Monday, April 30, 2007

Because I Boh Liao. Cannot Meh?

Wah lau eh, sibeh sian man. Whole day sit here have to stardee. Cannot go out and jalan jalan. Why? Because the chao exams akan datang lor. But then I tell you hor, I acherlly got no mood to work one. Where got time? I go talk cock to fren, surf net, and koon a lot. Liddat more fun wut.

Last time got chance go out makan, see nice place, attend show, somemore go holiday. Now leh? Hide inside my room pretend to work only. And no one to comprain to. Just listen lots of music lor, and eat chocolate until become ah pui like dat.

Haiyah, but I oso think I cannot continue like dis lah. Tomolo I need to be siao on awreddy. So much to cover. Like I damm scared of my econs paper man. I see all the curves until I macam like mabok liao. Tow tiah siah.

The stats paper lagi worse, I tell you. That one I got no background. Some many topics very the cheem leh. Like regression lor. Piang eh! Kong simi lan logit transformation, multiplicative equation, Chi square distribution? Kena sai! I read until gong liao and still catch no ball. Nah Beh. Exam come sure die one. Other papers I can go and smoke. But stats cannot anyhow whack. Scarly fail then how? Jiat lat liao.

So dunno lor. Want to play cannot. But got no steam to work. And somemore I still got essay ah buay finish. Aiyah, don’t talk awreddy lah. No more stoopid posts like this. I go back and stardee. Next few weeks must piah. By June everything gao dim sai, and then I hoh seh and heck care liao.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Weather in April...

…has been frighteningly warm. Sure, compared to Singapore, daytime highs these past few days have only been in the mid twenties. But this is April! Winter has barely passed. And if we have such temperatures now, imagine what August is gonna feel like.

I know I have been a great weather bore. I obsess about the weather, and usually about how warm it is. I don’t mind the cold. I just hate being hot. I hate sweating. I hate stuffiness and stickiness. Sure, I may have been born on a land just a degree north the equator. But that doesn’t mean I have to like equatorial-type temperatures.

There was a time when, if I were embarking upon a trip to the UK in April, I would have packed a thick jacket. Perhaps those cold days are over, with appearances of Halley’s Comet even more recurrent. Perhaps global warming is now - totally and utterly - a phenomenon no more of the future, but of the present.

I’m not here to cast a judgment on the science involved. I just don’t know enough. But it sure was disquieting waking up this morning and being greeted by headlines announcing that April 2007 has been the warmest April in the UK since continuous records began 350 years ago.

The Independent notes today that Spring 2007 will be probably be the hottest spring ever. “It has followed the second-warmest winter in the UK record (December, January and February) and the warmest-ever autumn (September, October and November 2006).”

Clearly, I’ve not really been shivering much since I came to London. That’s good, but also somewhat worrying.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Drudgery Amidst Music

The third essay is done – the third of four assignments I have to complete before getting down to some hard core studying for the exams, which loom ahead, ominously.

Something tells me that this blog is going to get a wee bit more boring in the coming few weeks. Certainly, all the expeditions to assorted eating places around London are over. I now scrape the sides of my fridge in perfunctory efforts to feed myself.

The escapades to various entertainment hotspots around town are at an end. No museums, no galleries, no pubs and markets, no performances. Instead, I have but my imagination with which to amuse myself. Cool London waits out there, but I might as well be in the middle of the Sahara.

But being cooped up in the room has given me time to savour some new music. HM has sent me two albums from Muse, containing spectacular tracks such as Sing for Absolution, Apocalypse Please and Assassin. These guys are awesome. She’ll be heading to one of their gigs in June with the SSG, and it’s unfortunate I won’t be free then to join the two of them.

Meanwhile, GNK has also provided me with some albums from Singapore’s own Stefanie Sun. I rather regret not tracking her career closely, for she rose to prominence during a time when I was away in the US. I recall returning to Singapore after those few years away, and discovering Stefanie Mania sweeping the island. It’s been a real delight to sample her songs now.

Meanwhile, I find my thoughts are focused ever more on the end of my course here in London, and on what might await me back in Singapore in the autumn. Of course, I shall have also to curtail the use of such terms, for they invite derision and the multiple rolling of eyes. But that’s how we’ve come to think of time, of the seasons changing.

