Sunday, 29 April 2012

Cuba: land of the cuban cigar, rum and salsa

Cuba was indeed an experience, both to intrigue and annoy us. We felt as if we had been immersed into a sort of social project…at times the socialism all felt very surreal and the consequences thereof sometimes frustrated us..For example the fact that they have 2 currencies, one for tourists and one for the locals was confusing at times since we used some of the local taxis and local food markets. Also Cubans are not allowed to eat in the same places as tourists and in fact many cubans are afraid of even socialising with tourists. When dropping us off at the airport, the man whose house we stayed at advised us to tell the police (if asked) that he is a friend of our father, even though there were no police around and he left the airport immediately.  

Another source of frustration was the consumer side of things.Cuba provides basic products in the shops for the locals and this is rationed with food stamps. The locals have to queue outside shops and bakeries and even clothing shops. Certain other things can be bought at a cost of course, but since the range of products is so limited, the supermarkets feel empty and the food at the restaurants are average or below. We tried to cook a bit, but one has to get fruit and veg at the market, bread at the bakery and then search some shops for the other produce, so we ended up only cooking 2 nights out of the 2 weeks.Since everyone earns more or less the same regardless of rank, experience or training, there is no incentive to work harder or to provide customer satisfaction. So, the service basically sucks and what u see is what u get. There is still a lot of inequality though, since some Cubans are more driven or take the initiative to earn more on the side like having tourists stay at their homes or acting as taxis when they are not allowed to. 

But Cuba was not all bad, of course..They have salsa, and man can those people dance! From the girls in the roads showing each other dance steps to the old ladies with grey hair in the salsa bars showing off their moves with the younger guys, it is very clear that salsa is a way of life for these people. Its what moves their souls and has kept them smiling through the years.. The sound of salsa music is always in the background be it at the restaurants, or on the bus, or an old man sitting on the side of the road singing while strumming a few notes on his guitar. And when cubans pass a salsa bar or restaurant where a live band is playing, they can´t help but stop and dance a little, even middle aged women on their way home from work carrying groceries!

musicians in the park playing salsa

Salsa and spanish school

We attended a school for 2 weeks where we learnt salsa and spanish. Each day we had an hour and a half of spanish lessons with other tourists, and an hour and a half of salsa. I had a funny spanish teacher, very expressive, very sweet. I learnt a lot in 10 lessons, but it´s still only basic spanish and once I asked the waiter if I could buy the bathroom instead of if I had to pay to use the bathroom! Wim being more advanced had a teacher who incorporated a lot of the social aspects into the lessons, so he learnt a bit more about the people, their attitudes towards the revolution and socialism as well as some history on Che Guevara.

My (Sheron) fellow spanish sholars enjoying cocktails

spanish lessons

With my teacher getting my certificate

Wim with his teachers

Wim and I each had our own private salsa teachers and the 4 of us did our lessons together so that Wim and I could learn to dance together. It was exhilarating to dance with people who have such natural rhythm. Salsa was easy for me when I was being led by the teacher. However, it was also sometimes frustrating when Wim and I danced together because we often made mistakes or forgot moves.

Wim and Ioymis

Aeriel showing me the moves

Our teachers: Ioymis and Ariel

 On friday nights the school takes all the salsa students with their teachers to Casa de la Musica. This is a salsa bar with live music and there we could practice our moves with our teachers or with each other. It was loads of fun dancing, sweating, drinking mojitos or pina coladas, laughing and watching the cubans make it all look so easy. The hours passed so quickly. The salsa teachers are forbidden from socialsing with the students, however we often ran into our teachers at other salsa clubs like an outdoor club called 1830 where a lot of the tourist girls arrange to meet with their teachers (I think many a tourist female has ended up with a crush on her teacher and we think thats why the school made the rule, but of course that did not stop them!) We often hung out with a group of  7 girls in their 20´s, but we could not keep up with them..they partied and went dancing either salsa or reggaeton almost every night, while Wim and I filled the rest of our days with going to gym, reading, studying spanish or seeking out the better restaurants.

A few of the crazy girls we met at the school

The school also arranged a walk about the old town. This was very informative and I was left completely speechless. Havana old town was declared a world heritage site and the buildings have been restored and painted. It is a truly beautiful town. Buildings of different colours, balconies, old town squares, painters on the side of the streets or people just milling about smoking cuban cigars, always with the sound of salsa in the background, these are the images of cuba I will remember.

rolling cigars to be sold

The Malecon: waterfront

Another school trip was to the beach. Cuba has beautiful beaches. White sands and the water has shades of blue and turquoise. The beaches are clean and free of venders, so one can be left in peace to nap in the sun or swim in the agua caliente or warm waters. The only alarming thing is the amount of rum consumed both on the beach and in the water!

