Monday, April 28, 2008

Cuba Libre!!

Well, we're here....finally, finally, finally! And it was an adventure from start to finish...

So, we left our beautiful Colombian town sadly, but with great excitement, for here was to begin our great Cuban adventure! We took the 12 noon bus from Santa Marta and, as usual in Colombia, it was way overpriced! Especially since the seats were uncomfortable, you don't get fed, and the toilet worked for about half an hour, before giving up the ghost with a splurge of inorganic chemicals and organic mess, making the freezing cold journey even harder to bear because of the all-pervading smell emenating from behind us! That coupled with the fact the driver seemed intent on proving his capabilites as a world rally driver meant that between myself and Alan we got about 10 minutes sleep... So, we arrived at the Venezuelan border none too fresh and none to happy. We had heard all the traveller advice on money - Venezuela's currency system is stuck on a 1997 exchange rate in the banks, meaning that when you withdraw Bolivars directly from the machines, it charges you a rate of 1 Bolivar for 1 Dollar. This is clearly crazy, so you are forced to hit the black markets for your money exchanges, and it's been known to receive 4 Bolivars for 1 Dollar in these circles! We were happy, however, with our exchange of 2.5 for 1, which we got at a Casio de Cambio next to the exit area of meant that our chosen hotel room would cost us about 15 euro instead of 32. Anyway, we then walked across the border no-man's-land to Venezuela, where we got our entry stamp. As we commenced boarding the bus, we were told the guards were going to search every bag on the bus, and that it would take about 2 hours. Five minutes later, a fellow passenger took up a 'collection' of 5 Bolivars per person, to give the guard as a bribe so that they would let us pass unmolested. Standard practice, apparently! So, bribe paid, we got back on our stinky bus, and wove our way through the bleak Venezuelan countryside to Caracas, city of crap....seriously! I have never seen a so called socialist state so plastered with advertising, and so overrun with shanty towns. Unbelievable! Maybe Chavez is working hard in the rest of the country, but Caracas is going to the dogs. Anyway, we got to the bus station by 6am, thanks to our drivers rally experience, and had to wait for the sun to rise in order to head out to get a taxi out to Catia del Mar, the seaside town ten minutes from the airport. We happened to ask a lady in a shop how to get an official taxi, and she very nicely phoned one for us. He arrived and took us to his tinted windowed car, and wove out of the horrible city into an even more horrible 'seaside town' for an extorcionate price...such is the way of the Venezuelan people, we were soon to discover! Our hotel was dingy and horrible, with insects everywhere, and sticky floors. However, it had a tv in the room, and that's all we wanted to while away the evening before heading for the airport in the morning.

So, bright and early the next day, we headed to Caracas airport, and cling-wrapped our bags for safety at the entrance, before attempting to sign in. Nothing so simple! We had to buy our tourist visa for Cuba, which was fine, we knew we had to do it! But then there was the state tax to pay. Fine. OK, so we hadn't enough money for all of this new costings, so I said to the lovely (sarcasm doesn't come across so well in text!) 'lady' we had to go to the banklink, and I'd come back. So we traipsed across the airport to find a banklink, found one, took out the exact amount...meaning, of course, we were getting the 1997 exchange rate on the withdrawal. Then headed back to the stupid cow with cash in hand, to find an equally tourist-friendly man in her place who informed us that we had also to pay airport tax. Oh, sure why would you tell us our total costs all at one time? That would make life EASIER for us! So, with many a scowl and clenching of teeth, I headed BACK to the stupid banklink for more stupid overpriced money for their stupid taxes and charges. After all of this costly endevour, we had enough left for a wee something to eat out the other side, and nothing else. So, we headed through their stupid security (everything in Venezuela was stupid by this stage) airside, and discovered within a couple of hours that our flight was delayed...for 9 hours! Armed with enough cash for a paltry Burger King, we thus reconcoiled ourselves with the airport seats. As an aside, we also thought we might need further cash, but discovered there were no banklinks airside. Sure why would you need THOSE in an area filled with shops, restaurants and other establishments requiring money????

