Zika-free noises in my head

I’m spending a lot of my day sitting and wondering, watching the world go by. Just like they do in Cuba. More than a month after my trip, I still have whatever bug it was I brought home. Lab results tell me it isn’t the Zika virus and any day now, or so they say, my ears will pop and life will return to what approaches normalcy in my world. In the meantime, I will continue to do battle with the noises my head that are making it difficult to hear myself think, to concentrate.

People have asked me about my trip, about whether I enjoyed it, about whether I’d go back. And yes, I enjoyed it in that it was different. It wasn’t the type of holiday where reality is suspended for a few days and all unhappiness and angst put on hold. It wasn’t a mindless quest for fun and frolics that required heels, accessories, and the stamina of a 23-year-old. It wasn’t a capital city tour with a list of sights to be seen and restaurants to be seen in. It was different.

Cuba feels like something waiting to happen. There’s a palpable expectancy in the air. It’s an excitement of sorts. Not the Christmas Eve waiting for Santa excitement but more like a ‘let’s see what life throws as us next’. People watch. They watch life unfold around them with a detachment that speaks volumes. The line from the Brandi Carlile song – The Storyall of these lines on my face, tell you the story of who I am… comes to mind. They sit by the side of the road, on steps in the towns and cities, on balconies, on buses, and they watch. Waiting for what happens next.

It’s as if the entire country is facing the front door wondering who will come through it next and all the while, western influences are sneaking in through the back.

It was a complicated trip. It was a sad trip. My overriding feeling was a heady mix of resentment and shame, seasoned with a massive dose of confusion. I resented the disney-ing. I was embarrassed by the flaunting of the tourist dollar. And I was confused by the whole Fidel/revolution signage. If Fidel’s Cuba increased literacy to 100%, dropped the crime rate to one of the lowest in the Western Hemisphere, and fostered the best healthcare system in Latin America, then was he as evil as the west has painted him? I don’t know. [Quora has some interesting comments on how Fidel is seen by Cubans.]

Selfishly, I want Cuba to stay as it is, to preserve itself, to protect itself from the consumerism and materialism of westernisation. I want it to keep its character, to stay intact. But after 57 years without elections, without independent radio or TV, without a choice of labour unions or political parties, literacy, security, and healthcare may well lose their sheen. The people want the freedom that comes with having a choice. They want to travel. They want money in their pockets. They want a taste of what the outside world is enjoying. [I can’t help but think: Brexit, Trump, and ISIS.]

It is a fascinating country, what little of it I managed to see. In terms of after-effect, it ranks up there with South Africa and India for its potency and provocation. It makes you think. Everything about it makes you think. In terms of taking a vacation from reality, it doesn’t rank at all. Instead of allowing me vacate my own reality, it hijacked it.

Go for the architecture. Go for the beach. Go for the art. Go for the music. Go for the rum. Go for the cigars. But go soon.






Sugar, sugar

I read somewhere, I think it was one of the Shardlake novels, that back in Henry VIIIth’s time, sugar was such a sign of wealth that women of society would deliberately blacken their teeth to make it look as if they were rotting from having had too much of the white stuff. Oh, to be a slave to fashion.

Sugar and slavery are two words that have appeared way too often in the one sentence over the years. In Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills) outside Trinidad, remnants of Cuba’s sugar plantations bear witness to a time when slavery was very much in vogue. These three interconnected valleys – San Luis, Santa Rosa, and Meyer –  were where it was at, back in the day. More than 30 000 slaves worked anywhere between 57 and 70 mills and plantations to keep the world in sugar. Fifteen of these mills belonged to the Iznaga brothers, Pedro and Alejo.

(c) Steve Jacobs

In the village of Manaca Iznaga stands a look-out tower, the tallest in the whole Caribbean sugar region, built by Alejo around 1816, some say to house his unfaithful wife. It served as an observation post from where the supervisors could watch the slaves working the fields. Standing seven stories high, it takes 136 steps to get to the top which makes it about 45 m tall. I didn’t go up but I sent my camera 🙂

It housed three bells, each with its own distinct sound, there to communicate to the fields. The larger of the three marked the start and the end of the working day; the mid-size one rang for a holiday; and the smallest was reserved for prayer times to the Virgin Mary in the morning, midday, and afternoon. But it didn’t end there. If the two largest were rung together, that meant a slave had escaped. If the biggest and the smallest rang together, a rebellion was afoot. And if all three rang at the one time, pirates were invading.

