Hurricane Irma


My heart absolutely breaks as I watch the images from Havana and the rest of Cuba from the comfort of my UK hotel room as I work on a tour this week. Cuba prides itself on hurricane preparedness, and my husband has been through many, including his first while still in his mother’s womb, but this is the worst he can remember. We could so easily have happened to be there right now, but selfishly, in my 6-month-pregnant condition, I am so grateful we are not. Our Havana apartment is located 2 blocks from the Malecon and I have seen from the images that the water has come in much further inland that that, up to half a kilometre in places. There is no currently very limited electricity in this city of 2 million, though I am happy to hear from my stepdaughter that essential buildings like the hospital where she works have power. Anyway, I don’t want to be walking around pregnant knee-deep in flood water, nor suffer the humidity of September with no electricity, or walk up the 4 floors to our apartment because the elevator doesn’t work. I am lucky though to have that choice.

No doubt our  electric motorbike is floating around in the basement of our building, and though my husband is hoping a little grease and anti-rust treatment will bring it back to life, I am doubtful. There is no insurance available in Cuba, and with a baby on the way, the $2,000 needed to replace it cannot be a high priority right now. For our family-to-be, a car would obviously be a better option, but at $15,000 minimum spend (for a 20-year-old Russian Lada) that isn’t an option either. Thankfully L’s family are safe and their houses are still standing, with no damage that we know of. We have friends though that live in sub-standard accommodation at street level, or in buildings that should be condemned but there is nowhere else for them to go. Buildings collapse all the time in Havana after heavy rain, as the weak building structure dries out after a soaking – a young guy we know lost his whole family while he sat on the toilet one night and his building fell down around him. This is a city where the resources are not there to maintain the 60-year old housing stock, where building materials are expensive and hard to come by.

So my heart really breaks as Cubans struggle already to find the resources to live on a day-to-day basis, and the continuing grip of the ridiculous embargo from the US, which is unlikely to be removed during the Trump-era, will just make recovery from this harder. This island depends on tourism income to keep afloat, and the severe damage done to Cuba’s northern cays will serve a flow to tourism for now. My husband also warns me that agriculture will be severely affected and we should expect to struggle to find many food items when we return in 2 weeks time. I am already planning the food items I want to pack to keep us and the bump sufficiently well-nourished on our return. As well as the nappies and wet wipes we are already packing in preparation for baby, we also want to bring extra supplies for those friends who have suffered and need help. We’re going to need a bigger suitcase.


Cuba, my love

Wow, life has sure been busy since our wedding in February. As I write, I am sitting in a hotel in the UK whilst working on a tour, and my husband is in London, making new friends and learning on his own how to navigate London transport and getting around with limited English. Our home is in Cuba, (actually 2 homes, one place to live and one to rent out on AirBnB), but as I am now not only a newly-wed but also 6 months pregnant, we decided to leave Cuba for the summer. Pregnancy in the humid summer heat of Havana was unbearable and so we have been enjoying a 2 month long ‘baby moon’ in Europe. We are missing family and friends in Cuba, and watching Hurricane Irma unleash her fury across the Caribbean has left us worried for those on the island. Cubans also need to resort to more creativity to protect themselves from the damage of a hurricane, lacking basic materials like plywood or stepladders, as these two photos of Florida and Cuba compare…

Thankfully, it seems Cuba was spared the ravages inflicted on Barbuda and the Virgin Islands, although Hurricane Jose is of course following in her wake. I’ve not experienced a hurricane and will surely do so in years to come, but for now, I’m grateful for an easy pregnancy and to be fully in my comfort zone, in the UK. Treatment earlier on in the pregnancy at Havana’s ‘foreigner hospital’ was excellent, and not expensive, and I don’t doubt giving birth in Cuba would be a good experience. Cuba has an excellent record in maternal care. Giving birth in Cuba would also make good material for this blog (yes, I did consider this point!). However, in terms of comfort and convenience – the hospital near me in London, with its birthing pool and mood lighting, everything in my language, my sister close by (well, Spain, but closer to the UK than Cuba!), the range of supermarket choices available for pre and post-birth meals, the home delivery options,, my car to get us around when needed, NCT classes to meet other local mums, and the wonderful cafes in my neighbourhood with coffee and cake – delivery in the UK won hands down. The blog will just have to wait for tales of bringing up a baby in Havana. And we will welcome visitors/babysitters anytime!


