A Travellerspoint blog

Cocktails in Havanna

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The cab spits me out onto the narrow pavement and speeds away angrily, just because I dared to make him look for the right address instead of letting him dump me in the right "general" area. I sigh and pick up my new, shiny, untarnished backpack. Taking taxis in the developing country is, despite 20-odd bungyjumps and other adrenaline activities, still the most extreme of experiences.

I am standing on a backstreet of Havanna, in the fading orange late afternoon light, surveying my surroundings, scenes plucked out of a coffe-table book - kids playing games on the pavement, using mandarines as balls; they land by my feet with a wet thump while the cars negotiate the kids and the kids negotiate the rules. I nudge it back to the smallest boy. He looks at me, confused, so I smile, and in reward, am rewarded by the most brilliant smile ever. In London I would have been knifed. At the street corner, a man is selling braids of garlics so white they are almost blue. A young woman stops to talk to him, providing a delicious contrast in her blue dress against the yellow wall. She laughs, loudly, cacklingly, and immediately changes her tone to berate a little girl lagging behind. The old man sitting by his door has pulled his armchair out onto the street to sit in and is quering after my well-being - his face is a wonderful map of deep wrinkles and his clothes tell a story of better times. I tell him I'm fine, just fine, I am, after all, in Havanna.

Dancers on the street

Dancers on the street

If there is one word to describe Havanna, it is romantic. The city is like an old cabaret singer, once glamorous, still full of attitude, and having never quite made it, it's now clinging onto its fading beauty and the nostalgia of what could have been. I love cities like this. They look lived-in, almost like all the life that's taken place inside the walls couldn't be contained, and the facades are bursting at the seams. In fact, the peeling paint and missing railings give the city a feel that the next storm from the Caribbean might just make it tumble down like dominoes. No one seems too worried though. A bit of Unesco money goes a long way in Habana Vieja, but I am in Habana Centro, where roads smell a bit more of pee and kids have slightly raggier clothes on.

Soon I make new friends at the hostel and they feel like the best friends I've ever had- definate upside of travelling, this quick bonding. We venture out to old Havanna, walking along the derelict seaside walk, the Malecon, where waves beat the city fortification, old pink and green cadillacs saunter along cos they won't go faster than 40 miles an hour, and hopeful makeshift bands do their buenavistasocialclub -repertoire for tourists in hope for a few cucs. We walk the town, through the four main squares, taking on a church and a plaza after another. The tout-to-tourist ratio is higher here than anywhere I've been, and I get fed up within an hour. We escape onto the rooftop of a grand hotel, watching the sunset-lit view over the town. I make a rookie mistake of ordering a Cuba Libre just for the name, forgetting its only rum and coke; a bit wiser, I follow it with the strongest mojito I've ever had. My new best friends have piña coladas and daiquiries and we swap and change our drinks as the sun disappears behind the posh hotels far way in the Vedado district. Yep, I think I'm going like Cuba.

Havanna's Malecon

Havanna's Malecon

Posted by Ofelia 31.01.2013 08:54 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Press the Pedal

The comfort of home and the awkwardness of leaving

So here we are again, at the brink of another long trip, over 3 years after the last one finished, I let my blog die and tried to live a conventional life instead. Or the brink of something, certainly. Why? Because for a long time, my life hadn't quite felt like my own. All the pieces of the puzzle fit, but the picture made no sense; I've often thought life to be a Monet painting- sometimes you need to step back quite far to see the bigger picture. And going away was my chance to make a break with circumstances, and quite frankly, I had been slipping away for months before I decided to go- reading books about the Amazon and conjugating Spanish verbs, so much so that the decision to leave fell somewhere in between the chapters of my books.

And so my fickle-ish decision took on a life of its own; I'd been sitting in the same old traffic light, staring at the red that never changed, and I was relieved to be lead. And when everyone around me started to get excited about my trip, I thought they were talking about someone else; so much so that I envied this person who was going to take on Latin America (or wherever else her fancy took her). So I packed bags for this person, I searched internet sites and guidebooks; reviewed the best travel towels online, cancelled her direct debits and packed her shoes into neat storage boxes. I ate cereal for dinner so this much-envied woman could afford her trip, I walked to work, declined invitations to go to the pub, I duct-taped my old Nokia together. I watched the steady increase of pennies onto a savings account which I'd never had before, and felt more removed from the trip than the people who were listening to me go on about it. So when January finally came, I felt like a novice soldier sent to war- perfectly kitted and emotionally lost.

