going places

Cuba 2012

I'm headin' out west with my headphones on
Boarding a flight with a song in the back of my soul
That no one knows

I know many of you have been waiting for tales from Cuba and my first destination wedding and I'm happy to share! 

On this trip we decided to pay the parking fee and just drive ourselves to the airport and back. It's just a little more cash than a taxi, and they shuttle you around so it's really a pretty low hassle drive. We spent most of Friday puttering and closing up a few lose ends in life and watching a marathon of one of our favourite TV shows, and then we drove to the airport and started our trip with an expensive sandwich. After a long layover in the Toronto Airport, where it was FREEZING cold and I had a terrible sandwich (ironically the SAME sandwich from the SAME restaurant, just awful), we had an overnight flight with me in a window seat. I had been up late the night before the flights and was able to book us amazing seats on the way there. My window seat was host to nature's theatre and I saw something probably very few people have seen - bright stars, below which the blue-green northern lights were dancing on top of an electrical storm which kept lighting up the patchwork land, and a small city. This amazing sight lasted for about ten minutes and I will probably never forget it. I woke Paul up briefly to watch the northern lights, but he went back to sleep before the crazy awesome stuff started and I felt it was wise not to wake him. I didn't sleep on that flight.

Paul got congested on the flight and we'd stupidly packed all our meds in checked luggage, so he had a painful landing and I felt stomach sick (probably partly in thanks to my terrible sandwich.) We finally got to Cuba, where it was hot, humid, and rainy, and despite all that we were just glad to be off the flight. The officials in the Cuban airport had the most lax security I've ever been through (both ways) and we stepped out into the soggy air and soggy everything mid-day on Saturday. We were the first ones on the bus that took us to our resort. After check-in at the Iberostar Laguna Azul resort, where they gave us ridiculously annoying green wristbands that we had to wear all week and couldn't easily take off, we had a bellboy whisk us off to our room, which was in the building unanimously named on TripAdvisor as the one to be in, close to the beach path and off the beaten path of the resort. It was really quiet there. There was a small moat in front of our door, but our room was a bit raised, so aside from making everything slippery it didn't affect us much. We discovered we had umbrellas, which turned out to be a major luxury for three days of rain, and the bed was reasonably comfortable, which was nice. The lack of clocks at the resort was something we weren't prepared for. We had brought an alarm clock, but timelessness was stressful for us, particularly because things at the restaurants and their entertainment did run on time schedules. 

We spent most of the first afternoon sitting in the same place waiting for supper. We hadn't taken anything from our room and the weather was gross, so we stayed in boredom. We tried some drinks that were really bad (we didn't discover pina coladas until later) and we tried to talk, but we both felt a bit ill from flying and didn't feel like there was much to talk about. After the whirl of getting ready for Cuba and working my butt off, it was anticlimactic. Pretty much the only entertainment came by way of the maids using squeegees on the floor to sweep the growing puddles underneath the doors. Nothing, and I mean nothing at this hotel is designed for weather that isn't sunlight. Cuba normally has amazing weather, so it's not necessary I suppose. The doors have big gaps, the windows don't have glass, there's huge sections open to the sky in parts of the resort, and there's very little indoor entertainment in the main area. The supper buffet didn't open until 6:30pm, and we were horribly starving by then. We were some of the first people in the lineup, along with others from our wedding party, who recognized us and greeted us. 

The food was BAD. I could go on for ages about how hard it was for me to find something reasonable to eat - I ate french fries and pasta for three solid days until I could barely take it anymore. They did have delicious ice cream though. Mango and a Pineapple/Orange cross were my favourites. And the orange pop was addictive. As soon as we had off-resort food we were really happy we came. Real cuban food is good stuff. And the a la carte restaurants (you get to eat three suppers at a place other than the buffet if you book them in advance) were better than the buffet for sure. Paul said the food was merely O.K. and he tried to be positive about it, but I was close to gagging at times, and since I don't eat seafood and I was trying to restrict myself to things that wouldn't make me sick, I was even more limited. Many people in our party got pretty severely sick from the food. So if I go back to Cuba for a DW I am going off-resort as often as I can. We did find the house wine delicious - Paul liked the red and I liked the white. It was very strange not paying after we ate, or for any of the alcohol. All-inclusive feels weird when you spend your life paying for stuff. But it was our first time. I think I could get used to it. =)

In any case, Paul and I have agreed that something with actual 5-star food is more up our alley, and that we like the Carribean beach vacation sort of thing, so we'd like to try the Dominican. Or maybe something like Hawaii.

