Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Honduras: A dive in the deep.

Already on day one: I'm finally catching up with some sleep. That is, after waking up at an unholy time. And waking up our roomies, because after all, we couldn't not say our goodbyes and see you laters. Our bus picked us up from the hostel in Antigua at 04.15, and it turned out, besides Anouk and I, there was only one traveller: Jeff. We had interesting conversations, a couple of laughs, I had a short nap, and we reached the border in no time. As stamp hunters, we asked for our Copán one as well as the one for Honduras. And scored.

Because that's where our first stop was: Copán. A small town near the Guatemalan border, the edge of the Mayan World. The final of the ruins we were planning on visiting. The next weeks of our trip will be anything but exploring that ancient culture. I think I've learned a lot about them. And I got told, more than once, that we should watch Apocalypto. Because it's all about the Mayas, in their language, and takes a rough four hours that you won't even notice.

Copán consisted of temples like Chichen Itza's and Tikal's, but with one main difference. The ruins had hieroglyphics and carvings none of the others have. There were statues and pillars strewn along the plaza, fascinatingly detailled, and delicately destroyed. 

We took some interesting pictures, but were done fairly quickly, said goodbye to Jeff and went to get a smoothie to make use of the wifi. We noticed something on the menu of the cafe: hagelslag (Chocolate sprinkles). We squealed and pointed and I even took a picture, but we didn't make the connection straight away. Our Lonely Planet told us it was run partly by a dutchie, which made sense. That's when we decided to also have our (really good) dinner there.

At the hostel, where we only stayed one night, I got tips from some lovely travellers in the other way: two Australians, a Frenchman and a Czech. What to do with jellyfish (vaseline), looking for places worth their price in Costa Rica, and to never shine flashlights directly at turtles laying their eggs.
The next morning we made our way to our final destination in Honduras: Utila. The busride took a good 8 hours, a taxi to the boat and the boat ride a good 2 hours, so when we finally arrived we were, once again, quite exhausted.   

We checked in, got welcomed warmly, and got a tour around the Dive Centre, about a twelve minute walk from our accommodation: the Mango Inn. Anouk and I ended up sharing it with two others, and our entire group consists of eight cool peeps: Andy, Mike, Mike, Noel, Sandra, Mark, Anouk and I. Even better, our instructor, Frankie, is a wonderfully bubbly person, and Bryn, our dive master, is just (no other word for her) awesomely cool.
 Also cool: Tim, Stacey and Inge (our classmates) were doing the same course, staying in the same hotel, so we got to hang with them for a couple of nights before they left. Beds were awesome. After dinner at Babelu, a restaurant with an open sea aquarium in its middle. And us trying every cafe till it closed. Best arrival evening ever. :)

 First day was simple: laze about and do whatever you want till 16.00, then come watch some videos and answer some questions. And like with everything: the theory is good and interesting to know, but you learn a lot of more actually doing it and trying it out. Anouk went snorkling with Mike and Andy, but I couldn't gather the energy to join in.

 Day two we had to start slightly earlier: be at the dive center at 09.00, to go through the assignments, was the command. After that, we watched the rest of the videos (there are five in total), then we had lunch. After that, the most interesting part so far: actually learning to get your gear ready to use. We got to mantle and dismantle our gear a couple of times, and then we got all the information we needed for when we were going in the water.

 And then, the moment was there. Everybody had been waiting for it. Not everyone was reacting the same way they expected. One by one, we practiced all the skills that were asked. Drop your regulator (breathing mouth piece), and keep breathing (out). Drop your regulator and find it again. Share your air with your buddy when they are out of air. Fill your mask halfway with water, then use your nose to blow the water out. Fill your mask all the way and blow it it. Take off the mask completely and put it on again, empty it. (I was mostly worried about these.
I feel comfortable enough in water, as long as I'm ensured there is no water up my nose or in my eyes. Specifically nose with water makes me panic).

 It was surreal. We were under water. For an hour. We all sounded like a bunch of Darth Vaders. And we didn't have to go up for air. Not even once. We just sat there, looking around at the others, or concentrating on doing our skills the right way. It was shallow. It was 'boring'. But it was crazy as hell awesome. We even managed to see a fish or two. Can't wait for tomorrow! We go 2 meters deep and practice more.


 A slight hitch, as some of you might've already read. I felt a tad nauseous in the morning, and simply blamed the stress and my hormones. I shrugged it off and went to the Dive Center. We had swapped the morning and afternoon programs so that we would start out with the practice under water, and the theory after lunch.

We got our gear ready, went through a briefing in which was explained what skills we were going to do, and then literally strode into the water. We practiced fin pivoting, and got used to the bouyancy: the more air you breathed in, the more you floated upward, what you breathed out made you sink slightly. We were teamed up and had to pretend being out of air, so that we could share one tank. We swam blowing bubbles all the way to one end, then swam back without our goggles on.

 Practice was fine. Everything went flawlessly. Only when I came up did I notice I was more than a little exhausted. A dive master helped me out of my gear, and I took a moment to sit on the floor to rest... and I couldn't get up. Apparently all the colour drained from my face, the heat hit me hard and though I was conscious at all times, I felt paralyzed by sheer fatigue. I could hear people, but do little more than nod or murmur. Nauseousness had doubled, and my instructor, Frankie, helped me to the bathroom. Vomiting was only a little release, though. I pleaded with her to leave me for a bit, so I could be sick violently without being too embarrassed, whilst she, Anouk and others got me Gatorade, chocolate, a van to the hotel, cool water to drink...

 So we didn't have our theory. There was a football match on where Germany played, and two of our group being German they opted to postpone theory to the next day. I was brought home, and Anouk was a real angel. She got me food, she checked up on me regularly, let me use her bed because mine was topbunk, and would've been more dificult to get down from should I feel the need to make a dash for the bathroom.. I slept. A lot.

