Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Santiago de Cuba

Big Boy - my ride for the next 14 hours or so to Santiago de Cuba.
26th of July - Viva La Revolucio!
Inside "Big Boy," our ride to Santiago from Havana.
As much as I'd loved Havana so far, it was time to see more of the country, more than just the capital as some people do. Visiting a capital city is a big yes in my books, and if you get the chance to visit one and nowhere else, it's a good start. Some are wonderful and always worth a visit - Prague, London and Vienna to name just a few - but if you only see these cities, you are missing out on places like Sydney (no, it's not the capital) and Barcelona (again, not the capital, but maybe it should be). Long distance buses are far less organised than South America and way more expensive too. About the organisation, this is Cuba where nobody is in a hurry and apart from that not many people actually travel, as as far as cost goes, everything is more expensive for tourists - a fact of life here. For example, Cuba is supposed to have a great ballet group, so I checked it out and the cost difference was amazing - 20 MN for locals and 20 CUC, basically $1 and $20. It's basically the same for buses and taxis, the big, air-conditioned tourist bus was 50 CUC to Santiago but the local option was 10 CUC. We decided on the local option, but still ended up paying 25, just because we're tourists (even though we had a local help buy us the tickets), and we had our ride for the next 12-14 hours. This was no air-conditioned dream, nor was it a bus. We had bought seats on a converted truck. The front end of the truck was original (but painted bright blue), the cab bright red leather but still looked like something from the 50s and the part we were to sit was what I imagine used to be a cattle car, the seats ripped from a another bus (or bus stop), old plane or anywhere else they could get them, weld them down and bam, you have a bus.

Cycle taxis are popular here in Santiago - even with the locals.
Santiago is Fidel's town.
Santiago - the start of the Revolution.

14 hours later, we arrived Santiago. The ride was less than pleasant. The 'windows' were the open sides of the truck with grills welded on (to stop the cattle from jumping), allowing plenty of fresh country air in as we sped at around 140 kph (I used a GPS to check and then instantly regretted it), we weren't hot until it started to rain, we got a little wet until we could untie the thick plastic tarp that covered the windows, then there was no wind, just the now wet and hot bodies of the passengers. It was still noisy. Earphones and loud music was the only way to sleep and even then it didn't really help that much as there was so much bumping and jolting. I'm not complaining though - it was a once only experience and something I guarantee 99% of tourists never do. Besides, we'd saved ourselves 25 CUC... more money for rum, right?

2 friends chilling in the afternoon.
A 1951 Studebaker Champion - my first and maybe my last!
Common here in Santiago.
So, Santiago is a city not really on the list for travellers to Cuba, party I think because it's not Havana, doesn't have the famous beaches and is also a long way from anywhere. Fidel, Che and their boys landed not far from the city in the Sierra Maestre mountain range and this was the first city liberated - and the posters an signs show this - it is definitely Fidel's city. A quick walk down the main street to the main plaza and you could see Fidel everywhere - from the 15m posters on the sides of buildings to the thanks he gave the city in 2m font at eye level. It is much smaller than Havana with under 500,000 people, but I felt more real - far less tourists, no pimped-out taxis for hire and life just as it would have been two decades ago. I had already fallen in love with this city and the more time I spent here the more that feeling grew - great street food, less pollution, friendly people and a calm, relaxed atmosphere. Santiago de Cuba was the fifth village founded by Spanish conquistador Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar in 1515 and was the starting point of the expeditions led by Juan de Grijalba and Hernán Cortés to the coasts of Mexico in 1518, and in 1538 by Hernando de Soto's expedition to Florida. On New Years day in 1959, Fidel proclaimed the victory of the Revolution from the balcony of the city hall. Not a small and unimportant place at all!

