Saturday, September 30, 2006

Cuba: A 36-hour fiasco

It wasn’t my idea. None of it. Not the trip. Not the tequila. Not the nudity. Nor was it my fault. Not the interrogation with Customs officials. Not the suntan lotion fight. Not the loss of the plane tickets or injuries sustained. I did, however, contribute.

It was a most unconventional trip. Upon accepting the offer, I knew it would be difficult to explain the impromptu weekend getaway (at an all-inclusive Cuban resort) to my friends and family.

I imagined saying, "Well, there’s this guy who knows people I know, who wants to take my friend and me to Cuba for the weekend, basically for free."

And, in response to their questions, answering:

"It’s an employment perk – he works for an airline."
"No, I don’t personally know him."
"No, there won’t be separate rooms."
"Well, he saw us at a gallery opening and thought we looked fun."
"No, not that kind of fun. I don’t think so anyway."

And then somehow justifying my decision to go.

My friend, Anna and I, of course, conducted an informal background check. We spoke with people who knew him relatively well, asked for rumours of possible misdeeds, and investigated his “My Space” online profile. Following a full-scale, covert evaluation of his creep-factor, we established it would be OK to go.

Our first actual encounter with Rick, at a local bar the night before our scheduled departure, allowed us to further scrutinize him and his possible intentions. Perhaps we were too trusting, perhaps too hopeful, or, perhaps we are simply good judges of character, but we confirmed the trip when he was kind enough to buy us a drink, but did not encourage us to drink too much.

Parting ways that evening, my friend and I joked about rumours this could inspire, and how annoyed his straight male friends must be that he is able to offer weekend getaways to women he meets. We were pleased with our spontaneity, confident in our decision, and curious whether he would regret taking us to the Caribbean.

True, we weren’t looking forward to the eight-hour overnight stopover in Toronto’s International airport, but we are hardy travellers and determined make the best of it, whatever “it” may be. Rick was equipped to help us do that. A frequent flyer, he knew which bars were nearest to the hotels served by the free airport shuttle bus. We passed a few hours getting to know each other in the netherworld of a Mississauga tavern and, two drinks later, we were better prepared to sleep in the airport and await the 4 a.m. check-in.

We didn’t know it, but it was then that the fiasco truly began.

Feeling very casual about the quick weekend jaunt, we piled our little overnight bags onto the conveyor at the airline counter in no particular order. We didn't pay attention to which bag was tagged with which name.

I slept through the entire four-hour flight, waking only once with Anna’s help to enjoy a spongy omelette. Exhausted as we disembarked, I imagined napping happily on the beach, pretending to feel guilty about getting too much sun, and gorging myself on the buffet.

This was my fourth trip to Cuba and I was comfortable with the stony stare of Customs officials and lengthy entrance procedure. I was prepared to collect the bags quickly, exchange money and head straight for the sand. I was not prepared for a two-hour interrogation.

Anna was the first to be searched. Rick was second. Following the flow of excited vacationers, as I’d done during previous visits, I headed for the exit. A Customs official stopped me and asked to see my papers. Apparently, the brevity of our stay had roused suspicion. My Canadian passport, valid for six years, expires this December. I’ve travelled a lot and, just this year, visited 10 Latin American countries, from Mexico to Argentina. The man in khakis asked me about every nearly illegible entry and exit stamp.

While my travel partners were still explaining the contents of their bags, including a copy of The Catcher in the Rye – an unfortunate choice of beach-reading for Cuba – I was escorted to a private room.

An officer with glittery, gold acrylic nails and a government-issue khaki miniskirt asked me to empty my bags. She flipped through my book, read my bits of paper, analyzed the contents of my make-up case and shook my bottle of ibuprofen. She questioned me in Spanish and recorded every mispronounced word I said. My answers, as innocent as they actually were, roused more and more suspicion.

She wanted to know if I was a journalist.
I'm not. Hmm.
Had I ever been to Cuba before?
Yes. Wrong answer.
How many times?
Three times. Wrong answer.
When was my last visit?
I can’t remember---a few years ago. Wrong answer.
Why did you travel so much this year?
To learn Spanish. Right answer.
Why are you only staying for the weekend?
Because we got a deal and it was really cheap. Hmmm.
And, why doesn’t your baggage tag match the one on your ticket?
I don’t know. Wrong answer. Shit.