And the next day I was feeling better. Drowsy though, but I linked that to the being sick part. Only later did I realize I'd taken anti histamines both days because my leg had swollen up to twice its size thanks to a horsefly. Only later did it click, that anti histamines "may include side effects" like drowsiness, dizziness, nausea, etc. So I stopped taking them. As it were, though, I was still exhausted, so Frankie thought it was better to send me home after the theory. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, not to mention quite bummed that the others went on their first dives without me. I had an ice cream and quite an amount of chocolate before I felt anywhere near cheerful. I met up with Anouk, Noel en Mike for dinner, and heard their stories of how cool it was.

Andy had stopped taking the course after freaking out repeatedly, Mike got sick the day afer I did, and apparently Noel got seasick on his dive, so he couldn't finish his. The upside to that was that this morning, I had a buddy: Noel. Mike was still feeling too sick to join in, so Chris gave the two of us two seasickness pills before we left, took us apart for our own briefing before we joined the rest of our group on the boat.

 And it went flawlessly! The only thing I really had trouble with was equalizing fast enough: my ears have always been sensitive, especially with pressure. Caves, mountains, planes, even tunnels make them hurt. Visibility was great, the water was warm, we went around 12 meters deep max on both dives, saw loads of fish (parrot fish, lobster, jellyfish, and hundreds of tiny colourful "aquarium" fish), and swam around without any "mistakes".

It was just the four of us, with Chris in the lead, Noel as my buddy and Tim hovering behind us in case we needed help. The first dive was mostly about getting used to it all, the second we also had to demonstrate some skills. Goggles, pivoting, but also surface tricks of getting out and into your gear in the water, relieving yourselfor others of cramps, and towing them to safety. It was easier than I expected, though I definitely have problems getting my ears equalized with the pressure. Second dive wasn't as bad as the first, though. 

 It was in between both dives when the epicness happened, however: dolphins! Lots of them! Ad it wasn't planned, and certainly not within the captain's job description, but he got the boat to encircle them so that when we had our flippers and snorkels on, all we had to do was wait for the "Go!" To jump in the water. The first time, I caught sight of one immediately. It was swimming away, though, so after about a minute of rushing behind it, I lost sight of it. We climbed up on the boat, repeated, but this time the "Go!" came whilst the boat was still fully in movement. I slid off the boat, and the first thing I thought was "Crap! My flipper!". The speed of the water had tugged one of my feet. I poked my head above the water to see only Noel near me, the rest hadn't dared to jump, and then when I put my face under water again, let out a gasp of surprise. At least six dolphins were swimming so close to us, that if I had reached out my hand, I would have been able to touch them. I didn't, but I watched in amazement how they circled us. I was commanded back on the boat as soon as they found out I'd lost a flipper, so I was happy I hadn't let them know as soon as I had gotten in, or I might've missed all that.. All in all, today made up for what yesterday lacked in action! 


 Four dives today! And I'm not even that tired! I had to get up around 06.00 to be at the dive center in time for a treat: Frankie had sorta already told me it'd be good. :) I was really excited and had no idea what to expect, but we left early enough and it was quite the boat ride. Noel, one girl of another group and myself were the only ones wrapping up their courses, the rest were all certified divers or instructors/dive masters. 
Maya as our instructor, and Bryn (yay!) as our dive master to accompany us and test our final skills. I was first teamed up with Noel, but underwater he was quite some distance from me, and as I was tested by Bryn we ended up diving together: the coolest buddy on the coolest dive. 

The ocean, deep turquoise, on one side, with so many fish (hundreds of blue tang) I asked myself if they hadn't been bribed to show up, or forced. If you turned your head, there was a wall of coral. Small purple and orange fish, parrot fish, lobsters, pretty (and harmless!) Jellyfish, and even a Spotted Eagle (sting)Ray. It was by far the most interesting dive of the day.. or week. 

 Dive two was good as well, though a lot closer to "home". Better than the first dive, comparing in how much the pressure hurt my ears. We saw plenty, and it just felt good to be finalizing the course. Doing the skills required without feeling the panic of what to do, and again being buddied up with Bryn, who, like all experienced divers, has an eye for things underwater. 

 We went back to shore, got lunch and met up with Anouk, and Mike, who were joining us for the fun dives in the afternoon. Mark and Frankie would accompany us for his Advanced course he'd decided to follow, and with our captain Tina we left just after the start of the finals of the European cup: Spain- Italy. 

 Dive three was nice: For the first time I finally buddied up with Anouk, something I'd been trying to do ever since we started the course (things just kept popping up). I was slightly tired, but the dive was totally worth it. Every dive brought along new sights, and one thing I noticed was that you see a lot of more creatures under water when you start looking than when you walk around in a forest of jungle. They're not keen on your presence, but definitely less shy. 

 Dive four, due to our limitations of depth (because Noel and I had already done two dives in the morning of 18 meters/100 feet) had to be kept shallow. We couldn't get near enough to the coral or the fish to do much exploring, but it was a new experience: It was a drift dive, which meant we could swim along with the current and have the boat pick us up where we stranded. Bryn, who didn't join the fourth dive, did lend us her underwater camera, and we had the time of our lives experimenting with summersaults, twirls, back flips, pulling faces and blowing kisses underwater, and held an entire photoshoot. 


At the end of the day, we got a free t shirt from the center, hugged Frankie and Bryn goodbye and actually felt quite sad to leave them. Then Anouk and I, being budget tied, decided to stick with noodles and a quiet last night on Utila. Noel thought differently, and took Mike and us two out for dinner to celebrate all of us having achieved our Certification of Open Water Diving. 

 Tomorrow morning, the ferry will leave early. We'll rush through Honduras and Nicaragua to keep within our schedule. It was good to stay in one place for a while longer than two days, but both Anouk and I are really excited for our next adventure!

