Category Archives: Cuba

Hiking the Gillespie Pass Circuit

Introduction

Gillespie Pass Circuit in the Mt Aspiring National Park is 58km taking 3 to 4 days. It can be done in either direction. We choose the clockwise as it offered easier accent on the steep climb at the pass. The track is through unspoilt wilderness, untouched native forest, alpine pass, waterfalls and glaciers, towering peaks and river valleys. It is essentially walking from Young River to Wilkins River via the Gillespie Pass and Siberia Valley. A road less travelled where nature and weather dictates. Rated as advanced by DoC as risk from high rainfall could cause stream crossing difficult, and the alpine pass covered in fog, snow or ice with slippery surfaces. Be warned, fatalities had happened! Beware of the weather, know your limits and be well prepared. The safe thing to do is just wait for the water to subside. For more information and booking, go to DoC. The 20 bunks serviced hut  is on a first come, first served basis with a back country hut ticket (NZ$16). However, booking is required for the 20 bunk Siberia Hut(NZ$20). The track start and end at Makarora, about 62km from Wanaka.

Day 1 – Makarora to Young Hut (20km)

We stayed the night at peaceful Makarora. The weather was mixed and possibility of rain was high. We were prepared to turn back should the latter happen. Unsure about the weather, we took an exhilarating 10 minutes Wilkin River Jet ride (NZ$25) to get across to the starting point – the confluence of Makarora and Young Rivers. We hopped onto the left bank of Young River at 0915. Beware, sandflies are plentiful. A family forded the river (from sign posted car park on the Makarora – Haast Road) with some sections just above their knee. Two guys carried a tent and raft each, planning to raft back on the Wilkins River and perhaps on the lake. Good to be young. Awareness of the water level and preparedness is critical for the river crossing. If Makarora River is high, start at the Blue Pools – at the confluence of the Blue and Makarora Rivers (add 4km).

Young River was shallow as we entered a forest dominated by Beech. It was a pleasant walk. The weather seem to be improved as the walk progressed. Within half hour, we emerged onto a grassy flat valley. Although cloudy, nearby mountain peaks were visible. The track continued between mossy forest and grassy plains until we reached Young Forks suspension bridge. We crossed the North Branch Young River and emerged out of the forest and followed the left bank of the South Branch Young River. The track became steeper, harder with gnarled tree roots to negotiate and kept going. Despite being cloudy, the sun was out with occasional blue sky.

The track crossed several slips and dry rocky river beds. In poor weather, streams can become torrent instantly. Birdsong can be heard but not seen. Fortunately a couple of illusive Rock Wern came close. The most common were the affable Robins and cheeky Fantails. We crossed Stag Creek via a wooden bridge and from hereon, the track climbed higher along the boulder filled South Branch. This section of the track had several incidents of landslides. One happened across the river only hours ago. Fine chalk dust covered the entire area and still floated in the air. I was just keen to reach Young Hut. Progress seemed slow. Hut seemed distant. Fortunately the fine but cloudy weather held. Finally, at 1645, through some bush I caught sight of Young Hut (740m). What a relief. A quick body wash in the cold water and respite at the hut was a good feeling. Only nine beds were filled.

Day 2 – Young Hut to Siberia Hut via Gillespie Pass (12km)

We left the Young Hut at 0830. The sky was cloudy. We anticipated a hard climb and descent today, and risks crossing the pass. We hoped that our weather forecast was “exceptable”. The track immediately entered the predominantly beech and mossy forest. As in day 1, the uphill walk required some ‘skill’ in negotiating exposed tree roots and dry rock river beds. We emerged out of the tree canopy and into shrub vegetation. Fortunately, track markers helped to stay on the track. In the shadows of the mountains, about an hour later, amid waterfalls and snowfields, we walked into a grassy Upper Young Basin with Mt Awful in the background. Kea calls were heard overhead. We crossed a small bridge over a shallow stream. In a short time, walked through grassy flats filled with beautiful purple flower heads and reached the start of the Gillespie Pass track on the left.

From hereon, it is a steep exposed uphill hike alongside a rock bluff which zig-zagged amongst snow grass, away from the valley. It was tough and progress was slow. In the north, Mt Awful dominated the skyline.  Grabbing onto plant roots and calculated scrambling over rocks became a norm. Vertigo issues are challenged here. The mantra here was to climb slowly but progressively and taking short rest and repeating the same.  As we gained elevation, the mountain views expanded to reveal the alpine and moraine sections. Glaciers hung on mountain gullies. The sun eventually rose above the eastern mountains. The sky was blue. Turned out to be a stunning day.

After 5 hours of walking (and scrambling) up 400m from the valley floor, we reached Gillespie Pass (1500m). I was elated and the pleasantly surprised by the 360 degrees clear panoramic views of mountain peaks, glacier and valleys.  The burden of getting here dissipated as the sun warmed the surrounding. There was not even a breath of wind. The views towards the west stretched towards Mts Alba and Dreadful, and Siberia Valley. Towards the east, the Mackerrow and Young Ranges. Somewhere in the midst of the Southern Alps lies Brewster Hut and Mts Armstrong and Brewster. This is an ideal place for lunch. I savoured my time here, while waiting anxiously for my tramping mates to arrive. In the back of my mind, the weather could turn anytime.

We made our way down over boulders and loose rocks in the shadow of Mt Awful. After a short climb, we reached the highest point of the pass at 1600m. The lush green valley below seemed far away. The long descent trail zig-zagged down towards Siberia Valley. The moraine surface is loose and slippery. Once we reached the bush line, the track was more ‘managable’. The Gillespie Stream sometimes emerged close to the track. The descent, a 1000m, was relentless until we reached Siberia Stream.

