Thursday, 29 May 2014

a cuban christmas part 1.

This year I was lucky enough to be able to spend Christmas travelling around Cuba with my sister, Chloe. Despite being the best of friends and sharing a mutual love for travel, we had never actually taken a trip just the two of us. So six months before Christmas we decided to book some flights and brush up on our Spanish (which in my case is abysmal). And come the 16th of December we were rubbing our tired eyes and stepping off the plane into the hectic city of Havana. 
It is a requirement for tourists to book their first three nights accommodation in Cuba, so we had booked a room in a beautiful casa in Old Havana (though for the first two nights we actually ended up in a different casa down the street, as is often the way in Cuba!) By day we explored the city, stunned by the colourful and unique architecture and the fascinating history of the place (and there was a good deal of dribbling over the 1950s Chevrolets on my part!) On our first day of exploring, we met two lovely Cubans who took us around the city, showing us places that we never would have seen without them, our favourite of which was a small artists quarter which was so interesting and exquisite, enclosed in brightly painted walls and hidden underneath a canopy of vines and trees, it housed a handful of artists and a pet tortoise. And it's where we got our first taste of Cuban food - yum! They also apparently took us to the "real" Buena Vista Social Club, although that is questionable and I may or may not have shaken hands with an original member of The Buena Vista Social Club band, although that too is questionable. 
The only camera I took with me to Cuba was my trusty Fujica 901 analogue, which all of these images were shot on and subsequently developed in a darkroom by yours truly. 

On our first night in Havana we went looking for a bar where we could sink some
Mojitos and have a good old chinwag. We quickly found a suitable establishment but no sooner had we sat down at a table, with our drinks clasped tightly in our hands, when we were joined by the entire male population of the bar. The most memorable of whom claimed to be Fidel Castro's grandson, producing a small photograph from his jacket where it appeared that he had photo-shopped his and Castro's faces together. Surreal. We also met a man who endlessly showed us topless photos of himself on his phone, all the while with a coy, self-deprecating look on his face. We were both then forced into some very awkward salsa dancing and after making our excuses we were followed home by a man with very scary eyes.

Feeling as though we had had our fill of Havana and desperately craving some serenity, we caught a bus to the small town of Trinidad.

Trinidad is a charming little town in the Sancti Spiritus province of central Cuba. The architecture was breathtaking and the whole place was so diverse and colourful, as were the people. Our five or so days spent there were easily my favourites of the trip. It was exactly what I had dreamed of and what I had hoped Cuba would be.

This square pictured above holds some lovely memories for me; we often sat there in the sunshine, serenaded by those two lovely gentlemen. Then one day when poor Chloe was sleeping in the casa after a nasty bout of food poisoning, I went to sit in the square and sketch. Instead I made friends with the gorgeous little boy above. I couldn't speak a word of Spanish and he could only say "hello" in English, yet we sat together for hours. He drew some beautiful pictures in my sketchbook, I taught him some English, he taught me some Spanish and I let him take some pictures on my big Fujica camera (Most of which were blurred except one portrait that he took of me, which I will put next. When I saw it for the first time I was overwhelmed. He had never held a film camera before and I couldn't explain to him how to focus it, I could only show him, so I was stunned!)
It was a wonderful experience which I cherish, and it just shows; friendship knows no bounds, there's not even any need for words!

Some of the following photographs I exhibited as part of my final show at University in May.

On our first full day in Trinidad we took a short 5km trip to the beautiful little fishing village of La Boca.
Being at an early stage in our Cuba trip we were still confident that we could be properly understood with the Spanish we knew, but that delusion was to be quickly shattered. We went to the taxi bay in Trinidad and thinking we had ordered a taxi (as in a car) to La Boca, we followed a nice man who instead led to a rickshaw (as in a rickety bicycle with two seats pretty much sellotaped to it). We very reluctantly climbed in, hoping and praying that the journey was a short one, for the sake of the poor man. It was however, not. It is safe to say that it was the most embarrassing and awkward thing that both of us have probably ever experienced. Lets just say the man was sweating more than I thought it was humanly possible, and not surprisingly, as he was hauling us both up some very very steep inclines in the midday sun. He may as well have been carrying us on his back, it would have probably been easier for him. Meanwhile we were both squirming with embarrassment in the back, trying desperately to somehow make ourselves lighter, whilst repeatedly shouting "Andando!!" which we thought meant "walk" but knowing our luck probably means "faster". Oh dear.
Once the experience was over we thrust the contents of our purses into the man's hands, which by that point were just little puddles of sweat, and we ran.

