Cuba #2: Shopping for Nothing

As a tourist, one of your obligations is to shop. You do this for yourself and for others. A delightful scarf here, a lucky temple bracelet there, and sculpted frogs wherever you find them. You quietly shop and you collect and you forget. This is tourism at its very best.

Japan is probably my favourite tourist-shopping destination. You head off to your local suburban Peacock Department Store and you are sure to find curious and unusual treasures—a dried pack of seaweed, a porcelain bowl with painted fish, a vacuum-packed octopus, an elegant ink brush or knife—all delightful and inexpensive.

In Thailand you look out for bamboo placemats and silk underpants with green elephants. In India you find intricate metal cows and beads from the Nagaland. In Egypt you buy parchment, dusty antique jewellery and camel-bone miniatures.

In Cuba you buy nothing, as there is nothing to buy. Their best cigars and finest rum are all exported, so you are left with banana-leaf cigars and run-of-the-mill, bargain-basement Havana Club.

In certain towns where the tourist groups are bused, there are millions of identical Ché Guevara t-shirts, hats, licence plates and posters. In front of bakeries and drug stores there are constant line-ups as Cubans wait patiently to see what can suddenly be purchased.

In front of supermarkets, however, this is not the case.

Our first supermarket was in Viñales—an idyllic countryside town set in the middle of tobacco plantations and picturesque rock formations. Tourists come here to relax and do a bit of horse-riding along the unmarked trails. Everyone stays in the casa particulars (bed and breakfasts) for about two nights before heading back to their beach or boat worlds.

The supermarket there was picture-perfect: shelves were filled with bottles of rum, beer and wine which sold merrily at good strong Swiss prices. There were packs of chips, cookies, and cheese and the ubiquitous (expensive) bottled tourist water.

The second grocery store was outside the city of Cienfuegos and we were quite excited when we encountered a uniformed security lady at the door who made us remove our packs and put them in a locker. This was obviously a first-class, though sadly undiscovered, store and theft was rampant.

As it turned out, all the shelves in the whole shop held the same item: miniature cartons of pineapple juice. These towered up to the ceiling along all the aisles. It was a stroll through a pineapple juice castle.

At the back of the shop was the fresh meat section. This consisted of two pigs that had been butchered, boiled, and packaged into two oblong plastic sausage cases about the size and shape of a real live pig. The colour was bubble-gum pink and there were foreign objects added for interest. This is Cuban ham.

Anticipation, exultation, disappointment, epiphany: Cuba in a nutshell. We bought enough pineapple juice to keep us in piña coladas for the rest of the trip.

 

 

Cuba: Back to the Future

In every country, a tourist has to energetically perform specific tasks within a relatively short time-frame. This is the tourist imperative. There is surprisingly little Hobbesian free will in a good tourist’s world.

For example, visiting Switzerland you have to see the Matterhorn, buy a watch, and eat a cheese fondue. In Canada you have to dine on Nova Scotia lobster, see Niagara Falls, buy a bear-bell and go walking in the Rockies. In Bali you have to run away from the monkeys, buy ikat weavings and go to a gamelan orchestra evening show. Your actions are prescribed. You spend your money and stay focused on your touristic endeavours until it’s time to get back to where you came from. It is, frankly, quite exhausting.

In Cuba this is not the case, because there are no tourists. Anyone who manages to escape from their all-inclusive resort, gets separated from their cruise-ship crowd, or is just out and about on their own is NOT a tourist. She is a “punto”.

The punto is cash-rich with wads of Euros and Francs falling out of her pocket. Most of Cuba is dirt poor but many of these people are working in the fields, living in rural communes and never have the good luck to come into contact with a full-blooded punto.  The Cuban game is to try to separate the punto from her lolly. This is not done on a criminal level so is not dangerous. It is simply a national pastime and hugely entertaining.

The punto is hauling around so much cash because there are no cash machines in Cuba and when you come across an open cambio, you have to change some of your international currency into CUC’s – the tourist pesos (worth a dollar). This must not be confused with the local currency, which is also a peso (but is only worth five cents). For example a coffee costs 5 pesos. Does this mean 25 cents or does this mean 5 dollars?