Here, two options – cross the stream and continue towards Lake Crucible. Or, veer left and head towards Siberia Hut. We choose the latter as we had another day booked at the hut. After an initial walk through the forest, climbing through a dense network of tree roots, we emerged out of the tree line. A flat Siberia Valley, hemmed between mountains, greeted us. Golden grasses and flowering shrubs filled this meadow. The constant sound of the fast flowing Siberia Stream soothed our walk. It would take another hour, a river crossing before reaching Siberia Hut. What a relief. The hut is tucked into the mountain side with a waterfall nearby. A hot meal after a long day was satisfying. While sitting on the deck looking north with Mt Dreadful framed, soothing sound of Siberia Stream, I recalled the tough hike today.  Potentially, numerous dangers exists in foul weather. Mostly from flooding where harmless looking creeks turn into streams which turn into torrent rivers. You may not even access the hut if the stream, a few minutes before the hut, is flooded. The weather gods had indeed blessed us with the best hiking climate.

Day 3 – Siberia Hut to Lake Crucible (14km return)

With no packing, breakfast was at leisure. The day was warming up nicely and promised to be good. I decided to head up to Lake Crucible. Only one of my five tramping mates was up for it. The previous day’s walk  had taken a toll on them, Perhaps, more wisely, refuse to scramble up the steep mountains hanging dearly onto tree roots and loose moraine. We retraced our walk back on the Siberia Valley and followed the sign posted markers. The track veered left and headed towards Siberia Stream. The is no option but to ford across the stream. Fortunately it was shallow. Sandflies are plentiful. We reached the tree line in an hour. From here on, it was a steep uphill climb, over 400m, clutching onto beech tree roots. It was tough.The track followed Crucible Stream for most of the way. We weaved through the beech forest and after half an hour, crossed the fast flowing Crucible Stream. Fortunately, the steep climb ended.

Soon, we emerged out of the tree line and entered a flat grassy glacier gauged u-shaped valley. Another half an hour later, I reached the rocky moraine. Mt. Alba dominated the skyline with a hanging lake, still invisible. After huffing and puffing for another half hour, the stunning almost circular deep blue Crucible Lake appeared. There was no wind. The air was cooler. Sky was blue. Sun was filtered. I was stunned by its serenity, colour and location. This glacier carved hanging lake, at the belly of Mt Alba, surrounded by glaciers, is quite spectacular. Waterfalls dropped vertically into the lake. The 3.5 hrs walk with an accent of 550m here is worth it.

We soaked in the raw wilderness while having lunch. Rene’, a fellow tramper, introduced me to snow berry shrubs, an alpine vegetation, that dotted the mountain sides. The white berries are refreshing. Cold wind suddenly blew across the icy lake as mist accumulated on the surrounding peaks. Time to leave perhaps. With one last look at the spectacular alpine scenery, we descended and retraced our steps back to Siberia Hut. The sun continued to shine as we neared the hut. After fording Siberia Stream, we laid down on soft grass, basked in the sun to the soothing flow of the stream. Pleasantly surprised that sandflies were absent here. Today’s side track to Lake Crucible had taken us 8 hrs. After a quick splash at the waterfall and hot chicken soup in hand on the deck, I was contended. However, bad weather is expected tomorrow. Hikers planning to go towards the pass decided to sensibly wait the weather out for a day. However, we planned to head out as our 7km hike to Kerin Fork is relatively ‘manageable’. A hiker quipped that the hike is akin to a great walk track!

Day 4 – Siberia Hut to Kerin Fork (7km)

This morning, there were a flurry of activities at the hut. The family of four and two girls headed out at 0730 and all planned to walk all the way back to Makarora (22km), which included crossing the Makarora River. With rain expected, hopefully, it was manageable. The weather was cloudy with occasional drizzle and windy. We left at 0800 to avoid walking in the rain. We had booked Wilkins Jet to pick us up at Kerin Forks at 1330. There was plenty of time. With one last look at the rather gray and windy Siberia Valley, we entered the forest and followed Siberia Stream downstream. The track, as mentioned, was well laid and walk was straightforward. The track initially climbed high above Siberia Gorge through matured beech forest. We were sheltered from the cold wind.

Eventually, it descended zig zag through beech and kauri forest towards Wilkins River Valley. The intermittent rain continued and cold wind picked up. It was an uneventful walk until we reached the confluence of Siberia Stream and Wilkins River. Kerin Fork Hut laid across the river. We continued a little further to the jet boat pick up point on a grassy and exposed river bank. However, the wind force was strong combined with rain. We arrived 3 hrs early. We donned our wet gear and huddled behind some matured trees, a quick lunch. Beyond Kirin Fork, lay upper Wilkins River. Around 1300, the much awaited jet boat arrived. We quickly jumped in and away we went. Raindrops felt like pins on our faces. However, the excitement of the speed and manoeuvre was exhilarating. We passed the family and two girls. We arrived at Makarora at 1330, drenched in rain.

It had been a tough journey but a rewarding experience of New Zealand’s alpine and river valleys.

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Nearby Casa de la Trova, I veered into a side street. A young handsome man grilled dance movements into teenagers aged between eight and fifteen. Parents sat on the side watching their kids learning all the groves and moves. This explained, why every Cuban seem to know how to dance. It is opportunities given from a young age. I loved the movements and some kids had great skill and promise.

That evening, I returned to Casa de la Trova. The room was quite packed and Maria at the door was delighted to see me. She escorted me to a ‘good’ sitting area. I watched the show for over an hour. It was late.  Parque Cespedes was still crowded with masses of people. Most of them were on their cell phones trying to get connected onto the free wifi in the area. In Havana, it was around Parque Central and Calle Obispo. Everyone seem to have a cell phone but not sure how many actually have bought data. It’s expensive and connection is poor. The delight, on their cell phone light lit faces, when connected to loved ones, is priceless. The joy and laughter was touching. What is my family in a far-away land up to today?

