Saturday, December 30, 2006

Tagines, Grand Taxis and Chris Sharma in flip-flops

Check out my Morocco photo set on

19/Dec/06 Tues (London -> Marrakech) - first impression...

By the time Shaon and I collected our backpacks, it was already 9pm. We were expecting some kind of information service, or even just a sign to the bus stop, but there was none. Eventually we came across a few dodgy-looking blokes smoking cigarettes by their taxis. After a bit of obligatory haggling (from 200 dirhams down to 100 dirhams, i.e. 12 GBP down to 6GBP), we set off for Jemma El Fna. The Jemma is the main square inside the Marrakech Medina, which is the walled old town of Marrakech.

Apart from a minor altercation between the driver and a pony-cart owner after a near crash, the drive, mostly along the main boulevard, was uneventful. With the Koutoubia minaret, the most recognisable landmark of Marrakech, beckoning in the distance, I was looking out of the taxi window looking for clues, anticipating what surprises Morocco has in store for us, but Marrakech refused to lift its veil. We finally arrived at a broad and busy pedestrian area. The driver pointed out of the window and lazily indicated where our hotel was. Just when we were about to pay, he cheekily demanded another 20 dirhams. After a bit of futile debate, we managed to stuff the 100 dirham note in his hand and walked away.

Our hotel, l'Hotel Afriquia, was tucked away in a side street by the pedestrian area leading up to the the Jemma. Straight after checking in, we headed to the food stalls in the Jemma and I had my first tagine, along with my first fresh pure orange juice in Morocco. The Jemma was just as I had imagined - bright white lamps, white steam coming out of the countless cooking utensils adding to the hectic ambience of the place. After our quick dinner, we had a wander around the dimly lit souq to the north of the Jemma and was promptly approached by various locals who claimed to have "the number one morocco hashish".

Chaos and yummy food, we loved it.

20/Dec/06 Tues (Marrakech -> Agadir -> Taroudant) - it sucks...

In the morning we got to the coach station (La Gare Routiere) to buy a couple of overnight bus tickets to Taroudant for this evening. We was told that there would be no direct coaches to Taroudant at the time of the night, so we got a couple of tickets to Agadir, from where you could apparently catch a coach to Taroudant.

From the coach station, we decided to take a shortcut through the souq in order to get back to the hotel in time for checkout. MISTAKE! The souq in the Marrakech Medina is a wonderful place, but not if you are in a hurry. As we went deeper and deeper into the souq, the network of alleyways became more and more chaotic until it turned into a wicked maze. As the clock was ticking down, the arabic banters between the shoppers, between the store owners seemed to be turning into jeers, and the straw hatch roof seemed to be letting less and less light in, until we had to concede and asked for direction. Just as we had expected, as soon as a friendly local showed us the way to the Jemma, a kid decided to be our guide and walked in front of us. Of course, walking in the same direction and being in a hurry, we could not exactly lose him. Eventually, bright day light came streaming through one of the gates leading to the Jemma. As I was to find out later throughout the week, tourist hustlers could be very forceful in Morocco. They would jump in front of you and offer to help you just to earn a few dirhams. Granted, without all these "helpful" hustlers, it would have had taken us much longer to work our way through the many labyrinths in Morocco, to decipher the chaotic transport (bus and grand taxis) system. I guess, in an alien environment, I wanted to feel in control, and having decisions made for you, having to blindly follow strangers, made me feel insecure.

In the afternoon, we walked down the busy Avenue Hassan el Fetouaki to reach the Mellah (Jewish area) and the Kasbah in the south east corner of the Medina. Despite effort by various shopowners to assure us that the palaces were closed and to conveniently lure us into what we assume to be a bit of a tourist trap inside the Mellah, we visited the not really worth visiting Palais Bahia, and Le Palais Baadi, which, in the sinking north African sun, stood majestically in defiance of its own decay.

