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Cuba 2001



Saturday, November 24, 2001

4am – alarm goes off.  Why am I going to Cuba?

By 5am I on the way to the airport for the 6:10am flight to Toronto.  At the airport, every second piece of carry-on is hand-searched. It doesn’t even go through the x-ray machine.  Therefore, it takes 20 minutes to pass through security.

The flight to Toronto is 25 minutes late landing.  The couple next to me are on a flight to Bermuda (poor souls) that is leaving 15 minutes after we land in Toronto – good luck!!  I have 2½ hours, so there’s lots of time to relax.

Finally the flight to Varadero leaves and we are on our way.  The sky is clear, so the pilot takes it upon himself to be our tour guide – on your left is Disneyworld, on the right side is Cape Canaveral…..

Once the plane lands, we are shuttled, one by one, through customs – close the door behind you, it locks, and the customs person must buzz the door so that you can move through the cattle shuttle.  The friendly folks from Air Canada are there, and tell me what bus to board.

On the bus ride to the resort – Beaches Varadero, run by the folks at Sandals – we pass many rusty vehicles and army paraphernalia (tanks, weapons) off the side of the road and in the ditches, small shabby homes and lots of construction of new concrete homes.

There does not seem to be much damage from Hurricane Michelle, only three weeks earlier.

Upon arrival at the resort, we give our passports and tourist cards to the desk clerk.  Without these little gems we cannot leave the resort – we are told to pick them up tomorrow morning.  So we are held captive for the night.

1 ½ hours later I still am waiting in the lobby – apparently my room is not yet cleaned and they can not give me anywhere else to go.  Two other travelers are also waiting.  So we start drinking. And drinking. And drinking (this becomes a theme for the week). When the Air Canada Rep shows up, he can not do anything to help.  Finally, at 5:30pm (2½ hours after I arrived, and 3 hours after stated check in time) , I am given a replacement room, which is placed directly above the dumpster for the restaurants.  Nice smells!!  My view consists of the top of a restaurant and a fan.  The room is called a “Gardenview Jr. Suite” – where is the garden?  Behind the restaurant roof!!

I settle into my room, change and then meet a few people for dinner.   Our “pack” is formed that night – Anne Marie, Carey, Janet and myself – they’re all from Toronto.  We’re all there by ourselves, but find that we know people in common and spend most of the beach/pool time together.   It’s Spanish Night so there’s always rice.  Food will become the bane of the entire vacation.  Cubans use little spice, undercook their chicken and overcook everything else.  We become obsessed with food and the lack of good food at the resort.  We are excited when mashed potatoes are served.  Yum!!

OK – I’ve traveled all day – I’m tired and cranky.  Things will look better in the morning.  I head back to the room to discover that the satellite TV included Showtime, HBO, and CNN – Nurse Betty puts me to sleep.

Sunday, November 25, 2001

I wake up.  The clock says 7am.  I decide to be lazy and lounge around until 9am.  Gee it stays dark late here.  The sun finally peeks up at 8:30am.  I head out to the lobby, see a clock and realize that somehow my clock has added two hours to its time through the night.  It’s actually 7am, when my room reports it to be 9am!!  So 7am, the restaurant doesn’t open until 7:30 – what should I do?  I decide that I’ll spend $2 bribing the desk clerk for a room that is nowhere near the dumpster.  I win – the bellboy takes away my bags and I meet him at the room.

My new room is very close to the beach, the pool, the bar, I think paradise!!  Of course, it’s also near the show that goes on until midnight with dancing girls in feathers, poor singers, and cheesy music.  If I turn up the TV loud enough, I can almost block out the show noise.

The beach is beautiful – white sand as far as you can see, lots of lounges, turquoise water.  Beautiful!!  The pool is beautiful – lots of lounges, the usual aquarobics classes, and lots of women with no tops on.  Just the Canadians wear tops – there are no Americans and all the Europeans are naked from the waist up.

All I do for the majority of the vacation is lay

  1. on the beach
  2. by the pool
  3. in the pool on a floaty thing while waiters bring a never-ending supply of

It was a tough trip!!

Monday, November 26, 2001

Today is the most active of the vacation – off to Havana for the day.

We leave the resort at 8am and drive for 2 hours to Havana.   The sights on the way are saddening.  The poverty is overwhelming – just remember, no matter how hard these people choose to work, they will never have more money, they will never have a better life.  Their only hope is to float to Florida on a sub-par boat or raft. The small houses have running water and electricity, but that’s about it.  The houses are crumbling, the cars (the families lucky enough to have a car) are rusting and from the 50s, the people’s clothing is old and stained.

We start off with a 3 hour walking tour of many famous squares in Old Havana.  The sights are amazing.  A lot of buildings are being reconstructed to bring them back to original condition.  They look nice, but you have to wonder if that’s where the government should be putting its money.  The walking tour ends with a trip to the national museum – quite boring so I head outside and people watch.

