Saturday, April 26, 2003

29 - From Here to Eternity (Moorea)

Papeete to Moorea, FRENCH POLYNESIA - 21 april 2003

I arrived at the ungodly hour of 2:40am. I thought I was hallucinating when I saw hefty Polynesian men playing tiny ukeleles to welcome us, and svelte gorgeous ladies in hibiscus-printed dresses distributing miniscule fragrant jasmine buds. Nice touch, but at this hour? The huge, macho Tahitian Customs guys stamping our passports all had tiny jasmine flowers tucked behind their ears too. Eeeww.

I wanted to wait til daybreak to head to Moorea island. I tried to stay awake at the airport but finally, I fell asleep on the hard seats. When I woke up, a Tahitian woman in the typical loud hibiscus-printed primary-coloured dress sitting next to me, started telling me she had been watching my bags and that I should be careful with my stuff. I smiled sheepishly. Merci, I thanked her. OK, another language now. And one that I did not know.

A conversation of gestures, noises and sporadic Spanish vocabulary thrown in, hoping they were similar to French, ensued. In the end, I figured she said there were buses to town, but yet she shook her head when I paraphrased my understanding. My French was limited to numbers, ‘bonbons’ and ‘champignons’. Not very useful now, I’m afraid.

She finally waved down a guy whose job was to receive tourists at the airport for various five-star hotels and this one spoke English and instructed me accordingly.

I headed to the main road to try and catch a Le Truck. This was the typical public transport in Tahiti. They basically looked like trucks. On the Le Truck, I asked a few other tourists if they knew where to get off for the Moorea Ferry Terminal. They were heading the same way too. Great. They were Go, Junko from Japan/USA, and Greg from Australia.

Go and Junko had booked themselves in a US$140-per night beach bungalow in Moorea. Greg and I opted for a slightly cheaper resort - dormitory beds for US$13 a night.

I had changed some Tahitian francs at LAX airport but I did not have enough to pay for three nights. As it was Easter weekend, everything was shut. The receptionist decided to take US dollars from me instead.

Greg had a weird story. He brought along no US dollars or travellers’ cheques with him, relying entirely on his card. But the card could not work at any of the machines. He tried to do a cash-advance-over-the-counter at the bank at the airport and the guy claimed it was not possible at that branch. With every bank shut for Easter, Greg simply had no means of getting any francs. The guy at the bank counter amazingly LENT him 20,000 Polynesian Francs (about US$200), took a photocopy of his passport and made Greg promise to return the money just before he leaves Tahiti.

I had worked in a bank for six years. I assure you this is the ONLY compassionate bank-related story anyone will ever get to hear.

This was really the tail-end of my trip. I was not interested to do this or that sight, hire kayaks or snorkels, or whatever. Nonono. I just wanted to merely exist for three more days.

We took the scenic route along the beach to walk to Go and Junko’s resort. Some places were fenced off but the sea being so shallow, we just waded across the water to get around.

The beach in front of their resort was way better. One could not really swim because of the corals all over and the water was not deep enough to kick one’s legs properly. The water was wonderfully warm and super clear to see the fishes and corals. In the far distance, one could see the enormous crashing Pacific waves but they broke very far off because of the corals and never made it to the beach. In other words, this was paradise.

I shut down my brain and drifted in the water.

Moorea, FRENCH POLYNESIA - 22 april 2003

Today was the end of the Easter holidays. Greg had looked forward to going to the bank nearby and doing a cash advance so that he would have money to pay back the guy at the bank. Meanwhile, I calculated that I needed another US$15 worth of francs to survive the next few days.

As it turned out, that bank could neither provide cash advance nor currency change. The staff was there mainly to look surly, tap something on the computer and pretend to use the telephone. We had to go to Cook’s Bay at another end of the island.

The automatic Change Machine would zap US$5 for every transaction. If I needed US$15, I had to feed in US$20. That would be 25% commission!!!! My card could not work on the withdrawal machines either. We later learnt from a French tourist that only her French credit card worked. Most mysterious.

To help out my situation, Greg and I decided to buy US$20 worth of groceries from the supermarket and I would pay with my credit card and he would give me francs in return. Great, we would feed on French loaves and Nutella for breakfast, and spaghetti for dinner the next few days.

With my money issues sorted out, I shut down my brain and read thrashy novels by the beach.

That night over spaghetti, I found out that Greg had been on five or six Round-The-World trips over the years. Gosh. He was definitely NOT a lister and was so humble and unassuming that I only learnt about this now. I had to coax stories out from him. I really appreciated him telling me this and I enjoyed his stories tremendously. I knew this Round-The-World would not be the one and only one. And to hear that he had done several really encouraged me. It might be possible for me too. Ah, a wonderful dream.

Moorea, FRENCH POLYNESIA - 23 april 2003

There were too many roosters on this island.

Some people could exist for their entire life. I existed for two days and felt I was ready to start LIVING again, but not too strenuously, sil vous plait.

Greg read that, according to the guide-book, there was a ‘fairly easy’ walk from the Ferry Point to Cook’s Bay. 2 hours, 5 kms, that sounded alright. I asked if I could join him and so we set off on the bus to the Ferry Point.

Unfortunately, it rained just when we arrived at the Ferry Point. We only set off after an hour’s wait when the rain subsided.

The trail was horribly muddy right at the start. We followed the red markers painted on trees or plastic tapes tied to trunks and started ascending up a slope. Greg only had flip-flops on. With the earlier rain, the climb was difficult and very slippery. Many times, we had to use roots embedded in the mud like rungs of a ladder to climb up.

After an hour of very sweaty and exhausting climb, we reached the top of the ridge. Walking across the edge to the left, we arrived at a view-point and found ourselves right at the bottom of two very impressive peaks.

Moorea had some very astounding and dramatic mountain peaks scattered all over and to burst through the foliage and be met with this sight, I was utterly floored. “This is TREMENDOUSLY PHENOMENAL!!”, I yelled. We were awed by the fantastic view around us, for we could see Tahiti island, the bays and the spectacular mountains around Cook’s Bay. Yes, the tough work was all worthwhile. Greg confessed smilingly that he had started to have doubts but agreed with me this was worth it. The poor thing was suffering more from the climb because of unsuitable footwear.

Now, we had to descend on the other side of the ridge… which was even worse. We slipped several times and Greg knocked his elbow badly. We came to a point where it was so steep it was like plunging to death. This did not look right. I saw no plastic tapes in a distance and was afraid if we went down this way and it was the wrong route, there was NO WAY we could climb back up. I got worried but there appeared to be no other route and so we carefully crawled down.

We managed to leave the jungle without tragedy after the very stressful and difficult journey downhill. And Greg… oops, I am sorry, the Legendary Greg did it in flip-flops. ‘Fairly easy’, my foot!

We returned to the hostel by hitching. I started to have really bad stomach aches upon our return. French loaf, Nutella and biscuits. What could go wrong?

Moorea to Papeete, FRENCH POLYNESIA - 24 april 2003

Woke up with no more stomach pains but there were still too many roosters on this island.

After yesterday, we deserved a brainless day today at the beach. At one point, from the clear shallow water, Greg spotted a huge black something moving against the currents. It was a ray! He had spotted one two days ago but nobody was nearby for him to point it out. This time, he pointed it out from the beach and everyone saw it. It was gigantic and very graceful. I waded in the water to follow it for a while. It was fantastic to see a ray!! Wow, I was really pleased with this final, perfect present.

I would be flying out of Tahiti tonight to Melbourne, Australia. While I would be transitting in Melbourne, I had about 4 hours to kill. Since Greg is from Melbourne, I asked him for transportation details to the city centre, if I so choose to head there from the airport. He suggested I take the SKYBUS to Spencer City Station and then, find my way to Bourke Street.

“OK, so when I arrive at Spencer City, I just have to ask someone: ¿Dónde está Bourke Street? [‘Where is Bourke Street?’ in Spanish] And I can go there by walking?” I clarified.


“Except that I have to ask that in Australian.” I pointed out.

“Yes, that would be: ¿Dónde está Bourke Street, mate? [‘Where is Bourke Street?’ in Australian]”

I was all set to tackle Melbourne.

Papeete, FRENCH POLYNESIA to Auckland, NEW ZEALAND - 25 april 2003

I sat and read at the Tahiti airport since 5pm yesterday and only boarded the plane at 1am this morning. I barely got a chance to experience 25 April before…

Auckland, NEW ZEALAND to Melbourne, AUSTRALIA to SINGAPORE - 26 april 2003

…it was zapped from me when we crossed the International Date Line.

It was payback time. The hours I had been earning slowly the past 12 months… time to return them.

I took a series of planes to Auckland, New Zealand and Melbourne, Australia.

Australia was picky about everything. One of the questions on the Declaration Form was if I had any soil, or articles attached with soil with me. Sure, I had. I had gone hiking and slipped down muddy slopes a few days ago in Moorea. My sandals were still covered with mud. I very honestly ticked ‘Yes, mate’ to that and was ushered to the Quarantine Room.

I was told to take off my sandals and take a seat. The Quarantine guy washed my sandals and returned them, dripping wet. I had a muddy dress from my hike in Viñales, Cuba and a muddy pair of pants I had on where I did several slipperoos in Moorea. Do you guys do free laundry here? Nah, I was not going to confess those and so I fled the scene.

I found out the price of the SKYBUS to town and it was not worth it for so few hours and so I stayed put at the airport.

And then, I took my final flight back to Singapore.

Well, at this moment, allow me to share a few humble verses, inspired from the various points of my trip.

