Wednesday 23 September 2009

In Ecuador, on the equator, on the equinox!

Ewelina and I have been in Quito for a few days now, taking it easy, getting used to the altitude and trying to catch up on our digital chores; going through her photos from Cuba, writing and translating blog posts... and discovering that the internet here is too unreliable for us to easily update our photo album, or hang out on Facebook.

I have also written an entire GPS point blogging app for my phone, from scratch, much to Ewelina's exasperation.

Yesterday we decided it was time to stop this geekery, and went out sightseeing. We climbed up everything we could possibly climb in the Cathedral - the literal high point was at the top of one of the bell towers, when I stood on a tiny ledge at least 10 stories up, with the tower's metal cap at my back and nothing but air between me and the city far below.

I loved that church for not making the experience boringly safe, that was a real thrill. You just can't have experiences like that anymore in Europe or the U.S.

After some well deserved beers in the Cathedral's 3rd level cafe, we headed back into the old town, to explore the convent's downright creepy museum and climb its much more modest (but still lacking guardrails) bell-tower.

This was followed by a fancy meal and an evening of more nerding.

Today's trip was to Mitad del Mundo, a little town and park just North of Quito, dedicated to the equator. We skipped the theme park, instead following my phone's compass North and stumbling across the Inti-Ñan solar museum. There we saw a shrunken head, spiders and snakes in formaldehyde and saw many, many gimmicks related to the equator. We were particularly lucky to be here so close to yesterday's equinox - the solar watches worked from both sides.

And it is just cool to be in Ecuador, on the equator, on the equinox. Or close enough anyway.

It was a fun museum, although we failed to believe some of the gimmicks. The Coriolis effect demonstration in a basin of water was particularly sneaky. Also, my GPS didn't agree were at 0°0'0", and the explanations of the staff for the discrepancy were confused and confusing. So to fully satisfy ourselves, we walked a little further North until my GPS said 0.

Ewelina took pictures of me walking on our "real" equator and we headed back to Quito, hailing our bus from the side of the road like the locals do.

Tomorrow we get up early to go on a tour of part of the Quilotoa loop, organized by our hostel.

Should be fun!

Saturday 19 September 2009

It is not easy to fall in love with Cuba

"It is not easy to fall in love with Cuba", I think, sitting on a bus to Trinidad and recalling the previous day. Waking up early in the morning to catch the Hershey train, the only electric train in Cuba, built in 1917 for the American Hershey Chocolate Company and connecting Havana with industrial Matanzas, some 90 kilometres away. Trouble buying my ticket: sent away with nothing again and again, I watch Cubans pay for theirs, and after an hour of this I am told that a ticket will be sold to me by a conductor during the trip. A shabby and incredibly dusty train drudgingly conquers its route in four hours, stopping every now and then at small stations. Palms, horses, cows, sheep, a cloudy sky, green valleys surrouded by hills come and go behind my grubby window. A slow clatter of wheels rocks me to sleep and even talkative Julio Cesar, introducing his family to me, offering a bunch of bananas and suggesting lodging for a night at his friends', don't keep me from sleeping for about an hour. Matanzas welcomes us with a polluted river, destroyed houses and cockroches on the streets. Julio's friends' house, painted blue, fits the town's atmosphere perfectly: greyish walls, ants in the bathroom, and a small electric shower fail to impress, but the owner offers to sell me a beer and breakfast in the morning. I leave my bags and go looking for the bus station, stopping on my way for what must be the worst hamburger in my life. The station is small, worn-out and has plastic seats. I ask for connections to Trinidad and that is then when it starts. Cuba has two bus companies: one - for Cubans, another - for tourists. Prices? For an Astro bus Cubans pay 61 MN, for a Viazul bus (and more than an hour's layover in touristic Varadero) tourists have to pay 26 CUC. Outraged by such unfair prices and a lack of options, I wander to find a train station. I find it after an hour's walk through a neighborhood of apartment blocks, fields and along train tracks - a train that costs locals 7 MN, costs me 7 CUC, cheaper than the bus. Nevertheless, the connection is very late at night, and my guidebook tells me it would be naive to count on the trip going according to schedule. I seem to have no choice: hitch-hiking is not an option after all the stories I have read - I have to take Viazul buses. So the next day I switch buses in Varadero and together with other tourists I am on my way to Trinidad, cursing everything and everyone in this cursed Cuba.

