I would have to say that I am pretty handy with languages. My friends will tell you that I usually know just enough of a language to get us all into a bit of mischief – “enough to be dangerous” as the saying goes in English. At this point, Spanish is by far my best language after English (closely followed by my first language French, which has become quite rusty due to lack of practise). In the past, I have also studied Mandarin, Dutch, and Italian and even have learned a bit of Swahili once on a trip. Basically I can usually make myself understood across a spectrum of languages. Not great but not bad either.
Last night, my English-Spanish (peppered with a smattering of Dutch) translation skills were called into action quite abruptly. I was in my ‘casa particular’ recovering from the nasty stomach bug I had picked up. The antibiotics were making me a bit nauseous. And, seeing that I could not even have a mojito, I thought I would have a quiet night reading and then get to bed early. However, the universe had other ideas.
My Dutch house mates arrived back from dinner with “some company”. Well, I should say one of them did. The irony is that the young lady in question only spoke Spanish and the Dutch guy who picked her up only spoke Dutch and English. I guess that proves that some communication is completely primal.
My translation skills were required to help sort out another room. However, what should have been a simple couple of questions turned into a scene with 6 of us getting involved in the conversation in the middle of the street in La Habana. It was conversational chaos with one (or more) of the three languages being spoken simultaneously … and completely Latino ;). I likened it to a UN negotiation. All that the Dutch guy wanted was to get another room so that the evening could run its course. He was visibly squirming now that 6 of us were involved in his private life, all knowing full well what we were orchestrating. Smile, smile… wink, wink.
I was somehow expected to grasp and translate what everyone was saying. Luckily for me, I could basically ignore the Dutch conversation. The lads had to sort themselves out. Hopefully their friendship would endure this little interlude. I turned my attention to the accommodation, which was a bit complicated. This is a family house after all, not a hotel. Logistically, there were two rooms but a shared bath, meaning the people in the room without a bathroom had to go through the other room to use the bathroom. Uncomfortable, awkward – especially, in my opinion, for the guy who didn’t get the girl. I didn’t go near that conversation. Luckily, Alexis (name changed to protect the not-so-innocent but oh-so-happy Dutchman) and his friend Jan (name also changed for the opposite reasons) quickly came to a begrudging and inevitable conclusion. The couple got the room without the bath and would be travelling through Jan’s room when required. He definitely needed earplugs and the ability to feign sleep in less than 2 seconds.
Meanwhile, I was delicately trying to explain to the owner of the house what was required and where … and who was with whom (although by this point, that was blatantly obvious). I don’t think that I needed to be so delicate with our 70+ year old host Mum; she was writhing in laughter. The situation didn’t really need any translation. Still giggling hysterically, she got another set of sheets for the bed in the spare room to let the lovebirds get underway. At the end of the day, all I really helped with was clarifying the price for the room. Hand signals would have sufficed really.
After negotiations ceased (and treaties were signed), Jan was sitting in a corner of the house, descending into a bit of a funk. Before he became too upset, I decided to do what any fellow traveller who has been through this would do - get him out to the pub for a few beers. Although I couldn’t drink and wanted a quiet night, I also knew that a great night at the pub, listening to a Cuban band would cheer him up. And, to be honest, I didn’t really want to be in the house when “things got underway”. The ‘spare room’ happened to be adjacent to mine… the walls are thin. We definitely needed to go out.
There really isn’t much music going on anywhere in Cuba at the moment as the country is in an official period of mourning for Hugo Chavez (President of Venezuela) who passed away last week. But I had heard a band playing in a little pub down the street for a brief period of time the night before. In fact, the pub is the famous La Bodeguita del Medio, one of Ernest Hemingway’s haunts in La Habana. And so, I took Jan down to La Bodeguita – for a beer or 6 – so he would forget what was happening back at the casa.
The bar started cranking almost as soon as we arrived. We seemed to be surrounded by Argentines, which I enjoyed immensely. It was great to hear Porteño accents again after being away from my South American home for nearly 4 weeks. Suddenly I was better able to understand people again – aaaah bliss.