After dinner, at around 10:30pm, we made our way to the coach station. The stand from which our coach was supposed to depart was eerily empty. The coach was there, but the driver, with his mates, was obviously not too bothered about his job, despite telling me again and again that we would depart in 15 minutes, until he eventually walked away to be replaced by another driver, who told us the same thing and also walked away. We waited and waited, assuming that the second driver was trying to gather more passengers. He eventually reemerged at 1:00am , and was genuinely surprised that we were still waiting in the freezing cold. Apparently earlier on, he shouted "mon amis" to us and signalled us to board an Agadir coach across the other side of the station, which we obviously did not paid much attention to. Luckily there was another coach at 1:30pm. We got on the coach and felt asleep straightaway (I did anyway). The coach arrived in Agadir at 5:00am. In a state of pure confusion, we got onto another coach for Taroudant. It was absolutely freezing and I was shivering like mad. Tiredness got the better of me, and I felt asleep again.

We arrived at Taroudant at 7am. Found our hotel and went straight underneath the blanket on our beds.

21/Dec/06 Wed (Taroudant) - relaxing...

We got our deserved sleep after the epic journey, and did not get to get out until midday. Taroudant was quite a relaxed little city with a beatiful city wall, a couple of souqs, a kasbah and a number of mosques. It was a nice change of scenery after a manic day in Marrakech. We wandered lazily through the meandering alleyways of the kasbah. The mud red kasbah wall was juxtoposed against modern shops, including an internet cafe called Cyber @ Kasba, and air-conditining units. We walked around the city wall and got back to the main square, Place Assarag, in time for dinner.

Our hotel, l'hotel Taroudant, also functioned as a local drinking establishment. Being an Islamic country, outside big modern cities, alcohol was hard to come by. In fact, back in Marrakech, alcohol is pretty much forbidden in the Medina. We had a couple of state-produced Flag beers.

Sadly, the Moroccan brew left a lot to desire...

Had an early night.

22/Dec/06 Thurs (Taroudant -> Inezgane -> Tiznit -> Tafraoute) - grand taxis...

We were told by the owner of the hotel that we could take a grand taxi to Inezgane and from there we could catch a bus to Tafraoute. With that mind, we squeezed ourselved into an old Mercedes taxi with four other passengers, excluding the driver, and endured our first grand taxi experience - two in the front seat and four in the back sites. I was pushed right up against the door. Trying not to think too much about what would happen to me if the door swang open (don't be silly, why would there be seat belts... in sh'Allah), I tried to absorb the scenery along way. As we were still quite a way from the Anti-Atlas, the area was flat, and moreover, most of it was quite arid. With the Sahara constantly expanding, desertification must be a real issue in many parts of Morocco. The repetitive barrenness and the heat eventually sent me to sleep. Incidentally, later on, I caught a glimpse of another passenger reading the newspaper, which happened to have a special report on water suuply problem in Morocco.

After an hour in the taxi, we arrived in Inezgane only to find that there was no buses to Tafraoute. Instead we had to take another grand taxi to Tzinit, from where we would have to take another grand taxi to Tafraoute....

Another hour spent in another grand taxi, we arrived at the city of Tiznit. After a bit of asking around, we found a grand taxi for Tafraoute. Donning a blue head scarf, the driver was, I believe, of Touareg descent. Prior to this, I had only really seen Touareg people riding camels, living in nomad tents in the Sahara in travel photos, and I was glad our modern day blue man was equally skilled at negotiating the ultra-bendy mountain roads in his old Mercedes. Part of the experience of taking grand taxis is that you get to listen to whatever music the driver wants to listen to. While in our two previous rides, the drivers had had Moroccan radio on - an eclectic mix of arabic chanting, Rihanna and French hiphop, our Touareg driver this time was listening to some old cassettes of again what I assumed to be Touareg music. Pumping through his half-broken soundsystem, which was randomly adding delay, echo, stereo panning and all kinds of weird and wonderful effects, the music was amongst the most psychedelic I had ever heard. Syd Barrett himself would have approved. Driving into the golden setting sun, totally immersed in Touareg psychedelia, the meandering ride was simply magical.

