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.

Pandemonium 2002
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.

TGArgot1
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!

 

 

Advertisements

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.

YGC Launch Point sm
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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Glider lands sm
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

Castros Revolution Quote sm
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.

Jose Martis Guard changing sm
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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Assumption sm
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:

Foundation stones sm
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!

Shoemaker small
… 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!

Rocking chair sm
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.

American Memorial sm
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.

Biran sm
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.

Machette memorial sm
Revolution Square, Santiago Di Cuba; a simply huge structure entitled Antonio Maceo
Machette memorial closeup sm
The 23 giant machetes are awe-inspiring
Memorial perspective sm
… 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.

Elegant mansions sm
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).

Jorges sm
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…

Road block sm
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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

 

 

 

 

The Old Man and the Sea

 

Cuba Hemmingway
The Old Man and the Sea, setting forth into the Gulf Stream from Cuba

“If the others heard me talking out loud they would think that I am crazy. But since I am not, I do not care.”
― Ernest HemingwayThe Old Man and the Sea

 

No trip to Cuba could possibly be undertaken without familiarising myself with Hemmingway’s works. As an English student (ie. in all senses of the phrase; I am English (mostly) and I have studied the English language both academically and simply for pleasure… perhaps that qualifies me as crazy before we start!), I should have read some of his works. Hemmingway is recognised as one of the greats in literary terms; Pulitzer and Nobel prizes for literature aren’t just handed out, willy-nilly or else they wouldn’t be worth the toil, now would they?

I am slightly ashamed to find that in spite of being really fairly well-read (if any of those Internet-based questionnaires are to be believed at least), until recently I have never even opened a single page of Hemmingway’s. Shakespeare; I’ve read most or large parts at least of 21 of the 37 plays definitely written by him; Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, William Golding, Aldous Huxley, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Frances Hodgson Burnett, George Orwell, E. M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, D.H.Lawrence and of course, J.K. Rowling… as well as very many others, I have read. With great enjoyment, I learned to read at a very early age and it has remained a favoured pastime of mine since I could hold a book in my hand.

So I was, on the one hand, appalled to find that my reading of worthy American novelists is so sadly lacking, whilst on the other hand, this meant that I had a whole new wealth of material to explore.

I started by Googling (of course, I could have Binged, but that doesn’t sound so much fun…) Hemmingway and was instantly fascinated by such a magnificent, larger than life character that takes up simply oodles of Internet space. His life is so interesting, I got lost for days before my holiday even began, just sifting through all the biographies, theories and opinions about this remarkable writer’s life and his substantial body of work.

I decided that I needed to start reading some of his actual writing before I became bogged down with other people’s opinions of the work.

(Cue drum roll please…!)

A list was drawn up. (Ching! (That’s the hi-hat))

It was waa-haa-haaayy too long! I’d be reading for months! Not that the prospect concerned me of course, but we were only going to actually be IN Cuba for two weeks, so I had to prioritise. The rest can be read later, at leisure.

I KNOW that holidays are the very definition of leisure! I’m not completely cuckoo!

I needed to download my reading list onto my Kindle before we went as we couldn’t be sure about the availability or reliability of the Internet once we had set off, so there was an element of urgency about my endeavour. Which should I choose?

Of course, The Old Man and the Sea sat firmly in pole position.

“Now is no time to think of what you do not have.
Think of what you can do with that there is” 
― Ernest HemingwayThe Old Man and the Sea

I also added ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, ‘A Farewell to Arms’, ‘To Have and Have Not’ and the posthumously published ‘Islands in the Stream’, the latter largely because it made me think of the wonderful Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’ duet with the same title. I had heard of the others too, which always helps when choosing I think.

But it was The Old man and the Sea that grabbed my attention and no sooner were we settled into our new vacation home (a four-star holiday complex in Guardalavaca, on Cuba’s north-facing coastline, looking out to the Bahamas across the North Atlantic Ocean – although it is decidedly Caribbean-like at this point), I settled down on a beach-side lounger, drinking in the exquisite blue of the sea, Kindle in one hand, tropical cocktail in the other.

