Archive | September, 2010

Cuba – Havana

25 Sep

So, Cuba.  A strange, confusing country.  I’m in Havana at present, a mixture of beauftiful colonial buildings in various states of restoration and decay.  The neglect of the communist revolution has not helped Cuba’s infrastructure – little internet, poor telephones, disastrous roads.  There’s a dual currency – bread can be bought for a few pence (24 Monetado Nationale pesos to the dollar) and yet restaurants charge in Convertibles (around 1 CUC to the dollar) – but both are called pesos.  Confused?  I was.

I had to check my bag at the local supermarket before wandering in for a few basic items (and to replace my headphones) – blundering around I didn’t realise that you need to pay for dairy in the dairy section, and so on.  And they check your shopping on the way out too, just in case you’ve stolen anything….

I’m in a fabulous little ‘hotel’ by the way – the government has created ‘casa particulares’ which allow individuals to let out rooms in their homes.  Now, for the average UK home that might sound a bit invasive… but not these houses.  Miriam and her family have two huge rooms available, a lounge area with a piano, and (luxury of luxuries) – air conditioning.  The price for this luxury – around £14 per day.  It’s not perhaps in the best area – but it’s about 5 minutes from the sea front, 5 seconds from the all night bakery, and even less from interesting action on the streets.

Thursday

The first day wandering round Centro Havana was interesting… if not particularly scenic!  But I did find the wonderful promenade, the Mercado… I did find the protest against the US blockade… I did find wonderful hotels and promenades.  They have amazing little egg shaped taxis.. And old 1950s Fords and Chryslers, Thunderbirds and Roadsters… all the cars America forgot are doing duty here as taxis.  And there are LOTS of Ladas (including, apparently, at least one stretch Lada, which I am waiting to spot)

Friday

The second day walking round Havana Vieja (Old Havana) yielded more beauty and elegance – some lovely squares, beautiful buildings..  I stopped for the best chocolate milk I have ever had at the Museo de Chocolate (well, I had to) and the best beer I have had in a long time at Havana’s only brewery (the local Cristal and Bucanero aren’t bad, but this was GREAT).  Even the local cola tastes good – perhaps it’s the Cuban sugar.

I took the very dodgy ferry across the river to the old fort – saw Castro’s house, took some scenic shots of the town, got overcharged for the ferry but ended up the subject of a flirtatious encounter by the (very cute) ferry security guard.

I stopped off to listen to some salsa (and have a mojito) in a bar in the main drag – failed to get served in a paladare (cheap restaurant) and finally collapsed back to my hotel.  And if anyone else tries to get me to buy cheap cuban cigars, attempts to hook me up with a chica – I may just snap.  Although being the recipient of piropos (wolfwhistles and kissing sounds) is kinda flattering…

Tomorrow – another attempt to get some salsa lessons (the last attempt being foiled by the Museo Ron Havana (Cuban rum museum) having stopped running them two years ago.  Must get the Lonely Planet updated.

Saturday

Did a little more wandering round Havana Vieja today… and not much more to report.  I did manage to buy peso pizza (around 20p) from a ‘hole in the wall’ shop though.  And take more photos of cars.  And end up in a Spanish Club eating probably the best burger I’ve ever had.  At this point, I was about to make a note in my diary about it not raining – when I realised that… it was.

Sunday

Time for the final piece of tourist Havana – Viedado.  Walked up the Malecon and then into town, discovering all sorts of wonderful buildings and strange memorials.  Found the park (very scruffy) and the Parque Lennon memorial (apparently, sometimes a security guard materialises to put his glasses on).

Ice cream is a bit of a national obsession – the Coppelia chain serves 3,000 people a day, and has 4 queues.  Wild!

Walked back along the Malecon and realised I had three light shows going on at once.. The sunset over the sea, the sunset over the city (not sure how that works – two at once?) and the lightning over the lighthouse.  Very beautiful… nice one, boss!

Monday

I extended my stay, partly because I wanted to go to the beach, and partly because I wanted to be in Havana for the 51st celebration of independence (what, two independence day celebrations in one month… I certainly seem to be hitting the festive atmosphere!)

The squares are decorated in a low key way – Cuban flags stuck to the walls, a little bit of bunting here and there – but people are lighting bonfires in the streets and cooking… so it might hot up later!

