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Habana (see on map)
The first visual impact of Havana are the cars, most American models of the 50´s with the exterior worn or painted in bright colors, on which time does not seem to have past. The second impact are the buildings, a Spanish aesthetic of the early twentieth century, with many arcades protecting the sidewalks, all them old and except for the center everywhere else is untidy, decadent or even collapsed. It would seem like we had traveled in the past if it wasn´t for some newer cars and dilapidated buildings. No doubt we had come to a different country, which for long has been very proud advocating communism (or socialism), but no longer, as told us ALL the people with whom we had the occasion to talk to.
The man to whom we gave the clothes at the airport told Alexandra that Cuba would not survive without the extra currency that relatives send from U.S. Neither the taxi driver who had brought us to the guest house seemed too satisfied with the political system, explaining that the taxi drivers received very little from the government, regardless of the work they do. So he preferred to work on his own, to earn more money, despite having to work harder (about 6 hours a day, he said).
Apart from working as a taxi driver, the Cuban government had allowed private enterprise, minimally allowing some families to accommodate tourists in their homes for a price not less than 15CUC (11.5 €) room. But this new policy did not seem to satisfy the boy of the house where we were staying, saying that young people wanted a change of government but not the old men who had fought for the revolution. Perhaps, Cubans will have to wait for a new generation, when everyone will be aware of the problems of communism and may request by force the desired change.
Walking through the University of Havana that was behind the house where we were staying, a couple of guys intercepted me and told me some stories about the revolution, but immediately afterwards they said it was a shame they did not have Internet at the University, or throughout the country, and they had to buy expensive books to make the necessary consultations. Sincerely, Cuba was the only country visited during the 5 years of travel where there was virtually no Internet cafes and it was impossible to connect to the Internet, because of the price (6CUC or 4.5 € / hour) and the bad speed. I was surprised even one of the college kids mentioned that the former dictator Batista was better than Fidel.
Another guy that we met the second day confirmed a report that was given by the son of the family where we stayed: the average wage in Cuba was about 12CUC or 300 pesos national (9.5 €) per month. This guy in particular took on about 470 Cuban pesos (15 €) a month working as a water engineer. Due to these low wages there was no discipline at work, there were many absences from work and many people decided to stop working, because they earned better living on the street. Of course, with work or no work, in Cuba all enjoyed the same benefits: health and free education and a ration book that provides for free some commodities but not enough to live (recently had removed the soap and toothpaste from the ration). But of course, the communist system cannot endure with such low productivity among workers and so many people off work enjoying the same benefits. So the government had decided to cut 10,000 unproductive jobs and decided to increase the retirement age from 55 to 60 years for women and 60 to 65 years for men without anyone protesting in the street, unlike France, said the boy.
Anyway, my impression of these early days was that the problem would remain, because the problem was inherent with the communist ideology that discourages work or production. I do not think that is enough to put banners in the streets and highways with slogans such as ¨For great the difficulties WE WILL CONTINUE¨ or ¨To have more we need to produce more¨ or ¨Watching the revolution is the task of all.¨ The Cuban government appears close to collapse and the proof is the breaking of a myth that I had believed before reaching Cuba, that Cuba will not go hungry.
In Cuba there are people starving. I found it amusing that a guy sitting in front of a doorway with the sign ¨Committee to defend the revolution¨ asked me for 1CUC because he said he was hungry. But less fun was what a woman said to Alexandra when she was taking a picture: ¨Look, this girl wants to show overseas the hunger we have in Cuba.¨ The woman in the guest house where we stayed had told me in reference to the houses that fall in Havana, ¨how can they be arranged if there is no money to eat?¨. But more surprising was seeing the locals removing the rubbish or sleeping homeless on the streets, we were told, because they had sold their ration books, perhaps to buy alcohol.
In any case, contrary to what is happening in some Arab countries, I do not think there will be a new revolution in Cuba. One problem is that in Cuba there is no Internet to redirect the frustration of young people, although a few houses have illegal satellite dishes (as in Iran) and receive Florida television. But what it might save the Cuban regime is the ¨respect¨ for human rights. People are dissatisfied with the economic situation and the perpetuation of the leaders in power, but they are not outraged by blatant injustice. And maybe also the government would be saved by the opium of the people, which in the case of Cuba is baseball, a sport that arouses strong feelings, as we saw when visiting Latin American Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
In the absence of hopes for the future, some young people try to adapt to the system and try to make a living trying to get some money from tourists, for example taking them to expensive restaurants and concerts and then get a commission. It was something that displeased Alexandra, added to the sadness, as she said communism caused her, constantly reminding me that Romania was the same in the past: shops without goods, queues for food, buildings falling apart and unmotivated attitude of the people. Perhaps her feelings were for a real cause, but it was also true that we were both a little homesick and bewildered about how to use the time we had, because we left our laptops in Mexico and because we had no Internet. The center of La Habana was different, cared, clean, marveling, although this did not appease the complaints: she did not like islands and less if they were communist.