Like Walter Raleigh bringing the potato to Ireland, it was the Spanish who brought sugar to Cuba – back in 1512. And for years, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Cuba was the world’s leading producer of the sweetener. It had the climate, the soil, the ports, and the internal infrastructure.

I hadn’t given much though to why slaves were needed if there were locals to work the land but like Hawaii, the natives were nearly wiped out by disease through contact with the European settlers. Those who survived the disease often met their death as slaves.  So the Spanish plantation owners had to look further afield – and they did – to Africa. The Spanish didn’t abolish slavery until 1820 and this, coupled with the Wars of Independence, saw the demise of the plantations.

In Manaca Iznaga, the owners house has been turned into a restaurant. Out the back is one of the original threshers. It didn’t take much to imagine slaves breaking their backs turning it around. Through the canefield, the barracones (save quarters) are still visible. I got quite a land when I saw a guy, sitting on his steps, minding his business. It was way too real to be comfortable. My imagination was running riot.

(c) Steve Jacobs

(c) Steve Jacobs

It didn’t help that we had to walk a gauntlet of traders to the get to the tower. And while prices for table cloths and the like were much lower than in Trinidad or Havana, the approach was more full on. It was here that women came up and asked for soap. One young lad asked a tourist for his shoes. Another wanted a jacket. Had I known, I’d have come prepared but the cache of soap and toiletries I’d brought were all back at the house.

I bought beads from an old lady, paying five times what she was asking because I wasn’t listening and was too addled to care. Not for the first time I wondered what it must be like to see well-heeled tourists walk through your streets when you have little more than what you’re standing in. I was back in South Africa, wondering what sort of person would go on a bus tour through a township.

Cuba is a heartful of happening, a wealth of contradictions. At times I felt like a welcome guest, at others I felt like an intruder. My emotions were all over the place. There is so much to it, so many layers, so much to understand. It can’t be done – not in a week or 10 days.


2017 Grateful 37

I like to eavesdrop. It’s not something I deliberately set out to do. There’s no conscious decision – Oh, today’s Saturday. I think I’ll go sit in a café and listen in on someone’s conversation. But if I’m there, and you’re at a table beside me, talking loudly enough to be overheard, I’ll listen. If I’ve nothing better to do. And I’m alone.

And there are many like me. There’s a fab repository called Overheard in Dublin, full of classic drops from the city.

Lately though, the quality of the drop has fallen dramatically. It’s all so boring. And trivial. And inane. It’s amazing what people can get so worked up over – C’mon man, like, yeah, like, Canadians definitely have an accent, like, for sure, mon.

I was in Trinidad, enjoying a coffee in the shadow of the nineteenth-century cathedral, surrounded by other tourists on day-release from the all-inclusive Playa Ancun. There they were, miles from their suburban North American homes, in Cuba, in Trinidad, in a UNESCO city steeped in history with as yet just one foot in the twenty-first century. And all that was on their minds was the exchange rate. I know, I can fixate a little on that, too. But there isn’t 30 minutes worth of conversation in it. Is there?

[BTW – turns out, even though my bank changed the CUC to USD before taking it in EUR, it is still cheaper to use an ATM in Cuba (if you can find one) than to exchange cash.]

To my left, sitting on a wall, was an older man. Let’s call him Hector.  He looked liked a Hector. He was grinning away to himself, laughing up a storm. He had a bottle of what looked like rum and a cigarette and was enjoying life no end. His wardrobe looked like it had see a wash or seventy and he himself was a little worse for wear.

When the band struck up, he started to bop. At first in his seat on the wall, and then on the steps out in front of everyone. He wasn’t doing it for money. He wasn’t doing it for attention. He was doing it because the music got to him.