Back home, with the sun rising and setting at seven daily, with the temperature within an unyieldingly narrow range, you find it difficult to feel a sense of time passing, each day containing the same drudgery as the day before, with little time to step back and reflect on where you’ve been and where you’re headed.

Over here, it is different. And it’s one among many reasons why I’m very grateful for this one year.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Essays Of My Life

I think they’re finally finished! I’ve completed the essays for the Globalization and Global Governance and the British Government and Politics modules. I’ll walk over to UCL later to hand them in.

So, two essays done. What’s next? Two more essays.

And then the exams.

And then two further essays.

April is a cruel month indeed.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Going Into Seclusion

And so I’m back in London, where wonderful Spring weather greets me. This is what I chanced upon at the gate to Coram’s Field, just next to Goodenough College. I’ve had the opportunity to catch up with a few friends from the hall, and even with someone from class. Managed as well yesterday to go on a nice long run up to Regent’s Park again.

But the good times are definitely over. Two essays need to be handed in next Monday, and much work remains. And after that, more assignments. But let’s focus for now on what’s on the immediate horizon. And for that, I’ll need to be chained to the desk throughout this weekend.

I hope to reemerge. Soon.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Returning to London

I’m now sitting at the Pacific Coffee Company outlet in Changi Airport's Terminal Two, with a double latte and a donut by my side. I’ve quite a bit of time to kill, with the flight back to Heathrow due to leave in a couple of hours’ time. I still marvel at Singapore’s wonderful efficiency…a smooth half hour drive up the East Coast Parkway, and then I cleared check-in and immigration within five minutes. It’s amazing. And now I’m surrounded by wonderful departure shopping. Except that the wallet’s a bit empty.

One of the last things I did was to go catch a screening of 300 at the new Vivocity yesterday evening. It’s a pretty curious work – a comic book masquerading as a movie. Lots of blood, lots of gore, tons of violence, and impressive looking abs. The magic that CGI can bestow upon actors who've too much beer to drink…the transformation can be remarkable.

All in all, this has been a good week back home. No studying done - none whatsoever - but I'm not kidding myself. And there're a few regrets, to be sure, such as how I wasn’t able to meet up with a few of my good friends. And how I wasn’t able to eat as much as I had wanted. But more good food awaits me in London, and I’m looking forward to catching up with my new friends there as well.

And I’m glad the heatwave in the UK over the past weekend is over. I’m glad to leave the stinking humidity of Singapore. Slightly cooler weather is forecast later this week in London. Time to bring out the jackets perhaps. It’s going to fun.

Monday, April 16, 2007

From Lavender to Holland

The culinary tour of Singapore moved today to Lavender food center, where I met up with a good friend whom I’ve known since my days in green. On my menu today was a good serving of what I still consider to be the best Guo Tie (Fried Pan Dumplings) in Singapore, offered by the Beijing Eating House stall, located just adjacent to the dessert outlet. It's even better than those found in restaurants such as Lao Beijing or Din Tai Fung. What I had was crispy on the outside – not flabby, not oily – and succulent on the inside. In a word – perfect.

We also ordered a dish of Dou Sha Wo Bing (Bean Pancake) plus a plate of fried carrot cake from another stall directly opposite, washing everything down with a mug of iced milo. Wah lau. And all at wonderful hawker prices. What more could you ask for?

A word or two about Lavender food center as well – for I find it stands out from the crowd of run-of-the-mill hawker centers. I actually don’t know if or how the Environment Ministry carries out hawker zoning, but the food variety at Lavender go beyond what typical hawker centers offer, with less commonly-seen stalls around, such as those selling dim sum, and even the "organ" soup. It’s always worth a return visit.

Another gastronomic target on my list this time was the XO Crab Bee Hoon available at Block 40 Holland Drive. And joining me this time over dinner was an even older friend, whom I got to know during my days in white. His list of external pursuits never fail to impress me. His wife came along as well, a teacher too, and it was lovely meeting her again.

