Tuesday, 13 March 2012


So, been a while. Straight into it then!
Once we gladly said goodbye to Belize City, it was a much delayed and uncomfortable journey to the lovely island of Flores, in the middle of a small lake by the (less pretty) city of Santa Elena. The bus that we rushed to catch was several hours late, and as we weren’t able to get a reservation for the highly desirable hostel, it was with great anxiety that we got late into the town. Fortunately all was well and a bed was to be had.
The hostel, Los Amigos, had a lot of promise, but it proved to be somewhat less accommodating than the brochure promised – despite advertising that they had 2 or 3 people to do massages (“just ask”) they never had anyone available for the 2 days we stayed; they were very proud of their “extensive collection of documentaries and movies” which one could get copies of but the only person that knew about them was never around; their onsite kitchen had a good range of interesting food, but be prepared to wait 15 mins to get the attention of a staff member and order, then another 45 mins for your food or drink to turn up; and frankly most of the time, the staff seemed to simply have no clue about what was going on. Nonetheless, the island itself was remarkably pretty – only a few hundred metres from side to side, quaint cobbled streets and small companion islands all around (one of which claimed to host a museum, via a giant sign on the front of a rickety thatched roof hut – we were dubious). Most importantly, though, was its proximity to the park of Tikal.

Tikal was amazing. We left the hostel at about 5am to get into the park a little after 6.30am with the sun having just come up. Unlike many of the ruins which we had been to in the past A) Juliet was awake and healthy, and B) the jungle had completely reclaimed the land, despite being deforested for upwards of 30 miles in every direction at the height of the city’s glory. While the archeologists are slowly uncovering the monuments and restoring them to their former glory, they are leaving the surrounding forest intact, which means that as well as the spectacular pyramids and formal buildings, there is an abundance of wildlife all around as well.
Our tour guide was really good and showed us the ceiba tree, which was central to spirituality of the local Maya – The roots tied into the underworld, the branches to the heavens, and the trunk to this life. Looking at this specimen, it’s easy to see why:

The main centre of the city is home to 2 huge pyramids, one a tomb for the king “Mr. Cocoa Bean” (as our guide translated it) and a second, slightly smaller one for his wife (isn’t it always the way?) facing each other, with a grand ritual area in the middle:

It might not look like much, but this figure is over 6 feet tall. 
From there we worked our way through the extensive grounds (the total area of Tikal has been mapped to in excess of 16 square kms) to the truly epic Temple 4. From the top of this, the largest temple in Tikal, we could see for miles, across the half dozen restored temples and the endless jungle. Though we had missed the sunrise, the view was still breathtaking:
While we were walking we met ocellated turkeys, the purtiest turkeys you ever did see. We also saw a tribe of monkeys high up in a tree, a 1.5m long snake, a tarantula, and lots of bird and butterflies (the park boasts of having over 500 species of butterflies).

Henceforth, so that these posts actually get up, we're going to go with a slightly different approach - lots of pictures, little text. Hopefully this will help us get through our backlog!

After Tikal, we took a very, very long ride in the back of a van to Lanquin (of the 2 roads that lead there, one was washed out and the other covered in rubble. We had to go the looooong way round), where we were supposed to go on a tour of some cascades, but decided we'd had enough of early mornings and seen enough patches of water that we instead decided to float down a river in inner tubes instead :) A very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

The next day it was on to Antigua, from where we were scheduled to head out to climb the active-volcano Pacaya. This had exploded every 4 years or so, but the last time was in 2010 so no active lava (very disappointing). However, it was still very clearly an active volcano:
Those aren't clouds... (well, not all of them)

When we got to the top, we visited the Lava Store, sat in some sauna holes, and most exciting of all - Lava-Roasted Marshmallows!!! While I thought these were fantastic, the little dog which we dubbed chicken dog (all the dogs that came with us got temporary names) thought marshmallow time was the greatest thing in the world!


I committed a slight faux pas when ordering Juliet's lunch... Fortunately, the kitchen staff also thought I was nuts (no pun intended) and did not deliver everything requested!

Back in Antigua, while I went to get a massage for my aching back, Juliet managed to stumble upon the end of Carnival and came back robot coloured.


We had to wait an extra day for some important mail to arrive (the company sending it was stupidly slow, but once it made it to FedEx, they got it from Texas to Guatemala in less than 24hrs. Wow!) so we took a day trip into Guatemala City where we went to a pretty cool anthropology museum and pretended we were statues:

Finally, we encountered an altar to the demon Llama gods of Guatemala (I assume that's what this was) and I claimed this as my closest encounters with Llamas, as per the title of the blog. Victory!

Anyway, the mail turned up, and we moved on to El Salvador. And then Nicaragua. And then Costa Rica... yeah, we're behind. We're about to go into the jungle for 3 days (staying in 'luxury tents' complete with beds) so probably won't post those countries until after then, but we'll get them prepared.... as long as there's power...