---- * * * ----

A minaret against the sunset
A yodelling call to the evening prayer
Incense smoke, lighted candles
Joss papers burn in the temple pyre

Yak-butter lamps flicker on the altar
‘Wind horse’ papers strewn across the pass
Prayer wheels creak as they spin clock-wise
Fluttering in the wind, white and yellow scarves

Faded Bodhisattvas with missing arms
A thousand Buddhas peer out of caves
A wall that snakes forever into the mist
Brick by brick, stacked up by slaves

---- * * * ----

Undulating grasslands
Stretched endlessly for miles
Emerging from gers,
Curious gentle smiles

The shifting wind
The stirring dust
The thunderous hooves
The silent stars

These meat-eaters, these warriors
Galloping across the hills on their stallions
Survived the harshness, lived the desert
Once widely feared and so valiant

---- * * * ----

Four days three nights, bulleting west
Siberia in my hair, soot on my face
Lulled by the rhythmic ‘TUK-tuk-TUK-tuk’
Towards the orange sunset, we chased

‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye’
Tongue-twisting, four syllables
Surly and sour looks
Coaxed a smile out? It’s a miracle

Onion-domed churches, clashing in colours
State treasure, opulence in abundance
Soviet-era statues, abandoned in parks
Metro stations, grand and elegant

---- * * * ----

Sun-drenched bodies, brown and baking
All shapes and sizes, decked out in bikinis
The curved beaches, the warm Atlantic
The party never ends, it stretches to infinity

In this land, the music plays on
Feathers and sequins gyrate to samba
A radio here, a street band there
Booming oludum alternates with suave bossa nova

A limitless coastline, the odd mountains
An impenetrable jungle that knows no peers
Crystalline rivers, blue subterranean lakes
And a waterfall that brings tears

---- * * * ----

A gracious twirl, a sensual slide
Quivering voices from the cracking gramaphone
Passion and nostalgia, that is tango
Musical poetry performed with tearful moans

Red-hot charcoal and that sizzling sound
Comes the smell of unmistakable asados
Yerba mate fills the gourd
The bitter the better, so prefers the gauchos

Relentless wind beats on the pampas
The majestic glacier, one swoons and faints
Amidst the mighty Andes, emerges Aconcagua
Seven colours on a mountain, swirls like paints

---- * * * ----

Turqoise lakes patrolled by guanacos
Savage wind tortures and tosses
Vertical peaks that tower over you
Enigmatic ‘Horns’, sculpted by nature forces

An island with wooden churches and palofitos
Good old fishermen haul in the day’s catches
A climb up the volcano, blinded by whiteness
Confused by the snow, the clouds and the smoke it belches

Hissing and bubbling, the geysers awaken
In the distant salt lake, the flamingoes feast
Vicuñas relish the freedom of the altiplano
Sparsely populated by Indians who chew coca leaves

---- * * * ----

Stone ruins, trapping enigmas and legends
Messages encoded in beads and threads
Dried-up mummies in frozen screams
Intricate textiles, now in shreds

Multiple cultures from epochs ago
Rose from the coast, highlands, jungles and deserts
Slowly taken over by the mighty Incas
Only to be silenced forever by the bearded Spaniards

Mysterious drawings criss-crossed the plains
Boats of reed sail the highest lake
Silent sarcophagi perched on cliffs
A network of trails, through the mountains they snake

---- * * * ----

One country, three currencies
The land that is Castro and cigars
Crumbling colonial houses
And classic Chevrolet cars

Where everyone is meant to be equal
Every business, state-controlled
Food products, weighed and rationed
Rules and regulations, to be followed

Be surprised by the contrasts
Be shocked by the disparities
Be humbled by their lives
Be touched by their sincerities

---- * * * ----

If they sound incomplete, it is because they are. To be honest, I do not know how to end them. To end them with a flourish is as if to say, this is how the country is. But the truth is, I, like any other travellers, am merely a passer-by, some essence of the places at those moments rubbed off a little as I flitted around the peripherals. These are my impressions then and I am sure they will evolve.

I hope that for the past twelve months, I had shared the flavour of things, triggered some wonderful memories, inspired a few to dust off their bags, hit the roads and have their own experiences. Only then will anyone understand what I am talking about.

Twelve months
Eleven diaries
Ten languages
Nine airlines
Eight inspiring books
Seven-ty-nine rolls of films (oh well)
Six haircuts
Five visas
Four Equator-crossing
Three continents
Two ‘White Nights’
One World
Infinite Smiles

Today, I complete my circle. This is not the end. This is the beginning. From here to eternity, may the magic runs to infinity.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

29 - From Here to Eternity (Los Angeles)

La Habana, CUBA to Los Angeles, USA - 19 april 2003

Frankly, by the end of two weeks in Cuba, I had had up to HERE with hissings and harassments from the sleazy Cuban men. I was actually rather glad to be leaving today. But Cuba had indeed been one incredible learning experience and an appreciated challenge at this point of my trip. It had provoked me to think about the various facets of life and that many things are not what they seem. Gosh, what else is out there? The more I know, the more I realise I do not know.

If the airport departure halls in other countries had been a tad charmless, I was pleasantly surprised by the departure hall of La Habana airport. I was greeted by a huge hall of flags from all over the world, hanging from the ceiling. I kept my eyes skyward and walked around the hall twice. I found that I could only recognise a fraction of the flags up there. Indeed, there is so much more out there.

The plane back to Cancún was not the propeller-sort. It was bigger and less wonky. I also had the chance to practise my nearly-forgotten Russian alphabets on the seat-numbering and buttons for stewardesses. This must either be a repainted AEROFLOT or at least, it came from the same supplier.

Upon arrival, the Mexican Customs asked if I had any cigars with me. I said ‘no’ but I actually had two. The Cuban customs had not stamped on my passport and I knew, for sure, US citizens were not supposed to declare that they had been to Cuba nor have any evidence of Cuban cigars. But I was not sure whether I could or not.

I soon departed for Los Angeles. I was flying to Los Angeles, because to go to Tahiti, I had to fly from there. Yet I could not connect the flights and so, I needed to spend a night.

In June last year, a lady from Los Angeles, Delara, had spotted my bootsnall articles and emailed to me, offering the chance to crash at her living-room couch if I ever drop by. I remembered her offer and had contacted her a few weeks ago. To my delight, the offer was still on and she would pick me up. Wonderful.

However, trying to clear the US Customs was a nightmare. Firstly, I realised Mexicana flight crew had not given me the Arrival/Departure card on the flight. I was one of the first to get off the plane but by the time I filled out the Arrival/Departure card in the corner, the four planes that had arrived at the same time had unleashed the rest of the passengers.

I queued randomly at one. The speed of clearance was moderate but when I was merely five persons away from the top of the line, the officials came and, from me onwards, gestured that we were supposed to turn back and head to other lines as they were closing our counters.

I was at the start of this line. By the time those at the back turned around and made their way out to join other lines, I was at the end of the queue. There were perhaps forty people in front of me. Great.

We moved along slowly and by the time I was halfway there, the officials came to shoo us to another line again. Good lord, enough already.

Finally, finally, finally, it was my turn. Of course, the Customs guy now said I had filled out the wrong card. I should have filled out the green card, and not the white one. He paged for a Mexicana staff. After a while, she arrived and led me from Counter 64 to Counter 9 to get the green card. By then, there was only a trickle of passengers left. All the carousels had long stopped. My backpack lay abandoned in the middle of the hall.

The Mexicana staff then fretted that she only had the green card in Spanish, not in English. I was really agitated by now. I practically snatched it from her, muttering I could read some Spanish. I feared Delara might not be waiting for me anymore. Yet, I could not appear to be nervous in front of these people.

Then, I had to walk all the way back to Counter 64 and face the insipid questionings of the Customs guy. In my haste, at the place which asked me to list all the countries I had been to in the past X days, I wrote ‘Cuba’ and when he asked me where I had been since I left Singapore, I mentioned ‘Cuba’ too. He let me through. But later, other people warned me that I should NEVER have mentioned ‘Cuba’. If I had arrived at the Miami airport, I would be creamed for sure. Oh dear, I had no clue.

Delara was still there, holding up the ‘TRISHA’ sign, slightly droopy by now. My angel in the City of Angels! She was just about to give up. How lucky I was. She drove me to her home to dump my bags and then, we headed to her favourite bar ‘where-everyone-knows-your-name’ for drinks. It was Saturday night. She had worked hard during the week and was dying to meet up with her friends again. In fact, she seemed to know half the people at the bar.

I was still reeling from the shock of coming from a country with not much available to a country with everything available. The language was another thing. I could eavesdrop at other people’s conversations (and pick-up lines) without really trying. Delara is excellent. She was a chatty, confident, funny, very on-the-go, full-of-energy type of person. We talked about our travels and it was really great to learn we shared the same sort of feelings and ideas for our common passion.

I asked her about the side order formerly known as FRENCH fries and to my surprise, Delara had no idea what I was talking about. I had heard from Liliana when I was in Mexico City about USA changing menus and other stuff to remove ‘FRENCH’ from them and replace them with ‘FREEDOM’. I had thought this was the most brainless story I had ever heard in a while.

Guess the stupidity did not spread far from Washington DC. La La Land was safe, for now.

I was introduced to Roy, her flat-mate. He had thought it weird she was going to the airport to pick up a person whom she had never met. Well, once a while, we have to do weird and crazy things, don’t we? Once again, I was really grateful for Delara’s help, for LA sounded rather daunting to me.

Soon, I started to glaze over due to the body clock still set to Cuban hours. When the bar closed, Delara drove me back first before driving her tipsy friend home. Roy had returned to the apartment as well.

Just as I was getting ready to sleep on the couch, Roy came out to the living-room, clad only in a towel. He sat down and started to ask me questions like, ‘Why did you go to Cuba?’, ‘Why choose a country such as Cuba?’, ‘Why makes you do this, travelling and this sort of shit?’.

I explained as best as I could but he was not pleased with my answers. He kept probing - why, why, why, what f*#king difference does it make, so what if you know how life is like in those f*#king countries, so what?, you can’t change the world, you can’t change their lives, the whole world is f*#ked up. (I will have to ask readers to pardon the guy’s FRENCH, or what President B’s supporters would call, FREEDOM.)

OK, despite the fact that Roy was very drunk and had very nearly flashed himself just now, I wanted to listen to his uninhibited opinion for it was from an angle that I never got from the usual people I met… for most of those I met while travelling are people, more or less, like me.

He proceeded to name a few countries and claimed them to be really f*#ked up. “But here in LA, this is the place TO BE. Nothing will ever change, so I just leave the shit there and f*#k it. Here, we make money, we PRINT money. Ultimately you only have one life and you should live it well for you. Why bother with the rest of the f*#king world? I’m rich, I can do whatever I want. People go to Cuba and have a blast, spend money and do all sorts of things they can’t do here. I don’t see you as that sort of person…”

He explained that he had a lot of respect for what I had done, he confessed he was ignorant and agreed he would never experience anything close to what I had but so what?, ultimately, I have to stop this and I would settle down and place kids on this world, live my life, earn money for my family because that is MY LIFE and this whole thing, so what if I learnt something, would just be a ‘waste of time and money’.

And so, my entire 11-month-and-3-weeks had just been summarized as a ‘waste of time and money’.

