2017 Grateful 39

There’s something quite lovely about visiting a cemetery on a clear, 30-degree, blue-sky day. I’m a great fan of tombstones and would happily spend my holidays going from one graveyard to another but there are limits. I’ve not yet figured exactly why I’m so fascinated but it’s enough that I am.  If I’m in company, I settle for one in each city. It’s not for everyone. In addition to commemorating lives spent fruitfully or fruitlessly, cemeteries are outdoor sculpture parks. And very often, the leading local architects have the most interesting graves. It was in a cemetery in Warsaw that I saw my first headstone that listed the profession of the interred – an architect. I think it was in Belgrade that I saw a headstone designed as a futuristic building – again an architect. And in Havana, by far the most eye-catching grave (purely because of its oddity and ungravelikeness) was also that of an architect – José F. Mata. Mata is probably better known as the business partner of one Leonardo Morales y Pedroso – who seems to have won just about every notable commission going in the city.

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) opened in 1876, its first guest being the architect who designed it: Calixto Arellano de Loira y Cardoso. It’s mapped a little like a small city, sitting on ca. 150 acres, with a main street leading from the gate to a chapel that looks a tad like a miniature Italian d’uomo. It’s off this wide avenue that the main players are buried. The sides streets and less-travelled neighbourhoods are home to those who didn’t quite make the big time. Rank and file still applies in death. Amazing.

Stats say that more than 1 million people have been laid to rest here (a temporary respite for some, as with space at a premium some bones are being put into storage to make way for newcomers). I can’t quite figure out how the storage system works. Lots of the graves and mausoleums have been abandoned because families are living abroad – so upkeep is obviously a problem. Are those the first to be targeted?

Throughout the city of Havana you’ll find reference to the great fire of 17 May 1890 and those firefighters who died in an attempt to control it. Here, at Colón, there’s a 75-foot-tall memorial to those men, the hanging pods on the chain-link surround representing the tears shed when they died. It’s quite something.

I had only one visit on my list (because I was ill=prepared and didn’t do my homework). It was to pay my respects to Ibrahim Ferrer Planas, a member of the original Buena Vista Social Club. A worker spotted us looking and took it upon himself to give an impromptu, and unsolicited tour, for which he expected €5, the same as the entrance fee. From all I understand, this expectation is new – in its infancy – and can even be timed to the arrival of the first cruise ship last year. But hey – we only had 3CUC between us and it was that or a smile. He got both.

Had I done my homework, I’d have spent more time looking for photographer Alberto Korda’s grave (1928–2001). I love his work. He took the iconic photo of Ché titled Guerrillero Heroico that Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick used for his equally iconic facial caricature used on t-shirts the world over.

I’d also have taken the time to search out socialite Mary McCarthy Gomez Cueto (1900–2009), the Canadian widow of a wealthy Cuban businessman who died in poverty. Back in the day, Frank Sinatra was a neighbour. She refused to leave Cuba and couldn’t get at her money because of the US embargo after the Communist takeover. She lived on a tiny pension and died at 108, buried alongside her husband. Quite the gal. And her dad was Irish.

Although confined to a wheelchair after breaking a hip in 2002, she continued to wear a satin dress, silk blouse, chiffon scarf and lipstick for her stream of visitors, just as she had done in the days when she helped to found the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra and danced at the Havana yacht club. But she was reduced to wearing plastic pearls and earrings instead of the jewellery which, along with three gold rosaries, was in the First National Bank in Boston; and she was keenly aware that the joy had gone out of Havana, even if there was full employment.

And I’d have dropped by and said hello to William Lee Brent, an American in exile in Cuba for 37 years – and a member of the Black Panthers. He hijacked a passenger plane in 1969 from Oakland, CA, and diverted it to Cuba where he defected, because Cuba…

had eliminated racism and welcomed all revolutionaries, regardless.

They jailed him for 22 months thinking he just might be a spy. Some guys just can’t catch a break, eh. His biography is now on my list of books to read. Fascinating.

 

But the grave that gets the most attention is one of Amelia Goyri, perhaps better known as  La Milagrosa (the Miraculous). She died while giving birth back on 3 May 1903. She was just 23. Her husband José Vicente Adot y Rabell was distraught. He believed that she was simply sleeping. He visited the grave every day for years, each time knocking on it three times to wake her up. Story has it that she was buried with her baby at her feet yet when the remains were exhumed (not sure why), Amelia was intact and was now holding her baby son in her arms.

As the story spread and more and more people came to visit Amelia, Cuban sculptor José Vilalta Saavedra turned a piece of Carrara marble into a life-size statue of a young woman. Her left arm holds a baby. Her right arm rests on a cross, something that apparently signifies a sacrifice.

While we were there, there was a steady stream of visitors, each one knocking on the grave three times, and then walking backwards away from it, as Amelia’s husband is said to have done, so that he could keep her in sight for as long as possible. Today, visitors pray to her to protect their kids, they pray for a safe childbirth, they pray to defy the biological odds and have children of their own.