Until then, we're alive, not starving to death and haven't been mugged. All in all, good things. 

Monday, 20 February 2012


Having recovered our passports and spent an unanticipated night in Chetumal, it was with great anticipation that we caught the water taxi over to the island of Caye Ambergris, and the city of San Pedro. The plan was to get some beach time, but it turned out that the whole coast on our side of the island was taken up with docks, jetties and moorings, and all the associated bits and pieces that make “beach time” not so practical. Nonetheless, the island was very cool. Not content with simply serving ice cream, D and E’s serves up frozen custard that put Kevin straight into heaven. The view from the deck of our hotel looked straight out into the Caribbean.

A typical taxi, San Pedro style

Sadly, due to our extra night in Mexico we could not stay long and the next morning it was onto a boat to Belize City – the largest city in Belize, but home to only 70 thousand people. We had thought Cuba a culture shock but BC, with its scarcely paved streets, open sewers, ramshackle homes and just total 3rd-world-ness was mind blowing. This was all weirdly contrasted with the abundance of North American products available in the supermarkets which made decent snack foods easy to find for the first time since leaving Mexico City. We had a long way to travel that day, so caught a bus straight down south. Lonely Planet didn’t warn us about the quality of local buses in Belize – in Mexico the buses had a range of quality, but here it was all genuine ex-US-school-buses (aka chicken buses). Needless to say, the four-hour trip wasn’t very pleasant. Next was a short boat-ride over to Placencia, just in time for their 2-day annual arts festival.

We arrived in Placencia close to 6 tired, a bit sore from the bus, and quite hungry – I hadn’t had a proper breakfast and had only had snack food because of all the transfers we had had. Unfortunately, we were also faced with the daunting prospect of finding accommodation for the night. We had tried to email for a reservation earlier to no avail, but weren’t too worried because there were a lot of fairly cheap hotels. We hadn’t counted on just how many people had descended on the town for the arts festival. It takes only ten minutes to walk from one end of the town to the other, but finding any accommodation for less than $US125 a night took over half an hour, and we only found our place because Kevin was lucky enough to run into a local who knew of somewhere that still had a vacancy. It took a bit of searching to find a restaurant that served food we could eat (rice and beans is common, but almost always involves animal fat). We wondered what the vegetarian equivalent to ‘being so hungry you could eat a horse’ is, but finally found somewhere and crashed out soon afterwards.

We woke the next day excited to check out the arts festival. Sadly, it was spectacular only by Belize’s standards (the country’s total population is only 300,000, after all). There were a lot of stalls of handmade jewellery, wood and coral carving, painting, and other handcrafts, nothing that interested us enough to buy other than insect repellent handmade from local ingredients. We learned that cashew wine isn’t very tasty, even just a taste leaves a bad flavour in your mouth and a bad feeling in the stomach. There was also African drumming, folk music, and... possibly other types of music, but that was all we heard. In Mexico the dancing music only got started around 10, so we headed out then hoping to dance, but the only music left was pop from a bar. There was supposed to be a sidewalk art competition, but the cement was still drying in one section of the sidewalk and it looked like rain as we were leaving though the contest still had not begun. Placencia’s atmosphere, cool breezes, and good food at a place open until 5pm did make for a relaxing day, anyway. One oddity of the town: Islands for sale. Yep, for just US$150K you could be the proud owner of a 2 acre island.... somewhere.

Yes, that is a clich├ęd realty sign, for the whole island.

We headed out the next day to Back-a-Bush, near San Miguel, quite likely to be the place most off the main tourist trail of our whole journey (it’s not in our Central America version of Lonely Planet and is only in the most recent edition of the Belize book). To get to Back-a-Bush, you get off the bus at Silver Creek on the Southern Highway.

The bustling metropolis of Silver Creek

On Sundays there are no local buses running from there, so our hosts picked us up and drove us along a dirt road for 20 minutes to their haven in the bush (surprise, surprise). Back-a-Bush is a farm with a guesthouse, run by a lovely Dutch couple who moved there 7 years ago. They bought the land from a Mayan man who had farmed there in the traditional way and have mostly kept the land the way he had it. Plants they grow include: coffee, cacao (flesh around cacao beans is surprisingly tasty), breadnuts (relative of breadfruit), chaya (local greens), orange, allspice, ginger, and lemongrass (the latter three make for a very delicious tea). They also had horses, chickens, geese, black-bellied whistling ducks, and also non-whistling ducks. Food-wise, they’re pretty set – almost everything they eat that they don’t grow themselves they get from their neighbours. Kevin was getting cat-deprived, so was quite pleased they had two, one of them a lap-cat, as well as 5 or 6 dogs. They don’t need to buy cat food, as living where they do the cats can easily hunt enough rodents and geckos to feed themselves.

holy crap, whistling ducks

From Back-a-Bush, we took a guided tour to Tiger Cave, (un?)surprisingly found by a local when he was tracking a jaguar (the Spanish word for jaguar is tigre). We reached the cave after an hour and a half’s hike in high humidity, along a ‘trail’ (this involved road, bush and the occasional corn field) where our guide pointed our numerous jaguar prints.

