To Acre, or Akko, I go.

If there was an element of controversy on the pros and cons of Jamaica then any comment I make about Israel is bound to stir things up. I apologize in advance. Lets see. I was in Athens after a great trip to historical sites and a quick bounce around a few islands and was casting about for a new destination before returning home. After checking the usual web sites for cheap deals I found an Athens to Tel Aviv flight for about $100 and it seemed too good to pass up. I checked with immediate family and they all approved and away I went. It was a remarkably quick flight with a transfer at Heraklion, Crete, and there I was at Ben Gurian airport outside Tel Aviv. As usual I had made a plan only a couple of days before and had decided to take the train from the airport up the coast to Acre, or Akko as it is known locally. Pick up bags from the carousel and change money, find a local SIM for my phone (both easy) and follow the signs for trains.

‘Shalom’ was the greeting at the ticket office ‘shalom’ I replied which seemed to go down well and after a minor discussion about whether I was going to Akko or Acre I headed down to the platform, ticket in hand, to wait the ten minutes before the train departed. The train came, I found a seat, I relaxed a bit as the first challenge had worked out ok and then looked around. It seemed I was surrounded with great big burly guys and pretty girls, all in uniform and all armed to the teeth. Enormous automatic weapons, Uzis I suppose, were everywhere. There was a young woman sitting across the aisle, regularly clad in jeans and a top, rocking out on her headphones, but with this enormous automatic weapon on her lap. Sometimes I am naively British but really, can you imagine this scenario on the 8.10 from Surbiton to Waterloo? There was enough firepower in my carriage to repel a small army and I suppose that is the point. Someone texted me that I was in a war zone with no war. Well that’s ok then, long may it continue that way.

Acre, or Akko, or even ancient (Antiochia) Ptolemais, goes back into history like Athens perhaps, Rome? Even before it became the major port for the Crusaders it was famed for its beauty, its Mosques, churches, walls and as a major trading post between East and West. There have been many famous sieges down the centuries, Richard the Lionhearted and Saladin (1191) for instance, or Sir Sydney Smith with the Ottomans and Napoleon (1799). The old town is quite small, I walked around the walls twice in one day, but is a veritable warren of tiny streets and narrow alleys. Apart from the walls a Crusader castle on top of a hill dominates the town. You may have heard of the Knights Templar who provided protection to pilgrims making their way from Acre to Jerusalem. The Acre castle was built and occupied by the Knights Hospitaller, who of course provided medical treatment in their hospital to arriving and departing pilgrims.

‘Enough history’ you might cry but honestly history was my main reason for visiting Israel. Perhaps one or two will follow up on these stories, there is a wealth of information available online. I did not go as a pilgrim even though the thrill of Jerusalem as a  Holy City for three major religions cannot be discounted but I wanted to see as many of the historical sites I have been hearing about since aged five at Sunday school. That is what I did and in retrospect I could have stayed there much, much longer, there is so much to see.

I’ll stop here as tales from Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho, not to mention Masada, The Dead Sea and Eilat might be too much for one post. Be warned though, they are coming soon.

Saint John Church, Akko, with Crusader flag flying. I thought that was odd.

Saint John Church, Akko, with Crusader flag flying. I thought that was odd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poster outside a house to inform people that residents have performed Haj. Pilgrimage to Mecca.

Poster outside a house to inform people that residents have performed Haj.
Pilgrimage to Mecca.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

City walls from the sea, with fisherfolk.

City walls from the sea, with fisherfolk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Crusader tunnel that runs from the port into the city. A bit spooky.

The Crusader tunnel that runs from the port into the city. A bit spooky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The market.

The market.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The castle.

The castle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below ground level the old rooms have been excavated. This is the dining hall for the knights.

Below ground level the old rooms have been excavated. This is the dining hall for the knights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A view through the walls giving you some idea how thick they were. Blue sea beyond.

A view through the walls giving you some idea how thick they are.
Blue sea beyond.

Road Trip in Greece.

