To purchase a copy

Title: High Up in the Rolling Hills
Author: Peter Finch

Category: Biography, memoir, manifesto, sustainable living
Format: Trade paperback, hardcover, ebook
Publication Date: April, 2013
Pages: 204
Recommended Price: $17.95 softcover, $27.95 hardcover, $9.95 pdf
Trim: 8.5 x 5.5 inches
Available from: iUniverse; Amazon in Canada, United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Japan, Brazil; Barnes & Noble; Borders; Chapters Indigo in Canada
First Print Run: On demand (with iUniverse on-demand capabilities, there is never an out-of-stock situation)

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Impressions of Cuba. Part 2, Havana

We’re on our way to la capital, the grand old lady, la Habana. After an early rise, breakfast, and tallying up with Magaley at our casa in Trinidad, we departed on foot to get to the bus station in good time. After the chaotic scene at Varadero, we had decided to pre-book the trip, though we would have to line up to pay with everyone else. Immediately on arrival at the terminal, we were approached by a couple eager to convince us to take a taxi for the same price as the bus that would take us direct to our casa in Havana and shave the travel time in half, from six hours to three. We decided to go for this, thereby avoiding all the schlepping of luggage, scrambling for seats, and dawdling through many towns for several stops en route. Our bags were bundled into the trunk of a regular car; we were ushered into the back seats, and we were assured that two more passengers would see us on our way.  Something was amiss and the young guys were shifty. A drive around the corner for a prospective customer was in vain. Two young guys then drove us across town to two Americans – one still in bed – who had booked a taxi for big money to take them, their baggage and two bicycles to Havana, an hour and a half hence. They were not best pleased to see us occupying half the seats, and I demanded to be returned to the bus station, from which our bus had already departed! It was our good fortune to discover a state taxi van just departing to pick up two customers, with ample room for us to join them. Thankfully we had not paid the hustlers, and off we drove to Havana. Our driver was friendly but very frustrated to have worked 26 years for Fidel and Raul for very little pay, only for these young entrepreneurs to threaten his livelihood. He had had enough and was ready to quit, barely breaking even after his fuel and licensing costs.

The journey was fast, breezy and enjoyable, spent ruminating on the beauty of the Cuban countryside, the immense challenges the country faces, and the endless potential for it to grow food, use renewable energy, and harness new investment from outside at the appropriate scale. After two and a half hours we were hurtling into Havana. Pleasant approach highways were strewn with locals awaiting transportation into the city by bus, taxi, or truck.  No sooner had we glimpsed the ocean than we dipped in the tunnel that delivers traffic under the harbour and into the city. The Malecon, the Paseo del Prado, Parque Central, El Capitolio, Teatro Nacional and the Hotel Inglaterra, and then we entered a warren of narrow streets line by three- and four-storey buildings in various stages of disrepair. People, people everywhere, going about their regular business, trading, shopping, selling, snacking, guzzling, chatting, hugging… Our driver delivered us to our casa particular and I gave him a good tip (not for Raul, I stressed). He laughed and thanked me.

We had chosen this casa because of the rave reviews for Cary’s home cooking and the affability of her husband Lazaro. These two lived up to their reputation and we became enamoured of the whole family, including their daughter and sweet grand-daughter, their maid, and Lazaro’s brothers. Outgoing and supremely hospitable, they were always ready to laugh, joke, chat, and make suggestions of places to visit. We shared our days here, first with a Swiss family, not Robinson, but Freiburghaus, then with two lively German couples from the Frankfurt area. Breakfast and dinner were exuberant occasions thanks to the home cooking and infectious enthusiasm of Cary and Lazaro. The house is approached via an unassuming door to the street, Calle San Rafael. Our simple, clean, colourful room was up the first flight of stairs. A second flight leads up to the kitchen, office, dining room and rooftop terrace where the social interaction, cooking and dining take place. A memorable evening was spent dining, sipping rums, smoking Cohiba cigars, all the while watching Cuba beat Venezuela at baseball in the Caribbean championship on route to being crowned champions. Cuba! Cuba!