I explained that our tags must have been switched in Toronto during check-in. She instructed me to find my travelling companions and retrieve their tickets to corroborate my claim. I re-entered the airport lobby and saw Rick still justifying his possessions and trip length. The Customs official with him called me over. Hablas español? Si, mas o menos.

In less than a minute I was able to explain that Rick was an airline employee. Thanks to me, he was released. I, however, was returned to the interrogation room, which I now shared with a foreign doctor caught importing a suitcase of pharmaceuticals. Another hour later, following full assessment of my capitalist-creep-factor, I was granted entry to the country. The doctor was released before I was.

We caught the last shuttle to our resort and I was disappointed to learn that this was no party bus. Anna claimed she intended to buy beer for the 45-minute ride while I was detained, but Rick thought it might be insensitive. We teased him about his poor decision-making skills and declared we’d never go on a free trip with him again. Engaging a beer-guzzling fellow bus passenger, I stated that some travellers were clearly more prepared than others. Buying in, the vacationer offered me a can of my own. Tepid and watery, my first cerveza was divine.

Our resort was the last on the circuit and our driver, anxious to end his shift, was stopped by the tourist police for speeding. The bus crawled the final 5 km, and we were relieved that the fairest resort of all would be ours for the remaining 34 hours of our trip. We intended to take full advantage of its virtues.

Within the first hour, we discovered fresh fish and calamari at the beach grill. Within the first two, we discovered that hotel staff allowed us to bring entire bottles of sparkling wine to the beach. Their leniency--- and the piña coladas, mojitos, daiquiris, white wine and tequila---inaugurated Stage Two of the fiasco. Let’s be reasonable, a 36-hour vacation does not afford time for moderation.

The buffet was delicious. Anna and I nourished our pancitas---literally meaning, “little breads” and synonymous with “little bellies”---while a group of plump Russian men eyed her from the adjacent table and mimed concern that our male companion might be dating one of us. Sharing no common language, Rick thought it best to mime that he was dating both of us and that we were, therefore, unavailable.

Not easily discouraged, the nearest Russian employed drastic and disturbing means to woo Anna. He unbuttoned his shirt and revealed a pectoral that was likely impressive during his weight-lifting career, but had long since retreated far beneath a fatty mound of hairy flesh. He flex-bounced this atrocity in her direction, smiling, until Rick reached over and poked it. The Russian struggled to express that he was not a homosexual, but that Rick probably was, and put his breast away. For the rest of the meal, they focussed their attention on the troupe of Colombian prostitutes that occupied a table in the opposite direction. We thanked Rick for the risk he took in defending our honour from these mafiosos.

Satisfied, we headed for the lobby bar to decide what to do with our one-night-in-paradise. As we settled into seats farthest from the merging gaggles of Russians and Colombians, the bartender declared it was “Tequila Time”. Lacking shot glasses, he improvised with champagne flutes, and refilled them in 10-minute intervals. I blame the bartender entirely for all events that followed.

We zigzagged to our room to freshen up and decide whether venturing to a salsa club was feasible. In the meantime, Anna discovered the comforts of the king-sized bed and fell asleep. Unsure about how to motivate her, I tried everything: reasoning, guilt, poking, wedgies; nothing worked. If comfort was keeping her in bed, I would just have to make her uncomfortable. That’s why I filled her ears with suntan lotion. No one wants to sleep with cream in their ears. Tequila was doing the thinking for me.

This friend, while petite, is a powerhouse. I hadn't anticipated the speed or violence of her attack, but within seconds the lotion was turned on me and my clothes were ruined. Collectively, we agreed that staying on resort grounds was the safest idea, considering the repercussions of “Tequila Time”. Swimming in the lake-sized pool---among its concrete islands and sculptures---was the new clandestine activity of choice. At other resorts I’ve visited, pools are off-limits at night and I wasn’t sure about this one. Just in case, we planned the outing as a stealthy, strategic operation; only, tequila doesn’t exactly make you smarter, or quieter.

We piled our clothes and shoes in the shadows behind the closed pool bar, and Rick ducked in to check the beer taps. Likely for the best, they were locked. We cautiously entered the pool and bobbed around for a while, but soon remembered how much better drinks taste when free, and headed to the bar in our suits and trunks, soaking wet.

