Friday, 13 March 2015

Havana Cuba

I have just devoured platefuls of plane food. Lukewarm perspiring chicken plonked in greasy matrimony with something green broiled beyond recognition. Every soggy mouthful a deliverance (context later).

Serge and I are recovering from the first leg of the trip celebrating our marriage.

So as I enjoyed the uniquely pungent cocktail that microwaved food and toilet fumes create in an enclosed space, my thoughts turned to the preceding week.

In many ways, on paper, Cuba was what we expected.  A rainbow of sunshine, vivid architecture and vintage cars. However, postcard expectations are slippery things.

Havana is vision of once glorious architecture and pre-revolutionary monuments. The flamboyantly coloured neo-classical buildings are marked with the history of neglect. Houses once splendid claimed by nature; corroded by the salt and winds blowing in from the ocean. A city fatigued by poverty. A beautiful ruin. Here buildings regularly collapse into rubble – something that Cubans refer to as derrumbe. Living space is tight. Cubans live cheek by jowl, multiple generations and families crowded into the smallest of one bedroom apartments. No running water, intermittent electricity and poor sanitation.

The streets teem with people. It’s little surprise given the squalor indoors and mind-fogging heat. So they just hang, with nowhere to go and nowhere to be.  People hawking cigars and cheese. Young men crouched staring at passers by. Old prostitutes as derelict as the buildings they lean against. It’s hard to believe that this is “the Triunfo” which in Cuba refers to the Triumph of the Revolution in 1959.

The backdrop is wealthy American tourists in their white linen shirts, panamas and thousand dollar cameras. They are everywhere, sipping rum in the bars and hanging out of old American cars, which steadily splutter along.

I organise the transport. My husband buries his face in his hands as our steed arrives. A bubblegum pink Buick convertible worthy of Dolly Parton. So off we go, me and my surly Russian in his novelty cowboy hat.

Everyone is curious about where we are from. In Cuba, our responses elicit a rare and welcome reversal of sentiment. Serge being Russian isn’t treated like an unfortunate affliction or greeted with dumb ignorant questions about Russian politics. Instead it’s my accent and British upbringing that are regarded with cool indifference.


Capitalism seems to be trickling in slowly, around the fraying edges of the system. There is a robust black economy with people earning on the economic fringes of what is permissible. The government led by Raul Castro has of late been experimenting with socio-economic reform and now allows fledgling commerce. Having exhausted all touristic possibility we left Havana for the gorgeous beach resort of Varadero. On the beach we matched the enthusiasm of an enterprising local on his offer of all you can drink. The next morning was a shit show.


I reserve a paragraph for our accommodation.  The Saratoga. Consensus awards it the accolade of Havana’s best hotel.   There’s a category of people who pay for pain and humiliation. Staying at the Saratoga I joined this privileged elite. Walls wet with humidity and damp.  Strange and mysterious odours. Stained pillows and duvets. Showers caked with the scale of bodily detritus; pubes and toenails in the plughole. I’m afraid it’s just too traumatic for me to continue. Pool was nice though.


I hope you like rice. If you do, I hope you like it with lentils; for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For the locals, this is their reality. Our guide explained that food shortages mean that ordinary Cubans do not enjoy much else. Even basic ingredients like flour are all but impossible to get hold of.  Beef and milk are scarce (it is a criminal offence to slaughter a cow without special permission) and the country’s plentiful seafood is all exported or fed to tourists.


The state owned restaurants are purveyors of starchy stodge and tinned vegetables. A better option is one of the paladars, private restaurants in people’s homes.  We managed to get a reservation at Havana’s premier paladar, Dona Eutimia, a small homely restaurant serving traditional Cuban fare. The food was definitely better than elsewhere, but it didn’t give me that Meg Ryan moment. From all the places we went, the only one I would recommend is El Litoral which delivered pleasure befitting its name.

Before you go

Now, if you’re still with me, to the more mundane aspects of tourism in Cuba.  The first thing you need to know is that Cuba may well be the most romanticised destination there is. For some (like me), this will make disappointment an inevitability.  

Also, allow me correct the misconception that Cuba is cheap – it is anything but.  More importantly the hospitality standards are abysmal. So if you are after some winter sun, romance, a beach holiday or anything that involves getting away from it all – I counsel you not to come here. You would be better off going anywhere else.

Havana is interesting for a few days as a historical/cultural destination (although I can think of better); but you will need a good guide - self-censorship means you won’t necessarily get the full picture.

Finally, Havana is many things. Most of them you would have expected. But it is the experience of those expectations that's so unexpected. Get me? Maybe, just maybe, if you have been there, you'll know what I mean.

p.s. the credit for the photos looking snazzier than usual goes to Serge! Thank you :) 

Monday, 30 June 2014

Back to Baku, Azerbaijan...