Tiger Cave: 3kms thataway!

Here Kitty Kitty

The cave was truly magnificent: 15 – 20m high for most of it, and it took us an hour to get to where we would’ve had to crawl to continue. Even though jaguars rarely attack humans and are more nocturnal than diurnal, we were still quite glad to have our experienced local guide (complete with machete) with us, considering all the paw prints and hearing a jaguar when we listened closely inside the cave. Navigating our way through the cave was fairly tricky: it was rocky, muddy, had rocks that looked like mud and mud that looked like rocks, pools of water, a few passages only about 2 feet high and a river. I managed to get my pants muddy, ripped the knee, cut my hand and bruised my bum. None-the-less, it was an incredible experience.

Time for an interlude on Belizean culture. The country is officially English-speaking, as it’s still part of the Commonwealth and has only been an independent nation since 1981. Due to this and other factors, it feels far more like being on a Caribbean island than being in the rest of Central America. Out of Belize City, everyone walks slowly; the food is mostly fried; and there’s a lot of reggae-influenced music. USD and Belizean dollars are accepted equally everywhere we went (2 BZD = 1 USD). Apart from the main two highways and maybe the four biggest cities, all the other roads aren’t paved. The locals told us that the roads get repaired every five years – just before the elections. We arrived only weeks away from the election, and saw one or both of the two main parties’ colours on every telephone pole. 

According to our hosts at Back-a-Bush, voter turnout is only as high as it is due to outright bribery: if you vote for one of the main parties you get $100, and if you vote for the other you get a month of cell phone credit. Everyone we met (with the exception of one die hard PUP supporter) seemed very pessimistic about the elections making any real difference - like any 3rd-world country, politics are marked by corruption scandals, and (like every country in the world) broken electoral promises. Some of the locals did get very excited about the election – we heard a procession of honking cars go through a town of less than 600 people at 10pm – but this seems to be only a small number. Although English is the main language, a lot of others are widely spoken. Our guide for the Tiger Cave spoke English, Spanish, Creole, Garifuna (spoken by a people with a mix of African and South American ancestry and culture), Mopan, and Q’eqchi (the latter two are Mayan languages).

For our last stop, we headed back to Belize city. After another long, hot, bumpy bus ride, we got late into the city and went hunting for the only vegetarian-serving restaurant shown in Lonely Planet. The roads tend not to be signposted, and the layout is pretty poor (Google maps was NO help here) so we had trouble finding the place. A stop at a net cafe later and we found where it was, only for it to be shut and no hours listed. Back to the net cafe and found another place, which – after walking to where it was shown to be on the only maps available – turned out to be non-existent, and then after a third visit to the net cafe finally found one on a road whose name we recognised and thought to be open – essentially back near our hotel. After walking all the way to where it was shown to be on the maps (maps! *shakes fist*) turns out it was within metres of where we had started. Very frustrating. When we finally got there, the food was horribly bland and just simply not-very-good. Vegetarians beware – Belize City is going to be challenging.

Next on our list of things in Belize to do were the Baboon (aka Black Howler Monkey) Sanctuary and the zoo. Sadly, the former proved to be quite hard to access, and getting to both in one day would’ve been very hard. I normally don’t like going to zoos, but the Belize Zoo is possibly unique in that almost all the animals are rescued from unscrupulous collectors, with the rest being born there, orphaned or injured in parts of the country where habitat destruction is such that they wouldn’t have a good chance of surviving, and a few given to them from other zoos. All the animals are species native to Belize and live in natural surroundings, with only a few in enclosures I thought a bit small. Interesting animals we saw included tapirs (snuffly creatures that could be a cross between a baby hippopotamus and an anteater), all of the five native species of cats (pumas, jaguars, ocelots, jaguarundi – essentially small ocelots, and margay), terrible-smelling pig things (pacas), howler monkeys, scarlet macaws (very noisy!), tayra (‘bush dog’/jungle weasel), coatimundis (small anteater-like creatures with long tails), agoutis (large guinea pigs, aka jaguar food), very large ‘king’ vultures, and harpy eagles. An amazing range, certainly.

tapirs are snotty

Apparently they make great pets. Anyone know an exotic animal smuggler?
Who was studying who?
I can has jaguar?
We caught our last chicken bus home, had a much easier time finding a very tasty dinner (hooray for thorough preparedness!) and the next morning we caught a bus (running 2 hours late) across the border to Guatemala.

Country 3: complete; country 4: engaged.