La Boca itself, however, was a truly beautiful experience.

La Boca was the serenity we had craved, the small pocket-sized beach was completely empty apart from some boys fishing from the rocks and the odd wooden fishing boat trundling by.
It probably isn't best captured in black and white, but that's the film that was in my camera that day!

The evenings in Trinidad were wonderful. The Casa de la Musica in the centre of the town is an open air amphitheater-like space where you can watch live music, drink rum and coca-cola (like The Andrews Sister's song!) and salsa dance. We went there most nights, and on our second night we got word of a club at the top of the town where the locals went on weekends after The Casa de la Musica.
We had met some lovely Swedish guys earlier in the night and so we all went together, making the climb up to the club, stopping on the way to buy a mojito from a makeshift stall in front of someones house. When we reached the top of the hill, there were some people milling about outside but not much seemed to be happening. That was until we started to make our way down some mysterious steps into...a cave! A natural cave! It was huge, with a glass box where the DJ sat way way up in the ceiling of the cave. It is without a doubt the coolest club I have ever been to, the music left a lot to be desired but I think I was just too overwhelmed with my surroundings to care much. Unfortunately I didn't manage to get any photos of 'La Cueva', but I took a couple at The Casa de la Musica beforehand.

The older gentleman pictured above approached our table whilst we were sat at The Casa de la Musica. He had fought alongside Che Guevara in the Cuban Revolution and had some very interesting but sad stories to tell - well I don't speak Spanish but Niklas (one of the lovely Swedes, pictured above) translated some of what he was saying.

The following day we took a trip to Playa Ancon, a lovely beach which is a short drive from Trinidad. It was beautiful; palm trees, white sand and cool blue water. We swam, lazed in the sun, ate coconuts and I got some rather striking sunburn as a souvenir (the downside to having pale skin!)

On our last day in Trinidad, Chloe and I took a trip up to Topes de Collantes, a nature reserve in the Escambray Mountains, as we had read that there were some amazing waterfalls. 


We had ordered a taxi to the reserve and to say the car was past it's best would be a vast understatement. It struggled and backfired up the near-vertical roads, where the driver had to stop every five minutes to pour water in the car's overheating engine (which was making the inside of the car heat up to practically 100 degrees). Once we had made it up to the top, and regained consciousness, we had to pay a 9 CUC (the tourist currency) to enter, and were pointed in a very vague direction to the waterfalls. 
Poor Chloe was at this point in the midst of some terrible food poisoning and I still don't know a: how she did it and b: why we even attempted such a thing in the first place. But even so, nine miles and a great deal of swearing and sweating later, we made it to the bottom to find... 
The most sinfully disappointing 'waterfall' either of us could have imagined seeing. It was not a waterfall as much as it was a sad trickle of water with a pool of green, ill-looking water beneath it. But we had made it that far, losing our sanity and a lot of bodily fluids along the way, so we swam in that water as though our lives depended on it. 
(The views were beautiful at points though, so that was almost a redeeming factor.)

After that short and underwhelming interlude we began the nine mile hike back up the mountain. 
So Topes de Collantes had been more like Topes de Disappointment, but despite that, our stay in Trinidad had been so wonderful. I will never forget it, and I would go back in a heartbeat.

Saying farewell to Trinidad, Christmas Eve saw us journeying to the small town of Remedios for the annual festival, but more about that in part two of my Cuban Christmas. 

Until then, adiĆ³s!