Saturday, 31 October 2009

An education in the Carribean

Is ignorance bliss?

During the five days I spent in Havana, I was waiting for an opportunity to speak to a Cuban and ask them what it is actually like to live in a communist society. I observed the women carrying their children on their hips and wondered why they had no pushchairs; I wandered along the Malecon and watched the groups of Habaneros gather on the seawall as night descended and realised this was their Saturday night's entertainment; I pondered the crowds hitch-hiking by the side of the motorway and climbing onto rickety wagons pulled by thin ponies. This was a society of scarce possessions and I desperately wanted to know how people lived like that.

At Varadero I got my chance.

The skinny peninsula in the north of the island is a world away from the capital. This is the only place where workers can keep their tips and is therefore seen as El Dorado. While they may earn more than the 20 pesos per month average, they may not live there - Varadero is for rich tourists only. Instead they are bussed across the bridge at the Kawama Channel from Matanzas, where most live, to the various resorts that line up along the Hicacos Peninsula, each claiming their slice of white powder sand and turquoise water.

At our resort there was a team of entertainers who organised games of petanque, archery and waterpolo during the day and put on a very professional show each night. We lay on the loungers Juan pulled down and dusted off for us each day, sucking the milk straight from the coconuts, feasting on the daily barbecue and drinking mojitos at absurdly early times of the day feeling very satisfied with life indeed.

It was the third night when I got my wish.

Keen to practise my Spanish and worm my way into the entertainers' confidence, I had achieved first name terms with a number of them. On that third night, at the bar after a great show and a good few gin and tonics, Jessica shyly asked if I would like to go to a club with them. We jumped at the chance and as we waited for the taxi to arrive she and Alfredo asked us about our lives back home. Normally when we're abroad, we have to explain exactly why we're not English, but Alfredo knew immediately where Scotland was, the capital city and the fact that William Wallace was 'our hero'. Impressed, I asked how he knew all this. His answer broke my heart, as he sat on the kerb in his backwards baseball cap and oversize basketball top. "Education is all we have." 

In perfect English he explained how the two currencies "are killing us". Anything worth buying is charged in the Peso Convertible - the currency for tourists, pegged to the dollar, one peso of which is roughly equivalent to ten Peso Nacionales. Living off 20 nacionales means only the state basics are within their financial reach. "Working in a hotel is good because it's easier to steal" he told me, describing how the staff can smuggle out food for their families and bottles of rum to sell to tourists. 

Jessica, who had been quiet up to this point, added simply "Shampoo. Shampoo is very expensive." She seemed much less inclined to talk about things, but Alfredo had a dejected air that gave me the impression he was past caring. He noticed my wedding ring and asked if we were married. I said we were and he smiled at Jessica. "We got married a few months ago on the beach. It was very simple. I wish I could take Jessica to a restaurant." I realised I had never seen a Cuban in any of the places we had eaten or had a drink in the days we spent in Havana - except for the one man whom I had spotted leaning through the window at one bar with live music. I had wanted to buy him a drink. I wished now that I had.

Perhaps noticing my upset, Alfredo added: "I love baseball - I listen to it on the radio. It helps my English. The TV is only three stations - government propaganda." He looked disgusted. 
I asked if another benefit of socialism, besides the education, was the health service.
"Yeah, that's what they say in books," he said. Apparently all the good doctors go to Venezuela and in return the country gives Cuba oil and electricity. He added there is a real shortage of medicines on the island.

Pointing at his basketball shirt, he said this was a gift from one of the tourists. "The cap too - and the sneakers." I was slightly suspicious at the time but every time I saw Alfredo for the next week, he was wearing the same outfit. They took us to an amazing open air nightclub, a courtyard hidden behind a wooden door in a wall, where palm trees grew and a ten piece salsa band played until 3 in the morning. Jessica taught me to salsa, but they excused themselves after an hour. It was a long way home and they had an early start in the morning. 

The next morning, as I lay by the pool with my mojito, I felt like a total fraud. Who was I to lie here in the lap of luxury while the people around me had no shampoo and one T-shirt to their name? The hypocrisy and corruption of the government made me want to cry.  As Jessica had said so plaintively, "It's been 50 years". All they want is a chance to use their education and build themselves a better life and instead they speak the language of the first world fluently, work with its members every day and then the door is slammed in their faces and they must go back to their third world environment. It's so cruel that they are so aware of what they are being denied. As Alfredo said: "You just have to hope." He's too smart to follow the hordes of desperate Cubans across the straits in their tiny boats to Florida. He knows that most of them "lose their lives". So they keep on working hard, six days a week, and nurture the hope that there is hope.

