Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Barrier Reefed

So we all know that I am never going to be a professional scuba diver (is that a thing?). But I have come to really enjoy snorkeling, even though it took a couple of tries before I got comfortable with it. I might not be able to swim, but I sure can bob around in a life jacket and flipper my way along among fish and coral.

And what better place to snorkel than at the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the world’s second largest reef system?As our last unvisited Central American country, Belize made the perfect jumping off point for a nice day of snorkeling.

We bobbed along with the tropical fish as they darted in and out of coral structures of endless color, shapes, and variety. Some wore outlandish, flamboyant colors; others sparkled in massive shifting schools.

Sea turtles cruised along silently, grazing on sea grass here and there. Massive rays hovered along the sandy sea bottom. Nurse sharks cut through water, searching for food, chased by our sinewy, sun-darkened guide, who was seemingly half-fish himself.

Snorkeling, while common, still fills me with awe. It is a glimpse into a world wholly separate from our own, a universe unto itself. Thank goodness I overcame my fear, at least enough to allow me to observe this place from just below the surface.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Viñales: Caballos y Tabaco

Viñales is only hours from Havana, but a world apart. Its lush rolling green hills are dotted with fincas, lines with dirt roads, and sprinkled with massive limestone mogotes. The rich soil and unique microclimate make Viñales home to the world’s best tobacco.

As part of Cuba’s tourist trail, Viñales overflows with casas particulares, a guesthouse-homestay hybrid, restaurants, and tours to the surrounding farms and caves. This provided us with the ideal opportunity to go for a horseback riding tour, my first and last.

For years Win has been trying to get me to go horseback riding, and there have been no shortage of chances to do so. I have always been vehemently opposed, as I find horse to be unpredictable in a way that terrifies me. Now, I know there are plenty of people who absolutely love horses and horseback riding. We all have our things.

But, confronted with the beauty of Viñales and the chance to face a fear and try something new, I agreed (albeit begrudgingly).

As a novice horseback rider, wracked with fear, our Spanish-speaking guide gave us the following instructions once atop the horse: left, right, stop, walk. My small, young horse, not being a car, did not respond to commands as such and promptly freaked out. She panicked, I panicked, she tried to buck me off, lost balance, and fell over, taking me down for the ride.

That’s when I found out that the quickest way to win an argument is to have a horse fall on you. I also learned that Cubans are not wont to take that crybaby bullshit, so I ended up riding a horse (a calmer horse) for the next four hours.

It was four hours of blind fear, riding through gorgeous landscapes, limping around farms and caves, and thinking of ways to combine my scant Spanish skills to ask our guide nicely to slow the hell down. We gained some insight into the tobacco growing process, as well as how communism and farm life interact (hint: 90 percent of the crop goes to the government). 

We also met whatever this creature is.

In the end, I spent the rest of our vacation in various states of limping and healing (partially due to the fact that horses are heavy and partially to the fact of having ridden a horse for that long in general). But now I know that I can get back on the horse, in the most literal way imaginable.  

Friday, May 29, 2015

La Habana

A jumbled sprawl of city along the crashing waves of the ocean, Havana is like a city at once lost and found. It is old and new, crumbling and reconstructed, colonial and Western, dilapidated and grand.

The only billboards or advertisements sell not products, but ideas -- a revolutionary quote here, a catchphrase touting the benefits of socialism there. Lacking are the chain restaurants of the West, the Coca-Cola placards rampant worldwide. The only advertisements to be seen are quarantined to the airport, pushing big brand rum and cigars on arrival.

In touristic Havana Vieja, fresh coats of paint cover colonial buildings, souvenir stands sell bags and shirts covered in iconic images of Che Guavara, and ritzy hotels and restaurants sprout like mushrooms. Tourists in shorts and large floppy hats watch street musicians blaring Afro-Cuban jazz. Iconic cars and bicycle rickshaws roll by.

Blocks away in Havana Centro, buildings crumble in various states of rundown disrepair like some post-apocalyptic version of 1950s Americana. Art deco buildings, neon signs, and beat-up antique cars line major streets, while narrow one-ways are full of life. Women in bright spandex cluster on stoops and sidewalks and stray dogs roam. Men chat and smoke while elderly folks gossip through window and door grates. Young boys play makeshift games of football and tiny restaurants sell peso pizza to go.

Much like the duality of shiny tourist Havana and real life Havana, Cuba’s dual economy provides for harsh disparities. In an attempt to allow for tourism and still maintain a communist system, tourists spend one currency, locals another. The tourist dollar, or CUC, worth 25 pesos, is just as widely jostled for and fought over as in any tourism center. It’s a slow permeation of capitalism, a steady leak that will almost assuredly increase with the loosening of American barriers to tourism and business in Cuba.

But to see it now, with regulations and relations in limbo, before that creeping change that will inevitably happen, was quite fortuitously timed. To see it while it is still a country that requires unplugging and disconnecting from the endless internet obsession.  To see it while the classic American cars are part of daily life and not just a remnant maintained like museum pieces. To see it while the tourist throngs are still relatively small. What splendid timing.