Wednesday, 15 February 2012


Leaving Cuba was nothing short of a relief. There would be little more to say about it, except for a funny moment as we were checking in at the airport. Like many airports, they Havana displayed a list of things you couldn't bring on the plane, but this had a small difference - see if you can spot the odd one out:

When we landed back in Mexico, it was with great urgency that we escaped the tourist town of Cancun.

Driving through the resort district of Cancun after a week in Cuba and 4 weeks in Mexico was truly otherworldly. The resorts themselves were massive and decadent beyond belief. The "town" was full of restaurants like Planet Hollywood, "Jimmy Buffet's Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant and Pina Colada bar" and other such Slice-of-Americana wonders. For those of us who had been trying to see Central America, not The-"Best"-of-USA-moved-south, it was nothing short of horrifying.
Fortunately, when we got into Cancun proper (e.g. past the resort district) the town was actually quite cool. We found good food (such a relief after Cuba!), some supplies which had been sorely missed and internet that actually worked, and overall felt much better about Mexico as a country. Then it was on a bus and down to Tulum.

Tulum is a funny little town. The town itself is little more than an extended truck stop, with only 1 or 2 roads running parallel to the main highway, but the beach - 10 minutes drive away - is a major tourist attraction. Needless to say, we planned to stay in town. There was, however, one small problem. Being "high season", none of the hostels would take reservations, and as we pulled into town, it decided to rain for the practically first time since we arrived in Mexico. It appeared to be saving it up for us, because the roads all flooded, and even the taxi drivers were sitting in the bus station with a very definite "you seriously want me to go out in that?" attitude. It took several excursions into this torrential downpour to find anywhere with a room for us, and then another dash out to get the taxi. Finally, however, we found Rancho Tranquilo which had a little thatched cabana just waiting for us, and we ended up staying 4 nights.

Our first day was spent in total recovery mode, revelling in the luxuries of edible vegetarian food, functioning internet and breathable air. Unbelievably, despite being situated right on the main highway, the air in Tulum was almost completely clean, and the almost jungle-like environs of the hostel made for lung-restoring cleanliness. We also met a local who took daily tours of people from the hostel out on snorkel tours of both a cenote (flooded cave system) and also out into the bay to see sea turtles and other such creatures of the sea. His rates were reasonable so we signed up for the following day.
Before then, however, we went out for dinner at a truly fantastic Thai restaurant, situated right on the beach looking straight out into the carribean. The food was absolutely phenomenal, but sadly the price tag was too heart-attack inducing to repeat :(

The first stop on our snorkel tour was a little intimidating: the cenote. This part of Mexico is riddled with underground caves, mostly flooded, and extending hundreds of miles. The part we went into was just the mouth of one such system, but it was home to some pretty incredible sights. However, neither Juliet or I had been snorkelling in several years and the combination of having to relearn this skill while swimming voluntarily into almost complete blackness was challenging and slightly terrifying - but worth it:

We were taken into a dark cave and one at a time pushed down to see the sunlight reflecting through the water from outside - a spectacular sight. A little further in, we discovered that trees had sent their roots through metres of solid rock to get to the fresh water available below.
We also saw bats flying around a second cave and got bitten by a host of tiny fishes that clearly thought we were insufficiently clean.
The final challenge for this spot was a 6m jump from the cliffs into the deep pool. While I did complete the jump, I'm ashamed to say that my fear of heights kicked in about 1/10 of a second after my feet left solid rock and my eyes were tightly closed by the time I hit the water. I came out shaking, and not just from the cold water. By far the scariest thing I've done so far this trip.

Next up was a trip out to Akumal, a overcrowded tourist beach, but our guide didn't seem to mind that. It was snorkel on, and into the waves in search of turtles, and turtles we found!

What a beach!

Not only that, but the reef and sea-grass was teaming with almost tame critters:

And suddenly, a wild sea creature appears :O

All in all, an incredibly rewarding trip.

We found an entirely vegan restaurant just across the road for dinner (we'd been looking for it, but both google and happycow were less than helpful in this endeavour) and ended up going back several times - The Hungry Veggie. If you happen to be passing through Tulum any time soon, make sure to stop in and say hi to Steve and his dog Cheeky (aptly named).

Our last day in town involved a mission out to the main ruins of a Mayan village, full of temples and similar stone structures. While, frankly, the remains of the town were reasonably uninspiring (after you've seen four or five ruined 2000 year old cities...) the sizeable stone wall which surrounded it was quite unique, and while no humans lived within the now crumbled village, the iguanas had happily moved in. Dozens of the critters scrambled all over the remains of walls, pedestals, altars and temples. Funky stuff.