While I noticed an inconsistency or two in their story over the next few days - Jessica drinking a sangria from the bar despite the claim she didn't drink and Alfredo magicking up an email address after claiming Cubans weren't allowed internet access - I left them half the contents of my suitcase. Jessica was delighted, disappeared and returned wearing one of my dresses - Alfredo grinned as he pulled on his new baseball cap and the rest of the entertainment descended on the books and magazines. 

I hated feeling like the 'benevolent white woman' but I didn't know what else to do. I told myself they hammed it up for exactly this purpose, but even if they did, they still had a tiny fraction of the possessions and an even tinier amount of the opportunities that I enjoy. 

Shopping in the supermarket - where everything you could ever want in multiple varieties is there on the shelf in front of you - will never feel the same again. 

Friday, 28 August 2009

Fair cop at the Fairmont

Whenever I interview hotel owners, they inevitably claim ‘nothing is too much trouble for our guests.’

It sounds good – and is surely the cornerstone of good hospitality - but in practice there are often excuses. Luckily for my seven friends and I, the five star Fairmont St Andrews makes good on its promise to put guests first – and then some!

It would be fair to say we put them through their paces – eight excited Glasgow girls on a hen weekend are usually the stuff of nightmares for hospitality staff – and yet not once did their geniality slip.

When we turned up on Friday, the Senior Open Golf Championship was in full swing -much to our surprise, as the deal we had secured for two nights’ b&b plus dinner on the Friday and spa treatments, had led us to believe the hotel would be quiet.

After an afternoon barbecueing on a hidden cove reached by a subtle path through the undergrowth by the fourth fairway, we approached the catering staff to see if we could decorate our dinner table. They had no objection to pink tulle bows around each seat, flowers and helium balloons as a centrepiece and silver confetti scattered over the tablecloth. It also seemed that our waiter was delighted to be serving us, checking a little too frequently that everything was OK. When it wasn’t – one main course arrived a good fifteen minutes late – he apologised profusely and gave us a complimentary bottle of wine.

We moved on to the bar, accompanied by some new American friends who insisted on picking up the tab, and the barstaff played along with my ‘tutored tasting’ of Islay whiskies, even presenting the empty bottle of Bruichladdich to the gentleman as a keepsake. He was so delighted that he suggested we buy a bottle of gin for the table. Unfortunately there was no cucumber available – unusual for a hotel with a catering operation of this size – so we refused the Hendrick’s and instead opted for Belvedere vodka. I must confess this was my idea – I discounted the Smirnoff because, well, it’s Smirnoff, and Grey Goose is more a marketing ploy than a decent product in my opinion, so Belvedere was really the only option ; ) I didn’t see the bill – although I did see his reaction as he signed it – but the staff were quick to insist all the mixers were on the house and brought over an eye-watering display of glasses, bottles and jugs of juices.

We left the bar around two out of respect for the staff and carried on the party in one of our spacious bedrooms. None of the guests complained – although a few joined in. They turned out to be broadcasters covering the golf and insisted we make an appearance the next day. What a request that turned out to be….

The next morning, our table was still beautifully decorated and laid out for breakfast. We were greeted like old friends and had our fill of fruit, fry up and fresh baking to soak up the hangover. Luckily our plan for the day involved nothing more than chilling out in the spa and so, clad in fluffy gowns and sporting pink eyemasks as hairbands, we trooped in to our very own relaxation room. Again we were allowed to decorate to our hearts’ content and the staff provided jugs of iced water and Champagne glasses for those of us brave enough to get back on it. When the therapists arrived to take us away for our appointments they were delighted – not horrified as we nervously expected - to see our balloons and booze – and wanted to know all about the upcoming wedding. To a woman, we were fair chuffed with our treatments – my facial and head massage chased away the dregs of my hangover beautifully – so we left them some of our snacks as a thank you. We had a transformation to complete…

I must pause a moment to mention the lovely guy who came to our door to replenish the minibar. He made not a comment that all the water and crisps had disappeared – but when he returned at 4pm and Cheetara answered the door, his face was an absolute picture. The theme of the hen weekend, you see, was ‘superheroes’. My roommate had chosen her favourite female from Thundercats and went all out with bronze swimsuit and leggings, gold bodypaint and leopard print hair extensions – and then answered the door. Ever the professional, the poor guy handed over the drinks and walked calmly down the corridor. He may well have warned his colleagues, because no one batted an eyelid when Supergirl, Batgirl, Robin, She-Ra (from He-Man), Lara Croft, Cheetara and the Fashion Police emerged from the lift into the foyer. Well, no one except the concierge, who insisted on a photo and promised to take care of all our transport down into St Andrews. We just had one thing to do first….

