Thursday, May 29, 2008

Cuba and Wembley and Family, Oh My!

Well, as I type this I am looking out on some glorious Irish weather...yes yes, I am home again! And I've been sadly neglecting the blog - apologies!

So, where did I leave you all? At my fantastic resort in Playas del Este, methinks! Well, we travelled back into Havana for the May 1st celebrations, as promised, and met up with our fantastic Good Samaritans for some drinkies, and of course to pay them back for their generosity, and made a 'date' for the next evening, as they would be marching from their part of town to the Plaza de la Revolucion, and we would be coming from the Centro. We read the TINY section on the May 1st celebrations in the Lonely Planet guide, and it said that 1.2 million people convene on the square, and that you should arrive at about 7.00 am. So, being Irish, we of course totally ignored that little snippet of information, and decided that 8.30 would be a fine time to arrive - fashionably late, and allowing for all the shenanigans to get into full flow, we assumed the party would be only starting at this stage, and the 7.00 am comment was for people to get a good 'seat', wheras we wanted to be in the thick of it.

I think 'thick' would certainly be the operative word here....

As we finished up our breakfast at 8, and strolled leisurely towards the Plaza, we noticed quite the amount of people heading the opposite direction. All dressed in red. And carrying flags. Hmmm...we wondered if maybe we had missed the initial celebrations. But no, the crowds increased by the second, and it was with sinking hearts that we realised that this was, in fact, the 1.2 million people, and they were all heading home. At 8 in the morning!

Coming from Ireland, you understand, this was of course unheard of! If they say something is starting at 7.00 am (well, firstly, NOTHING would start that early in Ireland!), then it REALLY means it starts at 10.00! So, you see, after 7 months travelling through other cultures, and absorbing their many varieties and styles, we were still stuck back in good old Ireland...

But so it was! We arrived at the Plaza to discover papers blowing in the early morning breeze, plastic chairs knocked to one side, and the general feeling of having missed something big hanging in the air. But, as I said to Alan, it's a funnier story to have been in Havana for one of the biggest events of the year, and to have missed it, than to have actually experienced it. I keep telling myself that, anyway!

That evening we met up with Oskan and Ismail for some dinner and frozen daquiries in Hemingways bar - Floripa, I think it's called - and listened to some lovely music, and generally had a brilliant night. Next day we set forth for Santa Clara, with the advice of a hostel from our Turkish brethren, Orlando's on the main square - he is a man worth staying with purely for his stories, as we discovered on arrival in the grotty and dingy town of Santa Clara. We got there about 3pm, and headed straight for his hostel. On gaining board for the night, we headed straight out to the Che Guevara monument, for which the town exists (as far as I can see). It is a beautiful statue, visible for miles around, but still more beautiful is the mausaleum below. Where elsewhere the image of Che is abused for government propoganda purposes, and called upon to sell everything from rum to t-shirts to shower-curtains, here it is as I would imagine the man himself would have liked it. Below the statue, a darkened room sits, with all 26 rebels recovered from the mass grave in Bolivia interred on equal footing. A bronze door bearing the face of the departed fighter shows their final resting place, and Che's is distinguished not by size or colour, but by merely a slight seperation from the rest, and a single lily hanging in front. He was a man of the people, and his resting place bears that out - he lies equal and amongst his brother soldiers, all of them immortalised in this small room, and with the eternal flame burning in the corner.

From that sombre and impressive area to another, the Che museum is fantastic! Some amazing photos I have never seen chart the history of a man I have come to admire so much, and for whom I have a strange feeling of kinship - not on any political level, for I am no communist, but purely on the basis of his always doing what was right, and doing what was good. I have so much admiration for him, and see such humanity in his eyes - in fact, travelling through Cuba, I built up quite the collection of Che postcards and photos, purely for the joy it gives me simply to look at his face. Always laughing! Any photo I have of him, has him laughing, because it seems his most nautural and common expression. It was also heartening to see his father written as Ernesto Guevara Lynch - and see the chair where Nana Lynch sat with her grandson, Che, on her knee. A wonderful Irish connection to be proud of!

Besides this, though, Santa Clara holds few pleasures. We ate that night an admittadly gorgeous meal in our hostel, but expensive, and we decided to head to Trinidad the very next day rather than spend another day in the town. Orlando sat with us at dinner, and told us many stories of his youth - being brought across to Hungary as an example of a 'good worker', and speaking in factories over there to the communist people, and flying the whole way in a twin-propeller plane, which hopped up the coast of the Americas, before jumping to Shannon on his way to the Eastern Bloc. Orlanda also met Che Guevara, and was in fact his guide to the area when the rebels took the island - he has a photo of them both together, and has much pride in both his country, and in that great man.