“Were you in the pool?” asked the barman.
“Noooooooo. Nooooo-no-no-no,” I said, unable to think of any believable excuse for being wet.

He squinted at us, so I distracted him with conversation. I thought I was speaking Spanish, but thinking back, I’m not so sure. The mafia and prostitutes were nowhere to be seen and the bartender seemed a little lonely, which surely increased his tolerance for us. Soon another nightshift worker showed up and announced, “The name’s Willy, but you girls can call me Big Willy.” Apparently to justify the nickname, Big Willy propped a flabby leg atop the barstool beside me in what Rick later described as “an incredibly revealing, revolting position”. I didn’t notice. I was busy pretending we hadn’t been swimming in the pool.

Like divine intervention, a brief torrential downpour interupted Big Willy's wooing, and Rick realized we’d not only left our clothes behind, but also his digital camera. Running off to its rescue, he made it only a few steps from the bar before slipping on the wet walkway and falling to the ground. And there he stayed.

Concerned the bartender would deem us too inebriated to continue our evening, I dismissed the incident as normal, “Oh, you know, he just, um, falls sometimes.” The tequila was talking again. Realizing Rick wasn’t getting up on his own, Anna ran to check on him while I distracted Big Willy and the bartender with what remained of my conversational skills. “Nice tattoo,” I heard myself say in Spanish.

Rick rose and hobbled off into the rain with an injury that would leave him limping for a week. Apparently inspired by his misfortune, Anna skipped back to the bar and lay on the floor, laughing. Again I suggested this was normal. “She just, um, you know, likes it on the floor.” Then, as if it would enhance the credibility of my claim, I got down beside her and awaited Rick’s return. Tequila was now also doing the reasoning.

Convinced we'd duped the staff, we requested a final bottle of wine-to-go. It was the last that remained and, thinking back, I'm appalled they actually gave it to us. Confident that no one would follow, we headed back to the pool and I ducked into the shadows to remove my bathing suit. Tequila told me skinny-dipping was a treat to be discreetly enjoyed whenever possible. I believed it. I also believed that no one would know I was naked as long as I was immersed in water. Anna seconded my theory and we abandoned our last bits of modesty at the poolside, forgetting, of course, to take note of the location. Off we swam.

Rick also enjoyed the fruits of naked swimming, but was either gentlemanly or frightened of us, and he maintained a safe distance. Emerging from the water to retrieve the already-forgotten wine, he turned to avoid flashing us. It was then that he accidentally exposed himself to the bartender, who had thoughtfully delivered us an ice bucket to chill the wine. What service! Mentioning nothing of nudity, the bartender retreated. Rick scrambled to replace his trunks and warn us, but it was too late. By the time he found us, we had already succumbed to the temptation of the pool centrepiece---a large sculpture designed to look like a beach recliner. And on it we stood.

Four resort employees, all male, had gathered at the poolside and were calling us over. “Just act casual,” said the Tequila.

Since no one addressed our state of undress, I figured the friendly staff hadn’t noticed. “It’s really dark out; they probably just think you’re wearing a white bathing suit,” reasoned the Tequila again. I chatted in Spanish with the workers, I think, and vaguely recall a marriage proposal.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Rick reappeared with a vaguely panicked look on his face. “Listen to me. Put. This. On. NOW,” he said, placing emphasis on every word and handing me my bikini. I responded to his kindness and rationality by mocking him. Nevertheless, I donned my bikini bottoms underwater with relative ease. It was the top that was complicated. Anna had already replaced her own.

Completely covered, and convinced no one suspected anything less of us, we agreed with Rick’s suggestion that we return to our room and call it a night. Anywhere else on the resort and we’d be stuck talking with the staff. It seemed they liked us. As it was, they all insisted on escorting us back to our room. Someone had the presence of mind to grab our clothes, shoes and the wine. Once Anna and I were safely inside, the staff gave Rick an enthusiastic thumbs-up, for what their wishful thinking wanted to happen next. They couldn’t have been more misled.

Unconscious almost immediately, the wine untouched, we all slept soundly (very, very soundly) until noon the next day. Rushing to check out on time, we shook the leaves from our scattered belongings, stuffed wet clothes into our overnight bags and headed to the front desk, apparently looking our absolute worst. The receptionist avoided eye contact. Our return flight to Montreal wasn’t leaving until that evening, so we stashed our bags and returned to the beach to enjoy more grilled seafood and hair-of-the-dog, and discuss the previous night.

