Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane

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Nothing to sing about


Back in the sixties the song Guantanamera was the anthem of the folk music movement. The song was about about a young woman from the province of Guantanamo in Cuba  based on a poem by Cuba’s national hero, the poet Jose Marti. It was a far cry from the image conjured today by the name Guantanamo,  one inextricably entwined with orange prison jump suits and America’s relentlessness punishment of  those deemed responsible for the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001.

Despite ongoing attempts by Cuba to reclaim the remote outpost on its south-eastern tip, especially since the recent restoration of diplomatic relations, The United States has steadfastly clung to the territory since it established a naval base there in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American war. In 1903 the US signed a lease for the land with Cuba which was renewed, in perpetuity, in 1934 for an additional, but still minuscule, rent.  Efforts to reclaim the territory stepped up after the 1959 revolution.


Guantanamo lookout spot. 

Guantanamo Bay’s large harbour and topography, surrounded by steep hills which isolate it from the adjacent hinterland, make it particularly valuable as an isolated outpost than remains in US hands but outside US law. We passed within view of the facility on our way from Santiago de Cuba to Baracoa down on the Atlantic Ocean coast near where it adjoins the Caribbean. A lookout spot built on a hill above the bay allows a distant but good view of the isolated outpost, a lonely spot indeed.



(Top) Distant white buildings of the facility; (bottom) the base’s topography ensures isolation. 

The song enjoys a happier history than the base. US group The Sandpipers scored an international hit with their version of The Weavers’ arrangement recorded at a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1963. Many other top artists worldwide have recorded it including folk hero Pete Seeger, Julio Inglesias, Joan Baez, Jose Feliciano, Nana Mouskouri, the Gypsy Kings and, of course, the Buena Vista Social Club. And no matter where you go in Cuba you are guaranteed to hear the strains of Guantanamera floating in the air.



The saints go marching..


Colourful symbolic structures at Santeria centre in Havana.

Like its Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico neighbours Cuba is a fusion of races and cultures,  an exotic mix of the descendants of Spanish colonisers, West African slaves and indigenous Taino-Arawak Indians. Out of this melange has come a religion particular to the West African descendant  of the Caribbean, especially Cuba, known as Santeria .



Vibrant artwork welcomes visitors to Santeria centre in Havana. 

In Spanish Santeria means “worship of saints” and reflects the way in which the religion’s adherents, many tracing back to the Yoruba people from Nigeria, masked their beliefs by adopting the worship of Roman  Catholic saints to represent their own gods, or orishas, to preserve their traditions in the face of enforced baptism.  Customs brought from Africa included trance states and divination to make contact with ancestors; animal sacrifice; and sacred drumming and dance. Aspects of the indigenous Taino people’s beliefs that included ideas of ancestor worship and an afterlife also went into the mix.


Ellegua – an Orisha, or god –  of Santeria, whose saintly alternative is St Michael.

Santeria initiates, notoriously camera-shy, are easy to spot around town as they must dress in all-white garb, for purity, for at least their first year. There are also ceremonial occasions when white must be worn. In Havana we visited a Santeria centre in Vedado, near the historical old city centre, which promotes understanding of the religion and offers tours to nearby locations of religious significance. They included a park with a ancient tree used in ceremonies and a old two-storied colonial building where religious services are held. Our guide was a young man immaculately dressed in white who told us how Santeria had saved his life by putting him on the right track when he was headed for a future of drugs and crime.


Santeria initiate in her white attire emphasising purity. 

The experience was fascinating, but challenging for us squeamish Westerners with the sounds of strangled chicken squawks emanating from various rooms in the house and corner shrines displaying obvious signs of dried blood and feathers. It reminded me a bit of the  priestess Minerva and her mysterious voodoo practices in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.



Saintly connections in the Santeria House.


Altars in the Santeria house – not for the squeamish.  


Tu tu to tango


Hard-working corps members of the Ballet de Camaguey. 

