Sunday 19 February 2012

Cess in a Sinkhole

A Mexican Gandalf was blocking our path as we were on our way snorkelling in the Yucutan peninsula. “You shall not pass!” he cried in Spanish (*rough translation), his hands outstretched, his eyes wild. Except this man was less powerful wizard, and more bandito on drugs, and he also happened to be our taxi driver. Our journey to the cenote had gone horribly wrong.

We’d mistakenly hired Gandalf after an incredible morning on Akumal beach, swimming with enormous turtles.  It had been amazing to watch these magical creatures as they munched on sea grass like horses, before soaring gracefully to the surface for a mouthful of air. We – Dan, me, and a young Swedish couple – were buzzing as we left the beach. 

Perhaps this is why we didn’t quite have our wits about us as we jumped in the car with Crazy Gandalf for the quick trip to the cenote – one of the many limestone sinkholes in the Yucatan which you can swim, dive or snorkel. We might have noticed he looked a little unhinged. Instead, we agreed a price of 150 pesos to take us down the motorway and 2.5km inland to the cenote. Except as we returned from the ticket office at the entrance, Gandalf upped the price to 200 pesos to the cenote, and 150 to where we were now. We muttered every Spanish swearword we knew.

We refused to pay unless he took us all the way. He said he’d call the police. Go ahead, we said, you lying b*stard.  He made various motions with his car radio and cell phone, the locals involved were siding with him, and with daylight fading and our tickets already bought, we decided to walk in.

A long dirt road, thronged by forest on both sides, extended for kilometres into the distance. We began the long plod. After a few minutes, we realised Crazy Gandalf was coming after us. He drove alongside very slowly, looking increasingly wild-eyed, still threatening to call the police. It was beginning to feel a little like a horror film, especially when he parked his car across the road, got out, and stood with his arms folded across his chest.

Admittedly, he was very small. Dan, furious, decided he could take him out. “Hold this,” he said, flinging the bag of snorkelling gear at me. They eye-balled each other for a while, hands on each other’s chests.  But when another taxi driver drove up and got out to back up his mate, I saw it all going badly wrong. Isolated road, crazy Mexicans, not worth it. We threw the money at him, congratulated him on welcoming tourists to his country with such zest, and, hearts thumping, kept walking as he finally drove away.

Anyway, this should have been a piece on cenotes, and once we all calmed down, the afternoon was an amazing one.  I’d never heard of a cenote before I reached this part of the world – but there are thousands of them here. They’re caused by rocks dissolving over time, revealing pools of rainwater underneath.  Some are circular, open pools (the Mayans used them for human sacrifices) – but others are flooded underground caves, with the roof still intact.

We were heading for one of the biggest cave systems on the peninsula, Dos Ojos – Two Eyes. It was only discovered in the 1980s, and has been mapped by divers at more than 80 kilometres long, with one passage reaching depths of 120 metres. (Fans of the BBC’s Planet Earth series would recognise it.) Snorkelling, we were only skimming the surface – but what an experience that was. It made me desperate to learn to dive.

We plunged into cool, perfectly clear, cobalt water, the cave stretching into the dark before us. Sunlight filtered in, illuminating rock formations below the surface. Diving down, we entered a subterranean wonderland:  I swam between twisting stalactites and stalagmites, past rocks patterned like coral with circles and lines, touching stones dripping fantasy formations. It was like swimming through the set of Fraggle Rock. In parts, the cave roof was very low: you had to watch your head as you surfaced. When we stopped, small fish would surround us, nibbling at our skin.  It was incredibly peaceful, and we had the place to ourselves. It made all the madness to get there worth it.

Inspired, I dragged Dan to more cenotes near Valladolid. They were smaller, and more commercial: the presence of disco lights and life jackets was a tad unnecessary, but the rock formations were amazing: great hulks of rock hung from the roof, patterned like mammoth-hair.  In both, the tangled roots of a tree growing on the roof of the cave spilled down to touch the water 20 metres below. (And this time our taxi driver was a gem: we practised our Spanish with him the whole way there and back.)