“You aren’t ever going to take us anywhere ever again are you?” Anna asked Rick.
“Are you kidding?” was his only response.

We napped in the ocean. We napped on the beach. We napped under the shade of the umbrella that tricked Rick into thinking he wasn’t turning a frightening and painful shade of pink.

Giving ourselves just enough time to get to the airport, we retrieved our bags and changed our clothes. During this process we realized no one had the plane tickets.

Staying only one night, we didn’t bother using the safe; we stashed the tickets on top of the television instead. Or rather, I did. I think that part was fine. It was the fact that no one picked them up in the morning before we checked out that created the problem. The cleaning staff must have thrown them out. We approached a security guard for help.

“Room 125?” he asked. I hadn’t told him. It was just as I’d feared; we were notorious.

He helped us double-check the room and our bags and called the cleaning staff---nothing. Shit. This was the beginning of the final stage of the fiasco.

With no alternative, we headed to the airport by taxi ($35 in Cuban Convertible Pesos---roughly equivalent to $40 USD), to convince the airline to let us on the plane without tickets.

There was another challenge. Cuba doesn’t stamp passports upon entering the country. Instead, tourist visas are issued on separate pieces of paper and collected when the visitor leaves. Our tourist visas were with our plane tickets. We had no evidence that we’d entered Cuba legally.

At this point, both Rick and Anna had nearly run out of cash and we all needed to pay a standard $25 tax to leave the country. There are no automatic bank or debit machines in Cuba, and none of us had valid credit cards to withdraw money. We pooled our funds and came out $20 short. After investigating all possible alternatives, we realized one or all of us, would have to remain in the country if we didn’t somehow procure the funds. I was already hoping it wouldn’t be me when Anna announced she would go to Havana. Tequila was, apparently, still doing some of our thinking.

Following the first stressful hour at the Cuban airport, an airline representative recognized Rick’s name from company files, and agreed to reissue our tickets. With this first problem solved, we focussed on the second challenge.

Most of the passengers had already passed through security into the departure lounge, and time was running out. I would need to swallow my pride and explain my ineptitude in exchange for sympathy and donations. I approached a young couple about to check in. As I listened to myself describe our predicament, I realized how ridiculous we were.

“I’m sorry,” said the man. My heart sank below sea-level before he continued with, “I only have $20 Canadian to give you. You’ll need about $5 more.”

I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d chosen the most stereotypical, overly-apologetic, eager-to-please Canadians in the airport. They felt terrible for not helping us enough. Then, they remembered the Cuban coins they packed as souvenirs and offered those to us, too. We had exactly the amount we needed. I asked for their mailing address so we could reimburse them upon our safe return, but they were so pleased with themselves for helping us, I don’t think they cared. We’d already given the couple a story to tell for years to come; one that would likely become more melodramatic each time it was recounted. They’d already started retelling it to us. It was a tale of three frightened fellow Canucks trapped in post-9/11 Castro-era Cuba. Remember that, Honey? Remember how we rescued them from Communism?

Relieved and grateful regardless, we announced the news to Rick like kids with candy, under the affectionate watch of our Canadian sponsors. He responded with, “We have a problem.” Shit.

The airline required $80 in cash for the new tickets. I scanned the airport for more potential donors and addressed the airline representative, “That is just not possible.” In a rare display of Cuban leniency, she agreed to bill Rick later. I think he’d been flirting.

Once again we were escorted to a special section of Customs, where we handed over our passports, questioned and told to wait. We waited and waited and wondered whether we’d miss the flight anyway. The Customs official returned with mere moments to spare and, with the familiar stony stare, handed us papers that legally excused our incompetence. We were instructed to exit through regular Cuban security one last time.

“You arrived yesterday?” asked the confused officer who collected my exit papers. “What can you possibly do in just 36 hours?”

Thankfully, my bloodshot eyes and the sorry state of my travelling companions answered for me. I wouldn’t have known where to begin.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The "cosmic" power of suggestion

Long ago in Gotham, during an experimental personal-growth period, I arranged to visit a new-age healer---a well-off, middle-aged transient who would be in the city for only a few weeks, but would find time to help cleanse New Yorkers' muddy auras.