Alexis may have got the girl but Jan got a great musical and cultural experience – an awesome salsa band in a rocking little pub. He even bought a CD as a souvenir.I don’t think he will ever be able to listen to that music without getting a wry little smile on his face, thinking about the events that brought him to that pub at that time. Then again, maybe before he leaves Cuba the tables will be turned. I hope so. As I told him last night, everyone needs a Latin lover at least once in their life (hopefully more than once). Smile, smile… wink, wink. :)
After being sick for a week with traveller’s diarrhoea, I finally decided that it was high time to go visit a doctor. I was convinced for days that the problem would pass… and it did pass, again and again and again (ugh). This stomach bug was a stubborn one. It was time to call in reinforcements in the form of antibiotics. This is the first time I have had to succumb to antibiotics for travel-related tummy issues, not that I have suffered many. My pride was bruised when I admitted defeat. However, I knew that my stomach would be much happier for the assistance.
I have always heard great things about Cuba – its people, culture, music and especially its medicine. And today, I found out just how generous and genuine these wonderful people are. I had declared to many before coming here (including my family) that I would much rather get sick in Cuba than in the good ole’ USA. Today, I had the rare chance to prove myself right. This happens very seldom in life so I am relishing the opportunity to relate the story. Please indulge me.
I want to contrast my experience in Cuba by first recounting what happened to me when I was sick a few years ago while visiting the USA. I had some sort of ailment that needed antibiotics. I visited several doctors before one agreed to even see me. The first few doctors’ offices had outright declined to treat me because I didn’t have the right medical insurance. I had travel medical insurance and I was willing to pay CASH – money!!! But they wouldn’t take it. Apparently they cannot rort the system as effectively if you pay cash (I didn’t understand and still do not want to know). Evidently, medical insurance is so much more lucrative for ripping off people. I was completely horrified and, to be honest, it made me feel worthless and discarded.
In Cuba, the story was an altogether different experience. I told my host family that I needed to see a doctor to get some antibiotics. I wasn’t getting better. In fact, I was getting worse. I was also getting tired of spending all of my sightseeing time inside my bathroom. Really, it wasn’t that great as far as sights go. I needed to broaden my horizons.
‘Mi familia Cubana’ immediately stepped into action. ‘Mi madre’ Teresa called the doctor and I was told that she would see me straight away. I asked for the address, planning to go there alone as I can speak Spanish pretty well these days. However, Teresa insisted that she would accompany me. We walked over in the warm mid-afternoon sunshine in Habana Vieja, chatting as we strolled. We arrived to find Doctor Teresa awaiting my arrival.I was surrounded by “Teresas” it seemed. I took this as a good omen since Saint Teresa was always very important to my own (deceased) mother. Surely she was sending me a sign that all would be well. Dr Teresa and I started by introducing ourselves, getting to know each other a bit before she began her diagnosis. There was not a single mention of payment or medical insurance – ¡nunca, nada!
The examination was thorough, looking at all aspects of health, including a physical examination. As Dr Teresa explained to me that her philosophy of “good health” is a combination of mind, body and spirit. The body follows the mind and spirit. It cannot thrive without all three being in balance. If there is imbalance in a person’s emotions, it manifests in different parts of the body. The body cannot live without mind and soul.
After an enthralling conversation on life philosophy, emotional and spiritual issues relating to health and wellbeing, professional advancement, and access to universal public health care (and the lack thereof some countries such as the USA), which took nearly an hour, it was time for me to go to fill my prescription.There were no other patients waiting so we had time for a long and enthralling chat. Again Dr Teresa never asked for or expected any payment. She intended to treat me free of charge. You see, Cuba (unlike its northern neighbour) has free health care… charging is a foreign concept.
I knew from talking to various Cubanos that doctors here make a pittance. They are paid by the government, earning a salary that isn’t nearly enough to live on. And so, they rely on the goodness of their patients to pay them something extra for providing their knowledge and care. They do what they do because they feel a moral and social obligation to care for their community. Tour bus drivers make more than highly skilled doctors. And so, I decided to give Dr Teresa what any foreigner would have to pay in Australia to visit a doctor there – the equivalent of CUC $40 (around AUD $35-$40). She nearly fainted… and then nearly cried. I had no idea (until she told me) that I had just given her two months’ salary.
It gave me added joy to hear that Dr Teresa’s birthday is next week. Yay… an early birthday present! It re-established my belief in the goodness of people and in random acts of kindness. But mostly, it renewed my faith in karma.You get what you give; it really is that simple. And so, Dr Teresa’s amazing karma paid dividends today. I was delighted that I was able to pay her back on behalf of the universe. As we said goodbye, I gave her a big kiss and hug and told her to have a glass of champagne for me on her birthday. Judging from her enthusiastic smile and laugh, I truly believe that she will.