The Gypsy

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Guatemala: Careful or Carefree?

I caught a bug. It's making me restless. It's highly contagious, I'm told, and I hope I don't infect too many helpless victims..
The travelling bug. I was already called Gypsy for good reason. Now, it's worse. Now, I'm infected for life.
Guatemala. We entered it cautious, wary. Up to five years ago, our school used to have their studytrip to Guatemala. Then, the most horrendous thing happened: one of the students got into a chicken bus. And the chicken bus was robbed. And everybody was shot. Dead.
They changed the studytrip destination to Cuba, and warned all students to avoid Guatemala on the travelling-after-Cuba route.

Up till now I'm still alive.
More surprisingly, up till now Guatemala is my favourite.

The place is beautiful.. the nature is lovely. They have pineapple plants! They have breathtaking views. They have roads that never seem to end. And are bumpy as hell.
We slept in Flores first, a tiny island connected to the main land by a bridge. A pretty little place that throbbed safety in the air.

Tikal was our first tour. And it was EPIC.
It was so beautiful. We had seen ruins before. But we hadn't yet seen ruins in the middle of a Jungle. We hadn't climbed any temples yet. We did now. They were huge. High, tiring steps.
Our guide was awesome. He made jokes, knew a lot (he was a professional bird watcher), his English accent was cool (a mix between Australian, Canadian, American and Guatemalan). He took care of the group. He got along with everybody, but gave everyone their personal attention.

We climbed the highest ceremonial Mayan temple there: 70 meters high, roughly. We had the most amazing panoramic view. All over the jungle, with tips of other temples protuding. Pretty worthwhile. The air was thinner though, and every step was harder. We saw so many temples to climb, by the time we arrived at el Mundo Perdido, or the Lost World, we were exhausted. We saw a lot of different butterflies. We heard and saw howler monkeys, as well as spider monkeys. We saw a lot of different colourful birds, amongst which the most pretty was a tucan, nicknamed "flying banana" for its yellow beak. There were foxes, raccoons, wild cats, etc. There were trees: the Chiclet gum tree, the Baobab, the Rubber tree..

 Back in Flores we had the best lunch we had had in the longest while: a brilliant smoothie (for me, raspberry and strawberry in apple juice and frozen yoghurt), and pancheese: bread with molten cheese, pumpkin, pepper, onions, etc. Not because I'm sharing everything I eat, but because this was worth it. Pfew.

 Next on the list was Lanquin, and we stayed at Semuc Champey. A hostel which had no wifi, a generator for the electricity so they had to shut it down every evening for the entire night, and which had flying ants everywhere. In the middle of the jungle, so basically, in the middle of nowhere. No shops. Then again, it only costs 2.5€ a night (25 Quetzals), so we couldn't really complain. The beds where fine, the restaurant of the hostel had good food we could buy, and we were a fifteen minute walk for our next day: a tour.

 We started out the tour with a hike. A bloody strenous one hour hike, half an hour up hill, half an hour down, to the "mirador", or lookout. Walking up I did quickly, and my knees thanked me for it. Any slower would have just been horrible. But, I was hell of sweaty at the top, and people were wondering if I'd already been in the water. The panoramic view on top was worth every drop of sweat. Next, when we got down, we went swimming in those pools we had seen from up top. And to be quite honest, everybody was welcoming the water at that point.

We literally dove in, and then understood the word "activities" our guide had been rambling on about. We used waterfalls and rocks as slides, water to break our fall or help it, and it was just crazy.

 Next, after lunch, was the caves. Now, we had not taken a liking to our guide, who nearly let a member in our group drown cause he was too busy being popular. But with the caves, we got a new guide, temporarily. And funnily enough, he recognized me from the hostel. So I scored points. The cave was cool. Long cold swims, holding a candle as the only source of light whilst you're doggy swimming from point to point, trying to avoid the worst bits of rocks that jut out sharply. a high waterfall, with a ladder on the side, which everybody picked but me. So I had to climb the waterfall with just a rope. Damn. That was heavy. Then, there was a cliff. In the cave. Around 3 meters high. Which, if you wanted to jump off, meant that you had to jump exactly in one place, everywhere around it was too shallow. So no pressure.

 After the caves we went tubing, which is like riding the river, or floating on the stream, in the rubber tire of a car. So relaxing, yet so tiring if you veer off course. And so cold. The river. I had started the day feeling okay, grew from cautious to courageous. And then I hit downright reckless. As I came back from the tubing and made my way towards the hostel, there were a lot of people on a 10 meter high bridge. Apparently it was a "must" to jump it. Everybody asked me if I would. So I had only response available at that point: why the hell not?
 I did it. As I was standing on the ledge I couldn't help thinking "Why am I doing this?". As I jumped, I remembered. It's exhilerating. The adrenaline and kick are undescribeable. No broken back or neck. Just two nosefuls of water. Painful, but worth it.

 The riskiest thing we did all day, however, had nothing to do with caves, water or heights. We spent the evening at the hostel near Semuc Champey, falsely assured it was a quick way back to our hostel. We wanted the wifi and the company (Sarah whom we'd met in Tulum, Mexico, was there). But when we finally had eaten our food it was pitch black dark out. And there are no lanterns in the mountains and jungle of Guatemala. But we did it anyway. We walked. We were scared and jumpy, pocket knife at the ready and waving the one flashlight we had in all directions. When we arrived safely we could laugh again, calling it another adventure on the list, though not one either of us was keen on repeating.


