Month: July 2014

Farewell to Phonak

 

Typical day at Phonak

Well, today is my last day at Phonak.

Although I’m optimistic for the future and looking forward to my new job, I’m a bit sad. I’ve had some fab times here and made some great friends.

Above is a picture of me and my previous assistant Dan when we upgraded more than 200 pc’s in just a few weeks.

My door entry badge

The story’s become a bit of a cliché now, but its deserving of a re-telling for those that haven’t heard.

After 10 months of unemployment, I was contacted by the Halifax Building Society.

They politely told me, that I had 2 months to start paying the mortgage or the legal department would begin proceedings to take my house.

In essence I had 1 month to find a job, so I could pay it a month later. I’d been looking desperately for work for nearly a year and nothing, so what was I going to do.

With 4 days to go, I was offered the job at Phonak. My luck changed, and its continued to do so for the past 4 years.

Steve and Lee cabling the warehouse

Initially, there were loads of technical challenges and I was ably assisted by Lee Capie (left) and Steve the excellent caretaker.

Although not technicaly within his remit, whenever we’ve had a project to work on Steve has been there to help.

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I’ve worked closely with finance and Unitron, and on my first Christmas party (you take those things for granted until you’ve been unemployed) Glenn came along.

We play at a high level here at Sonova, so I’ve had joys and heartbreaks along the way. My “outside” friends like Glenn, Dan and later Nikki have always supported me.

On this occasion, the weather “went south” and myself and Glenn, who had a hotel room, catered for refugees who couldn’t get taxi’s home with blankets and hot chocolate.

Lisa in the middle and Tracey on the right. I’ve met more good people here than I can thank on this page, but just picking 2 examples.

Lisa and I famously debated whether a lion could kill an elephant in a fight. We later discussed who owned the better outdoor coat, as hers was north face and mine a Rohan waterproof (this would be settled for good later, when I purchased a mountain equipment down jacket).

Tracey. I once brought in a leather jacket I’d owned for ages. I was intending to wear it on a night out. Tracey honestly asked if I’d brought it in, so a friend could wear it to a fancy dress !. It went in the bin the next day.

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You might notice that most of the photo’s here are of socialising and stuff like that.

Please dont be deceived, its not been all champagne and wine. We’ve worked on a lot of highly technical and stressful projects. Thing is, our competitors would love to know more about how we work, and even though I’m leaving, I’m not allowed to discuss it verbally or in media, and I definitely cant put pictures up.

One thing in the public domain, which I can talk about is that we installed 2 Riverbed Steelhead appliances for application compression.

What I found hilarious, was you get a “free” screwdriver (pictured above) for your £5000 investment !.

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Having a bit of a celebration in our old building.

From l to r, Joe from Unitron marketing, Louise, who gave invaluable insight into Rebecca Brooks hair and helped me buy presents for Secret Santa.

The excellent Laura who I sat near for a while and shared lots of fun times.

My good friend Lyndsay, who was promoted to a job in our head office in Steafa, where we continue to stay in touch. At the back, the excellent Jean a mogul of customer service best practice.

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It was always the plan to move everything into the new building once it was built, but for a number of years, we were working out of 3 buildings on a campus network.

Linking 2 of the buildings was a laser link. Balancing one is a very specialist job, and these 2 guys become well known when they turned up for 2 hours and charged us £400 !.

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I sometimes I got to attend client events, to help out with local IT.

On this occasion, Unitron were doing a launch at Manchester Airport and we got to have dinner in a hanger underneath Concord.

Later I’d achieve a lifelong ambition by actually sitting in the cockpit. In front of me is the famous (mithering) Gareth and at the front Kate, who travels around like a sort of marketing Timelord.

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One other benefit of working for a hearing aid company, is you get hearing aids (if you need them) as part of the deal.

Above are my Ambra Nano’s. Made specifically for my ears, they’re 2 years  old now, but are quite simply the best hearing aids in the world

They fit completely inside my ear canal and you can’t see when I’m wearing them. I put them next to a 5p to show how small they are.

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Sonova are the main holding company. They own Phonak and Unitron, 2 companies that make hearing aids.

