“Sin cultura la libertad no es posible”

Fantastic architecture in Havana

Cuba is a warm blur of sensation and emotion. It is colour and heat and music, and altogether different to everywhere else we’ve been. For me, it also comes with a feeling of satisfaction: a wish for many years finally delivered – ‘we are here in Cuba‘, we keep saying to ourselves. But it also brings a sense of conclusion: after nearly 11 months of travels, this is our final country, a two-week holiday at the end of a trip of dreams – and some surprising realities.

I’m writing this sitting in a wooden rocking chair on our porch in the early evening sunshine, looking out in the distance at a panorama of palm trees and tropical forest covering a limestone rock formation – and in the foreground, the more comical quiet street where a horse has broken free of its tether and is making its way through all the gardens for dinner. Somewhat symbolic of this friendly, sharing culture, nobody seems to mind – including the house owners sitting out in their respective chairs. And as if this picture of idyllic beauty needed liquid accompaniment, our landlady has just brought out ice-cold mojitos. Oh yes: Welcome to Cuba!

When we were driving out of Havana the other day, we passed one of the slogan billboards that are everywhere here, and it struck a chord. “Sin cultura, la libertad no es posible – Fidel”, “Without culture, liberty is not possible” (and that’s a direct quotation, it’s first name terms with him here). It seems to capture the feel of the place: yes, this is one of the last remaining communist states; yes, there is effectively rationing, close state control and in places brutalist soviet concrete architecture – but yes, there is also vibrant, colourful and enthusiastic life on the streets: real culture. Almost everyone we’ve met has been overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming – and not demanding of money as we’ve found elsewhere. (OK, so Havana is a bit of an exception, but its certainly nowhere near as bad as other places we’ve been). The live music and dancing is brilliant, and I think its fair to say we’re captivated by the whole thing.

Of course, as the millions of exiles in Miami would no doubt point out, there is another side to all this – one that’s essentially invisible to us as wealthy foreigners peeking in from the outside. I think that’s why I really like that slogan, for it can be so easily turned around: surely “Without liberty, culture is not possible” too? One of Fidel’s key rules about cultural expression was apparently “Within the revolution, anything; against the revolution, nothing”. It’s not hard to see how that means public political dissent is simply not possible – but that certainly isn’t the slightest bit visible in the positive energy we’ve found on the streets. This is not China, and certainly not Tibet.

Facade supported by scaffolding, which has been up for so long its become a jungle!

Iconic images appear everywhere you go like some photographer’s picturesque fantasy land: I keep having to ask myself ‘is this real?’. It is! The anecdotes just write themselves. That includes the dusty cowboy on horseback who’s just trotted past, complete with picture-perfect spurs on his boots; gleaming vintage American cars, curvaceous, huge and colourful; and the mildewed decaying architecture of Old Havana and Trinidad where you can witness at first hand the physical impact of 50 years without imported building materials and state priorities other than a glossy facade.

Our Cuba experience really began when we were queueing to board our flight in transit in Caracas. Yes, there was the ludicrous beaurocracy of needing to buy a tourist visa in local currency before boarding the flight (which we didn’t have, being in transit). Much more significant were our fellow passengers – or rather their hand baggage. It felt a bit like we were in Dixons during the January sales. Everyone seemed to be carrying boxes of electrical items, flat screen TVs, rice cookers and power drills, importing what the blockade has essentially stopped. For the first time in a while, we felt we should have been carrying more with us!

It’s not hard to see the problems Cuba has faced in its near-total isolation since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There’s a general principle here of make-do-and-mend that means everywhere except the fanciest of tourist hotels has a sense of decay and faded glory about it; new buildings (and actually, new machinery) are generally absent. Alongside those iconic classic cars, what little traffic there is comprises rusting old red tractors, motorcycles with side cars, VW Beatles, and horses and carts actually being used as transport and not just for quaint tourist trips. The exception amid all this is the odd new shiny small car, which look totally out of place. Government workers perhaps? Who knows. For most, the conventional intercity bus is a case of standing in a big old belching dumper truck, which if you’re lucky has had some metal crudely welded to give the passengers a roof and possibly some seats.

