In San Cristobal

Well, it turns out things don’t go like you planned when you travel. Who knew?

I was feeling pretty smug in Cancun, with my ticket bought, plenty of time to go around and get dinner, then shop for snacks on the bus, use the Internet, etc. Only problem was my watch was two timezones wrong, so I had two less hours than I thought. I feel so dumb now, because there were three things that should have tipped me off. First, the clock in the bus terminal. I ignored it because Mexican clocks are always about 2 hours off. It turns out the clocks that taught me the “always ignore the clocks in Mexico” rule were the ones in the Metro, where the time of day has little to do with getting a train. In a Mexican bus station, the clocks are right. In fact, they are right to the second, like in a Swiss train station!

The other two things that should have tipped me off was that the sun set suspiciously early, but I wrote that off to being at 16 degrees north latitude. Finally, I ordered a special menu item that was only available until 6 pm. The waiter said, no, can’t have it. I figured they were out of it, because, hey, it’s only 5pm. Sigh.

Anyway, after missing the bus things seemed hopeless. Getting the ticket changed cost a 50% surcharge. I was out of money becuase I hadn’t expected to have to buy an extra half a bus ticket, nor stay the night in Cancun. I go to the ATM, but with my transaction it realizes, “No, I’m actually out of order, sorry for confusing you by the big ABIERTO sigh.” And in doing so it takes enough time to return my card that I become convinced it’s just eaten it. But eventually the card comes out, but I don’t get any money. So I figure, to hell with it, I’ll solve the money problem in the morning. I knew I had enough money for a hotel (and hotels take US dollars, so my “get out of trouble” money would have worked too).

I get to my hotel and just relax on the bed. I fell asleep at 10 pm (real local time). God only knows what time is was in California at 10 pm in Cancun… I never did get a straight answer from anyone about what timezone Cancun was in.

The next day everything went fine. I took a walk and explored Cancun. I didn’t have time to make it out to the hotel zone where all the people who want to pretend they are still in the US are. I wasn’t really very motivated to anyway. I got on my bus at 14:15 and settled in. I had a baby near me, but it was OK. The seat next to me was empty, so I had a little nest of all my food, books, computer, etc to keep me occupied. I saw a nifty movie about a Australian brothers who were swimmers and their unhealthy relationship with their father. The sound is in English but the subtitles are in Spanish. The sound isn’t really loud enough, so you really have to concentrate and read the Spanish. When you miss a bit of Spanish hopefully the audio was loud enough that you can learn the word you missed. Not the best environment for studying, but I could tell I got a little bit of practice.

One other interesting thing about the bus ride was that it swung south before heading west. That took us through the hurricane damaged areas from Hurricane Emily. It was very interesting to see the damage. From the road, it appeared that mostly it was damage to trees and power lines. I saw a couple thatch roofs that had been taken off. I think I got a really good picture of the damage from the bus window, but you know how pictures from buses are.

This morning I got in to San Cristobal a little after 8 am. Of course, the bus to Panajachel leaves at 8 am, so I have to spend the night here too. I suspected that might be the case, so it doesn’t bug me. I went to see the amber museum today, and a church on a hill. I’m going to try to get some people together from the hostel and go to the circus tonight at 6:30 or 8:30. It’s nice to be in a city you know again. I went straight to the same hostel as last time, and knew exactly which attractions I didn’t get to see last time.

Assuming I get my bus tomorrow morning, I’ll be in Panajachel at 2 pm, then I’ll take the boat across to San Pedro. Sunday night is a hard time to find a family to stay with, so I will get a hotel there too, I think.

One more piece of good news. My brand new fancy (and expensive) digital camera works really well, and lives comfortably in my pocket. As a result, I am taking way, way more pictures. Jessica, you’re really going to have to find some billable hours to help me pay for this thing! For those that care about such things, it is a Sony T7 Karl took me to Sony Style to get.

I made it

Well, traveling with AirTech was a breeze, except for the having 12 different backup plans part. I simply showed up at the airport 2 hours early (no big deal for an international flight) and the nice lady behind the counter gave me a confirmed seat on the plane in minutes. I’m sure it is not always like this, but it was pretty painless.

I am booked on a 20:30 bus out of here, and will arrive in San Cristobal tomorrow around noon. (16 hours… ugh!) That probably means I’ll be too late to get to Panajachel tomorrow, but it will give me plenty of time to arrange my ride to Pana for the next day. I happen to know a great hostel in San Cristobal from last time, so no problem.

Some things I forgot about Central America:

  • How loud it is. The traffric, the incessant music blaring, etc.
  • How good it feels to speak in Spanish and be understood.
  • How cute the gringa traveler girls are. (Hey it’s not my fault… I just went through the airport and the bus station today. I’ve seen a lot of people today.)
  • What humid heat feels like. Europe and the Pacific Northwest have dry summers, mercifully. But as soon as I get to Guatemala, where there is never any air conditioning, I’ll cope. Here in Mexico is the worst because you get used to some place air conditioned, then get out and suffer again.

