It is a typically rainy night in Havana. Taka and I linger near the doorway, out of the rain, of Hotel Sevilla – one of those grand, colonial buildings that Cuba is known for – as Lori, a smartly-dressed young Cuban woman, asks the doormen to direct us to the dining room. Her friends will be performing opera songs for the dinner crowd this evening.
We had thought that her asking would be the easiest way, her being a native speaker, a local, and much more respectable looking compared to my and Taka’s look of general haggardness. But the doormen are rude and dismissive towards her. It seems that they only reluctantly admit her to the hotel, the lobby decorated in a fashion fit for nobility; or, in this case, for foreign tourists. (more…)
I walk into a beautiful café. The furnishings are contemporary and comfortable. I am served my café Americano with a glass of filtered water, gratis. What a lovely place, I think, as I look through my pictures while seated in a rocking chair. A couple is dropped off in a horse-drawn carriage that they have apparently rented for the afternoon. The owner is familiar with them. When I settle up the bill, the dream is over. I would have paid less for a coffee in Brooklyn. Maybe even half as much.
I am in Granada, Nicaragua trying to figure out why it is such a tourist destination. Experiences like the one in the café make me think that the formula is quite simple. People just have to start going to a place for one reason or another and then the process is simply self-perpetuating. Before long, there are several establishments that are expensive even for foreign visitors. Maybe it’s arbitrary.
Earlier, in my taxi to the center of town, we maneuver through the outskirts. Bicycle taxies roam the streets, juice vendors squeeze refreshments, the ubiquitous motorcycle zooms by, horse-drawn carts carry goods too burdensome for man. From the calm of the periphery, we pass through the crowded shop-lined streets. The market is bustling. Speakers blare dance rhythms, vendors lure in costumers. Taxies, pedestrians, motorcycles, bikes, horse carts: mingle in the streets.
It is sometime around midnight and I’m on a volcano. There are 40 of us, some with headlamps, others without. The light of the full moon seems sufficient, save the millions of stones and rocks that we trip over going up. Most of the hike, however, it doesn’t feel like we’re going up at all.
Telica Volcano is about a half hour drive from Leon, Nicaragua. With Queztaltrekkers, a non-profit that works with local kids and takes gringos on treks, we pile into the back of flatbed trucks as the cool night air provides some relief from this impossibly hot climate. Like a herd, we stomp through the farmland. Even though it is dark, the heat is oppressive. I sweat through my shirt before we even start the major uphill climb of the hike. Over the course of 12 hours, I will have drunk four liters (about 135 ounces) of water.
The guy sitting next to me on the bus to Lake Coatepeque sounds like he’s got a bowl of soup in his mouth. Each time he says something I shrug and tell him I don’t understand, but he keeps going anyway. A man standing in the aisle says something in intelligible Spanish that I understand. We drive from Santa Ana through lush green scenery into small towns where people hop on and off. A woman is selling live chicks on the sidewalk that have been dyed pink, yellow, and blue out of a cardboard box. Her face is timid and innocent. I cannot pass judgment.
We have doubts and we haven’t even stopped for lunch—the halfway point. Our packs are heavy, with 5 liters of water, clothes, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, tents, cooking supplies. The first hour of the hike up Acatenango Volcano was straight up. It isn’t much better now.
We stop for lunch at our halfway point and everyone throws off their backpacks and collapses on the ground. The lunch that is provided for me is the best thing I’ve ever tasted. There was cheese and spinach and bread, and whatever.
I am lured in by a chalkboard in front of a wine shop: Every additional glass of wine is five quetzales cheaper than the last. Tabacos y Vinos does not have an English name, sure, but it is a quintessential gringo hangout in a town full of gringo hangouts. I meet a retired archeologist (now expat), a schoolteacher from New England, a group of law students doing a two-week program, a group of guys from Arkansas in seminary school learning Spanish, and the lady working that night. There is a local on duty in case someone comes in and needs to speak Spanish. It is less a bar than wine shop in setup, with a large square table surrounded by wine bottles shelved on the walls, so it is hard not to talk to people while hanging out there.
Antigua has a ridiculous amount of language schools and lures droves of English speakers to learn Spanish the best way: cultural immersion. The only problem is that finding someone willing to speak Spanish to you is harder to come by than someone willing, or able, to speak English.
