Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cuba

This trip was marked by plans getting changed and the unexpected taking charge. It started when 3-4 days after I booked the (direct) flight, the travel agent phoned to tell me that the flight had been changed and now left at 6AM and went through Calgary. I wasn't happy. I spent a good couple of days bitching at everybody but they wouldn't budge from their claim that it was a "schedule change" and full in their right to do it. My point was that subbing a early one-stop flight in for a later direct flight is not a "schedule change" and I served up this example:

I go to my grocery store and order a turkey for Thanksgiving 1 week ahead of time. The grocer tells me that he has a nice shipment of organic turkeys coming in early the next week and if I pay him now, I'll be assured of getting one. I do so and look forward to my turkey showing up the next week. But, when I show up to pick up my turkey, it's not organic. It's a butterball. And the grocer has a giant sign saying "Special! Butterball Turkey's! 1/4 price!" But because I paid him for my organic turkey the week before he's insisting that I take my butterball and be happy. I mean...I still have a turkey, right?

For some reason, they didn't respond to this. So, the Monday travel day was a long one.

Have you ever flown a charter flight to a resort destination airport? It's very interesting. Not to sound snobby or anything, but it's like the lowest common denominator of airport visitors all hopped on one plane and are now heading for the same place. It seemed like everybody left their manners at home and the looming warm weather had people barging about, talking loudly while showing off their un-sexy bits and gaudy beach wear. We were pretty happy that we would be immediately escaping to Havana.

Arrival in Cuba was pretty simple. The Varadero airport is quite small, so customs usually only has to deal with one plane at a time. There was a bit of a line-up to get through passport control, then they scan your bags (more thoroughly then they do for security purposes on the flight back home) and you're on your way. We found our bags, changed some money and after an hour or so wait for the bus we were travelling in air-conditioned comfort to Havana. Well, if comfort includes some greasy-haired Cubanite making out with his girlfriend with his chair reclined so far back towards yours that you can't get your knees in straight under your seat.
The bus dropped us off in the humid splendor of Havana. We grabbed a cab and eventually found the Casa Particulares where we'd booked a room. The guy on the other end of the e-mail machine had assured us that our hosts were excited to have us and would be eagerly awaiting our arrival. We were a bit surprised that they seemed to have no idea that we were coming or about who we were. Then we were more surprised when we sat in their kitchen for half-an-hour or so while they phoned around trying to find us a room.
They explained to us in a mix of Spanish and English that they were a cooperative and would do their best to find us exactly what we were looking for. All the pictures that we looked at and requests for specific places seemed to have no bearing. It was all very confusing. We were told that we had a place for the night and somebody would show us a few others in the morning. Some fat dude finally showed up and we trudged after him to his place a few blocks away.

The place was less than impressive. Andrea was mostly hung-up on the mold and the Britney Spears poster. I was mostly hung-up on the lack of a seat on the toilet. Fernando (the fat guy) assured us that all of this was actually okay when we raised our concerns. Somehow this didn't help. The bed felt like a hunk of plywood and had a mattress made from a few blankets on top. Regardless, I slept long and well. We woke up in the morning, dodged some guilt trips and got the hell out of there.
It was pretty early in the morning yet it was still hot. We hadn't eaten anything significant in a long period of time. We had not much of an idea as to where we would stay. And our first view of Havana woke us up to the realities of Cuba. There's shit everywhere. From dogs, I assume. There's dogs all over the place. All the cats look half dead and have deformities. Many of the places look like they should be condemned. There's lots of construction going on, but it looks more like a Gaudi project that will take another hundred years to complete. Everything is old. Nothing is easy.
We walked deep into the heart of Old Havana and started knocking on doors of Casa Particulares recommended by the various guide books. The Time Out Havana seemed to be our best bet. Many of them were closed. Some of the addresses no longer existed (even though the book was only a year or two old) . We finally found one that was both open and still there. It was a lovely place with boatloads of kitsch. They didn't have any space and we got a bit nervous when they hit the phones to find us one.

