Cornwall: A Land of Rocks and Moorland That Stretches Itself Out Into A Blue-Green Sea

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“At the far end of England, a land of rocks and moorland stretches itself out into a blue-green sea. Between its high headlands lies tiny sheltering harbours where the fishing boats hide when the winter storms are blowing. 

One of these harbours is so small and the entrance between its great stone breakwaters is so narrow that fishermen call it ‘the Mousehole’.

The people who lived in the cottages around the harbour grew fond of the name and the call their village Mousehole to this day. They say it in the Cornish way, ‘Mowzel’, but you may say it any way you choose.”

Antonia Barber and Nicola Bayley: ‘The Mousehole Cat’

These words were recited at least once every night for nearly five years when my son, Toby was small. He was born in Hong Kong, which gives him an air of the exotic to his friends and colleagues in the UK, but to us of course, it was all perfectly normal and by-the-bye for us, except that he developed a fascination for all things connected to our home country of England from a very early age. This book was such a gorgeous picture book that I bought it almost as soon as I saw it, on the strength of the exquisite illustrations by Nicola Bayley, who had illustrated other books of cats that I used to read to my older children. I love her detailed style and clear empathy for feline creatures and was transfixed by the beauty of these images in this new book.

I was completely enraptured by the equally elegant prose that Antonia Barber wrote – such poeticism I had not seen for many years, such wordsmithing with an artistry that belied the fact this was (is) a book for children – with the notable exception of Roald Dahl, many books for children up until that point seemed to be fairly dull, using very simple and repetitive text that might have been very easy to read but lacked any inspirational qualities for sure.

Here was an awe-inspiringly brilliant example of a new kind of book (at least, it was new to me!) for children, one that was not only packed with charming and strikingly detailed, imaginative illustrations but that these were accompanied by such wonderfully chosen words that used a huge variety of quite advanced literary devices – it simply blew my mind. I started reading it with Toby when he was just a tiny babe, showing him the beautiful pictures of cats, which he seemed particularly drawn to, as he lay in his cot preparing for sleep each night.

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Nicola Bayley’s magnificent illustrations brought the story to life each night.

It wasn’t long before he was asking for the story to be repeated, which then became a nightly occurrence and we soon learned to recite the first three paragraphs (quoted above) as I was settling down and opening the book. It was like entering a whole new world together, one where the weather was personified and a cat was a heroine. It was a very precious and special memory, I think for both of us.

As Toby grew we talked of England and eventually, when he was seven, we finally visited for the first time when he could remember the trip (we’d gone when he was smaller, but of course he had no memory of those trips). We stayed with our daughters who lived in Tiverton in Devon at the time and took a couple of days to visit Cornwall, where Toby was astounded to find that Mousehole was a real place, not just a place from his own imagination.

Mowzboat 2003
In 2003 on our visit to Mousehole in Cornwall we found a real place…

It was a stunning revelation to him as we wandered around the old harbour area and found a shop that sold ice cream AND a new copy of his favourite storybook. He was inspired by the reality of the place and was delighted to find Old Tom’s house in exactly the spot it was depicted in the book.

Imagine if we found out that the world created by J.K. Rowling was actually real? I know there are snippets here and there, locations that were used in the films or other real places that she set different parts of the action, but on the whole most of it, however vividly described, came entirely from her imagination. This was the antithesis of that… Mousehole was described both in the prose and the pictures so very accurately and we stood in wonder on the harbourside, looking out at the real world, that had lived in our imaginations hitherto.

So, that was our first experience of Mousehole.

A week or two ago, my hubby and I visited Cornwall again – it’s a lovely place to go and we haven’t seen nearly as much of it as we’d like so that was as good a reason as any to go. The weather was perfect – gorgeous golden sunny days and breathtakingly clear night skies that make star-gazing so magical.

I’ve taken many lovely photos because the place is quite astonishingly gorgeous in pretty much any light, but there is a remarkable, very special quality to the light in St Ives, where we had decided to stay – it’s no wonder that so many artists choose to make it their home. I fully intend to post some of those lovely pictures too, but for today I’m concentrating of course on Mousehole because it was wonderful to be able to revisit this enchanting place after fifteen years.

It really hasn’t changed much at all in all that time – perhaps there is less emphasis on the story of the Mousehole Cat than there was then, but mostly everything is very much as it was. It was another lovely sunny day when we stopped by, the tide was further out than it had been before and frankly, I’m a better photographer than I was then, so the photos are perhaps richer and  more atmospheric, but the subject remains constant – it is a timeless and almost perfect place that will forever live in my mind as Toby’s place.

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Mousehole Harbour in 2018
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The Mousehole shop
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Jackdaw (maybe) on rocks near the sea
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‘Molly’ sits on clear harbour waters with two turnstone passengers
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Sailboats on the sea by Mousehole
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I love sailboats!

