Friday, 30 July 2010

Petra by day, Petra by night, Petra by candlelight

Our travelling in Jordan was going to follow a fairly well trodden path down the kings highway that cuts the country in 2 halves. About 5 hours south from Amman (in the north) is the town of Wadi Musa (wadi means Valley). Wadi Musa is the launching point for Petra. This town was similar to Siam Reap in Cambodia, in that it only exists to cater and earn from the tourists that flock to trek to Petra.

Similar to Angkor (but not quite on the same scale), Petra Is actually a sprawling city of many temples and buildings. However again just like Angkor there is one focal point that most go to see, here it is the Treasury.

We visited the site 3 times over 3 days and each time it was different, we Saw Petra by Candlelight, by Sunset, and by day. The night time excursion was pretty nice. You walk the 2kms from the entrance to the treasury in a candle light procession, on arrival there is the wonderful sight of the 2,000 year old building glowing orange in the light of the candles. Story telling and music add to the romantic and eerie feel to the place and the silence of the desert is all around.

Petra was a Nabatean (old Arab tribe) City (with Roman and Greek influence) that was built up on the trading route that took people from west to east across Roman run Arabia. The buildings are mainly carved into the sides of the towering rocks and the scale and intricacy of the work is simple mind boggling. The conditions of the remains are also very dramatic. Some look as if the buildings were built just a few years ago.

The highlights are the Monastery, the Roman Road and surrounds, and the Treasury. The monastery is a mammoth temple at least 30m high and grand in its design. The trek up to the monastery is about 3kms up and so we left many of the day bus tourist behind at the start. This was a tough hike in the 40 degree sun, but so worth it. You come out on a flat plain where you see nothing. Then turn around and you gasp at the beauty of this site. With such few people at the top you have the whole place to yourself!

The roman road and surrounds are just typical of the constructions of that time. Roads that last 2000 years, put most of todays routes to shame! The pillars and temples along the route are again grand and just invite you to dare to imagine with life in those days was like. Real time travel.

The Treasury is a great wow moment. Not so much for the beauty or grandeur of the building (although it is beautiful), but more for the approach to it and the impact of the first sights of it. The route from the entrance to the treasury takes you through a winding labyrinth, where the rocks tower 50m above you. The path is relatively narrow at about 5-6m but you don’t feel boxed in. The rocks take turns to shade you as you go, and at every corner you think you must have made it, each time you are wrong, but still greeted with truly magnificent colour and contours on the formations all around. Finally in the distance you can hear the gasps of others who have found the treasury, it is near. You walk through and see the first sight of the 2000 year old monolith, so typically Roman in scale that you think you could be in Rome itself. The world famous photo of the treasury covered in part by the rocks that have followed you all the way here, is a sight in itself. You stop and imagine for a second who has experienced these first sights before, and even before them, the first people to rediscover this site. How did they feel!

The ancient city of Petra is a true wonder of the world, and despite the 40c temperatures and the baked hot sands, one cant stop to gaze and wonder what stories must have been told in the past about this place and about its people.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Adios Amigos! The final day in the world of Latin America

Finally as I sink back in my seat and the plane whizzes down the runway in Mexico City, I can truly say Adios Amigos! After 154 days in Latin America, I feel drained, and yet sad that we are leaving a place that we have called Nos Casa (Our home) for all this time, we have had a totally out of this world experience, but feel so much it is time to move on. We jet on to Toronto and to my Brother in Boston, and then hit another culture all together - the middle east. Of course this is going to be interesting for more than just Falafels and Hummus but right now all I say is goodbye Latin America, God bless you, you have kept us safe all this time. You have blown our mind and shown us beauty in a thousand winds, icebergs and volcanos, endless Penguins. Our outlook on life will never be the same, now that we have trekked your parks and climbed your mountains, you have shown us that anything is possible. But just for now My friend all I can say is...

Adios Amigos!!!

