Saturday 7 February 2015

Caribbean Notes

Two weeks ago my wife and I flew back into a typically cold, wet and horrid British January after having spent a wonderful time sailing around the Eastern Caribbean on a much belated honeymoon. Before those warm memories are driven entirely from my head, I thought it best to run off a quick post about some of the places we went to, with the caveat that, having only visited these places for a couple of days each, I cannot possibly do each place full justice:

Cartagena, Colombia
The city was surprisingly nice, especially given that I had expected Colombia to be the roughest stop on our trip due to the security situation there. Whilst heavily armed police were in evidence in some parts of the city, however, the atmosphere was relaxed. There was both no sign of the FARC, nor any sign of concern about them.

The old town of Cartagena is a gem, if one with parts that were over-run by tourists. The gold museum, entry to which is free, was a great place to visit, and the food we had at a restaurant in the less-touristified Getsemani side of town was first rate.

Colon, Panama
Sad to say, Colon itself proved to be a quite forgettable and insalubrious town, and the area near the docks had a particularly threatening feel to it - police on bikes eventually rolled up on us as we wandered the streets near the port area to and told us in no uncertain terms that the area simply wasn't safe to walk around in.

By contrast, Portobelo, 40 minutes by taxi from Colon, was well worth a visit. Black vultures flocked around the fortresses of the old town, and the sun beat down upon the bay where, 400 years before, Sir Francis Drake (who the local museum labeled a "pirate") had been laid to rest. We were slightly concerned to see groups of locals with their faces painted black who were carrying long, heavy bats standing at points along our route to the town collecting money from passing cars, until we learned that they were actually celebrating a local festival and were likely dressed as the Black Christ of Porto Belo. The calamari we ate there was simply excellent.

San Lorenzo, across the Panama canal (the locks of which we also visited at Gatun) from Colon proved to be a ruined Spanish fortress standing in the middle of virgin jungle. Standing on the ramparts of the old fort and looking down on the bay below, where brilliant blue water lapped at the edge of dense jungle, you felt you knew what things would have been like there in the days of the conquistadors.

Whilst Colon itself was nothing special, one of my abiding memories of the whole trip was our leaving of the place - a cloud of black butterflies seemed to flock around the ship and followed us until we were several miles out to sea, a strange and beautiful experience. We caught one final, perplexing sight of land - a flare-gun had been fired in the city for some reason - and then as the flare fell, the sun set and we were off on the next part of our journey.

Montego Bay, Jamaica
It's a shame to say this, but the town of Montego Bay also proved to be more than a tad unmemorable, which combined with all the warnings we heard of robberies there (true or not, I don't know), and the continual and tiresome shouting from touts, put us off from doing too much exploring there. Except for a visit to the civic centre to see the exhibit about Sam Sharpe, who was hung by the British in the main square outside the museum 181 years ago this year, we saw little of the town.

Doctors Cave Beach, on the other hand, was immaculate. The coral reef which we snorkeled on was an exquisite riot of colour, with fish of every size wizzing over the coral. Everyone should swim on a coral reef at least once in their life.

Playa Del Carmen, Mexico
Roughly an hour's drive from Cancun, Playa Del Carmen is definitely part of the the same holiday resort world as it's more famous neighbour, which is not to say it was unpleasant. Actually, after the unsettling atmosphere of Colon and Montego Bay it was quite welcome.

The Mayan ruins at Tulum which we visited (we didn't have enough time to get to Chichen Itza) were spectacular, if seemingly over-run by iguanas. It was odd to think that only half the old buildings there have been explored properly, with many more remaining buried or un-protected in the surrounding mangrove swamp. My advice to anyone who wants to go there is to take your swimming clothes, as there is a beach directly below the main tower that makes an excellent break in the middle of a hot Mexican day.

Havana, Cuba
Having lived in China certain aspects of Cuba were not unfamiliar - the propaganda slogans one saw around Havana, for example. A visitor to the propaganda-packed Museum of The Revolucion (the exhibits of which bear only a tangential relation to history) would have found little to choose between it and some of the museums in Beijing.

Others aspects were, for me, quite new - the generally ruined state of many buildings in the capital was something I had heard about but not expected to be so omni-present. Even the North Korean-style monuments at Plaza De La Revolucion looking somewhat time-worn, with cracked and over-grown curb-sides.

Indeed, with the long queues we saw forming outside bakeries, the talk of shortages of basic necessities (although this may just have been a local version of the powdered milk scam - grifters and beggars were, despite what you may have read elsewhere, prominent on the streets of Havana), my wife was reminded of Poland in the 1980's. I have heard journalists ascribe the state of modern-day Cuba to the embargo, but pretty much every country governed according to Marxist economics has ended up this way (the main square in Wroclaw was almost falling apart by the end of the 80's), so colour me unconvinced.

All this aside Havana was definitely an interesting place to visit, many of the colonial-era buildings had a faded grandeur to them, and the people were very friendly. Sitting in the department store at Plaza Carlos III, which opened in 1997, and seeing the new developments and restorations near the port area, it looked like Cuba is on the way to eventually rejoining the modern world and ditching the insane economic policies of the communist era. The US's re-establishment of relations with Cuba will hopefully greatly hasten this. Whether democratic reforms will also occur is impossible to say, but the Cuban leadership is at least likely to try to copy the example of China, and seek to stay in power by resisting any political reform.

