Fresh from Cuba-

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We have returned from ten days in Cuba, leaving the frozen, grey UK and taking almost ten hours to fly to a warm, bright and colourful Havana. After hearing about the plight of tourists to Jamaica, who must remain in hotel lock-down due to violent crime I’d advise anyone with Caribbean travel plans to choose Cuba-one of the safest holiday destinations in the world.

Even in my deprived-sleep-addled state, on the journey to the hotel I could see that there is NO advertising of any sort along the roads, not on the highway from the airport or in the suburban streets and nowhere in the bustle of the city. It is refreshing not to be faced with hoardings and neon everywhere.

Continuing this theme, there is nothing anywhere that resembles a ‘chain’ company. No Starbucks, MacDonalds, KFC, Wagamama, TGI Fridays, Specsavers, H&M, Monsoon, Wallmart, Top Shop or IKEA. Magic! It is, in fact difficult to determine where there are any shops at all. There are tiny corner kiosks nestling among crumbling facades or murky windows displaying manekins sporting faded, dusty outfits. There are also alleyways with market stalls touting Che Guevara T-shirts, baseball caps and a range of hand-made items. There is also a riot of lively, busy bars and restaurants thronged with tourists and locals alike and often alive with a band of musicians.

Bars. There is no shortage of these; some mere holes in the wall, others ornately panelled, art-deco monuments to a rum-and-salsa culture much celebrated by writer Ernest Hemingway [whose heritage is much exploited by Havana traders]. There is a limitless supply of musicians. In a small street outside a Hemingway-themed bar where exuberant music is entertaining the area an impromptu accompaniment was played on water bottles as several individuals ran fingernails up and down the furrowed sides [proving my theory that almost anything can be employed as a musical instrument].

Cars. Cuba is well-known for its old, American classic cars. I was unprepared for the number of them [allegedly 150, 000].They range from lovingly restored, smooth, gleaming limousines to pitted, filled and battered jalopies. All, however spew out a filthy, noxious cloud of lung-clogging fumes which requires some adjustment of the respiratory passages when out walking.

People are friendly, happy and not above exploitative. We were offered welcome, advice, conversation and cigars or a visit to an outlet. We were never, at any time hassled or pursued. Rejection was accepted with relaxed, good-natured smiles. There were a small number of beggars, some of which had gone to lengths to create artful outfits to enhance their plight-a frayed and patched jacket or [in one case] a masterpiece of sackcloth trousers. There was no evidence at all of rough sleeping.

There was an overall sense of well being. Nobody appeared embittered or unhappy with their lot. The population is a mixture of black and white with all groups of diners, musicians, shoppers and travellers joining in together as one, never allied to one or other ethnic type. It is safe; a tourist could walk alone anywhere at any time of day or night without fear of molestation. We were unlucky with the weather, which was uncharacteristically overcast and windy. Otherwise it was a fun-filled and happy experience. Thank-you Cuba!

 

 

 

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[Not] All about Mexico…

So, Mexico then. We’ve had a short, winter sun break there. Of course I realise my impressions are not too representative, since we’ve only looked at a small, sanitised-for-tourists part, but here are some observations about this much-maligned and despised by reactionary Americans country.

Weather

                The eastern coast on the Gulf of Mexico, the principal tourist destination, is termed part of the Caribbean and rightly so, since the climate, like most West Indian islands is warm, tropical and cooled by a breeze. During our ten days there was one overcast day with the occasional five minute shower. It was, however still very warm-a perfect destination for those of us who’ve tired of our harsh, British winter temperatures.

Interior

                We did venture inland, albeit in the care of the [excellent] tour guides running the excursion. I was as fascinated [being possessed of a writer’s nosy nature] to see the villages with their pastel-hued cottages and the thatched, traditional Mayan homes as I was by the ancient archaeology of the site we went to visit. The open countryside was tropical forest and extremely flat. Here, away from the coast it felt much hotter.

History

There are many fine archaeological sites to visit but we opted for Chichen Itza since it’s the best known and was nearest to our resort. It has been very well excavated and restored, extensive and the only drawback is the cacophony of howler monkey calls fabricated by the stallholders using wooden devices for the purpose of attracting attention to their wares. Our tour guide was experienced and knowledgeable. We went on to the beautiful city of Valladolid, where the colonial buildings lining the streets make for an elegant setting, no more so than our lunch venue in a wonderfully restored Spanish style house with a palm-shaded courtyard.