I seriously suspect that if this had happened in another time and place, the old me would have flared up and throttled someone’s neck. Now I know for sure, this trip had changed me.

The words ‘compassion’ and ‘empathy’ came into my mind. These are the main concepts Buddhism tries to inculcate in us. If you have peace of mind and a good state of well-being, you will be happy. For any situation, you have to be compassionate and try and understand the other person’s angle and feel it from his or her side. Then, misunderstanding can be avoided and you keep your peace of mind and good state of well-being.

I was glad I had this conversation for I had nearly forgotten, had hardly ever come face-to-face with people of opinions such as these, for we orbit in entirely different ellipses. If he chooses to live his life this way, it is because that is what he knows. If he is curious about this other sort of life, I think it is difficult to pick my brain just like that, to know why I do the things that I do. I can only share certain things. The rest is up to him.

Meanwhile, he made me search deeper for my own answers. Why do I do the things that I do?

I agree there is only one life. And this is HOW I want to lead it. He was right in some ways, there is nothing I can do to change the world. I never set out to change it or to accomplish anything noble. If anything, the world changed me. Whatever I had done, I had barely placed a dent in anyone’s lives. But the people I had met impacted me in more ways than one.

To describe your trip by saying I have done this, this and that; I have been to here and there and everywhere; I climbed this; I visited that; I sailed down here; I crossed into there; yadda yadda yadda… sure you have, whatever… But all this LISTING just trivialized everything you had done. You cannot describe the WHOLE EXPERIENCE in this way. You can paint your impressions of certain specific and special moments, yes, but the complete experience, well… difficult.

Its effect is private. The rush of joy, the tingle in your heart, the astonishment of setting your eyes on the amazing sights, the overwhelming feelings choking at your throat when you see the kindness in people’s soul… these are difficult to translate to the mind of another. Perhaps a person 1000 times more eloquent than I can attempt to do it but the listener, if he just listens and goes ‘uh-huh’, will 1000% never get it.

Some of us have the GIFT of choice to decide what kind of life we want to live. Others, unfortunately, do not. I realise I am one of those with this GIFT and so I choose to go down this path of learning. Because I choose to go down this path, I KNOW others do not have this same GIFT of choice. Unfortunately, I cannot help them much. Yet from them, I now know how important ‘compassion’ and ‘empathy’ are, I now gain so much more in knowledge and memories. From them, I appreciate and treasure my GIFT so much more. The money I spent on this trip is US$XXXXX. But the return I got back is priceless. Which ‘business deal’ gets this sort of returns?

Sure, I do not have anything tangible to show after this. I only have something invisible to hug to myself. In a month or two, my friends and family will forget this ever happened. I will have to get a job and try to place food on my table, I agree, but in my heart, these personal priceless memories and experiences, difficult to share with others (I can only try), will linger forever.

The smile of the Tibetan woman whom I reached my hand out to to admire her turqoise ring… The near cat-fight with rogue taxi drivers at the China-Mongolia border… The final wave of farewell from the Herdsman as he crossed the rushing river on his horse… The spattering of saliva from the drunk and very happy babushka… The childish but exhilarating experience of sticking our heads out of the Trans-Mongolian train to smell the taiga and trap Siberia in our hair… The painful walk through the Polish mountains in the rain with a sprained ankle… The crazy roll down the grass-slope with Jane… The hug from the delighted old Brazilian woman just because I was a ‘china’ and simply by walking past her door, I had apparently lit up her day… The magical power of the Iguaçu Falls… The honest sincerity and unmeasurable friendships given to me by Pablo and the friends I made in my stay in Buenos Aires… The ‘Trisha’ song composed by Pablo’s niece and nephew… The huge sense of achievement of surviving Torres del Paine… The blinding climb up and down the Volcán Villarrica… The touching hospitality of the families who invited me to stay with them, to eat with them, to dance with them… The excited children who ran over to show me an insect just as we were leaving the remote Chachapoyas town of Cochane… The sweet guy who gave me money to get on a bus with him just so I would not be lost in Mexico City… The curious looks from the Cubans when I stood in line with them to eat stale bread and drink questionable syrup…

And all the wonderful friends I met, shared my trip with (some, albeit briefly) and learnt something from… these kindred spirits whom I will always treasure.

Well, like I said, I can only faintly paint certain moments to share. But this ‘waste of time and money’ sure makes me feel good.

Los Angeles, USA to Papeete, FRENCH POLYNESIA - 20 april 2003

Delara was highly amused this morning when she heard from Roy that he had come to the living-room, barely clad in a towel last night and said those things that he said. She wanted to apologize for his behaviour but, nah… she did not need to apologize. It was alright. If anything, it made me understand myself better.

We had our breakfast at 1pm. After Cuban food, gosh… anything sounded wonderful… omelette with spicy sausage and baked potatoes was perfect. Yummy. Thank you!!

I was driven to Venice Beach for my quintessential LA experience. Naturally, there were Dance-for-Peace, Skate-for-Peace, Donate-for-Peace, Art-for-Peace events organised by freaky and weird people. There were protests against the war, not unlike those I saw in Buenos Aires and Mexico City, but with a hippie-slant. Tattoo, psychics and tarot card readings, Indian incense sticks, the chance to take photos with aliens, they were all there.

Delara had been great. She is one super cool chick. Her energy, positiveness, spontaneity, interesting and inquiring mind were just amazing. While my stay was short, not even 24 hours, I had a terrific time. So she went to the airport to pick up a stranger but life is too short to just do boring things like NOT pick up strangers from the airport, isn’t it? She deserved one of the very illegal Cuban cigars I smuggled in.

And so I flew tonight to what President B’s supporters would call FREEDOM Polynesia Islands and would probably eat a lot of FREEDOM loaves soon.

Friday, April 18, 2003

28 - There's Something About Money (Trinidad, Cienfuegos)

La Habana to Trinidad, CUBA - 11 april 2003

As our bus pulled into Trinidad’s bus station, I was surprised to spot someone holding a sign with ‘TRISHA’. I told Yves I had not made any reservations with any casa. Strange.

When we disembarked, the lady lunged at me, the only chinita, calling out and waving at me frantically, inviting me to her house. Yves had another recommendation in mind and was quite determined to check that one out first. I asked this lady, how in the world she got my name. She said she had obtained it from her friend in Viñales. Even stranger. I mentioned to my hostess in Viñales I was heading to Cienfuegos and Trinidad. But I certainly did not tell her when I would get to Trinidad. The intricate casa particulars network.

The one that Yves wanted was full. By the time we arrived at the house of the lady with my name, hers was full too. We were brought to the house of her friend and got ourselves settled in. It is never any problem to find accommodations in small towns of Cuba.

While this country is a socialist system, where everyone is supposed to be equal, I could feel very obviously that some Cubans were just more ‘equal’ than others. Take those who wanted to start the casa particular business and dig into the tourism pie, for example. They could not just pack their relatives into one room and release the other one for tourists just like that. They had to fix it up beautifully, install an air-conditioner and perhaps, build a tiny attached toilet. All these need DOLLARS in the first place. If they did not have relatives overseas to send dollars over, I seriously doubted they could get this infrastructure up first before their first guest. So, the richer, earning US dollars, will become ‘richer’ (by their standards) and the poor will still remain poor.

The house I stayed in Trinidad was enormous, with a backyard and some very fine furniture. Our hostess had at least four gold chains around her neck and two fistfuls of chunky rings. The hi-fi system was no ordinary hi-fi set. Yves estimated it cost at least US$1000 for all those gizmos. I could not afford a hi-fi system at half that price. So, how did they do it?

We also noticed that in this country where material goods were lacking and supposed to be ‘evil’ anyway, the Cubans appeared to be more materialistic than normal. They were always asking Yves what car he owned, what kind of house he lived in. OK, this could just be pure curiosity of what lie elsewhere outside the island but this was the tiny little feeling we shared.

The streets of Trinidad were tranquil, with hardly any traffic. There were some horse carts and bicycles milling around. A world of difference from busy La Habana. One could walk in the middle of the streets. The houses were colourful and charming. This town is one of the UNESCO-protected Heritage sites, if I may add.

When we neared the touristy area of Trinidad, we were hollered at all the time. Many were touts, wanting to offer us paladares for dinner. Others asked if we had soap for them. Soap? Gosh… we nearly always take soap for granted and here, in Cuba, they are asking for soap. I felt very regretful of those little soaps provided in hotels that were thrown away after one use. What a waste.

‘China!!’, ‘Chinita!!’, ‘Mira, china!’ [Look, Chinese girl!]… Yes, mostly, I was the celebrity. Yves was practically ignored.

In the residential area, the old folks sitting on the doorways or standing around, chatting, would look up, delighted at the sight of me. Some called out from inside their house and waved away. Yves, now my publicity agent, had to tell me, “Hey, there’s another in there, sitting at the door, who just called you.” I had to turn here and there and give my royal waves.

I was taught how to smoke my first cigar tonight. Suck in, roll the smoke in my mouth and let it out. Never take it into the lungs, it burns. Hey, piece of cake.

Trinidad, CUBA - 12 april 2003

Some shops sold only US$-priced items. At one, I browsed through the goods and noted the prices. Jeans cost US$19. A pair of shorts, US$8. Some fake jewellery was priced at US$10. A hi-fi radio set cost US$450. Refrigerators, someone told me, cost US$850. A million questions swam in my head. The prices of hi-fi sets and refrigerators in my country certainly did not cost so much. If a doctor earned US$20 a month, how could anyone afford such things? Yet, people were checking them out intently. There must be some very illegal things going on around here.

I spent the day, curled up on a rocking chair and read my book. I had a long time to study the decorations around the living room and I knew that I had finally found the most kitsch country in my entire trip. Cuba is a legend in this area. The search is over.

Every house I had peeked in or stayed in had blue-and-white porcelain statues placed evenly on their tables… porcelain statues such as Chinese fisherman, European ladies in 18th-century dresses with parasols, Smiling Buddha or cute children holding little pets.

Then, there were the plastic flowers. It was not a case of plastic flowers with artistic arrangements set prettily on the dining room tables to adorn the house. The house-owner simply bought vases and dumped the plastic flowers in them. Way too many vases all over the house and way too many plastic flowers.

The one that takes the cake must be the black-and-white portraits that were coloured faintly for the blush, lipstick and the background.

I loved it here. A bug could fly into my open jaws if I was not careful enough.

Well, I had decided to regulate my metabolic rate to one full US$5 or US$6 meal every two days now, and to fill my stomach with Cuban-Peso-priced food and biscuits the rest of the time. Since I had stuffed myself last night, tonight it would be Cuban-Peso night.