On our second day of raininess, I discovered the gift shop had the cutest pair of shoes I'd ever seen, and they were already in my size, and they fit. This was a total Godsend because the shoes I had were slipping all over the tile with all the water. They also had one American-manufactured product: Pringles. Which was like eating small crunchy pieces of heaven. We ran into our bride and groom and they told us that the wedding had been moved to Tuesday, so on Monday we tried to do some fun things in between the intermittent rainy periods, and I had a nap. 

Goodbye cold
Goodbye rain
Goodbye sorrow
Goodbye shame

The Wedding Photos

Tuesday was a great wedding day - it only rained once, and it was right in time for a break for us and the exhausted couple. Afterwards we took a cab to the Bat Cave near Varadero and the Santa Elvira church. There's more about those two days on my work blog posts talking about the wedding and subsequent TTD session the next day. Paul and I went swimming in the evenings because we were all sweaty and hot and gross. We didn't really know how to pack for a beach vacation. I definitely need to bring more sundresses and skirts next time. Pretty much just light, airy sundresses though. I was just grateful I brought twice the underwear I'd thought I would need! 

Since this blog is pretty much the index of my life (along with Evernote now) and since it's relevant to our vacation I should mention that there's a huge list of things I've saved in Evernote from my trip journal that we should have brought with us. Oops.

Personal photos to illustrate the following stories

Afterwards we practiced having a much more restful vacation than usual - just one day of checking out Havana, and I have to say that after several days of beach vacation I was in a state of peacefulness seldom seen in this busy world. I heartily approve of beach vacations - I already knew that Emma Lake did good things for me, and oceans are one of my favourite things, so I can't say I was terribly surprised. It's a big shock to the system resting that much though, I hit a few rough patches of boredom when it rained because I hadn't properly prepared to entertain myself. We had brought a deck of cards, but no instructions on how to play card games for two. We brought strategy games like Battleship and Mastermind, but one of us was too tired or brain-dead to play them half the time. We were even too brain-dead to play Blink, which despite being about speed, is pretty simple. So we definitely needed some more mindless entertainment options. I did however manage to read The Count of Monte Cristo. I brought it in book form and e-reader form. I was reading the book form all the time because I prefer paper books to my e-reader most of the time on vacations, which I may need to wean myself off of because books are heavy, especially the tomes I like to take on vacation so I don't run out of reading material.  What I didn't know is that the paper book I had was abridged. ABRIDGED I SAY! Sacrilege and horror! So I'm not sure if the bad ending was a bad abridgement (who am I kidding, ALL abridgements are evil) or if the book just has a crappy ending that doesn't properly address all the themes. Also, being a fan of Greek myth, there wasn't enough punishment from on high for his hubris. I'm just saying. Despite the poor ending, I'd label this one worth reading, or possibly worth listening to as an audiobook. It was really fitting that I read it in the Carribean, as portions of the book talk about it, and about Havana cigars and exports. Despite my outrage at the ending I'm still planning on reading The Three Musketeers. Unabridged. Maybe on my next beach vacation.

There were a ton of animals on the resort. Crabs, jungle-looking frogs with sticky feet, and lizards everywhere. I started to say, "LIZZZZORRRD!" every time I saw one, which to his credit didn't appear to annoy Paul much, even after I said it a zillion times. There were several Lizzzzord nests near our building on the resort, which meant I got to say it even more often! They also often lived under the sidewalks. It was super cool to see the exotic wildlife everywhere, it was one of the highlights of the trip for me. There were sometimes dogs on the resort too, I wasn't sure if they were strays that were adopted by the resort staff or if particular people owned them and brought them to work.

