tatty. So long as the engines weren’t in the same sorry state, I could cope! But I must admit to wondering what we were in for! We landed safely, and were soon making our way through immigration. Unlike most other countries, Alex and I were not able to walk through as a couple…….a chance to be ¨grilled¨ individually, I thought. And right I was! Whilst they were happy enough with my address of ¨Havana¨, they wanted more information from Alex. They wanted the complete address. Cuba is a communist country where everything is controlled and everything must be reported, including if you are staying with friends or relatives, which we were. We would be staying with Ondina (Rita´s father´s sister) and her family, and even then (once through immigration) we were supposed to go to the local CDR (Committee of the Revolution) and report who we were staying with! It is all a bit of a culture shock for those of us who are used to doing what we like and when we like!

First impressions! No sooner had we picked up our backpacks than Alex noted and commented on the Cubans we were looking at in the airport, and that they appeared to have sad energy, very sad energy! Beneath the smiles and supposed happy faces belied a sadness that was quite profound. It would take us weeks to scrape the tip of the iceberg, in order to find out why!

The Cuban Revolution occurred in 1958, but with all the signs, posters and propaganda that we would continuously keep seeing over the next 3 weeks, one would have thought that it was yesterday! I had to keep reminding myself that it was almost 5o years ago, and by the end of our stay, I wanted to tell someone, ANYONE, to build a bridge and get over it! I dare anyone in any other country to tell me what happened in their country 50 years ago? Time goes by, things change, people and situations move on………not in Cuba!

Cuba´s communist system is an experiment that simply DID NOT and continues not to work, and I wondered why it was taking so long for the powers that be to get it! Cuba is a land of extremes and of contradictions. Cuba is amazing, Cuba is distressing. Cuba has poor people, Cuba has rich people. Cuba has doctors and free health care, but not enough medicine. Cuba has beaches and hotels that tourists can frequent, but Cubans can not. We can travel to Cuba, but most Cubans are not allowed to leave their country. Cuba has two different monetary systems, which is senseless in a communist society. Cuba has mojitos for USD $2.50 for tourists, whilst the average Cuban earns between USD $8.00 and $13.00 a month. We live, and Cubans exist, or as they would say “survive”! Capitalism has its flaws, and I am one of the first to admit that, but communism in Cuba has shattered its people and left many heartbroken, amongst them, Alex and I.

Cuba has a dual monetary system, which is a total oxymoron in a communist nation : Cuba has ¨moneda nacional¨ ( national money) and CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos). One CUC is roughly the equivalent of USD $1.00, and 25 moneda nacional is the equivalent of 1 CUC. Cubans earn in moneda nacional, but can change it into CUCs. The fun begins when you try and work out what to use for what, and what you can buy with what! Cubans have a rations booklet ( I felt like had been dragged through a time warp!), where they go to a place that looks somewhat like a bomb shelter, and collect their rationed goods – bread, rice, beans and other basic foodstuffs. It is no secret that the money they earn is not enough to see them through the month! They can also go to fruit and vegetable markets and buy what would be considered cheap for us, but is still expensive for them. Street food, like pizza and pork rolls can be bought for 20 cents a pop. Again really cheap for us,but in comparison to their wages, not so cheap for them. And then there are the ¨supermarkets¨, which could more aptly be described as mini markets, as the selection is so very small. All supermarket prices are in CUCs (or Divisa, as the money is also called). Let me give you a sample of what things cost: a 500 gram bottle of vegetable oil (olive oil, are you kidding, what’s that!) 1.80 CUCs, butter 1.70 CUCs, a litre of juice 2.25 CUCs, a 2 litre bottle of soft drink, 1.80 CUCs. How do they afford it? They don’t! Most Cubans will tell you that if they eat, they don´t buy clothes, and if they buy clothes, they don´t eat! Although their government may not like to admit it, the ONLY way that Cubans buy in CUCs is if their familes send them money from overseas, or if they obtain their money via ¨the black market¨. It is no secret that they are not staying alive on the goods that come from their rations booklets. It is supposed to be a safety net, but from what we could see, the net had gaping holes!

Now what is it that communists don´t like? Commercialism, marketing and branding, because we are all supposed to be the same and own the same! The theory sounds charming, but in practice what we saw simply was not working! But what about freedom of speech? There is NO freedom of speech in Cuba. Nobody can say a solitary word against the government, nor would they try, as this would get them a free trip to the slammer! We met an Italian guy who gave a yo-yo as a gift to a child, and his grandfather simultaneously received a fine, for talking to a tourist! I met the Italian personally, so I know this to be true. Alex and I would both agree that not one policeman looked us in the eye, for the entire duration of our Cuban stay. Indeed, although we said hello to many Cubans, many either did not respond or looked away. Most people are too frightened of what may happen! Remember that Alex and I speak Spanish fluently, which without a doubt gave us the insight and information that most non-Spanish speakers would not be privy to.