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The narrow streets to my casa dark. It was around 11.30pm. Two women called as I passed them. One, I had earlier met at the Trova. Initially, the usual – where I was heading and origins? Would I like to have a drink? Eventually, it led to, would you like a “la chica”? When everything failed, how about you buy me a drink? After declining to their ‘offers’ as I was leaving, how about some money to buy a drink. No money! I just walked away into the dark street. In Santiago de Cuba, I found asking for these ‘type of things’ common compared to Trinidad and even Havana. Ignore or engage with a firm no or not interested. I like to engage in my limited Spanish as much as I can. There is no need to get offensive or annoyed.  It’s all part of travelling and dealing with pushy  but harmless “jinteros”.

It rained today, my last day in Santiago. The warning signs were already there while I was having breakfast on the open roof top terrace at my casa. The weather, although grey, it was cooler. After breakfast, I walked around aimlessly in the wet conditions. My bus journey to Habana departs at 4pm. Round the corner of the cathedral, I met ever smiling Adrian. Always delighted, we exchanged contact address. He hoped to travel someday to faraway places. I could see “stars” in his eyes, as he looked towards the heavens. I wished him well.

Away from Parque Cespedes and the main shopping streets at Calle Saco, it was quiet. Perhaps the rain had a part to play. I ended up at small local market surrounded by crumbling buildings and people waiting, not sure for what. Generally, even in Havana, only small quantities of produce or goods were available for sale, both at market stalls and in retail shops. On my walk, I met a young waiter from one of the restaurants I had lunch near Padre Pico steps.  He is always smiling. When I asked him what he’s up to, he was getting ready to get back to work. A long day’s work indeed but he had the right attitude.

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Back at the casa, Antonio was making some fresh pasta – making the dough, rolling and cutting them using a set of metal strips attached to a board. He cooked them in boiling water and stored in the freezer. There are some homesick Italians around here. This was his side business. His lovely Cubano wife, Day, managed a little nail salon nearby. These guys are enterprising. I asked Antonio about the potential relaxation of US trade embargo. I wanted a ‘foreigner’s views’. “What change”. He did not expect to see Cuba change at this stage. “The power is controlled by one – the Castro brothers. There will be no change in long while”. I suggested, perhaps US tourist will increase. Although, mostly will be aged travellers staying in hotels. He was pessimistic. “We pay taxes for everything and all the proceeds from international businesses goes to you know where. What distribution of business? Antonio was sceptical. Perhaps he shared my views too. There is perceived corruption amongst the leaders and the connected. Hardship amongst the people is at its core. Hopefully, the initial changes will be a catalyst for better things to come. I truly wish this for the Cuban people. They certainly deserve more than this from the prolonged difficulties that had endured.

Perceived corruption of officials especially at the top is high amongst all Cubans. Economically, Antonio, is above average from most Cubans. Most live a hard life and with limited earning capacity. People like Adrian, an engineer but with limited jobs prospects and earning capacity. There is a generation divide. The young can no longer accept the status quo. Bitterness towards the US is not spoken but mostly what Castro had done. Was he right in the first place? I believe so. Cuba was released from Corporate America from “making Cuba a US state”. Castro did get rid of drugs, crime and the American puppet rule of Batista. Cuba belonged to the Cubans. However, with US trade embargo and pull out of the main supporter, the Soviets, Castro found himself in tough times. Commodity exports declined and income dwindled. Consider this, if US embargo was not implemented, would Cuba be in today’s state of neglect. Look at Venezuela and Nicaragua. All these countries went through some kind of revolution and managed to ‘progress’ it on its own.  US did not “interfere with sanctions”. Cuba was ‘unlucky’ in this sense. Why, because its alliance with the Soviet Union, US’s biggest threat. Therefore, Cuba and ultimately the Cubans were punished. It may be more complicated politically. With the eminent easing of sanctions, in my view, US had relented. It has realised it was not working and perhaps erred on its part.  Cuba had not been a threat since Soviet’s departure in the countries affairs. Why had it taken so long? Collective punishment to the Cubans. When will Cuba able to grow and lift its people out of hardship? In the short term, it will benefit a small group, mainly related the tourist industry and spin-offs’. Then a spill over to agriculture production. All this will provide jobs and hopefully better income. What about the poor state of housing? On the overnight bus to Habana, I reflected on my journey through Cuba. Mainly about its people and particularly the ones I had interacted with. It had been a touching journey indeed. Castro’s Cuba had been about these little and limited but meaningful conversations and about Cubans love for life.

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Back on the street, I thought about Adrian’s words. There is certainly anger towards the current situation. Perhaps common amongst the younger generations. The ideals of the revolution created fifty years ago had not filtered down to the younger generation. All they had experienced is hardships and seclusion from the world at large. Adrian words, “they think by limiting excess (internet and media) to the outside world, we don’t know what’s happening. We are not fools or ignorant. They just don’t want us to know the reality and failures”. They demand for change, is in the hearts for now. How and when will certainly be a test? Perhaps, with relaxation of business opportunities, increased tourism, local production and exports, the situation may improve quickly. I wish for this too.

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Through a narrow road from Calle Heredia, I arrived at a grand grey Museo Muncipal Emilio Bacardi Moreau. Three musicians added some colour to this area. Plenty of bicycles were parked nearby and a couple embraced on a park chair across the building.  I opted to sit and listen to more music.

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Further-on, on a side street, there was a quaint little bookshop. The owner invited me in to browse. Portraits of a young Castro hung on the walls. A few more curious together with old books filled this atmospheric store.

