Studying Spanish (2)

24 04 2011

Quintero Campus of Universidad de Oriente

At the end of December I went out to Santiago de Cuba with the intention of studying Spanish for three months at the University of the Orient. I have previously described my trials and tribulations in getting my student visa and actually finding out where the classes were (here).

I was assessed as being at an intermediate level and was placed in a class with two retired Italian guys, who had been studying for a year and a half already. They were both studying four hours per week, each Tuesday morning at the Quintero campus of the university. I wanted to study for more hours, so it was agreed that I would have one to one tuition on a Thursday morning as well.

The teacher was excellent, very patient and very enthusiastic. We had an air-conditioned classroom, with a modern computer, that did not work. The teacher had one course book, of which she was a co-author, but no other copies for the students. There was a whiteboard, but the pens barely worked and it was almost impossible to read anything that was written there.

This continued for the next two weeks, during which we were joined by two other students, a young guy from the Czech Republic and a young woman from Germany, who was studying psychology as part of an exchange programme. We were then advised that our teacher (the only good thing about the course) was leaving us to go and work in Venezuela for a year.

We then had a new teacher, in a different campus (Antonio Mella), new classrooms (we didn’t have a regular one, but had to meet outside the office each morning to be advised where we were studying), a new course to follow (but still only one copy of the book) and were joined by two new students, young Canadian women who were studying there on an exchange programme. The new teacher was equally as good as the last and the good news was that the new classrooms sometimes had blackboards instead of whiteboards and the teacher had some chalk.

The two Canadians were part of a group of about twenty and were the only two who had been assessed as advanced. This meant that I had progressed from intermediate to advanced level in three weeks. I had not been aware that my progress had been so spectacular.

The Canadians were doing two hours per morning, from Monday through to Thursday, so I had to change from a two-day week to a four-day one. The other students came when they wanted to, which ranged from once in two months for the Czech guy, to twice a week for the eldest Italian after he had been absent altogether for a couple of weeks. I was the only student with a 100% attendance and punctuality record, but as nobody kept any record of this, nobody will ever know.

After two weeks of the new arrangements, our teacher advised us that she would now only teach us on Mondays and Wednesdays; we would have a different teacher for Tuesdays and Thursdays. This new teacher was also very good, but worked to yet another course book (of which, of course, there was only one).

Did I learn much in my three months? Because the course did not actually start until January 18th, I only studied for about eleven weeks. It would be impossible to spend that long in a Spanish speaking country and to attend that many lessons and not improve my Spanish speaking skills. I have widened my vocabulary and learned some new grammatical tenses.

However, after that many lessons I would really have expected to have learned a lot more. I think that something as simple as having my own text book to follow would have helped me greatly and enabled me to learn more. For me to learn a language I need to see it, hear it and say it. However, without a text book and often without the ability to read from a board, one of the three senses was not being utilised. I would gladly have paid the cost of a book. It would also have been good not to have had two changes of teacher and to have followed the same course.

However, despite all of its shortcomings, my intention is to return in October and resume my studies. Studying in a Cuban university, with its lack of resources and poor organisation, is a challenge. However, the staff are very enthusiastic and very keen to help you learn. It is a great opportunity to learn what life in a Cuban city is really like.Santiago de Cuba is a great city and I cannot wait to return.

A friend of mine is studying Spanish at the university in Havana. His course sounds very different – properly structured; the students have books; and they are expected to attend classes. So if studying the language is your primary purpose, Havana would probably be best. For me, I will stick with the chaotic yet relaxed ways of the Oriente.


Where to Go in Santiago de Cuba

17 04 2011

I have previously written (here) about the difficulty in finding out what is on, entertainment wise, in Santiago de Cuba. I’ve since had my attention drawn by John Abbotsford to this web-site: , which has details of who is appearing in some Santiago venues.

In order to assist future or potential travellers to Santiago, I thought that I would list the main places of entertainment in the city. It’s not a comprehensive list for the whole city, but does include all of the main places. I hope that people find it useful.

Live Music

Casa de la Trova, Calle Heredia

A great city centre venue, on two floors. The main room is upstairs, with a wooden balcony overlooking the street below. Live music every night, normally son bands. Admission normally 5 CUC. Mostly tourists.

