Thursday, December 20, 2007

Honduras to Nicaragua, 10 to 19 December

Oh man oh man. I wrote this great little thing about Honduras and then I went to the internet cafe, attached my USB, stolen. I´m not doing so hot with memory keeping devices this trip. First Cuba, now in Nicaragua, and I´m guessing I should just type things when I´m able to send them. Poopy.

So I´ll do my best to re-construct. I left Guatemala City in the middle of the night on the 10th and took a bus to Esquipulas, taxi-ed to the border, taxi-ed to the Honduran side, then got a bus to the border town of Nuevo Ocotepeque...where I thought I was being clever by saving a few dollars, only to discover that I was oh-so-wrong, lost over an hour, and about a dollar too. Oh well.

The ride through the Honduran countryside was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful. It was like a combination of Jamaica, Cuba, and perhaps Chiapas. Jungly, hilly, and verdant green. Rich earth in shades of red and brown scattered throughout the carpet of greens.

Since I had managed to land on a local bus which stopped at least every half hour for no apparent reason, I ended up arriving in San Pedro Sula much later than I had thought. It was already getting dark, and I knew that this was not a city I wanted to be in at night, alone, with all my stuff. So I asked a woman on the bus if she could help me find a clean, safe, place for the night and I would take her out to dinner. She said it was totally fine, and once we were on our way she invited me to stay at her house, that way I wouldn´t spend money and it was easier for her anyway. Wow. Welcome to Honduras. So off we went, we went out for dinner, and I was loving Honduras.

The next morning she helped me get to the junction where the buses pass and we got there around 5am, and a bus passed shortly thereafter to get me to La Ceiba. Made it with plenty of time to catch the 9.30am ferry over to Roatan. On the boat over, I was trying to round up some people to share a cab, and instead met Nick and Caroline who live on the island and told me they would give me a lift to Mel´s house. Yay. So we ran some errands in Coxen Hole where I got wayyy too excited about imported American crap food, and then I was home in Sandy Bay.

The next 6 days were lovely, pure had been a long time since I had just stayed in one place and not done all that much...maybe Mexico City?? So a few dives - unfortunately or fortunately, I´ve dived some of the world´s best spots and so Roatan didn´t wow me too much but it was still nice to get under the surface and just dive...I really do love that feeling... - time at the beach, kayaking, swimming, cooking, sleeping, reading...ahhh. It was great.

Honduras, and in particular the Bay Islands, strikes me for the racial diversity and the laid-back island feel that it has. The islands are historically comprised of English-speaking blacks, and the diversity reminded me of a strange combination of Cuba and Jamaica or something. I don´t really know, but I liked it.

I got to spend some great quality time with Mel and the kids, as well as Jonas who I met in Guatemala, and 2 German girls Lena and Christina that were great company.

I finally tore myself away from the idyllic isle on the 17th and had a big day to get to Tegucigalpa where I met Arturo, a gift of a man, who welcomed me into his gorgeous home, fed me, let me wash clothes (ick, humid island for a week was not doing me any favors) and then the electricity went out.

18th was an early start, and I crossed the borders no worries. As many others had already told me, Nicaragua is a special one. I am finding it remarkably refreshing to realize that I like Central America the further south I get...the people here are so friendly, starting with the engineer that was next to me on the bus from Tegus to Managua. He changed money with me, giving me a better rate than the bank, helped me maneuver the customs people, lent me his phone, and took me to change buses in Managua so I wouldn´t have to take a cab. And gave me his business card saying he hoped I wouldn´t have to call him, being in trouble, but at least I would have it. He had spent 2 months in Japan in 1981 working as an engineer in Fukuoka, Kyushu, and we spent a good portion of the ride talking about his memories in Japan and me speculating on how much it´s changed in the past few decades.

So I got to Granada, got situated in my lodging, and went down to the lake, a brown but pretty spot with lots of volcanoes in the vista. Granada is a nice spot, quiet, cute colonial architecture and not a whole lot to do so it´s been a good spot to catch up on online time and figure out what my upcoming plans are. Looks like I´m flying to Buenos Aires from Costa Rica in January, I am glad that I have finally reached a point where I am ok with admitting to myself that I am done with this trip, not in a bad way but it´s time to just settle and relax and chill in one place for a bit, possibly even work and make some money...wait, work? What's that?...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Guatemala, Nov 30th to Dec 9th

Friday night, Chrissy and I headed to Antigua. It is a beautiful colonial town, perfectly restored, impossibly cute, with towering volcanoes surrounding it on all sides. The feel is really international, just like in San Cristobal de las Casas, and I can see why people fall in love with it. It’s a perfect place to relax and eat and drink to your heart’s content. We met a bunch of people Friday and stayed at Cynthia’s. Saturday was a beautiful day, and in the evening I went to climb Volcan Pacaya, an active volcano whose last major eruption was in 2000. We climbed in the dark and as we neared thesummit the sky turned red; as we came out of the forest towards the viewpoint, we could see 7 flows of lava streaming down the mountain, bright red. I was really impressed, more than I thought I would be, and we traversed the recently hardened lava to get as close as we safely could.

Sunday morning I headed early to Panajachel to get to San Marcos La Laguna on Lago Atitlan. Lago Atitlan is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in the world according to various guidebooks, and it is true that it is breathtakingly beautiful. Surrounded on all sides by volcanoes, with small villages scattered around its shores, it is peaceful and idyllic. I chose to stay in San Marcos, which is considered to be the hotbed of hippies on a spiritual path; lots of yoga, massage, reiki, spas etc. I was at Hotel La Paz, with a nice common area and vegetarian restaurant, and daily yoga. On Sunday I visited San Pedro La Laguna, which is just one town away yet the feel is completely different. It is known for its abundant drug availability and usage, and as soon as you come off the boat people come to offer you marijuana and cocaine. I stramgely felt that there was no mixing of the Guatemalans and foreigners in San Pedro, and overall, I found it to be a really sad place. However, I know quite a few people that really love it so who knows.

I met a Japanese woman from Nagano who has a Japanese restaurant in San Marcos. I went for some veggie tempura which made me super happy.

On Monday, I did some yoga before going to Santiago Atitlan, the second largest town on the lake after Panajachel. There is a strong indigenous tradition in Santiago, and it was nice to walk around the streets and see all the clothes and colors. In the afternoon I went back to San Marcos and went back to the Japanese restaurant. I was a bit tight on my budget because I had opted to stay in San Marcos rather than San Pedro, which meant that overall my accommodation and food was more expensive. Thus I went to just have Miso Soup so that my budget wouldn’t be broken. I had my soup, and stayed chatting with the woman, Seiko, for awhile. She originally came to Guatemala in 2000 for a 2 year volunteer project and after returning to Japan for awhile, returned to Guatemala and had lived in Flores for 2 years running a Japanese restaurant. She came to San Marcos 4 months ago to try out something new. I think that both of us were so excited and almost relieved to speak Japanese that we spent hours chatting without realizing it. It was the first time since Octavio in Mexico City that I had spoken Japanese and I finally realized that I really missed it. As I was getting ready to leave to eat my real meal somewhere cheaper, all of a sudden, a group of 6 tourists and another couple came in. Seiko panicked, as she is the only person there and has to cook and serve; I offered to stay and help her out, saying I could chop vegetables and stir things and bring drinks out etc. She hesitated but when I assured her that there was really nowhere else I needed to be, she obliged and it was wonderful. For the next hour and a half we worked together and it was so nice. Preparing curry and sushi and onigiri and miso soup and tofu salad and hot sake just made me so nostalgic and definitely gave me a warm fuzzy feeling. After all that cooking was taken care of, she treated me to an enormous meal of miso soup, curry, chicken cooked in ginger and soy, and a watermelon shake. Yum. She even packed up some onigiri, rice balls, to take with me for breakfast the next day since I would be heading out early. What a gift to have met her, discussing Latin America from a Japanese perspective.

Tuesday was an early start and I got the boat to Panajachel at around 6.30am. In Pana I immediately got a connection in a pickup with about 20 people jammed in the back, standing up around the round baskets that people bring to and from the markets. I was headed to Solola, just 20 minutes up the road. Solola has a nice big local market on Tuesday and Friday, and the action was great. Different clothes, sights, smells, sounds, and people were all over the central plaza. After wandering around and having a quick meal, I got on a bus to Los Encuentros, another 20 or 30 minutes up the road. Los Encuentros means the meetings, and this is a major intersection for changing buses. I didn’t have to wait long to catch a bus to Huehuetenango, about 3 hours northwest of the lake. Unfortunately, the bus was very crowded and I couldn’t get a seat, so it was 3 hours standing in an uncomfortable bus on very windy, poor-condition roads. Ahh well. In Huehue as it is called, I waited an hour to catch the bus to Todos Santos Cuchumatan.

The road to Todos Santos is beautiful, perhaps the prettiest mountain scenery I saw in Guatemala. Todos Santos itself is a small, dusty town but it is a good representation of Mayan highland living. The vast majority of the population wears traditional dress, and the clothes of the men are striking. Their pants are red with thin white stripes, they wear white, blue, and purple button-down shirts, and broad-rimmed hats that have blue ribbon wrapped around them. I’ve travelled a lot but I don’t know if I’ve ever been anywhere where I was struck by how the people dressed the same like in Todos Santos. Unfortunately, I felt really uncomfortable in the town because as far as I understand, they’re not so keen on foreigners. Actually, in 2000, a Japanese tourist was killed because he was photographing children without asking permission; at the time, there were rumors of child-sacrificing Satanists. My camera didn’t leave the hotel room.

I left Todos Santos the next morning as I didn’t feel there was any real reason to stick around, and 4 hours later after a connection in Huehue, I arrived in Xela, Guatemala’s second largest city. The official name of Xela is Quetzaltenango bus most people simply call it Xelaju or Xela, its Mayan name. Half the city is indigenous which is really interesting, and overall it feels like a calm, functioning, orderly city. I liked it. I arrived at Hostal Don Diego where there was an established group of long-term residents, from Spain, Holland, U.S., Sweden, and Canada. I took it easy on Wednesday because Tuesday had been a really tough travel day.

Thursday I went to Zunil, a highland town about 30 minutes from Xela, and got a pickup to Fuentes Georginas. These hot springs are the most popular in Guatemala, and I truly loved it. It was my first real onsen/rotenburo experience since leaving Japan, and the surroundings of the cloudforest and views over the vally were gorgeous. I was also the only foreign tourist there, and it was really nice to see local families coming to enjoy the springs and the nature surrounding it. I walked back down to Zunil, which was a great idea, as this walk was my favorite that I did in Guatemala. The land is largely agricultural, and the neatly organized plots of land with different vegetables growing was so picturesque, especially with the mountain fog blowing in and out, revealing different vistas every minute.

