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Cuba Diary (part two)
THURSDAY: Decided to skip this morning’s lecture in favor of the hotel’s pool, but when I arrived, the usual bunch of British teenagers had again not only monopolized all the loungers, but had covered the tiled floor with the wet pages of their homework pinned down with sandals to dry. It seems that earlier, their work had dropped in the pool, into which, oddly enough, their owners rarely entered.
After lunch we set off for the Consejo Popular Pocito Palmar which turned out to be a joyous occasion. All of Havana’s neighborhoods include a community center like this one where local people can get their questions answered and help with their problems. My mother used to volunteer for one in postwar England, called the Citizens Advice Bureau, and today there’s a telephone equivalent in many cities, including New York.
FRIDAY: The tap water is unreliable because the US embargo has blocked access to a cheap and efficient filtration system, so everybody buys ($1) bottled water. It’s available everywhere and clutching our bottles we board the bus for a 10-hour excursion to Vinales, northwest of Havana. I hadn’t expected too much, but it proved to be an eventful day, beginning with two stops in Pinar del Rio to watch rows of workers deftly assemble cigars (a good worker can roll about 100 per day) and then to a nearby distillery where rum is bottled and flavored with guava beans.
A brief stop to watch a man grinding sugar cane, and sample a glass of the sweet juice, reminded me that sugar had for centuries been Cuba’s biggest industry, once employing half a million workers, and producing half the world’s supplies. (A role now supplied by Brazil and India). After the Revolution, most of the sugar went to Russia in return for billions of dollars worth of oil, but when Soviet subsidies dried up the industry collapsed disastrously, and had to be downsized by two-thirds.
SATURDAY: A morning tour of Old Havana, filled with impressive old buildings lining narrow cobbled streets. A section of the original water ditch, zanja (like the one in early Los Angeles), is marked off near the grand National Museum whose displays include the original contract between the US and Cuba over Guantanamo. (The Chocolate Museum turns out to be a confectioner’s shop). On a stall, three small dachshunds wearing sun glasses are carefully guarded from cameras by an imaginative entrepreneur who demands pesos to get closer and women dressed as Carmen Miranda circulate carrying baskets of wax fruit. Picking up a copy of the weekly English edition of Granma (named after the yacht which carried Fidel Castro and his group of 82 revolutionaries from Mexico) I was surprised to find it as turgid and difficult to read as it was half a century ago when U.S. “underground” papers were all on the complimentary mailing list.
is how one story begins and you’ll surely agree that if you want people to pay attention that is not the most eye-catching way to do it.
SUNDAY: The journey to Santa Clara (pop: 237,000) took about three hours. Almost in the center of the country it is famous, among other things, for being the site of the final battle of the revolution in late 1958. Che Guevara led one of two guerrilla columns that attacked the city, (the other was led by Camilo Cienfuegos) and they successfully upended a train full of troops and supplies sent by Batista. He was so unnerved by the subsequent battle for the town that he fled Cuba two days later.The site where the train was derailed is marked with a couple of old railroad cars and the bulldozer that did the trick, and a few hundred yards away is a massive monument to Guevara, whose remains and those of some of his colleagues are preserved in the adjoining mausoleum. Che was murdered in Bolivia and his ashes belatedly brought home.
The pleasant town is centered around the Parque Vidal in which sits a statue of Maria Abreu de Estevez, wife of Cuba’s 1902 vice president Luis, and a major benefactress among whose gifts was a theater on the square whose proceeds where devoted to helping poor children.
Long ago, the park observed the familiar Latin American custom—still seen in smaller towns of Mexico—of being a mating/meeting ground for young adults who would walk around and around the park in counter circles checking each other out. Doubtless such courtship continues today in subtler fashion, and certainly the park is usually crowded, women with their children, roller skaters, stilt walkers and often competing musicians with their instruments, or more likely boom boxes.
Back at the Vedado I continued to resist my normal urge to watch the news. Without English-language papers in Cuba I'm totally ignorant of what’s going on in the world and amazingly I feel the better for it, even to the extent of eschewing television (available in the room are CNN, BBC News, A&E, HBO and lots of soccer). If this is what it takes to break my time-wasting habit, it’s been an added bonus.
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February 12, 2015
It was the first handwritten letter I'd received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I'd never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my São Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook on amazon.com.
"A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego."
-From the preface of Manhattan Memories, by Martin Gardner