Maelys had been quite consistent for some months that her 4th birthday should be in Germany with Helena and Alice (our 2 au pairs in Sydney). Maelys had also ordered a castle cake, princesses and bikes. So we mixed it all up, and added a treasure hunt. It started in Normandie a week ago, had a stage in Paris to blow some candles with Mamiloup (turning 65) and finished of course in Germany where MMC were the stars of the show! What a great way to celebrate 4 years for not so little Maelys who is a kind of extreme rock climbing daring neck breaking princess - a new type in other words. During the treasure hunt, Clotilde proved most competent for the tasting competition (trust Clotilde to eat anything) and the swimming competition (no one else wanted to get the clue in 10 degree water...). The climbing was shared by all, as was the cycling
I will leave you on these 2 sayings by Maelys as she starts her 5th year:
- at school during lunch, she does not like the look of the sausage she gets. she calmly explains that she eats neither sausage nor meat and is a vegetarian. she ends up with the vego meal...
- at the zoo, in her pretty little dress, in Stuttgart, she says "I wish I were a pig" "why?" says Alice "because then I could be so dirty..."
Our little aussie girls have become French in little time, discovering new things: baguette and cheese pretty much every day, 4 degree temperatures (this morning on way to school), days at school when you don't run around everywhere but rather "sit for too long" (dixit Moana), flying foxes and other climbing wonders, lots of cousins who are all the same age (party time!), riding their own bikes or scooters to school, going to the fresh markets to pick their favourite fruit, catching the train, understanding that they are the only ones running half naked and bare feet in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, discovering that there is another shoe type than the "crocs", the concept of wearing a jacket, the eiffel tower which they see from our home...
It started with a bad night, a pretty bad one. Yvoine was quite keen, Mike less so but let Yvoine decide. We headed to El Cobre, 20km out of Santiago de Cuba, the pilgrimage place for Cubans. They come here to worship the Virgin of Charity, in a mix of Santeria-Catholicism: imposed catholicism from the Spanish colonizers mixed with the set of beliefs of the black slaves coming from their original African lands.
Set in the hills, with magic colours coming from the local copper rich soil (mined until year 2000), the monastery in the back of the Virgen de Caridad and Basilica was waiting for us. This is where we were going to sleep. Yvoine was looking forward to the peace and quiet, the opportunity given for deep thinking, contemplating and meditating.
Well, this is Cuba! So, despite the signs everywhere asking to remain silent, we did not sleep. People yelling, screaming, chatting, stomping their feet, moving furniture, asking, responding, talking, throwing, joking, laughing... pretty much all night long! Heat to accompany. Mattresses still in their plastic cover (so every move is noisy and sticky). Windows that do not shut.
We had to smile... In a Cuban monastery, you also find:
We leave El Cobre before breakfast the next day, opt for breakfast on a beach by the coast, and after a beautiful ride along the south coast, we spend the night after in a small fishing village Marea del Portillo. We eat our second pig on the spit of this holiday, we swim in beautiful water and we happily go to bed.
It started almost as a bit of joke, mixed with a tad of amazement: wow, I think we could fit a whole car in this hole! Yvoine reckons she would get stuck in about 5 minutes, Mike simply states that this reminds him of his MAZDA 323 days (for all of you who have driven Silver Snail, this was apparently Mike’s training for Cuban roads! Special mention en route to Bill and the numerous times you drove those South Island dirt roads together...).
But the gear is not up to the challenge. In our rental GEELY (Chinese brand unknown to us before Cuba, don’t try it, it is not good), the suspensions don’t exist, the steering is not up to much, and the tires, well the tires...
When we leave Moa for Baracoa, we have already had 2 flat tires and have changed cars twice... When we get another flat in the middle of nowhere, with a spare wheel that does not fit (Kia spare on a Geely... you get it on with a bit of work only) with no signal on the phone, and in the middle of a unesco protected national park (beautiful but not many people around to help), the stress levels are going up one or 2 notches. It takes us 3.5 hours to do 70km, Yvoine’s biceps hurt (from hanging onto the handle above the window), and we don’t say much (girls are peacefully asleep). Big sigh of relief as we hit Baracoa however “we made it, Mojito time!”