I didn’t know this then, but I knocked. And I prayed. And I walked away backwards. Relax… I said a prayer of thanks, yet again, for the blessed life I lead, for the places I get to visit, and for the people I get to meet along the way. For all this, I’m truly grateful.

 

 

 

Buena Vista Social Club

I’m no stranger to adding to what little information I might have to make a more complete story. In another world, this might be classed as poetic licence. Trouble is, I manage to convince myself that my version is the real thing and then when I find out the real story, I’m usually surprised. And not always pleasantly.

Pre-Cuba, I’d thought that the Buena Vista Social Club was a Cuban band that has been playing together since the 1950s. Relics of time gone by. I had them up there with the Blind Boys of Alabama, who’ve been playing together for more than 70 years.  But was I ever wrong.

Going to see the band was high on my list of things to do in Cuba, right there with having a cocktail at the Hotel Nacional. We’d hooked up after our respective days out for an evening drink at the Hotel Ingleterra on Parque Central and on checking with the concierge, decided to go see if we could get tickets to the Buena Vista, if not for that night, for the next. We followed directions and found ourselves on the street behind the Saratoga Hotel in a neighbourhood that still bears the hallmark of grandeur.

A crowd had gathered at the foot of the stairs in what we assumed was our building, as it was the only place showing any life. We queued, too, not quite sure what was going on. As we moved on up the stairs, I noticed that others behind us and in front of us had tickets in hand. We had nothing. But when we got to the desk it turned out that yes, for €50.00 each, we could get dinner and watch the show – from a front row table.

Now, had I been more on the ball, I might have asked some questions but I was so excited about finally getting to see the boys that I didn’t. We could have cocktailed it for free, all evening, and not bothered with the €35 bottle of white wine that fell way short of what I’m used to in Hungary – but as I said, I was too excited to pay attention to the details.

The food was grand – fine – it filled a gap. Not exactly haute cuisine but as dinner-show dinners went, it did the business. I was there for the music. The band began to come on stage, one by one. Laughing. Joking. Tuning up. And then it all began.

A line of elderly men and women dressed in their finest filed out. All singing. About 14 musicians crammed on the stage played their hearts out. And the MC of the evening told us what was in store. Some of the greats from the days of yore would be entertaining us for the evening.

Pre 1940s, the Buena Vista Social Club was a members’ club in Havana, a place where Cuban singers and musicians entertained the people. In the late 1990s, American musician Ry Cooder won a Grammy for his album featuring singers from the Buena Vista Social Club.  This was in 1997. Two years later, in 1999, Wim Wenders did a documentary of the musicians involved, which was nominated for an Oscar. Wenders himself was fined $25k for breaking the US embargo against Cuba. It was a cheap price to pay for bringing Cuban music to the world stage. What we were treated to that evening were some of the finest of the finest. It was humbling, mesmerizing and simply brilliant to see. A night that ranks up there on my list of Top 10 experiences ever.

Did I mention we had a front-row table? I was practically dancing on their toes. Septuagenarians, octogenarians, each with more life in their little fingers than many twenty-year-olds today. And they gave it wellie. Ill-fitting box suits reeking of mothballs. Spats. Wide, printed ties. Hats. All so last-century. It was like going back in time.

Each performer wandered in and out of the tables, entertaining everyone in the room. Cabaret at its best. The house dancers dragged people up to the front to dance (there was no shortage of volunteers). At the table next to us, a Meryl Streep lookalike was celebrating her birthday, somehow connected with who appeared to be the mother of one of the younger singers and a force in her own right. It was all very speak-easyish. Booze. Cigars. Babes. And the godfathers. My imagination was running riot.

And then, just when I thought it couldn’t get much better, the MC for the evening announced Juana Bacallao, the goddess of Cuban cabaret. In her 90s, the woman is nothing short of amazing. Apparently she plays regularly at the El Gato Tuerto and in her day was one of the stars of the Tropicano (two more for my list should I ever get back to Havana – but the tourguide of one of the women in front  of me in the queue apparently rated the BVSC above the Tropicano – if you have to make a choice). She keeps her tonsils oiled by drinking honey with egg yolk every day. She’s quite the woman. An inspiration. Seeing her live was something else.

And Juana was in good company. I rather fell for Orestes Macias and would quite happily enjoy a Cuba Libre with Flora Max. It was only afterwards that I realised how many greats were in the room that evening.I checked out Mundito González…

Many have been the singers, who have cultivated the musical genres characteristic of the Cuban sound universe. But when we think of that glittering jewel that is the bolero, Mundito Gonzálezs image appears, and with him, his privileged voice, his musical culture and his exquisite sensibility lavishing the listener, the joy of entering the deep secrets of music. 
Harold Gramatges

And then had to check the bolero – a slow-tempo 2/4 dance music that has fused with other forms into what even I recognise as styles.