On my way, maybe

Tomorrow morning, I am going to attempt to board a Suntrips flight to Cancun using’s standby travel system. So, the adventure begins.

From Cancun, I will take an overnight bus to San Cristobal de las Casas. There, I’ll find myself a tourist bus making the trip to Panajachel and then onward via boat to San Pedro. The whole trip will last from early Thursday morning until Friday afternoon, if it all goes according to plan. But it’s likely something will go wrong along the line. So much the better, at least for the stories later.

Which reminds me, I picked up Malaria Dreams at Karl’s house and read a bit. He’s a great writer, and he captures the culture shock of arriving in Africa the first time pretty well. It’s also pretty damn funny. But I would never choose this guy as a travel companion… and not just because he’s apparently a hardcore Republican.

Now that I’m finally packed and ready to go I’m looking forward to being on the road again. It will be a bit of a let down if I can’t get on the plane tomorrow, but I’ll give it my best shot.

In their own words

MSF has a culture of civil (and not so civil) disagreement among it’s volunteers, executives, sections, field offices, and so on. To me, this shows that it is a vibrant community of passionate people. The only times in my career when I’ve really gotten angry about something was when I cared enough to fight for it.

Because the actors in the mini-dramas of MSF are widely dispersed, they seem to have developed a habit of using written communication to fight their battles. I suppose written communication is the most amenable to translation, too. It’s great for observers like me, because it means that if you can get your hands on the what the organization is saying among itself, you can see how it works, even as an outsider. Try that with Microsoft!

(In fact, I did. I found that Microsoft is an organization where what you learn about them by what they say to outsiders is very different than what you learn about them by working for them. That sounds Machiavellian, but in fact it is the other way around: Microsoft is a much less organized and terrible beast inside than outside.)

The latest treasure trove of stuff I’ve found is in the MSF-France library. I had missed it until now because I’d never bothered to go to MSF-France’s website, assuming it was all in French. In fact, their website is all in French, but I speak enough to navigate it. And once you get to the library, there are English versions of lots of things, including an internal magazine called Messages.

The Skeletons in MSF’s Closet

I might have just gone too far in my quest to learn ever more about MSF. I came across this article (107 kb PDF). It has interesting details about the internal struggles in MSF’s history and in it’s current operations.

Some interesting things:

  • MSF-Belgium was created as a separate legal entity with MSF-France’s blessing. Quickly MSF-Belgium’s differing interpretation of the mission angered MSF-France, so much so that MSF-France attempted to strip MSF-Belgium of the MSF name in 1985. They failed.
  • The 5 current operational sections used to be 6: MSF-Greece was created to be operational. However, in 1999 MSF-Greece was expelled from the MSF movement over its stance on intervention in Kosovo. It has been reintegrated into the MSF movement as of early 2005, but its operations are now done under the authority of MSF-Spain.
  • Government funding dropped from 50% in 1999 to 20% in 2003. That was due to the increased private-donor fundraising power of the new sections (Australia, Japan, USA, etc).
  • MSF-France relies on MSF-USA for close to 40% of it’s operational funds.
  • MSF-Holland has only 20% Dutch citizens in the field. They rely on other sections to make up the other 80%.
  • Internal controls meant to ensure external communications are consistent and do not jeopardize any operations are sometimes (perhaps routinely?) ignored in order to prevent the consultation and coordination process from watering down the message.

None of that really changes my desire to work for MSF, but it does explain where some of the friction I’ve heard returned volunteers talk about comes from. One volunteer told me that it’s not true that MSF doesn’t play well with other NGO’s. But he went on to say that MSF-X is more likely to work with Oxfam or GOAL than to cooperate peacefully with MSF-Y! (Take that with a grain of salt, of course…)

Another thing I learned from the article is that MSF-USA has taken over operational responsibility for projects originated by MSF-France in Uganda, Guatemala, Nigeria and Haiti. With my Spanish language, time spent in Guatemala, and the slight preference for volunteers to be citizens of the operational section, that means I’m very likely to be offered a job in Guatemala, if one’s open. Strange how stuff like that works out. Last November in New York an MSF HR person told me that MSF-USA was taking over some programs, but did not mention Guatemala by name.


awardThere’s a fun virtual hide and go seek game that tests your knowledge of geographic trivia. It’s called GoogleEarthing.

I won puzzle #12 by recognizing Tombouctou, Mali. It was the first thing I thought of when I saw the picture. It reminded me of a picture I saw a few years ago in a National Geographic about how the city is being overtaken by the desert.