Living for the future

20170218_191609It is 5 weeks since marrying my Cuban partner here in Havana and I just said goodbye to my second group of travellers since going back to work. They wished me well and at least one of them said ‘I wish you lots of luck, you’re going to need it’.

This makes me chuckle. I don’t know if they meant the fact of getting married, or marrying a Cuban, or marrying a Cuban and living here. Or all of this! Of course, like any newly-wed, I imagine, I feel it isn’t luck we’ll need, but just more of what we have – great communication, shared values and sense of humour, and a strong mutual attraction and plenty of love. However, living here already is testing, and committing myself to living here..well, yes, I do have some of sense of trepidation. The bureaucracy here does sometimes remind me of those old American cars they keep going after so many years, but one without wheels that you need to move anyway. You push and push but ultimately another skill is required, a way around the problem, a little bit of charm, making friends, thinking outside the box, resilience and patience. My husband has all these skills in quantity, myself not so much. Still, I am learning and feel a better person for the education
Of course, we have the option to move together to another country if it all gets too much, but his life is here, and with a little money life here is pretty good. There are shortages of goods, lines to make for the simplest of things, plenty of things that don’t work, changes in regulations and the law from one moment to the next, a lack of the shops and commodities I have always been used to, very limited internet, I could go on. BUT things are improving, and the reopening of US-Cuban relations has definitely helped. I feel optimistic, it is a country that has also achieved great things, and could achieve so much more. What’s needed then? An end of the US embargo against the island, for sure (and no, that hasn’t happened just because the US and Cuba have relations again), and a relax of the controls placed by the government over its people, stifling opportunities and economic growth. Cubans are hard workers if you let them work and earn decent money. The economy needs to work and then people would stay. The revolution isn’t over, but it needs an update. Hopefully, with my new husband by my side, my patience will last long enough to see it all happen. The Cuban people deserve it.

Cuba welcomes you my friends


Dearest friends

Very soon you’ll be coming to Cuba,, most of you for the first, and I hope not the last, time.

It’s quite a conundrum, Cuba, and living here presents lots of challenges – shortages of goods, a bureaucracy to make you tear your hair out, lines for the simplest of things, little decent shopping (!), no foreign media, slow and not widely available internet, lack of decent information such as what’s on listings or news about openings and closures.
Now, I started with the bad, but the good is..very little crime, no drugs, guns, gangs and little serious violence, wonderfully inventive, creative and decent-minded people who do not put money and status and the value of time before community, solidarity and looking after each other. The Havana architecture, while falling to ruin, is spectacular, the art and culture is a highlight, and the ever-present influence of the sea, the Atlantic ocean washing across the Malecon, and the glorious beaches just out of town, gives this island capital a wonderful edge. Not to mention the heroic Cuban joie-de-vivre and sense of humour (while no one opinions too loudly in public, humour tells a thousand tales).

So, when you find no water available to buy in the airport or they only have mayonnaise to serve with your toast in the morning, which occasionally happens, or half the things on the menu in your restaurant are unavailable, please bear the following in mind. Just over twenty years ago, after the fall of the Soviet bloc, Cuba was plunged from the good times of trading with its communist partners into a ‘special period’ of severe shortages where nothing got imported, Soviet subsidies disappeared overnight, Cubans lined up for food and found nothing available, cats and dogs began disappearing from the streets, you get the idea. It was harsh and Cubans don’t like talking about it. There was no petrol/diesel, blackouts to save energy lasted for hours and hours (imagine non-working fridges and air-con in a tropical country) and people biked miles and miles to school or work or waited hours for a bus that might appear, and then did the same again to get home. In the mid-90s, the dollar was legalised and the government began encouraging tourism, which now is the major income generator in the country. That and the revenue from the ever-growing diaspora of 2 million Cubans living abroad, many in Miami.