Friday morning I awoke early, at 6, to go with Luciana, a very sweet Swiss girl, to the Friday market in San Francisco El Alto. It took about an hour on the bus to get to the largest market in Guatemala. We were early enough to not see a single other tourist, and we wandered through the crowded alleyways of fabric, clothes, shoes, electronics, food, and animals. What a great experience. As usual, markets tire me out so we didn’t stay long but we certainly got a taste of the real market life in Guatemala rather than the tourist ones set up in the most visited places. We got back to Xela, I took a nap, and headed to Antigua.

I was back in Antigua around 6pm, and hung out at Cynthia’s for awhile. Rudy and I went to Kabuki, a Japanese restaurant where I had Agedashi tofu and Tonkatsu. Yummmm. We then headed over to Estudio 35 where there was a goodbye party for a British girl who had been living in Guatemala. It was a good vibe, lots of friendly people, liberal alcohol consumption, and was exactly what I needed. The evening turned longer as Hugo, Pampa, Aurora, Jonas, and I went back to Cynthia’s where there was more fiesta, and when we finally made it back to Guatemala City it was nearly 6am.

Saturday was our exploring Guatemala City day, to Zona 10 and Zona 1, we checked out the National Palace, Central Park, Central Mercado, and generally just wandered around. In the evening, we went to Cuatro Grados in Zona 4, a great insight into the real Guatemala. It’s a new nightlife district, only begun just 6 years ago, but it’s a great vibe, lots of young people, restaurants, bars, street performers and vendors, and rarely a tourist to be seen. Really different from Antigua, really worth checking out.

And so that’s been my trip to Guatemala!

Mexico to Guatemala, Nov 20th to Nov 30th, 2007

I took a night bus to Tuxtla Gutierrez on the 20th, and arrived on the 21st to meet Rodolfo. I was now in Chiapas state, which used to be part of Guatemala, and for many, the most beautiful state of Mexico. We went to all the different lookouts of the Canon del Sumidero, Tuxtla Gutierrez’s claim to fame. We had some regional cuisine of Cochito Horneado and Pepita con Tasajo (Baked pork, in a very flavorful dark brown juice, and beef cooked in a sauce made from ground pumpkin seeds). We wandered around Chiapa de Corzo and then I took a 2 hour boat ride through the canyon. That night, we went to the Parque de la Marimba. The Marimba is an instrument similar to a xylophone that is native to Chiapas, and this park is a remarkable achievement. Everyday, from 6pm to 9pm, different music groups come to play marimba and crowds of people gather to dance, or just sit and enjoy the music. Food is sold, but no alcohol. It’s a safe, entertaining public space and it was great to see that this existed in Mexico. Rudy and Carlos brought me to the minibus to San Cristobal de las Casas. I arrived late that night to Tania’s house.

San Cristobal de las Casas is the favorite town for many people who have visited it, both Mexicans and foreigners. It’s easy to understand why. Beautiful colonial architecture in a perfect mountain climate, with steep green mountains on all sides, a small town center, and seemingly endless cultural activities and a great gastronomic scene. It’s one of those places where you have to be careful about your money, because everything isn’t expensive, but you might find yourself going to 3 cafes, 2 restaurants, and 3 bars in a day. My first day there I visited San Juan Chamula, a Mayan village just 15 minutes away. San Juan Chamula draws scores of tourists for its church, in which a very peculiar rite takes place. The Mayans in the village come to make offerings in a ritual meant to cleanse their souls. Both men and women in traditional dress come into the church which has thousands of burning candles all around the perimeter as well as on the floor itself. The floor is covered with pine needles, which are cleared by each person to make space for their candles. Chanting, singing, praying, often tearful. Animals, usually chickens, are rubbed all over the people’s bodies, meant to remove the bad spirits from the human and passed onto the chicken, which is then killed. I have never seen a ritual like this.

San Cristobal de las Casas is interesting because it has such a mix of people; indigenous Maya populations wander the streets, wearing the same things they would have 500 years ago, ladinos, the mixed-descent Mexicans walk alongside them in their latest fashions, and a more than generous portion of Europeans and tourists from all over the world intertwine the mosaic. It’s a really unique place.

On the 22nd, Agusto took me on a hike outside of Zinacantan. It was the first time I’ve really been on a mountain trail since I’ve been in Mexico, and although it was a bit difficult, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was great to climb high into the mountains where we couldn’t hear any cars or electronic sounds at all.

That night, I took a bus to Palenque. What I didn’t realize was that the roads were unbelievably windy, and I was barely able to sleep. I made my way to El Panchan, the backpacker’s paradise in a reforested jungle outside of Palenque town, and slept. In the afternoon I visited Agua Azul and Misol-ha, the famed waterfalls near Palenque. The 24th was a day at the ruins; Palenque’s ruins are situated in the jungle, so you hear the sounds of the jungle as you wander around the ancient stones.

On the 25th we had a 6am start to get our transport to Flores, in Guatemala. It was really smooth, a van to the border town of Frontera Corozal, a boat to cross the river Usumacinta, which separates Mexico and Guatemala, then a bus to Flores. On the bus I started chatting with a British guy who was really short on time and he wanted to get to Tikal that day rather than spend the night in Flores. It somehow worked out that I was going to go with him because he didn’t want any contribution to the taxi etc. I was, for the first time in Central America, placed in a situation of the high-class tourist which I am certainly not accustomed to. Tikal itself only has 3 places to stay and a few places to eat, all gougingly overpriced.

We decided we wanted to be inside the ruins by the time sunrise came. This meant we left the hotel at 4:30am, bribed the guard to let us in early since the entrance officially opens at 6am, and we walked in the dark. We emerged on the Gran Plaza and the mist, the moonlight, and the clouds all converged to reveal the spectacular Templo I and II. It’s a sight I’ll never forget. We made it to Templo IV, the famed sunrise spot, and climbed to find dozens of other tourists who had all come in tour groups from Flores. Unfortunately, it was very cloudy and there was no sunrise to be seen.

We split ways, and I went to Mundo Perdido alone. Toucans and parrots flitted about the arrangement of pyramids and other ruins. I spent the next several hours wandering about the gigantic temple grounds, and saw spider monkeys, howler monkeys, coatis (small relatives of raccoons), and many many birds. At about 9am it started raining heavily, and I took shelter under a small hut. I left the ruins at about 11am, and after a short nap, went back in to see the northern area of the grounds. In the afternoon Oliver, the British guy, and I went to Aguada Tikal and saw a crocodile, and then I felt ready to go. I took a 4pm bus back to Flores and got a place in a hostel.

On the 28th I took a 6:30am bus to Coban, and arrived in rainy Coban at about 1pm. Dropped off my stuff and went on the half hour to Vivero Verapaz, famous for its orchids. Unfortunately, not many flowers were in bloom when I went. It stopped raining later in the afternoon but there really wasn’t much to see or do in Coban so I spent some time chatting with a really sweet girl in a café on the main plaza. I went to bed early because I knew the 29th would be a busy day.

And it was. I took an early bus to Semuc Champey, which many people consider is the most beautiful place in Guatemala. There is a naturally formed 300m limestone bridge with various pools eroded away, with water of different shades of blue and green. It was worth the bumpy 2.5 hours each away. I rushed back to Coban, checked out the International Orchid Exposition, and jumped on a bus to Guatemala City. I arrived at about 9pm, talked with the friendly bus staff as I waited for Chrissy to come get me, and that was that.

Today has been a lovely, lazy day. I am enjoying Guatemala, although it is glaringly apparent the double price system, for locals and tourists. However, I recognize that the poverty is much more prevalent, as the 36 year civil war left this country in tatters. All over the place there are children working, trying to sell things; much more than in Mexico. It breaks my heart that they are doing this rather than going to school, yet it is reassuring to see that they are still children, smiling, laughing, and playing.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Mexico Nov 4 to 20th, written Dec 1 in Guatemala

It’s taken quite awhile for me to get to somewhere where I am able to take a full day to rest, relax, and write. I’m actually already in Guatemala, and now I am in Guatemala City, and rather than tackle the polluted, traffic-ridden city, I’ve chosen to take a rest day.

Mexico…I got back to Mexico City on 3 November, and was not happy at all to leave Patzcuaro. There is definitely a magical quality about that place, and it is probably most visibly apparent during the Day of the Dead festivities.

Mexico City is, well, chaotic. The night of the 3rd, I went salsa dancing with Magally and her sister, and it was good fun. It was only then that I realized that salsa dancing in Mexico is entirely different from Cuba…and yes, I am biased…nobody dances like the Cubans. We were out til about 4am, so the 4th was a resting day as well. I had breakfast at Magally’s house in Xochimilco, a district in the south of Mexico City, and it was good fun. Her family is lovely, and we talked about Latin American politics and avocados and other such things. In the evening, I went with Octavio and his Japanese wife to dinner, and then Octavio and I went over to CU, Ciudad Universitaria, to see the last of the ofrendas. All the artists, sculptors, musicians, and other volunteers come together to make large ofrendas every year. After the displays are taken down, they are bought to prisons around Mexico City.

On the 5th, Octavio and I went to the Bosque del Chapultepec, a large forested area within Mexico City. Again, how refreshing to be in green space in the midst of a concrete jungle! Afterwards, we went to Zona Rosa, the gay part of town, with lots of international restaurants. I couldn’t resist, and we had a Japanese meal that was surprisingly good and cheap. We shopped for a suit for him, and then Alisa came to meet us. The 3 of us walked down Reforma, one of the main avenues going through Mexico City, and saw the ofrendas as well as an exhibition of calaveras – skulls. Various artists are given the mold of a skull and they can do what they choose with it. The result is a surprisingly large variation of color, themes, and stories portrayed through one shape and size.

On the 6th, I headed down to Yautepec, in Morelos State. I had been in touch with Reynold since before I left Japan, and was eager to get out of the city for a few days. What a pleasant little vacation! I loved it. Over the 3 days I was there, we went to various villages in the state; Tlayacapan, with beautiful adobe architecture and traditional pottery; Cuautla with its Agua Hervionda, stinky water pool, coming naturally from the ground; Amecameca, with great view of Popocatepl volcano and a tranquil yet lively town center; Cuautla where Emiliano Zapata is buried; and Tepoztlan, nestled in the mountains of Morelos State, with great ice cream. What I really loved about Morelos is that it felt like a true part of Mexico. Obviously, all parts of Mexico are true parts of Mexico, but for me, Morelos was one of the places that seemed to be exactly what I would imagine Mexico to be. Nice architecture, lively markets with delicious treats, artisan wares that are functional and used by everyday people, not just tourist attractions, mountains, rivers, and clear air with a perfect climate.

