I Cannae Belize It!

So we did make that flight, although a far from smooth transition as we’d spent the previous night with Havana locals on the beach until 7am. We’d met a chap from Switzerland called Adam who ingratiated himself by smuggling two bottles of rum into a salsa club and plying our already translucent Cuba Libres with added ‘zest.’ Through Adam we met Max, a freelance photographer (whose business is entitled ‘Loose Canon’ – very clever) through whom we met every drunk Cuban in Havana. We sang songs on the beach front until I looked through the haze at my watch and figured if we wanted to catch our flight we better get home and sleep a little. Home is an accurate term, as at no point in Cuba (apart from the communist Butlins on the beach) did we stay in a hotel or hostel. All accommodation was supplied by families in “casa particulars,” which were effectively home stays, where you agreed time for breakfast and dinner (and their respective prices) with the matriarch of the family and slept in a spare bedroom they could provide. While this sounds wonderfully authentic and cosy, in reality it was a fairly easy conduit to awkwardness. For instance on our first day in Havana we didn’t make it clear enough that we didn’t want dinner – well we thought we had but we clearly hadn’t. Returning at midnight after a baseball game (they are fanatic about it) and some rum (they’re fanatic about that too) we were confronted by the husband who enquired in gruff Spanish if we were now ready for dinner as they’d prepared it for us. Chicken and vegetables apparently. Lovely. Took ages to cook. We had to grovel and beg forgiveness, as we simply weren’t hungry. In the end we didn’t get fed and we didn’t get forgiven. It’s safe to say we chose a different casa on our return to Havana.

Back in the land of tacos (oh how we gorged ourselves) we picked up a 5th member of Team Gina (our babe of a jeep waiting untouched on a Cancun sidestreet thankfully) in the shape of Ellen’s friend Alison. Car as suitably stuffed as our stomachs we ventured south down the Yucutan coast to Coba – Mayan ruins dotted throughout the jungle which we cycled between. This included a 42 metre tall ruin you could climb up for an all encompassing vista of the green canopy below. Yucutan’s ruins are as varied as they are prolific, and Coba was a solid stab at representing the best bits of all of them – a good intro for Alison we reckoned. We also squeezed in some more cenotes, which apart from ‘authentic’ Mayan mask shops and Pemex petrol stations, are the only things that outnumber the ruins. These cenotes clung to the edge of a glassy lake near Bacalar, allowing us to swim from it’s relative shallows over a narrow shelf and into a 180 metre sink-hole bordered by jungle. It was a grand footnote to our whole time in Mexico. The word Yucatan is Mayan for “we don’t know what you’re talking about,” which is what the locals yelled at the Spaniards when they politely enquired where on earth they were. The name stuck but it could be used nowadays to cover the whole country, especially in response to all the criticism it keeps getting from outsiders. I have no idea what they were talking about. Before we crossed the border we were told by various Americans that the food was terrible (it’s incredible), it was dangerous (not dangerous for tourists, not dangerous at all) and there was nothing to see (I doubt there are many countries on earth with more to see), so to them I say “Yucutan!” Or just, “shut up, stop fear-mongering and go visit for yourself, you may learn something.”

We’re now in Belize, home of Caribbeans, Mennonites, money with the queen on it and a lot of fish. We just spent the day snorkelling amongst them courtesy of a hilarious Rastafarian bloke called Benedict (he liked to call me ‘baby’). G caught three fish with a spear gun, which was incredibly manly. I couldn’t even reload the gun. At one point we were surrounded by 5 foot wide sting-rays and reef sharks. The coral was heaped on top of itself like a huge aquatic bakery, great spans of purple wafting in the current like mouldy crepes.   I stayed in the water for so long I got sunburnt, which seems to be my new inauguration ceremony for every new country we visit. So it appears we’re going to stay on this little island of Caye Caulker for a couple more days before heading to shore and heading west to Guatamala. Gina just loves those border crossings.

