Thursday, April 03, 2008

"Donde son los Banos por favor?" OR "What I did on my holidays in Cuba... (Part 1)"

So, the story of my Caribbean sojourn begins on Thursday 6th March, as I awaken from a guest-house near Gatwick Airport and head off with my Mum to get our flight. Yes, in a major departure from my usual lone-wolf type approach to travelling (possibly influenced by having watched too much Knight Rider as a child), I was heading off with a travel buddy, in this case my Mum. Bit of a radical departure, I know, but you never learn if you don't try, and I'd been informed that were I to go off on my own to Cuba without offering her the chance to come along I would most certainly NOT be Favourite Child (not that I am implying that either Mum or Dad might ever have favourites amongst us, obviously).

The tone of Day 1 was largely set when we discovered that our flight was due to depart Gate 13. Not an auspicious sign. As a result, it should not have been a surprise when we got to the gate and found that all pre-boarding checks had been suspended. Over the course of the next half an hour or so, we discovered that the plane was apparently missing a part, and that they might have found a replacement in Gatwick but were checking to see if it was compatible. Words, as I'm sure you'll all agree, to cheer up any journey. Eventually, over an hour late, we were able to board the plane. To find we still couldn't leave quite yet, but that the replacement part had been found, it's just that it was caught up in traffic on the way around from Heathrow. We were also reassured that it was some kind of card for one of the computers which we could theoretically fly without but was required for certification reasons. Whilst as an Aero Engineering graduate I could kind of grasp the logic of this, I did feel that the airline had swung from too little info early in the morning ("Sorry, the flight's delayed, there's a technical issue") to perhaps too much now.

On arrival in Havana, I made an elementary mistake when choosing my queue to go through Immigration and ended up in one of those designated as suitable for wheelchairs and parents with children - I had not gathered this meant that they were able to jump straight to the front of the queue (and were indeed escorted there by staff) such that we waited longer than wee otherwise would have before getting scowled at and told to look at the camera by the immigration people. Not that it actually delayed us, as Mum's bag was slightly delayed, along with many of the others, navigating the baggage belts - we were directed to about 3 different ones before finally both being reunited with our luggage (although my flag-bedecked monster of a pack was, as ever, at least easy to pick out).

We then proceeded to the currency exchange which, it must be said, worked remarkably well and allowed me a small fuzzy glow at actually having managed already to do something uselful in my elementary Spanish without any resort to Pidgin English. We then caught a cab into our town to our Casa Particular. Now these are something of a Cuban institution, being one of the few allowed examples of private enterprise and also the nearest thing to the backpacker/budget traveller experience in Cuba. Oh, and also a chance to get some good Cuban home cooking, which is frequently much better than what you get in the official restaurants. Unfortunately, it turned out the mother of our hostess was ill and so we would not be able to stay there, and so we were passed on to a friend of the family to stay in their spare room.

At the time, this seemed relatively reasonable, but we were to find throughout our trip that the "Oh, very sorry, we are full now but we have booked you with our friends/neighbours/relatives!" response was very common. In fact, we only had one casa we went to where we weren't passed on, and that one we weren't sure if we would have preferred to have been! The first one in Havana was also notable because there had been a bit of a mix-up and they'd gotten us into somewhere with a double room, rather than a twin. Which ain't exactly ideal when travelling with your mother. We learned from this to be very specific about wanting somewhere with two beds, and chalked it up to experience... The other thing we found was that our casa was up on the 4th floor of the building. Good for the calf muscles and gets the breeze being about the only two positive things to be said about this setup.

That first evening we went to a little restaurant nearby and I acquainted myself with the appropriate Spanish phrases for indicating that Mum was in fact a vegetarian and thus not disposed to Cubans' determination to eat meat whenever possible. I also acquainted myself with the basics of Cuban beers (yes, this entry will feature some of my All The World's Beers research...), namely that Cristal is tolerable but pretty anaemic whereas Bucanero is pretty damned nice. And it has a pirate on the label, so you can't ask for much more than that. Oh, and that almost no Cuban meal (except maybe breakfast) is considered complete without rice and black beans (usually mixed and known as congris).

After a hearty dinner (i.e. I wolfed the strange, breaded roll-type-thing of various types of meat that was mine, along with any of Mum's leftover rice and large quantities of the salad), we headed off to explore the neighbourhood we were in (Centro Habana) by going up to the Malecon, the seawall. This was gorgeous under the moonlight, and got me feeling like I was properly on holiday. And then we went to a little terrace bar place and I got my first Mojito and then I knew I was properly on holiday, and the various frustrations of earlier in the day were largely forgotten.