 

The bolero-son: long-time favourite dance music in Cuba, captured abroad under the misnomer ‘rumba’. The bolero-mambo in which slow and beautiful lyrics were added to the sophisticated big-band arrangements of the mambo.The bolero-cha: many Cha-cha-cha lyrics come from boleros.

Amazing what you learn on a weeknight in Havana. If you’re in town, make it your business to go see the Buena Vista Social Club. For one night, take yourself back to the 1940s and let loose. It’s worth every penny and more.

Fusterlandia

I hate being a tourist. I like to travel. To see places. To try new things. But I hate doing it under the guise of a tourist. I don’t queue. I try to avoid attractions. But if it’s offroad, offbeat, off-centre, I’ll find it.  Or he will.

We were on the hop-on, hop-off bus in Havana (hopping not recommended by the way as there’s sod all by way of timetable, little by way of signposting, and in a whole day of sporadic waiting, I never once saw the No. 2). The No. 1 is the city tour. We took it because I wanted to see the cemetery and it was as handy a way as any to get there. No. 3 takes you to the beach but we didn’t have long enough in the city to spend a day on the sand. No. 2 is supposed to connect you from No. 1 to the Hemmingway Marina. I remain unconvinced.

We were heading to a little neighbourhood in the northern burbs between the Marina and Club Havana. Here, apparently, a Cuban artist by the name of José Fuster, is working wonders in the ‘hood by doing it Gaudi style. I have it on good authority, that every month or so, the man takes a trip abroad and brings back colourful mosaic tiles that he then uses to do up the neighbourhood in what has become known as Fusterlandia.

Marooned in the middle of nowhere waiting for a bus that never appeared, we asked three taxi drivers to take us there. They were either trying it on (extortionate fares) or didn’t know where it was.  A local, unlicenced cab, stopped and said he had no idea where it was but he’d find it. And he did. And we went to Barcelona for a couple of hours.

It was pretty spectacular. Fuster is using the barrio as a massive canvas. He has transformed about houses and parks into something truly gobsmacking. Real people live here. They go to work. They go to school. They play on the streets, drink in the bars, eat in the restaurants. Mad.  Jaimanitas is not a theme park – although being billed as Fusterlandia, you could easily mistake it for one – it’s a neighbourhood. Another type of rejuvenation, different to what’s going on in the Viejo, but a rejuvenation nonetheless.

  If you’re lucky, you can sometimes catch the man himself at work. We missed him. He funds this project by selling his own work (I saw a price tag of $10 000 on one piece) and does a roaring trade in relatively inexpensive hand-painted tiles ($30). I came. I saw. And I bought: an original mixed-media piece that I know I’ll end up furnishing a room around.

The 70-year-old grew up in Caibarién, a small fishing village on the south coast of Cuba. As a teen, he had the volunteering spirit, that drive to make his community a better place, working as he did back then on local literacy programmes. He went to art school in Havana from 1963 to 1965 but it was a visit to Barcelona, to Parque Güell, that sealed his style.  The influence of Antoni Gaudí is everywhere you look in the barrio. Quite fantastic.

I am not concerned with classifications or the critics’ disquisitions. My only interest is to create. To those who say that my work is naive, I reply that they are the ones who are naive, because my art is filled with surrealism, and I prefer to define it as postmodern, although I do not like installations, without categorizations or rigid compartmentalization. My spiritual father is Picasso and my favorite uncle is Gaudi.

La Hababa has a good article on the man, if you’re interested in knowing more. And if you make it to Havana, make the time to visit. We never did get to the Marina.

2017 Grateful 40

My, my, my. What a week that was. I’d say there are a lot of sore heads in Budapest this morning and a lot of bods draggin’ ass at work. The St Patrick’s festivities kicked off on Thursday evening with the annual National Day celebrations with the Irish Embassy. I was on best behaviour because I was doing a TV interview on Hungarian telly later than night and I had to be enunciating clearly. Nerves being what they were, I decided to do the make-up thing. The lovely BS came by and put my face on before I went out. It was hilarious. People were fascinated by my glasses: at least five men asked me if they were new. (They’re three years old this week.) They knew something was different but couldn’t quite put their finger on it.

The embassy gig is a good place for catching up with people you’ve not seen for a while and meeting someone you’ve never met before. Like the lovely Fr Mike, a priest from Louth who has been here for 12 years. His is the second Mass in English I’ve heard of this week. There’s also a new 5pm one on Sundays in the side chapel of the Basilica. From there it was down to the studios for the big interview.  I could get used to having my hair and make-up done! All went well. I enunciated and this time, actually answered the questions I was asked.  It was a live interview from Akvárium, from what was being billed as the First St Patrick’s Festival in Budapest. Something obviously got lost in translation over the years as this was the 7th St Patrick’s Day Parade and the 11th Gala dinner. The festival has been going on for years. Someone’s invitation obviously got lost in the post. Hungarian Irish Celtic Rock band Firkin were on stage and raising the roof but the outer bars and rooms were remarkably tame. Not a patch on the real event on Sunday.