 Antigua was next on the list. I'd been hearing both good and bad, so was going there with a curiousity of a ten year old. According to me, the town was fine. It had a nice atmosphere, the weather was good, cool but not cold. The streets all looked the same to me, so I tended to follow my group rather than be bothered by trying to recognize it. The roommates were awesome: Sarah we had already met in Tulum, bumped into in the shuttle from Flores to Semuc Champey, and again on our way to Antigua. So we quickly decided to go looking for a hostel together. We also met some Canadians whom were staying a long while in Guatemala for their study. One of them, Ally, preferred to join us rather than hang out with her classmates. A compliment, if you ask me. Then there was Josh, a kiwi, whom I accidentally mistook for an Australian by his "Hi". And together, the five of us made our own stay pretty wonderful.

 From Antigua we also visited a nearby volcano: the Pacaya. The climb was steep, but either because I was mentally prepared for it, or because I "rented" a walking stick for the mental support, it was easier than I had expected it to be. The surface of the volcano was like that of a moon's, if anything. Black, full of rocks, craters, and cave like places which emitted a lot of smoke at the top. The view was ridiculusly gorgeous, with the three other nearby volcanoes in full view: Agua (water), Acatenango, and Fuego (Fire, which is active, and we saw its fumes at the tip from where we were standing.). Near the top, the ground was warm. And we did the funniest thing to make us realize we were on top of a volcano: we roasted Marshmellows on the top by the heat of the lava! Surreal. Forreal.


 The Gypsy

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Mexico and Belize

The start of our roundtrip to and from the Caribbean all through Central America has begun. And boy, you should have seen us, after the isolation and deprivation of Cuba. Every brand name sprung out, and Americans were suddenly everywhere.
On our transit to Cancun via Panama airport, we just sat on the ground in front of a Subway because it had free Wifi. Pathetically funny.
The first thing that happened in Cancun, Mexico, was that we got ripped off, like all beginner backpackers. The sole reason for it, though, was the fact that the ATMs at the airport weren't working, so we couldn't pin Mexicon pesos. All we had were some US Dollars pinned on the way, in Panama, and apparently, Mexican taxi drivers love US Dollars. Who knew? /sarcasm
Our first stop was Isla Mujeres. We had anticipated being absolutely knackered after our study trip on Cuba, and had planned a (very wise) day and a half of absolute nothingness on the pretty island. And pretty it was. Absolutely tacky touristy, but pretty none the less. We lazed about, we slept and napped and sum and showered, ate tacos with shrimps and fish.
Next stop on the list: Cancun. It isn't a very interesting city, if you ask me. It didn't leave any impression on me. The hostel we stayed in, however, totally did. It was awesome.
It had a kitchen free to use (and you get advised on where to get your food cheap), breakfast included (pancakes, waffles or french toast), airco in the dorm., a tv, computer and wifi for public use. And I guess that describes plenty a hostel, and that's fine.
This hostel was messy, though. In a good way. Hammocks were scattered around the 'yard', there was a table and benches for a big group to sit. The people both visiting and working there are completely loco. The variety of nationalities was also striking to me: a Scot, a Francaise, a German, Swedish cousins, a few Americans, a Mexican-Canadian brought up in Miami, etc. They give free advise, joke around a lot, are completely loveable, open minded, interested in who you are and interesting. It was sort of like a big dysfunctional family. Though I have to admit it's not for everybody: Anouk had much less fun than I did there. She was ready to leave after two nights, I would have been willing to stay longer.
Whilst sleeping in Cancun we went on a day trip tour to Chichén Itzá. Because it was a scheduled tour, there was a lot of unnecessary fuss and waiting everywhere. We visited a Cenote, or Sink-(water-) well, and I swam in the cave. Totally cool. There was a holein the ceiling, through which a ray of sunlight lit up this spot in the water as well as colour the cave's walls. 
The downsides of the tour? I have never seen a more arrogant tour leader. If I had said on my tour "If you guys fall asleep during this long (and boring) busride, it's a sign that you're not interested. Don't come asking me questions later on. I'm not repeating anything I said." I would have failed. For sure. My lecturers would've simply stopped listening.
On that note: I passed my tour with an 8! Pretty happy about that! Thankyou Hemingway :)
In the cenote 'fake' (ie. Dressed up) mayans stood so you could take their picture (A. and I refused on principal), and then we left for this handcrafted Mayan market which was supposedly cheap. Then we had lunch, which was all-inclusive: except for the fact that drinks weren't, and one bottle cost more than what I averagely spend on my entire lunch.
When we finally arrived at the entrance of Chichen Itza, though, the thrill totally hit me again. Here I was at the entrance to see the leftovers of yet another grand ancient civilization. And impressive it was. Not so much in size, because the Egyptian pyramids are bigger, but because of the systematical and logical way it's been built. Surfaces exactly facing North, East, South, West. Grids with the exact amount of days of the year, or 9 months, which represents fertility (pregnancy). Places where the sound you make will echo exactly six times, always, so that the leader and his six team members were all represented. Specific hours of the day where light falls so that you see shapes and shades otherwise not apparent.
I'm already looking forward to Guatemala, where Tikal has a trip quite similar, and yet completely different.
After Cancun we headed to Tulum, a place to the south, along the coast of the carribbean: the only place with Mayan ruins along the sea shore. (All other ruins are way more inland).
We met a couple of Americans, Canadians and Australians in Tulum's hostel, whom we had tacos with (I have had nothing but tacos and waffles in Mexico, honestly), and ended up watching a basketball game with. (Watching the Superbowl with some Americans is now officially on my bucket list). A Canadian couple was leaving to Cuba, so they were interested in our stories.
We also ran in to (or got run into by) a few of our classmates: Tessa, Jan, Tom, Stacey, Inge and Tim were all staying in Tulum together.
Belize was next: merely a stop over to get to Guatemala. The bus drive was uneventful except for the funny fact that Stacey, Inge, Tim and Jan were also riding the same vehicle. But they sat in the back, we in the middle, and most of us dozed off for the longer part of the ride, so nothing fancy there. But maybe the fact that they showed Nanny McPhee and Salt.. in spanish..
Then we took a taxi to the dock, and a jet to the island: Caye Caulker, Belize. The water ride took frigging two and a half hours, half of which I was kinda queasy. It was a bumpy ride, on the most uncomfortable chairs we'd had to sit on for that long.
All in all we spent the entire day travelling. When we finally made it to Belize, a funny guy called James confessed to receiving a commission if we walked along with him.
He talked in Creole to whoever he met on the street, has been doing this job for 18 years, and at some point halfway through walking to our hotel, he just yelled "I'm so sorry, young ladies, I have to take a leek! The Belizean way!"
He parked the cart with our backpacks, turned to the first wall he met and zipped his pants open. I laughed so hard I nearly got hiccups.
I also laughed at things like the Zippy Zappy Tours. Or Rasta Pasta place. I laughed so hard Anouk had to throw me a "what the hell is wrong with you?" - look. I think Belize has a sense of humor though. (See warning in picture). They also have slogans around of "Unbelizable" or "You better Belize it!"
First plan was to go to Belize City the next day, because the bus left for Guatemala the day after. James assured us that we did not want to stay in Belize City at all though, and dragged us to the ticket center of the jets to confirm for us that we could delay our ticket for a day (Turns out you can delay your ticket for three months.) Which would be cool. If it weren't for the fact that we've seen almost the entire island in one day. And our flight leaving in a rough month.
So two nights on Caye Caulker, which seemed both more safe and nice. It looks more Caribbean than Cuba, even. People here call each other "mon" or "rastafari", which is brilliant. It's just like on Jamaica, is my guess, if it is anything like I imagine it to be.
It rained almost the entire day, and we were more than content hanging, sitting or laying on our beds, watching the wetness outside. I actually spent some quality time talking to my parents, Elz and other friends, and got confirmation that the letter I sent without name and with incomplete address arrived well, which was a relief. We went for short walks around the island, and got a bracelet, some cards and orange juice. And for dinner, to make up for the night before (only some nacho chips with dip): Lobster, for the first time in my life. I was a bit wary, having heard it is even sweeter than crab, and slightly dry. I was completely pleasantly surprised, and am now officially sad it costs about 8 times more in any restaurant in the Netherlands. And we rested. Because we knew what was up: an early morning twice in a row, with one trip to Guatemala of a rough 8 hours, and a sunrise trip to Tikal for which we have to be picked up at 4. We noticed little funfacts about Belize in the short period that we were there. The fact that they have their cemeteries "alongside" the road, which you can smell when you get nearer. We even had a small cemetery in the backyard of our hotel, though you could't smell it. The areas of land were fully covered with tombstones and crosses. A morbid but beautiful sight. Crosses brings me to the next point: religion. I don't think I have yet seen so many forms and quotes of Jesus hanging around, graffitied, bannered. " Of Latter-Day-Saints', protestants, catholics, mormons, you name it. Some I couldn't even place. All the schools I recognized as such had a sort of (9gag) priest on it. We got up 06.30 the next morning, because our boat was leaving at 07.30 to catch the 10.00 bus to Guatemala. Problem was, that bus never crossed the border, basically because someone had been silly enough to travel without applying for a visa. Without any fuss, the kindest woman, a Belizean with Mexican and Spanish ancestors and very interesting stories about Cubans who'd "fled" to Belize, changed our ticket so we could hop on the next bus of 13.00. That meant more waiting, about 4 hours in total, which Anouk and I filled with playing games, reading up about Guatemala and whining about being hungry. The bus got there, though. And there were no further problems. And Belize is a pretty site, with enough nature to fill 250 National parks. Which was what they did, being aware of the worth of it. Now, another adventure awaits us in Guatemala! Xx The Gypsy

