Cuba:Our Gran in Havana

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I’ve been fascinated by Cuba since I studied it for A-Level history – one of the essays I wrote for the exam was about the future of the island after the death of Castro.

That was over 20 years ago. And of course Fidel is still (apparently) alive, and brother Raul presides over a country that has already seen huge changes, with many more to come. President Obama arrives in Cuba next week, the first serving US president since Coolidge in 1928, and the Stars and Stripes are already flying over the US Embassy.

If he manages to lift the 60-year trade embargo and starts flights from the US, I can guarantee that Cuba will never be the same again. But the good news is that you’ve got time to see it now – and despite a lack of published information on how to travel there independently it is perfectly possible (and indeed easy) – and a great place to have a cheap and authentic holidays with the family. Here’s how we (and my still intrepid parents, one of whom I must thank for the terrible pun at the beginning of this blog), spent two weeks seeing and loving Cuba – and how you could do it too.

  1. Don’t panic about getting in

Doing Cuba independently looks hard from the outside but really isn’t. There are still few flights from London to Havana (more to Varadero but that is more for resort lovers). There are lots to Cancun however, and it’s a skip and a jump from there to Havana on Mexican budget airline Interjet (which has a lot of sales). If you fly from the UK your ‘tourist card’ is included, and if you go from Mexico you just buy it at the counter before you go. It’s not an India-style visa process – they really don’t care where you come from and it costs between £10 and £15 – cheaper in Mexican pesos than dollars.

There’s no interrogation at immigration either – the usual fascination about whether the girls are twins was as bad as it got (though I always want to answer ‘yes, they’re identical, I just only feed one of them’, as there’s quite the size difference). Print out your health insurance certificate – they may ask to see it – and could force you to buy their expensive insurance if you don’t. You’ll need an address for the first night to put on the tourist card, so you will need to book this in advance – more on that below.

  1. Stay in a casa particular

Cuban hotels are expensive and few and far between. However, there’s a family-friendly alternative. Since 2011, families have been allowed to rent out their spare rooms to tourists under a (heavily regulated) system known as Casas Particulares (private homes). These are fantastic value, vary in quality and can be booked in advance – but must be paid in cash once you get there.

Casas Particulares are great for families for several reasons

  1. They will usually put a child bed in a room for free
  2. They are usually family homes, and Cubans love children – the girls have been thoroughly spoiled with sweeties
  3. They do dinner and great cocktails in many cases, so you can stay in once the children have gone to bed. In many places the dinners in the Casas are better than the restaurants.
  4. You put your money in the pockets of the Cuban people – not just the people in  whose room you stay, but those they employ.
  5. They always have airconditioning or a fan, and often have televisions too.
  6. They are great value at around £18 a night for three without breakfast.

Because most Cuban families do not have internet at home, finding a Casa before you go can be tricky. Most people suggest you find them when you get there, but that’s not very practical when there are six of you, or you have children with you – and you’ll need an address for your visa. Instead I’d recommend the following websites

www.bbinnvinales.com – which gave me by far the best booking experience –but be sure to check the casas on tripadvisor first – they vary.

www.hostelsclub.com – you pay a deposit with these guys and I don’t think the casa owners receive it, so just be aware of that.

www.mycasaincuba.com – for direct contact with casa owners

www.cuba-junky.com – great site for casas

Our Casas varied from the professional – complete with uniformed staff, to family homes with a few rooms. We loved nearly all – it was the people that made them so special. Of course it helps that we speak Spanish, but most had at least one English speaker and many spoke English very well – also, it’s amazing what can be achieved with sign language.

  1. Get around relatively simply

Most guidebooks advise you to use the Viazul bus, a tourist-oriented bus that runs to most major cities, is air-conditioned and can now be booked online (www.viazul.com). However, we found that demand mostly outstripped supply – we just couldn’t get tickets.

With six of us, booking private transfers proved almost as cost effective, and sometimes cheaper,  especially as they picked us up from the door of one casa and deposited us in another. We booked private transfers through www.bestcubaguide.com and www.taxivinalescuba.com.

Both worked well, but in retrospect I think it was unnecessary. Instead, we should have relied on the fantastic network of taxi drivers with their 50-plus year old American cars that seat a family (even a family of six) comfortably. More fun, and more stylish. And much better pictures. But no seatbelts – just as well most of the other traffic is horses and Cubans don’t drive fast. There are horse-drawn taxis in the cities too (not put on for tourists, for everyone!)

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  1. Remember the beaches

Cuba is an island, right – so when you’re fed up with seeing the sights (and children will find this wearing) there’s usually a beach you can head to with a quick taxi ride. We tried the beach just outside Cienfuegos, which was virtually empty but very clean, and the more popular beaches at Ancon – outside Trinidad, and Varadero, 40 minutes from Matanzas. All were lovely. Again, finding a taxi to take us there and back was no problem.

  1. Take a break from the internet.

Do not expect constant wifi in Cuba, unless you are staying in a five-star hotel. Instead, print out the confirmations from the casas that you are staying at (including their phone numbers, since you will need to call ahead to reconfirm your stay in many cases – the casa owner before is usually happy to do this for you). Also take a guidebook or three, even if you usually do without. We had the Lonely Planet and two more local guides (all on Kindle), which really helped.

 

When you do really need internet, there are hotspots outside in each city (spot the huddles of Cubans on their phones) but speeds are slow. You need to buy cards from state-telco Etecsa (two CUC an hour) which you can sometimes arbitrarily buy from posh hotels and sometimes have to queue for hours with half of Cuba. So buy plenty when you can- the posh hotels in Cienfuegos were the best for getting them with ease.  And print out this – a list of every wifi hotspot and hotel offering the service in Cuba. Also, do warn people you won’t be in touch a lot, though internet in Cuba is improving fast.

  1. Do your money homework

Getting hold of money is tricky in Cuba, but not as tricky as you might believe. Do your homework. Cuba has a dual currency system at present. Tourists mostly pay in convertible pesos – which are worth about the same as a US dollar and are known as CUC. Locals mostly deal in non convertible pesos, known variously as Moneda Nacional or CUP. Confused yet? There are 22 or so CUP to the CUC so you need to know which currency your meals are priced in – or the surprise may be painful.

