the beach film

Hola From HAVANA, CUBA!

Three countries have been on my list of to-dos since I was a child. The first one was Jamaica. I think Cool Runnings had something to do with that. Investigating it as an adult though, it looks more like a resort island than anything else. Kingston looked good, but all in all unless we could find a remote beach playing Bob Marley with a bunch of chilled out Jamaicans, we didn’t fancy joining a legion of boat cruise passengers as they scrambled for overpriced water activities. I sound averse to cruises. That may or may not be true, depending on whether there’s a cruise out there that suits my philosophy on travel. For example, I’d take a cruise to Antartica, because how else would I get there? I’d take one through Alaska, or any other inhospitable terrain that requires something big to transport me. I don’t like the idea of stopping off in a built up tourist port for a few hours, being denied the chance to really experience the local culture and understand the country, and then being shipped off comfortably to the next destination.

The reason the cruise ship concept is a nightmare for me, is because I imagine myself leaving the blue shoreline and wondering what it is I missed out on. And from our experiences, you find the best surprises by just wandering around. For this reason, cruises to the Greek islands should absolutely be banned. Same with the Danube River. It’s criminal to transport passengers to Eastern Europe or Greece and imply via itinerary, that “what you see is what you get”. It’s like unwrapping a chocolate bar and not tasting it. It’s an unforgivable, overpriced tease. There’s definitely a gap in the cruise market for prolonged stays of even say, 4 days in each place. Just enough time to at least see something genuine. Or a hop on hop off concept. Catch a cruise to Aruba. Hang out for five days. Get on the next cruise to Barbados, then onwards to northern Brazil.

I’ve also wanted to visit Russia since dad bought me a zippo when I was a kid with a gold and red hammer and sickle on it. A symbol of the Russian Revolution. Similar to the red star in where else but…Cuba.

This misdirected rant has a point: The Caribbean, apparently, would never be what I dreamt it to be, unless I got to the West Indies. Well, that never happened, but what did happen was something entirely unforgettable.

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Russian Orthodox Church, right on our balcony!

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Balcony view from a slummy neighbourhood we stayed in.

We went to Cuba. Possibly the most interesting, culturally-rich and otherworldly place on the planet. And it was in the Caribbean. Win-win.

Havana is hot. You will drip with so much sweat you’ll think you’re walking through a pool all day. The people are generous and gentle. At night, the city streets are pitch black. You will be apprehensive about walking through the shadows as figures dart across the street, ramble on the kerb and seemingly appear out of nowhere. It’s the perfect place to mug somebody. But it never happens. Cubans are a different breed. They’re incredibly helpful and brave a smile through their hardship. It’s easily the safest country we’ve been in on our Latin American adventure.

We arrived at our first casa early in the morning. It must have been 6 am. The streets were dark. The sky was black. People were sitting on the kerb. It didn’t feel at all welcoming. A man got up and started to approach us as we knocked on the door to Mildred’s house. He had been watching us for the last few minutes. We had our bags on us, and we were in a poor country that was communist-cum-socialist. If we got robbed, I could hardly blame them. Whatever it is they wanted, they surely needed more than I did. Saying that, after having my camera and wallet stolen in Brazil, I was down to my last debit card. I had brought a backup with me on this trip in anticipation that I’d be robbed at least once. As fate would have it, it was in Rio – the same city that countless other travellers had told me they had been robbed in.

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Wall of “cretins” at the Revolution Museum, Havana.

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Hemingway at El Floridita, Havana

The man was dressed in a white singlet. He said something in Spanish to us that I didn’t understand. I only knew how to order something at a restaurant and how to ask where the bathroom was. My Spanish crash course had failed me.

“No Espanol, discuple,” I said. I looked behind me and then behind him. It was pitch black, and we were standing in a backstreet of Havana that Hollywood told us to fear. I continued to knock on Mildred’s door. A little louder this time. More people moved in the shadows. The man smiled at me and pointed to the doorbell.