Mexicans

                All those we encountered were friendly, cheerful and helpful. This applies not only to the hotel staff, who you might expect to have been indoctrinated with a corporate hospitality vibe, but to people we met when out and about in the town, helping us when we were consulting the map, serving us in bars and using public transport [which was efficient and very cheap]. Mexicans, on the whole are smallish, an attribute that I find particularly endearing being somewhat height-challenged myself.

Food

Everything we ate was delicious. The hotel breakfasts and dinners were a spectacular plethora of everything comestible you can imagine, so much that three meals daily would have been impossible. We especially loved the variety of fruit, vegetables and salads available although one could easily have lived upon burgers and chips [fries] for the entire time-as indeed many seemed to. I am still a little uncomfortable with the ‘all-inclusive’ mentality, where anything is served at any time to anywhere, so that if I am reading on a beach I still prefer to get up and find sustenance for myself rather than be waited on. I realise this is a dated attitude and we were, to an extent berated by the waiting staff themselves for under-consuming…

So-to conclude. We did not venture into the lawless, violent lands of the drug cartels. We eschewed the west coast and the south, where heartless kidnappers commandeer innocent travellers and ransom them to their families. We met nobody who wanted to burgle, extort or shoot us at close range. Everyone we met was lovely. Some people are nice and some are not. QED.

Hurt One or Two Living Things

Hurt No Living Thing

Hurt no living thing:
Ladybird, nor butterfly,
Nor moth with dusty wing,
Nor cricket chirping cheerily,
Nor grasshopper so light of leap,
Nor dancing gnat, nor beetle fat,
Nor harmless worms that creep.

 

Christina Rosetti’s famous poem exhorts us all to refrain from harming tiny creatures; a lofty ideal, but one that is tricky to follow. I notice she keeps to insects that are both beautiful and/or harmless such as ladybirds or beetles and does not venture to suggest that we should preserve locusts, tsetse flies, head lice or maggots. And was Christina a vegan, I wonder?

It is easy to admire and wish to preserve ladybirds and butterflies. It is even possible to tolerate annoying wasps, who gyrate in an irritating, menacing fashion around your alfresco lunch if you adopt a laisser-faire attitude. And hornets should be given a wide berth at all times. For those of us, however who seem to be a favourite snack for mosquitoes, midges and any other blood sucking insects there is a strong desire to smash them into a pulp. Anyone who has lain awake tortured by the hot itching of myriad bites will understand this.

I’ve been attacked by most of the common, European biters. Years ago there was a local, Dorset, river dwelling blood sucker called The Blandford Fly whose bite induced ankle swelling akin to elephantiasis together with a flu-like fever. I’d had at least two of these before the little monsters were sprayed prior to hatching.

Of course in tropical climates there are some truly nasty insects-grubs that burrow into skin and eyes, wormy things that colonise the bodily systems. But here in France, in the pine woods of the south west my own, personal běte noir has to be the horsefly. If horseflies are beyond your experience consider yourself blessed.

My first real run in with them was a few years ago whilst enjoying an innocent cycle up a quiet lane in the forest of Les Landes. It was a hot afternoon, provoking sweat to erupt between my rucksack and the fabric of my T-shirt. As we passed a particular spot a swarm of horseflies erupted from the trees and up beneath the rucksack, biting as they went. The result was a constellation of itchy, angry, red, raised lumps that lasted for a couple of weeks.

Then last week, after a hot afternoon I emerged from the shower and sat to drag a brush through my wet hair, rising to glance in the mirror at the result. It looked as if two brown stickers had attached themselves to my face-one at the hairline, the other on my jaw. In my innocence I was slow to recognise the sinister, brownish, frog-with-a-touch-of spider [but without the charm of either] forms of horseflies, which had attached themselves greedily to my face and had begun feasting before I’d so much as dried off. While the itching has now subsided the scabby lumps persist. Now I am applying liberal dousing of repellent prior to each cycling jaunt, although this afternoon the little scamps were invading my helmet and ignoring the deterrent lotion by hitching a ride on my skin.

No, Christina I’m afraid exceptions must be made. Ladybirds and grasshoppers, yes-horseflies-NO.

Grey-What Does it do for You?

