Monday, April 26, 2010

A Random List of Great Cuban Things

Here are some fascinating things encountered on my recent trip to Cuba.

1. Affordable cocktails

Even in the most tourist rip-off place you would never pay more than four convertible pesos for a mojito or daiquiri. That's three and a bit Euro.

2. He R My Uncle

We were looking at an interesting frieze of lost revolutionary hero Camilo Cienfuegos when some chancer appeared to say "Es mí tio" in a manner that suggested that this relationship would merit a financial gift of some sort. Maybe you had to be there on this one.

3. Crumbly Havana

As expected, it is full of very attractive looking buildings that are largely falling apart. This is more true of Habana Centro than Habana Vieja, as the latter gets more restoration work due to its UNESCO world heritage status. But in general I don't think anywhere as looked as much like how I expected it to.

4. El Museo de Chocolate

It is not really a museum but rather a chocolate café. Other tourists had said that it was somewhere we had to go to, but we kept being put off by the queues. After we bit the bullet and waited in line to get in, we discovered what might perhaps be the world's nicest hot chocolate. People queue for a reason.

5. Telenovella night in Trinidad

Telenovellas are what they call soap operas in the Latin world. There are lots of them on Cuban TV, some of them imported and some of them locally made. We were in Trinidad when some big episode of an imported telenovella was on. The houses in Trinidad often have living rooms that open onto the street, and as we walked around the town it seemed like everyone was watching the programme, in some cases with all their neighbours.

6. Casas particulares

In Cuba you can stay in hotels, or for a fraction of the price you can stay in casas particulares, private homes licensed to take visitors. These places will do breakfast and dinner for you at a most competitive rate, typically to a higher standard than in state restaurants. So they are cheap, convenient, and a great way of engaging with the locals. That said, after two weeks of living in people's spare rooms and granny flats we did find ourselves craving the anonymity of hotel accommodation, but anyone who goes to Cuba and does not stay in casas at least some of the time is making a big mistake.

7. Billboard posters

In Cuba there is virtually no commercial advertising. Instead, there are billboards advertising all kinds of political stuff along the side of the roads. I obsessively photographed as many of these as I could and am gradually uploading the images to Flickr and Facebook. No one looks at these pictures, but the important thing is that they are there.

8. In Cuba, the music finds you

It is an unusual café, bar, or restaurant in Cuba that does not have a band bashing out something approximating to the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. Quality-wise these range from pretty good to very good indeed. That said, the best music we heard was probably the house band in El Palenque de los Congo Reales in Trinidad. They broke with the more usual Buena Vista sound track to play tunes influenced by Cuba's strange musical relationship with the Congo. Winner of the El-Dio-Ama-Un-Tratado award goes to the busker on the steam train outside Trinidad who ended every song with "Ai, applauso!"

I had heard that in Cuba you get very sick of hearing 'Guantanamera'. We found that this tune has slipped into third or even fourth place, behind 'Chan Chan', 'The Girl From Ipanema', and (bizarrely) 'My Way'.

Stick around for more amazing Cuban action.

An inuit panda production

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