We strolled over to Jack Doyle’s afterwards for a nightcap, as you do, and proceeded to put the world to rights. With all things Irish looming for the weekend, we took a breather and headed to Barba Negra for the first time to see PASO in action. The Pannonia Allstars Ska Orchestra are brilliant. Mad. And exhausting to watch. These ska guys bring fitness to a whole new level.

Saturday evening came early. Dolled up in long dresses and tuxedos, we headed to the Mariott for 6pm to watch Ireland break England’s winning streak in the final of the Six Nations. The 11th IHBC St Patrick’s Gala dinner really brought out the glam. More than 200 sat to a dinner of smoked salmon and rack of lamb and were entertained by the inimitable John Murphy (no relation) and another Hungarian traditional Irish music band – Green Spirit. I was on the mic – MC’ing. And I got to make a plea for my charity of choice these days: Mamasotthon. I was blown away. In make-up again, I managed to hold back the tears because I didn’t have the wherewithal to go about fixing runny mascara. Half the tombolo (raffle) proceeds were going towards buying an industrial washing machine for mums and kids taking refuge from domestic violence in the shelter. After my speech, a couple I know well, the Ps, came over and told me to pick out a machine and they’d pay for it. Another chap wrote an IOU for 5ook. A local artist donated the proceeds from the sale of some of his work. and the tombolo itself raised 477 000 huf. It was a fantastic result that will change the lives of many for the better. And this is how we make lasting change. One step at a time. Kudos to Duncan, Andrea, & Co., for making it all happen.

It was a late night. A very late night. The next day, Sunday, began with a full-Irish breakfast for 8 and then the parade. The 7th in Budapest. Seems like only yesterday that this whole thing kicked off.

It’s a tremendous feat of organisation. Kudos to Mark, Anna & Co., for pulling it off. The venue was brilliant – the new Instant location on Akácfa utca. Some of the musicians I saw were fab. [Did anyone catch the name of the bank with the female lead singer/guitarist (Melinda???) that played around 7.45 in the inside courtyard?]. Unfortunately, by this stage, the bug I’d picked up in Cuba had morphed into a full-blown head-cold and I was dying. There’s only so much green lemonade I can put away when I can’t hear myself suck through the straw so I called it a night and was home by 9pm.

So much to be grateful for this week. A visit from an old friend (and a new ambassador for Budapest – how can you not love this city?). The generosity of good people that will make such a difference to the lives of others. Surviving a packed social calendar that would push a younger me to the pin of her collar. All good. Knackering. But good.

It is with fond memories, too, that we remember Ronnie Thompson, for so many years a regular at the parade and now joining us from heaven. Here’s too you!

 

 

Caution – scissors and artists at work

Pick an airport. Spot a passenger with a home-fashioned cardboard tube. Chances are, they’ve been to Cuba. Artists and their artwork are alive and well and covering the canvases. And the tourists are eating them up. Us included.

To the left of the Prado as you walk up towards Parque Central from the Malecón, you can see the back of the beautiful Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio. It was here that the Cuban writer José Martí was christened in 1853. Plazuela de Santo Ángel, and its surrounds, is a lovely little neighbourhood, quite European in feel with lots of cafés and restaurants spilling out on to the cobblestone streets. Wander up and down Compostela and take a peek into the myriad galleries and you might just see an artist or three at work.

This warren of streets are easy to get lost in. Ditch the map and enjoy. It’s quite spectacular. I particularly liked Barber’s Alley, with its wall art and what appeared to be a homage to hairdressers! It involved a large sculpture of a scissors. Further investigation revealed just that. Thank goodness for Google.

Papito (known in Havana as the Daddy of hairdressing) turned his house into a hairdressing school. The idea? To teach young people in the neighbourhood a skill they could use. And he did it for free. He wanted to change the street in which he lived, rejuvenate it – and he did. Another amazing man making a difference. 2016/2017 is the year of a global appeal to collect old, used hairdressing scissors which will be attached to a massive sculpture of a scissors to make unity among stylists around the world. That was the scissors I saw… Check the video. Am kicking myself that I hadn’t known this when I was there – I’d have visited Papito’s.

And when wandering the streets, don’t forget to look up. There’s another world going on up there, too. I got so caught up in the whole artist thing that I began to convince myself that I’d read about a Cuban artist called Taller. I saw loads of signs showing studios where I fancied he’d lived. I even made a note to check him out when I got back online. But a search revealed nothing but a Guatemalan architect. And then the paintbrush dropped and splattered my ignorance all over the show. Duh. Taller is Spanish for workshop. Honestly, sometimes I wonder how I got this far without making a complete hames of life.

This part of Havana is definitely worth a visit. And if you’re fed up of rice and beans and chicken and pork and fish and want to ditch the Spanish and have some Italian, 5 Esquinas is worth a visit. (Habana #104, esq Cuarteles, +53 7 8606295, facebook.com/trattoria5esquinas). But as I said, ditch the guidebook and simply wander. So much to see in this part of town.