On the 8th, I went back to Mexico City. It’s funny the effect that that city had on me. It was as if I was stuck, paralyzed. Everyday I would think, ok, it’s time to go, and then I would think, oh, I need another day here. But then I would look at a map and be so overwhelmed I wouldn’t know where to begin. After having lived in some of the world’s great metropolises, I would not have expected this reaction from me, but in fact that is what happened. On my return from Morelos, I did decide that I was going to start doing tourist things in the City so that I could get moving soon.

On the evening of the 8th, Alisa and I went to see Los Monologos de la Vagina; the Vagina Monologues. It was a long time overdue that I hadn’t seen them, and I thought it would be a good test to see it in Spanish, to see how much my Spanish has improved. It was a great performance, with obviously more women in the audience, but I was surprised by the number of men there, who laughed along and didn’t seem too upset about some of the jokes that other more machista men simply would not stand for. After the show, we went to Magally’s house, then Alisa and I continued to go to a birthday party of one of her cycling friends. Lots of refrescos and cake!

On the 9th, I started my machine-like sightseeing. I went to the Museo de Antropologia, an enormous structure dedicated to all the different cultures found in Mexico – and man are there a lot. Starting in the north, with the cultures in the desert, all the way down through mountains and the ocean and the jungle, Mexico is truly blessed with ethnic diversity. I only hope that it stays that way with the exploding globalization within the country. After this museum, I went to Museo Rufino Tamayo. Tamayo was an Oaxacan artist whose modern style caught the eye of the world in the mid 1900s. I really love his work. Alisa came to meet me, and we did a pretty quick tour of the Museo de Arte Moderno; also quite impressive. What I love about Mexican art is the bursts of color, and the non-conformity to what would normally be allowed in art in terms of shades, tones, and juxtaposition. It’s creative and fresh and certainly eye-catching. After this we went over to Tlatelolco for the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, a Plaza with Prehispanic ruins, a Spanish church, and the modern skyscrapers. I feel that this is in essence the epitome of Mexico, hanging onto, or trying to, the indigenous cultures that have existed here for milennia, while mixing with the Spanish culture brought in the 1500s, and now, the new, modern Mexico; skyscrapers and business suits and fancy cars.

In the afternoon we went to relax at CU, the largest university in Latin America. As with most universities, a nice, youthful, intellectual vibe pervades the university, with free art exhibitions, and the large courtyards full of students playing sports, practicing theatrical pursuits, exercising, reading, relaxing. That evening, I met Elsa and Alex at Pata Negra, one of the hot nightlife spots at the moment located in the trendy Condesa district. This led to salsa dancing at Mambo Café, and I truly had a great time dancing with Alex.

The 10th was another full-on day. Alisa and I went all the way to Xochimilco and went to the Dolores Olmedo Museum. As far as I understand, this was an extremely wealthy woman living in a mansion, and one of her good friends was Diego Rivera. Now, her house is a museum and many of her interesting collection of artwork, household goods, and other articles are displayed in addition to a large collection of Rivera’s works. The property itself is gorgeous, with large maguey and cactus gardens, and Prehispanic hairless dogs running around their enclosure. Certainly not the most attractive animal I’ve ever seen.

After the museum we went to the boat area. Mexico City was built on a lake originally, although now that lake no longer exists. An exception is Xochimilco, which still has canals and waterways running through it. Trajineras, similar to gondolas in Venice, can take you around. The difference is that instead of black, trajineras in Mexico are explosions of pink, yellow, orange, red, white, and any other color you could imagine.

Next to Coyoacan, which means place of Coyotes. Coyoacan used to be its own pueblo, town, but as Mexico City grew and expanded, it literally swallowed Coyoacan. What’s interesting, though, is the notable difference between Coyoacan and its neighboring districts. Coyoacan still has cobblestone streets and the architecture is much more colonial.

That evening, Magally and I went out dancing, just the two of us, but it was a lot of fun. I slept in her apartment in Sevilla so that I could get an early start on Sunday.

Sunday the 11th – got up early, went to Octavio’s to get my stuff, and went to meet Hideki. We just sat in the park and chatted but it was really nice; I almost feel like he’s my brother, it’s so weird. Alisa came to meet me to help me with my stuff and off I went to Patzcuaro!

Yes, something drew me back to Patzcuaro. I think part of it was that I wanted to see the place without tourists to experience it with its own people, and part of it was the people I had met there. The 12th and 13th were spent going around the lake, visiting small pueblos, and cooking. On the 13th, Jeremy and I found a large festival for San Diego, with crowds of Purhepechas in colorful attire with traditional dance.

On the 14th I went into Morelia and spent the day with Josue, wandering around. I really like Morelia as well. In the evening, Jeremy and I went to a Hungarian Jazz Concert as it was the International Music Festival in Morelia, and we ran into Oscar there. Afterwards, all of us met for a drink until it was time for my bus to Puebla.

November 15th, 5.30am, I arrived in Puebla, exhausted. Took a cab to Ivan’s house and after a nap, went into Puebla. Puebla, which is about 2 hours southeast of Mexico City, is famed for its talavera tiles, mosaics with blue, white, and yellow. The center of Puebla has beautiful preserved colonial architecture, but the real reason many go to Puebla is for the food. Mole poblano is considered one of the best dishes in the country, and I agree.

I spent the afternoon in Cholula, checking out the Grand Pyramid which would have been the largest pyramid ever built if it had been completed, and wandering around the small, cute, town center. That night, I took a late night bus to Oaxaca and arrived at 4am.

The 16th I wandered around Oaxaca and in the afternoon went to Monte Alban, the famous ruins just 20 minutes from Oaxaca City. Great views of the surrounding mountains. On the 17th, I went to the very interesting Jardin Etnobotanico and learned a lot about the plants that are endemic to Oaxaca and how they are used by the different peoples living there. The garden is not so big but you can tell how much effort and love has been put into it, and was a highlight of my trip to Mexico. I met Alejandrina, my hostess, and we went to Central de Abastos, the large market downtown. We had a shrimp and nopales soup (nopales is prickly pear, cactus that is commonly eaten in Mexico), memelas, tortillas with cheese and beans on top, and hot chocolate with cinnamon and other spices thrown in. Delicious. In the afternoon I went to Mercado Benito Juarez, and after resting at home for a bit, came back into downtown for Noche de Luces. This festival features various free concerts around town, and there was a display of charreria, basically doing tricks on horses and the associated dances and cockfighting. It was the first time I’ve ever seen it live so it was interesting.

On the 18th, I had a really big day. Went to Mitla, a small town about an hour east of Oaxaca, and saw the ruins there. From there, I went to Hierve el Agua, natural volcanic pools with a petrified waterfall. The views from here were stunning. I came back via Tlacolula, which has its weekly market on Sundays. The traditional dress of the many different groups of people in Oaxaca (most prominent being the Zapotecs) and the different languages being spoken in the market were really beautiful. I took a late night bus to Puerto Escondido that night.

I arrived in Puerto Escondido on the 19th, and the 19th and 20th were pure relaxation. Beaches, sleep, food.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Mexico Overview (23 Oct to 7 Nov 2007) Written 8 Nov 2007

I wonder why I'm having such a hard time writing about Mexico in Mexico. Is it just laziness or is there just too much going on and I am having trouble processing it?

I arrived just over 2 weeks ago, and it seems that I have seen and done so much that I feel as though I've lived here already. Everyday is such a sensory overload of smells, tastes, sounds, and sights that by the end of the day I'm exhausted, ready to pass out yet at the same time totally rejuvenated and energized. It's refreshing to be in a country that does this so fully.

Toluca was a good start to my trip as I got to rest and recuperate from Cuba, and I was with some beautiful people there. My first taste of Mexico City was exactly how I imagine it must be for most first-time visitors; lots of people, overwhelming, fascination, tantalized. I only explored the Zocalo and Condesa at night, but I was hooked.

I then embarked on my one-week mad trip around the Center. I first went to San Miguel de Allende, an old beautiful colonial town, in my opinion being neo-colonized by gringos...for some, a dream town where you can speak English and get this gorgeous picturesque Mexican surroundings, for me, not so much. I quickly moved on to Guanajuato. This college town far exceeded my expectations and I happily wandered around the enchanting labyrinthine streets and alleyways.

Then I headed to the real destination: Michoacan. Here the Dia de los Muertos is still carried out traditionally, with all night and all day vigils in tiny pueblos dotted around the Lago de Patzcuaro. I started by visiting Morelia, the capital of Michoacan, because there were some contacts I wanted to meet there, and this pink sandstone city is worth visiting in its own right.

The town of Patzcuaro I must admit, I didn't get to see much of, nor do I have any real impression of it. In the days preceding and following Dia de Muertos, hordes of Mexicans and foreigners invade the city, wanting to witness the serene, spiritual event...or wanting to get wasted and have an excuse to party.

What I do have a real impression of, however, is the lake itself, and the pueblos surrounding it. The real highlights for me were Arocutin at night, its small but beautiful panteon lit up and a jovial yet not too destructive ambience, and Santa Fe de la Laguna, an enchanting pueblo that brought tears to my eyes.

I returned on Saturday to Morelia to get my things that I had left with a friend, and by luck of a number of coincidences, had a ride back to DF (Mexico City). We stopped to try and see if the monarch butterflies had arrived, but no luck...just a few here and there. In Mexico City I went to a Japanese teacher's party, where I was reminded of the ugly side of Japanese people; cliches, gossip, judgment, closed-mindedness. I went out dancing with a girl friend of mine, though, and it was great. I had only danced salsa in Mexico with either people that had lived in Cuba or know how to dance Cuban salsa...and the first guy I danced with at the club we went to was Cuban. Therefore, not having any idea that Mexican salsa is a whole different thing, I was unpleasantly surprised but oh well, there's always something new to learn and even better if I can provide such entertainment for people.

Sunday was a rest day, Monday Octavio and I explored Zona Rosa, including some tasty Japanese food, and Tuesday I came down to Yautepec, Morelos. There's a guy here I thought I'd definitely get along with and it's true. We've spent the past few days exploring tiny pueblos around the state, checking out volcanoes and hot springs, and although we're only an hour and a half away from the chaos of Mexico City, I feel much much further. It's great.

