Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Kayaking on Okahu Bay, Auckland

I had been waiting for a day like today to go kayaking.  We often get still, clear, sunny, autumn days here in Auckland, it is my favourite season and perfect weather for  kayaking so today was my chance and I took it.

What bliss it was to be paddling and drifting on such a glorious day. As Rat said in Kenneth Grahame's Wind in The Willows   "Believe me, young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." I have to agree with Rat, I love being on the water  and will find any excuse.
As far as I am concerned today I had a pretty wonderful morning!

I hired my Kayak from Ferg's Kayaks, Okahu Bay  www.fergskayaks.co.nz 
Kayaks can be hired by the hour ($25) or they offer two kayak tours :
  •  A 3 hour tour which across the harbour to Devonport and Cheltenham Beach and includes a climb up Mt Victoria. 
  • A 6 hour tour, for experienced kayakers, to Rangitoto which includes a climb to the top.
(Cuba posts will resume next week)

While city workers are hard at work........

I wonder what the story is behind this badly neglected boat....have they forgotten they own it?!!

The shag keeps his eye on me as I circle him - probably worried I'm scaring the fish away

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Cienfuegos - Cuba's Pearl of the South

It was late in the day and a large golden sun was setting over the glittering waters of Cienfuegos  bay when we arrived in town and pulled up outside what can only be described as a Moroccan fantasy.    The Palacio de Valle, built in 1917 by a Spaniard, Acislo Blanco, is a mix of  many different styles from Gothic to Romanesque, Baroque, Italianate and Mudejar. It appears he couldn't decide what style he liked best.

Palacio de Valle, Cienfuegos
 There is a riot of ornamentation everywhere you look, stained glass windows, heavily carved and ornamented ceilings, statues, sphinxes, towers and turrets. We wandered through the palace and then made our way up a steep spiral staircase to the roof top bar.  Dusk was falling and it was magical looking out over the bay, rose coloured clouds drifting across the sky and a cuban band playing while guests lingered over drinks.  Batista had plans to turn the palace into a money making casino but his plans were scuppered by the revolution.  For a number of years it sat empty until it was converted into the restaurant, events centre and tourist attraction it is today. The palacio is really rather bizarre but I like to take things as I find them and enjoyed my visit there, not judging it but simply appreciating it for what it is.

Three photos of Palacio de Valle (photo above: Lynelle House)

The main avenue, Cienfuegos

Cienfuegos is considered to be the most elegant of Cuban cities, often referred to as Cuba's Pearl of the South.  Settled by French colonisers, rather than Spanish, the elegant 19th century buildings in the heart of the city lend it a sophisticated 'mini-Paris' feel.  It is  the most affluent city in Cuba with a UNESCO World Heritage listing, which provides funding to help preserve the city, and it also has income derived from several important industries located around the bay. Cienfuegos has an attractive waterfront edged with some grand pre revolutionary mansions  and a relaxed seaside feel.  It is also the only place we saw anything remotely resembling a shopping street as we know it, however thankfully devoid of chain stores. I am sure there are other shopping streets in Cuba but we never saw them.  The pleasant, shady, leafy avenue running through the centre of town and down to the magnificent Parque Jose Marti was a great place to stroll and, fortuitously for me, had a large, modern shoe shop where I was able to replace my broken sandals with a pair of beautifully hand tooled leather sandals for only $10.

Elegant French colonial buildings surround Parque Jose Marti

Parque Jose Marti is the heart of Cienfuegos with the Arch of Triumph (Arco de Triunfo), celebrating Cuba's independence and  reminiscent of the much bigger Arc de Triomphe in Paris, framing the statue of Jose Marti, Cuba's beloved poet and revolutionary.  The square is surrounded by elegant Parisian style buildings and there are shady trees and benches scattered here and there, well used by tourists taking advantage of the wifi in the square to catch up with news from home. As I rested there the voice of an opera singer floated from the Theatre Tomas Terry. What could be better than sitting in the shade in an elegant square under a clear blue sky, relaxed and happy and listening to opera?
Parque Jose Marti

A Cuban Ration Book
Elegant and all as Cienfuegos is we learnt more about the harsh reality of life for Cubans when our guide took us to visit a Ration Shop.  This is where Cubans go to collect their monthly allowance of rations to supplement their tiny incomes of $25US per person, per month. There seemed to be very little stock on the shelves and the rations provided are just the basics like oil, rice, beans, matches, and eggs.  Allowances are carefully worked out depending on family size, the age of children and the elderly.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, milk is severely rationed.  Often goods are late arriving at the store so the allowance carries over to the next month which means a family must survive without that basic item for the time being.  Nowadays there are other ways of buying goods but you need to have money to do this, and most Cubans don't.  This is where posing for photos for money or guiding, taxi driving or any tourism job  where you get tips, or even begging comes in. There is also a thriving black market in Cuba known as mercado negro, where unlicensed people sell fish they have caught, fruit they have grown and sometimes goods they have stolen. Battering is also a common way of trading. Rationing was meant to be a temporary measure when it was introduced in 1962 but has now been in place for 55 years. There is nothing romantic about strict socialism.