If you ever get the chance, swim a cenote. It is a magical experience. Just mind how you get there. 

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Cess Says Yes

We arrived in Mazunte, a small cove home to just 700 people, as the sun rose over the Pacific Ocean. It was stunning: a wild, untouched beach with crashing surf, overlooked by palm-roofed cabanas set haphazardly on rocky outcrops. The sea was so clear that when the waves broke you could see right through the crest. Fishermen were launching their boats in the hope of a good day's tuna catch. We found a basic cabin perched 20 metres above the beach, surrounded by forest. Dan said he knew then that this was the place he would propose.

I suggested getting up for sunrise the next day. I’m not a morning person, but I managed to crawl out of bed and into the enormous hammock on our balcony, where we had a view straight out to sea. I was bleary-eyed, and dressed in a polar fleece, with no idea of what was coming.  As we watched the neon-orange sun rise dreamily through a layer of cloud, Dan asked me to marry him. Admittedly, the first thing I said was “Really?” (Dan has half-jokingly proposed many times before so I had to check he was serious – but then decided he would be a complete bastard to be joking at such a romantic moment.)


He said, “Well I’ve got this ring….” and produced a silver “promise ring.” Apparently in France people used to give each other rings engraved with the inscription “Vous, et nul autre” – you and no other. Dan got it translated into Maori. He had engraved on the ring “Ko koe, ko koe anake” – you, only you. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever received. 

(Admittedly it didn’t fit at first… too many tacos. Our good friend Angus who is now king of matchmakers having set us up asked if I was planning on going on a finger diet, or getting it enlarged. We found a jeweller in Oaxaca to expand it as we went for lunch…!)

It was an amazing moment. I seriously didn’t see it coming. Last year, when I suggested a big trip home, Dan said “well it's travel or a ring.” I picked travel. I’m very lucky to get both. 

We couldn't quite bring ourselves to leave Mazunte, and kept delaying our departure. We got up for sunrise every morning after that, to watch it from the "engagement hammock", or from in the ocean itself. 

Mazunte was also an incredible place to watch the sun set - we hiked to a point to join the hippies playing guitars as the sun slipped into the ocean far on the horizon.  

Oh, and we’ve been getting in some wedding practice already: in a Mayan village called Zinacantan, before we got engaged, the locals dressed us up in traditional wedding dress. Dan had a quiet chuckle to himself knowing he had a ring in his pack. Here’s what our big day could look like.... 

Thanks again for all your congrats - this is a shot of me stoked to be reading them all! 

Money, money, money.... final thoughts from Cuba

The Buena Vista Social Club were playing in Havana! Well, so a cool-looking Cuban guy and his girlfriend told us. Admittedly, it sounded a little too good to be true – but our scam radar was slightly dulled by several strong rum and cokes, and, as most of you know, my FOMO - Fear of Missing Out – overrides everything, so we decided to take a punt and trust them.

We’d got chatting when the guy stopped Dan for a light, and then asked if we were in town for “The Festival”.  “Festival?” we asked. “Oh, follow us,” they said. “We’ll show you.” After trailing them for a while, we got suspicious and said we’d meet them later. They swung us into a bar and said they’d write directions in exchange for a drink. “This is how it works in Cuba,” the guy said, as the girl wrote down a venue which we knew was closed that night. We made our excuses, and left.

Scams are a part of travelling in many countries, but in Cuba many tourists complain about feeling more ripped off than in most places. In Havana, scammers cleverly play on tourists’ love of Cuban music (the Buena Vista Social Club line was tried on a couple of times); their generosity, and their desire to interact with locals. An English couple we met were asked on Christmas Day to buy milk powder for a woman’s baby. Who would say no? The bill came to an extortionate £30. Another friend got a $100 bar tab after having a few drinks with locals – who then wouldn’t pay a cent of what they’d ordered. 