Different people in Havana had explained that in the field or the provinces the people are living in better conditions and so it seemed to us on the way to the town of Trinidad, 370 kilometers from Havana, crossing many areas cultivated with sugar cane or grazed by cows. Also we had been told that after the first years of the revolution they lived much better, and during the trip I thought that at the beginning of communism, as it had happened in Russia and China, the society and people were generally excited with the new economic system and most struggled to produce efficiently, but over time, when people began to realize that the difference between working efficiently, work reluctantly or not work, was minimal due to the lack of economic stimulus, people stopped working efficiently and the economy began to collapse. The Cuban government seemed to have noticed the failure of communism and was beginning to allow private enterprise, which, moreover, I believe that worked for long through the black economy. But at the time I doubted that the government has still time to change the situation to avoid total collapse.
Trinidad is a bustling tourist town thanks to its cobbled streets and colonial houses well maintained and painted in warm colors. Trinidad breathed with relative prosperity, especially for the hundreds or thousands of tourists visiting the village every day, but also by the many houses offering delicious coffees, juices and food at local prices. As we were explained, just three months ago, the government had given permission to the people of Trinidad (in Havana longer ago) so they could open small cafes through windows or doors of their homes and many had done it. Now they were offering the products at prices so ridiculously cheap that hardly they would win 30CUC (23 €) per month, but the perspectives to earn double the normal wage seemed to make them happy to keep working and dreaming of a better future.
Despite the nice town where we could listen pretty good Cuban music, and although we could eat a sandwich or pizza in these little cafes, in the tourist restaurants the prices of food and drinks were so expensive that we had the desire to get to Mexico to make a good meal, and we could not avoid looking with envy at the tourists who travelled for a time limited time and paid the exorbitant prices we couldn´t afford.
Also, transportation for the tourists was very expensive, with the added difficulty that foreigners can not catch the bus carrying Cubans. Therefore, to avoid paying 6CUC (4.5 €) per person for a distance of 80km to Cienfuegos, on the third day we left very early in the morning and walked to the edge of town where there were other Cubans who were waiting for some means transport. We waited an hour, but finally a car of the 40 stopped and charged us with 9 people for 20 Cuban pesos (0.65 €) per person, to Cienfuegos. Alexandra did not like the way because, as she said, she was steeped in the smell of exhaust, but I enjoyed it, feeling for a moment completely integrated into Cuban culture.
Cienfuegos is a city that we did not like too much, although I enjoy a good morning at the Rancho Luna beach and we were staying with a very good family, that I would recommend to anyone passing by Cienfuegos (William & Belkis / tel: (53) (43) 511715 / Calle 57 # 608 A ne e /. 6 and 8 Cienfuegos).
One of the two days we spent in Cienfuegos I met a man who told me: ¨If the government knew everything I´m telling you I would meet real problems¨ and again, as had happened in Sudan, I was forced to conceal the identity of the man in my blog to write the conversation with him.
The man explained that to overcome the economic difficulties that the country was suffering, the government had decided to betray his communist ideas and liberated many jobs, but the government wanted to get as many benefits through the tax that it was virtually impossible to survive working on your own. For example, the houses that want to rent a room to tourists must pay the government 200CUC (155 €) plus 50% of its revenue, about the same a freelancer is paying in Spain, where the possibilities to hold a business are infinitely higher than in Cuba. The man thought it was an injustice that the people live so badly and leaders seize the revenues generated by the workers to live like a king, as was shown in CD that ran on the streets. Moreover, he considered it was unfair that now that the government began to open up to the capitalist system, the rulers and their families advantaged the rest being able to invest and becoming the entrepreneurs and the future billionaires, just as had happened in Russia and China.
Due to economic difficulties, the man of Cienfuegos further explained that people were expecting half scared and half excited about the implementation of some 80 new laws, yet unknown, which had the objective of saving the economy. It is believed that some of these laws allow private property, ie, allow the houses and cars that people ¨have¨, to be sold, transferred to others or leave as legacy, something illegal so far, so in Havana we had seen a few people laden with gold chains around his neck, one of the few options in which they could invest the money, because one thing is clear: after 50 years of communism, people still have the instinct to possess.