Cuba depends on tourism but doesn’t have the resources to improve the infrastructure that the ever-increasing tourism demands, especially now Americans find it easier to come and visitor numbers are increasing at a crazy rate. (So are hotel prices because there aren’t the rooms available in the limited number of hotels in existence so prices have sky-rocketed this year – thanks Obama! His visit and moves to improve relations have created even greater interest in the island, among curious and adventurous Americans, and the rest of the world keen to see the place ‘before the Americans arrive’. It is too late, my friend!

Anyway, the relationship with the US very much defines the island, since the Spanish-American war of 1898, through the 1930s and 40s and 50s when Havana became an exotic playground for Americans gamblers, tourists and the mafia. Meanwhile, many rural Cubans lived illiterate and desperate lives with little education and opportunities to improve their lot.

The ‘triumph of the revolution’, which is the noun for revolution here, changed all that. Within a few years, Cuba had achieved one of the world’s highest literacy rates, built schools all across the island, with free education for all up to masters levels, and introduced a free universal health system, which led to great achievements. But 50+ years in power with the same government is too long, and things have stagnated, the infrastructure has crumbled, and the US embargo against the island has made and continues to make things very difficult. Foreign businesses are prevented from doing business with the island for fear of angering the Americans and losing business interests in the US. But remember the great stuff – comradeship, community, friendly locals, wonderful music, safe walking in the streets late at night, gorgeous beaches with the 2nd largest coral reef in the world to its north, it is unique and feels like stepping back in time. But..useful to always take the good with the bad.

Safe journey!

DIY in Cuba

It’s pretty exhausting buying and setting up a home in Cuba. Also it is very expensive. Now that we have family coming to stay for our wedding next month, it has also become quite stressful. This large apartment was vacated and cleaned by the previous owners, with whom we have become good friends, but the couple that owned the place with them took everything out when they left – gas water heater, light fittings, light bulbs, shelves. Now the rush is on to replace those items, and furnish and fix up, in a country where even sourcing a mattress, new water heater or white paint, for example, is a huge challenge.

We saw an advert in Revolico online today, the Cuban version of Craig’s List or Gumtree., where locals sell their gwe ood online, many imported from Panama at very low cost (only permanent residents, or Cubans can do this though, and they need to get a visa first. Appointments for visa applications are available by booking on the telephone between 2 and 4 on Thursdays. The line is always busy.) Thank heavens wifi is so much more available than before – without Revolico, we could buy very little. What we need just doesn’t exist in government stores, and when it does, it’s astounding how much things cost. Cheapest Chinese oven $700 cucs/dollars/£610, washing machine $600/£525, fridge $750, 32 inch TV $600 and up, single bed frame $500. So instead, we drive around Havana on our electric scooter and look for things we need in four or five government stores, and we may come home with something – washing up liquid, a floor mop, a bucket, batteries, glasses or a salad bowl. I dream of finding all those things in the same shop but it’s highly unlikely. We find out who’s selling what by word of mouth among friends, what they call Radio Bemba (radio lips). Remember there’s no advertising here, so no commercials or publicity to alert one to where things are. This week a lady advertised so many things on revolico I can only assume she was moving…fridge, sofa, beds and mattresses, TV, dining room set, washing machine, writing desk..and the infamous water heater! By the time we saw the week-old ad, there was nothing left but a couple of armchairs. Yet all these things could be available in the same megastore in the UK, or just one website in fact, and today was a harsh reminder of how wonderful that would be here.