At 7:30 am I stand waiting for my van to Antigua, Guatemala. About ten to 8, my driver gives a honk and I scurry over to the van. He is a jovial man with a big belly tucked in with a bright red shirt. You always want your driver to have a cheerful disposition. He has your safety in his hands. We lumber around San Cristobal’s small colonial streets for about an hour to pick up all of our passengers. We leave city limits around 8:30. The gesture of being picked up at one’s accommodations is convenient, luxurious even, but horribly inefficient. Our driver asks each person as they board if they have their passport on them. Confused white faces timidly nod.
Outside of San Cris we traverse the beautiful mountainsides. We all lull into a daze except for the two women in the middle talking about positive energy.
San Cristobal de las Casas was deemed a “magical village” in 2003 by the Mexican board of tourism and further recognized by President Filipe Calderon as the most magical of the magical villages in 2010. I’m unsure whether state agencies or presidents have the power or prestige of mysticism to make such designations, but one can see what they mean. Here lies the cultural capital of the state of Chiapas, with many local villages, like San Juan Chamula, making significant contributions. Religious ceremony here is almost always accompanied by the local spirit, pox (pronounced poh-sh), distilled from cane sugar and corn. This strong ceremonial liquor augments that “magical” feeling Senor Presidente Calderon was talking about.
We were to take the overnight bus from Oaxaca de Juarez (Oaxaca City) to Puerto Escondido on the coast for some relaxing times. I’m obviously unaware of most the logistics of such a trip, as I don’t live in Oaxaca. I could look it up on some tourist website, but I figured going with a local would be the way to go. Well, the overnight bus never happened. My acquaintance here in the city, Daniel, was running a little late. Around 11 pm, when we were supposed to be boarding our bus, we meet up and I drop my stuff at this apartment. Do I want to go out for a drink? Sure. And then we’ll wake up early for the morning bus. Sure.
The following contains endorsements pertaining to literacy and alcohol consumption.
In front of me was a glass of mezcal and a woman named Sandra rapidly explaining in Spanish everything about what I was drinking. I caught the word horse in there. Is there horse in this? Stomach? This is from horse stomach? NO.
Oaxaca de Juarez –There are these long, skinny balloons that the kids love playing with. Hundreds of colors are available, and two sizes: a normal size, and a jumbo size. You hit one side and it goes shooting up in the air and then it floats around and changes direction. Kids can be seen chasing after them in front of the Cathedral with an enviable sense of innocent joy.
Mexico, D.F. – I’ve read that one pedestrian dies every day in Mexico City. It’s not surprising if you’ve ever tried to cross the street here. It’s rare that there are signs indicating when to cross. One must watch the traffic lights and pay attention to the flow of traffic. The former is fairly simple. Green means go. The flow of traffic and the orientation of the streets and alleys is quite a different matter.
The Mexican driver seems to go as fast as possible at any given moment, twisting and turning with seemingly little regard for anything but speed. Perhaps that is why there are speed bumps EVERYWHERE. On a camping trip over the weekend, after it took an hour to get out of Distrito Federal (D.F.), we were bombarded with what seemed like miles of speed bumps before making it onto the highway out of town. We must have gone over 50 speed bumps. And these are not your speed ‘humps’ as they would call them in the suburban U.S. These are the kind of speed bumps if, like us, you have five people in the car and the trunk fully loaded, the undercarriage of the car is going to take a beating. The bumps are covered in scars as a testament to their maliciousness.
You don’t shake hands with a woman in Mexico. It’s strange. To them, I mean. My generous couchsuring host invited a friend over and when she came in I put out my hand and introduced myself and said ‘nice to meet you’. As you do. No, you don’t. Later, I was told (reminded) that in such a situation, you give a kiss on the cheek. To those citizens of the United States of America (I’ll get to that), it may sound odd, if not sexist. Why don’t you shake her hand? Is she too frail for a firm squeeze of the hand and an acknowledgment of her equality—political, socially, sexually—with men? I don’t know the answer. It’s just not the way things are done. A nice consolation is that it’s completely acceptable, so I’m told, to give a little cheek rub to a man you’ve just met. You, obviously, being a man. It’s true that the kiss on the cheek as a greeting is something that is often lost to most modern citizens of the United States of America. A man kissing another man? Well, we might as well just let them get married together and adopt kids (…).