Finally, after all this, we planned on catching a bus to a town on the border with Belize, and catching the boat across to San Pedro to spend a night or two on the beach. Unfortunately, while the first part of this plan went off without a hitch, one of us (*cough*me*cough*) forgot to pack the passports. So it was a 3 hour bus trip back to Tulum, a short run back to the hostel to pick those us (they had been safely stashed in the hostel safe during our absence) and then after a short wait, onto the next bus back to Chetumal. A very silly, and potentially dangerous, mistake. It also meant we missed the last boat out of town so got to spend a night in Chetumal. A very uninspiring town overall, we did discover a museum of Mayan history which turned out to be one of the better museums of its type that we had encountered.

From there, it was out to the docks, and finally we said goodbye to Mexico for goodbye. On to Belize!


Saturday, 11 February 2012

Cuba: The Twilight Zone

Okay, so we made it to Merida on time, and after a disappointing meal at Cafe Chocolate (the only real one we'd had that day), we crashed. The following day was another early start as we raced to get to Cancun to catch our plane, but fist we had a stop at Chichen Itza:

Stereotypical Chichen Itza picture :p
Sadly, Juliet was still not 100% and the combination of long bus trip and plain old relentless heat soon knocked her off her feet again - first to sleep under a tree and then we had to get her to the relative coolness of the park first aid room. With her safely under observation, I once again ran off to try catch up with the tour group and take a few hurried photos. The first objective was a complete failure - I only managed to find them just as the guide said "you now have half an hour to look around for yourselves" - but I had found a few cool things along the way. The huge ceremonial ball court was stunning, especially considering that the rings were tens of feet off the ground with the inner hole scarcely larger than the ball used, and yet the players would attempt to hit a heavy leather ball through them without using hands or feet for as long as it took one side to score, be this hours or days.

Similarly spectacular was the great waterhole ("chen" in Maya) which the former residents believed lead to the spirit realm and hence send gifts of jewellery and - of course - virgins. Who doesn't love drowning virgins? Just like the ball players (the winning teams captain got sacrificed - seems like a good reason to play badly), this was somehow considered desirable. The remains of a building, which would almost certainly (and almost cartoonishly) have had a large plank sticking out of it, was clearly visible on the edge of the hole. Spooky stuff.

After that the more recovered Juliet was bundled back onto a bus to go to a horrendously unaccommodating (and hideously expensive) buffet for lunch to carry on to Cancun. Cuba here we come.

Kevin out. Henceforth, Juliet here. 

After Chichen Itza, I was finally feeling better. Fortunately on this leg of the trip we didn't have to spend long in Cancun - as it was we spent a small fortune on a taxi to the airport and got the only meals other than plain salad we could (bean burritos). Our long day after the tour was completed by a stress-free flight to Havana that got us in to our home-stay at 2am (our host had been pre-warned).

Kevin was hoping to find the decayed remains of a once great semi-egalitarian culture, and some of what you see in the documentary 'The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil' (trailer here). I was expecting... I'm not sure what, but I had a more cynical view of the country, and hadn't seen that documentary prior to going there. I was also expecting a week of bland, limited food. Kevin was disappointed, and my expectations weren't much surpassed.

The country is a bizarre mix of old and new. The recent policy changes have seen a sudden influx of products and peoples which had been forbidden by the state and this means everything from new cars to air conditioning. The roads tell a story in themselves, with the typical car having an equal chance of being a new model japanese import or a meticulously maintained 1960s american gas guzzler:

We spent our week in Cuba just in Havana (we meant to get out, but Kevin got sick). It's a very old city for us Kiwis, and even old compared to a lot of Mexico: it was founded in 1515. We took in the history at the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro, a picturesque fortress built in 1589. It has great views of the harbour and city, a little bit of a museum, and ancient rusting cannons. Oh and holes that you could easily hurt yourself in and would surely be illegal in many countries (not to mention in a country trying to rapidly increase tourism).

Big enough to lose a child in, no problem

Havana city itself has moments of beauty, and lots of striking contrasts between buildings that have been kept in repair and those that haven't.

One of the impressive things about the city that neither of us were prepared for was the air pollution - a plethora of poorly-tuned decrepit cars makes the air so bad that Mexico City feels like a rural oasis in comparison. The air was likely a leading cause of Kevin's sickness (other than an almost perennial partially congested nose, he's very healthy). Choking through the streets was another reason we didn't see as much as we aimed to (we never made it out to hear music at night).

The food was pretty much as bad as I expected for me as a non-cheese eating vegetarian. At the majority of restaurants, the only things I could eat were chips/French fries, plain salad, a side of rice and beans, and bland pasta with a few old vegetables. The best food we had was at the one authentic restaurant in their Chinatown (ie the only restaurant that actually has Chinese people working in it). I was very glad to have the packets of refried beans and quinoa that I'd gotten from the food left behind the family vacation in Guayabitos. Even the largest supermarket in the city and probably the country (according to our 2-year-old guide book) didn't have hot sauce or chili pepper, and the ketchup from there was a bit strange.