Road trip

After 2 weeks we left our new friends and took a bus east of Havana to a town called Trinidad. For the Cape Townians just picture BoKaap and thats Trinidad! Here we stayed with a family in a Casa particulair or private house. Beautiful spanish style home with lots of pictures of Jesus and Mary around. The man of the house cooked us grilled fish and lobster for supper which was absolutely delicious. We rambled about the little town taking pictures of the cobble stoned streets and different coloured houses.

Church in Trinidad

We also visited another casa de la musica, but this one was no building. Instead this cafe was outdoors on the plaza where the stairs are used as seats arranged like an informal amphitheatre. I will never forget the feel of the wind on my face, looking up at the stars, being held by Wim as the sound of this music filled the night...quite a tranquil setting compared to the horror of the next night...

The next night

So every trip has its evils. Our day started wonderfully with a trip to the beach where we lazed around followed by dinner at a quaint restaurant. We were seated on a patio outdoors and our table was surrounded by the tables of other tourists. The food was terrible again and we were just finishing when a young guy with a hoodie walked into the restaurant. He strolled in casually as if he belonged there, walked to the end of he patio and from my seat in the corner of the patio I could see how he grabbed the bags of 2 other tourists which were hung on the back of their seats. Whether it was my screams or that of the other tourists which alerted everyone,I am not sure, but the next few seconds passed as if in a dream. We were shouting, chairs and glasses and drinks flew as people made a grab for the thief. And of course my hero husband and a few other tourists ran after him, up the side street and down another dark street. I was waiting with the women when the others came back and said Wim and one other guy were still after him. Then the other guy also returned without Wim. By now everyone was chatting about what happened and getting the police, while I stood there very alarmed asking the others where Wim was. The last guy insisted that Wim stopped before he stopped, but I know my husband. He is fit and he is competitive and there is no way he would have given up before the other 40 odd year old man did. Besides he was not back yet...I started to fear the worst, that he had caught up with the thief or his friends and was now being beaten to a pulp (because no matter how strong Wim is, he is not a fighter and can´t hurt a fly) or stabbed or something terrible. I started wondering the streets in tears asking people if they had seen him...after about 20 minutes Wim returned having realised that it was not safe to follow the thief alone. After a tearful reunion I scolded and scolded about the risks of what he did. We returned home, but were edgy the rest of the night. I know I am from Cape Town, but that was scary....

The next day we soon forgot our worries as we joined a group of tourists on a catamaran and basked in the sun for an hour before docking on a deserted island with nothing but iguanas and palm trees. We scuba dived and suntanned and were treated to a lunch of seafood paella.

The next day we took the bus to another little town called Cienfuegos, but this had nothing remarkable to report and we returned to Havana by night where we stayed with another family before flying to Peru via the States (where I smuggled cuban cigars in my shoes through customs hehehehe). Visiting Cuba was a dream of ours, but we were more than happy to return to good old capitalism and to stare at the huge variety of chocolate at the duty free in Houston :) Adios La Habana!! (more pics to follow)

Monday, 23 April 2012

En route to South America: Stopover in the States

On our way to South America we decided to stoppver in the States to have a break between flights from Asia. We stayed in Los Angeles for 2 days and visited Universal Studios. There we were taken on a tour of the studios and sets where many of the hollywood movies and series are made eg the fast and the furious, jurassic park, CSI, etc etc Within this vast premises were taken by train through the various studios:We drove through Wisteria Lane, the set where the women from desperate housewives live. It is a street with houses built and furnished exactly like reality. We were taken into a studio where they simulated planet of the apes. The train moves and shakes and the rain really wets you as if you are right there. Of course we were not scared of the simulated animals all around us...We were taken into a metro station where they showed a simulation of a train wreck and then how the metro floods with rainwater..I really thought that wall of water was going to hit us!!

After that we did a few crazy rides like the jurassic park ride and the Indiana Jones Temple of Doom ride. We also watched shrek in 4D. We are not movie buffs nor hollywood fans, but we were told that we could not visit LA without seeing Universal Studios or Disneyland and we were happy we did. Next stop: Cuba!

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On baywatch beach

At universal studios