I Forgive You Honduras

I’ve been pretty grumpy a lot of the time in Honduras. It was a long journey by boat and bus to get to La Ceiba from Belize and there were a few attempts to rip me off on the way. The places we’ve stayed in have been pretty crap so I’ve been short of sleep. I’ve been eaten alive by mosquitos to the extent I had 52 bites on one leg in one night. It’s also rained a lot here during the so called ‘dry season’.

But that I can live with. The worst part has been Katrina getting really ill and having to be sedated while an only Spanish speaking doctor shoved an endoscope down her throat. Not fun for her but it wasn’t great for me to worry about either. To top that off, I’ve had my wallet stolen and had to bribe a policeman to get some kinda of report to make an insurance claim.

That’s enough to make me fall out with a country, but Honduras has had a couple of redeeming features. Notably it’s total lack of Health and Safety meaning we’ve been zip lining and climbing around waterfalls. Epic fun!

First the zip lining. This was at Sambo Creek, near La Ceiba and involved taking a bent up pick up truck along a steep mountain track to then clip ourselves to a wire and throw ourselves back down the mountain. Incredible! There were 16 zip lines and with the help of two guides we were launched down them with a clip to hold us on and a pair of gardening gloves for brakes. On one line about 500m long they jumped up and down on the steel rope to make us bounce up and down. Katrina screamed many, many a profanity!

After this excitement the fun wasn’t over. Underneath our monkey antics were hot springs bursting boiling hot water down streams where it would meet cooler tributaries to form bath like pools. Bliss. After a soak in these was a massage and a rub down in sticky orange mud to leave us looking like a cast member of TOWIE. Katrina came away looking like Tony the Tiger. I’m not sure about me, make your own mind up.

Tony the Tiger?

Looking like a right prat!

Then there’s the other ridiculous thing we’ve done here – climbing behind a waterfall nearly has high as Niagara Falls. We’d made our way down to a microbrewery in the middle of Honduras, Kat’s find when researching the trip. Sadly due to her ongoing throat problems she can’t drink the beer, all the more for me (he says quietly). Near said brewery is a waterfall called Pulapanzak (say then when you’re pished) which was frankly, incredible.

Pulapanzak Waterfalls

With the help of a guide, you go through a barbed wire gate and start wading through pools of water beneath the falls. These gradually become deeper and the spray becomes heavier until the point when you can barely see where you’re going. With the guide you climb over a couple more boulders and dive into a cave underneath the falls with the roar of the falls above your head. I’m struggling to describe the noise and feeling of having made it to this point, so here’s a picture.

On the way back is the chance to leap off places you’ve already climbed into pools beneath. Suddenly the enthusiasm for travel that had waned from illness and bad experiences is racing back and you’re ready for the world again.

I’m sorry I held the grudge Honduras, all is forgiven. Cheers!

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Getting to know Cuba

I don’t even know where to start with Cuba. As I write this I’m in a poky little airport on the island of Cayo Largo with an inexplicable 2 hour wait for a plane that is already on ther tarmac and all the passengers in the terminal sipping mojitos or cold beer. But then perhaps inexplicable is the best word to describe this country?

I’m not going to profess to somehow be an expert after a few days in Havana or just over a week in a decent hotel on a tropical island but you start to notice things here. Havana has to be one of the most photogenic cities around, with crumbling colonial architecture left to decay since the Revolution in 1959, thousands of old American cars on every street corner and beautiful people everywhere you look.

Classic Car

There’s no Americans here (and I mean it in the nicest possible way but it’s kinda nice) due to frosty relations between the two countries which have even flared up during this trip thanks to comments my the Miami Marlins coach saying he loves Fidel Castro, something he has since been forced to apologise for. To be honest I don’t really understand why it should be such a big deal, Cuba as a nation couldn’t pose any less of a threat to the USA at this point in time.

Alas, back to this strange place. You can feel the lack of resources through the nation, whether it’s making old Plymouth’s and Lada’s keep running, the limited items in the shops in front of which huge lines suddenly form when stocks come in or the continued use of ration books. Despite this, I’ve come here as a tourist and stayed at a very nice hotel where virtually everything seems available.

Potentially more strange are the conversations you have with people in Cuba, there’s an acceptance their country is comparatively very poor with places such as the Canada and Europe and that their confidence in Fidel and Raul is perhaps waning (for want of a better word). Many people I have spoken to have outwardly complained about their leadership and said the country will only improve when they are both dead. It almost feels like there is the potential for an event similar to the Arab Spring here. But, and there is always a but, Cuba is home to 12m people, 5m of whom are said to be in the police and will inform on dissidents who can be detained without charge.

Let’s move onto the currencies of which Cuba has two, the peso and the convertible peso or CUC (which is pretty much equal to a US Dollar). Local people are paid in pesos while tourists must convert their money into CUC. Items in many if not most shops are priced in CUC so many Cubans will have to change their money into CUC to buy items. Those items due to restricted supply actually turn out to be incredible expensive, I saw a bottle of shampoo for sale in a supermarket (albeit one in an upmarket district of Havana) for 11 CUC. I just didn’t expect that in a poorer country before I arrived.

Because of this, there’s a thriving black market here for almost everything. Meat which costs a fortune in the supermarket will be hawked by anyone who can get their hands on some through methods which are not neccesarily legal.

This black market even extends to jobs. Based on people I’ve spoke to, a typical job in Havana might pay you anywhere between 300 and 700 pesos per month, that equates to 12-30 CUC or US$ per month. That is not much to live on! This makes jobs in hotels highly valued due to the comparatively lucrative tips one can earn. Jobs in most hotels are said to require the employee to speak a second language, preferably English. Many staff in the Melia Havana hotel I stayed in could not speak much English (nor it seemed French as my Spanish is currently very poor) .Yet people I met who conversed in very competent English complained that they were unable to get a job in such hotels as their English wasn’t deemed good enough and those in the hotels had gained the jobs through ‘informal’ relationships.

