#34, Another Milestone

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March 7, 2016 by vivalafiona


It is difficult to return from a trip Downunder and not feel disheartened by the lack of WiFi in Cuba, or Tim Tams for that matter. The late season mango crop that Trinidad is currently experiencing is some compensation. The garden has grown despite the drought in July. Cyclone Erika was actually a goddess send for Cuba because it brought rain to replenish the dams and rivers that are only at 30% of their normal capacity, without the strong and dangerous winds.

Tigre, our red tabby cat, was particularly pleased to see us. Apparently he cried for days wandering around the house searching for me, his chief source of food and affection. Basto was a little thinner and suffering with a cold but has kind of morphed into Bunyip taking his role as guard dog a little more seriously than before and staying close to me when Ossiel is away. Both animals take it in turns now to sleep in Bunyip’s favourite places and have become almost friends.

One of our neighbours decided to take advantage of our absence by erecting a wall 3 meters wide by 10 long inside our boundary. Ossiel had, despite concerns from me, given his consent to said neighbour encrouching 1 metre onto our property so that he could build a pizza oven in his back yard. The neighbour in return was to foot the bill for all materials and labour and replace the barbed wire and timber fence with a brick/concrete wall. Ossiel assured me that as the local delegate of the Party he was someone we could trust. Apparently he recently resigned from this position.

After a series of conversations which Ossiel would not allow me to participate in, (machoism rules in Cuba), we have managed to reclaim most of what was not agreed to. The pizza oven however had already been installed and is rather difficult to move so it still juts into our property but we will use the space around it to build our new chook house. Give some people an inch….

Dengue fever is with us again as are the almost daily inspections and obligatory fumigation of our house and garden. Government vehicles, with loud speakers attached, patrol the streets announcing that residents will be fined if they don’t clean up water left lying around their houses. What could and should be a well organised campaign to stop mosquitos laying their eggs is anything but in Trinidad. Inspectors don’t seem to know which houses or streets they should be calling on so it is common to get 2 visits in the same morning as happened today, 3 inspectors within 5 minutes of each other.

Anyone who has visited Trinidad will recall the sight of running water in the middle of the streets. I have on occasion seen a fountain spurting from the middle of Simon Bolivar Street. These ‘streams’ can require an athletic leap to cross if one is to avoid wetting ones shoes. Sometimes they are the end result of a heavy tropical downpour. But more often than not they are caused by broken pipes in the street. Which begs the question who is fining the local government for its failure to prevent the future breeding grounds of dengue carrying mosquitos? Or, perhaps more importantly, for wasting valuable drinking water.

Reminds me of when the dam outside of Sydney dropped to an alarmingly low capacity and the state government rightly introduced heavy water restrictions on households. Then it was revealed that huge amounts of water was being spilled all over the state from leaking pipelines.

Fumigation in case you are wondering involves the compulsory spraying of petrol smoke apparently blended with insecticide, by what looks like a leaf litter blower and sounds like one too. All doors and windows are to be kept shut for 20 minutes after the house is sprayed. Afterwards you are left with clouds of white smoke and sticky floors and surfaces and, if you are lucky, a few dead insects.

It makes my blood boil because A) I don’t know what chemicals, other than petrol are in the spray/smoke and B) I am of the opinion that Cuban women spend far too many hours in the day and night washing and cleaning, mostly by hand, without having to also clean up residue petrol. Cleaning products in Cuba have a similar price tag to those in Australian supermarkets but require 3 times the amount to do half as good a job. I reckon my hands have aged 10 years in the last 3 and I at least have the sense to refuse to use chlorine, a popular cleaning product here.

Casa Los Mangos has been open for over a year now and we received a visit last week from 3 inspectors to remind us that an annual licence fee to hang a sign outside our front gate was due. Three people came to remind us that we need to pay approx $4.16. That’s one more than the Mormons consider safe to door knock and 2 more than the number of teachers in the class of 40 five year old students attended by one of Ossiel’s nieces. The funny part of this story is that Ossiel has tried now on 3 separate occasions to pay the licence renewal. The first time the payment officer was not at work so he was advised to come back in 2 days. The second time he was told to return in a few hours as he/she was at a staff meeting. The third time, a few hours later, he was told that the officer would not be accepting payments today or any other day this month and to return on 1st October – 2 weeks after the due date.

Speaking about inept and questionable government officials I reapplied for Canadian Transit visas for Ossiel and Erika, as their representative, whilst we were in Australia. We are unfortunately still in possession of return tickets on Air Canada to travel from Havana to Sydney via Toronto. The response arrived from Citizenship and Immigration Canada within 2 working days, as opposed to the 15 working days it took for the first application (perhaps after a prompting from the Canadian consulate in Sydney). Another refusal. The reason given this time: “You have not provided sufficient documentation to support you / your host’s income and assets”. Bollocks to that! The application included bank statements from two of my Australian bank accounts with a balance totalling, let’s just say, enough to put a deposit on a house (although perhaps not in Sydney}. There is no Canadian host, we were applying for transit visas.