Write it all down I was told; let’s give it a try. Here I am on a bus thundering north out of Athens to Delphi, scene of the Oracle, then to Meteora where the famous monasteries perch on top of their pinnacles, then to the memorial at Thermopylae. Already we have passed the site of the Battle of Marathon where the Athenians defeated the Persians, after which a soldier (Pheidippides) ran the 27 miles into the center of Athens to spread the word of the victory. Poor guy dropped dead from exhaustion but his name lives on, and every year the Athens Marathon follows his route from the site to the City center. It takes place in a couple of weeks.

I’m live blogging this and wondering when the last time I did that was. Could it have been the marshrutka ride between Khujand and Dushanbe in Tajikistan? That was certainly memorable. I digress! This is a good road, three lanes in each direction, up and down through low hills, passing a couple of reservoirs which look to be in good shape, unlike those in California where the reservoirs have all but dried up after the long drought. There are cotton fields; Greece is the major producer in Europe. Solar and wind farms. We pass Thebes and lurid tales of Oedipus (the King). We all know the story but not perhaps that it is the first part of a trilogy by Sophocles and that the premier was in 429BCE. That is BCE! Old!

Delphi, high, high up in the mountains with fabulous views over the surrounding hills, valleys and down to the sea beyond. Of course the ruins are perched precipitously with endless steps up and down, still not easy, but quite a delight to explore. In the height of summer it must be hellish but here in late October the temperature is cool and the crowds, reasonable. Two hours to look at the ruins and then another hour in the museum. I’m not a big museum person but this one was fascinating. Lots of gods, gold and statues, I absolutely loved it.

Off into the foggy mountains we go, in the dark, heading for Meteora. Hope we get to see something of it.

Monasteries we saw, and a convent. The day broke foggy but in the elevator in the early light I saw, for the first time the rocky crags above the town of Kalabaka. Quite majestic, impossibly high, but no sign of a monastery. A hasty breakfast with my tour mates, two Grandmothers from Melbourne (I really have an aversion to cold fried eggs) and off out to pile into the van, pick up the younger folk, one from Argentina (Diego) and the other from Kazakhstan. There was a bit of a kerfuffle finding the local guide that resolved itself and away we went, up. Up and up. Have I mentioned I suffer from vertigo? I was nervous. We stopped for a quick look and craned, craned until we nearly fell over backwards. Meteora translates to ‘Suspended in the air’ and so it appeared. We were looking up at the Great Meteora Monastery where building started in possibly the 13th Century, nobody really knows, and on that day it was closed to tourists. There are six occupied monasteries surviving out of the original twenty-four and they take it in turns to open their doors to us tourists. The monks built their monasteries in such a remote and challenging environment to both be as far away from the humdrum of life and also to be nearer to God.

The word piety sprang to mind as we made our way through cathedrals, churches and chapels. I know nothing about Orthodoxy, perhaps I should read up on it, these religious sites are all dedicated to Greek Orthodoxy and, it is claimed, maintained the Hellenistic way of life during the Ottoman occupation (mid 15th – early 19th). This of course was a very good thing and I don’t think you will go far wrong if you imagine the monks, crouched over desks, copying ancient books and manuscripts to preserve the culture for future generations. They are there, the copies made and more are being discovered, because in times of trouble the monks would hide their treasures within the walls or bury them in the grounds. Perhaps one day the lost plays and philosophical tracts from Ancient Greece will reappear. We can always dream. I could wax on about the ever present incense, the extremely graphic paintings and drawings, the tranquility of the monks themselves, the quiet, the views out over the precipitous drops. You get the picture.

And of course there was James Bond. Yep, For Your Eyes Only was partly filmed at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Meteora. The result was that the small town below, Kalabaka, doubled in size within five years, and, more than half the monks left. I’ll leave an opinion to you…

On the way back to Athens we stopped at the site of the battle of Thermopylae, with the accent on the second syllable in English but in Greek, Thermopiles with the accent on the third syllable. I got some very strange looks when I said I wanted to go there. Actually there is not a lot there, as I was constantly informed. There is a rather large memorial to King Leonides and a bit of a plaque where the battle took place. Behind the memorial there is a four lane highway and above it, electrical pylons. I was pleased to visit and see that the memory lives on (480BCE) but disheartened today to read that the site is now a beacon for far right wing lunatics from all over Europe and America. The article was in today’s (November 7) Washington Post if you care to Google it.

