(Sending from an Internet cafe that was one difficult puppy to find. Thank heaven that on this one day we have a guide who’s showing us the sights and keeping us from stumbling into the wrong places — which in this city do abound.)
After a chill, miserable night in the Miami airport, I was finally on my way to Parts Unknown on Friday morning.
The first sign of things finally going well in a very un-American way was when the airline (based in my destination country) handed out free breakfasts. No $10 meal charge. Sure, the mealettes were composed of the same general approximation of food that all air travelers know and hate. But they were accompanied by — gasp! — actual metal utensils. You know, the kind with sharp points and edges.
You’ll be very relieved to know that not a single passenger picked up his butter knife and tried to hijack the plane (although I can well understand Kent McManigal’s point in a comments section a few days ago that, if sufficiently poked, prodded, inconvenienced, and officially assaulted in an airport, he could “kill with tweezers.”)
I reached the ground safely, and even before I was out of the jetway felt the embrace of warm tropical air. Home!
My second sign of things un-American came when I handed my customs declaration form to the agent at the counter next to the xray machine. On the line asking if I was importing any “fruits, trees, snails, spores” or whatever it said, I had scrupulously confessed to having an apple and a bags of dried fruit in my bag. Figured it was better to ‘fess right up and have my precious dried apricots taken away than it would be to have them discovered as contraband in a random luggage search. But the bored agent took my form, turned it face-down on the stack without looking at it and waved me toward the airport door.
Now, it’s just after dawn on my second day and I’m writing from my $8 hostel room. It’s 7:00 and the air is already sticky, though comfortably cool.
The window next to the bed opens out onto a courtyard of crumbling brick, tin roofs, rusted iron railings, rubble, and ferns that grow from cracks in the walls. Makeshift electrical wiring crisscrosses the open space, as it does in nearly every ally and street in the neighborhood.
Lorri and I are spending our first few days in the old-town area of the city. For $8 a night apiece, we weren’t expecting much and as you can imagine, we’re getting what we expected. Our room is very … er, basic. The bathroom’s down the hall. You bring your own soap. The shower is one temperature — cold (but not so cold, here in the tropics, that it makes you want to jump and shout). And I’ll have to cut this entry short because there isn’t even an electrical outlet in the room. But it’s clean and safe and it’s leaving us enough money to spend our money on tourist geegaws and fantastic food, instead.
Old town is the strangest mix of horrifying slum and gentrification. To get into the district, you pass through barrio of a degree that’s hard for an American brain to adapt to. The buildings were once beautiful, in a sort of Frenchish, Spanishish, Portugesish colonial style. But now they’re falling down around their residents (who are mostly swarming in the narrow streets).
Once through that scary place, the main part of the district is … well, just like that. But next to those buildings will be their restored cousins, resplendant with balconies, cornices, french doors, and signs advertising them for sale or rent at big-city prices. We’ve already met one young restauranteur from New York who rents his New Orleans-style apartment for $1700 a month. And that’s only about two blocks from our humble hostel.
One block will be swarming with American and European tourists. On the next, nobody but natives. On these streets, I’m forever expecting somebody to panhandle us. But it hasn’t happened.
The closest thing to that comes in the touristy streets and plazas, where craftspeople lay out their wares. Tiny ladies of an Indian tribe, in full regalia, constitute the largest subgroup of these folks. And once they make eye contact, they will not let you go. “T’ree dollah!” they insist (though they may otherwise speak not a word of English. Or “Cinco dollah!” if they think you might be Spanish or Italian.
Lorri and I explain that we’re not going to buy any of their wares today because we’re going to travel to their part of the country shortly and will buy there. To a woman, they utterly ignore that, though we do our best to explain in bits of what we hope is common language. “Six dolloras!” they continue to implore. “You buy.”
Sometimes, we do buy. What the heck. We’re tourists after all.
I have to cut this short now because I don’t know when I’ll next see an electrical plug. But I’m having a ball here already. Ask me later whether it’s great enough here to make up for those repulsive U.S. airport experiences. Sigh. I don’t look forward to the second round of them on the way back. But I’m loving this.