And the beach was beautiful, even if my back is slightly sunburnt (no, it’s not canyon dirt this time) and even if it did rain.  Again.  (I’ve never seen tourists react quite as quickly as when the two in the bar with me realised it was raining on their pizza – I blinked my eyes and they were half way across the bar.

And finally, I retired to Museo de Chocolate for another wonderful chocolate milk (you’re going to have to trust me on this one – or book a flight to Cuba) and a chance to start work on my next book.  Exciting stuff!

Cuba – first impressions

25 Sep

Old American cars from the 50s and 60s that should have dies ages ago.  Ladas and strange tuk tuk taxis

 Institutionalised hitchhiking

 Beautiful crumbling buildings that should be abandoned – but aren’t

 Everyone in the street watching TV, playing football, chatting

 More rainstorms and thunder

 Walks on the beach – lovers, families and fishermen

 And yet a warmth and a vibrant energy….

And on into the next adventure . . .

22 Sep

And finally in Cancun, the heavens opened, waking me at 6am with an incredible clap of thunder, the sky lighting up from one end to the other – and drenching my nicely dried towel..  It seemed that Mexico was saying goodbye in style, with fireworks and refreshment.  Just enough time to pay the tourist visa and get breakfast….

Next stop.. Cuba

Cancun – a postscript for Sarah….

22 Sep

A postscript on Cancun….

While I enjoyed my time there, largely due to the company of the lovely Sarah, and the sense of fun of a day trip to Isla de Mujeres, there was something profoundly sterile about the Zona Hotelera, and the independent and monolithic hotels there – although there was a little bit of fun around places like Senor Frog’s and Coco Bongo, it all felt as if the real action was happening somewhere else.  So, I set out in search of something tonight – and found out where Cancun’s townfolk were having fun.

Anyway, I wasn’t going to eat at McDonalds on my last night in Mexico.  Past the bus station, I found a few more restaurants and shops – and down a side road, a few more lights.  The road opened out into a lovely little plaza: coffee shops, bars, restaurants – children were driving their battery powered cars around, Mexican cheerleading teams were practising their moves – and a food court served all sorts of Mexican fast food, from tacos to quesadillas, from gorditas to chillis relenos.  I had the biggest bottle of Corona I could imagine, and then a few tacos – and an entire bag of churros.  And I think I spent about £4 (we’re not 100% certain about the exact exchange rate, but it’s close enough for rock and roll).

So I just sat and watched a Mexican Tuesday night unfold around me – the courting couples, the families, the friends – and somehow I felt very very much at home.

Mexico – the route….

21 Sep

A Mexico City

B Puebla

C Oaxaca

D Palenque

E Merida

F Chichen Itza

G Playa del Carmen

H Cancun

Hotels and islands – leavings and endings

21 Sep

And then there were two.  Ellie having scooted off back to Scotland, and Jess off back in the general direction of Australia, the original Three Musketeers were down to one, plus yours truly as D’Artagnan.  Without the silly hair.

And we were bored with Playa.  So we hopped on another collectivo and made our way to Cancun.  We’d written the address of the new hostel on a piece of paper, but neither of us had enough brain cells to write the name of the hostel down (or at least remember it) so when the collectivo dumped us on a four carriageway road that we expected to be the Cancun High St, we were a bit confused… and so was the poor cab driver we roped in to help.  Who knows what would have happened if Sarah hadn’t been fluent in Spanish.

(A word on collectivos – a bit like a shared taxi, a bit like a bus, these minibuses wait until they are full enough before departing to a fixed route and picking up people on the way.  Collectivos are cheap, social, and very annoying if you’re in a hurry – you’ve got to wait until the driver’s ready, and if he wants to stop for cigarettes and a Coke on the way.. So be it.)  I liked this sign on one of them though…

Anyway, finally delivered to our hostel (around 200 m from where we hailed the cab) we were confronted with a lovely little place with a pool, hammocks, chill zone, birds and geckos – even if it did seem to be in an industrial park. A rather hot and restless night followed…

And then off to Cancun beach.  Cancun has a Zona Hotelera, where the hotels have been built on the beach, reminding me of Dubai, somehow.