You can’t get CUC outside Cuba or take them out. Instead you can convert your cash at exchange places called Cadecas, or at the bank if you’ve got all the time in the world. You can also get money out of ATMs. Cadecas have long lines, and (at the time of writing) penalise you if you have US dollars. Pounds are fine, and Mexican pesos have a poor rate. We took pounds. If you want CUP, you can ONLY get them from Cadecas. They are good for street food and local restaurants, if you’re wondering why you’d need them.

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ATMS work more reliably than we had expected but don’t rely on your Mastercard. Although there has been a lot of fanfare about the cards being unblocked for use in Cuba at the end of 2015, this doesn’t seem to have translated to any practical change on the ground. Hence the cautionary tale of the man my parents met on the plane who had to spent the whole of his time in an all-inclusive resort in Varadero booked through an agency once he arrived because he couldn’t get any money at all. He hated it. Don’t get caught out. Our Visa debits worked fine.

Also, just to warn you, they frequently close the Cadecas so they can fumigate them against Zika (something they are doing everywhere, weekly, so that we were constantly followed around by men with smoking blaster things) – which is frustrating if you need cash.

  1. Leave your foodie pretensions at home

Cuban food has apparently improved massively of late. However, Paris this ain’t. It is still very hard to get most type of produce and it takes a very talented chef to make the most of what’s there. Even if the chefs you meet are talented you will get sick of the following; eggs (all ways), rice, beans, fried bananas, and papaya – because it is ALWAYS papaya season…

Cuban pizza is very doughy, but the kids liked it. They also liked a lot of fried chicken and in a pinch would eat the always-available cheese sandwiches. There’s not a lot of spice, which is good for kids but may be bad for you  – bad for us after months in chile-loving Mexico – take your own Tabasco. But you didn’t come to Cuba for the food, right? Some places in Havana were particularly excellent, including Castas Y Tal (Cuban Spanish fusion) and 5 Esquinas (for pizza). Most other places were standard fare done more or less well.

Portions were usually huge, particularly at breakfast. Always remember (and remind your kids) that pulling together a breakfast like that has probably taken your Casa owner hours when it comes to queuing for and finding ingredients. This will help you to be more appreciative when faced with yet another fried egg and the knowledge that there are no chips, (no potatoes) or limes (not the right season). Instead, it’s fried bananas again.

While I’m on the subject of food, there are shops that tourists can’t shop in. They are called Bodegas, and these are where Cubans can use their ration books (libretas). Anywhere else, you’re fine – though don’t expect there to be much available.

  1. Get off the beaten track

We didn’t remove ourselves much from the tourist trail – which is populated with older people – UK Saga tours and the German and French equivalents in the main I think. We went to Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus, Santa Clara and Matanzas – but that didn’t mean we couldn’t get away from the busyness.

In most places the centres are thronged with tour groups (particularly in Trinidad), but the crowds thin out quickly away from the centre. Find your own Cuba by getting lost and talking to the locals. It’s far more rewarding.

Sancti Spiritus was the least touristy place we visited– the central square at night was full of locals going to poetry readings and dancing to live music. Havana, too, is big enough that outside the very centre you can find your own space . Thankfully this is a country where culture isn’t put on for the tourists, so you don’t have to walk too far to find Cubans enjoying a great night out.

  1. Listen and interact

From playing Monopoly with a university professor (who’d learned the game from a clandestine set handed down by her grandmother) to discussing politics with the taxi drivers and doctors – most Cubans are keen to share their stories. They don’t all speak English though.

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We watched, with some disbelief, the state English teaching on Cuban telly, which was teaching apparently common English subjunctive phrases including ‘Perish the Thought’, ‘God Save Our Merry Band’ and – perhaps most surreally – God Save the Alpacas. With teaching like this, you can see why a few words of Spanish will go a long way.

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There’s no Peppa Pig, but the children can enjoy Cuban state telly, which seems to be mainly biopics of Hugo Chavez and long news programmes with few graphics (in lieu of a backdrop the news presenter was required to hold a baseball in his left hand during the sports news, to demonstrate what he was talking about). If you want to know what the weather is doing at home, forget it, as the forecast only covers Venezuela, Russia and other old allies – the sun always shines on the Socialists, it appears.

The Cubans have lived through astonishing times and have astonishing stories to tell. I can’t pretend to understand the conditions they live in, or the discrepancies caused by their dual monetary system (which led to doctors coming off their night shifts cooking our breakfast – because state-paid consultants earn the equivalent of $60 a MONTH for their work). But I know a little more than I did – and I asked a billion (badly grammatically phrased) questions. People were pleased to answer them.

So that’s Cuba. I hope I haven’t put you off. Will you love it? Well, that very much depends on your point of view. If beautiful decay is your thing, then you’ll adore it , but my Mum thinks it will be ‘nice when it’s finished’.

Whatever you think, you can’t go anywhere else like it. Drive down the main motorway of the country in a vintage car overtaking horses as you go, watch people dancing in the central square at night (and join in), and sample the remarkable community spirit that has got the Cuban people through decades of hardship.

Don’t expect to dip your toe into this particular river twice.  The Americans are coming, and everything is about to change. Do consider that this may be your last chance to experience a country with no advertising (except propaganda), no Coca Cola (except the local sort, which is much better – it’s the cane sugar, apparently) and almost no violence – I’ve never felt so utterly safe at night.

Will change be a good thing? Again, it depends on your point of view. After all how can I, from the comfort of my western lifestyle, begrudge hard-working Cubans an easier ride?

But after another UK Budget (warning, soapbox alert) that neatly distributed  cash away from the poor to the rich, and seems set to ruin the free education and health systems that are the jewels in the British crown  – I can’t help thinking that the price of shiny new appliances and Coca Cola in every shop might turn out to be very high indeed for Cuba, just as it is for us.

Rather like the British public, the Cubans might found out that they didn’t know what they had till it’s gone for good. And (with apologies, once again, to Joni Mitchell) paradise it may not be, but the world doesn’t need any more parking lots.

Hasta la victoria siempre (as they say). Towards victory, always.

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Adventures in Mexico: Palenque and Taxco

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Mexico is big. Really big. You might think it’s a long way down the road to the chemists..etc..etc.As well as being big, it’s massively diverse, which is why we are thankfully able to shrug off the fears about violence in the country touching us when we travel. Chiapas, thankfully, still feels incredibly safe- Zapatistas notwithstanding.

