~ There is only one journey: going inside yourself. ~
- Rainer Maria Rilke


The Cuban Journals: Post- Trip ~ Friday, February 22, 2008

We left for Cuba on February 14th, for a week. We got back late last night. It seems like we've been gone much longer--though that's often how I feel when I step out of my daily routine.

It makes sense, really. In the everyday scheme of things, we're often on autopilot and only encounter a few new elements (the world news, perhaps, or an overnight snowfall we have to drive through on our commute).

By contrast, as soon as we're in a different place, our brains are forced to begin processing a multitude of new elements--everything from getting our bearings, through responding to differences in nuance, body language and culture, to the busy onslaught of taking in the sights, visiting historical monuments or trying to fit each element encountered into the bigger picture. No wonder, then, that each day feels much longer and bursting at the seams with new experiences when we're on holiday.

I didn't take my computer nor my alphasmart to Cuba with me, as I didn't want the hassle and worry of lugging them around. So, I just made notes in my journal. Over the next several days, I'll transcribe exerpts, then back date them as relevant.

So, feel free to browse the entries as they're posted, to scroll back to the 14th, start at the beginning and read up through the days to the most recent one--or to skip it altogether, as you will. The choice is yours! :-D


::Posted by Anduril Elessar @ 12:32 PM::::



The Cuban Journals: Soap, Milk and Chocolates ~ Sunday, February 17, 2008

It is our last full day in Varadero. We usually divide our time here between walking around the town and sitting on the pleasant but crowded beach, with its white sands and clear water, stretching out into the distance in ever-deepening bands of turquoise. We've both managed to get a lot of reading done (I'm not much of a beach person, as I'm not athletic, only occasionally frolic in the waves and am not big on suntanning. I swear, I'll be coming back from a week in Cuba almost as pale as I was when I went).

But, though the town is cut off from the rest of Cuba--and I'm growing increasingly frustrated by this isolation and more intrigued by the question of what it's like beyond the tidy streets of Varadero--we've had a few interesting encounters and experiences over the last few days.

* * *

On our first day, we walked through the town to get our bearings and purchase our Via Azul bus tickets to Havana. Via Azul is the tourist bus line (there are separate buses for tourists and locals--I don't know enough to speculate about whether it's to keep people from telling outsiders what Cuba is like, or whether it's simply that tourists might want a more luxurious travel options than the regular inter-city buses). The town seemed well-maintained. Though there were some run-down places, I was most especially struck by the lack of litter. No cans and bottles strewn on the grass patches--everything was strikingly clean. Ontario, after the thaws--not to mention other places--Japan, Italy, etc.--had far more litter strewn by the roadsides.

And so, we wondered, as we walked through, how much this was like the rest of the country--were Cubans exceptionally civic-minded?

Later that afternoon, we were sitting on one of the slightly offputting rattan chairs in the lobby area, right beside a sign that said "Careful--wet floor". They had placed it right beside a pool of gungy water that had accumulated due to a leak in the ceiling, and Tom chuckled and said, "I guess it's easier to put up the sign than to actually fix it."

A few moments later, a burly, bearded man started taking photos of the sign. When we made eye contact with him, he grinned and said, in accented English, "Easier to put the sign than fix. I'm taking a picture to show people back home, or they might not believe it."

Of course, we started chatting. He and his family are from Poland. "For my wife and me," he said, "this is our past--this place, this kind of society. For my daughter, it's history--textbook stuff. We are here to show her what it was like for us."

We learned that they had been here several weeks, staying in Varadero, but touring around, taking buses and taxis into nearby towns, chatting with people. As he spoke, he grew angrier and more passionate,

"A man heard us speaking Polish. 'You are Polish?' he said and he took us aside. He is a school teacher. He told us of how things are. Only household with children under seven can get milk. Any families with older kids--no luck. This is the rationing. They only get one cake of soap a month. One tube of toothpaste. I said to him, 'Is there something I can give you to help? Some money, something to buy?' He said, 'Only take back the word and tell them how it is here.'"