We walked along the beach and realised that we were bored… so we decided to walk to the ferry to Isla de Mujeres ( a trip interrupted by the need for a mocha frappucino, a T-shirt and tat shopping trip.. and another downpour.  It was, I have to say, a bit further than we expected – but turning up at the last minute we hopped on a ferry for the 30 minute trip to the island.  At which point we spotted what has to be the biggest flag in the world.

Looks like PhotoShop or an optical illusion – but it really IS a building sized flag.

Isla de Mujeres wasn’t quite what we’d expected from the guide book – but still a pretty town of (more) souvenir shops and silversmiths.  We decided that as we only had two hours, we’d do what everyone else does – rent a golf cart.

Not being a golfer, I have never driven one of these before… and was too busy looking at the scenery to notice all the speed bumps.  Sorry, Sarah.  So, we charged off to the other end of the island, where we found the Tortugranja or Turtle Farm.  Sounds awful – but they rescue the eggs from the beaches the turtles lay them on, rebury them in sand and wait for them to hatch.. And when they are big enough to stand a good chance of survival, put them back in the sea.  Which means big pools of baby turtles, tiny turtles and medium sized turtles.

And I still swear that they are sitting there looking very very wise…. And maybe the one I sat and ‘talked’ to for a while really did want to say “Good afternoon. We’re gonna have a great jump today. Okay, first crank a hard cutback as you hit the wall. There’s a screaming bottom curve, so watch out. Remember: rip it, roll it, and punch it. “ (Crush, from Finding Nemo)I’d like to think so.

Time for a brief dip in the sea, and a brief moment of regret that we hadn’t stayed the night out there… before heading back to the mainland an dropping Sarah back off on the bus.

And then…. There was one.  D’Artagnan back on his own ready for the final leg of his journey before returning to the UK for a lightning visit.  Watch this space, thrill seekers..

Pyramids and Playas . . . .

21 Sep

I’m not sure which is more of a challenge – doing the trip, writing the blog – or remembering what we’ve done.

Anyway, up at 4am to catch the bus to Chichen Itza – a second class bus but still better than greyhound.  The bus dumpedus by the side of the highway at 7:30 for a walk to Chichen Itza, which is probably the more impressive of the Mayan sites.

In fact, Chichen Itza is a combination Toltec (from the north) and Mayan site, evidence of a fusion between the two (not, it seems, a conquest).  The Toltecs brought a bloodier form of sacrifice with them, although the Maya weren’t exactly without their cruelty – it seems they chose drowning rather than beheading…

The pyramids here are amazing – designed according to the Mayan calendar, there are 365 steps (4*91 + 1) for the days of the year, 18 relief panels on each side (for the 18 20 day months of the Mayan year.

The Mayans worshipped Chaac, their rain god- rain being so important to them on the poor soil of the Yucatan… and the Toltecs brought Quetzelcoatl, the sun god.  Worship to both is found on the Chichen Itza pyramids.

The architecture is truly beautiful – intertwined serpents climb and descend the pyramids, while twice a year an amazing optical illusion makes a serpent of fire appear to ascend the staircase

e.

The ball court is huge – teams of 7 players would compete to hurl their ball of rubber through the ring high above the ground.. The bas-relief panels show that one of the team captains was decapitated at the end – but the jury is still out on whether it was the captain of the losing team (as a punishment) or the winning team (as a reward) – the ways of the Maya are not necessarily our ways.

We walked the grounds in the early morning heat (yes, really – that hot) .  .  It may be that I had already received what I needed from the Maya, or it may be – as our tour guide agreed – that the spirit and energy of the Maya is no longer as strong at Chichen Itza… but I felt strangely dissatisfied when I thought back to my profound experience at Palenque.

Chaac the rain god in the older Mayan part of Chichen Itza

And then, the final leg of the journey into Playa del Carmen – a crazy holiday town with a white crushed shell beach, and sea the colour of crushed-raspberry syrup.. A beautiful end to the holiday.  We rushed into the sea to cool off… and, finally, to stop.  No more buses.  No more taxis.  No more collectivos.  Just.. Time to relax.