We checked into our hotel. Hotel Salama, a pretty plush one, for a change. The damage was 120 dirhams pppn (7 GBP!!!). We found a shop, Coin de Nomad, where we could hire mountain bikes for tomorrow. The shopkeeper, again in Touareg outfit, showed me photos of him with Chris Bonnington and Joe Brown. Respect! Not having had lunch, we were pretty hungry by 6pm, and we went down to the local restaurant to sample some Kefta Tagines. There we met a trio of English dudes. They were in Morocco on a surfing trip. The lack of waves had taken them away from the coast into the Anti-Atlas region. A couple of them were into African music, and I was happily talking to them about Seckou Keita, Tinawiren, Tounami Diabate, Fela Kuti and all those legendary musicians.

23/Dec/06 Fri (Tafraoute) - Chris Sharma in flip-flops...

Shortly after breakfast, we went to Coin de Nomad to hire a couple of bikes. Following a hand-sketched map, we rode out into the wilderness. The landscape, dotted with weird, stacked boulders was simple incredible. The remoteness of the place, the eery silence. This is it! This is why we had endured hours of grand taxis to come to Tafraoute! We stopped at a cluster of boulders to shelter ourselves from the strong sun. I promptly put my climbing shoes on and had a go climbing some of these fine rounded granite boulders. They were pretty featureless, but quite frictiony, not dissimilar to the English gritstone. A kid from the local village, who must have been no more than 15 years old, saw me climbing and came over our way. Either my French was really bad or he could not speak any French, the kid and I could not really communicate. Nonetheless, driven by the universal urge to conquer and climb, he effortlessly soloed up a crimpy 10 metres route up to the top of a stack of boulders in flip-flops. My jaw dropped. He signalled me to come up. The route seemed to me to be about F5(+) / F6a, but there was obviously no protection whatsoever, no rope, no crashmat. With the kid staring down high above me, I got up 4 metres before coming to the crux move, which involved standing on a tiny flake, which was threatening to break off. The kid looked puzzled and did not really why I was having so much trouble. Feeling useless and inadequate, I told myself the flake was not going to break, my feet were not going to slip and I tried for different (non-existent) crimpy handholds until I decided that I valued my life more.

Even though I could not get to talk to the kid, I felt as if I knew his whole life-story, such was the awe that he had inspired. With time running out, we had to ride off again, and we bid farewell to this amazing kid. He will probably never leave his village, never leave Morocco, but in my mind, he is always going to be the rockclimbing superstar.

After 20 mins of cycling, we got to the painted rocks (Les Rochers Peintes). In 1986, driven by whatever urge he was feeling at the time, the Belgium artist, Jean Verame, decided to come to Morocco and draped a number of gigantic boulders in 18 tonnes of white, blue and red paint. With the colour fading, the colours were not so impressive now. Nonetheless, against this strange, otherworldly landscape, the effect was still extremely mesmerising. While Shaon went scrambling up to the top of some hill, I set off and climbed up some more (painted and non-painted) boulders in the middle of no man's land.

Such an amazing place...

24/Dec/06 (Tafaroute -> Agadir -> Inezgand -> Marrakech) - boredom...

If the previous day was the high point of our trip, the 24th was the all-time low. Due to bad judgement and incorrect information, we spent the whole day travelling. I tried various methods to keep myself entertained, including changing films in my Holga camera and playing mobile phone games, but nothing would cure my boredom. After three grand taxis and a four-hour coach journey, we eventually made it back to Marrakech at 10:00pm.

25/Dec/06 (Marrakech) - new town...

We spent the whole day walking around Gueliz, the new town of Marrakech. Full of relatively overpriced eating places and western shops, there really was not much to see, apart from Le Jardin Majorelle, which was a very pretty garden designed by Jacques Majorelle in 1886.