Perhaps the need to scam tourists is more understandable in Cuba than elsewhere. Most Cubans struggle to make ends meet. Foreigners are comparatively loaded. It’s not a comfortable position to be in - I always felt very conspicuous carrying my £400 SLR camera – which would pay the monthly salaries of 24 Cubans. Of course, this comes with the territory. Part of Cuba’s allure is its politics. Tourists come to experience the time-warp that Communism has created.  But it’s a time-warp born out of genuine poverty.

Still, initially I found it harder in Cuba than anywhere else I’ve travelled to have genuine conversations with people. At times, everything felt like a transaction of some sort. One night, when the club we wanted to go to was full, a guy stopped to point us in the direction of another one. “Good to see you made it,” he said when he passed us inside. Nice guy, I thought. Later, he asked me to dance, and taught me a few more salsa steps. Then he asked if I’d buy him a beer. We did – but it made me feel like I was paying for the interaction. Was he genuinely keen to chat with us, or just angling for a drink from the tourists all along?

As time went on though, those experiences became the minority.  I learnt that most Cubans love to chat, joke and laugh. In Baracoa, an elderly woman tugged at my sleeve as I took a photo of the street. I thought she was begging. In fact, she merely wanted to compliment me on my curly hair. Hers was dyed bright red. We had a great conversation in basic Spanish admiring each other’s hairstyles (who knew the "describing people" section of my course book would come in so useful?!) 

Many Cubans did all they could to share their culture. I can’t count the number of people on various dance floors who tried to teach us salsa steps. The Senoritas in the casas we stayed in invested even more time trying to improve our terrible Spanish. Milagros, who we stayed with in Trinidad, looked after us like a mother. Sure, we were paying her, but the bill came with a massive discount. A young tour guide I interviewed said he’d burn me some photos of old Baracoa. “How much for a CD?” I asked. “No no no,” he said. “It’s nothing. Not every Cuban asks for money. Write that.”

In truth, if you travel in Cuba, you get it all: the scams, the frustrating rip-offs, and overwhelming generosity.  On our last day, I went to spend our last 100 pesos in moneda nacional (Cuba has 2 currencies, MN and CUCS, or convertible pesos, which are now more widely accepted.) I stopped at a little shop to buy 2 beers to replace those we’d drunk from the fridge in our casa particular.  I should have paid about 50 pesos. The woman pocketed the 100 MN note and walked off.  “No cambio?” I called after her. No change, she shook her head. It would have been cheaper to buy them in a restaurant. “I’m ready to get out of this country,” I said to Dan.

That was until we got to the airport. Ordering our last (thank god) ham and cheese sandwich, a few beers and some biscuits, the bill came to more than I had left in CUCS. I went to put the biscuits back.  The lady at that till shook her head, took some money out of her tip jar, and topped up my cash. As the Cubans say: “Que pais” – what a country! 

Cess on the Beach

And so to Trinidad, our final stop in Cuba. It was a picturesque little country town which heightened the common feeling in this country of being in another era: the cobbled streets were full of shoe shine men, horses and carts and bici-taxis. The buildings were painted in bright pastels: peach, salmon, lemon, mint and sky blue, and it was an amazing place to photograph at sunset.

This won’t be a long post, because we didn’t do much there, thanks to a long curl of white sand with clear, calm water not far from town. Most days were about sunbathing, swimming, playing frisbee and drinking mojitos, and who wants to read about that?! Here’s a few piccies to prove I’m not lying though…

We ventured offshore to Cayo Blanco, a small uninhabited island an hour away by catamaran, with resident iguanas, who incredibly, loved being stroked. There were hermit crabs aplenty rolling around the restaurant, and the snorkelling was awesome: a little bit like being in Finding Nemo, with zebra-striped puffer fish, schools of bright yellow tropical fish, and an incredible variety of coral.