Massive wall at Delphi.

Massive wall at Delphi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the excavations proceeded they realized the wall was covered with inscriptions.

As the excavations proceeded they realized the wall was covered with inscriptions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Charioteer. He may be missing an arm but he has eyeballs and seems to follow you as you walk about the room. Spooky.

The Charioteer. He may be missing an arm but he has eyeballs and seems to follow you as you walk about the room. Spooky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apollo and Artemis. The adornments were found buried in a box. After 2,000 years!

Apollo and Artemis. The adornments were found buried in a box. After 2,000 years!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monastery of the Holy Trinity.

Monastery of the Holy Trinity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A monastery at Meteora.

A monastery at Meteora.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The only way in and out in earlier times. A traveller waiting to be hoisted up asked when they changed the rope. "When it breaks"

The only way in and out in earlier times.
A traveller waiting to be hoisted up asked when they changed the rope. “When it breaks”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Memorial for the Battle of Thermopylae.

The Memorial for the Battle of Thermopylae.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burial site of the 300.

Burial site of the 300.

Jamaica.

And so to Jamaica. I feel I must qualify my comments in the knowledge that out there are Jamaicaphiles and Jamaicaphobes so I will try to just keep to the facts and maybe not offer too many opinions. The usual excitement on arriving somewhere new was tempered by the two customs officials and the undercover policeman who took it upon themselves to completely unpack my bags and question me belligerently as to why I was visiting. I thought that odd given the Island’s reputation. Unnerved I proceeded and was met by the driver from my Airbnb, nice guy who guided me through the usual rigmarole of changing money and finding a SIM for my phone then we were off into Kingston. After working for a Jamaican company a long time ago I naively thought the streets would be bouncing with the reggae music, but no, just another big city with horrendous traffic. I did spot some large 4by4 type vehicles decked out with lights and booming speakers. I gesticulated to the driver as if to enquire: hearse, he said. Ok then. Weaving through the traffic we came upon a huge 4-lane highway running north across the island with no other cars on it. In between songs played on the massive sound system in the car I asked what led to the creation of this motorway/freeway. The Chinese made a deal with the authorities to set up an entrepôt just off the harbor in Kingston and in return they built this giant toll road. Note the word “toll”, you must pay to drive on it and of course the local people can’t afford it and continue to use the old road which takes three hours for the North to South coast run, we did it in forty minutes.

Then we were there, Bromley House, outside Ocho Rios. Built on the site of an old Spanish fort dating back to the Sixteenth Century the house was a cattle ranch from the Eighteenth Century onwards, in fact it still is. In the late Nineteenth Century it was bought by a Scottish doctor who built it out in the shape it is today with sundry porticoes and balconies. I was billeted in one of the cottages on the grounds with three rooms, a kitchen, bathroom and wrap around verandah. Breakfast was cooked every morning by the lovely Valerie, who also takes care of the paperwork and finances, and consisted of eggs, bacon and an array of local fruits, star apples, mangoes, pineapple and was consistently delicious. Most days my host, Johnathan (Jonna), would drive us down Fern Gulley to Ocho for basic supplies, and rum. He was a rally driver, amongst other things, so the drive down and back up was quite the experience. Of course being born there he knew every twist and turn, he could probably drive it in his sleep, but for me, the newcomer, it was often a white-knuckle ride. There were two guard dogs, Elsa and Meatball, who sort of adopted me and would curl up outside my door and bark furiously if anyone dared come up the driveway. We went to a local beach for lunch and a swim on occasion and despite the mass tourism and cruise ships there was rarely anyone else on it (Sugar Pot). Other times we would go down to the village, Walkerswood, where there is a restaurant called Lyming where we would buy small flasks of the local rum and enjoy fabulous Jamaican food, jerk chicken, jerk pork with Festival, a type of local bread. I failed to sample Mannish Water, a local delicacy, which is a glorified Goat’s Head soup; I’m not going into details, too many vegetarians in my family! Another day we went to a Polo match, Jamaica vs Barbados, tea and triangular sandwiches with lots of gin afterwards.

