Medellín to Santo Domingo

Last stop on the tour…
And I’ll be honest, the only thing I’m thinking right now is, “How short a period of time is it reasonable to be back at home before I start planning to go away again?”

The stomach bug in Havana was a bit of a speed bump but hey, it gave me something to write about at lest. Otherwise it’s been an amazing trip. It just seems to get better and better and I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to travel and see the world.

I didn’t write much in Medellin… Everything went incredibly smoothly without any incident. It’s a great place for an urban vacation. Among Medellin’s many virtues is the incredibly laid back, low stress and mellow vibe of the city. I put that down to the fact that pretty much the entire population of the city is stoned… But hey, I’m not judging nor saying that’s a bad thing. And as the taxi driver on the way to the city from the airport said, “Medellin… Mucha rumba!” And he wasn’t lying. For the last five days or six I pretty much lived without a conscience… Partying like there’s no tomorrow and eating as if obesity, cholesterol and heart attacks didn’t exist. But hey… I lost weight and I feel great! It makes me think I’m doing something wrong with all the brown rice, celery juice and Bikram Yoga I do at home.

The flight to Santo Domingo went well, except that the guy at the Avianca counter who checked me in must have been on his first day on the job, or he was stoned, or both… It literally took 30 minutes to check in. He made me change the flight because he didn’t think I’d have enough to to transfer. 90 minutes seemed reasonable and the airline allowed me to book it anyway. Despite the fact the time keeping is not the Colombian person’s forte, Avianca run an incredibly tight ship. Then he studied all my onward tickets for ages and had to call other staff members over to inspect them as well, like he had never seem a ticket before… Anyway, finally everything was ok and I was off.

The flight went well and landed in lovely Santo Domingo at about 5.30 p.m. Out of all the cities so far, Santo Domingo has by far the “heaviest” entry procedure. You get the full narco-pedo treatment… Photograph taken, all ten fingers fingerprinted, luggage sniffed by dogs and then everything x-rayed again. It was smooth sailing though and once I got through Kénol, the guy I’m renting the apartment from, was there waiting to pick me up. 

I only chatted to him briefly in the car but he seems like an incredibly nice guy. He’s from Port-au-Prince in Haiti and is in Santo Domingo studying medicine.

We arrived at the apartment in about 30 minutes. This is my street for the next nine days…
The apartment is fabulous…. Two bedrooms plus lounge and dining with a gorgeous dining room table.  

 Kénol has a Haitian friend who has offered to be my personal chef, (for a price of course) … I’m thinking of taking him up on the offer just so I can feel like Madonna for the next nine days. And I’m in love with the dining room table!

I only arrived a couple of hours ago and just had a quick walk around the hood. I’m staying in the Colonial Zone, which incidentally was the first European settlement in the new world… It looks nice but out of all the places I’ve been to so far… and this is just my first impression… it has a bit more of a dodgy vibe than the other places. Anyway, we’ll see.

I’m always comforted when I see this sign…


Leaving the island

I didn’t want to leave Cuba again with that same “Get me the hell outta here” feeling… It was a lot better this time but still I breathed a HUGE sigh of relief when I left. It was a relief but at the same time a strange feeling. I felt good because I COULD leave but bad because 11 million Cubans are stuck there and sense of shame that I lived for 9 days like a king (relative to the rest of the population) and still that drove me crazy!

People in Cuba are REALLY, REALLY poor. The more I spoke to the locals, the more I realised how bad the situation is. Doctors make 40 CUC a month, which is absurd enough but a lot of other people working regular jobs make only 10 CUC a month. Prices in Cuba are cheaper but they’re not THAT cheap… Surviving on 10 CUC a month in Havana is like trying to survive on $100 a month in Sydney. It’s no wonder that everyone is out on the streets hustling.

Cuba has a tourism fuelled economy. There are other industries… Clearly the beer and rum industry is huge… But at times it seems that tourism is the ONLY money spinner and the heat is really on the tourists to support the economy. If you’re the type of person who has a heart in is sensitive to the needs of others, it’s hard not to get affected by it all. One night I gave a guy a few CUCs (in Cuba they pronounce it like “cook”) to buy some food… I bumped into him the next night and he was gushing gratitude because I had done this. I was happy that I could help in a very small way but it makes me sad to think that these people are so desperate that they have to beg strangers for their daily food or to buy them a beer or water or whatever. It’s hard to put it in words but it’s saddening.

