Saturday, 11 February 2012

Cuba: The Twilight Zone

Okay, so we made it to Merida on time, and after a disappointing meal at Cafe Chocolate (the only real one we'd had that day), we crashed. The following day was another early start as we raced to get to Cancun to catch our plane, but fist we had a stop at Chichen Itza:

Stereotypical Chichen Itza picture :p
Sadly, Juliet was still not 100% and the combination of long bus trip and plain old relentless heat soon knocked her off her feet again - first to sleep under a tree and then we had to get her to the relative coolness of the park first aid room. With her safely under observation, I once again ran off to try catch up with the tour group and take a few hurried photos. The first objective was a complete failure - I only managed to find them just as the guide said "you now have half an hour to look around for yourselves" - but I had found a few cool things along the way. The huge ceremonial ball court was stunning, especially considering that the rings were tens of feet off the ground with the inner hole scarcely larger than the ball used, and yet the players would attempt to hit a heavy leather ball through them without using hands or feet for as long as it took one side to score, be this hours or days.

Similarly spectacular was the great waterhole ("chen" in Maya) which the former residents believed lead to the spirit realm and hence send gifts of jewellery and - of course - virgins. Who doesn't love drowning virgins? Just like the ball players (the winning teams captain got sacrificed - seems like a good reason to play badly), this was somehow considered desirable. The remains of a building, which would almost certainly (and almost cartoonishly) have had a large plank sticking out of it, was clearly visible on the edge of the hole. Spooky stuff.

After that the more recovered Juliet was bundled back onto a bus to go to a horrendously unaccommodating (and hideously expensive) buffet for lunch to carry on to Cancun. Cuba here we come.

Kevin out. Henceforth, Juliet here. 

After Chichen Itza, I was finally feeling better. Fortunately on this leg of the trip we didn't have to spend long in Cancun - as it was we spent a small fortune on a taxi to the airport and got the only meals other than plain salad we could (bean burritos). Our long day after the tour was completed by a stress-free flight to Havana that got us in to our home-stay at 2am (our host had been pre-warned).

Kevin was hoping to find the decayed remains of a once great semi-egalitarian culture, and some of what you see in the documentary 'The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil' (trailer here). I was expecting... I'm not sure what, but I had a more cynical view of the country, and hadn't seen that documentary prior to going there. I was also expecting a week of bland, limited food. Kevin was disappointed, and my expectations weren't much surpassed.

The country is a bizarre mix of old and new. The recent policy changes have seen a sudden influx of products and peoples which had been forbidden by the state and this means everything from new cars to air conditioning. The roads tell a story in themselves, with the typical car having an equal chance of being a new model japanese import or a meticulously maintained 1960s american gas guzzler:

We spent our week in Cuba just in Havana (we meant to get out, but Kevin got sick). It's a very old city for us Kiwis, and even old compared to a lot of Mexico: it was founded in 1515. We took in the history at the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, a picturesque fortress built in 1589. It has great views of the harbour and city, a little bit of a museum, and ancient rusting cannons. Oh and holes that you could easily hurt yourself in and would surely be illegal in many countries (not to mention in a country trying to rapidly increase tourism).

Big enough to lose a child in, no problem

Havana city itself has moments of beauty, and lots of striking contrasts between buildings that have been kept in repair and those that haven't.

One of the impressive things about the city that neither of us were prepared for was the air pollution - a plethora of poorly-tuned decrepit cars makes the air so bad that Mexico City feels like a rural oasis in comparison. The air was likely a leading cause of Kevin's sickness (other than an almost perennial partially congested nose, he's very healthy). Choking through the streets was another reason we didn't see as much as we aimed to (we never made it out to hear music at night).

The food was pretty much as bad as I expected for me as a non-cheese eating vegetarian. At the majority of restaurants, the only things I could eat were chips/French fries, plain salad, a side of rice and beans, and bland pasta with a few old vegetables. The best food we had was at the one authentic restaurant in their Chinatown (ie the only restaurant that actually has Chinese people working in it). I was very glad to have the packets of refried beans and quinoa that I'd gotten from the food left behind the family vacation in Guayabitos. Even the largest supermarket in the city and probably the country (according to our 2-year-old guide book) didn't have hot sauce or chili pepper, and the ketchup from there was a bit strange.