They also own Advanced Bionics, who make cochlear implants. CI’s are like the stuff in the bible. They allow people completely deaf from birth, to hear, like the lame walk and the blind see.

Their based in Cambridge, and the crew down there have become good friends. On one occasion, a customer in London was having some pc problems and we were asked to help.

I can’t say who, but its one of the best hospitals in the world, and we were honoured to be asked for our assistance (and we fixed it !).

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The main event was obviously the office move which 1 way or another occupied 2.5 years of my life.

Working with my team, our suppliers and Jo the project manager it remains the greatest technical achievement of my 25 year career.

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And after its completed, out for pints and a curry, with Dan & Adam, and that infrastructure genius, Markus.

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If I’ve got so many nice things to say about phonak, you might wonder why I’m leaving.

Its true. I’ve always been proud to work here and I sit on the train each morning proudly in my Sonova polo shirt.

I’ve frequently said, we don’t make cigarette’s or landmine’s, we make hearing instruments that genuinely make life better.

I’m leaving, because I want to do something different and try something new.

To everyone at Sonova, I want to say thank you for 4 amazing years.

Cuba 2.

Fidel Castro's hideout

We travelled to Sierra Maestra and overnighted in a chalet complex.

In the morning, we trekked to Castro’s hideout in the mountains (we drove up an enormous hill in 4×4’s to a car park).

From here it was about 2.5 hours walk. There were lots of huts where cooking and first aid were done. Our guide pointed out that they try to make it as authentic as possible, but the buildings rot every 15 years, so the ones were looking at are replicas.

We get to see Castro’s own accommodation (it was a simple shack with 2 rooms).

It had a kind of “trick” entrance to trap people (a bit like one of those ninja houses with trapdoors and stuff). In reality, I thought it was a bit silly.

If someone got into the compound would they really tip toe up the steps like some character from Scooby Doo, or more likely just fire an rpg or heavy machine gun into the building from 50 metres away !.

Castro’s 1 luxury, was a fridge (which was gas powered, as there was no electricity).

A streetside radio repair business

From here we travelled on to a place called Sanncti Spiritus (which to me seemed the wrong way around, but its their country, so what the hey).

I love to see innovation at work.

Transistor radios and the simple pleasure of listening to music, can’t be underestimated in Cuba.

For this reason, someone some had setup this “table & chair” business on the pavement.

I wish I could have hung around and found out what kind of person it was.

The English bridge

As we continued wandering around the town with the back-to-front name, we came upon this.

The oldest bridge in Cuba, which spans the Yayabo river.

Not widely known, but as well as the Spaniards, the British (referred to locally as the English) colonised Cuba for about 6 months.

It was during this time that they built this rather iconic bridge.

Che Vavara's resting place

After 90 mins of baking heat and cheese sandwiches I never wished to see again, were back on our coach headed for Santa Clara.

It’s famous as the turning point of the war, when Che Gavara attacked an armoured train with a bull dozer and captured all the soldiers and weapons there in.

Realising re-enforcements weren’t coming, it was just a few hours, before Batista and all his crony’s were hopping onto planes with suitcases filled with US Dollars (well, that’s what local propaganda will tell you).

Che Gavara was originally from Argentina and a Dr by profession. He was given honorary Cuban nationality and after the war helped “rebuild the economy”.

Later he travelled around helping out with other revolutions all over South America. It was here, that he was captured, and later executed on the orders of the CIA (highly probably, but again, propaganda).

His remains were found some years later and returned to Cuba where they now reside in his museum and mausoleum.

Freedom fighter or international trouble-causer. Whichever you think, he cut a romantic dash, and the museum has many fascinating artefacts inside (which sadly you aren’t allowed to photograph).

On top of the building is a giant statue of him, which really seems to capture his courageous/devil may care persona. He was revered by most of the Cubans that I met.

Train memorial

Staying in Santa Clara, we visit a museum dedicated to the Battle of Santa Clara.

Its made up of the armoured trains, originally captured during the battle.

Each of 5 carriages has pictures and artefacts, retelling the story.

They even had the original bulldozer used to derail the train.

Cuban Five

Posters like this are common all over Cuba. Usually positioned in front of key tourist sights, the idea is that you photograph them unwittingly and when you show them to your friends, they spread the word.