Hours before the meeting, I'd intended to call and cancel our session. I, of course, had no idea what a "session" involved, and for $300 USD I was willing to invest in the concept of time healing all wounds instead. She beat me to the phone and trumped my card. Apparently, she is a "seer" as well as a "healer".

She called my sublet home, located on the charming, but dirty edge of Williamsburg, and said in her charming yet authoritative voice: "What are you afraid of? Aren't you ready to face your future? Can't you deal with your issues?"

It wasn't that I really had any pressing issues to manage. I was happy. I was having an adventure in the city that never sleeps, except on the subway. My real issue was that I could think of more fruitful functions for my green American moolah. She gambled on my personality, and challenged me. It was a dare - and I fell for it. She pulled me in with her cosmic mind powers of manipulation. I was no match for her.

In my own defense, I thought this woman was legendary. I thought her mysterious Swiss abilities were known everywhere the L-train rumbled. A documentary was to be made of this woman's incredible will to survive and overcome all obstacles! This was a woman who ousted malignant tumours from her own abdomen with cosmic mindpower! Don't tell me you wouldn't find that inspiring!

Just don't. Please.

Surely, $300 USD would seem insignificant once I'd been healed! Or, maybe I would just walk away with an empty wallet and a tepid tale. I do believe in mind over matter, though. I admit it because I am not the first to admit it.

When my grandfather passed away, I inherited a leaning, dog-eared tower of his book collection. Among titles like: Geometry and Nature, and Natural Dyes and Edible Plants of the Northeast, two other texts mingled with the arts and sciences: Cosmic Mind Power Explained and, even more intriguing: Secrets of Cosmic Mind Power. All, of course, published in the Seventies.

I arrived for my appointment with an open mind and fat wallet. She welcomed me, explained the process and brought me into the bedroom where a massage table awaited my damaged aura.

Without touching me, she began examining fluctuations in my energies. Her hands hovered barely above my fully-clothed body. Her talent was not limited to seeing auras, but also to decode them. She would blurt out random words, and interpret my ethereal reaction. I was fascinated.

Although I was laying face down, with my eyes closed, I could sense the location of her hands at all times. My skin rose toward her in goosebumps. I was enjoying the cosmic voyage. I casually drifted into a space that allowed me to believe that this was something other than a hoax. She blurted out that I was a writer. I would write six books. To accomplish this, I would have to oust the word, "want" from my mind, like she ousted tumours from from her belly.

You either do it or you don't. Regardless of what "it" is, she had a point. Saying that you will do anything in the future is a waste of breath. Who knows if you'll do it? Who knows if you'll be hit by an SUV instead. You are or your aren't. You do or you don't. This cozy in between place where we like to dwell is the quicksand for progress and achievement. Stop talking. Start doing. It was quite a lecture, really.

She doesn't believe in predicting the future. She looks at your path, and then tells you what you are capable of doing if you get off your fat ass and scrub your dirty aura free of cosmic scum. My mom could have done the same. But, I don't trust her. She told me I was pretty when I was ten. I've seen the pictures. That woman is capable of deceit.

Any of my friends could have advised me as well. But, there is something intrinsic in the exchange of $300 that makes you want to believe you're getting your money's worth. I really wanted to believe - but, it was struggle. Then, she found my pain.

A combination of poor posture and computer work had resulted in a jabbing discomfort in my back. It had been there for months and it was affecting my life, and my moods. She found it. That was where I had been storing my negativity, and without physically touching me, she located it and repaired it - by drawing the cosmic goo of stress and doubt from me. I was going to have to have a shower when I got home, she explained, to wash all that crap off my aura. I was exhausted. I was dehydrated. I was spooked. I followed her instructions, drank some water and fell asleep.

For the first time in months, my back wasn't throbbing. I was amazed! Astounded! I was healed! I felt it was my cosmic responsibility to begin writing for a broader audience than my diary. I had to take this cosmic gospel and fly with it. Why the heck not?

So, if any more of you have some writing opportunities for this eager, penny-pinching wordsmith - bring 'em on!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Honduras: A tale of bruised knees, dead dogs and injuries not sustained

Somewhere under the roadside litter and lime-covered carrion, through the toxic clouds of burning plastic, somewhere away from the mangy dogs, and beyond the sexual advances of teenage boys, there is a gem of a country that I have yet to discover. But, please, be tolerant of my rant---being shot at was really the last straw.