Internet? Ah yes, that popular communicative instrument. At a cost of 6 CUCs an hour (the average Cuban would need to work for over 2 weeks), let´s say that it really is not that popular! Well, not for Cubans, anyway! A nice way to keep the masses under control and uninformed was what flashed through my mind. Alex and I categorically refused to use it. One reason being the absurdity of the price, and the other being that we felt that it was wrong to be able to do what the average Cuban could not!

Eating out: Yes, we have street food, fruit and veggie markets, and restaurants, which can be split up into two categories – Paladares and State run restaurants. Paladares are usually privately run restaurants, where the owners at least make some money (although the government takes the biggest slice of the pie) and the state run restaurants are run by the state, and (surprise, surprise!) the state gets all of the money! So,whilst you are chowing down a meal that costs approximately 10 CUCs per head, the person who serves you does not even receive that in a month. Our solution? We categorically refused to eat in such places! Alex and I refused to give the state any money at all, unless we had no other choice.

Travel: As one professional Cuban told me (and there are many, as education is free and encouraged) as she looked across the sea, ¨I do not beleive that there are other countries out there. It is all an illusion. There is only Cuba!¨. So,whilst we can go to Cuba and see their country, they cannot come and see any of ours. I spoke to so many Cubans who would so love to travel, but even with funds, they cannot, because they are not allowed to. In Cuba itself, tourists can use trains, but the easiest and most used form of tranportation are the buses, of which there are only two companies, Astro and Via Azul. Astro has a tiny tourist quota (only 2 are allowed on each bus for any given trip) and locals can pay in national money (at a much lesser cost than us, and rightfully so) whilst tourists are expected to pay in CUCs (more money for the state!). Via Azul can be used by both Cubans and tourists, but with a trip from Santiago de Cuba( in the far east) to Havana costing 51 CUCs, it is mainly used by foreigners and “rich” Cubans….oops, there are no rich Cubans, right!

Propaganda: By the end of our 3 week sojourn, I was so over seeing propaganda of Fidel, Che Guevara, the Revolution, the fight and the cause. I felt like I was being forced to buy a product that I had no interest in! This was capitalism in reverse! But no better, nor worse! In capitalist countries they try and sell you a plethora of brands, in Cuba it´s just one. I wanted to scream out, ¨I do not want to buy Fidel! Give me another choice!¨. The thought of living in such a society horrified me!

Freedom of speech: What freedom of speech? You have one choice, like it or lump it! So, what choice do people have but to soldier on? They try and make the best of each day, as that is all they have! Cubans do not live for tomorrow, as the present is all they´ve got! How sad, this made Alex and I feel!

As one Cuban said to us on our last day, ¨Cuba is not another country, it´s another planet¨.

I would also like to add here, coming from the mouth of a travel agent who deals in flights to Cuba, that 80% of people who go to Cuba actually go for sex tourism. How sad and grotesque that this should occur. A person that kicks a dog when it´s down is the lowest common denominator.

Cuba has wrung its people to an extent that there is nothing left to wring, and then it has slapped them against a cement wall to see if they have truly been wrung dry….just in case! There is nothing left to wring! It is for this reason that tourists are forced to pay exorbitant prices in taxis, hotels (which we did not use) and restaurants. As much as we could, Alex and I tried to do it like the locals, but sometimes our hands were tied behind our backs, as we forced to do it like tourists!

So, before you don your Che Guevara t-shirt, or wax lyrical about life in a perfect communist world, I challenge you to put your money where your mouth is! Take a month off work, learn some Spanish, book a trip to Cuba, and come and see how communism works (or does not!) and how fair (or unfair!) this system is.

As you can see, there is so much more to Cuba than simply salsa. I know that this blog will be controversial, but when has Ombretta Zanetti ever been anything else but?! These are our thoughts, warts and all!

Dedication: I would like to dedicate this blog to all the Cubans who took the time to so generously chat to us, especially about how their system does NOT work! Names have not been used in order to protect the speakers involved. To each and every Cuban in Cuba – May your lives one day change, and may you be granted the wish that is your birthright – freedom of speech!

For those who stubbornly seek freedom, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination. These are easy to perceive in the totalitarian societies, much less so in the system of ‘brainwashing under freedom’ to which we are subjected and which all too often we sere as willing or unwitting instruments.” – Noam Chomsky

Ombi

Next: Places we visited in Cuba, and the marvellous Cubans we met and interacted with.

(Photos: 1.- Cycling past the 10 commandments of the Revolution…… oops, that is me being facetious…again! , Cienfuegos. 2.- Another Cuban classic…commonly known as a car! 3.- Old man in Havana. Quite coincidentally, he happens to be on the cover of the current Lonely Planet Guide to Cuba. This was picked up by the woman whom we stayed with in Cienfuegos. 4.- Avenida Prado, Central Havana. 5.- George W. Bush starring as the lead in “El Asesino” (The Assassin ), as seen on a billboard on the malecon in Vedado, Havana. 6.- A sign which says, ” Imperialist Sirs, we have abosolutely no fear of you”. 7.- Che Guevara image on the streets of Habana Vieja (Old Havana). 8.- A neighbourhood in central Habana. 9.- “Freedom is conquered with the edge of a machete” . No prior chats held with Gandhi on this idea!