We even found a gorgeous ginger cat (Mowzer was black and white) sat on a wall right outside a tiny gallery, aptly named ‘Mowzers’ where I was very tempted to buy some quite lovely art.

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Cat sat next to Mowzer Art Gallery

I do love Cornwall – there’s so much to see and explore. Next time I’ll tell you about our pre-dawn scramble for a perfect spot to watch the sun rise over St Michael’s Mount, opposite the village of Marazion, which is such a wonderfully Cornish name I can’t resist saying it! It was a lesson in patience that I obviously needed to learn…

Thanks for reading again!

 

 

 

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Still Siblings

In the dark stillness of the night, my mind wanders into places that are often unwelcome.

That impeccable quip that I could have thrown into a conversation so that I would have felt less foolish, gawky or homely.

That moment when I chose to be less than kind towards someone who may have needed nothing but kindness, an appreciation of their heavy load and their daily struggle to improve their lot in some way.

All that time that I’ve allowed passing by without purposefully chipping away at the barriers between my siblings and myself. Forty years without seeing my sister is probably too long. Allowing myself to regret without redressing the issues is self-indulgent and serves no real purpose, so I often spend the wee small hours thinking of the whys and wherefores, but it isn’t *moving on*. I seem resolutely inert when it comes to the business of properly understanding the motives that drive my two siblings (if you’re being THAT picky, yes, of course, they are in reality half-siblings) to the justification of their intense dislike of my existence.

Earlier this year, my daughter, who is a publisher in London and so reads voraciously at every opportunity, phoned me with a very odd tone to her question. She wanted to know if I had ‘made up’ with my sister over the latest and most hurtful falling out that we had, over four years ago now. It was just that she wasn’t sure how I’d feel about something she had to tell me.

I love my daughter more than life itself, but sometimes I think she envisages a time when I could perhaps fall out with her over something she’s said or done, as I have with my sister; she isn’t a parent and cannot conceive that the difference is actually visceral, I could no sooner abandon her than I could my own foot. It’s just never going to happen.

But her apprehension is understandable since my siblings have abandoned me because they believe I am some kind of ungrateful, unconscionable harpy with no morals or thought for the sensibilities of others… it’s like my actions, for which I have reasonable justifications, confirm their inherent belief in my wicked evilness and this allows them to deny my right to exist, to have ever existed. It’s twisted and inhuman, but I’ve long ago stopped trying to understand such convoluted logic. My psyche cannot allow their continual pummelling, through their joint repudiation and disregard for me, to gain ground or I am lost to the world. It’s often what’s behind some of my more awful bouts of depression, even though my sane ipseity reminds me continually that I am a good person, I am not responsible for our mother’s actions, I did not conceive myself.

After reassurance from me that I wanted to hear what she had to tell me, regardless of what it was or how it might make me feel, she spilt the beans. She had read a book recently, entitled ‘Walking Wounded’ as one of the many new releases and had enjoyed it, so that when a review of the debut novel was published by The Times (I think) she had eagerly read this to see what others thought of the book. It’s what she does, day in day out, so this was nothing unusual.

Except that she was stopped dead in her tracks whilst reading when she came across a photograph of the author, who was the image of me (but definitely much older, she was at great pains to point out!) – her first reaction being ‘When did Mum write a novel that I didn’t know about?’, which, given the circumstances was indeed very understandable.

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My sister, Shelia Llewellyn, Author of ‘Walking Wounded’.

Of course, it wasn’t me. It was my sister, Sheila Llewellyn.

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This is me! 

We talked about the book, about how I felt about its publication and about the significant and clearly very positive reviews of the story that had been written. I read the various reviews and was appalled by Sheila’s lack of honesty about her past. She has air-brushed all other members of her family, save for her beloved father from existence; her description of her unorthodox upbringing hints at an extraordinary life, making her out to be a very unusual person. Reading the interviews with her you are meant to think she is an exotic, remarkable flower that is unlike any ordinary mortal.

She is many of those things – extraordinary, unorthodox and unusual. She has led a remarkably unconventional life and some truly phenomenal things have happened to her and around her, circumstances that she had no control over for the most part.

But, like every other mortal being, she has made some terrible decisions. It’s not for me to discuss all of those – there are undoubtedly many that have nothing to do with me – but the one thing that I think is truly unforgivable is this; for more than half a century, she purposely kept important information about my father from me. She claimed when she finally did offer me some scraps of material, manna from heaven as far as I was concerned, that it hadn’t occurred to her to tell me before. I found out, far too late for me to ever meet him of course as he is now probably long dead, that my father was Irish.

To discover that you are half Irish after a half-century believing that you are wholly English is monumental.

It affects every single thing you’ve ever known or thought about yourself.

It literally rocked my world.

