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Rovinj – another Istrian gem

Rovinj

I’m generally quite positive, upbeat even. Except when I’m tired. Or hungry. Or feeling ill. Then I can’t stand to be with myself let alone socialise with others. I retreat inwards. Any attempt to boost my mood or chivvy me back to normalcy is met with an almost childlike churlishness that borders on embarrassing. My usually low tolerance level sinks even further to the point where I’m better off left alone. I’ve been around myself long enough to see the signs and know when to hole up, recognising the valour in a strategic retreat to my world, population of one. But sometimes, such a retreat isn’t possible. Read more

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Village living

Walking down the village yesterday evening, lost in my own little world, I spied a vision ahead that had me wondering if the nip of házi vad körte pálinka (homemade wild pear brandy) I’d just had was doing something to my eyes. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing on main street Balatonmaygaród. Come to think of it, there are only two streets – Petőfi Sándor  and Dózsa György – and they intersect at a T-junction just by the church. That it’s not exactly a bustling metropolis is just one of the many charming things about it. Anyway, Petőfi  is the main street – the main road – the one that goes straight through the village. I was headed over to the neighbours for a game of croquet and smoked salmon sarnies. I know. It’s some life. But hey, someone has to live it. And it’d been a long day. And it was Friday.

The builders had arrived as usual, about 7.36 am. Eight of them. And by 7.50 am they were all at work. I’ll say one thing for the tradesmen who have worked or are working on the house – they know how to work. None of this breastfeeding shovel stuff or lolling around discussing what they might eventually get around to doing. Each man has his job and is busy doing it.  They even take lunch breaks in split shifts, choreographing their work so that not a minute is wasted. And all in good humour, too.

The eight were there to start for a couple of hours of blitz-like doing. Then they whittled down to four, only one of whom was a regular; the other three were new. And just when I’d gotten the hang of who took how many sugars in what, too.

They hung a plastic tarp to block the archway, more to keep the dust in than to keep me out (I hope) so I couldn’t really see what they were up to. I snuck a peek at one stage and saw the two plasterers waltzing around on their ladders, stepping to it, one in full voice, belting out rockabilly folk songs – in Hungarian. And what a voice. By mid-afternoon, he was starting in on his light opera repertoire. Carnegie Hall doesn’t know what it’s been missing. I was vaguely tempted to capture it on video but I thought better of it. Maybe his wife doesn’t know he sings and he’s been dodging the church choir for years. I couldn’t take the risk.

Friday, being Friday, we cracked open a few beers when they’d wrapped up for the day and were hanging around waiting on their lift. The gaffer arrived and doled out the pay packets and then produced the offending bottle of pálinka. I’d had a run-in with said beverage some time ago at a pig killing down in Békéscsaba and we’re only recently back on drinking terms. Some of this homemade stuff is at rotgut level, but this was lovely. Really smooth. As I’ve learned to my cost, it’s rude to refuse it, if offered. Just about the only acceptable excuse is that you’re driving or that you’re a teetotaler. But as I so obviously wasn’t either, with my grapefruit beer in hand (don’t I live the high life), I had to be polite. Propriety is my middle name.

So, having had a sip or two of the deadly pear, I took off down the street to keep my appointment at the Kánya Ház. It would be my croquet debut. After we’d had a nagyfröccs (2 dl white wine + 1 dl soda water) or two, to go with the Irish smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches (neat little crustless triangular works of culinary art that just begged to eaten  with one’s little finger cocked), we set up to play. I can’t say I got the style down. I was holding the mallet like I would a putter and eyeing up the ball (is it called a ball in croquet?) like I was on the 18th green playing for glory. I got the hang of the roquets and the croquets and I won. Both games. Not that I’m bragging. But I think I’ve found my calling.