Oh well, such first-world problems. Like a friend of mine said, she knows no one who evokes as much pity and envy simultaneously.

But I also felt a bit rebellious. I am, as a 33-year old woman, frequently being told to start living in the real world, much to my amusement. The real world, which doesn´t, obviously, involve talking politics in a tiny cornershop in Shiraz with an elderly Iranian, sharing a meal with a Cuban family or sitting alone at the top of a Cambodian mountain. Real life has nothing to do with letting three giggling little girls braid your hair at an African village, racing a drunken gaucho at the Andes or skydiving through a circular rainbow. Oh well. I went travelling again because I wanted to delay the onset of real life as long as possible, and because I like racing drunken gauchos almost anywhere in the world.

So lets see how it goes, shall we?

Posted by Ofelia 23.01.2013 19:35 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged backpacking preparation Comments (0)

Drinking Beer in a Burkha

Off the beaten track in Iran

“Would you like a…beer?” asks the guy in a hushed voice. I’m boiling. It’s about hundred degrees Celsius outside, the red plastic chair feels uncomfortable and I’m about to rip off my burkha in a fit of childish temper tantrum. I look around. The small kebab shop in middle-of-nowhere, Iran, doesn’t seem like the likely place for a secret drinking den. In fact, it and the dusty road dotted with small huts looks like just about anywhere in the Middle East. However, my companion, a burly bloke who’s been talking about beer non-stop, answers enthusiastically for both of us. Tomorrow, I’m getting rid of the burkha. I feel slightly silly wearing it; no modern or fashionable girl in Iran wears one, and as a foreigner, they are slightly bemused by me wearing it. At the border crossing a middle-aged woman pulled my hair covering off, and seemed disappointed not to encounter blond hair; nevertheless, she insisted on a photo of me- the first of many.

The beer arrives, and to the disappointment of my companion, it’s tepid non-alcoholic beer, mango-flavoured. I don’t care; the sweat is now mixed with dust from an earlier sand storm and I’m ready to drink anything.

Women in Esfahan

Women in Esfahan


Tea and cake break

Tea and cake break


Two girls chilling out at a mosque

Two girls chilling out at a mosque

Travelling in Iran has helped me understand how animals in zoos must feel. Everything I do is a source of amazement to locals- is she ordering that? What kinds of shoes is she wearing? Do people from Europe like ice-cream too? Really? I am both the paparazzi and the celebrity; I’m endlessly taking photos of doors or kids to the amusement of Iranians, and they constantly ask me to stand in photos with them. I was afraid that I might not be able to visit the amazing mirror-covered mosques of Shiraz as a non-Muslim, but the resourceful women pulled me into the back room and covered me head to toe in a chador, and guided me through the sights, explaining everything enthusiastically in Farsi. The west might have shuts its doors on Iran, but the Iranians are opening all possible doors for me.

Mosque in Esfahan

Mosque in Esfahan


...and a mosque in Shiraz

...and a mosque in Shiraz

I’m painfully aware that two weeks in Iran is nothing. The country is vast with so much to offer that I feel like a child in a sweets store. The itinerary is focused on the south; Esfahan, Shiraz, Persepolis and Yazd, and when I’m asked what my favourite place is, I genuinely cannot answer. In Esfahan we stumble upon a few western tourists, all with a guide on organised trips. I leave my travel buddies to haggle over carpets, and escape to one of the unassuming looking buildings next to Imam Square. Inside, a peaceful and lush courtyard completed with a fountain, goldfish and tortoises awaits, and I sit on a colourful Persian rug and order a spiced cinnamon cake. I have no idea where I am. Maybe at a museum? A palace? It’s hard to care when it’s so relaxing. Even the sellers in the bazaar around Imam Square and it’s majestic blue mosques only make a half-hearted attempt in flogging their goods to me. I’m left completely alone to marvel at the intricate turquoise and yellow walls.

So peaceful

So peaceful


Detail of a wall- so beautiful!

Detail of a wall- so beautiful!