I was enormously grateful for this when she finally told me. I had been trying to find a way to discover about my ancestry for a very, very long time. Our brother had warned me not to ask her about anything, for she was (in his words) ‘skittish about all that stuff‘, so it was not something I felt I could ask of her.

I made the enormous error of asking the ‘Universe’ for some way to find out – I left a question on an Internet page for people who had lived where I knew my parents had been for information about the strange circumstances that our mother had relayed (posthumously, through my brother) regarding the circumstances of my conception/her revelation to her husband that he had been cuckolded and she was pregnant with another man. The massively over-dramatised story I was told when I was sixteen, by my rather embarrassed brother, was that she and her lover had been in bed one afternoon  (presumably, conceiving me!) when suddenly, her husband had leapt from the wardrobe, brandishing a shotgun and started shooting up the place… no definite consequence of the shooting (such as whether or not someone had been injured or killed, for example) was offered, but then Daddy was carted off to a South American gaol and she was deported from the colony, labelled a ‘Scarlet Woman’ and forbidden from ever returning to the shores of British Guyana. What became of my biological father was not mentioned, indeed, no further details were proffered and I was supposed to simply make of it all whatever I chose to.

Our mother was undeniably a fantasist of epic proportions, but even though this story had many holes and was outrageously unlikely, I had believed it, as I am convinced did our brother, for he would not have regaled me thus out of spite – I am sure about that. I had no reason to not believe it. It was one of the very few things I knew about my parents and I did cling to it, as a drowning person clings to any piece of flotsam that happens to float past, because it was so very tangible. I have over the years told a few, very close friends this story in an endeavour to try to understand and make sense out of it, which in spite of valiant attempts (thank you Mairi!) I never have. With the benefit of hindsight, OF COURSE, it’s obviously a fantasy, but that simply didn’t occur to me for over half a century.

As you can probably imagine, with this kind of backstory to my existence, it feels like I’ve been marked out in some way, as if I am very different to other people, alike in physicality to other humans – I have two arms, legs and a head just like normal people – but I don’t feel like I belong to any group, save the family that we have made and tried to maintain good relationships with, despite living in disparate places and circumstances. I am inordinately proud of my little family, that in spite of the horrors and difficulties and obstacles to overcome, we have three fantastic, fully grown children and they have good lives of their own, which is actually all a parent can ever really wish for their children I think.

So, with regards to my sister, whom I have virtually no relationship with, I find that I am still very pleased for her and her successes with something she has chosen to challenge herself with. I think it’s inspirational – she is inspirational. I’m adding a link to her book ‘Walking Wounded’ in the hopes that many others will also read it and find her writing interesting, intriguing or invigorating. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever discuss it, but I’m interested in what others think of her writing too because I know it’s motivating me to write more.

And the fact remains, she is still my sister and always will be.

Thanks for reading. See you again soon perhaps!

 

 

Making Films

One of the things I used to really enjoy most about my teaching work in Hong Kong was the recording of events throughout the school year and then the making of (short) films to share with everyone – partly this was because even 20 years ago technology in HK was rapidly advancing so that every family had video facilities and it’s only natural for people to record the special times in their children’s lives, much of which would happen at school events.

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QBS Y6 Production 2002

I became increasingly frustrated when, after spending many hours preparing performances (in a variety of capacities) the children’s parents would take up a suitable standing position at the back of the room and one of two things would happen: either they spent the whole performance on edge, waiting for only the part that their child contributed and then *missed* the overall performance, occasionally missing their own child as well, especially if there was little advance notice of when it would happen OR they spent the whole performance whizzing their cameras from side to side, because of course, they didn’t know the show and what was coming next. The resulting chaotic filming was deeply unsatisfactory to them and then they would complain that they had missed the whole performance.

This was the beginning of the idea that life can and should be experienced second hand because it’s more important to capture the moments for perpetuity than it is to actually experience the moment in reality. It bothered me then and still does today, but at least back then I had some power to try to overcome the tide of ‘Me First!’ and self-obsession that would see the concept of ‘selfies’ take over the entire world; I asked the Principal to request that parents should NOT film school productions as we would make a good job of recording the event, with semi-professional equipment and editing software so that at a very small cost parents could enjoy the experience of watching the whole performance AND have something to keep for posterity. This is pretty much standard practice in most schools today, but back then it was a revolutionary idea and not one that was particularly popular at first. Most parents did understand the reasoning and actually found that they enjoyed the events much more because their participation was not so vicarious.

I became quite adept at creating and distributing these videos and began to build an important archive of school life into the bargain. I really did enjoy using what was then fairly revolutionary software (iMovie) and utilising different perspectives from the footage created by placing our two school cameras in different positions for the (usually) two or three main performances. I still have some copies of these and for a small fee (to charity) could be persuaded to embarrass many of my former students with their antics (ONLY KIDDING!).

