A Travellerspoint blog

Old Cars, Colonial Architecture and husslers on every corner

3 Days in Cuba

sunny 31 °C
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I am sat on the balcony of our casa particular watching the sunset over our first day in the Cuba in the revolutioenary capital of Havana. Following what can only be described as one of the most stressful days of travelling we have encountered in the last 6 years. Having given ourselves 2 and a half hours at the airport to check in, complete last minute shopping and cancel those final few bits of post our previous land lady had recieved since our departure we thought we'd be fine. We hadn't anticipated the crashing of Virgin's check in system and our failure to check if a visa was required. Having finally made it to the front of the bag drop line we were then instructed to visit the sales desk to purchase the visa and before coming back to the desk. At no point did this girl also ask if we had evidence of our onward journey from Cuba as we had only booked a one way ticket...

So upon finally returning to the check in desk and now being dealt with by a different person of course the next question out of her mouth, "Can I see proof of your onward departure please" Umm... no you can't because we don't have a copy. It turns out this was not the correct answer, we were once again directed back to the sales desk to attempt to access our email and obtain a copy of our e-ticket from Copa Air. By this stage our flight was due to depart in 1 hour. Ensuing frustration and a computer slower than a snail on valium left us pulling out our hair and left us residing ourselves to not picking up all those last minute items such as deoderant, razors, headache tablets, antihistamine and numerous other minor necessities we'd decided were required over the past month. Following a cut and paste job we were on our way back to the front desk for our third attempt at getting checked in. As the saying goes third time lucky. With a hop skip and running pace that would have impressed even the likes of Usain Bolt we sped off to customs. 45 Minutes left to flight departure. What was probably only 10 minutes but felt like a life time we were through to the departure zone. Splitting up, Hannah ran to Boots (the chemist) and I departed for Dixons to look for a netbook (very small laptop) the rendavoue point being the departure gate. The announcent board declared that the flight was closing. Once again resorting to the pace typicaly seen in the 100m sprints we made it to our gate, hot, sweaty, heart rate elevated and stress levels off the charts. The flight hadn't even started to board...Typical!!

So Yesterday was stressful, but thats ok, we woke to sunshine, leafy green boulevards and the feeling that we were in somewhere pretty special. We were looking forward to exploring the streets of Havana Vieja. Our host just left us with one piece of advice don't talk to anybody off the street. Following today and our inability to follow what was cleary a good instruction we've been left agitated, drainted, and fleeced. However as we both agree it could have been a lot worse and we've now learnt our lesson for South America.

So there we were minding our own business taking a few pictures of the beautiful but delapitated colonial buildings of Cuba's past when a gentleman attempting to look like Che Guvara asked to have his picture taken. Following a few happy snaps and swapping fo smiles he then demaded 3CUC for his troubles. Lesson 1, ask how much they're after for a photo before snapping away. As I firstly pulled out my wallet forgetting that the local money was in my zip pocket he moved in only being blocked by Hannah. Realising the money was elsewhere I pulled out the cash about to hand him the 3CUC note he tried snatching the whole lot. Luckily I had a pretty good hold on the money and I got it out of his reach before handing him the 3CUC note and quickly walking away. Needless to say this ruined our good mood.

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You think we would have learnt, but no it appears that we are slow learners. Having been approached a younger guy about our age asking if he could help as we were looking at a restaurant menu. He loved the fact that we were kiwi's and not Americans. What were we up to today, did we know there was a salsa festival on. No I don't want any money I'll just walk you its up in here, blah blah blah the guy was good, it's obvious he'd done this before. In 30 minutes he got, 1 mohito (that he didn't finish), 1 cigar from the packet of 25 he orgainsed for me and 2CUC for his troubles before disappaering under the guise that he'd get a pen so he could give us his email address. He most likely got a commision on the cigars he orgainsed for me as well. However 25CUC for a packet of 25 even if they are just the ones the locals smoke is fine by me. So there we were left in this bar waiting for him to return, after 10 minutes it was eviden he wasn't returning and our time in Cuba had just been completely ruined.

Ive finally decided that maybe Hannah's non trusting attitude whilst travelling is a good tool to have. I thoroughly appreciated her effort to chill out and make an effort to give people a chanve however I welcome it back as I know that she is probably going to save us money and a lot of hassle that dampens the mood!