It doesn’t look like much beneath the wing of the plane. A sand coloured shrubless land and a low pale sky, not exactly tourist board porn, if anything it looks like a biblical landscape, old testament.

It’s been 18 months and I’ve truly missed it. Sometimes initial impressions belie the character of the place. Baku is one such place.

I step off the aircraft. There it is, the familiar fragrance of the air, a peculiar sweetly caustic smell of petroleum and the sea.  The city lies low, at sea level which means spectacular ruby sunsets. We used to stay up all night, on the beach, watching the sun rise. Slowly it would turn the sky from black to indigo before shattering through the darkness in a gradiated explosion of vermillion light. I look at the horizon, the sky is a dusty pink, it’s about to happen, the perfect welcome.

What do most Westerners know about Azerbaijan? Firstly, it ends in an –AN, a priori making it a dodgy Borat state; a large toothless peasantry wielding pitchforks and a few oil-i-garchs, and hey, presto, the cinematic vision is complete.

Well, I’m not out to right misconceptions. Nor do I write as a patriot, I’ve lived in London my entire life, so that probably makes me more of a tourist. What that doesn’t make me is unbiased.  I’ve been spoiled. Hospitality, warmth and kindness mean that for every bad word I have to say about the place, I’ve ten good. So I hope you’ll agree that it’s artifice to adopt journalistic objectivity when writing of experience. And besides, isn’t the prism of bias always more interesting? So expect plenty of cheese, cornball that I am.

The car hurtles down the butter smooth road towards the city centre. The family chauffeur  vrooms the engine antagonistically at the spunky 80s Lada trying to overtake us, a black M6 cuts between us and breaks up the petrol-head scuffle. A briney breeze is blowing off the Caspian and although it’s November it’s still warm and gentle.

The pace here is Mediterranean and easy going. Family is important. So is fun. People here don’t get lonely, everyone’s doors are always open. Friendships are intergenerational. When I’m in the city I’ll visit my grandmother’s 80 year old neighbours in their Khrushchev era homes and talk nostalgia, which for them is eerily the Soviet Union circa 1950s, over tea and candied fruit preserves. Likewise, my friends pay impromptu visits to my relatives and no matter your age, you’re never left on the scrap heap, there’ll always be someone who cares.

You don’t need the history books to understand Baku because it’s what your eyes see that tells the more compelling story. The architectural tapestry is diverse spanning the 12th century fortress and palaces at the historical core of the city, all the way through to Islamist, TsaristGrand European, Soviet and Modernist architectural styles. We drive past the Maiden Tower, a 12th century fortress shrouded in legend; a sort of pre-Shakespearian Romeo&Juliet of undying love and death.

Azerbaijan was a key stop and trading centre for the caravan routes of the Silk Road and over the centuries the country has welcomed travelers from far and wide.  It’s perhaps such century old traditions that make the place a paragon of tolerance, regardless of religion, creed or skin colour. Amusingly, the local Rabbi often complains that the Jewish have it ‘too easy’ in Baku and that the absence of any sort of religious tension means that the community is growing a bit complacent.

At night the city is aglow, the splendid 19th Century buildings bathed in a wash of gold, their ornate balustrades and intricate masonry as exquisite as the most Parisian of rues. These scenes are not a modern Disney-esque imitation of grandeur. The  baroque renaissance style buildings were built by the oil-barons during the petroleum boom of the 19th Century when the industry was in its infancy and families like the Nobels, Rothschilds and local millionaires constructed spectacular palaces, residences, theatres and halls.

In the evenings my friends and I stroll along the sea front before settling for a dinner of sushi, pizza or you-name-it. It doesn't matter where you go, there'll be faces you know everywhere; the city is small, the crowd is not anonymous and nor are you. The restaurants are buzzy and the nightlife seasonal like on the Continent: beach clubs, yachts and rooftop parties in the summer.. clubs and house-parties come winter. All the fun happens in beautiful new monuments of steel, glass and impeccable design; happily the noughties era skyline of clouds and cranes has mellowed and development is now focused on prestige projects and improving the tourism infrastructure.

What I most love about Baku is that if you know where to go, you are transported back in time. Wander off the main streets onto the charming higgledy piggledy alleys that are still populated by apartment blocks dating back to the Soviet Empire. Walk through grimy detritus strewn corridors of peeling paint and arches embossed with the hammer and sickle and you are in a different world. Most of the residents, like my granma, are of the old generation. Inside their homes you'll find cabinets of Czech crystal from the 50s, figurines of porcelain and china, kerosene lamps, Marxist knick-knacks, furs in their wardrobes and always a story and a cake in the fridge.  Such scenes leave me sentimental and misty-eyed, but I guess I've always enjoyed having a foot in the past. Maybe that's why I find such magic in Baku; whilst it's a capital like any other, the past has not yet been lost to dusty books and dead museums, its history is still alive and beating. Told you there'd be cheese.

Back in the USSR

"I do"