I’m not sure if this is what sparked my son’s obsession with films in general or not, but the fact is that he really does love the medium of film. It’s why he chose to pursue a career in film-making, starting with studying at the Northern Film School, based at Leeds Beckett’s University – which was also my university some thirty years ago.

It’s not been as easy as he had imagined, but his deep and abiding love for the medium has held him in good stead. He is (hopefully) about to embark upon his final year at the university, in which he will make several more intriguing and purposeful films.

Part of the coursework has been to understand how to market himself in a particularly competitive industry, which is not his natural environment – he likes the making part of the films but is less keen on the marketing side. It is essential really in the twenty-first century to make use of all the trappings of social media and develop his own website. IMDB is another essential tool in this field.

Which is where I come in.

I love creating content for websites. The whole business of selecting appropriate images and writing copy warms my little cockles, so it does. I can spend hours engrossed in jpeg resizing and putting elements together in a slideshow – I know I’m a nerd, but it is (at least partly) what makes me happy so I have created the beginnings of his website and I’m fairly happy with what we have so far.

So here is his website – he is marketing himself as an Assistant Director (AD, sometimes referred to as 1AD or 2AD depending on the film’s budget and size) and I’m hoping that lots of people will see it and join me in wishing him every success in his chosen field.

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Tobias Gregory: Assistant Director

I would be delighted to hear any comments about his website either through the comments section here or on my Facebook page. All constructive critiques are welcomed!

Once again my friends, thank you for reading!

 

 

Gliding high

There’s such a plethora of advice on how to ‘glide through life’ these days, which promote the idea that learning to *glide* can take the fear out of life’s ups and downs. If that were the purpose of living, I’d be happy to dive straight in and accept much of this advice as helpful, reassuring and above all useful.

But it’s not.

My life has been a massive roller-coaster, with huge swings in every possible direction that give me a totally unique perspective. I’m pretty sure that many of the most successful people I’ve met (I’m not here to define  ‘success’, so just go with it) have not found success via any kind of easy route. They’ve worked hard for it, as have I.

Just because I haven’t ended up where I might have wanted to be doesn’t mean I haven’t been successful – quite the opposite in fact – it just means that my story isn’t finished yet.

So a few weeks ago, when the sun was beginning to consider its own purpose in life, to shine forth upon this Earth and wake all the little flowers up, making all the creatures decide that, YES! Spring had finally shown up after a long, long absence, we went for a little drive and found ourselves up on the top of Sutton Bank.

For those who don’t know Yorkshire, I’ll just explain – Sutton Bank is side of the massive hill that was carved out by glaciers (I think) and stands almost 300m above sea level, with an almost vertical drop of over 140m from top to bottom, giving expansive views over the Vales of Mowbray and York – you can see Thirsk (James Herriot territory) from the top. The A170 snakes up the vertiginous side of the hill in a treacherous 25% or 1 in 4 gradient which is made even more difficult by the addition of a hairpin bend about half-way up – lorries continually find themselves in trouble and have to be rescued and towing caravans are simply banned since so many have bit the dust attempting the climb. It’s a renowned blackspot for drivers and can be hairy in even the fairest conditions – we avoid it at all costs when the weather is icy, snowy or otherwise unhelpful.

On this occasion, we stopped short of descending the declivitous incline and turned to venture along the ridge until we reached the space reserved for the Yorkshire Gliding Club launch point.

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The Yorkshire Gliding Club Launch Point at the top of Sutton Bank

As you can imagine, the views from here are truly breathtaking for dozens of miles around – on a clear day you can see as far as Aysgarth, which is over 40 miles away.

But we weren’t there for the views particularly.

I wanted to watch the gliders as they are launched into the air by small propeller planes, to listen to the quiet moments as they climb higher on the thermals, floating and gliding so gracefully in the heavens.

‘they dip and dance like barn swallows at dusk 
glancing wingtip-to-wingtip against a lavender sky 
barely touching’ Kate Mullane Robertson

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Transported to a place where nothing can disturb and disquiet, these silent machines are the simplest of beings. They simply are in space.

How magnificent to just be in the moment.

How majestic to see the Earth below, like a soaring kite, hushed, soundless, mute.

Zen.

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Gently gliding back into the arms of Mother Earth

And then return to Earth so very gently, at peace with yourself.

*sighs*

Thanks for reading once again, my friends.

 

The Blackbirds’ ‘lickrish’ standoff

Blackbird! sing me something well:
While all the neighbours shoot thee round,
I keep smooth plats of fruitful ground,
Where thou may’st warble, eat and dwell.

  • Alfred TennysonThe Blackbird; reported in Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 71

In Good Ol’ Blighty we have blackbirds, who as Tennyson said sing beautifully, in spite of being considered by some a terrible pest. Our blackbirds are generally seen in the countryside and town gardens, standing out with their bright orange beaks – unless they’re female of course since the girlies prefer to remain incognito with dull brown spotty feathers – it keeps the eggs more safely that way.