What I can make of it, the 2 sides to the story are…

Cuban: Terrorists based in Florida bombed hotels in Havana, in order to hurt the Cuban economy and later bombed a plane with the Cuban fencing team on-board.

Castro’s WASP network of operatives were activated and sent to find the people responsible (it being reasoned they would have more success than white FBI agents, who it’s said they were working with).

Once the terrorists had been captured, the FBI “turned coat” and arrested their “allies” as spies and they received lengthy prison sentences (3 remain in prison today).

American: There were enemy spies operating in our country working against American interest. When we caught them, they went to gaol.

It’s controversial (just try googling it) but it won’t go away, and the Cubans still argue passionately for the return of their countrymen.

Sugar loaf mountains of Vinales

Two nights in Vinales.

Not much I can say about this, except it was lovely countryside, and some amazing “sugar loaf” mountains.

We had a morning tour, with a guide with a very strong American accent, who kept insisting on telling jokes.

We only seemed to wonder through fields and stuff, and didn’t get into the mountains I could see high up all around me. Overall, a bit disappointing.

In the evening we had run low on local currency, so had dinner in the “expensive” hotel restaurant (which we realised was a 3rd of the price of the Paladare !).

Valle de Vinales caves

In the morning, we went for a boat ride through some caves.

Our captain used a laser pointer to highlight naturally occurring rocks, that looked like elephants and stuff like that. I found the overall rock formation far more interesting.

Saw a sign for cheese sandwiches. 1.2 cuks. I had been paying between 4 and 6. More rip.

Cayo levisa island

Next day, we drove to the coast, then got a boat out to the island of Cayo Levisa.

A cliché I know, but this really was a tropical paradise.

We were still low on local currency, so we couldn’t pay for canoeing or anything.

Since the trip had been so long and arduous, I simply got on a sun lounger in the shade and slept for about 4 ours. I was well overdue a rest.

Back home on the ferry, and a 2nd night in Venales. Next Stop Havana.

The rooftop Garden of our Casa in Havana

We arrive back in Havana. We’d decided to stay 2 extra days after the trip to relax and chose a Casa, owned by a local Dr, which he shared with his wife and his housekeeper.

The accommodation was simple, but more than adequate. We were actually living in a normal Cuban house. Returning home from an evening out, I was initially a bit nervous, but needn’t have been.

These people have nothing, but are mostly happy and perfectly law abiding.

It featured a rooftop garden, and both evenings we had an hour up there to unwind.

Tank outside the revolution museum

On a previous visit, the museum of the revolution had been closed, so we were delighted to head back there and find it open.

Its based in a building, that was previously Batista’s palace and outside a piece of mobile artillery (which many people mistakenly called a tank) is located.

A sign next to it states that it was Fidel Castro who personally fired on (and hit) an American warship from this vehicle during the Bay of Pigs.

How true that is, I dont know.

Torture equipment in revolution museum

Inside they had offensive murals to American presidents, models of Che Gavara and a whole host of pictures and memorabilia from the war.

One awful thing, was the display above.

Used by Batista’s forces during interrogation, the “scissor” thing on the left were pliers and used on the private parts of those being interviewed.

The delightful thing on the right, a device for removing finger nails.

Harrowing.

Hotel Seville from Our man in Havan

Most people associate Sloppy Joe’s bar with the Alec Guinness film Our Man in Havana.

A bit touristy for my liking. Lesser known, and a far more relaxing and desirable location is the bar in the Seville hotel.

A lovely venue with some fine music.

The outside bar in the middle of this picture, is the one (albeit re-decorated a few times since) featured in the film.

The iconic Bacardi building

We carry on exploring around. From our hotel, we’d seen the Bacardi building.

A rare view inside the Bacardi building

What I didn’t realise, walking past it, on our way back from the Museum of the Revolution, is that you could go inside.

No, not an organised tour, the security guard, flagged you down and said he’d let you in for 2 cooks.

Above is a photo of the foyer.

View of Havana from the Bacardi building

He allowed us to go up in the lift on our own.

The building inside was literally crumbling, but from the top, I got this spectacular shot of the rooftops of Havana.

