Tuesday, 5 January 2010

West is best, I don't think so!

Cienfuagos, a short breath and it was blown away on the wind. On arrival I merely secured a Casa and went to suss the place out. I’d not had a great start so wanted to see more of the place in a relaxed way. No camera, just a bit of money and myself. True to Lonely Planet’s word, the Malecon is nice, a popular haunt for old and young alike. Punta Gorda is much nicer than being in the town, the Casa Particulares overlook the bay and have open relaxed space outside, even private roof terraces, I wasn’t about to change Casas again though. The day was earmarked for securing my visa extension, all being well I’d continue on to Sancti Spiritus. And it all went well enough, despite nearly going on a strop with the immigration officer. When I got there he just looked at me and said I couldn’t make my application, because I had shorts and a t-shirt on. Despite being livid I merely laughed and walked out, I fought against all the stupid thoughts that went through my mind, the temptation and dressed to impress, as far as I could. Even put on my shoes because I wasn’t wholly sure whether he’d meant my shorts or flip-flops being unacceptable. More important I kept my smart-arse mouth shut when arriving back, an hour later I had the relevant extension. Then I could dress in scruffy shorts and vest to parade myself around town, I actually went straight to the train station and booked a ticket for the next day. Sitting outside an old woman approached, toothless, dressed in tattered, soiled clothes the initial assumption was that she was a beggar. Wrong! Shaking my hand she proceeded to tell me how good looking a man I was. Signifying my hair and facial features, my blue eyes, she told me how strong my looks were. We exchanged a little information about ourselves, I understood a little of what she said but can’t remember her name and couldn’t make out where she came from. Then we sat in silence on the bench, as she gazed at me. I hate to admit it, but eventually I felt awkward, apologised and excused myself.

A multitude of people packed tight around the doors leading onto the platform, for some obscure Cuban reason these are kept shut until the train is actually ready to depart. At the given time, once they manage to force them back against the pressing crowd, they are opened. It made me seriously worried that people could get hurt in the crush, even folks at the back were visibly pushing into the crowd. Behind the madness sat the wise ones, generally women and kids, shaking their heads in bewilderment. All I can say is I’m glad I wasn’t stupid enough to have gotten in the middle, I let them go and walked nonchalantly down the platform a few minutes later. Making no sense of the coach or seat numbers prompted me to enquire of a uniform, their own fault if they insist on wearing a uniform, who passed me into the eager hands of the train conductor. Actually he was sweating profusely and stressing about everything, a whole four seats had been cordoned off for my reservation, he’d not let anyone into the other three, it was embarrassing but he did start letting kids and old grannies have two of the seats, keeping two available for me. After a while I refused to take it, tried telling a woman who’s kid was sat next to me to take my seat but she refused. The conductor had told her she was not to sit there, even though I was sat on my luggage hanging out the window taking photos. They moved when other seats came available, I then insisted another woman use my seat and made do with my dive bag. So it became apparent why there was so much of a crush to get to the train, seats get scarce, but only for the first leg of the journey to Santa Clara. Which took a few hours, what a laugh!

Whilst stopping at a profusion of small towns and villages there were as many stops in the middle of nowhere, merely points at which a mud track crossed the rails. I did notice that each one had a battered rusty metal cross at the trackside, so it wasn’t completely hit and miss. Being lead to believe the Cuban rural areas were abject poverty I was pleased to confirm it was a belief imparted by a typical tourist, unused to how most the world live. Like everywhere else in Cuba many buildings were falling apart, crumbling into dust. Their age can only be assumed as old, though look more like antiquities. In Havana I wasn’t surprised to see deeply ingrained grime, the result of a profusion of smoke belching monstrosities plying their way through the capital for so many years. Time has been no kinder rurally, blackened facades crumble, yet their life more often outlives the inner structure. All too common are missing walls, sections of roof fallen in, temporary fixes made to ward off what the weather throws their way. Luckily there are no bitterly cold winters, no prolonged rainy season, little to protect themselves against. Also like the capital, the old public buildings stand tall and proud. Meticulously restored to their former glory, it must be hard for the general public to see this yet live in near ruins themselves.