But we're also conscious we have to conquer the Inca trail in April, so in a (probably vain) attempt to keep our fitness up we headed into the nearby mountains, the Topes de Collantes. We'd run into Jersi and Silvia, Polish and Slovakian respectively, who had been in our salsa and Spanish classes in Havana, and with them we hiked to a freezing waterfall which I braved for all of 10 seconds, and through some pretty gorgeous forest.

What really made Trinidad though, was our casa particular. We'd met a young guy called Javier in a restaurant in Havana as we were both waiting for tables, and found out his mum, Milagros, had a casa in Trinidad. We ran into him again as he was forcing her to get drunk with him at a Havana brewery (see earlier photos) - really good sorts.

The experience of staying with them in Trinidad was second-to-none: we drank Cuba Libres together as Milagros cooked amazing seafood; talked politics with Javier and his grandfather, who’d been in the police under Batista; Dan danced salsa with Mila every morning in the kitchen, she became our Spanish teacher, painted my nails, and they even invited us out for dinner with them one Saturday night.

It was much more than a bed and breakfast. Through them - and all the other casas we stayed in - we learnt more than I could have hoped for about what it means to be Cuban. It is a complex, vivacious, utterly compelling country. There's no doubt we'll be back. 

Beautiful Baracoa

“I could tell you a thing or two about Cuba!” the middle-aged man in the cafe slurred, eyes glazed, his dark-skinned face right in Dan’s. It was lunchtime in Baracoa on January 2, and we were sitting in the middle of tequila-swigging locals refusing to finish their New Year celebrations. The man had helped himself to a seat at our table - but we were all ears – expecting a drunkenly honest account of life under Fidel.  Instead, he got distracted by my leftover spaghetti and processed ham. “That’s the best part!” he yelled, grabbing my plate, finishing it off without asking. “Do you have any pens?” he asked, wiping his face. “I’m an English teacher.” Dan produced a biro, and the man jumped up, beaming, and embraced him in a bear hug. We didn’t quite know what had hit us.

Every traveller we met had told us Baracoa, a 20-hour drive from Havana on Cuba’s Atlantic coast, was the friendliest place in the country.  So it seemed. Maybe it’s the isolation. Baracoa is Cuba’s oldest town, but it was pretty much cut off from the rest of the country until 1964, when a road from Guantanamo was finally completed.  It’s not a pleasant journey – we endured hours of stomach-churning switch backs across an endless mountain range, but the scenery was so gorgeously exotic it was spellbinding: wide valleys blanketed in palm trees, and small villages fenced by cactuses and filled with tropical flowers.

If the rest of Cuba felt like a time-warp, Baracoa was something else. Walking down the dusty main road fringed with peeling weatherboard houses felt like being in a western. The local taxis were horses and carts complete with yellow “taxi” sign. The ration store still weighed out its goods on ancient scales. “Vive Fidel y Raul!” proclaimed a somewhat ironic sign on its wall. Justice was openly being done in the 1970s-style courtroom, whose doors had all been flung open to the street, revealing two young perpetrators sitting uncomfortably in the dock.

We stayed with Ykira and Ozzie, in a basic house where Ykira whipped up her amazing fish curry using a simple gas ring. Coconuts and chocolate are the main currency in Baracoa – giving the food a flavour like nothing else in Cuba.  Each breakfast was a feast of hot chocolate, fruit salad of mango, papaya and melon, herb omelettes, strong Cuban coffee and fresh guava juice. After a month of ham and cheese sandwiches it was heaven.

Ykira and Ozzie, however, lived on rice and beans.  Despite being in tourism, money was tight. The government takes 150CUC a month from casa owners (US$150) for each room they rent out, whether it’s occupied or not. We paid 20CUC a night. Ozzie earns a measly 270 pesos a month (US$11) as a security guard. He said he hoped life would get better – but with Cuba’s history of dictators he was scared about who would take over once the Castro reign was over.