Many might consider the different Crab Bee Hoons in Geylang to be superior, and while I've eaten there before, I think I shall reserve final judgment, until I’ve been able to sample the different offerings. Meanwhile, I think what you can get at Holland Drive is still spankingly delicious, and more so when added with the fried kankung and egg fuyong.

Just before I headed to Holland Drive, I had gathered with some former colleagues at the Red Dot Traffic building along Maxwell Road for drinks. There are quite a few bars on the ground floor, along with a Pacific Coffee outlet, over which I retain fond memories, given the time (and money) I spent there while working in the area.

But the Boulevard Bar, which was were we convened, was new. At least it opened in the time since I left. A black colour scheme pervaded the entire place, with discrete and professional serving staff clad in the same shade. The background music wasn't too obtrusive. And as I took a swig of my pint of Hoegaarden, I’m reminded again of how fortunate I was to have worked once with this wonderful bunch of people.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

At Rochester Park

The Rochester Park area has become one of the latest dining hubs in Singapore, and I can’t think of a better setting for fine cuisine – with classy restaurants set in old colonial-era Black and Whites, away from town and in a leafy district. I had wanted to try out Graze, but it was already fully booked.

So it was down to a choice between One Rochester – ostensibly a wine bar, but with food offerings as well – and North Border next door, which serves hearty Tex-Mex cuisine. My lovely companion for the evening made the final decision, and so we walked into the lush grounds of North Border just as the heavens started pouring.

Safely ensconced in an upstairs corner table, we surveyed the menu, which came with all the usual mouth-watering Southwestern fare, such as chicken and shrimps, with lots of chilis and peppers. And the wine and beverage list was impressively long as well, although I was appalled when I saw that a bottle of Havana Club rum was going for $190.

I don’t know whether they were serving the three, five, or seven year old rum, but it didn’t really matter, for after having seen in person how much bottles of Havana Club actually cost – widely sold as they are throughout Cuba – the mark-up was truly criminal.

Still, I shelled out readily for a glass of Canyon Road Sauvignon Blanc, the price which I’m sure must have been jacked up as well, while she settled for a Citrus Passion.

For the starters, we decided on the Sante Fe crabcake platter, which came with a luscious harbanero tartar dip, and also an interesting concoction called Mostly Mushroom – comprising different strands of mushrooms – white button, Portobello, shimeji and more – mixed together and served with garlic bread. I liked the crabcakes tremendously – different from the altogether more bland types you’d get up along the US Atlantic and New England coast, for this dish at North Border came spiced with hints of pepper.

I then tackled my shrimp linguine pasta, while she beheld her chicken and bean stew, which came in a large bowl, covered with a giant crust, looking decidedly like an English pie. I think we just sat there, amazed at the appearance, and laughed for a full minute. Taste-wise, I don’t know about her stew, but my pasta was among the best I had, with the shrimps very well prepared – meaty and yet crusty, with generous portions to boot.

To end, we ordered the Classic Chocolate Cake, and decided to try out the interesting habanero chili ice cream as well. Ice cream made from chili? Well, if things like green tea or durian could be made into ice cream successfully, why not? Curry ice cream? Wasabe ice cream?

When it came, the little glob looked distinctly innocuous, coloured almost like peach ice cream. We each took a bite, and were confronted first with a mild, sweet taste, before the burning chili sensation hit us at the back of the throat. It’s difficult to describe this successfully in words, except to say – Go try it yourself!

In short, North Border was a real delight, with good food, a nice setting and discrete service. Of course, the company I had was charming, and perhaps that made the difference.

Things were different earlier in the afternoon. Before one proceeds to sin, one goes for some self-flagellation. And it was with this in mind that I thought I might embark upon a nice long run in the afternoon. But I had forgotten how different conditions in Singapore were. The humidity was absolutely appalling, like a sickly over-powering blanket that suffocates your every move. Those fantastic timings that I attained in London? Those hour long runs that I sustained? Entirely illusory. They are fake. They exist no longer.

For back here, within 10 minutes, I was already drenched in heavy sweat and ready to throw in the towel. It’s really amazing how much the weather matters when it comes to running. There’s a huge difference between being out there when it’s 15 degrees and 50 percent humidity, and when it’s 30 degrees and a 100 percent.

