COFFEE IN CUBA - TRAVEL
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I love travel books that can give me a short, exciting taste of a country, like an espresso or a piece of luxury chocolate. Coffee in Cuba does,I hope, achieve that. I want to see new wonders, feel new atmospheres, discover surprising facts through the eyes of a traveller. Sometimes it`s much more pleasant to stay at home and armchair travel. This book is for anyone with the same need for the quick, complex hit of espresso travel. This book recalls eventful visits |I made to Cuba, the old Soviet Union, Rome, the Greek island of Rhodes and the wonderful north-west area of Greece.
I tried to catch some of the atmosphere in the blurb as follows:
Not so much a travel book as a manual on the underrated art of blundering abroad. This is written by one of the greatest exponents of the art. Few people have blundered around as adventurously and entertainingly Hopeless at reading maps but deals with bouncing desserts in the USSR. No sense of direction but finds how to be immortal from the knees down in ancient Greece. Blundering about some of the world`s most magical places can pay dividends. In a world where even taxi drivers don`t know how to drive out of Havana he finds the magnificent area built by the Mafia and then the six lane highway to the Caribbean where the traffic stop for cattle crossing. In a vain search for quality cuisine he finds himself in the dark streets of Cuba`s second city without a guide but then ends the evening in a club of miraculous musicians and mesmeric dancers. Can anywhere combine great food, wonderful buildings, friendly people and operatic lifestyle with chilling history better than Rome? Can anyone have blundered more profitably down its dark streets to some of the best food in Europe? Can any country hold more treasures,ancient and modern than Greece and its many islands. Learn how the ancient Greeks spoke to the dead and how the monks of Meteora created one of the most astonishing wonders. Not a travel book for the well organised, but one for those who like surprises and smiles along with reflections on history,food, language and `the conveyor belt of human beauty`. You will not find another travel book like it. You will be glad you have blundered into it.
Whether you are well-traveled like Graham, or unwell-traveled like me, there is much to enjoy in this well-written and clever collection of travel tales.
As for international travel, all I can boast of is a visit to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls when I was a five-year old boy and a chartered day trip over the border to Tijuana a few years ago. (I did spend a few days travelling through Texas, but it's still open for discussion whether the Lone Star State counts as a foreign nation.)
Nevertheless, I simply love good travel writing, if for no other reason than to tease myself about all the fine sights I'm not standing in line to see and all the interesting locals I'm not handing my credit card to. Which is why I was delighted to read Robert Graham's accounts of his many experiences travelling the world. Though I envy his quieter moments sipping wine or coffee at a quaint local café, surrounded by rich history or gorgeous scenery, it's his often hilarious descriptions of the many downsides to travel - the disappointments, confusions, and discomforts that most tourists conveniently leave out of their post-travel gloating - that left me with the satisfying feeling that I'm not missing anything, after all. Or, as Graham himself puts it in his foreword, "Quite often I've found it more of a disruption than I wanted but since I have very rarely been forced to go anywhere I have only myself to blame."
But the reader "Coffee in Cuba" will hardly find anything to blame in Graham's witty accounts of travelling the world - like his tour through Russia in its bad old Soviet days, where a hotel light switches turn on bath faucets and the food is neither recognizable by sight or discernible by taste; or of getting lost in Rome and discovering a warm, inviting restaurant that seemed to materialize out of thin air like magic, only to disappear and never be found again; or of Necromanteio, the Greek town fabled to be the entrance way to the land of the dead, where the ancients came to attempt to communicate with their departed loved-ones ("Even then they had the strange view, still prevalent, that their late auntie whose advice they regularly ignored in life was suddenly worth listening to just because she's dead"). It's observations like the last one that make Graham a pleasure to read, regardless of which exotic locale he's currently lost in.
From Coffee in Cuba
Another idea which turned out not to be so good was hiring a car. We had booked hotels in Havana, Trinidad de Cuba, across the island from Havana on the Caribbean side, Santiago in the south, Cuba`s second city, and the tobacco growing area in the north, Pinar del Rio. We were not driving to Santiago. Cuba is almost 900 miles long and the drive from Havana, judging by our Trinidad experience, would have taken the rest of our lives. We were doing that one by plane but car for the others. It seemed quite reassuring at first. The cars were quite modern. The staff were helpful. They provided us with a 24 hour helpline number. This was before the days when mobile phones were common and it did not occur to us that a 24 hour helpline is not much use on an island with almost no telephones. The next challenge was that Havana is quite a large city without many road signs. It also proved impossible to find a map other than a very sketchy tourist one. We had no idea how to get out of Havana to reach the six lane highway which, we knew, crossed the island to Trinidad. I had an inspiration. I would ask a taxi driver. Mary thought this an excellent idea. I chose one parked outside our hotel and, in typically Cuban style, he took the time to give me considerable detail about the road to follow.
We set off merrily at nine in the morning. The journey, we knew, should take about four hours. Mary navigated carefully, and after just over half an hour we reached the edge of the city. Unfortunately, as we soon discovered, it was the wrong edge. We were in the northern not the western edge which was the one we needed. The directions were rubbish. We decided we could do it if we just drove back in to the centre and then took the first big road on the right. This plan took us through a remarkable part of Havana with sumptuous high rise buildings. This evidently was the area built by the Mafia to house their casinos, dance halls and night clubs. Interesting as that was, it didn`t help us to find our road. After wasting two hours like this we decided the only hope was to head south on the highway to Varadero and then find a connection to the motorway. I was amazed at how calmly Mary accepted this gamble.
We headed inland and were soon driving past sugar cane fields on either side. We had escaped from the city and felt we deserved a coffee to restore us. However, this was not Europe or America and service stations were not on offer. Our problems multiplied when we encountered one of the dangers of Cuban roads: potholes. We had a puncture. In itself that was a delay, not a disaster. It occurred to us, however, to wonder what we would do if we had another puncture. We had now used the spare and in our hours of travelling we had not seen a single garage. We drove on in a thoughtful mood and came to a village. I suggested we stop for coffee but Mary was hesitant. We saw very large black men at bars and cafes. There was no sign of tourists or any facilities for tourists. The men were presumably workers in the sugar plantations. Frankly, the scene looked so alien and foreign that Mary did not want to stop and I felt a little the same way. We were a little ashamed of this but things had not gone well that day so we continued.
A little further on we decided we should stop and rest our legs. There was a pleasant little green space by the side of the road with a bench and some trees for shade. We had a couple of mangoes with us and decided we deserved them. We sat down and enjoyed the delicious fruit, but were somewhat surprised a couple of minutes later when three musicians appeared and sang `Dos Gardenias,` `Guantanamera` and `Chissa, chissa, chissa`. We bought the CD. Where they had sprung from and where they disappeared to we didn`t know. “Are mangoes hallucinogenic?” Asked Mary