Then it’s off to lunch – undercooked chicken anyone?  The restaurant is right next to the “Floridita” – Hemingway’s favorite bar & birthplace of the daiquiri, so we go inside to gawk.  Very classy place, you can get a $6US drink here, where the average monthly wage is $40US.

We stop at the “flea market” for some shopping.  I have brought along a few t-shirts, bars of soap, and gum, so I bargain myself free mugs and musical instruments!!  I also purchase a wall hanging and pottery piece.

We continue on – this time driving through Havana – see the art deco buildings (are you sure we’re not in Miami?), see the water, see how the water has eaten away at the art deco buildings.  We hit the hot spots – the rum factory, the cigar factory, the building with Che somebody or other (fought in a war with Castro) painted on it, revolution tower and Revolution Square.  We see the boat that Castro called Gramma – OK, I’m not a history buff – but I guess it’s important to the Cubans.

During the tour, I buddy up with the Tour Guide, Carlos, and ask questions.  I learn:

Tuesday, November 27, 2001

I am supposed to dive today, but it is cancelled due to rough weather – it is rough off shore, but as calm as a mirror at shore.  Within two hours, we see the storm moving past the island – you can literally see the line where the storm starts and ends.

Since it seems as if rain will visit, Anne Marie and I head into Varadero to the flea market.  We spend a couple of hours looking at artwork, leather belts, shoes, toys, and musical instruments.  The prices are practically free.  Bargaining is accepted at the flea market.  When I decide on a painting, I ask the man how much he wants for it.  I expect to hear $20-30, but when the little man, who needs a crutch to stand (perhaps afflicted by polio?) says $6 – there is no way I can bargain.  I buy the painting, buy another one, pay him the $12, and give him soap and gum as a tip.  His face lights up when he sees the goodies – obviously doesn’t get a lot of soap and gum is seen as a luxury.

We decide to also go to the grocery store & “Wal-Mart” type store (although 1/100 of the size) to see what we can find.  Toys that we would buy at the dollar store are $9US here.  Spam is $8.63 a can.  We find out that you can buy chicken-flavored chewing gum – YUMMY!!

Each night at the resort there is a “show” – I use the term loosely!!  A couple of times there is the copa cabaña type show with girls in feathers dancing poorly, with cheesy lounge singers wailing “Memories” in Spanish.  Tonight it is “The Ideal Couple Election” – 3 couples from Canada (Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver) and one couple from Germany – Germany wins and did provide the most entertainment – their prize?  A Beaches Varadero poster, a $6 bottle of rum, and a copy of the Beaches Varadero theme song on CD (the refrain is “kitchy-kitchy-kitchy-Cuba” and there is a dance for it that we are all forced to learn that night.

Wednesday, November 28, 2001

Diving – finally!!!  The water is still rough from the storm yesterday, but we brave the waves - after all, this would be considered good conditions at home in Halifax.  Visibility is OK, but it is still affected by Hurricane Michele.  The reef is damaged greatly – dead and broken coral is lying all over the bottom.  There are not too many fish; did the hurricane claim them as well?

The rest of the day is spent at the pool.

Thursday, November 29, 2001

Diving – again!!  Today we head to a Russian wreck – they found it about 3 years ago and it’s still in great condition.  There are HUGE snappers and groupers, but that’s about it.  Nothing has grown on the wreck.  Visibility is better today and the wreck is neat, so it’s a good dive.

I head off to the pool once on land, where I find a new member to our pack – Janet has invited John, from London, England, who is a dry-wit expert, to join our little clique – a good addition to the crew.  The 5 of us head to the á la carte Italian restaurant where we find smoked salmon – a feeding frenzy ensues.  Much better than mashed potatoes.

Tonight’s show is “Mr. Beaches Varadero” – a good excuse to embarrass the men who are standing around.  3 slimy guys and a nice one get chosen to participate – thankfully, the nice one wins!!! He’s Canadian and wearing a Roots sweatshirt.

Friday, November 30, 2001

Diving again – to the same reef as on Wednesday.  Much better this time – the fish have come back – lots of snapper, a very inquisitive barracuda that nips at my buddy’s fins, and a moray eel that posed for a photo.  This dive was worth the effort – visibility has cleared up a lot.

The last day is spent at the pool until 4:30pm.  At that point, I retire for a nap.  I turn on the TV to see that El Precio Juste is on – the Cuban version of The Price is Right.  Instead of “A New Car…” the big prize is a TV and ghetto blaster combo.

Saturday, December 1, 2001

The last day in the sun ... I sit at the pool until 10:30am, when I have to have a shower and then drag myself to the lobby and spend the rest of the day waiting in airports for planes and eating airplane food – which is really tasty by this time.  Duty Free is full of bargain - $5 rum, $3 banana liquor, and $5 toblerone bars.

Well – that’s Cuba – not exactly in a nutshell, but hope you enjoyed it.


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