But we do occasionally get out of our San Cristobal comfort bubble, and when we do things can be quite different. In the last month we’ve done two Mexico trips, the second of which in particular, highlighted the problems Mexico has faced and is facing..

Trip one, on the way back from Belize, was a quick stop in Palenque, to see some Mayan ruins. The girls, after all, are living in a city famous for its indigenous culture, so not to see the cities left by the mysterious Mayans would have been a shame. They’ve been before, but didn’t remember it. Whether they will this time or not is not clear.

Paul and I have been reading a book called 1491, about indigenous culture before Columbus arrived. It’s highly recommended, eyeopening, and has helped us to see Mayan culture a different way, and Palenque with fresh eyes (just as well, as we’ve seen the stone pyramids a good few times now). The girls played Ever After High dollies around the site, but enjoyed the Chetumal Mayan museum, which allowed them to try out the bizarre Mayan counting system (base 20, anyone?)

Trip two, on the way to Cuba, was three nights in Taxco, the silver mining town where Paul did his first Spanish course. Taxco is one of the pearls of Mexico’s tourism scene – impossibly steep streets filled with white buildings and white VW beetles, where every other shop sells silver and the rest sell handicrafts.

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We go to visit our friend Yareri, who owns a restaurant there, and also because it is a beautiful place. But this time we really noticed how Taxco and its surrounding area have really suffered from the narco-trafficking related violence in the North and Centre, which barely touches us in the South.

Having flown into Mexico City we went straight from the airport to Cuernavaca, a monied town where rich Mexicans used to have their holiday homes. However, it was recently named the most violent town in Mexico. The streets were empty of people (and if you know the Mexicans and their love of parading round the main square of an evening you’ll know how weird this is). We stayed in a lovely, if oldfashioned, flat for the night – and chose not to go out except to go straight to the bus station in the morning. Here, the pictures of the women who have disappeared from around the area (violence against women is also a huge problem) were another stark reminder of Mexico’s problems.

Taxco was better, but still subdued. Many restaurants and shops have closed, and Yareri has moved her restaurant inside a local hotel, partly to deal with the downturn in tourists. Times have been hard, she said, though the violence has decreased massively in recent years and the tourists are coming back. Just look at these views to see why you should be one of them!

In Taxco we bought silver (naturally), ate quails eggs for breakfast (so cheap out there that Yareri can’t get her restaurant staff to eat them), and went to visit the old Aztec silver mine that’s been found underneath one of the local hotels (Posada de la Mision, if you’re going). The girls are very impressed to have their own rocks with seams of gold and silver running through them – always fun to pack too, of course.

We enjoyed discussing politics with Yareri  – curiously I always feel my Spanish improves after a few glasses of wine at the Sotavento restaurant… I suspect the mistakes are just more in evidence…

It was good to see Taxco again, but sad to see the harm that violence has done to this wonderful place where families depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Soon enough it was time for us to travel back through Cuernavaca to the airport (with only one vomiting child incident along the way – is Clover the only person in the world who feels that a slice of Sachertorte is the best way to get over being violently travel sick?), ready to catch our flight to Cuba in the morning. Three weeks ahead of Obama as it happens – it’s good to be ahead of the curve. Hasta la victoria, siempre (as they say…)

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You’d better Belize it, baby

 It’s the Pope’s first visit to Mexico, and (lucky old us) he’s chosen San Cristobal as one of the four privileged places to get a visit. And who can blame him? Probably he last came here on his Gap Year. As a result though, San C has gone a bit ‘Pope mad’.

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As the local Argentinian restaurant, where a papier mache Pope Francisco has replaced the customary statue of Maradona, charmingly puts it; ‘todos vienen con papa’. The words for Pope and potato are the same (though the Pope gets a capital). It’s either fries, or popes, with everything.

They’ve cleaned up the cathedral – only seriously injuring one worker in the process (health and safety on scaffolding not really being a big deal here) and there are dire warnings of thousands of pilgrims on their way from Guatemala, Honduras and elsewhere, as well as threatened water shortages and closed streets. And the Swiss Guard are apparently everywhere; with guns.

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There’s only one thing for a sensible travelling family to do, and that’s to take some serious anti-papal measures. Fortunately we’ve a cast-iron excuse since our friends the Ashcrofts are travelling to Belize to meet us. It’s only the next country after all, how hard can it be?

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Turns out getting to Belize involves an epic journey, made even longer by the fact that the locals in Oxchuc – an indigenous village on the way to the Mexican border – have been burning the first-class buses in an attempt to register their dissatisfaction over a political dispute. So the buses are going a (very) long way round –adding three hours and an awful lot of windy bends to our overnight journey.

Snuggly blankets (two metres of fleece each from the local fabric shop) and some seriously strong travel sickness pills ensure we slumber most of the way, although there’s some alarm when the bus hits either a hole (olla) or chicken (pollo) at some speed at about 4am. Still not sure which it was, as the old ladies at the front providing a running commentary had very thick accents. Wasn’t fun, anyway. At about 5am, an entrepreneurial ‘egg exporter’ got a telling off from the authorities, as you’re not supposed to carry eggs across Mexican states apparently – the constant checking for food and fowl from the military rather disturbed our sleep.

First-class buses (when they aren’t being burned) are not a bad way to get around Mexico, and used to be the only way before lower cost flights were introduced. Though (look away now, NCT group) they always include some unsuitable violent films and a fizzy drink for free. The girls were delighted by this. Fortunately the very posh buses come with headphones nowadays, which means the violence can be seen but not heard and the travel pills we picked up in Bangkok were, as I mentioned, very good at inducing sleep – probably illegal in the UK, but they came from Boots Bangkok, so I’m reassured.

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It’s a 16 hour journey – thanks to the Oxchucians – from San C to Chetumal, which borders Belize. Then there’s a quick taxi ride to the border itself – an informal place where they want to know if we’re trafficking fruit. “You have apples? How many apples?” “One” – “Oh, that’s alright then.”

Belize, if you’ve never heard of it (which wouldn’t be a surprise) is a a little bit of England in Central America. A former colony, once known as British Honduras, it’s been independent since 1981 but still has the Queen as a head of state. She looks very young on the coins – don’t think they’ve been replaced in a while.