In Shiraz, I encounter a small doze of reality- one of my friends get a mild case of food poisoning, and we need to find an English-speaking doctor from the government-run hospital. When we get refused entry at the palatial foyer, I’m a bit stunned; an armed guard guides us to a small door at the side, covered with a heavy curtain- the women’s entrance, mixed with damp and sweaty smells. A stern woman looks at us disapprovingly, and we get veiled to our fingertips- my friend’s a bit weak so I’m holding up her chador as well as my own. We look like two rubbish bags floating through the hospital corridors. My friend gets a doze of antibiotics and a drip on her arm for the morning, and we escape the formality of the Iranian government back to the streets where girls wear jeans and their scarves bob along at the back of their head, showing highlights and red lipstick.
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Being touristy

Being touristy

The one concession we decide to make is to go on a guided tour of Persepolis and Necropolis, mainly so that we are able to get something out of it. As lovely as people are, they sometimes forget that we have no idea what they are saying, and so most things we just agree to by nodding and smiling. Persepolis, though, is somewhat of a let-down; there are only a few bit standing. I had expected some sort of reconstructed pictures of what the place had probably looked like, but none were presented. On the upside, Necropolis, with its massive rock-carved tombs is breathtaking. The sun is merciless and the giant rock face in front of us vibrates in the heat, as the guide, interestingly enough, seems to just read out the notes already in place.

Climbing up to Persepolis

Climbing up to Persepolis


Standing guard in Persepolis

Standing guard in Persepolis


Necropolis, the grand burial ground of dead kings

Necropolis, the grand burial ground of dead kings

During our last night in Esfahan, a man invites us to dinner. No one knows who the man is, but he seems to be a friend of the receptionist in our hotel. We vote, and decide to go along. As we are six, he bundles three of us into his car, and three into someone else’s car. We slalom through the traffic and the host pays, worryingly enough, more attention to us than his driving. His house is tucked away on a back street, opulent, but in almost hotel-style in its clinical tidiness- wonderful rugs, paintings and ornate but uncomfortable high-backed chairs. His family, son, daughter and wife, usher us to sit down. We sit on one side of the large living room. They sit in the other. We are given endless bowls of fruit and nuts, halva, sweets and gaz, a sort of nougat with pistachios when the questions begin to flood- which of you are married? Where do you work? How much do you earn? – questions which we are, to say the least, mildly uncomfortable in answering. I reach for an almond and ask where the rest of our friends are.
“Your friends?” our host asks, “Your friends? They are probably dead by now”.
My hand stops halfway between the bowl and my mouth. I look at the two people I’m with and become painfully aware that I a) do not know where I am, b) have no idea who this person is and c) I really didn’t want to die before getting to North Korea. Our host stares at us, silently, before bursting to a hackling laugh. His whole family join in. He slaps his cousin in the back, and says, “Iranian humour, you see”.

Spices at the Bazaar

Spices at the Bazaar


Chai being served at the bazaar

Chai being served at the bazaar


The non-tourist part of the market. Even got my bum pinched here. Very unusual for Iran!

The non-tourist part of the market. Even got my bum pinched here. Very unusual for Iran!

Yazd is a different world compared to Shiraz and Esfahan. We move from the luscious and green cities to a brown and sandy town, full of narrow, winding roads reminiscent of North Africa, a skyline dominated by wind-catchers, ancient and natural air-conditioning systems. We get lost, but it doesn’t matter; everywhere is beautiful. We give up on the very old guidebook and just flow through the streets. General good mood prevails- people smile at us, we smile at them; they shake our hands and welcome us to Iran. I never thought I’d feel so comfortable being lost in a city where I can’t read the signs or understand anyone.

Windcatchers on top of buildings

Windcatchers on top of buildings


Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, where the dead were left so vultures could dispose of the body

Zoroastrian Tower of Silence, where the dead were left so vultures could dispose of the body

Yazd is a centre for Zoroastrianism, the first monotheist religion in the world, and we visit some of the holy sites as well as more mosques and bazaars; it is a very pleasant few days. On the night train to Tehran I chat to a middle-class chap in the next row, and he points at a picture of the Iranian president, “The donkey of Iran”, he declares. A bold statement, and even I look around nervously. “Please tell people in the west that we are very nice people, not terrorists”, he says. His wife and I talk about the scarves and the hijab. Iranian women are feisty things who are keen on hearing my opinion on the scarf. In the restaurant car, I order chicken with rice, a staple dish, and the man answers, 75,000 fish. Fish? Fish. He points at the money. Ah. I draw a picture of a fish, and say, “This- fish. That (pointing at the money)- Money”. It takes a while to sink in. Finally, the man bursts into a laugh. Actually, he’s laughing so hard he has tears in his eyes. He realises he’s just asked me for fish. He tells this to everyone in the restaurant, still laughing, and soon all the tables are laughing. I point at my purse, faking stunned, and show, no fish. The man is in stitches. I offer him 75,000 rials for my dinner, and he waves it away. No need, it’s on us.