All he wanted to do was help two clueless gringos find their way up to their room. I thanked him as he walked away, disappearing into the dark Havana void. The door opened. We were greeted enthusiastically by Mildred’s father – the resident cook, we would later learn. He spoke Spanish to us. We smiled. Had no idea what he was saying. He welcomed us inside.

Up the stairs was a beautiful home, filled with art, statues, and a Victorian-era feel. For the first time this entire trip, I tasted a real coffee. A super strong espresso. Mildred’s father made a cup for Sam, and Sam politely took a sip even though she hated coffee. When he had his back turned, I quickly finished it for her. It was only a few minutes in but Mildred’s home felt like our home. Cubans have a warmth towards strangers than can only be rivalled by family. Mildred’s father – and no, I don’t know his name – proceeded to make us breakfast. Breakfasts in Cuba are massive if you stay at a casa. Each morning, we received omelettes, ham, cheese, large portions of mango, banana, dragon fruit and pineapple, cakes, bread, coffee and tea. We never could finish a breakfast entirely, and that’s saying something – because I can eat a disgustingly large volume of food.

Cuban food

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Mildred lived with her boyfriend and her father. She had the most pimped out apartment you can think of. Three stories, and right beside the Russian Orthodox Church. We had views of the ocean and the ancient Caribbean skyline of Havana. The room we stayed in was spacious. We were eager to hit the ground running in Havana, as we had heard so many great things about the city. After a brief nap after the worst flight we had ever been on in our entire lives – Tame Airlines, pardon my French, is a piece of shit (extremely rough flight from Quito, people gasping onboard thinking the plane was going to split in half, and oh, the electricity constantly going out so everything was pitch black in the cabins; this included the emergency signs and even the seatbelt signs above our heads… those life-saving lights that presumably have a backup generator) – we thanked all known deities and made our way through the dirty streets of Havana.

Children played football as old American cars rode on by. Most were in showroom condition. Bright pink, blue, purple, yellow, and green cars took us back to the 50s. The poverty was obvious but unlike other places in the world, there wasn’t a seedy underbelly present. Cuba supplies food rations and free health care (it’s top quality) to its citizens. So even in the face of poordom, people don’t starve and if they do get sick, they’re taken care of. Old dilapidated buildings appear half finished or half demolished, however you wish to look at it. Pastel greens, pinks, and yellows are applied to the exterior of old buildings. Men constantly ask you if you’d like to buy a Cuban cigar. Taxi drivers constantly ask you if you want a taxi. It’s impossible not to get one. There are more taxis than tourists in Havana.

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We lived with the woman who owned this restaurant (the best in Havana): El Chanchullero de Tapas – get the pineapple prawns!

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The food, outside of the casas, isn’t great. You can pick from chicken or fish, beans or rice, maybe a side salad if you’re lucky. The hotels charge a lot of money for similar dishes. Staying in the casas is best since you get a genuine feel of what it’s like to live as a Cuban, and you also receive home cooked meals, some of which have been the best meals we’ve ever had. Big, big lobsters spill over your plates at dinner time. So large that no sides are needed, and it’s a mammoth effort just to finish it. Sam paid $9 and received three lobsters on her plate – now that’s what I call value! As big as the lobsters are, this is Cuba, and ironically you will NEVER go hungry. We were given delicious soups, breads, side dishes and mojitos until we couldn’t move anymore. It was ironic that in such a depleted country, we felt like we were eating like kings. Lobster is a staple dish. Something I could get used to.

We went to the Revolution Museum and learned about America’s assault on Cuba, according to Castro. Evidence of the CIA trying to blow up, attack, or infiltrate Cuba was demonstrated on the walls. Evidence of Cuba fighting them off was proudly displayed. The Americans were never referred to as such. The term “Imperialistic Yankees” was used throughout the museum displaying Che Guevara merchandise for sale, anti-American books about American foreign policy arresting the economic, political, and social rise of Latin America, and many remnants from the Cuban Revolution are shown. At the end of the museum is a wall with caricatures of American Presidents that Cuba hates. Batista started the wall off and while not American, he was a puppet inserted by the Americans. He eventually went on to commit genocide against his own people, which led to Che Guevara’s legendary mission of overthrowing the dictactor. In essence, Che saved the Cuban people from a mini Hitler. Cubans adore him for it. We didn’t get the impression that Cubans particularly love Castro, though.