Friday, April 13, 2007

One Enjoyable Evening

Well, I’ve been in the habit of giving quick restaurant reviews for the blog while in London, so why stop the practice, even if I may be back in Singapore?

And so I gathered this evening for dinner with my ex-boss and with my ex-colleague and long time friend at Les Bouchons on 7 Ann Siang Road, located in an area filled with many boutique restaurants and bars, including my old favourite, the now-departed Union Bar, close by on Club Street.

The boss had been to the bistro-like Les Bouchons previously for lunch, where he enjoyed himself, and therefore suggested that we met there for dinner. It was a French restaurant, but the portions were decidedly unFrench. My kind of place. First came the Bordeaux, which was brilliant, and then servings of salmon on toast, charchuterie, and garlic escargots…very appetizing indeed…although they could try cutting down on the olive oil for the last item.

The restaurant specializes in steaks, perfect for carnivores like me. I chose the Sirlon steak as my starter, which came with a delightful side of pomme frites, and a selection of sauces, mayonnaise, horse radish and more. But although I knew what sort of cut it was, there were still too much unchewable bits to it, which meant that an untidy mess remained on the plate.

The boss – who works and plays hard – felt that the standard of the food this time round wasn’t as great, but after my cup of coffee, and after the wonderful time with the two of them, I didn’t really care. The company was excellent, with the food entirely secondary.

In particular, I was thrilled to be seeing her again – one of my very best friends in Singapore – and after dinner, when the boss took his leave, we headed to the new Muse Bar at the upgraded National Museum. My London education has done me well. Say Muse, and I think of those guys behind songs such as Sing for Absolution and Butterflies and Hurricanes.

Anyway, it’s good to see the National Museum rebranding itself as a hip and happening place, and I helped myself to an interesting Gin Smash. But perhaps we shouldn’t have gone there. The music was deafening, even though we sat outdoors, and with tons of stuff to catch up on, conversation was difficult. How to gossip successfully with such a din in the background?

No worries, though. We’ve made plans to get together again next Monday evening. I’m certainly looking forward to it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Day Two in Singapore

I spent the morning at my old office along Maxwell Road, and it felt good to be back in familiar territory, with familiar faces around. My time in the organization corresponded to a fair bit of turmoil and tumult in my life, and strangely enough, it was the office which provided a semblance of stability, and it was there where I met some of the best people I’ve come to know, individuals whom I now consider close and dear friends.

I wasn’t able to catch up with everyone I wanted to. But we’ve made plans to get together again next Monday evening over a few pints. Our usual watering hole at the Union Bar along Club Street may have closed, but I’m sure we can convene at another apt location.

Leaving the office, armed with a cup of Rafee's Corner coffee, I was caught in a heavy tropical downpour, the intensity of which is rarely seen in London. And after a few minutes, it was all over. Meanwhile, the high humidity continues – humidity that you feel enveloping your entire being oppressively – and my mind’s drawn back to those lovely Spring days in London not that long ago.

Checking up on The Times, I then came upon this forecast that summer in the UK this year is expected to be a scorcher. Let’s hope it doesn’t get too bad. We don’t have air conditioning in our rooms at Goodenough College. I may have to leave the fridge door open if things get really bad.

A bit of time was spent browsing the shelves of Times the Bookshop at Centrepoint, where I picked up a trio of new local titles – Neil Humphreys’ Final Notes from a Great Island, Romen Bose’s Kranji: The Commonwealth War Cemetery and the Politics of the Dead, plus Tan Shzr Ee and Desmond Foo’s Lost Roads Singapore, which explores some of the less well-known areas of this island nation.

It then struck me that all three volumes focus on Singapore’s history and human geography – something I’m pretty interested in – and I foresee I might have quite a bit of material to discuss with the Hot Geographic Mama when I’m back in London.

Meanwhile, here’s the tally of my attack victims today – mee siam, you char kway and kopi peng in the morning from Maxwell food centre, ju kweh and tou huei zui in the afternoon from Tiong Bahru market, and xiao long baos and zha jiang mian later this evening from Din Tai Fung at the Paragon.

