Thursday, November 10, 2011

Cuba Travel Diary - Anticipations (2)

There's nothing under heaven so blue,
That's fairly worth the traveling to.
(Robert Louis Stevenson)

Dr Johnson famously said of the Giant Causeway, that while it was worth seeing, it probably wasn't worth going to see. I think that in the end I felt something similar about Machu Picchu and my journey to it. Stevenson had also observed that tourism is the art of disappointment, and while there was nothing the least bit disappointing about my experience of being in Machu Picchu, it's hard not to reflect back on the getting there as a trail of not quite satifying experiences.

I suppose this may be because I undertook that journey in August at the rather late-in-the-day suggestion of V, who had suddenly blurted out that I ought to go and see Machu Picchu. Thus, the going to Peru and the being in Peru presented themselves as collateral concerns.

The biggest psychological hurdle turned out to be my arrival and departure point; Lima.

Since the last cholera epidemic it has acquired something of a reputation as a trendy gastronomic destination, but no amount of yummy food can compensate for the relentlessly doom-laden aspect of the Peruvian capital.

It's a desert city perched on a bluff above the kind of sea that makes you want to make a B-line for the high ground. And when I say desert, I don't mean some eye-catching variation on aridity, the likes of which one comes across in parts of Central Mexico. Here the outlying terrain looks like the rest of the planet will when we've finally finished murdering it.

As for the cloying coastal fog la garúa it prompted Melville to describe Lima as "the saddest, strangest city thou can'st see" and native writers such as Vargas Llosa and others have since described the prevailing ambience as leaden, ashen, cold and tenacious, "a floating powder" (Salazar Bondy) and like being inside "the belly of a dead whale" (Alfredo Bryce Echenique).

Why are Central America's problem-laden capitals less dismaying? I think it's because they're in the tropics. There's hardly a grisly indoor domestic space in the world which cannot be improved by the judicious deployment of a pot plant or two, and so it is with our own concrete jungles here: that they often seem on the verge of being reclaimed by the real thing can only really be totted up on the merit side.

It's fitting that the most diverting site I came across in Lima was the Convento de San Francico (pic below) with its underground bone dump. These catacombs became the final resting ground for 25,000 Limeños up until 1851, when the practice of mass burials beneath major churches was deemed insalubrious. Upstairs, the former monastery's library, with its 25,000 crumbly tomes, would make the perfect setting for a thought piece on the death of the book.

Cuzco was lovely, but I was out of breath even in my sleep.

Arequipa was also pleasant enough, but not as deeply interesting as nearer equivalents such as Oaxaca. With its three looming volcanoes it presented itself as an odd amalgam of places already digested, Antigua itself, Mexico's various 'colonial gems' and even Tapachula. It wasn't until the third day that it started to reveal its underlying selfhood, and by then I'd seen nearly all I wanted to see and could think of little else to do other than sit around and drink coffee.

Across this land, the juxtaposition of the strikingly familiar and the strikingly strange was always to be a tad disconcerting.

For the trip to Havana I shall be back on COPA in part because I would rather collect their miles than TACA's, and in part because the cheapness and shortness of the flight from Cancún was offset by the cost and hassle of getting up there. I also had no desire to reacquaint myself with Soviet-built airliners.

Still, Guatemala to La Habana via Panama City is hardly the most carbon-conscious route. I was tempted to take advantage once again of COPA's ongoing invitation to its passengers to indulge in a night or two in the Panamanian capital at no extra charge, but decided against it as I want to get stuck in to Cuba as quickly as possible.

I wonder what kind of fellow travellers I will encounter there. Well, as I will be sauntering towards to my nephew's wedding on the beach at Guardalavaca ('Keep the Cow') at some point I'm going to have to scrub up for an encounter with a chunk of my own family.

One supposes that, across the island, there will be fewer Yanks, more Canucks, and, horror of horrors, a load of Brits. They were thick on the ground in Peru too, where one comes across more of the socks and sandals sort of traveller than one does here in Guatemala. But it was August, so the Frogs outnumbered them all.

One of the real downsides to being a tourist in Peru is that the relevant authorities seem to want to make it the most regimented experience possible. When I came across a museum in Cuzco where photography was actually permitted and I didn't have to spend fifteen minutes talking myself out of the company of a fetching female student guide, I was frankly flaberghasted. I very much doubt whether the average sightseer has to jump through quite so many hoops in communist Cuba as one does in Peru.

Perhaps the aforementioned French tour parties have to share some of the blame on the demand side. For Peru seems to attract a lot of visitors who are not what you would tend to regard as natural travellers (or even tourists for that matter.) Specifically middle-aged French couples who one suspects have rarely partaken of a vacance outside their own borders, and seem to be on the verge of some sort of unseemly outburst at any given moment. They certainly seem to look as if they might need regimenting, and may even crave it.

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