Hotel Nacional from the Malecon

A place my friend Dan had talked about many times, was the famous hotel Nacional (Dan had stayed there, previously).

Built in 1930 by the Mafia, it hosted a Mafia summit in 1946 which was dramatised in the Godfather Part II.

Relaxing in the shade at Hotel Nacional

The hotel foyer was spectacular.

We wandered through and found a spot in the garden, where we relaxed in the shade.

Mohito and Crystal. And since its lunchtime, 2 cheese sandwiches. The nicest thing I ate on the whole trip.

The whole place is fab, and filled with the splendour of a bygone era. The only thing that was tacky, was a sort of museum of people who’d stayed there.

It was just sections of the wall with pictures of people (and not particularly taken in the hotel ether, so hardly authentic).

But there was something far more fascinating to see. Just like the Bacardi building, not featured in any guidebook.

Tunnels under the hotel from the Missile crisis

During the Cuban Missile Crisis. Tunnels were dug underneath the garden in anticipation of an invasion.

We were able to wander around in them.

It was pretty cool.

Tuk tuk or potatoe cart

Its time to head back.

The heat of the afternoon and several Cristal’s have made me tired.

We travel home in a potatoes taxi, sometimes called a tuk tuk, which it technically is not.

I like this shot, as it shows a cyclo, a potato taxi and a Chinese coach. All the types of transport we’d used on a trip (well, with the exception of the KLM plane, that flew us in).

The potato taxi uses recycled vegetable oil as fuel. Reminded me of a documentary I’d watched on the coach.

It talked about 1991 when Cuba was in financial crisis. The Russians weren’t trading oil for sugar, and the country had to think of something quick (which they did).

The converted the cars to run on diesel. Promoted cyclo’s and bicycle’s. Created the potato taxi’s and most fascinating, ran power stations, by burning sugar.

The American woman in the documentary said it was a superb case study for peak oil. One day supplies will be limited not matter how much money you have, and the Cuban solution is one we should all pay attention too.

Leaving drinks at Ambos Mundos

On our Final afternoon/evening we decided to visit Ambos Mundas.

Most people know about it, as its the place where Earnest Hemingway lived for 7 years (they even have his room available on show for tourists).

We weren’t that bothered, having previously visit a bar “where Hemingway used to hang out” and finding it to be awful.

Instead we headed for the rooftop bar, and just relaxed.

An amazing trip overall, and an absolute roller coaster. I think I saw and experienced practically everything you can cram into a 2 week trip. I was exhausted, and it would be another week at home in the UK before I’d fully recovered.

But that’s adventure. If you want to lie in bed, holiday in Ibiza, and don’t get in anyone else’s way.

Cuba 1.

Me in Havana

After I completed the bluelist in 2009, I got bored, so ended up writing a 2nd bluelist.

The recession bit hard on a lot of people. Although I continued to travel, I mainly did shorter trips and nearer to home, like the former Yugoslavia and places in Europe I hadn’t been.

After last years financial successes from the office move, I decided it was time to get back to a long hall tour.

Cuba was on the 2nd bluelist, and as Nikki hadn’t been there either, it seemed the ideal destination.

Cuba is sometimes described as “The US through a broken mirror”. In this picture, I’m standing on front of the capital building in Havana, which is a replica of the one in Washington, only 30m taller, and covered in scaffolding.

Planning is essential on any trip (just get there and go where the mood takes you, is for students with 6 months off, or retiree’s with plenty of money). I used DK Eyewitness guide as usual, but an informative book called Slow Train to Guantanamo (which has nothing to do with Guantanamo bay and the war on terror).

Map of our journey across Cuba

I’d spoken to many people who’d visited Cuba (it seemed much more popular than I’d expected). I was a bit suprised, as most them werent what I’d call adventure travellers.

Then I realised why. Most of them had been there on an all inclusive beach holiday.

My intention was to tour the island and see the real Cuba. Explore run a tour, that visits the entire place over 15 days.

We booked private accommodation in Havana for 2 additional days so we could relax before coming home.

A run down building in Havana

As most people know, there was a revolution in Cuba in the late 50’s. As a result, the US wanted nothing to do with a communist country (a feeling they still have today) and implemented an embargo.