A few short blocks thronging with locals ferreting around and socializing, and we were at the Hotel Inglaterra and the Parque Centrale, with the expansive streets bustling with traffic of every stripe – 1950s vintage Chevrolets and Chryslers, electric three-wheeled egg-shaped taxis, bicycle taxis, oversized and double-decker tourist buses and new Hyundais and Hondas. The park was animated by young Havana men arguing loudly (about baseball, not politics!). To the east of the park, Calle Obispo is a narrow streak of a street jam-packed with tourists and locals. Deals are going down and gullible turistas led on wild goose-chases down side-streets to “best restaurant, cheap food, my family, best mojito…”

Old Havana’s narrow streets protect from the stifling heat of summer. Now, in winter, the atmosphere is vibrant and colourful. We are shocked by the volume of tourists, especially at Plaza Vieja and Plaza de la Catedral onto which they spill from the neighbouring thoroughfares and from their mega-buses and mega-cruise ships moored at the adjacent harbour. The architecture is a mesmerizing mix of styles. Plaza Vieja buildings have been fully cleaned and renovated under grants from UNESCO and the EU. Just off the square, the bare bones of a baroque building spill masonry and sprout greenery; it is topped by a giant crane.  Some streets are upside down as they replace ancient corroded heavy metal with new plastic sewer pipes. The odd bulldozer and track cart the debris away, but heavy machinery is at a premium as in other layers of the economy. Some buildings are mere shells, hollowed out and exposed to the elements; others are at various stages of disrepair and salvation. And then, there are ornate gems of great heritage that have been meticulously made over.  

A cultural highlight of our meanderings through old Havana was a visit to the expansive Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Three floors house a treasure trove of modern Cuban art. The works range from serene to edgy, fiercely political to intensely personal. They share an intensity and sensuality that are essentially Cuban. Particularly striking are works by Wilfredo Lam, Carlos Enriquez, Amelia Peláez, and Raul Martinez. Photos were prohibited, so the emotion the paintings convey needs to be inhaled. It is rare for a collective body of work by many artists in a range of styles to pack such a punch.

We wander into open buildings revealing cool inner courtyards and rooms housing displays of paintings, ceramics, sculpture, period furniture. Most are free of charge, but often willing guides are hungry for a cash tip. Musicians in bars and restaurants, guides, cigar-smoking women in traditional costume, cigar-sellers, reciting poets tout their wares and services, all eager to make a CUC, the cash that can feed them and their families and enrich them way more than a state job can at the present monthly pay of 25 – 30 CUCs. 

Music suffuses the air – at street corners, in bars and restaurants, in parks, solo and ensemble. Styles run the gamut from campesino to salsa to jazz to classical. The sounds create a warm ambience and the playing is superb. Accompanying a good dinner, we were aware that a band setting up could be the signal for conversation to be drowned out and the tip basket to make an imminent appearance.

Lunch was enjoyed at Café Neruda, right on the Malecón, looking out over the choppy Caribbean Sea; also at Café Bohemia, tucked away in a courtyard off Plaza Vieja. At night, we loved eating outside at Santo Angel in the balmy air of Plaza Vieja, and the pasta at Dominico’s was superb. At Café Europa, half the menu had been scratched and the offerings that remained were over-cooked and dried out. On our last night in Havana, we chose well. The fresh fish and camarones al ajillo at the Club Nautico Internacional were succulent. The exotic atmosphere perched above Havana harbour, with regular Cuban guests for company, looking over the water to the Casa de Che, and back to the moored German cruise ship ablaze in yellow light was, to us, quite magical. Our nightcap was 7 años Havana Club rum on a balcony overlooking Plaza Vieja.

For us rural Canadians parachuted from outdoor surroundings at home that are drained of colour and in deep freeze at this time of year, Havana is an urban scene that is positively intoxicating in its rich stimulations and seductive contrasts. Constantly, senses are assaulted by an enchanting facial gesture or exuberant architectural flourish. After several days of soaking up the atmosphere, eating and drinking with abandon and walking our legs off, we were ready for another change of pace. 

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Impressions of Cuba. Part 1, Trinidad.

When we go out from our selves and wander further afield we discover out there a world of wonder as we open our eyes to the other, the exotic, the wild, and close our ears to the noise around us, streamed and screamed by those that lord over us, passing legislation we didn’t ordain…
How sweet it is to escape to where joy in living prevails and a happy greeting on the street is oh so genuine and just…understood; simple life, honest people, salt of the earth, just trying to be, resiliently.
Given the gift of life, we all need a seat at the table where love is served.

Trip planning started last summer with a perusal of airfares to Mexico, Lanzarote, Mallorca, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Chile… all $1,200 plus and most involving a stopover in the United States. No thanks. Then, this thought surfaced from the recesses of memory. What about Cuba? We had always wanted to go, with friends having recommended it highly. However, some nagging doubt always got in the way and other destinations pushed themselves to the front of the line. Mexico, the Greek islands, Costa Rica, Andalusia won out. This time, the $420 airfare and the 3-hour direct flight were a gift we couldn’t pass up. When the United States government announced a proposed easing of its embargo, we knew we had made the smart choice. Going now, we would be able to observe a country that had to date endured 56 years of punitive restrictions via a blockade led by the United States, but followed by most nations of the western world.

