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Oaxaca (see on map)
In Oaxaca there was no one who could host us in Couchsurfing so we had made up our minds to start sleeping in hostels in the following destinations. But a couple of days before departure, we were invited to eat in Oaxaca by Zoe, an American woman who for some years lived in Thailand and Mexico, who last minute decided to host us, and again enjoyed another good example of hospitality . The difficulty of finding accommodation through Couchsurfing in Oaxaca is due to the large number of tourists arriving in the city because of its beautiful downtown or Zocalo and interesting attractions in the area, including the Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban.
The ancient temples and city of Monte Alban was built on top of a mountain that was previously paved, so we could enjoy a good view of old buildings and the surrounding valleys. During the visit I came to the conclusion that the knowledge needed to build such wonders could not have been transported by the first settlers of America across the Bering Strait about 10,000 years ago. And further reaffirmed my belief after seeing a model of how a pre-Hispanic house was build of stone walls and mud bricks covered with a coating of lime and sand, rectangular door, beams supporting the thatched roof covered with a layer of mud, and an open courtyard in the center. I thought again that architecture was too similar to both sides of the Pacific Ocean and was too coincidental to have had developed at the same time, no transmission of information from one continent to another. So I went searching the Internet and was surprised to find lots of information about theories, and even evidence of trips made by different Asian cultures, including Polynesian, Chinese, Japanese, Indian ... that could have transmitted the knowledge necessary to build those temples and houses or for working metal.
Apart from a visit to the Zocalo of Oaxaca, to Tlacolula market and Monte Alban, Zoe introduced us to several interesting friends, including Charlie, another American whom in the seventies had travelled to Mexico without money and had fallen in love with a girl who lived in a remote Indian village. With the intention to marry the girl, he worked for a year for her family without charge and later returned to America to earn some money to pay for the wedding, but the girl´s family did not seem willing to change traditions or to allow the wedding, and an aunt took care to burn all the letters he had sent from the United States. With no response from his beloved, Charlie thought she had forgotten him and a couple of years later he married a Canadian. However, Charlie had made good friends in Mexico and years later he returned, passing through the village, where a family member told him that the girl had been waiting for many years because her aunt had burned their letters.
In the same conversation Charlie explained that visiting another friend in a remote Indian village, the mother of a friend was shot in the stomach and died. The villagers thought that Charlie had been the shooter and they were many hours discussing whether to kill him by shooting or hanging him. But finally, a witness said Charlie was away from the area during the crime. Then the villagers explained that historically had many discussions with a neighbouring town and occasionally commit crimes from one village to another to satisfy revenge that always generate new desire for retaliation. Charlie also said that in these remote villages, where it can take more than a day to arrive, also used to grow a lot of drugs (marijuana, opium and coca leaves), which only enriches a minority of people. At first I thought it was strange that the police could not find where they grew the drug, but a couple of days later, when I went to visit a petrified waterfall at Yerbe l´agua, with a bus travelling on an endless road, I understood the isolation of many villages in Mexico and the possibility of cultivating drugs without getting caught.
Zoe also presented Genevieve, a Mexican anthropologist, who spoke of the problems of indigenous communities, which, as she should adapt to Western culture if they wanted to proceed, following the law of Darwin, without losing the culture but changing it. We also explained that the communities in Mexico are governed by ´custom´, some local laws require that such building a house is due to give work to people who at age 18 children have to do social service the people who must collaborate with the church ... Later I took the pulse of the world with Genevieve, who felt that the lack of jobs and disease in developing countries were the main problems of the world that could be solved with less population, education and more honest governments. In Mexico, the main problems are the Catholic Church that controls the country, drug consumption caused by neighbours in the north and corruption, the latter two problems which could be solved with stiffness similar to punitive dictator Porfilio Díaz. Genevieve on a personal level is happy because her basic needs meet and has education. The secret of happiness is to bring happiness within and not expect others to make you happy. Finally, she expressed a common sentiment in the country: ´In Mexico we are screwed but we´re happy.´
Fidel and Sibilina*, Mexican and european respectively, were our next hosts in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the Chiapas state capital, a city without much commercial interest. Very soon, Fidel and Sibilina made us share their revolutionary ideology, expressing their opposition to the multinationals, especially American as Coca Cola, a company that, they hated, had been chaired by President Fox, who had boosted consumption between indigenous communities by causing new diseases such as diabetes. Focusing attention on indigenous communities, Sibilina said that she had seen much human misery, rather than economic, with many Indians getting drunk and acting violently. She described the pressures on the control of their land, from drug traffickers to growing foods companies like GM multinationals. Although Indians are still innocent and maintain their shy smile, communities are losing their culture, families are unstructured, many women are battered, many suicides among young people ...