The man seemed to have very clear ideas, but in my opinion he could not help being influenced by government media. After ranting of Castro, the man began to criticize U.S. foreign policy and their caused wars and because they had imprisoned 5 Cuban heroes considered innocent and claimed that the September 11th attacks were executed by the government of the States, to have an excuse to invade Afghanistan, a surprising opinion that I also heard in the Middle East a couple of years ago. What he didn´t mention was the embargo that keeps the U.S. government on Cuba, because I got the feeling that most of the Cubans accepts that their problems do not have this origin.
After the conversation with the man of Cienfuegos I was more convinced than ever that the communist ideas, although very humanistic and idealistic, have no possibility to be applied in practice and that any attempt will always generate misery and suffering. It seemed that the Cuban leaders had realized that and they begin to implement capitalist recipes, allowing a free economy and collecting taxes (excessive) on the profits to reinvest them creating a welfare state. What I do not understand is why they continue insisting that the revolution was not over. Sure, the rulers know that the people have ceased to love them and they want a profound change. Why not assume the failure and leave the power so that the people could choose their next leaders in free and democratic elections? *
* I thought that my impressions might be strongly influenced by my ideology, but on returning to Mexico we found a friend of Ivette, with anarchist ideas, who agreed with me analyzing some issues affecting Cuba that the 3 of us had visited recently.
We arrived in Havana with a desire to pass as quickly as possible the two days that we needed to return to our beloved land of Mexico. Still we had no computer or television, so we returned to visit the center of Havana, walking more than ever and resting in the shade of porches, letting the hours pass as we watched the movement of people. Maybe I was mentally different but, noting the dynamism of the population that was jumping on the bandwagon of capitalism and tried to make a living with initiative and enthusiasm, I thought maybe Cuba would be saved from collapse. As had happened in Romania, the end of communism would be traumatic for most of the population and there would be difficult moments, but the Cubans seemed good worker and entrepreneur, and with a little luck and a bit of daring on the part of its leaders, Cuba may be a country that in the future we would like to visit again.
Playa del Carmen, Qr (see on map)
When leaving the Cancun airport, arriving from Cuba, the woman who gave us the clothes was waiting for us. The woman was glad that we were bringing the two boxes of cigars that we had to give her, in addition to the agreement that had allowed us to travel to Cuba by paying only $ 15US. The woman offered to take us to downtown Cancun and along the way told us that Fred, Ivette´s friend who had gone to Cuba 2 days before us, had arrived early and she owes the security deposit and will have to give it to us. Alexandra and me, we had about $ 85US as deposit, but on the way the woman told us that she would return only $ 75US plus Fred´s deposit, leading to our rejection immediately. Seeing that we would not hand over the two boxes of 25 Cuban cigars for the amount that she considered fair, we got off the car in the middle of the highway and left. We did not understand at all the behaviour of the women, because we felt that cigars were much more valuable than the three deposits that she owed us, and we began to worry that the women will send a drug gang behind us to recover the boxes. Fortunately, after a little while passed a mini-bus to Playa del Carmen and ended the adventure at the home of Ivette.
Like the previous time, Ivette received and accommodated us wonderfully. Let us relax in her apartment a week and she would not have cared if we´d stayed longer. Basically, after news malnutrition in Cuba due to the lack of Internet, the first day we were locked up at home, connecting with the world and feeding well. Then, we began to worry about selling the Cuban cigars that the women of the airport did not want to accept so I realized that it would be difficult to place them. I was about to sell them to a Canadian family on the street, but when they were about to surrender the money, they began to panic that they were not committing any illegality and left suddenly. Finally I sold the two boxes at one of the many houses for cigars that were in the main street of Playa del Carmen, for $ 80US each, earning U.S. $ 40 compared to what the women of the airport owed us, and consequently the trip to Cuba had been completely free, not bad in spite of the adventure.
But this was not the only business we did in Playa del Carmen. One night we went out partying with Ivette and Fred and we met a friend of Ivette working in a super-luxury hotel and offered us to go there on Saturday, to listen for one hour a vendor who wanted to sell us 40 weeks of vacation (of course we could not tell him that we had been travelling about 200 weeks almost nonstop), Ivette´s friend invited us to a delicious buffet lunch and gave us two tickets to spend about U.S. $ 50 in the hotel shops.
I did not say goodbye to Mexico without a new interview, Ivette, for the project taking the pulse of the world. Ivette thought the world´s main problem is the apathy of society that could be solved through communication between people. Mexico´s main problem is compliance and the unwillingness to improve, which causes the perpetuation of problems such as drug trafficking. People should become more involved, vote in elections, exchanging opinions ... Ivette is happy because she does what she likes and would be happier if she continues to fulfil more goals because that is the secret of happiness, doing what one likes.
