Friday, 31 July 2009

Cuba, and the end of it

A belated post on Cuba, which seems pretty appropriate given that most things in the country involve waiting (they know how to do queues). I am also writing this from the other side of the Atlantic, back at home in the UK. Why? Because money and energy were both running thin. When travel becomes more of an effort than a pleasure, it's time to call it a day.

That said, I had a fascinating 10 days in Cuba. It is a country full of contradictions, one you leave with more questions than when you arrived. It is difficult (impossible, in fact) to do it justice in one blog post, so what I write will just be a few impressions and thoughts that stand out in my head. That is, in fact, what all of this blog has been.

Now, though, I don't even have the energy to write those impressions, so it will have to wait a while. I leave tomorrow for a week in the Lake District with the family - it will be a brilliant change to have everything organised for me. Here I am just one gringo among many, and I don't mind it at all. I was getting tired of the funny looks I got on the street.

P.S. This may be "The Gringo Diaries", but now that I have a blog going, I can't see any reason why it should stop (I even quite enjoy writing it!). So I'm afraid there's more to come...

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Tropical Storm

I got caught in one early this afternoon, sheltered beneath a Red Bull bar umbrella. The weather in Panama City hits you in the face as you leave the airport - the heat has a real humid weight to it (my glasses steamed up). I have never enjoyed cold showers as much as this.

The place is like Miami, from one angle, all brand new skyscrapers, Dunkin' Donuts and shopping malls with air con. But then, as you look the other way from my hostel balcony, you see the Casco Viejo. Crumbling colonial colour, "reminiscent of old Havana" as the guidebook (Bible?) says.

Somewhere in between, there's the main shopping street with its Caribbean colour (though I'm on the Pacific side). People whose ancestors came from Africa, from Europe, from Asia, from round these parts too. All colours stop to watch the Michael Jackson videos competing from adjacent TV stalls.

There's the canal, too. The ship I saw pass through with 50cm to spare. Somewhere, faint, the memory of thousands of dead French workers. And all the time the heat.

Tomorrow Cuba. We'll see about that old Havana comparison.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

The Republic of the Equator

is what it would be called, had we gone for the literal translation. A shame we didn´t, really - it's got a certain romantic ring to it.

After a difficult start, I have had a fantastic time here, in part due to what the country has on offer, and also thanks to the people I have met. Cuenca was wonderful, as was the nearby Cajas National Park that I visited on Tuesday. It looks weirdly similar to the Lake District, though it is higher, colder and has more exotic plants. That took up most of the day, after which I investigated more beautiful areas of the town, and then to a night bus that evening to Baños. It was one of the worst buses I have yet taken, though thankfully probably the last night one.

Baños is not a nice town...but the setting is stunning, in a green valley underneath a volcano. Around it is prime tourist outdoor activity territory, and I went for a walk up to a viewpoint (saw the summit swimming in the clouds), and then decided to go for one of the big tourist activities - biking along a road to the jungle, lined with waterfalls. I luckily found two young Dutch people who were renting bikes at the same time ($5), and went with them. The waterfalls were very impressive, particularly the enormous final one, the largest in Ecuador. That, and the company was great. The evening turned out to be equally as fun, through a simple bit of chance. I was sitting in a restaurant, and noticed a French family next to me struggling with the English menu. I thought I might as well help them out, and afterwards got talking to them. They were kind enough to invite me to eat with them, and we had a great, wide-ranging conversation. At the end, the dad didn't so much offer as insist on paying for my meal... in all, it was one of the nicest things that had happened to me in a while.

Then Thursday morning I was off to Quito. Like Lima, it's a city which you can't sum up in a blog. The Old Town is very grand and full of colonial churches, though it's somehow not as charming as Cuenca. I am getting ready now to leave for Panama tomorrow morning, and then on to Cuba on Monday. They are small steps towards home, which I am now quite looking forward to.

