24 April 2016

A Good Read

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
What if there were second and third chances, in fact an infinite number of chances to live your life. Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. Ursula Todd is born on February 11th 1910. The doctor and midwife are stuck in the snow and the umbilical cord is wrapped around her neck. We feel the panic of “Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.” A small taster of how beautifully this book is written. 
The story starts with Ursula Todd, the protagonist, attempting to assassinate Hitler in 1930 in a Munich cafe with her father's Great War revolver; the SS draw their pistols and aim at Ursula, darkness falls. Soon after Atkinson reverts to Ursula's birth. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born in the Todd family home, Fox Corner,but this time help is on hand, Dr Fellowes has made it, he cuts the cord, and all is well.
There are many deaths or near deaths – the cat falls asleep on baby Ursula's face and suffocates her, but, inventing mouth-to mouth-resuscitation, her mother Sylvie saves her. As a toddler Ursula is swept away by a tide in Cornwall, never to be seen again, but later she reappears in the narrative. Each time Ursula is reborn, she tries to prevent the traumas of previous lives. She’s not exactly conscious of what’s been before, but she feels looming dread and déjà vu. 

You would be forgiven for thinking it would be tedious to keep reading the story of one life over and over, but the author’s skill only builds the knowledge of and affection for the characters, they are all immensely likeable. Although I was slightly confused at first I quickly became absorbed with this great family saga.   
Atkinson’s genius creation of home-counties domesticity, changing times, the faltering class system, the horrors of war and much more is nothing short of brilliance. I urge you to read this book, it is truly delightful.

18 April 2016

Ernest Hemingway and a Little Bit of Politics

Nobel prize winner Ernest Hemingway was born in Chicago in July 1899. He started his career as a junior reporter for the Kansas City Star. During the 1920s, he lived in Paris with his first wife Hadley Richardson, working as a foreign correspondent. 
Hemingway first visited Cuba in 1928. Travelling from his home in Key West to Spain with his second wife Pauline and their sons, they stopped over in Havana for 3 days while waiting for their ship, the Reina de la Pacifica to sail. 


They stayed at the hotel Ambos Mundos. Later he stayed in room 511 on and off for many years, he enjoyed the views of old Havana and the harbour while he worked. The room is now a museum. 

There is some interesting art work in the lobby which I didn't understand!

In 1937 Hemingway travelled to Spain to report on the Spanish Civil War. The war put a strain on his marriage to Pauline, who was a devout Catholic and sided with the fascist pro-Catholic regime of Franco, whereas Hemingway supported the Republican government. Shortly after Franco’s Fascists took power in Spain, Hemingway returned to Florida and was divorced from Pauline. His novel 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' was published in 1940. It was largely based upon his experience of living in Spain and reporting on the war. It is considered to be one of his most notable literary accomplishments. When he wasn't writing, Hemingway spent much of the 1930s chasing adventure: big-game hunting in Africa, bullfighting in Spain, deep-sea fishing in Florida. 
In mid 1939 he transferred his winter residence from Key West and bought a house in the hills just outside Havana.

Finca Vigia (meaning Lookout Farm) was built in 1886 by a Spanish Architect, Miguel Pascual y Baguer. Hemingway, now with Martha Gellhorn, wife number 3 bought it in 1940 for a cost of $12,500. There, he wrote two of his most celebrated novels: 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' and 'The Old Man and the Sea' which was set in Cuba, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953. In 1954 he won the Nobel Prize for literature. Just two years later his body and mind were beginning to deteriorate. He suffered from bipolar and was treated for numerous conditions including high blood pressure and liver disease. He later wrote 'A Moveable Feast' a memoir of his years in Paris, and retired permanently to Idaho. There he continued to battle with deteriorating mental and physical health until early on the morning of July 2nd 1961 he killed himself. 
After his death Finca Vigia became the property of the Cuban government. I have read two versions of how it happened - the government took it; Mary Hemingway gave it to them. I suspect she thought it prudent to "donate" it. After years of neglect, restoration and preservation work began.