As a result, although Cuba is a poor socialist country, even if they had something the world wanted and plenty of cash, they’d still struggle to get hold of the type of routine stuff that would allow things like this building to be repaired.

That said, all over the country, improvement work was being done, albeit slowly.

The kind of food we got to eat for 17 days

One thing about Cuba that has to be mentioned is the food. Its awful.

Although they grow chilli’s and stuff like that, they dont seem to use it, so the food is mundane to say the least.

After a few days, a bowl of porridge from our staff canteen at home would have, in comparison, tasted like the hottest curry I’d ever eaten 🙂

You generally get chicken or pork grilled, some rice and some black beans, and that’s it.

Because food is hard to come by in Cuba, local proprietors are obsessed with the quantity of the food. They don’t seem to get the idea, sometimes a smaller amount of higher quality would be just what the customer wants.

For days when we were on the road there were cheese and ham sandwiches. All of it ludicrously overpriced, but more about that later.

The Havana Club, Rum museum

We arrive in Havana the night before the start of the tour. After checking in to our hotel, we have a wander around and get a couple of drinks.

In the morning, it’s breakfast and then the tour brief. It still amazes me, that weeks after receiving the trip confirmation and documentation, this event always takes ages.

People start asking if they can pay the tip kitty in £ sterling. Others have to go back to their rooms to get travel insurance documents. More than half the people on the trip did this, and the other half, having done the right thing themselves, had to sit through this inconvenience.

Anyway, we had a tour around the town in baking heat, then popped into Havana Club Rum museum.

In the old days, I would have put up about 25 photo’s for each individual place that we visited in Cuba (so 25 photo’s just for Havana). On this occasion, I’ve tried to capture the entire trip in 44 photo’s over 2 blog posts.

Revolution square

After the walking tour of the old town, we jump on our coach (a superb Chinese manufactured thing that was comfortable, air conditioned and had a dvd player so we could watch documentaries during long journeys).

Revolution Plaza is massive (this is a view across it). Our guide started talking about Fidel (strange I thought, when I talk about the prime minister of the UK, I dont refer to him as “David”). Also, I noticed that his name was pronounced as Feedell.

Although many in the west see Castro as a tin pot dictator, and a bit of a joke, in Cuba he is very highly regarded. This square can hold over 1 million people. On one occasion, Castro got up to address them. He got a bit carried away, and kept on speaking (I know how that feels).

In his case, he carried on speaking, for 7 hours, and the audience largely remained where they were and applauded.

With his face covering the entire interior ministry on the left, is  a picture of Che Gavara. On the right, a picture of Camilo Cienfuegos, slightly lesser known, but Castro’s right hand man during the revolution. At that distance, I couldn’t help thinking he looked like the Ayatollah Homeni.

A "zoo" with domestic pigeons

Next day, we head out towards the Bay of Pigs.

We had a toilet stop and some coffee at something described as a Zoo. It’s no match for Chester Zoo, here in this cage are domestic pigeons !.

A while later, we stop off and some of us go swimming (and the smart ones, remain in the bar).

Anti aircraft gun

There wasn’t actually a bay as such to visit, most of the battle took place in a forest.

We visited a small museum at Giron (the Cubans dont call it the Bay of Pigs).

There were lots of weapons and stuff (once the battle was over, the Cubans were able to liberate a great deal of modern weaponry, otherwise denied to them.

They also captured hundreds of prisoners, who they later traded for 50m worth of medical supplies.

Around the bay of pigs museum

They also had lots of stuff about the people who’d died and the corruption of “The Yankee’s”.

I dont normally shy away from contentious issues, but with something like this, the most reliable source I know is the BBC, so read this, if you want to find out what happened, without the whole “blood on the hands of the Americans” type thing.

One of the nicer hotels that we stayed in

Accommodation throughout the trip was varied.

Sometimes we stayed in beautiful places like this in Santa Domingo when we trekked to Castro’s hideout in the mountains (but for the first 2 hours after we arrived, there was no hot water for a shower).

Our hotel in Camaguey, like a prison

Our accommodation in Camaguey, looked (and felt) like a prison, but at least had air conditioning.