So my impressions of Mexico. It must be so greatly affected by me coming from Cuba, comparing it to all that is in Cuba. The people here seem to me so shy and humble...but of course that sense is heightened in comparison to the gregarious, excessively loud Cuban people. What I do know for sure is that the variety of landscapes in Mexico has impressed me greatly already. Although I have only explored the Center of the country, I have seen deserts with towering cacti, lakes so large I can't see where they end, evergreen trees, deciduous forest, tropical palms, and green mountains.

The food is also definitely a strong point, with so much variety it's impossible to try everything. A clear difference is seen between handmade things and store-bought things...more than I realized. Hand-made tortillas are simply divine. I haven't gotten sick yet, which I've also been happy about, considering the amount of street food I'm eating.

Colors, colors, colors. Every street is packed with color and life. It's like the Mexicans are actually alive and living and enjoying it. There is no dull monotony, no boring moment. For this, I am falling in love with Mexico. I feel completely comfortable here; the people are interested and friendly towards other cultures, yet recognize that they are Mexican and this is something to be proud of, and they want to share this with others. I have found another country I would like to live in, which I didn't really expect.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Santiago de Cuba/Baracoa/Bayamo, 6-12 October 2007 (Written 12 October 2007)

The first day in Santiago we walked around the dusty streets and took in the sleazy feel. Even the afternoon downpour couldn´t wash away the feeling of dirt and sweat and rum mixed into the city. The views from the higher part of the city were spectacular though, overlooking the Bay of Santiago. Groups of old men sat in the street playing dominos in small groups, and the jinetero factor was decidedly higher than in Havana. We met Vicente, a taxista in Plaza Dolores and we negotiated our trip to El Cobre. He was quick to agree to 15 CUC.

¨We want to go to the mass.¨
¨Why? Well, the mass starts at 8am but it goes until 1pm.¨
¨You sure? Until 1pm?¨
Big laugh, then, ¨Wellll maybe until 11:30am.¨
These Cubans, they need their Saturday night partying…He explained to me that well, it´s Saturday night so there´s really no way we can go earlier than…9. Even when offered a huge sum of money – equivalent of a month´s salary, they are on the brink of throwing it away so they can enjoy their Saturday night partying and Sunday sleep-in. I was starting to not understand Cuban culture as much as I had thought I did, or wanted to.

That evening we went to Paladar Las Gallegas after searching for Santiago 1900 for a long time. Totally different directions were given to us by totally different people, and finally after way too much jinetero action, we jumped into the Paladar. We had to wait more than an hour for our food, and the service was pretty meagre. Santiago de Cuba is known to be where all things cultural, music and artistically, emerged from in Cuba. This includes trova and son, and I was eager to check out some of the live venues. We went into Casa de la Trova, which was essentially tourists and jineteros and jineteras. The basic driving force between interactions between foreigners and Cubans is purely economic. Otherwise, you could say there´s sexual motivation. But even the sex is financially directed – make you fall in love with them for their sex skills and then they make you take them away back to your country and once they´ve passed immigration, you never see them again. It´s incredibly frustrating. We staved off the attacks for a little while, also because the supremely superior dance skills of the Cubans was very intimidating. The Cubans would dance and spin at a dizzying rate whilst we struggled to keep the intricate beat sitting at the table. Finally a young guy named Adrian talked us into dancing with him, in the side room with the patio so we wouldn´t have to be in front of everyone. That still meant that the workers could watch us and laugh at us. Sigh.

We walked back through Plaza Dolores at night, which fills to overcapacity as a meatmarket of unrivalled proportions. Ages varying from 13 to 80, all genders, wandering about blowing kisses, hissing, and calling out piropos.

Sunday morning we had our breakfast and met Vicente who was ready and waiting to take us on our pilgrimage. The Basilica of El Cobre is where a totally intact statue was discovered in a copper mine. It´s a small figure, but venerated throughout the country and it´s impressive to see the kind of crowd it draws. A verdant green road leads up to the view where you can see the yellow building with the red rooftops amidst the mine still used today. People of all ages come from all over the country, as well as other countries with santeria traditions, and it was the most usage of cameras and videocameras I had Cuba. There was no instrumental accompaniment to the singing in the service and we didn´t stay too long, but it was worth it to see the white robes on the assistants and the elaborate green robe worn by the main priest.

Afterwards, we went to the Cimarron, a monument to the workers of the region. The views were gorgeous, and we were also able to see a neon blue lake colored from the sulphur in the area. There was a statue of Olokun, the orisha who is half human, half ocean who has an anchor tied to his leg.

Back in Santiago, we found the peso pizza stall and had lunch. We decided to sit outside the Casa de la Trova and listen for awhile. The two cutest old men I´ve seen in Cuba thus far came to talk to us.

¨De Japon…(using his pointer to demonstrate hard thinking, followed by enlightened revelation)…Akira Kurosawa!¨
¨De Japon…Toshiro Mifune!¨
¨De Japon…Nissan!¨
This continued for awhile, until he said, ¨Y de Santiago de Cuba…Antonio!¨, and introduced himself. What a character. His companero was Oberlin, and they were going over to Parque Central to play some son music. Shortly after they were on their way, I saw an old man take a hat away from another old man. Both looked to be in quite bad shape, with torn clothes and beaten shoes. I convinced Molly to get the hat from the man who had stolen it and give it back to the rightful owner. As she snuck up behind him and grabbed it, he gripped it firmly and shook his finger at her, saying no. After a few minutes of playful argument, he finally did give it back to the other Viejo. He then came over to us and showed us his card that showed he belonged to the Asociacion de Sordos – he was deaf. He had index cards with different countries written on them so he could ask people where they were from. He finally came to Estados Unidos and Molly nodded. We told him to wait for us and we would return with something for him. We rushed home and grabbed some shoes, clothes, and toiletries. He was really happy, and so were we as we headed towards the next place we could hear music reverberating. In Hotel Venus, a group of 8 musicians was practicing their salsa routine. We stayed outside for awhile listening to them practice until they convinced us to enter. They took turns dancing with us, and it was fantastic. Not having other people watching you (it was easy enough to ignore those passerbys on the street who stopped to watch and undoubtedly laughed), and having a private full band perform was a luxury you don´t get to enjoy often. As most interactions in Cuba, it ended with them asking us to buy the whole band drinks, and seeing as how they had entertained us and put up with our dancing, we were obliged to say yes. It´s a Catch-22 no matter how you put it and it just leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I realize that it´s not highway robbery for somebody to ask me for a soda, but it´s also pretty shitty that people are only nice to you because they think that they can get something from you. What´s worth noting is that this type of opportunistic situational manipulation is missing from interactions with old people. There was a couple at artehabana in Havana that was super friendly and we spoke for some time, after which I offered them a beer, and to which they profusely refused. So where does this huge divide come from? Is it the old people that remember a time when socialism actually worked? Do they see personal interaction as more valuable than a soda, or a bottle of nail polish? As far as I can see, Cuba isn´t socialist. It´s created a society that is more capitalistic than most others I´ve ever seen. Everyone is trying to gain, financially or in status by which they can guarantee some sense of prosperity.

That evening, we decided to go back to peso pizza since our budget was routinely going over what we were hoping to spend. It was also raining heaps, so we went back to the casa. All of a sudden, Vladimir was being really nice, coming to tell us that it was his 38th birthday but with this rain he couldn´t go out. He started to tell us of his family with 7 children in the country and essentially how poor he was. I was sucked into his sweet, unassuming nature and we shared photos with him. All of a sudden, the 3 women who lived in the house who had previously shown negligent interest in us came out to talk to us and were being friendly. I think this served two purposes: watch Vladimir to make sure we weren´t getting too friendly, and to try to get on our good side so that we would recommend their casa to other travellers. I was a bit put off by both motives that I perceived…we decided to go for a walk since the rain was letting up a bit. When we came back, Vladimir was waiting on the porch in his nice going out clothes, and didn´t hesitate at all to ask me for a dollar because he was going to the countryside to visit his family the next day. I felt…used. Manipulated. Fooled.

The next morning we got up early and Vicente was waiting for us. We were headed to Baracoa, population 65,000, oft referred to as Cuba´s Shangri-la. The bus ride to Baracoa was stunning. The most impressive thing about the Cuban landscape I´ve seen thus far is the variety of flora on the island. There were steep rock cliffs on which grew various different types of cactuses, and soaring high above were multiple species of palms. How these plants kept their roots firmly planted in the earth that was subject to endless tropical storms amazed me. The bus driver stopped apparently at whim numerous times during the drive, making it probably 45 minutes to an hour longer than it needed to be. When we finally did arrive in Baracoa, the woman who Vladimir had called was waiting for us. She explained that her house was full that day so that night we could stay in a friend´s house, and the next day we could return to her house. I explained that we really didn´t want to change rooms and I also tried to bargain about the price a little bit. It resulted in us staying with her brother, and her leaving quite annoyed. I told her it was just as annoying to be told that we had a reservation and then not have a room, and the expectation to have people change houses without any compensation, or without kindness in fact was unfair.

We went to search for a peso meal and found a super super greasy pizza stand. We ran into Jen, a Canadian girl we had met on the bus. We decided to head towards the beach that afternoon. The sun in Cuba is a raging force, beating down relentlessly and even the strongest must wither in its strength sometimes. Walking past the Malecon, you pass the baseball stadium to walk along the black sand beach with waves gently lapping the shore. There is a sporting ground where children gather to play baseball and run around in green fields with the jawdropping backdrop of the Escambray Mountains and the Caribbean Sea. Continue your walk along the beach and pretty soon you have two choices; walk on the sand, or on a small path weaving through palm trees and tropical fruit trees. We chose the latter for the spotty shade that the towering palms provided. Many different lizards and geckos darted about. We were looking for Playa Blanca, which supposedly has white sand. We were walking without water and even though it was past 3pm, it was way hotter than any day I have ever recalled. We gave up on the beach, settled for the black sand, and headed back towards town.

Back in town, we got some guarapo, pressed sugar cane juice. Incredibly refreshing and rehydrating, exactly what we needed. We still had some time so we wandered around this small town that has been likened to Macondo of Gabriel Garcia Marquez´s novels. The Plaza de la Independencia on Maceo Street is the lifeline of the town, with people of all backgrounds gathering to chat, rest, or meet others, and the proximity to the Casa de la Trova means you can enjoy the music drifting by from the refreshing locale of a park bench under a tree.