Cuban-Peso food meant ham clasped between very stale small pieces of bread and home-made pizzas (it actually barely resembled a real pizza, the thing in common was probably the round shape and the cheese on top) cooked in converted oil-drums. These usually tasted, I will be kind here, awful. Once I ordered the ‘hamburguesa’ [hamburger]. When served, the question I had in my head was not “Gee… I wonder WHAT MEAT is this between the bread.” It was “Gee… I wonder WHAT is this between the bread.” But to me, in this condition, food was food. I reported to my stomach and not my taste-buds now. I queued for them, hung around the streets and gobbled them up just like any other good ol’ Cubans. In a way, I really admired the Cubans. I figured the awful food might be due to lack of ingredients or lack of expertise. Yet, the Cubans ate them up uncomplainingly. This was normal for them.

Trinidad, CUBA - 13 april 2003

My guide-book had interested us in a train-ride to the Valle de los Ingenios [Valley of the Mills]. This was the agricultural region of sugar-cane plantations and there were many sugar mills in this valley, hence, the name. The guide-book wrote the ride cost 50 cents. Yves and I decided to take the trip.

It turned out to cost US$10. Yet another money-making enterprise for the state (remember the sneer). The train was a replica steam train with two wagons and soon, hordes of elderly tourists were unloaded from tour buses for this scenic journey. I had imagined a local train but this was obviously just catering to tourists now. This was surely one of my most embarrassing super touristy moment.

When the Disneyland train pulled out of the station, the locals waved at us. I felt very sheepish. I did not know where to hide my face. But later, I realised the locals seemed really sincere and delighted to wave at us, especially from the plantations further out. Even guys playing baseball stopped to wave to us merrily. I found it interesting. I would never understand this country.

We stopped at Manaca-Iznaga and we tourists alighted to visit the craft market and climb the 45-metre concrete tower (US$1, of course) to view the entire plantation. This was obviously where the masters stood to watch their slaves at work during the colonial times. Yves said one could really see everything. I would not know. I did not pay.

Instead, I walked around the houses nearby and got to chatting with an 85-year-old elderly man and some of his neighbours’ kids. He was delighted I spoke some ‘Cubano’ and later, kept praising that I spoke ‘casi igual’ [almost the same]. He was very sweet. His name was Calendario. He had ten children, 30 over grandchildren and even great-grand children. He claimed he had heart problems but it was unoperable. He had the jovial yet resigned-to-fate attitude. I had an amazing time just sitting with him and learning.

I realise visiting Cuba is, to me, not really to take in the sights. There were not so many impressive sights. It was more to observe the people, talk to them, learn how life is like for them. They will surprise you, shock you, touch you, humble you and delight you.

Yet, many package-grouped tourists, unloaded from the plane, are driven straight to fancy hotels by the beach. They vegetate there for days, drink beer, attend cabaret shows, complain about whatever, and take the occasional day-trips to nearby towns. They get off the bus and are told they have 30 minutes. So, they wander to the nearby souvenir stalls, sit on the plaza and wait for the time. The segregation between locals and these tourists was even greater. I wonder if they see the side of Cuban life we independent travellers glimpse a little of. I wonder if they ask the same questions like what we have in our heads.

Trinidad, CUBA - 14 april 2003

Yves would head to Playa del Este, the beach east of La Habana tomorrow for a couple of days. After he booked his hotel with a travel agency here, we decided to go lie on the beach near Trinidad, in Península Ancon. But before that, I had to use the internet to check on something urgent. Using internet here is like burning dollars, only faster.

Ooooh, expensive day today for both of us. Yves had just plonked down US$130 for two-nights on the beach in Playa del Este. I had just spent US$2.50 for 23 minutes of excruciatingly slow internet usage. Ka-ching.

The Carribean sea had just that perfect turqoise colour in the water. The colours shown in postcards and resort magazines are REAL! I had an awesome, incredible feeling, standing there and looking out to the sea.

Trinidad to Cienfuegos, CUBA - 15 april 2003

By now, I had found out from Yves that the other bus company, Astro, which catered for locals, actually reserved up to four places for foreigners. The tourists naturally did not need to queue and would pay in dollars. While the price was perhaps 20 to 30 times more than what the Cubans pay, it was still cheaper than Viazul.

I took the Astro bus to Cienfuegos. It felt normal again, sitting with the locals, catching the breeze from the open window, instead of sitting among tourists, listening to the guy behind me whining that the toilets at the snack break had no paper and the tap did not work.

The number of mostachioed women in Cuba was beginning to really worry me. I hope it was not anything from the water.

Passing a cinema along the main road of Cienfuegos, I spotted a movie for ‘Tropicana’ at 1:30pm. It was made in Cuba. I had to watch it. I waited patiently for the ticket-office to open.

At 1:10pm, a sour-faced woman was fussing behind the counter. I asked the shabby auntie in front of me how much the price was. 1 Cuban Peso. What??? This was F-R-E-E.

Sour-face stuck a notice on the window. Shabby Auntie read the notice and frowned, indicating my haversack. Sour-face wagged her finger at my haversack sternly too and indicated a ‘No’.

I read the notice and realised that JUST NOW, they had decided they did not allow any form of backpacks, packages, whatever, into the cinema. Why?? Were they afraid I would bootleg the movie? Well, this is the Cuban version of the Russian ‘Nyet’. You stop asking ‘why’ after a while.

Movie would start in 20 minutes. My casa was 10 minutes away. No biggie. Nothing stands between me and my 1-Cuban-Peso movie.

I returned, duly unloaded, and this time, Sour-face had no excuse not to let me in. ‘Tropicana’ was set in the famous, oldest and most trashy cabaret show in the world. This was the sequinned side of Cuban tourism. The movie was ridiculous but quite funny and entertaining. Way better than the Mongolian-made ‘Nyet Porno’ I watched nearly nine months ago in Ulaan Baator.

While there were some shops that sold US$-priced items, there were the few which were true-blue Cuban shopping centres. One third of the glass displays were perhaps broken. Some of the remaining ones were held together by duct tapes. These were lined with some clothes, the odd underwear, casettes, glorious glorious plastic flowers and the most horrible-looking mass-produced porcelain ceramic statues with misprinted eyes and lips, no less, in the world. A section had ancient, tattered, revolution-themed, multiple-hand books. One salesman tried to interest me in the last few pages of a book, showing several photos of Che Guevara, their Cuban Revolution hero, drawing my attention to those without beard. Ooo, spooky when without beard.

Cienfuegos, CUBA - 16 april 2003

I boarded the catamaran to the Castillo de Jagua, a Spanish fort on the other side of the Bay of Jagua from Cienfuegos. The price written on the wall had been 0.50. As this was a catamaran for local passengers, I was sure 0.50 meant 0.50 Cuban Peso. But everyone else submitted the 1 Cuban-Peso coin and so I did likewise.

There was only one other foreigner on the catamaran. He was an elderly German gentleman. When we arrived at the other side, we walked together to visit the fort. He then started to fret that he had only US$0.30 left, not ‘enough’ for the ride back. I realised that just now, he had paid US$0.50 for the boat ride. That was 13 Cuban Pesos. It was too much. I told him, for our return, I would pay for his ride (for he was one of those tourists who did not change any money into Cuban Pesos).

We took the same catamaran back but because German Elderly Man got on at a later dock, he was standing away from me. When the sweaty conductor came round, I gave him a fiver and said, “Para dos personas [For two persons]”. He returned the change of three pesos to me.

When he reached German Elderly Man, I waved to Sweaty Conductor to indicate that this was the other person I had paid for earlier. Instead, Sweaty Conductor strode over and wordlessly shove 1 peso into my palm. He demanded US$0.50 from German Elderly Man. No, this is the 1 peso for him, I insisted. He simply refused to take my money. I argued with him but he ignored me totally. He continued to bug German Elderly Man for US$0.50 and made quite a scene. A Cuban woman joined in and wanted to pay 1 peso for German Elderly Man as well. Sweaty Conductor simply asked her not to butt in. Finally, German Elderly Man had no choice but to remove a US$1 note. Sweaty Conductor then returned US$0.50 change and was finally appeased.

I was thoroughly surprised. Obviously, German Elderly Man made the mistake earlier and was now taken advantage upon to be charged the ‘foreigner’s price’. Why then did he not ask US$0.50 from me? By my association with German Elderly Man, I was obviously a foreigner as well. Did he really think I was a Cuban Chinese? Maybe, but I doubted it. One really just stop questioning ‘why’ in Cuba after a while.

Cienfuegos to La Habana, CUBA - 17 april 2003

I was the only foreigner on the Astro bus to La Habana and because I went to the special office and wrote my name down on the special book and paid the special price, they forgot I existed and booked two person for the same seat 21.

I was driven from my seat by the lady. I let her take it while we inquired with the bus guys about the errors. They tried to morph the 21 into a 12 but seat 12 was taken too. So, they harrassed the guy at seat 12. They also knew that as a tourist, I paid 20 to 30 times the price of the Cubans, so they quickly and apologetically asked me to take my seat. I felt bad for the lady but they were later able to place her somewhere. All’s well ends well.

Unlike the Viazul snack stops which stopped at US$-priced cafés, the snack stops now were all Cuban eateries and street-side stalls. It was mighty affordable for me. I slurped up ice-cream just because. I ate a sandwich even when I was not hungry.

A dog looked at me with those doggy eyes as I munched away. I dropped a piece of the stale bread on the ground for it. It sniffed the bread but refused to take it. I told you the food was bad.

I had no idea where the Astro bus station was in La Habana but when the bus finally stopped, I looked up and saw José Marti and the pointy monument and I knew I was near Plaza de la Revolución. I knew how to walk back to my casa from here. No need for taxis, ha.

Just the other day, Yves, being the Physicist that he is, did some reverse engineering analysis and concluded that perhaps the Viazul bus station was located quite an inconvenient distance away to give tourists no choice but to take taxis. Oh, I see… gosh, Fidel is G-O-O-D.

If the brainy Yves ever wins the Nobel Prize for Physics in the future, I will be proud to say I had known this guy before, albeit briefly.

La Habana, CUBA - 18 april 2003

How to finish spending the rest of my Cuban Pesos? There were not many things priced in Cuban Pesos available to be bought. For those food items available, it was so cheap, it was nearly free. I busied myself stopping by every other ‘Refresco’ stalls and drinking away cups of questionable syrups just to spend the pesos. I finally located a restaurant at Barrio Chino [Chinatown] which had prices both in US$ and Cuban Pesos and splurged on a big lunch there and paid in pesos.