It was 4.30 and the final golfers were coming through at the Senior Open. To the bemusement of the waterproof-sporting crowd, eight superheros turned up amongst them, clapping politely as the Italian sank his putt. Our broadcasting friends from the previous night screamed up in the golf buggies, their mouths hanging open, to see for themselves and instruct the cameraman to point the lens in our direction. Apparently we made a brief appearance on Sky Sports. A charming golf club employee gave our hen – Batgirl – a lift back up to the hotel in a cart. We had missed the courtesy bus, but the concierge called a taxi for us and we headed into town to frighten the locals.

The next morning only two of our number were feeling the effects of the previous night’s excesses – although one was convinced the limbo dancing competition in the Lizard Lounge had put her back out. When another returned with an enormous omelette on her plate, two of us were quick to visit the chef, who cooked up two delicious concoctions and garnished the plates with a Dairy Milk and a Galaxy – an unexpected and quirky personal touch. As we loaded our bags into the cars the valet brought round for us, we were truly sad to leave – but the most unexpected thing was that we really had the impression they were sad to see us go.

Saturday, 25 July 2009


If Havana were a person, she would be a wizened old widow who still goes out wearing a full face of makeup and her pearls.
The city has barely changed in fifty years and as a result, it feels like a film set. The narrow streets between the peeling buildings are crowded with colourful people, all looking their best despite the heat. Music plays everywhere; salsa beats dance out from every bar and restaurant as cheerful groups of men and women in flowered shirts sing, strum, trumpet and weave in time to the music. 
Slogans frequently appear on walls and posters hang from doorways. 'Venceremos', 'Juntos', 'Viva la revolucion' - all the fighting talk is kept at the forefront of the peoples' minds, reminding them of their glorious history and victory over the oppressors.
Museums proudly display every detail of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro's battles, down to the bloodstained uniforms of prisoners and the plastic dolls which carried hidden messages between the commanders.
One museum which speaks volumes of the country's history without uttering a single word is El Capitolio. The senate. 
For fifty years this stunning building which dominates Old Havana has lain empty, the interior marble walls spattered with bats' droppings. Two ghostly chambers sit at either end of a Versaille-esque hall, the maple wood dulling, the ink pots at each seat empty.
The president's office is now a photo opportunity for tourists willing to part with a few pesos - several days' wages to the average Cuban - and the old fashioned telephone still sits on the mahogany desk.
Now the government is run from faceless office blocks a mile or so away on Plaza de la Revolucion - faceless apart from the enormous wrought iron outline of the most famous figure in the country: Che. 

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Glasgow bam who don't give a damn

The time was six on Tuesday night
The day had been the usual sh*te
And tired workers on the bus
Were far from in the mood for fuss
But on he came as bold as brass
The alchy ned withoot a pass
"Ma maw's in hospital, she's dying!"
he slurred to skip the need for buying
"I dinna care now beat it love"
An auld dear aimed and gi'ed a shove
"Here it is" he found his ticket
Upstairs we began to brick it
He stumbled up, sat among us
Stinkin like he had a fungus
Quietly he sat and then
Stood up and cleared his throat 'ahem'
"Excuse me" went the plaintive cry
"I think ma mammy's gonnae die
Can youse help us oot a fix
I need tae get her some Matchsticks."
Silence while we raised our papers
Tryin tae avoid the caper
"D'ye mean Matchmakers?" someone said
I couldnae help but raise ma head.
"Aye - ye know - they chocolate hings"
A wee bit banter gies him wings
"Who'll start me at a poun?" he cries
Again we crouch and lower our eyes
"Come oan this is embarr'ssin me"
He gestures round to find his fee
"Och here's a pound" a brave man says
Delighted alchy ned shouts "YES"
"Here's another" and o'er the aisle
A young girl makes the wee ned smile
He's quiet then until 'Oh f*ck"
My gut reaction is to duck
But he's not going to have a pop
He's realised he's missed his stop
He lurches to the stairs but cannae
catch himself and yells 'ya f*nny'
Crash and thump he's on his arse
This day's descending into farce
"F*nny ye did that on purpose"
He yells continuing the circus
"'Scuse me passengers" he shouts
Downstairs starts to have its doubts
He tries to be polite and nice
"Did youse all see me fall there twice?"
Upstairs we all begin to laugh
He may be drunk but he's no daft
"You shut it ya wee bam" we hear
"Or whit?" -he says without a fear
"You know that I'm frae Castlemilk?"
But seems this guys is of his ilk
"I'll take no nonsense here alright?
I've had enough of all your sh*te."
But wee ned's banging on the door
He's missed his stop just like before
"I'd better no see you aboot"
He shouts and finally jumps oot
But keeps on runnin alongside
Shouting loud to save his pride
The punchline is no word of boast
He ran smack intae a lamppost.