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A local transport pulled up in front of me. There were dozens of passengers seated inside the truck. It had a narrow window and door. Perhaps these heavy duty trucks were necessary to travel around Santiago’s undulating and hilly geography. I headed out from Parque Cespedes and ended at small leafy and pleasant Plaza Dolores. A statue of Emilio Bacardi occupied the centre. On the flanks, cafe and bars took their place. It is a lovely place to rest and watch the daily going-on. A few taxis were parked on the fringe under the canopy of trees. According to one taxi driver, Plaza Marte is the historical centre of Santiago.  Parque Cespedes is the old quarter and the centre for the beginnings of the revolution.

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I walked the busy Calle Auguilera. A heavy smell of carbon monoxide and diesel chocked my throat. I needed to get out. I found some lunch at a lovely open air terrace at La Terraza. It was on the third floor. I had to pass through the family lounge on the second. Food was good. After lunch, I found a barber shop nearby. I badly needed one, scruffy and untidy. The shop had a big interior. Reminded me of the old barber shops in my hometown, Ipoh in Malaysia. No many words were exchanged. When finished, I asked my barber, how much? He smiled and just shrugged his shoulders with a gentle smile. I asked him again. His response was the same. I gave him 3 CUC. I had enquired about the cost locals paid at the restaurant earlier. It was 10 – 20 CUP. I was happy to pay more. In the same shop was a nail salon. A young lady was having her nails done. It is quite common to see women with painted, decorated and extended nails. A common local obsession amongst women perhaps. I remembered those painted ones on Senora Habana. Day, my casa owner, had a hair and nail salon somewhere too. An enterprising women.

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I ended my walk at a small and noisy Plaza Marte. A few palm trees in the plaza did not provided the much needed shade from the afternoon sun. Wrought iron and painted wooden slated screens encircled the park. A bust of Camilo Cienfuegos occupied a spot in the middle. In the midday, a few people had taken a rest. This park felt like a roundabout, traffic on all side, noisy and puffed out thick fumes. Local transport, lorries, converted as public buses were packed with people. Passengers peeped through a narrow window.

I returned towards Parque Cespedes via a pedestrian only street, Calle Jose Antonio Saco. This street is packed with cafe, bookshops, arts and crafts gallerias, retail outlets and restaurants. It was crowded and a great place to people -watch. I bumped into Copa Airlines and thought I’d check my onward flights. I was shocked to find that my flight times for planned departure had be revised. Fortunately it was changed without any charge. Unfortunately I lost one day. No e-mails either. It just happened that I went in.

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After the walk, I returned to my favourite place in Santiago, Casa de La Trova. Maria greeted me, as if we were old mates. There were a few people. Three ladies, my first, performed a catchy tune. The crowd began to pile up and soon all the chairs were filled and people stood on the at the entrance door. An elegant professional dancer, dressed in red did the most terrifying gesture to me. She invited me to dance with her as she handed a white gladiolus flower stalk. I took it but I was mortified and literally pleaded with her to spare me. I had no idea the number of times I said “lo siento”, sorry. Eventually, she gave in and requested a kiss instead. I ‘dutifully’ accepted. Dancers, both locals and tourists, joined in and impromptu strutted their stuff. Looks like every Cuban can dance.

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A lovely young Cuban girl sat beside me. She is in her fourth year in medicine.  I asked her about if there was a drink problem amongst Cuban men. This is the story I heard from Diana and Sarsi. Her response was, yes. “Too much drinking. It is a sad situation”. Is it due to stress of unemployment or just a culture? It may be more complicated than meets the eye. The informal atmosphere was fantastic. Cuban culture is full swing. Dancing is in their blood but perhaps it is also a way to escape the hardships of daily life under the current regime and situation. As I was leaving, Maria reminded me to come tonight to watch the performances. I nodded in acknowledgment.

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I found myself wandering into the narrow Calle Heredia towards Casa de La Trova. A street hustler offered some cigars and another, some tours. I just smiled and walked away. Another man approached and this time, do you want some rum? Music was in the air in the Casa De La Trova. The small darkened but ambient room was filled with chairs. There was a small stage. Pictures and portraits, perhaps of popular singers and musician decorated the walls. An elegant lady, Maria, sat behind a small desk. She is the receptionist. Behind her, a barmaid offered drinks. The filtered light created a great atmosphere. A small group of musicians took to the stage. Soon Son, Salsa and Trova music filled up the room. Trova music is performed by trovadores – musicians playing mostly original compositions originating from this region. This is traditional Cuban music at its roots. I loved the music and the whole atmosphere. Musicians skilfully and passionately played the guitars, trumpets, double bass, trombones, maracas and bongos to the delight of the crowd. This was real Cuba for me and I loved it.

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Alima, a professional dancer with a striking floral lycra pants sat beside me. It didn’t take long for the seated people to take onto the small dance floor. Every inch was covered with swaying bodies. Alima was in her element. Her movements synched with the music. The passion of the musicians and even the common dancer was evident on their faces and movements. I loved watching but certainly not participating. I have scaled vertical cliff walls, bungee jumped, trekked in treacherous icy weather, but dancing, certainly not! Lovely, Maria invited me to attend the night shows upstairs as I left the Trova. On the wall, these words were written – “Desmientan al que diga, que la trova ya murio, La trova no ha muerto, no”. I returned several times during the day, one to get out of the heat and importantly, to enjoy local music and watch the impromptu dances.