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Cuba till the end.

I'll start with some happy stuff before I'll start complaining :)

Swimming with DOLPHINS! Next on the list. Epic epic epic! One big jump in the air. Oh boy.
First we got a show, in which,for the first time, I was actually chosen as a volunteer. To hula hoop ( chipmunks anyone?) And fail at it, like Hannah and an other girl who was chosen. Fail, because we dropped it after max three twirls. Fail, because the dolphins were great at it. They twirled those hoops around their snouts whilst swimming circles in the basin. Jeremias was asked to volunteer as muscle man, jump in the water and have those dolphins raise him in the air.

Afterwards we got divided in two groups of eight, to have actual interaction with two other dolphins: Seos (Zeus?) And Triton (Poseidon?).
Clap on the water and point at your cheek? They'll 'kiss' you. Twirl your finger? They'll roll on their backs. Float on your belly with your knees locked and legs straight? They'll wait for the command and then find the soles of your feet so accurately, push you forward and then upward, as if you weigh nothing. It makes you feel like you're flying. Yet still standing on even (solid) ground.

We were all so giddy when we came out of the water it was kind of funny.
We went snorkling afterwards, but the water was unclear as hell, tide not helping, and most fish nowhere to be seen. First time I get to swim with flippers though. Heavy and not the most comfortable shoewear. But it didn't matter that snorkling was a failure, because it had been the only day off up till now, with no tours. I had given myself a day off. And because of the dolphins. Because of the weather.

And now for some lesser than happy news: travellers should always be aware of itchiness. Bugs, sun, heat, food allergies. No matter what it is, all of us are itching away grumpily at the bumps and rashes it all results in. And after-bite doesn't help a notch. So annoying. Right now, my entire lower back (all the way down to my left knee) is covered in the biggest, hottest and itchiest boils I've had in a long time. The heat is radiating through my clothes. And the problem is, I have no idea what is causing it. Probably an allergic reaction to a mosquito bite, but there must be several kinds of mosquitoes here, because some bites react 'normally'.