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With a diverse, not to mention tiny, population of mestizos, Mayans, Garifuna (mixed race but of African descent) and vegetable-growing Mennonites in dungarees, it’s a curious place. English is the main language, but many speak Creol (sounds like English, but isn’t) or Spanish.

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Belize feels like pirate country, and that’s really because it is. For most of history nobody wanted the place, and it was run by Baymen – buccaneers and then loggers. What it now has in abundance is space (the lowest population density in Central America) and nature (and apparently some great Mayan ruins, but we didn’t see them).

We started our Belize adventure in Hopkins, a Garifuna village that the guidebooks describe as ‘laid back’. So delighted to see Peter and Rachel (who are Clover’s godparents) along with two year old Miriam and baby Clem. The children are the same age as ours were last time we did a big trip, so we were quite nostalgic. Also quite impressed – they aren’t easy travelling ages, but Peter and Rachel made it look easy.

 

What to say about Hopkins? Great beach, if not great weather, and beautiful sunsets. We did very little – walked along the beach, ate pizza, went in the sea.

 

It emerged very quickly that Hopkins may have been laid back once, but is rapidly being colonised by retired Americans – who can live in Belize for free, so frequently do. They’ve paid a lot for their beach access villas, and they don’t want you to pass over their area of beach – even if you’re not doing any harm. That kind of land management leaves an unpleasant taste – even if the large American who asked us not to walk past his house backed down pretty rapidly when he realised we really weren’t any trouble. If Belize allows much more of this, it could quickly lose the laid-back vibe that brings the tourists in. Privatising beach access is a sad state of affairs.

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Belize is expensive, too – a shock after Mexico. We cooked for ourselves a lot – enjoying the fact that you can buy sausages that actually taste like sausages, but also enjoyed fantastic seafood at local restaurants, and lots of lobster. The girls loved a bar where you could play giant Jenga in particular.

After a few days in Hopkins, we got a car and water taxi to Caye Caulker, an island so relaxed that it makes Hopkins look uptight. Here, despite continuing windy weather, we did some amazing snorkelling. The girls were brave (the sea was pretty rough) venturing out on the reef, where we saw huge turtles close up, as well as sting rays, nurse sharks, coral and eels. Paul, it emerges, is not a good sailor in rough seas, and felt much better when we returned. However, these are his pictures from the waterproof camera we were loaned. Impressive stuff. Clover still refuses to breathe through a snorkel pipe, but enjoyed using the mask, and Daisy is becoming a champion snorkeller.

Daisy and Clover enjoyed hanging out with Miriam – there’s nothing like being adored for being a big girl to lift the spirits, and we enjoyed hanging out with Clem, Peter and Rachel, drinking inappropriately named cocktails on the rooftop at sundown. The rum was cheap, even if the vegetables weren’t, and the drink of choice appears to be a Panty Ripper (pineapple juice and rum, to the uninitiated).. We also managed a night out – thanks for the babysitting!

Daisy and Clover made a friend or two and spent a happy afternoon with them shaking tourists down for cash by trying to sell them seeds they picked off the floor. They spent the cash on sweets from the local store. Not sure whether to be proud or horrified by their ‘Young Enterprise’ tendencies.

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Hair-braiding, Bob Marley in every bar and a Caribbean vibe that’s distinctly lacking in Mexico means that Belize felt like a really different experience, even to the Mexican seaside. It was so nice to share it with friends too. Didn’t really want to leave. Caye Caulker’s motto appears to be ‘go slow’ – and we’d just about slowed down enough by the time we came to leave. Pretty sure we’ll be back, despite the horrifically long bus journey.

In other recent news, we’ve had our five minutes of fame in the last few weeks. One article in the Telegraph (here) and one in the Mail (here) about our trip. Some extraordinary comments on the bottom of both – particularly love the criticisms of my trousers, the girls’ haircuts (which I admit were terrible, but there wasn’t much else available in Cambodia), and the fact that they’re not learning any physics (yes, obviously that’s my main worry, too). Oh, and one Daily Mail reader thinks I should be in jail. Interesting times –  though I’m grateful for all the reader support I received too. Quite glad to be back on more mundane subjects this week.

 

Tech for travelling families- what should you pack, prep and download?

The advance of technology has transformed our ability to pack for a long term trip, compared to our last big adventure, six years ago, when Daisy was two and a half and Clover a baby.

Where once we had bag fulls of books, computers so heavy and fragile that we packed them in our children’s Grobags and acres of paper, we can now travel lighter and access more thanks to more reliable wifi and better ways of making use of it. The downside is the yards of cableage we have to pack with us, falling out of our bags like snakes every time we pass Security. But if you’re wondering what to take for the kids for a long (or even a short) trip – here’s what we’d recommend (or not, in some cases).

And yes, you could be sanctimonious and say that travelling should be about leaving the screens behind – but we’re also realists. The world is big, and sometimes hard work whether you are little or big. Technology can make it seem both easier and smaller, which can be a very good thing.

Hardware

 Kindles – the plain vanilla type

Lots of people suggested we just took the girls a tablet (such as the Kindle Fire) which also works as an e-reader – but we resisted the temptation. Why? Because, Puritan that I am, I wanted some distinction between the books that they read and the tablets that they watch and play on. I also wanted to be able to police the time they spent playing games but not limit reading.

Cheap Kindles for the girls have been the answer – we considered the backlit ones which Paul and I have, but I’m afraid they got the cheap ones. I caught them using them to weight down a den wall yesterday, so I feel this decision was justified on purely economic grounds. Also, our backlit Paperwhites are great for Indian trains in the dark, but not so great when you are trying to stop the children reading til 10pm when they get to a particularly exciting bit.

The Kindle Family system allows us to download the same books onto both girls’ Kindles, and on to ours, and I can see what they’re reading. Since both of them devour books at speed, we’d never have been able to carry enough for them otherwise. And they tend to like to read the same books at the same time – so Kindles save arguments.

Guidebooks on Kindle are still a work in progress, I think (maps are too small) but I’d still rather have them than carry heavy paper versions around the world, useful as they have been in the past when we’ve run out of toilet paper in an emergency. Yes, I know…scratchy.