But anyway, that’s not what I started to say. Back to my vision. The neighbour lady (I think she’s German) from a few doors up was out mowing her grass – the patch between the path and the road outside the house that each of us is responsible for. Now, remember those cheeky postcards from Brighton and Blackpool from the 1940s? She could have modelled for them. And there she was in all her glory, mowing the grass in her swimsuit and her floppy hat and not a bother on her.

You gotta love it. Especially when I think of how the old néni next door was berating me for letting myself go. I used to make an effort when I first arrived apparently – and now look at me. My wardrobe has shrunk to two pairs of shorts, a pair of crops, and seven t-shirts (two styles, different colours). Village life certainly has a way of stripping it all back to what matters. The basics.

And for those of you following the renovation , all is going to plan. András is here today finishing off the insulation and sheetrock. The place is looking bright and airy. And the open archway is making a massive difference to how it all looks.

 

 

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Mystery solved

I mentioned before that our new garden is full of surprises. As the trees, plants, and bushes bloom, we’re gradually getting to know what we’re living with. We’re still undecided whether we have apricots or peaches, but time will tell.

Our new domain, the Kis Balaton, has its own surprises. I’m not great at naming the various crops planted and unless they’re potatoes flowering or are already in bloom (like oil seed rape), I’m wrong more times than I’m right. And that, my friends, is taking some getting used to.

Right outside the village, I’ve watched a field of somethings grow taller and tried though I might, I was unable to put a name to what was growing there. This week, the mystery was solved. And I’m delira and excira to see a field of glorious sunflowers.

Many years ago, on one of my first forays out of Budapest, I saw fields and fields of these yellow beauties in all their glory. No matter how bad my mood, they’re guaranteed to make me smile. With temperatures soaring, and storms turning the power feed into a staccato-like chorus of on-again, off-again, bad humor is not infrequent, but not nearly as long-lasting as it might be in the city. I think I may becoming a nicer person. #lovinglifeinthevillage 🙂

I went in search of  a poem by William Blake that I vaguely remembered, and it says it all for me…

Ah! Sunflower

Ah! sunflower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveller’s journey is done;

Where the youth pined away with desire,
And the pale virgin shrouded in snow,
Arise from their graves and aspire;
Where my sunflower wishes to go.

Like Blake, I, too, am a little tired of the if onlys, and wish that more people (of all ages) would seize life by the petals and feel it, and live it, and be it. Sunflowers are planted, striving to reach a place they’ll never get to. Humans are not. We can move. We can follow the sun. We can turn our faces sunward and be positive. If we are fortunate enough to have a choice and not live under regimes who make our choices for us, we can choose where we go, what we do, and how we want to spend the short time we have on this Earth. By all means sunflower it – look at the sun and aspire to where and what you might want to be. But for Blake’s sake – move!

 

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A Little Time at Sea

Cappy got to us. We caved. Before heading cross country to Alajuela (with its fabulous cathedral) where we’d spend our last night in Costa Rica, we took him up on his offer. We had nearly three hours on the water. We caught a needle-nose but it got away. We went snorkelling but didn’t see any turtles, as the noise from the compressors on the nearby dive boats had driven them away. We got time on our white-sand beach and the crew did get us some scallops for lunch. And we saw lots of pelicans on weird looking islands. So all went to plan. Read more

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Jaguar Rescue Center

Catch anyone looking treeward in this part of the world and you can almost be certain that they’ve spotted a sloth. And it’s exciting. The fact that they’re metres above you, high in the trees is neither here nor there. That’s what zoom lenses are made for.

They’re quite something. They live in trees and only come down once a week to do their business – and always in the same place (bringing their intelligence into question). They have four stomachs and sleep more than 10 hours a day. All have three toes but some only have two fingers. And the retain their grip even when dead. mmmm… how can you tell a sleeping sloth from a dead one then?

We visited the Jaguar Rescue Center in Puerto Viejo one morning between beach sittings. The name is a tad misleading as jaguars were thin on the ground – but there’s a story.

