A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about photography

Rethymno, Crete

A mid sized university town, Rethymno has an old section of narrows alleys and old houses, in various states of repair and disrepair.

large_IMG_0534.jpg

We met a man in this tiny Greek church in the walls of the old city, and talked philosophy. He said he had been coming to this charming place since he was a boy.

large_1ABB9418F5681BA4A1EF3E2053A7F54F.jpg

Inside the church
large_1AB9AC73E31E57CF49042384560F3C5E.jpg

The Fortezza, a Venetian Fort, parts of which date back to the 1200's, sits high on a hill overlooking the town, harbor, and the sea. It was built to protect the occupants from Barbarosa and other pirates.

large_IMG_0532.jpg

We spent several hours in the warm sun of the afternoon on the grounds around the Fortezza.

large_IMG_0528.jpg

Looking out at the sea from Fortezza grounds
large_IMG_0506.jpg

By contrast, the modern city spreads out along the beach beyond the harbor, and has a number of hotels and cafes, many of which were closed at this time of year.

large_1AB8B955D51CF2E055A2E80B88178A84.jpg

As we noticed in Heraklion, the Greeks seems to have a schedule which approximates that of the Spaniards and the Argentinians. That is, a late and big lunch between 2-4 PM, when all the stores close. Often, it seems they close between 1 PM until almost 5, but possibly because this is the off-season. Things don't get started until at least 9 or 10 PM, with dinner and music, and it is not until 11or 12, when things really get hopping.

Tonight we had dinner at Vasilli's, a tiny old place at the base of the Fortezza.

Looking up at wall around Fortezza from sea road. Vasilli"s was on the other side
large_1ABCC976D37F0BFE863F634E4F019E76.jpg

We happened there yesterday afternoon when they were closed, and promised the owner we would be back the next night. He and his daughter Eleni gave us a big hug after with chatted with them, and so we were bound to return. Vasilli is a big mustachioed man, more or less our age, who used to run a restaurant close to the port, and more recently has opened this place, where mezes and tapas, are the specialities. He is a larger than life character, more or less as I imagine Zorba the Greek, which I am now re-reading after many years. Zorba it turns out, was from Crete, as was his creator Kazantzakis.

large_IMG_0523.jpg

Of course at 7:20, the place was empty, but he started a fire in the tiny and smokey wood stove so that we would be comfortable. We ordered a bunch of small mezes, including his special salad, fava beans, Greek meatballs, etc., more than enough food. Around 8, a group of six friends came in, and there were smiles all around when they saw us. One of the women, Despina, came over to our table to talk. She is a young, pretty woman in her late 20's, who is a psychologist at the local hospital where she works with schizophrenic patients. Her parents are divorced, and so she is more or less on her own, and wants to complete her education in Integrative psychology. We both felt an instant connection to her, and she to us. Unfortunately her present job lasts only another two months, and like so many young people in Greece, she has no money to pursue further education, even though she is desperate to do so.

Before long, the larger group had bought us extra wine and insisted we join them and share their bottles of raki, an offer we couldn't refuse. We laughed and talked, despite their generally poor English and our non-existent Greek. Much wine and raki was consumed, and I felt a strong connection to these, and other Greek people, who seem so very warm and generous. We also spent time talking to Eleni, who at 22, is quite sophisticated and aware of what is happening, not only in Greece, but in other places. Thanks to her father's hard work, and her own, she has been fortunate to spend time in Istanbul. This is interesting, when you consider the antipathy between the Greeks and the Turks, which she clearly doesn't feel.

Harbor at sunset
large_1AB7B714C787F3A95F98CED6EC170718.jpg

I was thankful that we had spent a few days in Rethymno, despite some chilly weather. It is occasions like the dinner at Vasilli's that I most look forward to in my travels. Thank you Vasilli, for giving me this opportunity, and I hope to spend another night or two at your restaurant.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:43 Archived in Greece Tagged people photography cities_postcards Comments (2)

Modica and Surrounds

The next day, somewhat reluctantly, we left Siracusa, and made our way to Modica Alta. Once again our GPS failed us, and what should have taken about 1& 1/2 hours took at least twice that long. We ended up driving in circles on some tiny mountain roads, with totally conflicting navigational directions. Go straight, turn right, make a U turn, etc. At one point we stopped a group of men on a country road to ask for directions. They seemed to be shouting at one another and arguing, but there was no one else around and we were lost. In our poor Italian, we asked the way to Modica. They stopped arguing long enough to tell us the way, or rather two different ways we could go, and then resumed the argument as soon as we drove away. Asking directions is always an interesting process, as folks seem compelled to tell you multiple directions, which of course, makes things even more confusing.