Trinidad is pretty. Small cobblestone streets, colorful, well maintained houses, bicycles and horse carriages, an enormous room in the attic of a colonial casa particular, delicious breakfast and perfect chicken, made by the female owner for dinner, all astonish me. In the ruins of an old theater I watch an impressive dancing spectacle; I admire couples dancing salsa outside Casa de la Música; I give a wide berth to restaurants and only eat in my casa; I lazily walk along the winding streets; I drink a strong mojito, pay 6 CUC for an hour of internet on ancient computers, and decide to rent a bike for a day. The only place in town that officially has bikes for rent, fails: their bikes all have flat tyres. The owner of my casa leads me to her friend, who in turn leads me to hers, and after a small fee I set off on a borrowed bike towards Playa Ancón. The sun burns unbearably, the seat pinches, but I diligently pedal through green fields, pastures full of cows and forests paths towards a sandy beach. I get lost a bit on my way back and I have to conquer an incredibly high hill - I give up and walk my bike up the mountain. In Trinidad I practise talking to people on the streets, which bears fantastic fruit: a ride to a waterfall in the nearby national park. I share a small wooden carriage with a milk jug and a coachman who decides to add a bit of a flavour to my adventure by leading the tired horse to a little farm, where I drink juice freshly made of sugar cane and lemon. On the fourth day in Trinidad a man stops me on a street and asks whether I am that Polish girl who plans to go to Viñales soon. Apparently there is a rumour in the town about my horse trip, as Pedro is glad that I enjoyed the waterfall and asks me if his friend did a good job as a guide. Pedro informs me that he is able to organise a car that will take me to Viñales for a price similar to the bus, but faster. Apparently a couple of tourists want to go in the same direction and are looking for people to share the cost. The owner of my casa says I should accept the offer, while his wife is definitely against the idea. When I go downstairs in the evening for dinner, she is talking cordially to an older man, introducing him to me after a little while. He is a very good friend of hers, and he is to be my driver "for tomorrow". I am in safe hands, and she calls her friends from Viñales to ask whether they have a place for me in their house. Not having to worry about lodgings, sharing an official, yellow Hyundai Lantra taxi that reminds me of home, with a Danish couple, I ride towards a new place. Of course, not all is perfect and we have a stopover in the middle of nowhere to repair the car, but I have chips with me and I share them with the couple while we watch the driver curse..

I don't know how it is possible, but Viñales is even more interesting than Trinidad. Amazingly green, lying in a valley created by mountains' full of caves collapsing, with farms on a red, clayish soil, nothing about the little town repells, not even the large number of tourists. I hire a guide and, along with a Spanish couple, I visit a local farm, where I drink freshly made coffee, grown on the trees nearby, and watch the farmer roll cigars. I learn a lot about life in Cuba, and Sandra (our guide) points out that the unfair treatment I experienced in Havana's restaurants happens to both tourist and Cubans. Another farmer greets us with fresh fruits and mango juice, while we are sitting in front of his house, with little pigs beneath our legs. I spend the afternoon on a two-hour hike through dark caves, conquering just a small piece of the third largest cave system in Latin America. The evenings pass nicely, sipping mojitos and listening to songs, excellently performed by Blanco y Negro. From Viñales I also take a trip to Cayo Levisa, a three-kilometer long island just North of the town, where I encounter my companions from the taxi and for the first time in my life try my hand at snorkeling. I fall in love with Viñales, I even enjoy the taste of reheated pizza in a bar next to the petrol station. The landscape is wonderful, the people - smiling, there is a fresh smell of damp soil in the air and for the first time I begin to regret that I will soon have to leave this country.

