Back to my second home

5.30 am and as the sun breaks over Choma Hill I am woken by the familiar Call to Prayer…. which means I am back in Mekelle. Here to escape the winter weather, along with a new knee which is improving all the time and an old knee which is steadily deteriorating – but performs better in the warm. I now know that a metal knee sets off the airport alarms – though they’re presumably used to it – one guard just looked at my middle aged wrinkles and said “hip?”
Back to the house and garden which has been neglected for the last 2 months – the dust and overgrowth had to be seen to be believed! Elias, who drives our car, was supposed to be looking after it – but he’s living at his mother’s place in Addis while the car is in the garage (more of that later).
My first job was to undertake fridge-rescue. Like an idiot I had left some food in the freezer which had experienced an extended power cut at some time so the contents had defrosted, gone off and then re-frozen. Ponged a bit but it could have been worse. The house was dusty, dusty, dusty….but a day or two of Flash and elbow grease has worked wonders but not on my hands. I am seriously considering getting some punk-style black nail polish (will I ever get them clean again?) I have persuaded the ants to go back to walking round the outside instead of all across the terrace and have done a hatchet job on the surviving pot plants – though I gather that the landlord took pity on them and watered occasionally.

Having nothing edible in the fridge I chipped myself a cube of semi-solid Nescafe to make a cuppa and decided to have some porridge … on opening the tin I changed my mind. An appetite-suppressing but fascinating sight! A couple of tiny white caterpillars were busy converting my oats into a white spiderweb-like latticework. I left them to it – but the question still remains in my head “were the insects already in the tin the last time I made porridge?” I will never know. I had some rather dusty non-infested pasta and cheese excavated from my suitcase. Since then I have been peering suspiciously into every dry goods container – so far I have spied nothing moving.

The garden is a work in progress – though it looks a lot better now I’ve gussied up the bananas – they are so untidy. I am thrilled to find that one of them is fruiting, I have never eaten my own home grown bananas – I hope they ripen. The rest I will do in short stages… lots of leaf gathering, dead heading the enormous geraniums and trying to control the type of tropical grass which snakes across the ground to trip you up and when you pull it is 2 metres long. None of your prissy lawn stuff here. Of course an early job was to reinstate my purple chairs under the palm trees – after all that hard work a girl has to have somewhere for that relaxing gin and tonic, and the sun is shining which makes it all seem less of a chore.

But more of the car, poor old ‘Boris’ is in the Nissan garage in Addis having some really nasty dents knocked out, the mechanics checked and all the glass replaced. Elias (who is an excellent driver) apparently swerved to avoid a mentally handicapped boy who simply walked into the road – and he hit the ditch, rolling over on one of the mountain roads. He was working on a tourist trip as staff support car so there was him, the cook, the pathfinder and the police guard – but amazingly the four of them all walked away with just a few scratches. The roof rack would have been loaded halfway to the sky with equipment… so it must have been quite a sight with pots and pans, sleeping bags, mattresses, plastic stools etc etc scattered over the hillside. The policeman made out a witness report so the insurance company is footing the bill – though I shudder to think what it will do to next year’s premium.

Elias is having to liaise (daily it seems) between the garage and the insurance office as the garage won’t order any part or do any work until they get the money up front. But the insurance will only pay for one job/ part at a time, then he has to prove that the work has been done before getting a quote/ release for the next item. There is no system like ours of an agreed price for repair between insurer and garage. Here neither trusts the other so everything takes a long time and a lot of negotiation. In true Ethiopian fashion Elias remains sanguine, but I hope the car is ready for the main tourist period starting soon as it is supposed to earn its keep.

More soon……..

New House -settling in

At last I feel as though I have found somewhere to settle as long as I want to be in Mekelle. I looked at this house before and it wasn’t available. Fairly old – so a little shabby, but freshly painted inside, solidly built in its own compound, it has character and all the important services work.
It’s built in tropical style with the rooms opening out off a half window and half mosquito netting corridor which allows air flow but limits bugs. Faces basically west, so I get the sunset and afternoon sun, but a wide overhang keeps the inside quite cool even in the heat of the day. The bonus is the garden – well established with tropical trees (I wonder if I will get my own banana crop) with two huge palms which allow a lovely shadowy area to have the essential liquid sundowner….and yes those are my famous purple chairs – still in use.