The next day we took an hilarious journey to Trinidad. Frustrating, yes, but also very funny! Instead of taking the main road to Trinidad, the drivers took side roads, adding 2 hours to our journey. And why? To run errands, no less! Every five minutes we were stopping at some house or other dropping off pails of milk, postage, picking up boxes, and generally giving the locals something to gape at as our huge bus pulled into their driveways!

Trinidad was just gorgeous! We were so happy to arrive there anyway, and the heat was unmerciful, but we were lucky enough to procure an excellent hostel called El Chino - named after it's owner, who looked Chinese, hence the nickname. A lovely lovely man! We ended up staying longer than planned, because he was so fantastic, and the town was so beautiful. I confess, we loved it more than Havana, purely for it's lack of pollution, which can make breathing in Havana quite the struggle! Another town with very few restaurants, so we ate every night with the family - well, in their sitting room...they cooked us dinner each night for a small fee, and breakfast every morning at whatever time we liked. With the heat, though, you rarely sleep past 9 in the mornings, so they loved us - everyone in Cuba rises early, and half their day is over by the time you get up at your 'early' hour of 8.30.

Anyway, on arrival in Trinidad, we hired bikes and headed out the sun-drenched road to the beach...11 km away. And what a cycle! Lovely going out, because it ended in white-sandy beaches with aqua-marine sea lapping the shore...the Caribbean again. But the way back? With no shade, and no let-up from the blistering sun, I became badly sun stroked (is it an adjective?), and actually thought I was going to vomit with the pain of it! But we made it home - to the amusement of El Chino, who laughed somewhat hysterically at our red skin...his brown skin like leather from many years of that hot star! What a nice man, though. We had many conversations with him - all in Spanish, as he spoke no English - and I add him to my ever-extending list of examples of Cuban hospitality.

The next day, thanks to sunstroke and fear of DYING from the heat, we spent the day wandering the cobbled streets of Trinidad, winding our way through the beautiful markets, where locals display their ware - homespun clothes, crocheted everything, and beautiful linen embroidery, all hanging next to wood work and the usual jewellery collections. But it was a lovely day! And that night we attended the Casa de Musica - a central area of the town where large and wide stone steps lead you up to two patio areas (seperated by more of the stone steps, which double for seats as the area fills up), where tables and chairs are scattered about, and waitresses and waiters dance between the tables refilling your drinks, as bands preform at the edge. We were treated first to traditional Cuban music, followed by more a more trova style, and then a percussion group, and finally the bands took a break, and the speaker system pumped out some samba/Cuban music, as couples everywhere began to emerge from the crowds now gathered. The couples were mesmerising - but most especially the men! Coming from a country where swaying from side to side while balancing your pint is considered dancing, it is always surprising to me how much genuine joy men in other countries seem to take from the passtime. And these guys were amazing! The twirled and twisted the girls all around them and, in one particularily awe-inspiring moment, three men joined together, with their partners, and began an impromptu dance performance (not for the crowd, but only for themselves), where partners were swapped and twisted in elaborate moves- all in perfect time with the music. And the guys asked girls all over to dance - and nothing sexual about it....they just wanted to dance!

So we spent a happy night watching and listening to Cuban life, and next day decided against bikes again, instead hiring our first ever scooter! We headed out to yet another fantastic beach, and swam in the bath-like water, lay on the white sand, and generally enjoyed every second of our last day in Trinidad. The scooter was great fun....Alan driving, and me on the back singing 'Baby We Were Born To Run' out of tune, and at the top of my voice! We took the opportunity to visit a slave tower out the other side of Trinidad, and drove through the Valley de Los Indes on the power-scooter....great fun! And a chance to see the lush, beautiful countryside of this amazing country.

Next day El Chino had organised a taxi to take us to Havana for the same price as the bus - if you can get four people in a taxi, it will always cost you the same as the bus. We joined a couple and their small child for the journey, and the man turned out to be an avid learner of the English language, so I had a nice chat with him along the way, and we got to Havana fairly early. On leaving El Chino, he presented me with a necklace - to remember him! Lovely man!