North American blackbirds are altogether more showy, with lovely red-tipped wings or alternatively a rather fetching rusty-coloured coat of feathers that technically makes them not really black-birds although I understand that genetically they are the same species. I frequently feel all kinds of envy when my friends from Across the Pond post pictures of the beautiful brightly coloured birds that pop into their gardens, but that’s a whole other story, not for today.

No, today’s story is more of a photo-essay really. You see I was trawling through my gazillions of photos and came across a whole bunch from our trip to Barbados a couple of years ago, which I did promise to write about but then succumbed to a severe case of writers’ block, so you never had an opportunity to see some of the magnificent sights that we so enjoyed and I think it’s about time to put that right.

This particular group of photos were taken when we visited The Flower Forest, which is a truly beautiful experience if a little challenging to anyone who isn’t used to climbing Everest on a daily basis. I’m exaggerating a little there – it’s quite hilly, with thoughtfully placed rest stops. It is so worth the effort because the views from the top are spectacular and the collection of vegetation and plant-life is properly amazing.

There’s a lovely cafe where you can get a cup of tea and a bite to eat after your trek which is where these pictures were taken. Birds, in particular blackbirds, are the best scavengers and of course, this is where they would hang out – it’s easy pickings!

So, I guess the pics are self-explanatory really but I’ll add a running commentary for you…

1 Looking tasty sm
Good Afternoon Flower Forest trekkers! I greet you in the traditional manner!
2 Wassup over there sm
…ooh, that looks tasty…
3 Watcha doin sm
Watcha doin’? Huh? Huh?…
4 Please share sm
If I bow low, maybe you might share your bounty?
5 Joey doesnt share sm
BE OFF with you! Joey doesn’t share food!
6 share with me sm
Oh, but PER-LEASE? Pretty please??
7 Joey DOESNT SHARE sm
I said JOEY DOESN’T SHARE FOOD!
8 can i share too sm
(as third bird joins the group) … Wassup? Did someone say food?
9 I see your butt sm
You can eat my backside, and you can go sing for your supper!
A1 Does my butt look big sm
I am the Guardian of the Galaxy (where this morsel of food is concerned!)
A2 go away sm
Here… my butt in your face should make the message clear…
A3 but WHYsm
BEGONE! Both of you intruders! This food IS MINE!
B I Win sm
I Win, I win, I get to keep the food!

I was giggling all the way through the whole episode as it all unfolded before my camera. It’s a wonder the photos aren’t all shaky! FYI, the term ‘lickrish’ is a Bajan word meaning to be greedy for food… which just seems appropriate.

I’ll post many more of the Bajan stories in coming weeks. There are lots of them!

Thanks for reading as always!

Santiago Di Cuba: Part II – People

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In Spanish, the text of Castro’s ‘Revolution’ May Day statement from 2000 is represented next to his tomb in the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery.

“Revolution is having a sense of the historic moment; it is changing everything that must be changed; it is full equality and freedom; it is being treated and treating others like human beings; it is emancipating ourselves on our own and through our own efforts; it is challenging powerful dominant forces in and beyond the social and national arena; it is defending the values in which we believe at the price of any sacrifice; it is modesty, selflessness, altruism, solidarity, and heroism; it is fighting with courage, intelligence and realism; it is never lying or violating ethical principles; it is a profound conviction that there is no power in the world that can crush the power of truth and ideas. Revolution is unity; it is independence, it is struggling for our dreams of justice for Cuba and for the world, which is the foundation of our patriotism, our socialism, and our internationalism.” 

These are the words spoken by Fidel Castro at the May Day celebrations in 2000. I’m genuinely inspired by these words – and it’s not hard to see why many of the Cuban people dearly loved their hallowed leader, in life and in death. If a person can be remembered by what they said (rather than what they did) then, surely, these words are the ultimate in epitaphs. They are inscribed on a twelve-foot high marble slab that stands next to Castro’s memorial, the final resting place where his ashes were laid to rest in the glorious Santa Ifigenia Cemetery; his dying wish was that a ‘cult of personality’ should not be permitted after his death, which meant that he wanted no public places, streets, parks or institutions to bear his name and no statues, monuments or busts should depict a likeness of him. The granite monument in which his ashes are very simply interred (in a rock shaped like a corn kernel; the inspiration for the shape of the tomb was a line from a José Martí poem: “All the glory of the world fits in a single kernel of corn.”) next to the impressive monument to Cuba’s other national hero, Jose Marti, who was referred to as ‘The Apostle of Cuban Independence’ and inspired the revolution that led to Cuba’s first stint as an independent state back in 1868 (which you knew about already because you read part 1 of this essay … didn’t you?) which is just a stone’s throw away.

