So you went to Carnaval in Cadiz?

Welcome to Cadiz!

Last week I wrote about my trip to Carnival in La Rinconada, 10km outside of Seville. Well this weekend marked the last weekend of carnaval and to celebrate we went to Cádiz, the capital of carnaval and (apparently) the only place where the dictator Franco failed to squash carnaval celebrations.

The most important thing about Carnaval is you have to dress up. I saw some American students on the train from Seville to Cádiz who had made very poor effort. One of them was wearing normal clothes with a Spanish football shirt on. I shook my head at her in disdain. I imagine she saw me… I say this because everybody on that train was staring at me. Due to circumstances out of my control, I was not sitting with my friends. Which meant I was sitting in a coach of people dressed in normal clothes, dressed like this…
Continue reading “So you went to Carnaval in Cadiz?”

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Highlights of Cuba!

When I first left Cuba, my main emotion was relief and excitement that there was such a wide availability of soft drinks and WiFi. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that my time in Cuba was actually real and not a seriously long daydream induced after watching too many episodes of The Prisoner.
The whole experience was quite challenging and emotionally DRAINING. To begin with, all I could remember was the bad stuff, which is why sometimes when people asked me if it was amazing, I looked at them like they were crazy. This was probably partly to do with the fact my last few days in Havana were a bit awkward. However, a couple of weeks at home and I’ve started to forget the bad stuff and only remember the good stuff! And it is nice to be at home, but its the same as it always has been, and when you’re abroad everything’s always new and different. Sometimes that’s a pain, sometimes it’s incredible.
Here are my TOP CUBAN HIGHLIGHTS ❤ aka What to do in Cuba on Your Year Abroad, What not to miss in Cuba, what’s great etcetc

  1. Visiting Plaza de la Revolucion on May 1st, joining in the big ass parade down past all the VIPs and Raul Castro himself
  2. Travelling in a pimped up 1950s car through Cuba’s impressive motorways and seeing the incredibly beautiful country side. The best of this is in gorgeous, gorgeous Vinales.
    Valle de Vinales
  3. Eating in Baracoa and spending time with the wonderful Bajan Roomate.
  4. Rowing through a lake in Cienfuegos and being surrounded by a sea of flamingos
  5. Haggling for taxis and souvenirs and being a boss
  6. Living in Havana with its beautiful, carefully restored architecture
    Havana architecture
  7. Chilling on the beach on the Caribbean sea. BEAUTIFUL! Beaches in Havana, Bay of Pigs, Trinidad and Baracoa.
  8. Sinking mojitos and NOT salsa-dancing at Cuba’s hippest clubs
  9. Getting an actual, visible tan!
  10. Weekending in Trinidad with my lovely fellow students, raving in a rave cave, eating posh food, getting drunk in the afternoon and generally just loving life
And last but not least….
Scuba Diving in the Bay of Pigs!
JUST KIDDING
hohoho

 

Accessing hotel pools in Havana

Even if you’re not staying in a hotel in Havana, it is still possible to find a place to sunbathe. Most of the hotels will let you go to their pool if you pay a cover charge.

I like sunbathing at the pools – there are sunbeds, no messy sand, and showers. When you get too hot you can go in the pool, and the waiters will serve you cocktails where you’re sitting! These are the pools we would go to in Vedado…

Habana Libre, Calle M y 23
If you pay $10, you can use the pool. The $10 goes towards the bar. If you don’t want to order anything from the bar, just pay $5. You can also borrow towels here with a deposit. They do a nice salad and decent cocktails. Also you can pop over the road and go to Waoo! which does amazing burgers!

The pool is nice, its not that secluded so you can still hear the traffic but its a great place to sunbathe. Sometimes there are creepy men there.

Hotel Nacional, Calle 21 y 0
This has one of the best pools. Its $15 cover. The pool is large and attractive.
If you’re cheeky, you can sneak round the back of the Hotel in the gardens where there is another pool, where people go swimming. Often nobody checks here so you don’t have to pay.
A bonus is you can sometimes get the Wifi at the pool here.

Hotel Meliá Cohiba, Calle 1ra
This hotel is more likely to have Cubans at it. Its a salt water pool! The cover is about $12, though you can try to sneak in, and they have a bar that sells things like fried chicken and pizzas.

Hotel Inglaterra, Paseo Prado
This hotel doesn’t have a pool but it has a lovely roof terrace with live music in the evenings and perfect view of Old Havana. Its nice to go here for a drink.

There are other hotels in the Old Town, and if you go in and ask they’ll let you to the pool. Just make sure they don’t rip you off!

