Articles By Gord
As I see it... Cuba Revisited

July 2011 issue of Vibrant Magazine, view the actual article (including images).

As I see it... Cuba Revisited

Do you like brain teasers? Enjoy messing about with puzzles? Then I have a really good quiz for you.

What do you get if you have the world's finest hand-rolled cigars? Plus some really good knock-your-top-off rum. Add long, long stretches of white sandy beaches. Plus a warm sea that invites you to come play and splash. Plus towering palms and hot, hot sunshine. Add music, music ,music, sweet, delicious rhythms that tap your toes right out of your shoes. . . . Okay, your sandals. Add a warm welcoming people. Add classic automobiles from the fifties that chauffeur you through the streets. Plus an unbelievable show of music, songs and dance under the stars and palms. and add a rich cultural history. And when you put all these sun-drenched, lip-smacking good items together, what do you get? Cuba.

Why then, with all these paradise island features do I have this nervous-weirdy feeling about the place?

Cath and I first visited Cuba in 1994. The resort we stayed at was at the eastern end of the island , near the town of Holguin. We had hoped to visit Havana, but our resort was too far away to consider taking a bus and the cost too great to fly in for a day. We always regretted not getting to Havana.

That Cuban holiday was unlike any other Caribbean vacation we had ever experienced. Never had we stayed in a place where we've felt so safe, on or off the resort's property and any time of day or evening. There were Cuban oddities that Cath and I did wrestle with: the scarcity of hand soap, no chippies, no snackies and food that was plentiful, but was also lessly, boringly bland. Everything was just okay. And who goes away for okay?

In ‘94 the Cubans hadn't really got their heads wrapped around the concept of customer service. Imagine two hundred pasty white Canadians, starved from the heat of the sun by a traditional bone-chilling Canadian winter, at an all you can eat, all you can drink resort and only one bartender. Yikes! What's up with that? People were lined up around the pool, through the pool, in the pool and when they finally got a chance to order, people were walking away balancing ten or twelve drinks just to tide them over till lunch.

Cath and I were pleasantly surprised that none of the Cubans looked for or expected us to tip. We did carry a roll of American ones that we freely doled out for just that purpose and it was truly humbling, moving to hear and see their genuine appreciation of those few bucks. But, that was 1994.

In January of 2011 Catherine and I returned to Cuba. We'd found the ideal package for us, three days in Havana followed by four days on Veradero Beach. We did not find, however, the ideal exchange rate. I'd foolishly thought we'd be getting like a trillion Cuban pesos for our good old Canadian dollar, so you can imagine our surprise when one hundred dollars netted us eighty–nine pesos. Apparently the peso's value must somehow be pegged to the Castro whim, but as we were on vacation what did a few pesos matter one way or another. We'd just stepped off a plane into glorious sunshine, doffed our jackets for sandals and shorts and with great expectations boarded a bus for the ride to Havana.

Our ride was sweetened when our guide suggested we make a brief pit stop at this little road side stand for the best Pina Colada in all of Cuba. There was no need to twist our arms any further.

“He's chopped up a pineapple,” Catherine said, “and he's got some pieces of fresh coconut and he's dumped all that into a blender with crushed ice. Now, he's just put this humungus bottle of Havana Club rum down on the counter in front of us.”

Neither Cath nor I were too sure about proper roadside stand etiquette. Do we pour? Does he pour? And if we pour, how much do we pour? Catherine took charge, dumping a generous load of rum into our drinks. They were thick, delicious and the smooth taste of rum drifted from the very first slurp on our straws to the last schlurp at the bottom of the glass. And I thought, We'll be schlurping our way through a few more of these killer Pina Coladas before we bid Cuba ‘Adios.'

Catherine had chosen the Hotel Nationale for our stay in Havana. We were welcomed by the deep, rich chiming of a grandfather clock as we entered the lobby and I picked up immediately on the scent of lemons and furniture polish. From the lobby alone I got the impression the Nationale was of a similar breeding as the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. Everything smacked of top dog service. Most impressive to me was the pictoral history of some of the Nationale's renowned guests, Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra and Muhammed Ali.

Sixteen years after our initial foray into the mystery called Cuba the oddities continue. They still had shortages of items we Canadians consider everyday things, such as bars of hand soap. Although we were informed that more soap was available on request. Both of us were thrilled to discover the Cubans had snackies now. Chippy sort of things, which proved perfect companions to a frosty beer or Pina Colada. But unfortunately, sixteen years absence hadn't improved their culinary skills at all. I found their food just as hopelessly, boringly bland.

That first evening and the following day we leisurely explored old Havana with its pedestrian-friendly cobblestoned streets that wove throughout the old town before opening onto lively public squares. With no map to follow, Cath and I were guided by the sounds of live music. But old Havana left me with one of those weirdy feelings. There were too few stores and too few restaurants and cafes and there were no cell phones going off anywhere, anytime. Weird. Everything was just back to okay. Much to Catherine's dismay the shopping in Cuba had not improved. Outside of rum, cigars and cheap salad tongs there was zilch to buy. I never once had to produce my credit card, because no one takes credit cards.

The second evening we took in a show at the world famous Tropicana night club. This two hour show of Cuban music, songs and dance was spectacular. Yes, spectacular! I'd gone to the Tropicana with words like stupid, goofy, corny, hokey ready to leap from my mouth, but I was totally wrong. Spectacular! The first surprise Cath and I got was discovering the club was not inside, but outdoors under the stars. Cath was magnificent with her play-by-play description of the various levels of the stage, the lights and in particular details of the dedicated young performers. . . . Okay, okay the dancers.

“You'd love this Gord. There must be thirty young women out here dancing. They almost surround us and they're on all different levels, some high, high up among the palm tree branches. And the girls are all wearing these skimpy, little g-strings and they're grinding, ever so slowly grinding, now gyrating and now they're thrusting almost as if they were--”

“Okay, okay, Cath. That's enough. I think I got the picture. . . . Thrusting, eh?”

And I am sorry to announce that the Cubans have discovered tipping. Somehow they equate tipping with breathing.

I have no problem tipping for good service, even ‘okay' service might get me digging for a little extra in my pocket, but I ain't flipping ya a tip ‘cause you did your job. Unfortunately that is where the Cubans have stalled.

During our four day stay at the all inclusive Blau Resort on Varadero Beach we did have one young gal waiting on us over dinner who seemed to get it. Lucy was attentive, pleasant and she clinched herself a tip when she laughed at my stupid jokes. On our last night we tried to discreetly slip Lucy a few pesos in appreciation, but the guy she'd been teamed up with spotted our action and pounced on Cath and I as if we were long-lost family. Even though this guy's pounce came with a smile, it was too little, too late and I left him nothing.

Cuba remains a mystery. I don't buy the Castro Brothers sales pitch of a happy smiling contented Cuban people. These folks are suppressed and have been suppressed for the past fifty years. I mean the fact that unlike you and I they are not allowed to freely come and go as they please is wrong. I came away feeling Cuba is ripe for change. Change? North African style change? I hope not, but the parallels can be drawn.

Whatever the future holds for Cuba, it'll likely end up with more hand soap and perhaps more exciting food.

And as for their music?

Hopefully the music will stay just the way it is. HOT!
 
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