Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Writing the non-verbals

I tried, honestly I tried. I made excuses: I'm not a natural linguist, I don't have the time, that sort of garbage. But if I'm being honest, I just didn't work hard enough. My Spanish is worse than rudimentary - and somehow I was able to delude myself that it was good enough to get by in Cuba.

It wasn't.

There were words I had to learn very quickly (like beer, and breakfast). And my dictionary was soon well-thumbed and a little tatty.

But often I had to fall back on sign language and 'acting'. Now I'm home, with an ebook to think about, I'm  trying find a way to write about that. The problem: I begin with the words I wanted to say but couldn't, and now must find a way to describe my acting-efforts using words in such a way that the original meaning becomes clear.

I'll give you some examples. How would you 'act':

  • Do I need to go to the bus station to organise a ticket to Santa Clara, or will it be fine if I just turn up tomorrow?
  • Thank you for organising horse-riding. Please tell me they're not going to gallop because I might fall off if they do?
  • I'm sorry I'm late for breakfast, but I was out drinking mojitos and listening to music last night.
  • How kind of you to get me a birthday cake. How do I cut it?

(The answer to the last question - the woman in the casa just plunged plunged a knife in, scattering icing, and giving me a look that said, 'You might be able to travel round the world, but what sort of woman doesn't know how to cut a cake!)

Just out of interest, how would you mime the horse-riding query?

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Ah, the salsa!

If you're looking for thoughtful - I've over at the Authors Electric blog today, writing about the dialogue between politics and culture and literature. You can find their blog here.

So, I thought we'd better have a bit of contrast here.

That's all there is to it ...

I don't know about you, but my hips didn't do that when I was twenty, and they're certainly not going to do it now. But oh, that energy, the sensuality of it.

So, next time you have an urge to read something serious, how about a quick salsa round the kitchen to recover. No one is looking!

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Since you ask ...

Will there be an ebook about my trip to Cuba?

I've been asked a few times - and all I can answer is, please be patient. I've been back a couple of weeks, and begun the process of transcribing my scribbled notes onto the computer - which sounds mind-numblingly dull, but it enables me to highlight the relevant bits and to recall little gems I might otherwise have forgotten. And delete the drivel, of course, and there's plenty of that.

Once that is done, I need to spend time thinking.

Sometimes thinking can be mistaken for faffing.

I discovered, on one trip some years ago, that not everyone understands the verb 'to faff'. It's more than procrastinating, for that can sometimes be fruitful - the kitchen floor might get cleaned, for instance, when you really ought to be writing that synopsis. Faffing is far less directed, or constructive; it is an apparently aimless mooching about which, to the casual observer, might be mistaken for wasted time. I would argue that is can be highly productive, for it is in the faffing time that ideas are allowed out to play - and if we let them be they can realign themselves without any apparent intervention for the player. We can emerge from that faffing time with a story we hadn't seen before.

Okay, I'll dignify it with the name of 'thinking.' For me, it is an essential part of the process of finding the thread to hold any travel narrative together. I can easily offer you a succession of anecdotes; but I want to do more than that - to find the idea, the story than holds it all together. Only once I know that I have a coherent story can I tell you if there will be another ebook.

But, for those of you for whom this is not enough, here is another picture. It is a handbasin, in a the loo in a little restaurant in Havana. There was no water in the tap, so it was not fit for purpose. So it doesn't matter that there's no plug. But hey ho, who needs water when you've a basin like this?

Sunday, 16 February 2014

I promised you Cuba pictures.

It will take time to get my Cuban stories into some sort of order, but here - as promised - are a few of my photos.

I've begun with this picture from Havana, as it typifies much of Cuba. This is taken in one of the main streets, and shows how some of the lovely old buildings have been restored while those next door are left to fall down. The extent of the restoration is impressive - there are some beautiful plazas, especially in the oldest part of the city. But - and this is a huge BUT - the restoration is concentrated in areas where the tourists go. Much of residential Havana is crumbling.

I took this from my bedroom window in Sancti Spiritus, at about six in the morning. This man walked up and down the streets, calling loudly enough to wake the cockerels. He had bread and biscuits in the box on the back of his bike. It is now possible for someone to set up a small business in Cuba. Maybe he was up all night, baking. Yet I never saw anyone come out to buy. I hope he was more successful round the corner.

There are images of Che Guevara all over Cuba. His image is on the walls of bus stations, private homes, on the bank notes. I shall, in time, write about him - but for now here is a statue of him holding a child. Whatever you think of him, I liked this - it's small, and hidden between hedges like an apology. But I've no idea what that stag with the gremlin on its back is doing on his shoulder.