Anyway, I'm not gonna hash over everything yet again, but suffice to say the nine hours dragged by! Luckily, Cubana provided lunch and dinner for us the cheapest restaurant in the airport, but food is food, and who am I to complain? At 10.00 pm, we were all herded an airplane, I presumed, but on reaching the top of the stairs discovered it was to climb onto buses. Our flight had been cancelled, and they were taking us to a hotel. So, on route to said hotel we met with two Turkish men...brothers Oskan and Asmail. Oskan has been living in London some 20 years, and has British citizenship, as well as perfect English. Despite Asmial's little English, he was engaging and friendly, and we had a good chat on our way to the hotel. It turned out to be a lovely hotel in Catia del Mar with a pool and everything...but then again, considering you couldn't leave the hotel environs at any stage, it would want to be! Plus, we only had the clothes we were wearing, so we couldn't exactly dive into the pool! Anyway, it was late, so we all parted ways for some sleep. Next day we arose hoping for news on the flight...nothing. We had breakfast, and watched television all day, before discovering at 4.30pm that they would be collecting everyone from the hotel at 5 bound for the airport. Nice of them to let us know! What would have happened if we hadn't chanced to call reception? Anyway! Headed out for the airport, found a GIGANTIC queue of people awaiting us, and some big frenzy about how half of the flight had been heading to a conference, so they got priority, and a second plane would carry the rest of us. At this stage I didn't even care! We eventually got through the queue in about an hour and a half, to be told that the airport might have to be paid again! Well, this was not happening! Alan had lost the sticker on his ticket so we couldn't prove that we had paid yesterday, and when I explained this to the Cubana man, he shrugged his shoulders. I was forced, then, I admit, to throw away my diplomacy and gritted smile long learned from past struggles with service providers, and curse a little! Sorry Mam....but basically, he then promised we wouldn't have to pay it again! As it turns out, though, nobody had to pay it again, because Cubana had to foot the bill....although this only resulted after all the passangers encamped at the airport tax desk and refused to pay! THEN we finally got through, for a further three hours waiting airside, where we got to know our Turkish friends a little better. When the plane finally arrived to much jubulation at 9.30, we leapt aboard! And it was the smallest plane imaginable...dry ice sufficed for air conditioning, and my knees were practically to my chin onboard. So, in this tiny junk box, freezing cold from the dry ice smoking up around me at all times, we shuddered our way across to Cuba, to land at 3.00 in the morning. When we got there, we decided to sleep in the airport until 7, then head into town together - the two of us, and the Turkish brothers.

On waking cramped and uncomfortable at 7.00, we discovered that my card wouldn't work in any of the card, that is, because no debit cards work here anyway. We thought we should try some banks in the city, so Oskan and Asmail offered to pay for the taxi in and then we could pay them back when we got to a bank. So, we headed into the fabulous city of Havana, but I was a bit worried about the money, so didn't take things in as much as I could have. When we arrived, they spotted us breakfast, while we waited for the banks to open at 9. They then minded our bags as we headed off to various banks. Three establishments later, we were told that my credit card, though European, had done business with America, and was therefore useless in Cuba. Brilliant! We thought that maybe we'd be able to withdraw money using my passport and account details, so we stored our bags at Oskan and Asmail's lodgings, and headed out walking. A chance encounter with a creepy old gringo obviously living in Havana a long time sent us to Assistur, the only money-transfer option available between Cuba and other countries. Creepy? Because Alan says he got the distinct impression he was asking if we needed money badly enough to sell me to him for a while.....eeewww!

So, we went to Assistur, and discovered that our nearest transfer option was England, and then only from HSBC bank...they also took a humungous cut of the transfer, as payment. But it was our only hope! We went back to Oskan, and they loaned us enough money for lodgings, and we also bought a bag of bread and some water...feasted for days on that paltry bundle, let me tell you! Anyway, we moved to a Casa Particular in the city, then got on the internet and emailed home, and my cousin Anna in London, asking them to send the full cash that we would need for the whole holiday. This panicked everyone fact, my mother thought that we'd been taken hostage and I was forced to write the email to get money! Such thoughts averted, they fell to helping us, but we had to wait until the banks opened on the morrow. We met the boys again that night, because they refused to let us wallow in our miserable situation, and kind souls that they are, they wanted us to come out with them! So, we went to Monseratte, a lovely bar next to Hemingway's favourite haunt, but better for the lack of brash tourists pointing cameras up your nostrils, where they shouted us a couple of beers, and we were entertained by a fabulous Cuban band who funked the room up something rotten! Fantastic! Next day, sick to our stomachs with both fear, trepidation and hunger, we went to Assistur to see had any money come through. Nothing! Turns out HSBC wouldn't let Anna send money with them as she is not a member of their bank, so she tried it through her bank, and they said the confirmation would take longer. So, we had another day of this to contend with! Despite everything, we spent our days pacing around Havana, gazing at it's fabulously faded grandeur, and drinking in it's liveliness and musical flavour for free!

