September 11, 2001’s terrorist activities brought changes to the vacation plans of many people including us. Originally we had planned on returning to Jamaica but Air Canada no longer had direct flights from Winnipeg, Canada 3000 went out of business and hotel costs were up. Olwyn and I felt that with a 50% increase in costs, returning to Jamaica would have to wait for another time. We began to investigate other options including Cuba, Dominican Republic and Mexico. At first Olwyn objected strongly to going to a communist country but the price was right, flights were direct from Winnipeg, and most importantly the flights had availability. With the many cut backs on scheduled flights and the lack of charter flights the available seats from Winnipeg were limited. It took a while but Olwyn put aside her concerns and we soon found ourselves booked for a trip to Cuba.
In the weeks that followed we both began having doubts that we made the right choice. Olwyn dismissed her hesitations almost instantly as I became more and more worried about weather, crowded beaches, and what hidden costs might emerge. These thoughts continued despite the comforts of people that had been to Cuba. Though most were positive we heard a few that were somewhat negative. Those comments included cold temperatures, restricted areas, language barriers etc. In reflection, it amazes me that the small percentage of negative comments had over powered the good ones.
Two weeks prior to our departure Cuba made it to the CBC National News. Havana was being fumigated because of a mosquito infestation that had health officials concerned over the possibility of an outbreak of dengue fever. Guantanamo Bay was being used to hold Taliban prisoners captured by the United States…, the doubts gained strength. Fortunately we over came all of them.
January 28, 2002 was our date of departure. Local weather cooperated perfectly with a cold snap. At 04:00, Jordan drove us to the airport in –35 temperatures that quickly made our expense seem very worthwhile. It was so cold the airport workers had to soak the entire surface of the wings with de-icing fluid. By the time they finished one could see ice beginning to form once again.
The adventure had begun. Our plane stopped in Thunder Bay to pick up more passengers. This may sound silly to most but I was thrilled to see “The Sleeping Giant”. I had never been to Thunder Bay and this was a real treat after seeing it in tourist magazines and schoolbooks.
Several hours later we were gazing out the jet’s windows at the beautiful beaches along the Keys of Florida. As we began the final approach into Varadero’s airport it appeared as thought the entire shoreline was one long beach. We spotted a couple of rather fancy looking hotels but I explained to Olwyn our hotel would be much further down the beach.
The landing was smooth but wow what a short runway. There was no taxiing required: just land and park. The pilot announced that we had to remain seated because the engines needed cooling before the final docking. I had never been on a plane where that was required.
The airport was small but very organized. What surprised me was they allowed smoking darn near everywhere. We collected our baggage and individually went through customs followed by the tax declaration area. After declaring what we considered normal declarations, cigarettes, etc. we were told none of those items required a declaration. They were concerned about firearms, electrical appliances and other “contraband”.
Outside we were greeted by our tour company and directed to our transfer vehicle. This was not a vehicle that we expected. Instead of a cab or small van like bus this was a beautiful Volvo tour bus. As our bags were being loaded the waitress aboard the bus took our order for drinks. Within minutes our thirsts were quenched and we were on our way to the hotel.
Surprise number two, those hotels we spotted from the air turned out to be our temporary residence.
Our hotel, the Super Club Puntarena
Surprise number three, they upgraded our room to one with an ocean view.
Our room, note the two swans made from folded towels.
Balcony view looking to the west, showing the canal entrance.
Balcony view of the beach and water sports area directly below.
Balcony view to the east, Varedaro.
I think it took us all of three minutes to unpack and head down to the pool. We were tired as we eagerly learned our new surroundings. It didn’t take long to realize the staff spoke Spanish. As we explored, things just didn’t seem right. There was nothing wrong, it just didn’t seem right. By the end of our first meal I think we both wondered what we were doing in Cuba. The staff didn’t seem as smiley as in Jamaica, the beach sand wasn’t as nice as last year, the surf was rougher, the food was bland and the entertainment seemed a step down from what we had become accustomed to on our previous “All Inclusive” vacation. Then it hit us. We were being too critical making constant comparisons to Jamaica. This was Cuba not Jamaica. We had a nightcap in the lounge and retired to our room as our first day came to an end.