Not that you’d be throwing any stones of course, since both monuments are guarded by armed soldiers, with a goose-stepping changing of the guard ceremony taking place every half-hour – necessary because of the extreme heat in which these guards have to stand, albeit that they are afforded at least a little shade whilst on duty.

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Three new guards goose-step to their destination, guarding Jose Marti’s tomb.

The Santa Ifigenia Cemetery is a remarkable place, filled to the brim with the remains of ‘All of the revolution’s history’, including Antonio Maceo and Carlos Manuel de Céspedes del Castillo (the chap who freed his slaves and declared that first independence from Spain in 1868) as well as not-so-revolutionary Emilio Bacardi (son of the founder of the Bacardi dynasty) amongst many other illustrious guests. It’s also filled with thousands of tourists, who daily traipse through, marvelling at the magnificence that such bastions of revolution reside in. I’m sure some, like myself, find the juxtaposition of concept versus reality a little puzzling, but it is definitely a must-see when you do visit Cuba. It is quite a sight to see.

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So, starting with the dead always seems a little unusual perhaps, but it is impossible to visit Cuba and be unaware of the legacy that Fidel Castro leaves. For most of the people, he was their hero, who liberated them from oppression and guided Cuba to a better life. To many outsiders, he was a wicked despot who recklessly womanised and ran Cuba’s economy into the ground, silencing all opponents before they had a chance to cast any kind of aspersions on his leadership – he ruled with an iron fist. I find it difficult to marry the reality of the human being with his magnificent ideals, but it is always worth remembering that he was a man, a simple human being with all the flaws and complex emotions and feelings that informed (or clouded) his judgements of the best course of action in any given situation. I choose to be inspired by his words, if not his actions, although I’m not actually planning any political revolutions this month – I’ve still got loads of photos to edit!

Santiago Di Cuba is a colourful and vibrant place, full of sunshine and joy. Cubans go about their daily business with a calm, laid-back approach, which is fairly typical of island life in my experience. The faded elegance is in evidence almost everywhere, with an intriguing mix of half-millennial-aged, archetypal blue-and-white painted buildings and contemporary architecture; wide, tree-lined boulevards lead directly into the older quarters of the town so that you are travelling through varying degrees of ‘passability’ – sometimes you simply cannot overtake in the very narrow streets! The bright sunlight makes everything take on a more vibrant appeal.

In central Santiago, appropriately built atop the largest hill, lies Céspedes Park which is surrounded by some of Cuba’s most imposing architecture – the magnificent Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Assumption) dominates the square.

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Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Assumption dominates Cespedes Square in central Santiago

Two wall plaques offer a small clue about the building’s history:

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Wall plaques marking the dates the building was first erected on the site, then restored after four centuries.

I was deeply intrigued by the meaning of these plaques, which make more sense when translated from Old Latin so that they tell the story of the current building, erected in 1922 to commemorate the first building on this site, constructed four centuries earlier. It seems that there have been several buildings over the centuries that have been destroyed by pirates, inadequate design and earthquakes, but this current building has also been spruced up to celebrate Santiago’s quincentennial in 2015. We didn’t have time to explore inside and frankly, it was so hot we simply settled for a long cold drink at the Casa Grande, which flanked the square on another side. Directly opposite lies the Cuban National Bank building – very much a modern construction, all glass and simple lines. From one corner of the square, you can see quite how high the hill is by looking across to the hills opposite. Finally, the traditional blue painted wood and white-washed walls enclose the final side of the square. The overall effect is of a very mixed and lengthy history, which tells Cuba’s story in microcosm.

We came upon a sign on a side-street that just made me laugh loud and long… you have to admit, this guy is honesty personified!

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… who wouldn’t want the shoemaker for a partner?

One of the most memorable things about Cuba is the people. Not just because that’s what Communism is ultimately about, but because they are like no other people I’ve ever come across – immensely friendly, likeable and charming. I recognise that there’s a huge element of laying it on fairly thickly for the tourists, but many people were just going about their daily business, getting on with their lives, oblivious to visitors and all else besides, probably planning what to have for tea. Who cares if shutters are clicking all over the place when you have such a life to be living?

I am often reticent about taking photos of people because I’m aware that there are many who a) just don’t like to have their photo taken (I fall into this category!) and b) feel that the photographer is ‘taking’ something that doesn’t really belong to them – in an almost primaeval manner where the image of the person contains a part of their soul.

Fortunately for the photographer, in these days where virtually all the world’s people have smartphones, this issue is less thorny than it used to be, although I think a part of me still does subscribe to this idea. Certainly, in Cuba, most people are VERY happy for tourists to snap away, capturing people doing *crazy Cuban stuff*, so this actually encouraged me to take photos of people, much more than I usually do. Yes, it is perhaps a little staged for the tourists, but it does give peeple something to do and it has an infectious charm that cannot be denied.