Typical dinner

Typical dinner


Typical tea break

Typical tea break

The day before we cross the border to Turkey we realise we still have, like, shed-loads of money. We’ve spent hardly anything. We sit down for a strawberry beer and contemplate. Unfortunately it’s Friday and most stores are shut. We try to tip the nice boy in the juice bar, but he insists we take our change. We insist back. The store is humming with various coolers and fridges and sports the same ubiquitous red plastic chairs. As we are leaving, he chases us down the street with our change. We cannot get rid of this money, it seems, so we flood a tiny chemists, one of the only shops which is open. We buy just about anything we can- I buy two pairs of socks and a deodorant, because, well, you always need them. One of the other girls buys hairclips. The shopkeeper is an elderly man, who probably didn’t expect six westerns to buy his store empty, but he keeps his cool. I’m the last person to pay, and he insists, no, these are on me. I’m desperate, I want to give him money, and finally he agrees. At the hotel, I leave a tip for the room cleaner and tell my friend to clear out quick before the cleaner realises and tries to give it back. We flee to the street and hail a taxi to the Turkish border.

And of course, just like all good backpackers, we then haggle on the taxi price for ages.

Street Vendor

Street Vendor


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Scenery from along the way

Scenery from along the way

Posted by Ofelia 19.04.2012 05:01 Archived in Iran Comments (3)

Swazi Secrets

And so off we went, yet in another tiny, white combi which we spotted waiting on a random street corner in Maputo. We loaded our bags, paid the man and sat cramped in the backseat, watching the street and feeling the morning get hotter and hotter until we started our bumpy ride to the Swazi border.

The minibuses (or combis, if you prefer that) are the single thing that I shall never miss about Africa. My sweaty arm stuck to Rich's- it was impossible to stretch your legs or to sit with your shoulders straight whilst the driver sped down the road, obviously, like every African driver, wanting to break the world record for speed as well as discomfort.

Crossing the border was a breeze; however, after driving down the Swazi side for a few minutes, we got stopped by the border control police. Not unsual in itself, but the items they were looking for was: clothes. The guy looked at my dusty backpack suspiciously, wanting to know what was inside. Usually, in these situations, I have no idea what the correct answer is- I've come across places where they check you for the oddest things, and I always answer wrong. So I said, clothes, thinking it was fairly innocent and normal, and the guy's face became very intent. New clothes? No, not new. You sure? Pretty sure, yes. Hmm. I opened the top of my bag with my old toiletries bag and a manky towel. He moved over to the next person, (possibly because of the towel, deciding it was not worth venturing further inside) who rapidly started unpacking piles of used winter coats from a black binliner, as the border control counted each one. Maybe there's a limit as to how many used winter coats you can bring into Swaziland; it would certainly explain why the man was in a hurry to sell one of the coats to a female passenger just before crossing over.

Market stall in Mbabane

Market stall in Mbabane

Traditional brooms for sale

Traditional brooms for sale

Three years ago, I spent a week in Swaziland, because I had a cold and decided to sleep it off there. I remember visiting an orphanage where an acquintance was working; I drove down to a waterfall and did some shopping, but that was pretty much it. This time around, I mainly went along because Rich had never been to Swazi, and I also wanted to do some shopping. I really wanted to like Swaziland- even the name sounds far-flung and exotic. The truth is, though, that it really is not that interesting. Most people come out of curiosity, or to get their passports stamped, or, like me, to shop for crafts.

Masks for sale

Masks for sale


Swazi lady statues

Swazi lady statues


Spears

Spears


Making baskets

Making baskets

And so we shopped. After a frustrating day of trying to find Manzini market, famous for its cheap prices, we finally found it, and I picked up a few things, but even the market had changed in my mind- it wasn't as big or good as I'd remembered. Interestingly, many of the bracelets had the words "Swazi secret" spelt on them- it's also the name of the tourism advertising campaign. I went for the soapstone carvings instead. After we moved hostels more towards the Ezulwini Valley, we also spotted a huge crafts market along the main road to Mbabane. I got very very excited, and after a day of looking around Mbabane (nothing much there, except more markets) we decided on a day of indulgance- first, I got pizza, and second, I got a proper coffee and a cheesecake, followed by a trip to the markets.