Colour scheme is distinctly Ethiopian – a rather ghastly brown in the bathroom and an unlikely pink and yellow combination in the kitchen… but they will be easily solved in time. Lots of brown… but offset with white in the roomy lounge and bedroom.

The steps outside the main doors are a useful place for chores – my friend and car driver Elias helping out by tackling my grubby shoes, and me having a go at washing Ethio style – but with a distinct paucity of suds and a decided lack of biceps activity. Clothes hung sopping wet straight onto the line dry in a couple of hours relatively crease-free.
It’s a joy to step out for breakfast in the cool of the morning, siesta in the heat of the day, and take many of my chores out into the garden. I just love this relaxed warm sunshiny life-style………. Cheers!

Extreme washing

Long time no blog… so I thought I better catch up and yes, I’m still here in Mekelle. Watching the family who live at the back of my flat, I realize that Ethiopian women work hard in a way we really haven’t experienced in the mechanized west for 50 years.
When they are not undertaking the beating of the injera batter (it takes 72hours of daily beating to create the right level of fermentation, so they have several batches on the go at a time) Ethiopian ladies also indulge in a great deal of pounding of beans/ seeds etc using a wooden pestle the sound reverberating around the compound walls. They often do several things simultaneously including washing and talking very loudly. TV is pretty rubbish, no-one seems to sew or knit or read, though injera musob (container) coverings are sometimes crocheted in lurid 2ply wool. Reminiscent of my grandmother’s era, my landlady also has a wool crocheted doily on everything. It seems there is a standard pattern they all use.
The ladies based below my flat in the same compound appear to be addicted to very loud socializing and washing. Despite the country being short of water and having more than one water storage tank we still run out of water in the compound from time to time and if you glance at the photo you’ll understand why.
To the regularly-worshipping on-site matriarch (aka Mama) cleanliness appears to be next to godliness – so they wash constantly…. anything and everything that will fit in a very large bowl of water. They wash because it’s a Wednesday, or a particular saint’s day (and there are hundreds of those a year) and we will be facing a ritual marathon just before Easter when not only anything made of fabric but all the kitchen bowls and equipment and much of the furniture etc are scoured to with an inch of their lives – with great clattering in the courtyard. I make sure I have an emergency supply of water in a jerry can that week. Having said that, it does remind me a little of my Yorkshire grandmother’s comprehensive spring cleaning when the sun first appeared in the UK after a coal-fired winter.
I’ve never seen anything like it – on this occasion when I hung over the balcony and snitched a snap of the latest episode I counted no fewer than 11 bowl of varying sizes – all filled with water and different items of clothing/ upholstery etc in different stages of ‘processing’. They use a great big sloosh of liquid soap so the first bowls are billowing over with suds which take several subsequent bowlfuls to rinse out. Several of the huge bowls they raise up on a bench to make the washing process less back-breaking… (I notice that next door they use old tractor tyres for the same job) and boy do they wash! Pounding the clothes against the river stones has nothing on these girls, they must have biceps of iron; items are wrung until the fabric squeaks – everything must fall to bits quite quickly. Washing is battered into submission (there is simply no other word) and the whole courtyard will be filled with closely packed lines of drying sheets, blankets, towels, bedspreads, loose covers as well as multiple items of clothing etc etc. Underwear is either not worn or hidden from sight. Fortunately in this climate, most things dry within an hour or two so the line keeps being cleared and refilled, the whole process repeated sometimes twice a week. Considering there are only two of them and the long suffering maid who has to do most of the work, there seem to be a vast quantity of things to wash.
Contrary to Mama’s suspicions – I do wash my belongings etc, regularly – but having more interesting things to occupy my time, I rinse things through when I need to, not because it’s Santa Maria or a Tuesday. I have had to invest in a load more pegs for fear of my dresses and sheets ending up two streets away as it is so windy up on the roof where I hang my things… but they dry almost instantly it seems. You can actually see a fine spray of water droplets being flapped out of items as they fly horizontally. The peculiarly UK winter smell of laundry drying indoors round radiators is unknown here, I was reminded of it when I was back in a particularly damp January recently.
I have to confess rather shame-facedly that I have been chastised by Mama because when I was away she came snooping and a) she found some dust under the bed and b) discovered I hadn’t washed my net curtains twice in the last year….. AND I haven’t done the loose covers on the lounge suite at all. I only sit on the end of the sofa to watch TV in the evenings – so it had never crossed my mind that I should. But I’ve no intention of conforming – I’m obviously just a grubby, non-worshipping ferengi, and therefore probably beyond redemption. Nevertheless, I am moving to a quieter compound at ground level next month, and she will be free to wash these curtains and dust under the beds to her heart’s content.