We went back to Marias, of course, since she has the best hostel in Havana! And we just spent our last couple of days shopping for gifts for those back home - as we had taken the perhaps foolish step of booking a flight home for the same day as we left Cuba. Our flight was due to leave Havana at 7.00 am, and land in Caracas at 10.00, so as our flight to Frankfurt/Dublin left at 5.00 pm, we thought we could chance it, rather than spend ANY more time than necessary in Caracas (or 'El Shithole', as I will forever refer to it as). So, we arrived at the airport at 4.30 in the morning, ready to leave Cuba, and discovered the board announcing our flight delated until 4.00 pm...which would mean we would miss our flight home..... We went over to the Cubana helpdesk, and were told to go to the supervisor check-in area, which we did, and she sent us back to the helpdesk. At this point, I said to Alan that I was going to start crying, so that they would pay attention to us, and take us seriously. So, I diligently began to cry - forcing more and more tears out to make them see our plight, as Alan began gesticulating and explaining next to me. But then, horror of horrors, it actually began to seem like there was no way they were going to get us out of Havana in time, and my crocodile tears quickly became real tears...and within seconds, I had gone from gentle weeping to full-on, nose-streaming, mouth-drooling WAILING! And I couldn't stop! We saw that there was a charter flight leaving at 6.30 to Caracas, but supervisor bitch continued to be completely unhelpful, as we begged to be allowed onboard in any capacity - she kept staring at us with a smirk, and repeated the Spanish equivalent of "computer says no - *cough, cough*"!!

FINALLY, and by the grace of God, we were directed to a lovely man, who began moving heaven and earth to try get us to Caracas, offering us seats on flights to Panama that would get us to Caracas by 3.00pm and everything. But, in the end, he managed to discover 6 free seats on the charter flight to Caracas, and nip us in at the very last second. Snotty and teary, I hugged and kissed him, as we raced through security and joined a group of injured and maimed heading onto our plane - which we discovered was a charter flight of people from Venezuela that have been brought to Cuba for free healthcare and operations. We had time, while running onto the plane, to buy the limited edition Che Guevara Swatch watches only available in Havana airport...sure you'd have to!

When we arrived in Caracas, Lufthansa treated us like kings, and we happily got onto our plane with time to spare, enjoying a fabulous flight back to Frankfurt! I had neglected to tell my family of my change in flights - arriving home a week earlier than expected - and had enlisted Grainne to collect me in the airport, and complete operation 'Freak Out Griffin Family'! As it turned out, our quick turnaround in Frankfurt meant that we arrived, but our bags didn't. Ah well! The airline would ship them down later, so it saved me carrying it!

When we came through arrivals, Grainne had done the impossible, and found my sister and husband and kids upstairs on their way for a holiday to Lanzarote, and they were all waiting for me out front - so one of the first things I did on Irish soil was to kiss my beautiful nieces and nephews!! How good it felt to be home! I said goodbye to Alan in the airport, and Grainne drove me down to my house, where I knocked on the door and jumped out at my Mam -producing a reaction from her more akin to tragedy than joy, as she stood shaking in front of me, white-faced and distraught. Finally, she hugged the life out of me, and brought me into my Dad whose reaction of 'Oh Jesus Sal, it's you' - quitely and calmly - truely showed me I was home! Next my sister arrived in, and echoed my Dad's calm reaction, though betraying more of the emotion by a couple of tears and bringing me out for dinner. And lastly, but not leastly (not a word!), I hid in my sisters car as she drove me up to my brother's house, and I jumped in on him and his fiance, and my gorgeous nephews and niece! Oh, it's good to be home!

That weekend, myself and Alan joined his family in London. We had dinner on the Friday night with Oskan and Louis in their lovely Stoke Newington apartment, heading out to Anna's afterwards for her usual hospitality - she looks after us of the best any time we're in London, and I love coming to see her! Saturday we headed to Wembley, and the stadium looked amazing! We had a few drinks with the family, then headed in with the Bluebird fansto cheer on their fantastic team as they played the FA Cup Final. Unfortunately, the team did not triumph, but the fans were so proud of their team, and the atmosphere in Wembley was fantastic, so it was a great event to be a part of! We had family dinner in a lovely Thai restaurant in Wembley, before heading back to Anna's again, and the next day we had lovely Sunday lunch with her, before she brought us out to Stanstead, and I was home again!

So, I've been relaxing quite a bit at home - got my photos all in order, printed out, and entered in albums, so I've been spending time with my family, and enjoying having all the kids around me again. I have no regrets, and spent as much time as I wanted away. I loved every second of South America, and feel that I saw that continent well and fully - but still leave lots to do on another return trip. Argentina would be my favourite overall country - for the mental array of geographical craziness from tip to toe, and for the wondeful welcomeness of the people. Colombia would be a close second, the coastal beauty, and the fabulous people. Cuba was fantastic, but I think I might need to be a bit further from all the pain and terror of getting to and from the place to consider it more fairly. Give it another month or so!

Next week I'm off to France for a few days to visit my very good friend Sarah, and Alan is helping me get my car back on the road, so everything is going well. My family are in good health, Ireland looks fantastic, and I'm filling up on Tayto, Cadbury's and home-cooked dinners.

It's great to be home, and it's great to look back on these experiences I have had with happiness and joy. Life is good.