Playa is a great town – full of craporiums selling all sorts of artisanal trinkets (and the obligatory football shirts and ‘Playa del Carmen’ T shirts, dive shops and nice restaurant – with wandering mariachi players and scary men dressed as Mayan rulers.  At night the beach comes alive, lit by candles in paper bags, with daring fire shows and live music … the same band plays smooth reggae on the beach and heavy metal on the main drag later on… and then chilled tunes into the early hours of the morning.

We took a boat out to the reef off the Playa shore – since Hurricane Wilma (the naughty girl) has torn up the reef off Cozumel – beautiful fish, and the girls each got their own little shoal of followers swimming with them to match their T-shirts – Jess picked up a little shoal of bright yellow fish, Ellie had a group of off white fish while Sarah’s were bright white.  I’d worn a check shirt, and had no fish following me at all.  Humph!

And then down time.  Time to reflect, to realise just what has changed in my life over the last few weeks – how, at a very deep level, I am not the same being that I was.  Goodbyes to new friends. Planning the next leg of the trip.  Stay in Playa?  Go off to Cozumel?  Head down to Belize?  Or off to Cuba?  Decisions, decisions……

Cenotes and train tracks… serious thrill issues resurface..

17 Sep

And on into Merida – a 9 hour non stop coach journey with little to recommend it : more dubbed movies, and a time to catch up on some homework…. Still very beautiful countryside, and even a brief spell on the coast.

And then into Merida and the Independence Day celebrations.  Everyone was up at the park for the main event, although there were some festivities and a protest in the Zocalo, too.  I missed most of it due to a failed conference call.. Grrr!

A bit of a struggle in the morning getting coffee – most of the town was closed off for the parades – the schools led marching bands, the riot police wore their ceremonial gear (no, really) and the motorcycle police demonstrated how to ride REALLY slowly.  And one poor soldier had full jungle camouflage on (basically, he was dressed as a tree).  Now HE was feeling a little warm – and got a round of applause.

We spent today out jumping into Mayan cenotes or sinkholes – we visited the Cenotes de Cuzama although there are thousands of these across Yucatan.  These supply the water to the villages, but also were used for ceremonial purposes by the Maya.

We started off with a charming if bumpy ride on a horse drawn carriage on the old railway used to carry the sisal harvest on the old hacienda.  It’s a single lane track, so when two carriages meet, one of them has to be lifted off the track and then back on.  Fabulous fun though!  The horses seemed a little scrawny but otherwise well cared for – and can set a cracking pace pulling the carriage.  The rails aren’t QUITE as straight as they used to be, all of which added to the fun.

And that led to three sinkholes – huge underground caverns in the limestone that are full of fresh water.  Each of them is reached by often precarious ladders and steps down into the cavern, and lit only by light from holes in the roof.

The Mayans used to use these in their ceremonies – it was a way to contact the gods of the underworld, and the people would descend into the sinkhole in mimicry of death, only to arise reborn from the water.  The water is an incredibly beautiful blue-green and quite warm (or, rather, relatively warm)… and deep enough to dive into safely from the platforms way above – a thrill I haven’t had for years.  Mind you, you have to contend with the fish, and the bats… and the hordes of Mexican children on holiday!

Beautiful experience, though.. And I felt reborn, refreshed, reenergized and renewed  too.

And then just to add to the water theme of the day… the Mexican heavens opened again, dumping several inches of rain on an increasingly waterlogged group.  So the only real choice seemed to be ice cream and coffee on the square, and a reflective couple of hours before the 4am start tomorrow….

Mayan ruins and magical waterfalls

15 Sep

So off to Palenque… this time, all packed into a minibus with the luggage precariously perched on the roof.

A couple of hours out of San Cristobal we encountered our first delay – a roadblock by the local militant teachers (and out here, militant has a new meaning) asking for money. About an hour later, a small community of lorries had turned up by the side of he road.. The Zapatistas had blocked the road and weren’t letting any traffic through. No exceptions. Natalia tried her feminine charm and smiled a lot but even then… no go. So we slung on our backpacks in the midday heat, walked across the blockade and negotiated with one of the bus drivers stuck on the other side to take us to Palenque. We also negotiated for him to stop off at the beautiful waterfall at Agua Azul where we had time for a quick swim (and an ice cream) – we were somewhat bemused by the miniature road toll booths set up by each ejido (landholding) for us to cross their land.