In 2007 a baby jaguar was given to Encar [a Barcelona native] and Sandro. Her mother had been murdered because local farmers suspected she had killed two goats. The baby jaguar was dehydrated and very sick. Encar and Sandro did everything they could to save it but in the end the endangered baby jaguar died. Encar and Sandro decided to name their animal rescue center in honor of her and the Jaguar Rescue Center was born.

Their goal is to rehabilitate animals and reintroduce them back into their native habitats This isn’t always possible and some of their rescues are now permanent residents. Crocodiles who associate humans with food or ocelots who’ve become too fond of chicken. In operation for nine years, the Centre has quickly become the go-to place when tourists find injured animals on the roads or the police find them in drug raids. Power lines play havoc with the monkeys. Machetes are the weapon of choice against the cats. And the poor sloths don’t do well on the ground. [The intrepid LB spotted one limping on the side of the road. She stopped, bundled him up and brought him back to a tree. He seemed well able to grip so was perhaps only stunned.]

The rehabilitation process is simple at times – take the cats for a walk in the jungle and each day they go farther and farther ahead till the day they don’t come back. Toucans and sloths are easy to rehabilitate as they’re solitary creatures, but parrots need to find a mate before they’ll go back and monkeys need to find a family to hang with. Orphaned monkeys quickly identify with their human carer so to assimilate them back into a group, a volunteer needs to stay with them in their enclosure all day. When they’re first born, they’re fed like a baby with regular 3-hourly feeds during the night.

There’s an interesting volunteer programme that attracts willing help from all over the world. The guides know what they’re talking about and gave plenty of useful information that I never thought I’d need. Like, shiny frogs are poisonous. And when it comes to snakes:

Red on black, you’re alright Jack; red on yellow, kill the fellow.

Not that they’re advocating mass serpenticide – their advice regarding snakes (143 kinds in the country) is to simply stay away.

The 90-minute tour costs $20. The proceeds from the tour go back into the Centre as do all proceeds from sales at the gift shop. This place really lives its ethos. Tours are daily at 9.30 and 11.30. Worth stopping by if you’re in the neighbourhood. Worth checking out if you fancy volunteering for a few weeks.

It’s been a mad week of late nights and early mornings. Costa Rica seems to have its self together when it comes to the environment, looking after animals, and living clean. It’s slogan – Pura Vida – the Tico equivalent of the Swahali hakuna matata. Translated, it means pure life and it’s the law of the land in CR. Bitch that I may about the humidity and the heat, and the mozzies and the ants, I’m grateful that I’m getting to see part of Central America and to experience a way of life that is so laid back it’s still in the middle of last week. It’s no wonder so many foreigners forget to go home. I can certainly see the attraction. Except for the humidity, the heat, the mozzies…

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2017 Grateful 35

My Balkan love affair began back in 2010 with my first visit to Subotica (which I now know isn’t technically in the Balkans) and continued later that year with my first trip to Belgrade. It’s been a few years since I was last in Belgrade (I’ve been to many other cities since) and yet it’s still held its position as one of the top five cities in which I could live – were I to leave Budapest. Read more

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2017 Grateful 37

I like to eavesdrop. It’s not something I deliberately set out to do. There’s no conscious decision – Oh, today’s Saturday. I think I’ll go sit in a café and listen in on someone’s conversation. But if I’m there, and you’re at a table beside me, talking loudly enough to be overheard, I’ll listen. If I’ve nothing better to do. And I’m alone.

And there are many like me. There’s a fab repository called Overheard in Dublin, full of classic drops from the city.

Lately though, the quality of the drop has fallen dramatically. It’s all so boring. And trivial. And inane. It’s amazing what people can get so worked up over – C’mon man, like, yeah, like, Canadians definitely have an accent, like, for sure, mon.

I was in Trinidad, enjoying a coffee in the shadow of the nineteenth-century cathedral, surrounded by other tourists on day-release from the all-inclusive Playa Ancun. There they were, miles from their suburban North American homes, in Cuba, in Trinidad, in a UNESCO city steeped in history with as yet just one foot in the twenty-first century. And all that was on their minds was the exchange rate. I know, I can fixate a little on that, too. But there isn’t 30 minutes worth of conversation in it. Is there?