Everywhere you go, it’s likely that someone will be serenading you, mostly with some kind of salsa (that’s the dance, not the edible accoutrement to barbecued meat!) … individuals, small groups and entertainers abound. Ariba, Ariba! It made me feel like dancing!

Cuba – what a fascinating and beautiful place to visit!

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I could sit here all day…

Thanks for reading… see you next time!

 

 

 

 

 

Santiago Di Cuba: Part I

‘To travel is to live!’ declared Hans Christian Anderson or rather, more completely:

To move, to breathe, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.”
― Hans Christian AndersenThe Fairy Tale of My Life: An Autobiography

I’ve long loved that quote, having travelled a fair bit myself, I’ve frequently found joy in just thinking about travelling and it makes me smile to recite it to myself in the deepest, darkest depths of winter when the cold winds and icy rain turns to snow, making simply getting to the shops a challenge worthy of The Crystal Maze. I’m very much a sun-bunny, I need warmth and light to maintain my mood more effectively than pills can and really, nothing beats sitting on a sun-drenched stretch of white sand, with the cool, inviting sea lapping gently at my feet, a good read and a cold drink in my hands.

Idyllic sun drenched beach
Sun-drenched sandy beach – just perfect!

One of the reasons we decided to visit Cuba last year was to try to experience what life is like there before it finally makes it into the 21st Century and becomes just *another sunny holiday destination*, similar to all the rest. Cuba has a remarkably fascinating history, like many other Caribbean islands, drenched in Colonialism and revolutionary fervour alike over the past three and a half centuries.

I’m not planning on penning a complete history of Cuba of course, but the potted version goes like this: native islanders (Mesoamericans or Arawaks) were subjected to Spanish rule after Columbus claimed the land in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth centuries, with sugar and tobacco plantations helping to bring reasonable prosperity to the island, dependent upon slave labour, of course. Cuba’s location meant that pirates and Buccaneers frequently raided the ships that carried essential trading cargos and for two centuries the lands were fought over, sovereignty disputed by the main colonial powers – the Spanish, Dutch, French and of course the British, with Spain generally winning out. Rebellion and general unrest (due in part to a desire to maintain slavery as an effective economic tool) led US president, Thomas Jefferson, to consider annexing Cuba to the US in 1805, but despite several attempts to further this cause, it remained in the hands of the Spanish until the first declaration of independence in 1868, leading to the Ten Year’s War and culminating in the eventual abolition of slavery in 1886, although the Spanish then took back control of the island.

There followed a period of war between the Americans and the Spanish in which many of the Spanish-speaking colonies (Puerto Rico and the Philipines amongst them) were fought over, with the two parties eventually agreeing to the Treaty of Paris in December 1898 that led to the first US occupation of Cuba –  maintained until 1902.

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Memorial stone commemorating the defence of the hilltop battleground in Santiago Di Cuba

And so it was that in 1902 the US government handed control over to a Cuban government, crucially securing the rights to maintain a military presence; Havana became a very popular American tourist destination and the naval base at Guantanamo Bay was established.

Three decades of semi-independent governance, with an uneasy relationship to the US, ended in 1934 after a Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Cuban people, declared that Cuban peasants would have legal ownership of their own lands. Its success was short-lived: the US soon backed a right-wing anti-government revolt, called the ‘Sergeants’ Revolt’ which ended this brief period of stability and restored the political status quo and whilst  the country enjoyed an economic boom in the post World War II era, after Fulgencio Batista seized power in a bloodless coup d’etat in 1940 corruption was rife and political and economic disruption gave the Communist Party, with the infamous Fidel Castro at its helm (inspired by Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara), much greater power in the eyes of the Cuban people.

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Fidel Castro’s hometown, Biran – posters like this adorn many of the highways in Cuba

Castro took control of the country after a bloody revolution lasting six years, from 1953 to 1959.

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Revolution Square, Santiago Di Cuba; a simply huge structure entitled Antonio Maceo
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The 23 giant machetes are awe-inspiring
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… to show the sheer scale

The Castro years led to significant tension between the US and Cuba, with the Bay of Pigs incident in April 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, amongst many other significant events of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Castro ruled with an iron grip, largely because the Cuban people considered him to be THE national hero and were willing to invest wholeheartedly in Communist ideology, heavily supported by Communist bloc nations, particularly the USSR; with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the consequent collapse of Communist Russia, this support was promptly withdrawn and the country struggled to survive. Castro’s isolationist policies meant that Cuba became a nation immured in what was effectively a ‘time bubble’, with many pre-1950’s American cars and glorious mansions simply left by their wealthy owners who fled to Florida (mostly) during the conflict.

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Elegant mansions, abandoned by their wealthy owners, were reassigned as communal properties under Castro.

This conflict remained unresolved whilst ever Castro lived and is only slowly adapting to change since his death in November 2016.