We met Jen for dinner at Paladar La Colonial that night, and Molly and I shared some shrimp and ¨Tati¨, tiny fish about 1.5cm long that is cooked by the hundreds. It´s a Baracoan specialty and I did struggle momentarily with consuming so many tiny creatures…afterwards we grabbed the bottle of rum Molly and I hadn´t drunk in Santiago and we situated ourselves in Plaza de la Independencia. Over the next few hours we were spoken to by a dozen young hopefuls which eventually led to us dancing in the square with no accompanying music. We then proceeded to dance in the street outside La Terraza, and then we invaded a domino match and the players probably found us more entertaining than the domino game.

On Tuesday we met Jen at cubatur for our trip to Bahia de Taco. Our guide, Karel, was a super sweet 26 year old. On the way to the Bahia, we stopped at Finca Esperanza where there is a good variety of plants to demonstrate what kinds of crops are being cultivated in the area. We tried coffee, cacao, guayaba, and saw the zapote (mamey). We arrived at Bahia de Taco and met Yoannis, the boat driver and guide. The Bahia de Taco is where manatees are said to be seen, but extensive research hasn´t been done due to lack of funds. The bay is beautiful, with mountains all around, and one small opening to the sea. It still serves as a refuge for boats out to sea when tropical storms hit. We stopped in one part of the bay to walk around. The variety of life we saw was remarkable. Tiny hermit crabs that eat fruit scattered across haphazardly. Polymites, which resemble ancient snails, and who have brillian purples and whites mixed in, rested on giant leaves hanging from trees. Yoannis knew a great deal about the medicinal plants in the area. Tapon is a small plant that in an infusion works against diarrhea. Verbena, which has small purple flowers, can be used to make a drink that works for babies that refuse to drink their mothers´ milk.

After the Bahia tour, we stopped at Playa Maguana on the way back to Baracoa. A small stretch of white sand beach with aquamarine waters at the perfect bathing temperature; comfortable enough that you´re not cold, but not hot enough that you feel like you´re in a hot spring bath. We arrived back in Baracoa and we went for a long walk through the lesser explored part of town, where the greenery seems to be an extension of the dilapidated concrete. We ate dinner in our casa, a delicious meal of chicken cooked in coconut milk, tostones, okra and corn salad, and rice. We went to the Casa de la Trova afterwards where there were several dozen European tourists and a few Cubans scattered about. Molly and I made our exit quite quickly and turned in after walking around for awhile.

Wednesday morning we got up early to go on our respective photo shoots. I found the cemetery on the other side of town and wandered around the area for awhile. We had breakfast and then met up with Jen to go to the Archaeological Museum. It turned out that it was closed for the holiday because it was October 10, but they were able to find someone to open it. It´s inside a cave and displays skeletons and tools used by the indios that no longer live in the area, and it was mildly interesting. The walk to and from it though was extremely muddy and slippery and with the humidity hovering around 98%, there were plenty of other places I´d rather have been. We went to the Casa del Chocolate where Molly and Jen had watery hot chocolate. Back to the casa to pack, and Molly and I discussed our plans as we´ve both been struggling a fair amount with various things in the country. It´s tough because being alone kind of sucks, but being with another girls calls even more attention to us. It seems like it´s necessary to always be on guard and it can be difficult to know when an interaction with someone has crossed the line from a friendly conversation to an obligation to compensate financially.

Right around the time Molly and I were talking, there was a torrential downpour and the streets were flooding within minutes. I was unsure whether the bus would leave, but it turned out to be ok. It did rain most of the journey, though, and when I picked up my backpack in Santiago de Cuba it was soaking. I made it to Bayamo on the 7:30pm bus and arrived at 10, with Giral waiting at the station. He´s a great guy, and I instantly felt at ease with him. He had brought a bottle of grapefruit juice that he had made for me at home. We went to the casa that he had found for me and then went for a bit of a walk.

This morning it was still raining so after breakfast, I took a nap. I spoke with Antonio, the owner of the house who talked and talked and talked about all things Cuba with me.

Giral came around 11:30 and we walked, dodging puddles and sharing an umbrella to the city center. Bayamo has a very artistic feel; along the main thoroughfare is Calle General Garcia, with giant sculptures of acrylic paint tubes replacing the ordinary boring telephone poles. Galleries are everywhere, and we visited the art gallery where he works, as well as several other studios. The university displays some original work by students which was great to see – artists able to survive receiving high quality materials without paying at all. I remember how expensive photo equipment in Los Angeles was, and having to select the courses I could take in the photo program based on how much I knew the course would cost me in required materials.

We went to Parque Cespedes, also known as Plaza de la Revolucion, and the tranquillity and serenity of this town continued to amaze me. There were a few people scattered about and it was lively; it didn´t feel dreary or anything like that, but it was free of jineteros and catcalls. Wow. We continued on to lunch at Restaurante Vegetariano, and I was super happy. For US$2 total, we ate a feast of vegetable soup, vegetable rice, okra, green beans, pumpkin, cucumber, soy protein picadillo, and fried plantains. So great to get that many vegetables at once! It was pouring rain so we waited in his gallery for awhile then headed back towards my casa. We stopped at a guarapero and had some of the refreshing icy cold drink.

I was ready for a nap, and after a quick one walked around alone for a bit. I visited the site of the supposed oldest cemetery in Latin America, and although the looks and catcalls did increase a bit, it wasn´t nearly as bad as it could have been. I then went to Giral´s house where I had been invited for dinner. After an attentive origami lesson, I was served a huge meal of chicharon soup (small white beans – super tasty), rice, potatoes, fried flour with spinach, cucumber, and…ground beef. I was really confused about this, since all sources have been telling me that it´s illegal to eat beef in Cuba. Giral shrugged off the question so I´ll need to do further research on this.

Molly called to say that the bus couldn´t leave Baracoa because it was raining too much…she managed to find a good cheap place to stay but it must suck to be stuck there in that weather…it was bad enough being here with a friend who has an umbrella…

And now it´s Friday morning and I´m using Giral´s computer to type this up. The impressions of Cuba I have are so positive and so negative. Seeing the preservation of culture through music and visual art is pretty phenomenal. But to think of all these talented people, and the older ones, having to struggle to survive and fight to feed themselves and their families is absurd. I like the Cuban self-assuredness, honesty, and bluntness, but at times it goes too far. Asking for sodas, beers, clothes, money…when I told Daniel, the leader of the salsa group in Hotel Venus in Santiago that we´d get him drinks but we weren´t having any (I already had a bottle of water and I very very rarely drink soda), he looked me straight in the eye and said, why, because you don´t have a lot of money? These sorts of interactions make it even more obvious that they only associate with us for economic gain.

Havana: 2-5 October, 2007 (Written 6 October 2007)

Tuesday night I met Julio and Elian and we went to Casa de La Musica. There was a salsa group playing and I got to demonstrate my pathetic salsa moves. We stayed in Parque Central until 4am just talking and it was great. The nightlife doesn´t stop...there is always someone in the streets, it doesn´t matter what hour.

Wednesday I slept in until about 10, then Carlitos, a good friend of Hector and Ery came over. I was begged to translate a Celine Dion song for Hector which I still haven´t managed to get out of my head. Finally at one thirty I got up the motivation to enter the sweltering heat once again. I went over to Galiano where Frank from Septeto Nacional told me the day before that I could come by and he would give me a CD. On my way, I ran into Someillan, the trumpet player for the Septeto Nacional and he gave me his info so we could meet up. I went to the studio and there were 5 of the 7 there. Frank el Matador ran off to get me a CD, magazine, and poster of the band and we sat around chatting for awhile. I don´t know if there is any other country in the world where I could just sit back and chat away with a national recording band.

I walked all the way down Trocadero because I wanted to stop by Plaza de la Catedral. On my way there I was crossing the Prado (Paseo de Marti) and there were some middle school kids practicing a marching band routine. I sat on a bench next to a 3 year old girl imitating the band and her mother. There was loud trumpeting in the street and the sound of a roaring engine; a bright chrome deep maroon 1954 Chevy leading a wedding party. The 3 year old girl showed me her Elpidio Valdez cartoons and spoke to me in baby Spanish which I had a hard time understanding and her mother thought it hilarious. I finally continued onwards. Plaza de la Catedral dominates the skyline and this beautiful centuries old Cathedral is the centerpiece of the square.

I was in a bit of a rush as I was supposed to meet Ery at 4 so we could go to UNEAC in Vedado. We got on the public bus by the Capitolio; one Cuban peso (5 US cents) to get us to Vedado. The crowdedness reminded me of Tokyo rush hour trains. From the bus stop we walked to El Huron Azul, the UNEAC bar. The Union Nacional de Escritores y Artistas Cubanos is in every town and provides high quality cheap entertainment for the Cuban intellectual community. On Wednesdays they host a peña, an Afro Cuban music gathering, followed by trova, a single person with an acoustic guitar. Rum and beer flowing liberally as you hear people discussing politics, the latest art expo, the latest new musician to emerge.

Afterwards we went to Coppelia, the legendary Cuban ice cream parlor, made famous in Fresa y Chocolate. There is a Coppelia for Cubans and a Coppelia for foreigners, each using their respective currency. I snuck in with Ery to the Cuban one, where the ensalada, a bowl with 5 albeit small scoops of ice cream costs 5 Cuban pesos...about 10 cents US. We went down the Rampa to emerge at the Malecon again. It was still a bit early by Malecon standards, but already there were couples murmuring and caressing, men with their old guitars strumming softly with a bottle of rum as their audience by their side. We lay down on the Malecon, listening to all the activity, and hours quickly passed.

We stopped by Carlito´s house because we had been discussing my interest in Santeria, and I was given an in depth lesson of the 12 Orishas, deities, adorning Carlito's house. The way in which the Yorubas originally brought over to Cuba managed to keep their religion alive by transforming and transfiguring their deities with Catholic ones is representative of the Cuban attitude towards so many things; they seem to conform and go with the flow yet they are actually solidifying and strenghtening their core.

It was nearly 11pm and I hadn't eaten since breakfast so off we went to find a cajita. Cajitas, which means little boxes, are just that...flimsy cardboard boxes that you buy from a tiny window of someone's home. Next to Chinatown we found a cajita with pork, rice and beans, potato, and cucumber for about 80 US cents. We scarfed it down and back home.