My Dad had made sure that Air Canada has been notified about this second outcome, as has the Canadian Commissioner to Australia. Needless to say I will never recommend Air Canada or consider travel via Canada until their current regime changes the error of their ways with regards to transit visas for Cuban citizens, especially when they are already in possession of Australian Tourist visas.

I got to play tour guide recently for an English couple cycling around Cuba and took them to my favourite tourist site, San Isidro, a former sugar plantation in the valley behind Trinidad. Every visit is full of surprises as restoration work continues to transform the mansion back to its former glory and the archeologists unveil more of the secrets of the past. Unfortunately annual UNESCO and/or Cuban funding has been exhausted so the house interior won’t be restored for some time yet but the verandah has been rebuilt as has the timber roof, destroyed by a cyclone many years ago. The archeologists are still hard at it, recently discovering a number of very old guns deliberately hidden under rocks at the bottom of a well. San Isidro features many relics from the 18th and 19th Century, including a Jamaican train – 5 inter-connected ovens where juice from crushed sugarcane was boiled and stirred by the hands of slaves until it thickened into molasses, the first stage of sugar, and rum, production. The ruins of the slave quarters reveal a sinister piece of the plantations history. It was not only sugar that was being farmed here.

Despite the drought we returned home to find some very large pumpkins growing amongst the bananas.  If you have sighted my facebook page you will have seen that there is some quite enormous avocados too. Ossiel has been teaching our guests 2 Londoners and 2 kiwis from Christchurch how to pick avocados off the trees. All four commented that they had never seen avocados of this size before. We weighted them at 1.5 kgs each. That’s a lot of guacamole.

We treated ourselves to dinner cooked by someone else for Ossiels birthday. A new restaurant, one of many, has opened on Trinidad’s main street, and as it was recommended by our recent Italian guests we thought we better check out the competition. The owner’s son is married to an Irish girl and I am imagining she has had some influence on the menu because it included a lamb hamburger which was very good. Ossiel being Cuban had the pork belly. Over dinner we used the paper menus to draw up plans for a third guest room which will hopefully be ready in the New Year. One of our first projects upon our return was to install a new underground water tank, to collect and store rainwater.

The number 3 seems to feature quite a lot in this blog. I can hardly believe that it was 3 years ago that I accidently left my reading glasses behind on my desk at Allen and Unwin, after perhaps too many farewell drinks, and a few days later boarded a plane with 3 suitcases headed for Cuba. Unfortunately the brand new Toshiba laptop I took with me did not last 3 years, crashing (is that the correct term) the day before Ossiel, Erika and I were due to leave Sydney, taking all our holiday photo’s and a few important documents with it, not to mention all the apps, yoga tapes and books I had downloaded. Yes, I know, it’s all my fault for not backing up, but seriously who expects the hard drive of a top of the range Toshiba laptop to pack it in so quickly especially when it has barely been used except to store photo’s, correspondence and a few files. Apart from its 3 visits to Australia it had no access to wifi and only a couple of months of access to dial up internet?

My first computer was an HP and it lived for 10 years so it’s not hard to guess which brand I replaced the now useless laptop with. A very nice man in North Sydney has offered to try to retrieve the files for a fee of $2500, which I have declined, and I believe a new hard drive would have cost $465. Has anyone calculated the percentage of personal income now spent by the average punter on computers/mobile phones and other devices? I bet that’s a scary statistic.

Thank you to all our friends and family Downunder for your hospitality, generosity and friendship. Ossiel managed to acquire some new fishing accessories, courtesy of his generous father in law, and has been catching some very nice fish since we returned. Erika kept her grandmother awake almost all night with stories about her visit to Sydney and our week up at Hawks Nest, sandboarding, hiking and yes even a swim or two with some of her Australian cousins and aunt. Other highlights included numerous train journeys, including a few on Sydney’s light rail which was a first for me. A very exciting joy flight in a helicopter over Camden, another first for us all, thanks to an old and dear friend. Lots of wild kangaroo sightings and a visit to the zoo. When Erika’s caught sight of the giraffes she asked her father if they were real, finding it almost impossible to trust her eyes. Many dancing wii sessions were enjoyed as were visits to parks to ride on flying foxes and rocket slides. All manner of foods were enjoyed: Chinese, Thai, Indian, Mexican and more than a few lamb roast, Tim Tams, pears and apples. Unfortunately a case of nits, the flu, a lost voice and the need for an iron transfusion put us out of action for a week or so and meant we couldn’t visit everyone we wanted to so I am very sorry if we missed you this time.

There was a queue at the little shop near our house yesterday. It wasn’t for chicken or dishwashing detergent, or hair conditioner, currently scarce items in Trinidad. It was for little bottles of Coca Cola. My heart sank. Perhaps you do need to start planning a trip quick before the yankies arrive and wreck the joint.


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