Grey. It’s the colour of the moment.
For one thing, I have just swapped the vibrant, colourful exuberance of the Caribbean for the dull, sombre, grey skies above the UK. It made me wonder what immigrants from hot, sunny climates must make of their first sight of our island country. For grey weather, which we are prey to for long periods of our year renders everything else grey. Trees, vegetation, buildings and people-we are all grey; never mind that we are a ‘green and pleasant land’. It is not at all evident at present.
For another thing, the odious ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, that best-selling novel which was a sensation, made its lucky ‘writer’ into an immediate millionaire, spawned a brood of follow-ups plus copycat novels and should have been consigned, at best, to the Mills and Boon section of book shops and libraries has been released as a movie. The timing, of course is cynically devised to coincide with Valentine’s Day; the advertising and the accompanying merchandise in your face at every turn. The book, and it its turn the film are said to appeal to mature women. One study, by Michigan State University found that readers were more likely to be in abusive relationships or have drinking or drug problems. A cynic might suggest here that the university was somehow involved in the marketing of the book.
In other areas the ‘grey’ theme continues as, on returning from a holiday, once I have recovered and regained the ability to stand upright to peer into the mirror the inevitable grey roots of hair are apparent, surging through the remaining vestiges of colour as usual. At times like this I envy those who’ve had the courage to ditch the pretence. I almost followed suit two years ago as my 60th approached but was deterred by Husband, who may just have been right on that occasion. Making radical changes to your appearance is not best effected at such a momentous lifetime event.
From time to time the fashion industry conducts a serious campaign to seduce us to buy a lot of grey clothes. It does always work for me-I like grey, especially deep, charcoal grey although as I’ve grown older I’ve begun to realise that the relationship I have with it is not evenly balanced. Grey may not actually be so fond of me.
At the end of the last of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy a significant number of the main characters drift off in pale ships to somewhere called the ‘Grey Havens’. I’ve always wondered what the Grey Havens was. Was it a euphemism for death? After all some of the characters [eg the elves] had traded their immortality to save the world. Poor Frodo, forever injured by a blow from a ring-wraith was also compelled to repair to this mysterious location. Perhaps Tolkien knew something we don’t. Perhaps we all end up there, condemned forever to the grey. Who knows?

Christmas Climates-what’s your preference?

In 2011, towards the middle of November, in the midst of an extended trip to New Zealand followed by Australia we found ourselves in Adelaide in temperatures of around 30 degrees. And Christmas was cranking up.

Adelaide was delightful-quaint architecture [what goes for ‘olde worlde’ in the New World], a busy, buzzing city with a vibrant night life, cheeky, fun bars and plenty of attractive, green spaces.

During most of our road trip we’d been disappointed with evening, cultural life. The vast majority of bars, devoted almost entirely to gambling-‘pokies’ and horse racing-tended to shut around 9.00pm. We’d show up just before, at a time we are accustomed to setting out in the UK to be told we could get one drink before they closed up, or that they were in fact just closing. We were mystified. Where was the fabled ‘wild west’ lifestyle, the Bohemian, carefree, party, outdoor social whirl?

Turned out I’d been watching too many ‘Wanted Down Under’ programmes. Other than for an early evening meal no one bothered with going out except hardened gamblers, who sloped off in inevitable disappointment once the books were closed.

Adelaide, though was different. The nightspots were thriving. There were throngs in abundance. The locals enjoyed life. One bar proclaimed it was ‘the worst vegetarian restaurant in the world’, in praise of its steaks. Result.

Our hotel, reserved by Trailfinders [hence not a penny-pinching hostel such as we’d have selected if left to our own devices] was magnificent; a monument to luxury and decked tastefully in the burgeoning Christmas items that were adorning the city. Christmas trees sparkled at the foot of the sweeping staircase.

Outside in the street the stores sported their own Christmas displays-Santa and his reindeer cavorting above the porch of a department store, tinsel glinting in the searing heat of the sun.

To those of us accustomed to Christmas in the Northern hemisphere the appearance of Yuletide decorations in a heatwave is a surreal experience. I responded with a driven desire to obtain Australian style tree decorations-a mission in which I failed, until my kind, Antipodean aunt, seeing my predicament mailed me a beautiful, red and white felt kangaroo to dangle from the branches of our own tree.

Still more outlandish, Hong Kong-where we stopped over on our return in late November-boasted enormous Disney-style Christmas trees constructed entirely of plastic cartoon frogs and vast ornate merry-go-rounds in glittering gold and shiny purple. All this in an atmosphere that could wilt a cactus.

I am in awe of those who celebrate the festive season in a hot climate. But despite being one of the first to complain about cold, dark, frosty mornings and bleak winter nights there is something very special about Christmas at home, here in the UK where we still retain some semblance of changing seasons. And after all, with only one week until the shortest day [in daylight hours] spring is just around the corner.

Cut to the Chase!