 

 

My kind of man

It’s not often that I fall for a man just by the sound of him, a man I’ve never met nor am ever likely to meet. But right up there on my list of people I’d like to have to dinner, to get to know, is one Eusebio Leal Spengler. It’s not often either that I feel a pang of envy, but envious I am of Huffington Post writer Salim Lamrani, who interviewed my man back in 2014, an interview that was translated into English from the French by Larry R. Oberg.

I tripped across Spengler on a walking tour of Habana Vieja (Old Havana). Armed with a guidebook and a map and himself’s unerring sense of direction, we trod the streets and noticed how much better looking this part of the city is than where we were staying. Another world entirely. And all thanks to one man, the City Historian. Thanks to him, more than 100 old buildings have been fully restored.

Back in 1994, Castro recognised that even with the fall of the Soviet Union, the architectural heritage of Old Havana had to be preserved. He turned over ownership of all historical buildings to the Office of the Historian and gave it a budget equivalent to $1 million. The Habaguanex Tourist Company was formed. Two years later, they’d turned that one million into three. Twenty years later, the return in resources is closer to 100 million. Work though, had begun much earlier, as far back as the late 1970s.

But what is most interesting about Spengler is is vision that restoration isn’t just about restoring buildings. It has a social aspect as well.

What were the most pressing goals when the restoration works began?
What encouraged me most were the buildings that were being lost. But, life showed us that we had to struggle to keep the city as a whole rather than as one of separate elements; that a pure restoration project could not be feasible if it didn’t include the social aspect, i.e., the city with its dwellers. Then, it was necessary to have a much broader idea, more participative and popular, which took into account housing and health care. That’s why restoration has included the creation of geriatric centers or others which take care of disabled children.

Today, 45% of the profits from the tourist company go back into building the tourism infrastructure, while 65% go to redeveloping the local community for its 91 000 inhabitants. A tremendous achievement.

And it’s a joy to see. Whether it’s the amazing Cathedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana on Plaza de la Cathedral or the kids playing football on a school break amidst the museums of Plaza Vieja, or the old folks sunning themselves near the retirement home serenaded by street musicians.

And yes, I know I had a moan about what people do in the name of tourism, and it’s more evident here (as the spot for cruise ship passengers), but I suppose it’s no different than street artists anywhere else in the world. I’m not sure why I find it so upsetting in Cuba. I know. I am a dreaded tourist, too. But somehow I expected to be in the minority.

Wandering the streets, peaking through doorways, discovering interior gardens in thriving cafés, this is what Spengler must have had in mind. From the fabulously renovated Pharmacy Museum to the host of other impressive buildings in the ‘hood, this part of town is a world apart from Centro Habana and El Barrio. And the good thing is that the money spent on lodging and dining in some of the many hotels and restaurants in the neighbourhood goes back into the community. That I can live with.

The wrong side of the street

There’s a danger, if you have too little time in Havana, that you only see one of its many sides, and this will largely depend on where you stay and how far you venture. You could come away wondering why people talk about the decrepit buildings and palpable poverty. Or why they declaim the dirt and squalor in which too many families have to live. Perhaps it might be because your part of town was rather lovely, recently renovated, and looking good.

We were lucky enough to have the time and the inclination to walk the streets of the various neighbourhoods and to see maybe a little more than most who spend the obligatory two days in the city before heading on to the beach resorts.

Our first night, we met up with friends who’d arrived a couple of days before us and stayed in a small hotel, El Encanto, on Calle Perseverancia, near the corner of Virtudes, just below El Barrio Chino (Chinatown) in Centro Habana, a residential neighbourhood between the two main tourist areas. It sits to the right (walking up from the sea) of the grand Prado (Paseo de Marti), a pedestrian, tree-lined walkway reminiscent of Las Ramblas in Barcelona, just a few minutes walk to the Malecón and about 15 minutes from La Habana Viejo (Old Town Havana). It was a great introduction to the city.

The architecture is fascinating.  Stunningly beautiful. Yes, it’s run down, shabby, and faded to some shallow semblance of its former glory, but it’s fab. The colours are still there. Still visible. The streets are alive. Living. Real. People are everywhere. Hanging about on stoops, sitting, watching, talking on their phones. Or queuing to buy food. (I never once saw a clothes shop, other than the likes of Jay Lo and Benetton over in Viejo.) It was a culture shock. I hadn’t expected it to be so ripe. The smells and sounds of India came flooding back. I had to remind myself that, technically, I was in the Caribbean. A first for me. But it was far from what I expected, not that I’m even sure what that was in the first place.

I was shocked at some of the living conditions. I felt the weight of privilege. I felt awkward, uncomfortable, unsure of whether or not I should be taking photos. I thought of the back streets in Naples. The rubble. I thought of the pathless streets of Baku just off the main drag where the real people live. I couldn’t get a grip on where I was.