Havana seems familiar, when I come back after my nine days of exile. It still doesn't delight me but I start to understand it. I decide to spend two more days spending only MN - and succeed with not much difficulty. Admittedly, I don't eat anything delicious, an ice-cream melts in my hands, a pizza is worse than the one in Viñales, and granizada is some kind of artificial concentrated juice poured over ice cubes, but at least I have a feeling I am closer to real Cuban life than ever.

"It is not easy to fall in love with Cuba", I think, sitting on a plane to Bogota where I am to meet Bjarni, "and yet it is not completely impossible".

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Plastic bags in Colombia

Arriving in Colombia the same day as Ewelina flew to Cuba was odd. This was our first separation in literally months. Not only was I without my Ewelina, I was also camera-less and laptopless - my only gadgets were Ewelina's old Nokia and her mp3 player.

What was I thinking?

Well, the plan was to just take it easy, live cheaply and work on my Spanish, maybe explore Bogota a bit, but save the good stuff for when Ewelina joined me two weeks later. She got to take the gadgets with her to Cuba, it is safer there and I wanted to at least see pictures from there.

Also, this meant I didn't have many valuables for people to steal - Colombia's reputation as a dangerous place made that an oddly appealing way to travel.

Not that I had much trouble, the worst that happened was I lost my plastic bag with some allergy meds, snacks and, most importantly, my notebook of Spanish scribblings and potential blog entries. Maybe it was stolen from under my chair at the cafe, but honestly I probably just forgot it.

The people at my hostel had some worse stories, it seemed everyone knew someone who had been mugged. Or maybe they just knew someone who knew someone... or maybe they read about it somewhere.

But that is pretty much why I spent two weeks carrying stuff around in a plastic bag. People carrying things in plastic bags probably aren't worth mugging, right?

I wish I hadn't lost that notebook though.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Five days in La Habana

I am leaving Mexico, at last! The plane to Havana takes off from Cancun and finally, after minor difficulties with greedy taxi drivers, I manage to get to the airport. The Cuban airlines vehicle, a Russian product, looks rather worn, and old. The seats, instead of leaning back, lean forward, and the stewardesses treat their passengers with tiny fruit drops and later with plastic cups of cola, spraying insect repellent in the meantime. After a while, the deck starts shaking and I hear a frightful crunch as the wheels are extended. Thick grey smoke emerges from underneath the backpack at my feet and spreads all over the plane. I grab my pack, afraid it will catch fire, and only after a few seconds do I realise it won't make much of a difference if I am to die soon.. A man sitting next to me makes calming hand moves, trying to convince me nothing is threatening us. I decide to believe his reassurance and after a few minutes I am standing, safe, on Cuban soil. The next two hours I spend in the airport, trying to understand the difference between CUC and MN, and get the money I need from somewhere. The cash machines won't accept Mastercards and the currency exchange offices' employees send me from one point to another, justifying themselves with a lack of equipment to accept credit cards or lunch at 7 p.m. To further increase my frustration, rain drops from the leaking roof land on my head every now and then. Fortunately, I probably don't have to worry about sleeping tonight - the employees of the travel agency I bought my flight ticket from promised to send an email to Humberto and Maria, the owners of a casa particular I am going to. Of course, I don't know whether there will be room for me in their house and I don't even know whether they got the email, but I catch a taxi and, to the sound of jazz on the radio, I am on my way to my potential home. When I reach the casa, an older, smiling man waves at me from the balcony, and an older woman informs me she had called the airport to check if my flight was okay and on time. I take a quick shower and go out to sightsee. Maria warns me to hide my camera and to not talk to anybody. I hide the camera, but I decide there is no need to be paranoid: if anyone stops me to talk, I will answer with pleasure.