Georgetown, Grand Cayman
Going from the dilapidated worker's paradise to the beating heart of one of the world's biggest tax-havens and playground of the plutocrats was quite a switch. Happily the Cayman Islands (over which the British flag still flies) turned out to the nicest and friendliest place we stopped at in the whole trip. My must-dos from the Cayman Islands include the local craft beers, which were delicious, and any of its seafood establishments.

We left port behind a Royal Navy warship, and started our journey back to Gatwick.

[Picture: A local fishing boat in the San Blas islands off the coast of Panama, where a planned stop was cancelled due to rough seas] 


Ji Xiang said...

I visited Cuba for two weeks in 2010. I don't pretend to know the country well, but I did get a slightly more in depth look than you did, and I have a few observations to make.

I'm no fan of one-party systems run by Communist Parties (I've lived in China too long for that), and while in Cuba I certainly noticed the sort of repression and propaganda which go with such systems. The internet was almost unavailable throughout the country, clearly by choice. I didn't notice people queuing at bakeries, but the lack of shops and commercial activity was quite striking. Buying anything you needed was a true challenge. Poverty was pervasive, and the opportunities to emerge from it seemed scarce.

At the same time, it must be said that some of the much flaunted achievements of the Cuban system are genuine. Statistics for all sorts of educational and health indicators really do show that the country is ahead of most of its neighbours. Its life expectancy and infant mortality rates are ahead of the United States. While most Cubans are poor, you see none of the sort of degrading and miserable poverty which you can find in shanty towns in most of Latin America. The country is also quite safe to visit, which is untrue of most of the hemisphere. While you find beggars in the center of Havana, I think they are just there because of the tourists who foolishly give them money. When I visited the small town of Matanzas, I found no beggars anywhere.

I don't think these are good enough reasons to hope that the Cuban system survives the way it is, but I hope that some of the better sides of the system will not be ditched.

Gilman Grundy said...

"Buying anything you needed was a true challenge. "

Yeah, tried to find somewhere (anywhere) I could buy an umbrella and drew a complete blank. Even the department store didn't have them.

"some of the much flaunted achievements of the Cuban system are genuine. Statistics for all sorts of educational and health indicators really do show that the country is ahead of most of its neighbours"

Colour me sceptical. I've previously written about how Cuba's official GDP/capita was above China's (or at least was in 2011, the last year for which stats are available for Cuba - ) I now strongly suspect that those figures are not to be relied on. Nowhere in Jamaica or Colombia that I saw (though admittedly I saw their better side) appeared outwardly so decrepit and impoverished as Havana did. Yes, people I spoke to there (through my wife, she's fluent in Spanish whilst I can hardly string together a few words) did talk about the free health-care and education, but to what standard it is delivered I don't know.

"The country is also quite safe to visit, which is untrue of most of the hemisphere."

This is certainly true - except for the Cayman Islands, Cuba was the safest place we went. I really doubt it will remain true in future though if society becomes more affluent, with the resulting scope that gives for criminal activity.

"While you find beggars in the center of Havana, I think they are just there because of the tourists who foolishly give them money. When I visited the small town of Matanzas, I found no beggars anywhere."

I reminded of how my grandmother used to talk of how in her youth people would leave their door unlocked, to which my father always answer that this was because there was nothing to steal.

"I don't think these are good enough reasons to hope that the Cuban system survives the way it is, but I hope that some of the better sides of the system will not be ditched."


Ji Xiang said...

You found a department store in Cuba? I don't remember ever seeing one.

I think you are slightly missing the point about the beggars. When I went to Matanzas, I didn't see any beggars, homeless or destitute people. I saw a general lack of consumer goods and money, but everyone seemed to have a house and some sort of job. That's how it works in these "socialist" systems. I think that's also the reason for the lack of criminality, rather than a simple "there's nothing to steal".

The free healthcare and education really do exist, and the standard is apparently not bad. A lot of travelers comment that Cubans seem much better educated than people in Central America, though not having been there I can't say. It is true that the government propaganda makes a lot of this, and that's probably why Cubans always mention it.

I doubt the statistics I quoted are fake. According to World Bank statistics for 2013, China's GDP per capita is slightly higher than Cuba's (Wikipedia). You have to remember that while Cuba may not have the wealth which is flaunted in Jamaica or Colombia's capitals, it probably doesn't have the extremes of poverty which those countries have, and which you didn't get to see it.

I'm certainly not saying it's great to be Cuban. I went there to take part in an Esperanto conference, and one day one of the Cuban participants started telling me how hard life is in Cuba, and how what you earn isn't sufficient to buy practically anything. He also asked me not to tell any of the other Cuban participants that he had been talking to me about this, or they would never let him take part in other such conferences in the future. Behind the cheerful Caribbean atmosphere, there clearly lies a system of repression second to none.

KingTubby said...

Factoids. Cuba is in the forefront in some medical procedures ie skin grafting), and there is approximately one doctor for every fifty-two citizens.

Crikey Foarp. After that travelogue, I won't feel guilty about uploading onto my site a recent video of myself surfing big waves in The Artic.

However, an old friend has gone one better. Over a couple of visits to Havana, he recorded a dozen of his favourite songs in Spanish.

Hired a studio and dozen top flight musicians for this very vanity effort.

Taxi Amigo - Pacho

King Tubby

Anonymous said...

Bit showing off huh? You seem an expert on everything and knowledge about nothing, now including Cuba.

Gilman Grundy said...

Hi Chris. Yeah, I guess instead I should buy myself a title or something - that would be the modest thing to do, right?