Of course, finding a fridge on sale on Revolico in some distant suburb of Havana then requires thought as to how the bring the item home, finding a truck that can handle it, or a taxi for smaller items, or in my arms on the scooter if we can get away with it. Also, a significant amount of cash as very few of these items are payable by credit card. Here, cash is king, we even bought our apartment worth quite a few thousand dollars in cash. Stored in a suitcase until the sale was ready to go through. It has really been quite an eventful year!

Now, I really must go. ….we have go across the city to pick up a 40 inch flat screen and bring it back on the moped.

The Malecon


It’s the first cold front of the New Year and the wind howls at our window every night. The view from where we live is spectualar, ten floors up and a view of the sea and part of the seafront boulevard Malecon, the so-called ‘sofa of Havana’, but now I understand why so many people close in their balconies, especially at this height. The wind is whipping the Atlantic over the Malecon wall, some of the nearby streets are flooded, and the traffic is heavier than usual in surrounding streets, as the police close the expressway of the Malecon to cars. The salty water does so much damage to the usually pretty ancient cars anyway that it’s wise not to subject them to other than optimal conditions.

Last night L and I walked a while in the middle of the closed-off Malecon, a wonderful feeling when you know that usually you risk being knocked down just trying to cross this fast-moving avenue of traffic that sweeps from the tunnel exit of the Miramar neighbourhood (this goes under the Almendares river as it empties out into the sea) all the way along the Vedado and Central Havana neighbourhoods to Old Havana. We are just lucky to live so close to this famous boulevard, so integral to the image of Havana, and referred to in so much Cuban music.

It’s a wonderful place to go for a walk or a run, or to go in the evening and enjoy the street life, where many go in lieu of spending money on an entrance to some club. Couples sit and canoodle, dreamers sit and gaze across the Florida straits towards Miami where no doubt they have some family living there now. Popcorn and drink sellers ply their trade to the friends and family hanging out on a Saturday night, others bring rum and guitars and make a party for anyone who wants to join – foreigners bringing rum will feel especially welcome!

This was one of my first experiences here six years ago, and the openness, warmth and strength of spirit of the Cuban people has still never ceased to amaze me. When choosing where to live in this city of 2 million people, I was very fortunate to be able to choose to live so close to this focal point of my Havana life.

A New Year in Havana..

A new year in Cuba and I said goodbye to my last tour group of 2016 (and first of 2017). I always feel a bit flat at this time, after so many days of wonderful company and conversation with interesting, intellectual and fun Americans. And suddenly they are gone. At such a turbulent time in American politics, it’s been nice to be able to discuss such issues with people directly affected, although it won’t just be the US that suffers the fallout of this presidential election decision. The rapprochement between the US and Cuba really hangs in the balance right now, and nobody knows which way Donald Trump will go. Still, Cubans are nervous. For decades, they’ve enjoyed a unique immigration status in the US, needing only to land on US shores to be able to claim the right to live, work and stay in the US. This is the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy. You land on shore and your foot stays dry, you made it, congratulations – in one year, you’ll have a green card. You get caught by coastguards in the Florida straits, your foot still wet, and they send you back to Cuba. It’s not that Cuba is such a terrible place, but when you are a young professional, educated, half your family is in the US, and the only work you can find is as a taxi driver, it’s tempting to want to try your fortune abroad. This is an island too, sometimes just the very fact of being from an island leaves you with a desire to cross the water and see what’s out there – I know that, coming from Britain.

Suddenly, they are gone. It’s a chance though to now focus on projects at hand – fitting out and furnishing 2 properties which L and I plan to live in and also rent out, and also prepare for our wedding on 18 February, here in Havana!