I wanted to also write some things about Ecuador, and how it differs from Peru. It feels much less of a 3rd world country, and the people look markedly more European. The American influence here is stronger - not only the dollar, but the Chevrolets which line all the streets. The teenagers skateboard, play basketball and wear their baseball caps backwards. The other big influence is Colombia, to which Ecuador clearly feels culturally closer - they were at one point the same country. In a sense, it is easier to travel in than Peru...things work a little better. It has to be said that months in South America take a toll. It is simply tiring to have to worry about where to find a hostel, how to get a bus, how to not be pickpocketed. Although I'm repeating myself, getting back to the UK will be a in that way a relief.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Loneliness and Cuenca

So I have encountered some of the realities of solo travel, positive and negative. Leaving Piura on Saturday night, I met two fellow travellers, in fact volunteers who had been working in Trujillo. We got on really well, spent the early hours of the morning waiting for it to get light in a bus station ( a South American classic). Then walked up to get a view of Loja, an Ecuadorian town nestled in the Andes like a miniature, chilled-out Cusco. Then I went - straight on to Cuenca, leaving them to follow their own route to Quito. A mistake? So I came to think on the 5 hour bus journey, overwhelmed by the sense that I was on my own and would be for another month, in unfamiliar and far-away places.

By the time I got to Cuenca I was feeling pretty miserable, to put it bluntly. But then other things happened, as they tend to do. I made a comforting phone call home, and set out to find a hostel. I found one - El Cafecito, a restaurant-cum-hostel that was full of friendly travellers (a relief). Another plus was the fact that Cuenca is probably the most beautiful place I have been so far. The city centre seems entirely made up of white-washed or brick old houses with red tile roofs and little balconys, lining cobbled streets. It is also filled with churches, including the "New Cathedral" which is monumental and inspiring. Most importantly, however, the place seems relaxed - a world away from the eternal noise of Cusco. I met a group of Canadians at the hostel (including two Québecois - whose French I could understand some of!), and with them went up to a viewpoint over the city in the late afternoon. The dinner we had afterwards at the hostel's cafe was lively and delicious. The more Canadians I meet, and the more I hear about the country, the more I really, really want to go there.

I have heard that because of swine flue, all school in Peru has been cancelled from Wednesday until the 3rd of August - which will make life pretty difficult for Projects Abroad!

Unrelated thoughts - I just read an article on the Guardian website about the British people's lack of faith in government, institutions, or anything representative of our country. It is a slightly depressing thought, but probably true. I know at least that I would take our cynicism over blind faith any day. It's just a shame if the cynicism becomes so enveloping that we are reluctant to see anything in a positive light. I think one of the greatest things about Barack Obama's presidential campaign was that he brought back an optimistic tone. Sadly I wonder whether the tone of his speeches would have worked in the UK - or whether he would have been shot down by the media.

P.S. I have been doing some other writing while on this trip - poems and the like. I might put some up - though I better get a move on, as Internet in Cuba is not easy to come by, from what I hear.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Adiós al Perú

(We´ll ignore the fact that no one here actually says adiós - chau is universal.)

More importantly, I have only a few hours left in Peru. Yesterday I was in Chiclayo, which is not as pretty as Trujillo, but has an absolutely astonishing museum just outside it. Called the Museo de las Tumbas Reales de Sipán, it presents what archaeologists found at the site of Sipán, 30km away, in 1987. This was a series of tombs from the Moche civilisation (same guys from the last post). They in fact got there just in time, as grave robbers had started to plunder the old adobe pyramids. At least one robber was killed by the police in the ensuing struggle - very Indiana Jones. Anyway, the royal tombs contained gold and silver ornaments which are literally unbelievable in their quantity and quality - experts have said that the only comparable find in the 20th century is that of the tomb of Tutankhamun. The museum these are in is very well laid out, on a par with anything I've seen in London.

In a slight repeat of the previous day, I balanced out my cultural morning with an afternoon at the beach, and this time, I managed to get a swim in too. While the water was not exactly warm, it was definitely better than the North Sea!

Today I have been in the town of Piura -which, despite what the guidebook says about aging charm, is a bit of a dump. Still, I have had a relaxing day, reading, and generally trying to avoid the scorching heat - Piura is in one of the driest deserts in the world. Tomorrow it will be back to the Andes, which will be a nice change from all this sand and sun.

I am sad to leave Peru, which has been home for the last few months - it is an amazing country, as much because of its natural diversity as because of its diverse people and societies. Hopefully I've given some impression of that through this blog. I remember an advert that was on TV during my first month here. It was about Peru's natural wealth, and emphasised the fact that of about 120 ecosystems in the world, Peru has something like 90. The slogan at the end was "Perú lo tiene todo" - Peru has it all. Jungles and deserts, slums and 5 star hotels, traditional dances and very active politics.

Perú lo tiene todo.

In more ways than one, that just about sums it up.