The weeks flew by and I thought I should see some other parts of the Island. Up and up into the legendary Blue Mountains where I stayed at the Mount Edge (hotel, sort of). It seemed to take an age to climb up into the mountains but on arriving the views were stupendous. I visited the Bob Marley museum and felt a bit aged! Not much point in telling anyone of my nights touring with Marley as the label PR guy. A couple of nights in Kingston at the Liguanea club (pronounced Ligeny) which was just about the only accommodation available due to some International conference in town.

Interestingly the Liguanea was ‘featured in a James Bond film’, you might like to remember that as I will say it again, soon.

Bromley.

Bromley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breakfast table and the incredible view.

Breakfast table and the incredible view.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Favorite dog. Meatball.

Favorite dog. Meatball.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elsa and Meatball on my verandah.

Elsa and Meatball on my verandah.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had a neighbor. A bird who lived in a tree.

I had a neighbor. A bird, who lived in an adjacent tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It laid an egg.

It laid an egg.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which hatched.

Which hatched.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The view from Mount Edge.  The Blue Mountains of Jamaica.

The view from Mount Edge.
The Blue Mountains of Jamaica.

Panamanian Islands

Back to the blog after a bit of an absence, sorry about that. Where did I leave off? Was it Cartagena? What an absolutely great city that is, I can recommend to one and all and now that the five decade civil war is over its probably safe even for alarmists. Thinking back, quite a few months, I had to leave Colombia before I really wanted to and ended up in Panama City which was not, shall we say, edifying. High rises, office blocks, poisoned beaches, a canal and hats. I did write a blog about it didn’t I. The buzz in Cartagena and in Panama was that the San Blas or Kuna Yala islands off the North Coast are definitely worth a visit because nobody knows about them, nobody goes there and there is nothing to do if you go, nowhere to stay, basic food, no potable water, no loos, so yes, pretty much nothing, just the local people, the Kuna Tribe.

Another of those half past dark starts at 4.30am, run around the smaller hotels and hostels picking people up until the van filled up and off to a giant supermarket to buy, erm, what? I wandered around, bought a bottle of water, some cookies and a sandwich and went back to the van. Where did everybody go? I waited and waited until my van mates returned with cartloads of stuff. Huge water containers, industrial size serials, bread, cheese, just the basics and I figured they were going to be on a deserted island for just a few days. As a ‘more mature’ backpacker (ha!) I had made other arrangements. I had found a boat chartering person, just him and his computer, and he found me a Polish guy, with a boat and no guests, who would knock 50% off his normal rate for a quick sail around the islands for a couple of nights.

I can’t say more than that the buzz was correct. There was nothing to do, but for just a couple of days I lived in a dream. Perfect coral islands, atolls, turquoise, warm sea, palm trees, women of the local tribe, few if any men, (the women do everything such as it is). Actually what the women do is make their very unique clothes with panels sown on called Molas and they sell the ones they don’t wear to tourists like me. This seems to be their sole source of income. Interestingly there was little or no food readily available. We were behind a giant reef and with two fishing rods dragging behind we never caught a thing. We did manage to buy a couple of somewhat meagre specimens but they didn’t really satisfy. The whole area is ‘fished out’. Depressing. One last thing, the larger Kuna villages are on the mainland and the women take it in turns to go live on the tiny islands, so the two women I met were on their tiny island for three months then they would return to the village and two more women would go stay. And I do mean tiny, I walked all the way around it in ten minutes.

From San Blas I made my way to Bocas del Torro, another group of islands at the other end of the Atlantic side of Panama right up near the border with Costa Rica. This archipelago couldn’t have been more different to San Blas. All the overlanders from the North making their way down through Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica to South America seem to land on Bocas, ditto the overlanders making their way North from the South, it was as a result, crowded. It had the feel of a Wild West movie, as in anything goes, and nobody seemed to care about themselves or anyone else. Certainly there are some quite beautiful parts but it all felt like a low end resort for travellers, cheap booze, cheap and quite nasty food and tacky accommodations.