It’s not all quite so drastic though. Cubans have essentially been forced to save the few resources they have for what really matters – and the state has decided that is education and healthcare. The literacy rate of 99.8% rivals any developed country – it’s no wonder we’ve found the most local English speakers here, giving travelling around a distinctly ‘easy’ feel to it. The country also has 75,000 doctors – compare that with 50,000 for all of Africa. After the earthquake in nearby Haiti, it was Cuban medics who were some of the first on the scene, and were still there recently as some of the only aid workers to help tackle a cholera epidemic – 40% were treated by Cubans. According to our guidebook, 1.8 million people outside the country had their sight restored by Cuban aid worker doctors in the five years up to 2009. Take these indicators of welfare hand-in-hand with low resource consumption (even if just by necessity) and a society that isn’t entirely materialistic, and you can see why a 2006 WWF report named Cuba as the only country in the world actually living sustainably. Quite a different perspective to the communist demon projected by some.

Viva la revolución

As I write this, the man living in a pink house opposite has just nailed up a handwritten cardboard sign in his garden. It says “Viva la revolución”. Although the cynic in me says he’s just some over-zealous official seeking party credit, you can’t help but get the sense that for many, there really is emotion behind the slogans; despite the visible problems, things are still working working and Cuba continues to set an example – even if not a model – of a different world. It will be interesting to see how long it continues once the Castro dynasty have themselves reached their end.


Food for thought part nine – Colombia

Typical Colombian plate

If there’s one thing that Colombians love it’s cheese, they’ll add it to pretty much anything from fruit salad to hot chocolate. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) the ubiquitous cheese comes in only one fairly flavourless form. Here are some of the Colombian specialities that we sampled (sometimes minus the cheese):

Buñuelos are little balls of a fluffy cake-like texture with a vaguely (surprise surprise) cheesy flavour and crunchy exterior courtesy of their being deep-fried. Simon thought they reminded him of the sponge balls from PE at school, fried. Tasty!

A buñuelo

A common street snack is a sandwich comprised of two tea-plate sized wafers with three fillings from a choice of dulce de leche, jam, chopped nuts, hundreds and thousands, mascarpone and… You guessed it, grated cheese.

Oblea filled with jam and, well, cheese

Another common street snack, arepas are grilled patties made primarily from white corn which unless stuffed with cheese (or if you’re feeling adventurous perhaps even some other filling) can be seriously lacking in flavour.

Look away Laura – it’s an Arepa

Tamales make a great lunch. When you open up the steamed, banana leaf-wrapped parcel you discover a tasty yellow corn-based paste (with a flavour reminiscent of stuffing) surrounding a portion of equally delicious meat, a surprisingly filling dish.

A tamale from the outside

A tamale. Tastes a lot better than it looks!

Tropical fruits
Colombia has a wealth of tropical fruits. We decided the best way to sample the unknown delights was to walk into the supermarket and buy one of everything we’d never heard of or that particularly took our fancy. Among the fruits we enjoyed were grenadilla (kind of a cross between a passionfruit and a pomegranate), passionfruit (these are much bigger and sharper tasting than those found in supermarkets back home), uchuvas (known as Cape Gooseberries back home, here in Colombia the small yellow fruit is packed with much more punch), papayuela (similar to passionfruit in texture but with a subtler, more pineapple-like flavour), and finally my favourite, lulo. Lulos are orange on the outside, green on the inside ad have an incredibly sharp kiwi-crossed-with-lime flavour, absolutely delicious! I’m just sad that we only discovered this incredible fruit towards the end of our time in Colombia.

Grenadilla, or frogspawn?


Laura’s favourite, the lulo

Hot chocolate with cheese
You may be picturing stirring some mascarpone into your hot chocolate to give a slightly strange but not unpleasant tang to the drink. But no, you are expected to break off bits of rubbery cheese, drop them into your hot chocolate allowing them to soften a little with the heat (the cheese doesn’t actually melt) before spooning the sweetened chunks into your mouth. It’s not particularly unpleasant, just not something I feel the need to try again… I think I’ll stick to marshmallows and cream.

What a combination!

Cerveza Michelada
Beer with lime in the glass and salt around the rim, margarita style. Very refreshing if a little odd – great for the hot climate.

Cerveza Michelada

This is the most popular spirit in Colombia, with an initial aniseed taste similar to sambuca but an aftertaste of vodka. Most strangely, it also comes in packed lunch sized cartons.