We finally managed to get to the Piazza Giovanni, through the impossibly narrow streets of the old town. There we called our host, Giuseppe, and then followed him in our car through more narrow alleys, until we arrived in his street and pulled into his garage. Also not an easy task, because the street was barely wide enough for one small car. Our apartment, upstairs from his place, is quite large, but unfortunately at this time of year, also very chilly. There are air conditions in most of the rooms, which work inefficiently as heaters, but you have to keep all of the doors to each room closed to keep in the heat, and like most places in southern Italy, all the floors are tile, hence cold.

Although I was tired from the difficult drive in yet another cloudy, drizzly day, Giuseppe was quick to take me on a short driving tour. A maze of criss-crossing alleys, I instantly forgot where and what he showed me. He then brought me to the only supermarket that was open in the middle of the afternoon, as everything closes between 2 and 5 PM. This makes sense during the Summer, but when it is cold and chilly, it seems like a waste of time. Sense, however, is not something that seems to be in abundant supply down here.

One of the main streets of Modica Alta
large_IMG_0267__1_.jpg

One of hundreds of alleys, it's even narrower than it looks
large_IMG_0269.jpg

Much of Modica was rebuilt following an earthquake in 1693 in what is called Sicilian Baroque style, although the city is much older then that, having been settled by the Greeks as early as 1360 BC. It was later occupied by the Romans, and then the Arabs in 860, and did not become a part of Italy until 1860. Because of the architecture, the city and several others in the Val di Noto are now World Heritage Sites. As with many of the old towns in southern Italy, it seemingly owes it's largely in tact survival to benign neglect.

Modica Alta is built on top of a hillside with old stone and cement houses, narrow alleys, baroque churches, and a few small shops, etc.

Looking up at Modica Alta, San Giorgio Cathedral on right
large_IMG_0258__1_.jpg

Though highly atmospheric, as the Lonely Planet might say, much of it is dilapidated, and seems well off the tourist circuit, at least at this time of year. When we first arrived in the chilly, damp, weather, it felt rather depressing, and we wondered if we had made a mistake renting a place here for a week. The next day was also overcast, but we walked around a bit, and saw some of the sights.

Many ornate building details
IMG_0216.jpg221C5009A09D3A00B8A150D1D9BDAF67.jpg

San Giorgio Cathedral
large_IMG_0240.jpg

large_IMG_0218.jpg

large_IMG_0222.jpg

Later that afternoon, our friends from Germany, Joachim and Antonette, met us as planned, in Piazza Giovanni. It was great to see them, though as luck would have it, they are staying in Modica Bassa, which is about a half hour walk straight down from where we are. On seeing them, we forgot all about the depressing weather, and they came over to our apartment where we drank wine, made a pasta dinner, and caught up on each other's lives, as it had been a few years since our last visit.

Next day we saw the sun, finally, and though not exactly warm, it cheered us immensely. This time we walked down to see them, and although not as old as Modica Alta, the lower town is much more lively with many more shops and restaurants. We explored for a few hours as it was a very nice day to be outside, more like what we expected in Sicily. Then we spent the latter part of the afternoon in true Italian fashion, having an enormous lunch, drinking wine, etc.

Looking down on Modica Bassa and surrounding area
large_IMG_0261.jpg

Centro of Modica Bassa with clock tower above
large_IMG_0248.jpg

Looking up from another angle at Modica Alta and clock tower
large_22249DC6E508393261ABEA1B783F17B0.jpg

Today is also fair, and our friends are coming back up to our apartment. I will attempt, with some trepidation, to take the car out, so that the four of us can do a little sight seeing in another nearby baroque town, Scicli. Vamos a ver, (we shall see) how this goes, but in the end, we had no problems getting there. And it was a charming old town. Though much smaller, Scicli seems to be doing relatively well, and the houses look better cared for, at least compared to Modica Alta. Following a stop for ice-cream which Joachim and Antonette enjoyed very much......

222AFE8E9C335E3BBDDB031874FFD0C9.jpg222C06F4F2FB82253C53F87CCCCBF621.jpg

We hiked the alleys up the steep hills surrounding the Centro.

large_IMG_0271.jpg

In many places we came to dead ends, and the way was blocked intentionally. It seems that the authorities were concerned about rockfall. We stopped at one point, after being practically pulled inside by the proprietor, in a small private cave museum that purported to show what life was like in Sicily around 1900. The owner had collected old objects and pictures, as well as some furniture. It was somewhat interesting at first, but then, he saw some other Italians outside and lured them in as well. He upped the speed of his Italian, for their benefit I suppose, and went on in great detail about various objects, and since we couldn't understand much, we quickly got bored. He was also rather bossy, insisting we stay with the other folks to get the tour. After a time, we managed to escape, and left him with the 2 euros a piece, no doubt the only way he can make ends meet.

