Tuesday, February 2, 2010

On our trip to Cuba...

And so we have returned from Cuba. I had wanted to visit this country for quite some time. During the years which spanned my military career, I was not permitted to visit Cuba. Nowadays as a civilian, I finally had the chance to scratch that particular itch. Cuba did not disappoint. It was all that I thought it would and wouldn't be.

Our trip had a somewhat rocky start. We were dropped off at the airport by my step-daughter and her hubby, at about 0330hrs. We chucked them our winter coats after we had offloaded our luggage, as it made for much lighter traveling. We were amazed that there were a scant 5 people ahead of us in the Sunwing check-in line. Before long we had reached the counter and began the check-in process. My better half's luggage was over by 4 kilos. She was informed that it would cost her an extra $80.00 ($20.00 per kilo) to have her luggage checked in. Ouch!! If you're traveling South (or anywhere...), pack light. You're really not going to need that many clothes... seriously!

We took off a little after 0600hrs and our flight time was 3 hours and 40 minutes. There was quite a bit of turbulence during the first part of the flight and we had to climb above our predicted cruising altitude to get out of it. We had a 45 minute stop in Cayo Coco, before proceding on to Holguin. We had the opportunity to deplane and spend some time in the terminal before departing again. As soon as my feet hit the tarmac, I could smell that old familiar smell which let me know straightaway that I was back in the tropics. They have such a unique vegetation down there and it simply permeates the air itself.

There is an unmistakeable aroma which accompanies being down South. For me it evokes so many memories. I took advantage of our stop to exchange some Canadian dollars for Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). That way we would be ready for when we disembarked in Holguin. Soon we were re-embarking on the plane and winging our way to our final destination. Our landing was smooth and uneventful. We de-planed and walked to the main terminal. It was small and unassuming, even though the signage trumpeted it as being an 'international airport'. I though of the old '80s sitcom "Wings" and smiled...

We breezed through customes and security, my new surgical steel arm again tripping the alarm. As when leaving Ottawa, I explained what and where the item was and all was good. Unlike the Dominican Republic, there were no hordes of porters clamoring for our luggage. It was all very civilized. We walked out of the terminal, met our Sunwing rep who was waiting there for us and who directed us to our bus. We carried our luggage to the bus where an attendant was waiting to take our names and put our luggage on the bus. There was an older lad, a local, who was helping the driver load our bags. He held out his hand with a Canadian $5.00 bill in it, giving us a broad hint that he expected a tip for the act of loading our bags onto the bus. I think I gave him a peso for his troubles.

Convertible pesos are worth roughly 25 Cuban Pesos each. Something to keep in mind when tipping. We were fairly generous with our tips, as we are always aware that in these countries (particularily in Cuba) that one person you're tipping is normally also supporting an extended family. The people were wonderful and the countryside very pleasant. The most telling aspect of Cuba, is that it is stuck in a time warp. A time warp artificially maintained by the communist regime. To be truthful, I doubt if anyone off our resort (or on, for that matter...) was even aware of the fall of the Soviet Union or the reunification of Germany.

The most common form of transportation we saw were horses. Pulling either four or two-wheeled carts. Second came old, blue smoke belching motorcycles, many with sidecars. Of the vehicles we saw, the most numerous were hulks of early to mid-fifties Fords, Chevs and Pontiacs. The bodies were largely in various stages of decomposition, and one can rest assured that all the innards had since been rebuilt with Soviet Lada components. The Ladas we saw still on the road, were shot through with rust and barely held together by anything.

The one hour ride from the airport to the resort was an eye-opener. There were of course the official, government-approved graffiti statements on concrete walls and revetements. Slogans such as Ché Guevara's famed "Hasta la victoria siempre" (Forever, until victory), references to the "26 julio", as well as government billboards proclaiming the "Crisis capitalista mundial". Between these bold and glorious procalmations of loyalty to the Communist ideal, were hovels built of whatever materials were available at hand. Ché Guevara was actually Argentinean and his one goal was the elimination of poverty. I found myself musing that he would cry for these Cubans if he could see what Fidel had done since his death in October of 1967.

The have-nots in Cuba, are exactly that. As we met and befriended more Cubans during our stay, discovering their warmth and immersing ourselves in their pre-1956 culture, I felt badly for them. They knew so little of the world outside their borders. Even our Sunwing rep, a Cuban national himself, was more than just a little gung-ho in his presentation of Cuba's "glorious revolution", as he was giving us our first day briefing. I had to kind of bite my lip in order to not bust out laughing. I wanted to remind him that there was a hell of a lot more to Cuba's history, than what had happened since the 26 July 1956. With any luck, their best history remains to be written, when they finally free themselves from the yoke of communist domination. Let's face it... nobody wants to see them become another 'USA'. But I would like to see the Cuban people enjoy the type of freedom and opportunities we so take for granted here in North America.

But that is a matter for time to handle. We had booked into the Blau Costa Verde Beach Resort. Our room was wonderful, clean, and odour-free. The grounds were very well maintained, the staff courteous, the food wonderful, the pool awesome and the weather was on our side all the way. Our daily rituals involved a leisurely and genuine appreciation for our surroundings and for all those who worked so hard to make our visit there such a wonderful one. We visited the beach on a couple of occasions, but truth be told it was not all it could have been. Woe to anyone who was down there after 1700hrs, as that is when the sand fleas emerged to feed.

We preferred to lounge around the pool area during the day. We were lulled by the strains of Cuban music and the occasional mix of house music. Our mornings were spent lazing in the sun, snacking and downing numerous chilled drinks or 'café con léchés', as were our afternoons. Our evenings were spent in lively and hilarious conversations with two other local couples we met up with, as well as taking in the entertainment. Their Animation Crew was second to none and held some extremely talented individuals.

On the Friday, we took an cab into the town of Guardalavaca. We strolled through the market and vendors there, snapping pictures of the many wares for sale. We found a set of stone steps leading down to the beach. Here we were in an area of 3-star hotels, but they had themselves a 5-star beach! We also stumbled on a beachside restaurant that catered exclusively to "pirates". Truly another photo op. We could have taken a horse-drawn carriage back to the resort, but my better half felt badly for the little beasts, who found themselves forced to work in such hot temperatures. So... a taxi it was.

Their women, particularily their dancers, were beautiful. I think my favorite moment of the entire trip, happened when we had the chance to watch their cast rehearse for the evening show, under the stern and watchful eye of their choreographer. My better half was moved to tears by the grace and beauty of these gifted young people. The full show they put on later that evening, was nothing short of spectacular.

For as much as we really tried to stretch out each and every day we were there, they simply melted away. All too soon we were looking at our last night there. They put on a fashion show that evening and the models were simply stunning. Not these little emaciated waifs one sees on the runways of Paris and Milan, no...no. These were women with long legs and full curves, and weight, and rightly-deserved attitude. Between the fashions, the models, the music and the locale, it amounted to an unforgettable evening.

Sadly, our seventh day arrived much too soon and we found ourselves packing to leave. Cuba feels like a bit of unfinished business. Like there were several things that remained undone. I never got to make that trip into Santiago de Cuba, or Santa Clara for that matter. It demands a return visit, there is no question about it. It would be unrealistic and unfair for me to base my perceptions of Cuba, solely on what I have seen during this first stay.
I don't know what difference if any we might have made, in the lives of those we met there. I can say however, that Cuba has certainly made a lasting impact on me. It will definitely join my long list of "places I really must revisit".

Viva Cuba!

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