Tuxtla Gutierrez does not have much interest, but near the city there is a heavily visited natural attraction, the Sumidero Canyon, partly covered by water from a dam that still has vertical drop of over a kilometer high. There, while waiting for a boat that took us to see the canyon, I began to converse with a tour guide, who confirmed to me a personal theory that the national tourism tends to spend more than foreigners. He then explained that Spanish and North American tourism has plummeted due to news published about Mexico to their media, unlike other Western countries that still retain the share of tourists. Actually, here in Mexico we would not mind the daily deaths due to drug trafficking but for the reading we do on the Internet on the Spanish and Catalan newspaper…well there is a lot on Mexico. Finally, the guide said that bird flu had also greatly influenced the flow of tourism, because Mexico was placed in the centre of the epidemic.
The last day in the afternoon, when we were about to visit the Plaza de la Marimba to hear live music, I had one of the most fascinating conversations of the trip. Sibilina and I were facing amicably our views on alternative medicine, expressing her faith in homeopathy and my view that this ´cured´ thanks to the placebo effect. But suddenly Sibilina left me speechless with her new view: that the AIDS virus did not exist, that the disease is not transmitted sexually and it is only developed because of human misery. At this point I confessed that we could not keep talking because our convictions were too far away, mine based on science and hers on superstition, and did not have common ground on which to build and present our ideas. However, after I researched the internet and went to amaze me that there were more people who felt the same way that Sibilina, including former South African President Thabo Mbeki, who with his denial of AIDS caused an increase in those infected in their country. It´s something important I´m learning on this trip: people in general are easily fooled and they tend to have very little discretion to contrast the information they receive. Interestingly, Sibilina also likely would agree with my last view, because later on we talked about the damage that the Christian religions was doing among the Indians, who were easily convinced of all the superstitions that the missionaries preached.
*Fidel and Sibilina are not the real names of our hosts. Despite having spent nice days with them, after reading my diary, our hosts were upset a lot, accusing me of recording our conversations and having misrepresented their views (the first paragraph, not the ones referring to AIDS). What I'm writing here, and throughout the diary, it is my interpretation of the facts that surprised me and were record in my brain or my notebook. I try not presume to judge people, but sometimes I like to ponder their opinions to contrast them with mine. Our hosts asked me to erase everything I wrote about them, but I do not want to let go the memories that are important for my existence and my opinions. Although I have been threatened with negative vibrations (lucky I do not believe in these superstitions) with respect for them I decided to change their names.
San Cristobal de las Casas is a very touristy city where we were lucky to be hosted by one of the only people that hosts free and everyone through Couchsurfing. José Luis is a man of about 55 who was hosting a half-dozen other travelers, keeping us entertained with various parties and interesting conversations. He told us that in the 70´s, just after the Franco dictatorship, he spent a year in Barcelona, and explained that the products at that time were 3 times cheaper than in Mexico. From this review, I asked José Luís why after 40 years the Spanish economy had improved so much and Mexico not even reversed the situation. José Luis said that Spain had adapted and evolved in order to enter the European Union, unlike Mexico, which could not open the doors of the United States because of the corruption that rotted all the state establishments.
In one of the parties organized by José Luis, we had met a couple who had come with their one year old son, charming, and asked if it was true what I heard in another part of Mexico, that if one stares at a child you can give him the evil eye. The father then said it was true and he began to argue that if a child is looked fixedly he receives the negative vibes of the observer and is likely to get sick. I was surprised at the superstition, mostly because the guy looked very European, unlike his wife, who was indigenous and looked rather incredulous during exposure, perhaps because he had gone to college and was a veterinary.
Apart from several days to visit the center of San Cristobal de las Casas, I also visited the nearby communities of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan, where people seemed very superstitious, with some churches filled with candles which were developed in bizarre rituals. To Zinacantan I went with a French girl, part of a couple and they were making an itinerary similar to ours. During the trip she told me a story that left me amazed. Two days earlier had been a bus accident at night, colliding with a vehicle whose driver died on impact. According to the marks on the asphalt, the French deduced that the small car was at fault, by invading the wrong lane. But the two bus drivers should not rely heavily on the authorities to consider them innocent, and within minutes they disappeared from the scene, presumably to start a new life outside the law. It would not have given importance to the story were it not that these days the media published the French government denounced the Mexican government who had detained a French citizen accused of kidnapping someone all evidence being false. There were also other friends who had similar stories, causing a total lack of confidence in the Mexican justice, a pity in a country where crime is so real and often.