Trying to recover ourselves from our second fleecing in the space of 1 hour we moved in to Havana Vieja (Old Town). Lifting one's head above eye level to take in the decaying facades of what were once grandeous buildings it doesn't take much to begin to understand the frustrations of the Cuban people back in the time of General Baptista's rule. The Colonial mansions were owned by the few ad the few had the power. The lavish and luxurious lifestyles of these Colonial dwellers played their part in the Cuban Revolution. The obressive nature of those few who held power being cast aside in an attempt to achieve an equality for the people of Cuba.

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The fading pastel colours tell a story of struggle and of weathering hard times. It is evident that the owners of the buildings have never been able to maintain them to the condition they were originally in when the Colonial Masters of Cuba retreated following the Revolution. While they are weary in their appearance a happiness can still be found within in them. They have a living breathing soul that comes from their occupiers whether it being the high pitched screams of children running through the corridors and courtyard placing catch, or from the passion and sexy rythums of the cuban jazz and salsa being played from an occupants stereo.

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The feeling of falling into a time warp and ending up in a bygone era is added to by the classic car collection that is driven through the streets of Havana and across the country. Car's from Detriots gold age in the motoring industry flood the streets in all manner of appearance and condition. The size of these petrol guzzling monsters make them ideal for the local taxi's that pickup and drop off as many locals as they can comfortably fit in at any one time. While their size and age prevent them from being the zippiest things around their slow rumbling nature fts in well with the Cubane way of life. One feels that the attitude of "slow and steady wins the race" has been adopted by most people, which in turn suits the climate. The hot humid climate of Cuba is certainly not endearing to a return to Australia, at least if its cold you just put another layer on. Where as a layer of sweat can only be removed by a shower or swim!

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The best looking local cars have of course been put to use in the tourist trade, soft top cadillacs and fords with their polished chrome bumpers provide tourists with drive by tours of the city. We only had 4 things we wanted to do in Cuba, they were, smoke a cigar, learn to Salsa, drink rum and have a ride on a classic car. However given our experiences of today we are passing on item 2 and 4 for fear of being fleeced again. We'll get salsa lessons in Quito during the two weeks of language school.
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Items 1 and 3 were completed today, however I'm not sure if you could call my attempt at smoking a cigar really smoking a cigar, perhaps I should have googled or Utubed how to smoke a cigar before I made my attempt! Having taken a particular liking to rum, and by rum I don't mean that hideous stuff that Australian's call rum, Bundaburg? Yuck!!! I mean mean Havana Club, and I'm loving the fact that 3CUC gets you a glass of my favourite 7 year dark rum. However they don't need to give us half a bottle in one glass!!

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To cheer ourselves up and to hopefully turn this part of our adventure around we splurged on lunch today, shouting ourselves to a chatubreaund for two, two glasses of rum and candy house dessert, pictured below for about 50CUC (30 quid). The Chatubreaund was melt in your mouth the rum as to be expected delicious and the dessert, well it only existed for about 90 seconds.

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Thus ends our first day in Cuba, lessons have been learnt, stress levels have been pushed and Hannah has been burnt for the first time in just over 4 weeks, which for her I think is a new record as her fair skin normally frys at the first hint of sun.\par

Tomorrow we're going to adventure up to Revolution Plaza, check out the hop on hop off bus and return to that resturant for another piece of chatubreaund. Here's to things improving.

On a positive note we know more spanish than we thought and Hannah is kicking my butt, I need to get some confidenece and just start talking, even if I'm wrong they'll correct me and learn from my mistakes!

Following on from our first day the jury is still out whether I misplaced or had my sunglasses stolen from my camera bag as I was wandering around taking photos. We're looking forward to our plane flight tomorrow!

Posted by The VBs 08:13 Archived in Cuba Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

When's a Mosque Not a Mosque & other questions from Istanbul

Exploring Istanbul

27 °C
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Just a quick side comment before this blog begins. I was interested to see from peoples comments that they thought the group of people from Gallipoli who didn't treat the site with the respect it deserves were from our generation. Unfortunately, we were the youngest people on our bus, the people we discuss in our blog were from my parents generation and older, this we thought made it even more shocking at the lack of respect provided.

Arriving in to Istanbul Otogar, one can be forgiven for feeling slightly unnevered, especially when you arrive in the middle of the night. The otogar is a concrete monster consisting of a multitude of narrow access routes and ramps all dimly lit such that the feeling of miniscule insignificance is at the forefront of your mind as the next level looms over head. Fortunately having been here before I knew what to expect and was able to but Hannah's concerns to rest as we finally reached the top level coming out into an open air flood lit complex heaving with buses arriving and leaving.