Downstairs is a smaller room where they have bands playing in the afternoon. Next door is another room, where older singers sing boleros from about 11am onwards.

Casa de la Musica, Calle Corona

Another great city centre venue. More like a night club, with air conditioning. A band – either son or salsa – and DJ most nights, although Saturdays and Sundays it’s DJ only. Saturdays is for youths. Admission normally between 3 and 10 CUC. Mostly tourists, but a few more Cubans than Casa de la Trova.

Patio de Artex, Calle Heredia

One block from the Casa de la Trova, a single storey venue in an old city centre house, with the music in the patio behind. Live bands mornings, late afternoon and evening. Admission normally 2 CUC in the evening. Normally son. More of a mix of tourists and Cubans.

Has superb bolero sessions on a Saturday afternoon, between 2.30 and 5pm. Admission free. Various singers, often from the big cabaret venues.

Patio de los Dos Abuelos, Plaza de Marte

Another venue with son and salsa bands playing on the patio. Live music every night. Admission 2 CUC. Same kind of mix as Artex.

Casa de las Tradiciones,Tivoli

A really great venue. A traditional style house, with the band playing in the front room. The audience – a good mixture of locals and tourists – sit on up-turned barrels or rocking chairs. Some great son bands. Admission 2 CUC.

Bar Claqueta, Santo Tomas (next to Rialto Cinema)

An outdoor venue with son bands and a DJ. Admission 2CUC.

Casa del Caribe, Avenida Manduley,VistaAlegre

An excellent venue in the leafy Vista Alegre district, in a grand old house. The stage is to the side of the house, in a courtyard surrounded and sheltered by high trees. There is a statue of murdered Grenadian socialist Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. Music most nights. Each Sunday afternoon from 4.30 until about 7pm is a rumba (traditional Afro-Cuban style) session. Hardly any tourists. Tourist admission 1CUC. Well worth visiting.

Salon del Son, Enramada

Decent son and salsa bands in a nightclub type venue. Priced in CUP. Mostly Cubans. I’ve been there twice and both times the waitress tried to rip me off, which has rather put me off of this venue, particularly as when I mentioned it to other people, they said that the same had happened to them – both Cubans and non-Cubans.



Cabaret is a popular entertainment form inCuba. This can range from a few singers and dancers with a compere, to a magnificent floor show with dozens of dancers and an orchestra.


This is situated about 4 or 5 km from the city centre. Should cost no more than 5CUC in a cab. An immaculate venue built in the 1990s, when tourism was taking off. The cabaret is situated outdoors. A huge show that lasts about 2 hours, with a full-size orchestra playing in the background. Admission is 20CUC  for foreigners or 30CUP for Cubans on the door.

The travel agencies offer trips from  the Santiago hotels for 37CUC, which includes transport, admission, half a bottle of rum and two cans of cola for each couple; and a small plate of cheese, ham and olives for each person. If there are two or more of you, it’s probably cheaper to do it yourselves.

After the show there is music and dancing in the cabaret area. There is also an adjacent discotheque, which I have not been to, but my understanding is that you pay an additional entrance fee (5CUC); it is open until 4 or 5am; and it is full of hustlers.

El Congreso

In El Caney, about 4 or 5km from city centre. I have not been there, but have heard mixed reports. A cabaret followed by a disco. Priced in CUP. Some say it’s good, others say that it is a very young crowd with occasional trouble.

El Piano

On the road to El Caney, opposite the hospital. About 3 or 4 km from city centre. Small show followed by disco. Priced in CUP, although when I went there (which was after 1am) they wanted me to pay admission in CUC (5).

Hotel LasAmericas, Avenida de lasAmericas

A small show in the gardens of the hotel, later repeated inside the disco. From memory, it is 5CUC admission with a couple of drinks included.



In the UK the word discotheque fell out of popular usage more than 20 years ago. We now refer to such places as nightclubs. However, in Cuba they still have discotecas. I am not a big fan of them. The music is nearly all reggaeton. The DJ generally does not interact with the crowd, but instead sits behind a booth whilst what the dancers see is a big video-screen. However, these are some of the discotecas inSantiago:

Café Santiago

In the Hotel Melia Santiago. Big queues at weekends. I tried to get in once, but the queue was too long. I think that admission is 5CUC – I’m not sure if that includes any free drinks or not.