I wasn't there for long, so perhaps I am not at all qualified to make any judgments about it. I'll just recount events that occurred this year, during Semana Santa.

Parts of the country are beautiful, indeed. For example, this is a photo of the sunset from Roatan, one of the famous Bay Islands.

In this photo, there is no evidence of events preceding it, and no hint of what was to come. This scene, alone, is beautiful. The context could have been better.

The beach from which it was taken was so infested with sand fleas that sitting on it was not an option. Perhaps the reason for this is that, unlike many other resort beaches, the coast here is not sprayed with poisons to keep the pests at bay. I can support that.

Nevertheless, I alternated with applications of sunscreen and insect repellent and escaped without a sunburn. The extremely itchy red patches were merely an allergic reaction to the fleabites. They would disappear within 72 hours, a few hours short of clinical insanity. And, considering the severity of my other experiences in Honduras, it seems petty to complain about the bugs.

My itinerary was more-or-less planned as follows:

Days 1 & 2: Visit Copan Ruins
Days 3 & 4: Travel to Roatan by bus and boat, enjoy beach
Days 5 & 6: Visit Comayagua and enjoy Semana Santa celebrations
Day 7: Depart for Nicaragua

I know, from experience, that nothing ever goes quite as planned, and I like that. But, I wasn't totally prepared for this:

Day 1:

Witness vultures devouring a dead dog on the way to the Copan ruins.

Listen to 90 minutes of culturally and sexually offensive jokes about Mayan women from hired local guide while visiting ruins.

Upon returning to hostel, observe that it took under 90 minutes for the vultures to completely devour the dog, save for its skeleton with which they were attempting to take flight.

Comfort less experienced traveller concerning dead, devoured dog.

Day 2:

Enjoy local beer and practice Spanish with locals in town square.

Resist advances from young men.

Refuse to buy cocaine.

Refuse to buy cocaine again.

Absolutely refuse to buy cocaine from the Honduran police station.

Return to hostel and realize the main gate is locked for the night.

Day 3:

Travel by hot, cramped bus to port.

Check baggage on boat, decide a cold beer would be dreamy, ask all dock workers, taxi drivers, restaurant staff and passengers, find none.

Board boat, notice local bar adjacent to dock house.

Steam across bay until dark. Attempt to collect baggage amid mosh pit of passengers, and realize dock workers gave me the wrong baggage tag.

Arrive at resort. Receive keys for the only room that is not beach front.

Accidentally knock anomalously large cockroach, while attempting to kill it, into travel partner's luggage while said partner is in the shower.

Break the news to her.

Day 4:

Wake up and go to beach, succumb to sand fleas.

Watch sunset. That part you know.

Go dancing and begin earning the year's worst hangover. (I blame this only on myself.) Stumble home with Australian and Irish travel friends.

Days 5 & 6:

Fall asleep on boat ride back to mainland, and reluctantly head to Comayagua for Semana Santa religious celebrations.

The processions really were beautiful, and the artistry of the colourful carpets of sawdust for "Christ" to parade over was spectacular.

We, a group of fellow travellers, were captivated until nearly 9 p.m. That is when we decided to stroll back to the hotel we all shared. By this time, I had grown accustomed to the ever-present pop of firecrackers in Central America. I am told this is a long-standing tradition, and a symbolic attempt to cheer up Catholicism's pouting saints.

Pop-pop-pop. Pop-pop-pop. With little puffs of smoke.

As we rounded the corner of the walled street in front of our hotel, I heard that familiar pop. But, just one. Pop. It was its singularity that was shocking. And I thought, as I turned my head in the direction of the sound: That's strange.

And I saw: A man on a bicycle coming toward us with his arm outstretched behind him, gun in hand, and people at the next intersection running.

And I thought: I didn't know guns actually smoked.

And I saw: The man's arm moving to our direction, pointing the weapon at us. The light from the street lamp transformed him into a beautiful silhouette.

And I heard: Pop.

And I thought, as I threw myself face-down in the street: This will probably hurt, but I probably won't die.

And I heard: Pop. And a whistle. Pop. And a whistle. Pop. And a whistle. And silence.

I lifted my head. There were six of us, and none of us had been hit. We had bloody knees and scratches, but that's it. No one had seen where the gunman went, so we walked the final half-block back to the hotel. The night manager was unaffected.