Let’s cut to the quick shall we? Since arriving in Cienfuagos I felt unsettled, not at ease at all. Not staying for long enough to settle myself intensified things, the feeling followed me to Sancti Spiritus and made it hard to establish myself here. It’s made me doubt the wisdom of coming to Cuba for so long, even doubt my choice to set off alone on another adventure. Feeling cut off and alone has been exacerbated in cities, bearing in mind my incompetence with Spanish. I didn’t feel it in Vinales, though I quickly found security in my hosts. But let’s be bluntly honest, this is largely a language problem; one felt many times before in foreign cities. I know I’m not a city person, they do make me feel on edge, even at the best of times. The more people about, the more I feel isolated and insecure. Being more withdrawn since losing Cai again exaggerates these feelings. No longer do I walk into local bars without hesitation, have a few drinks and attempt to converse with the other customers. Maybe that’s a good thing, though I always felt it added a lot to my travels. After last night it’s lessened, I’ve been walking around the really small back alleys and dirt tracks, wandering willy nilly, experiencing the cities real life, rather than the tourist sites. With camera strap over my shoulder I’d size up a possible picture before exposing my obviously expensive bit of kit, I’ve had no adverse reactions, only curious enquiries. I have exchanged words using my limited vocabulary, apologising for my lack of Spanish, explaining where I come from. I enjoyed it tremendously and got some lovely shots. One interesting reaction is an assumption that I’m taking professional shots, that it’s work not idle tourism; after all, tourists do not walk blindly around a cities run down areas happy snapping. Neither did I, gaining a better eye for a photo I’ve started leaving my camera alone until the right shot, from the correct angle has been decided, then out comes the camera. Now and again after a quick look through the eyepiece I’ll adjust my position, sometimes finding myself shaking my head and not bothering. It isn’t all show, entering a square I want the best it has to offer in a picture, the best background showing tree and tumbledown shack. Waiting for the shot as well, lowering my camera if traffic passes. I respect people’s privacy, if it’s obvious the photo includes them I’ll call and use a gesture for permission. It works well, and has given me another tool to ease my linguistic failings, and few people mind here. Rather the opposite, many ask for their photo to be taken, and why not!

A new year, or just another day? Not for the inhabitants of this city. The morning started quiet and peaceful, a seeming end to the madness that appeared to proceed. A truck load of police turning up in the city square looked ominous, I was sure it spelt trouble and went out with my camera, ready for the big off. I’m tempted to say no such luck, yet for the people it was a good thing. The square was packed, hundreds of youths milling around in all their finery, the police posted at every corner. To me it looked set for disaster, did they expect a riot? Actually no, it was very good humoured and my initial reluctance to be seen taking photos passed, I openly clicked away at the police and crowds mingling. OK, the authorities stood around in groups, but it wasn’t a standoff. Smiles and handshakes were frequently exchanged. The night before music had blasted out across the square, for the actual occasion there was none. Everyone drank constantly, there must have been a profusion of hangovers this morning. Not for me, I hardly touched a drop, a couple of beers and a nice glass of Glenlivet I found in a bar. Once seen taking photos loads of groups wanted their picture taken, and of course to laugh at the results. My preliminary attitude was caution, once reassured by a happy carnival response I used the flash. I could have happy snapped all night, enthused by the crowd, maybe I should have, they loved it. Their thoughts of being viewed by the public in Ingleterra delighted them.

There is no institutionalised poverty, by and large the people have very low cost housing, all are catered for. At times the quarters are cramped by our standards, yet homelessness is seldom seen. There are no signs of people living on the street, in the gutter. And here I must be careful because I know it would not be tolerated, the police would not allow it; they are the force to be reckoned with. Impoverished people are evident though; I wouldn’t describe them as dressed in rags, dirty and smelly yes. It’s impossible to get to the bottom of this, even those seeking escape from Cuba do not explain how these very few are so pitifully poor, or appear to be so. Cubans themselves are generous to the walking wounded, and I don’t mean purely physical. Friends I’ve eaten with will not waste food, instead have it collected into our equivalent of a doggy bag and distribute it to needy people on the street. A lot of care is shown, discerning common people unwilling to let those less fortunate suffer. Tourists may snub beggars, the locals are less likely to.

In my life I’ve loved a lot and lost a lot. I can remember 15 years ago, stood on a spit of land in Norway, alone and lonely, shouting into the cosmos, “ I just want to love, I want to be loved!” And now I begin to realise the extent to which this has been achieved. Now I begin to realise how fortunate I’ve been, how deeply I’ve loved, how deeply I’ve been loved. For which I am eternally grateful! Twenty years ago I wrote of obtaining the ultimate in solitude by the time I was 50 yrs old, a cave high in the hills. A place to sit and contemplate life, to cast off all the distractions that could hamper this contemplation, a chance to obtain my own personal nirvana. It’s been said no man is an island, but aren’t we at our best when completely self contained? Surely to be needing no more is a point of strength, it doesn’t mean we must alienate ourselves. Does this not mean we need nothing from others, we are not dependant on taking, we are free to give selflessly? Riches beyond my wildest dreams has rarely been the guiding force in my life, though money has taken its share of my attention. Yet I have amassed so much, a wealth of experience, a wealth of knowledge, an abundance of skills. How can I look at my life and be dissatisfied with my achievements? Yet I have insisted on doing so. Cai was my biggest exponent, proud of those achievements, and unafraid to remind me. As I sit and thank him for all he taught me, I know it is myself who is responsible, each of us is responsible for that which we absorb, that which we learn. Others can merely help us on our way, guide us on our path. “Experience is the only true knowledge,” a philosophy I’ve adhered to for as long as I can remember. So until you’ve lived it, isn’t it just blind faith? I’m no longer seeking my cave, I haven’t finished learning yet. I’m still alive, how could I have finished? Some time out to catch up with myself is useful, but not to give up on life.

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