Tablets

The girls received a Hudl 2 each for their birthdays before we left home. They are neat little tablets, with excellent child safety settings and rubbish battery life. We can set the number of hours they are allowed a day (and change it on travelling days so they get more). The tablets allow their favourite apps (Android) as well as very limited internet access – they use them to play and to learn. Shame Hudls are being discontinued – they’ve done exactly what we need them to do, though they have odd glitches – the volume sometimes goes unacceptably high for no reason, leading to huge rows, and software updates lead to things not working until they are painstakingly reset.

Headphones

If everyone is not to be driven mad – headphones are a must. Small children can’t keep the ‘in the ear’ ones in – so the girls have over ear ones like this. They’ve worked in many buses and planes as well (though not all, as some still have those funny earphone sockets which require two prongs – that’s probably not the technical term). We also have a headphone splitter – like this, so both girls can listen to the same film at the same time.

iPad

Actually belongs to Paul and me – but excellent for Skype and Facetime playdates – girls frequently wander off into their room with cousins or friends online to play dollies for an hour. It’s a welcome link with home, when the wifi’s good. Frustrating when its not – everyone looks like they are part of a Minecraft game.

Macbook Air

Mine, actually, and technically for work. Somehow still popular with everyone, judging by the sticky stains on the keyboard. Standing up well to the travelling life, despite a dodgy trackpad supplemented by a £2 Guatemalan plastic mouse.

Acer laptop

Paul’s. Distinctly dodgy – we bought it in a Malaysian IT mall because I kept hogging the other laptop. It frequently crashes, and the Microsoft package, which we were assured was legit, is pretty obviously not. Oops.

USB charger

Chargers are a big deal when you’re travelling – so this neat little block, which I can’t find online but this gives you the general idea, takes four cords and little space and allows us to charge on the go. Many buses and trains now also have charging points, which helps.

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Mobile phones

Three of them. Two on our UK numbers, and an unlocked iPhone that’s had more Sims in it than a few – giving us 3g coverage everywhere from Myanmar to Mexico. Much cheaper than any roaming plan, and peace of mind when I’m working on the road.

The airport is usually a good place to pick up an unlocked Sim – this site is a great resource for most countries. It’s usually correct, but mobile phone coverage is a fast -moving game in most developing countries so also check on the ground.

Apps, sites and ‘software’

Communication

What’s App: free texts to friends and colleagues wherever you’ve got wifi. What’s not to like?

Skype: Despite sometimes dodgy connections, Skype is great for almost free work calls (though I don’t route them through a UK number so people sometimes think they’re being spammed when a ‘000’ number comes up). Paul’s Gran doesn’t use the internet so we can also call her for cheap – she can’t quite believe it only costs us pennies. Also great for video-calling non-Mac friends.

FacetTime: Free video (or audio) calling from iPhones/iPads/Macs. Usually seems to be clearer than Skype for some reason.

Touchnote: Because sometimes sending a physical card is important. We buy credits in bulk and use them to send the children’s drawings for birthday or Christmas cards, or picture postcards of us on our travels to friends and family. Because no-one prints an email out and puts it on the fridge. They usually arrive in the UK in two days.

Education

Duolingo: Free language learning app with some bizarre sentences (‘the penguin sleeps next to the cat’ anyone?) but great gamification that keeps the girls interested. They do 15 minutes a day to supplement the Spanish at school. It really helps. Wish we’d started it sooner.

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The School Run

They’ve done the homeschool work so we don’t have to. Probably unnecessary for anyone whose child is in a UK school – though pitched as a homework aid and adjunct to schooling, it provides worksheets for the entire curriculum as well as progress tests. Since the girls need to go back to UK school life next year, we use it to ensure we’re covering the right stuff – and use a USB stick to get worksheets printed out as we go. Not a replacement for teaching, but very handy. Paid for.

Squeebles (various)

Good games for times tables and fractions. Not tried the rest but the girls don’t resist these. Paid for.

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Getting around

Tripadvisor             

Of course. Not always perfect but useful when you’ve just arrived anywhere for restaurants, cafes, and opening hours – and saves you just going to the five places mentioned in the Lonely Planet.

TravelKhana

Specialist but brilliant – get curry delivered to any seat on an Indian train – like some kind of magic – preventing both starvation and food poisoning. Works about 50 per cent of the time- so also bring crisps…

Google Maps

Goes without saying. Geographer Paul’s favourite way of ensuring we don’t get cheated by a taxi driver going the long way round, and are ready to get off at our destination on a long-distance bus. Also more prosaically, for walking along the street.

Girls’ favourites

Monster High, Ever After High, Lego ArtMaker

Noisy, free, and with in-app purchases disabled. I am a financial journalist after all.

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Netflix

Everyone’s favourite. A great improvement from the grainy YouTube children’s cartoon videos Daisy used to get six years ago. And there’s nothing like rewatching Gavin & Stacey to make you feel closer to home when the kids have gone to bed.

What have we missed? All suggestions gratefully received!

Mexico: Our bread and butter time

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My Mum, with the relish only the primary school teacher can give to this phrase, used to describe this time of year as the “bread and butter term”. No Christmas fun, no sports days, just plain old learning was her reasoning. Jam for the summer term, and jam for the lead up to Christmas, but never jam today.

Sometimes bread and butter can be a good thing. Short as our ‘bread and butter’ time is in San Cristobal we are enjoying hunkering down and getting on with it this month. Which means we have very little to report that would interest anyone but our dearest friends. But for those who are interested, here’s what’s going on.

School      

The girls are back at the Semillas de Luz, and becoming more fluent in Spanish. It is great to see them playing with friends, using words to communicate and even doing their school presentations in a foreign language. Daisy is doing architecture this term (making Angkor Wat out of junk modelling) and Clover has a music project (instruments from rubbish). There is still a lot of gardening, and they’ve just been to the bug museum where Daisy held a tarantula. They are enjoying themselves.

Poor kids are also being pushed through the UK curriculum in the afternoons – and doing well. Paul is being rapidly put off ever becoming a teacher – but thankfully is more patient than I would ever be.

My one contribution is to the literary end of things. Having finished When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (a great favourite – and good for the travelling child) and Tom’s Midnight Garden, we’re now onto Wonder – which is a fabulous book with lots of different narrators, looking at the life of a child with a facial disfigurement. (better than it sounds, I promise). Daisy has just finished Heidi and is on to Charlotte’s Web, and Clover is reading Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. I am very grateful for their Kindles, which allow us to download what the girls want when they run out of reading matter.