And breathed.

For your delectation, I am including some visuals, to help you get the idea…

So, I thought I would read for an hour or so then take a nap and then maybe eat something and then rinse and repeat.

I wasn’t expecting to be quite so enthralled by the story!

“Fish,” he said, “I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.” 
― Ernest HemingwayThe Old Man and the Sea

It is quite the most gripping tale, a literally un-put-downable story of survival, all played out under the very same sky I was looking at. The main character, the Old Man (named Santiago) decides to take his tiny fishing boat (called a ‘skiff’) right out into the Gulf stream, alone, in order to try to break his dreadful run of bad luck, termed ‘salao’, which has lasted for eighty-four long days.

The epic battle with his quarry, an eighteen-foot-long marlin with more than enough spirit to struggle legendarily, that ensues over the following three days is simply awesome in the truest sense of that word. The loneliness of the two, fisherman and fish, forever linked by bait and rod, is empathically described, with Santiago showing true compassion for his adversary, frequently referring to it as his brother: “I have never seen or heard of such a fish. But I must kill him. I am glad we do not have to try to kill the stars.” Imagine if each day a man must try to kill the moon, he thought. The moon runs away. . . . Then he was sorry for the great fish that had nothing to eat and his determination to kill him never relaxed in his sorrow for him. . . . There is no one worthy of eating him from the manner of his behaviour and his great dignity. I do not understand these things, he thought. But it is good that we do not have to try to kill the sun or the moon or the stars. It is enough to live on the sea and kill our true brothers.” 
― Ernest HemingwayThe Old Man and the Sea

The story’s resolution is not what one might hope for the mightiness of the struggle that has been undertaken, but it is ultimately fitting. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet (in spite of this seeming to be my forte at the moment – whilst Facetiming my granddaughter I accidentally revealed that Anakin becomes good at the end… I genuinely didn’t realise I was giving the plot away there!) because I can genuinely say this was more than worth the time invested.

I found myself welling up with huge, fat tears of affinity with this pair of souls. I wanted them to find peace. I like to think that they did, for who could not in this beautiful paradise?

Guardalavaca marina BW
The Watchful Eye of the Marina tree
Coastguard Cuba
Coastguard, Cuba-style
Guardalavaca marina
Guardalavaca Marina

Thanks for reading… there is more to come from our trip to Cuba when we ventured out of the hotel compound and into the extraordinary countryside and second city that is Santiago Di Cuba. Adios!

Havana go to Cuba: Part I

Yes, I know it’s a terrible pun… Havana (I wanna, just in case you can’t see it) is to Cuba as Moon is to Sun I suppose, so I hope you’ll excuse my playing with words… but it’s kind of what I do. It’s also what my FAB hubby said to me at about this time last year… he’d been looking online for a potential holiday destination that would appeal to my sense of adventure and willingness to think unconventionally so that we could try something new together. ‘I want to go to Cuba, soon, before it opens up to the world and becomes just like every other sunny tourist destination!’ he announced, pleading playfully.

Cuba is definitely Fuera de la caja, especially if you’re coming from so far across the Atlantic. The idea seemed rather magical and intriguing and surprisingly less expensive than you might have imagined.

Holidays are difficult concepts for me, I can’t seem to grasp the whole relaxing thing, doing nothing, sitting on a beach all day, looking at the sea. It comes from so many years of frenetic activity – teaching, especially when you are the committed sort (like me!) takes a considerable amount of time and energy and for many, many years I was simply unable to switch off except when I would fall into my bed, exhausted, at the end of each half term. ‘Holidays’ for teachers actually equates to a week of catching up on sleep, followed by whatever’s left of the not-in-school-scheduled-time taken up with planning, making resources, tidying up after the previous term’s activities and meeting with other teachers to accomplish the final bits of the plan. Oh, and shopping for all the stuff you’re going to need to fulfil the plan for the coming term. Planning every minute of every day is what I did for nearly twenty-five years so being faced with whole days, nay weeks of time to spend doing the unthinkable, engaging in unplanned adventures, became almost inconceivable to me.