He wasn’t the only one keen to chat frankly. We hiked into the tropical wilderness with a 30-year-old guide, an encyclopedia of Cuban wildlife, and a rich source of information about what life is like for people our age in Cuba. He’d given up his job as an English teacher because he couldn’t survive on the salary of 346 pesos a month (about US$14.) Many of his colleagues are now taxi drivers – it pays more.  As he pointed out darting hummingbirds and a black snake sunbathing in long grass, he lamented the state of his country. All Cubans want, he said, is a slightly bigger salary to buy them more freedom.

Baracoa was the only place we went in Cuba where the locals were overwhelmingly hospitable – and didn’t want anything from us. On a country road south of the town we passed a bare-chested, sinewy old man chopping foliage. He came after us with two oranges, offered his machete for us to cut them, and went on his way.

One night, as we drank mojitos outside the Casa de la Trova, two young guys stopped to chat. They plied us with shots of straight rum from their bottle (all Cubans bring their own rum to bars!) and when Dan tried to return the favour by buying them a beer, they weren’t interested. “No cerveza!” they shouted, as they took us on to a nightclub: “Nosotros hombres – we’re men!” 

It was my favourite place in Cuba – and had the man at the bus station ever answered his phone so we could change our tickets, we may still be there.


Thursday 2 February 2012

A very Cuban New Year

The cries of pigs in peril echoed around the hills of Santiago de Cuba, as they realised their fate a little too late. Animal lovers, look away now. For all over the city, Cubans were preparing to celebrate New Year, with traditional roast pork washed down with rum. We saw squealing hogs loaded onto ferries en route to island celebrations, and families preparing their pigs over fires in the streets. They’re then buried in pit, covered with banana leaves, a wood-fire lit on top, or spitted. 

We’d chosen Santiago de Cuba as our New Year destination not for its pork, but for its music, which is legendary. New Year in Cuba is a massive celebration, because January 1 is also Dia de la Liberacion, the anniversary of the triumph of the revolution. On New Year’s Day in 1959, Batista fled the country, and Castro rocked up on the balcony of the town hall in Santiago de Cuba’s Parque Cespedes to deliver his victory speech.

On New Year’s Eve, Parque Cespedes was hosting a big fiesta of traditional Cuban dance and music. We went down early, and thankfully ran into a few drinking buddies for the evening. We’d met Sam and Jon, an English couple, on the 15-hour bus ride from Havana. Sam and I had bonded at 3am as we were trapped in probably the most stinking, filthy toilet I’ve been in in my life. Sam had no money for a tip and the attendant had wedged her foot against the door. I paid for our escape.

But I digress. As midnight approached, we headed to the roof of the Hotel Casa Granda, overlooking the square. We had a birds-eye view of the stage, where dance troupes and opera singers performed. At the countdown, an enormous Cuban flag was marched in to the sound of the national anthem, and unfurled, flying several storeys high.  All very patriotic. 

As the clock struck 12, fireworks went off – most of them exploding pretty much by our heads...

We retreated downstairs to practise our salsa steps with the locals....

The fiesta continued for days.  The main street was lined with stalls, selling beer, popcorn and pulled pork. People salsa-ed to sound systems blaring from the middle of the road. We watched a folkloric dance troupe (a form of dance to keep the slave culture traditions alive), the men bobbing their straw hats, the women sashaying in the colours of the Cuban flag.  

Everyone was dressed up:  small girls flounced around in bright tiered ra-ra skirts, women wore strappy dresses and gold heels, teenagers touted their best Eurotrash: with tight sequined t-shirts, white jeans, an extra helping of hair gel.

In another square, possibly the saddest fairground I’ve ever seen was in place. The rides looked like they had been transplanted from 1920s Brighton and left to age. Two children bobbed up and down in peeling sailboats on a seesaw. A goat, hooked up to a small cart like a horse, pulled children along. These kids wouldn’t know where to start in Disneyland.

But Cubans know how to party, no matter what their circumstances, and while we couldn’t get over our New Year hangovers, locals were still drunk by the time we moved on, to Baracoa. 