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I could see a few people at the top of a church tower. For a small fee and a friendly smile, I was allowed to climb a circular step towards the top. The views of the city, Parque Cespedes and further beyond was fantastic. Here, I met Adrian, a young church volunteer. “Viva la Revolucion”, yes, but the people have suffered hardship and difficulty till today. We worked hard every day. I earned working at the shipyard for days continuously without going home and earned 25CUC a month.  “We are paid in Pesos (CUP) but to buy anything, I have to pay in CUC. Feeding, paying the rent and taking of family is quite tough with these conditions. The country earned from the exports of cigars, sugar, rum and tourism. Furthermore, what about the proceeds from oil? There are still vast reserves. Where is all the revenue gone to? I know, to the top brass and politicians including the leaders. He was cautions to say if things would improve for the average Cuban. “A doctor earned about 35CUC a month. Yes, we are told that we have free education and medicines but what about the cost of living and earning capacity? I remembered Angelo’s words – “yes education is free but I have to pay for books and utensils. The teachers are not even in some classes. Yes, education is free in Cuba.”  Adrian continued, the state propaganda is to fool the people of the reality. There is reality and there is reality!” This definition was clear in his mind. What you see personally is the reality. Not the reality of what you hear from the media. However, his expressions and words were real. This is the common view of young Cuban.

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Adrian is a Jujitsu exponent and represented Cuba in the under 60kg category. He has even won gold medals. Is it a popular sport here? “No. When we have a demonstration, many people gather to watch. Quite a number are eager to sign up. When the training started, and after a week, most disappear. They don’t realise the hard work and effort required in the training”.

In my observation, although the Cubans have little, they seem to be happy at heart. “Yes, we are all in the same boat. What else do we have? We have happiness but nothing to do with the revolution. We are one people. We help each other when in need. If someone needs help, anyone or everyone will help. We are Cubans. I don’t think this happens in other cities or towns”.

Adrian continued, “most people just come to this tower and ask me questions about the sights, take a few pictures and leave. You are interested about me and my life. I appreciated this. We are friends”. He passed me his contact number. “I offer any help you want. To get to places, interesting sights, security or anything else. “Just contact me”. Nothing was expected in return. “Why, because you are my friend!” His gesture was genuine. A group of local girls interrupted. Pictures taken and off they went. I bid farewell to Adrian too.

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I retraced my steps back, uphill, towards Padre Pico. This spot also marked the gateway into the French Quarter, Tivoli neighbourhood. The sounds of kids chatter guided me towards a primary school. Inside a colonial buildings with poorly lit rooms, kids were being kids. This is a great area to wander and catch the far away sights of mountains and water. I wandered into the Museo de la Candestinidad. Unfortunately it was closed.

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Here, I met Diana, a beautiful lady with a story to tell. It was personal. We talked about family- where they were and why I was travelling solo. She has two young girls and the usual story, separated from her husband. Tears fell from her eyes. She asked if I drank alcohol. She looked straight into my eye and asked if I was looking for “la chica”, girls? She was relieved with my response. Not your normal tourist ‘conversations’. She had been through tough times in her young family life. She meant well. Diana worked as a security guard at the museum. She wore a sturdy steel caped boots which she received when working in the nearby shipyard. She looked to be in her late thirties. She had a sweet darkened complexion with an infectious smile. I could not help but to compliment on her beautiful looks. She felt appreciated. Alcohol addiction as well as promiscuity seemed prevalent amongst men. Is it the social and economic pressures? The lack of jobs and income? Perhaps contributed by the limited housing options or rather the lack of it, where several families, including in-laws, lived together. Perhaps, the ease of getting married and divorced. However, for a single working parent anywhere, life is tough. Let alone in Cuba. I sympathised with Diana.

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I returned to my casa and packed up my bag to move into another casa which Juan had organised. It was just down the street. Not sure of the name but met with Antonio, an Italian with a Cubano wife, Day. I continued to explore Santiago. This time I headed towards Parque Cespedes. On a hilly and congested narrow street, I ended at the “Balcon de Velzquez”. It was a former fort with a grey exterior and arches. From a ‘terrace’ like open area, there were panoramic views of tiled and tin roofed homes, harbour and the mountains beyond. Parque Cespedes seemed to be the heart of Santiago. My initial experience was the fume chocked streets. Local trucks masqueraded as public transport puffed out huge amounts of black smoke together with lorries and cars. This is Calle Santa Toms. The La Catedral de la Nuestra Senora De La Asuncion rose above the street. A set of step led up to the large wooden doorways.

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Parque Cespedes is quintessentially a kaleidoscope of people and colonial buildings. Musicians entertaining on the streets, queues at the local telecommunication office, and classic American cars as taxis waited for passengers, hustlers looking for a quick sale and local women in tight fitting lycra and singlets parading for a ‘conversation’. It is an open space with a little green. Banks and museums also occupied this square. Visited the Casa de Diego Velzquez – the former residence of the Governor built around 1516 and 1530. Loved the balconies and windows. The architecture is amazing. It was worth a visit.

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As I walked out to Parque Cespedes, the usual “jinteros” offered cigars, rum, girls and so on”. One guy offered tours. “Where do you want to go”. They seemed keen to plan your holidays by suggesting places to go and sites to visit. I just ignored some and just said no to the others. They are just looking to make a buck.

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I had lunch on the terrace of white washed Hotel Casa Granda. This elegant but faded building was built around the early 1900. The terrace had a great views of Parque Cespedes. Musicians played below on the street curb to earn a few dollars from the wealthy tourist. The service, however, was questionable. People queued at the telecommunication office to make payments, calls and internet service.

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With my well being restored through medication and Esther’s remedy of white rice and boiled plantain, I was ready to move again. Today I left for the eastern Cuban town, Santiago de Cuba. This town is considered the most ‘Caribbean’ in Cuba with its mixture of various origins and cultures. I took the Viazul bus on an overnight journey. I was depressed looking at all the uncultivated arable land. It was not covered in jungle but vacant, an indication of past cultivation. With agricultural inputs and working machinery out of reach for most Cubans, cultivation had halted. Cuba is now an importer of basic produce.