Yes, I know, I know - it’s a pathetic list. I can surely do better. I’ll certainly try harder.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Sights New and Familiar

My first day back in Singapore is about to end, and already, I feel I’ve done quite a lot. Seven months away doesn’t seem that long, but those who come from where I do know how fast this places changes physically. What’s new? Well, it’s only been a day, but already I’ve driven past the revamped National Museum, the controversial Fort Canning Tunnel, Vivocity and also the new Central mall.

And coming down the East Coast Parkway, one can already see the entire Singapore Flyer wheel in place. Completion is expected in the next few months. Compared to the London Eye, which is right next to the Thames, the local counterpart seems a wee bit too far removed from the center of town. Will it work well? Does a ride up to view Singapore’s skyline count as a romantic escapade?

I actually spent much of the morning thinking of how my life now revolves around the time in London – how I feel so entirely at ease and at home there – but by the afternoon, after a good steamy bowl of Radin Mas lor mee – with the requisite dollops and dashes of minced garlic, pepper, chili (both cut and paste) plus vinegar – I felt entirely Singaporean again. It’s certainly wonderful to be back.

What startles you is finding out again how inexpensive it is to live in Singapore, especially after having experienced the horrendously overpriced London. That bowl of lor mee would have cost just 1 pound. You can’t get anything decent to eat for a pound these days in London, can you? Not even a rotten hot dog from one of them rotten hot dog wagons.

Of course, it doesn’t pay to be cheapskate. I popped into Queensway Shopping Centre and figured I might go say Hi to one of the Malay barbers over there. Cutting a long story short – no pun intended – certain unfortunate developments occurred, and I don’t think I’ve ever had hair so short since I enlisted in the army many moons ago. It’s now durian like, as they say.

But life had to go on…and so I sat down this evening with a colleague who will soon be taking up an assignment at our mission in Washington – the very same job that I once had. He was keen to learn more about what to expect, and in retelling those days, memories of the past came flooding back, naturally.

It’s interesting how we take on so many different identities throughout our years here. That represented a clear part of my life, but, as I had realised earlier, it now signifies another time, another place, another career, another group of people. Does it have any link to what I’m doing currently, or where I am? Although I can recall clearly what I used to do, the images in my mind take on a strange hue, and I sometimes wonder if I was really there.

Monday, April 09, 2007

An Empty Diary

This is very frustrating. There is so so much in London to do. Tons of happening stuff going on everyday. And every time I flip through at the arts and culture guides in the weekend papers, I can see a veritable smorgasbord of events and acts that I wanna go check out. For a start, there’s the Renoir special exhibition at the National Gallery and there’s the Falklands War 25th anniversary exhibition at the National Army Museum, not to mention the many other concerts, markets and performances that remain tantalizingly on offer.

But for the first time since getting to London more than a half year ago, I’ve got nothing planned at all for the next couple of months. Nothing. Nothing. Absolutely nothing marked out in my diary. No gathering with friends. No travel plans. Not even a meal outing. And that’s so unlike the oily glutton that I am.

Of course, I realize all this carping might not go down well with some, but come on, the only reason why I’m starving myself is because I’ve got a flock of assignments hovering over me, vulture like, ominious and menacing, plus exams the following month. Lots of hard work beckons. Which is why I’m taking a break from roaming around this glorious city for now.

Heh. And the fact is I doubt I will get much done this coming week. Tomorrow sees me flying back home to spend time with the folks, the feline, the friends and the food. I’m looking forward to it. But could someone please help turn on the air conditioner well ahead of time? I’d appreciate that.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Springing Around London II

Just one image is enough to convey the mood on this calm Easter Sunday...

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Eating and Exercising

And so the feasting continues. I never tire of these occasions. Today, it was the turn of the lovely HM to try her hand at whipping up some yummy local fare, aided ably by the Singapore Doctor. We had mee siam, roti prata and beef rendang, followed by generous servings of teh tarik. Wah lau. Eat until can burst. But it was definitely tummy pleasing.

Meanwhile, my membership of the local Cannon’s gym has expired, for I had signed up only for the winter months. I’m now running outdoors again, and it was lovely to be back at Regent’s Park today, with the flowers blooming, more people milling around and happy dogs roaming free. Sitting up there on Primrose Hill, surveying the marvellous skyline of this great city, I’m conscious that my days in London are dwindling, and I’m determined to enjoy what I still have.