The view outside the cave museum
large_222DF12FBCE566E05E847771A9E19887.jpg

Eventually, we found the right path and made our way up to one of the old churches, no longer in use, high on top of one of the ravines. It's visible from the picture of the Centro. From there we could see most of the town below, and all the way to the sea, about 10K distant.

large_IMG_0296.jpg

We walked back to the car and headed for Marina de Modica, which we found in spite of the once again crazy directions of the GPS. We spent an hour or so walking on the beach in the now delightfully warm sun, and somehow drove back to town without getting too lost. The last 15 minutes or so, in the narrow alleys of Modica Alta, were a bit harrowing, as it was hard to know which way to turn, and there were often cars right behind us looking for a way to get past these impossibly slow foreigners. Luckily, we were able to ask directions to Piazza San Giovanni, and I remembered the way to our apartment from there. Trying very hard not to scratch our new rental car, I made the turns carefully through the tiny streets.

On arrival, we polished off the schnapps and cidre that our German friends had made, which provided a much needed respite from the crazy drive (and drivers) through Modica Alta. An hour or two later, we went to the local Taverna Nicastro, which had been recommended for a hearty, yup,you guessed it, pasta dinner. At 7 PM they made a point of opening early just for us, and more wine helped to dispel the cold inside the restaurant. When we left at 8:30 or 9, they didn't seem to have much business, especially for a Saturday night, and it is hard to imagine that they have stayed in business since 1948, as their sign indicated.

The next evening, after a rainy excursion to Ragusa Ibla, including a mad dash through town to catch the last bus out,

large_274701A6DC1D428C946DF3D936F501C4.jpg

found us back in our apartment, once again drinking wine to dispel the damp cold, but unfortunately we soon ran out. Joachim and I went out into the gloomy mist to see if any place was open. The only store with lights on was a small chocolate shop-cum bakery, which was not likely to sell alcohol, but hey, this is Italy so you never know.

"Vino, per favore?"

"Mi dispiace non abbiamo alcun vino."

We didn't exactly know what this meant, but when he shook his head we figured it meant no. As we were speaking there was another man picking up some cookies and pastry.

He said to us, "Se si desidera che il vino mi segua."

We didn't know what that meant either, but when he motioned with his hand, we figured it meant follow me, and so we headed off down the street to his old beat up car. Even before I had both feet inside, necessitating a mad scramble to climb in and close the door, he started driving incredibly fast through Modica Alta's narrow streets, to a point about 2/3rds of the way down the hill toward the lower town. There he abruptly stopped in front of his house, and motioned for us to wait in front while he went inside. He reappeared a few moments later with two bottles of red wine.

"Ce l'ho fatta. Spero ti piaccia."

Well as you have guessed, we still had no idea what he said, but when he handed us the bottles we assumed they were home-made because they didn't have labels.

"Quanto?" How much, one of the few words we did know.

"Gratuito," Another word we knew.

"Grazi, grazi, molto grazi," we said, and started the 20 minute hike back up to the apartment.

Only in Italy.

And it wasn't too shabby for home-made wine.

IMG_0278.jpg

Posted by jonshapiro 05:41 Archived in Italy Tagged people photography living_abroad buildings_postcards Comments (2)

Matera

Arrived here after roughly a three hour drive from Sorrento. We were met as scheduled by Mario, the son of the apartment owner, who then showed us where to park our car and brought us to our apartment in the Caveosa Sassi. There are two main sections of Sassi, or stone houses, and luckily, we are staying in the center of Caveoso on a main, but still narrow street. Opposite us, is a very recognizable church carved out of a high piece of rock overlooking the ravine. This makes our place relatively easy to find.

Main street near our apartment
large_IMG_0565.jpg

Rock church, top right, in front of our apartment with ravine in background
large_A83CEF4CB6219891DE63839C7B857D0E.jpg

Looking back over Caveoso Sassi from top of rock church
large_A8434E75DC407CC85A33BC1B193BDAFE.jpg

Matera, at least the old parts, which date back some 7000 years, is built out of the stones and caves that surround a deep ravine which is literally just opposite our apartment. These cave and stone dwellings ascend to the top of the hill where there is a square towered church, the Duomo, now closed for renovation. The city of about 50,000 feels like medieval fantasy, as many of the stone buildings date from that period of time. No matter which way you look there are incredible vistas of the multi-textured stone, narrow, serpentine lanes with ascending cobblestone steps, ancient churches with ornate stone carvings, and longer views over the deep ravine with cave dwellings on the opposite side as well. Many of the nicest houses have been renovated, although there are still an equal number that have not.