On Thursday I was determined to wake up early to take advantage of the morning hours that aren't brutally hot. I was out the door at 8. A long walk led me to Callejon de Hamel, an alleyway that is a gathering place for practitioners of Santeria and artists alike. I joined one artist to El Colmeo, a bar that was filmed in Buena Vista Social Club, where we had mojitos at 10am, joining a 74 year old percussion teacher who was attempting to teach me some rumba.

Thoroughly overheated, I went back home to have a little nap before venturing out again that afternoon. I went to artehabana on Calle San Rafael, where everyday at 4pm there is a free performance of some sort. I sat there writing in my journal and an elderly Cuban couple sat down next to me. They were whispering shyly for a few minutes before they asked me super politely where I was from. They had a bet going: the wife thought I was Venezuelan and the husband thought I was Mexican. Hmm. The performance was wonderful for so many reasons, not least of which the ability to share a public space with Cubans that ranged in income from very impoverished to wealthy intellectuals. These free spaces provide an opportunity for people to enjoy cultural activities despite any barriers and walls that may otherwise exist between them. I was the only non Cuban there.

On my way home I decided to go a different route and was wandering down Calle O'Reilly. A sculpture of a concave human body with mechanical tools inside caught my eye and I walked in the gallery. A beautiful girl called me upstairs and I met Naima and her brother who work at the Studio of Leo D'Lazaro, who has been exhibited in Spain, Mexico, and Cuba. We spent an hour discussing each painting, photograph, and sculpture. We made plans to go see the national ballet or opera before I leave Cuba.

Back home where Raissel, Hector's son was waiting. We had a great meal of yuca con mojo; boiled yuca with garlic and spices on top, rice and beans, bean sprouts with cabbage and potatoes...the only sad part was recognizing that there are very very few Cubans who can afford to eat this much vegetables with each meal. As Ery had promised me a dance class, we went to get a bottle of Havana Club rum so I would be able to dance better and he would be able to teach better...then we began. I won't say I'm great now, but those 2 hours of nonstop dancing and spinning and laughing and smiling immensely improved my confidence. There's just something about Cubans that puts you at ease and it doesn't matter how wrong you might be or how stupid you may look.

As we were proceeding, Molly arrived, so we had another mini meal and because we were all drunk (not Molly) we went to the Malecon...and thus I experienced the Malecon at night. A meeting place for otherwise ostracized homosexuals, many many prositutes and jineteros ready to help you find a good prostitute, lots of music, and lots of rum. 4 in the morning and there were more people outside than any hour of the day. Asi es Cuba. Asi es La Habana.

Friday morning we tried to rent a car but first of all, nobody knew where the rental agency was. When we finally did manage to find it, we found out the owner had left to go to the airport. Estoy para el aeropuerto is what the sign said. Asi es Cuba. I ran into Ernesto, one of the first people I had spoken to on my noctural forays in Habana Vieja, and Molly laughed at me for already having people recognize me and talk to me in the street after being there for 3 days. Well, I just talk to everyone.

We decided to take the bus at 10pm so we would have the whole day in Havana. Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is housed in a gorgeous 18th century building, and Museo de la Revolucion is perhaps the most ridiculous establishment of propaganda I've ever seen. But man, what charisma El Maximo has. And Che is pretty dashing. Hahah.

We went to artehabana, and the singer was amazing...tears were in many Cubans' eyes, and most definitely in mine. We then walked to the corner of Hotel Inglaterra where there was a full brass orchestra, about 40 performers performing on the street for free. Someillan was there watching, and again Molly had to watch me be greeted by someone treating me like a long lost friend. Ha. And of course, the old man selling papers was hugging me, and winking as he stole an extra 10 cents from my change when I bought the Granma paper from him.

We decided to try to find the gallery I had been at...a man in a bright yellow cubatur shirt called out to me, asking where I was from in English. I replied in Spanish and he was surprised, asking me the usual how do you speak Spanish perfectly if you're Japanese questions. He was in a doorway of a house with music blasting so we were invited in and proceeded. A full fledged concentrated energetic game of dominoes was taking place, which we soon began to take part in, the rum never emptying in our glasses. A few hours of laughter and clapping and slamming down domino pieces led to our little salsa and reggaeton dance party in this Habana apartment, complete with the 5 year old Jonathan. Asi es Cuba.

We had to leave to get our bus and many hugs and kisses were exchanged. Asi es Cuba.

Havana: 1-2 Oct 2007 (Written 2 Oct 2007)

There are sounds in the street everywhere. Music flows through doorways, through hallways, windows, balconies, cars, bicycles, people are singing, dancing, laughing. Compared with the silence in other cities around the world, it is captivating, making you want to move your body to the sounds.

I was instantly captivated upon arrival, where Hector and Ery without missing a beat started treating me as family. The exaggerated vowels - mu-u-u-u-u-ucho trabajo, mu-u-u-u-uu-cha azucar, mu-u-u-u-uy bueno accompany the big grins and the warm energy.

Havana is being showered with a rain that varies from a gentle drizzle to a furious downpour. Hector and I brave the streets nonetheless, venturing to the agropecuario, the local farmer's market where I can pay using the local money - moneda nacional. The dual money system is so difficult to get your head around. How is it possible that you can buy fresh squeezed orange juice for 2 pesos cubanos - less than 10 cents USD - then go to a tourist hotel and pay 5 CUC - 7USD for the same thing?

I was treated to a lovely dinner last night, Ery singing as he cooks. Spaghetti with tomato sauce and chicken. Afterwards I went for a little jaunt in the neighborhood alone, where people roam amongst the rubble in the streets, restored buildings reminiscent of colonial grandeur placed next to crumbling unidentifiable concrete.

This morning I met David, an absolute gem. Speaking of the illegal and legal systems, how people survive here - ration cards, 8 pounds beans, 6 pounds rice, 5 pounds sugar - and sometimes that sugar isn't enough for people...

We walked at a steady pace for 2 hours covering most of Havana Vieja before he had to return to work.

I ventured to the agropecuario and bought a huge avocado, bright red mamey, mini mangos, limes, and lots of bean sprouts, onions, and garlic for less than $1.50 US. Awesome people in the market - one man and I were talking about Tokyo - a very great capitol - and I said yes, more or less. Mas o menos. We laughed, and I said, well, mas que menos - more than less. He said, well, Habana tambien - Habana also - but it's a little bit broken right now.

My first attempt to use the internet was at the Etecsa on Calle Obispo. After being made to wait outside for half an hour while watching people buy peso ice cream, pizza, sandwiches, and juice across the street, I was told that they ran out of cards so I couldn't use the computer. Sigh. Onwards to Hotel Florida. Not working. Down to El Capitolio Nacional - not working. Siiiiiigh.

I decided to check out El Salon de Ensayo Benny More - a music space where bands practice and you can watch for longer exists, as far as I and about 10 Cubans who tried to tell me could tell. Frustrated but not that upset, I wandered down Galiano...I was going to finally set my eyes on the Malecon, the famed seawall that is the center of life for many Habaneros, where you can feel Cuba's pulse alive and well. Suddenly, I heard music. Catchy music. And it sounded live. I wandered over to the door and there was a huge lock. I smiled at the toothless, Yankees hat wearing man with a half burnt thick cigar in his hand, and he asked me where I was from and let me in. I walked into a concrete room that had egg cartons plastered all over the walls, and there was the Septeto Nacional. How did I get here? They had a special guest as they were practicing for recording their next album, and I was bearing witness to this. A bottle of Havana Club Rum was passed around the room, with Bucanero beer cans for those who weren't ready at 2pm to stomach the fire of the rum. The next hour was cathartic, listening to these world-class musicians who have toured many continents bar the US, as they tweaked their new performances and were jamming, drinking, improvising, and dancing. Wow.

I spoke to the director who invited me back any day that they were rehearsing in Havana, and I have an invitation to his house to receive a free CD of their last recording. I had grown slightly discouraged last night, finding that all the places with live music came along with a high CUC entrance fee, which means an entirely tourist clientele (or prostitutes accompanying the tourists), and wasn't sure how I was going to survive a month without going crazy, either from being around tourists in an overly exclusive isolating setting, or from being cut off from the live music that I had come all this way to enjoy. Looks like I found my survival method.

I did head over to the Malecon briefly afterwards, as it was high tide and the blindingly white spray was shooting over the wall, drenching all those wandering down the meandering path. Back to El Capitolio, an immense structure with great examples of Cuban artists inside. From sand paintings to photography to sculpture, it is a clear example of how Cuba has managed to invest in arts and culture and succeeded tremendously.

Then over to Hotel Inglaterra where I have waited an hour to use the computer.

What more to be said?

There are no tomatoes in the market. Supposedly they're out of season. Is that possible in a tropical country?

The way the Cubans approach their daily dilemmas and nuisances head-on with an unbeatable sense of humor causes me to shake my head and laugh. Hector and Ery and I were talking about trains, and I was asking if I could book tickets in advance for one of the better trains. They both laughed and said no, because it might not leave. When I asked how far in advance I could buy my tickets, they told me, well, show up 2 hours beforehand and you'll know. I asked if I could make a bus reservation in case the train doesn't go, and they said yes - even if I don't show up for the bus nothing happens. In fact, nothing happens in Cuba.

When talking about the bureaucracy even though it's socialist, they said mu-u-u-uuuu-uuuchos papeles, mucho, mu-u-uucho. And the inspectors and the corruption. It's amazing how explicitly people will speak to me about their situations, expressing their opinions and especially about the impending future as El Maximo nears his death. Recent weeks have shown a new vitality in TV broadcasts of the leader, and people have mixed reactions.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cuba overview

After having dreamed for so long about going to Cuba, I would never in any scenario have imagined that I would voluntarily leave early. But usually when it happens, it's least expected. My overall impressions of the country would take weeks to explain, because it is quite simply the most complex, contrasting place I've ever been in my life. The extremes of loving it and hating it were so huge, every day so intense that I found it utterly overwhelming.

Havana is a city that I imagine most people would fall in love with. The architecture, the music, the art, the old cars, the's so charismatic, gently pulsating life, slightly chaotic, slightly slow, all the push and pull combining together in a gentle whirl with the Caribbean backdrop of the Malecon.

The rest of Cuba, to be perfectly honest, I could have done without. Santiago, where we first went, was basically horrible, with the persistent horrible harassment we endured, the heat, the humidity, the dust, the dirt, the grime. Baracoa, a small seaside town was better, but there just really isn't that much to do in this country. Yes, the scenery is beautiful, but apart from sitting outside in plazas and parks watching people and drinking and dancing, there just isn't anything else.