Awful soviet hotel we visited for lunc

We didn’t stay here, but visited it on a motorway stop.

A communist era hotel. Garish design and decoration, pool filled with plankton and the entire place smelled of urine.

During the communist era, every 2 years, families got to stay in a hotel like this and have the novelty of being waited on for food and drinks. It also had a tennis court.

The only minor thing, was it wasn’t actually near anything. The nearest beach was 100 miles away, and no countryside or mountains nearby. It was just a Brutalist style hotel in the middle of nowhere.

Old Chevvy's to take us to dinner

One of the things I really wanted to see, was American cars.

Its said that the mechanics in Cuba are some of the best in the world. The reason:

Well, for a long time, the newest car they had was a 1956 Chevvi. Today, it isn’t just the embargo for spare parts that causes a problem. The spare parts for these cars haven’t been made in over 50 years. The Cubans are adept at making there own spares with simple tools.

Our first evening in Trinidad , we had dinner in a Poladare (I’ll explain later) part of the evening, was that the proprietor would send a fleet of old American cars to pick us up.

Today, most of them have been converted to Mitsubishi diesel engines, but the driving experience in one of these, harks back to the golden age of motoring.

 

State run shop

The following day, we have a walking tour of Trinidad. We saw many interesting things including the Casa de Alderman Ortiz, a fascinating contemporary art gallery. I also learned 2 things about Cuba that had previously puzzled me.

1. There are no indigenous Cubans. They died out, when Cuba was first colonised. Cuba’s culture is a mixture of European and African, which melds rather well, and explain the strong musical influences within the country.

2. Just about every place in Cuba, apart from Havana is named after a city in another country (Trinidad, Santiago and they even had Australia).

We get the chance to visit a government shop. Its a controlled economy, and as you can see, supplies and variety are limited.

One advantage, is that everyone in the country gets a ration book, and gets free rice and basic supplies.

Younger people are embracing the free market, but they worry about older people getting left behind.

Two initiatives that the government have “enabled” are Cassa particular and Paladar’s.

A Cassa allows a Cuban to let out a room or rooms in there home and charge rent.

A Paladar allows a Cuban to serve food in a room in their home.

The idea is to provide variety and quality for tourist from owner managed businesses, while generating badly needed currency for the country.

The reality is, our tour guides frequently took us to paladar’s, where we found later the prices had been significantly inflated (we never saw a menu). Turns out, government hotels don’t give kickbacks to tour guides, and paladar’s do.

At points in the trip, it became ridiculous, when on an all day drive, we drove an hour out of our way for over priced cheese sandwiches (they were more expensive than the same sandwiches at the Hotel Nacional !)

By the end of the trip, we were a bit sick of it (the rip off I mean, not the sandwiches). The daft thing is, the actual people on the street, shop keepers and bar staff of Cuba were very laid back and with the odd exception not predatory at all.

 

Trinidad - music in the evening

 

In the evening, live entertainment, in the open air.

Music is a common part of Cuban life and featured frequently during the trip.

On a lot of occasions, it was 3 blokes playing for loose change when you were eating your dinner.

On this occasion, we went to a massive open air music and dance festival, with lots of innovative tunes and experimental styles.

A few people asked where the Buena Vista social club which featured in the film was (actually, this happened in Havana anyway !). The reality, Jazz music isn’t normally played in bands. Its perfectly possible that a cornet player will play with 4 different bands and just get together to Jam.

A few places advertised themselves as the Buena Vista social club, but we were told they were tourist traps and too avoid them.

 

The old Russian truck

In the morning we wake in our beautiful chalets in splendidly kept grounds and tuck into our horrible breakfast.

Shortly afterwards, our carriage awaits.

Its an old Russian truck, which is used to transport people to Topes de Collantes, the largest national park in Cuba.

There are 4 must do walks in “Topes”. We would do all of them, and spend 2 nights in the jungle. Some people carried a bit more stuff than they needed which left little room in the back for comfort.

That said, racing through the mountains in the truck, with the wind blowing in my hair was one of the highlights of the trip.

In the jungle

 We leave the truck, and set off trekking (the truck took our bags to our overnight accommodation). The heat was unbearable, but it was great to be back in the jungle again.