Looking up at the Duomo
large_A8485D1FCE4CEDD02DACBF141BCE11F1.jpg

Basilica at the edge of ravine
large_A83E03BFA02183E054EBF126A0E4FE8F.jpg

Cobblestone alley at edge of ravine with cave dwellings on opposite side
large_A83C1167C448911DD0BD253CEC7CB81B.jpg

Alley's about town. Nanette on right
IMG_0046.jpgIMG_0648.jpg

large_A84A22EACA73681A70E440DAF76F535A.jpg

There are workman everywhere, getting the town ready for 2019, when it will be the site of a European-wide cultural festival. To add to the fantasy, it has been used as the set for a number of movies, including Pasolini's Gospel According to Matthew, and more recently Mel Gibson's version of The Passion of Christ. Right now, practically just outside our glass front door, they are filming a new version of Ben Hur with Morgan Freeman. We have yet to see him, but we have seen many film extras standing around in Roman peasant garb, and a number of the film crew. Obviously Hollywood has discovered Matera, although there are few tourists here at this time of year. Temps are cool, upper 40's to around 50, and although we had some sun yesterday, today is drizzly and overcast.

Rock church opposite our apartment lit up at night for movie set
large_IMG_0590__1_.jpg

Okay, it's not Morgan Freeman
IMG_0663.jpg

A number of the restaurants and trattorias are closed, though not all, and we had a great lunch in a renovated and beautiful cave restaurant located on a tiny alley, somewhere in Sassi Balsano. Not at all sure we could find it again.

IMG_0653.jpgIMG_0654.jpg

Yesterday, we wandered into a church San Angelino de Baptisti, and viewed the old frescoes, further inside the stone building. A kind of church within a church, as it were.

large_AA280BE7CEC2B386C6FFCF85134AF45E.jpg

A84B2288DD82A4387895D09D5A73080B.jpg

We asked when or if there was any music being played on the organ, but when we returned at the appointed time, 8 PM, the place was shut tight. A woman in a pizzeria across the street told us to come back at 8 AM, which we did, but once again the placed was locked. Perhaps no one goes to church any more. We did find a small osteria/cum beer hall nearby, where we stopped for expresso and cake, and noticed that they had a jazz group performing there tonight. So we will try and make our way back here once again. There was also an asian looking,though Italian, young man there,who spoke relatively good English, a seeming rarity in these parts, where even our Spanish doesn't work very well. He told us that he was an opera singer, and apparently will be giving some kind of recital in a church near to our apartment in a few days. We will try to make it there was well.

At night, with the houses and cave dwellings lit up, the place has an eerie, other worldly feel, especially in the mist and fog.

A bit blurry, but you get the idea
large_AB894833B08A42CEB149A9FE6493270C.jpg

Matera is as unique a place, as I have seen. From the little I have read, its history is also quite unique, as it is possilby one of the oldest settlements in Europe. However in the 40's and 50's it was very poor, and overpopulated,and Malaria and sanitation problems were widespread. Sometime in the late 50's, early 60's, the government finally noticed, and new housing was constructed in nearby villages, and the worse sanitation issues were addressed. On the other hand, just as in Cuba, the poverty and neglect may be partly responsible for the magnificence that we see today. Otherwise, probably most of the sassi would simply have been torn down. Ironically, though it still feels somewhat off the beaten track, Matera is now the leading tourist destination in the province of Basilicata, in the boot of Italy.

Though I fondly remember my time wandering around the back alleys of Venice, this place is even more unusual, and unlike Venice, it is still a working city, and not solely a tourist destination. This could certainly change, especially after the cultural fiesta of 2019.

We have continued to dodge the raindrops as we discovered more parts of this mysterious and unique city.

large_IMG_0618.jpg

Though on a few days we had sun.

large_A84CF85FC91318C05329069B68175F5A.jpg

large_A839EA97F79B4A8088BA3D30E6F7540F.jpg

We found a small lane immediately behind the church in front of us, that runs directly adjacent to the ravine. Along this path there were vegetable gardens and even a very local outdoor shop selling figs and dates and other veggies. We walked along and stepped into a few abandoned cave dwellings. Some of the others were still in use as storage places, or had been renovated for cave dwelling B and B's. Eventually we found ourselves in the newer part of town and stopped in a local place for cappuccino and croissants. It seemed like an Italian version of Stewart's, a coffee and convenience store near our house, where old retired guys hang out to chat, but it was also a bar, as are many of the coffee places in Italy. Walking further down the street we discovered a couple of excellent fruit and veggie shops with very fresh produce. We purchased stuff for a lunch time salad.