Again that night, Oskan and Asmail would not let us wallow, and we went into Viajo, the lively pedestrianised zone above the port, and took in another free show...this time flamenco (though the band also played a weirdly wonderful version of 'Zombie' by the Cranberries!). Next morning, we awoke with the by now familiar trepidation. We awoke in better surroundings, though, because we had moved casa's to Dulce Maria's - a famous casa the same price as our last, but which included breakfast! So we dined heartily on food besides bread - the first to touch our lips in two days - and headed out to the internet to see what news awaited us. On switching on my phone, though, I discovered that my Mam had been in touch with Anna, discovered that the money transfer was NOT going to go through, and had taken it upon herself to drive to Dublin and plead with the British Embassy to help. I might add, at this stage, that the nearest Irish Embassy to Cuba is Mexico...some help to us! Not an hour later, I received another text, confirming that the money would hopefully be awaiting us in the British Embassy. We had to walk, having no money for taxis, and took the 5.5 km in the blistering midday heat out to Verdado, where the Embassies reign. It was a long walk, and I got a little crazed from the sun, but it was all forever worth it when we walked in the door and a lovely lady behind the counter said 'are you Sarah'? Oh what joy!!! She even mentioned that my mother had been very worried about me.....!!! So, we collected our money, joyously and with great relief, and took a taxi back to our Casa. I cannot TELL you how worrying those days were! We couldn't change our flights, so would have been stuck in Cuba with nothing. And if we hadn't met those fantastic brothers, we would have never even have been able to leave the airport! So, you sometimes have to think things happen for a reason...if the flight had not been cancelled, we would not have had the opportunity to make friends with people from the flight, and would have landed in Cuba friendless, moneyless, and alone!

Sadly, our two friends had gone to Trinidad that morning, and we now await their return for the May 1st celebrations in Havana, where we will repay their money and kindness, and take them out for dinner and drinks as a thank you!!

So, to update on life since then, we are LOVING Cuba! It is the most amazing wonderful fantastic country on earth, and we love every second! After Havana, we headed to Vinales, where the tobacco fields cluster amid wonderful limestone cliff faces, and the countryside is so lush and green that it takes your breath away! Staying all the while in Casas - family homes with spare rooms they make available to tourists - we eat hearty breakfast of eggs and fresh fruit in the mornings, and in Vinales, even took dinner made by the family. It certainly improves your Spanish, as nobody speaks English here! Our first day we cycled the countrside, and marvelled at the red earth, tall palm trees, and high cliffs...Alan took a solitary cycle later, and saw a massive snake basking on the road! Already afraid of snakes, this scared the hell out of him! Our second day we took the tourist hop-on-hop-off bus around the area, and met two Irish on holidays here (he from Clare, she from Cork), and had a good laugh spending the day with them! We also visited a smallholding, where we were shown a drying room....a heavily slanted straw hut containing countless tobacco leaves hanging from poles strung lengthways. The owner rolled a cigar for is in front of our very was amazing! And he presented it to us free of charge, though we did leave a tip for his kindness! Next day we headed back to Havana, and from there on to our two days of luxury already counted for within our budget....Playas del Este! We headed to an all-inclusive holiday resort on the edge of the ocean, with a HUGE transluscent pool, and a palm-treed, white-sanded, aquamarine sea reached by means of a wooden footbridge over a sandy lagoon. So, we are lapping up the luxury here...eating what we please, and certainly DRINKING what we please, all for the low-low price of 50 euro per day (that's our accommodation, food, drink, EVERYTHING included). So we're happy!

Heading back to Havana tomorrow for the May 1st celebrations. The Plaza de la Revolucion reportadly fills with 1.2 million people, and Fidel addresses the crowd. I think it will be Raul this year, but sure either way, it's an experience I am unwilling to miss! And, yes, I am aware of my hypocrisy in coming from this luxurious havan into a march celebrating workers rights...but I really don't mind! Everything in Cuba is so gloriously distributed, that any money I spent here, in this wonderfully delapidated hotel (which, despite it's appearances, is as plastered with photos of Fidel and Che as anywhere else), will be evenly spread out. Not one shanty town have we seen since our arrival here, and everyone is happy and healthy, and the kids are at school every day. Communism seems to be succeeding far better here than Chavez's socialism in Venezuela, and he would do well to take serious note.....