Inside a Cuban Ration Shop (photo: Lynelle House)
As we walked back to our bus we passed the statue of one of Cienfuegos' beloved sons, the musician Benny More (1919 - 1963)  Benny, born near the city, became a huge national and international star, his music encapsulating the feel and the rhythms of Cuba. In his song, "Cienfuegos" there is this line "the city I like the best". So beloved was Benny throughout Cuba that more than 100,000 people attended his funeral.  I tip my hat to Benny.  I too love Cuban music and I thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit to Cienfuegos.

You can hear Benny More by opening the link below.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Cuba - It's not all mojitos and salsa lessons

Typical rural home (photo by Diana Kim)
 Until relatively recently all tourism ventures in Cuba were government owned and operated, even today every tour bus on the island is owned by the government.  In the 1990s it was decided that the best way to develop the Cuban tourism industry was to enter into joint ventures with foreign companies, who would then, hopefully, invest in much needed infrastructure. At the same time the law was changed to also allow locals to open and operate their own small businesses. Nevertheless the country is still struggling to keep up and provide the facilities required of a modern, booming, tourism industry.  We discovered this on a number of occasions, none more so than at a toilet stop we made on our way to the Bay of Pigs.  What looked like a perfectly respectable, modern restaurant from the outside had the worst toilets we were to come across in Cuba. The women's toilets had cubicles without doors, were unflushed, dirty, with toilet paper strewn about and water across the floor.  They were so bad that several of our group preferred to wait until the next stop. Toilet paper is never provided in Cuba, you must take your own, and it cannot be flushed away due to a primitive sewerage system (it must be placed in a separate receptacle).  Nevertheless we did get good coffee served at this restaurant, although no milk.  Due to a very poor production level ( approx 50% of what is needed) the supply of milk, in Cuba,  is restricted to children, the ill,  the elderly and pregnant women. 

As our journey continued we were shown a documentary about Fidel Castro. This government made film portrayed Fidel as a perfect, almost god like, hero. I have read extensively about Cuba, Batista, the revolution and Fidel Castro, and feel I have a good understanding of the country's history, but don't feel qualified to make too much comment here.  What I will say, though, is I know a propaganda film when I see one.

I don't know about you but when I visit a place previously  know to me only through historical news footage I expect to find it in a similar state.  I remember being surprised by what a large, modern, fully developed city Hiroshima was when I visited.  The same went for Darwin, previously known to me through footage of the terrible Cyclone Tracy of 1974.  Somehow I was expecting a dusty, scruffy, mangled town, not the lovely, fresh, tropical city it is today.  Silly of me, I know! 
The Bay of Pigs, peaceful and beautiful

I'm not sure what I expected to find at The Bay of Pigs (Bahia de Cochinos) the location of the USA's ill considered and ill fated attack on Cuba in 1961.  What we did find was a large, sleepy bay its turquoise waters filled with bright tropical fish. On a hot day it was just calling out for us to dive in.  The coastline is rocky and steep so a dip requires climbing down a ladder into the sea.  Despite the glorious weather the sea was turbulent, five minutes in swimming and we had had enough so spent the next half hour lounging in the warm tropical sun. 

A relaxing day in the tropics at the Bay of Pigs

Giron Museum (photo: Diana Kim)
 Refreshed we continued our journey, past large billboards bearing propaganda messages, to the Giron Museum.  This museum displays artifacts and photos from the Bay of Pigs Cold War skirmish with the USA.  It is quite moving to see the photos and ages of some of the Cuban casualties and there is a film entitled "The First Defeat of US Imperialism in the Americas" on show.  It is interesting to learn of the clever  tactics used by the Cuban Air force as the battle progressed. We had a Spanish speaking guide and although our guide translated her words it came across clearly that this recent history is still very raw and that the Cubans' triumph over a super power is a source of great pride to them.

A British Hawker Sea Fury, used by the Cuban Air Force
In pensive moods and pondering what we had seen and heard today we continued on towards our next destination, Cienfuegos.  We passed through a large village as the day turned to dusk.  There were no cars in the village, just horses and carts, children were playing in the street, women were gossiping, men were returning home from work in the fields and the nearby power plant.  I wondered about their lives, how they viewed the revolution and whether it had improved their lot.  There was a lot to think about as the day drew in.