Another day we hiked down into the ravine on a steep, albeit short trail not far from the rock church. It was a wild place, but the river was too deep and too fast for us to cross over to the other side. We did get some great views looking back towards town.

large_IMG_0597.jpg

large_A84522D9FABA7D3BBA74AC9BEB5E94E3.jpg

We decided to try our luck driving to the other side of the ravine to check out other caves and the very large park on that side of the river. However, moving the car and finding the route to the other side was an adventure unto itself. No doubt we would never have found the way, were it not for a nice young man, who happened to be standing around in a restaurant when I went in to ask for directions. At first he tried to explain how to get there,but given the number of turns, as well as his halting English, he realized that we would never make it. Instead, he got into his car, and told us to follow him, and took us to a point where we could get there on our own.

The far side of the ravine had a network of dirt roads that led up to the edge of the ravine, but we stopped before that point and walked. There were many caves here, and it had a wild and windswept feeling. It also offered views of the Sassi on the other side.

large_AAF4F15A9ECBA3F289865BC014BB2146.jpg

Selfie from across the ravine
large_IMG_0672.jpg

After a nice walk, the rain moved in once again, and incredibly, we managed to find our way back to town, with some help from Google Maps, to a point very near our old parking spot. This was taken, but we did manage to park nearby, and then it was about a ten minute walk back to the Sassi Caveosa ,and our apartment. We are now safely ensconced in our little duplex of stone and wood.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:49 Archived in Italy Tagged churches photography tourist_sites living_abroad buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (4)

Cienfuegos

Left Habana yesterday with our amiga from Nicaragua, in a private taxi arranged by our current hosts Zunilda y Raya. Cienfuegos is a laid back place, about three hours or so by car from Habana. It has a wide paseo, with covered walkway and many old columned buildings, a cross between French and Spanish architecture, as it was originally a French outpost. It is probably best known as the home of Benny More, a famous singer in the 40's and 50's.

We are staying in a delightful casa, just outside town on Punta Gordo. We have our own terrace overlooking the bay. Zunilda and Raya are muy amable, and cook up what is arguably, the best food in Cienfuegos, and possibly all Cuba. There are several other casas here, as well as the larger and rather ugly Hotel Jagua. Said to have been built by Meyer Lansky, with help from Batista, it is right on the grounds of the magnificent Palacio de Valle, which looks like a moorish castle. The idea was to turn the palacio into a casino, similar to Monte Carlo.

Palacio from our terrace. Construction garbage detracts, but is not noticeable from the street
large_5435052492195652A0BEE68EA2006132.jpg

At the end of the Punta, there is a small park with several gazebos selling rum and sandwiches, kids frolicking around, a local hangout. Arriving in mid-afternoon, we spent a couple of hours there.

In the morning we walked around the main part of town to Plaza Marti, perhaps a mile away. Looking quite Spanish, it has a number of old edificios, and a couple of interesting art galleries. Nanette later went back and purchased a print from Annia Alonzo. We had another cup of coffee under the colonnades of one of these buildings, and listened to One Guantanamera sung by live musicians. This seems to be a ubiquitous song in Cuba, at least for tourists, although I know it from the Pete Seeger version.

Paseo, on the way to Plaza Marti
large_IMG_0097.jpg

Old opera house, Plaza Marti
large_IMG_0104.jpg

Bomberos (firemen) staying in shape on Plaza Marti
large_IMG_0121.jpg

Nanette and Terry
IMG_0095.jpg

Church near Plaza
large_IMG_0110.jpg

Taxi servcie
large_543806CE9F39ABB16EE89FF7ED454F9B.jpg

After a while, it began to get hot and we strolled back to our casa where we spent the better part of the afternoon on our terrace looking out over the bay, drinking rum and cerveza. What could be more relajando?

Your's truely on the terrace
54330D4FF4548F48DAC02772E2A5E4FC.jpg

Views looking out from terrace
large_5433E5A4C7F5882D37CB166444E7DFE1.jpg

large_543BB698AB2EF3AA4335C00AE4F7CD99.jpg

On another day, Terry and I took the 45 minute ferry ride to the Castillo de Jagua, at the entrance to the Bay of Cienfuegos, It was erected by King Philip V of Spain (1683-1746) in 1742 to protect the bay from pirates who prowled the Caribbean coast in those days.

IMG_0136.jpg54402898ABCB970548B07924572426DA.jpg

large_543F552CE5FC539D83509B7852708076.jpg

View from fort looking out at the entrance to the Bay of Cienfuegos
large_IMG_0135.jpg

Posted by jonshapiro 07:02 Archived in Cuba Tagged photography buildings_postcards cities_postcards Comments (0)

Book 7: Cuba, Southern Italy, Greece

Habana

FOR MY FAITHFUL READERS, IT'S BEEN A LONG TIME, BUT HERE IS THE NEXT INSTALLMENT OF VAGABONDING AT 60. Please note the dates. As per usual I am writing this back in my home in beautiful, at this time of year, (July) upstate New York.