Conversations carried on around me. Comparisons were being made between Cuba and St Lucia. Between Cuba and The Bahamas. Between Cuba and anywhere else people had been and Cuba wasn’t coming out of it very well. All the while, Hector kept on dancing and laughing.

Song over, he came back to his wall perch and gave me a big smile. He thumbed at the table next to me and shrugged as if to say ‘They don’t realise how good life is.’

And he smiled again. And I smiled back and thought what a hames we make of life when we over-complicate it, when we forget that simplicity, in is simplest form, is worth appreciating. Hector’s life seemed uncomplicated. He spends his days sitting in the shade by the steps near the Cathedral watching the world go by, sipping his rum and smoking his cigarettes. And dancing. The bar staff slip him the odd drink and the band like having him around. He gets fed. No complications. His smile seemed genuine and his happiness real.

The lesson was there for the taking. Keep it simple. Enjoy the moment. Don’t make it any more complicated than it is by looking back on yesterday or looking forward to tomorrow. Live today.

And for that reminder, Hector, thank you.

I shook his hand and slipped him a fiver as I was leaving. He dropped a cigar into my bag and put his finger to his lips in that universal gesture of silence, and winked. Enough said.

Cowboys are my weakness

Dawson City, in the Yukon, with its dirt roads, wooden sidewalks, and swing-door saloons took me back in time to a world I’d liked to have lived in. As Pam Houston’s book title so adequately declaims: cowboys are my weakness.

The colonial old town of Trididad in central Cuba, with its cobblestone streets, is a relic of times past. Plaza Mayor, the main square, is lined by other-worldly buildings like the Museo Romántico, in the restored Palacio Brunet mansion; the Museo de Arquitectura Colonial; and the Iglesia de la Santísima, the 19th-century cathedral with a statue of Jesus in a pose I’d never seen before. Man, did He look just a tad fed up. An empty rum bottle in a corner threw me. Was it an offering or a convenient place to discard an empty? And the Lenten posters could teach the church in Ireland or Hungary a thing or three about the relevance of communication.

The warren of narrow streets are home to markets of all sorts, actual shops selling real things, and a host of art galleries that while not quite on the Havana scale, are still to be reckoned with. The street vendors are chatty and pleasant, and perhaps at times a tad too forceful, but that’s only to be expected. Bargaining is part of the process but I found it embarrassing. It seemed cheap to haggle when people have a living to make and work within earshot of tourists sitting in cafés moaning about the exchange rate and how many hundreds of dollars it’s cost them to have brought US dollars rather than Canadian dollars or euro with them on their trip.

Had I done my homework before I left, I’d have taken Julio Muñoz of Casa Muñoz up on his offer of guided tours of an authentic Trinitario santero (priest) of Santería. And I’d had gone to see the rumba, the courtship dance, at the Palenque de los Congos Reales on Calle Echerri. But instead, I wandered the streets, up and down alleyways, taking it all in. There are plenty cafés and bars, both local and tourist, something for everyone. [As a complete aside, I never once had a bad cup of coffee in Cuba – who’d have known their coffee was that good?]

Off the beaten track, walking towards the hills past the Santería church, there’s one of a few tourist-free neighbourhoods that are so local, I felt like I was intruding. It was here I met my cowboys. What is it about a man in a hat on a horse? {Okay – so these were boy-cowboys … but ain’t the future lookin’ good?}

Trinidad is a departure spot for many. It’s not far from Playa Ancun, close to the La Boca sunset, the train depot for the Valley de los Ingenios, and probably the liveliest night life in the region. Worth a day or two to wander around.



La Boca (2) Sundowners

Back in the day, I would watch various TV dramas like Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest, and note how the rich enjoyed their preprandial G&T or Scotch on the rocks. I’ve always though it to be a very civilised way to drink but secretly preferred the cowboy version of a beer on the porch watching the sun set over the corral. There’s something about sunsets that cry out for a toast of sorts.

While in La Boca, our evenings took on a routine of their own. We’d wander up the village either before dinner (if eating at home) or for dinner, if eating at the local bar. Those evenings were a highlight of the holiday. Sitting with the locals, enjoying a sundowner, watching the sun set over the ocean and arguing over whether that really was Venus we could see in the sky.

