Thursday, 10 December 2009

Today Cuba, tomorrow the world!

Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun? In fact it seems forever since I last wrote my blog, nine months is a long time when filled with constant hard work and physical endurance. My reconstruction surgery went well, the ensuing physio became my whole focus in life. I was desperate to regain full use of my legs and guess I’ve come a long way. The day I first stepped onto the treadmill and managed to run was exhilarating, if painful. A constant battle has been fought with hamstring problems, maybe due to pushing too hard, too often. How could I do anything else? I felt my own physical well being was all I really had in life. So yes, I’ve come a long way! I’d love to say there is still a long way to go, yet must accept being faced with permanent restrictions on my physical abilities. It’s now obvious none of my limbs will ever be the same, I only hope I can still claw back more by not giving up yet.

After a long wait, and numerous reductions in the price, my house has been sold. I’m now a hobo, content to be so and looking forward to life with no responsibilities, no commitments and few ties. I still don’t feel inspired to greatness, still only going through the motions and still wish I could find solace in the lovely people who still stand by my side, offering support and lending me strength when most needed. I’m sorry, I can’t! The gut feeling is that life is meaningless, empty. It isn’t a question of glass half empty or glass half full, I have no frigging glass!

I don’t know why people express admiration for my strength and fortitude. Frequently I doubt their judgement, no-one knows the quagmire of thoughts and feelings encumbering my every day; nor would I wish that on them. I wouldn’t want people to feel the scorn that fills me as they whinge and whine on about the truly petty issues they concern themselves with. I’m not comfortable with these feelings, I don’t welcome them and I don’t act upon them. They enter unbidden and have to be dealt with, otherwise I would become an unbearably cynical bore. It matters that folk wish me so well, that they want to see me obtain some pleasure from life. I can understand how desirable a globe-trotting lifestyle must seem, I’d willingly swap it for my son, but not new limbs! And so I manage to get away for a very welcome break, it is purely holiday, albeit a long one by common standards.

Havana, a seething metropolis, yet reported to be one of the safest cities in Latin America. Whilst the streets are widely pedestrianised thoroughfares there is a dribble of traffic in the narrow roads in the old city, the arterial roads are not that busy. Certainly not when compared with those of Central America, Indonesia, Thailand, India; in fact virtually every other poorer country I’ve been to. I expected to find a host of dilapidated old heaps barely kept running, belching clouds of exhaust smoke. They are certainly to be seen dominating the roads, but Lada’s rule the roost. They are the dominant vehicles in use, seconded by ancient old American Dodges, Chevys, Buicks etc. Most are so old they have no insignia, and I’m not an expert in US vehicles, I can merely identify them as American, full stop. The surprise is the growing number of newer imported vehicles, Toyotas and Peugeots the most common. I blacked out Mercedes passed me today, I assume that was a government official of some sort, or maybe one of the few commercially successful people on the island; there aren’t many!

I’m staying in Havana Viaja, the old city, an enchanting mix of crumbling old colonial buildings with a small number of architecturally brazen new edifices peeking out in between. Many of the old buildings are undergoing renovation, they are gutted and made good rather than torn down and replaced. Scaffolding is a common sight, generally for renovation work rather than new construction. The side streets are narrow, in typical grid formation layout. Initially hard to navigate, it quickly becomes second nature to find your bearings and locate your destination. Random wandering is made easy, the first two excursions saw me hopelessly lost, now it’s all simple and much is recognisable in an instant. The blocks are frequently interspersed with large Plazas and small parks, providing greenery, benches and shade to rest in. It is a tourist hub and Obispo is the main tourist street for cafes and bars. Every bar and cafe seems to boast its own group of musicians, all selling their own CD’s. The quality of music is excellent, not so the CD’s, I’ve bought two and they were both appalling quality. You live and learn, at least I try to; after all, if you’re not learning from life any more what’s the point.

On arrival at my Casa particulares Pueblo gave me a prep talk on the vagaries of Havana, where not to go, who not to trust. He didn’t want me getting into difficult situations, didn’t want to see my stay soured. So within 50 metres of walking down the street I’d stopped and got talking to some guys, accepted a drink of rum and was about to go on my way when Pueblo appeared. Of course he’d seen the exchange and got instantly worried, I’d done everything he’d warned me not to. There was no point arguing the toss, caution should be taken when newly arriving in strange cities. The correct thing to do was apologise and give re-assurance that I would heed his warnings, so I did what was desired of me. I wasn’t being blasé, I had no camera, little money and nothing else worth stealing on me. He made it sound worse than I’d been lead to believe! He only felt responsible for me, which I can sympathise with.

