La Habana

Today I felt too much, saw too much. All my senses were engaged on a deeper, higher, stronger level. The colors are too vivid and deep.

The old mixes with the new too seamlessly. The poverty of the people contrasts with the money spent by tourists, but the locals seem happier than the people they serve.

The squalor is a far cry from the luxury of hotels and restaurants, but the laughter and conversation bursting out of old apartments and dirty corners is so attractive, it invokes longing.

That spirit shows up on the music that is everywhere.

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There is an atmosphere of change in Havana. A lot of restoration is happening to apartment buildings and state buildings. You can smell the change for the lurking beast it is, and I envision another Cancun; I pray to God that doesn’t happen.

Maybe it won’t. Cancun is full of new buildings trying to look like something they aren’t. Havana is full of old buildings holding onto centuries of history. Havana also has a revolution to stay true to while trying to carve out its own personality among worldwide tourist destinations. Cancun is easy and convenient. Havana is complex and gets under your skin.

If you come to Cuba a year from now you will have missed out on some of what makes it unique. It’s like a baby learning to walk. You blink your eyes or run to the store and you missed her first steps.

Havana is vibrant; but vibrant is still too soft a word to describe it. Vivacious. Energetic. These are some of her attributes. After a full day out in different parts of the city, walking 16,000 steps, having great food, mojitos, Cuba libres, accessing the internet on the Malecon, getting gipped by a taxi, jumping on a bicitaxi, getting a fifty-cent taxi, taking tons of pictures, and drinking lots of water, the images of the day are too much for me and I can’t fall asleep.

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I close my eyes and scenes from the day run through my mind like a slideshow: the young woman on her third floor balcony smoking a cigarette and watching the tourists run about like busy rats below, (she doesn’t see me looking at her, and I don’t want to invade her life by taking a picture. Instead I record the scene with my mind’s eye. The second door on the balcony is broken, and that part is covered by an old round tabletop that can’t be moved until the door is repaired, if it will ever be); the painters I’ve met who paint a variation of the same scene trying to capture the spirit of Havana on 5”×7” pieces of canvas; the bartender at Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar who we watched make twenty mojitos in the twenty minutes we were at the bar as part of a throng of tourists, and how he does that all day, everyday; the women who offer to read your palm in doorways; and the companionable conversation and warm affection between Cubanos of all ages.

Oh Lord, please shut my mind off, I prayed. I’m over-stimulated. This city is too much on all the senses. I want to get up and go do it all again tomorrow, but for that I need sleep.

The sights of Havana are explosive. The colors are sometimes too much, and that is coming from someone who has lived most of her life in Belize. The tall buildings, the architecture, the Malecon, the history, the beautiful people, the bad teeth. The signs of the revolution.

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The sounds of Havana include constant, heavy traffic, loud music in cars, deep-throated full-bodied live music in restaurants, the melodious Spanish they speak that sometimes incorporates every body part and looks like a fluid dance. The toot of taxi horns to get pedestrians out of their way.

The smells of Havana include that of squalor, but then blooming jasmine danced under my nose one night and it was unexpected. There is the strong smell of change as plaster, cement dust, demolition, painting, and reconstruction are going on everywhere.

The touch of Havana is dirty and sticky but it doesn’t leave you feeling unclean.

Nothing tastes like the Crystal water we are used to, and so the bottled water here tastes like dirt except when you drink it really cold. They still don’t have access to a lot of things from the outside world so they make do.

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I’m over-stimulated and overwhelmed. I’ve always wondered how people are shaped by living in the shadow of a mountain like in Antigua, Guatemala, or on an island, like Ambergris Caye. Now I wonder how living in such vibrancy, even in a somewhat closed culture, can shape a person. What do you do with all that force of history behind you, and strength of culture within yourself?

For me, as an outsider, it’s like touching my finger to my tongue and then putting my finger on something hot. It’s too hot. It’s steamy. And it kinda makes me want to get away, to look forward to getting back to slow Belize, where as beautiful as it is, sights and sounds and life are toned down to a livable level.

I want ice cubes and a choice of paper products, freedom of information and seamless access to the internet. I want water in every store and stocked shelves everywhere; but for now I can’t have those things while spending time in Cuba.

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I can’t describe this country with words, so I’ve taken countless pictures to try to tell the stories of what I’ve seen here. Even those, I feel, fall short of trying to explain it to someone who’s never been.

Lord, I just want to sleep. I want to be energized to go out and do it again tomorrow. We have our day planned out, and I already envision well over 12,000 steps. Do I have mental, spiritual, and emotional room for more stimulation? To record more new things?

What do I do with this adrenaline boost? How can we call this a vacation?

But it is a vacation. It is a break from the Breaking Belize News, Belize Buy and Sell, Belize Business Review, and from the constant interaction with the world.

It is lovely to get to a place where no one knows you, and to be accepted only for what they see in you.