"Thanks Santiago" - Fidel.
A living statue in the main square.
The Cathedral of Santiago.
The private house we stayed at here was a 15-20 minute walk from the centre but well worth it. Owned by Oscar and Nancy, a lovely couple who were extremely friendly and helpful, our room had air-con and a TV as was in a cool area - 2 minutes from the Plaza de Independencia. Like in Havana, the plaza was a big, open space with a larger-than-life monument in the middle to impress. Free to get in a look around, we did that and enjoyed it - although there wasn't much, there were old pictures of Fidel, memorabilia and just a feeling that something great happened there and you could enjoy it without the queues, ticket prices and hordes of people all shuffling around with their phone trying to take pictures. After seeing the Plaza and visiting the memorial, we walked back across the road and were stopped by a guy with a cycle taxi. We saw him coming and knew what he wanted and steeled ourselves to say no - always a hard thing to do here as everyone is so friendly.

Inside the museum at Placa de Revolucio.
Jose Marti's Mausoleum.
A photo with Camillo, our taxi driver.
We agreed to a trip to the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, as we were going there anyway, and at only 3 CUC return we figured it was a good chance to see the city, not have to walk and also help a local taxi guy out (who looked like he needed the cash for food to be honest, we was so thin!). We got to see his sister along the way, he took us to his house and showed us around. He was very proud of his house although the only furniture he had was a table, chair and bed, all of which were falling apart, which made me feel even worse for haggling him down to $3. He dropped us off the at cemetery and waiting for us to finish our walk - you couldn't ask for better service! It was just before 12 noon when we heard music and rushed over to see what was going on - it was the daily changing of the guards. 3 soldiers goose-stepping in full dress uniform to the Cuban National Anthem is something to see, and one of those a woman too which is slightly unusual. Only Laurel and I were there to witness this, along with 3 other tourists, at the Jose Marti Memorial and I enjoyed it - although I couldn't get too close as I was shooed off the grass and told to get back behind the imaginary line that I wasn't supposed to cross. The guards are there all day, in the baking heat, standing guard over Señor Marti's coffin, which is housed within a mausoleum decorated with pictures of the man and the Cuban flag. Thanks Camillo for the great tour - I hope you find more tourists to show them around your city, you deserve it!

Our local drinking hole - 80c rums and $1 beers and a view of the harbour.
A chemist with not much.
3 choices of running shoes.
After a busy day being cycled around, we thought it was time to head to the port and get some local refreshment. This came in the form of 80c 8 year old, matured rum and a $1 beer, chilling out at the 'Puerto del Rey' bar at the port, watching the waiting staff watch the Americans on their big cruise ship. At first I didn't know what was going on, the workers all at the window with binoculars while we were waiting to get a drink, so I went up to them and asked, "watching the Americanos!" one woman said with a giggle, and so they continued to peep at the Yanks sitting on their sun chairs on the first American cruise ship to come to Cuba in generation or more. Walking up the main street of the city to find some dinner, you see an interesting mix of things - for example, I saw a 1950s car, a bike with a side-car (blowing a lot of smoke) and also sharing the road was a guy and his son on a buggy being pulled by a little horse - this is the flavour of Santiago.

Santiago is the city where the Cuban Revolution started (and still continues).
Sunset in Santiago.
Goat ride anyone?
One thing we got a lot though were "Rastas" coming and talking to us and being all friendly, then asking for something. It seemed like everyone was a Rasta (and I knew they were because they would say "Hola, I'm a Rasta!"), and we managed to escape most of them (and watch blond  German tourists get caught instead!) except one who followed us all the way to dinner. He was lovely, but we couldn't lose him or say no, as he hadn't asked for anything. Yet. I offered him a drink, he refused as he doesn't drink, he just wanted to talk. He didn't want any food either, but instead offered me a cigar - I tried to politely refuse but he wouldn't have it, so I now had my first Cuban cigar, the kind the Government hands out for free. When it did come it was a surprise - he wanted $1 to buy balloons for his daughter's birthday. How can you say no to that? He also met some Venezuelan guy at the restaurant, two sailors, a pilot and a soldier who were in town for a few days on shore leave from their boat in the port - we chatted then they asked for a group selfie which we were happy to do. On the way home there was a festival in the plaza - music, people dancing and goats pulling carts full of kids. Yes, goats. Completely normal here. We watched at enjoyed the 'Cuban life' that is being outdoor in the good weather, enjoying being with your friends and family, and of course having a drink, smoke and a dance. What could be better?