My tale, however, does not end here. My Cubana mother Teresa and I had shopping to do. The doctor had told me to eat very specific foods to get over the stomach bug I had contracted. She wanted to get my digestive system back in balance quickly, fully knowing that my insides would be a battleground for a few days. So, Mama Teresa and I went shopping for supplies so that she could cook for me the next couple of days while I recovered. She insisted that I should not eat in restaurants. Home cooking was what I needed, especially chicken soup! We shopped for vegetables and chicken and then returned home. While I rested, Teresa went out to get my antibiotics, for which she paid (I did pay her back later of course!).While I was resting Delia (Teresa’s daughter) made the soup. Everyone insisted that I just rest. And so I did.
I sat reflecting on how fortunate I was to have had this experience. Okay, I contracted some nasty stomach parasite that now requires a complete antibiotic annihilation of my digestive system to remedy. And yes, it has definitely put a damper on my plans for Habana. The truth be known, so has the death of Hugo Chavez. No music or dancing allowed for the next few days; a period of national mourning. However, all of that aside, I have been given a life-affirming experience in its place. I was involved in a beautiful cross-cultural exchange that embraced all that is good in this world - how we should treat others with respect and dignity, and what it really means to be human. I have been cared for as if I were family. People who yesterday were complete strangers have taken me into their house and their lives. I am no stranger here; I matter.
And so, in the most wonderful way, I was proven right. Unequivocally, I stand by my statement that I would rather get sick in Cuba than in the USA – from real-world experience in both countries. It has restored my hope that in some places in the world, people have not forgotten their humanity. Instead of being treated like a number or someone who can be exploited for money (in the case of the US medical system, the term ‘medical prostitution’ comes to mind), I was cared for with compassion as a complete and valued human being worthy of attention, care and love.I am humbled and honoured. And, I am also right. ;)
I have been in Cuba for a week now. While I absolutely love the music and the people, I am totally and utterly dismayed by the food. I was warned that I would tire of the food quickly in Cuba. Wow, my friends weren’t wrong!One has to wonder how an entire population of incredibly passionate Latinos doesn’t protest more about the lacklustre food. Does no one here have any culinary imagination? The only national cuisine I can find is various forms of bland. The main dish of choice, for example, is bland fish with rice and salad. Or you could have ‘bland chicken’ or ‘bland pork’ (with rice and salad of course). The worst offender is the ‘bland and pasty lobster’. Yeah, you guessed it … with rice and salad. Bland white rice pellets. My personal favourite is the unimaginative bland salad, which typically consists of lettuce, cucumber and tomato. When the Cubans go ‘salad crazy’, you might get a bit of grated beetroot or pimento and/or grated cabbage on top. Woohoo – go nuts people!
I am a food adventurer when I travel. I have some basic rules about kitchen hygiene but not really many rules about what I am eating – except that I want to eat what the locals are eating. I will try most anything once as long as there is no hint of mishandling of animals and I am not eating anything I might consider to be a pet. Oh, and I try not to eat insects (at least not intentionally). My rule is to always try to look at the kitchen. If it is clean and their food preparation looks kosher (not verbatim but high quality) then “I’m in”. That usually means better quality food, local produce, interesting local flavours and better hygiene because of high turnover. None of that has applied in Cuba. Basically, it has been extremely difficult (seemingly impossible) to find good local cheap eateries. Apparently there is some reasonable food to be had at some of the resorts. This is definitely not my scene, being a chica that prefers family homestays. And so, I am suffering… in my opinion unnecessarily. If indeed the intelligence info I have gathered on the resorts around Varadero is true, it seems that the only difference between the resort restaurants and the local ones is an imaginative chef. There are vegetables, fruits, herbs, fish, shellfish, meat and dairy all available in the restaurants around the island. It is just that the local chefs don’t seem to have much artistic flair or ingenuity. Obviously, Masterchef has yet to arrive in Cuba. This country seriously needs a ‘gastronomic Yoda’ to shake up the food scene here.