Sartaneja (see on map)
We crossed the border between Mexico and Belize with no problems, as opposed to a German couple travelling in the same bus, which were deceived by the Mexican immigration and paid U.S. $ 40 without being handed any receipts. A little later we arrived to Corazal, the first bigger city in Belize, a small country of just over 300,000 inhabitants, settled in the Caribbean coast between Mexico and Guatemala. Belize was a colony of the United Kingdom and that is why English is the official language, although many people speak Spanish and Creole, a mixture of English, Spanish and some African languages, because in Belize there are many descendants of black slaves, keeping it a very African culture: on the street and the bus listening to music, African rhythms and music of black Americans, many Cubans had tangled hair and looked rasta style and smoked marijuana, many other boys wore baggy pants, sagging rap style. .. However, grocery stores and hostels were run mostly by Asians (also quite common in Africa) that offered the products at prices quite high, which is why we saw in the bus from Mexico that many Belizeans carried loaded bags with food. In Corazal, many houses were built of wood, some of them off the ground to prevent moisture, but most were in work, due to the numerous hurricanes that have hit the coast of Belize. I also drew attention to the many homes that had clothes in the balconies, extended in the dusty streets.
We slept in a good but expensive hostal and the next day we took a couple of buses to Sartaneja, a small town lost in the North-East of Belize that we had been recommended to visit, mainly because there was a hostel run by a couple from Switzerland Canada offering good accommodation at very affordable prices. During the bus ride we were surprised to see so many men and women wearing clothes similar to Europeans two centuries ago. They seemed Amish, and indeed, they were Mennonites (similar to the Amish we visited in the U.S.). On the bus there was a very nice Salvadoran friend of a Mennonite with whom he began to joke, explaining that he had a Belizean mistress, but that they did not allow Belizeans to approach their wives. Then he explained that most of the Mennonites in Belize come from Mexico and Canada, and Europe originally, preserving the German language community. After that, several Belizeans on the bus said that the Mennonites were good neighbours and basically they were very peaceful, but I sensed that they were not accepted at all, due to their voluntary isolation.
Sarteneja proved to be a very quiet place, incredibly quiet. The second day I met a Canadian in front of the dock and said ´Sartaneja is the best place in Belize,´ he looked puzzled and said ´Have you noticed that the houses have no walls? It is quiet and peaceful here, in addition the sea water and the streets are clean. ´ Yes, Sartaneja was lovely by the calm that was felt, but not much more. It had no beach, but I swam a couple of days in the ´port´ where had anchored a few sailing boats and one day I dived into a small cenote or lake surrounded by mangroves where in theory there were crocodiles. On the other hand, the hostel where we stayed also helped to increase the attractiveness of the town, basically a good atmosphere and good friends.
Belize is the country of Central America with less density of population, it is not surprising therefore that there is enough land put on sale and many foreigners willing to buy it. In the hostel in Sartaneja we met various ecologically minded young people who had the dream of owning an organic farm, growing vegetables and tending animals such as chickens or goats. So I kept my thoughts to myself, but I found it ironic that to fulfil the ecological dreams, these guys have to buy a few acres of virgin forest, which after they had to cut and then grow. There was even an Australian who had planned to hold a remote part of a natural park in the country to start his organic farm. I thought this ecological irony was due to a much bigger problem: overpopulation. We are currently nearly 7000 million people living on planet earth and if everyone wants to eat organic products there may not be enough arable land in the world and should cut down a lot more rainforest. For the biological culture to be able to nurture the whole population, we should rather reduce the number of people on the planet or drastically change our diet (basically become vegetarians). Until that happens, surely the best policy is to seek the most out of available land, even at the cost of using modified seeds, fertilizers and insecticides.
With the exception of our stay in Sartaneja, all travelers we met told us that Belize was quite expensive compared to Mexico or Guatemala, especially the archaeological visits or tourism in general. That was why, despite what we had been recommended, we had to rule out a visit to the Caribbean islands of Belize and headed directly to Cayo - St. Ignatius, a destination inside the country, near the border with Guatemala.
We arrived with a typical Belizean bus along with three Americans who were intending to buy land near Cayo, or further south to create an organic farm guesthouse. The Americans wanted to rent a car in Cayo and we had been encouraged to share the cost together with them and visit various tourist attractions in the area. But at the moment of truth, the rental car was much more expensive than we thought and I just visited, with other boys in the hostel where we stayed, a beautiful stretch of river where we bathed. The rest of the day and a half we did almost nothing aside from talking to other travellers and to connect to the Internet. Thus, considering that the hotel was not very economical, most tourist activities were extremely expensive and were virtually no contact with the Belizean culture, we finally decided to end our week in Belize and go to Guatemala.