The roads were good but the journey was slow as the drive ventured into rural roads and interior roads. The speed is further reduced by other road users – horse carts, bicycles, old slow moving cars and even pedestrians. I was concerned as the day’s light diminished, no one used lights on the streets, apart from the cars and trucks. As the bus journey continued into the twilight, there were acres and acres of sugar cane cultivation as far as the eyes can see. A few men on the road wiled machetes. I could not see any villages or nearby towns.

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I arrived at Santiago de Cuba around 9pm after a 12 hour bus journey. I was tired and just needed some sleep. I had not booked my accommodation. I just took my chances on one Casa suggested by Lonely Planet, Casa Terraza Pavo Real. I thought, when I get there, if not available, he or she would put me onto one nearby. I had been handed over from one casa to another. Well that was the plan. At the bus station, I was approached by a few street hustlers. They offered accommodations and taxi rides. I was not in the mood. I just took one, a classic old car. Yes, as tourist, the charge was 5CUC. Not knowing where I was, late and tired nor where the Casa was, and with limited ‘negotiation skills’, I was exposed.

When I picked my backpack from the boot, it came along with powdered rust. Juan greeted me at the door. Quite reluctantly, he offered one room. The room had already been booked by someone but had not turned up. The interior was amazing. Filled with old world memorabilia, beautifully decorated lounge and dining. I couldn’t fully appreciate as I needed to get some food and sleep. Nearby is an ‘associates’ restaurant. I found the place and had some food. I nervously retraced my route as there were many narrow lanes and alleyways in this part of town. A shower and off to bed.

This morning, I explored my casa. Antique furniture were placed strategically around the dining and lounge. Sounds of birds in cages came from everywhere. An open patio area with a water feature and creeping plants created an ambient garden environment to relax. Not today though as some workman were working on an extension. A rustic spiral staircase took me to the roof terrace with amazing views of Santiago – the waterfront and shipyards, red tiled roofs of the nearby homes and the domes of the old quarter. Surrounded by painted walls and ceilings, I enjoyed my huge breakfast spread. This had been the best casa so far. A grand casa indeed for 25CUC. Just would have liked to stay here longer.

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Santiago, the second largest city in Cuba, is regarded as “cuna de la Revolucion”, or the cradle of the Revolution. Two years after Castro’s return from exile in 1956, he announced the victory of the revolution on January 1, 1959 from the balcony of the present day Town Hall in Parque Cespedes. Santiago was also the place for the first revolution by the black African slaves. Today, Santiago has the largest Afro-Cuban population.

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I needed to organise my bus ticket to Havana. Juan suggested that I walked down to the waterfront and catch a Horse Cart taxi. I passed this city famous streets, the steep steps of “Escalinata de Padre Pico”, Padre Pico steps. It is famous as it was built in 1899 by Emilio Bacardi (the popular rum distiller) and named after a santiaguero priest. A row of houses painted in soft pastel and blue line this steeps. I continued until the waterfront street, Paseo Alameda. This main street was busy with motor vehicles. A small green lung hugged the waterfront, Parque Alameda. I hailed a horse taxi and just mentioned Viazul Bus Station. I had no idea where and how far it was. This slow travel was great to capture in the sights. People embarked and disembarked continuously. The driver yelled “amigo” and I knew what he meant. I hopped off. My ride cost 10 CUP. (I paid 5 CUC for a taxi). As I entered the station, a lady asked me to stop. Then she sanitised my footwear. I was bewildered. She explained that this was to keep the station hygienic. I looked around and there were flies everywhere. However, the station was relatively clean. I entered an air-conditioned room and purchased my ticket. Nearby, is the train station. On the main street, there was a large warehouse – the Bacardi Rum Factory. I contemplated a visit. I gave it a miss. There were many motorbikes parked on this street. I caught another horse taxi and headed back to Parque Alameda.  The clock tower was my marker to get off. The harbour looked ‘dead’ with a few ships at the yard.

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I headed back toward the Parque Marti. At Casa del Tobacco, I asked which is the best cigar? He response was enlightening – the one you like is the best cigar. Some like it strong, mild or light. Cohiba is priced at US$25 each! He invited me to try some but I declined as I don’t smoke. I was probably put off by my late grandfathers affordable local cigars back in Malaysia. Not quite the same experience I presume. I bought some mild Partagas cigars for 4.5CUC each as souvenirs. All came with individual metal screw top containers. That fitted safely in by backpack. Cuban cigars are offered all over the country by local street peddlers. You may get the good stuff but purchase at your own risk as most a known to be off grades.

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For lunch, I headed towards the port and a great seafood lunch. Not a good idea I thought with my tummy bug. I gave it a go anyway. The port however was quite empty with a few fishing boats at the wharf. Thought I might get some medication for my disturbing tummy. I headed to La Union Hotel which does have a smallish dispensary. However, she suggested that I headed to the international clinic for a thorough check-up.

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In the evening I took a slow stroll along Cienfuegos’s Malecon. Three kids were engrossed and serious about their fishing. In a bucket, they had caught a few small fishes. I asked if these were too mall. It would be good for “fritos’, fried, one replied with glee. I met a local family heading out for celebratory (graduation) dinner. The girl was dressed like an Indian. I commented on her dress to which she replied that she is married to a Pakistani and that she is a Muslim. There is a small population here in Cuba. The sun was just setting on the bay.  A few fishing boats departed the harbour.

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My body was tired and uneasy with my tummy. My experience in Cienfuegos was sort of ‘limited’. Dinner was on the Prado, a lovely place called Memperas. It was one of best meals so far in Cuba. I even decided on desert, Flan, a light cake with lots of sugary syrup. Despite my current physical condition, I could not resist. Returned to my casa early and my body situation was not good at all. No sleep either. Bugger!