The road from Santiago de Cuba to Marea de Portillo (South Coast of Cuba, where Castro and the first barbudos landed from Mexico to start the revolution) is another type of fun. Sometimes the road disappears. Or the tunnel has collapsed. Or the bridge has half collapsed. Sometimes, we end up on the rocky beach (beautiful!), Mike matter of factly stating that if we get stuck here, we don’t go anywhere else (Yvoine’s biceps and heart beat working full steam again). Magnificent piece of road however, with the moutains (Cuba’s top range, culminating at 2000m) going straight down into the sea.
And then there were the roads going up the mountains, a bit too steep for our engine. And the random pointy rocks that caught you unawares. And the big potholes after 10km of smooth surface. And one or twice, a road sign advising us of the upcoming danger...
But it remains true that the most difficult roads end up being the best ones, the more challenging moments making up for the best memories.
It took Moana about 10 seconds. She watched him, sitting in front of his domino table (square wooden tables with a little split edge on each side where to set the 7 dominos you get handed at the beginning of the game). He is 91 years old, his life written, or rather carved on his face. He is beautiful and wise.
Mum, how do you ask him how to play in spanish?
And next it comes “ quiere jugar?”
Off they go, all of them, our 3 little ones, our escalera, now playing with our old Cuban hombre and challenging him at that! Maelys wins the first game, Moana the second one. The third one will be his... Then he grabs his machete, climbs up the coconut tree (incredible fitness still!) and comes back down with a couple of coconuts which we happily drink!
The heat is relentless. Everyday, we try and find a place to swim (pretty easy in Cuba) so today, it is the river.
We are now in Baracoa, the Eastern tip of Cuba. 70km away is Haiti. The feel is decidedly different here, quite Jamaican really. Starting with the dreadlocks around town... The road to the rest of the island was only built in the 60s (a Castro legacy). It is a town of rooftops. Every second house has a terrace on the roof from which we enjoy the wind, the view, the ocean. The church’s bells remind us of the time on an hourly basis (and Moana & Maelys count and count...). As we wander down, we stop a La Casa de la Cultura. Lionel, an artist, is painting the colourful Baracoan houses. MMC are fascinated. Lionel is too (by the Escalera!). So he gets Moana and Maelys to contribute to his painting! Here, Lionel teaches kids how to draw and paint, every day, for free. Casas de la Cultura teach people how to dance, sing, paint all around the country this way, for free (a government initiative)... Awesome way to develop the arts! A bit later on, when it is Mojito time, we go to the local Casa de la Trova (again, an initiative present in every town). Here, musicians play live pretty much every day. We are the stars of the evening. We dance, we play the drums and the marimbula. We chat. We smile and laugh.
Life is pretty good right now right here! This country is really quite fascinating. The following day, and the day after that, MMC regularly stop and ask us to watch: they start a Mambo or a Salsa step! Moana already masters the hip-belly move, dios mio!
These are the words pronounced by our 2 year old Clotilde when she sees one of the most magnificent beaches we have ever seen. We are in Cayo Saetia, on the North-Eastern coast of Cuba.
We were greeted by camels lounging under the tree shade, and ostriches twisting their necks back and forth and up and down. “Can we see a zebra, mama?!” Yes, we can indeed! This little island (42 km sq) once was a hunting reserve for the communist apparatchiks. It got converted into a national park some decades ago and all the species have been protected ever since! So off we go on our safari, finding zebras, ostriches, buffalos, deer (doe, a deer, a female deer! MMC sing in the back) and colourful parrots.
That’s on earth. In the water, we continue our snorkelling expeditions with Moana and Maelys, finding Dori, fish in their stripy pijamas, amazing corals and red, black and white kinnears.
The water is so warm we stay for hours. Sometimes, we look at our watch and we say: it’s 1pm! Better get some lunch for MMC!
That following night, Maelys wakes up in the night half crying half sleeping. “What’s up, Maelys?” Yvoine says. “Mummy, can we please draw a zebra?” comes the answer...
We are surrounded by such beauty, it makes us go silent. We are like stunned. The vibrant colours, the peace of the place (forgot to mention no internet, no phone, no shop, no one, no noise, no cars), the size of the horizon, the magic of the sunset, the calm, infinite routine of the waves... Such beauty, such life. Makes us want to thank whoever created this: we are at peace and happy. And we feel so can be all things.
It is instantaneous with Yvoine. The second she reaches the mountains, there is a feel good factor that propagates very rapidly.
Here it comes again as we reach Pinares de Mayari, 680m above sea level. Don’t know what it is. Always this feeling that everything will always be OK, that there is no unresolved problem, or question that would remain unanswered. A deep feeling of fulfillment and well-being.