Tuesday started on the right track. The day was sunny and by the time we finished breakfast it was already warmer than I had expected it would get by midday. We headed to the lobby to meet with our local tour representative Marc.
Marc is a very enthusiastic French Canadian from Montreal. Marc gave us a quick orientation of the hotel and surrounding area as well as an overview of excursions that could be booked through him. He then stated that we did not come to Cuba to talk to him. Instead we should head down to the beach. If we needed him he was only a phone call away and he visited the hotel daily. For now I had only one question, what about tipping? Last year we stayed in a Super Club resort and were told not to tip. If staff were caught accepting tips they would be fired. Marc said that the Super Club chains policy was no tipping. If we chose to tip the tips should be small change and should be done discreetly. It didn’t sink in but Marc did tell us that a Cuban’s average salary was a little over $10 US a month.
Taking Marc’s advice it was off to the beach. To our surprise the beach was deserted. For the most part the sand was similar to that of Grand Beach on Lake Winnipeg. It was a bit coarser at the water’s edge because of crushed seashells and a bit deeper as well. As we walked east toward Varadero there were many places that our feet sank into the sand as deep as our ankles.
It was beach for as far as we could see. More than 20 kilometers Marc had told us. After 20 minutes of walking through the deep sand we realized how out of shape we were, it was time to about face. Besides our backs needed sun too. It seemed to take much longer than 20 minutes to return. We each grabbed a drink and headed to the pool area.
A view of most of the pool area. If you look close there are military helicopters on the horizon. We also noticed a sentry on the top of the tower shown in the photo. He was there every 20 minutes scanning the horizon with binoculars that could see 12 miles.
After relaxing a while it was decided that learning Spanish would be an asset. It was off to the terrace for our first lesson. Daylin, one of two staff members that taught Spanish was at her desk seemingly bored. Her eyes lit up as we approached. As neither Olwyn nor I knew any Spanish we put priorities on what needed to be learned. For those that are fans of the TV show Friends Joey’s pickup line of “How you doin’?.” was a definite requirement for me. “Como esta`s?” I repeated but for one reason or another it just resulted in a polite smile. Olwyn picked up many phrases within minutes while I just felt dumb. After the lesson our feeble attempt to great people in Spanish brought smiles to their faces not to mention a few giggles. Suddenly we were friends of many of the hotel staff members. They seemed very pleased that we were making the attempt to communicate in Spanish.
It had been almost four hours since we last ate so off to the buffet. Hmmm-bland food, Cuban’s need a lesson on spice. We decided that it was time to try one of the other restaurants and promptly made reservations at the open air one for dinner and at the fancy, dress code required, one for tomorrow as it was Olwyn’s birthday and we wanted it to be special. Both proved to be wise choices. The food was great, service amazing and slightly more portion controlled than an all you can eat buffet. We learned our lesson last year that you can’t swine daily and not expect to gain a few pounds.
We looked at the evening entertainment in a different light than on the first day. Though it was the same group of entertainers for both daytime and evening entertainment each show was different. The staff were very much professionals. Some were comedians, some dancers, and some actors. Together they put on great shows.
The entertainers in traditional Cuban costumes teach dancing and mix “cordials”.
By now we were well rested and ready for adventure. Marc had made a few excursion suggestions during the orientation. The ocean had been calm for several days so we decided to spend a day on a catamaran. Several trips were outlined in the brochure. The one we were interested in was not the highlighted one so we consulted with Marc seeking his opinion. Marc winked telling us unofficially that the one we had chosen was the one he was taking his family on. The decision was made; if it’s the one the rep was choosing it was clearly the right choice.