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The following day, feeling dehydrated and lethargic decided to get some help at an international clinic. The heat in Cienfuegos is intense compared to Havana and Trinidad. It compounded the problem. My journey in Cienfuegos was impacted by my well-being. Besides the heat, this city would certainly make a great visit. Headed back to the casa and crashed onto the bed until my departure to Trinidad at 2.45pm. Another bici taxi ride to the bus station.

 

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I headed for Cienfuegos from Trinidad. Many actually suggested that I gave this town a miss. I though I’ll see for myself. Caught the Viazul bus at 7.45am. I had booked my accommodation through Nilda. A bicitaxi man picked me up and dropped at the Casa Regla. The room was small and an even smaller bathroom. No windows but the door had some slits on them. All these for 25CUC! I would not suggest this place to anyone unless they dropped the price.

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I was out onto the streets with a rather uncertain tummy. Yet, the exploration goes on. I walked across the wide Paseo El Prado. Soon I met with two famous Cuba’s personalities – a bronze statue of local boy Benny More, a musician and vocalist, on Prado. Looking from above is an oversized poster of Che Guevara, a revolutionary leader.  They made an odd couple. People gathered on this street to chat and rest. It was exposed to the sun as shade was limited. Close to the La Union Hotel, I had breakfast. Bicitaxi peddlers waited looking for their next fare on the street with an unused rail track in the middle. I ventured further into a pedestrian only boulevard. I slowly dragged my weakened body across this street packed with people and ended at the Parque Jose Marti. Heavy smell of fumes from buses and lorries hung heavily in the hot late morning air. It was a hot day with only a few people wandering this park. However, on its peripheral, restaurants and retails shop were doing brisk business. I visited the Palacio de Gobierno. All the explanation were in Spanish and only a few artefacts and exhibits were on display. Across the plaza, the grand neo-classical Catedral de la Purisima. The architecture, classical faded colonial grandeur, here is quite different from other places I had visited. They are grand and definitely make a statement. A great place to people-watch. Strangely, I noticed several Che portraits but not Castro. It was extraordinarily hot and humid in Cienfuegos. To escape the heat, I entered a shoe shop. It was temporary bliss – air condition.

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I took a tour of Montero Cigar Factory close to the train station. . A local bicitaxi guy took me there. Unfortunately, all the explanation was in Spanish. In this factory, dried tobacco leaves are purchased, processed and distributed as handmade cigars. Only a handful of staff were on the floor today. Most were women and interestingly, only less than twenty percent smoked. Most work around eight hours a day. The graded leaves, slightly transparent and moist, are handed over to individual staff member. The initial process is to remove the midrib and stack the halves. These leaves are then moved to the ‘rolling’ room. About ten leaves are rolled tightly and placed onto a mold which is pressed for about twenty minutes. At this stage they do resemble a cigar but ‘rough’. The final part of the processing is to use high quality leaves as the casing and smaller cut pieces onto the ends. Plant resin from Canada is used to glue the leaves. The process is complete – a handmade Cuban cigar.  It looks simple enough but the skills required is in the experience. In this factory, all kinds of brands are made based on leaf quality – Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, Partagas, a more. Each worker is not confined to making one ‘type’ of make. It depends on the quality of leaves given (plus the experience required for the expensive ones). An adjacent room is dedicated to making various grades for the domestic market. All the cigars are then checked for quality and eventually packed into boxes. All the finished products are sold to one company – Habanero, a state owned entity. As we passed a locked room, the guide mentioned that this is where the most expensive leaves are kept. All the products are distributed through two companies, both subsidiaries of the Habanero Company.

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I returned from Cienfuegos, I was handed over by Nilda to Esther. My room was a three bed room. Today, I was alone, just a well, running to the loo frequently.  I had not been well, a tummy bug, for a couple of days. I suspect it was the ‘dirty ice blocks’ in my mojito. It was horrendous. I had travelled to several places over the years but I must admit, this was my first experience. Not good at all. However, being ‘stuck’ in Trinidad with some on my new found amigos, was not bad at all. I barely managed to get out. Fortunately, Esther and her daughter took good care of me and provide all the meals. Their version of ‘cure meal’ – white rice with plantain only. Eventually with medication and ‘local treatment’, I was good to continue my journey. Sadly, it also meant I missed out the beaches or perhaps extra days in Havana. There was a remote chance that I might make it to Vinales, the tobacco growing region. Well, such is a journey.

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I booked my tickets at Viazul Bus Company for my onward journey to Santiago de Cuba. I was still hesitant as my tummy had not fully recovered. The medication was doing its job and hopefully on my next long bus ride, expected to fifteen hours.

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On my last day in Trinidad, I was heading to a classy hotel, Iberostar. Today is the finals of the Rugby World Cup 2015. New Zealand were in the finals meeting our arch rivals Australia. I was hopeful the game would be televised live. I hurried there. However, on my way, I met Sarita, who was excited to see me. She quickly grabbed my hands and brought me to her house. I was hesitant to visit her due to my limitations of communicating in Spanish. Furthermore, the rugby game. She showed off the handmade pottery and other wares that she traded at her home cum shop. The interior of her home was simple. The uncovered bed where all three slept. Furnishing was minimal. In the kitchen were a small rice cooker, a stove, a small refrigerator and a percolator which she brewed some coffee. There was running water and electricity. She had a lovely smile. When ask about her life, she was saddened and did not hide her emotions. A few tears flowed. Her husband had left her, or rather she kicked him out because he was always drunk and no work. Her two young sons were at school and she had to find ways to meet the financial requirements. She offered some flan, a local cheesecake. We talked for about 45 minutes. I left her home slightly dejected at her state of affairs. However, I took some solace from her cheery outlook. This seem to be a strength amongst Cubans. Despite all the hardships brought about by the regime and at a personal family level, they strived on and make do with whatever they had with a can do attitude. Ingenuity, determination and self-reliant. I admired these attributes deeply. I may be late for the game, but I am glad that I had this conversation with Sarita.