Thank you for such beautiful life!
Maelys gets greeted by a fluorescent green frog. While Moana encounters a multi-coloured parrot. We are surrounded by ferns which have a very Kiwi feel, although the climate is extremely different. The vegetation is simply amazing: over 100 species of palm trees, so many ferns including some that close their leaves when MMC try to touch them (a game much enjoyed), orchids of various colours, and fruit trees fruit trees and more trees! The daily storms are amazing, so close, so noisy, so beautiful - a real lightning show and cloud formations like no other. Feels like Obelix’ worse fear: the sky might fall on our heads!
We ride our horses to a beautiful waterfall in a magnificent canyon. We strip naked (yvoine, maelys and clotilde that is) and swim in the beautiful creek. We all enjoy a full body massage for 8 euros for the 5 of us (even MMC are like 3 little pachas enjoying their massage and ask if they can get the same everyday afterwards!). Mike and Yvoine play pool in the setting sun, drinking Mojitos, surrounded by the moutains’ noises (frogs, humming birds and other). The girls are painting the flowers they saw today.
When was the last time we relaxed this much?
Moana: “let’s play my game, I am the mum”
Maelys: “No, I’d like to be the mum”
Moana: “OK then, you are naughty mum”
Maelys: “OK, what does naughty mum do?”
Moana: “She goes to work everyday”
3 weeks we have been in Cuba, and we are getting into this holiday rhythm!
We are still struggling to figure Cuba out though. It is a constant question. One minute you think well, no one is starving here, everyone is reading a book of some sort, the apartment buildings look very soul-less and soviet like but are pretty solid, there is no real poverty around... This revolution stuff works! The next minute you learn about the numerous ones sent to prison or work camps in the 70s because they did not fit - either homosexual, intellectual, artist or some other profile seen as too anti-revolution - and you think, not much freedom and respect for human rights around here. One minute you think good on Cuba for saying no to the US, number 1 power in the world that has over the years always looked at the Caribbean's, central and south america as if it was its playground/holiday camp/natural resource backyard/sex house. It has over the decades invaded as it pleased, worked with or against local dictators or other self made caudillos depending on what best suited or served them. Good on the barbudos (the “bearded ones” after the guys who led the revolution with Castro, Che Guevara and Cienfuegos) for saying no, we do not need you, we will run our own course - without your money, your power, your weapons. The next minute you wonder if it had to get this far? The one minute you think good on Castro for erasing corruption and never really showing favoritism for his family/clan/tribe when so many others before him or elsewhere have. The next minute you think but, why is he (or his brother now) still in power after more than 50 years, with no real election to speak of?
It is in fact a constant question running through our minds. We cannot really escape it, as it is blatantly in your face all day, through the political signs everywhere, the bureaucracy in everything that you do, and the smiles and warmth of all the people you meet. Cuba is an enigma!
When we do forget about it for a while, we see green, blue and orange - the vibrant colors of Cuba! “How many greens can we see here?” “Thousands!” says Maelys. She is right. The mix of sun and tropical rain have created amazing lush landscapes, filled with so many greens - sugarcane, banana tree, coconut tree, jungle type trees, long grass, short grass, coffee trees, pineapple plantations, lizards of all shapes and forms, etc - we could paint them for hours (MMC spend quite some time drawing and painting what they see!). What better way to emphasize the green colors than the beautiful green and blue seas (from the atlantic ocean to the Carribean sea so far) and those orange and red mangoes (Maelys and Yvoine have a daily competition of how many can get eaten each day. Yvoine still wins, but not by much!)?
For MMC, it is a daily-hourly-minut-y adventure: following lizards and crabs, collecting shells, snorkelling (yes, Moana is now very good at it and Maelys is getting there quite nicely: when they come out, they tell us tales of whom they have seen: sea porcupines (understand sea urchin alias kinnear), Nemo’s friend (understand stripy black and white fish), cangrehos (understand crabs) and leafy wings (understand magnificent coral and algue), horse riding (a great way to see the place without Yvoine being the horse), bird watching, food trialling (trialling is the right word, food is not Cuba’s forte, as Moana puts it “I prefer the food papa makes back home!”), domino playing (a real past time in Cuba, with tables being pulled out on the footpath, chairs being pushed around, usually men playing, and much Ron de Cuba drunk) and getting into cars (banana cars, mango cars, chevrolet and other dodges from the 50s, pink Cadillacs and orange Fords, even a Ford from 1929 - Yvoine relates it back straight to her history books!).