It is a life boost to be able to spend some time with such a passionate people, to juggle three kinds of money, to realize the blessing of conveniences that we live with in our own country, and to wonder why it is that even an island nation like Cuba can have so much evidence of its history but in our country we don’t.

Lord, please help me to sleep, I pray again. Then I get up and I write because it’s the only way I know to shut off the slideshow. It works.

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©Debbie Mendoza, August 2017. Debbie Mendoza is the author of Exodus: A Journey Through Divorce and JoyHope. For speaking engagements: (011) 501-610-4375

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Why you should visit La Isla de Flores, Guatemala

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We’ve made at least four trips to Flores already this year. Before that, I had not been to Flores in about fifteen years. I thought the only reason one would go to Flores would be as a side trip to Tikal. I assumed the roads were still bad, and feared the presence and actions of ‘bandidos’. For a very long time, Flores didn’t even appear on my radar of places I’d like to visit. That changed last year when photos of day trips to Flores started popping up in my Instagram feed. It piqued my interest, and I jumped at the chance to go see the island for myself after so many years.

Flores is an island just off of Santa Elena, Petén. It has a variety of restaurants with prices that range from cheap to moderate. There are many places to stay, some of which overlook the water. Across the bridge, in Santa Elena, you can have Pollo Campero, or American food chain franchise options like Pizza Hut. There is also a Katok Restaurant just outside of Santa Elena.

 

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Flores sits on Lake Petén Itza. The bright colors of the painted buildings and the lake effect together make for great pictures. The sunrises and sunsets are stunning. The island does have a problem with an over-abundance of birds in the evenings, so be careful as you walk around at that time of the day. They will mess on you.

Flores floods in spots sometimes. That is an infrastructural problem, and visitors just have to flow with it.

One of the main attractions is a boat ride around the island for Q150-Q200, (around US25). You have the option to stop at different places, including being able to make the short uphill walk to ‘El Mirador’ from where you get an extraordinary view of the island.  

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The distance from Melchor to Flores is about fifty miles. To drive into Guatemala from Belize there is a process in place that has to be rigorously followed step by step. The first time you go through is the most tedious, but the process remains the same each time you go through after that. The Guatemalan Immigration and staff who handle the licenses are the friendliest and warmest government workers I have ever encountered. They follow their guidelines, but they seem to want things to run as smoothly and quickly as you do.

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The owner of the vehicle has to be the one who applies for the sticker. Approach the left side of the Immigration desk on the Guatemalan side. You should have the vehicle ownership title, proof of insurance, and driver’s licences for each of the persons who will be driving the vehicle in Guatemala. You will be pointed over to a small window on the right side of Guatemalan Immigration to pay for the sticker. (If I remember correctly that one time payment is Q165, about US$23). Return to the processing area, and in a matter of minutes you will get a paper that you will have to hold on to as long as you’ll be going back and forth across the border. This is good for three months. They will keep it valid by adding three month increments if you use it regularly. However, if you only use it infrequently, or, if you don’t go back to that desk and close out the authorization before the end date, you will be penalized US$300 the next time you try to get another one of those documents.

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That first time you will also get the sticker for your windshield. Place it where it is easy for the authorities to spot. Every time you plan to cross the border, you will need two copies of that original document. You will use one to go into Guatemala, and the other to return to Belize. The officer will stamp both the original and the copy; they keep the copy and give you back the original. When that is done, cross the street to OIRSA and pay a Q17, (US$2.50 approx) fee. Once your passports and the authorization are stamped, and you’ve paid the fee and gotten a receipt, you can then cross the border. Just before entering Melchor, you will pay Q5 at the booth on the bridge. After that, you’re good to go, and Guatemala lies before you. Of course, fuel is cheaper in Guatemala, so you might want to fill up in Melchor instead of on the Belize side.

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The road to Flores is mostly smooth. It has some potholes caused by Hurricane Earl. One five minute patch not very far outside of Melchor is very bad, and you will have to drive extremely slowly. There is an armed checkpoint that you may or may not have to stop at. Unlike in Belize,  these posts have three layers,  which means you have to drive past three sets of uniformed and armed police/soldiers. They usually let you pass through without stopping you. You will drive through many small villages; each village has speed bumps and pedestrian ramps, so keep your eyes open for those.

Flores feels a world away from Belize, even though it is only an hour’s drive from the border. There, you will be among tourists from Guatemala and from many other countries around the world. We have never experienced any anti-Belize sentiment from anyone there. Service providers are welcoming. Be careful to check bill totals to make sure that you are the one who decides how much tip to leave.

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WiFi is available everywhere. Some restaurants will have the password very visibly located; if you don’t see it, just ask for it.

Restaurant recommendations so far: La Tortuga for breakfast; El Terrazzo for lunch or dinner, (try their avocado salad); and La Villa del Chef (try their kabobs).

P.S. Use your credit card to pay for stuff. The exchange rate is best that way.