The random streets signs that even my basic Spanish could see were affirmations of a sort competed with the sometimes disturbing graffiti. Children in uniforms left their barred-windowed classrooms to come out on the street for their morning PE. No matter how wild or weird it all seemed, I felt incredibly safe. Never once, even in the darkest alleyway, did I feel anything approaching fear. And that says something about the Cuban people.

And then at the edge of the ‘hood is the Parque Central, with its posh hotels, rows of classic convertibles, hordes of tourists sipping mojitos, on their phones, desperate for their Facebook fix. Another world completely. Mad. Surreal.

But probably most magnificent of all in this particular part of town is the massive sculpture by Rafael Miranda San Juan, Primavera, part of the exhibition Behind the Wall that ran parallel to the Biennial in 2015. A gift to the city, it sits on the corner of Galiano and Malecón and is truly stunning. A homage to Cuban women, to their strength, and their beauty, the artist asks ‘Why women? Because they are the utmost expression of life.’

A piece of trivia (subject to Google Translate): Instead of hair, she placed butterflies on her head, flowers that were much appreciated by the women of the countryside, for they adorned and perfumed them. They were also used in bridal bouquets, and it is even said that in their thick stems messages were hidden during the wars of independence of the nineteenth century. All these reasons made the butterfly, although native to Asia, declared the national flower of Cuba in 1936.

Getting around in Cuba

I couldn’t help myself. I kept looking around waiting to see a blonde, pony-tailed girl in hotpants on rollerskates serving burgers and fries. From my vantage point in Francesca’s Café on Parque Central in Havana (a great place for breakfast, next to the Hotel Ingleterra), I may as well have been in 1950s America. A 1955 Cadillac. A 1956 Pontiac. A 1957 Chevy. And the only Thunderbird in town. All shined to perfection in pinks, purples, reds, golds, blues, greens … fascinating.

These were the tourist cars, the show cars, the convertibles that for €40* an hour will take you on a tour of Havana, cruisin’ down the Malécon promenade. There was no shortage of takers, mainly young American students over in Cuba for Spring Break, or elderly couples off the cruise ships reliving their glory days. All were having a whale of a time.

But I was strangely resentful. And sad. Yes, I know people have to make a living but there is something almost indecent about the way Havana prostitutes itself for tourists. Few, if any of the cars have their original engines – most have been replaced with diesel engines as petrol is too expensive. And this layer of untruth, this ring of falsity, niggled at me for days.

     

I was far more at home in the beat-up wrecks that patrolled the outer regions of the city, their paintwork dulled by years of neglect, their interiors stripped to the most basic seats and mirrors. Somehow, they felt more real. Down the country, ladas and older model Fords are more popular. We had one taxi that had to be push started. Another that had wooden doors. A third that had a phone pinned to the mirror using an elastic band – the GPS.

But down south, in Trinidad, the horse is king. Cowboys reign. And the pony and trap is the transport of choice. It was like stepping back into another world. Young kids road roughshod across the cobblestone streets, whirling their lariat. They weren’t playing at Cowboys, they were cowboys. Oxen had charge of the streets. As in Havana, the bicycle rickshaw was evident but as Trinidad is a very walkable city, they didn’t get many takers.

Buses are packed to capacity. Had we had more time in Havana, we’d have eventually navigated the city’s bus system. They looked as if they’d hold together long enough to get from A to B. Not so  down south. Jammed full most of the time, they looked like they’d been put together using left-over piece of life-sized models. Trains are practically non-existent. The only one I saw or heard of was a steam train that goes once a day from Trinidad into the Valle de los Ingenios. It is supposed to leave at 9 or 9.30 in the morning, returning about 2, depending on what you read but schedules in Cuba are ephemeral. Like appointments and bookings. I met a gal from Colorado who twice had waited three hours on a beach to go diving. She’d booked and reconfirmed both times. The only way you know for sure that a taxi driver will come back to pick you up at the appointed time is if they offer to wait for full payment until later. If they take the money for the outward journey, don’t hold your breath. But then, that’s Cuba.

Expect to pay anywhere from €150 to €180* for  trip from Havana to Trinidad by private taxi. And if you’re tempted to get a classic car, bring a wrap or shawl to put on the seats. That shiny plastic is a bitch in hot weather. Also, check the legroom (Fords are roomier). The roads are bad and what might on paper take a couple of hours, will take twice as long. But it’s worth the experience. If you’ve a lot of bags, chances are that the spare tyre will be removed to make room – bring the rosary beads. [Soft bags are better than hard suitcases if you’re travelling any distance. Some of those boots are quite small. If I were to go again, I’d rucksack it.]