Habana Cuba, at Casa Hilda y Alejandro. Highly recommended. This is a small Casa Particular in Habana Vieja, which is the way to go if you want to meet the Cuban people. Alejandro Sr. lives in this 5 room apartment, though he considers it a house, with his wife Hilda, his son, Alejandro Jr. and his wife. They rent out the only extra bedroom to tourists for 30CUC per night, and that has only been legal for the past few years. After his son picked us up from the airport, Nanette spent the first night with me, and then went to meet up with her artist group from NAWA.

I spent many long hours talking (in Spanish of course) to Alejandro Sr., which was buena practica para mi. He told me that his son, Alejandro Jr. is trained as a meteorologist, but is forced to work as a taxi driver because that is the only way he can make sufficient dinero. When he worked for the government, he was paid approximately 400 Cuban pesos per month. The tourists use CUC'S, and there are 25 Cuban pesos to the CUC, which is equal to one US dollar.Generally things are not that cheap even for locals, despite the dual currency system, and it is more or less impossible to live on this amount of money (Equal to less than $20US). He makes much more driving people to the airport for 25 CUC's in each direction.

Doctors and other professionals in Cuba make 800 to 1000 pesos or about $US40 a month, not nearly as much as waiters. On the other hand, medical care is free, most people have some kind of government job, and everyone has some of their basic necessities provided for. At the same time everyday life is clearly a struggle for the vast majority. And there is corruption, as always, in the government and the police. Alejandro clearly understands the political issues involved, both now and during the time of Batista, when his grandparents owned and rented 24 houses, which they lost after the revolution. It was, and still is not possible to buy a house, or an apartment, but through a complicated series of trades, he managed to obtain this place. However, he does not condemn the current system totally, and presents a rather balanced view of the government. He is well educated, and because he managed to procure a Spanish passport due to his Spanish/German background, he has been able to visit relatives and friends in Florida. He is trained in telecommunications and has access to the internet in the company he works for on a part time basis. Internet access is a rarity here, so he is one of the lucky ones.

His son has been fortunate to have spent a year or so in Calgary, Canada, in part because his wife is a nuclear engineer,and got a temporary position teaching at the university there. His English is quite good as a result, as is his wife's. During the boom times of the petroleum industry in Calgary, he was able to get work for the oil companies predicting the level of pollution in the city that was generated by oil production. After oil prices dropped precipitously, this was no longer possible. And so, while his wife worked at the university he was forced to take on a number of menial jobs, although he was still much better off then here in Cuba. He and his wife have recently obtained their visas to return to Calgary for two years, and plan to do so in the spring when his wife will resume teaching at the university.

His wife Hilda was not feeling well, so I didn't see much of her in the four nights I spent here, but they were lovely people, and made me feel like I was part of their family. Alejandro Sr. was incredibly helpful and full of useful suggestions. He even surprised us by showing up to say goodbye when we were out to dinner for our last night in Havana, and no longer staying at his place.

Building of Casa Hilda y Alejandro (1st floor)
EDC22FA1EEA9093BF4CE1F7F00496189.jpg

After another lengthy discussion at the breakfast table today, I wandered around Habana Vieja on my own, taking pictures of the elegant, but largely decrepit buildings along the Paseo del Prado, and the renovated heart of the tourist district on Obispo Street. Though most of the buildings are late 19th and and early 20th century, they are a mix of colonial, neoclassical, art deco, and incredibly ornate baroque styles.

large_IMG_0006.jpg

large_IMG_0030__1_.jpg

large_IMG_0012.jpg

Just off Obispo Street, heart of the tourist district
large_IMG_0044__1_.jpg

A More typical building on the Paseo
large_IMG_0004.jpg

The Capitolio, looking very much like ours does in the US, frames the end of the Paseo, and is now surrounded by scaffolding so that the renovation can be completed. (Or is it to prop up the dome?)

large_ED7875EA079035666E55ED2C66C5C31F.jpg

As noted in many guide books, most of the buildings look largely as they did when they were constructed, mostly a result of benign neglect and lack of dinero. Right now Habana looks even more scuffy than usual, as many of the smaller streets have been dug up to install new water and sewer lines.

large_IMG_0067.jpg

What makes the city especially inviting is the blessed lack of traffic, at least in this old part of town, and of course, there are the ubiquitous 1950's US cars scattered about, many of which are taxis.

large_IMG_0015.jpg

large_IMG_0009__1_.jpg

There are also several old plazas with colonial churches and a mix of other styles, looking very much like Spain. For a large city, Habana simply invites strolling about in a leisurely fashion.

large_IMG_0037.jpg

large_IMG_0074.jpg

As Alejandro and I discussed, if the place is inundated by Americans because of the changes Obama has wrought, it will be good for the economy, but a disastre for Habana because of the lack of infrastructure. There are no McDonalds or Burger Kings here, and I hope to God they keep it that way. Not likely, at least in the longer term.