Cuba day 7



After the usual satisfying breakfast , we made an uneventful 4 hour journey into Havana. At government run pit-stops the expectation of serving staff was that we must be German, in fact we represented US, Oz, NZ and UK between us. It seems the majority of visitors are from northern Europe, Columbia or Mexico. We arrived at today’s Casa building to discover that most of us were billeted on the 6th and 7th floor, and the lift had broken down. As these colonial buildings have rooms with 15-20ft ceilings – 7 stories is a helluva long way up. Our suitcases are heavy, the stairs are very steep, dark and narrow without a handrail, and I really didn’t think I could make it up and down several times. I felt quite embarrassed to have to ask the guide if she could find me something a little lower down – which she eventually did. I am now in a comfortable room on the 2nd floor, with an elderly Cuban lady who empathized with my creaky knees and whipped down her trousers to show off her (very neat) hip replacement scar.



We were scheduled for a ‘tourist view’ of the city in 3 open topped classic cars…. Off we went but after 10 minutes the heavens really opened. Two cars had roofs to fold over, but one did not – so 4 of the group and the driver got absolutely drenched. Ours had a roof but no windows so everyone still got wet. At least it was warm rain. Fortunately everyone took it in good spirits, and the restaurant we were headed to was very helpful, handing out towels and directing the fans at us to dry our hair. One of our group seemed to spend ages in the ladies – it turned out that she was drying her knickers under the hand dryer. We enjoyed a tasty meat meal (the fish supply had run out), and then headed to the Hotel International overlooking the bay for a final drink. The Hotel, opened in 1930 is renowned for hosting many famous people, royalty, presidents and film-stars over the years, but is now well past its best, relying on the kudos of the famous faces pictured on the bar walls to bring in the tourists – our guide says it is too expensive for the quality of service…. but it’s on the list of ‘must see/ do’.












Havana is big, sprawling and simply indescribable, and probably needs at least a week or more to do it justice – not possible on this trip. During our brief tour in the rain we travelled through apparently abandoned streets, once beautiful houses falling apart, roads with mud and pot-hole craters, stray dogs and litter galore in the old city. Cheek by jowl were perfect dual carriageways spruce grandiose government monumented areas, huge shiny university and medical establishments and green and leafy parks in the new city. One has to constantly look upwards in old Havana – most of the activity seems to go on at first floor and above… with decoration, restoration and residences above ground floors which look completely derelict. Music drifts out of what looks like a building site. In fact music drifts out of everywhere…. I have a few hours tomorrow before leaving for the airport, so I’m going to explore and take a few photos to show you what I mean.
I have to say, I didn’t warm to Havana in the short time I had there – I had not realized the level of dereliction of the residential areas and it really got to me in the end, even though it has a long and fascinating history. I am sure there are hidden pockets of arts and culture which we didn’t explore, but most of it will be way beyond the average Cuban’s pocket. The buildings are huge and multi-occupied –a dwelling looking as though it was in Aleppo would have washing hanging out on the seventh floor. Mind you, remembering our out of use lift, perhaps they are trapped up there. I understand that mostly people rent and that the buildings/ individual flats are owned by USA absent landlords.
Many of the most ostentatious buildings were built when the American gamblers and mafia exited USA during Prohibition, the buildings left to rot when Castro evicted them back to the USA in the 50’s. I spotted old men sitting on chairs chatting and reading the papers under an arch that would have been condemned anywhere else. Contrast that with the ‘official’ buildings that are being renovated, or are maintained in pristine condition. It must have been magnificent once… and perhaps when the US$ comes back –it will be again. Meat and vegetables were for sale on street stalls –but the shops were half empty with desultory window displays, everywhere was decrepit.
It is hot, so people wear T-shirts, skirts/ tight dresses or shorts and flip-flops – few Cubans we saw were smartly dressed. Unhealthy ‘abdominal fat’ shapes abound. I walked until the rain drove me back to the Casa to pick up my bags. The lift had been fixed – but was distinctly scary, with big holes, a broken gate and a clattering and banging as it descended very slowly.
Anyway, it was back to the queues at the airport – you are not allowed to take CUC’s out of the country but will only exchange to Euros which I hardly ever hardly use … but better than nothing. Back to Heathrow via Bogota, then transfer to an Addis flight and hopefully to Mekelle arriving in 48 hours time and an 8 hour time difference … oh the joys of long distance travel. Made me feel tired just writing that last sentence.
Would I recommend Cuba / would I visit again? Possibly. The people are lovely, the country needs the tourist dollar. Perhaps next time I would explore more of Havana, take my snorkeling gear (the beaches and reefs are said to be lovely) or investigate the S/E end of the island.