Walking through the new town, you just could not help noticing the wealth gap in Marrakech. Up until now, I had never really been struck by the sight of poverty in Morocco, primarily because we had not walked through any areas showing the rich and the poor side by side, but now the contrast became really apparent. Interestingly, western influence in the new town was a lot stronger, for example, with a lot of females not wearing hijabs or veils, and bars selling alcohol becoming quite prevalent. Do people naturally yearn for western lifestyles once they have more money? Does sticking to you tradition render you an underdog in this global fight for power and wealth? Or is it simpler than that?

In the evening, we met up with a couple of friends from the UK and had dinner in a place called "Trio Latinos", which, despite all their effort to make the place look Latin American, decided to blast out French chanson versions of cheesy love songs.

26/Dec/06 (Marrakech -> London) - homebound...

We spent the morning wandering around the Marrakech souq, with a compass in my pocket this time. To be honest, neither Shaon nor I was that fascinated by all the little things they sell. I did spot a pair of traditional Moroccan slippers with Louis Vuitton logos all over though. We also figured out that in the Moroccan's equivalent of pound shops, souvenirs like tea glasses costed half the price as they would do in the souq.

We left early for the airport, thinking that we could leave our backpacks in the airport and visit the Menara garden near the airport. Unfortunately, there was no left-luggage, and we could not be bothered to trek to the garden with our heavy backpacks, so we simply sat outside the airport, soaking up the last bit of north African sun, kicking around an unfortunate orange, talking about films, religions, politics and all those topics you always find yourself talking about in foreign countries.

Funny enough, I did not feel any of that languishing sensation that I had had when I had previously arrived at the departure lounges of the Havana airport, the Lima airport, or even the Delhi airport. Could it be because of the geographical proximity? Perhaps because I did not spend enough time talking to the people over there to understand the culture, the country? Perhaps because I felt that people were after my money all the time? Maybe it was because I knew at the back of mind that very soon I would be coming back to trek up Jebel Toubkal, or to climb the Todra Gorge?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Mix CD

I compiled a mix CD of some of my favourite tunes yesterday. Here is the tracklisting.

00:00 Cinematic Orchestra Feat Roots Manuva - All Things To All Men

09:34 Baaba Maal/Taj Mahal/Kaouding Cissoko/Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra - Trouble Sleep Yanga Wake Am (tribute to Fela Kuti)

17:36 Cymande - Anthracite

23:02 Masters at Work - Watching Windows

28:04 Abyssinians - Mandela

31:41 Burning Spear - Black Wa-Da-Da (Invasion)

35:00 Sinead O'Connor - Curly Locks (Junior Byles cover)

38:45 Saul Williams - Niggas Way

41:56 Jay Dee and Madlib - The Jam

44:52 Mos Def and Talib Kweli - Thieves in the Night

49:41 The Marxmen (MOP) - Here Today Gone Tomorrow

52:56 Anti-Pop Consortium - Disorientation

56:37 Sketch Show - Cronograph

61:36 Explosions in the Sky - A Song for Our Fathers

65:28 Johnny Cash - Hurt (NIN cover)

I did not manage to include any of my favourite electronic or rock tunes. I may make another CD in the future.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Cuban Diary

Feliz Ano Nuevo!

Here is an account of my recent trip to Cuba. Enjoy...

Links to my Cuban photos:
album 1 album 2 album 3 album 4

11/Dec/05 Sun (London -> La Habana)
We landed in La Habana pretty late. After an uneventful taxi trip, we arrived at our casa particular in Habana Centro. Casas particulares are private houses given permission by the State to accomodate foreign tourists. Prices are usually lower than those of hotels. We knocked on the door and a woman on the balcony lowered the key on a piece of string. It turned out that the owner of the house was away and we could not stay there. I thought, "Here we go - the joy of Cuban organisation." Luckily the woman knew someone round the corner who could rent out rooms to us.