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Cuba PART 2 – Redrum and Papo

WRITTEN ON 2ND FEBRUARY

We’d met Papo in a bar with his brother, uncle and a strange looking friend with an indiscernible name and a face taken straight from the Thunderbirds. Papo was (and will continue to be, unless he increases his rum intake further) a member of the Cuban national boxing team, aiming to qualify for the lightweight competition in Rio. On this occasion he offered to take us out horse riding. Ah yes, a gentle saunter through the hills and environs of Trinidad (the cobbled and colourful town on the south coast of Cuba) on a trusted nag we figured. So genteel. So tranquil. Upon picking us up the next morning at 10 am, they threw us up on prime animals clearly in training for the Grand National, handing us a bottle of rum in the process. This was Cuban horse riding. Cut forward a few hours and G and I found ourselves half-cut and actually racing a train to an upcoming crossing, tourists clamouring to take our photos from their carriages as Papo yelled encouragement with a further bottle of Havana Tres Anos in his hand. We sailed over the rails to whoops of delight and further toasts of dirt cheap rum (it’s 3 to 5 dollars a bottle here), our joy at survival barely concealing the agony in our backs, legs and groins. Papo then took us to a bar where they played ping pong (I had a queue of locals trying to beat me, an old guy with a top spin smash like Bowser eventually breaking the duck), and then took us through a brief sparring session, which proved a wonderful opportunity for the locals to laugh at my feeble upper cuts and jabs. I’m not sure but I’d guess the prevalence of good boxers in Cuba has something to do with the prevalence of salsa dancing – both require great footwork, rhythm and an understanding of the opposing player’s/partner’s intentions. Salsa dancing of course, appears to descend into dry humping and eventual pregnancy while boxing with a Cuban would be a short cut to altogether different kind of head ache. We stumbled home and got a taxi to Santa Clara, where purveyor of novelty T-shirts and decorative berets – Che Guevara is buried. Guerrilla mausoleums aside, we somehow managed to locate the only gay club in Cuba where I was harassed by a transvestite who resembled Iggy Pop. Following this, we discovered an open air reggaeton concert, which was absolutely manic. Reggaeton is terrible. It sounds like someone is breaking a computer while yelling about sex in a car. The 2000+ crowd were loving it though, taking the dry humping of salsa to a whole new level.

Now we’re on the homeward trajectory, a flight back to Mexico (and Gina) scheduled for the 5th. We stopped by the beach resort of Campismo Los Cocos, a bundle of cabanas just meant for Cuban tourists but willing to accept foreigners for a cheeky price hike. The place sums up this contradiction of a country very well indeed. The cabins are all identical, sitting neatly under palm trees and surrounding a gleaming swimming pool, more chlorine than water, with a beach nestled just beyond the trees. I imagine places like this were built with great communist zeal back in the sixties, offering an affordable weekend escape to hard working comrades in the city who needed time off from hammering the sickle in the name of Fidel and Che. In reality, a bunch of wasted teenagers were dry-humping to reggaeton music in the shallow end while the only open café served pizzas apparently made from prit-sticks and dead skin. G got his jacket nicked and we all got bitten by sand fleas. Strangely we’ve booked another night. Suckers for punishment or new followers in the communist dream? We’ll see if we make that flight to Mexico or not.

Cuba PART 1

WRITTEN ON 27th JANUARY – (there was no easily accessed internet in Cuba)

There was a jingle that used to play in the background of most Neighbours episodes when we were at university – usually when something jovial had happened (Harold dropping muffins, Connor not being able to read etc) that went –“ I have never been to Cuba..” with a jaunty wee trumpet number behind it. This pretty much summarised my knowledge of Cuba before coming here. G and I made the decision to go on the Saturday and were flying on the Monday, following Catriona and Ellen and abandoning Gina on a hotel-flanked side street in Cancun. It’s been a bewildering few days since then.

Cuba is communist, which is no news to anyone. But officially, so is China and so is Vietnam. Those places have McDonalds, chain stores, advertising hoardings, Coca Cola, readily available internet, supermarkets on most corners, a population with mobile phones, an abundance of modern cars and motorbikes and chain hotels. They are to communism what I am to Aberdeen FC – a proud red only because I was born there, when I’d sooner watch the English Premiership on Sky with all the adverts. Cuba is a real dyed in the wool, season ticket holding sheep-shagging Don. Fidel might as well be smoking a deep fried mars bar.