Hotel lasAmericas

Opposite the Melia Santiago. Cabaret show followed by DJ. 5CUC admission (includes three drinks). Loud, smoky, full of jinateras (Cuban girls looking to hook up with tourists)


See cabaret section above

Club Iris, Calle Enramada

Near to Plaza de Marte. Small club, mostly Cubans. Admission 2CUC.



Cine Rialto, Felix Pena

Cine Capitolio, Avenida Victoriano Garzon

Cine Cuba, Enramada

The above cinemas are in surprisingly good condition. Admission 2CUP. Mostly Spanish language films, but also some English language with subtitles.


13 04 2011


Back in March I reported on the weekly letter of complaints published in the daily newspaper Granma (here). One of the complaints that I outlined also appeared as a letter in the other Cuban daily paper, Juventud Rebelde, who publish a regular column entitled “Acuse de Recibo” (acknowledgement of receipt).

This particular complaint was from a man named Manuel who had gone into a pharmacy in Pinar del Rio province and had had to queue for 55 minutes before being served. During this time there was only one assistant at the counter, despite several pharmacists being visible at the back, doing other activities. One had come out to chat with a friend. Another had come to the counter, but left when her pen would not work. During the 55 minutes the telephone rang continually but nobody answered it. When he asked whose responsibility it was to answer the telephone he got a dismissive answer.

On 29th March Juventud Rebelde carried a column entitled “Si no fuera por Manuel…” (if it was not for Manuel…). This reported that an investigation into Manuel’s complaint was carried out by the Director General of the Pharmaceutical and Optical Company of Pinar del Rio, in conjunction with the provincial Director of Health. They interviewed Manuel and held meetings with the staff of the pharmacy.

The outcome of the investigation was that the administrator of the unit was found to be responsible, because although she was not there at the time, she was responsible for the insufficient control measures and lack of organisation that had led to the events in question. As a sanction she was given a lower position and reduction in salary for a period of six months.

The Technical Director of the pharmacy was found to have been negligent in allowing there to be only one assistant on the counter. It was she who had come to the counter to chat with a friend and then disappear again. She was given an inferior post for one year.

The assistants were not sanctioned. A programme was undertaken to discuss with all of the company’s employees in the province about how such behaviour affects the quality of service.

The author of the article thanked Manuel for his original complaint, which led to these remedial measures being taken. He asks: if it were not for battlers like Manuel, would anything have changed?

I would suggest that if all Cubans who were subject to unsatisfactory or indifferent service were to write to the newspapers, they would need very large editions indeed. However, it is good to see that at least in one place something was done about it. Let’s hope that the message is spread more widely.

Things I Will (and won’t) Miss about Living in Santiago de Cuba

9 04 2011


View over the city from the Pico Turquino ice cream parlour

After three months living in Santiago de Cuba I have returned to England. I thought that I would compile a list of the things that I will (and won’t) miss about living there. Here they are:

Will Miss

  1. Waking up every morning with the almost certain knowledge that it will be a warm, sunny day
  2. Panaderos passing my front door from 6.30am onwards, selling fresh bread, often still warm
  3. Carratilleros coming past my door each day selling vegetables and exotic fruit such as pineapple, guava, mango, papaya, coconuts, bananas, oranges, tamarinds, zapote and grapefruit.
  4. Street cleaners in the street outside every morning from before sunrise (my street in the Reparto Santa Barbara neighbourhood had better cared-for houses, road and pavement, and was cleaner, than my street at home in England).
  5. Children playing in the street
  6. Copelitas (small ice cream stands) selling cornets in flavours such as strawberry, orange/pineapple, mango, guava, chocolate, coconut and vanilla, for 1 CUP (£0.03)
  7. The Pico Turquino ice cream parlour on the top floor of an 18-story tower block, with superb views over the city, selling combinations of ice cream and cake – five scoops and a slice of cake for 12 CUP.
  8. Las Noches Santiaguerras (see post of 11th January), where every Saturday and Sunday night the Avenida Garzon is closed to traffic and there is live music, dancing, food and drink stalls and open-air restaurants, all priced in CUP.
  9. The bolero (a genre of tragic love songs popular in Spanish speaking countries) sessions in the Patio de Artex every Saturday afternoon.
  10.  The rumba (an Afro-Cuban musical style) sessions in the Casa del Caribe late every Sunday afternoon
  11.  A trip on a lorry to nearby Siboney to spend the day on the beach
  12.  Watching Santiago play baseball, particularly when it is an important game and there is a conga group   playing  in the stand
  13.  Saturday nights in the Casa de las Tradiciones, where a band was always playing – in the front room of what was a house – whilst the crowd, a mixture of locals and tourists, seated on up-turned barrels and rocking chairs, danced and enjoyed themselves.
  14.  Maniceros selling cones of hot peanuts for 1 CUP.
  15.  Tamarind juice for 1 CUP per glass in the market in Enramada.


