Coming to Love Medellin

I wrote Medellin off well before I arrived. I had nothing against Colombia—I just don’t enjoy the crowds and bustle of cities in general, and Medellin (with its satellite cities) is almost as big as Sydney. This visit was on the recommendation of a friend from the school in Antigua, who was now studying Spanish here and loving it. I gave it a week, having a vague plan to move on to a smaller city or elsewhere in the countryside. My search for a place to contribute socially, rather than just for my own financial gain, seemed more likely to succeed in a less developed locale. Having just escaped living on the streets in Cuba, I probably also had a negative perspective of the world in general. Medellin initially struck me as just another city despite its earthy tones and unique geography, sprawling down a deep valley. On my third day in the city my view began to change. I joined a few Spanish students at the Museo Casa de la Memoria, a museum depicting the changes to Medellin over the past forty years. Not having done any research, the displays and text were overly cryptic, but the museum depicted Medellin as an incredibly violent city gripped by corruption under the power of Pablo Escobar. This image was difficult to correlate with the vibrant, happy place I was staying in now, where parents happily let their children play on the streets after dark. Somehow, the city had pulled itself up from drug capital to legal prosperity in only a few decades. We then went to Parque de los Deseos for an open air concert, which turned out to be Omara Portuondo of Buena Vista

By |July 26th, 2018|Categories: Colombia|0 Comments

Poor for a Day

The evening after my friend left Vinales, a restaurant rejected my 100CUC note. They took everything else I had rather than break it. I was frustrated, but not surprised. It had been hard enough to find people to break a 50CUC note. I tried a few more places before someone pointed out that it wasn’t even Cuban money. It was a 100 Quetzales note, left over from Guatemala. When I returned to my casa particular to get more money, I found that all the cash I assumed was CUC was actually unusable currency. How had I managed to spend 350CUC (US$350) in four days? I ran the numbers through my head and stopped when I reached 230CUC in the middle of the third day. It was true. I had used it all. The next morning I tracked down some ATMs, tried a couple of cards in both banks and came up with nothing. I then took all five of my cards from St George and Westpac in to the branch and found that all were rejected. Nor would they change my remaining Australian dollars. I’d done my research and knew that US cards weren’t accepted, but Australian cards should be fine. I connected to the internet to get in touch with my bank to see what was wrong and found an article from Westpac stating that they followed US policy regarding money laundering etc, so cards could not be used in a few countries including Cuba. Being owned by Westpac, St George would have the same policy. Western Union, then, but according to their website they only had branches as far west as Havana. My panic began in earnest. I owed 30CUC to my

By |July 18th, 2018|Categories: Cuba|0 Comments

Cuban Micro-economics

In my limited understanding of socialism, everyone is meant to be equal. Everyone pulls their weight and the government ensures that everyone is housed and fed. With that in mind, I couldn’t understand why people mobbed the tourists getting off the bus in Vinales, pushing their casa particular as the best. Or why doctors only get paid 40CUC (US$40) per month but the driver of the vintage car charged 50CUC for an hour drive. Did this money all go to the government? Through numerous discussions with locals, I pieced together a rough view of how their lives work financially. The government takes most of what each person produces or earns—somewhere in the order of 90%--and lets them do them do what they like with the rest. One person wrote out the microeconomics of an average household for me. A family with two children, where Dad is an electrician and Mum is a nurse, has an income of about 50CUC per month. Utilities come to about 35CUC and a basic diet of beans and rice comes to about 17CUC, which leaves them short by 2CUC. When I suggested that cancelling the internet was the obvious solution, he pointed out that 15CUC was still not going to buy much in the way of vegetables and meat for 4 people for a month. So both parents end up taking additional jobs, usually in some form of tourism, which takes them up to, say, 110CUC. It’s still a very basic standard of living. This still doesn’t answer questions of house ownership or how people choose / are assigned careers or whether to live in the city or the country, but my trip to Cuba was cut short as