That, and Duolingo (a free language learning app) once a day is keeping us all busy.

Spanish

Not theirs, mine! I’m still having lessons with Reggie at the lovely Instituto Jovel, and getting to the point where I can express what I actually want to say. It’s not so much the vocab, more the constructions where I need to say ‘I would have done this but then this happened’ that I struggle with. Paul remains awesomely ahead of me.

Pilates

A killer. Someone said it was gentle. I’m not finding it so. Three times a week – it must be making a difference by now. It’s also expanding my vocabulary – I’m now good on ‘wrists’, ‘ankles’. ‘bend’ and ‘stretch’ – not to mention being able to grunt sarcastically in a sort of Spanish way.

Work

Thankfully the wifi here works well, so so can I. January has been frantic – I feel very fortunate to have a job I can do from here, though there have been a few 4:30am wakeups to do calls – after which I have slumped back to bed. The time difference means I’m always behind.

 

Play

Seeing friends, going for tacos, trying out San Cristobal’s much-improved bar scene and hosting the odd playdate makes life seem fairly normal. Sometimes I forget I’m in Mexico until I step out of the door. This is a beautiful place and we’re lucky to be here.

Planning our next steps

Two more countries to go in February. First up, Belize (neatly coinciding with the Pope’s visit to San C, which promises to be incredibly uncomfortable) with some lovely friends, followed by a trip to Cuba with my parents. Lots of planning.

So all in all, we’re busy but boring at the moment. More excitement to follow on our next trip (which involves an overnight bus to Chetumal, avoiding some rioting locals in Oxchuc) and then beach time followed by Mayan ruins. For now, Hasta Luego.

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Guatemala Two: Lagos and Lagatijas

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Ever been to Lago Atitlan? If not, you’ll just have to take Aldous Huxley’s word for it. The Brave New World author famously described the Guatemalan lake as “too much of a good thing”.

“Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes,” he points out.

You rather get the feeling that Huxley would have been happier at Windermere. Certainly Atitlan didn’t have very many teashops, and there is definitely no pencil museum. The Lake District it ain’t.

However, we chose it as a place to celebrate New Year because it looked very pretty. What we didn’t realise is that lots of hippies – or ‘rainbow children’, if you want the local lingo, also choose to celebrate New Year there as part of a ‘Cosmic Convergence’ festival that involves a lot more dance music than we’d usually go for at New Year.

Hippies like Atitlan because they believe it is a vortex energy field, like the Egyptian pyramids. As a result they’ve pretty much colonised various towns on the edge of the lake, which now have an odd two-storey feel – hippies on the bottom and Mayans further up in the hills (sensible Mayans – the lake level is rising at a rapid rate). It’s not always the easiest of co-existences, either – many of the Mayans are evangelical Christians who aren’t always that delighted by the dance music and ‘energy vortex’ stuff.

Anyhow, enough scene setting. We chose to stay in Santiago de Atitlan, the biggest and arguably least touristy settlement round the lake. Here the inhabitants are largely Mayan, speak their own language and still wear their own traditional dress. They have tuktuks, which are fab, and very, very loud fireworks.

We even chose a slightly less budget hotel – the Tiosh Abaj, which had clearly been very chic about thirty years ago. Beautiful gardens, a nice pool and big clean rooms were somewhat offset by the world’s dodgiest wifi (difficult when you’re suddenly inundated with work) and the fact that they were very proud of their new sound system, which played frenetic music at any point at which we didn’t ask them to turn it down.

So what did we do at Lago Atitlan? We took boat rides, and marvelled at the pretty volcanoes. We had a slightly odd, but wonderful ‘thermal bath’ overlooking the lake. The girls swum and played on the lake edge while I swore at the wifi router. They also did some schoolwork (sorry girls, but we have to keep up a bit). We ate at the fabulous Largatijas (lizards) restaurant, a tiny shack where they made great food and made us most welcome. And on New Year’s Eve, we went out for a proper posh meal during which Clover and Daisy fell asleep on their chairs during the third course (of six). It was only about eight thirty! As a result, we didn’t manage to see in the Guatemalan New Year (well, we woke up because it sounded like a war – all those fireworks) but completely failed to get out of bed.

A damp squib, you might think, but actually I relish the days we had relaxing at Tiosh Abaj. It was warm and sunny, and the girls enjoyed playing with their dolls. We watched hummingbirds in the trees and spent far too long talking to Jeffrey the turtle (probably not his real name), who was not tremendously responsive but very funny. We skyped friends and family when we could make the wifi work. The biggest stress, predictably, was trying to get away again where late boats, tricky border crossings, and terrible traffic assured we weren’t back in San Cristobal until stupidly late. It’s good to be back. Happy 2016.

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Guatemala I: I’ll be home for Christmas (but only in my dreams)

 

Damn you, advertising industry! Perhaps if those in the business of selling everything under the sun didn’t expend quite so much of their energy on depicting the perfect family Christmas, we wouldn’t have such high expectations.

Perhaps ‘high’ is the wrong word. I’ve never been away for Christmas before, and really consider it should be spent sitting on Mum and Dad’s sofa, fighting over the best Quality Street in the tin and watching Dad find pound coins in his Christmas pudding (he’s a magician, that man). In short, our Christmas needs are few, but homely – and those are the most difficult things to find when away from home.

One of the stipulations of a round-the-world ticket is that you can’t just go home for a couple of weeks, so we always knew we’d have to deal with Christmas far, far away from Mum and Dad’s sofa. In fact, we couldn’t even spend it in our house in Mexico, as someone with far deeper pockets than us had decided to take it for the Christmas period. So we packed up (leaving the bulky stuff with friends) and took the shuttle bus from San Cristobal to Antigua, Guatemala – a journey that we were assured would take between eight and ten hours.

Never trust a travel agent, especially a Mexican one. I won’t dwell too much on the particulars of the journey, except to say that the minibus was populated by the usual traveller types including ‘man with beard who cannot stop swearing’, ‘gap year student who describes his various stomach ailments in excruciating detail’ and ‘woman who eats granola out of a bag and spends the whole time reading a meditation text whilst sitting in the lotus position’ (tricky in a minibus). I’m sure they have their own comments to make about us, too, especially since I’m sure I gave all of them my Christmas cold over the THIRTEEN HOURS we spent in that bus (sorry chaps, you’ll have your voices back in, oooh, about a week and a half…). However, our girls are stars when it comes to travelling – and after 36 hours on an Indian train, we ought to be able to cope with a little discomfort.