The streets of Havana are dark. The only light seems to come from the windows of houses, restaurants and cars driving towards me. Young men vie for attention with the standard, "Where are you from?" and subsequent offers of "authentic Cuban cigars from their uncle who works in the factory" or assistance in finding "the best" entertainment. I recognise bicycles only by their horns honking as they approach - unlit they pose a serious risk on these dark streets. I eat dinner in a pub, listening to live music, and the only thought in my mind is: "Wow! Cuba!". A moment later, when I leave to find the famous pub La Bodequita del Medio, where Hemingway drank countless mojitos and Nat King Cole drew pictures on the walls, another young man accosts me. He tells me some story about a sick woman in hospital, points the way to La Bodequita and recommends another place. Driven by curiosity, I follow him, and after a short while, we arrive at the pub. The boy sits next to me at the table, praising the local daiquiri. I realise I am in a company of a jinetero, what Maria warned me about - a jinetero is an unemployed man, a hustler of tourists, looking for drinks or money or more. I give up on the drink and show up alone in La Bodequita - drink an expensive mojito and, as midnight inevitably approaches, I decide to head back home. On my way two more men stop me, recommending a bar where Buena Vista Social Club "supposedly" used to play. The place is incredibly smokey, there is no one at the tables, but at the bar there are a few old men enjoying cigars. I decide to have a mojito here and then I realise that not only will the barman overcharge me for my drink, but I will also have to pay for two more, for my new "friends". Disgusted by my own naivety, I say goodbye quickly and go home.

Morning greets me with breakfast a la Cuba: a plate of mixed fruit, condensated fresh juice, coffee and scrambled eggs. Full, I go out to see what Havana looks like in daylight. By the staircase, a "neighbour" accosts me. In the corner of my eye, I see Maria on the balcony making warning gestures. "Don't talk to him, he is a jinetero. He may steal your camera", her hand seems to say. I leave the stranger quickly and go towards the local Chinatown. Havana by day is striking. Beautiful for sure, some time ago, today it reminds more of an old woman, worn down by the weight of the years, too tired and too discouraged by her fate to take care of how she looks. The buildings are falling to pieces before your eyes; the laundry seems to be hung everywhere there is room for lines; waste spills out of the dumpsters, attracting flies and repelling humans with its stench. People kill time sitting idly in front of their homes, while those same buildings fall into more and more ruin. Three-wheeled bike-taxis, along with american cars from the 60s cruise the streets of Havana. Shop windows display their entire inventory; people queue for a microwaved pizza and rapidly melting ice-creams. Beer is the only thing there is no shortage of, it can even be bought from vending machines in the museums, and is cheaper than Coca-Cola. Next to this Havana, another exists, meant for tourists. Freshly painted hotels, expensive restaurants, restored Havana Vieja with its churches, museums and nightly dance shows; modes of transport for "outsiders" only; internet for the incredible price of 8 CUC per hour. The space between this Havana and the real Havana seems to belong to jineteros and prostitutes. As I sip my mojito, the only tourist eating pizza in a realtively cheap restaurant, three prostitutes and their "care-taker" take seats at the table next to mine and start boldly offering their charms to men at the other tables. In the far corner of the room, a loud argument between women erupts and degenerates into fisticuffs, with bottles raised threateningly. Tables fall over when one woman pushes the other and half the customers hurridly leave the restaurant. I, with a slice of pizza still in my mouth, don't know whether to run as well or sit still, as I haven't yet paid my bill.. Within five minutes the prompt intervention of the police returns things back to normal, but the room still seems to shake with emotion. Thirsty for some culture, I go to a random concert in the Grand Theater. I have to pay 5 CUC (CUC: convertible pesos, currency for foreigners), while the locals pay 5 MN (MN: moneda nacional, currency for Cubans). Exchange rate? About 1 CUC = 25 MN = 1 EUR. The price injustice grates and makes Havana a city comparable to Dublin, when it comes to costs. Locals pay for some products in CUC, for the others in MN. Tourists are theoretically forbidden to use MN. I cannot understand where locals get money for living; during a tour of a cigar factory I am told they earn monthly 350 MN, which is about 15 CUC. I have to pay 25 CUC just to sleep for one night in Havana.