An investigative essay of Food in Cuba and Havana

After the monumental success of my blog on Cuban Toilets, I thought I would provide the cyberworld with more information about day to day life in Cuba. I have spoken about food a bit but here I shall collate all the information I gathered after months of in depth research!

When somebody asks me how the food was in Cuba, I usually shudder and pretend to wretch. This is purely because at home we suffered from having a cook who couldn’t cook. An unfortunate circumstance. In addition, anyone who’s walked around the streets of Havana will concur that they are dotted with very poor quality fast food joints that sell pizzas, hamburgers and hot dogs that are almost unrecognisable, they are so awful. Cheese and processed meat are not strong points. I would advise you to avoid them.

I have just looked up some of the restaurants we used to love when in Cuba on Trip Advisor, and discovered that Starbien, the restaurant owned by my landlord is #6 in Havana. I think this is more than fair, the food there was amazing, especially by Cuban standards, and compared to prices in the UK it was very cheap. Very often, walking into a restaurant in Cuba is like walking into the 1970s. They simply LOVE prawn cocktails there! But Starbien is very modern and classy.

What I find completely incomprehensible is how my landlords were able to run such a successful restaurant, but were more than happy to leave us with some of the strangest, oddest, most unappealing dishes known to man. I don’t make claims without evidence! Here is a photo of one of our delightful meals, served – as usual – in a dish that looked like a dog bowl.

Hard, mysterious meat; fried, destroyed, dry and tasteless. Our meals were served with rice and a salad made of tomato slices, green beans and beetroot slices. Sometimes we got carrot(!!!!!) Remember, if you ever judge me for complaining about little things, this wasn’t for a day or a week. It was five months! I love tomato salad, but nobody loves anything every day for five months!!

Obviously Cuba suffers from shortages, and food that can’t be easily grown or produced in Cuba is hard to find, expensive and often quite bad. However, Cuban food can actually be very delicious, and other students had a much more positive experience than us. The huge amount of fried food we were given really affected our moods AND OUR BOWELS!!! So don’t get down in the dumps, and remember that there is good food out there, you just need to go out and buy it!

One of the great things about Cuba is that food is very often made fresh on the premises with fresh ingredients. The climate provides lots of strange new vegetables and really delicious fruit. Seafood is abundant and ‘fine dining’ is a lot cheaper than anywhere else I’ve been. When you’re in a new place, it can be hard to work out where will be good to eat. These are my tips!

If you want something cheap and quick for lunch, go where Cubans go, and eat at a moneda nacional cafe. I’ve listed a few below. As a rule of thumb, these cafes are either holes in the wall, and people eat and drink standing up nearby, or they’ll be in peoples porches and front gardens. The best places will have a lot of choice, and serve fruit shakes (batidos) too. I always went for an omlette or tuna sandwich, with onion and tomato if it was possible. Omlettes are made freshly and were much tastier than cheese, as cheese can be of varying quality, whereas eggs are pretty standard. If somewhere only sells cheese and ham sandwiches and cheap beer, I’d look somewhere else!

You know you’ve found a good moneda nacional restaurant if it is decorated nicely with plants and hanging baskets. Make sure you ask for the moneda nacional prices! Pick a nice comida, such as fried pork, chicken or fish with ‘moros y cristianos’ and salad. Moros y cristianos is rice with black beans. It literally means ‘moors and Christians’…it tastes SO GOOD if the cook knows what they’redoing! The fish is usually great, and served with a wedge of lime. Squeeze it on the rice! Mmmmmmmm.

As long as you don’t end up with our luck, and a cook like Ana, the best food can be found in Casa Paticulares. If they offer dinner, accept at least for one night, the prices are good compared to CUC (tourist currency) restaruants. If you are in Vinales and Baracoa, DEFINITELY eat in the Casa. It may well be the best meal of your trip 🙂

Here are some of the places we liked, it’s fun to find your own favourites too. In the words of my good friend Rachel, who gave me many tips in my preparations for Cuba: “Enjoy your rice and beans.”

Places to eat in Vedado/Havana

Lunch time: Calle A entre 29 y Zapata (Street A between 29 and Zapata)
Calle D entre 23 y 25 (Street D between 23 and 25)
Al frio y fuego: Calle 25 entre D y E (or there abouts!)