One of our group chose to watch TV, the newlyweds locked themselves in their hotel room, and I chatted with two other women until the adrenaline subsided and a headache replaced the void.

In the morning, others at the hotel asked us if we'd heard gunshots. I'd already been outside searching for casings. We heard gunshots. We saw the gun. That is all that really happened. Bad things happen, or they don't. Is there really any such thing as a close call?

Nevertheless, we opted to stay in and throw a hotel party the next night.
A toast was in order like never before:

Cheers to all the bad things that don't happen. May more bad things fall into this category.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Mexico: Free rides and rides of all kinds

After more than a month in this land of lime and chillies, Mexico can still surprise me. And, a few days ago I was taken for a ride I will not forget.

We started in Palenque, a jungle community in the middle of nothing but green and wilderness, spiced with ruins and the occasional poisonous creature. My friend and travelling companion, Christina, slept with a cobra in her room the night before, and the Howler monkeys roared continuously, nearly as loudly as the bullfrogs. Beautiful indeed, but the area was riddled with rich-hippies and pseudo-Hare Krishnas, so we opted to flee to the beach - partly so another friend could enjoy her last few days here under the sun before returning to the land of snowstorms and salted streets, and partly so our new friends, travelling Mexican artisans, could sell their wares. They make beautiful jewellery, and I'll be wearing some home.

We opted to hitchhike because collectively the 500 km trip would cost $500 USD, and catching "un ride" here is safe and certain, especially with two Mexican guys and five of us together at all times. We expected to spend the day on the backs of pick-up trucks, but ended up stranded at gas station about 80 km from our starting point.

No worries, though. Gas stations sell beer. Or, as our friends say: Very problem? Beer more. The longer we waited the drunker and more silly we became - harassing all those refusing to drive us. Then, with our minds properly lubricated, a transport truck pulled in to fill up and our fate changed.

During the next 5 hours, we rode backwards, drunk, for hundreds of kilometers. We really did. The transport truck drivers, you see, were delivering brand new cars to Mérida, for sale at legitimate dealerships.

And, I can now answer the age-old question: What happens to new cars before you buy them? Well, in Mexico anyway, some of those cars see plenty of rides before they ever reach the buyer. Rides of all kinds.

It began when one of our Mexican friends convinced the drivers to let us travel the entire way in a shiny new Camry, secured backwards on the bottom level of the enormous truck. We stashed our bags and climbed in. Bouncing down highway, my friends with the strongest imaginations pretended to drive, while the rest of us dozed in the back. Soon though, it became hot and stuffy in the Camry. As if they knew, the truckdrivers pulled over and came back to offer us a jug of water and the keys to the car. There was no reason, they said, that we shouldn't turn it on and use the air conditioning. I could think a few, but kept my mouth shut. There we sat in a running car on the back of a transport truck with a nice cool breeze, no longer sweating away that new car smell. We waited while the drivers siphoned gas from all the bottom level cars to sell at the corner store for a "cheap price". This side profit, we later learned, was slated for entertainment. One sin feeds another.

Off we drove, stopping only once more at a truckstop after dark, with the driver kicking us out of the Camry telling us he'd be done in 15 minutes, and disappearing into the vehicle with a plump truckstop prostitute. True to his word, we were ready to go in no time. God bless Mexico.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Hitchhiking with Zapatistas

Before I came to Mexico, I spoke with my father about how much my mother worries unnecessarily, and we agreed that I am to email her about my adventures only after they are done and I am once again safe in an Internet cafe. Then, he mentioned the unrest in the southernmost state of Mexico, foggily recalling the Zapatista movement, and I decided to say nothing about Chiapas for the time being. Of course, the exact place my parents didn't want me to go is my favourite area in Mexico. And, I am once again safe in an Internet cafe.

True, Chiapas is dangerous. In San Cristobal, an old colonial city high in the mountains, the sidewalks are worn slick, and in the drizzle they take on properties reminiscent of a Slip and Slide. The count: I fell twice, and so did my travelling companion. Locals seem a little surer on their feet. The sidewalks are also only wide enough for single-file walking. Maintaining conversational flow requires that one of the chatters walk in the narrow street. Walking in a narrow street in a country that affords all vehicles the right of way over pedestrians is perhaps the most dangerous thing one can do in Chiapas. Watch out for killer bicycles.