[BTW – turns out, even though my bank changed the CUC to USD before taking it in EUR, it is still cheaper to use an ATM in Cuba (if you can find one) than to exchange cash.]

To my left, sitting on a wall, was an older man. Let’s call him Hector.  He looked liked a Hector. He was grinning away to himself, laughing up a storm. He had a bottle of what looked like rum and a cigarette and was enjoying life no end. His wardrobe looked like it had see a wash or seventy and he himself was a little worse for wear.

When the band struck up, he started to bop. At first in his seat on the wall, and then on the steps out in front of everyone. He wasn’t doing it for money. He wasn’t doing it for attention. He was doing it because the music got to him.

Conversations carried on around me. Comparisons were being made between Cuba and St Lucia. Between Cuba and The Bahamas. Between Cuba and anywhere else people had been and Cuba wasn’t coming out of it very well. All the while, Hector kept on dancing and laughing.

Song over, he came back to his wall perch and gave me a big smile. He thumbed at the table next to me and shrugged as if to say ‘They don’t realise how good life is.’

And he smiled again. And I smiled back and thought what a hames we make of life when we over-complicate it, when we forget that simplicity, in is simplest form, is worth appreciating. Hector’s life seemed uncomplicated. He spends his days sitting in the shade by the steps near the Cathedral watching the world go by, sipping his rum and smoking his cigarettes. And dancing. The bar staff slip him the odd drink and the band like having him around. He gets fed. No complications. His smile seemed genuine and his happiness real.

The lesson was there for the taking. Keep it simple. Enjoy the moment. Don’t make it any more complicated than it is by looking back on yesterday or looking forward to tomorrow. Live today.

And for that reminder, Hector, thank you.

I shook his hand and slipped him a fiver as I was leaving. He dropped a cigar into my bag and put his finger to his lips in that universal gesture of silence, and winked. Enough said.

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2017 Grateful 38

I’ve heard the stories. A sister dying in Ireland a minute after her brother died in Australia (they say he picked her up on his way by). An otherwise healthy mother dying the day after her daughter (think Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher). Apparently there is such a thing as broken heart syndrome. Back in 1990  Japanese researchers called it Takotsubo syndrome.  It’s also known as the widowhood effect. It’s got something to do with the heart being assaulted by a sudden, massive release of stress hormones. It’s like a heart attack, except that the arteries are fine.

In Cienfuegos, in Cementerio de la Reina (Cemetery of the Queen) sits the grave of a 24-year-old-woman who supposedly died of a broken heart back in 1907. La Bella Durmiente. The sleeping beauty.

The cemetery, named after Queen Isabella of Spain, opened its ground in 1837. It’s on the other side of town – far from the yacht club and the villas. And sitting as it does in what looks like the middle of a nowhere trying to be a somewhere, adds to  its otherness.  It’s not nearly as impressive in terms of notable notables or statuary as the Colón in Havana, but it’s got more by way of atmosphere and personality. Colón is like a rich debutante, outwardly confident and inwardly uncertain, whereas La Reina is more like a middle-aged beauty comfortable in her own skin. And she’s definitely a she; statues of men are few and far between. [The last time this struck me about a cemetery was in Milan.]

A local woman, perhaps a cemetery employee, asked where we were from. When we said Ireland, she took us to an Irish grave. I wondered what she’d have done had we said Hungary. But Irish? In Cuba? From the 1800s? How did that happen?

Back in the 1820s, the sugar industry was booming. Slavery was big. The plantation owners wanted to boost their numbers  and have more white guys on hand to keep the slaves in check. So, get this: the Council for White Population went to Maryland, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania and rounded up a few hundred Irish, along with French and Canary Islanders, and tempted them to come start the ‘white colony’ of Cienfuegos.