Power in the island nation had been doggedly held by Fidel Castro and then his elder brother Raul since the socialist revolution of 1959.  To travel there now would be to capture a rare moment in history, where the pace of change had slowed to a crawl, where life went on much as it had some sixty years prior, but where change was imminent. Through the embargo years, some Cubans have found a way to access the outside world of communications and consumer goods only through great ingenuity.

At the end of January, we departed Toronto just as the cold and snow of winter were intensifying. A window of bright green, sun-dappled vegetation opened between the clouds as the plane banked to land in Varadero. Our first casa particular awaited us in a backwater a taxi ride away from the coastal strip of endless sand beaches.  The elegant house and inner courtyard were an oasis of tranquility and charm and our host family very welcoming. Home-cooked dinner consisted of a wonderful lobster cocktail followed by succulent fresh shrimp.

The next morning, our first waking up to bright Cuban sunshine, there was an early start with our hosts kindly driving us to the bus station. Eager to get off on the right foot, we had pre-booked our 6-hour Viazul bus journey to Trinidad on the south coast. Viazul has large buses covering the main tourist destinations in Cuba, namely Havana, Varadero, Cienfuegos, Camaguey, Holguin, Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad, Viñales. They have a reputation for being reliable and punctual, although their routes take them meandering from town to town with frequent stops, which makes for lengthy journey times. Despite having pre-booked tickets, the check-in process was a nightmare and in my desperation to get on the imminently-departing bus, I jumped in front of a livid Frenchman to show my ticket. The first towns we drove through were shocking in their stark state of disrepair. Deserted streets, unpainted crumbling facades, no vegetation. In contrast, the countryside was a patchwork of fields of rice, cane sugar, bananas, pasture, and fallow, with horse-and-cart, bicycle, collective truck the preferred modes of transportation. We made stops in Santa Clara and Cienfuegos, both large bustling towns, and the latter is said to be very beautiful with its French grid layout and coastal location. The bus then climbed to the foothills of the Sierra del Escambray mountain range before descending again to the verdant coast and sparkling sea en route to Trinidad.

Our accommodation in Trinidad was another pre-booked casa particular. It is located on a street down the hill from the bus station, historical centre, and cultural hub. Trinidad is a small charming town best explored on foot. Over the coming days we would traverse the streets time and again, often pausing to look up, wonder, and snap shots. The town is so photogenic with its red-tiled roofs, vibrantly-coloured frontages, cobblestone paving, vintage automobiles, brightly-dressed locals, all backlit by deep blue sky. Trinidad is teeming with tourists and tourist buses, and each species comes generally over-sized and excessive in number. It is hard to find a seat when a bus unloads its contents and swarms an eatery or drinkery. The musicians love it, of course, and set themselves up rapidly at restaurant entrances, starting to play their often wonderful campesino and salsa songs, as one of their entourage goes around with basket of CDs and banknotes, prompting a frenzied fumbling in pockets from wide-eyed turistas for small bills or preferably change. The mood is festive and fun with the free-flowing mojitos, piña coladas, cuba libres, rons añejo putting all in good spirits.  Five days and nights in Trinidad was a good amount of time to soak up the delights of this sweet town. Nights were lively with live music indoors and out; the restaurants we chose served a range of foods from the bland to the excellent. We particularly enjoyed dining on seafood al fresco at La Ceiba. Ceibas are often huge specimen trees in Cuba, with an enormous spread. This one is magnificent and was flowering but leafless at this time.

The beach at Playa Ancon is a bus ride away, though our frustration at the unpredictable schedule led us to take a vintage station-wagon taxi one day. The beach is clean, the acqua waters seductive. Two large hotels here cater to the all-inclusive crowd, and the appeal of a fast, extremely reasonable getaway to Cuban sun, sea and sand is clear. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the weekly farmers market in a residential area of tatty low-rises on the edge of town is essentially for locals, but a rare opportunity for us to divest ourselves of some of the national currency. However, everything here is so dirt cheap that it is impossible to spend much, with enormous cabbages for example priced at 1 peso, or 5 cents.  CUCs are Cuba’s exchange currency, with 1 CUC being pegged at $1 US. All tourists trade in this currency except when purchasing local products from locals. Most small businesses and shop owners accept only CUCs. With the Canadian dollar having recently declined in value against the greenback, our exchange rate throughout our trip was not favourable and made Cuba more expensive than anticipated.

Trinidad’s treasures are many and are mostly clustered in the old historical centre of town around the Plaza  Major, including the Museo Romántico and the Museo de Arquitectura Colonial. We most enjoyed listening to the lilting campesino music whilst people-watching at a welcoming sunny outdoor patio, mojito in hand.