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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

¡Viva Cuba! (III)

Here we are, after 4 days in Havana, and it's time to move to Varadero, the biggest (if not only) tourist resort in Cuba. The development of Varadero truly started after the Soviet Union collapsed, although even Al Capone had enjoyed its beaches before. Suddenly, Cuba stopped to receive oil and many other resources, and lost its biggest export market: Eastern Europe. Then Cuba started to save resources and energy in any possible way, including the use of the popular 'camels' as a way of public transport or even growing vegetables in terraces and backyards of the cities.

But still, the country needed 'hard currency' to sustain its economy, and then the touristic industry started to grow, led by the Spanish companies, and Varadero began to become a huge tourist resort for western travellers (such as Punta Cana in the Domincan Repubic, or Riviera Maya in Mexico). And that's all you can find in Varadero (besides the magnificent blue beaches): hotels, restaurants, shops and discos for tourists... it's just impossible to get a picture of the real Cuba by visiting only Varadero. Even the prices are closer to Spain than to Havana over there.

Anyway, we were staying in a so called '4-star' hotel, in which 2 out of 3 elevators were broken, and they only had the lowest quality Cuban rhum. At least we could drink as much as we wanted 24 hours a day during our stay there, but I really missed a real Mojito with real Havana Club rhum. So we had parties, swam in the pool and in the Caribbean sea, sunbathed, got burnt and drank a lot of rhum, but there's not much more to say about these days of the trip. And this time, the hotel wasn't packed with Finns, but with Canadians, there were loads of them around the whole place (many Spanish people too, especially students in their graduation trip, like us).

As I already knew that I would get bored of being all time in Varadero doing the sameday after day, I booked a trip to Santa Clara. I wanted to make an 'adventure' trip, renting a car, or hiring some Cuban dude as a driver... unfortunately any of my friends had this adventure spirit and I went to an expensive tourist-oriented trip.

There was in Santa Clara where one of the most important battles of the Cuban revolution took part (December 31, 1958). The action, directed by Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, was such a decissive moment in the war that the dictator Batista flew away Cuba 12 hours afterwards and Fidel Castro was able to take over the power in havana the day after.

Che Guevara's mausoleum

Che Guevara died few years later in Bolivia and became an icon for million of people in the world, but it wasn't until 1997 when his remains were found and then moved to Cuba. A special mausoleum was built in Santa Clara. Che Guevara and many other comrades from the guerrilla rest there, and there is also a small museum with some personal belongings and pictures of his. Besides that, Santa Clara is a typical Cuban city, which still has the charm of having nearly any tourists.

And basically that's all about Cuba. A great experience in a country which is totally different to any country I had visited before. Things will change over there, for sure, and hopefully people will be able to have a better life (*), but in the moment that the banners of Che Guevara are replaced by Coca-Cola commercials and tourists go straight from 'La Floridita' to a Starbucks, I will know that the Cuba that I know and I love will have disappeared forever.

(*) Let's talk about what's a better life... health and education standards in Cuba are the same as in the 1st world. Cuba has almost the same life expectancy than the USA and has the highest rate of medicine doctors as by 2007 (source). The percentage of University graduates is also among the highest in the world. But yes, regarding some other issues, including the freedom to travel, express some ideas or buy some kind of goods, there's still a way to go.

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

¡Viva Cuba! (II)

As I promised 2 days ago, let's talk a bit more about the Cuban adventure. We stayed 5 nights in Havana, in the Hotel Deauville, located in Centro-Habana, one of the districts of the Cuban capital (the 'b' is not a mistake, as La Habana is the name of the city in Spanish :)). My room (1109) was located on a 11th floor. From one of the windows we could see the famous Malecón (pier) of Havana. From other, the ruined houses of Centro-Habana and the historical center of La Habana Vieja ('Old Havana').

From the very beginning I noticed Havana to be a city of contrasts. Our hotel, full of European tourists (besides a lot of Spanish and Italians there was a surprisingly high number of Finns) was surrounded of old and degraded buildings. The streets looked somehow as if any changes had been done after the Revolution (1959). I tried to 'capture' this contrast by taking a photo of the pool of the hotel with all the ruined buildings in the background.

View from Hotel Deauville, Havana

We spent three days sightseeing in Havana, in which we had time to visit almost all the places to be. We visited the most touristic places: the Old Square and adjacent streets, the Capitol, the Revolution Square (with its huge portrait of Che Guevara), the shops of Obispo street... and of course, we had a Mojito in La Bodeguita del Medio (no need to say, the best Mojito I tried in Cuba) and a Daiquirí in La Floridita, in the same place as Hemingway used to.