Aguardiente ready to drink

Colombia certainly supplied a refreshing variety of new dishes to our South American experience and, with the fantastic fruits on offer, some flavours that I fear I will spend a long time searching to sample again…


Expectations colouring reality

Colonial buildings in La Candelaria

Our first day in Bogota was a strange one. We’d decided to go for a wander around the centre, and it being a Friday afternoon, we weren’t quite expecting the streets to be eerily deserted – and filled with security officials, both in uniform, and the much more suspicious suited secret-service style guys listening to their earpieces. Each museum we tried to go to was inside the security cordon, and even when we made it through, we found them closed, with an officious guard muttering at us in rapid Spanish. We had been slightly apprehensive about the (massively overhyped, but sometimes real) dangers of Colombia’s capital – and this didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Was there some terrorist alert we hadn’t heard about? Had war been declared while we were showering? Was the end of the world looming and these our final moments of life?!

Well, no. It seems it was just a public holiday, and the security around the congress building is understandably a little tight in a country where there is still guerrilla warfare going on – even if that rarely touches Bogota directly. We walked slightly easier, although the barrage of fireworks that went off later that night weren’t entirely welcomed by us!

Columns and protest barriers

Having said, the day still ended up being pretty security-filled. The museum we eventually made our way into was, appropriately, the Police Museum, former headquarters housed in a gorgeous colonial palace where we were taken round by an excellent young member of the national police working there as part of his military service. Interesting and eye-opening. The fun didn’t stop there though – as we wandered back up to our hostel, we found a small music festival rocking the square on our doorstep. Two rappers were in a freestyle lyrical battle on the stage – but something was a little odd about the scene. It seems this was actually a police festival – banners with their logo were everywhere, uniformed officers in day glow yellow made up most of the crowd, and most bizarre of all were the huge inflatables of a policeman on a motorbike at the side. We still don’t understand now – police party, or failed community engagement?

Looming over the east of the city is Monserrate, a 3100m peak with a church on top – the only time we’ve ever seen a holy building illuminated by bright colour-changing lights at night. There’s a funicular railway running the impossibly steep route up to the top, with great views over the expanse of the city from up there, and a real feeling of being ‘up in the clouds’ when a rainstorm swept in across the valley.

View going up Monserrate

At the foot of the mountain is Quinta de Bolivar, a house given to the South American liberator (from the Spanish) who is an icon everywhere we’ve been – it just takes me to mention that my first name is Simon and pretty much everyone responds with ‘Simon Bolivar, que fantástico’ or some other acclaim. He’s the hero after which Bolivia was named, and was responsible for seeing colonial Spanish rule kicked out of the continent in a succession of military victories. The house was gifted to him in recognition of his triumphs for Colombia. I think most revealing of all was his bedroom – or more accurately, his bed. You can’t see it in the various portraits that adorn walls across the continent, but Mr Bolivar was very short, and so apparently was his mistress, since his bed looked like it was made for a child.

Our final day in Colombia gave us a taste of a different side to the city. Every Sunday many of the streets in the centre are closed to traffic for ‘Ciclovia’, when bikes, skaters and pedestrians take over for some weekly healthy exercise. It’s a great idea, and combined with markets and street performers really brings a festive spirit to the city. London manages its similar ‘Freewheel’ day once a year; it would be fantastic to see it made a weekly thing.

Ciclovia – car free streets, every week!

A friend from Woodcraft, Lucie Fleming, is currently living in Bogota on an exchange project, and we managed to meet up for the BBQ of a friend of hers our last evening – after a mandatory taste of hot chocolate and cheese that I’m sure Laura will relish describing in a future post. Lovely friendly people, tasty food, and a chance to sample the local spirit too – an appropriate way to end our stay in a country that so absolutely defies the dangerous drug-fuelled stereotype cast by our media back home; we’ve found nothing but welcoming smiles and a real zest for life amid modern cities and a nice hot climate. Thanks to everyone for recommending we change our plans and visit – and to Lucie for welcoming us!

Partying with Lucie and her friend Marco


Hot hot hot

Picturesque window

Cartagena truly is hot – in both senses of the word. Stepping out of the bus, the suffocating humid heat of the Caribbean swiftly clothes you in a sheen of sweat. Even the slightest cool breeze rolling through the narrow streets of the old city is a cause for rejoicing – and the ice cream absolutely a divine moment. At the same time, the city is stunning, a real visual highlight of the trip.

I was surprised to see that we’re further north here than we were in Kerala in the South of India – which I guess explains the similarity in climate. Having said that, the architecture is radically different – Cartagena’s old town is a colourful, crumbling colonial city defended by imposing forts, although the main invasion appears now to be from tourism rather than pirates. Kerala felt like the jungle was trying and succeeding in taking over the city; here the masonry has definitely won – although the creeping bougainvillea that droops poetically from the many balconies adds a nice organic touch to the manmade image.