Marina was the daughter of Limerick man, John O’Bourke, who was one of the Irish to take the Council up on its offer. He married locally and in true Irish form, had ten children. He called his plantation Nueva Hibernia and was known around the place as Juan. On his death, the plantation was sold, although Juan Jnr still had a share in it and was himself administrator of another plantation worked by 500 slaves.

Marina, one of the daughters (I think of Juan Jnr), was an abolitionist. She owned one domestic slave, Matilde, whom she would later help buy her freedom. Once free, and funded by Marina, Matilde herself became a wealthy property owner, lending money, in turn, to Cabildo Real Congo, a black mutual-aid society. Like her former mistress, she, too had a social conscience and worked tirelessly towards racial equality in the new independent Cuban.

Of course, we missed  Barrio O’Bourke, where the family settled and were I to go back, it’d be on my list of places to see. Needless to say, I found out all of this back at my desk in Googleland and see from the comments on Mapping the Irish in Cuba, that a certain Don Morfa of Yaguaramas is thought to have been a Murphy from home. Imagine. The things you learn.

With the remains of soldiers from the Spanish Wars of Independence buried above ground level in the walls, the world seemed well represented. It’s a beautiful spot. Definitely worth the effort. [Check this blog for some great photos.]

I’ve had a bad week. I’m still buggy. I feel like the Irish Sea is sloshing around in my head. I only ventured out when I absolutely had to and even then I was an embarrassment of tissues and phlegm. I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but this week, I’m grateful for the Internet and the wealth of information I can pull up in seconds. It really does open new worlds at the push of a button. And while my brain wasn’t able to concentrate on much by way of work, it benefited enormously from the between-headache educational dalliances with Google. In another life, I met Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, and I met the inimitable Louis Pouzin, inventor of the datagram, and were I to meet them again, I might be a tad more effusive with my thanks.

 

 

 

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2017 Grateful 39

There’s something quite lovely about visiting a cemetery on a clear, 30-degree, blue-sky day. I’m a great fan of tombstones and would happily spend my holidays going from one graveyard to another but there are limits. I’ve not yet figured exactly why I’m so fascinated but it’s enough that I am.  If I’m in company, I settle for one in each city. It’s not for everyone. In addition to commemorating lives spent fruitfully or fruitlessly, cemeteries are outdoor sculpture parks. And very often, the leading local architects have the most interesting graves. It was in a cemetery in Warsaw that I saw my first headstone that listed the profession of the interred – an architect. I think it was in Belgrade that I saw a headstone designed as a futuristic building – again an architect. And in Havana, by far the most eye-catching grave (purely because of its oddity and ungravelikeness) was also that of an architect – José F. Mata. Mata is probably better known as the business partner of one Leonardo Morales y Pedroso – who seems to have won just about every notable commission going in the city.

Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) opened in 1876, its first guest being the architect who designed it: Calixto Arellano de Loira y Cardoso. It’s mapped a little like a small city, sitting on ca. 150 acres, with a main street leading from the gate to a chapel that looks a tad like a miniature Italian d’uomo. It’s off this wide avenue that the main players are buried. The sides streets and less-travelled neighbourhoods are home to those who didn’t quite make the big time. Rank and file still applies in death. Amazing.

Stats say that more than 1 million people have been laid to rest here (a temporary respite for some, as with space at a premium some bones are being put into storage to make way for newcomers). I can’t quite figure out how the storage system works. Lots of the graves and mausoleums have been abandoned because families are living abroad – so upkeep is obviously a problem. Are those the first to be targeted?

Throughout the city of Havana you’ll find reference to the great fire of 17 May 1890 and those firefighters who died in an attempt to control it. Here, at Colón, there’s a 75-foot-tall memorial to those men, the hanging pods on the chain-link surround representing the tears shed when they died. It’s quite something.