12/Dec/05 Mon (La Habana)
Woke up early. Went to check out La Habana Vieja. Full of buildings desperately in need of renovation, this old part of La Habana was nice, but I guess I was expecting something that transcended normality almost. We went to el Museo de la Revolucion, which was interesting, if only for the way the revolution was being portraited. Also visited the Havana Club Rum Factory, and the Bacardi Building. The latter has nothing to do with rum nowadays, but the top of the building did offer a great view of La Habana. Incidentally, being a state-owned company produce, Havana Club is the preferred rum in Cuba.

13/Dec/05 Tue (La Habana -> Santa Clara -> Camaguey)
The start of our road trip. As expected, we got terribly lost. Map was useless and road signs were pretty much non-existent. On Cuban roads, revolution slogan signs are deemed more important than road signs. In the end, we figured out that the only way to get around Cuba was to ask people. Hitchhiking is a very common practice in Cuba. They even have officers, known as amarillos (yellow) after the colour of their jackets, organising the hitchhiker queue. These hitchhikers proved to be extremely resourceful and friendly even after we had told them we would not be able to take them.

We arrived in Santa Clara a couple of hours after schedule. After visiting the Che's Mausoleum, we promptly left for Camaguey. The sun was quickly going down. Having to tackle potholes, upcoming traffic and cyclists, driving in the dark in Cuba is nothing but suicidual. My hand held firmly to the handle on the car door until we made it to our casa in Camaguey at around 10pm. The owner of the casa recommended a palador (private restaurant) called La Terraza. Much to our amusement, in the corner of the restaurant sit a fat guy, who would wake up every now and then from his dozing to play a tune on his guitar. We had a pretty good and cheap meal.

Revolutionary slogan of the day: El genio esta en las mases, el genio es masivo - Fidel (The genius is in the masses, the genius is massive - Fidel)

14/Dec/05 Wed (Camaguey -> Holguin)
After breakfast, we chatted with M, son of the casa owner, for a whole hour. This was our first proper extended conversation with any Cuban. It all started with me casually asking him what time he usually started work. It turned out that his working hours were quite "flexible". He spoke good English, and he went on to explain to us how the government was strangling private businesses, which included casas particulares and paladores, through heavy taxing, and how working in State-run companies would earn you very little money unless you were working for the government itself. Apparently, an average Cuban gets about 20 USD a month. (However, since a lot of basic necessities are being provided at extremely low cost by the government, people generally have enough to lead a pretty decent life.) We also went on to talk about America, the embargo and how Fidel was blaming everything on America. He was very uncertain about the future of Cuba as, on the one hand, a lot of young people believe the end of the current dictatorship will usher in a new taste of freedom they have been longing for, on the other hand, the introduction of an American-style capitalistic economy may destroy the social safety net that so many people depend on. Just like a lot of Cubans we were about to meet during the next week or so, M was very prepared to talk about the government. However, they would accept the reality and they would decide to have a happy, if sometimes slightly frustrating, life. The conversation left me questioning whether the socialistic system in Cuba would have survived up to this day, if Fidel and co had not done such a good job in putting up revolutionary signs.

We spent the morning wandering around the pretty town of Camaguey. It was bustling, with people getting on with their everyday business.

We decided to set off for Holguin early in the afternoon. On the way to our car, we caught M leisurely strolling through town with his girlfriend.

Revolutionary slogan of the day: Socialismo o muerte (Socialism or death)

15/Dec/05 Thurs (Holguin -> Santiago de Cuba)
Holguin was quite quiet. We went up to the top of a small hill, which offered a panoramic view of this little town. On the way to the centre, we came across a band rehearsal in an empty building on the main "high street", blasting out funky Cuban son-style music in the Cuban heat.

In the afternoon, we set off for Santiago de Cuba, which was the furthest point of our road trip. We arrived in good time, and after dumping our stuff at the casa, we drove to La Castilla de Morro. It was a castle on the coast, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, and we stayed there till sunset.