Urvi shed a silent tear as she sipped on her Bloody Mary, recalling those heady days when Buenos Aires was warm, and she was fortunate enough to call it home, to the days when Patagonia was windy and she was fortunate enough to see the Torres in blue splendor, to those days when she was able to share all these dreams with all the new friends we met. Thanks to South America we met Phil, Dom, Lynda, Hilde, Rael, Andy, Sebastian, Andrea, Jana, Sergei, Cat, Matt, Melissa, Claire, Michael, Grant, Claire (Ecuador), Ester (Ecuador), Sarah (BA), Jamie (BA), Nicole (BA) and so many more. This is what travelling is about. Unforgettable.

Monday, 12 July 2010

When in Cuba, Swing to the music and sway with the Salsa

The single most important thing for people in Cuba is music, and coupled with that is Dance. EVERYONE knows how to salsa. It is more important than any other skill, and you see it everywhere. Children who can barely walk to old ladies who can barely see!

Music flows out of every doorway, with a beat, and energy that is indeed infectious. And when the music pumps people dance, or at least swing and jig. Movement is in everyones bones. I have not seen a culture where this love affair with music and dance is so deep rooted. What is great is it only takes someone to start tapping on the table, to be joined by someone beating with a juice bottle, and they are off, the rhythm is going and people just join in like a snow ball.

Music in Cuba has many origins, just like the people but the defining routes are the Spanish and crucially the African blend. Music was, and still is a release from the pain of life, from the slavery of the past and the lack of opportunity of today. Love it.

I love to listen to music but I am NO dancer, yet Urvi was adamant, she was gonna get me to dance salsa! So we did what you do in Habana, found ourselves a salsa teacher and got to it. After 5 lessons, I was no dancer, but I had great fun, had a great workout and now have a totally new respect for dancers of any type. The flexibility and grace you need to dance well is beyond me but is just wonderful to see and experience.

We went to more clubs and dance shows in Cuba than we have been to in all the trip so far, and it was awesome. Jazz (my fav), traditional Cuban old classics, and of course the world famed salsa clubs. The nights start late and go on later, but what is for sure people enjoy, dance and live life as if there is nothing else. The freedom with which old and young, fit and fat move was a real lesson to me. The music and dance of Cuba will be as unforgettable as the mountains of Nepal or the beaches of Thailand!

Thursday, 8 July 2010

When in Cuba - Carry an Extra Large Wallet, a Calculator and an Extra Pair of Eyes

Dealing with anything money related in Cuba takes effort. Firstly there are 2 parallel legal currencies, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the Moneda Naconial (MN) the CUC is what most things are charged in and the MN is for the locals. Cuba is the king of differential tourist pricing, for example the main museum of the revolution was 3CUC for us to enter, about £3, ok not bad.. For the local visitor it was 3MN, about 12p! What!! Yup its like this all over the place. Apparently the average monthly wage for a Cuban is around 40CUC. So not a lot, and therefore basically people don't steal from you, but they fleece you every chance they can. Nothing seems to be less than 1CUC, and no price is written or fixed. For example, the haircut I got in Habana cost me another 3CUC, not bad really - after negotiating with the barber (always a risky strategy!), but the guy next to me got his haircut, a shave, face massage and a cup of coffee and he got change from 25mn (£1)!. Still when I think how much money we waste on nothing back home, the £3 haircut does not feel that bad.

Things generally are expensive in Cuba for the traveller, and we spent around $100 per day, thats as much as Japan. The problem is (particularly in food) you don't feel that you get the same value for money.

The second main headache and why you have to keep your brain engaged, is that in cafes and restaurants you will never get an accurate bill. There will always be something added, most of the time something you cant even read! I think that I had to correct at least 75% of the bills thus saving me at least $50!! Its crazy. When questioned people always correct things gladly, but cynically I think they are all trying it on to begin with.

Money in Cuba - keep your brain engaged and your eyes open. Two currencies, bills always 'wrong', tourist rates and no written prices!! Still you can accept it to some extent...All this adds to the 'tourist inflation rate' I guess.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

When in Cuba you should always ask Que Es Ultimo...