(Cheesecake's a bit of a thing for me. I cannot pass a cheesecake shop without trying one; it's like an addiction. This one, in Mbabane of Swaziland, was, maybe slightly unexceptedly, incredibly good.)

At the hostel that night, I chatted to a few Swazi ladies who worked there, and somewhere along the lines we decided that we should all take part in the tradtional reed dance festival, and try to marry the Swazi king who picks another girl from the bunch each year, and marries her. It's a great honour and a position many girls aspire to. Elaine, the girl working at the hostel, told me how she'd taken part a couple of times in the last few years, but the competition was always fixed- the king would know, or he'd been advised beforehand on who to pick. I asked the girls if they knew how many wives the king had and most of them didn't know, but the guesses ranged between 12 to 100. They were, though, scrutinising the pictures of the most beautiful and prominant princesses, who pretty much made up the gossip column in the local paper. The girls joked that a lot of people were indeed somehow connected to the royal family, perhaps unsurprisingly.

Manzini market

Manzini market

Wall painting in Manzini

Wall painting in Manzini

We left Swaziland on an identical minibus to the one that we'd arrived on, and as the driver attempted suicide on the narrow roads to South Africa, I looked at the rolling green hills, dotted with houses and cows, and I had a feeling I hadn't seen the best of the country. However, I can't see myself returning for the third time- despite being told that Swaziland is full of secrets, to my disappointment, I never found a single one.

Posted by Ofelia 02:29 Archived in Swaziland Tagged backpacking Comments (4)

101 of Travelling by bus in Africa

Buses in Africa do not depart on time, even if they have a schedule or a departure time. Except in Mozambique. And except for the first bus of the day in Zambia. Although not with every company. In Namibia, they do depart on time. Except when they're running late. In Malawi, they depart when full, except if the driver wishes to leave early. Sometimes, you can buy tickets in advance (Uganda), sometimes not (Malawi), sometimes only for certain buses (Tanzania), sometimes online (South Africa), sometimes in person only (pretty much everywhere else). In Kenya, you simply get shot at in buses.

On our last morning in Vilankulo, we discovered a new one; a bus didn't leave because it didn't have enough passengers. Usually, this is not a problem in Africa- the bus will simply stand there for whatever time it takes for it to fill up (usually the driver will either be asleep or drinking at a bar) before taking off. However, a nice Chilean guy we'd met stumbled into our hostel in the early hours of the morning; he later told us that he'd gone to the bus station around 2am (a usual time for a Mozambiquean bus to depart) only to be kept waiting and then being told that the bus wouldn't go because there wasn't enough passengers. He ended up hitchhiking to the main road later that day, and since we never heard from him, figured he found some way of getting up north. Or he might still be at the junction, waiting for a bus.

Anything is possible with African buses, and very few things surprise me anymore. Apart from the hugely expensive one in Mozambique, they are also uncomfortable, hot and cramped; you'll always come out with a bad back or a cricked neck, or end up holding a baby or a goat in your lap. It's also a great experience which you cannot have elsewhere- with people sharing their snacks and hawkers going on overdrive when they spot an approaching bus. Taking buses and doing long journeys is a part of every African's life.

Basically, there's always a bus. Or if not a bus, a taxi. If not a taxi, a combi, a matatu, a minibus, a truck, a donkey. You can always get around. And really, there are no absolute rules, and so when we were told that our bus to Maputo would leave "in the morning", it didn't fill us with confidence.

In Mozambique, buses usually depart early, before sunrise. To be on the safe side, Rich walked over to find the bus driver the evening before (we were simply told to "go in town and look for the driver" whilst I, err, had a cider and played pool) to ask what time he'd depart. Apparently, around 3am. So, we set our alarms for 2am, and walked, with the assistance of the night watchman, to the side of the road. The bus was already nearly full, with chaotic people loading bags and kids, and with most passengers looking as if they'd slept in there (including the driver). As the bus filled up fast, it left early, about 20 minutes before it was officially due to leave. Why wait if it's already full?

The basic thinking would be to arrive early, and expect to leave late. If you're lucky, a half an hour's wait will do. Unlucky, and you'll have to come back the next day. Or next week. Really, there are no rules, and I would suggest doing what I do- pick a time and hope for the best.

Posted by Ofelia 04:21 Archived in Mozambique Tagged transportation Comments (0)

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