Won’t Miss

  1. Endlessly searching for cheese in the shops
  2. Powdered milk
  3. Shaving in cold water
  4. Washing dishes in cold water
  5. Things that creep, crawl and fly (such as flies, cockroaches, mosquitoes and lizards) and want to share your house
  6. Sudden unavailability of  items in the shops
  7. Barking dogs
  8. Slow internet access
  9. People repeatedly saying “taxi” to me as I walk through the city centre


5 04 2011


As always, it was a pleasure to spend my last four nights in Cuba in the capital city of Havana. It was much warmer than when I had arrived there in December.

The last time that I had spent a few days in Havana was in July 2010. It was interesting to see what changes had occurred since then. Like in Santiago, there was a huge increase in the number of cafeterias selling food and snacks, mainly from the front of people’s houses. Similarly, a large number of new sellers of pirate CDs and DVDs. Interestingly, it’s not only foreign films and discs being pirated in this way, but Cuban ones as well. By licensing the sellers, the Cuban Government is effectively colluding in defrauding its own film and record producers.

There seemed to be a number of new casas particulares (private homes offering bed and breakfast); plus some new paladares (private restaurants), including a very smart looking one in the heart of Centro Habana, in San Rafael, named San Cristobal, which I shall try out on my next visit.

There seemed to be a big increase in the number of taxis – and the touts operating on their behalf; and an even bigger increase in the number of bici-taxis, who were keen to get tourist customers. This is different to before, as most of them were not licensed to take tourists. I made a couple of journeys using boteros (collective taxis). My understanding was that these too were not licensed to take tourists, but they did not ask to see my carnet, so for all they knew I was a tourist. This is a cheap and effective way to travel around the city – 10 CUP (less than £0.30) for journeys within the central zone; 20 CUP for outside.

It was interesting seeing the contrasts between the capital and the second city, Santiago. In Santiago we had been looking for an insect spray – one made in Cuba – for three months, but had been unable to find any. In Havana it was everywhere. In Santiago I spent much of my time unsuccessfully looking for cheese. Again, in Havana it was easy to locate.

However, to my dismay, the copelitas (small ice cream stands) selling 1CUP ice creams seemed to have disappeared. Two that I always previously frequented – one in Calle Obispo, the other in San Lazaro – have gone. I only saw one in four days – in San Rafael. My comment in my post of 22nd January that “Cubans must eat more ice cream per head than any other nation in the world” should be changed to “Santiaguerros must eat more ice cream than the citizens of any other city in the world”. There were houses selling cornets for 3CUP, but far fewer than in Santiago.

In my street in Santiago, between 6.15 and 7.45 each morning, there would be at least four people coming along selling bread (see my post of 8th January). In Havana there were none. This may explain why in our casa, on two days out of four, we were given stale bread for breakfast (Cuban bread, like a French loaf, lasts less than a day). Each day in Santiago we would also have a dozen or more carratilleros (guys pushing wheelbarrows or with a horse and cart) selling fruit and vegetables come by. We saw none in Havana, although the markets seemed to be well-stocked.

The two cities are very different, with different attitudes, different words and slang; and different economies. My advice to any traveler to Cuba would be to try and visit them both.