What do you suppose is the biggest threat to planet Earth? It’s a tricky question. Perhaps it can be answered by calculating the relative proportions of news coverage devoted to various global menaces.
Many would say terrorism, and it would be a fair answer, judging by newspaper headlines and daily bulletins. Who couldn’t fail to be frightened by the actions of those who hold life so cheaply? We identify with those who are held hostage and look on in horror as they are shown kneeling at the mercy of their captors and aware of the appalling fate that awaits them. Just when everyone is reeling from suicide bombings some new ghastly and shocking strategy is developed to horrify the infidels.
Then there is disease. Ebola is racing like a bushfire in West Africa, threatening to spread into the wider world. Even if it is to be contained some other, terrifying disease will take over and need to be subdued.
And what about resistance to antibiotics? This could constitute the biggest scare humanity has known since the wonder drug that is penicillin was invented.
Wars? Famine? Financial meltdowns? There are plenty of world disasters to choose from. But to me the single most compelling, the most threatening and insidious peril is climate change-overwhelming all other dangers like an eclipse.
Take Australia. The country is suffering from ever hotter and drier summers, rendering increasingly more of the land uninhabitable as fires and soaring temperatures become the norm. A similar picture is painted in parts of Africa. In other areas of the world flooding and torrential rains have made life untenable as people seek ever more inventive ways to survive. In the future populations will need to move into the parts of the planet that can be lived in comfortably [http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/28/climate-change-has-arrived-global-warming-icecaps-deserts].
This summer, whilst on our travels we met several couples who had travelled north from their southern Spanish retirement idylls to seek cooler conditions further north [in the South of France]. One couple explained that around their hilltop villa near Cadiz the temperature was too hot [in the 50s] to go outside and uncomfortable inside with the air conditioning unit going full throttle. It must be prohibitive to fuel such air conditioning-what of those who cannot afford the cost?
And what of those who cannot afford to move, make alterations or adapt? They are the unlucky ones; those who had the misfortune to be born in countries bearing the brunt of the climate changes.
Meanwhile we are all sleepwalking into an uncertain future as we bomb each other to smithereens and wring our hands over financial recession. What idiots humans are!

Weather or not?

                So here in the South of the UK we have been deluged by storms, wild winds and relentless rain since early December. Yet curiously, the press continues to feature the stories of fallen trees, collapsed roads and rail networks, homes without power , flooded buildings and drownings as if they were news. How many people are left who are surprised by the endless flood of stories and the deluge of videos on the subject?

                Elsewhere in the world, large tracts of land are drought and fire ridden or have been locked into a standstill by statistic-busting snowfalls and gigantic freeze-ups. Presumably their journos and pursuing a similar line of ceaseless weather reportage. Is anyone else suffering from weather news fatigue, as I am?

                Here on England’s South coast we have been battered and buffeted enough to have sprung some leaks and lost some roof tiles, a nuisance and an expense if nothing else, but of course you can only feel sympathy for those whose properties have been flooded and ruined for the second, third or even fourth time in one winter. This weather, they all agree, is unprecedented. I feel sure that the Australian home owners who have lost everything in bush fires must feel the same. Is there anyone left who is still a climate change sceptic? Whether you believe it is man-made or not, that it is happening cannot be denied.

                We in the so called democratic countries elect our ruling parties on the strength of their policies, do we not? But can there be an issue in the world that is more pressing, more urgent than climate change? I don’t think so. Yes, terrorism is a frightening prospect, economic depressions affect everyone and the world’s dwindling resources provoke anxiety-but all of these issues, I believe are connected to the increasing gap between rich and poor [yes-even terrorism] which is a direct result of climate conditions. The poorest peoples live in the places that struggle most with inhospitable weather, most in Africa. These are the places where extremist, terrorist groups are most likely to get a toehold and then a stranglehold, where a population is starved and impoverished and unable to respond or retaliate.

                And so what have the developed nations done? Have they got together to implement policies for world good? Have they agreed to share resources, work out ways to minimise damage, acknowledge that fossil fuels are not going to last forever, that sustainable energy sources are vital and that the needs of the starving, desperate peoples on the planet must be addressed by all of us? No. Some lip service has been paid. The UN has been meeting since 1992 and has still not reached any binding agreement. Have an expensive, lavishly serviced meeting of world leaders [all arriving in expensive, heavily guarded private aircraft], wring their hands a bit and go away again.

                The world’s populations will just have to shift. The peoples of the more advantaged nations will have to accommodate those whose environments have become uninhabitable. This will leave vast areas of the planet devoid of humans. What wonderful places they will be!