I had only one visit on my list (because I was ill=prepared and didn’t do my homework). It was to pay my respects to Ibrahim Ferrer Planas, a member of the original Buena Vista Social Club. A worker spotted us looking and took it upon himself to give an impromptu, and unsolicited tour, for which he expected €5, the same as the entrance fee. From all I understand, this expectation is new – in its infancy – and can even be timed to the arrival of the first cruise ship last year. But hey – we only had 3CUC between us and it was that or a smile. He got both.

Had I done my homework, I’d have spent more time looking for photographer Alberto Korda’s grave (1928–2001). I love his work. He took the iconic photo of Ché titled Guerrillero Heroico that Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick used for his equally iconic facial caricature used on t-shirts the world over.

I’d also have taken the time to search out socialite Mary McCarthy Gomez Cueto (1900–2009), the Canadian widow of a wealthy Cuban businessman who died in poverty. Back in the day, Frank Sinatra was a neighbour. She refused to leave Cuba and couldn’t get at her money because of the US embargo after the Communist takeover. She lived on a tiny pension and died at 108, buried alongside her husband. Quite the gal. And her dad was Irish.

Although confined to a wheelchair after breaking a hip in 2002, she continued to wear a satin dress, silk blouse, chiffon scarf and lipstick for her stream of visitors, just as she had done in the days when she helped to found the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra and danced at the Havana yacht club. But she was reduced to wearing plastic pearls and earrings instead of the jewellery which, along with three gold rosaries, was in the First National Bank in Boston; and she was keenly aware that the joy had gone out of Havana, even if there was full employment.

And I’d have dropped by and said hello to William Lee Brent, an American in exile in Cuba for 37 years – and a member of the Black Panthers. He hijacked a passenger plane in 1969 from Oakland, CA, and diverted it to Cuba where he defected, because Cuba…

had eliminated racism and welcomed all revolutionaries, regardless.

They jailed him for 22 months thinking he just might be a spy. Some guys just can’t catch a break, eh. His biography is now on my list of books to read. Fascinating.

 

But the grave that gets the most attention is one of Amelia Goyri, perhaps better known as  La Milagrosa (the Miraculous). She died while giving birth back on 3 May 1903. She was just 23. Her husband José Vicente Adot y Rabell was distraught. He believed that she was simply sleeping. He visited the grave every day for years, each time knocking on it three times to wake her up. Story has it that she was buried with her baby at her feet yet when the remains were exhumed (not sure why), Amelia was intact and was now holding her baby son in her arms.

As the story spread and more and more people came to visit Amelia, Cuban sculptor José Vilalta Saavedra turned a piece of Carrara marble into a life-size statue of a young woman. Her left arm holds a baby. Her right arm rests on a cross, something that apparently signifies a sacrifice.

While we were there, there was a steady stream of visitors, each one knocking on the grave three times, and then walking backwards away from it, as Amelia’s husband is said to have done, so that he could keep her in sight for as long as possible. Today, visitors pray to her to protect their kids, they pray for a safe childbirth, they pray to defy the biological odds and have children of their own.

I didn’t know this then, but I knocked. And I prayed. And I walked away backwards. Relax… I said a prayer of thanks, yet again, for the blessed life I lead, for the places I get to visit, and for the people I get to meet along the way. For all this, I’m truly grateful.

 

 

 

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Grateful 42 and 41

I brought back a lot more from Cuba than I bargained for. We won’t mention the extra kilos from the sugar in the mojitos and the full-fat coke in the Cuba Libres. We won’t mention the mozzie bites and the unsettling notion of the Zika virus. And we certainly won’t mention what has become a 72-hour stomach bug that grounded me on my last day in Havana, made the 24-hour-trip home less than pleasant, and has kept me housebound all day. They’re all incidental.