On the way to the coast, we stayed a few nights in a hostel in Palenque, where there are Mayan ruins in the rain forest at the foot of the mountains of Chiapas, bordering on the plain of the Yucatan. Perhaps it was the pre-Hispanic ruins most captivating by the lush natural environment where they were located, but also for its sophisticated architecture, with several Hall in the inside of the pyramids or the palace, covered with primitive triangular arches. By visiting the museum it greatly surprised me a copy of the coffin of the ruler Pakal, found inside one of the pyramids of Palenque. The stone coffin was decorated beautifully, with some similarity to Egyptian sarcophagi. Inspecting this sarcophagus slightly modified my views on cultural contacts between Asian and pre-Hispanic and I started thinking that many technologies had to be developed independently, without cultural contact, as if such were coded in our genes the need for building richly decorated sarcophagi to bury loved ones.
Campeche, Cm (see on map)
Campeche is a coastal city very beautiful and peaceful, with nice houses painted in different warm colors, friendly zocalo and walls that surround much of the villa, which were built by the Spanish in 1686 to protect the port of previous pirate attacks who longed for the riches of ships laden with gold and silver marching to Spain. We had only planned to stay a night, but ultimately we decided to stay another day, relaxing in the hostel and visiting many of the alleys of the city.
Merida (see on map)
We weighed the possibility of celebrating our first year of marriage in Campeche, which it would have deserved it, but finally we decided to go to Merida and the fortune smiled on us, because we arrived on Sunday, the day of the week that the citizens meet under the shade of trees and arcades of the zocalo to watch traditional dances, listen to concerts or dance Latin music. We spent much of the afternoon absorbing the colourful culture of Merida and in the evening we had a dinner at a nice restaurant where they had a guitarist singing beautiful serenades. It was a good way to celebrate this first year shared as a married couple, something not too different from past years shared as a couple, but it was also true that as the times has passed we were more united, perhaps because long ago, from the Middle East, Alexandra nervous didn´t had any other breakdown before the trip stressful situations.
During our stay in Merida we had planned to visit Chichen Itza, the major Mayan ruins on the Yucatan peninsula, but these were quite expensive and several friends had warned us that they were not as impressive as the ruins of Palenque. So, I discarded this visit and instead I decided to accept a recommendation from Jan from Mexico City and visit a beautiful cenote, a type of cave with underground lake quite common in Yucatan. Early in the morning, I went to the street 67, between streets 52 and 50, in Merida (near the second class bus terminal) and I took a minibus (called collectivos) direct to Homun for 18 pesos. After an hour ride, the bus entered into Homun and I asked the driver to let me in front of the store from Doroteo Kuuk Hau (towards the end of the village), the owner of BAL-MIL cenote, to be sure man was not in his house. From his shop I took a motorbike tricycle taxi to the cenote BAL-MIL, about 2 or 3 km (20 pesos roundtrip plus a tip to wait), where I met Dorothy Hau, a very nice man who for 10 pesos gave me permit to go down to the bottom of the cenote, descending a ladder parallel to the roots of a tree that reached the bottom of the darkness to fetch water. Dorothy gave me a tour on the cenote showing me mayan hands painted on the walls, bats, swallows, a skeleton of a snake in the water, three maya skulls, stalactites and stalagmites and a completely natural environment. Finally, he let me swim in the crystal, clear and warm water, even though I couldn´t took off of my head the possibility that at some moment there would appear some prehistoric creature from the deep to devour me.
For the third time in Merida, we again were forced to stay in a hostel, which a minimum price of 5euros, where we found it more difficult to communicate with the locals and other travellers, something that we were missing. However, Rafa´s hostel in Merida had a good atmosphere, but I did not interact much with its guests because I was concerned with a discussion I had held over the Internet with the couple that had hosted us in Tuxla. The Mexican and the French had read my diary, were I described some of their opinions, and they wrongly accused me of being racist, of having recorded the conversations with them and of distorting some of their comments. In a way I understood their reaction because I had described them as superstitious when I wrote about my surprise when they told me that the AIDS virus did not exist and that the disease was caused by human misery. But at the same time I wanted to continue capturing views of the people I met and analyze some comments on my perspective to also express my opinion to the readers of my blog. It was only momentary feeling of frustration, because a girl from Playa del Carmen we had written us that she would be delighted to host and I was happy again to be able to interact in the near future with Mexicans and travellers, and thus learn more about the world in which we live.