His wife and daughter came over as he was speaking with us--smiling politely and touching his shoulder and he shook himself, then chuckled. "It's okay. I get carried away. We will see you later, perhaps."

* * *

We had read that it's best not to drink the tap water in Cuba. Two different women at CAA warned us of the dire consequences of drinking tap water--or of even using it to brush our teeth. Even on the bus over from the airport, the representative said, "We drink our water here in Cuba and it is good water. But there are minerals in it that do not agree with your stomachs. Rather than get sick, it's best to stick to bottled water."

Imagine my dismay, then, to learn that our hotel doesn't have bottled water--neither as a giveaway, nor available to purchase. Upon making inquiries, we were told that the tap water was fine, but to be safe, we each had a thermos (which did not appear to have been washed much, and had an interestingly earthy smell to it) in our rooms and we could come down and have those filled from the bar, which contained filtered water. Once again, we were told the tale of these mysterious "minerals" that would upset our stomach, and this time, I began to wonder whether the minerals in question might not bear a suspicious resemblance to the bacterias which live in the water of every other country whose water we delicate North Americans can't drink. Could it possibly be some kind of strange way of saving face, to blame "minerals" rather than bacteria? An interesting question.

At any rate, I wanted to get a water bottle that we could refill on the beach, and we were told to go to the grocery store, which was two blocks away, in the opposite direction than we had previously wandered.

We made our way through a crafts market--all the stalls sold variations of the same crafts, at fixed prices. At one point, a woman offered to braid my hair. When I declined, she started asking if I had any soap, shampoo or anything at all that I might give her. Since I had given my extra soap to the woman who cleans our room, I wasn't able to help her with that, either. Even the pencils and erasers we had brought to give to the kids we had forgotten to bring in our bag that day.

At the grocery store, which consisted of two, narrow aisles, it rapidly became evident that this groceria was primarily for tourists--the prices were high, even by our standards, while the clientèle consisted entirely of people from the resorts in the area. Most of the goods available were imported--either from other parts of Central and South America, or from Canada.

The chocolate bars were all kept at the front, and when we asked the woman at the desk about one that contained cashews, she said, "Oh yes, that one is very good." It cost about 2.35 pesos, which translates to about 2.50 CAD--but it was for one of those big chocolate bars, so it wasn't too outrageous.

Later, we spotted a restaurant selling food in another part of town that Cuban folk would be more likely to frequent. A hamburger was .80 pesos, and a plate of spaghetti was 1.35. If that's the average cost of a meal for someone from Cuba, then 2.35 for a chocolate bar would have been ridiculously luxurious and expensive.

"I wonder if the woman at the store had actually even been able to afford to taste that chocolate bar," Tom said ruefully as we looked over the restaurant prices. That was when I remembered another key detail. The chocolates had been in a glass case at the front by the cash register, much the way valuables are stored: in display cabinets, under constant supervision.

::Posted by Anduril Elessar @ 3:23 PM::::



The Cuban Journals: Mas Frijoles Por Favour (More Beans, Please) ~ Saturday, February 16, 2008

The hotel continues to fascinate.

In order to not feel too bad about paying $750pp for a week here, given that the price dropped by so much the day after we booked (but even what we paid was cheaper than the airfare to Havana, I remind myself), I have decided that we have paid this sum for a taste of what it is like to vacation in a country where Communism, embargoes and pre-existing widespread poverty have combined to produce a place like our Hotetur.

It's not just one factor but a combination, I'm sure--and presumably, since others who have been to four and five star resorts haven't seemed to have noticed these things, there's also something to do with management and tight margins at play here.

One of the most striking things, outside of our dingy room, which is at least clean (if you don't include the bedspreads and the curtains, which are also brown-tinged by dust), is how run down and, in some cases, filthy, things are here.

One or another of the two, tiny elevators seems to be perpetually out of order, and on our first night, we were told by one of the other guests that the elevators, for some reason, do not stop at the fifth floor, so she always has to walk up to her room. The mirrored walls of the elevator are scratched and marked up by lines of cellotape adhesive. The tape and whatever it affixed is long gone, but the glue obviously remained behind and collected bits of grunge.