Every day people accost me on the streets, not giving me a moment of peace from their constant interruptions. I stop smiling, I don't pay attention to that superficially kind "Hello!". I start betting with myself whether the next restaurant will overcharge me again, or whether they will stick to the prices in the menu. Entering a diner, I don't know if I will be served, as the cheap pizza, spaghetti or sandwiches are apparantly just for breakfast - only the more expensive items are available to me. My backpack is carefully checked when I try to get on a ferry to Casa Blanca - in 2003 the ferry was hijacked by Cubans who were trying to get to Florida; the hijackers were caught and sentenced to death; the execution was carried out. In the bar next to my home, one of many open 24 hours a day, I drink a beer from a barrel and a few shots of rum, paying in MN. Twice young men try to talk to me, and twice police arrest my interlocutors. I don't know whether Cubans are forbidden to talk to foreigners or whether I have just been saved from jineteros, and - honestly - I stop caring. Five days in Havana is too much, everything annoys me, I no longer see the beauty of the buildings, I stop noticing handsome boys and slim girls, strikingly good looking. I can't avoid thinking that those two young girls begging for a cola will soon become prostitutes, and those boys kicking a ball will shortly also sit in doorways and uselessly wait for their life to improve, while entertaining themselves by accosting people from "elsewhere".

I can't wait to leave Havana. I hope the rest of the country will change my opinion of Cubans and let me discover what tourists enjoy here so much. After five days in Havana I have no more stength to look for charm where, for now, I can only see resignation.

Friday 4 September 2009

Impressions of Mexico

Some random impressions of Mexico, in bullet list form:

  • Mexico is very big
  • and very beautiful
  • and very alive
  • and has more mountains and ruins than you can shake a stick at
  • speed bumps in Mexico are vicious
  • I am tall in Mexico
  • in Mexico, beer is good with salt and limes, and sometimes chili powder
  • in Mexico, toilet paper usually doesn't go in the toilet
  • in Mexico, finding food not made of corn can be tricky
  • Mexico City is called D.F.
  • in D.F. you thank air pollution for not getting sunburnt
  • in Mexico, hotels are cheap and plentiful, why book ahead?
  • ... or maybe things are just quiet because of the influenza
  • in Mexico, ugly grey brick houses are only painted with advertisements
  • in Mexico everything is for sale, everywhere. The "in-flight service" on a bus i D.F. is better than on most airplanes
  • Mexicans love color and sound
  • That siren means gas is for sale, the evening whistle means tamales
  • Mexicans love museums
  • Mayan culture is still quite alive in Mexico, those colorful costumes are not worn for the benefit of tourists like us
  • in Mexico, you decorate your car
  • in Mexico, babies do not ride in carriages, they are tied to their mothers in slings
  • in Mexico, the places we could consider living are all full of expats who got here first

We liked Mexico.

The unwritten blog posts

I was supposed to blog about Campeche itself, the bus ride, the deserted beach, the unbearable heat, the games of pool played next to a smelly toilet with a door that wouldn't close and no lights. The Monkey Hostel we stayed in and the silly Pirate Hostel that we didn't.

We liked Merida, I should have blogged it too. About the market, the hats and the shirts and the pretty colonial buildings. How it felt like Spain, like Murcia. The crazy hotel full of art and swimming pools totally deserves mention on the Internet.

Hey, Internet, tell backpackers that the Trinidad Galleria in Merida is really quite nice - it is cheaper than the Trinidad mentioned in Lonely Planet and it has art and a pool and nice staff!

I should also have blogged about the day trip from Merida to Comitan, to ride a boat, a boat!

Instead of getting on the boat, we just saw an iguana and tropical rain, rode two very odd taxis, and had a surprise afternoon on a beach that wasn't deserted for a change... and then we haggled our way onto a much better, cheaper boat tour to see the flamingos and swim with the crocodiles after all. We failed to fail our day-trip and had a perfect day by accident. That is totally blog-worthy, right?

And of course I should also have blogged about Chichen Itza, the Mayan ruins we visited just so we could say we had, and then loved in spite of ourselves. About how we were glad we followed our guide-books' advice and showed up very late, and then very early the next day, avoiding the throngs of holidaymakers taking their mandatory cultural day-trip from Cancun. I should have spiced it up by bashfully telling the world how our Spanish wasn't quite good enough to explain to the taxi driver, on our way from the ruins, that we had already eaten in the restaurant he was recommending to us.