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A few other Presidents made the wall, such as Ronald Reagan and George Bush. All were referred to as cretins. All had reasons as to why the Cubans didn’t like them. It wasn’t that far off the mark, since Reagan’s Guatemalan episode and George Bush just being, well, George Bush, hasn’t won them fans in the Western world either. Cubans like Obama though. Maybe progress is in sight. Cubans also don’t hate Americans, so we aren’t sure who perpetuated that myth. I was told by one guy though who was trying to sell me a ride in his old American car, that since I was Australian he would charge me half as much as he charges Americans.

History is written by the winners apparently, and is a polluted concept due to the subjectivity and agenda of those writing it. Is America’s recollection of events in Cuba right, or is Castro’s? Australians tend to sit on the fence with politics, since we believe that all politicians are full of shit, so we enjoyed seeing Castro’s version of events after hearing America’s. It was eye-opening, and if what we read was true about the CIA’s black op missions, then anti-Cuban sentiment would be like the pot calling the kettle black.

The politics of Cuba make it an attraction for people all over the world. Unfortunately, there are heavy restrictions for Americans. Cubans welcome them with open arms, but the US government doesn’t want its people to contribute to the economy it has been trying to crush for 60-odd years. Still, a few Americans manage to slip in via Mexico. There are no problems. Cubans offer to not stamp American passports so that they don’t get in trouble back home. One day Cuba will open more, probably relax its stronghold on its own people and allow them to travel more freely. Communism/Socialism might disintegrate, but hopefully it still retains its old world charm. It would be mortifying to walk down the street and see a Mcdonalds, or a KFC, or God forbid – a Starbucks. Everything changes in the world, and one day Cuba will too. Its attraction is therefore temporary, and if you want to see what the world really was like all those decades ago, then get there now before it’s too late – because once Cuba integrates with the rest of the world more openly, everything I’ve just written will be nothing more than a reminder of how things used to be.

And as great as that will be for the Cubans, it’ll be a lost experience for all you travellers out there….

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A Land Before Time: Galápagos Islands

Far off the coast of Ecuador is a cluster of islands so well preserved and protected from human contact, that nature has been allowed to take its course. Wildlife has evolved as Mother Nature intended – uninterrupted by human impact.

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The Galápagos Islands is one of those bucket list items most people are dying to achieve (pun intended). Boat operators have an obvious monopoly on the local market. American owners outmuscle the Ecuadorians, and provide an obscenely expensive service that while worth it, is difficult to justify in a third world country. Regardless, with everything else around the Earth dying (Great Barrier Reef is becoming an underwater graveyard, Maldives are rumored to be vanishing in the next decade), a chance to see the Galápagos Islands before they meet a similar fate is time restrictive.
They won’t always be around.

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This travel blog has allowed us to share our Latin American journey with the world, one place at a time. Sometimes the stories are lengthy, other times pictures tell a thousand words. I’ll keep the stories brief and the photos plentiful. We blew our backpacker’s budget and went all-out on an 8 day cruise (the only cruise I’ve ever done). We did this because it was the only way to truly see everything Galapagos had to offer – it’s not everyday that you fly to little-known Ecuador, so it made sense to make the most of the opportunity while we had it.

We had an awesome crew on the boat, and really great passengers who made the journey extra special. A large group of Americans from Road Scholar were on there – grandparents with grandchildren who, as part of Road Scholar, elect to take the younger generation somewhere cool around the world. Something that doesn’t revolve around Mai Tai’s on the beach, as one American lady put it. It’s a great concept and something Australia should have. We also had other independent travellers, such as Phillip and Daniel from Germany (who convinced us to change plans and fly to Mexico), Livia and Jens from Switzerland (who were doing an epic road trip through South America), and George, an engineer from London working in Angola.

