Saturday, May 06, 2006

Don't Let Them Scare You

So after escaping the hard sell of Cancun, the awful tourist contraption that it is, we hopped a plane and headed for the real vacation to none other than Cuba. The largest island in the Caribbean chain and the only communist/socialist country left and the source of America's agate. From Cancun to Cuba is a mere 45mins but the 2 places are worlds apart. We arrived around midnite and had to find our way to Varadero - 3hrs from the airport. Jose Marti airport in Havana is something different, the sullen staff, the tired appearance and the surly customs officials are something else. We were asked for our passports what seemed like a million times, asked about gifts grilled on where we're staying and finally we made it out to have to find transport. Now that transport was a 3hr 120mile race to the resort complex. 3hrs later, my husband with frazzled nerves due to the speed demon driver - we pulled up in front the Cuatro Palmas Hotel to begin our week's stay on the "forbidden" island.

Varadero is an interesting project in tourism; built like a gated a community; the 12 mile strip is home to countless hotels, a tourist haven (not the loud busy American types) and totally off limits to locals. There is even a check point at the beginning of the area so there is simply no getting in if you don't work there or aren't a tourist. In Varadero one forgets all worries or even the fact that you're in Cuba. Days were lazy, it was all inclusive due to the fact that the Varadero area is not exactly chock full of busy streets and business. This is more like the suburbs, calm serene and just a place to get lost in.

After 3 mind numbing days at the beach, nights partying and an idyllic peace, we left for legendary Havana. We were all set to stay in a Hotel in Old Havana and we were all too excited. The ride from Varadero to Havana in the day time was wonderful. The Viazul bus lives up to its name, it travels via the blue ocean all 3hrs back to Havana. Entering Havana was a bit of a culture shock. It looked like Beirut, crumbling ancient beautiful colonial buildings stood sentry over a roughshod city with the inhabitants weaving and existing between the decay. Old cars, Buicks, Plymouths, all circa 1958 sputter along with Ladas from the late 70s and a few modern ones sprinkled in between. The thing about Cuba is that it doesn't elicit pity for the people; yes life is hard but everyone makes a way. Whether its riding a bike for money, turning your old hearse into a smart taxi or the cigar hustle, they get by. Our hotel rose like an oasis in the ruins, a former Jewish residence with a resplendent interior complete with roof top dining.

Cuba is indeed a country of many contradictions happy and sad, glorious and tragic, suffering but prosperous, rich but poor. Cuba is filled with music, music is everywhere, the salsa, son, rumba and cha cha fill the air, it pours out of bars, streams out of restaurants and is blaring from any available radio. Walking the streets one is assaulted by the rich culture and the extremely talented performers. On several occasions we went out to shows and the dancing the dancing, was simply amazing! Second to none! The salsa dancers were on point and they literally cut the rug. But one is also assaulted by the desperate, begging on the sly because the police are apt to arrest anyone bothering a tourist. Some of the performers themselves have actually been reduced to desperation too.

What I realized and loved most about Cuba is the raw undiluted culture, the African culture that hasn't seemed to've been changed since the end of slavery, it mixed with the Spanish and indigenous to form what is unique and distinct to the island, Santaria is still strong and the beads are everywhere, it is not rare to see a Santero or Santera dressed in head to toe white. This is what is missing from where I'm from - Barbados. The lack of exposure has led the people to reach deep inside and cultivate what they have making it oh so much better.

Nothing is take away, no disposable cutlery, or readily available plastic bags, nothing is wasted, soda cans became baking containers for flans, box covers became utensils with which to eat take away Chinese and improvising is key. No silly fast food joints, no "Golden Arches" of McDonalds beckoning, no trashy Pizza joints, just the ice cream vendor on the Obispo the supplied half the populace with cones at all hours of the day. Supermarkets or what seemed like them were tired and the offerings were sparse and tired. The shelves bared no bounty of anything, and everything was safely behind the shopkeeper's counter. The large market; Cuatro Caminos; was a portrait in lethargy as vendors looked none to spry and even less energetic. Windows in the building were broken and from the exterior the place looked abandoned. Vendors of what seemed like fried bacon and piled up roasted chicken legs and various pastries spilled outside with there wares that my husband was scared to even taste. Locals ate what was far from the Cuban food we were used to in the city - sandwiches were the food of choice for most locals and pastries are abundant. Everywhere locals toted beautifully decorated cakes without boxes in the hot dusty diesel smoke infested air.
Oh it was an exciting and intriguing trip, one that awoken the senses and challenged one's comfort boundaries one that I would do again in a heartbeat. It was different and an experience that can't easily be compared to another. Havana isn't run over with picture clicking tourists or loud food fueled Americans, just discreet Canadians and the smattering of Europeans. It probably won't be this way for ever or maybe for much longer but at least I got to see it before a change happens some change maybe before the Yanks get there or who knows, the road ahead is still covered in fog. My advice to any purists, get your tourist card, tickets and get going, Cuba is in rare form!


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