By |July 4th, 2018|Categories: Cuba|0 Comments

Contact Improvisation

Before I left Australia, I went on a date with a woman who did a form of dance called Contact Improvisation. She was particularly interested in the consensual aspect, and how people agreed what was and was not allowed during the dance. Otherwise, I’ve never come across this art form before my first night in Cuba. It was a performance at the Fabrica de Art Cubano (Cultural Centre) on a Friday night. My friend had invited me along to a night of enjoying art, music and mojitos. The art was impressive and often confronting, displaying a lot of nudity and what I imagined was commentary on socialism, but I’m no art critic. For me,  the highlight was the Contact Improvisation performance. From the descriptions I’d seen, I imagined it would be sensual, but I had no idea it would be so erotic – and it wasn’t the occasional hand-on-breast that made it erotic. It began with four men and five women sitting on stools at the back of the stage, each slowly moving to the rhythm of the electronic mood music playing through the speakers. Over the space of a few minutes, each stepped or rolled off their stool and began their own individual dance, that was essentially peacocking to get the attention of the other dancers. When one person saw some moves they could engage with, they approached the other dancer, who may or may not respond to the first dancer’s advances. It was this seduction, the times of non-contact, that made the dance so erotic. Throughout the hour they kept it up, I saw couples and threesomes form and disperse. I saw one man approach a lone woman dancing half into the

By |June 29th, 2018|Categories: Cuba|2 Comments

Cuban Cigars

Even the most hardened non-smoker can’t help but take an interest in cigars whilst visiting Cuba. I arrived in Viñales, a rural town at the western end of the island in the early afternoon and my casa particular host arranged for her brother-in-law to give me a walking tour of the area the same afternoon. He took me through some spectacular scenery to a coffee plantation, a cave and to pick mangos fresh off the tree, but the highlight was the tobacco farm. My guide handed me over to the owner of the farm, who showed me the shed where the leaves were dried before taking me to a shaded table where he explained the process of making cigars. Each leaf on the tobacco plant has different properties, providing flavour, smell or combustibility. He then showed me how to roll a cigar, magically transforming a bunch of leaves into the famous tubular shape, and explained the drying process which takes a further month or so. I assumed I’d be able to confirm the details online, but haven’t had any success, so if anyone can find a reference to this online, please let me know. Taking out a couple of cigars he’d prepared earlier, he showed me how to cut the end off, then dipped it in honey. He assured me that the leaves, and hence the cigar, was nicotine free, and bade me suck on the cigar while he lit it. I struggled to do that without inhaling the smoke, but in the end, I was puffing ungracefully on a genuine Cuban cigar. He explained that you could tell a quality cigar by how long the ash stayed in place, and after mine had

By |June 28th, 2018|Categories: Cuba|0 Comments

Culture Shock in Cuba

Havana had me feeling completely lost for the first time since visiting Hong Kong in 1995, where I couldn’t navigate myself out of the maze of clothes, electronics and luggage stores. Despite booking a casa particular before arriving in Cuba and exchanging multiple emails with the booking agency, my host seemed to have no idea I was coming. This turned out to be because he couldn’t match the way I said my name with the spelling he’d been given (I pronounce Murray as in Mario without the 'o', but Spanish speakers read it as moo-rah-y). His accent was really thick, which made any kind of conversation difficult. I was on my own. I hadn’t eaten properly since lunch 24 hours before, and Cuban tap water isn’t safe to drink, so finding food and water were priorities. I also had a whole set of wet clothes from a tour I did in Mexico the day before. Finally, I needed to catch a friend before she left for Vinales, which meant getting internet access. My mind was foggy from the humid heat as I ventured outside to begin my search. The many people standing around in the park at the end of my street looking at their phones and tablets marked it as a wi-fi hotspot, but I knew I would need a card to be able to log in. The first person I asked spoke so fast that I had to ask him to repeat a few times before I understood that I could buy a card from a hotel down the road. Because my tour in Cancun hadn’t finished until 10pm the night before, I hadn’t been alert enough to download a map of

By |June 25th, 2018|Categories: Cuba|1 Comment

Cornfield Trip

My host Cheyo disappeared every Saturday morning to work at the milpa. I imagined him working with his neighbours to pour corn into chutes, walk a wheel in circles to move the mill, and shovel the cornflour into sacks for everyone to take home. In fact, I must never have looked up the meaning of this false friend. On a whim, I decided to join him on my last day in San Pedro, assuming it would be a short trip to the top of the town, making for an easy walk to wherever I decided to go for the rest of the day. As soon as we were out of the house, Cheyo told me we'd need to get a taxi to reach the milpa, which I still thought was a mill. The taxi took us out of the Atitlan crater and along the adjacent cornfield-covered plateau for about ten kilometres before we got out and walked through the cornfields. Cheyo explained where each corn field started and ended and who owned each one until we arrived at his. The corn stood tall - about his height - but fruitless. Surprisingly, there were large piles of rocks throughout the fields, and Cheyo explained that the corn loved rocks for some reason, always growing stronger where the rocks were. I assume the volcanic rocks contain minerals that wash into the soil, but he couldn't confirm this. There was no work to be done on the corn itself. Instead, he took me to where he'd hidden his tools and we began to walk up the hill, beyond the corn to the tree line. Here, he showed me where he'd planted pine trees, still just bristly twigs,