I was happy that I could help the people I came across in a small way but at the same time I would be lying if I said it didn’t drive me crazy. It’s not about the money… The money I gave away has no affect on me whatsoever but just to have all these desperate people relentlessly hounding you for something is tough. But of course, it’s tougher for them.

Anyway, finally it was time to leave the island. I had already lined up Lisi’s husband, Ronaldo to take me to the airport. He’s is a nice guy… He also doesn’t have a regular job but is also hustling for work. The flight was in the afternoon, I had packed the night before and I had just the right amount of money for transport and some food and water at the airport, so no dramas there. I just had to wait for Alejandro and Karmin to give them back the keys. They didn’t show up in the end… They sent Karmin’s mother Milagros instead. Milagros means “miracles” in English but the only miracle there is that no-one has ever slapped her (maybe they have?) because she’s a bit of an old grouch. It turns out it’s her apartment.

Ronaldo is not a licensed cab driver… Obviously! I don’t know exactly what the law is there but it seems I couldn’t be seen handing him cash at the airport as I was getting out of his car, so Lisi kept drilling me all morning, “Don’t forget to pay Ronaldo the money BEFORE you get to the airport!” Sure no problem. We were standing out the front waiting for him to come by with the classic American car when Lisi says to me AGAIN, “Don’t forget to pay Ronaldo BEFORE you get to the airport”… So I thought I’d give her the money there and then. “Here it is.” I gave her 30 CUC … 25 CUC is what a taxi would cost plus 5 CUC tip. Suddenly something got lost in translation and she thought it was a personal tip for her. She hugs me and gushes, “Gracias mi amor. Te amo!… Now don’t forget to pay Ronaldo for the transport BEFORE you get to the airport.” Oh Dios! And then Ronaldo arrived with the car. The money wasn’t a problem except that it was all the money that I had and now I had no money to pay Ronaldo for the ride to the airport.

I got in the car and asked Ronaldo to stop at the ATM. There are very few ATMs in Havana but luckily there was one just round the corner from the apartment. There are two machines there… I used it twice and walked past it a few times. Both machines were always functioning and although they were constantly in use there was never more than about one or two people waiting. Of course in situations like this, Murphy’s law always applies. We got there and one machine was out of order and there was a queue for the other one so long it was like Leningrad in the eighties. I begged some of the women to let me queue jump… They were ok with it so I went to use the machine. Just as I’m about to insert my card into the slot a completely psychotic Cuban woman jumps out of the queue and starts screaming hysterically like I had just raped her daughter or something…. “THER’S A QUEUE AND YOU GET TO THE END OF IT”. A bit of a struggle ensued …. I exchanged knowing looks with all the other woman. You know, that look that says, “She’s psycho, right?” Anyway, we let her use the machine and then I used it after her

Back in the car, I paid Ronaldo the money and we were off. Normally it takes about 20 minutes to get to the airport but it took him close to an hour. I don’t know if he was trying to dodge the police or wanted to do a lap of honour but it seems like we drove around most of the island before we go to the airport. Eventually we did get there but time was a little tight now.

I saw the Avianca sign in the distance as I entered the departures area. I rushed up… It was a beacon guiding me to the promised land… I felt like I had been wandering the wilderness for forty days and forty nights and suddenly here was my oasis. It was the most beautiful sight ever. I checked in and then it was off to immigration control.

The scene is Immigration was crowded and chaotic, to say the least. There was an airbus load of hysterical Russian women, running late for their flight Aeroflot flight to Moscow screaming, “Time! Time! Time!” It wasn’t a pretty sight and there must have been a sale on home hair perm solution in Moscow before their trip to Cuba. I like to think of myself as an extremely non-judgemental and unprejudiced individual but the truth is that I am a bit judgemental and prejudiced. Had it been any other nationality wanting to queue jump I wouldn’t have had an issue. Even though I had been in exactly the same situation only an hour beforehand, I couldn’t help but pretend that I didn’t understand what these Russian women were carrying on about and made it a bit difficult for them to get through

All’s well that end’s well… We all made it for our flights. I was the last person to board mine and it was one of those phot finish boardings… I raced up to the gate and straight away they called out, “Are you Martin Koskins?” Anyway, I was through and on my way to the promised land.

It was a long and tiring day but once we touched down in Colombia it was smooth sailing. Colombian people are so nice and even airport staff are really nice and helpful. I’m staying in a gorgeous little cul-de-sac in El Poblado, Medellin just five minutes stroll from Parque Lleras. It feels like Paradise! I never want to leave.

The view from my room…