Having recently paid 8 euros for a coffee at St Mark’s Square in Venice, I know that $5 is a POSSIBLE coffee price. But sitting in the squalor of the Malecon in Havana with buildings reduced to rubble all around you, it is a highly questionable situation.

A good tourist will pay the $5, and quietly ruminate that Cuba is a very expensive place. A wicked tourist will calmly put 25 cents of local money on the table, and then start laughing when the waiter says he wants 5 tourist dollars. The waiter will not be able to resist the magnificent joke and roll around the floor laughing that a good tourist has just paid $5 (about the price of a rotten old Cuban car) for a little cup of coffee.

This is the grease of Cuba tourist life—puntos, salsa, and mojitos—a simple world free from the modern nuisances of plastic, time, and fattening foods.  And most stimulating for the wicked tourist.

Living the Five-Star Life

There is a truck-stop on the Pan-American Highway in Ecuador. If the winds blow right, you have a clear and solid view of the Cotopaxi volcano from the smeary picture windows. And in the other direction there is a sweeping vista down the length of the valley.

This is a place of lost dreams and present-day hopes.

You are beckoned in from the highway by a skinny guy standing in the road frantically waving a red piece of cloth on a stick. You must slow to a dead stop to take the 90 degree turn over the culvert. There is a bus stopped just a bit further on with its driver lying underneath.

There are lots of parking spaces in the rocky wasteland around the brick building, and a young pony-tailed woman wearing blue plastic gloves is manning the smoky barbeque pit. There are five hand-made metal stars fixed to the front wall. The banos are around the back.

The waiter is dressed in a home-made uniform and looks like a cross between a bellboy and a policeman. Short and stocky, he is tightly buttoned in and stands straight and attentive. His black oiled hair shines impeccably. He offers deliciously tender meats served with local vegetables. The plastic water bottle is placed over his left paper-napkin-draped arm as he offers the label for inspection. He lights a candle on the table.

We later see that these attentions possibly are the result of his having successfully accomplished a Diner’s Club course for becoming a refined server. The diploma is above the till.

The meal was served. There were big green beans as appetizers, and then main dish of roasted meat was undefined and jaw-breaking. The vegetables were slippery mush except for the starchy white corn cob. There was a recognizable boiled potato. We tried to hide things on our plates to avoid disappointing our refined waiter.

A visit to the exterior bathrooms revealed that the sink and toilet were ecologically friendly as they were water-free. A barrel of limpid liquid was at your disposal with a red plastic bucket floating on top. You made your own-sized flush.

Anxious to be on our way, we rudely broke all refined restaurant protocol and went to pay at the till. Our ruffled waiter immediately disappeared into the back room and returned five minutes later with a hand-written bill, a bow and a flourish. He might have tapped his heels together.

While waiting, we had perused the Serving Diploma, seen a startlingly professional show-biz photo of our waiter with the barbeque girl in another glittering life when they had been musical entertainers. Their dusty CDs were for sale.

The bright lights of the city had been abandoned, and replaced with another kind of show at the El Mirador de los Volcanes Restaurant.

On the Pan-American Highway in Ecuador there is a refined five-star restaurant. It has a view and a dream.

 

 

Remember this Word, You Might Need it: Systembolaget!

I hate the first day of summer. It means that Christmas is just around the corner as the days rudely begin to tick themselves shorter and shorter and time goes faster and faster.

In the academic working world you don’t much notice the 21st of June as you’re so busy with end-of-school exams, the behaviour of highly questionable colleagues and students, and general nervous break-downs. Hectic summer holiday plans are also raising concerns as you have no trace of a 2-week car rental that you’re sure you booked back in February.

The most traumatic summer solstice was in Sweden: Göteborg, to be exact.  The hotel was situated on a scenic canal across from a power station to the left and a casino to the right. In the middle was a Mongolian meat restaurant. The view from the slanting roof windows was of the sky with a smokestack in the corner.