Our bus company had promised us a free shuttle ride into town upon our arrival in to Istanbul and true to their word here was a shuttle service ready and waiting. The bus was full of locals and then there was us, so in the time honoured tradition of Turkey, having learnt this in Cappadocia, all of the locals were dropped off at their required points of disembarkment prior to our drop off. Even though this required the driver to double back on himself for 15 minutes in order to get back to Sultanamet where we were staying. To add to our aggrivation the last Turkish passanger to get off was the guy sitting behind Hannah who for the whole trip was leaning forward and resting on to the back of her chair and stroking her. The sense of intimidation this caused combined with the rather scary approach into Istanbul Otogar prevented Hannah from instantly warming to Istanbul's charms.

Istanbul is a city of immense size and population, while it would have been preferable to arrive into the city either side of the weekend the direct trip to Gallipolli from Eastern Turkey meant that we were here for the weekend. Having written up a list of what we wanted to see and do it was now just a matter of deciding what order to do them in. Turkey as a country is only one of three secular countries in the world whereby the country has no set religon. The other two countries are France and India. While the main population of the people is Islam the Government and the country is religon free. It's hard to believe that only three countries in the world recognise that religon and politics do not go together, if only America was a secular country we never would have seen their ex president talking about Crusades! Now I'm digressing returning back to the main topic of this blog. Istanbul has some of the most beautiful mosques in the world and unlike other Islamic countries, because Turkey is secular the mosques can be visited by non believers.

Upon entry to the Mosques females are provided with a head scarf to cover their head and shoulders during their time in the mosque. Hannah had been debating whether a purchase of a pashmina or sarong would be beneficial during our adventure and now presented with this required for covering herself up gave extra ammunition to the idea. Therefore the first place of call the Grand Bazaar to do a bit of shopping, this however completely contravined The VB's Big Adventure By Law number 2.4 which clearly stated that under no circumstance were we to go shopping!!

The Grand Bazaar is a Labyrinth of alleyways and shops where both locals and tourists mix, if you can't find it in the Grand Bazaar then its not available in Istanbul. The Bazaar itself is centuries old and what used to be a collection of temporary shops depending on how often the sellers visited the market and whether they had goods to sell is now a permenant fixture. The original sections of the market remain, you have gold alley where the windows glisten with sparkle of diamonds and gold. The jewellers used to design all of their own jewellery, however they are now moving towards more mass produced jewellery brands in order to keep costs down and revenue up. West of Gold Alley the leather souk can be found where copies of designer jackets can be bought for a fraction of the price. Hannah could have easily left with 3 or 4 jackets. The antique market is filled with the left over remanants of the Ottoman empire as well as few quirky pieces such as a NSW firebrigades helmet from 1902?!!

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The market has expanded over the years and now spills outside of its original walls. The expanded sections include Turkish lights, plates, backgammon boards and piles of fake jeans, t-shirts and shoes. If only we'd known this earlier we would have come shopping while still in the UK. We could have picked up our wardrobes for a fraction of the price that we paid! Needless to say it was in this section that Hannah found her Pasmina as seen below.

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From the Grand Bazaar we fought our way through the hoards of locals, typically travelling against the flow of traffic down to the Spice Market to stock up on our supply of Turkish Viagra, as seen below, which as far as we can work out is just a whole lot of different nuts (but mainly pistacio's) and honey. The typical Turkeish dessert of baclava is also known as a natural viagra made from flakey pastry, pistacio oil and pistacio nuts and I couldn't get enough of them all trip, I can't really say whether I noticed much affect however Hannah may be able to comment differently...

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From the spice market we ventured on to another mosque who's name escapes me, which is known to be the most beautiful created during the Ottoman Empire. As is typically our luck the inside was partitioned off and works were being carried out on the stainglass windows that give them their reputation.

So we started to wander back towards the hostel detouring via the Basilica Cistern. This is Cistern was created during the reign of Emperor Justine back when the city was called Constantinople and was the capital of the Byzathine Empire. The purpose of the cistern was to provide a source of water to the city dwellers during times of siege and was created from old columns recycled from abandoned cities as well as stole from nearby existing cities. The columns are a mixture of Ionic and Doric and upon excavation two impressive columns were found with the head of Medusa.