Cuba day 6











Most of the group took themselves off for energetic hiking/ cave exploring activities in the Mogotes (limestone monoliths) – but as they all involved a lot of walking and I had absolutely no desire to hop on a horse, I decided to spend my time exploring the town. I’m always more interested in how the locals of any place live – and for me one mountain is much the same as another. Had a pleasant lazy morning at the Casa writing these blogs and sorting out the photos intending to download them quickly at the airport (well that was the plan) …. as that may be my last contact with the internet for a while. Escaped for some indifferent tapas and a cold beer, finally driven out by the continuous wailing of a toddler in the next house and the very loud shouting of older children hanging about in what is, actually, their own back yard.

The Lonely Planet says that virtually every house in Vinales is a tourist Casa – and this appeared to be true. A great number seem to be anticipating an influx in the near future with many buildings being extended front, back or upwards. Vinales does rocking chairs… rocking chairs everywhere, especially on the open porches but also in the living rooms! It seems to represent the laid back attitude of a community where time is not important and everywhere I walked there were people sitting on porches out of the sun just gently rocking to and fro – not doing anything in particular.

I tried to find a locals’ scene, and once again was frustrated. There simply is no ‘shopping town centre’ as we would understand it. Lots of stalls on the streets or on front porches selling touristy items (not as good as Trinidad), but I found only two stalls tucked away selling small amounts of fruit and vegetables. Here in the most fertile valley in the country, there appear to be no domestic vegetable gardens or allotments. Apparently government farms can sell surplus to locals, certainly the food we had at the farm restaurant last night was excellent. A couple of our group visited a tobacco farm on their walk where the farmer said that “90% of his crop was sold to the government, the remaining 20% was his to sell for himself”. I know… you do the maths!

I found the government ration store, the Internet card sales outlet/ hotspot (always painted bright blue) and a ‘general’ store with an eclectic mix of items for sale, but not much choice. Clothes in one corner, shoes in another, fridges over there, lighting in the fourth. No cleaning or cosmetic products, no obvious pharmacy – one of our group whose electric razor died, failed to find a replacement razor anywhere in town. (But such is the helpfulness of the Cuban Casa owners – lo and behold the next day he was once again clean shaven – the owner of the house had scouted round the neighbours to find a new razor for him.) The houses are reasonably well appointed – so where do they purchase things?? Our guide told me that people go to Havana to shop (3 hours drive away) but that national shortages of essentials such as toilet paper are common. A ‘supermarket’ had more bottles of rum than tins of produce on sale.

It’s quite strange to think that under-developed as Ethiopia is – it is easier to obtain the range of products one might need, (even if there is not a lot of choice) and the shops are better supplied. Every street has at least one artisan worker – many making be-spoke objects such as gates in metal, some in wood such as chairs, wardrobes and beds. Tailors with their treadle machines make and mend on every corner in town, and masses of small-holders sell produce direct from the fields. Mekelle town centre is a really bustling place compared to Cuban towns.