Cuban art is wonderful - and everywhere. This is the painted water tank, on the rooftop of a home I stayed in. Imagine - going to all that trouble just to paint a water tank! I sat on that rooftop to read, and to write, with pigs snuffling in the yard next door and the sun going down over the sea.

This is a square in Trinidad (the town) taken through a window. It is as immaculate as it looks here - beautifully painted with trimmed bushes in the plaza and palm trees giving a little shade. If I'd been able to take a picture a little to the right of this, you would be able to see the steps where I spent hours listening to the music. There are less manicured corners in Trinidad - but a curious tourist has to step outside the normal thoroughfares to find them.

Finally, this is the front porch of my casa particular (like a Homestay) in Viñales. The only thing missing is me - on one of those rocking chairs. I had some serious rain while I was there - what a shame, there was nothing I could do but sit and read. Well, what would you have done?

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

You travel alone?

One of the great joys of travelling is meeting other people. Conversations generally begin with, 'Where are you from?' It's a world-wide opening that really means, 'Let's find out more about each other.'

But, for a solo traveller, it's often followed by, 'You travel alone?'

I enjoy travelling alone. I meet great people that way, and find myself in unexpected and wonderful places. (Ok, sometimes I make mistakes, but that's not a direct consequence of being on my own.) I'm very happy to talk about the excitements and struggles of travelling alone, and to contribute an anecdote or two to any travelling chatter.

Yet what this question really means is, 'Why do you travel alone?'; which, in turn, means, 'Why don't you have a friend or partner who wants to travel with you?'

I make no secret of being widowed. It's no mystery. It's not shameful. It's not what I would have chosen, of course, but it's the card I was dealt. I deal with it.

Generally I manage a brief resumé that reassures my new companion - I am not alone because I am a witch, nor because I smell. I have a patter that moves our conversation on to travel topics, where we've been or long to go, and unexpected joys we've found along the way.

But sometimes I don't feel so charitable. While my mouth prepares the usual spiel, my head is saying, 'Mind your own business. I travel alone - you got a problem with that?' Which is, of course, unkind and unnecessary and would prove I am the witch they think I might be. Travellers ask personal questions very quickly - we know we have a limited time, and conversations are precious, not to be wasted on talk of the weather (unless you're stranded in Somerset, that is). I just wish they could come up with something more original, or less intrusive.

All this is not very generous of me - and, were I ever to have said what I was thinking I'd have missed out on some of the most wonderful people. I just wish there were a different preamble that meant I didn't have to justify travelling alone before we can get down to the serious business of buying a beer.

(Where are my photos - I'll get them on the blog for Monday).

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Am home, with apologies for blog silence.

A whole month in Cuba and only two blogposts!! That’s not like me …
Cuba is a complicated country, and I’ve much to write about. But today – and I’ve only been home a couple of days so my brain is still somewhere over the Atlantic, even though my body has made it back safely – today I’ll just explain the blog silence, and leave my musings for another time.
Computer access is limited in Cuba – the Cubans themselves can only use the internet if they show they need it for business or educational reasons. They realise that most of their visitors see things differently, and access is possible for tourists, though it is slow and expensive, and almost always involves a queue. It also involves buying a scratch card – which is fine, unless the scratch cards have run out, in which case it’s unlikely anyone will have any idea when more will appear.
(Wifi? – only in one or two, select hotels. The sort of place I only slink into to use the toilets.)
Most computers are flat-screened and look efficient, but many of the keyboards have letters missing – which is fine for those used to writing but a problem for anyone who needs to look at the keys. They have to resort to guesswork. I got into a muddle the first time I met a bare keyboard – my precious internet seconds ticked away and all I could write was gobblegook.
And then sites can take so long to load you’ve finished your tea before they're done. Than there seems to be some arbitrary decision-making regarding which sites are acceptable. To begin with I could access this blog but not write on it. Then I could write but not publish it. Then it published it, but wouldn’t let me check what I’d published.
Email access was equally random. On two occasions I was able to open my inbox, try to reply – and everything was fine until I actually wanted to write a message. On that occasion I put the message in the subject line, and sent it that way.
So I decided to keep internet access to an absolute minimum. Nothing terrible would happen – those I know and love had my phone number and everything else could wait.
Now I’m home, and the blog-ball will get rolling again before long. For Cuba has given me much to write about – I’d hate you to think that it was nothing more than internet randomness!