The hustlers (Jineteros, males; and jineteras, females) abound. In fact I’d say it is a common occupation, with a profusion of wannabes! The variety of hustles could be said to extend infinitely, but they are mainly variations of only a few. There are those who merely beg, or should I say openly beg. More common is the approach of friendship, used to hustle you into a bar, to splash your money down their throats and earn them a commission. Their pretext is often to get you a free invitation to a wonderful evening of music, unavailable without their personal invite. Then there are the hard luck stories, which attempt to use your pity to relieve you of money. “Senor, just one peso, it is very little money.” Almost guaranteed to follow offers of a swig of rum will be one of these hustles. Requests for help are wide ranging, and not only from single people. Often accompanied by pleas of wanting no money you’ll be asked to simply buy some much needed supplies. A good one is by a pregnant couple, desperate for baby milk or nappies (I’ve had both). The shopping bill can be very high once succumbed to the scam, apparently the goods are exchanged back for money once you’ve buggered off; yes, the shop keepers are in on it too! It has sorely taxed my energy fending off constant approaches, surely they realise how often a tourist is hassled each day. Each and every time so far I’ve maintained a smile, apologised and politely refused. I haven’t ignored anyone, but have started to say Hola and continue on my way. Straight prostitution is uncommon, you are more likely to be offered an escort, company by some very attractive women. It doesn’t always involve sex, it may only be to cash in on some nice meals or new clothes, it’ll still cost you though. But don’t most relationships? Actually that puts me into the realms of whoredom at times in my life, and I thought I was merely a slut! There are more, probably too many to list, and I tire of even writing of them. Tomorrow will bring more, with luck of a different variety; a change is, after all, as good as a rest.

The history of Cuba is astonishing, many factors can only be marvelled at, and many admired. The Mariel boatlift was one I admire for Castro’s brilliant solution to an internal problem caused by disenfranchised citizens. A number of people stole a bus and crashed through the boundary fence of the Peruvian embassy, once inside they claimed political asylum. Which they were granted! His immediate action was to remove the guards from the embassy gates, a mistake, as thousands flooded the Peruvian compound in a bid to leave Cuba. It didn’t take long before the numbers increased to a 11,000, with the American government offering to take in the asylum seekers. So how did Castro deal with the problem? He made the most of a bad situation, and made it known that any citizens who no longer wished to remain in Cuba could leave, they merely had to go to a coastal pickup point, providing they could be picked up. Lead by Cuban exiles from America a huge flotilla of 1700 boats left to help the fleeing Cubans. 125,000 left successfully, in horrendously overloaded boats, it was a massive rescue operation. America and their resident exiles achieved their aims, or so they thought. Castro emptied out the island’s jails and mental institutions, allowing them to join the asylum seekers, thereby ridding Cuba of thousands of their undesirables. America actually denied asylum to 2700 due to their violent dispositions. This was the basis of the film, “Scarface,” featuring the central character Tony Montana, the psychotic Cocaine dealer from a Cuban jail.

Rationing is still an everyday part of life here! Most foodstuffs are rationed and some are impossible to get with the national Peso, even sanitary towels are rationed. So the local Peso currency allows really cheap living, but only of limited amounts. By using CUC (Convertible Peso’s), which I call tourist money, much more is purchasable and it isn’t rationed. This is the reason locals are so desperate to get hold of CUC, it overcomes many of the endemic shortages. Recent years has seen private enterprise allowed to a limited extent, there are small open air markets permitted now, that work outside the rationing system. Average wages are in the region of $12cuc per month, equivalent to $300 peso nacionales. I get the impression it’s enough to provide the basics to live on, most houses have TVs, few people are dressed in rags, so it can’t be completely prohibitive. What is noticeable is equality of wealth, the enormous differences between rich and poor aren’t evident, unlike the majority of countries, especially 3rd world countries. Bearing that in mind, is it any wonder the local populace put so much effort into relieving tourists of their abundance of wealth.

What an amazingly vivid dream I had last night, about Cai! To be more precise his resurrection; coming back into my life, flesh and blood. It was so vivid I could touch him, feel us physically hugging each other, talk to him, hold a conversation. There was no room for doubt, miracles were possible. I couldn’t have wanted or hoped for more, and would have been content if I never had anything else again. And then it transpired it was a purely personal reality, no-one else shared this enigma, no others could see, hear or even feel his presence. I was dumbfounded, couldn’t believe it at all, what was wrong with everyone? The bottom line was it didn’t matter to me, I was content to be the only one. It didn’t matter that everyone thought I’d lost it, that I was seen as insane. If that were true I could live with my insanity, in fact nothing could entice me to even question it. I’d been re-united with the only thing that truly mattered, why would I risk losing him again by entertaining doubts? Waking didn’t diminish its profound effect, I only wished it had not been just a dream, if I could experience such an occurrence I would happily give up my sanity. I could retire from life, happy and complete once more. If such a re-union were possible I would gladly give up this life! Unfortunately my belief in a conscious afterlife is not strong enough, I must continue making the most of the life I have, and hope that someday I will be proved wrong, that we will indeed be reunited.

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