Additionally the rainy season was just beginning so I began to panic that my medium term plan, to travel North, overland, through Costa Rica, Guatemala and Nicaragua would just be a soggy mess. I don’t mind a bit of rain but the rainy season down there is something to behold. It is really very, very wet.

I needed a miracle and naturally one occurred! Yes really. I was sitting in my hotel room watching the rain come down and thought “well it can’t be raining everywhere” and started looking at hotels etc on Caribbean Islands. Mostly far, far above my pay grade and honestly the thought of an all-inclusive resort where you are not encouraged to venture out of the compound rather destroys the whole point of travelling. Hmm, how about Airbnb? Search, search and suddenly there she was. Someone I knew with an Airbnb in Jamaica. Small world. Sent off the requisite email and 24 hours later I was driving up her driveway.

It all worked out very well.

Typical Island in San Blas

Typical Island in San Blas

 

 

 

 

 

A display of molas

A display of molas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kuna ladies cleaning their beach.

Kuna ladies cleaning their beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

More national dress. They were very camera shy.

More national dress. They were very camera shy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The airport terminal.

The airport terminal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunset in the San Blas Islands.

Sunset in the San Blas Islands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bocas del Torro waterfront.

Bocas del Torro waterfront.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Main street Bocas.

Main street Bocas.

Panama City.

Moving on from Cartagena was enforced by my 5.30am debacle at Havana airport where I was basically forced to purchase a ticket out of Colombia on a particular date and Copa Airlines wouldn’t change it. I tried to change it, wanting to go to Ecuador and perhaps the Galapagos, but the resulting fees would have added a further four figure sum to my already overpriced ticket. My lack of Spanish is really debilitating, I went out to Cartagena airport four or five times to try and work out a solution but to no avail, nobody at the airline desk spoke English. Fortunately the airport is close to the town but even so the taxi ride price varied wildly. They do not have meters in the taxis in Cartagena. You may have heard that Ecuador was hit with a tragic earthquake some days after I would have been there, so, swings and roundabouts and maybe it was fortunate that I chose not to go. Reluctantly then I went to Panama City by plane, but for the wretched Copa ticket I would have gone by boat, a preferred route because there are no roads between Colombia and Panama. Not even the famed Trans America Highway makes the link across what is known as the Darian Gap, an area famous for blood sucking bats, snakes, bandits and gun and immigrant smugglers. I had to fly.

Panama City prides itself on the remarkable number of skyscrapers it has, both existing and being built. I couldn’t find them particularly attractive, sure some had an element of interesting architecture but for the most part I was looking at a concrete jungle. Not my sort of place and I began to look at ways of moving on. First of course I had to see the Canal, I mean it is quite famous isn’t it. A long shot I wondered if they had Uber and yes they did and not only that but on signing in to the app they offered me a free ride. Ms Yira showed up and off we went to the Miraflores locks and the visitor center. I had hoped to see one of those vast cruise ships passing through but there was only a gigantic car transporter that dwarfed the surrounding area. I have to say that it was all very, very slow and although a feat of engineering on an epic scale I did come away feeling just a little underwhelmed. However the splendid Ms Yira volunteered to wait in the parking lot while I viewed the canal and on the way back agreed to take me on a tour of the old city the next day, her English was considerably better than my Spanish.

It seems the City fathers have caught on to the fact that visitors like the old stuff and there is an enormous amount of construction under way in the old part of the City. Whole city blocks are under construction, new restaurants, hotels, boutiques and tourist shops are springing up everywhere. I bought a hat, well it is Panama, it rolls up into a sausage shape so easy to pack but I am still attached to my hat from Cuba so not wearing the new one. We wandered around, admiring the architecture, the graffiti, the construction sites and our fellow tourists, had some tea over which Yira asked if I liked Salsa music. Sure, I said, why not and we jumped in a taxi riding into ‘a rather rundown area’ where there were crowds of people and the loudest Salsa I have ever heard. A thirty piece band, yes thirty, singers, dancers in National costume, crowds of amicable Panamanians who kept buying me beer and not another tourist in sight. I think it was a fundraiser for something but somebody seemed to have forgotten to raise the funds. Food was served, it seemed to be a type of stew, presented in a transparent plastic bag without utensils, but balancing my beer in one hand and the bag in the other I couldn’t figure out how to eat there being nowhere to sit. The music and dancing were stupendous, quite overwhelming, so many instruments I had never seen before. Darkness fell and it was time to leave as I couldn’t see my way around the mud puddles. It was a true taste of the real Panama.