As you wander through the old town, it’s hard not to be enthralled by the beauty of the place: lanes bordered by houses saturated in mustard yellow, orange, and sky blue; romantic wooden balconies up above; airy squares with fountains and shade under tropical trees; and horses and carriages trotting through the streets (provided you ignore the wealthy tourists perched in the back). In parts it is so picture-perfect that it’s a bit like a model town – except that unlike the piped music Disneyland we found in Vietnam’s Hoi An, this is actually alive – with the expected street vendors and fashion stores, but also local cheap food joints and corner shops – a refreshing difference, in spite of that heat.

Balconies overflowing with bougainvillea

It’s been a slightly turbulent few days for us, which hopefully is no premonition about the flight we’re about to take! We arrived back from the National Park both feeling a bit ill, to discover the flights we have to take us to Bogota were in fact not the following day, but actually in a month’s time, after we’ve got back to the UK. After some painfully expensive rebooking, we thought we’d take the extra day we now have here to do some laundry, and so dropped off all of our clothes except those we’re wearing for a good scrub in the local laundrette, ahead of our flight this morning. What this master plan didn’t bank on was the laundrette closing early yesterday – we turned up at 7pm to find the doors closed and our clothes securely padlocked inside. So as I write this, the adrenaline is beginning to get going for the challenge ahead. Our flight is at 9:30, check-in theoretically closes an hour before. We just hope the laundrette opens at 8 sharp and the drive to the airport is quick, or it’s going to be an even more expensive journey to Bogota!

As we were going to bed last night, the running score of 2-0 in Cartagena vs Kazoos United didn’t seem too bad – and then I realised those plane tickets we went to the trouble of printing out earlier weren’t actually boarding passes: we still had to check in online. Of course there’s no printer at the hostel, so sorting that out is one more thing we now need to do before the airport. Hopefully this is just fatigue, and we’re not losing our magic travelling touch so close to coming home!

Wish us luck…

Cathedral and moon

Camping on the Caribbean Coast

The two of us on the beach

We’re on our way back from four glorious (albeit sweaty) nights camping on the Caribbean Coast in the Tayrona National Park.

The National Park sits in Colombia’s north-east and is essentially a stretch of jungle with pristine beaches looking out onto the Caribbean Sea. You hike through the jungle to a choice of campsites overlooking the ocean, choose a tent or a hammock, and relax. What better way to take a break from a hectic travelling schedule?!

Walking through the jungle, there’s no mistaking you’re somewhere exotic: brightly coloured lizards scurry out of the way, bulging black centipedes inch (or is that centimetre) their way along, and occasionally a small lemon-yellow snake squirms its way off the path. The beaches are absolutely crawling with crabs, whose antics kept us entertained to no end – Laura thought she saw a couple of (no doubt teenage male) crabs waving their big claws at each other in a threatening fist-shake. Along with visitors of the human kind, the campsites appear to be hosting lots of frogs, of varying sizes, from cute and halluciounagenically coloured little nippers through to 2kg monsters that would no doubt feed a French family for Sunday lunch. However, it was only once a thunderstorm was raining down that we met the true special guest of our area.

Can you see the snake in this picture?

Our tent was pitched on a bed of sand, beneath a secondary thatched roof made of woven palm leaves. We thought this gave us some additional protection from the elements, and meant we didn’t need to worry so much if the tent leaked. It seems the local inhabitants had the same thought. As the skies emptied, we were pretty happy to be tucked up inside, and even though some of the drips were getting through, we quickly used a trusty umbrella to spare the worst from our beds. Lying sweating in the humid equatorial heat, a nearby bulb cast a light over the darkened tent, and I was just drifting off to sleep when Laura screamed. There was something moving slowly up the outside of the mesh inner tent. It had eight furry legs, a couple of fangs at the front, and I could swear there were red eyes too, but that may have been my imagination. Oh, and the worst thing about our night guest? It was huge – definitely the biggest spider I have ever seen in person, bigger than my outstretched hand, and looming larger by the second. Needless to say, we were very glad we’d decided to close the inner tent in spite of the heat – and that we hadn’t taken the option of sleeping in hammocks out in the open. With the help of a book our guest was successfully evicted, but I’m not sure either of us slept easily that night!


Turquoise blue sea