Oh yes, and also to pass the exams…Damm

Springing Around London

It was a rather lovely Spring day on Friday, with top temperatures hovering around the high teens. Not a day for serious studying, alas, which was why the SSG, the HM and I decided to head out for a nice walk around London. And I couldn't have asked for better company.

We ventured down south through Holborn before hitting the Strand – and people of a certain age and background never fail to remember where the Strand stood on the British Monopoly board, coming right after Free Parking and just before Chance. Those were the days when children spent their time playing board games, not the X Box.

Crossing Waterloo Bridge, we entered the Southbank area, with its array of performance venues, galleries and eateries. Certainly, there was a nice, jolly atmosphere, with many people out and about on the start of this long Easter weekend, obviously enjoying themselves.

A nice, meaty dinner then followed at the Anchor pub overlooking the Thames, with servings of roast pork, beef and turkey, washed down with a cool pint of Fosters. Simply perfect. I love this city.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Driving Around Cuba

And then there were the cars! The cars! The cars! You won’t believe how stupendously amazing the cars in Cuba were! The cliched image we all have of the country isn't wrong. For there really are classic cars still in daily use across the island. And when juxtaposed against the fading buildings and creaking streets, at many moments I felt transported back in time, thirty or fourty years back. It just didn’t feel like the 21st century.

So how did it come to be so? After the Cuban revolution, the embargo by the US began, and soon, imports of new American cars ceased, resulting in many of the existing makes having to be carefully preserved. And given the circumstances, Cubans have become ingenious, devising ways to keep their cars running, even to the point of installing totally new engines into old bodies and chassis.

What’s the end result? Cubans retain their mobility, while us visitors get to see these virtual museum pieces on the streets – old Cadillacs, Chevrolets and Dodges – little different from a generation ago.

Still trying to figure out what I mean? Here’s a good selection of just some of the old vehicles I saw in Cuba:

Rampant in Cuba

Well, I’ve now been back in London for a couple of days, but the time since has been most useful in resting and getting over the most amazing trip I made over the past week to Cuba.

Yep, that’s right. I can’t believe I was actually in Cuba – pirate haven centuries ago, plantation island, playground for the rich and criminal, and then platform for the first successful revolution in the Western hemisphere that led to a Communist government. Old Man Fidel is still there, which is why McDonalds and Starbucks aren’t there. But of course, we weren’t there for such comforts. Rather, it was really to soak in the atmosphere of a place rich in culture, history, politics, and cigars and rum too.

Without this trip, I wouldn’t have known about the Cohiba and Montecristo and Partegas brands, nor about Havana Club and Ron Varadero. Nor visited the very bar where the Daiquiri cocktail was invented, and reputedly with the assistance of writer Ernest Hemmingway as well. It’s important to assimilate such useful cultural knowledge. Heh.

Havana, the capital, seemed like a place frozen somewhere in time. I don’t want that observation to sound critical – which it’s not meant to be – for the city has a definite vibrancy and excitement to it. But it was the people, the architecture, the sense of old world charm which lent a very different atmosphere to the modern and comparatively more bland life that we come from.

Old Havana – or Havana Vieja as it’s known – comprises narrow and closely set buildings on the eastern edge of the city, with some of the oldest baroque Spanish houses and churches still standing, many of them looking decidedly decrepit, yet still inhabited and fully functioning. The entire area has been declared part of the “cultural heritage of humanity” by UNESCO, and is, in fact, the largest intact colonial centre in Latin America.

The middle of the city also contained many fine buildings, and even a little Barrio Chino – or Chinatown – although I strained hard to find any Chinese people there. Yet Cuba is home to quite a few Chinese residents who arrived in the 19th century. One of the country’s most famous painters, Wilfredo Lam, is actually of part Chinese ancestry.

A striking landmark in this part of town is the Capitolio – essentially a twentieth century replica of the US Capitol building in Washington, built by an earlier Cuban administration, when the country came under the US orbit.

