Wednesday 2nd – Saturday 6th October
Walking the streets of Camaguey/ places of interest
On reflection, a week has been a little too long to spend in Camaguey – there’s really not a whole lot going on. When we researched there were plenty of excursions mentioned – to cattle farms, to the nearest beach, to see crocodiles etc. However, firstly there are hardly any tours running due to the fuel shortage and secondly, they’re all quite a journey from here and after our last experience, the less time spent on these inter-city roads the better!
Instead we have spent our week walking all around the city and trying to find points of interest. It is largely the plazas where any life goes on, this is where you find cafes, restaurants, hotels, bundles of large statues, greenery, benches for musing … and most importantly the Wi-fi!! To get to the numerous plazas we’ve negotiated our way around many streets with the aid of a city map. What an eye-opener that’s been. No fancy MK grid style for Camaguey, but rather a warren of side streets, so designed apparently to baffle invaders. Well it’s had us baffled many a day! And the only way to describe them is a mixture of Dickensian London, in their scruffiness and back street vendors … and the Wild West with horse and carts racing along the cobbles at break neck speed, ferrying the locals. Still the clapped out old cars too – you look twice when you occasionally see a vehicle that looks like something manufactured this century. What is modern is the abundance of electric motor bikes – but they creep up behind you with no sound … and when you mostly have to walk on the road it’s sometimes a little precarious.
Then of course there’s the many bike taxis who call out to you at every opportunity. We’ve used them just a couple of times. Once when it was raining on Thursday night after dinner and again on Friday when we decided to visit the zoo (which the information centre had recommended). We ended up being ripped off on that ride … made the schoolboy error of not negotiating in advance … Steve left him clearly understanding that he was a bad man!! I prefer to walk everywhere myself … the exercise is great but I also feel weird about a person having to cycle our weight around … and I certainly wouldn’t encourage the use of horse driven travel.
As for our trip to the zoo, well, we both said it was the saddest thing we had ever seen. The animals were in such small cages and enclosures … lions, jaguars, zebra, monkeys of various types, hyenas … it was absolutely tragic to see them pacing around in boredom! The birds were the only ones that had any freedom. Definitely wouldn’t recommend.
So the streets are such a mixture – from plazas with grand colonial hotels to modern(ish) shopping streets, to back streets that appear so poor. Our street even looks run down and yet inside the house is bordering on palatial. I say palatial … the last few days it’s rained so heavily that the water is literally coming through the roof – we have to negotiate our way around buckets and dripping ceilings … but we keep smiling. Steve has enjoyed taking photos from the roof terrace – you can be so much more discrete and capture life along the street without the people seeing you with a huge Nikon camera slung around your neck.
On the whole we have found the Cuban people really friendly. You get the odd officious types, particularly in the telepunto shops where you have to queue and then negotiate through a Spanish Inquisition to be able to buy a few hours of internet.
This week our hosts, Mario and his Mum Maria have been so welcoming and helpful. Naturally, one of the first priorities was to get some assistance with our onward travel. Maria kindly organised this and got the driver to come round to show us his car … it’s not exactly new but it’s in a much better condition than last week’s banger … and he seems a lot more switched on too. We decided to give it a go and so we will see him on Monday morning (hopefully).
Mario’s English is superb so he has been able to answer a lot of our questions … he’s very busy though so we only see him occasionally … I did manage to get a glimpse of him in his very skimpy Y-fronts one day, he came down the stairs and wasn’t expecting me to be sat in the lounge – not sure who was the most embarrassed …. nothing was said!! Anything seems to go here though – Maria’s husband is not a well man – he’s clearly had some brain surgery as he has a large scar on his head … he spends a lot of time in bed and then shuffles into different rooms and sits in rocking chairs, always ready with an ‘Ola.’ The oddest thing though is that he is always accompanied by his colostomy bag which when moving he proudly holds up high to carry … not so great when you’re eating breakfast! Maria is always ready with a smile and a hug when we arrive, when we leave, when we go to bed … she is just wonderful. Sadly, Maria and Mario have flown off to Mexico for a few days on a buying trip. They have left us in the capable hands of three ladies who cook and clean well but sadly speak no English … back to the hand actions. There is a young gardener here though who speaks good English and a young female guest too who has come to our aid a couple of times.
On Wednesday, whilst sat in a plaza and Steve was busy making phone calls due to plumbing problems at home, I met a young lad called Angel. He opened up the conversation by asking me my views on Brexit – can we never escape it!!! He was so lovely to talk to – clearly wanted to practice his English. We went on to talk about all sorts of things including Cuba’s politics and the communist regime – later Steve had me terrified in suggesting that I should be careful talking about such things – I’d been gaily probing about what the young people thought, had they considered further revolution … he could have been tricking me!! The great thing was though that he didn’t ask for any money – a first in Cuba.
Food and drink (oh so important)
After an unproductive start, things took a massive upturn on the culinary front. Yay!!
