Sunday, 12 March 2017

Gibara Reflections

Sometimes a place you visit stays with you. Gibara is one of those places. 

On the evening of September 7, 2008, Hurricane Ike made landfall in Gibara, Cuba. 

Twelve meter high waves and winds of up to 209 km an hour lashed the coast, flattening homes, decimating crops, and turning whole communities to rubble. 70% of Gibara's homes were damaged, many ruined beyond repair.


Gibara  waterfront September 2008. Hiram Enriquez of Digital Stucco
Gibara- "la Villa Blanca"-the white city- a formerly wealthy and elegant sugar port, known for its bohemian spirit and love of the arts, now a sleepy fishing village of quiet streets and aging colonial buildings. Crushed.

Along the waterfront February 2017
The government had evacuated all residents in the path of the storm. An estimated 2.6 million Cubans-25% of the country's population- got out of the way of the storm. In its wake, seven were dead and there were 7.3 million in damages, Cuba's costliest natural disaster.

After the storm passed through Cuba, it moved on to Texas.  There, residents refused to obey their mandatory evacuation order. Despite being a "first world country", despite warnings of certain death, 200,000 of those under evacuation notice refused to leave their homes. Of the 195 who died in Hurricane Ike, 113 were in Texas.

September 2008 Hiram Enriquez of Digital Stucco
After Ike, the people of Gibara picked themselves up and cleaned up the mess and began to rebuild. They had very little in the way of international support. But they moved on with their lives, because that is what you do.

It has taken them years. 
Downtown Gibara today
Walk the streets of Gibara today and you won't see rubble. You'll see stately buildings,sea scoured and sun bleached. 


You'll see the charming colonial Hotel Ordona and the newly opened Hotel Arsenita, waiting for tourists. 

You'll see stained glass and brilliant paint. You'll find a quaint museum with its dioramas and an enormous whale skeleton. 

You'll find hilltop miradors and cafes with spectacular views. 

You'll find peaceful homestays with lovely courtyards and rooftop patios. 

You'll see the fabulous Cinema Jiba, home to the yearly "Poor Man's Film Festival." 

You'll find older people who smile and shake your hand and thank you for coming to their town with your tourist dollar. 

You'll see dignity. 

You'll see resilience.
Hotel Arsenita

On May 15, 2011, disaster visited Slave Lake. 130 km an hour winds and a massive wall of flame raced through my town. Thousands of people jumped into their vehicles and evacuated themselves without any public warning or formal evacuation notice. There were no deaths.  But the destruction was immense. 

More than 400 homes were lost in the Slave Lake wildfire-a far cry from the 43,000 homes destroyed in Cuba by Hurricane Ike. But unlike the Cubans, the people of Slave Lake had insurance. They had government assistance. My town had millions in donations from people around the world through the Red Cross and other agencies.  

The people of Slave Lake, like the people of Gibara, picked themselves up and got on with rebuilding. Because that is what you do.

Six years on you would not know anything happened in my town. We have buried the scars of our disaster behind the facades of our beautiful new houses and lovely landscaping and brand new public buildings. You'll see no reference to the wildfire, not even in the name of the Legacy Centre, built almost entirely with disaster recovery money.
Ruins along the seawall.

Not so Gibara. 
You still see its scars in the ruined concrete along the sea wall. 
You see the damages in the broken pavements and boarded up windows.
You see the history of their struggle written on walls still waiting to be restored.

Most of all, you see its spirit. 
The spirit of its people who are quietly getting on with life. 
Because that is what you do.


Monday, 6 March 2017

Tienda Telephoto

I took this photo of my husband in Gibara. 


If you look just past his shoulder, you'll see an old man reading a paper in front of a small shop. I zoomed in with my telephoto and took some pictures. 

They tell a story.













Postcards from Holguin

Sending a postcard is a simple task. Or at least one might think so.

You buy the cards, write on them, address them and go to the post office.

And in Cuba, that's where it gets interesting.

