KKT North Cyprus News issue #24Thu 23rd Jan 2014                                    



Cuba Libre
By Kathryn Crofts

Every Christmas time I put up my tree, dust off my CD of Frosty the Snowman and light my wood burner then struggle around the supermarkets looking for sprouts, parsnips and chestnut stuffing to accompany my turkey. When the main day finally arrives and my family have eaten their fill, we sit outside ....in the sunshine!


That’s where having Christmas in Cyprus just doesn’t seem right: After lunch I want to put on my seasonal jumper, the one with Rudolph’s red nose in relief, add to it the matching hat, scarf and gloves that, each year, my mother lovingly knits for me and then walk in the snow down to the Local for a glass of wine and to compare notes with my friends on what else Santa left under the tree. So, when at the start of December this year, both my kids told me they were working over the whole of the holiday period and wouldn’t be home I cancelled Christmas and decided to go away instead, in search of adventure. Finding someone to look after my two dogs, two cats, two goldfish and numerous houseplants was the easiest part, I then needed to find somewhere to go to. So, I trawled the internet for last minute deals, but with no luck: everything was either full, too expensive or I had already been there. I was beginning to despair when I found exactly what I wanted.....a walking holiday with beautiful mountains, historical castles, nice weather and good food. The only problem.....it was in North Cyprus. Not quite what I had in mind. I gave up and instead made myself some hot chocolate, switched on the TV, pulled a DVD from the cupboard at random and popped it into the player. By the time I had finished watching to the end of The Motorcycle Diaries I had decided Cuba would be my destination.


I arrived in Havana in the evening after a very long journey, first via England and then Madrid, and settled into a colonial style hotel at the end of the block from Sloppy Joe’s bar. Having unpacked my bag and changed out of my travelling clothes, I headed there for my first Cuba Libre of the trip and sat next to Nat King Cole and a very youthful Frank Sinatra who stared down at me the whole time I was there, from their place on the wall. The music in the background, the screens showing black and white movies and a group of Americans, on an educational trip, laughing loudly in the corner, made it easy to imagine the early days when the bar had first opened as a haven for American tourists escaping prohibition. Fortified by my first taste of Cuban Ron (OK I thought it was a spelling mistake too) I went outside where a constant stream of 50s cars cruised gracefully through the streets, my choice of a Barbie-pink Cadillac made me feel like a celebrity as I joined the other cruisers on a lightening tour of the city at night. Havana is everything you expect, the streets are bustling, the people are friendly, Spanish Colonial history oozes from every building and the warm acoustic rhythms of Buena Vista Social Club follow you wherever you go. The next day, I trod in Hemmingway’s

footsteps to continue my exploration of this evocative city and finally found myself with a group of strangers drinking coffee (Cuban of course), discussing the changes Raoul Castro is making to the Country, eating Lobster kebab and trying to find out which local bank had any money today so that I could buy some Cuban Pesos (changing currency was a constant challenge I was soon to discover). Before long I had decided to join this small group and travel with them by bus to explore the rest of the Country in search of Cuban Revolutionary History.


The journey took us first to Trinidad with its cobbled streets and brightly painted houses. There were few cars as most people use horse power for their delivery wagons or for personal transport. We visited the Bodega where locals go to buy their basic supplies using their government- issued ration cards but as tourists were not allowed to buy anything as the Tourist Currency was not accepted there. It was now New Year’s Eve and what better place to celebrate than the city’s Casa de la Trovo where salsa is the only dance and, as I quickly discovered, isn’t as hard as it looks. The next day I awoke shockingly early but surprisingly fresh and with my new companions set off to the Sierra Maestra Mountains, the infamous hiding place of Fidel Castro after his failed attack on Moncado Barracks. The magnificent views made the tough walking worth every step: wild coffee grew alongside the paths, birdsong drowned our conversations and local farmers were generous hosts providing us with refreshment of banana, guava and yucca, on route. We slept under the stars, swam in crystal clear waters, explored deep bat infested caves, crossed precarious wooden bridges and swung Tarzan-like on vines that hung down from the tropical canopy.


It was returning to civilisation once more and on our way to Santiago, final resting place of the guitarist Compay Segundo, that the first of our buses broke down. We found ourselves (not for the last time) stranded on the side of the road. As we sat on our luggage waiting to be rescued I watched a couple silently salsa dancing on a raised drainage cover as they waited for their ride to appear, which it soon did in the form of a cart pulled by two oxen. When we finally reached Santiago I was reminded of Birmingham, a city with many hidden depths and even more aspirations and I was happy to turn back northwards and on to Santa Clara where Che Guevara won his decisive attack on Batista’s army and sealed the fate

email facebook of Cuba. Travelling on through the agricultural heartland, sugar plantations were being systematically burned to clear the land for the new season’s crop. Methods have changed little since the time when slaves toiled for their masters but now they are all free men who toil for themselves. Another change of bus (the axel broke) and we headed further north to Viñales the area famous for the Cuban cigar. It was interesting to visit the farmer growing his robust oriental tobacco plants in a much less regulated fashion than we are used to with cigarette plantations. He invited us into his home and I was somewhat disappointed to see that there was no dusky maiden whose thigh the cigars were rolled on but rather an old man with stained fingers and three missing teeth hand rolling the finest Cuban cigars on a patterned plastic tablecloth. I have never been a smoker but I could appreciate the soft taste and gentle aroma of this superior product.


The trip was almost at an end and I returned to Havana with a little sadness and a lasting impression of Cuba as a place full of idealism, where revolution is a constant and a Paternalistic government protects the rights of everyone to have food on the table, full health and education. I saw no really poor people there but I saw no rich ones either. What I did experience were a People filled with passion for their music, for their art and for the ideals they fought for under the guidance of Fidel Castro. Today, Cuba is in the process of change and an era of reform and regeneration has started. There is a slow creep towards Free Trade and wealth is inevitably following. I just hope they never lose sight of what makes Cuba such a special place to visit.


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