We became regulars of a sort – the few hours we spent there each evening became familiar. We were greeted, got the nods, had the banter, and enjoyed watching what was going on around us, building up profiles of the characters as if they were part of a real-life sitcom.

The locals hung around, milled outside under the tree, or queued at the kitchen trying to cajole something or other from the cooks. The kitchen and the bar seemed  to be two separate enterprises but worked well together. One night, my cowboy came to town, dismounted, tied up his horse as they do in the Westerns, and then ambled across the street to meet his gal (our waitress). I was confused, as I’d been sure she was seeing someone else. But as no one else blinked an eye at the amorous hello (and the other fellah hadn’t yet arrived), I said nothing either.

The boys had their tables. We had ours, too. Other tourists  happily pulled up seats and joined random strangers content to eat and drink and enthuse about their love of Cuba. Many were travelling alone. All had their stories. And as the rum took hold and the beer made headway, potted histories were traded. Language wasn’t a barrier. Everyone was understood. People simply got it. They got the moment. And they valued the time. It didn’t take much to fantasize about learning Spanish, learning how to fish, and wintering in La Boca.

But without the stunning backdrop, it could well have been just another coastal village. People travelled out from Trinidad, they came over from Playa Ancun. Taxis pulled up outside disgorging the Nikoned tourists come to digitalise the famous sunset. This is what La Boca is known for – the sunset. Breathtakingly beautiful. Different every night. As close to the Great African Sky I’ve come in recent years. Highly recommended.

The fresh fish and grilled chicken and pork at €5 a plate were tasty. The service was friendly and the bill was but a fraction of what it could have been. It’s the only gig in town – you can’t miss it.


La Boca (1) Living with the locals

Any opportunity to do what the locals do, anything that lets me step aside from being a tourist, anything that makes a memory that hasn’t already been captured by a host of others on TripAdvisor –  that’s all worth doing.

I’m not a great fan of B&Bs or guesthouses. I don’t like having to talk at breakfast. Those I travel with know this. But I’d hate for my hosts to think me rude. I prefer the anonymity of large hotels or the privacy of private apartments. So I was a tad dubious about our five-night homestay in La Boca, a tiny fishing village on the south coast of Cuba.

What’s peculiar about these casas is that each has the name of host on a sign outside, in our case Joe and Noyi. He’s a trained lawyer but the hospitality business pays more. Hector, one of our local taxi drivers, is also a trained lawyer, but driving pays more. There’s plenty of lawyers in Cuba not practicising.

  We had the main house to ourselves – two en-suite bedrooms and a living room with a well-stocked fridge and a Post-it pad. When we took a beer or a water or a soda, we’d mark it down. That endeared me to them no end. Meals were taken in the courtyard and open kitchen off which Joe and Noyi slept in their room. We had keys to the gate and to the house and could come and go as we pleased. Breakfast was whenever we decided and Joe would then organise a taxi to take us wherever we wanted to go. He’d have driven us himself but his car was in the shop. And, if we wanted to eat in, he’d cook. We had the best ever lobster dinner (for the princely sum of €15) one night. This sort of living, I liked.

Our days took on a routine. Breakfast anywhere from 7.30 onwards and then a day trip somewhere, with an afternoon at the beach if the mood took hold – Playa La Boco, the local shingle beach or Playa Ancon, the sandy beach with the banded patrons enjoying their all-inclusive stay [even the thoughts of an all-inclusive holiday brings me out in shivers]. We eventually discovered the public end where you could actually buy a beer without a wristband. Glorious. I hadn’t realised that there was a time when beaches in Cuba were strictly segregated for tourists and locals. The tide line has blurred in recently years and  travelling tourists often find themselves sunning it with the locals. For me, it’s much better than bedding down with a bunch of tourists (and yes, I know, I’m one of those, too). It reminded me of Bourgas and how happy I was to stay local and avoid the resorts. We watched the lads fish from the beach and when the wind picked up, watched the salvage crew do their thing.