El Morro Castle, protecting the coast from pirates.
Goose-stepping Guards at Jose Marti's Mausoleum.

The interior of Jose's 1954 Willy's Wagon.
The last day in Santiago before heading to Santa Clara, we decided to grab a taxi and head to the fort just outside the city. The Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca, or the Castillo de Morro, was built on an earlier fortification in 1610 to defend against pirate raids on the city. Over the next hundred and fifty years it saw nearly constant upgrading, strengthening, attacks and even earthquake damage until 1775, when it was converted into a prison. It fell into disrepair in the 20th century until Catalan Francisco Prat Puig restored it in the 60s. It was declared UNESCO World Heritage in 1997 and is the best preserved and most complete example of Spanish-American military architecture. The fortress was interesting, with some information about famous pirates and a great view of the bay and the city behind it, but more interesting was the ride there. A friend of Oscar's hooked us up with this guy, Jose, who drives a private taxi when called. The taxi was a 1954 Willys Wagon, a car I'd never seen before in my life, nor ever heard of. It ran well enough, and on the way to the fort I chatted to Jose, asking him about the car and his life in general. The car was his father's before him and had stayed in the family, the engine is now diesel but the rest is original - who knows how many KMs this thing had done in it's lifetime (and I had no way of telling as the dial had stopped). The funny thing was that I found out that the car was the same age as it's driver!

Both made in 1954 - Willy and Jose.

Friday, 26 August 2016

More of Havana

Cuba - a real treasure.

Havana is a cool city, and I think it would be hard to find somebody that doesn't like it. Sure there are annoyance for tourists like any other city, but that's normal. It is a photographers dream though - not just for the cars but the people here are very interesting too. People watching is a national past-time and they have no shame or reservations about looking - if you're on the street you're going to be looked at (sometimes cat-called!) and maybe commented on. I stayed in the heart of Havana, 2 blocks away from the Capitolio building. The first night was a 'hostel,' but I ended up moving here so I could be right in the middle of it all. When in Cuba you stay with families in 'casas privadas,' or private houses, and pay the person directly. There are signs above the house or flat, a little blue 'anchor' symbol, with the name of the person who rents it out. For 25 CUC, $25 US, Laurel and I had a nice room on the 3rd floor with air-con and our own bathroom. From here we could walk 10 minutes to the Malecon, Havana Vieja and just about anywhere you'd want to go in the city. The days went like this - breakfast of a pizza and coffee for less than $1, walk around and take pictures, always discovering something new or meeting an interesting local, come back early afternoon for a siesta (with the air-con running of course!) and then head back out at around sunset time and enjoy Havana in the evening. Not a bad way to spend your time really!

Plaza de Independencia - Che and Camillo light up at night too.

The Capitolio building.
The fortress that guards the city.
The Malecon in Havana is worth mentioning as it is THE hangout place for the youth of Havana. Along the harbour there is the stone wall that protects Havana from the sometimes wavy and rough Caribbean Sea, running from the far West of the city all the way around Havana Vieja and provides a seat and somewhere to sit and watch the sun, people watch or even car watch. We spent a fun night chilling there, talking to locals and drinking freshly-made Mojitos ($4 bottles of Havana Club). Most people here don't have mobiles and if they do, they aren't Smartphones. One girl I got talking to didn't know what Youtube was, doesn't have Facebook, never heard of most of the current bands popular with young people and was generally 'out of the loop' for news and information regarding most things (she knew who Justin Beiber is though). Sadly, this is Cuba - a restriction on information. At the same time, who needs silly teenage pop singers and Facebook when you have cheap booze, great weather, a view of the Caribbean and the Morro Fortress in the harbour and also have friends to hang out with and share it all with?

The view from the Malicon - looking towards the Hotel Nacional.