And that's kind of the spirit of Cuba. You'll seldom find what you're looking for, but you'll always find somebody willing to help you out. Every cab driver was honest (to us) and eager to help out. Restaurant owners would help you find out information about sights and baseball games. Nothing is very official but everybody will help you work the system.
A Casa was finally found and the owners daughter showed up. We figured we may as well see it out. We followed her a few blocks and the place was pretty nice. Private bathroom. Close to everything. Immaculately clean. Great balcony. We figured we couldn't do much better for 25 CUC's a night (maybe....35 bucks?). We were happy to have found it and it was very comfortable. The toilet had a seat and we learned to live with the lack of hot water (which seems pretty common for the average Cuban). A group of students showed up a few hours after we did and between them and the Casa owner, we were able to find out a lot of information. I'd highly recommend this form of accomodation in Havana. It's cheap and will put you in touch with a small piece of real Cuban life. It's loud as hell. The roosters start crowing at 5 in the morning and never seem to start. Kids are yelling by 6 and trucks are banging around by 7.

The food equivalent of the Casa Particulares is the Paladares. You either eat at a state-owned restaurant (some good, some bad) or you eat at one of these things. It's basically a small restaurant governed by several rules (can only seat 12-14 people at a time, all employees have to be family members). We ate at a couple of these, but some of them proved difficult to find or, like with the Casa Particulares, seemed to have just disappeared off the face of the map. We ended up mostly eating at restaurants.

In general, the food in Havana is a bit of an event. You can never be certain of what you will get and paying more doesn't necessarily mean you'll get better food. All in all, I think I ate better in Havana than I did in Costa Rica. We read countless warnings about how bad the food would be, but with careful restaurant selection (pay attention to what the guide books say) you should be alright. We found some great places with helpful staff, and I only felt like my stomach would explode and come flying out my ass for a day or two.

A while back, I read this Vanity Fair article about baseball in Cuba (also, check out this Slate article about Cuba as well). I was intrigued and really wanted to get out to a game. This baseball game ended up being Cuba in a nutshell. Maybe it was the playoffs? Maybe it wasn't? Maybe there was a game? Nobody really knew and the paper might say something, but it might not. I got the students to ask the owner of the Casa about the game and she promised to ask her son. Then, the next day, we ran into some American teachers that were living in Honduras and they said that there was for sure a game and that we needed to be there by 8:30 to buy tickets for the game at 9:00. Then, when we got back to the Casa, the owner said that there wasn't a game as the Industriales (the best of the two city teams) were out of town. So we went for dinner and the owner seemed very helpful so I asked him. He found a paper and told us that the Metropolitanes were playing and that the game started at 8:00. So we went.
Once we arrived at the game we walked up to the ticket window but they wouldn't sell us tickets. Instead, they sent us around the Stadium to the "special" window for tourists. We got there and nobody would talk to us. We finally banged on the window and they said "Si. Si. Tickets are coming." Then a series of people kept showing up and saying the same thing. Eventually, a lady showed up and we bought our tickets for 3 CUC's. There was a British couple there as well so we went into the stadium with them.

The Stadium (the Estadio LatinoAmericano) is massive (supposedly holds 55,000, but I can't see that) and a little bit dated. There were hardly any amenities and hardly any people. We had to search around for our seats, but eventually found the (rather large) tourist pen located right behind home plate, on the first base side. Honestly. We had a railing around our seats. An usher opened the gate for us. We had a policeman watching over us the whole time (I think for our safety and comfort). There were probably a few hundred seats in the pen....and 8 of us in it. Crazy.
We watched them warm up for a while and the coffee guy kept pestering us to buy coffee. We asked him if we could buy beer and he looked a bit suspicious and then disappeared. Finally, the anthem fired up and the game started. The one thing I noticed is that the batting averages are insanely high. It seems like every player is in the .300's. Maybe all the good pitchers have made the swim?

The game itself was fairly exciting. It ended up being a high scoring affair (14 runs total in the 5 innings that we watched) and everybody gets quite into it. In the end, it was a small crowd (maybe a couple thousand? It was hard to judge) but they were very excitable. The Santiago de Cuba fans seemed more numerous than the Havana fans and any questionable call was greeted by jeers of staggering proportions. The players themselves were quick to point out a call they didn't like. And a foul ball resulted in dozens of children running after it, diving over rickety seats in an effort to track it down. Then they'd come over and try to sell it to us.