Cienfuegos, unfortunately, or at least the bungelow park we were staying at, was full of creatures. Not only the friendly ones either, though the cats and dogs there were cool enough. Crabs. Lots of them. Everywhere.
And insects. Mosquitoes, roaches, tics. Lizards. Salamanders, gecko like creatures, newts.
We were quite relieved when we left those houses and the place to go to Trinidad.

Trinidad, another pretty city. We haven't seen much more then the square, which is a shame, because it looked like a nice enough town. Our tour and city trip weren't the most complete, so I guess we'll never find out.
The accomodation, though, was much. Nice enough rooms (though on the small side), and everything was, well.. uncomfortably all-inclusive. Every drink, every meal. We ate even when we weren't really hungry. Just because it was there. And it was free.
Which is unlike me. Especially in a country like Cuba.

We went on two nature hikes this week. One, el Nicho, had been an optional. And though it was a nice hike, the information had been slightly lacking.
The other, to Topes de Collantes, was more interesting. Because of the rainfall we've been having since we came here, the waterfalls were terrific. And terrifying.
We saw the national bird, the Tokororo, which is said to be a rather shy animal. (Yuh right). Coffee plants, banana plants, the royal palm trees. Lots of scary bridges. And a swim in one of the lakes.

There had been a 'rumour' about the existence of a disco cave in Trinidad. A cave with a party. A cave, that had shiny lights and lots of music echoeing off its walls.
Needless to say, our group was curious.
And, by the overheard commentary of those who had gone, it was great. Nobody who had gone had regretted it, which is good to hear. My body has not regretted staying home. At all.

Yesterday, we left our luxury early morning (though all mornings have been early, I haven't woken up after 07:30 since the before I left for Cuba) to head to Sancti Spiritus via a Sugarcane plantation. Lora had just heard Rochelle wasn't feeling well, and had agreed to take the entire group on tour, something which demands respect if nothing else.

The plan had been for us to board the Steam train to Iznaga from Trinidad, but like the optional of the Canopy Tours before it, it was cancelled due to the heavy downpour of rain. According to Griselle (our Cuban silent guide, an awesome woman), the rails had been wrecked, and in some places water was waist high. It would take a good three months to repair..

So we went by bus, and Lora gave her tour. She did it well enough, with a slight story trail twist to it. Sugar cane and slavery were the topics. Then we continued to Sancti Spiritus, about at hour drive, where we first had lunch (and I walked into roughly four jewellers in one street) and then got toured around. Topics were healthcare in Cuba, the difference between bodegas (necessity shops) and tiendas (dollar stores). And religion, and the difference between catholicism here and in the rest of the world, due to the Santeria (an african rooted belief in a lot of Orishas -Gods-).

Sancti spiritus is the first city that comes even close to Habana's atmosphere of an actual city. The shopping street even reminded me a bit of Maasmechelen Village in Belgium, though without the big brand names.

The accommodation was, as always, just outside the city's boundaries. Big, with an actual bathtub and warm water. A big pool. Cheap food. Also, unfortunately, sort caterpillarish insects in my bed. That didn't make me too happy.

This morning, after only one night, we had to check out at the unholy time of 07:25. Luckily it was possible to have breakfast from 07:00 (usually breakfast here starts half an hour later). Now, we're in the bus, prepared to sit through a good five hours to go to the North Coast of the island: to Cayo Guillermo.
Our second 'free' day these three and a half weeks. And my last, because if I don't finish writing my tour quickly, I'm going to be screwed in three days.

Right now, just one more day before my tour, I'm only slightly nervous because I'm not allowing myself to be. 

We went to Cayo Guillermo, which was pretty. A key, like all keys, created of sediments of dead animals, compressed by waves and pressure over the years, to become like islands along a shore. In 1988 (!) they built the bridge to the three cayos: Cayo CoCo, Cayo Guillermo and Cayo Romero.

The sea, however, wasn't as awesome as expected. It was pretty, but there were stretches of seaweed and patches of clear sand. We were at least quarter of a kilometer in, and the water still didn't reach our waists. And there were jelly bugs, but of course only I was stung.
We took the day off easy, none of us did too much.

From Cayo Guilermo we moved to Santa Clara. /Everybody/ was looking forward to this: Ernesto 'Che' Guevara. The tour took two days, and was impressive to say the least. If there had not been any discussion about whether Che was a good or evil man already, there was one now. The fact that he believed in his ideologies (justice, liberty, courage), didn't care if he died protecting and spreading them, makes him a good symbol. That he killed a lot of human beings makes him less than friendly.

I don't like the fact he killed people. I don't like the notionof a human's life being thought so worthless. But I like what he stood for. And according to his pictures, he looked like a man with plenty of charisma to persuade anyone to do anything. And he had asthma. Like my sister. Which makes everything just slightly more personal. And he was an Argentinean. Like Jeremias. ;)

Though I sincerely believe that if he hadn't died when he did (right after the start of the revolution) and where he did (Bolivia) doing what he had always planned (spreading his ideologies), he would never have been this much of an icon. Fidel could never have used him as such. Also, Che wouldn't have allowed it himself. Because ironically, he stands for everything that icon (and especially its merchandize) is not.

On day one, we visited Che's statue in front of communist chief centre of Santa Clara. A rather personal thing, I've never seen a statue I liked more.  And that's not just because of his pretty smile. It had the smallest details, that slightly remind me of some fairy tales.
We also visited el Tren Blindado, or the Armoured Train, that was full of Batista's soldiers and got taken over by Che and his men, 27-28th december 1958. 

The next day we went to his mausoleum (memorial), where his remains now are. Apparently when his body was first buried, nobody knew where it was. It was only in 1996 that they discovered he was buried along the take off road of the airport of...
When they dug him up, it became apparent that they had cut off his hands so that nobody could tell it was him(?). Nobody knows where these hands now are. His remains where sent to Cuba, to his daughter, who immediately presented it to Fidel, saying Che belonged to the Cuban people.