There are no meters so agree a price up front. If you’re staying in a casita, check with your host to see what the going rate is. La Boca to Trinidad was €6 while the trip to the beach was €8. Don’t be at all alarmed if they stop to pick up someone else. Just because you’re in the car doesn’t make it your taxi. They’re big on efficiencies. Taxis in Havana are another story entirely – expectations as I’ve said are high. It won’t take you long to figure out when you’re being ripped off. The going rate to or from the airport to downtown Havana is €25. You have to queue for ages to get cash exchanged but there is an ATM in Terminal 3. If you don’t have the patience, the drivers will accept euro if you talk to the chief organiser first – the man who looks the most important – not hard to spot 🙂 But with euro, they will try (and often succeed – blush – but I was beyond caring) to get €30.

Again, had we had more time, and were we to go again, we’d check the new intercity buses. But while they might be cheaper for two, the downside is that they take twice as long as the original forever to get from A to B. Time is something that Cubans have a lot of.

Driving in Cuba is quite the experience. It doesn’t quite beat South Africa for potholes but it’s close. The drivers are familiar with the much-trafficked routes and zig and zag like the forward line of the best rugby team. It’s poetry in motion – once you get used to it and realise what’s going on and that the bottle he’s sipping from really is just coffee.

 

* 1 CUC = €1

Grateful 42 and 41

I brought back a lot more from Cuba than I bargained for. We won’t mention the extra kilos from the sugar in the mojitos and the full-fat coke in the Cuba Libres. We won’t mention the mozzie bites and the unsettling notion of the Zika virus. And we certainly won’t mention what has become a 72-hour stomach bug that grounded me on my last day in Havana, made the 24-hour-trip home less than pleasant, and has kept me housebound all day. They’re all incidental.

Cuba is a lot of things – dirty, decrepit, in a state of disrepair and yet amazingly beautiful. But one thing it ain’t is cheap. It might have been in days of yore but now that it’s opening up to outside influences, everyone is on the make. We must have flushed the bones of €50 down the toilet. It took me a while to figure out that just because there was a 1 CUC coin (€1/$1) in the plate didn’t mean I had to add another. But smaller coins were greeted with a look of disdain that took more than a little getting used to and gave rise to many internal debates about supporting a local economy (which I’m all for) and being taken for a ride (which I resent).

Locals appearing at our side offering what appeared to be helpful information about whatever it was we were looking at balked at a measly  1 CUC, expecting about 5 for their two minutes of unsolicited intervention. This, despite the fact that it was usually in Spanish and my Spanish is not nearly as good as my Hungarian. Expectations are high and are obviously being fed by the other classes of tourist – the wealthy ones, who stay at the posh hotels – and the group travellers who frequent the all-inclusive resorts. Those, like us, who booked our own accommodation (home-stays) and transport (private cars), eschewing anything by way of organised tours, we got to deal with those expectations. [Taking refuge close to a decent loo in the lobby of a posh hotel in Havana on Parque Central when the bug first hit, I overheard a conversation between a local tour rep and a British guy who had paid £5000 for his room – the best room in the hotel – only to find he’d been tucked in room at the back that had sh*t on the bedsheets. We’d booked a homestay down on the Malecón promenade, with a room overlooking the water for €30 a night. Granted we had to navigate four flights of narrow, less-than-clean stairs to get to it, but it was worth it.]

I’d been told that queues are the tell. A line of people (foreigners and locals) heralds one of three things: a working ATM, an exchange bureau, or a place selling internet cards. I take the first two for granted but to find a city the size of Trinidad with just one bank (two ATMs one of which was out of order) and one exchange bureau, that threw me. Thankfully, we’d brought euro as the mighty dollar attracts an additional 10% fee on exchange. Many of the traders would give 1 for 1, euro to CUC, and some exchange places gave more. Havana though – that’s the trap. The best we did there was 0.95. Internet cards for 1 or 5 hours can be bought and used anywhere you see a large crowd sitting around on their phones. The lines from Matthew (18:20) came to mind: For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. And not for the first time I wondered if the Internet has become a new god. The Cubans love their phones.

I’d been told to bring soap, as a gift, that it was hard to come by. But it wasn’t until Trinidad that I had the first inkling of locals signaling that they wanted me to give them my clothes – the ones I was wearing. It was bloody hot so I’d little by way of spares to give, but it was a tad disconcerting. It was outside Trinidad in the Valle de los Ingenios that people started asking for soap but the dozen bars I’d brought with me were back in the cassita. I compensated by buying stuff I didn’t want or need for way more than the asking price. It’s hard not to. Remember the food shortages in the 1990s that led to the average Cuban losing up to a third of their body weight? It still shows in the older population.

For the most part, prices vary as they do everywhere. Expect to pay between €1.60 and €2.00 for cigarettes; €1.60 and €2.50 for local beer (Bucanero was my favourite); €2.50 to €5.50 for cocktails; and €5 to €15 for a plate of chicken/pork with the accompanying rice and black beans. Taxis are another story – the best value are the private individuals who pull up and ask you where you want to go. They won’t have a taxi sign or might not even know where they’re going; they’re simply in it to eat. All you have to do is to stand around and look confused (which isn’t hard). The regular taxi drivers seem to charge what they like – I never once saw a meter and again, the conversation between supporting the local economy and being ripped off was had more than once.