Cuba is  synonymous with dance. But you usually think of salsa, rumba or the tango. Ballet doesn’t spring readily to mind. Yet in Cuba ballet is as popular as baseball – and baseball’s big with promising players defecting to the US major league. In fact, ballet is one of Cuba’s biggest cultural exports.



In rehearsal for Swan Lake

Ballet gets a big helping hand from the Cuban government which funds training and subsidises tickets to performances. Their dancers are sought by top companies around the world including the United States, United Kingdom, France and the home of ballet, Russia. Australia has also hosted a Cuban performer, Yosvani Ramos, who was a principal artist with the Australian Ballet from 2008 to 2013. He is currently in the United States. Ramos was born in Camaguey, Cuba’s third largest city, about half way between Havana and Santiago de Cuba. A university town with a rich cultural tradition, large parks and private galleries, the city is home to the Ballet de Camaguey, Cuba’s second most important ballet company, at which Ramos studied.


Hardworking seamstresses work magic on antique sewing machines. 

The innovative costume department. 

We visited the school during our visit to Camaguey catching a rehearsal of Swan Lake in the process. The students are not pampered – there are no air conditioned studios for practice in the almost year-round heat, or fancy costumes for performances. Innovation is the key for props –  wardrobe items are endlessly refashioned and everyday items like plastic soft drink  bottles transform to exquisite “banquet goblets”. The backroom seamstresses work their magic on antique sewing machines to bring glitz and glamour to performances. Let’s hope the company’s tour schedule reaches as far as Australia one day.


The treed gardens of the Ballet de Camaguey school. 


Camaguey’s grand old teatro where local performances are held. 



So special

Cuba’s “special period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, which brought a sudden halt to Russian aid and mates deals, ushered in more than a decade of extreme hardship. Around 80 percent of imports and exports disappeared and GDP plummeted by 34 percent. Imports of food and medicine were severely impacted. And already scarce consumer goods disappeared. To cope with shortages ration cards were introduced.


A popular Havana’s coconut cars – part of Cuba’s array of weird and wonderful vehicles. 


A tractor-powered lunch wagon. 

The most dramatic impact came from Cuba’s loss of  oil imports from the USSR, slashed to 10 percent of their pre-crash levels. All manner of measures were introduced to cope with this crisis, just to keep the country ticking over. Part of the solution, although far from satisfactory, was press-ganging every possible form of transport onto the roads, right down to horses and buggies. The effects remain today with an the extremely weird assortment of vehicles inhabiting the roads and slowing down motorised transport. A drive on any national highway can involve frustrating periods behind horse drawn carts, ancient tractors, and the most venerable of passenger buses. Picking up hitchhikers remains mandatory for all drivers whether in private or public transport with quaintly a named “yellow man”, or “el amarillo”, standing roadside to enforce the rules. Those who score a lift pay the yellow man a small fee for his trouble.



The passenger bus fleet has seen better days. 


School bus.

Oil shortages and import restrictions also had a drastic effect on food supplies. Agricultural machinery had no fuel to run and lack of chemicals affected crop output. Consumption was pared back to around one-fifth of previous levels and the average Cuban dropped about nine kilos in weight. International permaculture experts came to the rescue, including from Australia , and urban rooftop gardens sprouted across the country. Sugar production plummeted. Beef disappeared from the menu and cattle became a protected species set aside for dairy production. The penalty for unauthorised killing of cattle was higher than for murder, a punishment that still exists. Talk about sacred cows!

Yellow men and customers. 

Passing parade from our bus..hitchhikers and sacred cows.

A perverse side effect was that the health of Cubans during this period actually improved. Lack of transport forced people to walk more, greatly improving physical fitness. Archaic and labour-intensive methods of tilling such as ox-drawn plows returned. Shortages of agricultural chemicals created organic crops.  The enforced vegetarian – almost vegan – diet saw rates of cardiovascular disease, type-two diabetes and cancer drop. And with the more recent easing of restrictions health problems which plague developed countries are on the increase. Maybe there’s truth to the old saying about being cruel to be kind.