The first clerk takes one look at the cards and indicates you should go to the second clerk. The second clerk asks where the cards are going. Three to Canada, one to the United Kingdom, you say. She shrugs like she doesn't know where that is. "Angleterre?" you say hopefully. She says nothing to you but there is a steady and loud stream of chatter to the other two ladies at their wickets. All three look put out by the imposition of this foreigner. "You must take them there," she points back to the first clerk. The lady makes a great production of locating two 50 peso stamps from the copious folders in her plastic bin. She clucks her tongue in exasperation several times. Then she jots down some notes on her scratch pad, attaching the stamps to the card with a paper clip, and passing them, along with a nail polish shaped bottle of glue, back to the first clerk who busies herself with attaching the stamps. She repeats the process with the Canadian cards, each of which require one 65 peso stamps. There is more jotting down of numbers, head shaking and tongue clucking.

"Cuanta cuesta?" you ask. "One Eighty," she says carefully in English. You pull out your money. There is great consternation. No,no,no. Only national money. You have no national money. More over-the-counter talk with the clerks. More head shaking, eye rolling and apparent disgust. The people behind you get involved, a handsome elderly gentlemen and two young women. The elderly fellow shows you the national currency. You try to give him your money in exchange. He won't take it. The clerk is about to hand you the cards, then pulls them back, then hands them to you, shooing you away like she's done with all this nonsense. "Finished," she says.

You're so confused. One of the young female customers speaks. She points to the old man who smiles a beautiful smile. "He has paid for you stamps."

"Muchos gracias!" you exclaim.

She takes you gently by the hand, and you walk out to the sidewalk where she takes the cards and deposits them in the mailbox with a flourish.

I don't know if the cards will reach their destination, but they've had an expressive send-off.



Saturday, 4 March 2017

Cayo Saetia

"A machine could do his job," my husband says, nodding towards the guard coming out of the security booth on the causeway.

The guard glances into the car.

"Passeportes?" He asks.

Passports? Nobody told me we needed passports to get onto the island.

"No passports?" says the driver. He pleads with the guard, a man in his early 20s. It's well over half an hour back to the guesthouse. The guard is expressionless. No passports, no entry.

Within minutes, the Lada is back on the road, dodging potholes, making a break for it on the smooth patches. At the guesthouse I grab the passports and back we go. The guard remains emotionless as he takes the documents to the sentry booth, returning them a few minutes later.

Cayo Saetia is spectacular. It's a wildlife preserve with antelope, water buffalo and ostriches. It is said it was Castro's private island, and that Soviet visitors enjoyed firing ammo into the wildlife. I have no idea if that was true.


We drive down to the bay where visitors can take jeep safaris and ride horses. There is a palm-thatched bar and restaurant perched along the shore. Coves of coral sand spread in both directions-not a soul in sight. The water is clean and still and Caribbean blue. We spend the day snorkeling and lazing on the beach, interrupted just for a few hours by the catamarans that arrive from the resorts. The merrymakers spend most of their time in the ranchon style restaurant, half an hour on the beach, then head out, drinks in hand.

On the dot of five, the Lada returns. Back to the sentry hut. The same guard is there. He searches the vehicle with his eyes, and when he sees mine, he steps toward the car. Wordlessly, he hands me an exquisite flower, freshly woven of palm fronds. As if to say, ""I'm sorry for your troubles."

"A machine wouldn't do that", my husband says.

Friday, 3 March 2017

The Road to Nicaro

Bougainvillea splash wild across the hillside. On the other side of the road, the Atlantic fades blue to the horizon with its improbable sugarloaf mountains. 

We're on the road to Nicaro.

A Spanish version of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" plays on the driver's state-of-the-art MP3 player, jerryrigged to the dash with a customized piece of plastic. It's a "good car, an American car" -a late 1950s Ford. It floats over the potholes. The music changes to a Cuban pop song and the driver's mom and dad sing along, smiling.



Coming toward us is a teenager on his cellphone. His shorts are brilliant yellow. They match his sideways ball cap. His T-shirt is yellow and the same pink as the bougainvillea. His grandfather sits beside him, hands lazily holding the reins of the horse drawn hay cart.

On the road to Nicaro, anything seems possible.