The next few days of vacation after the wedding work were admittedly a bit of a blur to me. We spent time on the beach and in the pools. We swam in the ocean twice while we were there, and wave jumping is just so much fun, I could do it all day. Paul thinks I might be part fish, I never want to leave the water. I just really love feeling weightless I think, and moving around in water feels really natural for me after having gone swimming so often. Of course, I always felt like water was relaxing. Being near it, being in it. I still hate showering though, I only like bodies of water, even small ones. Maybe that lends credence to me being a fish. I read late into the evening and visited the 24 hour snack bar for a hot dog, where I visited with a lizard that was on the chair across from me, played with a crab, and read my book. It was a nice relaxing day, that's for sure. We visited one of the a la carte restaurants which was all right, but wonderful after the bad buffet. We also saw a magic show and had a dance lesson while we were there. The magic show was really cool, and the dance lesson was salsa, which I found less exhausting than usual, probably because summertime is my active season, with work I always get into much better shape.

We drank a lot of pina coladas, as they were super delicious. One of the things that sticks with me about the trip was Paul saying "Gracias" all the time, while I felt the desire to stick to English most of the time because I felt uncomfortable. I enjoyed tipping people, it felt good. We had brought gifts with us that I hope will be valuable.

On our first vacation day that was all our own, our plan was to eat supper at the Cuban Restaurant, La Cabana (The Bell) in Josone Park. Our tour guide, who had taken us out on Trash the Dress day, had suggested it and said it was a place Cubans sometimes went to celebrate something special. Unfortunately I couldn't hear them as they talked about it (they were in the backseat, the car was loud, and the A/C was cranked, so I didn't hear much of anything from them over the noise) and Paul had misheard them and thought they'd told us the restaurant was called The Barrel. When we were ready to go I asked the bellboy to send us up an old car, but unfortunately the rules said we had to go with the car that was next in line, a tiny, new black car. I was SUPER disappointed, my cuban dreams were momentarily shattered. Ah well, there was always the ride back, I told myself.  The experience trying to explain how to get to the restaurant when we'd misheard the name as "The Barrell" and not "The Bell" with a driver that barely spoke English and who knew he wasn't really wanted was not great. My pout at that point was one of the things I probably regret most on the trip, but I got ahold of myself as fast as I could.

When we finally got to the restaurant, it was a great experience. I'd trade their rice and beans for resort food any day, and the beef broth soup they had was deep and rich. The Cuban dessert that seemed most popular was custard with caramel, which I loved because it's as close as you can get to being creme brûlée without actually being my favourite dessert. =) We had delicious sangria there as well with a really deep flavour. We asked the proprietor to call us a cab and then sat on the lawn enjoying the beautiful moonlit park for about ten minutes waiting.

I never could forget those nights
Wonder if it was a dream

I saw some headlights coming up the drive and fervently wished for an Old Cuba experience. I got my wish. When the car that drove down the park lane to get us was a '55 Pontiac Convertible in light blue I overflowed with happiness. A car fanatic like myself couldn't believe that my first ever drive in a convertible with the top down was going to be like this. Totally worth the wait. Paul and I were really entertained by our almost running into a vintage VW Beetle on the park roads, enjoying the moonlit park, and the moonlit oceanfront drive back from Veradero with our hair blowing in the wind after one of the first really good meals we'd had in Cuba. I will never forget that moment. I tried to etch every detail into my mind because it was crazy cool.

We sat and listened to some of the amazing music in the lobby and ended up starting a conversation with the Bride's Mom and finding out that she was a devout Catholic with a lot of amazing wisdom to share with us about living each day seeking God. It was really timely for both of us and I was very encouraged. We got her contact information and I am looking forward to visiting with her.

Afterwards Paul and I went for a moonlit swim in the hot tub and there was nobody else around, so it was really special to just spend time in the warm water, floating and enjoying the clouds, and enjoying each other's company. 

Those are some of my favourite moments, but my favourite day was our last vacation day when we went to Havana with our tour guide and driver whom we'd negotiated the trip with after the Trash the Dress day. The man we'd hoped to tour with, whom we'd connected with by email before our trip had a broken down car and couldn't take us out, which was disappointing (though we got to use a phone booth with an operator at the hotel since the phone in our room wasn't working.) For $150, we got to see the world, shining, shimmering, splendid. Ha ha.

The tour was really amazing even though I had to get up really early in the morning to go. One of the best parts of it for me was that they'd planned the tour so we didn't have to say where we wanted to go, but there were options on the trip. 