The day started early but the bright sunshine made the early hour quite acceptable. This catamaran was an amazing vessel. Though I’m sure many exist I had never seen a cat that big. We left the marina with no worry of becoming seasick.
On the ocean we appeared to be heading toward a storm. One crewmember drew my attention to a very strange cloud formation. I asked if it was cause for concern and was reassured. As we headed directly toward the formation it disappeared as if by magic.
We navigated around several islands and once again headed for open sea. As we traveled the sun fought off the clouds. It was going to be a nice day.
After several minutes out of nowhere a pier appeared in the middle of the ocean. This was to be our first stop, a swim with the dolphins. The area was “corralled” but was in the middle of the ocean. Olwyn being a non-swimmer was leery. When the captain heard our conversation he shouted to one of his crew. The man disappeared re appearing with a life jacket. Olwyn didn’t take much convincing and was soon in the water. As far as she was concerned the trip objective was met, we could return to Winnipeg at any time.
Olwyn cuddling with the dolphins.
Being in direct contact with dolphins was truly a unique experience. I had never given thought to a dolphin’s size. Looking at he pictures it’s clear that they are bigger than us in both size and weight. Olwyn experienced the size and power as one gave her a nudge that she described as “being hit by a football player”. The dolphins continuously chatted with us as they swam. A pat on the belly revealed very soft skin much like that of a baby. What surprised me was how warm they were compared to touching a person’s skin.
Ken getting a smooch.
We boarded the catamaran in a state of euphoria. The crew served snacks and drinks as everyone talked of their dolphin experience.
A while later we reached a coral reef, time for a swim. Being fully conscious of the Atlantic’s expanse, Olwyn chose to stay on board this time. The water was refreshing but not too cool.
Time for lunch! After all it had been darn near 2 hours since we had sandwiches as a snack. We docked on an uninhabited island. Lunch was a “traditional Cuban lobster lunch”. If Cuban’s ate like that they’d all be fat and lobster would be on the endangered species list. The meal started with cervaza (beer), then salad, cervaza, main course, cervaza, fruit, cervaza, and cervaza… The main course was lobster served with a chili sauce (not spicy), white rice, which in our opinion is the best on the planet and mixed vegetables. Burp… time for a walk. The shore was shallow, the sand the consistency of icing sugar perfect for a long walk. We had an hour or so of free time and made the most of it.
Our catamaran docked at the beach.
The free time passed quickly. Soon it was time to head back to Varadero. Under full sail the return trip seemed to take no time at all. Most of the time we were cruising between 28 and 30 miles an hour. The speed gave me a new appreciation for World Cup yacht racing. Man that must be a thrill. As we cut across the waves there were times that they soaked everyone sitting in the open. We were tired at the end of the day. Our minds were filled with memories that will be with us forever. Olwyn and I wished it could continue.
The crew hoists the sails for our return trip.
Marc shelters his niece as the waves break on the bow.
Several days had passed since our arrival and we still had not been to the actual city of Varadero. We checked at the front desk for details of the bus. They told us we could catch the bus right at the hotel gate and ride to Varadero for $1 each. Off to town it was.
We waited at the gate for about 10 min., a bus appeared and Olwyn asked if it was the right one. The driver informed us that this was a hotel staff bus but the public bus would be along soon. After another 5 min. we asked the gate attendant when the next bus would come. He shrugged and said he had no idea. A local cab driver approached us and said he’d take us to the market at the far end of town for $5. It was a brainless decision, $2 for two by bus, $5 for two in an air-conditioned Mercedes.
The market was similar to some we visited in Jamaica but with far less customers. Local crafts included beautiful crochet work, tooled leather, woodcarvings, and small paintings. Many of the paintings were of old cars, Havana or both.
The market in Varadero.
Residential housing across from the market. We like the bright colours, which seem to be common in the Caribbean Islands.