The village is neat and tidy with plenty of classic cars in everyday use and lots of flowers. It was still off-season. Some of the few restaurants hadn’t yet opened. It’s in the book as a fishing village but it wasn’t at all what I imagined a fishing village to be. I was thinking more European – Italian, Croatian, wherever, with its village centre and rockwalled harbor and little cafés and bars looking out on the water. Perhaps I need to get out of Europe more often.

The harbor, such as it is, is clearly a working one. There were no signs telling us to stay way, but the approach was one that deterred casual visitors. You had to know where you were going and have a reason to be going there. I was happy enough to look at the boats go by and wonder at the reality of subsistence living. Apart from a few container-like shacks on the main street selling toiletries and rum, I didn’t see much by way of shops. People fish. They grow their veg. They bake. They live cheaply, more out of circumstance that choice. And from what I gather, few travel. Their knowledge of anywhere but their immediate surrounds seems limited. Containment seems to have been very much the way of life and now that this is changing with more and more tourists venturing outside Havana and the big resorts, their world is going to change immeasurably. Moneyed Cubans returning from America will also upset the status quo. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.

There are a couple of large hotel complexes on the edge of town that were heaving at the weekend – but again, contained, inside the walls. From what I understand, they’re like those places at the Balaton where the state would send employees on holiday back in the day – large dachas or vacation homes with everything provided. Intriguing.

La Boca is within easy reach of Trinidad and Playa Ancun. A perfect place to chill out and enjoy Cuban living.

2017 Grateful 38

I’ve heard the stories. A sister dying in Ireland a minute after her brother died in Australia (they say he picked her up on his way by). An otherwise healthy mother dying the day after her daughter (think Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher). Apparently there is such a thing as broken heart syndrome. Back in 1990  Japanese researchers called it Takotsubo syndrome.  It’s also known as the widowhood effect. It’s got something to do with the heart being assaulted by a sudden, massive release of stress hormones. It’s like a heart attack, except that the arteries are fine.

In Cienfuegos, in Cementerio de la Reina (Cemetery of the Queen) sits the grave of a 24-year-old-woman who supposedly died of a broken heart back in 1907. La Bella Durmiente. The sleeping beauty.

The cemetery, named after Queen Isabella of Spain, opened its ground in 1837. It’s on the other side of town – far from the yacht club and the villas. And sitting as it does in what looks like the middle of a nowhere trying to be a somewhere, adds to  its otherness.  It’s not nearly as impressive in terms of notable notables or statuary as the Colón in Havana, but it’s got more by way of atmosphere and personality. Colón is like a rich debutante, outwardly confident and inwardly uncertain, whereas La Reina is more like a middle-aged beauty comfortable in her own skin. And she’s definitely a she; statues of men are few and far between. [The last time this struck me about a cemetery was in Milan.]

A local woman, perhaps a cemetery employee, asked where we were from. When we said Ireland, she took us to an Irish grave. I wondered what she’d have done had we said Hungary. But Irish? In Cuba? From the 1800s? How did that happen?

Back in the 1820s, the sugar industry was booming. Slavery was big. The plantation owners wanted to boost their numbers  and have more white guys on hand to keep the slaves in check. So, get this: the Council for White Population went to Maryland, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania and rounded up a few hundred Irish, along with French and Canary Islanders, and tempted them to come start the ‘white colony’ of Cienfuegos.

Marina was the daughter of Limerick man, John O’Bourke, who was one of the Irish to take the Council up on its offer. He married locally and in true Irish form, had ten children. He called his plantation Nueva Hibernia and was known around the place as Juan. On his death, the plantation was sold, although Juan Jnr still had a share in it and was himself administrator of another plantation worked by 500 slaves.

Marina, one of the daughters (I think of Juan Jnr), was an abolitionist. She owned one domestic slave, Matilde, whom she would later help buy her freedom. Once free, and funded by Marina, Matilde herself became a wealthy property owner, lending money, in turn, to Cabildo Real Congo, a black mutual-aid society. Like her former mistress, she, too had a social conscience and worked tirelessly towards racial equality in the new independent Cuban.