Finally, I should tell the story about how once we finally reached Isla Mujeres, our planned luxury vacation from our vacation, my hotel scouting skills totally failed me. How, tired and frustrated, for a joke I decided to ask about the prices for a room on 'Nautibeach', a place with a name that just has to be a pun and such an idyllic view that it couldn't possibly fit within our budget. Turns out it hit the sweet spot - more expensive than the places we didn't like, but much cheaper than the shiny luxury hotels so obviously out of our league. We didn't just get a room - for 85 USD per night, we have for the past 9 days enjoyed having a whole apartment, air conditioning, breakfast, an amazing view and a beach combed to perfection every night by people who are almost certainly underpaid. It's going to be hard to leave.

But I guess we've just been too busy living our trip to blog about those things. We took lots of pictures though, you should totally check them out.

Now it's really too late. After much food and more tequila, Ewelina is asleep on the couch and I should be dizzily dragging her to bed. In a few short hours we fly away, finally leaving Mexico and heading for the continent we left Europe to explore. Ewelina is off to Cuba, I will wait for her in Colombia. We don't really know anything about our destinations, except history lessons and what we read in borrowed guide-books at the Poc-na hostel here on Isla. We'll figure things out.

I just hope we wake up early enough tomorrow to rent one of those silly golf-carts people drive around the island, it would be a shame to not try one.

Thursday 3 September 2009

Cancun vs. Isla Mujeres

As I write this, Ewelina and I sit at Puerto Juarez, the port in Cancun where the ferry to Isla Mujeres will pick us up in 20 minutes or so. The sun has set and the moon is bright, a tower of clouds still sports a crazy hot pink top.

We are sticky from the heat, weary from a fruitless day of hunting for bookstores in Cancun. As our boat pulls up, mosquitos swoop in by the dozens, biting us so badly that the ride to the island is spent discovering new places that itch. Cancun's bloodsucking goodbye is an oddly appropriate end to our second visit to this so-called vacation paradise.

Cancun is not paradise, far from it. It isn't even really a city. It is something else, something artificial and strange. The whole place is built to suck tourists dry.

It has its charms, of course: beaches, sun, palm trees, bikinis...

The Cancun for tourists is a seemingly endless parade of modern-day pyramids, shining hotels where visitors worship the sun, as has always been the way in Mexico. The sacrifice today is the dollar and peeling skin, human sacrifice is hidden by the years and the statistics of skin cancer.

Mexicans in Cancun worship the dollar. They live in the other Cancun, the ugly, noisey, no-frills Cancun of unpainted one-story brick houses, of supermarkets, flea-markets, busses and taxis and colectivos, clothes shops and travel agencies and cell phones. And noise, of course, in the real Mexico of Mexicans there is always something to be heard.

Neither of these Cancuns have much in the way of bookstores, and nothing at all catering to English speaking backpackers headed for Cuba and another continent.

We found a bikini for Ewelina and the most expensive Coronas in Mexico (there was cheaper beer in Dublin!), but that was about it.

As our ferry docks at Isla Mujeres, our spirits lift. Swimwear-clad pedestrians, smiling shopkeepers and ridiculous golf-carts milling about on the cute little streets, all seem familiar and, more importantly, friendly after the concrete wasteland/bustle of the two Cancuns. Of course they want our money here too, but who doesn't? It's more relaxed, more human. As we walk by, our waiter from yesterday's lunch invites us in for another meal. "Despues", I tell him, with a smile.

We know of three places with books, we recognize faces in the street. We end up at the Poc-na hostel, borrowing books about Cuba and Colombia and ordering the cheapest food on the island with reasonably priced Coronas.

Later, our rented 2nd floor condo will welcome us with cold air, warm water, fast wifi and a view of the pristine beach. A little slice of luxury, so close and yet so far from the modern pyramids of Cancun.

And it's cheaper too. Don't tell the sun-worshippers, or they will surely ruin it!

The past!