Right opposite the mausoleum is the museum, full of his pictures and items. Though not his world famous coat. Then we walked over to the square, where his huge (7 m. Long) bronze memorial statue is, and next to it his 'farewell' letter and a stone engraved some of his 'scenes'. Anouk and Jan did a great job touring it.

After Santa Clara we had a long bus ride to Varadero. The. Most. Beautiful. Beach. Ever.
Or at least of Cuba. The water was seriously clearer and cleaner than most swimming pools our hotels had. We didn't have to walk long to reach swimming and diving heights, and even at night (last night I swam from 0200 till 0500), it was gorgeous. Especially because there were tiny sea creature (or plants?) that glow in the dark.

We had a visit from a representative of Thomas Cook, who explained what it is like, not to be a tour manager, but to be a local host and representative. To receive groups, transfer them to their hotels, and then continue to make sure they are having a great vacation until they're back on the plane. I don't know if I would like it as much as touring around. But maybe I would..

Now, we're in the bus back to Havana. We'll be visiting the Dutch Ambassy this afternoon, and I wonder what they'll have to say. I hope it'll be interesting, if for no reasn but the fact I haven't slept for more than two and a half hours last night. (Totally worth it though!)

I'll probably update one last time after my tour, cause the next thing on the agenda will be a flight out of Cuba.

So... the Ambassy visit was enlightning. The women said so much using so little words it was beautiful. And she also said it was sure everything that was said was being taped, sent to the CDR and national security to be translated and overheard in about a week's time. A rather strange notion to be aware of.

We watched the football match: Ned-Den at Hotel Nacional all together! It was awful! Regardless of all the orange t shirts, all the red-white-blue stripes on our cheeks and the passionate and fiery hopefulness in our hearts, Denmark still won. Now the question is, will Netherlands get through the first pool at all, now that they're playing Portugal and Germany.. At least we showed patriotism and comradeship I am proud of! :)

La Habana was almost like coming home from a trip, rather like 'home'. A lot of places and people looked familiar, we all knew where to go and what to do. Quite remarkable.
I skipped  the evening out to study for my tour, but really ended up falling asleep.

The day after, I woke up feeling horrible. I'd hardly slept, I had an infected (swollen and painful but not pink) eye, and was feeling queasy and stressful. It was warm, and tiring.
It was not the best tour I've given.
But it was sufficient :)
I passed. With positive criticism.
And I'm happy :)
And our trip here is almost done.

One more thing on the bucket list I managed to tick off officially: get in contact with/sleep at a local's. Because Grisel, our silent guide and angel, invited Anouk and me over, notonly for dinner, but to sleep as well. We were flabbergasted and weren't sure how to respond. In the end, Stacey joined us for dinner, left, and Anouk and I went for a short walk through what we felt was the real Cuba. Houses in disrepair, streetvendors, kids playing football in the streets.. lots of people doing a lot of.. nothing, actually. Busy doing nothing but standing or sitting and watching passersby.

We (Anouk and I) talked. We (A and I) watched a Cuban woman get her hair styled. We went up to the sacred corner of Angel's (Grisel's husband). All we had learned at school was that religious beliefs were very much limited to the Santaría, a mix of the African Yoruba and Christian Catholicism. However, Angel was of a totally different 'branch', Palomonte. A religion more like Wiccans than anything else I could link it to besides the African influences. More focused on men than women. More focused on offering than sacrifice.

He demonstrated a seance, which made both Anouk and myself speechless. Anouk loved every word, I got slightly freaked. I had never seen anything like it before. I wrote down all advises and premonitions and things he said..
We played dominoes (Cuban style) with Grisel's neighbour and daughter, and won a cuple of times as well. (Twice, both of us). Then anouk went to take a shower to go to bed, and a dancer (and friend of G's oldest daughter) taught me some Salsa and Son steps..

All in all a day I wouldn't have wanted to miss.
Leaving the Caribbean.
Central America, here we come!

The Gypsy

Cuba so far

Friday and Saturday (19/20-05: before leaving) everything went wrong. I got robbed, things got lost, Luna ran away. All in all a rather dismal start. Then, on Sunday, I got a call from the Organisation Team of Cuba: they managed to check in everyone online. That is to say, everyone but me. Horror and stress ensued, though I tried to keep calm. All I had to do was go show my face at an airport desk. As might be obvious (from my long internet silence if nothing else, which you may or may not have noticed.) I made it through.

Right now I'm typing this on my phone, taking my time , my feet in the water of the hotel's swimming pool. I'll snatch the first opportunity to post this, but I'll probably only be able to use wifi after Cuba.

When we landed, we had a very watery welcome. Rain, and lots of it. (Another stitch since the weekend?) I think I was the only one who didn't mind much, but then again I am the only one who can't really appreciate the sun. I am still grateful for every day I live in Holland.

Since the first day, there has been plenty of sun. We started our Tuesday by breakfast at our Hotel Vedado, which was surprisingly good. I remember all too clearly that food in Latvia was 'meh', and though I will repeat again and again I'm glad I eat to live, and don't live to eat, I'm really secretely relieved the food here is nice so far. (They had told us not to expect any culinary niceties, but I'll disagree. I've already had the best grilled fish I'll have in a long while)

After breakfast, it was a gathering in the lobby, to take the bus to Miramar, and the Escuela de Idiomas (or language school).
The barrio (neighbourhood) is supposedly on of the places where the really rich people lived,until everything became property of the state and the all left, either to the States, or Spain, or elsewhere.