The guest house

The house is now a museum. Entry is not allowed but you get a very good view of every room, furnished exactly as it was when he lived there.

This is my kind of house, I could have moved right on in and felt completely at home,
except for the animal heads, I would remove all of those.

There are more than 9,000 books in the house.

I dread to think what is in those jars, I have a rough idea about the larger one. Why would you want to keep those in a bathroom, or anywhere in the house?

Martha had this tower built as a studio for Ernest to work or relax in

The rooms are lovely, full of light and sunshine

and wonderful views, but he preferred his study in the house!

What a lovely life they had at that time

Hemingway's much loved boat The Pilar, beautifully restored after years of neglect after his death.

This area was a tennis court when his boat was in regular use at sea.

El Floridita was one of Hemingway's favourite bars

Much is written about Hemingway but another famous author Graham Greene, who also ironically suffered from bipolar, had connections with Cuba. In 1957, just months after Fidel Castro had begun his revolutionary assault on the Batista regime Greene played a small role in helping the revolutionaries, as a secret courier transporting warm clothing for Castro's rebels hiding in the hills during the Cuban winter. Greene was said to have had a fascination with strong leaders, which may have accounted for his interest in Castro, whom he later met. After one visit Castro gave Greene a painting he had done, which hung in the living room of the French house where the author spent the last years of his life. Greene did later voice doubts about Castro's Cuba, telling a French interviewer in 1983, "I admire him for his courage and his efficiency, but I question his authoritarianism," adding: "All successful revolutions, however idealistic, probably betray themselves in time. 

And that's the problem, no system is 100% ideal. Whilst the tourist's currencies are spent restoring the colonial buildings of old Havana the harsh realities of Castro's revolution are evident on every street. Dilapidated buildings, parts of which, during severe storms, fall into the street, first and second floor rooms with blue tape across where a balcony used to be, the residents unable to afford repairs. Cubans are poor, the average wage is approx. $20 per month, whether that be a road sweeper or a doctor. A carton of powdered milk, if available can cost the equivalent of 2 weeks salary. 
The huge tourist trade helps in small ways to supplement incomes - extra cash can be earned from tips, taking tourists to bars and restaurants, selling cigars and food on the street, and of course the ever popular prostitution. 

There is some good though. Everyone has free health and dental care. The highest share of Cuba's national budget, 13%, is allocated to education. These services have helped Cuba to achieve universal literacy, eradicate certain diseases and provide universal access to safe drinking water and basic public sanitation. Cuba also now has one of the region's lowest infant mortality rates. 
 And they don't get pillaged by greedy politicians, CEO'S and bankers.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the future though

I liked this lady. I think she is probably 80 something, her make-up looked nice, her nails were varnished, she was wearing a rosary and jewellery, nice perfume, and a beautiful flower head garland. 
I liked her spirit.
I think that's what sums up most Cubans - pride and spirit.

13 April 2016


The advantage of having your own driver is twofold - he will stop wherever you ask him to, and he knows lots of interesting and nice places to visit. 
The first place he recommended was Casa de Bernabe, an ordinary house in an ordinary street, but the guy who lives there has an extraordinary amount of hummingbirds visiting his garden. He has fed and nurtured them for most of his adult life.

We saw lots of beautiful tiny hummingbirds plus lots of other kinds of birds too. He was a lovely old man and is very well known, as we were leaving a coach load of tourists were on their way in.

The Bay of Pigs. Such a monumental time in history took place on these shores.

The centre of Cienfuegos is very pretty with pastel coloured neoclassical buildings. 
We stopped for lunch, browsed around a market and shopped for gifts.

Vinales to Trinidad is 540 kms. Manuel made it very interesting stopping at various places on the way 
and it didn't feel like a 7 hour journey. Trinidad is on the south coast of Cuba.
In 1511 Diego Velázquez left for Cuba with Hernán Cortés and in the next four years he founded the settlements of Baracoa, Bayamo, Santiago de Cuba and Havana. After his conquests were completed in about 1514, he became governor of Cuba and encouraged colonization. Trinidad was the third of his original seven settlements. The town's prosperity stemmed from sugar plantations and African slaves.