I meandered to Parque Central opposite the White House lookalike, the Capitolio Nacional in Old Havana and rested under the shade. There, scores of locals, mostly men, regardless of day and time, were standing around and discussing various topics with fervor. Politics? Baseball?

I observed a policeman checking the identity card of a guy just sitting on the bench. I had noticed how suspicious the police were of everyone and how, to a certain extent, state-fearing the locals were.

When I went to Viñales, I had only brought along a small haversack and had left my passport in my casa in La Habana, thinking I did not need it anywhere else. My hostess wanted my passport to register me. When I said I only had a photocopy with me, she literally stopped dead in her tracks and grew worried. She said if the officials found out she registered me with a photocopy and not the original, they would be fined. She had turned rather pale. I apologized to her, cursing myself why I did not just bring my passport along. I explained I did not know of this rule and if she did not want me, I would look for another casa. This was met with feverish protests. I guess, while they were state-fearing, they took risks because of the money.

I compared this to that old crone in the cheap hostel in St. Petersburg, Russia where two tourists and I were trying to check in. She found faults with all of our visas and simply refused to accept us. One of the guys had said to her, “If you are smart, you will take our money and let us in.” I guess, for her, she rather not take risks with foreigners and accept only Russian tourists.

Then, I also compared the difference the police treated the tourists here in Cuba and Russia. Here in Cuba, tourists could do no wrong. You really must do something very bad, like really, really bad… perhaps, make an attempt on the life of The Bearded One (one could only attempt for this guy seemed to have ninety lives), then, you just might receive a slap on the wrist.

In Moscow, Russia, the police were hunting down tourists. You just have to molecularly exist in approximately the same space-time spectrum as a Russian police officer to be ‘in trouble’. He would claim something is wrong with your visa and you will then be hauled to the police station, if you refuse to pay the on-the-spot fine.

As I walked around La Habana, I really marvelled at the patience of the locals waiting for buses. When a bus arrived, the queue could be as long as thirty-five to forty people. They had obviously been waiting for a long time. The buses were also nearly always full already. In China or Mongolia, I could imagine all forty people rushing to the bus-door upon arrival of the bus, fighting and shoving to get in.

Another scary public transport is the camello (camel). It is a very long truck. The container-part of the truck was slightly elevated at the two ends, like two humps of a camel. The container is so long that up to two hundred people can squeeze into it. Nearly every time I saw a camello, it was jam-packed to the brim with sweaty bodies. I only dared hop onto one later that evening when it was surprisingly not so crowded.

By night, I still had 20 Cuban Pesos and decided to spend it on one final dinner. It was fried rice. It was gross. I kept washing it down with my bottle of water. When my water ran out, I tried to dry-swallow the rice. But my throat kept contracting to prevent the food-intake. I tilted my head at an angle to try and roll down the rice using gravity, much like what seals do to swallow their fish. For the life of me, I just could not swallow.

Thursday, April 10, 2003

28 - There's Something About Money (La Habana, Vinales)

Cancún, MEXICO to La Habana, CUBA - 06 april 2003

I came all the way to Cancún and left without setting eyes on the famous beaches. Will the trying-to-tan-but-burn-instead tourists ever forgive me?

José from the travel agency had told me to get to the airport 2 hours ahead of flight, at 10am. While this short flight felt like an internal flight, it was actually international so 2 hours ahead was normal. I checked my baggage in at around 10am and wandered around the airport, snooping at the souvenir store and baulking at the prices on the stupid kitschy souvenirs made from sea-shells and brightly-painted gross ‘beach’ adornments.

I was to board at 11:20am. I glanced at my calculator-clock, it was 10:20am. I had an hour to kill. I decided to go to some seats near the Domestic Arrival and read. But to kill more time getting to the seats, instead of taking a right turn from outside the souvenir store which would take me right there, I took a left turn to walk around the restaurant opposite. Just there, I passed a sign reading, “6 ABRIL 2003, CAMBIA LA HORA…” - 6 April, change the time forward by 1 hour. 6 April?? That’s TODAY!! Where is the information counter??? What time is it now?


Gracias. I needed to board NOW. As I cleared Customs, I marvelled at my luck - again. If I had turned right, I would have missed the sign and the flight. I realised, many times, things just fall into place for me. If I push and try to force certain things to happen, it might not work. But if I let things take its flow, usually they work out perfectly.

The plane was one of those tiny ones with propellers at the wings. The body was the size of a bus and it was free sitting. The windows were round port-holes. Upon entering, it was stuffy and airless. But when the plane was in the air, the air felt cool and comfortable. We even had inflight service from the one steward.

Little did I realise that the cool air circulating in the tin-can was au naturelle. Air was gushing in from outside, through the sides of the port-hole windows and possibly the connecting portions of the air-frame, barely held together by nuts and bolts. When we were landing, the cold air poured in relentlessly and we were entirely shrouded in mists. Condensation was dripping onto us. What can I say? It was one unforgettable flight.

In Cuba, tourists are supposed to stay in state hotels. These are priced from, I don’t know, US$50 to US$ anything. Not long ago, the state had allowed some forms of private enterprises. So some Cubans had set up rooms in their house and offered accommodation, usually to independent tourists. These were known as casa particulars [private houses]. As they are in competition with the state hotels, naturally, the state will not let them off easily. They are taxed heavily, as much as 60% of what they earned ultimately returns to the state. In La Habana, these casas are usually priced US$25 to US$30. Of course, there are cheaper illegal ones (US$10 or so) but you need to be standing on the streets and waiting for a tout to find you and lead you to their houses. I had been paying between US$3 to US$6 for six months in South America. So, Cuba was certainly not cheap for me, especially now when my funds were running out.

I hit the streets right away, for I had the excitable glee of a child let loose in a toy store. I could not believe I was in La Habana! As you can probably guess, my travelling zeal had dipped a little last week after eleven months on the road. But Cuba injected such a surprising freshness and mystery to my trip, I suddenly felt apprehensive, unsure as to what will happen, what to expect again and this was G-R-E-A-T!!

I gaped at the crumbling and colourful (in the peeling-paint sort of way) colonial houses in Vedado, where I stayed and those that lined along the Malecón [sea-wall]. The houses were enormous and would look terrifically grand and imposing if they correct the lop-sided balconies, replace the broken window shutters, replaster the columns and basically give the house a whole fresh lick of paint. But unless the Cubans had relatives in Miami, they obviously had no chance of ever restoring their houses. And so these ancient houses retained an arresting, old-flavoured charm to them.

Colourful laundry strung along the balconies. Bored women stared out of windows. Men gathered on the street to play dominoes. Boys flung make-shift baseballs (bottle-caps or home-made balls tied together in plastic) and used wooden sticks (perhaps yanked from park benches) to make a swing at them. Lovers relaxed by the sea-wall to soak in the sun-set. Old ladies sold plastic flowers and peanuts along the Malecón.

There was a black-out by the time I returned to Vedado. Nelson, my host, had given me a map on where to find cheap food around my casa. Due to the black-out, several places did not appear to be serving food.

On his map, there was a paladar nearby. Paladares are private enterprises which offer food. Again, because of the high taxes, the meals are not cheap either, costing from US$5 to US$10. As the food was prepared in houses, there were usually no obvious signs outside.

I asked a family relaxing on rocking chairs on the porch, if their house was a paladar and one lady quickly led me in. She took me through a series of pitch-black rooms and corridors. While the colonial houses were enormous, it did not mean that only one family lived in one house. They were often sectioned up into several areas and housed multiple families. So, I found myself stumbling in the dark, passing rooms where someone was using the phone, another where children were playing, and yet another, where I crashed right into some old folks sitting and chatting in the dark. I felt like I was intruding.

At the end of the house, the lady lit a candle and I sat in the stuffy room and was soon served my US$5 dinner. I had to admit the food was quite a spread, with rice, beans, salad, meat, but I knew I could not afford this for every meal in Cuba.

La Habana, CUBA - 07 april 2003

To up the challenge and confusion for tourists, Cuba has three currencies circulating - US dollars, Cuban Pesos and Peso Convertibles. The Cuban Peso was 26 pesos to US$1 at the time I was there. The Peso Convertible is worth the US dollar. They exist to provide change in coins or more US$ circulation without actually having US dollars. However, unlike its name, it cannot be converted to anything after you leave Cuba. It is best not to carry too much of these Monopoly money.

I changed US$10 worth of Cuban Pesos today and could try and buy things from the Cuban-Peso places. My first try was at a stall selling bananas by the unit, 0.50 peso each. Bananas by the unit? Usually, they were sold by weight. I checked them out and realised the bananas were in various stages of rotting, that it was best to pick and choose through the lot for the best-looking ones one by one. A man bought ten and he had to carry them himself, no plastic carriers provided, of course.

Cuba must be the American Dream Car Haven for classic-car lovers. My thoughts went to Claudio from Buenos Aires. He is the proud owner of a 1938 Chevrolet. Here, the models were mostly from the 1950s, just before the Cuban Revolution. While cars of this age had died everywhere else in the world long ago, here, because the Cubans are the best mechanics in the world (nothing is ever thrown away, everything is fixed), the cars were all given a second, third or whatever chance in life. Some grand old ladies were barely surviving. Others were mighty impressive, with fine paint jobs and smooth red, white leather upholstery inside.

As I walked along the Malecón to La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and around Old Havana itself, I was at the receiving end of many callings of ‘China’ [Chinese girl], ‘Chinita’ [little Chinese girl], ‘Japonésa’ [Japanese girl] and funnily, unique to Cuba because of the communist angle I supposed, ‘Mao Tse Tung’ too. Sometimes, they yelled out ‘Ching Chiang Chong’ which were what they imagined to be Chinese words! It was worse passing construction or restoration sites. In Old Havana, there are many such state-funded restorations. I was constantly harassed with hootings, hissings, odious cat-calls, disgusting flying kisses, leerings and more ‘Chinas’.

Old Havana is the touristy area of La Habana and it is also the place where the poorest people of La Habana lived. Ironically, the decrepit houses the tourists had come to admire housed these poor people. Nelson had told me a doctor might earn US$20 a month, a lawyer US$12 and general workers, about US$6. How do people survive with this pittance of a salary?, I had asked. He had explained many had to do some sort of side-lines, like setting up make-shift stalls to sell food, drinks or whatever. But even these were taxed.