I was in Chile and then briefly Peru just before arriving in Cuba. The contrast between these countries’ cuisines and Cuba’s could not be starker. Both Chile and especially Peru have excellent cuisine available. In Chile, I had one of the best winery lunches I have ever laid lip to. That is saying something coming from an Aussie who frequents the wineries across multiple states in Australia. Peru, in my opinion, is the next national cuisine that will take the world by storm. Let’s put it this way, I went to Lima for two days en route from Santiago de Chile to Cuba just so I could eat there.It was lip smacking good and absolutely worth going through immigration twice in 2 days. Enough said.
Without a doubt, Cuba has finally forced an important travel decision upon me. I will never be able to travel somewhere (at least not for more than a few days) that doesn’t have their culinary shit together. I just cannot survive very long eating the same old gruel (or meat or fish dish) totally lacking in flavour and imagination. While Cuba’s music and people have captured my heart and soul, their food has left me cold (and sick and shaking in a corner). Alas Cuba, until you pick up your gastronomic game, I am afraid that I shall not be spending much time on your shores again. A quick hop to La Habana to indulge in its culture and music is all I could fathom for fear of starvation. Let’s hope that when the truly antiquated US trade embargo is finally lifted the first thing that they import is some quality cooking shows. Jamie Oliver – you have a whole country in dire need of your gastronomic teachings.
Machu Picchu has always loomed large for me ever since planning my around-the-world trip…. actually long before. And as I suspected, it was to be one of the pinnacle moments of my journey thus far. Walking the Inca Trail, crossing Dead Woman’s Pass high in the Andres at 4200 metres (or slightly over 12800 feet for the metric-impaired) was truly an inspirational and spiritual occasion.
The lead up to the walk was not a good one for me. I got some sort of traveller’s stomach bug that really knocked me about the day before we were due to start walking the trail. Thank goodness my sister Shirley had given me some magic Gravol (great Canadian medicine) for my trip. By the end of the Inca Trail, everyone in my group was popping it like candy! It got us through some very tough days on the trail. It is not a good thing to be walking at altitude with traveller’s diarrhoea.
Day 1 started early in the morning. I awoke to discover my tummy bug had gone (thank you Gravol and thank you Shirley!). Talk about “just in time” recovery! I was able to eat some breakfast to start the first day on a positive note.We jumped in a bus and went off to our start point – to pick up our equipment and meet our porters who would be carrying most of what we required for our 3-day walk to Machu Picchu. We had to carry some personal items for the day walk – snacks, water, sunscreen, etc. However, our porters did the bulk of the work and made life very pleasant indeed on the trail.
It took us several hours to get organised and start walking but I feel that this preparation, both physical and emotional put us all in a good place. Our guide Nancy is native Quechua, which means we also we were able to get an insight into the culture and religious practises of the native people. At the very start of our route, whilst everyone else was rushing by to get underway, Nancy asked us to stop and reflect on our life and to pick up a small stone, one that ‘spoke to us’, to carry with us on our journey. It would be our offering to the Pachamama upon arrival to Machu Picchu. Quite unexpectedly, I found myself selecting 4 stones for the journey – two stones for grief for my mother and brother who had both died a few years ago; one for hope for life and adventures yet to come; and finally one for forgiveness to leave the past behind once and for all.Those 4 small stones remained in my pocket for the entire journey. I felt and pondered them all along the long road to Machu Picchu.
In my now distant memory of the walk, the first day seems like a casual stroll… undulating terrain and general happiness as the walk got underway. Looking back, I remember it as being quite easy but a somewhat long day. We rolled into camp where our porters had arrived many hours before us to hot drinks and hot food. We went to bed very early for the long day that lie ahead of us. Day 2 of the Inca Trail is a monster day and one to be taken seriously. A good night’s sleep was required.
We awoke early in the morning to a hot breakfast and got the briefing from Nancy of what lay ahead of us – a long slow climb to Dead Woman’s Pass and then a long slow descent. For me, the climb was much easier than the descent. Yes, it was hard in parts and ‘yes’ there seemed to be a shortage of oxygen at times but Nancy set a nice pace and we were up at the pass before we knew it. Most of us waited at the top for the last person on our team to arrive. Kristy was fighting a terrible stomach bug (we got struck down at the same time) but persevered throughout the entire trail. Because she was sick she couldn’t eat much, which left her very low on energy. Still, she got there in the end and not that far behind the rest of us; a truly amazing effort. She walked the trail not only for herself, but also for her father, who had died quite suddenly one year before, sheer determination pushing her forward.