I loved just driving through the countryside as well. We saw the highest suspension bridge in the Carribean, where I saw an unripe coconut and found out they are the best for making pina coladas because the milk soaks into the meat of the coconut over time. There were buzzards flying around and we had a great view of the gorge beneath the bridge - there's lots of photos! We drank the pina coladas there, which we were told were the best in the province of Matanzas, and I bought a little photo album with burnt and painted leatherwork on it to put Cuba photos in when I get around to printing them. 

I got a super amazing photo of a palm tree with the ocean while we were stopped at a police check to ensure that our driver had his tourism license. New desktop!

We proceeded to Havana, where our first stop was the oldest fort in the Carribean, which was super cool. Fortresses are so interesting! The cannons and the narrow holes in the wall for the guns (can't remember what they're called) were cool. We drove in a tunnel built under the ocean. We saw Revolution Square, where the longest ever speech was given by Fidel Castro that lasted nearly a day, and millions of people fit into the square. Most of the population of Cuba was there that day! We saw a restaurant that everyone who comes there signs the walls, we saw an old Catholic church that the Pope visited when he went to Cuba last March and Pope John Paul II's visit in 1998.

In Havana they stick old cannons and cannonballs in the pedestrian-only streets. Best car deterrent method I've seen, though large boulders are the usual method here, and in Israel. I actually couldn't help comparing Cuba to Israel, since both destinations have a bit of tropical flavour to them and are hot and have a lot of old things. Cuba is more about progressive traditionalism than Israel though. In Israel, restoration is for the past, but in Cuba restoration is for the present, for the tourists who've only started coming since the 1990s. And no wonder, it's an amazing place. This year our tour guide said has been the best ever year for tourism with about 3 million tourists.

There was an archway I asked about in a big plaza in Old Havana that our tour guide identified as part of the Literacy Olympics. (I took pictures.) The whole square was full of used bookshops in the open air, which our guide told us were really popular. Of all the things Cubans are proudest of, it's their education system, and the pride seems pretty warranted. Free education for all is a value I definitely share. Of course, Canadians share many values with Cuban socialism. More personal than political values in a sense - health care and education are very personal issues. And the artwork and music was everywhere! Our tour guide confirmed that for the artistically talented there's free education in their area. That's just too cool for someone like me who has ridiculous debt from wanting to be an artist...

As a prairie person coming from stock of many people whose ingenuity kept them alive and keeps them stubbornly creating now, I have great respect for the creativity and ingenuity of Cubans. I remember seeing an awesome pergola woven with seaweed for a porch sun protector and tools made out of random scraps seemed to be the norm for many things. The musicians at the restaurants and resorts were world class - the violinist at the wedding reception was crazy good and I tipped him personally, someone told Paul he'd been in the Cuban Opera orchestra before going to work in tourism. The colours of the architecture were so friendly and happy and only confirmed my dislike of "modern" architecture, which will be as obsolete when our children are grown as everything from 30 years ago is today. The flea market was an incredible experience. In many places you go, including Israel, nearly all the tourist items for sale are mass produced art, but Cuba's not like that everywhere you go. The flea market our guide took us to was incredibly varied. Lots of artists of all kids - woodworkers and painters especially - selling their own unique works. We spent less than fifty dollars on art and I have a mobile of carved birds (I took a photo of that guy's booth), an awesome painting that we bought for $15 after being originally told the price was $50 and walking away, and unique gifts for our family. I loved being surrounded by art, literature, and music permeating everything. I can see why Hemingway and other artists and poets spent time in Cuba. It's a place that inspires for sure. I would go back for that if nothing else. Though I can say that sitting in a nicely cool apartment where I've barely broken a sweat for weeks, ha ha.

Our tour guide asked if I wanted to see the Cuban National Art Gallery, and you bet I did. The name in spanish means Palace of Fine Art and I wouldn't argue with that assessment! I spent some of the most focused 15 minutes of my life looking at excellent Spanish art from the 1500-1700s, from paintings representing famous battles to devotional paintings. They are restoring many old paintings here. The other amazing thing was the HUGE stained glass ceiling and interior architecture of the building. (I took pictures there, though I couldn't photograph the paintings. You'll just have to go to Cuba. And I'll just have to go again and spend a few hours there seeing paintings I can't find on the internet and I won't see in other countries.) 