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With Monday being the day on which the Museums are closed Sunday was time tables for exploring Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman Emperors prior to their reloaction to European Mansions further down the Bosphorous. We felt so priviliged that we got share Topkapi palace with hoards of old grouchy european cruise boat tour groups. Could this possibly be Vatican Muesum all over again? The first 30 minutes consisted of pushing, pushing in, cold hard stares (not from us) and the inability to listen to instructions as people failed to keep moving within the treasury. At then it happened, the most glorious thing ever, the heavens opened up and like Moses and the red sea the crowds were parted as people were sent running in all directions seeking cover within the grounds. All apart from Hannah and I who were prepared with our rain jackets. We were free to now roam the grounds in peace and tranqility Topkapi Palace provides views down both the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. Given its position and close proximity to Istanbul's two most important Mosques the Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque we couldn't figure out why the the Sultan would give all of this up for a Mansion on the Bosphorous. The Ottoman Empires reputation as being the 'sick man of Europe' possibly started because they failed to recoginse their own identity and wanting to fit in with their European counterparts. If they had referred to their history books they would have realised that it was their strength in identity that originally led to the creation of the Ottoman Empire in the first place.

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While the grounds of the Palace are perfectly manicured and the insides of the buildings are opulant, none are more grand than in the Harram, which was the private area of the Sultan and his family. Hand painted tiles adorn every wall and the stained glass windows let in beautiful shafts of light. The baths had golden taps and the intricate metal work reflects the islamic style of repetative shapes. The Harram is definitely the highlight of any trip to the Topkapi Palace and so it should be when you are expected to pay extra to enter its grounds.

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Having taken up most of the day it was too late to walk to Cora Church located 6km away in Western Istanbul, so we meandered back towards the hostel and had an early dinner. We found a little gem of a restaurant that pushed our budget (even with the 15% discounted offered to us) but we were rewarded with our choice. It's hard to believe that the best spagetti bollense is found in Turkey but it definitley surpassed any thing I've had in Italy!

Monday was set aside to visit Istanbul's two main Mosques, the Blue Mosque and Aya Sophia. Starting at the Blue Mosque early in the morning we timed our arrival just after the morning prayers had finished and the first groups of tourists were allowed inside. Unfortunately this detracted slightly from the granduer to the building as tourists bussled against each other to find prime photo taking oppertunities. It was also disappointing to see particular tourists blatantly disregarding Mosque requirements and failing to cover up with either thier own shawl or the one provided to them by the genteman at the front door. What makes the Blue Mosque impressive is the 8 elephant sized columns that rise up from the floor to support the roof, the osaics and tiles that cover them are beautiful in form and colour and it is hard to imagine the hours that went in to their creation and installation.

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From the Blue Mosque we made our way towards the Aya Sophia, which brings me to a question. When is a Mosque not a Mosque? The answer is when it's a muesum! The Aya Sophia Istanbul's number 1 attraction was converted from a Mosque to a Muesum by Kamal Mustafa Ataturk when he came to power. As a muesum it is therefore closed on Monday's!! With all of our planning this little detail sailed clearly over our heads leaving us slightly dissapointed, my dissapointment was added to by the fact that in my second visit to Istanbul I had failed yet again to make inside the Aya Sophia. This Mosque was originally constructed as a church and was converted to a Mosque only after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. The Aya Sphia is known for its self supporting dome, constructed using light weight porous concrete, where the Blue Mosque's dome is supported by Elephant size columns the Dome of the Aya Spohia has the illusion of being completely self supporting. In addition to seeing the dome the tiling and stained glass are supposed to be stunning.

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With almost a full day in front of us and program being thrown a curve ball we reorganised and set our sites on the Chora Church located in western Istanbul. Having a difference of opinion on catching taxi's in foriegn cities due to the possibility of being ripped off we opted to walk. Arriving at the Church some 80 minutes later we purchased our tickets and went inside. The chruch reminded us of the Church of the Spilled Blood in St Petersburg although unfortunately not in as good a condition. It was apparent that the church walls used to be completely covered by mosaics depicting Christ throughout his life. While we found our trip enjoyable our visit would not count as a moment soley due to our experience in Russia. It appears that we have now answered a question I possed in an earlier blog, can previous experiences dilute future experiences? The answer is yes. The only exception during our visit was the discovery of the mosaics of St Peter and St John. The position of windows on the opposite wall allowed the sun to hit the golden mosaic tiles around their head, lighting thier head up like a haelo.

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We finished our Turkey experience off at that Restaurant we found the previous day. Next stop London for a night before hitting Cuba!

Posted by The VBs 11:04 Archived in Turkey Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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