I’d been told that two days was plenty for Havana. We had four nights, and three full days and didn’t even come close to cracking the surface. You need a least a week to do it justice. There is so much more to the place than the Viejo.

So despite the extra kilo, the mozzie bites, and the stomach bug, I’m grateful I went and went now rather than later. Massive changes are on the horizon. The cruise ships are docking. Expectations are high. And the crafty few are out to make their money. There’s a danger that Havana will turn into a tourist theme park and that the beach resorts will become compounds within which tourists are fed a diet of ‘authentic’ experiences that would put Disney to shame. If it’s on your list, make it soon.

 

 

 

Doing St Patrick proud

What started off in March 2006 as a bunch of people with a shared affinity for Ireland and being Irish getting together for dinner has morphed into a three-day event. St Patrick’s Day this year falls conveniently on a Friday. Those living in Ireland, Northern Ireland, and on the Caribbean island of Montserrat will enjoy a long weekend, as the day itself is marked by a public holiday in those three countries. Here in Budapest, we’ll have to work a casual Friday. Last year MUPA went green for the day; this year I’d like it be a bridge. That’d be magic.

On the business front, the Irish-Hungarian Business Circle (IHBC) is teaming up with growth consultants M27 Absolvo to organise an Irish-Hungarian event focused on investment and innovation. Neither country is short of brain matter and talent so this promises to be an interesting mix. From what I understand, it’s a little like a dating service – those with ideas who need money to realise them pitch to those with money to invest in promising start-ups and small business enterprises. The invite-only event is taking place in the Marriott Hotel from 2pm on Friday, 17th March. St Patrick himself wasn’t beyond a little innovation. He was the one who added the Sun to the cross to create what’s known today as the Celtic Cross and the one to use the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to the heathen masses of Ireland all those years ago. I reckon he’d be well impressed with this initiative.

And while the business gig is underway, students from schools around Hungary will be competing in the annual St Patrick’s Festival competition organised by the Vörösmarty Mihály Gimnázium. Secondary schools will be sending their best to compete in five categories: Folk song | Pop-rock song, solo | Pop-rock song, group | Poem or prose | Short scene. And this year, there’ll be a special prize for the best Irish entry. This is one I’m looking forward to.

On Saturday, 18th March, dancers from all over the world will be competing at the WIDA Open Feis over at Folyondár Sports Hall (Folyondár utca 15) from 8 am. This international Irish dance competition is a growing attraction on the international Irish dance scene with competitions for all age groups.  For more details, check their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/budapestfeis

And while the dancers are finishing up at 6pm, moves of a different kind will be made on the pitch at Aviva Stadium in Dublin. One of the biggest days in Irish rugby also falls on Paddy’s weekend. This year, Ireland and England will play the final match in the 2017 Six Nations. The event will be shown live, on a big screen, at the Marriott Hotel from 6pm, a move calculated to avoid any no-shows at the 11th annual St Patrick’s Gala Dinner. And, I must admit, there’s something about watching a rugby game when dolled up to the nines that adds spirit to the scrums. Nothing like a roomful of screaming black ties and tuxedos to set the mood. (If you’re not going to the dinner, you can get your fill of it all at Jack Doyle’s Irish pub and restaurant over on Pilvax utca.)

More than 250 guests are expected to sit down to the three-course lamb dinner at the Marriott on Saturday night for an evening of ceoil agus craic (music and fun). John Murphy and his traditional repertoire will accompany the dinner with Budapest-based Hungarian Irish Folk band Green Spirit charged with bringing guests to their feet after their Irish coffees. And, whether you prefer the Hungarian tombola (which actually originated in Italy) or the Irish raffle, there’ll be plenty of opportunity to spread the luck and the love around with a number of charities standing to benefit from the proceeds. DJ Andrew J will be on hand till the wee hours of the morning for all those who can keep pace. If you haven’t already booked your place, you might still be in luck. Check the website for details: www.ihbc.hu

Sunday sees the seventh annual gathering of painted faces and leprechaun hats walking beneath banners and behind Irish wolfhounds to the beat of the Irish Prison Service Pipe Band. Back in 2011, 546 people showed up for the first St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest. I’m sure of the number because I was the official counter. Last year, it was over 4000. The crowd starts amassing around 1.30 pm at Szabadság tér for face-painting and the like with the parade itself starting at 3 pm. It’ll wind its way through the streets of Budapest, ending up at Instant VIII, on Akácfa utca 49-51, where the craic will continue. Bring along a musical instrument and join in one of the many sessions going on throughout the venue. Billed as one of the biggest St Patrick’s Day parades in Central Europe, it’s not one to be missed.

And, if you feel like getting a head start on the shenanigans, that crazy Irish band Firkin are playing Akvárium on Thursday night. Just what you need to get the green going.

Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhaoibh go léir. (Happy St Patrick’s Day to you all.)

First published in the Budapest Times March 2017