By |June 22nd, 2018|Categories: Guatemala|0 Comments

School Fiestas

Every week, my Spanish school in San Pedro La Laguna ran a number of activities to share the local culture and to give the students more chances to practise what they've learnt. This typically included a movie every Tuesday, a game of basketball every second Thursday and dinner on Friday evening to celebrate the week and to farewell students who are moving on. Over my three weeks, we made potato tamales, tostadas and maize tamalitas (small tamales). On my first Friday, the students cut everything up and clean the leaves for wrapping under the watchful eyes of the teachers. I thought I knew how to cook tamales after cooking rice tamales with my hosts, but I was reprimanded for not properly cleaning the dirt out of the stem of the leaf. These look like banana leaves, but actually grow straight out of the ground like fern fronds. The school is set in the grounds of the owners' house, so we actually cook and eat as the family does. The 'house' runs down one side of the property, and while each bedroom has a door, the main areas only have three walls. We prepared the food in one of these, but the potatoes were taken to a tiny kitchen to be boiled while we clean the leaves. They were brought back for us to peel by hand as our teachers demonstrate, sliding the skin off. When we try, it's more of a hot potato juggling act. By the time that was done, the potatoes were cool enough to mash by hand, in the way I remember making meatballs as a kid. We then added the flavourings - chicken, chillies, raisins, olives and capsicum - wrap

By |June 13th, 2018|Categories: Guatemala|0 Comments

Guatemalan Birthday

Ixchel, the daughter of one of the family who run Corazon Maya turned six during the week and all the students were invited to her party. Two of the students provided entertainment as a clown and a magician before the real entertainment began - the piñata. It was modelled on a Frozen character, as is to be expected at a six-year-old girl's party. While the children chanted and laughed in delight at the inability of their blind-folded classmates to reliably hit the piñata, the adults were entertained by the early deskirting of the doll and the gynaecological search for any remaining lollies when it finally burst. Lunch was traditional chicken, rice, beans with not too much chilli, and the party finished with a large birthday cake and songs. I didn't follow the whole song, but it sounded like the second verse was a demand for cake - even a small piece. We thought that was good enough to take up in our home countries, but we were yet to be surprised. When Ixchel had blown the candle out, rather than cutting the cake, her friends pushed her face into it. This explains the need for such a big cake and is apparently traditional at birthday parties of all ages. Cake anyone?

By |June 10th, 2018|Categories: Guatemala|0 Comments

Mayan Queen

In ancient history, Mayans had kings. At some stage, possibly under Spanish rule, this changed and Mayans now have queens. The queen must represent her town at a gathering of all Mayan queens, which means she must have a good grasp of local issues, national politics, Mayan culture, and be able to communicate well in both her local dialect and Spanish - the former to demonstrate knowledge of Mayan culture and the latter so she can communicate with the other queens. I was lucky enough to be in San Pedro at the time of the election of this year's queen. Until about ten years ago, the village council would choose a suitable girl and approach her father to ask if he would allow her to be queen for the year. The problem was finding a girl who spoke Spanish. If the father refused, the council would go to their second choice. Once a father accepted, the family would throw a huge party for all their family, friends and neighbours. My teacher recalls the many parties thrown for her older sister, who was queen for years. Times have changed, and now the problem is finding a girl who speaks Tz'utujil, the local dialect, fluently. All children can understand it, but most don't bother to learn the glottal stop required to properly pronounce the apostrophe, and interest in speaking Tz'utujil is flagging. With the ubiquity of television and social media, the selection of the queen has been handed to the people. Eligible girls compete for the right to be queen in a manner somewhat like a beauty pageant  - without the bikinis. In turn, the girls demonstrate their knowledge of culture by dancing their way from

By |June 6th, 2018|Categories: Guatemala|0 Comments