The seas are rough at night. Anybody who had a plan to have a few drinks while on board found themselves detesting that idea, as we wobbled around the cabin and made a beeline for bed each night. Seasickness was common. At times it was pretty brutal, but what we saw each day made those sleepless nights worth it.

We’ve done two big trips in the past six years. Our first was to Europe. That showed us how beautiful the world really is, and how magnificent history is. Europe cannot be compared to. It’s a melting pot of history, culture, arts, cuisine, good people, and a different way of life. Australia is young and for backpackers, is a faraway place best explored with a Kombi van. It’s barren, large, underpopulated and a diverse place to discover, if you have the time and means to go the distances. Southeast Asia is a backpacker’s mecca. So much so that it seems like “travel for beginners.” Australians probably take Southeast Asia for granted, given it’s on our doorstep, but for Europeans and the British, it’s a great, big mystery that backpackers yearn to explore. South America is different from all of these places. It’s the place to come if you want a true outdoors adventure – it blows everything else out of the water. On what other continent can you see a historically preserved natural wonder such as the Galápagos Islands, trek to ancient Incan ruins such as MP, go to “the end of the world” in Patagonia, rough it in the Amazon jungle, or venture into the remote vast deserts of Bolivia? Throw in places like Mendoza, Salta, Buenos Aires, Rio, Salvador, Banos, Santiago, Cuzco and Uyuni, and you’ve got yourself the ultimate backpacking adventure!

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This is, of course, before you even hit the Cuban time warp or Central American identities such as Mexico (the latter of which is a huge juxtaposition in Latin America).

Without wanting to sound pretentios, our Latin American adventure has made us want to dig deeper into the world and see the great outdoors more than sitting on a European beach. It feels like our preferences in travel have evolved, but that’s because we’ve travelled a lot throughout the world. I see ourselves in the future being increasingly armed with rugged backpacks, long matted hair and at least one beard as we climb the heavenly mountains of rural China or trample through blizzards in Siberia. Prior to this trip, neither of us were overly inclined to do either – our main experiences were cultural. South America and its uncompromising brutality in the wilderness, has ignited a thirst for more adventure.

The Galápagos Islands sound like smooth sailing, but they aren’t. In between seasickness, we went swimming amongst sharks, sea turtles, Mexican Hot fish, seahorses, sea lions, and other random fish whose names I’ll never know. Sea lions and sea turtles are playful. They swim right up to you and surround you. Apparently because there is little impact by humans here, they haven’t learned to fear them and run away. They treat you like you’re just another organism swimming on by. Apparently sharks don’t attack you either, since the Galápagos Islands have a perfect eco-system and food chain where fishing is virtually illegal (unless you are a local fisherman with permission from the National Park), so sharks never have to try other dishes. I’d be lying if I denied hearing the Jaws theme song every time I entered the dark water, but I trusted our guide Billie, and didn’t see anybody get eaten. That being said, Bull sharks swam all the way from the waters of Quito to this pristine environment and attacked two snorkellers. They had to be hunted and killed. Galápagos doesn’t like outsiders.

On the islands, some of which are volcanic, we came across giant tortoises, yellow iguanas, blue-footed boobies (obscure birds with bright blue feet), birds that were so heavily covered in white feathers that they looked as though they were wearing a giant white afro, black birds with inflated red sacks blowing out of their necks, and large skittering red crabs on the rocks, as well as black and purple-spotted ones running in and out of the cracks. Our guide Billie had a Masters degree in Biology and was exceptionally informative during our 8 day forage into paradise. Here, time had stopped. We saw what life would be like without humans. I half expected to see a dinosaur somewhere.

One of the highlights for sure was coming across a little lake in the middle of an island. This little lake can only fill up when the area floods, and whatever gets in there remains in there until it floods again next time, and they swim back out to the ocean. We stared at this crystal clear lake and wanted to jump in. It all looked so perfect. There were even sea turtles that managed to get themselves in there. It was a small lake. Surely it would be safe to enter, right?