You're in my spot.
Some lovely music performed by some lovely women.
If you want a little Cuban music, some expensive (for Cuba) drinks and a bit of culture, pop into the Hemingway Bar in Havana Vieja. I didn't know this, but he's famous here - he lived near Havana for nearly 20 years with his wife Martha and even met Fidel! Another place to hang out in Havana with your friends is the nightclub "Fabirica de Arte." This is the 'high-end' of hang outs though - every night there is a long queue, fancy people all dressed up, bouncers and of course cool cars doing laps. I went there one night but waited for ages and the line never got any shorter, so our group (4 recently High School graduated Brits and a Dutch girl) decided to find another place. We sat at the bar across the road and had a beer to help us decide - the bar was empty and smelt like piss, but the barman was friendly and the beer cheap. After wandering around the streets looking for another party to go to, we finally found one but were denied access (invite only), so we had another beer in the smelly bar before getting a taxi home. The ride back was probably the best thing that happened all night - 6 people crammed into a 1960s Chev which was driven by the coolest taxi driver ever. Manolo owned his car and had made it look awesome on the inside with fluorescent lights and had his favourite American music pumping from the stereo - we all sang along to the "Rhythm of The Night" in our different accents, British, Australian, Dutch and Cuban. In Spanish though, the chorus is slightly different... This is the rhythm of the night = Esos son Reebok o son Nike...

Staying right in the heart of the city for $30 a night between two people.

A truly 'holy' experience.
Some ladies selling cigars.
During our wanderings in the city, we bumped into and met 2 locals who became out friends for the who time we were here - in fact they kind of fathered us a little. Fidel and Raul, 59 year old brothers, born in Panama and named after the two revolutionary brothers from Cuba. We were caught admiring a car across the street and they started talking to us - we ended up going out for dinner with them and having dinner at their place the next night. Both boys are sailors and do a fair bit of travel - they loved showing us postcards, travel brochures and all their souvenirs from the places they'd been. They took us to the Plaza de la Revolucio, a quick 4c bus (or 'guagua' in Cuba) trip away. I need to mention the name they have for buses here - pronounced 'wa-wa,' it comes from the noise the old buses used to make, but in Chile a 'guagua' means baby. In Spain you 'coger' or 'catch' the bus, same in Cuba I found, but the rest of South America you 'toma' the bus as the Spanish word means 'to fuck.' I always felt strange asking where I could catch the bus in Cuba... Back to the plaza, which is quite cool - there are two building either side of the square, one with a big outline of Che Guevara and the other of Camillo Cienfuegos - both of which light up at night. There is a monument to Jose Marti (revolutionary who fought for independence against the Spanish), a huge structure and the pride of the Cuban people - they love this man. Inside there are some interesting pictures of Fidel and the other revolutionaries after the war, but not much else. The brothers enjoyed taking us there, they did however get a little possessive with us - if anyone come up to either me or Laurel in the street, the brothers would move in and shoo them away, as if to say 'these are out gringos, go find your own.' We were also lucky enough to see a church service and meet the local priest - a very interesting experience which I'm not too sure I want to do again. This is a real 'hallelujah' church, singing, people with their hands up and swaying, but the biggest thing were the people falling over and shaking. Once is enough for me.

Taxi ride to the beach... old but notice the USB plug and new stereo?
Vamos a la playa!
Not my hotel.
A trip to Havana wouldn't be complete without a day at the beach. We grabbed a taxi for $5 and headed for Santa Marta, just outside the city. The car was the oldest Landcruiser I've ever seen, but had air-con and went well, it had the driver and front passenger and the rest of us were in side bench seats in the back. Duly decorated with a Cuban boxing gloves hanging from the mirror, the car cruised down the main highway along the coast. There wasn't much traffic and there were very little buildings once we went under the tunnel and got to the other side of the harbour. We did get stopped by police along the way (and way back), but not for anything really serious - the police just want to make sure they it is a legal taxi taking tourists around. The beach was lovely - the postcard picture of palm trees, sun and blue sky and a turquoise sea, the real deal. Back in the city we headed out for the evening, just walking aimlessly but always finding something of interest. We came across an old-fashioned looking ice-cream parlour, right out of Back to the Future (the people even wore those little paper Navy hats) where the only flavour to choose from was chocolate. That's how it is here, one, maybe two flavours if you're lukcy - but chocolate is my fav so problems there. The ice-cream was awesome (and I even got vanilla topping drizzled over my 3 'boletas') and so was the price - 3 scoops for 5 CUP (35c). We also found a small 'natural spring water' shop hidden away in the centre. I'm not sure how else to describe it, but it's called the "Casa del Agua del Tinaja," and there is an older gentlemen selling 'healthy' water - he has a few pots on the counter and pours you a glass for a bit of change - the water tastes good and is refreshing. The water is filtered using the methods of those from the former colony here - there were many of these 'water houses' all over the city to help keep the citizens cool, now this is the only one remaining. The man was lovely and loved a chat - you can also get your photo taken with him and he'll post it up on the back wall of the store - he prefers young, pretty women though.