Another reminder of bygone transport eras. 



Driving in my car


It’s said that you can trace Cuba’s recent history through the vintage of cars on the road.  In the flamboyant 40s and 50s when Havana and Cuban resorts were the destinations of choice for America’s rich and famous, and the Mafia, flashy finned Chevvies, Chryslers, Lincolns and Dodges  cruised the streets. Post the 1959 Revolution, and the ushering in of Russian-style Communism and the embargo, decadence gave way to utility with staid and unglamorous Russian Ladas proliferating.  Then the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989 cut Cuba’s aid lifeline heralding the start of the euphemistically titled “Special Period” of extreme restrictions, particularly in hydrocarbon energy resources. Cheaper Chinese imports became the vehicles of choice.




Cuba’s amazing heritage of Yank Tanks – but don’t expect power steering. 

Not that Cuba’s pot-holed city streets and crumbling highways are packed with cars: the cost of a new car is beyond the average wage earner and families with vehicles tend to hand them down. Traffic jams are nonexistent. In the absence of imported spare parts the lumbering old Yank Tanks which are now such a tourist lure, and top of visitors’ must-experience lists, sport an amazing array of make-shift repairs and parts behind their gaudy colours, challenging for ingenuity the fix-it boys in the crazy 2001 ABC-TV Bush Mechanics series. Power steering? That’s for sissies!


Must-do for tourists – cruising Havana in our  flashy 1950 Chevy Bel Air. 

The aging fleet of Ladas aren’t much better with window winders and door handles and other such luxuries optional extras. A taxi trip means asphyxiation by unchecked exhaust fumes. Pity the poor taxi drivers who inhale the fumes daily. All reminiscent of the lyrics of the kids’ song Driving in My Car : “It’s a bit old but it’s mine, I mend it in my spare time”.

cubalife14Our trusty Lada taxi – door handles and window winders were optional extras.   


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Doing your block


A grand mansion earmarked for rescue. 

If Cuba had regular TV The Block would not be the top rater it is here in Oz. With home ownership a rarity there’s not much demand for “doing the place up”. For Westerners bitten by the renovation bug Havana is a mixture of heartbreaking and mouth watering. So many grand buildings. Such a sad state of disrepair. The taxi driver on the way in to old Havana from the airport said visitors were jokingly advised to walk in the middle of the road: they were in more danger of being hit by crumbling debris from the decaying buildings than by cars.


The historic centre of Havana was listed on the World Heritage register in 1982. While I wouldn’t agree wth our tour notes that it is “one of the best preserved colonial cities in all of the Americas” you can clearly see what a spectacular metropolis it was in its heyday. Handsome, imposing Baroque and Neo-classical architecture, with Moorish, Spanish and French accents, which would be at home in any European or American city, is in abundance, some surprisingly still in reasonable repair. It’s not hard to imagine the traffic of glittering luminaries – and Mafia bosses – pouring in from Florida and Hollywood cruising around the streets in their flashy American limos cigars in hand.

The genesis of much of the built environmental ruin lay in the revolutionary policy of confiscating privately owned  property and redistributing it to the general populace, for whom accommodation was out of reach.  Spacious old mansions and terraces, with their high ceilings and elegant interiors, which would have housed one family, could then occupied by multiple families. The soaring ceilings allowed for extra “mezzanine” floors to be shoe-horned in, further swelling the occupancy rate. There was little respect for beauty as grandeur made way for sardine-tin occupancy.


Repairing the damage – old Havana streets get The Block treatment. 


Private enterprise – making stucco rosettes and other trims under Che’s watchful eye. 


New hotels are springing up on prime old Havana sites. 