Cuba is a lot of things – dirty, decrepit, in a state of disrepair and yet amazingly beautiful. But one thing it ain’t is cheap. It might have been in days of yore but now that it’s opening up to outside influences, everyone is on the make. We must have flushed the bones of €50 down the toilet. It took me a while to figure out that just because there was a 1 CUC coin (€1/$1) in the plate didn’t mean I had to add another. But smaller coins were greeted with a look of disdain that took more than a little getting used to and gave rise to many internal debates about supporting a local economy (which I’m all for) and being taken for a ride (which I resent).

Locals appearing at our side offering what appeared to be helpful information about whatever it was we were looking at balked at a measly  1 CUC, expecting about 5 for their two minutes of unsolicited intervention. This, despite the fact that it was usually in Spanish and my Spanish is not nearly as good as my Hungarian. Expectations are high and are obviously being fed by the other classes of tourist – the wealthy ones, who stay at the posh hotels – and the group travellers who frequent the all-inclusive resorts. Those, like us, who booked our own accommodation (home-stays) and transport (private cars), eschewing anything by way of organised tours, we got to deal with those expectations. [Taking refuge close to a decent loo in the lobby of a posh hotel in Havana on Parque Central when the bug first hit, I overheard a conversation between a local tour rep and a British guy who had paid £5000 for his room – the best room in the hotel – only to find he’d been tucked in room at the back that had sh*t on the bedsheets. We’d booked a homestay down on the Malecón promenade, with a room overlooking the water for €30 a night. Granted we had to navigate four flights of narrow, less-than-clean stairs to get to it, but it was worth it.]

I’d been told that queues are the tell. A line of people (foreigners and locals) heralds one of three things: a working ATM, an exchange bureau, or a place selling internet cards. I take the first two for granted but to find a city the size of Trinidad with just one bank (two ATMs one of which was out of order) and one exchange bureau, that threw me. Thankfully, we’d brought euro as the mighty dollar attracts an additional 10% fee on exchange. Many of the traders would give 1 for 1, euro to CUC, and some exchange places gave more. Havana though – that’s the trap. The best we did there was 0.95. Internet cards for 1 or 5 hours can be bought and used anywhere you see a large crowd sitting around on their phones. The lines from Matthew (18:20) came to mind: For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. And not for the first time I wondered if the Internet has become a new god. The Cubans love their phones.

I’d been told to bring soap, as a gift, that it was hard to come by. But it wasn’t until Trinidad that I had the first inkling of locals signaling that they wanted me to give them my clothes – the ones I was wearing. It was bloody hot so I’d little by way of spares to give, but it was a tad disconcerting. It was outside Trinidad in the Valle de los Ingenios that people started asking for soap but the dozen bars I’d brought with me were back in the cassita. I compensated by buying stuff I didn’t want or need for way more than the asking price. It’s hard not to. Remember the food shortages in the 1990s that led to the average Cuban losing up to a third of their body weight? It still shows in the older population.

For the most part, prices vary as they do everywhere. Expect to pay between €1.60 and €2.00 for cigarettes; €1.60 and €2.50 for local beer (Bucanero was my favourite); €2.50 to €5.50 for cocktails; and €5 to €15 for a plate of chicken/pork with the accompanying rice and black beans. Taxis are another story – the best value are the private individuals who pull up and ask you where you want to go. They won’t have a taxi sign or might not even know where they’re going; they’re simply in it to eat. All you have to do is to stand around and look confused (which isn’t hard). The regular taxi drivers seem to charge what they like – I never once saw a meter and again, the conversation between supporting the local economy and being ripped off was had more than once.

I’d been told that two days was plenty for Havana. We had four nights, and three full days and didn’t even come close to cracking the surface. You need a least a week to do it justice. There is so much more to the place than the Viejo.

So despite the extra kilo, the mozzie bites, and the stomach bug, I’m grateful I went and went now rather than later. Massive changes are on the horizon. The cruise ships are docking. Expectations are high. And the crafty few are out to make their money. There’s a danger that Havana will turn into a tourist theme park and that the beach resorts will become compounds within which tourists are fed a diet of ‘authentic’ experiences that would put Disney to shame. If it’s on your list, make it soon.