For the Cubans, seeing us is a wonder. They just seemed completely dumbfounded that we could have 3 kids to start with, so close to each other they continue, and so beautiful to finish with. They marvel at our ESCALERA (stairs in spanish because MMC are 2, 3 and 4 years old), congratulate us, smile, cannot believe it, cry out “Dios mio!” (“my god!”) and shake our hands. Our escalera is indeed quite a sight, and we are loving being naughty mum and dad spending so much holiday time with them!
For the amount of bureaucracy and paper and tracking and listening and overlooking and checking... To book 4 sets of accommodation, it took me 3 hours one day and another 30 minutes the next day. To spend 30 minutes on the internet, it took me 3 passport sightings, 2 signatures, 3 different pieces of paper, and a card. To stay at someone’s house, it takes also 5 or 6 pieces of paper, a passport sighting, a visit from a controller, a bit more paperwork we are not privy too. To extend our visa, it takes pieces and pieces and pieces of paper, and many stamps. What do they do with all of that? We stayed with a lovely lady our age for a few days. Her sister has gone to the US. She is not allowed back for 8 years. Diana cannot go and visit until she is 50 years old. Everyone of their conversations on the phone is listened to.
“Maman, pourquoi y’a de la musique partout? Mum, why is there music everywhere?” asks Moana. People sing, play and dance here like we talk and breathe in other parts of the world. It is truly unbelievable. We like to join in those spontaneous parties everywhere, following the sounds of rumba, salsa or tchatchatcha (Moana’s favourite, with Mambo coming closely second). MMC join in with the maracasses. Maelys whirls around while Clotilde asks for more more more! Smiles, colours, energy and sounds are boosters of life!
Never have we seen such mixed society: white, black and everything in between. Like the Cuban traditional dolls with 2 heads: one black, one white, the Cuban society is truly mixed, with everyone at the same level. No discrimination is felt. They are all Cubans!
Absence of corruption
One of Castro’s achievements. Corruption was widespread in Cuba before 1959. Today, it is totally absent. The police drives the same old (crappy) cars the average Cuban does. The immigration officer fills out hundreds of forms for a simple request but is not even thinking of asking for a reward. The president of the local revolutionary party looks no different from the local builder. Impressive.
At a country such as Cuba, part of the “third world” that has managed to give free education, free healthcare and a decent living (everyone in Cuba seems to have a roof and food - albeit not the most sophisticated sort). When compared to its neighbors Haiti or Saint Domingo, it is most impressive. 100% of Cubans know how to read and write. A good portion speaks a foreign language. The free healthcare system is well developed. TB has been eradicated.
Making the days really hot. Life on the streets of Cuba starts after 5pm. Ripening the beautiful tropical fruit: mango, papaya, guava, pineapple and banana (this country likes banana so much, they have different sorts, like rice in Asia: there is the banana to eat raw, and the one to eat fried, and the one to eat boiled, etc). Making the rivers and seas so warm: one can swim for hours. Making the girls dress like, uhm, how shall I describe it. If there was an axis between the prostitute on the left handside, and the conservative british old lady that never married on the right handside, well the Cuban woman is almost at the end of the left axis.
In what country can one get to where there is absolutely no advertising on the streets? Not one sign telling you to buy this, or to sell that. Not one neon light, not one poster, not one bus stop, nothing. You are not enticed to buy, sell, rent, or go anywhere: there is no advertising. The only signs, which are numerous, are the political ones: patria or muerte!; multiple photos and dedicated words to Che Guevara, Fidel or Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos and all the revolution heros; constant reminders about one’s duty (to defend, to work, to fight), the revolution, the party, socialismo, the 26th of July movement, the heros... Che is everywhere: big, small, photographed, painted, in official buildings, in personal houses.
And the quotes of the day from MMC:
“Goats are faster than bikes” Moana says, as we are riding up a hill chasing goats.
“ See, they are killing people” Maelys whispers to Moana, as we pass a group of soldiers.
“Mum, I am not comfortable” says 2 year old Clotilde sitting on Yvoine’s shoulders.
“We love you, mate!” Moana and Maelys chant to Mike.
“Be quick, Mojito is coming!” Moana calls.