Flores (see on map)
The woman on the border of Guatemala said:
- You have to pay 12Quetzals (2 €)
I did not know if this tax was official or not, but we had too much experience across borders in the world and so I said:
- I Did not know there was this entry fee, can you give me a receipt?
The woman police reacted quickly and said:
- If you want a receipt you will have to go pay the fee to the bank in the centre of the town.
I thought for a moment and continued:
- I do not understand why you cannot give me a receipt ...
But the police women stopped me and said angrily:
- Do not insist! You will not pay anything.
After that, I warned two Finns who were in the same bus that they should not pay the 20Q and I was told later, she was cursing the Spanish guy for a while.
From the border we took a local bus to Flores, a beautiful village nestled on a peninsula of Lake Peten Itza. Flores perhaps deserved a day of sightseeing, but the main reason for our stay in the village was its proximity to the Mayan ruins of Tikal, 2000 years old, which I visited the day after arriving in Guatemala. I took a tourist minibus in the 5 am to get to Tikal at opening time at 6, and was a good hit; it was great walking through the jungle surrounded by mysterious sounds and lonely temples, rising proud among the greenery. During the first 3 hours I spent walking around the various temples and climbing the steep stairs to the top of some, I realized that these were the best Mayan ruins visited so far, better than those of Palenque. But a couple of hours later, when the sun began to stun and roads and temples were filled with large groups of tourists, Tikal lost much of its charm and I decided to get back to Flores, although there were still some places to explore.
The city of Coban was halfway to the following tourist attractions in southern Guatemala, and we had chosen it as a resting or technical stop, although the bus driver warned us that the city could be very dangerous. Coban was out of the tourist route, but luckily a German who worked as a volunteer in Coban offered to accommodate us through Couchsurfing. Thought it would be a great way to interact with people who knew the situation in Guatemala but in the evening we spent with Herman, he was too tired from work, preferring to relax with friends smoking marijuana. Herman´s friends were nice, but too young and too eager to recreate as to maintain a deep conversation. However, during a casual conversation, one of the guys said he was the son of a pharmacist and in short time they had thief´s who had robbed twice his father´s pharmacy. People knew who the robbers were, who had carried out several robberies in the area, and between the various shopkeepers of the district they hired two hit men to kill the thieves. Asked how much was paid a hit man in Guatemala, the guy told me that the collection was done in the neighbourhood and was only 50Quetzals (5euros) per store, for a hit man takes very little, only about $ 100 per request. We also talked a little with Kata, a German girl who worked with Herman, who explained a little about the work they did, educating children that come from waste picking environment, living scavenging and living on the city dump.
Antigua Guatemala (see on map)
Antigua is probably one of the best towns in America, probably the prettiest visited so far. So much so, that Alexandra did not want to move from there, for six days, when I was beginning to feel like visiting some other towns in the area. While Antigua was founded by Spanish in a zone of frequent earthquakes, the city prospered as the capital of Guatemala during the Century 17 and 18, until the year 1773 when an earthquake destroyed it. The town was evacuated and founded a new capital where it is now the city of Guatemala, but by the mid-19th century the old city began to be rebuilt to maintain the colonial character of the beginning, which is preserved until today, when most of its buildings, churches and cathedrals have been rebuilt following the original plans. Normally, most resort towns maintain a beautiful and historic central plaza arranged but on the outside, they have imposing modern buildings. In contrast, in Antigua, all the town retained the colonial atmosphere, with cobbled streets, houses with a single level with robust walls painted in bright colours, numerous stone buildings with arches and wooden portals covering sidewalks or patios and churches within which the natives worship the saints offering beautiful mosaics made with vegetables or coloured powder. At the end of the village, the lofty volcano ´Water´ will be visible most of the time, putting the final touches to this wonderful town.
One day while we were in Antigua, I visited with a group, the Pacaya volcano, which exploded a little over a year ago, in May 27, 2010, so that I could not climb to the summit, although the vast expanse of solidified lava, in some places still smouldering, it was still impressive. Anyway, what amazed us most in Antigua was the fourth Sunday of Lent, a school procession of Holy Week, which is impressive in Antigua. There were only two or three guilds, but one of them carried a huge platform to represent the torment of Jesus, about 20 meters long, which was transported by 30 people per side plus a few more in the center. With a solemn atmosphere, the procession moved to the rhythm of drums and trumpets, on the side of many Roman guards dressed in between the thick smoke of incense and over carpets of flowers and herbs that people had created earlier. I have not been in Seville during Semana Santa, but this experience in Antigua made me want to go once the trip ends.