Thursday, 9 July 2009


is where I am now, having taken an overnight bus on Tuesday evening. On Monday in Lima I went to the monastery of San Francisco, which had some impressive catacombs and a library with books dating back to the arrival of the Spanish - a real sense of (dusty) history there.

On Tuesday I visited the Museo de la Nación, which had exhibits on all of the different pre-Columbian cultures in Peru. However, the best bit was an exhibition on the 20 years of terrible violence between 1980-2000, as the government essentially waged a war against groups like the communist Shining Path. Funded by the EU and Peru´s Truth and Reconciliation commission, it was a powerful exhibit of photographs and testimonies. I hadn't realised that over 69,000 people were killed during that time. The bleakness of the subject matter blended well with the museum's stark concrete architecture, and while it did not shy away from the brutality, everything was sensitively handled. The big problem is that atrocities were committed by both sides (though there is no question that the Shining Path was the root of the problem, and more destructive than the government).

I feel like I could write a lot about Lima - it lacks the overwhelming European feel of Buenos Aires (from what I have heard), but is a fascinating mix of Spanish and indigenous cultures, of global brands and distinctly Peruvian street food. You probably need a long time to get to know it properly. As a final note, I didn't feel threatened once, despite all the bad stories you hear.

I managed to sleep the whole way to Trujillo - a first!

The city feels very colonial, with plenty of old mansions painted in blocks of primary colours. Around it, in the desert, there are stacks of ancient ruins. I by chance ended up spending yesterday with a friendly Austrian guy called Marcus, and with him went to the ruins at Chan Chan, a huge adobe city from about 1400 AD. More impressive, however, was the Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon) of the Moche civilisation that I saw this morning. It dates from between 100 and 800 AD and still has the most amazing painted friezes and sculptures. It made me realise that the rest of the world is unaware that Peru's history is about a whole lot more than the Incas.

This afternoon, I'm being less cultural and going to the beach, before getting a bus north to Chiclayo.

Monday, 6 July 2009

The Coast and Lima

I am now in Peru's capital, and it is hard to believe I am still in the same country. I got a bus on Friday from Cusco, arriving at the desert town of Nazca on Saturday morning. I flew over the famous lines in a small plane, which was exciting and had fantastic views. The lines are impressive, and very difficult to understand - how and why would a civilization a thousand years ago make these huge drawings in the sand, which you can only see from the air? Inevitably there have been stacks of conspiracy theories, mostly involving aliens (very Indiana Jones).

The drive from there to Lima was pure desert, towns made of adobe with reed roofs and huge sand dunes. The political graffiti changes here - there is far more in support of Fujimori and his daughter Keiko, who is planning to run for president in 2011.

Lima itself is colossal, a city of 8 or 9 million people. Arriving in the centre and being confronted by huge commercial buildings and global brands was something of a shock after three months in Pisac. My hostel (Loki, part of a great chain in Peru) is opposite an enormous McDonald's. In Lima you have to stick to the right neighbourhoods at the right times, but if you do that there is little to deserve its terrible reputation from what I have seen so far. The upper-class coastal suburbs of Miraflores and Barranco have beautiful sea views, and remind me a lot of Spanish cities like Barcelona or Madrid. There are houses with electric fences, walls and private security, and the people look very different - essentially, because a lot of them are white. Miraflores also has a shopping centre called LarcoMar, which is built into the seafront cliffs - a stunning location, even if it's not exactly a hot cultural destination. It was there that I went to the cinema last night, which felt like a novel experience after three months.

The historic centre is beautiful but crumbling, kind of like how I imagine old Havana. Yesterday I saw the changing of the guard at the presidential palace, and had a wander through the old streets. I am spending two more days here, probably leaving on Tuesday night for Trujillo.

Friday, 3 July 2009

This is it

This is my last post from Cusco, which I am leaving today after three months (!). It feels strange to do has become home in a certain way. I had my last day at school on Wednesday, and was very touched when they organised an assembly in my honour (any excuse to cancel lessons!). As I said to them, the teaching has been a unique and unforgettable experience for me. I will miss it, even with all the excitement up ahead.

Likewise I will miss my host family. They have been unfailingly kind, generous and welcoming, and gaining an insight into their lives has been invaluable. Predictably, at the end of the day they are much like any other family on earth.

Other things I will miss: the rickety Daewoo Tico taxis, and the impromptu parties on the street. The steep cobbled streets of San Blas, and the hills covered in morning mist.

I will not miss the children selling sweets or shining shoes, or the women offering massages on every street corner.

This is it, then. On to new places.