Kindly folks keep asking if we are getting far with the wedding planning…I would say no! But we have a wedding planner here (who apparently organised Madonna’s recent birthday here) and the dresses, suit and rings are bought. And venue booked.. That’s something. Weddings here are often smaller affairs, due to restrained budgets, and many couples don’t marry just to avoid the costs. This wedding will be cheaper than one in the UK or USA, no doubt, but still more expensive than an average Cuban to Cuban wedding, I imagine.

Saying goodbye to Fidel


Today L and I woke to the news of the passing away of Fidel Castro. This was to L like the passing away of a beloved grandfather. Though it was expected, and he did well to survive so long, despite so many attempts on his life, the news came as a shock none the less. We are sad to be away from Cuba in this moment, visiting my family and friends in the UK together for the first time.

It’s a new era for humanity, says L, and a new era for Cuba. Yes, I know half of Miami is rejoicing, and views are mixed on Fidel’s legacy. In our time together, L has always praised the achievements of the revolution, yet been willing to discuss its failings. Neither are easy to ignore. Free health care, education, accessible culture, sport, a pride amongst Cubans that did not exist among all Cubans before. However, living there, l see many (highly educated) people leaving the island, with few opportunities for young people, and way too much government control, and shortages of products, or over-inflated prices for products available. I could go on….

But I also know many Cubans of L’s age (50s), who wouldn’t have had the opportunities they had were it not for the revolution, especially for black families like L’s, where racism would have likely left them cutting sugar cane or shining shoes. L says the revolution gave him the possibility to study what he wanted, get his education and follow his dreams, his health and the chance to raise his two wonderful healthy girls, with a health system designed to support and protect them if they need, a philosophy of life which puts loving one another at its core.

Just two weeks ago, I was leading a group of American alumni around Cuba, together with a brilliant Cuban-American professor of history at UCLA, and we met with a lady who went out in Cuba’s Year of Education in 1961 and taught people to read and write. In the literacy campaign of that year, 700,000 Cubans learnt to read and write, and the rate of literacy rose to 96%, one of the highest in the world. When the UCLA professor began to sing with her the ‘hymn of the literacy ‘, sang proudly by the nation in those times of exciting change and hope for the future, she welled up with tears. Being part of such an important revolutionary movement, and affecting such important change in another human being, at the tender age of 14, changed her life forever, and gave her the pride and dignity and path in life that so many young people in the world are not lucky enough to receive.

In the words of Che Guevara, ‘Hasta la victoria siempre, Comandante Fidel’.


Busy busy busy

Version 2

It’s the low season in Cuba, with the worse month for hurricanes and tropical storms about to end. Next month, the weather gets cooler and the high season starts again. My free time is about to end, and Lazaro’s lack of footfall passing his bar/restaurant also too hopefully.

This is the time for getting errands done, something that can take an age in Cuba. For example, today, we got up early because a professional translator was dropping off a document that he’d translated for L’s interview with the British embassy later in the morning. I want L to come for Christmas to the UK to meet everyone before the wedding. The translator had no printer at home so he brought his laptop and we popped the doc on a USB stick and they both went off on the scooter to find a place to print. Meanwhile, I prepared the various supporting documents I had photocopied for said interview – passports, flight tickets, proof of his job and home ownership (the lovely apartment we just moved into, proof of my income/bank balance and address in the UK, as L’s sponsor.

We rode the scooter to the British embassy in Miramar, a posh suburb of Havana, and while L had his interview, I went vegetable shopping at a local market (better vegetables in this neighbourhood, and the first lettuce I’ve seen so far this autumn).

We went to a nearby hotel after for a coffee and a debrief and to make a plan of action for the day. We do this quite a lot!

Today we visited our last potential wedding venue, a bit out of Havana but worth the ride, and we passed many stores on the way selling furniture, electrodomestic goods, tiles, kitchen utensils, electrical products, fans, etc. We are looking for all of these!

I fell in love straight away with the venue and our decision to get wed there takes a big strain off, with so many other things we are doing now too. We’ll check out the Ts and Cs and then get moving on the deposit etc.  On the way home we picked up a water filter, so we never run out of water at home (it still needs boiling before use though), and rode back with the great big box on the bike.