Of course, we missed  Barrio O’Bourke, where the family settled and were I to go back, it’d be on my list of places to see. Needless to say, I found out all of this back at my desk in Googleland and see from the comments on Mapping the Irish in Cuba, that a certain Don Morfa of Yaguaramas is thought to have been a Murphy from home. Imagine. The things you learn.

With the remains of soldiers from the Spanish Wars of Independence buried above ground level in the walls, the world seemed well represented. It’s a beautiful spot. Definitely worth the effort. [Check this blog for some great photos.]

I’ve had a bad week. I’m still buggy. I feel like the Irish Sea is sloshing around in my head. I only ventured out when I absolutely had to and even then I was an embarrassment of tissues and phlegm. I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but this week, I’m grateful for the Internet and the wealth of information I can pull up in seconds. It really does open new worlds at the push of a button. And while my brain wasn’t able to concentrate on much by way of work, it benefited enormously from the between-headache educational dalliances with Google. In another life, I met Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, and I met the inimitable Louis Pouzin, inventor of the datagram, and were I to meet them again, I might be a tad more effusive with my thanks.




Evidence of wealth

It’s hard to get my head around the idea that life can exist with out classes. Yes, I know there are the favoured and the not-so-favoured in any system, but not to have a working class, a middle class, an upper class – I find that strange. And strange only because I’m used to it.

I didn’t see much obvious wealth in Havana. Yes, the vestige was there but there wasn’t a marked contrast that I could see. It was more about restored and yet-to-be restored. But in the south-coast city of Cienfuegos, about 250km (160 miles) south of Havana, I found it.

Cuban singer Benny Moré wrote a song about his home town, dubbed the Pearl of the South. He reckoned it was the most beautiful city in the country – I haven’t seen enough to comment, but man, does it have some amazing buildings. The city is certainly one worth wandering.

The town square is dominated by the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion). It was closed when we were there (a rarity by all accounts) so I missed the Chinese writing that was discovered on the church columns that is thought to date from the 1870s. There has to be a story worth telling there. The Neo-Classical building dates back to the early 1800s and is the city’s pride and joy. The government building isn’t too shabby either. Both sit on Parque Marti, named after the Cuban hero José Martí, who at the age of 16 had already founded his own newspaper La Patria Libre (The Free Fatherland). If there was ever a young revolutionary in the making, it had to be him. He said of books: Books console us, calm us, prepare us, enrich us and redeem us. Someone whose body of work is worth exploring. Note to self duly made.

It has its own yacht club complete with tennis courts, terrace bar, and all the swish and swank you’d expect from yachters everywhere. And in the neighbourhood, there are some great looking villas that I’d not say no to.

Were I to go back, I’d be sure to see the inside of the Tomás Terry theatre. The gold-leaf mosaics out front are apparently just a hint of the grandeur inside. Terry wasn’t an actor or even a playwright – he was an industrialist… from Venezuela … a sugar plantation owner who would later become mayor of the city. He wanted his legacy to Cuba to be a top-notch theatre (this is one of three built in the county in the nineteenth century – the other two are Theater Sauto in Matanzas, and La Caridad in Santa Clara). Anyway, in 1863, he set aside money in his will (some 60 000 pesos) and asked the governor that all but 10k be used to build his theatre, the 10k going towards a school for poor kids that would be supported by the proceeds from the theatre. The man was ahead of his time. It seats 950 (originally everyone stood on four floors, from what I understand) and has the ubiquitous Carrara marble, frescoes, and carved wood. Terry died a year after having the inspiration but his widow and heirs followed through.

It was the Palacio  de Valle though, that really captured my imagination. Imagine having the money to bring a bunch of specialist tradesmen together and to borrow from various schools like Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, Italianate, and Mudejar (apparently popular in Spain the twelfth century). You’d get what could best be described as a fairy tale. This is what Don Acisclo del Valle did, back around 1913. He had the money and he had the imagination. And this is what he got.

Had time been on our side, the rooftop bar is the perfect place to view the harbour and get ready for a seafood dinner in the Bodega below. It was all other-worldly. We were definitely on the rich side of town. And that’s not to say that there weren’t ordinary buildings in between the grandeur, but even these had a holiday feel to them rather than a permanence.