Generally most everyone is very friendly and welcoming. I have experienced no animosity towards Americans, but because of the economic conditions many people are, if anything, overly interested in befriending tourists, in the hope of trying to get a CUC by acting as a guide, etc. As I was standing on Obispo street, a woman came up to me and starting chatting in Spanish, and then asked me if I could buy some milk for her child. Thinking this would cost a dollar or two I agreed, but when we went off the nearby market, they wanted to charge me 13. I refused this, but ended up paying 6.6 CUC for a gallon of milk, realizing as I did so, that she probably had worked something out with the manager of the market to kick back 3/4ths of this amount. Oh well.

Lunch counter and market for locals
large_ED86E414A6E94AD4A2FAAF2691D986F1.jpg

On other days I took shots of locals on the street.

IMG_0010.jpgED8BBA8F98984E453DB4379C41FEFF28.jpg

large_IMG_0040.jpg

large_EDC5E4EFEE9E7FE9FF5F818D97FCB2DF.jpg

I couldn't resist these kids right on my block
large_IMG_0242.jpg

On Sunday, I walked about a mile or so to a small alley in Centro Habana. This part of town is grittier, and for the most part, is clearly not a tourist area. The buildings are in worse disrepair. However, I had read in the Lonely Planet that today there was outdoor Rumba drumming and dancing on some small side streets. When I arrived at the Callejon, there were a number of tourists there, as I had been forewarned. The alley was decorated with various Santeria paintings and Afro-Cuban sculptures, all of the funky variety. There was no music however, and I sat down on a bench next to a young German kid. We chatted for a few minutes about Cuban music in general, as he had been here for almost two months. Eventually the drumming began and I stood on top of a bathtub sculpture to get a better view. All the drummers were women. This was a surprise, and then there was some rigorous dancing with both men and women, some of whom wielded fake swords, and all wearing colorful costumes. It was fast and furious, but unfortunately, didn't last more than about 20 minutes.

large_IMG_0029__1_.jpg

large_EDA4A676B7A1F4826552FC7A2D3B0C66.jpg

IMG_0040__1_.jpgED96D0E8A4869A5E5ED4A88764924B7C.jpg

Soon a Rasta looking guy came over and tried to sell me a homemade cd. He said it was the only way for him to make an extra few bucks. His English, learned in the streets, was pretty good. I asked what his commission was, and then gave him the 2 CUC that he indicated. This made us friends, and he proceeded to rail against the "fucking communist system," that never paid him a living wage. He didn't blame the Americans and clearly understood the difference between our government and the people, as I have found most people do. He didn't understand why Fidel and his brother Raoul, were such good buddies with the "fucking Spanish, who killed more Cubans than anyone else." He was indeed a Rasta, he explained to me, and was duly impressed when I told him I had seen Bob Marley in person before he died. He said there were a number of Rastas in Cuba, and "the fucking government hates us because we smoke ganja, talk about freedom, and think for ourselves. He wore the typical Rasta black,yellow and red cap over his greying hair and looked to be around 50. Later I asked his age, and he said 48, which is why, he added, " he couldn't wait too long for the fucking government to change its ways."He showed me a picture of his wife and son, whom he said, he couldn't really support. Then it was time to introduce me to several of his friends, a few of whom also had dreads, but not all. Another younger man, with a bit of grey hair, said today was his 36th birthday. His English was also good, and he said it was because he worked in the Fort Museum and got a chance to speak to tourists. He wanted me to know that his monthly salary was 350 Cuban pesos or about 15 CUC. Una broma, he said, a joke. Manuel, the Rasta fellow, went off to buy some cerveza with money I had given him, but returned with a small carton of rum, no cerveza to be found. We passed this around, as well as several other cartons that had mysteriously appeared and Jorge, who's birthday it was, said he was happy now because at least he was getting to do some drinking on his birthday and was able to spend time with his girlfriend, who he then introduced me to. It wasn't long before Nayari sidled up next to me on the bench. In her early 40''s, and skinny, she was not especially attractive and had burns on part of her face and hands. She handed me a small plastic cup of rum that was making the rounds, and then started flirting with me, calling me her esposo, or husband. She did not speak English and so we conversed in Spanish. I don't know whether she had another esposo or not, but she did say she had a 9 year old son and worked as a dental assistant.