The country is surprisingly un-tourist-friendly for a country whose main source of income is tourism. At multiple museums, staff called out 'Oficina!' (office) to us when we were trying to go somewhere we shouldn't have. Surely it'd be easier to simply put signs up? The tourist map of the city let us down when it came to the Castillo I mentioned earlier. We thought it'd be fun to take the ferry back across the harbour, so we went to where it should be on the map, only to be quite confused and ask a number of people where to go. 2 km after where the map said it should be, and completely without any street signs to guide us, we finally found the ferry building. We must've been the first tourists to take it in a long time. 

An obvious sign that something isn't meant for tourists is that you pay for it in the local currency. The tourist currency (CUC) is slightly dearer than the US dollar. 1 CUC = 26.5 CUP (local currency). Other than the ferry, the only other place we used the local currency was when we stumbled upon the main bus station. I used the toilet there. I'd already had my share of slightly dodgy public toilets that you pay small amount of money to use in Mexico, but this one took the cake. There was no toilet paper left, so the attendant gave me newspaper. I couldn't find a way to make the toilet flush. Like most of the Mexican toilets, there was no toilet seat.

According to our guide book, and from seeing a few others, the only museums really worth seeing were the Nacional de Bellas Artes (lots of old European paintings, some cool Cuban stuff from the 20th century, and a section of pretty pieces from ancient Greece and Egypt), and the Museo de la Revolucion. The latter was akin to a palace decorated by high school students. It had been a palace, and the standard of the exhibits was about that of what you'd expect from teenagers. Despite the fact that at several points they stated that women were important to the revolution, we only found one woman with a biography. It did tell the story of the revolution (in a positive light, of course - no mention of the horrible persecution that gays faced in the 60s and 70s, for example) - but apparently hadn't been updated since the early 1990s.
Important revolutionary relics. No, really - this was one of the least obscure ones on display. Other such articles include "the pants worn by [minor revolutionary soldier] on the day [minor skirmish] occurred" and "a homemade rocket that wasn't used in [minor skirmish 2]"
You might be starting to get the picture that nothing is quite what it seems in Cuba. At the end of our week, when faced yet again with a situation along those lines, our refrain was "Oh, Cuba". Our 'home-stay' wasn't really a home-stay. We chose that over a hotel because it was cheaper and included a kitchen. The place was run by an English professor. He spent only a night or two there while we were there, instead staying at his wife's house, and was over only briefly every morning and most evenings. A couple nights there was another foreigner staying in the other bedroom. We watched one of his pet birds die a slow and painful death (likely at least partially caused by the other bird attacking it). Our host went to Canada in 2007 to give a talk at a university, and we watched the DVD from that visit. He seemed quite naive about the real situation then, but when we were finally able to ask him some questions his attitude had changed significantly - gone was the revolutionary zeal. This may have been caused by the growing social inequality in the country over the past decade and a half. From the way he talked, the communities with a strong 'green' spirit described in the documentary I linked to at the beginning never existed on a large scale.

Okay, now for the positive points about the Cuba. Healthcare and education are completely free for all citizens, everyone is provided with the basic grocery needs, and most don't have to pay rent (though this is not to say you are provided with a home... it's a rather bizzare system. You couldn't buy or sell property until 2010, but it wasn't assigned by the state either. Tricky - Kevin). Also, on our last day we went out to the botanical gardens, where we saw a staggering array of cacti and tropical flora in greenhouses, and went to the one vegetarian restaurant in the 'city' (it was a decent taxi ride away from the city proper).
Am I the only one who thinks these look like they should be roaming the desert,
like spiky daleks or tricked out triffids? - Kevin

Got cactus?
Another interesting aspect of Cuba was the near total lack of advertising, and the simultaneous omnipresence of political art. Everywhere you turn there are reminders of the revolutionary past, even as the invading capitalist present becomes more and more obvious. Many are familiar with the giant stylised portraits of Che and Fidel at the edge of Plaza de la Revolucion:
 but it was the everyday murals spread across every "blank" wall which really showed the centrality of the revolutionary past in the modern Cuban culture. Despite the inescapable reality that this history is now exactly that, it was still cool to see - Kevin

Sorry for another late update! We are now in the laid-back and Caribbean in culture country of Belize and enjoying it. We'll try and update soon, but we're not so optimistic as to set a schedule this time!

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Beaches and Mountains

Another long delay in writing. I swear we get home each night too late and too tired to write most days.