A few hours had passed and we were getting a bit tired from the sun. We ruled out the bus and walking for obvious reasons. The remaining choices were one of two types of cabs: Mercedes or a “scooter”, or horse drawn carriage. To Olwyn this was also a no-brainer, she err… we chose the carriage. The driver pointed out the sites along the way including Casa de Al which was Al Capone’s old residence recently converted to a restaurant. He also was quick to offer his opinions on the quality of merchandise or food offered in the various establishments.
Two of our transportation choices, the yellow cabs are the “scooters”.
Casa de Al, the old car is an ornament made of concrete.
The remainder of that day was spent lazing around the pool, sampling food and drink. We spoke with many guests and staff members. The hotel gardeners often brought the women in the pool area fresh cut flowers explaining that they only bloom for one day so they may as well be enjoyed. Fresh coconuts were also offered as drink or food refreshments. We had several conversations with Lisa, one of the entertainers and a super Spanish teacher. When we mentioned the lush green vegetation we were reminded about the hurricane that passed through Cuba in the fall. Lisa pointed out bits and pieces of plants and buildings that still showed damage. Puntarena must have been fantastic prior to that storm. Apparently the whole hotel complex had been shut down for several weeks to repair the damage. One of the two towers in our complex was still closed for repair and planned renovations.
Several rums later I told Olwyn that it was strange how I had been sipping on rum all afternoon but the alcohol had no effect on me. One drink later and I found myself asking her to be sure I didn’t get lost. Enough said on that topic.
We had a quick nap. Feeling quite refreshed and a bit more sober we went to the lounge where I entertained a few select guests with my pool playing ability. I got a one hopper off the table onto the marble floor and into the plate glass window narrowly missing a fellow that was on his way to the washroom. Thank god for tempered glass! We laughed until we cried. Just as we were able to breath again the fellow called from the washroom, “Is it safe to come out?” The laughing began again.
After dinner it was Olwyn’s turn. We were at the outside bar getting some fruit punch (honest it was fruit punch, no rum). A fellow came up beside Olwyn. He was dressed in white shoes with heals, red satin bell bottom pants with the bottom 8 inches being white and decorated with sequins, the shirt was a white halter top tied in the middle. His cologne, makeup and jewelry matched the clothes. Olwyn turned to him and asked “Are you with the entertainment?” I darn near spit my drink all over the bar tender. His reply was a very calm “Yes.” All kidding aside his dancing was good and he seemed like he enjoyed doing it proving that even in a communist country there is a place for everyone.
It was time for another excursion. Marc repeatedly directed us in the right direction. His next suggestion of a jeep safari added to his creditability. The safari, like the catamaran was a full day adventure.
We met at a place between the local municipal airport and an oil refinery to receive our briefing. The guide said one of the main objectives of the trip was to see the real Cuba. Two couples were assigned to each jeep with the intent that the day’s driving would be shared. Yes everyone drove his or her own jeep, no chauffeuring. There were 14 jeeps in all separated in to two groups of seven. Within minutes of our departure it was as though we had been “beamed” to another world. There was little trace of civilization. The terrain was gently rolling hills. We felt as though we were on an African safari.
Hint number one, don’t buy used Suzuki jeeps from Cuba. The roads were rough at best and it was obvious that some drivers had never driven a standard shift vehicle.
On the back roads minutes from Varadero.
Our first stop was a sugar cane farm. The farmer met us at the side of the road eager to explain how sugar cane was grown. Cane is chopped into 18 inch pieces and planted horizontally in the ground. A single planting can produce crops for several years. In Cuba some farmers still break the soil, plant and harvest manually. We saw more than one example of this on our journey, a lone man, in a huge field with a single bottom plow being pulled by two oxen. The best part came at the end of his presentation. The farmer craftily used his machete to cut and peel a piece of cane for each of us to sample.
The sugar cane farmer machete in hand.
We continued our drive through the farming area. As we passed by the farmyards children ran to the road to give a wave. A simple return wave or honk brought big smiles to their faces. There were many “blind” corners and intersections. Occasionally the guide had to wait at a fork in the road to be sure we would all head down the right path.