The June day started badly as everything was shut. This turned out to be not, exactly, a holiday, but just a normal Swedish working day.  Shops seem to open late in the morning and close at early in the afternoon. Obviously, during these brief business hours, shopping is hectic and robust.

Trying to find a bottle of wine to celebrate the summer solstice was a double challenge. You wander out into the searing heat of a Swedish summer looking for something that mentions alcohol. (The Swedish word for alcohol is alkohol. The Swedish word for wine is vin. Really, you would think they could do something with those two that would make sense to an interested, thirsty, tourist over 20 years of age, with money in her pocket.)

But no. The government liquor-monopoly stores are called systembolagets (the System Company). But if you happen to find one and get there in the summer-popsicle-thin window of opening hours (11 am – 1 pm on Saturdays, for example), the choice is vast.

After enjoying the solstice festive atmosphere among the young, bronzed, tall, skinny, beautiful, white-teethed people, you inevitably start to fade and retire back to your hotel in no-man’s land. You drink a final glass and hit the sack. The sun is still shining. The roof-windows are luminous. There is no blind. There are no curtains.

You start with the bathroom towel tucked in around the edges with the window-trap shut. The light shines through. You add the duvet to try to bung up the roof hole. There is no air in the room. You long for duct tape.

You work on it all night: eye masks, pillows, toilet paper, and I think that the shower curtain was even involved. But there were no nights. We visited the systembolaget more and more (it was always crowded) and after six days we finally got home deeply disturbed and disoriented.

Be careful what you wish for, but I am longing already for the 21 of December when the days start getting longer again and I can lean forward to the beginning of summer.

Sing, Goddamnit, Sing!

Any visit to Stratford (the REAL one in Ontario, Canada) and you are constantly star-struck.

It already begins on the Toronto flight with the hockey players. They used to be the nice young men sitting in the slum-class seats with their knees up around their shiny ears. They were giant, keyed-up and chattily practising their Swedish-English before hopefully hitting the lucky interview and a place in the NHL.

Now they are the former hockey players and coaches—still keyed-up and searching for North American talent to bring back to Europe. The last one I met was the general manager for the Ingolstadt Hockey Club. He seemed to be interested when I told him that Ingolstadt was where Victor Frankenstein, of Geneva, fashioned his now-famous creature. He said he would check it out, but gave me the tip that big bruiser players were no longer fashionable and miniature mosquito-type midgets were currently in vogue.

After landing, there is the exciting drive in the Parcel Bus that delivers you to your door. Actually, it delivers you to many, many doors before the one you want. The drivers are usually spry octogenarians and with their lack of hearing and canny survival instincts they are the true masters of the jam-packed 40l highway.

Arriving at my sister’s house—famous for its old and wicked beauty—you still cannot escape the clutches of fame. For example, she has fed Justin Bieber cookies which he has eaten with his own true teeth and swallowed down his very own Justin Bieber gullet.

Yes. This is a true fact. Stratford is Justin’s home town, and whenever his mother comes to visit, she jams with my nephew.  My niece’s daughter is lobbying hard for Justin to animate her next birthday party when she will turn 7.  Obviously, we are practically related to Justin Bieber.

Then there are the actors, the writers, the singers. The Stratford Festival theatre season runs for about 6 months, and after seeing the magnificent world-class plays, you can often catch a glimpse of Hamlet buying cornflakes at the supermarket, or My Fair Lady playing with her kid in the sandpit at the playground.

Summertime also includes outdoor cultural activities with art, music, and animation on the Avon Lake which, Mariposa Belle-style, is only a few inches deep. Picnicking on the edge one summer a rather rambunctious member of our party screamed at a packed raft floating past “Sing! Goddamnit sing!” Turns out they were members of an old folks home (or, perhaps, Parcel Bus drivers) being taken on an airing.

Even the local church is quite notorious. Last summer there was quite a scandal when thieves stole plants from their mixed border.  And at their jumble sale just a few weeks ago, I purchased a set of famous grapefruit spoons from the estate of a deceased famous person.  Upon enquiry, it seems the person is still alive.

