James Collenette

Joined August 2018
  • Day14

    Days 14 & 15: My heart's still in Havana

    December 14, 2019 in Cuba ⋅ ☀️ 29 °C

    It may seem strange to do a hop-on-hop-off bus service on the last day but to get to the outer reaches of Vedado, it's no more expensive than a taxi and you get the whole day to view the city from upstairs. Vedado is the leafy suburb where the flashy hotels were the haunt of Hollywood stars and mafiosi in the 1950s. Celebs still hang out here; I'm not sure about John Lennon but a statue of him sits on a bench where an unofficial curator supplies glasses but will remove them for safe keeping. Another stop on the tour takes me to Plaza de la Revolucion, a giant parade ground with a famous neon sculpture of Che Guevara, for whom the term "iconic" might have been invented.

    Back in Havana Centro, I visit Parque Trillo for the final time. This is an oasis of greenery a few blocks from Maria Antonia's. Maybe it's cheating to take photos of people on their phones but this illustrates the fact that few houses have their own Wifi so ordinary people have to use public Wifi zones. It's also a popular place for people to communicate without the use of phones, or just to work out before the sun gets too hot.

    And so it's time to leave. Cuba is a remarkable island where people make do with what they don't have and put up with what they do have. I wish them all the best . For some reason at the airport they accept only hard currency for food and drinks so I still have some CUCs left over---for another visit perhaps.
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  • Day12

    Days 12 & 13: not the Caribbean

    December 12, 2019 in Cuba ⋅ ☀️ 28 °C

    With a short roadside stop, a colectivo takes me back to Havana. Once again I'm staying in Habana Centro but in a different guest house. It's called the Caribena but as most people know, the island's capital with its magnificent Malecon (waterfront) faces the Gulf of Mexico. Along its 3-mile length it's popular with walkers, fishermen, tourists and selfie-takers. Maria Antonia, who runs the Caribena, is a considerate host and organises an excellent breakfast. There's a problem in the bathroom but she explains how to stop the lavatory from leaking. An engineering lesson in Spanish!

    Back to walking ways, I cover the wonderful backstreets of Habana Centro little seen by tourists. Once again I'm struck by street after street of mansions and palaces that have fallen on hard times. And such lovely names: Concordia, Salud (health) and Lealtad (loyalty) to name a few. UNESCO have taken the lead in restoring the oldest part of the city but Centro remains neglected. For all its faded elegance, living conditions here must be quite tough.
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  • Day10

    Days 10 & 11: Trainspotting in Trinidad

    December 10, 2019 in Cuba ⋅ ☀️ 28 °C

    What better innocent pleasures are there than trainspotting? For 15 CUC/US$ there's a day rumbling along the line that connects the old sugar haciendas (estates) with Trinidad. The original early 20th century locomotives lie rusting in the goods yard. Today's engine runs on diesel but the way it rattles along the line at a contented 20 k.p.h. suggests more leisurely times. Not that it was like this for the cane cutters, who were mostly slaves. There's a steep climb up the 18th century observation tower which casts its shadow cast over the estate.

    Back in Trinidad, a discarded carton on the cobblestones reveals one of the chief end results of the sugar. The town has several tourist-friendly bars; I perch at a place with a lively 6-piece son band---increased to 7 when business is slow and the waiter joins the rhythm section. I decide to do some research on cocktails, starting with a mojito and going on with a cubata, a daiquiri and finally a Cuba libre. And the measures are not the thimblefuls you might get in a London bar; the barman sloshes it in regardless until the glass overflows. Fortunately it's only a couple of hundred yards to Anita's.

    The final photos show a traditional weaving style, a calm Caribbean beach a few miles out of Trinidad, and another rooftop scene at sunset. The four days in Trinidad have passed effortlessly.
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  • Day8

    Days 8 & 9: breakfast at Trinity's

    December 8, 2019 in Cuba ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    A colectivo takes me the 1 1/2 hour run to Trinidad. This one has additional sideways seating behind the passenger row. The inscription reads "May God multiply everything that you wish". In this spirit, because the roads in the town centre are too bumpy for transport, the driver walks me to the casa particular. And what a casa it is! In this Colonial mansion the ceilings are over twice the height of a person and the rooms are stacked with all kinds of antique appliances (see typewriter). Anita and her husband are charming hosts. Breakfast is served on the balcony with a fine view of the old town and the distant Caribbean. And it's as healthy as it gets with a wealth of tropical fruits---bananas, pineapple, papaya, and guayaba (guava), full of seeds but the pulpy juice served separately is delicious. No missing out on one's daily five here.