Which leads me very nicely to where we came in … this is precisely why we wanted to see the Cuba that exists in this ‘bubble’ before commercialism and Capitalism takes a more firm grasp of their economy. It’s definitely changing and that’s what makes it such an exciting place to visit. The Hemminway-esque mystery of this unique island was calling to my sense of adventure!

And so our eight-and-a-half-hour flight was booked and off we popped. We opted for a resort holiday so that we could relax and investigate different parts of the island on tours and trips, although hiring a car to drive independently (always our preferred way to explore) didn’t really seem to be an option, so we resigned ourselves to being shown whatever it was the tour guides felt they wanted to show us of their little piece of paradise. Initially, we had thought we might take several of these tours, after all, we had two weeks to fill! We’d be able to see everything in that time, surely?

Well, actually, not really since of course, we had assumed Cuba=Caribbean island THEREFORE small, easily circumnavigated and everything within commutable distance.

SHOCK NEWS: CUBA is HU-YUGE!

Map of Cuba in Caribbean
Map of Cuba in the Caribbean: Barbados is that tiny weeny dot way out almost in the Atlantic, for size comparison purposes!

Within a couple of hours of arrival, we realised that our vague plan of taking a day-trip to Havana was not feasible, simply because at almost 800km (nearly 500 miles), even if the roads were reasonably passable (which they’re not!… more in a moment on this), that’s a ten-hour drive to get there. An organised trip was possible, but it involved getting a flight and an overnight stay in Havana, which frankly was quite expensive and potentially prohibitive for me as my disability is not particularly well catered for.

We consoled ourselves with the promise of taking the coach trip to Cuba’s second city, Santiago Di Cuba, which is of course on the southern coast, facing into the Caribbean (not very far from Guantanamo Bay in fact).

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Jorges, our excellent tour guide

I really must thank our intrepid Tour Guide, Jorge (pronounced ‘Horhey’ as he was at pains to point out to us!) for the wonderfully humorous and informative manner in which he conducted this two-day tour. It was epic.

 

 

 

Firstly, we noticed the roads, the condition of which can be described as ‘Fair, on a good day’…

… and only occasionally did we come across something slightly *odd*, such as this road to nowhere…

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Occasionally, you’d see something odd, like this

One thing that became very obvious early on was the system adopted for public transport in the countryside. There are vast swathes of greenery and countryside that are crisscrossed with these long straight roads and very few public buses pass by on a regular schedule, so the people simply gather at the crossroads, waiting for any and every vehicle passing to catch a lift from… there are inspectors randomly placed to ensure that every vehicle traveling is fully occupied – it is Communism in practice and works remarkably well. Petrol (or diesel) is rationed and therefore a highly prized commodity, so it is deemed to be appropriate for every Comrade to help others by offering their spare seats to strangers when they need to get into the town from the countryside and vice versa. The only vehicles that are generally exempt from this system are the tourists’ guided tour coaches, which coincidentally tend to be of a higher quality than most other local vehicles.

This fact of life in Cuba (limited resources) also means that people become much more creative at finding methods to travel any distance – so horses and horse-drawn carts are pretty standard methods to get around the fuel rationing issues. In addition, locals use trucks with many spaces (which effectively become buses) and many other ways to scrimp and save fuel – here’s just a few of the wonderful variety of vehicles we saw:

There’s a LOT of countryside and, for the most part, it’s very green, which was contrary to what I had expected – the blazing heat in the Caribbean frequently burns the grass and other crops in fields a yellowy-brown, so that you get the impression of an almost desert-like terrain. So from the roadside, most of what you see on the 3 hour-long drive through Holguin and Santiago Di Cuba provinces is green countryside, edged by distant mountains where coffee is the main product.

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Tiny villages in little enclaves seem to exist with little or no acknowledgement of a world beyond their border. For a Communist state, there are a surprisingly large number of sometimes breathtakingly beautiful churches – which are attended daily by locals. We visited the El Cobre Basilica, high in the hills around Santiago Di Cuba, which is dedicated to the miracle of a tiny statue of the Virgin Mary holding an even smaller baby Jesus in her arms that was found by three fishermen in the early 17th Century. People celebrate and worship at the shrine by strewing sunflowers all around. Naturally, enterprising locals sell bunches of sunflowers to all visitors, which affords the scene an innocent charm that is quite beguiling.

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The defence of the city of Santiago Di Cuba from pirates, buccaneers and other potential invaders was primarily conducted from the beautiful cliff-top castle fort, the San Pedro de la Roca Castle, which offered us some stunning views over the sea and bay of Santiago Di Cuba.

(Here’s a fantastic short video from UNESCO giving a much more detailed view and history of the castle)

In Part II of this essay, I’ll tell you more about the town of Santiago Di Cuba, which is simply spectacular, along with some portraits of the most interesting part of Cuba… the wonderful, friendly people. You won’t find a better welcome anywhere!

Once again, thanks for reading!