When last we wrote we were in Puerto Escondido. Once we finally managed to shake off the heat lethargy and move on, we stopped in Puerto Angel, a small town a little further down the coast. We were surprised to find that the host of our hostel was not around, that this was `normal’ and that some guy called Norm (aka Mr Bean) was to give us our key. Turns out Puerto Angel, like the hostel, is…. Well… a hole, and that to do anything interesting like, for example, eat a decent meal, one had to go over to one of the other beaches in the area. We did eventually find a decent restaurant on a nearby beach and took a cool walk up to a point just in time to miss the sun setting. The next day we went to a turtle conservation park which had clearly seen better days, with most of the enclosures being little more than foot high stone walls and some didn’t even have that, which nearly led to turtles being stood on at one point (they were hiding in leaves). The primary purpose of the park was to rear and rehabilitate young turtles, which were kept in big plastic tubs devoid of any “natural” furnishings, and despite many signs, the locals insisted on poking or banging on the tubs of any turtles which proved to be insufficiently interesting. Overall, very sad. Still, the beaches were beautiful and the weather was perfect for swimming – an activity I almost never partake of due to my tendency to freeze into an ice cube on contact with seawater. Not in Mexico!

We still hadn’t seen our host, only his wife who spoke no English and didn’t know how much the rooms were supposed to cost so we gave her what we thought was the price, many hours after “check out” – she didn’t seem to care - and moved on to San Cristobal, in the state of Chiapas

Chiapas is an interesting place. In 1994, a sizable group of indigenous people took up arms and declared war on the Mexican state in protest over a whole series of political actions which blatantly ignored the desires of the great many Maya descended indigenous peoples in the area. This group, calling themselves the EZLN (Zapatista army of national liberation, or just the Zapatistas for short) chose the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, Jan 1st, to make indigenous rights the biggest thing in Mexican politics, especially in Chiapas. Several villages were declared “autonomous municipalities”, and independent authorities were established within these communities which oversaw the democratic running of the area. Over the next several years the Mexican government spared nothing to destroy the Zapatistas, including massive military operations, harassing villages, driving a great many people out of their homes and encouraging right wing militias to further harass, and in at least one case massacre, EZLN sympathising communities. Nonetheless, public sentiment was with the Zapatistas, and several extremely large scale demonstrations forced the government to work toward peace with the EZLN, and to address several of the major concerns voiced by them. By this stage, approximately half the state had been declared Autonomous and was being run by the local communities. After a period of 13 years, with numerous betrayals by the government, the peace accords were finally ratified and actioned in 2007, which has seen significant investment in the indigenous communities – specifically in education, infrastructure and cultural work - and while the EZLN still operates and continues to be well respected by the people, the situation is largely peaceful. This doesn’t stop the army from enforcing “drug enforcement” and “firearms restrictions” road blocks and searches on a regular basis though. As I said, Interesting.

San Cristobal is cool. Despite being fairly small (pop. 250,000), it’s quite “hippy”ish, with an abundance of vegetarian restaurants and similarly hippy shops. There were several stores run by various cooperatives associated with the Zapatistas, which were interesting, and I picked up some light reading which I’m sure will be fascinating and enlightening, as soon as my Spanish improves.

While we initially only planned to spend 3 nights there, we ended up spending nearly a whole week. Somewhat lacking in the standard tourist draws (museums and galleries and centuries old churches etc), it had a significant charm nonetheless. On our second day we went to the festival in the town of Chiapa de Corzo. The story goes that a Spanish noblewoman had a son who was very sick, so she took him to the local shaman who told her that she had to bathe him in this river and that he would be cured. The child was sick and fidgety, so to distract him the locals all dressed up as Spanish people, the men wearing wigs the resemble hemispherical broomheads and wooden masks with blue eyes and white skin, while the women wore pretty dresses that we would still call “classic” Spanish attire. The child was bathed and soon recovered. Now every year, for 2 whole weeks, the people dress up and dance through the streets. There is also some religious significance (isn’t there always) as people were carrying crucified saints shot full of arrows. Very strange! Sadly, the day was sweltering and we soon needed to retreat from the sun. Apparently soon after we left, there was a massive feast in the town centre and one of the people from our hostel who we had travelled in with was given a free meal. Score!

In one of the pubs on the main road with the cool and coincidental name of "Revolucion!" we found a great little gig. The band played Balkan and Cumbia-style (originally a Colombian genre, re-invented in Mexico) music with a great deal of gusto, flair, and skill. Sadly, there were too many tables for there to be space to dance. Another bonus of San Cristobal was having time to socialise with other travellers at the hostel - we had a Lebanese dinner with a lefty female nuclear engineer from Pennsylvania; we bumped into an interesting Swedish woman on our canyon tour and then at the movie theatre; and hung out with a Welsh man who curiously went by the name Sasha and had a very impressive command of European languages as well as Mexican Spanish.

On what was supposed to be our 2nd to last day in San Cristobal we found Na Bolom (house of the Jaguar, named after a mishearing of the founder’s name), a centre set up to study and preserve the cultures of one of the Mayan cultures that was particularly special because it was untainted by Spanish influence – the Lacadon culture. Apparently in their conquest of southern Mexico, the conquistadors missed a spot. The centre is magnificent, with great gardens, a fantastic library and accommodation for the students, scholars and artists who work out of the centre. We were shown around by one of the staff who had worked with the founders, Frans and Gertrude Blom, and who knew a great deal about the centre and the communities. Gertrude (aka Trudi) had been a social activist, photographer, and journalist. In Europe she learned half a dozen languages and in Mexico learned two of the indigenous languages. She took over 50,000 pictures of the people and villages of the Chiapas area, a work which earned her recognition by the United Nations shortly before her death.