Next stop – lunch at home with newly acquired veg, collect medical results of tests we have to do pre-marriage/residency, ride to Old Havana  to see a friend and check out her sister’s furniture catalogue (she’s just gone freelance in her furniture making business). Then back home for a lovely dinner and watching the X Factor, one of our favourites, downloaded in the weekly ‘package’ – the Cuban alternative to the internet and satellite TV.

Tomorrow we have to go to immigration before L starts work – I need to register for a partner visa so I can legally live with Lazaro in his (our) house. I’ll need to repeat this process every time I come back into the country until we are married and I get resident status. Cubans are not allowed to have people stay with them who are not family, unless they are officially renting out rooms, in which case they pay a monthly tax.

This is just a small sample of the daily tasks that face us, many of which I wouldn’t know how to deal with or have the patience to, were it not for the experienced guidance of someone who has lived it all his life and has the patience of a saint!

Hot in the city

For the first year since arriving in Cuba five or so years ago, I have spent the whole of August here. It isn’t easy, and I can think of places I would rather be, with this extreme heat and humidity, afternoon rainstorms, and general feeling of exhaustion. I’ve given up trying to run in the morning (it’s already too hot by 8am and I’m not an early riser) and I grab every chance I can to swim, ideally in the sea, as hotel pools here this time of year are full of smoking and drinking Cubans and probably peeing children. On more than one occasion I’ve had itchy skin after swimming in certain pools, so one needs to be careful!

Another source of my exhaustion is the constant need to be looking for things that should just be easy to find. Bottled water for instance. Toilet paper for another. I went to four government shops today to look for a litre of water, two had no water, the third had only small bottles but not cold, despite them coming out of the fridge. I should mention that all three stores had stifling temperatures inside and maybe the workers drank all the water, I know I would. The fourth store had water, and decent refrigeration, but a line of 8 people ahead of me and no assistant in sight. When finally help appeared I bought 2 litre bottles of water at the official price of 70 cents (worth US$0.70 or 50p). In the 15 minutes I stood there, 3 different people ahead of me bought cheap rum in little cartons with straws, like the ones usually containing orange juice. It was before midday. It occurred to me that spending your life hunting for basic necessities could drive you to that, especially as cheap rum, beer and cigarettes are all easier to find than water, toilet paper, milk or soft drinks, all of which I consider more important basics (of course, it’s all a matter of perspective).

L and I bought an electric motorbike in large part to make this side of life easier, hunting for groceries or toiletries or places to top-up our mobile phones (expensive), and running errands. Now we bought ourselves an apartment and need to hunt for furniture, the fun will really begin! We’ll ride around the city looking for what we need and then when we find it, one of us will bike home and the other take a taxi with said item of household good or furniture. I’m not sure yet what we’ll do yet with the larger pieces, home delivery isn’t so much available here, and our mattress, the only large piece we bought so far, we wheeled home t0 blocks through a busy street on the back of a trolley! When we moved it to our new apartment last week, we found a taxi big enough to squeeze it into, but God only knows how we’ll manage with a fridge, oven or a sofa.

Still, I continue to have my magic moments here, riding from one place to another on Havana’s pot-holed streets on a bicycle taxi, a two-seater vehicle useful here for quick journeys while carrying lots of bags, or my own birthday cake, which happened earlier this month (the delicious cake, made by a master baker friend of L’s, made it to our house party, with only some of the icing ending up on me en route. The guests then all sang me happy birthday at midnight of the eve of my birthday and dinner and then the cake was duly served – beautiful).

But the magic is when I sit in the bicycle taxi, feeling the breeze, listening to Havana’s streets and watching life go by, the way I did when I first arrived, and still feeling that sense of romance, intrigue, sadness, wonder and bewitchment.

Havana may not be for everyone, but it is for me.