Identity—mistaken and otherwise—is the very soul of Stratford’s star-struck life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Little Switzerlands: Don’t Bother

Any country that can possibly get away with it (and several that can’t) have created their own little versions of Switzerland. Essential ingredients include trees (any sort except palm), fields (ploughed, fenced and tended), altitude (the higher the better) and a fresh-water lake (preferably turquoise in colour.)

If you happen to know the real, big Switzerland, avoid these places at all cost.

I have been to little Switzerlands more times than I like to admit: India, Korea, Japan, Sri Lanka, Burma, and China all have their “Swiss” landscape dreams. They are often strange forlorn places of heat and odd architecture.

Switchback roads are the essential opening ingredient to get you to an authentic little Switzerland. If you’re really lucky, you will spot a rusty wreck stuck in the bushes below a particularly sharp bend. You conclude that puzzling aerial wires going nowhere must be for ski lifts in case the earth’s weather patterns change. Sometimes there is even a dodgy mechanical device that takes the cheering pedestrians from one viewing platform to another.

Having sworn off little Switzerlands, I was surprised to myself in yet another one. This one was sneakily hiding in Calabria, the toe of Italy.

It really wasn’t my fault. In that region, the only three-star attraction (apart from the Riace Bronzes in Reggio Calabria which are believed to be two (buck-naked) brothers about to kill each other in front of their mother….but here I digress) is the Sila mountain plateau. At almost 2,000m altitude, sure enough, it is officially designated Calabria’s “Little Switzerland.”

It is also a national park and has ploughed fields, painted wooden houses perched in alpine mixed forests, flowery meadows, one herd of cows, and endless unmarked roads. There are no people, restaurants or gas stations. It is quiet and serene, and as you drive, lost on the SP31 (that is not to be found on any map and goes from nowhere to nowhere) you become exquisitely bored.

As the gas tank empties and the bladder fills, you long to be in good old Italy and back to the trip you had planned. You wish for the thrill of the autostradas, the delights of bergamot ice cream, a double espresso, an Aperol-spritz.  You worry where your next meal is coming from, and miss the peculiar characters in the kiosks that sell you popsicles and scratch-off parking permits.

You feel the need for a good dusty duomo and a museo filled with gangs of school kids crashing from exhibit to exhibit photographing each thing with their shiny-new smart phones and retaining their complete, noisy ignorance.

The SP31 finally meets the SS179 and you are out…free to drive into the future and come back to Italy and the crowded friendly chaos of the rose festival of Santa Rita. All thoughts of Switzerland—both big and little—have dropped far below the waves of the wine-dark sea.

 

Political Dynasty Disorder

It has been brought to my attention from the highest of confidential sources that the whole of Canada is cringing with embarrassment.

Justin Trudeau, it seems, has been publically making a complete ass of himself.

No. It’s not his silly socks or his political correctness for all of peoplekind, but, rather, turning his week-long holiday to India into his own personal Bollywood movie. Supporting cast features his wife and three kids. The villain of the piece is a Sikh extremist/criminal who should have come to an official dinner but had to be uninvited. And the wardrobe department has outdone itself with trunks full of fancy wedding kurtas, sherwani and pointy-toed embroidered slippers.

For the first three days, Justin visited the tourist sites and spun cloth Ghandi-style while dressed as a traditional Indian bridegroom. It started funny, and got quickly annoying.

It would be as if he had arrived in Switzerland dressed in Swiss folk costume, with the kids as little Heidi and Peters and Sophie in a bust-popping Germanic dirndl. A goat might have been part of the entourage.

Several reasons have been offered for his misplaced display of cultural appropriation. Those with a soft-spot for him have suggested his first trip to India with his dad, Pierre Eliott Trudeau (who was Canadian Prime Minister from the 1960s into the 1980s) had something to do with it. The cynics say he was trying to play to the huge Indian population in Canada—especially the Sikh contingent. The jokers say he was purposefully attracting attention away from (and thereby annoying) Donald Trump.