After my leisurely exploration – a siesta was essential especially as it is uncomfortably hot and humid. Out again at 6pm to meet the others for a sundowner at the farm/ restaurant we visited last night. Their Pina Coladas are to die for… they make the basics, then simply put a bottle of rum on the table for you to top-up yourself. We were lucky enough to latch onto another group who were having a tour of the gardens. The guide told us that during the ’starvation years’ that Castro permitted some people to apply to obtain government farm land for domestic food production. This restaurant owner was able to obtain an unused sloping piece of land. He terraced it and was so successful that he was allowed more land, he now grows all the produce he needs organically for his award-winning restaurant and sells the surplus to locals.

Cuba day 5

Trinidad to Vinales
This is the longest road trip, and takes us well past Havana to the West. Cuba is a long narrow Caribbean island which sits roughly West – East with its Northern side just below the Tropic of Cancer and its Southern side close to Jamaica and Haiti. Our guide told us about the hurricane preparations in the island which are so successful that there has been no loss of life for many years. From school age the children learn the protective procedures to follow when a hurricane is predicted or strikes –and despite the obvious poor maintenance of old Havana buildings,the solid buildings appear to be pretty robust.

Most of the island is roughly 250-300ft above sea level, and is generally very green and fertile as it has high rainfall. Farmland is owned by the government who rent it out to farmers but householders are allowed to own the land on which their houses are built. The total population is only 11m so there are long distances between towns and villages and vast swathes of cultivated farmland. There don’t appear to be the small rural enclaves such as we would see in Africa. Much of the hedgerows are swathed in a rampaging convolvulus-like creeper which causes the effect of the shrubbery and small trees of being swathed in a soft green duvet. Vinales – the area we were headed to, is mountainous and the valleys very fertile, so this is one of the main tobacco growing areas and there were many fields beside the road with tobacco about 3ft high. In the rural area there were rather American-looking clap-board houses, with huge triangular thatched outhouses which we were told are where the tobacco is dried. Goodness knows what would happen to the Cuban economy if the whole world stopped smoking.

After an uneventful but rather tedious journey, made an hour longer by one of our party forgetting to hand in his Casa key so we had to go back and return it, we reached our destination – which is a small town rather too geared up to tourists with many Casas and a couple of ‘4*’ government hotels boasting swimming pools. The main attractions seem to be hiking in the mountains, horse-riding or visiting either the beaches or caves. Having encountered several large tourist groups in both Trinidad and en-route we all agreed (dreadfully snobbishly) that we are glad we’ve come to Cuba now as the hotels and restaurants can barely cope with current numbers. Interestingly we have not encountered any tourists with children – perhaps they head for the beaches.

2 main streets of Vinales are made up of single storey concrete dwellings with covered verandahs, painted in lots of different colours, with small individual gardens. I’m not sure how pre-arranged or scientific the process was, but as the tour bus drew up many locals came out to meet us. Dayana quickly linked ones and twos of our group to individual home owners – in what seemed a relatively arbitrary way, “you two to the yellow house”. Still we all found a billet for the next 2 nights. I am in Casa Alain’s guest annex – a pleasant young lady checked me in, with a rather pretty, but very loud voiced parakeet on the table outside my room. I hope it shuts up overnight! When we check in we have to hand over our passports so that the numbers, expiry date etc can be recorded in a government register along with our signatures. All the Casas have the same basic facilities – they have to reach certain standards to be registered to take tourists, and display the signboard. Of course they are taxed on the income, and failure to register a guest will result in licence removal so they are very punctilious.

We arrived late, so missed the sunset view over the valley so headed straight to dinner. After one of the best meals we have had at a local farm/restaurant (superb avocados, cassava ‘poppodums’, rice’n’beans, multiple boiled root vegetables and meltingly tender beef and pork) and a luscious pina-colada – we went into the town centre plaza and suffered one of the worst ear-shatteringly loud and un-tuneful Cuban bands imaginable! Well you can’t win them all, so back to the Casas – and a good night’s sleep, at least the parakeet has gone to bed.