A Caribbean beach at it's best.
War medals and memorabilia - it's all here.
Old camera? Book about Che? We have it all!
Old Havana is a wonderful part of town - so much to see and do, and all accessible by foot. Small streets with 5 or 6 storey apartment building, you could be in Barcelona but for the sad condition of the buildings. In the main plaza of the city, surrounded by posh restaurants, you can find the locals selling all sorts of thing in a daily market. I found Adolf's 'Best Seller' in Spanish, war medals, Cuban cooking books, old LPs of unheard of Cuban salsa and some old cameras - the shopkeepers are always open to a little haggling, my backpack for space, however, had a very set limit. Cathedral of Havana San Cristobal is in another Plaza a few blocks away and worth seeing. The Cathdedral was built in 1777 in the Baroque style and seems out of place in this city - it would fit very well in some northern Italian town though. Free to get in and free to climb the tower, you get a good view of the plaza and the neighbourhood - you're really able to see day-to-day life from up there, the lost tourists and all the people trying to make a living of those same tourists. People watching from 30m is sometimes the best - also quiet.

A little bar around the corner from my casa privada.

How much is that cat in the counter?
Fidel and his Revolutionaries.
The Museum of the Revolution is worth a visit too, and it also free. Although repairs were being done, you can still see the outline of the famous 'Granma,' the yacht that took the small group of 50 something revolutionaries from Mexico to Santiago de Cuba to take the good fight to Señor Batista. The museum's information regarding Che and the other leaders is quite bias - Che was a superior leader, a great guerrilla fighter and doctor, physically strong with amazing constitution, brave and a true inspiration to everyone. These are true to some degree (and I was paraphrasing a little, but this is more or less what the plaques said at every opportunity) - he was a doctor and did lead men to victory, but they never mention his divorce from his first wife Hilda Gadea, after he had fought in Cuba and fallen in love with Aleida March. Nor does it state anywhere of his poor health, fighting bad (and sometimes debilitating) asthma in the southern jungles of Cuba. I could go on, about how there is nothing about his poor campaign in The Congo or Bolivia, but it's a revolutionary museum in a 'communist' country that is 'still having' it's revolution - visit, enjoy and take it for what it is.

The most recognised face in the World.

Friday, 19 August 2016

Old Havana

The Cuban Capitolio building.
Lada Police car.

Sitting on that plane to Havana, after 10 years of dreaming about Cuba, it was all about to happen. I still couldn't believe it. I'd done a little reading about the country but was still quite unprepared - and I wouldn't really have an opportunity to learn much on the go there due to the whole limited internet thing. This time I was really jumping in the deep end - at least I wasn't alone and I could speak the language sufficiently. I didn't really have a travel plan either, other than it was 14 days here and I had to fly from Havana to Europe - this one would be a make-it-up-as-I-go trip... the best kind right? 

The tales are true - a classic car at every intersection!
Entryway to an apartment in Havana.
Waiting for a bus in the city.
Landing at the airport was just like stepping back in time - something that you feel all the time in Cuba. The old decorations, signs and just everything about it screams 1950s, it's like you've stepped into an episode of 'Mad Men.' We got through customs and passport control (got my stamp!) and went outside to get a taxi to our hostel - the worst time in a new country where you always get ripped off and hassled. Being walking dollar signs, people approached straight away, before we had even changed our money. Something I knew about beforehand but was still unsure of was the money situation - there are two currencies in Cuba right now. There is the Cuban Pesos (Moneda Nacional or CUP) which the locals use, 25 pesos to the US dollar, and the Peso Convertibles (or CUC), worth 1:1 with the US Dollar and used by foreigners. We're not really allowed to use the local money, but things are changing here and I actually used it quite often for small purchases like coffee and snacks. Using my best haggling/persuasion/lying skills, I played off the taxi drivers against each other and got the trip down from 30 CUC to 20 CUC. More money for rum I figured.