Granted, those things were fabulous and I am sure I will recall them fondly for a long time to come. It is rare to find a culture that still has so much public space, where outside common areas like parks and plazas are occupied by all ages and races, and the feeling of community is indeed very intact. I did thoroughly enjoy sitting and watching people coming and going, watching life just unfold. However, three weeks of that is more than sufficient.

After Baracoa I went to Bayamo and Holguin, both of which are not touristy and I didn't get bothered much at all, which was nice. But, well, I'm sure many people will disagree with me, but apart from Havana, all Cuban cities and towns are essentially the same. There is beautiful colonial architecture in varying degrees of decay, and there are resplendent old plazas and central squares and parks, which are lined with all the busy essentials of any city; food, entertainment, art galleries and the like. All great, but not much variety. You might as well just stay in Havana for the entire duration of your stay in Cuba.

Trinidad is by far the touristiest place in Cuba in my opinion - Havana may have more in terms of sheer numbers, but the fact that Trinidad is so small makes it feel crowded with backpackers. Nice in a way, but the effects of tourism are really felt there. The old cobblestone streets and the restored houses are refreshing to see in contrast to the millions of houses around the country that are decaying to the point of being dangerous to live in.

I was pretty much done with travelling by the time I got to Trinidad so apart from a day trip to Vinales in the west, I stuck around Havana.

The music in the country is phenomenal; when musicians are guaranteed the same income or more as engineers and lawyers, it's no wonder that people don't feel the pressure to pursue other careers, thus allowing multitudes of artists of all sorts to thrive. That's one good thing about Cuba. And the dancing; I don't think any writer could put it into words. When you watch Cubans dance, it just changes you. I can't explain it.

But then there's all the horrible stuff that comes with it. Appearance has everything to do with everything in this country; maybe more so than anywhere else I've ever been. I'm a female, young, slightly chubby by American and Japanese standards, but by Cuban standards I'm pretty average. I'm dark haired, eyed, and skinned, so I don't stick out as much as Molly did with her blue eyes and blond hair. But for some reason, I got a lot more attention than she did - maybe Asians are more of a novelty. Nowhere else that I have ever been in my life have I been regarded as a mere dollar sign with legs; nowhere else have I been constantly disappointed by realizing that the kindness of the Cubans to me was motivated solely for economic gain. In this socialist country, I saw the most capitalism I have ever seen in my life. None of that invite you to tea or coffee just to be hospitable and curious and kind, none of that simple conversation on a park bench. Yes, there were a few examples that stick out as being different, but the grand majority was people who were kind to me because of what they thought I could give them, and the interactions ended with that.

The Cubans are a truly unique people; I don't think there is any other nationality of people that I could compare with them. There is a self-assuredness, a self-confidence, and an absolute comfortableness that is apparent in the entire population. Cubans are a mixed nationality, ranging from whites that look as if they just got off the plane from Spain, to the blackest black of the Yoruba roots in West Africa. But they are all Cubans, and despite color, size, weight, height, age, and sex, they are all totally comfortable being Cuban and everything that goes along with it. There is no shyness, only direct, blunt, and often times harshness. I wish I had gone to Cuba 10 years ago, before this emerging dual economy had gotten to the point where it has destroyed the authenticity of so many Cubans. Prostitution is so much easier and faster than working for the government wage of 10USD a month. Begging guarantees more income than working as a computer engineer. Robbing a tourist means the equivalent of 20 years income, at least. So who is to blame?

When you go out, and people ask you to dance, it's not like in other countries where people just want to dance with you. In Cuba, after one or two songs, they ask you to buy them a beer or soda - 1USD - 3 days of their work. They act as if it's their obligation, often demanding rather than enquiring. For travellers on a budget, and even for those that aren't, this can get extremely irritating. Since when do you have to buy a beer for every person that dances with you?? I realize that there are multiple sides to this story, and it's virtually impossible for these regular Cubans to obtain their glimpses of fiesta in any other way, but it grows so frustrating. Molly and I discussed whether we would actually have more fun if we just started throwing around our cash and bought drinks for a bunch of Cubans whenever we went out. The conclusion was that no, it would simply result in them pressing us harder for cash, and probably larger numbers joining in to see what they could gain as well. The other thing about dancing is that a lot of Cubans just want sex. It's the most sex-obsessed culture I've ever seen. I suppose with no economy, no work, no food, no diversion, and a great offering of soulful, sensual music, it makes sense that this would have evolved. But it is at times super overwhelming to be a part of. Ten minutes of dancing followed by a proposal to go have sex. And even if it's not directly prostitution, it's not genuine sex of simply wanting to fulfill a lustful desire. The idea is that they sleep with a tourist, who then becomes their sugar daddy or mommy during the duration of their stay. If the Cuban's really good in bed, maybe the tourist will come back to spend more time with them. Remember that even if the sugar parent is only spending $10/day on the Cuban for alcohol, food, and transport, that's a month's income PER DAY that the Cuban is gaining. Anyway, I digress. If the tourist comes back to have more sex with the Cuban, the Cuban can then begin to propose a way to get out, in effect going to live with the tourist abroad. It's said that 99% of Cubans, as soon as they have gotten out of the country with a foreign spouse, leave them. I don't really understand how someone could go through those motions for so long, but of course I don't understand what it's like to live in a country where you know you will never succeed materially, where you will never make more than $25/month by purely legal means.

I don't understand the sheer stupidity of the government in so many ways. During the Special Period of 1991 to 1994 following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an extremely severe food shortage in Cuba where people had no choice but to eat things such as banana and grapefruit peels, and rice was available for 10 or 20 times the normal price. You look at the Cuban countryside, a large part of it virgin, fertile, lush land where essentially everything must grow, and you think, how the hell are the people here hungry? You go to the markets and there are vegetables; everything must grow here. Yet, sugar cane has been such an engrained part of Cuban history that even today, 5 pounds of sugar are given to every Cuban in their ration each month, while not a single green vegetable is included.

And fish; it's hard to find in Cuba and it's expensive.'s a long, thin island in the middle of the Caribbean. In the coastal towns there seems to be a good selection of fish for decent prices, but anywhere inland it's very hard to find. But ice cream can be found everywhere...if you can keep ice cream frozen shouldn't you be able to transport the fish? The island is so thin I can't imagine it would ever take more than 3 hours to get to any town from the sea. Why do you have to eat grapefruit peels when you could include a ration of fishing line and hooks and tell people to go catch their own dinner? I may sound stupid and extreme, but really, it's ridiculous.

And the U.S. Embargo; the propaganda jumps wildly from proclaiming that the bloqueo can't stop them, that it's not accomplishing anything, all the way over to outstanding claims of how every day the bloqeuo continues 400 cars cannot be brought into Cuba. Umm last time I checked, many many countries were able and willing to trade with Cuba, including ones that make high quality cars, like Japan, Germany, even Korea, China, and Russia...

And in general, the propaganda is at a level so high that I think it would drive anyone insane. You'd either fall madly in love with Fidel or want to murder him. It's funny, all the slogans read about the Revolucion, and so much is written in future tense; Venceremos - we will conquer. Lucharemos, trabajaremos - we will fight, we will work. Until when? Who are we conquering, and if the sign is immortalized in red paint on the wall, doesn't that mean there is no end date to the fight, that it's a permanent battle? And what happens when we win? Wait, didn't we already win in 1959?
I had stuff removed from my luggage without notification, and I'm not sure if it was someone from customs, or someone that works at the airport that stole it. It really really sucks, because I lost all my photos. All the Old Havana beautifully maintained cars, the crumbling architecture, and of course the countryside. I also lost Molly's videotapes, which definitey really sucks. I can't believe that I would be stupid enough to put everything in my checked baggage, and that I didn't back anything up on an iPod or CD's. I guess that means I just need to relive all the good stuff in my mind, and I'm sure as time passes the bad stuff will be less intense and draining.

I don't know how quickly Cuba will change, in terms of tourist appeal. There is so much cacophony about what will happen after Fidel dies, with theories ranging from nothing will change, to the U.S. will come intervene and overnight Cuba will be caught up to U.S. levels of technology, cars, housing, and life in general. Nobody really knows, but I wonder what would happen if all those new cars came in. Would the dinosaur Chevrolets still roam the streets of Havana, winding in and out of their grandchildren, the 2010 Fords and Chevys? Or would they just disappear altogether? Would tourists want to go to a Cuba with no old cars and crumbling buildings? Would tourists want to go to the McDonalds and Starbucks that might appear?

Or, will it not change for a long time to come? Yes, the invasion of Nike, Adidas, and the like has already been steadily infiltrating the society, but will the government realize that a large part of the tourist income, which s so vital to the suffering Cuban economy, comes from people that romanticize about the old Cuba and if it changes, those people will stop coming?

The funny thing is now that I've left, I find myself thinking maybe I should have stayed, and I feel as though some parts of me have already changed greatly. The self-confidence and lack of self-consciousness, and the thorough sensory experience of music is something new. Perhaps there will be more things that become apparent as time goes on.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

USA: Los Angeles to Chicago: 30 August - 7 September 2007 (Written 6-7 September 2007)

Leaving L.A. always feels strange. Both times I was leaving for real, my last afternoon and evening was spent with Nia. Two years ago, we went for a bike ride using Brett’s bikes. This time, we went riding on Sarah’s bikes. We rode down to Washington Pier and saw dolphins, cruising through the waves. What a perfect day, with perfect weather. Riding back up to Santa Monica, I saw a beautiful long haired guy standing, watching the water. John Picone. It was like a repeat of my farewell to L.A. when I was living there. The synchronicities during the past two weeks have been shocking. Saying bye to John, it was like an affirmation of how I cannot just leave L.A. and never come back. Maybe it takes two years, maybe next time it will be more, maybe less, but it’s not final. It’s a good thing.

We had a snack at Sarah’s, sitting on the totally meditative porch, and it broke my heart to leave. To be enveloped in such love and care and have to leave it can be so hard.

I went to exhale spa in Santa Monica and had an extra long session, then went to Barnes and Noble to wait for Ramon. Reading about Mexico and Nicaragua and Costa Rica made my imagination go swirling through the colors, smells, flavors, and sounds – I can’t wait.

On Thursday, we slept in and went to Dr. Irani. It’s these small relationships that stay in my mind when I leave a place. We went to La Playita, the perfect ending to my visit. Now I’m waiting to board my plane.