Cuba day 3

Cuba Day 3
Cienfuegos to Trinidad
From Cienfuegos we headed north/east to Santa Clara to view the mausoleum/museum of Dr Ernesto (Che) Guevara. Santa Cara is where Che Guevara masterminded the defeat of Batista in 1958 to give power to Fidel Castro. Not as macabre as you might imagine – but quietly and respectfully atmospheric. His remains were retrieved from Bolivia where he was killed and reinterred here in 1997 in a specially built cave-like mausoleum – a cool, low dark room created as the clearing in the forest where he died. Faces of those who died with him are carved into the rock and a permanent ‘stream’ runs through the vegetation beside an eternal flame placed by President Fidel Castro. When Guevara was killed Castro promised that his widow and family would be provided for by the state.
The museum, with many photos really brought home what a charismatic individual he must have been. Everyone is so familiar with the iconic images of him with his beret and beard that are emblazoned all over Cuba – but pictures of him as a twinkle-eyed, smiling, clean shaven man, demonstrated the strength and character in his face. His father was of Irish descent, his mother Spanish and he was a fully qualified doctor before he became a revolutionary – made me want to read more about him…. which surely is the sign of a good museum.
After a buffet lunch featuring a lot of cooked pork meats and sweet stuff (the Cubans have a sweet tooth, probably due to easy access to local sugar-cane) we headed south to Trinidad through the first hilly area of our trip – though I did snooze a lot of the way. If you are a gourmet, don’t come to Cuba! The food is edible but not inspiring or imaginative – but having seen the prices of the (limited) range available in the shops/ markets I am not surprised. It is predominantly a locally sourced meat/ fish/ rice/ beans and root veg based diet, so the vegetarian in the group didn’t have much choice. A salad is usually lettuce and cucumber with occasionally avocado or tomatoes. Vegetables are predominantly over-cooked green beans, boiled taro, pumpkin or sweet potato. Our guide said her mother could only afford to buy tomatoes once a month – but when I asked why she didn’t grow them herself she just shrugged. Cuban nationals on low incomes don’t starve, they hold food ration cards which permit them to purchase a range of staple foods cheaply from the government stores, which are not open to foreigners.
So on to Trinidad – another town completely different to any other.
The guide book says the Spanish colony of Trinidad is in an 18C time-warp… and that’s exactly how it feels. It is scruffy compared to the French Cienfuegos and ‘feels ’old – partly due to the narrow ancient uneven cobbled streets where it there is barely room for two vehicles to pass each other. Very narrow constricted pavements must make it impossible for wheelchair or buggie users. Bay windows jut out over the pavement with their shutters wide open,and ornate wrought-iron bars. They are often occupied by elderly people sitting in chairs watching the world go by. It’s a bit disconcerting when lifting one’s eyes briefly from the uneven terrain to find oneself eyeballing the ancient potbelly of a cheroot smoking Senor dressed in nothing but flip-flops and baggy shorts. Horses and carts abound, as do bicycle taxis, and many of the huge 1950’s Chevrolets, cars and trucks – some beautifully restored – that tend to feature in any articles about Cuba.
A brief guided walk on arrival showed us pockets of charm and attractive buildings for us to explore tomorrow, and many artisan shops in people’s front rooms as well as a couple of street markets. The guide pointed out private restaurants and shops ‘to frequent’ and government establishments ‘to avoid’. Her emphasis was on putting tourist cash into individual Cuban’s pockets – we suspected some quid-pro-quo arrangement. However as health and education in Cuba is free for all, support for government establishments surely still filters benefits down to the people.
Huge Casas are entered via a small unobtrusive door straight off the street. All over Cuba CPs are identified by a recognizable symbol on the door with the name of the hosts. The one I stayed in belonging to Otto & Noemi has enough large en-suite rooms for 4 visiting couples as well as accommodating 4 generations of the same family. High ceilings with orate coving, antique furniture and a predilection for hand crocheted doilies on everything make it feel as though you have in truth stepped into a time warp. However the beds and en-suites are much better than many UK guest-houses, and breakfasts are more than adequate. Fruit, fruit juice, eggs, ham & cheese toasties, cake and as much coffee as you can drink mean that we start the day off well.