Internet is very expensive here, so my next blog could be from home, but suffice to say I absolutely adore this country, it's people, and every second I spend in it. Don't worry, I will be back to it before long! It has a very strong pull....

Hasta la victoire siempre!!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Ode to the Departed

Yes, we haven`t moved an inch! Largely due to the arrival in our hostel of some extremely sound, and bloody good fun, lads from back home! We had met them in Lima - well, I can`t really boast that, because I wasn`t talking to them in Lima, but the other lads knew them well - and by pure chance they landed up in our hostel here. And I soon got to know them! Liam had his guitar, and knew amazingly varied and wonderful songs, and James and Cormac sang along with gusto....they brightened up our little trip something rotten!!

And, in a little "small world, isn`t it" twist, Cormac is the nephew of someone I work with back in Dublin! Crazy!

Anyway, we decided not to move on to Cartagena, as Bones was leaving on Tuesday, and Mac came back from there to celebrate (or mourn) Bones`s last weekend with us! So Saturday night, we sent him off in STYLE! With four litres of rum, and copious amounts of beer, we headed to An Garaiste, the best nightclub in town. Well...everyone else headed off, I had to be put to bed at that stage (about 2am) on account of drinking a tad too much, but when they returned from the club, I gamely hopped out of bed and joined the singalong until the wee hours - about 9 am the next day! AND I had my first public preformance - I played and sang along to Willie McBride on the guitar, and got a good reception! Maybe they were all drunk, but they lavished praise on me, so I`m suitable big headed now, even though I still play like Father Ted.....ha ha!

But it was a great sending off for del Bone, who has been the most amazing travelling companion these past months, and I miss him already! I know I`ll see him in a month back home, but it`s never the same, is it? Over here, I saw him for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and slept in the same room as him for 90% of the time, and we`ll never have that closeness I miss that, but as Tedly has said, don`t be sad that it`s over, be glad that it happened! So we said a tearful (well, I cried anyway!) goodbye to him Tuesday morning. He`s back home now, and says he`s already overdosed on tea.......

And of course, Maca himself, who ALSO left on the day Bones left! I hadn`t thought about it, because I`ve said goodbye to Mac before - back in La Paz when he was on his way to meet his destiny in Buenos Aires - but now he`ll either be back in Ireland before us, or just after us, and either way, I also won`t see him for a month. I`m glad to know such a man, I really am, because he is one of the steadiest and genuinely nicest guys I`ve ever met. I`ve never known someone to have such regard for others in everything he does, and he has the best and biggest heart I`ve ever seen. So hopefully the friendship will continue as strong back in Ireland, because I feel like I`ve strengthened a friendship over here!

And then Wednesday.....what a day.....we said goodbye to Ed and Emer and Kee, who are gone on to Cartagena! It was great getting to know Emer and Kee, who I didn`t really know before, and I had great craic with them - especially Emer, who is a bloody lovely girl!! And as for Ed....what can I say? I never knew him before we came away, and now I don`t know how I went so long in my life without knowing this amazing guy! So I cried on his departure too, probably most of all, because he is just one of the best people I know, and I am so happy that we came along on this trip together! I would never have known his happy outlook on life, his coolness under pressure, his ability to smooth over tensions, and his sensitivity to everyone`s feelings. The man is a saint, but not in a cheesy overly-nice way, he just genuinely wants for people to be happy, and I can`t find fault with a second of our time over here together.

And on Thursday, we said goodbye to our newfound friends from back home, and since they are heading to Australia after South America, they`re not likely to hit Ireland again until 2009, so renewing the friendship could be tougher in this case, but we`re hopeful it`ll be done. Really, we`ve met such amazing people on this trip - we`ve been so lucky!