To the west was the newer and much more sprawling district of Verdado, which we approached by walking the long stretch of the Malacon, Havana’s famed esplanade area, where many locals gather, even under a hot sun, with waves crashing dramatically against the embankment. We soon reached the landmark Hotel Nacional, which was actually financed by Mafia money, where the cool respite of a cocktail was readily available.

And further inland was the Jose Marti monument – dedicated to the man who helped led Cuba to independence from Spain. And he sits there with a pensive expression, overlooking the huge square – the Plaza de la Revolución – around which many important buildings of the Cuban state are gathered.

But the face that shadowed us through our travels in Cuba wasn’t that of Jose Marti. Instead, it was the iconic image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine-born revolutionary who, with Fidel Castro and others, successfully overthrew the Batista regime in the late 50s. And even if we may be unfamiliar with Che, we all recognize that image of him, with the beret and the distant gaze, immortalized by photographer Alberto Korda, which has made its way into global consciousness as the embodiment of the young revolutionary. And here he is, mounted dramatically on the facade of the Interior Ministry.

Some may find it revolutionary chic. I think it’s kitsch. One proclaims one’s cool credentials now simply by wearing a Che Guevara T-Shirt. And I was struck not only by how visible images of Che was around Cuba, but also by how the government there has sanctioned him even as a tourist icon, judging by all the Che T-Shirts, posters, postcards and other accoutrements being marketed in the various gift shops.

And so there’s Che the man. But there’s also Che the icon, used mercenarily, purposively by the state. This makes for a fascinating study into how history can be manufactured, how heroes are created and commoditized, not just to venerate the past, but also to serve the needs of the present. Every country does it. Cuba’s redeeming feature, in this regard, is that there’s no obvious cult of personality surrounding Fidel Castro himself.

Anyway, enough of social commentary. Back to the travelogue. So, after spending a few days in Havana, we embarked on a long road trip towards Trinidad, an old colonial town located in Central Cuba, on its Southern coast, stopping along the way in Santa Clara. This was the site of a major battle during the Cuban Revolution, and the main attraction there was a monument and mausoleum to Che Guevara.

After the bustle of Havana, Trinidad appeared positively sedate in comparison. We trekked into town in a Sunday morning, and what did we see? A low-rise and widely-laid out settlement, with houses painted in fading pastel colours, baking in the hot Carribean sun, dogs yawning themselves to sleep, women peering out through the grills of their windows. Where was everyone else?

Ahh, it was Palm Sunday – the week before Easter – and many were gathered in the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima – the Church of the Holy Trinity. How appropriate. Trinidad, after all, is named after the Spanish word for Trinity. And it served to remind you clearly that Cuba remains a country with deep Catholic roots, despite more than forty years of socialism.

We spent a large part of the following day on what turned out to be the most strenuous activity of our trip to Cuba – a long trek through trails in the Topes de Collantes, part of the Sierra del Escambray highlands about twenty-minutes north of Trinidad. From an altitude of about 800m above sea-level – high enough to feel a distinct cooling of the winds – we hiked downwards thorough thick vegetation until we reached the Saldo del Caburni, where a cliff stood, with a steep, plunging waterfall. Needless to say, the journey up the hill was much more difficult.

Soon, our week in Cuba came to an end, and so I left the country, happy and enriched, sun-burnt, and with a pretty satisfactory checklist of cocktails sampled – Mojito, Cuba Libre, Daiquiri, Havana Especial, Presidente and Mulata. It was a good trip to a most interesting country – with loud colours, bright sunshine, a rich history and easy going people. Now I know what the Havana Club is, and the bottle I brought back with me is certainly going to provide quite a bit of joy.

But the coffee I had in Cuba sucked. It was truly, utterly crappy…I guess you can’t have everything your way.

Travel Notes: We journeyed to Havana onboard Iberia flights from London Heathrow via Madrid. While in the city, we stayed at the Plaza Hotel, a centrally-located classic establishment open since 1909. In Trinidad, we stayed at the Finca Maria Delores resort, about a two kilometer walk from the heart of town. Flight connections, accommodations and internal transfers were arranged by Trips Worldwide in the UK. For a good meal, try La Mina, located at the Plaza de Armas in Havana’s old town, serving authentic Cuban cuisine, with live music performances as well.