In the evening, we ventured into the centre, and after fighting off numerous jinateros (tourist hustlers, offering to take tourists to restaurants, bars...) we finally ended up in a basic state-run no-nonsense restaurants and had our first taste of "real" Cuban food - disgusting-tasting pizzas. We had 5 pizzas (we were real hungry) and two beers, and the bill came to less than 3 USD. If Cuba has failed miserably in the area of culinary arts, it has succeeded in giving the world good music. After the atrocious meal, we went to a music bar known as La Casa De La Trova. The band was excellent, but it was the audience's dancing that totally took my breath away. The rhythm, the spontaneity, the pure passion. Cubans are born to dance.

Revolutionary slogan of the day: Patrio o muerte (Patriotism or death)

16/Dec/05 Fri (Santiago de Cuba)
The sun was blazing and there was not a single bit of wind. The heat was quite unbearable. We spent the day visiting different museums, including a santeria museum (santeria is a mix of catholicism and African belief, principally yoruba belief, widely practised amongst the black population in Cuba. An important deity is Orisha), a history of film/photography museum, and another not so interesting museum housed in what had had previously been a Bacardi family's building. One thing that struck me about the last museum was the sheer number of workers inside, who happened to be not doing much. We came to the conclusion that many jobs in Cuba must have been created for no other reason than to keep the unemployment rate low. We then spent the rest of the afternoon sitting by the coast of Santiago bay discussing the need for social integration, and amongst all things, the morality of prostitution.

After sunset, we wandered back into town. As we were approaching the Bacardi building, we heard loud reggaeton beats pumping out of a soundsystem (more like a pair of old giant speakers) just round the corner. Some people have decided to throw a street party right in front of the Bacardi buillding. How cool is that! For those who have not heard of the term reggaeton, it is a very popular form of "urban" music amongst Latin American youths. With a very distinctive beat, it seems to have drawn influence from American HipHop, Jamaican dancehall as well as more traditional Latin music. After dinner, we watched some students perform modern dance in the main square. At around midnight, we went to another music bar called Los Dos Abuelos to listen to more traditional Cuban son music. I was told later that I had slept through most of the performance, apparently.

Revolutionary slogan of the day (my favourite): Sin propaganda, no hay movimento de masas - Fidel (Without propaganda, there won't be mass movement - Fidel)

17/Dec/05 Sat (Santiago de Cuba -> Bayamo -> Camaguey)
We left early to drive to Bayamo, which was a tiny town. After being refused entrance to a few restaurants on the basis that we were wearing shorts (how fascist!), we once again ventured into a no-nonsense "real cuban food" restaurant. No pizzas this time, and we were rewarded with a rather tasty meal consisting of pork chops with rice and beans, which came to just over 1 USD for three people. There was some hope in Cuban cuisine after all.

We arrived in Camaguey just before sunset. Being a Saturday night, the town was very much alive, with people trying to outplay each other on their home stereos (in terms of volumn). We ended up talking to some friendly Camaguey locals in a bar. There we met a former Cuban Karate champion (1984 I think). The guy was a 4-dan black belt, and as soon as we learnt that I practised a bit of Kung Fu, he got very excited. Unfortunately, my poor Spanish did not allow me to have a very constructive conversation with him. Nonetheless, we exchanged addresses, and I intend to write to him soon, in better Spanish. Afterwards, we followed the music, and ended up in a massive street party, where they were playing more reggaeton tunes. There were loads of people, but it was not much of a party as most people were just standing still!

Revolutionary slogan of the day: En caso barrio, revolucion (In every district, revolution)

18/Dec/05 Sun (Camaguey -> Valle de los Ingenios -> Trinidad)
Trinidad is in the south of Cuba. It is a small but pretty, well-preserved colonial town, not far from a gorgeous Caribbean beach, la Playa Ancon. Having come across very few tourists so far in our trip, the amount of non-Cubans in Trinidad took us by surprise. We spent a couple of hours on the beach until sunset, which unfortunately coincided with the sand fleas' dinner time.

In the evening, we went looking for food. Despite the amount of tourists, it took us a while before we found an eating place. There we met the clumsiest waiter ever. He managed to drop beers on the floor on two separate occasions (once pouring it all over Gavin). In the end, they had to stop him from serving us food!