The incredible and accessible culture in and around San Cristobal provided a good reason not to wake up with a hangover or stay out all night listening to live reggae. Instead, my travelling friend and I stayed in at night to debate international politics with amateur ambassadors from many countries of the Western slant. And, to plan the next day's excursion.

After visiting the Museum of Mayan Medicine and climbing hundreds of stairs to view the city from its highest point, haggling at the market for already underpriced textiles, and being awestruck in a Mayan church (which deserves its own entry), we decided it was time to venture to the Zapatista village that was rumoured among the more lefty travellers to accept visits from foreigners - a sort of model village designed to educate outsiders about the new approach of the Zapatistas.

We hailed a public truck in a busy market, on the periphery of the city, to take us there in the early afternoon, and rode more than an hour into the country side down terrifying winding and plunging roads. The roadside vistas punctuated by signs reading: You are now entering Zapatista territory.

Having met a Spanish national on the way, we three approached the farm-style gate and were immediately greeted by a guard in black balaclava, only his eyes exposed. He asked us what we wanted and we told him we were there to learn about their community and the movement. He nodded, asked for our passports and told us to wait. Several other covered men looked on and he disappeared into a small wooden building where, we later learned, he was asking permission for our entry. Upon his return we were escorted into another building for questioning. Several men entered the room, surrounded us and blocked the doorway. As much as I wanted to be comfortable and confident, being surround by black masks on the faces of warriors in a community established on reclaimed land, well, it's a little intimidating. Betraying me, my hands quivered. I reminded myself that the unknown is always the most frightening. And, that I was there in the community to make it known to me, to understand more. Besides, you don't have to see someone's mouth to know they are smiling. I relaxed. Then it was time. Time to be presented to the community government, or junta, for our education.

A guard led us to the small wooden house, knocked, and motioned for us to enter. Here we were interviewed a final time, and approved. During the hour to follow, we listening attentively to the manifesto, delivered by a female and male representative of the junta. Well, really he did all the talking, and she napped throughout a portion. Who can blame her, though? How many times can one hear a manifesto?

Satisfied with our behaviour and interest, the junta rose to shake our hands and we thanked them with the only Mayan words we knew. They set us loose in the community, encouraging us to take pictures and return to our countries to spread the word that they are a non-violent, peace-loving people. I thought about how worried my parents would be if they knew I was there.

The farming community was quiet and colourful. Most of the buildings were painted with images of people, representing all races and two sexes, happily together in territorio libre. But, unfortunately, I was preoccupied.
The entire ordeal had taken long enough that I could now think only of finding a bathroom. There was none to be found. We were going to have to ask the guards. Still in balaclava, several were napping on sheets of cardboard next to the road entering the village. Understanding the urgency of our plight, one guard took it upon himself to search the village with us to find one that was functioning. As we searched, we came upon two more touristas with the same problem. Soon, he had a trail of women chasing him through the farm village, trying to convince him that we were not adverse to peeing in bushes. Just in time, however, he located one and returned to his napping post. It had been a close call for some of us.

Later on, as we browsed the souvenir shop, we wondered how much of the day had been pageantry, and how much was inspired by the fact that they are still considered an illegal entity. We bought a coffee from the general store/cafe and asked when the last collectivo, or public bus, would be passing through. Per usual, no one really knew, and, as the sun was beginning to set we thought it best to head out.

We waited. And, we waited more. And, longer.

Eventually, we began flagging down pick-up trucks of workers and melons, asking them if they were returning to San Cristobal. None were.

We waited. We began wondering what it might be like to sleep in the woods in the southernmost mountainous region of Mexico. Too cold, we concluded.

Soon, a local man came to the roadside, smiled at us, flagged down a speeding Volkswagen Beetle and said, "San Cristobal?" Recognizing his clothes and eyes, we nodded and hopped in. The driver appreciated the company, and described to us his coffee exportation business, encouraged me to marry a Mexican, and debated politics with this Zapatista guard new friend of ours as we zipped over the same winding road that brought us there, usually on the wrong side.

Arriving safely in the city, we rushed to the bus station and caught the next ride to the jungle. We were set to arrive in the middle of the night, with no place to stay. If the trip continued like this, I thought, I won't be able to tell my poor parents any of it.