The descent from Dead Women’s Pass was a gruelling, knee-jolting experience. Four girls in our group decided to descend together, gossiping along the way (as only 4 chicas can) to pass away the time. We didn’t think about the pounding in our knees while we were talking. Some of our group had decided to jog down the steps as the porters do, but we were content making our way down slowly, chatting and taking photos along the way. We arrived at camp to another scrumptious late lunch and warm drinks, which were very much appreciated.
Day 3 was a day of mostly downhill… breathtaking views and a spectacular restaurant quality lunch at the top of a mountain vista. Our last lunch on the trail consisted of a 5-course meal, complete with a homemade cake and icing! We were completely humbled upon seeing the cake. It was a confronting reminder how fast those porters go to set up camp and make life comfortable for you. Each porter is carrying 25kg of gear and they get there HOURS before you. Damn! – they even have enough time to bake and ice a cake plus make the 5-course meal. It truly boggles the imagination.
After our prolific lunch, we waddled down the side of the mountain into the last camp, walking through various ruins along the way. The Incas had several smaller encampments and lesser temples on the road to Machu Picchu…. presumably to prepare for the entry into the grand and spiritual city. We arrived at camp at nightfall. It felt more like a bustling metropolis. All of the groups who are normally a bit more spread out on the trail have now descended into a single point – a conduit where we all must wait to make the final journey into Machu Picchu very early the next morning. The place was buzzing with excitement to get going. More than one person in our group was also getting excited about getting back to civilisation and the idea of a shower was starting to enter our collective psyche. There is only so much baby wipes can achieve to remove 3 days of trail grime.
The last day of our trek, we awoke at 3am to get in line to commence the last part of the trail. We pack quickly, grab a very fast breakfast and get in line at the final checkpoint.And then we wait. We have at least 1 hour (actually more) to wait before the checkpoint opens. Our group is 5th in line!Obviously there are those keener than us to be “first” into Machu Picchu. For our group, it was more important to get to the Sun Gate as close to sunrise as possible – to see the first light rising upon Machu Picchu. To pass away the time, Kristy started playing a crazy collection of music. I will never be able to hear Johnny Cash (especially “Walk the Line”) again without thinking about the Inca Trail.
Finally the checkpoint office opens at 5am.Nancy gets us through the process quickly and soon we are on our way. We get passed by a loud and pushy group of Americans (why is that always the case?) who have decided to turn this into a race. Nancy has reminded us repeatedly that this is not a race, but something we should view as a spiritual journey or pilgrimage. Hence our group has a unique and more balanced point of view. There is much to reflect upon… the stones sitting idly in our pockets, waiting to be offered up on this special morning.
We reach the Sun Gate just after sunrise to a spectacular view of Machu Picchu, bathed in the rays of the rising sun. It was a humbling experience sitting on that hillside, reflecting on our journey and on the journey of thousands before us, eons before gortex, tents and down sleeping bags. Indeed we suffered no hardship on our journey, enjoying many comforts. I felt humbled thinking of those people many hundreds of years before me making this journey with only the clothes on their backs, belief in their heart and determination in their stride.
We leave the Sun Gate and make our way down to the Sun Temple. While every other group is now in a dead run to get to Machu Picchu, we stop as a group to make our offering to Pachamama. Nancy leads us through a small but heartfelt ceremony, where we pile our stones in the Sun Temple as our individual and collective offering. It was a very cathartic experience, especially for those who had been holding too much grief in their hearts. Tears are shed, hugs exchanged, and I for one walk away feeling lighter…. feeling hopeful for all that is to come.
And finally we make our final descent into Machu Picchu. Luckily for me, I think of this part as an inevitable ending to the walk, but not the true objective. The place is crawling with tourists. If anything, it feels like a rude reintroduction to civilisation. Although it was breathtakingly beautiful, I almost felt like I was in the Inca version of Disneyland.
It was then that I realised that the solemnity of the ceremony at the Sun Temple, in full view of the majestic Machu Picchu had been the climax of the walk… not just for me but for most of the group. It symbolised the journey we had just made…. quiet, reflective and impactful to the mind, body and soul. It wasn’t just the many steps that we had walked along the way, but the steps we had taken as people to forgive the past and to embrace the future, full of hope and happiness of what could be.