Some of the other people on the trip, seemed to be struggling with their fitness. I had to explain several times, as a seasoned walker, that there isn’t any rush, and were supposed to be enjoying it.

We see various farms along with way and places where coffee is grown wild. We arrive at our accommodation (and obviously, I have a can of Cristal, far superior to Bucanero, which tastes like paint !).

It’s basically, a veranda with tables. We have lunch here, and then realise that once we’ve had our evening meal later, well have to move the tables and sleep on the floor. But that’s for later.

We head off on another walk, to a small lake, where those without common sense can go for a swim. There is a waterfall a short walk away (Salto del Caurni), but I’m lost in the moment.

Sat in the shade in the jungle, I find a spot away from everyone and do the sit spot thing I’ve been taught on bushcraft tracking courses. I’m in a contemplative mood.

A snake we found on the trail

We wander back to the camp. Its an hour before dinner so I sit by the river with a can (and subsequent cans) of Cristal lager.

Food is the usual mediocre nonsense, but good company, humorous and informed conversation and more Cristal (and mohito’s seemingly for everyone else) make up for it.

Time for bed, and we have mats to sleep on (the kind, people of my age used to do PE on). I’m a bit miffed that a French group have arrived and nabbed all the optional tents, which seems a bit selfish.

I remember the farmers wife in the French Alps some years ago, who showed us such kindness for absolutely no personal gain. Does the “tent takeover” really matter after all.

Well maybe… Insects bite the hell out of me through the night despite practically bathing in jungle formula deet and I get no sleep.

A pretty bobbins night overall, but this is adventure, there’s no time for mincing around complaining about things on the periphery.

And so we head off, on 3rd of our walks. On the way, is this amazing scene. I beheaded snake. It still seemed to be moving. There was some debate about whether it was death throes, or actually something the snake had eaten inside.

Like most sensible “proper” travellers I seek out adventure, prefer low key and don’t boast of my adventures.

But just for once, how many people who holiday in Ibitha have trekked and slept out in the jungle, and seen something like this.

Improvised bridge

In the morning, its get ready and have breakfast (Why god why ?. Even the coffee is awful, and they export this crap all over the world, so that others can suffer along with them).

We do a different trek this time including crossing a river on this Bridge. Brunnel would have been envious. We trek to the Batata cave and see its underground river.

On the left of the picture is Carol, from New Zealand, a fab girl, and in the middle, Sam, who harks from my home town of Manchester, and a fan of City like my brother David and friend Frank.

On the right is a Church of England priest called Jane. I don’t go in for religion much, but although opinionated, she had 5 degrees and there was no doubt of her informed travel knowledge. Two couples on the trip from Australia. Don’t need to say any-more, if you’ve spent any time on this site you know I love Australia and Australians.

At this point, I should point something out. I could put loads of stuff up here about local plant life, the route we walked and things like that. The truth is, you can find that out, anywhere on the internet these days (or just ring Explore).

This is johnsunter.com, the adventures of an ordinary person. I’m writing about the sort of experiences an ordinary person would have on this trip, which I think is quite unique.

We arrive around lunchtime, where we’ll be staying for dinner/overnight. A working farm which subsidises it’s income by offering veranda/camping accommodating.

Our bags are waiting for us, and just like last night, there’s a shower. We get our usual glass of complimentary orange juice on arrival, which is refreshing in the baking heat.

I’m delighted to find that there are tents available. Nikki decides to do the afternoon walk. Exhausted from the heat, I get some rest in our tent, which I’ve furnished with 2 mattresses I had to carry down a big hill in baking heat.

In the evening there’s more bland food, but if I mash chicken, black-beans and rice together its halfway as tasty as a wet shredded version of the Guardian.

I sleep much better that night and in the morning, the truck takes us back to our air conditioned coach.

Cycle taxi's

Quite a long drive (with cheese sandwiches) and we arrive at our destination for the evening Camaguey.

I want to write loads of things about Camaguey about it being unique and exciting, but the truth is, after seeing 3 other “colonial towns” this was just the same.