Now an important upcoming event is adding urgency and focus to the repair job. In November 2019 Havana marks the 500th anniversary of its foundation  by the Spanish and all stops are being pulled out to get the place ship shape in time for the big celebration. Those valuable tourist dollars  are being put to good use by Raul Castro to ensure the renewal program meticulously preserves the historical essence of the city while also kick-starting valuable social projects in struggling neighbourhoods. The planners have set a goal of restoring 3000 of Havana’s classic buildings by 2019. With around 200 done – not made any easier by the embargo’s restrictions – it’s all hands on deck. Perhaps they should get a few past winners from The Block to give a helping hand.



Many buildings are in surprisingly good repair. 




It’s the economy, stupid..


The precious Cuban cigar tobacco leaf under cultivation near Trinidad de Cuba.

To continue the “Cuba as museum” analogy, a prime exhibit is its quaint economy. While nobody could accuse Fidel Castro of personally profiting from the revolution a la most other dictators you also could not accuse him of backtracking on his Marxist ideals. Cuba is one of only five Communist states remaining in the world, along with North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and China.  But in China, Vietnam and Laos market economies have replaced the strict Government-controlled models of earlier decades. So Cuba is in there with North Korea.

Cuba’s paucity of products and services exemplifies the sad lack of economic activity. Whatever it does produce – mostly tobacco and sugar for its famed cigars and rum – is under Government control. Tobacco farmers who nurture the precious leaves, for instance, can keep only 10 percent of their crop.  So desperate are locals for consumer products that visitors are optimistically approached in the street for  giveways. Much sought after are skin and toiletry products, such as the freebies from hotels, but virtually anything is acceptable – pens, post-it-notes, coloured pencils, play items for children. Travel companies suggest to clients they travel with a stock of suitable offerings, a reversal from the usual search by tourists for souvenirs.


The sugar cane harvest – Cuban rum is essential to a good daiquiri or mohito.  

Limited handcrafts are among the few souvenir items available.

Reluctant to knock back the ready flow of much-needed foreign capital that tourism brings,  the government is taking baby steps to encourage fledgling entrepreneurs. Accommodation is the big opportunity for families lucky enough to have a property which lends itself to being a casa particular. These BnB-style  establishments must meet strict government standards and hosts can make welcome extra CUCs by doing laundry,  providing an evening meal or whatever other enterprising service they can think of. Standards vary: some are elegant colonial terraces with wonderful high ceilings and elegant colourful tiles; others uncharming recent  establishments or strange renovations of older buildings. But in most cases we found our casas to be spotless and comfortable, the breakfasts of fresh tropical fruits and your choice of eggs and coffee a welcome start to the day, and the proprietors hospitable.


Reception area of our Havana casa on the top floor of an elegant, tiled old colonial terrace. 

Bedroom of Cienfuegos casa; typical breakfast. 

Accredited casa sign; tiled floors of Camaguey casa.

Other tourism-related opportunities include restaurants. The fare in most is short of Masterchef standard but the quality of fresh local ingredients suggests better meals ahead. A standout was the ready availability of cheap fresh lobster at round $A15 for a whole large tail. In Havana the restaurant scene is gaining sophistication with classy renovations to old colonial buildings.


Trendy restaurant, Camaguey.


Bon appertit! 

Moving the tourist hordes around Havana and across the  country is the trusty Government busline Transtur. For 12 days we were ferried along the length of the island from Havana to Baracoa in a Transtur bus with its  allotted driver. At the end of the trip he had to make the return journey by himself picking up hitching passengers on the way – by Government regulation all vehicles are obliged to carry as many passengers as possible because of the shortage of transport options. We were told that a private bus company has now started operations because of the strain put on resources by tourists.


A real estate market is being envisaged with property developers unsurprisingly looking longingly at the potential of Cuba’s rich legacy of graceful Spanish colonial architecture and vast tracts of Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean beachside land. Currently the real estate market is virtually non-existent and whatever market exists is strictly controlled. With the embargo still not lifted because of resistance in the US Congress they may have to wait a little longer.


Caribbean beachside resort at Trinidad in need of an upgrade.


Tranquil estuary earmarked for resort development at Baracoa.