Cuba day 2









img_0586 Cienfuegos

Cuba is 5 hours behind GMT – so my brain was not on local time. After oversleeping and gobbling down a huge breakfast in my Havana Casa I re-joined the group to set off S/W in our government approved ‘Tourist’ labelled minibus to Playa Giron, (AKA Bahia de Conchinos – or Bay of Pigs) to learn a little about the Cuban celebration of the humiliation of President Kennedy and the American armed forces that tried in 1961 to invade Cuba and overthrow Castro. A political episode which failed dismally, but which contributed to the US trade embargo which continues to this day. 1189 captured American prisoners were later swapped for medical and food aid worth US$53m, which seems to me a very humanitarian solution.

Playa Giron turned out to be an absolutely delightful bay with a few sunbathers, snorkelers and scuba trainees. I didn’t venture in – having omitted to pack my swimsuit, and it was not suitable for paddling as there was no beach but a steep step off the rocks straight into a foot of water. Apparently it was warm and calm with stripy tropical fish swimming between your feet. A hefty moray eel spooked a couple of the women snorkelers. After a hefty lunch of grilled lobster and the Cuban staple of rice’n’beans we headed for the Bay of Pigs museum.

Temperatures were hovering in the high 20’s with humidity high, so we were happy to doze in our cool bus to Cienfuegos. Outside Havana, this part of Cuba is one of the cleanest and tidiest countries I have ever visited, roads have no potholes, verges and central reservations are manicured with no litter or stray animals. This area is very green and flat dominated by miles of regimented rows of sugar cane – one of the main export crops.

Cienfuegos is another world – build on a grid system by the French in the 19C it is quite beautiful and very well preserved. Wide boulevards with arcade-sheltered walkways and pastel coloured buildings give it a truly elegant look – I really liked it. This is our guide Dayana’s home town she was obviously very proud of it – and her Mum came to say ‘hi’ to her daughter’s protégées. Cienfuegos is where Venezuelan oil is refined, a beautiful marina is a favourite Caribbean over-winter sheltering spot for ocean going yachts and with sugar cane production and the addition of Unesco World Heritage Site money it looks and feels prosperous. Some of the buildings are truly spectacular and we went for a rum-based cocktail serenaded by Cuban musicians on the roof top terrace at one of the government run restaurants overlooking the bay, the incredibly ornate Palacio de Valle. Unfortunately the palace sits cheek by jowl with a brutalist Russian built concrete block hotel. Pockets of Russian high rise blocks of flats mar the outskirts of many towns, contrasting hugely with local architecture. The old (thankfully unused) Russian nuclear site is still to be seen out in the bay – distinctly off limits to anyone other than Naval officials.

After checking in we gathered for a few drinks at a local restaurant, conversation limited by the live music from an energetic pair of troubadours. I stayed in Senora Gredsy’s annex, a comfortable room in a lovely garden setting. Homes in Cienfuegos are mostly individual, single storey, with well watered gardens featuring quite a lot of banana plants. I spotted the street cleaner out very early with his broom and dustbin on wheels, closely followed by the bread seller with a big basket on his bike.

Most Cubans speak Spanish, not English, though our guide is fluent and very knowledgeable. She earns vastly more as a tour guide than using her degree for work, mostly because of the tips from tourists. In this communist country, average Cubans are poor – she tells us that her mother who is a trained accountant, earns less than 30US$ per month, the majority of workers are employed by the state at low but regular wages. Those who own Casas are very well off in comparison even after tax. Cuban families therefore tend to share inherited accommodation with many generations of the family… all contributing to the whole upkeep.

One of our group lives in California and speaks Spanish so she is a big help when negotiating menus etc. Schools, universities and hospitals are provided free by the government, so Cubans are very well educated and obtain any health care they need – one scary fact – for a population of 11m there are more home trained doctors in Cuba than in the whole of Africa. Despite the relative poverty – there is no evidence of the child malnutrition and stunting I see all over Africa, however the history books tells of 3 years of near-starvation in the early 1990’s following the demise of financial support from the Soviet Union.