IMG_8321

Some of the buildings were interesting to look at.

IMG_8338

The Panama Canal.

IMG_8347

Ship in the Canal.

IMG_8411

Old City of Panama.

IMG_8648

At the museum.

IMG_8653

Also at the museum.

IMG_8711

Downtown Panama City.

IMG_8721

The Bridge of the Americas. Between North and South.

I can’t find the Salsa photos. I will look and post when I find them.

Cartagena, Colombia.

At last I have caught up with my blogs and I’m sitting in my small Plazuela de Pozo in Cartagena, Colombia. It is sunset and the colors are amplified many times over, the yellows are like gold and the reds almost seem to move. The flowers are all having a last burst for the day and the birds are swooping around the sky. The church bells are ringing up the street at the Iglesia de la Trinidad and the small boats on the river are heading home for the night. The tourist buses have stopped running and the backpackers are enjoying their first beer of the evening. Restaurant owners are setting up tables on the sidewalk, others are sweeping up the remains of lunch or writing up the chalk boards for this evening’s fare. The carpentry shop next door to my hotel has switched off the electric saws, finally, and the coffee sellers are plying their trade with the artisans. Three streets away I can see the usual rush hour gridlock but my little Plazuela is like an oasis. People stop to photograph the murals while others sit among the street art sculptures enjoying the peace and quiet.

Everything about the city exuded its rich history, every turn was a new treat. The city was attacked and destroyed frequently by pirates, both Drake and Hawkins laid siege to the walls but failed to destroy it. There was a famous battle, the Battle of Cartagena, in 1741 during the War of Jenkin’s Ear (true) that ended because it was raining too much (also true) The treasure galleons loaded up their gold and silver here before setting sail for Spain. In the center of the walled city is a massive fortress, Castillo San Philipe de Barajas, built by the Spanish, it took them two hundred years to complete and was never penetrated. There is a fine Cathedral and a somewhat gloomy Palace of the Inquisition.

The Old City is quite the tourist attraction with original colonial architecture featuring overhanging balconies drenched in flowers. Endless tourist shops and lots of glitz but a good place for a wander. The hotels around the old part are mostly upscale and I found myself in the Getsemani area that turned out to be the oldest part of the City and not touristy at all. Kids playing football in the streets, bands playing on corners, inexpensive restaurants and cafes where I could linger for a while without being hassled to buy more.

I don’t know why I am having such a difficult time describing Cartagena. I have sat in front of this page for days, weeks even and I can’t do the place justice. Maybe the photos will help or maybe I should try and write about somewhere else. It’s a fact though, I was more sad (sadder?) to leave Cartagena than many other places I have visited lately, and there have been a few.

PS. The first line is clearly redundant but I thought I would leave it in.

IMG_1140

My little square. Look closely for the artworks.

IMG_8451

Art.

IMG_8250

My street.

IMG_8203

Typical Cartagena balcony.

IMG_1171

The Cathedral.

IMG_8134

A part of the fortress.

IMG_8186

The wall is very imposing.

Havana Days.

Long and hard I have thought about Havana, what was it like, did I have a good time, would I go back and I really don’t have an answer. Some things I learned were very upsetting others quite uplifting, perhaps. Therefore, what follows have to be just observations with no comments or opinions.