I say that he is suffering from a serious case of dynasty disorder. Kids, wives and siblings should not try to follow the old man down the chutes of political power. There are bound to be mishaps. Looks at the Kennedys, the Nehru-Ghandis, the Bhuttos, the Clintons, the Castros, the Kims, the lePens. Nothing good ever comes of it.

(Timely Warning! Be very careful what you wish for, Caroline Mulroney (daughter of Brian).)

There is an up-side to all of these shenanigans, however, as our Little Potato’s political antics are bringing us all together again. It has been a long hard winter in Canada this year and the resulting cabin fever has produced serious outbreaks of family testiness and winter squabbles. All of this is blowing nicely away, as we follow Justin’s totally mortifying holiday from hell.

We wrap ourselves in our blankets of Canadian common sense and decency and know what it is to be a good tourist: You dress quietly and discreetly; you stay calm and clean; you indulge in self-depreciation and good humour; you stand patiently in line; you try to pay more and get less; and you tip as much as possible whenever you can.

Everybody knows that you never ever “go native” or bring your own chef with you to cook the local food.

And we thank goodness that Justin is back in Ottawa again and that spring is just around the corner.

 

Europe’s Most Dangerous Airport

Nobody ever actually tells you that you’re going to be flying into one of the world’s most dangerous airports. However, if your local low-cost carrier sells you a ticket for a seven-hour round trip out of Geneva for 43.50 francs, be prepared for anything.

It started, as all good things do, with an idea—that old post-Christmas, chase-away-the-blues, ocean ozone week away. And, of course, it was not our fault that the flight to Funchal, Madeira—a rugged Atlantic island featuring fado, sword fish, water mills, poncha, irrigation canals, landslides, and viewpoints—was so surprisingly cheap.  So many kilometres for so little money. What a deal!

On our departure day we ended up (after six hours in the air) back on the Portuguese mainland in Porto. We even got a 7-euro supper coupon, and our flight was re-scheduled for the following morning.

Oh yes. We should have been in Madeira, but having flown out to the island, and examined the seething cauldron of rain and cloud and tempestuous winds below, the pilot chirpily informed us that we were not allowed to land.

Day Two meant getting up at 4 a.m. (again) but this time, we managed to successfully touch down at the little Funchal Airport. This was accompanied with much cheering and clapping–pilot and crew included.

The airport runway extends out over top of the motorway at the edge of the sea. It actually tilts up a bit at the end which I guess is a serious clue to the pilot as to which way he should be heading. It is more or less like landing on an air-craft carrier, except that there is no elastic bungee to catch your wheels and stop you going over the edge and into the drink.

There is no flatness in Madeira (except in the middle where the wind turbines are all continuously blasting at full-speed and no one in their right mind would ever want to land there). Plus, Madeira is a volcano and seriously close to the earth’s core (information gathered from the Lava Tunnels Volcanic Visitor’s Centre) so dramatic danger can be just around the corner at any place or time.

Our big fight with the lying and cheating car rental company is now fading into oblivion. Our walks in the laurel forests with the view of the wine-dark sea far below are anchored firmly in our memories. The poncha and passion fruit drink at the warm and sunny harbour is recalled with longing. The flour from the old mill has been baked into bread.

We even got our full week’s holiday, as our departure was delayed for 30 hours due to the windy rainy airport being closed yet again.

A winter trip to an Atlantic island can, eventually, be crowned with success. Money is not so important: just take lots of time with you.

 

 

 

Wrecking the Rentals

It is never our fault when our rental car gets damaged. Often it has to do with the indigenous population who, through sheer ignorance, lack of education and cultural isolation, do not speak our language. Plus, they are often driving on the wrong side of the road.

The shocking local terrain is also to blame. Inviting dotted lines on maps should really be closed to normal traffic, and the little plastic tapes attached to flimsy poles to discourage road use should be replaced with something more substantial.

Years back, driving a rental over the Beartooth Mountain Pass into Yellowstone Park the tearing and scraping noises coming from underneath the car as we rode through the potholes were most disheartening.