Casa Ileana, the blue one on the left, home for the next 3 nights, run by Ileana and her husband.

 Entrance was through their home to the courtyard at the back 
where there were 3 rooms, each with en-suite bathroom, air con, a comfy bed and immaculately clean.

Our first day in Trinidad was very hot and unbearably humid. The morning had started with a thunderstorm which we hoped would clear the humidity, if anything it made it worse so sightseeing involved a lot of walking in shade and regular stops at coffee bars.

The colonial houses are typified by red terracotta tiled roofs above wooden beams. Walls are usually pastel coloured. Large main doors tend to open directly onto a large living area. 

Windows of Trinidad
There are no glass windows, they are open to the elements allowing air to circulate, but have wrought iron grilles and wooden shutters for evening and bad weather. I didn't really want to stand outside peoples homes taking photographs of their windows so I bought this card and scanned it to show
you how nice some of them are.

The old town clusters around the Plaza Mayor, a pretty square of painted railings, fancy urns, greyhound statues and colonial buildings. Even the cobblestone streets still remain in the old centre, which is good for restricting traffic, but not so good for bicycles and horses, and sometimes walking as well. 
There’s been a preservation order on Trinidad since the 1950s.

Market stalls selling delicate local hand made lace and embroidery like the beautiful tablecloths and runners these ladies were making. 

Restored mansions of the wealthy have been turned into museums and art galleries. There are many talented artists in Trinidad. 

Craft shops and restaurants occupy many other lovely old buildings. 
Yes that is a bed in the middle of a restaurant, a beautiful bed, 
for show only, not for a quick nap after a good meal!

Sunbathing lizard at one of the places we stopped at for lunch and Pina Coladas. This wasn't on the menu!!

About 12 kms outside of Trinidad is the Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills). The three valleys, San Luis, Santa Rosa, and Meyer, were the centre for sugar production from the late 18th century until the late 19th century. At the peak of the industry there were over fifty sugar cane mills in operation with over 30,000 slaves working in the mills and on the sugar cane plantations that surrounded them. Towers were built to watch the slaves. Some sugar is still grown here but nowadays the valley is more famous for its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Santeria is a fusion of religions that grew out of the slave trade in Cuba. Derived from the Yoruba people in Nigeria and developed by African slaves it allowed them to disguise their faith from their hostile masters. 
An orisha is a god or saint that reflects one of the manifestations of the Supreme God, and each orisha has a specific colour attached to it. Worshippers wear the colour of their chosen saint, either in clothing or beads. Red and white for Chango, the powerful god of war, blue and white for Yemaya, the goddess of the sea, and all white for initiation rights "to become sainted". 
This enabled them to recognise and worship with fellow believers without their masters knowing. 
Photography of some faiths is not allowed, and this is usually one of those, but this young couple did say we could take photos.

One man and his dog, at least I think it was his dog. Not many dogs are owned in Cuba and we saw a lot of stray ones, most looked quite healthy, a few not so healthy and one that brought tears to my eyes, it had open sores on its back, if I had had the means I would have put it to sleep. 

The ones on the far left belonged to one of the sugar plantations we visited.
Given the amount of strays there are the streets were immaculately clean.

Our last afternoon in Trinidad was spent at the beach at Playa Ancon. I like lounging on a beach for a few hours, after that I get restless. It was nice to wind down after lots of sightseeing and walking though.


The road out of Trinidad was strewn with crab carcasses. This is one of the better photos, some parts of the road were just a crust of blood and shells. The crabs cross the road into the bushes on the other side looking for food. It must be darn good food to risk getting crushed like this. 
Any sympathy I had for them soon evaporated when a few miles down the road Manuel was flagged down, we had a flat tyre. When he took it off we could clearly see a crab claw had gone right into it!

Up next: Hemingway  
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