Cuba to Cayman

Two neighbouring Carribbean islands, separated by a flight of just an hour, but as far apart in identity as two countries can be.  The journey from Cuba to the Cayman Islands was like crossing continents:  from an isolationist Communist nation still using ration books, with no shopping malls, no advertising, and many living in poverty;  to a capitalist’s dream: a tax haven, the fifth largest banking centre in the world, where what you want, you buy. It was a bit of a head f*%k, to put it bluntly.

Just before Christmas, we “graduated” from our language school in Havana and headed straight to the airport. The taxi ride out there was standard: the rusting fiat dodged potholes and chickens on a road lined with ramshackle houses and Communist propaganda signs. We were frequently cloaked in choking black fumes from large trucks steaming past. Our friendly driver, clearly working illegally, took our money before we reached the airport and then, in front of a policewoman, hugged us goodbye as if we were family and wished us “Feliz Navidad.” We ate another crap ham and cheese sandwich as we waited for our plane.

We were barely in the air long enough to finish a rum punch before Grand Cayman came into view – a tiny flat island, which looks like someone has plonked an American suburb onto a tropical paradise: there are wide roads and neat concrete block houses, framed by a coastline of palm trees and turquoise water.

The airport terminal looked like a Swiss chalet. On the viewing platform, in its A-frame roof, Connie (my old friend) and Jefferson (her 2-year-old son) were waving at us.  We climbed into their new Toyota Hilux and marvelled at the smooth roads, interrupted by roundabouts sponsored by various banks and festooned with blinking Christmas trees. Occasionally we’d be passed by an unnecessarily-large-gas-guzzling-status-symbol car, but there was no pollution – bliss.

We pulled into a cul-de-sac of identical condos:  large open-plan, air-conditioned homes, a tennis court, and a swimming pool. “Welcome to Melrose Place,” Connie said. Now, I quite enjoy roughing it when I’m travelling, but I won’t lie – it was good to get back to some home comforts:  a good bed, great food, easy company and copious amounts of wine. 

The Caymans are a British territory, but Caymanians hearts’ appear to be in America. US networks beam into people’s homes. There are 6 KFCs on the 200sq/km island. The supermarket was stocked with super-sized American produce. (Though it doesn’t come cheap - unlike Cuba, with its fertile soil, everything in the Caymans is imported, so a small tub of tomatoes cost £3.99 – or $NZ8.)

This small island – only 50,000 people – is dominated by big business: banking, accounting and law.  The population includes 19,000 expats, though they can be restricted by a “Caymanians-first” employment policy, where locals are propelled into jobs ahead of more qualified foreigners.  Probably understandably for a small island, the education system isn’t great – unlike in Cuba, where the government prides itself on the importance it places on education. (All very well, but there aren’t the jobs to match its highly qualified population.)

Money reigns. We drive around, passing diamond stores, the Ritz, Bel Air Road, Condos La Valencia. Dozens of homes have gone crazy with Christmas lights – the power needed to run them (which doesn’t come cheap in Cayman) would have kept a Cuban cabaret in business for years.

One beach-front monstrosity is on sale for more than $50million – rumour has it Justin Bieber is buying it. No wonder Cubans’ eyes widened when we told them we were going to Las Islas de Caiman for Christmas. “Bueno”, they said enviously. Most will never make it to their neighbour – the flight alone is unaffordable. Many in the Caymans have a dimmer view of Cuba – it’s known as a destination for prostitution. The Caymans are not without problems though. Gang warfare abounds, with frequent shootings on two rival streets (next door to each other!)

So, which did I prefer?  The Caymans win for comfort, liveability, company and food (though I got sick in both countries – but not from Connie’s amazing cooking!). But for me, Cuba triumphs – it is economically poor, but culturally richer, and something about Cuban’s joie-de-vivre despite their conditions gets under your skin.

Here are a few snaps of our Christmas celebrations – thanks to Connie, Jase and Jefferson for a brilliant few days.