So, today, it was just myself and Alan, sweating and trying to organise accomodation for Caracas, the most dangerous city in South America! We`re hoping to just stay in a village ten minutes from the airport, rather than Caracas itself, but everytime we call it, we get hung up on by the impatient and rude receptionist....what a hijo de puta! So we might have to stay in the city. We`ve heard such stories of the place from fellow travellers! One girl from Cork was on a tour around the country - bear in mind, this meant they were ferried EVERYWHERE in a private buses, and all sleeping arrangements organised by guides - and from the 20 people on board, 8 were stabbed in Caracas. One woman, a 55 year old lady, was stabbed in her HAND as she tried to protect herself....

Another story? Irish guys there took the official black taxis to the airport, and they are four by fours so that if traffic stops up ahead, the drive onto the dirt roads beside it and bypass the stoppage, as it is popular to hold up taxis full of gringos....the cars have blacked-out windows, and you can`t roll down the window for fear of being seen.

Another? Carl Cox (idiot DJ) played a set in a Caracas nightclub in November, and a gunman opened fire on the crowd, killing 4 people. Security failed to evacuate, despite the bodies lying bleeding on the ground, and the gunman opened fire again five minutes later, killing a further 6.

Another? All hostels and hotels (even the Hilton and other branded ones) are enclosed in barred gates, and signs advise revellers to stay in after dark (6 o clock), and police impose a curfew after 10pm. Even eating in a restaurant 500 meters down the road, you are advised to take a taxi.

Another? Police in Venezuela get onto buses randomly to view the passangers. You are told to face forward, and keep your eyes straight ahead (take off sunglasses). Making eye contact will be seen as being "cheeky" and may result in some random police brutality.

And the last one! Coming across the border, the border guards board the bus and say "we will search this whole bus, and hold you up for 2 hours, or else you can all pay 10 Bolivars, and we will let you through without a search". Coupled with this little nugget is that 3 out of 4 people carry guns in Caracas. Not `have` guns....CARRY guns. Factor out old people and kids, and you are probably looking at the entire male population "packing"!

So, I look forward to Sunday, when we fly to Cuba. Much safer destination! Whatever Chavez is doing, it`s not reaching Caracas......

Roll on Cuba!!!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Still in Taganga....

Yes, we`re still here! And loving every minute of it...I guess we should be trying to squash as much fun into our last few weeks away as possible, but considering I`ll be back to work within two weeks of my return, I`m enjoying the relaxation of it all! Lying in hammocks reading my books, practising my guitar, swimming in the`s not a bad life, right now!

We`ve changed our flights for returning home, as Al`s cousin Stephen has led his team into the FA Cup Final on May 17th in Wembly, so we`re landing home and heading to London for the match. My official return date is now 18 May, and I`ll be back to work on the 9th of June. So I`ll be home for my birthday!! Woo hoo!! I just cannot WAIT to see everyone again!

But, between now and then, we have CUBA to look forward to! We`re so excited! We`re gonna do a few more Spanish lessons here, maybe, as we`ll really need our Spanish in Cuba...but we`ll see how it goes! A friend of Bones and Ed`s from back home - David Kee - arrived here last week with his girlfriend Emer, so we`ve been having a great time hanging out with them, and we all headed into Park Tayrona at the weekend - after the Cardiff game, and returned in time for the Liverpool game with Arsenal. Got our priorities sorted!

The Park was fantastic! We slept at Arrecifes Beach, where you can`t swim because of currents, but it is just beautiful! You pay the equivalant of 3.50 a night for your hammock, which is strung up under a woven roof in the area where the jungle meets the sea. So, unfortunately, this means a healthy supply of insects! We brought our mossie nets, but they`re very hard to string up over hammocks! I had a termite in mine who gave me an awful bite, but Alan got the worst when a mossie got stuck INSIDE his net with him, and chomped on his face, eyelid and ear!! Next morning we hiked across to La Piscina, where it`s safe to swim, and in doing so crossed some amazing beaches, replete with palm trees and turqoise water...this is definitely the Caribbean we dreamed of! And there were WAVES!! Much as I love Taganga, the beach is stoney, and because we`re in a bay, it`s like swimming in a lake, there are no waves. So, we spent the day swimming, jumping off of rocks, and getting frazzled in the sunshine! That night we got some bottles of rum, and enjoyed the solitude of the Park! Beautiful! And the stars at night - because there are no lights for miles - were just unbelievable!

We might head on to Cartagena after the weekend with the lads, or else on to Palimino - an area along the coast an Irish girl who lives in Taganga told us about. It depends on Bones, really! He`s leaving the soonest from here, so whatever he wants to do, we`ll follow!