At the very least Cuba is probably the most ‘different’ country we have been to and will visit on the trip. Touching down in Habana, was like going back in time, and changing planet all in one go! It is hard to totally explain the atmosphere and air there but I will try my best!

The first observation is just how much of a heady mix there is between chaotic life and ordered behaviour.

Walking the streets of Habana is really like going back in time, the old town is a mess, lets be honest, but a mess that you soon grow to love. The streets remind me of the stories I heard about medieval England. People sprawled out on the roads, women throwing water from balconies, clothes flapping from every window and terrace, people shouting to each other across the roads, laughing and shrieking. It is just a feast for the senses.

When buildings become run down they are just left, there is rubbish in piles everywhere, and no-body looks to cosmetic beauty as important. This is the case in peoples appearance, the buildings and most obviously in the cars. Cars are defining of Cuba. People all drive around in grand but battered 1950s 1960s US cars, albeit with Lada and other russian engines in them! The look of the car, the condition its in is totally irrelevant, as long as you can pack the people in and it runs.

So there is chaos shouting out from ever nook and gap in this city. However for exactly this reason it is amazingly endearing. I totally loved the colour, smells, feel of it. History is still totally alive.

Despite this chaos the people have grown up with significant order and rule in their lives. Crime seems to be non existent. Image that the WHOLE of habana looks like the most stereotyped ghetto, gang dominated suburb in any US movie. Now image walking safely around that film set at 3am... You would think we are mad. But this place just is safe safe safe. People are hugely poor, but the risks related to criminality are too great, and therefore you don't hear of muggings robbery etc etc. A crazy paradox.

When you walk the streets you see queues everywhere, the rationing days are not over and people still understand the importance of respecting the queue. Queueing has become such an art that Cuban people have developed a wonderful way of doing this and still staying out of the hot mid day sun. When you reach a place, all you ask is who’s the last one. Que es ultimo. That person maybe all the way on the other side of the street, but once you have fixed eye contact with them, your set. Go and sit wherever you want, go off for a coffee if the queue is super long! All you have to do is make sure that you follow the one directly in front of you. Simple and yet super effective.

Habana is a total and wonderful mix of chaotic and hard life, and ordered and colour behaviour. It felt to me just like a huge village, and just like any village we have visited, you can observe the main components of village life! You see old ladies chit chatting with no worry of time, you see horse and carts, chick cows any sort of animal, you observe that everyone knows everyone, and more than that they all look out for each other. I felt Habana was a great reflection of how life was when the world was simple, when people thought about each other and talked to each other rather than talking to Facebook walls, and profiles. Habana has talked to me and made me question a lot of what I am and what I hope to be. Habana is not full of contradictions just a varied and colourful homogeneity!!

Due to the political climate and the major restrictions on external trade you are blinded by the total absence of gaudy marketing campaigns and advertising in general. So much so that during half time in the world cup final - the single most watched event in the world, where advertising sells for the value of some countries GDP, the Cubans talk about the match! Two old commentators sit and talk during what would the ad breaks!! How cool is that! You would never miss a goal because ITV cuts to the ads too early in Cuba! Its a real welcome disconnect from what we see as conventional life. Media, class, materialism, adverts, choice!!!

I loved the city, I loved taking photos of the city, and most of all as we decided to stay mainly in Habana I loved just walking and soaking in the contrasts between life here and life as I know it. I question which is better...

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Leaving Mexico with mixed emotions

5 weeks ago when we touched down in Mexico and I entered with mixed emotions. There was a bit of resignation of being in yet another Spanish speaking country, how different was it going to feel, was it just Argentina with cowboys and tacos?

I can safely say that for both Urvi and myself Mexico has been a total joy; it has been varied and full of culture, history and stories. The food has been by far and away the best we have had on this part of the trip, so full of flavour and spice, and the people have once again surprised us with their charm, intelligence and love of life and each other.

I know what you are thinking, all of this is fine when you visit a country for just weeks, but as they say (and I totally believe it) you make your mind up about someone, something or some place within seconds of meeting them. Within seconds of meeting Mexico we fell in love.