Arriving in Playa del Carmen from the coast, we were surprised to see many resorts stretching along the beach, and I immediately thought they received the bulk of tourists, rather than the city where we were going. But once we arrived in Playa del Carmen I was surprised again, because this was the city with more tourists who we had visited in Mexico so far, but this couldn´t be compared with the city we visited another day to the north, Cancun, crossed by an avenue of 25 kilometres all the time flanked by large hotels.
In Playa del Carmen we were hosted by Ivette, a great Mexican, who was also hosting a funny French and a couple of Argentines who were about to return home after spending 6 months working in the city. We had a great time with them, drinking in the busy nightlife bars of Playa del Carmen, sunbathing on the beach, swimming with turtles on the beach Akumal, or visiting the nearby Mayan ruins of Tulum , who marvel me because their privileged position on a rocky hill in front of a beach.
Of course, I also had enough time to continue working with the book abou Africa, which I left ready to print. It was then that I began to worry about what to do with all the free time that I would have available from now on, because in recent months I had been spending an average of 2 hours a day on the book. I was beginning to think to devote more time to reading, but for now I had decided to devote a more hours to follow a comprehensive course on science and philosophy in audio and video formats.
However, I had not much time left, because our plans changed suddenly. The French guy staying with Ivette planned to go to Cuba a few days after our arrival and explained us that he had only paid 15 dollars for the plane ticket. Interested in this offer, he reported us that in Mexico there were Cubans who organized trips to Cuba for only $ 15 with the only condition to carry a suitcase of clothes to Cuba and come back with a box of cigars. Naturally we were interested in this offer and we went with him the day he had to take the flight, but we started to suspect when the Cuban woman gave a bag sealed completely to the French, who had to trust the women that he was just entering clothes to Cuba. We were interested in the offer of $ 15 per flight, but not with these conditions so surreal, so I proposed to the Cuban woman that if she found us two tickets to Cuba on Thursday, we will take two suitcases with us and we would pay $ 20 instead of 15, but in return she had to reveal us the contents of the bags before leaving. Fortunately the woman agreed and then we had to start organizing us to spend the next 10 days in Cuba.
Habana (see on map)
Ivette left us at Cancun airport in the morning and soon after we met Lidia, to whom eventually we paid $ 15 per person in exchange for a plane ticket round trip to Cuba, on the condition to charge four large suitcases bursting with clothing (about 19kg each) and deliver them to a person that was expecting us in Havana airport. Suspecting about the content of the bags, I touched a bit on the inside, taking out a shoe and several perfumes from around the pile of clothes, and I prayed to God that inside the cases there were no drugs or any other illegal substance. Then I closed the bags and Lidia instructed us what to say at the arrival in Cuba in case the customs stopped the bags: they are our clothes and we want to give them away. Finally we went to the gate but the plane, instead of leaving at 12:30 noon, left eight hours later.
The plane that was waiting on the tarmac in Cancun was a Yak-42, the same type of Soviet aircraft that crashed in 2003 in Turkey, killing all 75 people aboard, including 62 Spanish soldiers. Alexandra did not know this information, but she was afraid because of the apparent age of the aircraft, and also for the roof metals that falled, the loud engine noise, the smell of kerosene and the smoke that started coming out from under our feet that fortunately was air conditioned smoke. I tried to calm her by saying:
Of course my words didn´t calm Alexandra, and an hour later we arrived safely at Jose Marti Airport in Havana. At 11 pm we picked up the four large suitcases and we did all paperwork trying to show that Alexandra and I do not know each other. But just after Alexander crossed the exit door, the last police stopped me and told another officer to inspect my two large suitcases. Without losing my temper they put one of the bags on one of the tables of the office and then asked me to empty it. Not knowing what would I find I started taking out T-shirts and girl pants, panties, shoes, perfumes, toothpaste and a few shorts. The policeman who was sorting and stacking clothes kept asking me incredulously:
Finally the police took down the import tariffs to 200CUC while I announced that I had to wonder if it suited me to pay that amount or not. I did not want to risk paying 200CUC (155 €) without knowing whether the man who had to receive the clothing would pay me later, so I let the customs police seize the goods and left out momentarily. Immediately I was intercepted by the man to whom I had to deliver the suitcases (Alexandra did it already 2 hours before) and I explained him the problem. The man cursed several times and then gave me 200CUC to re-enter the office to retrieve the luggage. I did not leave until after another hour, but from this moment we were more lucky and we found an economic taxi to the city center and a guest house in Havana that opened the doors to lodge us at 3 in the morning.
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.