First, the Internet and access to same. Pretty much taken for granted these days everywhere you go. The deserts of Uzbekistan, remote islands off the coast of Western Papua, I could even use WhatsApp on various parts of the Great Wall of China but in Havana it was a struggle. Within the boundaries of the more expensive hotels a card was available with a user name and password for ten US Dollars, or CUCs for one hour’s connectivity. Clearly this was unavailable to the local people as a Doctor only earned $50 per month. At various booths and shops it was possible to buy a card for two Dollars for one hour but then the challenge was to find a place that provided an Internet connection. The trick was to look out for hoards of young people (kids) sitting randomly in the street, all on their phones. It could be a park, a street corner or a Government office. The nearest access point to my Casa Particular (BnB) was five blocks away at a very average looking hotel and there were the kids, sitting all around the perimeter, on their phones. BUT, the hotel did not sell the one hour cards and when mine ran out of time I was sent another five bocks down the street to a ‘blue and white house’, but they had sold out for the day. Manana! At this point I gave up my attempt to send a text back home to tell the family that I had survived the Stones concert.

The point here is that this is the situation for the vast majority of the population and it is not helping anyone. (Was that an opinion?) Imagine trying to do homework, and no, the local library is not just around the corner, or not being able to look something up on Google. People do not have access to the Internet in their homes or places of work. Would you walk five blocks to send a text message or an email and then walk the five blocks home again? No, I thought not.

Then there is the car situation. When the US created the embargo, imports of cars from the US stopped and those lucky enough to have a car just begged, borrowed or stole the parts required to keep them running, for over fifty years. There is a vintage car taxi route on which you stick out your arm, jump in, pay perhaps a nickel (5p) and ride to your destination. It’s a bit like, no, it’s exactly the same as Dushanbe in Tajikistan except that there you don’t get to ride in a ’56 Chevy! Contrary to myth the majority of the vintage cars are owned by the Government that in turn rents the cars out to the drivers. I did ride in one, a 1956 Pontiac, it reminded me of a tank but great fun and it put some dollars in the hands of a local.

I met a man who was arrested, back in the day, for carrying a Rolling Stones record in public.

I heard stories of a prison set up just for gay people, apparently it was something of a party scene!

My BnB host, his wife and children had no concept of being able to leave the island to go on vacation. It was just not on their radar.

There was a tv in the house but I never saw it turned on, though the wife had one in her bedroom and would disappear to watch telenovellas (soaps). Satellite dishes are illegal.

The rum and wine stall across the street had a crowd of people waiting to be served all day long. Rum at $2.50 per bottle.

I was taken to what appeared to be a private lunch club. Entering through a somewhat run down apartment block lobby we were whisked to the top floor where the view was heart stopping. The furnishings were all 50s colonial and the food was incredible. I felt very privileged.

Potatoes are a rarity and have not been seen for some months. I saw a line at a store and asked what it was for, potatoes I was told. Ah, so there are potatoes available? No, but they might have some later. Someone was recently murdered in a potato line, potato rage?

I was leaving, at the airport at some unearthly hour. Checking in for my flight I was asked where I was going next, after my initial destination and did I have a ticket and if not you must go to the office to buy one. This I duly did and was presented with a $400 invoice that could only be paid for with CUCs, not plastic or US Dollars. OK, seems a bit steep but I will go to the ‘change money’ and return. BUT, they were all closed, the two at Arrivals and the two at Departures. The security guard at each bank was unable to tell me when they would open, so there I was, and the clock was ticking. I felt as if I was trapped in 1984, a real rock and a hard place. I bumped into my Portuguese friend and using his fluent Spanish tried again. Nope, no one knows when they will reopen. A man appeared, saw my anxiety, determined my problem, used his ATM card to withdraw the required CUCs, took my dollars, I got my ticket and was last on the plane. Phew.

Cuba then, very interesting and yes I will go again but will take stuff, band aids, Aspirin, syringes, coffee, etc, things to give away. And no, I did not buy a Che Guevara shirt!

IMG_7564

The kids on their phones outside a nondescript building.

IMG_7811

Architecture of the Soviet Brutalist School I believe.

IMG_7839

A man on a horse because there is always a man on a horse wherever I go.

IMG_7919

More Brutalist architecture.

IMG_7952

John Lennon.

IMG_8006

The United States embassy somewhat hidden behind a Cuban art installation and the flag.

IMG_8037

Street art. Wow.

IMG_8050

Cannons at the old fort.