Having had no dinner for two days, on the Wednesday, we booked for Maria to cook for us – this is a recommended thing to do in Casa Particulars – often the food is better than restaurants. We were still daunted though – what if we were expected to eat with the family, how do we chat without the language and would the food be edible. We were relieved during the day to spot that the table had been set in the dining area … that was one question answered. The next bit of planning was to bring two plastic bags with us so that we could discreetly dispose of the food if completely inedible, and so not to cause offence. Walking from our room into the dining area, we walk through the utility room … and we stopped in horror to see a tortoise in the sink. Maria saw my face and pretended this was our dinner … “chicken” she said “do you not eat this is in England?” Were we relieved to be told this was the family pet! Well, we had no reason at all to be worried – the food was absolutely delicious – great hearty home cooking. Vegetable and noodle soup, followed by roast chicken and potatoes in a tasty sauce, rice and black beans, pickled red cabbage and avocados – we were in heaven. We booked in again for the Friday and enjoyed another sumptuous feast all wrapped up with the biggest and most delicious bowl of chocolate ice-cream.
On Thursday night we wandered a fair old way to a plaza we had come across during the day … it’s in the artist area of town, a number of small galleries display their wares. There were 3 decent looking establishments so we opted for the middle one … and bingo, we chose well. Not only was the food first class but they had wine too, actual drinkable wine … and all at bargain prices. So after prawn cocktails, steak and perfect red wine we felt well and truly replete. No more moaning!! We returned to the same said restaurant on Saturday night and enjoyed an equally perfect meal, and good wine.
And being the weekend, we even went out afterwards … to a place called ‘Bar Yesterday’ – a sort of homage to ‘The Beatles.’ They have live music on a Saturday but, being the old codgers we are, we couldn’t manage to stay late enough for them to arrive … we’re talking 10 o’clock! We did enjoy a couple of drinks though and watched some great old music video footage on their large screen. Such delights as Tina Charles’ ‘Dance little lady dance,’ Sweet’s ‘Ballroom Blitz,’ Bee Gees ‘Staying Alive,’ Anita Ward’s ‘Ring my bell’…. all so our youth dancing era! For some reason, Steve got terribly embarrassed at my chair dancing!
Breakfast at this casa has not been as great as our previous stop. Oh there’s plenty of it but not quite as tasty. We’ve got ourselves into a little routine though – Steve eats the fruit but I’m not a lover of mango or guava so I skip that. Then we have slices of cheese with a sort of solid fig jam on it which make for good nibbles. Then we have omelette and baguette followed by a cheese and spam toasted sandwich. Our little routine involves removing the spam (which does not taste nice) and inserting some cheese and fig into the roll … then we wrap in serviettes to take out for our lunch. It’s not that we’re being thrifty, it just guarantees us having something edible at midday and also lessens the embarrassment of leaving too much food on the table … I mean, how can you eat so much at breakfast!?
So, all in all, the week has improved a hundred fold in terms of ‘not starving.’ It’s hilarious how excited we get at little offerings though – in a cafe on Wednesday we were given a square of chocolate with our coffee and today we got a shortbread biscuit in the Gran Hotel … our faces lit up. There is just nothing like this to even buy in the shops … and a complete absence of crisps …. lots of popcorn but what I’d do for some Kettle or Walkers right now!
I’m presuming it’s due to the Communist state that there is SO little to buy in the shops. Sometimes you see queues of locals outside a shop window … we’re guessing that they must have rare supplies arrived. Camaguey has a street of decent enough looking shops but they’re practically empty inside, mostly rows of the same item. We did manage to find fly killer however – we were well chuffed with ourselves. What we can’t find anywhere is sun cream or, for opposite reasons, an umbrella. I’ve had to give up on the sunhat searching too – I’ve taken over Steve’s panama.
Around the other streets, people sell odd things from their homes, I guess whatever they have that can provide income. A jolly man rides around on his bike too expressing very loudly in Spanish that he has eggs for sale!
The lack of material things is a great re-thinker for us … we have to maximise what we have and be inventive. We have one piece of cling film which we re-use every day for our sandwiches. We have one carrier bag with us (Sainsbury’s) which multi-purposes as a linen basket, a camera cover and a beach bag! Today I needed to make some notes and in the absence of a pad of paper I used a serviette – going back to basics is no bad thing.
Never ever again will we complain about the internet at home. And how did we romantically imagine that 6 weeks off social media and the airwaves might be cathartic – it’s really not. After all I have to get my blog done (I’m a busy blogger), there’s Facebook and instagram to catch up on, emails, messages and WhatsApp to read (especially when you have plumbing problems at home), keeping in touch with family, particularly Tom and Alice. We had a great chat with them both on Friday evening – Tom was up in Manchester with Alice and Marc for the weekend – they were all in a bar before going to an Alice Cooper concert (with The Stranglers supporting) – tickets which we’d bought for ourselves before realising it clashed with this trip … a great cultural experience for them.
How very British to talk about the weather I know. But boy have we seen some rain this week – when it comes it buckets. We generally have a couple of hours of pleasant sunshine in the morning when we make sure we grab some time at the pool. As the week’s gone on, the pool resident peahen has taken a great liking to Steve … unfortunately it’s not reciprocated. Today sadly it has rained ALL day but it’s given me the opportunity to sit up on the covered part of the roof terrace writing this blog. Steve keeps me company, snoozing in his rocking chair listening to his pin up – Bruce Springsteen.
In the morning we’re making our way to Casilda, near Trinidad. Always exciting to imagine what our next experience will entail. Keeping all fingers and toes crossed for a non-eventful journey.
Bye bye Camaguey, it’s been a blast.