The time after my last blog entry was interesting. On Thursday (of last week), I went to Hala’s class in the morning, then Khatereh came to get me on Ocean Ave. I love this woman, and I’m pretty sure I always will. We had an enormous tasty Persian lunch in Westwood and then I met Nia. We went down to the beach and she had a salad at delizia. I was meeting Megan that night, and I’m really glad I got to see her. We went to Bravo, one of my old staple places, and had tasty pizza and salads. Hung out at Novel Café listening to a few guitarists and tambourine, playing the Girl from Ipanema, and I stayed at Christian’s.

On Friday I had my appointment with Michael Greenspan, the neuromuscular masseur. I don’t quite know how to describe it – pain, relief, shock…I went to Sarah’s after and after making breakfast took a long nap – that massage really took it out of me. After I woke up, we made squash patties and steamed artichoke, all delicious. I helped her get ready for her date that evening which was so fun to be all girly. I was having an emotional hangover, probably released from the massage, and just took it easy. That night, Jenny came over and we watched The Notebook, the ultimate in cheesy chick flick but it was great after the past 2 years of barely watching any film. We chilled out at Novel too (that place really became my hangout this trip).

Saturday morning I went with Ramon to Dr. Irani but he wasn’t there…so right after Ramon dropped me off, Dr. Irani calls me and so I just headed right back down there on the bus. My neck was in serious pain, and I have no idea whether it was related to the massage or not. I felt great after seeing Dr. Irani though.

I had another nap and then went to Brad’s class in the afternoon. Barbara was there, so it was great to catch up with her. I then flowed right into Lynda’s yin/meditation class. It was a much-needed 3 hours of bliss. I followed that by going up to the spa in Santa Monica (talk about spoiling yourself for a day!) and met Lama, who Sarah had told me about. She’s a Palestinian/Syrian yoga teacher currently living in Nice – we went to dinner at Musha and it was fabulous. Takuma hadn’t changed at all, still giving me little nibbles and it was great to have our old Japanese banter, unchanged. He’s gotten married though, which came as a bit of a surprise (not in a bad way).

Sunday morning at Saul’s class, followed by La Playita with Lama, then Jenny and I went to Malibu for some kayaking. It was ridiculously crowded for the Labor Day weekend, but we finally managed to find parking. The tide was pretty high and it was a bit of a challenge getting in (a very very kind couple helped us in) but once we were in, it was great. The water looks more beautiful each time I’ve been up to Malibu. We saw a sea lion! He was being chased around by birds, it was funny. We did, however, totally capsize on our way in. The beach was packed with Mexicans, who are all just so nice – a few guys came rushing over to help us bring the kayak to shore. The kayak is about 65 lbs and we had to carry it all the way across the beach – because it was a holiday weekend and we didn’t want to hurt the beachgoers, we went further down from the ramp – and so several guys came to help Jenny (but not me!) – probably because I was leading and she was seriously struggling behind. Ahh well.

I went back to Sarah’s and Tiffany came soon afterwards. We took the bikes down and rode on the beach, which was crowded but not too bad. We met up with German and went riding up north for a bit when we ran into Ivan and Maru – what a great synchronicity. Great to see this lovely couple from Buenos Aires – it looks like we’ll all be there in January. Tiffany and I went for a big meal at Panini Café, then to – surprise, surprise – Novel Café. There were a couple guys playing some southern music out front, and afterwards, Esau, a Salvadorean who was raised in Costa Rica, came out with his guitar. He started playing Veinte Anos, by Bebo y Cigala, and it was absolutely phenomenal. I instantly thought, wow, in a month, I’ll be listening to stuff like this everyday and there will be music flowing out of all the cafes and restaurants – what soul-healing power. He played a few other things for us, and proceeded to talk. A lot. We eventually got away and spent awhile chatting at Sarah’s before she left. I am so glad that Tiffany and I got to spend a lot of time together this trip, and that we got along so well. We were both apprehensive because of issues that have come up in the past, and we haven’t done a great job of maintaining contact over the past 2 years, but it felt really natural and open. Funny how friendships and people are. It’s a good thing.

Monday morning I went to Saul’s class, which was crazily packed and it was possibly the best class I had with him. The Om Nama Shivaya and the Om Mani Padme Hum…no words can describe this. After, I had my infamour breakfast burrito from Novel and looked around at the flip-flop heaven that is ZJ Boarding House. Nia came and due to serious heat, we spent some time just relaxing on the porch. Finally we decided we should get some food so went on the bikes down to delizia. We then decided to ride up to REI, except things got a little nerveracking when multitudes of pedestrians blatantly disregarded the BIKES ONLY sign and were slowly, dazedly, ambling on the bike path. Ahh well. This was my first time riding in traffic in L.A., and it definitely raised my stress levels but I made it ok. Got some stuff at REI and back to Sarah’s. Jenny came to get me in the evening and we went to watch “2 Days in Paris” – it was a refreshing comedy that incorporated so much about France and America it was really quite charming. I was absolutely exhausted so it was an early night.

Tuesday Khatereh and I had breakfast at Urth Caffe, ran some of her errands, then went down to Costco where Elie and Oran joined us. It was her and Elie’s 10-year anniversary, and Oran is now 7. Wow. I’m pretty sure the next time I see Khatereh will be in Iran. Can’t wait. Ramon came to get me so we could go play in the waves, then I got ready for yoga. My last class with Saul – it was so strange, it was the first class of his that I didn't cry in. I don't know if it means anything.

Molly came to meet me and we went to Musha and intermittently talked about Cuba and then there was silence as food arrived, then a mélange of conversation about Cuba, food in Cuba, to Japanese food, to let’s cook Japanese food for our hosts in Cuba, to..ahh I love it. We then went to Novel to do some serious planning and it was hilarious how it became so apparent that a month is really not sufficient to see all the places in Cuba worth seeing, and to let it soak in. It’s a good start, though, and after much deliberation, we came up with a tentative plan. I’m really glad we decided to have this meeting before we meet in Havana, because I feel like we’re going to have a much smoother trip than we would have otherwise (cross fingers). Addressing potential problems, expectations of budget, daily schedule, food, transport, accommodation, and our meeting plan since I arrive in Havana 3 days earlier than her – wow, I am so glad we did this. We had a few speed bumps in Japan and I feel like we both learned a lot from that. Total optimism and excitement about this trip now. I stayed with Ryan that night.

Wednesday morning I was off to a rough start because I was just exhausted – I cancelled my acupuncture and decided to go to Brad’s class instead. Yay for that. Khatereh brought me my enlargements and we bade our farewells – then Jesse came to meet me at Ryan’s. It was so funny, I barely recognized him – his appearance changes every time I see him. He fits like an old glove; I love this guy. Our time was short but it’s another one of those situations where it doesn’t necessarily indicate the future.

And the rest of Wednesday, I already wrote about. So I got to Chicago, Joe Pollack was there to get me – I am so so so glad I chose to fly into Chicago so I could see him. The last time was right after I had returned from West Africa. I’ve known him for over 10 years! It feels so strange to say that. He cooked a yummy dinner for us (he lives with his lovely girlfriend Natalie) and we spent the evening chatting and watching planet earth – what amazing footage. This morning we slept in and then Joe made us spinach, tomato, and garlic omelettes, and just afterwards we ordered pizza from Giordano’s because I wanted to have some since I was in Chicago. Yummm. Then I got on the Greyhound bus, where I am now, and I will see Mika in just a few minutes. Sighhhhhh.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

USA: Los Angeles: 28-29 August 2007, Written 29 August 2007

I woke up pretty late on Tuesday morning, and just got myself organized when Brett came to pick me up. What a shocker. It may sound stupid, but his long hair was what I totally associated him with - he cut it all off several weeks ago, and it was just so weird to see him without his locks. It was great to see him, though, and we went down to Venice. He had brought some bikes with him, so it was a great coming together of sorts. It was here, on Venice Beach, that he had taught me how to ride a bike over 2 years ago.

We rode down to Cow's End and got some brekkie then went up to Wilshire - it felt great to be on a bike again. We talked about photo and writing and different pursuits and politics and it just fit like an old glove. Afterwards, we went boogie boarding for a bit, then went to La Playita for some yummy burritos. Hung out at Novel Cafe until I went to yoga.

The strange thing was that it was so familiar it didn't even feel out of place; yet, it was completely different than how it used to be. He used to live 50m from the boardwalk; now, it was a 45 minute drive. Whereas we used to get bikes from his house, drop them off, and go boogie boarding and change in his house, we were going back and forth to the car and using the public change rooms. And of course, I don't live here anymore and hanging out on Venice Beach isn't a daily activity for me anymore. I don't think I'm putting it into words very well, but it was very...surreal.

My foot has been bothering me for a few days now, and it started to really be sore in yoga, so I ended up leaving a few minutes early. I went over to Sarah's and found out that John would be coming over soon too. I was really excited, since I hadn't talked to or seen John since 2005. He came over, and we had a great cooking fest - it was awesome. Sarah prepared an artichoke with a delicious dipping sauce, and John and I made the stuffed portabello mushrooms - garlic, onion, tomato, and mushrooms with bread crumbs and parmesan cheese overflowed. Mmmm. We also had a tasty spinach salad with heirloom tomatoes from the Venice Farmers Market. Ahh how I miss these meals. Amy was able to stop by which was nice, and it was one of those warm and fuzzy feeling nights. Ahh. Sarah took me back up to Santa Monica where I'm staying and we talked for a long time. Thanks Sarah.

Wednesday morning I forced myself to go to yoga - I REALLY wasn't feeling like it but I thought it might be good for me if I went. Indeed it was; it just clicked again, and I really got into it. After class I went to the spa and waited for Tiffany to arrive. When she got here, we went to Real Food Daily for some vegan yummies. Went to REI to look around at the Labor Day Sale and then down to Washington Pier, to the Whaler. This used to be one of my favorite happy hours so it was nice to be there again. Their quesadilla is fabulous.

We headed to Venice to get some coffee, and right as we parked and got out, I saw Brett coming down the street. How weird. It seems like something that used to happen, to randomly run into each other in Venice, but like I've said, now that we both live nowhere near the area, it was kind of spooky.

Novel Cafe was great as usual, I really love that place - it's great for people watching, as all different types of people come there; yuppies, yoga people, homeless people, writers, intellectuals, revolutionaries. I love it.

On the way back to Tiffany's car, a van drove by with someone who was strangely familiar sticking his head out at me. It was...Jason Crutchfield - I worked with him at MLS teaching English in Tokyo in Spring 2006. How crazy! Both run-ins happened at the corner of Main and Rose - something was up today.

We went to House of Blues to watch Tiffany's friend's band play. Loud but pretty good, and then we stopped by La Playita so I could remember, again, why I love food in California. And that was today ;)