Indeed, along the streets of Old Havana, many had opened a window on the side of their house facing the street and attached rectangular card-boards, stating whatever they had to offer. ‘Refrescos’ [cold drinks] usually go for 1 peso. ‘Pan de Jamon’ [Ham sandwich] is priced from 4 to 12 pesos. ‘Pizzas’ fetch the price of 3 to 5 pesos. My wallet was overflowing with 260 pesos. At these prices, I wondered vaguely if I could finish spending this amount by the end of my two weeks. Such was the disparities between what the tourists pay and what the Cubans pay.

I took a seat at the counter in a café, filled with Cubans. I had been seeking out one such place for a while to ‘eat like the locals’. There was a huge crowd at the counter, with three or four lines of people waiting for the 2-peso ‘pizzeta’ [little pizza]. The woman took her time serving the pizzetas. She looked BORED. She randomly served the people and some guys yelled at her as they claimed they were there first. She was unmoved, looked right through them and continued her task languidly. The tray was finished and the rowdy crowd turned silent momentarily as we waited for the next tray to be heated up. I noticed no plates or servettes were provided. You use your own paper or hand.

How wasteful our societies are actually. Most purchases come with a disposable something, be it a cup, a bottle, a paper plate, a plastic bag. But Cubans cannot afford waste. I ripped a page from my diary and indicated I wanted one pizzeta please. She looked right through me too and turned away unsmilingly. I remained ignored as she served all the others at the counter slowly and randomly. She finally decided to hand me a piece when the ‘queue’ was left between me and another woman who wanted three pizzetas. There was only one pizzeta left on the tray.

Meanwhile, near the Plaza de Armas, an area filled with fancy restored hotels, package tourists were following their group leaders everywhere and dining and drinking in US$ bars and restaurants. A restaurant overlooking the plaza, had a ‘live’ band playing Cuban son. Not quite Buena Vista Social Club but the music was good and tourists were dancing and having a great time.

You could almost never find a spot where locals and tourists mix. The price difference is just too impossibly huge. I believe the state (now it is pronounced with a more sinister sneer) is also intent on separating locals and tourists.

La Habana to Viñales, CUBA - 08 april 2003

Due to poor and expensive public transportation, lack of ability to afford cars and basically petrol shortage, hitch-hiking is a very common practice here in Cuba. My guide-book wrote that stopping for hitch-hikers was obligatory for drivers. The drivers could not ask much from the hitch-hikers because fellow Cubans simply had not much money anyway.

Then, I wondered what if they picked up a tourist. Why get Cuban Pesos from them when they could milk US dollars?

However, I learnt later from Nelson that if a local, and not a taxi-driver, was caught picking up tourists, he could be fined US$1500 and he might even lose the car. Tourists must take taxis and authorised buses.

Viazul is the authorised bus company for tourists and everything is perfect about it. The buses were clean, had comfortable, adjustable seats and were air-conditioned. They left on time, the service was immaculate and the friendly staff spoke English (some form of, anyway). All for very high prices in US dollars, of course, but these are for the tourists, they had dollars to burn anyway. Er, not me, no… I paid a hefty US$12 for a 3-hour bus-ride to Viñales and my ulcer bled internally for a long time. I recalled a US$12 overnight bus-ride in Argentina, which was 8 hours long, reclined nearly all the way down and I was even served a tasty dinner. Sob.

Viñales is a very small town west of La Habana, set amongst roundish mountains called ‘mogotes’. All the houses had porches out front and numerous rocking chairs idled there. Did rocking chairs come from Cuba? I peeped into several houses and sometimes, the entire suite of furniture inside consisted of rocking chairs only. Some were the wooden sort and others had metal frames with the colourful plastic threads strung around the frames. Very retro.

I walked along the highway for 3km to a sight, known as The Mural of Prehistory. The mogotes reminded me of the Oriental mountains I had seen in pictures of Vietnam and Huang Shan, China. The vegetation was very tropical too and with the wooden houses, rocking chairs and relaxed, hot and humid climate, the atmosphere reminded me a lot of rural Malaysia. Malaysia… hmmm, I had not thought of this neighbouring country of mine for a while. Perhaps, it was seeing a misty-eyed Dr. Mahathir hugging Fidel Castro on TV last night.

The Mural must be the biggest joke. It was painted rather childishly by a Cuban professor Leovigildo Gonzalez and probably under the instruction of the Commander. It had dinosaurs and stick men. How about that? Still, it was great scenery walking out here and checking out the quotable quotes from the Mighty FC, put up on sign-boards along the road.

I returned to Viñales and spied a food ration store. This is a store that sells basic food and necessities. They are rationed on a per-person basis monthly. People who come have to buy these rationed items, bring a little passport-sized notebook for the guys at the counter to make a record.

On the blackboard, it was written that the food and necessities ration for April 1 to 30 were six pounds of rice, five (something, I could not figure it out) of black beans, three pounds of refined sugar, two pounds of crude sugar, one kilo of salt for three months, six fine cigarettes, two cigars, one soap for bathing, one box of matches (for lighting your cigars, how thoughtful), etc…

Of course, one could buy more of these food items at regular markets but the prices there would be higher. And not-so-necessary items like soap sold elsewhere would be priced in US dollars.

Viñales, CUBA - 09 april 2003

Leoni is the cousin of the hostess of my casa. He had come over last night to try and convince me to go on a hike with three French tourists to ‘the most beautiful scenery in Latin America’, or so he claimed. I knew it was not true, for I had already seen the most beautiful scenery in Latin America - in Chile and Argentina. He wanted to charge me US$10. I could not afford this price. Since he already had the three other tourists, adding me to the list was a bonus and he did not mind a lower price from me. I wanted to see more of Viñales. Heading back to La Habana today would be a pity. He kept asking what price I was willing to pay. US$6?, I ventured. OK!, he gushed immediately. But I must not tell the French tourists anything about my price.

Apparently, there was a very popular song beginning with ‘Tú quieres te lleva a Singapur?’ [Do you want to go to Singapore?] in Cuba lately. For the younger people, they had absolutely no idea where Singapore was and to hear that I was actually from this country, I suddenly became a legend for them. Leoni was singing this song-beginning over and over again.

It poured very heavily just before we set off so we sat around for more than an hour and chatted til the rain stopped. The French tourists were Guillaume, Geraldine and Agathe but I must not tell them anything about my price.

We departed on the muddy farmlands in the late afternoon when the rain subsided. The heavy rain had converted the trail into impossible nightmares. My sandals were caked with so much mud and leaves that I felt like a duck walking around with very large webbed feet. Every step resulted in flying mud that decorated the back of my dress.

We checked out a tobacco shed with beams of drying tobacco leaves stacked from floor to ceiling. The leaves dried outside for a few months before being transferred to be dried indoors for another three or four months. The cigar-chomping owner looked in, smilingly. He had such a typical look for a tobacco farmer. He was a tanned, wrinkled, little old man, wearing a straw hat. He had probably chewed on cigars since forever so he was missing several teeth but all this meant he could tuck the cigar more securely in his mouth in-between the remaining teeth. I learnt from him that three or four leaves would roll into a cigar and they rolled them at home. He gave us one cigar each, cool.

Leoni spied an unfriendly cow and decided we could not walk the trail ahead. Instead, he took us through the tobacco farmlands and we were soon squelching across and crashing blindly amongst what would become the world’s best cigars that, for now, were as high as our chest level.

We entered a cave and gingerly staggered inside to find the subterranean river. Walking in the cave is much like living a life, I think. You try not to question what is up ahead, you just take each illuminated step at a time and you will be fine. Known length of the river was 18km but it remained unexplored and Leoni said this could be the largest cave in Latin America, more than 100km long. This guy had a thing for superlatives.

By the time we popped out of the cave, it had grown dark already. Suddenly, it rained really heavily. We had to walk quickly through the mud for it was worse if you took slow steps… you might sink and get stuck. At one point, a horse cart belonging to the owner of the farm closest to the cave was waiting for us and so we got our ride out through the muddy fields. It was on very bad mud-trail and I was very bumped and bruised. But imagine, if we had to make our way back entirely by walking… it would have been worse.

Viñales to La Habana, CUBA - 10 april 2003

I realised that for the past few nights, the reason I could not sleep properly was because I had been doing maths in my head all the time, calculating how much I had spent and would spend for the rest of my Cuban stay. If I kept up at this rate, I would really be out-of-funds. I knew if I kept thinking about money, I could not enjoy myself. But the tourists here in Cuba were mostly just here for two weeks, ten days. They did not mind throwing money around for two weeks of comfort and luxury hotels. I was not like them. If I could not do anything about bus-rides and prices of casas, my other option was to regulate my metabolic rate down to take in only one meal a day.

On the bus-ride back to La Habana, I spotted one other person travelling alone. At a snack break, I asked him where he was heading to in La Habana, perhaps we could share a taxi. He said he had no casa in mind but wanted to be near the bus-station in order to take the morning bus to Trinidad.

Just as we reached La Habana, I hit upon another idea. Since he had no casa, I suggested he come to my casa and we share the room to split the cost, for I was also heading back to the bus-station in the morning for the Trinidad bus. How I plot and scheme my way to save money.

Yves, from Switzerland, was very agreeable to that. Great! I learnt later he was thinking of staying three or four nights in Trinidad. We could share the room in Trinidad too. Excellent.

We strolled to Plaza de la Revolución which had an ugly pointy monument and a huge statue of José Marti, Mr 1-Cuban-Peso, the guy who fought for Cuba’s independence. Opposite was an ugly Soveit-style building block which had a series of metals lined and shaped into the famous smothering look of Che Guevara, Mr 3-Cuban-Peso, the guy who fought in the Cuban Revolution, now sun-lit against a wall. Hasta la victoria siempre, [Always until the victory] it read.