Star Bien
http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d3700427-Reviews-Starbien-Havana_Cuba.html

Waoo! burgers, brownies and cockatils are great:
http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d3536479-Reviews-Waoo_Snack_Bar-Havana_Cuba.html

Chanchulleros. Best value dinner (and really delicious), prawns and meat dishes, and best value cocktails in Old Havana
http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g147271-d2477831-Reviews-El_Chanchullero_de_Tapas-Havana_Cuba.html

Places to eat outside of Havana

Fernan-2 in Vinales does a great meal deal and is very beautiful, we loved it and my sister said it was the best meal of the trip!
http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g616288-d2431827-Reviews-Restaurant_Fernan_2_Fernando_s-Vinales_Pinar_del_Rio_Province_Cuba.html

El Barracon, Santiago de Cuba was really good and a good price too!
http://www.lonelyplanet.com/cuba/eastern-cuba/santiago-de-cuba/restaurants/caribbean/el-barracon

HOW TO USE TAXIS IN CUBA/HAVANA! Cubataxi, Maquinas and American Cars

With no underground or metro system and buses that make you weak at the knees, taxis are probably the best way to get around in Havana. We have a volatile relationship with the taxi drivers. We love taxis. We hate taxi drivers.We hate taxis. We love taxi drivers. It’s a fickle thing!

I would say there are three types of taxis,. each with their own special quirks.

  1. Huge, beautiful American Cars

These big cars park outside hotels and are very shiny. A friendly Cuban will drive you open-top around the city, and he will charge you through the teeth for the privilege! This can be fun for the novelty but its not worth it unless you get lucky, and a fancy taxi driver gives you a good deal! No Cubans use these, unless they’re getting married (to a foreigner) and are – in the words of our Cuban neighbour – ‘ostentatious’.

2. Cubataxi

Cuba taxis are yellow and usually Ladas. They charge in tourist dollars but they’re not too expensive, though you should still haggle with them. They’re probably the safest, cheap option at night but nevertheless I used them rarely. 
When my parents were visiting, there was no other option for me to get from their accommodation to my house than to use Cuba taxi. On one particularly typical night, I had to talk to three taxi drivers before somebody agreed to my limit of $4 for a taxi. Climbing in, the driver began revving the engine but nothing happened. The car was old and decrepit, and needed a push-off. In a characteristic wave of Cuban comradery, all nearby taxi drivers (including those who had grossly overcharged me and I’d just rejected) surrounded the car and push it halfway down the road, running behind and beside it, so it could get enough speed to start the engine. Taxi drivers mince tourists as much as humanly possible, but they’re nice to each other.

3. Maquinas/Collectivos

I love Maquinas because they are one element of Cuban life I feel I really understood and could manage as well as a Cuban. They’re basically cars that are owned by the driver (unlike Cubataxis) that do a set route, for example from Vedado to Havana Vieja and back again. They are collective taxis, so like a bus, they stop for people who stick their hand out until they’re full. It was difficult to explain to my sisters and parents how you could tell which cars were maquinas. They were usually old, rusty American cars that weren’t fancy enough to be tourist taxis, they’d have a ‘taxi’ sticker in the window and…. they just looked like maquinas!
To catch a maquina you wait on the pavement on one of the routes- make sure you stand where its legal for them to stop! We would wait on Calle B y 23 for maquinas to go to Capitolio, which was basically the centre of Old Town. Passing maquina drivers will stick their fingers out their window showing how many spaces they had, and then you’d wave them down and tell them where you wanted to go. All journeys cost $10 or $20 Cuban pesos. Its so much cheaper than other taxis and really convenient.
You can get maquinas home from town from Calle Neptuno (walk to Hotel Telegrapho then go left).

Remember that things always change in Cuba so if you need help ask a friendly Cuban. Casa Paticular owners will always be helpful but they may well try and get you to use one of their mate’s cars. Our Casa Paticular owner in Vinyales arranged our trip home with The Cat:

We fit 10 people in this (not-so) roomy taxi

Getting to and from the airport

There is a bus that goes to and from the airport but I’ll be honest, it doesn’t actually stop anywhere near the airport and its a big hassle, even if it does only cost about 3p. The best option is to suck it up and pay the $20/25 to get home in an official taxi. If somebody approaches you and offers cheaper then its probably illegal, but if you want the cheap price make sure you agree and don’t let them wander off with another customer! If you’re living in Havana and picking someone up, you might be able to agree a good price with a taxi driver to take you there and wait for you. Alternatively take the bus.

As with everything in Cuba, make sure you agree the price of a taxi with the driver before you get in. In my experience Cubans won’t try and cheat you if you agree a price with them, but if you don’t then they’ll obviously seize the opportunity to make an extra few dollars!

And you’ve got to get the bus at least once while you’re there.