We've started taking the stairs.

The front lobby is funky in that retro-kitsch way, though I'm not convinced it was retro when the place was originally built. The colours are bright, the fonts are funky ("Reception" is spelled out with wooden cutouts, but the "c" has come half unaffixed and tilts drunkenly). There are potted palms all over, and the design of the vast, elegant seating area of the lobby--which doubles as a cafe/hangout for guests--is ingenious. It features open windows lining the top, and a lowered ceiling in the middle, which channels the cross drafts into the lobby, and provides a cool, breezy respite if the afternoon heat proves too much.

Still, like much of the hotel, upon closer examination, all is not as elegant as it seems. The comfortable, inviting rattan chairs all feature grimy, stained cushions that are often a little damp and unpleasant to sit on.

The main restaurant is the same. At first glance, it seems nice enough, but the devil is in the details. Presumably, it is either:

a) too expensive to have the table cloth covers laundered,
b) too expensive to have a second set of table cloth covers available to alternate, while the other set is being laundered,
c) too expensive to have someone who is in charge of removing and replacing the table cloth covers and getting them laundered.

A final possibility is that no-one working there cares much about the table cloth covers, one way or another.

You may be wondering what I mean by "table cloth covers." I don't know the official term, but often at restaurants, you'll see an underlying table cloth (often white linen), and then a second, smaller, often contrasting, table cloth laid over the first, at an angle. Usually, it seems like it's partly expedient--the contrasting colours don't stain as easily (because they're usually a darker shade), they add flair to the tables, and they're easy to strip off and replace with fresh ones regularly, then bundle off to the laundry.

Well, this place has such table cloth covers, in a pale purply-pink, fleur de lis pattern. But, the person in charge hasn't seemed to have cottoned onto the idea that they need to be washed. In consequence, they are filthy: spotted with stains and blotches that are no longer remotely identifiable (though I don't know that I'd feel better if I could actually name the kinds of foods that caused the stains). They're so dirty that, under any other circumstances, I wouldn't place my cutlery on them. But, alas, instead of having the usual bin of cutlery that buffets often feature (right beside the plates), here, the waiters and waitresses lay the tables with the cutlery, so it's already sitting on the stains.

Being the polite Canadians that we are, we just accept this, try to ignore the filth, and eat our breakfast/lunch/dinner.

The food is equally interesting. My joke about the beans, as it turns out, is not so far off. Most meals do feature beans--and tasty ones too, often as not. I had to laugh about lunch today: it actually featured three separate dishes containing different kinds of beans in various preparations, often mixed with pork or bacon bits.

I don't know what the standards are outside of the resort, but I have read enough about Cuba itself to know that while this might not be fare that I'm accustomed to--and there may only be one or two dishes that, with my rarefied tastebuds, I might actually be able to eat (i.e. my dislike of chewy, fatty or gristly meat--in fact, I've started avoiding the meat altogether whenever possible... hence, my newfound love of beans in all their glory), there's more food, and more variety, here than many people in this country get access to.

Fifteen or so years ago, after the collapse of the USSR, and the consequent disappearence of subsides and financial aid to Cuba, the daily food intake of everyone in the country dropped by an average of 1000 calories a day. Their entire economy and approach farming had to change to accommodate the sudden loss of Communist markets willing to purchase their sugar at a subsidized rate. In addition, the US tightened their embargoes, certain that Cuba's regime would collapse any day, after the changes.

Instead, they restructured their entire approach to agriculture. They diversified, instead of growing vast monocultures of crops. The lack of gasoline (again because of the embargoes) forced them to return to older methods, and their dwindling oxen population was suddenly brought back into action to help with the tilling of the fields. I think at the beginning of the so-called "special period" the oxen population was at ~50K. In recent years, it's up to almost half a million or so.

Because fertilizers and pesticides are expensive, they had to go back to older methods of managing pests and helping things grow. Cutting-edge research (education is free in Cuba and many people have advanced degrees--and agricultural sciences is a popular subject) created ever greater refinements in pest control and the use of methods of crop rotation and the like.

