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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.
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.