Dick (our spanish teacher) had already divided us into groups, so we heard that morning that the class of 35 peeps had been divided into 5 groups of 4 levels: next-to-nothing, basics, two groups of 'normal' and one advanced. Was dealt into the last one, with only three other girls (Nikki, Anouk and Emma) and one guy (Tom). And Jeremias, but he was just there because otherwise he'd probably have to wait out, bored, every day of week one. Explanation: Jere is an Argentinian. He needs as much Spanish classes as I need either Dutch or English ones.

After classes (and the realization I might starve whenever a restaurant told me they had nothing but 'carne'), we went on our first ever tour: la Habana vieja. Jeremias toured us along 'el Cinco Plazas', or the five squares. We saw the cathedral, the forts built to protect Habana from the pirates harrassing the coasts (the Dutch, the English and the French).
I had my only swim in the swimming pool of this week. I think it's the only day I managed to relax.

The second tour was the day after. Gloria toured us, Hannah toured the second half of the group. On the schedule were the Capitolio (basically the Eiffel tower of Habana in terms of importance), and el Barrio Chino (Or Habana's Chinatown, only without the abundance of the Chinese themselves. The only ones we saw were tourists, and there will probably be a lot of them working in the kitchens).

We got two tours on the day of our Oral Spanish exam. (Can you say tough?). One was a tour I was looking forward to a lot: Museo del Revolucion, or, in other words, Fidel's own piece of work. His entire life, as well as parts of -mostly- the twelve survivors of the first 82 to land back on Cuban grounds from Mexico, the best 'friends' of "the Beard". Amongst them: Che Guevara, current president and his own brother, Raúl Castro, Almeida, Cienfuegos and more. It was muy interesante.

The second tour consisted of Hotel Nacional, and opposite to the hot and suffocating museum, this tour turned out to be a pleasant surprise, not only because of the airco (though it played a big part), but also because I had no idea what to expect. I knew there had been 'some' famous people visiting it since forever, but I never imagened the bulk of names that hit me: Johnny Depp (!), Louis Amstrong, Frank Sinatra (I touched his doorhandle 8D ), the first actor to play Tarzan, who used to jump off the balcony of the first floor into the 1.3m deep swimming pool, as well as LOTS of mobsters. The maffia actually held a conference there that shut down the hotel's usual running for it.

It's been a couple of days since I had my feet in the pool, typing out all of that. And I will give an update of everything promise, but I need to get this off my chest first:

That, and today was epic from every angle. First of all, when I woke up and opened the door, the view took my breath away and left me momentarily speechless. Pinar del Rio, and specifically Vinales, is gorgeous. It's not called Cuba's Back Yard without good reason. Nowhere else do they have scenery and greenery like here.

Stacey, with whom I had had that Storytrail workshop in the beginning of this month (May), had to tour group 2, Elise our group. I managed to tag along with the other group, for the sole reason of being intensely curious as to what Stace had created. She was awesome. Her tour through the cave of a mogote (lime stone formed mountains), with a story about Cubans first hero: Hatuey, an indian, and an interesting debate in front of Cuba's biggest (and ugly) murial was interesting throughout. 

After the storytrail we had lunch, and afterwards went to a tobacco farm. Lots of green, lots of interesting facts told by Mark and Kirsten. The entire proces was explained, from planting the seeds all the way to rolling the cigar, although we only went to the 'factory' to see it happening the day after. Mark also introduced something called Guayavita, which, as the name indicates, is a liqour-ish drink with small guavas in the bottle. Apparently there are two versions, and everybody who had a taste seemed to prefer the sweet to the dry one, judging by the looks on their faces. It all merely smelled like alcohol to me.

After we got back to our bungelows (yeees, the luxury, so much fun, your own little house) we had about fifteen minutes to get ready for the next activity, horsebackriding. I had 'stolen' some of the left-over meat off our tables to give to my new best four-footed friends (besides Luna, of course). They practically ate it without chewing, wagging their tails all the way.

Choosing horses was a tad difficult, they all looked fairly skinny and like followers. Hannah and I were silently squabbling over the most beautiful of steeds, a black one, firey and passionate. I asked for a fast one, and a fast one I got. Not our black beauty, but a greyish white horse who didn't look all that. Turned out he was far more eager to run than Blackie, which Hannah got, so I was satisfied. Hannah and I were quick to jot ahead and leave the rest of the group behind, and I tried out my steed the first opportunity I got, a meadow. Best. Thing. Ever. The horse guy wasn't too happy with me, though the old man who had assigned me the horse had twinkly eyes and the biggest smile.

After horseriding I took a swim, a shower, sang happy birthday to Emma at 18.00 exactly (midnight in Holland), admired a colibri with Stacey, and got ready for some bat-watching. The cave we had been at in the morning was full of them, and we'd been told that we could go see them. A pretty sight, but damn do they make a racket for such tiny animals. One of them, it looked like a baby still, came gliding so close to me I squealed (of happiness). Which says plenty.


To get back to before we left to Pinar del Rio, there's not a lot to tell. Mostly, spanish classes. The last evening in la Habana Anouk and I visited Habana vieja to eat something, though I wasn't hungry, and we ended up seeing Habana by night. Especially the Capitolio was a grand sight.

At the spanish language school we all got to prepare a little act, and after our written exam, which took place on the last day of us being in Habana, we got to watch this little show. It started out with everyone receiving their certificate, and afterwards a dance performance of a couple of children from a neighbouring school. After that, one by one we performed our own acts to each other, which was as much fun(ny) as it was good.

The bus trip to Pinar del Rio didn't take too long, two hours top. We were all pretty flabbergasted by the sights of the mogotes as we got a little talk about them and the other mountain ranges of Cuba. I personally wouldn't have minded if we had stayed here a week in the Spanish school, instead of Habana, which I had pretty much become tired of after 3 days.

I'll end this post here, for it's length and your tired eyes if nothing else. I'll keep on typing, of course, so stay tuned! 

The Gypsy