Havana hits you like an especially strong mojito. I remember watching a Pierce Brosnan James Bond flick – think it was Die Another Day unfortunately – when he goes to Havana. In it, everyone was driving giant pink cars from the movie Grease, salsa dancing in doorways and smoking cigars. Surely a giant cliché I reasoned (or a cliché guevera). Nope. The roads are like one constant Thompson Classic Car Rally (Stonehaven reference there), with sixty year old Cadillacs honking at old people on their motorbikes with sidecars. Every bar we went to (a few) had a wee salsa band accompanied with locals swinging and spinning away so proficiently, they’d walk on to the next series of Strictly no problem. They dance so well here it’s genuinely intimidating. We got ourselves a couple of salsa lessons, in a guy’s dance studio, which was actually a space cleared in his living room with a giant mirror taped to the wall. He walked us through the basic steps, the rhythm that forms the back bone to it all and a couple of token spinning moves. Cut forward to an actual salsa club where a local chap introduced me to a girl on the dance floor. I literally lasted eight seconds. One attempt at a spin was enough to convince her I was an embarrassment – a solemn stare and a swift retreat left me all alone amongst dozens of couples who’d apparently just returned from auditions for Moulin Rouge. Woeful.

Havana has three basic areas, the most interesting one being the middle section, where the buildings haven’t been gentrified. Half ruined, half glorious, they obviously don’t do a good job of housing the locals as they seem to live their lives on the streets – sharing beers, jokes and salsa moves. It was thirsty work taking it all in so we attempted to buy some water – which was akin to buying plutonium. Shops here sell three items – rum, fags and ice cream. It would be easier to source water on Venus. Finally, a shopkeeper professed to owning some small plastic vessels of this fabled hydrating liquid and after much rummaging in the back a few dusty examples were produced. We nursed that water like the SAS in El Alamein.

We’re now in Vinales, a tobacco growing area with karst peaks wedging out the fields – quite a bit like south China but with a lot more rum. A bloke took us here from Havana in his tiny red Lada, bopping to the Buena Vista Social Club on repeat for 4 hours. Another bloke took us 200 metres down a cave and into a series of pools, which was very much like the opening half of the horror movie The Descent. We attempted to get a bus to the Bay of Pigs, but this was not to be. It quickly became apparent that if a Cuban doesn’t have a rum in his or her hand and there isn’t music nearby, they become considerably Russian in demeanour. The bus station was like Ellis Island in The Godfather Part II. A morass of foreigners all signing up to things they would no doubt later regret. We broke ranks and got a taxi instead – this time a 1953 Ford something or other, driven by a guy in his seventies who took great pleasure in swerving dramatically away from lorries and informing us of our fortunate survival. The Bay of Pigs was worth the cardiac arrest though, not only did we stay in a house with a deck on to the beach, we got the chance to snorkel amongst a ship wreck from the ill fated invasion in 1961. History laid out amongst the coral, the upturned hull like a defeated turtle. The mojitos tasted especially good that night.

Mr John – An Apology

I’ve just reread the previous post – very mean spirited, I was clearly in a terrible mood! I should clarify that despite the oddness of ‘Mr John’s’ house and indeed, existence – the folk art on show was exceptional and the house itself was a work of art…which just held too much art. Anyway! Moving on…..

We find ourselves just south of Cancun, well more specifically, Cancun airport – because on Monday G’s girlfriend has to sadly fly home …..however, we are also boarding a flight ourselves, to the home of rum, cigars and nuclear near-misses – Cuba! With Obama normalising relations with his supposedly naughty neighbour and Amercian tourists set to flock south in a beige wave of high socks and selfie sticks, we figured we better see the island before the high-rises set in. I’ve said before that it’s nigh on impossible to be the first to do anything anymore, but you can certainly be among the last – depressing but true!

A quick round up of stuff that’s happened recently though. In Merida, the girls and I went to a nature reserve to ogle flamingos with a film-making couple from Quebec. I told a few questionable anecdotes over lunch and then an old lady and her daughter asked if they could join our boat tour to help split the costs. The lady in question did make one stipulation to me however – “Now I like silence when I’m enjoying nature, and I’ve noticed that you, young man, are a bit of a talker. So is there any chance you could keep it down a bit?” I was stunned into silence for the duration.

We made our way to one of the wonders of the world – Chichen Itza, which we’d been told was saturated with tourists. Not at 9am in the morning though – we almost had the whole pyramid to ourselves! We followed this up with more ruins at Ek Ballam and a few cheeky visits to cenotes, which are sink holes numbering in their thousands around the ancient asteroid crater that marked the death of the dinosaurs. Some of them plummet down to apparent eternity while others resemble vast caves with stalactites and stalagmites you can swim between. Our favourite had a rope swing, which shows our priorities.