Ethio update/ Cuba day 1

I have just been on leave to the UK, and my planned trip to Burma to see the family fell through due to their business commitments, so I thought to myself, “where haven’t I been yet” (ie. get in to Cuba before it gets swamped with American tourists). I don’t want to “do a facebook” on you- but not many people go to Cuba at the moment, so I thought you might be interested… if not – ignore the next few blogs!
After Cuba I headed back to Ethiopia not knowing what I would find, access-wise. If you have been following the international news you will know that while I have been on leave, the government have called a ‘State of emergency’ – one aspect of which involves shutting down social media communications and limiting internet – so this blog may go quiet for a while. The charity’s request for a year work visa for me has been refused/ delayed (we are not sure which), “due to the state of emergency”). I managed to get my usual 3 month tourist visa which technically means I can’t work, although I shall be sewing sanitary kits from home for ORE. The airport was noticeably thin on tourists – usually there is a very long queue for visas on entry.
The local boys at the tour companies say that most of their bookings were cancelled immediately and I gather this is the same across the country. I imagine, apart from travelers’ understandable concern, they have been unable to obtain travel insurance. This will hit very hard the hotels and everyone involved in the tourist industry for this year – and I suspect will knock on to future years. It will make a big dent in Ethiopian GDP and put hundreds out of work – it couldn’t have been called at a worst time – the start of the tourist high season. Where I am in Mekelle in Tigray it is safe and quiet, but country-wide NGO’s have pulled their people out, so I am a very noticeable foreign body on the streets.

Cuba – A very different country
Instead of going to Yangon, I travelled to Havana from Heathrow via Bogota on a new and well appointed Columbian Avianca aircraft. Bogota turns out to be a big and well organised airport with connecting flights all over Europe, USA and South America. We arrived at the ungodly hour of 2am – but still managed to get a freshly made cup of proper coffee, I crashed out on the carpeted floor along with many others to get a few hours kip – by 5.30 the place was fully functioning. Flying low into Havana in blinding sunshine, the island looked very flat – but portioned off into fields with military precision by a planning hand with a ruler and set-square. The fields alternated in colour between viridian and terracotta – I later discovered that the greeny-blue tobacco grows especially well on red soil.

Don’t go to Cuba if you hate queuing! Firstly we queued to put our hand luggage through transit security in Bogota. After a comfortable 3 hour flight we joined the Havana queuing marathon, at the same time as passengers from 3 other flights. First to immigration, where they took my photo, checked passport, visa and travel insurance, then queued to put my hand luggage through security again, then queued to hand in my ‘health check’ form, queued to get my luggage off the carousel, then queued to hand in my ‘nothing to declare’ form before they allowed me to exit into the hot and humid arrivals hall where I queued to change my depleted pounds into local currency (something called CUCs for tourists – locals use Pesos). They are one of the few countries that don’t like dollars and charge you a premium if you have the temerity to bring them in. Fortunately I had a taxi driver waiting – which saved me the last queue but by the time I got to my CP (Casa Particular) I was hot, sweaty and knackered.

Casa Particular? Read on……… Casa Particulars are Cuban guest houses. Tourist hotels being expensive, government controlled and in short supply, local home owners have recently been permitted to set aside rooms for tourists as a way of boosting their taxable income –and this is the accepted way to stay as you move round the country. Many Havana buildings are in very poor repair – my first night was spent in the Casa Mar Azul on the Malecon seafront in Havana showing dreadful signs of weather damage to its exterior. We were warned not to ‘take fright’ at external appearances. Indeed, the first floor flat owned by Rikardo and Tamara turned out to be perfectly well appointed and comfortable with a balcony overlooking the bay. My room was large, high ceilinged with antique light fittings and all the necessary including clean comfortable beds, air-con, fridge and en-suite, and rather risqué paintings of naked women!

In the evening I joined the guide and others in the group and we ventured out into the warm evening to a Cuban privately run restaurant for a delicious rum-roasted chicken and a sample or two of the local beer. I’m part of a group of 13 ‘personnes d’un certain age’ from all over the globe, 5 couples and 3 odd ones. As always with this sort of trip, we were all seasoned travelers – billetted across a range of CPs in the city. We spent much of the evening exchanging travel experiences. The Malecon seafront appears to be the local promenade for pairs of Havana youngsters on a Sunday, but I think it’ll take more than a lot of chatting and giggling to keep me awake tonight.