Manuel then suggested we go into a shop owned by Salvador, a local artist. Currently he was in Miami doing something to promote his own art. Apparently he is fairly well known, but in my humble opinion his art needs all the promotion he can give it, since most of it is all the same primitive pseudo-African looking stuff. Not withstanding, Salvador it seems, has money, and is the chief organizer of the rumba gatherings on the Callejon. Because he was not there, the music didn't last nearly as long as the 3 to 4 hours it usually did. Too bad. Manuel went on to tell me that Salvador was kind of the neighborhood benefactor, and was responsible for all of the street art on the Callejon. Interesting to know where he got his money. I didn't ask, and it is hard to believe he got it from his art work, but quien sabe? Always hard to account for taste in art.

We went back outside to drink more rum. Jorge talked more to me in English while Nayari was trying to kiss me at every opportunity. When Jorge got stumped with an English word or two, despite my attempts to talk to him in Spanish, he turned to a young, and rather clean cut black man (everyone here was black), and asked him how to say it in English. It turns out that the soft spoken Pato, was a professor of English at Habana University. He also happened to speak French, German, and Italian. Damn impressive for a 27 year old.

Continuing our discussion, both Jorge and Manuel said, after I asked about it, "that of course, even in the fucking communist system there is racismo. White people, or at least lighter people, as much of the country is mulatto, always get the better government jobs." Pato agreed with this as well. "Todo el mundo," I chimed in. "Siempre lo mismo, todo el mundo." (Always the same, all over the world). After a time, I said I wanted to start walking back to Habana Vieja and mi casa, and Manuel said that he lived there as well. Nayari said she would walk with us, but went off to get her resident papers because she might be hassled by the police if was seen walking with me.

While she was gone, Manuel asked me if "I wanted to fuck her. Not very pretty," he said, " but I heard she was really good lay and it was obvious she has eyes for you."

I said no, "that my own esposa might not like that too much."

"Is she in Cuba?"

"Yes." I said.

"Well anyway, " he went on, "she's not here so what difference does it make?"

I said thanks, but no thanks, and when Nayari returned in a few minutes, she insisted on holding hands and calling me, mi amor. When I held back, she said, that she thought I was timido. Not wanting to insult anyone I said that I liked her, but was not interested in having sex. She still wanted to hold hands for a bit, which, somewhat reluctantly, I agreed to, at least for a few minutes. We started walking back in the direction of the old city, and not having had anything to eat since the morning, and by now it was 5 PM, I asked if there was anywhere we could stop so I could get something to eat. They took me to a little place in someone's house, and although Manuel and Jorge at first said they were not hungry, they quickly changed their minds. I didn't really have enough money for everyone, but agreed I would pay for Nayari to eat, and then give them another 5 CUC to go out and get some pizza. Of course they were hustling me, but I have to say they did it in a nice way, and I didn't feel threatened in any way. It was more like I felt sorry for them, which I'm sure they counted on, and if I had the money, probably I would have bought dinner all around. Nayari of course was thrilled with her meal, probably the best she had eaten in a while. She wanted my address and email, even though she has no way to get in touch.

Nayari lounging in the restaurant
EDABC182E406CDEE5841C46EA83A5F0B.jpg

The professor showed up, and apparently knew the owner, as she gave him a free plate of food. When they returned from the pizza place, we resumed walking, and they pointed me toward the Museum of the Revolution, not far my casa. They said they would continue on their own as it might not be good to be seen with me. Perhaps they were all scamming me a bit, and none of them lived in Habana Vieja, but it was an interesting way to while away the afternoon, and to talk with them about life and politics in Cuba.

The following day, today, on Alejandro's recommendation, I took the a bus tour around the city, which is quite spread out and much of it looks different than old Habana, complete with the occasional Russian style, ugly block building, and a few fancy and expensive hotels. I got out at the university and walked around for a bit, and there were some interesting old neoclassical buildings there, also in disrepair. Nearby was the Cuba Libre Hotel, formerly the Hilton, and supposedly Fidel's headquarters immediately after the revolution.

Next stop, Plaza de la Revolution. Now the political center of Cuba, there were enormous sculpture like faces of Cienfuegos and Che on the side of two adjoining buildings, as well as a rather phallic looking monument to Jose Marti.

large_IMG_0060.jpg

Posted by jonshapiro 14:27 Archived in Cuba Tagged people children photography buildings_postcards Comments (3)

(Entries 6 - 10 of 25) Previous « Page 1 [2] 3 4 5 » Next