Passing a local farmer as we drove through the farming region.
We stopped in a small village to refresh ourselves. I felt guilty that we just left seven jeeps in the middle of an intersection to walk across the road for a beer. A few minutes later the other jeeps came down the road from the opposite direction parking along side our first seven totally blocking the intersection.
The town’s people were pleased to have us. Many greeted us, some tried to trade us Cuban coins with Che’s picture for US dollars.
Our next stop was at a coconut farm. We actually had the impression that it was a National or Provincial park as the farmer’s clothes were sort of uniform like. Like the time spent with the cane farmer we received a lesson on coconuts. We sampled the “milk” as well as the “meat” of both green and ripe coconuts. The farmers are sure of their abilities with a machete taking mighty swings millimeters from their fingers. There is an amazing amount of “milk” in a coconut. The “milk” is thirst quenching and to our surprise not sweet. If given the chance pass on the green “meat”.
One of the guides came across a snake. He named it Julio, joked about it being our lunch, then put it in his pocket. Hmmm was he joking?
The coconut farmer cutting samples.
Our next stop was the river’s edge. Here we transferred from our jeeps to small zodiacs. Again we were expected to drive. The river was beautiful clear water. We wound our way 18 kilometers up stream through what looked to be jungle. Steep lime cliffs were visible from time to time as were the ever-present vultures. We stopped midway for a swim. As I entered the water I was surprised to find it’s temperature to be the opposite of what we are use to back home. The surface was cold but four feet down it was as warm as bath water. As always the swim was refreshing.
Heading down the river, Mo a retired soldier from Edmonton at the helm.
Next stop lunch. At the river’s edge was a small ranch where we stopped for lunch. Following the meal we had the option of swimming, rowing, or horseback riding. The guides had an impromptu baseball game. We ended up in a great conversation about Cuban history starting with Columbus and ending in 1959. It was obvious most Cuban’s did not wish to discuss the 60’s, 70’s or 80’s most times jumping from 1959 to 1992.
Looking across the river from the ranch.
Our guides playing baseball. The bat was a stick, the ball an acorn. It amazed me that they could hit 60 mile an hour pitches with regularity. Interesting fact: All male Cuban’s are required to learn to play ball.
Back to the Jeeps. The jeep we got for this part of the journey had us all wondering if we’d survive. What a “beater”!
The last leg of our safari was a visit to a cave. The water in the cave was 17.5 meters deep and so clear you could see the bottom. Though I passed, those that went for a swim said the water was warm.
Returning to the jeeps showed how rough the roads were, time to change a tire. The guides worked swiftly as we all watched.
The day came to an end.
Inside the cave.
Our last major excursion was Havana. We opted to take a guided bus tour rather than a taxi or going ourselves for a couple of reasons. The first was that we didn’t know what to see or how to get there. The second was that we knew that by bus we were guaranteed an English-speaking guide.
From our hotel it was almost two hours to Havana. The guide, Maria spoke most of the way. Her narrative consisted of Cuba’s entire history excluding of course the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. The presentation was well-timed allowing comments on the terrain, local towns and landmarks as we passed them.
Some of the facts we gleaned from Maria:
A view of the countryside on route to Havana
As we entered Havana the first thing I noticed was how old the city was. Almost immediately I was reminded that Cuba’s capital is also very modern. The road system was good. Tunnels moved traffic efficiently under the river to the other side of the harbor. Most impressive was how they were making conscious efforts to preserve their heritage. Did you notice I haven’t mentioned the cars?
Our first stop was the Capital Building. The architecture reminded me of our Legislative building. From the inside even the way the dome was painted in light blues with gold trim brought a feeling of familiarity.
The Capital Building. Inside the main entrance.
Mass transportation. The “camel” can move 250 at a time.