Revolutionary slogan of the day: Venceremos (We shall overcome)

19/Dec/05 Mon (Trinidad)
We were defeated by the heat. The whole afternoon was pretty much spent doing nothing. In the end, we decided to go to the sea again. We had a most delicious dinner at the casa. The owner, C, made us a lavish meal of fish, shrimps and lobsters. We were later told that the comsumption of lobster was illegal in Cuba, and he had to buy the lobster from the black market. After dinner, we chatted for ages with C, his wife and two swiss girls who were also staying in the casa. The conversation was not particularly inspiring (again my poor Spanish was to blame), but we were very much taken by the genuine hospitality of C.

Revolutionary slogan of the day: Did not come across any in Trinidad!

20/Dec/05 Tue (Trinidad -> La Habana)
Felt pretty sad to have to say goodbye to C. Long drive back to La Habana. The weather was turning bad, and the Gulf of Mexico was relentlessly battering the Malecon. One could only imagine what it must be like during hurricanes. We had dinner in the most famous restaurant in Cuba, La Guardia, where they filmed some of the scenes for the movie La fresa y el chocolate. The decor was very quaint. The food was amazing.

Most Cubans would never get to step inside.

Revolutionary slogan of the day: Senores Imperialistas, no les tenemos absolutemente ningun miedo (Mr Imperialists, we have absolutely no fear of you)

21/Dec/05 Wed (La Habana -> Vinales)
Personally, Vinales was the town I had wanted to visit most. I had previously seen photos of this countryside town dotted with limestone hills (mogotes). And as soon as I caught the first glimpse of the place from inside the coach, I knew I was not going to be disappointed. We found our casa, and the owner J, being ultra friendly like the rest of Cuba, found us a mountain guide straighaway. Our chain-smoking guide took us trekking/rockclimbing through the forest straight to the heart of one of the little mountains around the town centre. The rock formations inside the mountain were breathtaking. The trek was much more challenging that we had expected as there were no foodpaths whatsoever, and it turned out to be a truly exhilarating experience.

In the evening, we had dinner at the casa. Once again, we ended up chatting with the owner's family, and gained more and more insights into the very unique way of life of los Cubanos.

Revolutionary slogan of the day: too busy appreciating the beauty of Vinales; I have managed to forget about the Revolution/Struggle

22/Dec/05 Thurs (Vinales)
Went to Los Cuevos de Santa Tomas, which was the biggest cave system in Cuba. It was impressive and the guide was very funny. Walking through the caves was like walking on another planet altogether. On the way back to town, we stopped by a mountainside mural, which was huge yet disappointing. In the afternoon, we went riding around the countryside. I had never been on a horse before, and I felt slightly uneasy at first, but excitement soon overcame fear. Riding through the fields, with the magnificent mogotes all around, as cliche as it may sound, I felt a very strong sense of freedom, the kind of freedom you can only achieve through solitude. Unfortunately, all good things had to come to an end, and after two hours on a horseback, my arse was starting to hurt.

Afterwards, we went up to the Hotel Jasmine to catch supposedly the best view of Vinales. If Vinales offer the best view in Cuba, Hotel Jasmine offers the best view in Vinales. It was beauty beyond description.

23/Dec/05 Friday (Vinales -> La Habana)
Arrived back in La Habana. We spent one hour waiting for our turn to exchange money in the bank. It was exactly one hour as they had a ridiculously tacky eletronic cuckoo clocks and the cuckoos came out twice. In Cuban banks, instead of queuing up, people just sit around. Coming into the bank, they would shout, "who is last?", to join the "queue". In theory, this is a great system. People just have to remember the person in front, but like all great ideas, implementations sometimes fail.