The 'Classic Cars' of Havana - these ones are just for tourists with money (not me).
A Lada 2107 - very popular car here, but probably not by choice.
A real car - A 60s Pontiac.
The drive from the airport to our hostel was an interesting one. It was about 9pm, so we couldn't see much, there weren't many street lights or cars on the road. The cars on the road were as you would expect - old Chevs and Fords cruising around, dull yellow headlamps (no modern bright-as-day lights here) and full with families. Laurel and I were like kids in a candy store slash dog with it's head out the window - it was a cool ride. The fact about the cars here is not what everyone expects I don't think. There are cars for tourists in the centre of Havana, charging $40 per half hour for a classic car tour of the city, but most cars here are owned by real people, families, that reply on them to live. The trade embargo put on Cuba hurt them, no longer able to import new cars and appliances for example, you just have to make do and keep it running. The cars you see driving around are 1950s and 60s tanks but they aren't a gimmick - all have had their engines changed to diesel (last longer and more efficient) and are handed down from father to son to grandson. If you have a car here, you can be a taxi (or 'collectivo' as they call them here), driving people around for about 50c a trip, which is a lot of money here and consider how many people you fit on the bench seats and how many trips you can do, picking people up along the way. Our hostel was somebody's apartment in a big but brightly painted building, right next to the big baseball stadium. We headed out for a $1 beer and a sit in the plaza, pinching ourselves. We chatted to a few locals here and discovered how friendly Cubans really are - the trip was starting off very well. The view from the balcony in the morning was also quite spectacular - a view of the Capital building in the distance.

The Capitolio building seen from our hostel on the first day.
Inside a Havana church.
Colourful buildings.
A bit of a back story is needed for Cuba so you get to know the country a bit, as it has had a busy history, a changing one and one that will be very different very soon. Columbus was the first European to land here back in 1492, the Spanish colonists turned up in 1511 and Cuba became an agricultural country, mainly sugar cane. The country stayed under Spanish rule until the Seven Year War, involving Britain, France and Spain, and Havana was captured by the Brits in 1762, but later returned to Spain as part of the peace treaty that saw an exchange for Florida. Cuba had their first revolution in 1868, led by a sugar planter, named Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, who freed his slaves to help with the fight for independence. The 1868 rebellion resulted in the Ten Years' War. Two thousand Cuban Chinese joined the rebels. The United States declined to recognise the new Cuban government, although many European and Latin American nations did. Slavery in Cuba was abolished in 1875 and was completed in 1886, and Jose Marti formed the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1892. After the Spanish American War, Spain lost their territories in North America (including Puerto Rico) and Cuba finally got it's independence in 1902, but America meddled in Cuba's affairs from the word go - in the constitution they reserved the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and to 'help them' with their finances and foreign affairs. Batista was elected in 1940 and was President until 1944, only being allowed one term. He ran again in 1952 and lost, so he staged a coup and got the top job back, with the help of the US. Under his dictatorship government, Cuba developed, but only for the relatively wealthy and a bout a third of the country remained quite poor and unemployment was also high. He stayed in power until the famous Cuban Revolution (1953-59) with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The rest most people know, but the revolution didn't finish in 59 with the overthrow of Baptista - it is still considered to be a revolution now and propaganda posters are everywhere.