OK time out… I can’t leave it any longer, THE CARS! Cars in Cuba are like taking a step back in time. Everywhere you look there are old or different cars. By different I mean twists on old favorites. Remember Lada? How about Lada stretched limos for a twist. Remember Winnipeg Police 3 wheeled Harley’s or motorcycles with sidecars? You can spot them all in Cuba. Some cars are as if they just rolled off the assembly line, others are in disrepair with pounds of Bondo. It’s quite common to see backyard mechanics doing repairs on main streets. Owners are proud regardless of the car they have. In Havana you can even rent old classics. I wish I had pictures of the tourists driving by in 1958 Impalas, ’49 Fords etc. As they passed our eyes were drawn from the cars to the beaming ear-to-ear grins.
From what we could see there didn’t appear to be vehicle safety programs or anti pollution laws. Olwyn and I even got to push start a few. Over the next page or two are a few examples of what I’m talking about. The pictures don’t do it justice but here goes.
The main street in front of the capital building. I got a kick out of “the guys” shooting the breeze in the middle of the street.
One of the “new ones” a 1960 Chevy with an Opel. It’s rare to see an American car from the 60’s. This one is also of interest to me because my dad had one.
OK I need help with this one. Is it an Opel?
Like I said some were in disrepair.
Mix of new and old, our tour bus with an old sidecar motorcycle.
I could have taken rolls and rolls of film of these old cars. The mix of new and old is a good point to “jump” off as it was taken in front of the Cigar Factory.
Our Havana tour included a visit to the Cigar Factory. That was a unique experience. You are not allowed to take pictures or have a handbag with you during the tour so I don’t have pictures to share. Some thought it was four stories of a 3rd world work camp. In my opinion it wasn’t the best place to work but conditions were passable. What I didn’t know about hand rolled cigars is that the entire process is manual. The leaves are sorted first by type, then by size and finally texture. That’s done for each and every leaf. The sorted leaves are taken to the rolling area where the stems are removed and the rolling process begins. The entire fourth floor is filled with side-by-side desks with the rollers busily rolling cigars. The cigars are completed by cutting and stretching very small pieces of tobacco leaves over the ends. The already stretched leaves stick to the rolled cigar as though it they were made of cellophane stretch wrap.
My thoughts were that cameras weren’t allowed to prevent the misconception of a work camp. Bags were probably not allowed because every time we turned a corner there would be a worker trying to sell us a cigar.
The Cigar Factory. Home of Montecristo and Cohiba cigars.
Throughout Cuba we noticed a military presence. Not a lot of soldiers per se but billboards of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, monuments and military museums. Most people are very proud of the Cuban “heroes”. We only came across a few people that would say they weren’t happy with the politics and standard of living in Cuba.
Tank out side the military museum that housed the yacht that Fidel and Che came to Cuba on. Tourists were not allowed in the museum but the building was mostly glass so we could see it pretty good.
One of the many Ministry buildings surrounding Revolution Square. The picture is taken from Revolution Square; the silhouette on the building is of Che Guevara.
Once again it was time to feed the Canadians. We drove from Revolution square through an area that was home of the foreign embassies. The area reminded me of Wellington Crescent in Winnipeg. The noticeable difference was the armed foot patrols that were on every corner.
En route to the restaurant there was a bit of controversy. We made a stop at Havana’s Historic cemetery. It’s touted as being the 3rd most notable in the world. For us it was no problem, some were repulsed by the fact that they were visiting dead people while on vacation. The cemetery itself was huge and very different than the ones back home. There were many monuments and huge family crypts each with their own history.
Havana’s Historic Cemetery
The restaurant was on a terrace surrounded by walls of green foliage. Fresh air with total privacy, pretty darn fancy I thought. “Lunch” consisted of salad, rice, succulent roast beef, cerveza, with ice cream for desert. Cuban’s make the best ice cream in the world in flavors that include old favorites: rum and raisin, orange, and chocolate. In addition there were also unfamiliar flavors like guava, papaya, and coconut. Some had interesting additions of pistachio syrup, or liqueurs to tempt you even more. Once again we were spoiled with a superb meal.