We visited Las Partagas, a famous cigar factory in Habana Centro. Here we saw the biggest production line (all manual of course). Apparently, people got paid depending on the amount of cigars they could produce per day. A bit counter-revolutionary, dare I say? Cigars are expensive things considering that each is literally no more than just four tobago leaves rolled together, plus a little label stuck on it. Went to El Museo de las Bellas Artes in the afternoon, but our tiredness was starting to take its toll, and we were not really in the mood to enjoy the fine art.

Gavin and Arry went to Club Tropicana in the evening. I did not go. Instead I spent the evening chatting/watching TV with the casa owner and her brother, who happened to have fought against the Somalians for the Ethiopians (then communist) 20 years ago! He told me amazing stories about Ethiopia. During the course of the evening, we watched a baseball game (boring...), two documentaries and Phantom of the Opera on TV. In Cuba, they like their commentaries. Some dude would come on TV and discuss the artistic merits and social messages of a movie or a documentary before it starts. Both the brother and I thought it was a waste of time.

Revolutionary slogan of the day: No al fascismo (no to fascism) - with a face of someone looking uncannily like the son of Hilter and G W Bush next to it

24/Dec/05 Saturday (Las Habana -> London)
Last day in Cuba. We decided that we had totally fallen in love with the country, and he would make the most of the final day. To get to Vedado, we walked along the Malecon, where we saw a lone old man sitting by the gulf (of mexico) playing his trumpet. Where else would you see that! We visited the Necropolis Cristobal Colon, which was basically a cemetery housing some of the most ridiculously pimped up grave mounments on the face of this earth. Very impressive, but not really my cup of tea!

For lunch, we had the blandest spaghetti we have ever tasted in our lives. We were totally baffled.

We then visited the grand Hotel Nacional before having our last supper in Cuba in our favourite pizza restaurant in town, El Prado y El Neptuno. (They do surprisingly nice pizzas!) The waiters were all dressed up as clowns, pirates, arabs and china men as it was Christmas eve. Advertising was pretty much non-existent in Cuba, and we had almost forgotten about Christmas. It was really nice to see how Christmas in Cuba was one big fiesta and not a huge marketing campaign.

We said goodbye to the casa family and got into a taxi to head to the airport. The radio was playing what must have been their christmas number one. It was a tune with a cheesy classical music intro, a pathetic reggaeton beat and a duet vocal by two old-sounding men. I had heard this tune many times before in La Habana. Previously I had been cursing this song, but this time I did not want the song to stop....

At the airport, we were brought back to reality by the rude staff.

What do I think of Cuba?

I love the place for its natural beautiful. I love the people for their genuine friendliness, their laid-back attitude, their passion to express themselves through chit-chats, through music, through dancing. I look forward to going back to learn more about the country, to climb the mountains in Vinales and to learn how to dance like los cubanos.

Politics is a funny topic. Even though most people seem to be pretty happy to discuss socio-political issues in private, there is a huge amount of information control and propaganda going on. Even travelling to other countries have been made difficult by the State. After 47 years of revolution, Fidel's view does not seem to have changed a bit. (With all the brainwashing, people seem surprisingly clued up about what is going on outside Cuba. I am sure Fidel would take credit for having created an excellent educational system :-) ) On the other hand, I am glad to have seen a working socialistic system where people are generally quite happy, well-cared and proud, where life is not just about earning the most money, where there is comparatively little visible poverty. (Incidentally, struggling to survive after the collapse of USSR, the Cuban government have had to legalise the dollars, effectively creating a two-tier economy, where people who have access to the dollars, such as people in the tourist industry e.g. taxi drivers, guides, restaurant workers, prostitutes, are much richer than those who don't.) Can true socialism ever lead to democracy, or even, can true democracy ever lead to socialism? What is just anyway? The freedom to speak against the State? The freedom to not have to starve? The freedom to write this very paragraph I am writing now? The freedom to visit Cuba (which incidentally is illegal for Americans)? My experience in Cuba has left me asking a lot of questions, most of which I do not have answers for. There is one thing I can say for sure though. Cuba is going to undergo a dramatic political shift after Fidel, and Cuba will never be the same again. Viva Cuba!