What can I say about Antigua? Described as “the most charming colonial city in the Americas’, it is like a bit of Disneyland plonked down in the Guatemalan highlands. If you’ve seen our pictures of San Cristobal, it is similar, without the ‘edge’ (no Zapatistas/no graffiti/far more tourist-oriented) and full of Americans who come down for the holidays. It was pretty strange to have crossed over from Mexico to a country that is nominally poorer and yet to find somewhere so developed. Every building is beautiful, every street cobbled, every corner filled with picturesque Mayans selling handicrafts. The fairylights were breathtaking, the food fantastic, and the prices correspondingly high. And then there are the volcanoes hanging over the city – including Fuego, puffing clouds of ash almost every day, just to heighten the fairytale atmosphere.

So yes, Antigua is beautiful, and a good place to find Christmas comfort. Imported tea? Tick. The only mince pies in Central America? Probably – and, since these are vital of course for Santa’s visit on the 25th –- this was just as well. Antigua is also expensive, which is how we came to be staying in a hostel-type affair, with some very loud German boys, a comedy night watchman, and the worst breakfasts known to mankind (and that includes those from Myanmar). At least by day three we’d persuaded the duena to let us cook our own.

The Christmas run up was always going to be different, but thankfully we had some things planned. We very much enjoyed a chocolate making course (with thanks to Grandmere), at the Choco Museo, where we ground cacao beans, learned the history of chocolate, and made three different types of hot chocolate drinks and our own flavoured chocolates under the tutelage of ‘proud Mayan’ Pablo.

We enjoyed hanging round the central park chatting to the locals (particularly Hortensia, Pablo and Pablo – are you sensing a name theme here?) who were just terribly excited to see photographs of trains. The girls fed the pigeons and chased them, and we visited many of city’s seriously picturesque ruins – Antigua is seriously affected by earthquakes and volcanoes, to the point that it reminded me of that bit in Monty Python’s Holy Grail movie where the king keeps building castles that sank into the swamp. The ruins are very photogenic, and good for hide and seek – and because Antigua is so tourist oriented they also have clean bathrooms (useful for the Clover/diarrhoea related incident that I shan’t go into any further).

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Does Santa come even in Guatemala? Turns out he does, despite the night watchman’s incredulity when we helped the girls sellotape their stockings to the chiminea. “But Santa’s not going to come, is he?” he remarked morosely as we took the girls up to bed… But of course we proved him wrong, though we couldn’t find a glass for Santa’s traditional sherry (or any sherry for that matter) so Santa had to swig wine, classily, out of the bottle.

Christmas lunch was at local classy restaurant Panza Verde, which doesn’t usually allow children. Paul convinced Clover that she had to pretend to be a very short brain surgeon, and Daisy, a civil engineer, so they were a little worried. Fortunately all were charming, and the turkey stunning, and the new Ever After High dollies from Santa got a table of their own, and some beautiful starched napery to sleep in. Extra cranberry sauce ensured that the girls ate a very grown up Christmas dinner, with no roast potatoes or Christmas pudding.

Continuing with a traditional theme, we introduced the girls to (travel) Monopoly, and obviously they had chocolate coins for breakfast, just as they would at home.

So yes, as the Grinch found out in that famous Dr Seuss Book, Christmas did “come just the same”, despite the strangeness of location and distance from home. But that’s not to say that everyone found it easy. There was a lot of Skyping, a few tears from both girls on Christmas Eve, and a lot of grumpiness from me when the computer trackpad on the Mac broke on Christmas afternoon. In my defence the Mac is my workhorse and I had deadlines to meet (not to mention a pressing need to watch Netflix).

In the end we saw off the Christmas Day grumps with a trip to (ahem) McDonalds, where the children wolfed down mcnuggets far faster than they had roast turkey, and we wondered at a city where even the golden arches is a colonial marvel. Finished the day off watching fireworks explode over the city, and two girls asleep in their new pyjamas. All in all, Christmas abroad was quite kind to us, but we did feel very far away, and missed friends and family lots.

Went to bed reflecting that Christmas far from home is hard enough when you have a home to go to, and profoundly grateful for it, and made a sobering donation to a couple of the Syria refugee appeals. Christmas is a time for home and hearth, after all, and so many don’t have one.

 

Mexico II: The earth moves for us

I wish I could find the scientific study that I read once, that stated that time seems to pass more slowly if you are doing the same thing all of the time. Which is why, when we’re at home and in a proper routine, the term seems to go in a flash, and yet we’ve travelled round ten countries in the same space of time and seem to have been away for ages.

That same study probably explains why the last three weeks have gone so quickly. We’ve made our home in San Cristobal at Casa Berta – the sweet house we’re renting on the hilly side of town. The children now go to school every day (well, they’ve just broken up for Christmas, but up until the 18th they were there Monday to Friday), while Paul goes in with them to help with the translation. I stay at home, work and have Spanish lessons.

With a routine back in place, time has really flown, but within all of the routine there have been some things to report.

1) An earthquake

At 6.6 on the Richter Scale, Wikipedia informs me that “everyone” should have felt this week’s earthquake in Chiapas. Everyone, that is, except Clover, who informs me she didn’t notice a thing. Readers, I am ashamed to admit that I was asleep when it happened (had just finished a feature and had got up early to do so, in my meagre defence for napping at 1pm) – and was in enough of a stupor to blame the builders next door for the rattling glass windows and the fact that the tiled floor was moving around like a snake. By the time Paul and I had worked out what was going on, the ‘temblor’ (as they call them here), was pretty much finished.

Daisy’s account, from school, is that she was planting things in the soil and then it started shaking and everything fell off the soil and they all had to sit on the floor. Then everyone was screaming “un temblor”. Clearly that’s a word she’s not going to forget in a hurry. All a bit too exciting, but nothing damaged except the local post office (St Cristobal is very low rise and fairly earthquake proof), and it’s a good story to tell. Wouldn’t want to be in a stronger one though.