But in some moment, we also had the chance to wander around the streets without a clear destination, following a little child (just like in a movie), or to drive along the Malecón in a soviet car (namely Lada), with the wind blowing loudly and the waves smashing against the car.

Besides the sightseeing part, getting to know the Cuban people (trying to avoid the 'only-for-tourists' stuff), their culture and the point of view about the past, present and future of the country is such an enriching experience. Despite of being poor, Cubans are really well educated and like all kinds of knowledge and art. And they are a reliable source of information about the situation in the island, unlike the official media or the American anticommunist propaganda.

There's something that I really like about Havana (and all Cuban cities, actually): it is absolutely 'spam-free', there's no commercial advertising polluting the streets and ruining the landscape... and of course, there isn't any McDonalds! (nor Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut, etc.). How long will stay Havana like this? I guess it's a matter of few years... but anyway, then I will be able to say: "I was there".

Soon, the 3rd (and last) post about the Cuban adventure :)

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

¡Viva Cuba! (I)

Here I am, still recovering of the trip and suffering jet lag. My first trip outside Europe (excluding the Asian side of Istanbul, of course), and my first contact with the so called 'third world'. They were 4 days in Havana, the capital of Cuba, and then another 4 days in the touristic resort of Varadero. We just left the terminal of Havana airport after the worse flight of my life (long, boring and in a crowded uncomfortable plane from Cubana airlines) and we were fooled as real tourists by some guys carrying our luggage and then asking for 'help for their families' (just when you only have big banknotes, after exchanging money in the airport).

About Cuba and its currency, they have a funny system with two currencies. A visitor will most probably deal just with one of them: the peso convertible or CUC, which is freely exchangeable for foreign currency and has a fixed parity with the US dollar (1 CUC = 1.08 US$). All the prices for tourists are in CUC, and all the western commodities are sold and bought in CUC. But the currency that most Cubans use in their daily lives is the peso cubano or CUP, usually called moneda nacional ('national currency'). 1 CUC equals to 24 CUP, and a Cuban earns in average around 300 - 400 CUP. That's not more than 15 euro) per month (my scholarship, paid by the Spanish government, is 500 euro per month).

The low salaries make understandable the difference of prices in the shops intended for tourists (normal 'western-looking' shops) and the ones intended for Cubans (old, crowded and with a small set of products on their almost empty shelves), but sometimes you just can't avoid the feeling that they are trying to 'suck' the money of the foreigners. Example: Coppelia ice-cream shop (the most famous in Cuba), a gatekeeper spots the tourists and ask them to have an ice-cream outside before entering inside. Price, 2.80 CUC = 67.2 CUP. The prices inside range from 1 to 5 CUP.

But anyway, meeting so many people in the streets asking you for pieces of soap, pens or candies makes you to think about how unfair is the world we live in. As a tip for visitors, don't forget to bring some small pieces of soap, pens, colour pencils, notebooks, candies and chewing gum. The experience of giving this stuff to the children in a primary school and watching their faces of happiness and gratitude is just priceless. Other random stuff such as worthless wristwatches or t-shirts will be extremely appreciated and can be a good present, and they will look even happier than they usually do (Cuban people are always bearing a smile on their faces, when not just loudly laughing).

That's it for today, we will talk a bit about Havana soon! Keep in touch

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Back to reality

That's it, back to reality after 40 days travelling around Europe (and even a bit of Asia!). Istanbul, Berlin, Tallinn, Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Friends, parties, experiences and nice memories, but now it's the moment to live a normal life, at least for a week.

The 'reentré' to the University has meant some bureaucratical problems for me... that's what happen if during the signup period for the new semester you are in the opposite corner of Europe. Nevertheless, I hope everything will be fine soon (I will need some readjustments in my timetable, though... and I really hate to wake up at 7 every day :S).

Besides this, it's always nice to walk around without long coat, gloves and scarf, and forgetting about snow on my head and ice under my shoes. And it's also nice to meet again friends (including my flatmates, who where already thinking that I had been kidnapped and then sold by pieces in the black market).

By the way, I am just thinking in being a good boy and doing something useful, like improving my language skills... yesterday I started to read Le Petit Prince, in French, of course. And today I collected some information about free catalan lessons. A guy from Valladolid speaking catalan is definitely something not very common, is it? :)

And on Friday I am going to Cuba... I think I am spending more time flying across the sky than standing on the earth.

PS: In Autumn I will move to Athens for 6 months. It's official. Frappé, taverna and halará.

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