    Trinidad was a 16th century backwater until a sugar boom in the 18th century. The cobbled streets of the old centre are a bit chocolate boxey for some tastes but the street life is active. There's a lot of pride in the African heritage from descendants of the plantation workers and the thumping drums from santeria ceremonies is hard to resist. So are the ice creams served by these ladies in green (although their companion on the right seems camera-shy). Oblivious to everything except their game, these domino players (domineros in Spanish?) choose a shady spot.
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  • Day5

    Days 5-7: Francis Drake was here

    December 5, 2019 in Cuba ⋅ ☀️ 26 °C

    The great sea dog (or pirate) stopped here on his round-the-world voyage. A fortress was built some time afterwards by the Spanish but the city proper wasn't founded until 200 years ago. I get here by colectivo from Havana in a comfortable 3 hours. The casa particular which I have booked has mysteriously sold out but the proprietor, Irene, leads me to another one run by a friend, Yanet (left in the picture). Yanet speaks excellent English and makes me feel at home. There are just two rooms and a balcony where breakfast is served and provides a brilliant view of the Prado, the dual carriageway running the length of the city. I have got a minor ailment which she soothes with a cup of camomile and later anis tea, and within 24 hours all is well.

    Christmas is upon us and the locals aren't slow to celebrate it. In fact despite the officially atheist regime, the larger churches are still popular and the cathedral notice board posts a sign saying "turn off your mobile/cellphone during Mass; someone wants to speak to your heart". A sign of the times.

    The city has a wonderful sense of space and the main plaza (Parque Marti, named after the 19th century figure killed in battle in his quest to liberate the country) would be big enough for a football pitch were it not for the bandstand and monuments in the way. another tremendous monument in the south of the city is the Palacio de Valle. About 100 years old, it's an upmarket restaurant and it would be rude not to stop for a coffee.
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  • Day2

    Days 2-4: Havanaaaah

    December 2, 2019 in Cuba ⋅ ☀️ 28 °C

    Havana was founded in 1519 and is not slow to remind us of its quincentenary. By chance a city in Mexico I stayed in earlier this year, Veracruz, is also 500 years old and with its lively, working port atmosphere has been compared to Havana. Much as I liked it, the Cuban capital out-Veracruzes Veracruz with to use a fairly new word, vibe or an old word, funkiness.

    Traditional music is fabulous in most Latin American countries I have visited, but one could argue that Cuba is the most musical of all. Relieving my blisters in the bar of an upmarket hotel in Habana Vieja (the old city), I enjoy the sound of a traditional "son" quartet. This word literally means "sound" and largely acoustic and guitar based , it has a strong percussive flavour recalling Africa. Larger bands of up to 15 performers include brass and keyboard sections and form what's usually known as salsa. What the lady in white thinks about the performance, she isn't saying! The following picture includes vinyls by Los Van Van, one of the finest bigger bands in Cuba, and Pablo Milanes, a distinguished folk singer sort of in the Dylan mould but whose daughter Haydee prefers a jazzier sound (whose live CD I find later for a princely 4 CUC or £3).

    I can't resist photos of the lady in African garb, the young people promoting computer literacy, or of the guy bemoaning the encroachment of phones on a traditionally oral society.

    The final picture shows the route out of Havana, which I ride in a "colectivo" or shared taxi for the 150-odd miles east to Cienfuegos. This is the "autopista" that runs the length of the island---somewhat different to the M25 as you can see.
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  • Day1

    Havana: first room, first love

    December 1, 2019 in Cuba ⋅ ☀️ 28 °C

    From Tijuana to Cape Horn, there are 20 Latin Americas but sometimes it feels as if there are 19, and Cuba. It spent years being virtually cut off from most of the world and still differs in many ways from most of it. It's no exaggeration to say that in many ways Cuba is locked in a time warp. The internet is starting to make inroads but for most people, access is only via prepaid cards. There are still shortages of household goods and queues outside shops are common. Electricity and water outages are frequent as well. In most streets traffic is very sparse but everything they say about the ancient American behemoths is true; some of them are lovingly restored while others rust away quietly in the backstreets.
    And the currency; where else would you find a banknote in 3 units, or parallel rates for local people who pay in pesos nacionales while tourists pay in convertibles? European winter has begun and I can't wait to get started.

    The driver collects me from the airport in the vehicle shown here. A Chevrolet of 1957 perhaps. Culture shock overtakes me as he drops me off in one of the main streets of Havana Centro. It's very run down and looks threatening but the hearsay is that the crime rate is relatively low, maybe because there isn't a serious drug issue (yet). As the days go by I start to feel that this quarter is home. An increasingly popular Cuban institution is the "casa particular", a private house where the owners let out rooms to visitors. And these can be booked in advance on line. Belascoain 360 has 4 such rooms; my hosts Daniel and Fina are charm itself and full of useful information.
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  • Day20

    Days 21 & 22: last train to Tashkent

    September 10, 2019 in Uzbekistan ⋅ ☀️ 24 °C

    It's my last day in Tashkent and I'm staying in a different part of the city, in Chorsu to the north-west. The guest house has a book exchange where I leave my completed Elizabeth George novel. There a wonderful quote in the book: "Why lay yourself on the torturer's rack of the past and future? The mind that tries to shape tomorrow beyond its capacities will find no rest." This was written by Rumi, a medieval Persian poet who may well have travelled in these parts. It's a good lesson which I strive, not always successfully, to emulate.