More info on Cuba:
Food in Cuba
Toilets in Cubs
Cuba highlights


An Investigative Essay on Toilets in Cuba

I have a lot of fun and exciting adventures to share about the last few weeks, but due to what I call technical difficulties, I have been unable to write them all up. Chocolate milk was spilt (by me) onto my laptop. The laptop seems to be working, but the keyboard isn’t, apart from the z key which types continuously. Anyway, today I thought I’d share with you a topic close to my HEART, STOMACH and BUM.

Cuban toilets deserve a whole league of their own in the world of sewage. Tourists are blessed with the fortune of facing only the best of what Cuba has to offer. Tourist toilets often have running water, and nearly always a stern-looking woman who will provide you with toilet paper if you pay her, and will provide you with a sour stink-eye if you don’t.  Most Cuban toilets are not like this. The typical Cuban toilet has no seat, no running water or flush system, no toilet paper, no soap, and no door – OR, in many ways even more disturbingly, a door which is too narrow for the cubicle and leaves most of you exposed. The toilets at the Faculty of Modern Languages are the epitome of a Cuban Toilet, as not only do they have no doors, but (if you have a delicate stomach, turn away NOWWWW) they are always FULL of poo. Which makes you ask yourself: who is going into a toilet WITHOUT A DOOR and pooing!?!?!?!?!!? I believe that whoever did the poo did it before the door was removed. It certainly smells like the poo has been there a very long time. The toilets make the whole of the building stink, which – added with the lack of ceiling tiles, broken plaster and crumbling blackboards – makes a vision of dereliction quite bombarding to the senses.
The toilets are marginally better at home, where we have a certain amount of control over their cleanliness.  Our toilet is divided from the bedroom by what some poor soul may have generously once described as a ‘door’, but is actually nothing more than a kind of plastic screen.  Privacy is not an option. Linked inextricably with this theme is the unfortunate affect the Cuban diet has had on all of our digestive systems. A mixture of grease, bloating rice and ruffage-filled beans means our bowels have been in a constantly confused state since our arrival (rum may also be to blame). We’re all convinced we’ve developed chronic IBS. My stomach (and – I’m not afraid to share this with you – my bowels) have become as delicate and temperamental as the U-pipe in my toilet in the bathroom.
Needless to say, the toilet has become blocked more than once. And our maid/cleaner/homehelp lady (the infamous Ana-Maria) made it clear this was our job to fix, by demonstrating on the porch tiles how to use the crusty, moulding toilet plunger. The toilet plunger had (it’s now – THROUGH NO FAULT OF MY OWN – deceased) a fun quirk. Every now and then, it would flip inside out. This meant that, whilst you were bent laboriously over the toilet bowl (imagine in the Sims when the toilet blocks: this is what it is like when a toilet blocks in real life ,it turns out), plunging enthusiastically, it will suddenly flip inside out and shower you and the entire bathroom in shitty, pissy toilet water. After this happened twice and my pyjamas got a bit unhygienic, I took to plunging the toilet in the nude. This somehow seems more hygienic to me. Anyway, after drinking water in Trinidad last weekend we all got a furious case of ‘deli belly’ (read: the shits) and inevitably the toilet was blocked.  One particularly nasty poo-specimen proved quite unblockable. After watching Bajan-housemate toil hopelessly over it for a while, I gallantly decided to take matters into my own hands. I worked for thirty solid minutes with that plunger, putting in so much effort that I gave myself blisters on my fingers. Then, in burst of energy I plunged with such gusto that the plunger became unstuck from the stick and a huge piss-toilet-poo-water explosion occurred, covering my face in piss-toilet-poo-water. As I stood, naked, weeping silently, over the sink, using my  blistered, puss-filled hands to wash the poo out of my eye, I thought to myself: This, THIS, is what I will remember as a low point not only in my time in Cuba, but also most possibly my life.
For more info on life in Cuba: Food in Cuba