One could easily spend an entire day in Old Havana. The history and architecture goes from Spanish Colony days to present. The narrow, busy streets reminded me of Britain. Many buildings were original, some restored and some in the process of being restored. The Cuban government and world heritage foundations have made huge commitments to preserving Old Havana and it shows. Sadly this was the first time we felt rushed on our vacation. There was so much to see and so little time in which to see it. I must credit the guide with doing her best to be sure we saw the most important or at least most notable places. We both feel that on a first visit one must either read a lot prior to visiting this part of the city or have a knowledgeable guide.
Corner of the wall that once surrounded “old” Havana.
Cathedral dating back to the 1500’s.
Part of the fort / gate that surrounded and protected the city.
Looking across the harbor to the fort.
Besides the old Spanish history, Old Havana has a more recent historic side. Some people tout it as Hemmingway’s Havana. The American author Ernest Hemmingway visited Havana frequently and was a resident for seven years. The streets were busy but not overly. There were many interesting shops and a few small museums. Our guide pointed out the wrought iron work on the balconies. She called it “love my neighbor but stay away”. The ironwork had sharp pointy spikes to discourage intruders.
Balconies were plentiful, note the ironwork.
We visited the hotel Hemmingway lived in as well as one of the two bars where he drank his favorite drinks Daiquiris and “Mojitos”. Most people have tried a Daiquiri. For those that have not had a Mojito pronounced mo-he-toe I highly recommend them. Here’s the recipe: In a tall slim glass (that’s important) add one teaspoon of coarse sugar, add a good healthy sprig of mint. Using a spoon crush the mint leaves into the sugar. Add one ounce of limon juice (you can substitute lime juice with a hint of lemon juice), an ounce or two of Havana Club white rum, ice, one half-ounce of water and a few drops of aromatic bitters. After a slight stir enjoy. This is definitely a sipping drink for a hot summer’s day.
Hemmingway’s residence Hotel Lambos Mundos.
The lobby of Hotel Lambos Mundos.
One of Hemmingway’s favorite bars La Bodegita del Medio.
The sun was setting as we left Havana. On one hand we were glad that we didn’t take the longer tour that included the nightly show at the Tropicana, on the other we were sorry that we were going to miss it. If we return to Cuba we plan to spend at least two full days in Havana.
We did have one cloudy day that was actually cool. Ahh, eh! In the morning we returned to Varadero where we bought a small painting of Old Havana. We tried a scooter cab for the return trip. It was fun, and cool, but you sure didn’t feel safe. The driver maneuvered traffic as though she was by herself on a Formula 1 motorcycle. We survived the ordeal without a scratch. The rest of the day we walked, played pool and frequented the ice cream bar. After dinner we had a local artist do a portrait. Not a bad job but then again he had great subjects to work with. I new it was going to turn out ok when I noticed his tongue was out when he held his thumb up to verify size and perspective.
It’s funny how a vacation starts out with hours passing as though they were days. Then suddenly there is only a day or two left. We took full advantage of those days by walking the beach, sunning ourselves by the pool and participating in a few activities. We both entered a shooting competition, Olwyn took lessons, and of course a holiday wouldn’t be a holiday without Kenneth W. Betcher making a stage appearance. I won a silver medal in a contest that included me singing my rendition of a few “famous” songs. I couldn’t see Olwyn because of the spotlights but I knew she was there supporting me. Her laughs drowned out the music on more than one occasion.
The painting we bought. This is a very typical scene in Cuba.