I rushed to the upmarket Iberostar Hotel and was disappointed to find there was no live transmission of the game. Just to give another go later, I opted to us their internet facilities. It was meant for their customers only but I managed to get the service. As in Habana, internet availability is limited to big hotels and a few other providers. In a park, just outside the hotel, the locals gathered to get connected. Although many have cell phones, most only have wifi as it is costly to buy data. Well, the game was not televised. In the end, I am pleased to have bumped into Sarita.

For reasons unknown to me, the banks were closed today. Perhaps, these staff had gone on a “siesta”. I needed to change money to pay for my accommodation. I don’t want to upset Esther. I asked around but to no avail. A well-built man approached me on the street. He offered to change money. He had a tough look with dark gold frame sun glasses, gold chains on his neck which reflected brightly against his black skin and numerous rings on almost all his fingers.  In front of the CADECA office, I got what I needed and he actually offered me more than the banks rate, and without the ten percent commission. He pulled out bundles of US dollars in one hand and a cell phone in the other.  I would not mess with this guy but for me, an end to a need. He was cool. A dusk, a tropical rain poured. The cobbled stone streets were flooded with fast running water. It was great as the temperature dropped.

Along any street, little business were conducted from small opening on the walls and windows of ordinary homes. I did not venture outside the colonial cobbled stone streets. Small business like these support the local communities with the daily provisions, Cuban style.

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I returned to my casa early as Esther and her daughter had prepared some dinner. Yes, the local cure of rice and plantain. I was feeling all right but not a hundred percent. Nevertheless, I was concerned about my impending overnight journey of 15 hours to Santiago De Cuba the next day.

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I met this elderly gentleman with his donkey on the street. He spoke little but I figured that for a small fee, he will give you a guided ride on his donkey around the old town. He had his official licence card attached to his pocket. With a lighted cigar in his mouth and a few more stashed in his shirt pocket, he was quite a character. I liked him because he did not have the tenacity of some of the street touts but instead a humble ‘welcome’. I have a soft spot for old people. What must his life be about? He is certainly older than the revolution, perhaps have participated in it. Perhaps a sugar plantation worker? I slipped a few CUCs into his hands before I left. Although no conversations materialised, I liked him.

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Towards lunch time, Cubano and Latin music filled some parts of the old town eateries. The atmosphere was great. Most of the ‘fancy’ restaurants were filled with ‘antique’ furniture and fittings. ‘Antique’ as this is the normal furniture in Cuba’s time-wrapped setting. It fits perfectly with the surroundings and everyday living. After a tasty and filling lunch at one of the restaurant’s dotted around the plaza, I followed the sound of music to Casa de la Musica. Someone waved to me and yelled Malaysia, Amigo! It was Moises. He was in action not with his shinny trumpet but a double bass guitar. With my Cuba Libre, rum and coke in hand, it was a great way to digest my lunch, listening to soothing music. The lyrics took a surprising turn as a song was dedicated to me. Slightly embarrassed and partly a feeling of being ‘local’. Moises and a few guys joined me on their break.

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Near Plaza Mayor, I met Senor Jose Luis sunning himself on a chair with a cigar in his hand. The only man in town with a suit and tie. It fitted him persona perfectly.  I noticed a cane on his side. He had a mellowed aura appearance. I had a short chat with him before continuing my walk. I felt a sense of ‘loss of a friend’ when I left. Senor Jose had this effect on me. I was saddened that I could not communicate to find out about his stories behind those intriguing jaded eyes. I would see Senor Jose a few more times before leaving Trinidad. Always, at the same spot.

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I decided to walk away from the town centre towards the fringes of the old town. I met a man selling fresh coconuts near Convento de la Asis plaza. A few coconuts were piled up on a wooden wheel barrow.  I quenched my thirst with a cold drink of coconut water. Unlike some people, I scrapped out the white flesh meat. Delicious in the hot and humid weather.

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On this stretch of the street, there were accommodations but no restaurants. The bright pastel colours of the houses reflected strongly from the tilting sun. A man offered horse ride up to the mountains. I was slightly under the weather and opted out. Would have been great to wander around the old plantations. Horses and horse carts were kept in this part of the old town. The stench is unmistakable. There were no tourist here. The views however, extended towards the refreshing green mountains. Kids returned from school as families relaxed and chatted on the shaded side walk.

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In the golden hour, I wandered around Plaza Mayor. An elderly man strutted some songs on his guitar. The colours on the buildings with its pastel colours glowed in the setting sun. A few people had already gathered on the steps of Casa de Musica and musicians were already warming-up. I wondered if there were any younger musicians around. All the musicians I had seen or spoken to seem aged. For now, I savoured the mellow pace of life here.

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For dinner, I headed to one of the local “paladar”. Yes, live music in the restaurant as well in few other establishments. I heard my name called from the street. It was Enrique. This time he was playing the trumpet in a restaurant across the street. It was a good feeling, a simple gesture of acknowledgment from a friend. I admired the likes of Moises and Enrique for their hard work and multi-talent with various instruments. To make a living, they had to be come ‘mercenaries’ of music. Actually independent musicians. It would have been nice to have had some company tonight, I thought. Well, that’s part of independent travel I guess. Later, I returned to Casa de la Musica and had my customary drink, “cuba libre”, rum with coke and lime. The crowd swelled after 10pm as the soul searching tourists’ become bitten by the soothing music of the balmy Cuban night. Perhaps, the drinks contributed towards this effect as well.