May Day Parade in Havana: "TODAS A LA PLAZA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Today is a hugely important day in Cuba because it is MAY DAY, DAY OF THE WORKERS!!!! Obviously workers are a big deal in this Socialist State, however confusingly they celebrate day of the workers by giving everyone the day off work (!!??!?!?). People have been preparing for the celebrations all week, and lots of shops and businesses etc etc have put up signs declaring their support for ‘primer de mayo’ followed by the popular slogan “TODOS A LA PLAZA”, which my dictionary reliably informs me means “Everyone to the town square!”.
Being an easily influenced sort of girl, I followed these enthusiastic instructions and Calle B and I set off at a bone-tingly early 7.10am (it was meant to be 7.00am but SOMEBODY was late) (that ‘somebody’ was me.) Off we marched!!!! Fortunately for us we live a small walking distance to La Plaza de la Revolucion, but others had travelled from far and wide to attend and I was woken 4am by a rather irate Bajan housemate exclaiming “CHEESE ON BREAD!!!” at revelers outside our window. At 5.45am I was again roused from a dream-riddled snooze by some eery, spage-age techno music echoing through the streets and lots of whooping from Cubans who had arrived early and were getting excited. People came in their work uniforms with big banners and papier mache models of Fidel and also crocodiles (relevance of which remains elusive to me) declaring their support for the revolution. Although it was still very early, a huge parade of workers was marching proudly alone, and we snuck round the people watching the march and GOT INVOLVED! Unfortunately I didn’t have a 10 foot flag, a “Viva la revolucion!” banner or a red t shirt that said “#yosoychavez” on the back, so I didn’t look like many of the other people there, but I did have an enthusiastic and revolutionary attitude which I believe my fellow marchers appreciated a lot.

At one point the march came to a stop. Our group had got a bit split up and I was left with Bajan roommate and a certain J McGuigan, who is yet to make a name for herself in Manchester but has a strong fan base in Nottingham who call themselves the ‘McGuiglets’. We heard one or two words from an old man who I have convinced myself was Raul and/or Fidel, then they played the national anthem and chanted “Viva la revolucion! Viva Fidel! Viva Raul!” and everyone waved their flags like CRAZY! This seemed to really enthuse the crowd, as the march took up quite a pace after that and people positively stormed passed the memorial of Jose Marti, which lies at the centre of the Plaza de la Revolucion. In fact, they were moving so fast that it was very difficult for me, Bajan housemate and McGuigan to manoeuvre ourselves to get in a good position to see the people on the podium. Thankfully, through some extremely skilled side-stepping, we did manage to get to the podium-side of the forceful river of people, and only trod on one or two or three people/children on the way, and THAT’S when I managed to get my top notch photo of Raul HIMSELF!!! Admittedly, at that exact moment in time, I can’t say that I was 100% certain which of the several men on the podium was Raul, or if he was even there at all. Rumours were flying left right and centre about whether he was in green, pink or white, so I took photos of all the men and on returning home we singled him out. He (Raul) was looking pretty happy and waving cheerfully at all the workers. Standing below there were also some representatives from all over the world of people who solodaridise with Cuba. Today was dedicated to Hugo frickin Chavez who is continuing to remain very popular with the poplace.

We not only got in touch with our patriotic, socialist roots this week, but also got one on one with nature on Saturday, as we went for a cheeky trip to Las Terrazas. Las Terrazes in an eco-community that is a day-trip away from Havana. At first our plans were nearly foiled as the bus there was full and we couldn’t find any six-seater taxis, which made the whole thing incredible economically unviable. However, by a stroke of luck, we stumbled on a very shiny, red car owned by a nice man called Carlos who agreed to drive us there for a very reasonable price. Once we got to the eco-community it became clear it was an incredibly large kind of place, but luckily Carlos drove us around the little roads so we could get where we wanted. You’d think riding around in a taxi inside an eco-community would be frowned upon, but it wasn’t. We went swimming in some natural pools. Everything was very GREEN and disconcertingly slimy, especially in the pool. Regular fans will no doubt be impressed, amazed and proud to hear I actually jumped into the pool from a nearby rock (more slipped than jumped, really, but the point remains). Hashtag overcoming my fear of water 2k13! Of the evening we returned to our New Favourite Club, El Morro in the fort, but I decided not to make a repeat performance of my Rapping, as – and i’ll admit this without any shame or embarrassment – i was a bit nervous it was a one-off thing and I wouldn’t be able to repeat my roaring success. However, on Monday I was introduced to a group of hip-hoppers from the US of A as ‘the rapper’, and joined in their hiphop bodypopping dancing style (lots of twisty-wrist going down), so you’ll be no doubt glad to hear that I am continuing to represent the UK hip hop scene here, “across the pond (and south a bit)”.
I’ll end on some sobering news. The more sensitive souls among you might be troubled to hear that both my laptop and my mp3 player have come into contact with a serious amount of liquid this week, and neither seem to have come off too well from the meeting. Both have failed to respond well to my fiddling with them, despite gentle coaxing and frustrated bursts of anger. Additionally, the laptop has acquired a vaguely unpleasant smell of gone-off-chocolate-milk. Thankfully Bajan roommate keeps leaving her laptop unattended and, through some serious sleuthing, I know her password and so have been hacking it.
Lots of love, Sarah x