Then there was the afternoon on a short-cut down from the top of a beautiful mountain lookout in Corfu. The road was simply too narrow and the razor-sharp gorse bushes scratched and etched huge cuts into rental’s originally glittering paintwork.  We passed the burned out shell of a car (a rental?) about half way down.

And I will only talk about the Hokkaido disaster with the utmost reluctance…

In Japan, they refuse to rent their rentals to foreigners. They are entirely right. However, a morning’s perseverance in Otaru got us a miniscule little car about the same size and with the same technical skills as a Japanese Toto Washlet toilet.

We squeezed ourselves in and with the engine making a high-pitched buzzing noise, drove a couple of hours to a tourist site where the earth’s crust was about half-an-inch thick. There were crooked buildings, broken roads, and bridges going nowhere. Fumaroles were going off left and right. Your shoes got hot and started melting. It was all very exhilarating.

We were so excited that we almost missed the turn off, and, pulling a sharp left, touched the curb. The tire, which was about the size and strength of an aluminium disposable pie plate, exploded.

There was a saucer-sized spare wheel, but no jack. As I was making my way back across a field with a rock to place under the car a nice man slowed down and offered us his “Jakko”. Blood, sweat, tears, and a visit to Doctor Drive got us out of that particularly hot and sticky situation.

Recently, rental companies are getting both smart and lazy. Why waste a perfectly good tire as a spare? In our last rental in Rhodes a couple of weeks back, there was just a can of foam goop to squirt into your flat tire (which we did).

And Canada has taken things to an entirely ethereal level. While adjusting the rear-view mirror in a Chevy rental in September, a miniscule red button inadvertently got pushed. Five minutes later, a disembodied voice invited us to share our problem.  I instinctively played dead, but my sister gamely piped up and informed the air inside the car that we were all just fine.

And so, we drove on.

 

 

 

Where has all the Butter Gone?

Well, at the local supermarket in France two days ago, there was no butter on the butter shelf. I even checked twice, as I could not make my brain believe in the big black butter hole.

Figuring that the delivery truck had had an accident (it HAS been unseasonably warm lately up in the mountains) we were reduced to buying the very last package—a thin sliver of salty (loser) butter.

Fortunately, we always travel with a brick of Swiss cooking butter in the trusty blue Cool Box, so made it through supper to the news where we were officially (French government TV) enlightened as to the butter crisis: It was explained that a new scientific paper had just been published and butter was being extolled as the latest health food. Cholesterol was suddenly GOOD for you! The French population had gone wild, and butter was flying off the shelves!

Now, our friends and neighbours in the Haute Savoy are no wimps. Their idea of a jolly good holiday is going bear hunting in Canada. Their summertime dream job is logging an entire mountainside and installing a new ski lift. Who had known that they had been so petrified of butter?

We happily settled down to digest this latest food fad and vowed to eat as much butter as possible before it was suddenly bad for us again.

Yesterday, though, there came a sad piece of breaking news on the butter front. The family arrived and they, too, had had a supermarket butter shock. Their Swiss-based research had led to the political/economic explanation that industrial butter had suddenly risen in price, and supermarket butter was now cheaper, and so every baker and cake-maker in France was now super-market shopping for the raw products for their buttery treats.

Every morning, they sweep the supermarket shelves empty at 8 a.m., and after that, there is nothing left for the rest of us except the occasional tub of omega-rich fish-oil spread.

Both stories were augmented by the fact that France now depends entirely upon its local dairy  production and the great international butter mountains of old have been melted by zillions of Chinese people who now want butter to put on their bread as they are no longer happy with their little iron bowls of boiled rice.

It certainly is true that there used to be cartons and cartons of very cheap and good New Zealand and Australian butter piled up in the supermarkets underselling the more exotic French regional butter brands.

Back at the shop this morning, and there was a new development. A typed sign flapping forlornly in front of the butter hole explained that there was a national butter shortage.

It did not explain the problem, but at least had the grace not to blame the scientists, the bakers or the Chinese.