I’m pretty sure I’ve only scraped the surface of the country, if that. I’m not sure I understand why the incredible Capitol building isn’t used more for the government (unless they don’t like that it looks like the White House other than for tourism purposes). I haven’t got a clue why when tourists are such a lucrative source of income to the country that more is not done to get them to spend money (hint: more souvenirs or tours about the Revolution would be an excellent idea Mr Castro.)

I’ve probably sounded a touch too critical about Cuba but I really don’t want to. I love the place, the people have been so friendly, Havana and Cayo Largo have been incredibly beautiful and any country which gave the world the mojito deserves some credit! How many cities in the world will you find a scrapyard containing old steam locomotives you can climb all over but rusting away just yards away from an such an incredible capitol building?

El Capitolio

Heck, in Cuba you have an international airport that has it’s own beach at Cayo Largo, where you can hear the annoucements as you swim, if I hadn’t already cleared security and be in the bar writing this I’d be back out there catching the last few rays of the day.

Time isn’t a particularly relevant thing in Cuba, so I think I’ll have another cerveza while I continue waiting for my flight….having seen the ageing Soviet plane I’m about to get on, I might need it!

P.P.S. I survived!

Best things about travelling: Street Food

Food, glorious food goes the song from the famous musical. I’m a bit of a foodie, I love cooking as well as trying out all sorts of tasty treats. Some strange ones too – anyone for still beating snake heart?!

One of my favourite things about travelling is trying new and interesting culinary delights. Some people may think this is a problem, typically being a budget traveller and all but it really isn’t. I still believe some of the best food I’ve ever eaten has come from street vendors so I thought I’d go through some of my favourites!

Istanbul – Fish Sandwich – Balik Ekmet

Great costumes!

The Galata Bridge in Istanbul is a lively place with hoards of fisherman on the bridge itself trying their luck for the catch of the day, boats busily crossing the Bosphorus taking people between the European an Asian sides of the city along with other people mingling, shopping and going about their business. My favourite thing about this area is the food. Stall vendors shout “Balik Ekmet”, effectively meaning fish inside bread. Fresh fish is quickly grilled and served up with fresh onions inside a crispy but soft baguette. It’s tasty, cheap and served up in one the most atmospheric places you will find.

China – Virtually Everything!

Prince Philip, in his uniquely brilliant way once famous said:

“If it has four legs and is not a chair, wings but is not an aeroplane and swims and is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it.”

He’s actually making a good point, the vast variety of food consumed in China is immense. My best experience comes from taking part in the Study China programme a few years ago. Upon leaving the hotel and heading to class where we were to learn Mandarin, we would cross a street set up with tens of food stalls. By lunchtime the street would be full of life, the scent of so many different foods almost a pungent attack on the senses. Over a couple of weeks I attempted to try as much of this as possible as well as other street food in other parts of Shanghai.

I quickly found myself eating grilled goat, jiaozi dumplings (fantastic parcels filled with meat and soup – watch out for the spray when taking a bite!), Uighur kebabs, sushi, fried noodles and other items which I have not idea what they were to this day!

All of this food is incredibly cheap, intensely tasty and exciting to try. Of course there are some pitfalls along the way, ‘Stinky Tofu‘ and ‘thousand year old egg‘ are not for the faint hearted!

Vietnam – Bia Hoi

Ok so this isn’t strictly street food but it’s one of my favourite things ever from a street vendor. Bia Hoi is Vietnam’s contribution to the world of brewing, it’s a freshly brewed lager and distributed daily to outlets all over the cities. The brew itself only lasts around 24 hours and has clean, refreshing taste that can vary from day to day and brew to brew.

I think I'd had a few at this point.....

A glass will vary in size and price but typically costs around 15 pence (that’s about 25 cents to those who work in American). After a hot and humid day in Vietnam, this is just about the best way to relax and watch the world go by.

Calcutta – Jhall Muri (Bhel Puri) 

There’s a tonne of good food in India (ok I admit some of it might give you a bit of Delhi belly) but my favourite was found late at night down a tiny little back street street in Calcutta courtesy of a friend.

Learn while you eat!

Jhall Muri, more typically know as Bhel Puri is a kind of puffed rice snack with vegetables and a tamarind sauce. There’s various spices thrown in along with some chutneys giving it a pleasantly spicy flavour. Typically it’s served up in a paper cone, though in my case an old accountancy textbook! Just a bit weird as I was working as an accountant at the time.

Something from London – The Ribman!

There’s something pretty dull about when you’re back in your home country and the typical office lunch in Pret a Manger, I’m really not a fan. When I’m working I really need a break from the office midway through the day for something different. Well I’m pretty lucky because around the corner from my office I have Eat St. Wednesday through Friday a host of different vendors serving anything from Indian style burger wraps to Vietnamese Banh Mi and Mexican Burritos descend in the middle of a building site between King’s Cross and St Pancras stations.

The best of these has to be “The Ribman”. Serving up soft, succulent pork ribs pulled off the bone and put in a roll or a wrap it is simply amazing. To top it off, it is served with barbecue sauce Texans would be jealous of as well as his own special “Holy Fuck” sauce. It pretty much does as it says on the tin, packed with the hottest Scotch Bonnet and Naga chillies it really does make you say “Holy Fuck that’s hot!” 

Good feed!

For any Londoners, I strongly recommend a visit. Thursday is rib day! It’s one thing I’m going to miss when I go travelling.

The above is by no means an exclusive list of the best street food, just some of my favourites, leave a comment with your best suggestions. I’ll keep you posted with the best street food I come across in Cuba, Canada, Central & South America!