We took a few tours, one out to Sumidero Canyon (stunning; pictures below) and another out to a couple of the Mayan communities nearby via Na Bolom. Sadly, we didn’t make it to a Zapatista municipality or a Lacandon village, thanks to miscommunication with our guide.

Just when you think you’ve seen every kind of Catholic church build from the stones of the local worship sites by Jesuit priests who don’t give a rat’s rear, people manage to surprise you. In San Juan Chamula they practice “catholica tradicionale”, which is strangely distinguished from “catholica authentica” – Catholicism as we typically think of it. Catholica Tradicionale is what happens when the Jesuits priests don’t quite manage to make their religion stick with a people who are quite happy with their traditional religious practice. The building is church shape; it has statues of saints but instead of Jesus at the end there’s John the Baptist , who is worshiped literally as Jesus; there are no priests, only robed shamans (male and female); they don’t hold mass or anything similar, and instead of pews, the room is essentially devoid of furniture; people worship at arrays of candles, 3 rows to represent the heavens, the sky and the underworld; Coca Cola is a holy drink, blessed by the shamans and then imbibed to cure disease (I kid you not!); chickens are killed right there in the church to bring good health – roosters for men, dark chickens for women and white chickens for children – and people request “cleansings” from the shamans which involves being wiped down with eggs and, you guessed it, coke. From a purely sociological perspective, it was absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, no pictures allowed inside.

They did keep some catholic traditions though – the only permissible religious practice in the community is catholica tradicionale. Anyone who practices any other religion is driven from the town, and god help you (no pun intended) if you should encourage others to practice differently – one woman was reportedly badly beaten only ten years ago for handing out leaflets for the “authentic catholic” church in San Cristobal. Likewise on the political front. The town is PRI territory (one of the political parties) and anyone who doesn’t like it can leave. Real old school catholic tolerance. For once, I kept my mouth shut.

The second village was equally interesting in a different way. An entrance fee was charged upon entering the village – only $15 pesos per person, but as a popular “authentic local community” tour destination, this adds up for the community. Our guide explained that this money went to the local municipal authority, where it was divided up – 5 pesos for the schools, 5 pesos for healthcare, and 5 pesos for what amounted to a “local culture school” where students between 8 and 18 are taught dance, music, handicrafts and all the other things associated with the traditional culture of the people of the area, as well as the broader thing we consider “cultural” (e.g. dance was local but also hip hop, instrument options include wood flutes, but also guitars and violins). There were obvious signs of investment such as large water purification systems for the school, level playing courts (unusual) and well-maintained roads (also unusual). Despite being less than 20 minutes drive from the previous town, the church had both catholic and Mayan altars (opposite sides of the same church), and there were indications of several political parties. The contrast couldn’t have been starker.

Yesterday we took a tour to Palenque, via two waterfalls: Cataratas de Agua Azul (the blue waterfalls) and Misol-Ha. The former are a long series of falls and pools which are almost eerily blue, all rounded by mineral formations.

The tourist walkways have been quite sensitively built to leave the falls visible but essentially undisturbed, it appears. You can swim, but we did not. In fact, poor Juliet wasn’t in much shape to do much of anything. The bumpy ride in a crowded tour van made her horribly sick, and anti-nausea medication wasn’t helping at all. The second stop was at a beautiful single cascade that you could walk down to and under to a cave that was the source of a subterranean spring.

By the time we finally made it to the ruins at Palenque, she was in a very bad way. We only had day-old leftovers to eat, and it appears they may not have been as edible as hoped, as in the hours after eating she went from bad to worse.

She slept at the foot of one of the ancient temple buildings at Palenque while I looked around and took pictures (we weren’t going to get another chance to see the place) and when we got to our room for the night the vomiting didn’t stop. Add the other unpleasant symptom of suspected food poisoning and she scarcely slept, having to get up regularly to use the bathroom. Neither did I. We missed our bus out to Campeche this morning and had to arrange to get directly to Merida tomorrow, on the hope that she is somewhat recovered by then. Fingers crossed, or else we’re going to miss our flight to Cuba. We have drugs for both symptoms, and something to hopefully address the cause, so you’ll find out if we make it Cuba next time.



Edit: This was supposed to have gone up before we left for Cuba, but the whirlwind sprint from Palenque to Cancun, combined with no internet at any of our stops, meant that it didn't make it. As you can probably surmise, we *did* get there on time (though it was a close run thing for a while) and Juliet is fully recovered. The week till today will go up tomorrow, or possibly even tonight.