Now, all these years later, most people have regained that 1000 calories per day.

But, some things are unchanged. Meat--especially beef--is still rare, because of the extraordinary amount of resources required to raise even one head of cattle.

Much of the beef we get at the resort is stringy or gristly, but it's likely more than most people in the country have access to. Since I hate the idea of the people clearing the plates away--who perhaps have families without access to anything but the most basic supplies--seeing large chunks of wasted meat on my plate because I end up gagging at the crunchy and chewy bits, I figured it's wiser to just avoid it.

At any rate, though, the food is plentiful, and Tom and I have both learned our lessons: don't take large helpings the first time round and avoid the meat whenever possible. If something is good, you can always go back for more.

Many of the dishes, both at the main restaurant and the pizzeria, are interesting because they seem to be distant echoes of some dish we might recognise. The pizza, for instance, tastes like no pizza I've ever had before, in North America or Europe. It's as if it were made by someone who is just following a recipe and has never actually tasted either the North American or European varieties of pizza (as, indeed, is likely the case) and who is, perhaps, missing key ingredients and substituting others out of both necessity and a lack of awareness of how different it will make the food item taste.

For instance, the kinds of cheeses available here are limited--I think there might only be a couple of varieties. Certainly, the cheese that's used on the pizza doesn't taste remotely like mozzarella, or the three cheese blends we get in NA. Ditto the tomato sauce. The crust is more bread-y than any other pizza crusts I've ever eaten.

The same goes for the desserts. The frostings on the little cakes glisten and appear oily. They taste nothing like the frostings we get in North America--I'm guessing that maybe whipping cream or some other key ingredient is hard to come by, so maybe they use oil and egg? A dessert square tasted basically like flour and sugar, which made me wonder whether vanilla essence is hard to come by. And so on. It also brings home to me how much we take for granted with regard to the kinds of ingredients we can get in NA--the idea of not being able to get hold of vanilla essence (even if that's not the taste I'm missing) has vast implications, as a powerful reminder of how supply chain, international trade and infrastructures enhance our daily lives in small but cumulative ways.

It's very interesting to try to guess at what difference in ingredients causes any given food to taste so different here. I'm starting to suspect this resort is in some kind of no-man's land. I don't know that the meals feature anything like actual Cuban food--more likely, they're trying to cater to our tastebuds, but don't know how, or can't quite pull it off because of limited resources.


::Posted by Anduril Elessar @ 1:11 PM::::



The Cuban Journals: A [bath]Room with a View ~ Friday, February 15, 2008

To sum it up: it would seem that we have managed to find an authentic place--a real taste of Tropical Communism, in a hotel replete with kitsch character. It's the kind of place, brimming with art-deco, retro furniture and faded glory, where I imagine Communists with Connections, in years past, may have vacationed.

Our hotel room is a prime example. The yellow paint on the walls, and the sloppily ironed yellow curtains (the latter are deeply creased, as if the person ironing or pressing them couldn't be bothered to smooth out the wrinkles before applying the heat, so that instead of getting the creases out, it has entrenched them into the fabric) make a valiant attempt to offset the dinginess of the accomodations. There's a strange front area--a semi-room--with a divan (funky art deco design, but the green upholstery has seen better, cleaner, days) and a t.v. that is placed half-way out of the room at an extraordinarily awkward angle. There is no place in this little half-room from which you could comfortably watch the television--no angle from which you could actually sit and enjoy your show without developing a crick in your neck.

Right beside the divan is a large, white panel that has been affixed to the wall with screws that have long grown loose in their sockets. It's easy enough to remove the large board, which reveals a large, dusty utility space with three small tubes inside. If the space had been fashioned to actually fit the size of the tubes, the room would be at least a third more spacious, but alas...

The beds are firm and comfortable, and the sheets are mercifully crisp, clean and fresh smelling, though sadly, not as much could be said for the bedspreads, which are grungy, the colours dulled by a resolute accumulation of dirt on the fabric.