We could see right through to the bottom. Sure, I can imagine fish getting bowled over the rocks from the ocean and finding themselves stuck. Sea turtles too, although that was still a big surprise. We sat and watched the water. On the sides of the mini lake were shadows from the walls. A very small cave. Maybe big enough for a person to hide under. I thought I saw something move. Something large and black. It didn’t make sense. Something big couldn’t be bowled over from an ocean and land in here, surely. Then another large shadow moved.

Then one more, because things happen in threes, right? Then the most irrational sight became apparent.

Fins broke the water.

Out of the thin shadows emerged three large sharks. Big enough to cause serious alarm if you were in the water. Big enough that nobody wanted to get too close to the edge of the lake, incase they fell in and became shark food. Who knows what the sharks fed on down below, but it certainly wasn’t their usual environment. A human would be most welcome, I thought. We stood back and took photos. The sharks just looked so big, and so much bigger than someone would expect. And they were in a lake. Mother Nature was playing games with us.

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Seeing this was breathtaking. Everybody was astounded. When I was younger, my phobia of sharks spurred an obsession to learn everything I could about the different species. I knew, for example, that during the day, sharks of all shapes and sizes relaxed in the shadows of lagoons. Enhanced imaging of Australian beaches showed how close these sharks came to the shoreline. Those dark patches of water you see in the ocean, about thirty metres out from the sand? Yeah, it’s not uncommon for sharks to be resting in there, minding their own business. I had a memory flashback to our first time in Thailand, when we were taken out on a boat to go snorkelling in a lagoon. I didn’t know we were going to a lagoon at first. Naturally, with what I knew about sharks, this made me a bit uneasy. The Thai guide assured me there were no sharks in there. This despite knowing that Thailand was a hot spot for shark breeding.

So I ignored science and jumped in. The water was murky with a golden tinge. It was calm. The Brazilian girl next to me got stabbed by a small sword fish and started to bleed – although not too badly. She swam back to the boat. I swam further from it. At the bottom of the lagoon I saw a shadow in the distance start to come into focus. It was a shark. Not big, maybe 1.5 metres, but still big enough to do some damage.

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Seeing the shark in the mini lake on a Galápagos island got me thinking: As fun as some of these environments can be, and no matter how many guides want to assure me that the sharks don’t attack, and no matter how many other guides want to lie to me about the presence of sharks, there is still something unnerving about being in the ocean with them.

And now they were migrating to lakes.

Welcome to the Galápagos Islands!

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Iguazu Falls and Parque Das Aves: Natural Wonders Of Brazil!

Our first experience in Brazil was… interesting. Foz Do Iguacu is the city from where backpackers/tourists/outdoor lovers venture to the incredible Iguazu Falls. The city itself isn’t the most specactular… but to give you an accurate description of it, I’d have to ask you to imagine an ordinary city whose main meal options include a piece of chicken or beef, rice and beans. The beans? We loved, but eventually you start craving vegetables. Now that we are in Ecuador, I’ve been ravaging salads like there’s no tomorrow!

Anyway, the reason for coming here is to stand – drenched – as a witness to thundering waterfalls and epic panoramas. Epic is an overused word, but epic justifies Iguazu Falls. For some reason when we travel, we aren’t overly taken by tourist sites nor find ourselves wanting to visit many, so going into the falls on the local bus, my expectations were mediocre. That sounds crazy looking back on it, but it certainly set me up for the knock-out punch that these mighty, cascading falls delivered.

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The day after the falls, when we tired of snacking on chips and chocolate for the lack of food options, we decided to go to another place which is far less talked about. Indeed, we only heard about it because we saw a small sign outside as we passed it by on the bus. Nobody seems to talk about it. For us though, Parque Das Aves was the best zoo experience we have ever had. Anacondas, colourful macaws, toucans and other crazy-looking birds whose names we will never remember, filled what is technically a zoo, but more a loosely contained wildlife park. The zoo has literally been built in between a rainforest, which makes you feel as though you aren’t in a zoo at all!

Check out our photos below. If you visit the falls, you absolutely must put aside a few hours for Parque Das Aves – you will not regret it!

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The Beach Film

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