    The guest house has a friendly atmosphere with a courtyard for socialising, where I meet a retired German couple who usually do their travelling by bicycle but are tackling Uzbekistan by car. They are sad that as they put it, "you are planning to leave us". I can't help agreeing with them and regretting the acrimony into which my country has descended. "Britain is becoming a banana republic," I say, with the footnote that if global warming continues, we'll soon be growing bananas in the Barbican.

    Chorsu lies on the edge of a more traditional part of Tashkent and the largest market in the country. An attempt for creating order had been made by housing it in a collection of blue-domed rotundas, and it works. Anyone looking for a feel of how life on the Silk Road would have been, need look no further. Every product has its appointed post: fruit, nuts, vegetables, meat, honey---and that's just the food. One day isn't nearly enough to get a taste of it. On a seat outside I get a sneezing fit and a man next to me speaks into his Google Translate, which spits out "Be healthy". It's a nice approximation to "Bless you" but reminds me of a conversation with Kemol in Bukhara when his machine mistook my former occupation of accountant as "economist". How nice it would be to solve my country's economic doubts!

    After an evening blast of horns from a wedding party, my final morning begins with the sound of a distant prayer call. I had planned to leave before dawn but Ravshan, the guest house owner, insists that only 2 hours are needed to check in at the airport, so he has very kindly arranged breakfast for 5.30. He is right: check-in is painless and there is even time to change by excess som back into US dollars.

    So what do I bring back from Uzbekistan? A few unused som notes which are very decorative, the usual T-shirt and the usual fridge magnet. Plus hundreds of photos which will always endear me to this country. It is bravely opening itself up to tourism and the economy seems to be thriving (but what do I know?---I'm not an economist). I wish the people all the best, and also anyone who cares to visit them.
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  • Day20

    Day 20: Samarkand revisited

    September 10, 2019 in Uzbekistan ⋅ ☀️ 15 °C

    It's Tuesday and there's no direct train back to Tashkent so for the first and last time it's a road trip to Samarkand. A taxi takes me to a distant suburb of Shakhrisabz and that pillar of dependability, the shared taxi, is waiting for its final passenger---me. Once again, no belting up as we speed over the mountains and in less time than it takes to say "Golden Road to Samarkand" I am at Registan Square once again.

    The cans of Uzbek beer---which is quite acceptable---date from my previous visit but the other pictures are current. The statues of Lenin were torn down after independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and were replaced by the late Islam Karimov, revered as founder of the modern nation. Samarkand also has a lively bazaar scene: I sidle up to an attractive stallholder and the price of a photo is a box of halva. This fudgy sweetmeat originates from the Arabic or Turkish world and has many variations. Rather nice for those without waistline worries. Next to the halva girl, a trio are much more interested in their game than any marketing.

    Around sunset the evening train to Tashkent awaits. Against expectations, there are no concerns around supposedly strategic locations and trainspotting is allowed.
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  • Day18

    Days 18 & 19: Shakhrisabz

    September 8, 2019 in Uzbekistan ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    After 4 days in Samarkand I'm on the move again, on the prestigious Afrosiyab (named after a former fortress in the above). Acres of leg room and stewards' attendance, and a loop to the city of Qarshi to avoid a mountain range. The station at Shakhrisabz is strangely deserted; where is the usual posse of taxi drivers? I have to ask a policeman to call a taxi to my hotel. So laid back it's almost horizontal.

    Shakhrisabz is known as Tamerlane's birthplace. His statue lords it in spacious parkland and is selfie-friendly. Behind this stands what remains of the Ak Serai (white palace), created to Tamerlane's orders around 1380. A later dynasty destroyed most of it but enough remains of the ruined arch to show it would have been 150 feet high. A distant sunset view shows it looking oddly like a modern tower block. Numerous other monuments dot the parkland but to create this required the demolition of a traditional bazaar. Plainly there are ambitions to make Shakrisabz a major tourist destination but it hasn't caught on much yet. Preserving the ancient is admirable but there is in my opinion too much destruction of the not-so-old and the city has a lacklustre air. Apart from the gardeners who are exchanging some banter and surely up for a photo, even if one of them may or may not have her fingers the wrong way round!
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