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 2) Settling in at school

Perhaps it is unsurprising that life at the Semillas de Luz Colectivo, San Cristobal, is very different to life at Dalmain Primary School SE23. There’s a lot more sitting round a candle and talking about your feelings, to the accompaniment of music that would be more at home in a patchouli-scented massage parlour for a start.

Then there’s the aerial dance rope – can’t see British health and safety allowing that, especially when it’s hung over a foam mat only a couple of centimetres thick. All the children like to do crazy somersaults from this, having twisted themselves up to near the ceiling before spinning down. Clover has made herself feel sick several times by spinning too much. Such is the commitment to aerial gymnastics that the girls are insisting on taking classes twice a week, and can already hang upside down with the rest of them.

Then there’s the yoga, which Daisy says is ‘just waving your legs about Mum,’ even though the teacher says she has a ‘natural gift’. She likes the lion pose because you get to roar a lot. Other classes include permaculture (a grand name for watering the plants) and English (doing OK with that one…) while Clover spends most of her time stroking school cat Bigotes – whose name means whiskers, or moustache or croissant, depending on your point of view.

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But are they learning anything, I hear you ask? Yes, Spanish in the main. They’re already putting together words and starting to try sentences (though the verbs are mostly missing at this point). I’m awed by this – I think they’ll be better than me very soon. Also so impressed that they are willing to get out and about with their new friends – going to lots of parties just as they would in the UK. Unfortunately they then have to come home and keep up with the UK curriculum – but you can’t have everything.

3) Seeing old friends and making new ones

It’s been great to catch up with the friends we’ve made in San Cristobal, so we’ve already been to birthday parties, and had people round for dinner and tea. The girls have enjoyed hanging out with Itamar and Pablo – our godson and his sister. Although they struggle to communicate in words, they still play beautifully. The international language of Lego and rough and tumble seem to work just fine.

San Cristobal always seems to welcome wanderers home with open arms so it is easy to slot back in to life here. Even my old Spanish teacher has been willing to have me back (and has been very polite about how much I’ve forgotten) so I’m working hard on convincing him I do know what I’m doing. Reggie remains a hard taskmaster, with his interest in international economics ensuring that my mind works hard on both language AND content (we moved swiftly in the first lesson from the typical ‘describe your daily routine’ to ‘what will happen now China has joined the IMF’).

New things we’re trying include a particularly crazy form of Pilates, run by a woman who seems determined that we all need to be able to get our legs behind our heads. It certainly increases my vocabulary as I try to listen to her explaining how to contort myself into various ridiculous shapes. However, I worry that she thinks I only know one phrase: ‘no puedo’ – I can’t do it.

4) Just getting on with it

Routine is bliss when you haven’t had it for a while. Making breakfast? So exciting! Working in the sunshine and nipping upstairs for a cup of tea and a view of the mountains? Sublime. Cooking chocolate chip cookies with the children? A massive treat. We’re trying to make the most of it all. Especially since over Christmas we’re on the road again – down to Guatemala while our landlord rents out our house to someone with far deeper pockets than us. We’ve had an earthquake – it must be time for a festive volcano now?

 

 

Mexico: Putting down roots

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Ah, Mexico. Given that half the people we know think we’ve been here all along, it’s good to report we’ve finally arrived. Mexico is our second home, though the girls don’t really remember the two maternity leaves we spent in San Cristobal de Las Casas, walking each of them through the dawn streets wrapped in a sling, and taking them to Spanish classes.

Despite all of our good intentions, neither of them speak a word of Spanish (we were SO going to teach them from birth, but rather like feeding them only organic carrots and never allowing them fizzy drinks it just hasn’t happened) so six months in Mexico was always going to be quite a shock – especially since it is about time they went to school.

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We broke them in gently. Four days in DF (Mexico City), giving them a crash course in Mexican culture, including the Diego Rivera murals in the Zocalo (though they mostly wanted to stroke the cats rather than look at the pictures of the Aztecs making maize and sacrificing each other) and the surprisingly good zoo in the Chapultepec Park. We learned that Daisy still likes refried beans, but that neither of them really like tortillas (bit of an issue really). Of course, in DF, we continued to speak in English, so it was a bit of a shock to them (and me) when our good friend Enrique picked us up at Tuxtla airport, and we had to reignite the Spanish on the way up to San Cristobal. The girls, predictably, were somewhat silent.

And so here we are. Staying in a wonderful house called Casa Berta, where we’ve slightly more space than we need, and finally a kitchen that is a joy to cook in. The girls are getting accustomed to the San Cristobal market, which comes complete with chickens held by the feet and lots of colourful indigenous women selling beans and spices.

It’s hard to explain the appeal of the city if you’ve never been, but imagine an old Spanish colonial city, high up in the clouds, surrounded by mountains and forest. Cobbled streets full of low-level coloured houses ensure that the city is a magnet for Mexican tourists from elsewhere in the country as well as independent travellers, while the city is at the centre of a ring of indigenous villages where both men and women still wear traditional costume and practice traditional culture – and speak their own Mayan languages as well.

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In the streets, indigenous men and women mix with ‘coletos’ – traditional San Cristobal dwellers of Spanish descent. And then there are ‘los hippies’ who have made San Cristobal their home. Many arrived to support the Zapatista uprising in 1994, when the indigenous people rose up against their post-colonial overlords under the charismatic leadership of Sub-Comandante Marcos. Almost 20 years later, some land outside the city is still in Zapatista territory.

‘Los Hippies’ bring their own culture to mix with that of the Coletos and the traditional Maya. Think Stoke Newington in the Cloud Forest. So if you want your Mayan calendar read, or to practice yoga on any given day you won’t struggle to find someone to help you. You may not be able to buy a cagoule (it rains quite a lot) but you can buy a lot of weavings, friendship bracelets and pseudo-Mayan medicaments.

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Thanks to this, San Cristobal gives us a lot of educational opportunities to choose from for the girls. The only thing we can’t do is send them to state school, since we’re here on tourist visas (and since the state teachers have been on strike ever since we’ve started living here this is probably just as well). From the many options we’ve chosen Las Semillas de Luz, just round the corner. Given that the school is called Seeds of Light, you may have some idea of its ethos. Yoga features very heavily. I’ll write more to explain how they are settling in very soon…

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