Maybe I could read a bit… it is one of my all-time favourite things to do and goodness knows, reading on my sad and sorry old couch in the cold grey dimness of an English winter is definitely trumped by the thought of the same activity, but on the lovely, sun-kissed golden sands of a Caribbean island. Warm breezes in the salty air, bright colours to heighten the senses and no need to worry about what to cook for dinner, because that was someone else’s responsibility.

Yes, a holiday seemed like the best of ideas.

So, in spite of my increasing infirmities – walking is becoming progressively more challenging as is even standing, unaided, for more than a few minutes – we threw caution to the wind and booked the break. My FAB Hubby arranged for assistance on and off the plane for me and booked a suitable ground floor room so that I wouldn’t have to trouble myself with stairs. It was going to be perfect.

In my experience, travelling is half the fun of the adventure, as long as it’s not too problematic and to be fair, the journey to Cuba was great. Stepping off the plane into the wonderful warmth of a tropical isle is one of life’s little pleasures as far as I’m concerned. Clearing customs into Cuba was not.

I was wheelchair bound, in order to ensure that I didn’t have to walk through the terminal, which would have taken me most of the day I think. It was the first time I have experienced that utterly inexplicable behaviour that some people adopt when faced with a person in a wheelchair – that somehow they have been lobotomised and cannot hear you or speak for themselves. Official after official looked over my head to the person pushing the chair to ask for my details. It was infuriating! When my tone of voice betrayed my frustration, some were apologetic, but most simply shrugged and smiled, as if that somehow made things better.

I was determined not to let this upset me, but it would have tried the patience of a saint, which I am most certainly not.

Emerging from the torture chamber then into the bright sunshine and the onslaught of riotous colour that pervaded the car park was an immediate assailing of the senses. Vehicles of such age and variety I could only have imagined, with people everywhere; cab drivers touting for trade, tour operators trying to herd their charges towards the strangely Soviet-branded, possibly fairly elderly coaches, families trying to stay together, small children escaping with inexorable regularity. Within a few moments though, having smiled at each other for reassurance, I began to enjoy it all – the bustle, hustle and hurly-burly became like a tropical symphony of excitement, a whole new experience that might be just what I needed. We would be having FUN!

The journey to the hotel was a about an hour and a half – I was to come to realise that time travels very slowly in Cuba – along a remarkably bumpy (in parts) highway from the airport in Holguin to our resort hotel in Guardalavaca. Being an ‘assisted traveller’ has its perks – travelling at the front of the coach being one. This meant we had good views of the countryside and area through the main windscreen – I had an impression of typically tropical island life, big blue skies, patches of brown, dried earth interspersed with swathes of green, low utilitarian apartment blocks that wouldn’t be out of place in Minsk or Tbilisi, with many references to Che Guevara and of course, Fidel Castro.

Along the route we also encountered a variety of transport used in Cuba – bearing in mind that the country has existed in a ‘time bubble’ for the past half a century. Once out of the town, the highway became a two-lane road (one lane in each direction) built mostly along straight narrow lines – few bends in the road meant that we could see for long distances the road ahead, travelled by men on horseback, little horse-drawn open buggies, motorcycles (some with quite precarious-looking sidecars), heavy confederate lorries and other coaches. What we were looking for was the infamous cars – the 1940’s and early ’50’s massive gas-guzzlers, the American convertibles that are almost synonymous with Cuba. We weren’t disappointed.

I’ll leave the story for today with a couple of pictures of vehicles. They’re really amazing – huge, built like tanks and totally unwieldy, yet holding a romanticism that just can’t be bottled. ‘Til next time!