We spent the morning of our last day by the pool. We also made the rounds saying bye to friends we had met, Cubans and Canadians. We packed our bags, and checked out. Our airport transfer wasn’t due for 45 minutes so we went to the lounge for a last Mojito and for Olwyn, a coffee. When we headed down to the lobby to wait for our ride an older couple we had met, were waiting there to say good bye. After talking for about a half hour we realized that we were the only ones waiting. We knew for a fact that two other couples should have been there. Slight panic set in as thoughts of missing our plane entered our brains. Everyone said don’t worry, they’ll be here soon. Well to make a long story short, they did come and we did make our flight. It turned out that the other couples took the wrong bus and were at the airport hours before the flight.
I enjoyed Cuba. Who wouldn’t when it’s –20 to –30 back home. The expectations I had were exceeded. None of the issues I worried about before leaving home was worth a single thought. The excursions were great and there were many more that we could have chosen. Like last year’s vacation I would strongly recommend an “all inclusive” package. They really do have a lot to offer be it sailing, shooting, entertainment, good food, or whatever. Would I return to Cuba? Yes. Was it better than Jamaica? It was different not better or worse. I would likely return to Jamaica before returning to Cuba but that’s because I felt a better contact with the people. We’d also like to get out and see more of the sites. Before returning to either I think I’d rather try to explore somewhere else altogether. The attempts to compare and the realization that they are just too different to make a comparison made me realize there is adventure in learning about different cultures and places.
And a few comments from Olwyn:
Cuba, as a whole, was wonderful. Fascinating history, beautiful countryside, enjoyable people, so-so food (but, hey, ya can’t have everything, right?!) and sun, sun and more sun. I dutifully wore sunscreen everyday and was sure glad I did: the sun burns very quickly down there…that, we learned in Jamaica. I am very glad we enjoyed that whole experience, but as we talked about when we arrived home again, I’m not sure I’d go back. The politics took a back-seat to everything else, but it was still there. Being the nosy ninny I am, I’m not happy til I hear what people have to say about their state of life and I finally got someone to talk about it.
This was Miguel, the artist who did our pencil portrait. With two hours in front of us, and nothing to do but sit still and smile at him, I got him talking about life in Cuba. He was the first native who admitted that all was not well in that seeming paradise. He graduated from university (as many of them do down there: their complete education process is paid for and you need only pass the entrance exam to have 5 years of free education), and began teaching art in school. He was not happy doing that, so after a few years, he went out on his own, doing his art and selling it to the tourists. It’s very good and quite likely in a capitalistic society, he’d probably make enough to live on and support his family, maybe even become famous. However that will not happen there. Almost half of what they earn is turned over to the government, and what they earn is pitiable. An average Cuban makes between 10-12 US dollars a month. They are given an allotment of basic food requirements each month (rice, flour, sugar, meat, etc) but if they run out, they have to find some way of getting more. If you work in the tourist industry, you can hope to earn a bit more with tips. When we first got there, we didn’t know much about tipping, so we gave our room maid $5 for the first week, not realizing that this is the equivalent of half a month’s salary!!
Miguel continued with his insights into Cuban life. We asked questions, he responded, as conversations go. He said that the only way for a Cuban to get out was to be “bought out”; that is, have someone provide him with a plane ticket; or as the stories go, take a boat and hope to get across the ocean to southern Florida. (The northwest tip of Cuba is only 90 miles from the southern most cay of Florida’s islands.)
He was bright and fun and enjoyable to talk to. He offered to provide us with a mailing tube in which we could put our completed portrait for the flight home and we thanked him and tipped him and said we’d see him the next night. We never saw him again…… So, was our comfy couch hiding a microphone, registering all his complaints about his life? After you’ve been there awhile, that’s how you begin to think about incidents like that. We were joking on the hotel elevator one day, about our conversations being taped, but after awhile, you start wondering if it isn’t maybe true?!
But otherwise, a very lovely 2 weeks! And no, for those of you who follow world events, we did not see the terrorist Taliban prisoners: they are being kept 1000 kms. away at the south east end of the island (we were on the north-west coast, if you’re checking a map.)
And no, we did not see Fidel….I’m not sure what my reaction would have been if I’d actually seen him….!!