Posts

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.

2+2=5

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.