The next day dawned bright and sunny, and started with a mountain of fruit as part of breakfast. The Cubans have access to lots and lots of fruit and eat plenty of it. Whilst some of it was more to my taste than other parts, I was overjoyed to be somewhere with easy access to loads and loads of lovely pineapple. By the end of my stay I was halfway convinced that I would turn into a pineapple soon, the amounts I'd been eating. At any rate, the fruit (along with lots of flaky Cuban bread) fortified us ready for some exploration and we headed off into Habana Vieja. Literally meaning Old Havan this is, in fact, the old part of Havana. It's funny how things work out like that sometimes.

First main stop (after assuring various friendly Cubans that no, I did not in fact want to buy any cigars or require a taxi to anywhere) was the Capitolio Nacional, the Cuban Capitol building. Which, as one of the displays assures you, resembles somewhat St Peter's in Rome, St Paul's in London, various other buildings around the world with domes and, oh yes, maybe just a teensy bit the US Capitol Building of which it is damned near a copy. Inside, it's an extraordinary place and well worth visiting, and also has a surprisingly good collection of artwork etc available to buy, a fair bit of it of a different level from the usual stuff you find in near-enough every market. After the visit to the Capitolio we headed further into Havana Vieja along Calle Obispo, the central spine of the old town, dodging further amateur tobacconists and enthusiastic vendors of Granma, which is not a Cuban version of the Saga magazine but actually the state newspaper, purveyor of all the news considered fit to print and now helpfully available in English and many other languages. Obispo also contains such sights as the Floridita bar and the Hotel Ambos Mundos, both part of the trail blazed by Hemingway fans in the city where he spent much of his time.

After swinging up to the Plaza de la Catedral and admiring the Cathedral which had been helpfully put in the square of the same name, we decided that the restaurant in the square which we had earmarked for lunch might not be the best idea (insufficient non-meaty options and overly sufficient prices) and continued on, pausing for a brief stop in a nearby cafe for refreshment (during which we were treated to the first of many, many renditions of Cuban classics such as Guantanamera, a tune familiar to almost anybody who's ever watched a football match due to its easy conversion to other uses) and then for a somewhat less brief stop in the nearby market. Here began another of the recurrent themes of the trip, as I had mentioned to Mum that I was on the lookout for a Cuban flag patch to sew alongside the others on my backpack - hence, any time we passed a likely-looking market or souvenir shop we would have a check around for the desired item, often with Mum asking the shop assistants and me cringing with embarrassment as my innate English instinct for "not causing a fuss" was ruthlessly ignored.

Which brings up another of the strange things about this trip - all my life, I've been used to Mum being an expert at languages, yet here for once Mum had hardly a word of the local language and relied upon me for translation duties. It's kind of like finding the Easter Bunny now expects you to bring him chocolate or the Tooth Fairy wants you to recommend a good dentist. And given how rusty (and rudimentary to begin with) my Spanish is, this was often a case of the partially-sighted leading the blind, but we got by pretty well most of the time.

At any rate, by now rather hot and hungry, we headed on to another of the restaurants we had picked out of my Rough Guide as a possible lunch-spot, and were not remotely disappointed by El Templete - despite being sufficiently touristy as to have a menu in English, the food (mostly fish and seafood) there was gorgeous, so much so that we resolved immediately to come back there for our final meal in Cuba, lunch on the Sunday before flying home. After this, we wandered a little more around the streets of Havana Vieja, looking around the Plaza de Simon Bolivar and the Plaza de San Francisco amongst many others before heading along to the Museo del Ron.

And no, for the comedians out there, this isn't a shrine to either the sidekick from Harry Potter or the disgraced former football manager - Ron is the Spanish for Rum. Yes, we had decided to visit the official museum of one of Cuba's more famous product. And given that we had to wait 10 or 15 minutes before an English-language tour went around, I was pretty much forced to sit in the courtyard sipping a Guarabana, the house cocktail, a lovely mixture of rum, orange juice and fresh-crushed sugar-cane juice. It's a hard life.

By now it was getting on for mid-afternoon so we started back up through town, taking in a bizarre impromptu dance-show-cum-fashion-parade on the street, looking around the Casa de Asia (basically a museum showcasing various gifts from the Asian embassies), having a Mojito in the bar on the roof of the Ambos Mundos (nice views, crap mojitos) and then heading up to La Punta, the point at the mouth of the harbour, and back along the Malecon to our casa.

In the evening we went back to our little restaurant from the previous night only to find that our nice waitress from the previous day wasn't working, having been replaced by a far less solicitous colleague, and then that I had a sudden onset of some kind of stomach bug. Sick Pat is not happy Pat (you could tell I was ill, I got nowhere near finishing dinner!), so we headed back to an early night and I resolved to try and sleep it off. And on that somewhat unsavoury note, I shall end for now as this is taking longer to write than I thought and I need my beauty sleep if I am not to doze off on the phone to people tomorrow.