For the permanence we’d have to cross town, where I imagined the real people living. Taxis again abounded with the classic cars showing a wear and tear that befit their years. The local transport of choice was more of the horse and cart variety. Tourists were thin on the ground. And most were having coffee on the square. Some I even recognised. Those who venture beyond the bus tours and the guided itineraries seem few. Or perhaps it was off-season.

The city is worth far more than the time we had to give it. We missed the El Nicho falls, supposedly one of the most beautiful sights in the country. And the Botanical Gardens. Somewhere there’s a series of murals Murales that depict US-Cuban relations – that’s something I’d liked to have seen. Worth a stopover, if you’re in the country.



I wasn’t going mad. I saw  2+2=5 a number of times on the walls of central Havana and couldn’t for the life of me figure it out. (If nothing else, 10 days in Cuba will teach you how much you rely on Google to answer questions, quickly.) Back home, with the Internet on hand, I discovered that 2+2=5 is the signature of a Cuban street artist called Fabian. He hangs with 5stars and Yulier P. I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting them in person but definitely applaud their efforts to show visitors that Cuba (and Havana in particular) is far more than American classic cars and salsa classes. Lads – you might think of taking the curious on a tour of your art… if you’re not doing it already.

I was taken with the street art. I found it disturbing at times. I spend quite a while staring, wondering, trying to figure out what was behind it all (the bun in the oven one in particular took some thought). I’m a great Banksy fan. I love the idea of walls in public spaces being put to good use. (Love what’s going on in Budapest right now – pretty amazing.) And if they’re more than decorative, if they make me think – so much the better.

There’s also the other stuff, the comments, the statements, what I mentally associate for some reason with Naples – perhaps because my Spanish is about as good as my Italian and I lose the nuances or never get them in the first place.

Leaving the city, I was fascinated by the motorway billboards. It seems that the revolution is a pervasive part of the psyche, something people couldn’t forget, even if they wanted to.

Cuba is long and skinny which makes the drive North-South a helluva lot shorter than the one East-West. I hadn’t realised how big the country is and given that the potholes are quite something, progress is iffy at the best of times.  141 KM is a stop on the North-South run down to the south coast where the tourist-laden classic cars pull in for a pit stop and a coffee (excellent coffee btw).

As we travelled from Havana to La Boca (the village we were headed to), it was like stepping on to a movie set. The countryside lent itself to Western scenes, complete with cowboys and their horses and fields of sugarcane and corn with the occasional rice paddy.  Like Hungary, and the road out of Budapest, everything pointed to a different world.

Decidedly uncomfortable with religion

Top of my list of places to visit in Havana was the island of Regla, and a neighbourhood home to the Santería religion. From the Spanish word that means ‘worship of saints’, the Catholic undertones are obvious. So why then did I leave the place feeling decidedly uncomfortable and even just a tad afraid?

I’d been to a Santería church in Trinidad. And while it was different, it didn’t feel real. It felt more like a show piece – something set up to catch some tourist dollars. I didn’t get any sense of it being lived in, or used. Although I don’t doubt for a minute that it is – I just didn’t get the vibe. I’d seen people dressed all in white everywhere we went – am still not sure if they are Santería or some other religion… but it all added to the intrigue.

We took the ferry across to Regla from the port in Havana. The 25c fare mentioned in the guidebook had increased to €1 for foreigners. Behind us, we left a mammoth cruise ship docked at the port, the lovely Russian Orthodox church, and a Rio-style marble statue of Christ of Havana, the work of  Cuban sculptor Jilma Madera commissioned in 1953. [And again, made from Cararra marble – had I know the length of its reach, I’d have visited the marble museum when I was in Carrara – will have to go back.]

Looking forward, we could see the church. As we walked up, the wall outside was full of dolls and people selling beads of a sort. I went inside to see the Black Madonna (a fixation from a previous life) sat for 40 minutes or so.

Apparently, the Santeria would surreptitiously practice their religion (back in the day when they couldn’t) by aligning their gods with Catholic saints and then praying to them.