We finally ate a late lunch at a restaurant they suggested, where a painter was set up in the lobby and the kitchen was glassed in. We tried a drink made from sugarcane and a tourist family at a neighbouring table offered us their leftover half-pitcher of sangria, which was DELICIOUS. The food was pretty good. I ate lamb and Paul ate lobster, both of us for the second time. Paul told me that he'd been consistently unhappy with seafood over the past few years and had finally realized that day that he simply didn't like seafood anymore. This makes me happy because the smell of seafood makes me nauseous and I hate being exposed to the doomed tanks of lobsters I see at seafood places.

We saw a lot of people fishing with a line and a little hook of scrap metal with some foliage on it in the ocean at various places. Our tour guide told us that's a pretty common thing for people to do. He also told me that most Cubans have dogs or cats as pets just like Canadians, but there are many strays on the streets too.

We went to a rum and cigar shop adjoined to the Cigar factory (closed on Fridays - most Cubans have Friday off) and bought some rum for us and to share and some cigars for Paul's friends who enjoy the occasional Cuban cigar. The people who work there demonstrate how to smoke whenever people come in. Their lungs must be in a state of disrepair seldom seen.

In the end we had an incredible tour and I was just starting to fade into tiredness when our tour guide announced that this part of the tour was over and asked if we wanted to see anything else. We said it was time to go back to the resort - it was the right decision! We said goodbye to our tour guide and driver whom we had really enjoyed spending time with. I should say something about them, too. Ozy, our guide's name short form because his Spanish name is too hard for tourists to say, is a man about our age with a wife and a young daughter. He's trained in linguistics and Education, and he's teaching middle school this Fall - in fact, he's probably teaching as I write this. Guillermo, our driver, said the car we drove in was his Grandfather's and that he replaced the engine last year and took over the car from his Dad. Ozy joked that he learned how to drive on a bicycle and that's how he got to be such a great driver, indeed he's only been driving for less than two years, but Cubans in general are amazing drivers. Think how you'd drive if the car you had was the only car you could ever have. Guillermo is married and has an 11-year-old daughter as well. We talked with Ozy about how city people and country people are the same anywhere and don't really understand each other. He lives in a small city, a bit smaller than Saskatoon, off the beaten tourism path. We were telling stories about people from Toronto thinking Edmonton was small even though it's huge by our standards. We learned about Cuban education (much like Canadian education but free) and all sorts of other little details of life in Cuba. It's much easier to provide for your family in a tourism job. A lot of people, especially artists, are self-employed and cater to tourism and more well off Cubans who can afford a few luxuries. You're allowed to have employees if you are self-employed and have a restaurant or something.

One of the things Paul was noting was the lack of the upperclass, though really in Cuba tourists are the upperclass, which was a little disturbing to think about. A lot of us, and Paul and I included, definitely feel like going to Cuba is a bit of an act of charity. Cubans are very gracious about this sort of thing, and I think they've accepted that it's just how things are. For a body of people not too many years away from revolution, accepting how things are is an art they seem to have mastered. To be fair, they do seem to be pretty happy with life in general, even though many of them work really long hours (12 hour days, 6 days a week in tourism). Music and dancing and visiting and playing games, relaxing on the balcony, and enjoying entertainment are all big cultural things for them, and Ozy talked about how living by the ocean was home.

When we got back I took a quick photo of the wedding group, and then we relaxed on our final day with some swimming and our final a la carte restaurant which had delicious soup. In the morning we packed to go and had a reasonably uneventful trip home (bought more rum in the Cuban airport, that was one event I suppose). At home it was raining again, but COLD rain this time. C'est la vie.

The final good thing was that even though we exceeded customs regulations with an extra bottle of rum, nobody charged us anything! Yay. We now have rum to last us years, we use it so seldom. Though I do want to try using some in cooking too.

So that was the whirlwind trip. I really loved Cuba and if I ever get a chance to go back I would totally go. For a wedding too, for sure, though I'd spend all my free time off resort. We spent less than $700 in spending money while we were there and had an incredible experience. We'd probably have paid $3000-$4000 for similar experience in Europe, and a lot of the art and architecture is in the same era.

Cuba has my vacation endorsement! Like on Ebay… A+++++ would go again. I have also decided that under the right conditions I'd do a destination wedding again, too.