The 'Big 3' - Party Founder Julio Antonio Mella and Revolutionaries Camillo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara.
Havana Vieja.
How 'the other half' live.
During the Republican Period, from 1902 to 1959, Havana saw a real period of development. Cuba recovered from the devastation of war to become a well-off country, with the third largest middle class in the hemisphere. Apartment buildings to accommodate the new middle class, as well as mansions for the Cuban tycoons, luxury hotels, casinos and nightclubs were built in the 30s. Walking around the city today, you can see that it was once very wealthy and beautiful, a playground for rich Americans, but is now crumbling away everywhere you look. Home to 2.1 million people, it is still beautiful but way past it's day. Building have that grandeur but no paint, bricks missing or the whole inside of the building completely destroyed. The Capitolio building was built in 1929 and looks just like the Capital building in Washington DC - no accident either. We found a 'casa particular,' or private house, to rent 2 blocks away from this building and right in the middle of where the 'real' city is. It's a residential area and full of locals - the tourists usually have hotels and stay around the restored 'Habana Viejo' part of town (Old Havana), and I think they are missing out. We headed out for a coffee, which we found numerous places selling it and it only cost 1CUP (5c), a pizza for 15CUP (70c) and lots of juices and other goodies. These things in the tourist part of town would be far more expensive - it's one of those things that seem cheap to you until you find out how much the locals pay - but we were true backpackers and knew the tricks! We spent the next few days wandering the streets, taking photos, eating cheap meals from local restaurants ($1.70 compared to nearly $10) and enjoying everything that makes Cuba and Havana so special.

A 'Black & White' Lada taxi on the streets of Havana.
Stars and Stripes clothes is all the rage here.
Some good old boys making some good old music
Most people here don't actually earn very much money. We were constantly told that, even if you are a doctor or engineer, you only get about 40USD a month - a pittance. On the other hand, from what I understand, the Government gives you monthly allowances for most of your necessities for food (including rum and cigars of course), but this is not really enough. It's not easy though - you can't just go to the supermarket and pick up your favourite brand of cheese - you get 1, maybe 2 choices of brands and sizes. The pizza we bought here in Havana, at several different little pizza places, all tasted the same - 1 brand of cheese and tomato sauce. They just don't have an option - trade embargoes from so many countries stop the 'luxury' we have of being fussy at the supermarket or even having a huge shopping mall. Fashion is basically limited, which I don't mind at all as I think it's a huge, greedy slave-trade most of the time anyway, as well as being a waste of time and money keeping in fashion, so people wear what they have or what they can get and don't have an outfit for everyday like most Westerners. Mobile phones are small 'dumb' Nokias and The Internet is quite limited - no Internet in houses, only expensive hotels for foreigners, but you can buy vouchers in certain WiFi Hotspots (which are new), but only the locals are supposed to get this, but money is money and someone always sold it to us (3CUC/hr). Cars that break down are fixed with what's on hand, which is a good thing that they are old too. If something is broken, you fix it and keep on using it - Cubans are very handy when it comes to these things as they have to be, not like us who just buy a new one and dump the old one in landfill.

Hey yourself buddy!
People watching is national past time.
A man and his car in Havana.
Laurel and I spent 4 days in Havana before we moved to another city, and still we hadn't seen everything. It's a big city and with confusing buses (that are only 1CUP - 7c or the same as a coffee here) we walked most of it. This is a great way of seeing the city though - you really get a feel for it! We spent time during the day either in Havana Vieja with the tourist, enjoying the sights and the buildings but staying away from the expensive food and drink, or near our 'house,' but that got a little tiring too as a lot of people would beg. When Cubans beg, they don't just ask for money, they are really quite inventive. The usual story is a father who doesn't have enough money to buy milk for his 3 kids, so he talks to you for a while, then tells you about how he's a doctor but has no money for milk and then asks you to buy him some. It could be a scam but I think that sometimes it isn't - but it gets tiring nonetheless and I stopped doing. It's also always someone's birthday and he wants you to go and have a beer with him - you're paying of course. Alive and interesting, so far I was loving Havana and Cuba, nearly ready to move on to the next place but not wanting to leave this crazy yet vibrant city yet. I was on a time limit however - that's what you get for booking tickets ahead of time, something that I was not used to.
It's all part of the Havana experience!

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MyUncleTravellingMatt. May 2016.

Birthday Weekend

The always impressive Pedraforca. Just beautiful! Hiking with a touch of snow. Winter was setting in by November, and although ...