Santería has its roots in the Yoruba people of West Africa.  […] In Cuba, the slaves of Yoruba origin were called “Lucumí,” perhaps due to the mistaken belief that they all belonged to the Ulkumí tribe, or because the slaves addressed each other as Oluku Mi, meaning “my friend.”  Although most Africans were forced to convert to Catholicism upon arrival in the New World, many continued to practice their native religions at the same time.  A common misconception is that Afro-Cubans blended the two religions into a single one, but a more accurate way to think about religious syncretism in Cuba is to say that the two systems continued parallel to each other in the minds of the Afro-Cuban people, who didn’t see any contradiction between them.  Practitioners of Regla de Ocha or Santería might describe themselves as Catholic, attend Catholic masses, and baptize their children as Catholic, while also practicing their African-based religion in their ilé, or Lucumí temple-house, in their own homes or in the home of a religious elder.  While they know that the Catholic saints and the Lucumí Orichas are not identical, they find similarities between them, and they see no problem keeping a statue of Saint Barbara or the Virgen of Charity on a Lucumí altar, as another way of representing Changó or Oshún, two of the most popular Orichas in Cuba. For centuries, Santería was practiced as a somewhat “secret” religion as a way to avoid religious persecution or the negative social stigma attached to Afro-Cuban culture in general. It survived as an oral tradition, passed down from one generation to another, through initiation ceremonies that created a tightly bound community and distinct lineages based on ancestors. As Cubans left the island, many took their religion with them, and Santería spread to the United States, Canada, Europe, and other South American countries.

The church itself was peaceful and dates back to the early 1800s. It was busy. Men and women of all ages did the rounds of the statues, stopping to touch each one, lips moving in prayer. It was quite mesmerising. The Black Madonna – Our Lady of Regla – has pride of place. In Santería, the Virgin of Regla is syncretized with the Orisha Yemayá, owner of the moon, the seas and everything that lives there.

The statue here an exact copy of the original (which dates from about 430) and was brought from Spain in 1696. It’s had an adventurous life. When the British arrived in 1762, the statue was removed to safety first to a church in the village of El Calvario and then to a sugar mill in Managua. It was ‘abducted’ by anti-Batista revolutionaries, with the priest’s approval in 1958.  Today, it sits in state, celebrated daily but especially on 7 September when the annual pilgrimage takes place.

As we left the church, all was well. A young man and woman called us over. They had their doll out and started to chat in Spanish. I was a little dazed by it all. They wanted to tell my fortune. Ten years ago, I’d have jumped at the chance but today I’m not at all anxious to know what the future may hold – let it happen when it happens. I declined gracefully. The young lad told me I had something wrong with my leg – not difficult to see had he watched me going inside initially. The girl pointed to my stomach and made a face. I didn’t notice that they were offering to sell me beads – I just heard them repeating the world ‘protection’ over and over. And I had to go. I didn’t visibly run away but mentally I’d have broken the 3-minute mile. I was upset, disquieted, and a little afraid. The fact that both my stomach and my leg were acting up for days afterwards I put down to suggestibility. It had to be. Somewhere, unbeknownst to me, I’ve become a tad more rational and a little less fanciful. Not sure when it happened. But happen it did.

Wandering around the town, I was again struck by the innate beauty of it all. Here, too, locals gathered for their wifi fix in the square and altars to various Santero were visible through windows and doors. The port building looked  little worse for wear but all seemed to be operating. I was more than a little intrigued at what the box-ladened bikes were trafficking back and forth on the ferry.

I came across a plaque marking the birth of a secret society, the Abakuá  – an Afro-Cuban men’s secret fraternity. With so little known about this secret society, a 2000 paper by Ivor Miller talking of how Abakuá musicians have sung about their contributions to Cuban history, their liberation struggles, and race relations makes for an interesting read.  The plaque put the lid on what I could take. I was ready to leave.

Back in Havana later, I was struck by the incongruity of it all. I could buy my voodoo paraphernalia in a huckster shop down a side street and on my way there would like pass a bar or restaurant like Dos Hermanos that proudly bears a plaque to those who’ve supped inside. It was all just a little surreal.