And then to the equally beautiful falls at Misol-Ha, where a spur of the moment by Ellie and I to rush behind the falls left us breathless, giggling, and completely drenched for the final half hour into Palenque.

The towns are getting smaller and smaller, (but the moths are getting bigger and bigger – this one was about 7″ across)

but we set off to the hippy community outside town for dinner… at which point we were treated to a complete deluge of biblical proportions, with a son et lumiere show to accompany it… rendering all the previous storms I had seen insignificant as lightning lit up the whole of the sky. We had to make an early departure from the restaurant as the rain was threatening to wash the cars downstream. The next day saw us back on a minibus on the way to the Mayan ruins at Palenque.

These incredible ruins date back 2000 years, and there are an amazing 1400 buildings spread over a 15 square km area – although the jungle still holds most of the ruins in its grip. We took a walk in the jungle, avoiding being peed on by the Howler Monkeys and bitten by banana spiders, and after eating termites (they taste like peanuts) before scrambling over the major ruins… originally, these would have been painted blood red as a symbol of death (many of them are tombs of kings and queens). As I stood on top of the Temple of the Cross, the highest point, I had a sense of what the ruler must have felt, standing there looking out over his city – and felt a sense of what 2012 will bring. I scribbled notes down as something of what I know I need to write came to me… I walked on through the ruins, increasingly dragging behind the others as I felt my connection to the energy of the place increase, and as I felt my connection to the rest of the land and to the animals, birds and insects grow.

In the afternoon, after trying the prickly pear quesadillas (interesting experiment that I won’t bother repeating), we all rocked up at the waterfalls. And at that point I experienced one of the most amazing spiritual experiences of my life: I climbed the falls and stood under the cascade of water, looking out at the forest and at the others lounging in the pools below. As the water cascaded past me, crystallising into showers of diamonds and casting rainbows in the air, I became aware of the presence of God in a new way – and felt in a deeper way what I have been asked to bring to the world. I will write more of that another time, when it has truly sunk in… but for an hour I stood under the water, unable – or unwilling – to move. And so back to the hotel, damp, muddy… yet changed somehow by the ruins, by what I had learned… and what I had experienced.

From a funky hippy town somewhere in Mexico….

14 Sep

San Cristobal… a little bit higher in elevation.  A little bit more multicultural.  A little bit easier to get lost in.  Still rains in the afternoon.  Still full of VW beetles.  Still full of churches.

I love this town.  There’s a nice energy around, and everything’s chilled and relaxed – and some of it is really quite odd.

First night out was Gaynor’s birthday – and a Saturday –  so we hit the salsa bar… now, I can’t dance salsa, but everyone I danced with seemed happy enough (although I think it was a bit of a struggle with our Cuban tour guide and salsa dancer.. Really nice evening out with the locals, although nothing gets started until 10:30.

We spent the next day touring a Mayan community… Ifell in love with one of their rugs, which depicts the Mayan world.  The town is in celebration most of the time, it seems, with a crazy market covering the square, the streets, and anywhere else you can fit a stall selling corn, bananas, shoes, spanners and anything else you can think of (and some more that you never even thought would be important)

They let fireworks off in the daytime here.. Holding the rockets in their hands.  First time it happened we thought the revolution had started.  Although we got treated to our own beautiful rainbow round the sun.

The church (no photos allowed) is a crazy mix of Mayan and Roman Catholic… the floor covered with grass and candles.  The shaman takes the supplicants pulse and then advises how many candles and how many chickens are needed for a cure.  The offering is always accompanied by Coca Cola (the drink of the dead).

The church is full of saints – four of them are in disgrace, having been rescued by a nearby church which suffered a fire and an earthquake – having failed to protect the church, they are second class citizens in their new home.  Mind you, all of them look somewhat surprised to be there.

I spent the afternoon doing some shopping, drinking coffee and eating at Emiliano’s Moustache (I saw the sign and had to eat there, a reference to Emiliano Zapata’s famous moustache)… and making some decisions about who I am and what I am doing with my life.  Tomorrow’s going to start tonight…..

But you know what… I reallydo love this town – another place I could choose to live.

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