On the bedside table is a lamp with a bare, low-wattage bulb. Who knows what has become of the lampshade, but it certainly isn't anywhere in our room. When we switch the light on, it starts flickering madly, with spasm-inducing speed. We tried to swap it with the lamp in the demi-room, but both are, unfortunately, inextricably fixed to the wall.

The bathroom, however, is the piece de resistance. We have two small, threadbare but clean towels, a tiny, single, unwrapped cake of fresh soap and a roll of tp, placed on the tank of the toilet because the tp holder is broken. The sink leaks at the bottom, but that has been masterfully offset by a drain, placed just beside it, though on a slight upward incline, so the water doesn't always quite reach it, and instead simply pools on the floor.

The shower is our favourite part. There is a window that begins at about waist height and goes to just above my head. The bottom pane of the window is frosted. But the top one is not. And so, while we shower, we are able to look upon the outdoor corridor of the rooms alongside ours, watching as people come and go. We can also, by crouching down and looking up, see the balcony of the floor above us--and those who might happen to be looking towards us can, of course, see our showering selves. I tried turning the hot water on, in order to fog up the window and acquire some privacy, but between the water pressure only allowing for a sporadic, summer drizzle of a shower and the inadequate seals on the window in question, we've had very little luck in fogging it up enough for privacy. So instead, as we shower, we've just kept an eye out the window and ducked wildly whenever anyone walks by, on their way to their room. So far, no-one has spotted us.


::Posted by Anduril Elessar @ 1:34 PM::::



The Cuban Journals: No Dead Dogs ~ Thursday, February 14, 2008

We leave for Cuba this afternoon. I really have no idea what to expect.

The Background:

TCN (aka Tom) has the week off, starting today, because it's Reading Week at Humber. So, he fashioned the notion of a week-long getaway to a place that has a lively music scene. The choices he honed in on were New Orleans and Cuba. We were slightly more in favour of Cuba (despite our ambivalences about the Castro regime and effectively helping to support it by going there, etc.) because we were really interested in seeing--even if it was a limited glimpse, through a glass darkly (as it were)--what life might actually be like there, after almost 50 years of Communisim.

A quick look around revealed that it would be cheaper to book a package tour at an all-inclusive (~$700pp for food, accomodation etc. at the resort) than it would be to flight straight to Havana and back on the dates we required ($1500pp). So, we figured on a few beach days, before setting out for the city.

Tom exhaustively researched the mid- to low- end all-inclusives, and we settled on a 3-star called Hotetur Sun Beach. After reading reviews of many of the other mid-rage places in Varadero, this seemed to be a winner. Other 3-star hotels in Varadero featured such ringing endorsements as (loosely paraphrased from Trip Advisor):

"there was a dead dog on the beach in front of our hotel that no-one bothered to remove for over five days"


"a furry critter that ran across our covers one night. We had a laugh about that, but weren't laughing when, the next night, the creature bit my fiance's hand"

Sun Beach, by contrast, featured largely neutral or slightly positive reviews. It was clean, at least. No dead dogs. The food, most people concluded, was mediocre and not especially tasty, but no-one reported getting sick. People also agreed that the place was somewhat run down and could use a freshening up of paint, etc. Other comments suggested we ought to make sure we brought our own shampoo, soap and toilet paper (for when we left the hotel, rather than at the hotel itself). Gifts (e.g. dollar store items, like pencils etc.) for the maids would be rewarded with extra attention to our rooms.

So, with cautious optimism and the price climbing ever higher as we started to make the booking--it went up by $50 dollars between our deciding to do it and our going on line to actually reserve it--we took the plunge. Inevitably, the next day, the price dropped by almost half. *sigh*

But now, armed with soap, shampoo, tp and light, summery clothes, we're off! I was joking with Kelly that, after the reviews, I half expect the meals to consist of a dollop of beans and pork rinds, served at some bleak, Communist-style canteen by an ageing, dour-faced Che lookalike. She assured me that on their trip to Cuba, the buffets were very nice and the food was tasty--with nary a bean in sight. Of course, they stayed at a 5-star place on their visit...


::Posted by Anduril Elessar @ 10:15 AM::::


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Susan Deefholts

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