Saturday, April 5, 2003

27 - Next Stop I-Wonder-Where Land (Mexico City, Cancun)

Buenos Aires, ARGENTINA to Mexico City, MEXICO - 27 march 2003

I bid silent farewells to Plaza San Martin, Puerto Madero and other places in Buenos Aires as the airport bus pulled out of the centre and headed to the airport. I felt strangely empty now as I was leaving South America. Maybe I found it difficult to accept that I was really leaving this wonderful continent. I just did not know what to think anymore. In fact, I rather not think. Hmm… perhaps the reason why many airports look clinical and charmless is to make parting easier for us. Hasta luego, mi amor… [Until later, my love…]

I landed in Mexico City late at night. I had been to Mexico two years ago. I know for sure Mexico is not safe at night. I had stayed in a hostel near the centre then. At 6pm or so, when the sky still had a light blue tinge, there were throngs of people on the streets, selling wares, shopping, eating from taco stalls, etc… I had ducked into a café for dinner and upon emerging from the café at 8pm, the entire streets were cleared of everyone. If the locals knew they had to disappear by night-fall, it surely was not safe there. As I walked nervously back to my hostel, I would see policemen frisking someone down this street and hear car-alarms down the other street. It had been unnerving.

Well, this time, I would try and get an airport-taxi. I was unable to find the airport-taxi booth and after making several inquiries, I was led to a booth which read: GUIA DE TURISMO [Tourist Guide]. It did not look right. And the guy said the price to the centre was 250 Mexican Pesos (US$25). No, that was too much money! I could not believe my ears. I insisted on just 100 pesos. After a long time of haggling, they reduced it to 180 pesos. It was still too much money to pay for a taxi-ride but I gave in finally.

The drive tried to interest me in another hostel, instead of the one in the centre I wanted to return to. OK, this one was located in Zona Rosa and from my memory of Mexico City, I recalled many embassies were located around the Zona Rosa, Paseo de la Reforma and Chapultepec area. Perhaps, it was better to stay in this region in order to track down Guatemala Embassy tomorrow.

Mexico City, MEXICO - 28 march 2003

I walked to Paseo de la Reforma, one of the most famous avenues of Mexico City with the impressive golden land-mark of El Angel [The Angel], to try and catch a bus to Lomas de Chapultepec, where the Guatemala Embassy was located. I was unable to spot a bus-stop and asked a señor whether I could just flag down the buses anywhere. He nodded and asked where exactly I was heading. He then explained that I needed to catch a bus that read ‘REFORMA KM13’. I had a 10-peso coin with me. I checked with him if buses provided change. No, he informed me, I needed exact change for buses. But micros would provide change. OK, I would take a micro then.

A bus with ‘REFORMA KM13’ soon arrived. The señor turned to me, and proffered me 2 pesos, insisting that I take them. My goodness, this guy was trying to GIVE me money. “No, Señor, por favor, no puedo sacar tu dinero. [No, sir, please, I cannot take your money.]”

But he was very insistent and practically dragged me up the bus. The reason he wanted me to be on the bus was so that he could show me where to get off and exactly where to walk thereafter. Oh, thank you very much. When I started walking, a guy who had gotten off from the same bus, muttered something to me. He pointed to the tiny piece of paper I had clasped in my hand. He repeated himself. Then, I realised he was saying the street of the Guatemala Embassy. How did he know which street I wanted to go? He must have spied it from my tiny paper while on the bus. Now, he kept directing me where to go. My gosh… barely 24 hours in Mexico, Mexicans are already fantastic to me.

To my utter disappointment, the Guatemala Embassy informed me that I would need to wait three weeks for the processing of my visa. I only have four weeks left of my RTW trip. I could not wait three weeks for a visa. Sigh… another setback. I could not go to Guatemala afterall.

I fell into a state of mourning not unlike the one I had when I realised my Bolivian visa was rejected. I was suddenly directionless. I had no idea what to do next. I had been so sure of getting my visa.

I have a friend from Singapore who has been working in Mexico City for several years. I actually had not been in contact with him for eight years. It was through our common Spanish teacher in Singapore that I knew about his assignment to Mexico City. I actually had no idea if his contract had ended or not. Perhaps he was not in Mexico City anymore. Still, I tried my luck and emailed to him.

Upon returning to my hostel, my friend Ming had called and left a message. Great! We then made arrangements to meet for dinner. This was wonderful, wonderful news!!

Meanwhile, I turned things over in the my head and wondered where I should head off next. I felt rather tired suddenly. I decided to forget about visas and all that jazz and head to the north of Mexico. The last time I was here, I had meandered mainly in the south.

I had a flight from Mexico City to Cancún leaving 1 April. I had charmed Sergio in the Mexicana office in Buenos Aires to grant me a few days’ stay here in Mexico City to await my Guatemala visa. I figured, if I visit the north of Mexico, then I would need to delay this Mexico City to Cancún flight til perhaps three weeks later. So, I headed to Mexicana and conned them into changing my flight to 16 April.

That evening, Ming and his wife met me at my hostel. A beaming Ming walked towards me, proffering his hand for a hand-shake. A HAND-SHAKE?!!?? Sorry, six and a half months in South America, I had been somewhat latinized (on the contrary, three years here, Ming and his wife still had not) and I ignored the proffered hand and went up to hug him and his wife and give them kissies-on-the-right-cheek.

Off we went to a Japanese Restaurant. I had not eaten Japanese food since way before I left Singapore. It was an excellent choice. As we chatted and caught up with one another’s lives excitedly, I found it amusing to listen to the Singaporean accent now and our very own Singlish after eleven months of travels.

I told Ming about my Guatemala visa saga. As his job was to establish trade links between Singapore and Mexico, and some South American countries, he mentioned he might be able to help place a call on Monday to see if he could sort out this issue. Really??? Gosh, while this was no promise, I was delighted at the news and decided to stay in Mexico City for a few more days.

Mexico City, MEXICO - 29 march 2003

My room-mates, Ally and George from England, had just arrived this morning. They asked me several questions about Mexico City. To my surprise, I found that I could tell them which metro station (Balderas) to get off to visit the Mercado de Artesanias de La Ciudadela (a huge market that sells gorgeous Mexican souvenirs) and how exactly to go to Teotihuacán (a very impressive group of pyramids near Mexico City), based on pure memory from my recollection of my Mexican trip two years ago. Not bad, not bad.

Meanwhile, I headed to Coyoacan to visit Museo Frida Kahlo. In my last trip, I did not get the chance to visit it. When I was here in Mexico City then, Salma Hayek had been here at the same time to film the movie ‘Frida’, which I just watched in December in Buenos Aires. It would be interesting now to visit ‘The Blue House’ where Frida Kahlo was born and where she died.

Indeed, it was a very interesting visit. There were displays of some of her talented artworks and Diego Rivera’s (her husband). There were numerous other art collections from other artists as well as pre-Colombian artefacts. Her studio seemed to be left as it was, with stains of paint everywhere, her wheel-chair set poignantly in front of an incomplete portrait of Stalin. There were photos of other Communist leaders like Mao, Lenin, Marx… too.

But what was touching were the personal letters and diaries on display. Her love for her womanizing husband seemed really strong (although she was bisexual and had extra-marital affairs herself), as could be seen from the notes she wrote him. Her pillows were embroidered ‘DOS CORAZONS FELICES’ [Two happy hearts] and ‘NO ME OLVIDES MI AMOR’ [Do not forget me, my love]. In a way, it was rather heart-rending. Even her body-cast which she had to tortuously wear to heal her body sat proudly on the bed. Her kitchen and furniture with the loud, clashing colours, her ostentatious jewellery and colourful clothes, her collection of wild paper-mache ‘Day of the Dead’ skeletons all had very Mexican characters. She was truly an amazing and extremely talented woman of her times.

That evening, I met up with my other friends in Mexico City, Mauricio and his wife, Liliana. We met in my last trip here and it was really nice to catch up with them again.

When I returned to my hostel, I learnt that Ally and George were both pick-pocketed today at the metro. Gosh! There was a huge crowd at the door and the system was beeping, signalling that the door was about to shut. Suddenly, there was a shove and all squeezed into the metro at the last minute. The guys both knew this was the perfect pick-pocket moment and checked their pockets. Indeed, both their wallets were gone. They looked around them and some Mexicans were actually grinning at them. George asked one guy if he was the pick-pocket. The guy happily showed George his plastic bag. Right, like he would show him where he hid the wallet. Sigh… there was nothing either could do.

Mexico City, MEXICO - 30 march 2003

I was picked up by Ming and his wife Hong today to go to Xochimilco. With them, was another Singaporean lady, Sue, who had come to Mexico City for work so often they had become friends and she was now staying at their apartment.

Xochimilco is down south in Mexico City. In this area, pre-Hispanic inhabitants had piled up vegetation and lake mud to make fertile gardens called chinampas and this had been a strong economic region for the Aztec empire.

Now, with many chinampas, there was a series of canals between them. Loads of colourful trajiñeras [gondolas] cruise down the canals with parties of happily drunk locals and tourists, especially on weekends. Amongst these trajiñeras, there were mariachi and marimba bands, hawkers of food and handicrafts and photographers with Mexican sombreros (hats) ready for tourists. It was classic Mexican kitsch.

Two years ago, I had gone all the way to Xochimilco and as it was a Monday, it was very quiet. The punters had tried to coax me to hire the boat myself. I had imagined the mariachi bands serenading love songs to me and me only and goose-pimples had emerged rapidly. I then made a 180-degrees U-turn and fled the scene.

Now, I am back. With Sue as a fellow tourist, I did not feel that out-of-place. Ming and Hong brought along snacks like chips, strawberries and fried chicken-wings (a Singaporean favourite!). Yippee!!

Actually, as it turned out, Xochimilco was more over-run by locals than I had imagined. To them, this was the perfect Sunday get-together with families and friends. Some were dancing merrily to the mariachi or marimba music. Others were feasting on sweet-corns. Yet more were getting drunk on tequila. It had a very festive and delightful atmosphere.

Some of the chinampas now sold flowers and plants. Actually, Xochimilco means ‘place where flowers grow’ in the Nahuatl language used by the Aztec. We stopped at one and Sue bought several pots of flowers. She was going to move to Mexico City soon and had started buying plants for her apartment, even before she had a chance to look for an apartment.

From conversations with Ming, Hong and Sue, I simply could not believe my ears at the various Singlish words used by them. It was as if I was transported back to Singapore one month ahead in time. It already felt like I had returned home.

As Sue examined a flower pot, she commented the plant looked ‘seng gnek’ [lop-sided]. Then, to her, another pot of flowers looked ‘lau hong’ [deflated]. We brushed by some flowers accidentally and one poor little flower ‘kar lout’ [fell down].