We were invited on a cyclo tour (Cuba has some innovative forms of transport since 1991, but more about that later). The cyclist looked delighted when Nikki walked over, but when I joined her, he visibly groaned.

Still, if you take money to do a job, you should do it as well as you can, that’s what I always say.

One other thing, was the guy in the photo above. Everywhere we went people seemed to have Union Jack T shirts of one kind of another.

We had dinner later at a buffet restaurant, which was really good.

In the morning, we woke in our prison (sorry, hotel) and wandered around a government shop to buy water. I couldn’t believe it, when they checked our bags.

Did they think there was ANYTHING in that shop I couldn’t afford or would want to steal !.

Were back in the coach, and on the road towards Santiago de Cuba.

Moncada Barracks

On the outskirts, we visit Monkada Baracks.

Its now a school, but on the 26th of July 1953, it was attacked by Castro and some students.

The attack failed. A few of the attackers were killed in action. Those that remained, either went off for trail, or were killed in cold blood, had guns placed in their hands and were described as dead enemy combatants.

Its this kind of tyranny, which led to eventual revolution. Castro, got 13 years in prison (which like Hitler he used to study and formulate his plan). He was released 2 years later.

The walls are said to be scarred with bullet holes from the attack. Yet in 1960 Castro personally drove a bulldozer which destroyed the outer walls.

In 1978 he ordered the wall rebuilt to house a school and museum and interestingly, they now have bullet holes.

Colon cemetary

We also visited the national cemetery, Cementerio Santa Ifigenia

It has the graves of many revolutionary fighters (quite a few of them, killed in “interventions” in Africa).

They also had 2 members of the Buena Vista social club (fantastic musicians, but not sure how they’re hero’s.

Finally the grave of the Bacardi family (this was confusing, they were disliked by the people before the revolution, got the hell out when it started and funded the training of soldiers for the Bay of Pigs).

There is a 3 person ceremony every half hour, to commemorate the brave fallen with an eternal flame. Reminded me of something similar I’d seen in Russia.

Santiago de Cuba square

We arrive in Santiago de Cuba.

It’s probably not the hottest place I’ve ever been, but mother of god it felt like it.

We had a few drinks in a rooftop hotel overlooking the square. You probably can’t see, but the building on the top left of the picture is a bank. It had a sign with the time and temperature on it.

Humid heat had been a problem for me throughout the trip, but the sign showed a temperature of 43 degree’s centigrade (for those that didn’t pay attention in science, that’s a bit less than half the boiling point of water, and as a man from Manchester, it was unbearable.

We stayed out of town, and after a debaucle with the tour guides trying to con/press-gang us into visiting “their” Paladare, we made our own way into town for the evening.

We found a really nice rooftop place that evening and had dinner there. The food and service were very good, but I loved the value added.

The Chicken Nikki ordered was “delayed” due to a problem with the stove. As we looked over into the street, a moped appeared, with a plate and cover being carried by the pillion passenger. Suddenly, there was no problem and the Chicken was served 🙂

It’s well known that in some countries, bootleg films are the main staple of entertainment. Our waiter was completely charming, but after the first couple of conversations, I couldn’t help feeling he’d learned English from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

With heavy facial emphasis (he obviously thinks this is how we chat in the UK) – “LISTEN TO ME VERY CAREFULLY ! – Would you like fish or chicken ?” and “YOU’VE GOT AN IMPORTANT DECISION TO MAKE ! – would you like sugar with your coffee or without ?”.

That’s why I travel, when else would you get to experience something like this.

Santiago music and dancing

We wandered over (and even went over on the 2nd night as well) to the much talked about Casa de la Trova.

For all the hype, the music was original, and delivered with genuine charisma.

There was a balcony outside where you could get some fresh air, but inside the mood was electric.

Some hired dancers performed but loads of other people got up too.

I’ve often said, I don’t like football, but I love being in a pub when an important match is on. I don’t care who’s playing or the score, but I can feel the atmosphere and energy in the room and this was much the same.

San Pedro castle

On our free day, we got a taxi to Castillo del Morro. This place was amazing.

I could have taken 100 photographs and not captures it.

Anyway, it took 2 full hours to explore and when the guidebook says worth seeing, I think its a must see.