Sure it is complicated with tough drug issues and Mexico City is certainly not the cake walk we encountered when we were there - it is one of the toughest cities in the world, and by far the largest we have been to in Latin America. But all these issues accepted, Mexico really was the perfect place for me in particular after the ever descending shroud that I felt in South America. For Urvi too, Mexico had colour and flare and for us both the 5 weeks flew by.

Based on this hugely enjoyable experience we leave Mexico for Cuba with totally mixed emotions. Cuba was one of the hot spots when we were planning the trip, a place that we had heard lots but knew little about. So I in particular was looking forward to being there for a few weeks. However the way that Mexico captured us, and then the great time we had with family at the end of the time in Playa Del Carmen, really made it tough to leave and head on to the next country. Cuba was going to be hard work and expensive and these things combined made us more than a little sad to leave Mexico.

Would Cuba be worth it? Lets find out!

Looking forward to Cuba but what a country Mexico turned Out to be!

Thoughts on Southern Mexico.

After spending a few unforgettable weeks tramping across the hot and arid northern parts of Mexico, we headed into the south. Most people think that the south of Mexico is essentially the Yucatan Peninsula, however it also takes in a whole bunch of other states including Oaxaca. Southern Mexico is huge and contains a number of the ancient Mayan Sites, including the grand Chichen Itza and also the resort laden and ever so slightly tacky Cancun!

We changed our plans a bit to ensure that we were in Playa Del Carmen, a resort town that is much more relaxed that the bustling Cancun, to join my Brother and Family and my Mum, who were going to be taking a vacation there. Cancun was also the launching point for our trip to Cuba.

Southern Mexico is visited by many more people, and there is an interesting merging of hard core travelers, short vacationers from the US and Canada who decided (bravely they thought!!) to do Mexico properly and the guys who go straight to Cancun. Of course each has its place and I am not for one moment saying that relaxing at a resort having all your wants catered for is not a good thing! However there is a time for each.

For us I think we tramped through the south at a bit of a frantic pace, but having said that I also think I particularly wanted a break. We have been on the road for over 400 days and of course we have had breaks on the way, but it seemed that really since leaving Ushuaia I have been on the go traveling north through South America and now into Mexico. It was an unbelievable experience but pretty tiring, both physically and mentally. I think this is one of the major messages that people need to understand when planning a long trip. A 2 week vacation is just that, 2 weeks, chilling, seeing, eating, shopping etc it is great amount of time, when you combine 26 week vacations in a row to get 1 year of back packing, you really need to take time out to reflect, relax and recharge. Travelling is actually hard work in places, thats why we do it I guess.

Anyhow the planned chill out was fixed for a few days really just doing nothing but de stressing, that was a great thing to look forward to. Before that we had to travel from Mexico City. On the way we went to Oaxaca - awesome colonial town, with ladies dancing, amazing tacos, and great markets, oh and famous for the chocolate! Palenque - site of some grand Mayan ruins, really tucked away in the forest. Campeche - read below! Disaster of a stop, totally my fault. Merida - it rained and rained and rained. We took a day trip to Chichen Itza, from Merida. Chichen Itza was amazing, but slightly spoilt by the thunderous downpour we faced! When Mum and co went there they had too much sun! Somewhere in the middle would have been ideal I guess.

The last few days of the Mexico jaunt were hampered by a large tropical storm that was working north. It was a bad thing but hey thats nature, on the trip we have had about 10% rainy days, which is not bad at all, hardly ever have we been scuppered totally because of the weather, and only once can I recall (Glaciers in New Zealand) that we were totally fed up in the rain, and that was more to do with the mosquitos.
The south of Mexico felt very different to us, it was more touristy and more humid. The cultural explosion I felt in the north was not as clear. In many ways (maybe the weather and the palms) I felt that we were in Thailand again, which is no bad thing, but I wanted to be in Mexico!

I would suggest anyone coming to Mexico that you have to head into the central and northern belts of the country. That is no reason to ignore the South, as there is much to engage your mind and relax your body, but the picture of Mexico can only be completed when you marry the spanish colonial desert towns, with the tropical palms and beaches of the south.

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