The country is surprisingly un-tourist-friendly for a country whose main source of income is tourism. At multiple museums, staff called out 'Oficina!' (office) to us when we were trying to go somewhere we shouldn't have. Surely it'd be easier to simply put signs up? The tourist map of the city let us down when it came to the Castillo I mentioned earlier. We thought it'd be fun to take the ferry back across the harbour, so we went to where it should be on the map, only to be quite confused and ask a number of people where to go. 2 km after where the map said it should be, and completely without any street signs to guide us, we finally found the ferry building. We must've been the first tourists to take it in a long time. 

An obvious sign that something isn't meant for tourists is that you pay for it in the local currency. The tourist currency (CUC) is slightly dearer than the US dollar. 1 CUC = 26.5 CUP (local currency). Other than the ferry, the only other place we used the local currency was when we stumbled upon the main bus station. I used the toilet there. I'd already had my share of slightly dodgy public toilets that you pay small amount of money to use in Mexico, but this one took the cake. There was no toilet paper left, so the attendant gave me newspaper. I couldn't find a way to make the toilet flush. Like most of the Mexican toilets, there was no toilet seat.

According to our guide book, and from seeing a few others, the only museums really worth seeing were the Nacional de Bellas Artes (lots of old European paintings, some cool Cuban stuff from the 20th century, and a section of pretty pieces from ancient Greece and Egypt), and the Museo de la Revolucion. The latter was akin to a palace decorated by high school students. It had been a palace, and the standard of the exhibits was about that of what you'd expect from teenagers. Despite the fact that at several points they stated that women were important to the revolution, we only found one woman with a biography. It did tell the story of the revolution (in a positive light, of course - no mention of the horrible persecution that gays faced in the 60s and 70s, for example) - but apparently hadn't been updated since the early 1990s.
Important revolutionary relics. No, really - this was one of the least obscure ones on display. Other such articles include "the pants worn by [minor revolutionary soldier] on the day [minor skirmish] occurred" and "a homemade rocket that wasn't used in [minor skirmish 2]"
You might be starting to get the picture that nothing is quite what it seems in Cuba. At the end of our week, when faced yet again with a situation along those lines, our refrain was "Oh, Cuba". Our 'home-stay' wasn't really a home-stay. We chose that over a hotel because it was cheaper and included a kitchen. The place was run by an English professor. He spent only a night or two there while we were there, instead staying at his wife's house, and was over only briefly every morning and most evenings. A couple nights there was another foreigner staying in the other bedroom. We watched one of his pet birds die a slow and painful death (likely at least partially caused by the other bird attacking it). Our host went to Canada in 2007 to give a talk at a university, and we watched the DVD from that visit. He seemed quite naive about the real situation then, but when we were finally able to ask him some questions his attitude had changed significantly - gone was the revolutionary zeal. This may have been caused by the growing social inequality in the country over the past decade and a half. From the way he talked, the communities with a strong 'green' spirit described in the documentary I linked to at the beginning never existed on a large scale.

Okay, now for the positive points about the Cuba. Healthcare and education are completely free for all citizens, everyone is provided with the basic grocery needs, and most don't have to pay rent (though this is not to say you are provided with a home... it's a rather bizzare system. You couldn't buy or sell property until 2010, but it wasn't assigned by the state either. Tricky - Kevin). Also, on our last day we went out to the botanical gardens, where we saw a staggering array of cacti and tropical flora in greenhouses, and went to the one vegetarian restaurant in the 'city' (it was a decent taxi ride away from the city proper).
Am I the only one who thinks these look like they should be roaming the desert,
like spiky daleks or tricked out triffids? - Kevin

Got cactus?
Another interesting aspect of Cuba was the near total lack of advertising, and the simultaneous omnipresence of political art. Everywhere you turn there are reminders of the revolutionary past, even as the invading capitalist present becomes more and more obvious. Many are familiar with the giant stylised portraits of Che and Fidel at the edge of Plaza de la Revolucion:
 but it was the everyday murals spread across every "blank" wall which really showed the centrality of the revolutionary past in the modern Cuban culture. Despite the inescapable reality that this history is now exactly that, it was still cool to see - Kevin

Sorry for another late update! We are now in the laid-back and Caribbean in culture country of Belize and enjoying it. We'll try and update soon, but we're not so optimistic as to set a schedule this time!

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