Various people had asked me, upon learning that I was from Singapore, if we spoke an exotic language of our own. They had been disappointed to learn that we speak English. Well, actually, we do have a ‘language’ of our own - Singlish. Singlish is bad, embarrassing English; it is English spoken with Mandarin grammar; it is extremely rich in ‘words’ from a mixture of our Chinese dialects, Mandarin and Malay. In one sentence, we can have a concoction of English, Mandarin, dialects or Malay words in it. We love to add useless sounds like ‘lah’, ‘lor’, ‘leh’, ‘meh?’, ‘izit?’, ‘hor’ behind our sentences. No one else would be able to understand us.

When we returned to Ming and Hong’s apartment, I nearly fainted upon seeing it. It was enormous and very ostentatiously furnished, thanks to their rich and generous land-lady. The rich Mexicans are profanely rich. It was perhaps eight times the size of the apartment Pablo and I had shared for two months in Buenos Aires. I could hold a ballet performance here. If I were a dog, I would not know where to begin running. The sofas, there were several of them, all looked super comfortable. I shamelessly requested if I could also crash at their apartment, so that I could save some money (accommodation in Mexico City is not cheap). Sue had taken the luxurious guest-room but to me, the sofa in the living room was already paradise itself. Sue and I had gotten along splendidly since this morning and she suggested that I share the bed in the guest-room with her. And so, it was set. I would move into the palace tomorrow.

That evening, Hong prepared many typical Singaporean dishes, like ‘bak kut teh’ (a sort of peppery brown soup with pork spare-ribs), ‘chye por nerng’ (egg fried with little pieces of turnips) and steamed fish. Real food, at last.

Mexico City, MEXICO - 31 march 2003

I chatted with my two other room-mates at my hostel, Hilda and Sofie, and found they wanted to go to Palmas 735 to try and look for KLM airline office. Ming’s apartment was near there and his chauffeur would pick me up in a few minutes’ time. But as it was not MY chauffeur (imagine that!), I did not offer them a ride.

Later, however, from the car I spotted them on the street and hurriedly asked Ming’s chauffeur, Javier, if he could ferry them to Palmas 735, which was along the way. He was agreeable and so I called out and beckoned to the girls. When they entered the car, they were impressed. “What sort of friend do you have in Mexico City?”, they joked. Yeah, I know. Having been a backpacker for more than eleven months, scrimping and saving as much as possible, to be now in a chauffeur-driven car, on the way to where the rich and famous lived… I felt extremely odd indeed.

Ming had placed the call to the Guatemala Embassy this morning. He then informed me that the embassy recently changed their processing policy for Asians and Africans because a huge number had entered Guatemala and disappeared. That was why it would take such a long time to process visas for Singaporeans. I assured Ming I had absolutely no intention to open up a Chinese Supermarket in Guatemala but Ming said there was nothing he could do. He promised to try and meet up with the Ambassador sometime in the future to help secure better links and relationship between Singapore and Guatemala. And Bolivia too?, I hazarded. One at a time, one at a time, he replied. OK, perhaps I was pushing it.

Mexico City, MEXICO - 01 april 2003

So, where do I go next? North of Mexico frankly did not appeal to me whole-heartedly. I started tossing around the idea of going to Cuba from Cancún. I trawled the internet for cheap flights to La Habana and finally found one for US$205. OK, it was a lot of money to me, especially at this point of my travels when my funds are running out. But, what were my odds of going to Cuba again before it changes (that is, before a certain Castro character dies)?

Ming checked with the Cuban Embassy and found that we did not need visas, just an air-ticket and a tourist card. OK, Cuba is it!

I selected to go to La Habana on 5 April and return on 19 April. The website announced that someone would reply the availability of flights within 48 hours.

Sue wanted to go apartment-hunting today. When Ming’s chauffeur was available for a few hours, Hong, Sue and I took a spin around the Lomas de Chapultepec and Polanco area. We stuck our heads out from each window to search for ‘SE RENTA’ or ‘SE AQUILA’ [For Rent] signs pasted on the windows of apartments and noted down their numbers. Then, we returned home and Hong helped Sue place several phone calls to the agents. One agent wanted to show us some apartments right away. Hong had to cook lunch. So, I went with Sue to be her, ahem… translator.

We were picked up by Mario in a grotty car whose back doors would not open. I had to crawl in from the front-passenger’s door. We hoped the apartments he would show us would be in better conditions. The first apartment was actually a house, sectioned out from the main house, and within walking distance from Sue’s office in Mexico City. Mario assured us this was perfect.

Indeed, it was perfect. It had a wonderful Mexican flavour. The floor was painted orange, the kitchen was lined with the famous talavera tiles from Puebla and had a sky-light, making it bright and cheery. The bedroom was lovely white, the dining room chairs looked like cacti (without the spikes, of course). I loved it!! It was so Mexican! In my mind, I already knew how I wanted to decorate it, a splash of colour here, a hammock there, a bright clashing carpet here, some blue glass-wares there… I had to remind myself I was not the one apartment-hunting. Well, it was perfect… except for the price – US$1500 per month.

Sue also had her heart set on this house. She was not keen to look at others anymore. We would see whether Mario could get the price lower.

Being surrounded by Singaporeans these two days meant that the hot topic among us was the SARS virus problem in Singapore and Asia. The number of infected, many health-care workers, kept rising and rising. The stories of how the people got infected were scary and how the authorities were trying to track down certain people who might be in close contact with the infected, like missing taxi-drivers or whatever. Gosh… my friends at home were also saying that no one wanted to go out of their house unnecessarily, all wanted to avoid crowded places and air-conditioned places (which means every building and public transport in Singapore). Face masks and Chinese herbs were all sold out. I could not imagine how the panic was like back home.

I called my mom that night. She works in a Chinese clinic which meant people with flu-symptoms might show up. And my dad drives a taxi. I was worried for them but basically, they could only try to be careful.

Mexico City, MEXICO - 02 april 2003

I was really grateful to Ming and Hong for cooking Singaporean food the last few days. It had indeed been a long time. For a while now, I had wondered what I would stuff into the gap in my face upon arrival in Singapore. There had been too many delicious foods which I had missed and it would be difficult to queue them. But now, at least, with some cravings satisfied, when I got home I would tackle those not consumed here in Mexico City.

But, seriously, when in Mexico City, I should eat some Mexican food. So, I wandered around town today with an empty stomach.

Tortilla: Mexican’s staple food. Enchiladas, gorditas, quesadillas, tlayudas, entomatadas, tamales, tostadas, chilaquiles, tacos, burritas, sincronizadas, papadzules… All these sound like variants of the Mexican cuisine, no?

Well, they are…

Tortilla, folded.
Tortilla, rolled.
Tortilla, pan-fried.
Tortilla, pan-fried, greenish-black and gross-looking.
Tortilla, folded and sealed at the sides.
Tortilla, steamed.
Tortilla, crisp and open like a pizza.
Tortilla, small and round, order of 3 or 4.
Tortilla, folded in triplets, covered in ‘salsa rojo’ [red sauce].
Tortilla, folded in triplets, covered in ‘salsa verde’ [green sauce].
Tortilla, folded in triplets, covered in mole.
Tortilla, stuffed with eyes, tongue, brain.

They love tortillas, don’t they?

Two years ago, I had not liked the taste of tortilla. I felt really stupid to discover it only after arrival in Mexico.

But this time round, I was alright with tacos from the street-side stalls. Perhaps the fillings-to-tortilla ratio was bigger, so I tasted less of the tortilla. Perhaps I was very distracted by the spicy-hot chilis, a long time since I had had anything spicy.

Sprinkled with chopped jalapeño chilies, onions and tomatoes (green, white and red, representing the Mexican flag) or guacamole [avocado] and eaten with fingers, it was a cheap and great way to have your stomach filled. Some locals could eat the tacos expertly without spilling the contents out on the other side. A life-time of training. Well, I could not. I was a mess.

Mexico City, MEXICO - 03 april 2003

A guy called Sam from the website replied that there was availability on CUBANA flights on the days I wanted. He said he would make reservations and send me the invoice and some information about a Mario (yet another) so that we would not miss each other at the airport.

I was confused. He had not asked me for my full name. How was he to make reservations? Send me the invoice? I would be leaving in two days’ time. I emailed him back hastily to request for more information.

With the Cancún-La Habana flight set, I returned to Mexicana to bully them into changing my Mexico City-Cancún flight again… this time to put forward to 5 April. The lady requested a charge when done. I complained I was not charged the last time I had it changed. So, she left it as it was. Phew. But I probably had my name marked down at Mexicana.

Mexico City, MEXICO - 04 april 2003

Sue and I went to La Ciudadela, the huge artesan market, to shop. She was already getting some ideas on how to decorate her house. I bought a rug and some talavera tiles, which I loved from two years ago but never bought. As this was my second time here, I could not bear NOT to buy them now. But with not enough money to post things home, I would have to carry everything back.

I visited Mauricio and Liliana at their apartment, located at the south of Mexico City. They cooked nopales (a kind of cactus) for dinner. I had never tasted this before. It actually tasted pretty good. And they gave me a present… a porcelain plate, the shape of a fish and larger than a keyboard. I loved it but I would have to be really careful to carry this all the way home. Wish me luck.

By mid-night, I still had not received any email from Sam about how I was to meet Mario at the airport to collect my air-ticket to La Habana and pay up. Gosh, I was flying off tomorrow morning to Cancún but I had no idea if I would make the connecting flight to La Habana.

Mexico City to Cancún, MEXICO - 05 april 2003

I arrived at Cancún, hoping to see a ‘TRISHA’ sign held by someone at the arrival hall. No, no and no. There were only signs for people staying in 5-star hotels and driven by limousines.

I had no idea what to do now. I spent about half a week in Mexico City, arranging this and all for nothing. Sheesh… OK, there were actually 3 hours to go before the CUBANA flight departed. I decided to take a bus to town, to see if I could locate an internet café and check if Sam had replied.

Nothing in my mailbox. Well, at least I did not make any payment. So, it was not too bad.

I decided I would go to Belize. I did not need a visa, so why not just catch a bus to Chetumal, the border town in Mexico, stay a night and cross into Belize tomorrow. I finally made up my mind.

But when I was back on the street, still carrying my backpack, I passed by a travel agency and wandered in. I made inquiries for the price to La Habana and asked, as a joke, whether I could leave for Cuba today. José told me, it was 1pm now, the flight would leave in 1 hour… but tomorrow, I could go. Seriously?? The price was even better than the one on the internet. Gosh, I should have just come to Cancún to sort things out here, instead of waiting for that website to handle my flight. Actually, it was just stupid stupid me! And so I changed my mind again and paid up. I would fly to Cuba tomorrow.