The coffee guy eventually showed up with a bag of beers and sold it to the Brits for 10 CUC's (it maybe cost him 4). By that point we'd figured out that you couldn't drink beer in the stadium. I was going to crack one but the Brit's wouldn't follow suit (even though it was their idea) so I ended up drinking them in the cab ride home. The coffee guy also offered to get us t-shirts, balls, whatever we wanted. It was very strange but I'm glad we did it.

The days were mostly filled with sites, touristy and not-so-touristy. We wandered squares and checked out the various museums (many of which seem to inhabit old palaces and government buildings that symbolized pre-revolutionary Cuba). The highlights:

The Capitolio - It's a very beautiful building modeled on the Washington Capital building. For a couple of bucks you can get in and tour around to your hearts content. You get to see where the Parliament used to sit (when they had one). Very interesting and worth the visit.
The Museum of the Revolution - This is in the old presidential palace. The displays are elaborate and full of propaganda. My favourite is this quote:

Moncada and Carlos M. De Cespedes garrisons were attacked at 5:20 in the midnight of July 26, 1953 by one hunder and sixty five youngers of the centarian generation. Unforseen causes frustrated the success of the actions. However, they showed to the people that there were forces capable to start the army fight getting the national liberation.

I mean...this was the event that inspired the future name of their movement (creatively called the 26th of July Movement). "Unforseen circumstances"? They got their asses kicked.
The centerpiece of the museum is the Granma yacht display. They describe it as a "leaky boat". I mean, it's got to be at least 60 feet long. It looks beautiful. You can't really take a picture of it as it's behind glass, but it seems far from a leaky boat.

Havana Club Rum Museum - Don't take a tour. Do go to the bar at night and have some drinks. The night we hit it, it was bumpin' and the drinks were great.

Plaza Vieja - This square will make you feel like you're in Europe. It's beautiful. There's a microbrewery owned by an Austrian company in one corner. The beer isn't very good but you can buy a hamburger for 3 bucks. I didn't have one but they looked good.
In total, we spent about 3-1/2 days in Havana. We had a brilliant plan to take the Hershey train to Matanzas and then catch a cab to Veradero. The train was built long ago to take workers from Havana to the various Hershey sugar plantations out in the country. The train runs 3-4 times a day and takes about 3-1/2 hours to go from Havana to Matanzas (about a 1 hour drive or 2 hour bus ride). We started reading about it and it sounded a bit sketchy, even by Cuban standards. Schedules seemed to be very up in the air and many people had never even heard of it. That, coupled with my explosive stomach problems convinced me that we should just stick to the bus or take a cab. I'm still a bit sad about missing it.
Before going to Havana, we hadn't been all that excited about the prospect of resort Cuba. I've been to an all-inclusive once before (a wedding in Mexico) and it was deathly boring. I couldn't spend more than a few hours at the resort before wanting to go someplace else. The food was mediocre and it was full of drunks. Although, you couldn't get drunk as all the booze was watered down. However, after a few days of stomach issues, cold water showers and hunting for edible food, I was ready for the resort. I was even, dare I say, looking forward to it.

As we rolled into Varadero, it was pretty obvious that this was a different world, far, far removed from the "real" Cuba. Things were in much better shape. Tourists were everywhere. Even the run-down cars were a class above. But it was all very ugly. Varadero is more-or-less just a big, long Peninsula. The nicest resorts are at the far end and the whole thing is just resort after resort. Luckily, most of them are of the low-rise variety. But it feels a bit like you could be in any resort town anywhere else in the world.

It changed a bit once we checked in. I searched long and hard to find a good deal on a decent place. Prices are all over the map. You can get a cheap one for about 100 bucks a night (all-inclusive for two people) but Trip Advisor makes them sound pretty sketchy. We finally just decided to go with the resort where the wedding was taking place. It was one of the pricier ones near the end of the peninsula. We checked in and some dude drove us to our room in a golf cart. The room was beautiful and had a large bathroom with hot water, a toilet seat and a separate shower and bath. It had the most powerful air conditioner in the world and you could have stored sides of beef in our room. We threw on our suits and headed for the beach.
On the way to the beach, we came across a barbecue. There was a monster slab of beef on the grill that looked fantastic. Another guy had dozens and dozens of lobsters that he was chopping in half and throwing on the BBQ. I couldn't believe my eyes.

Then we got to the beach and it was like it was out of a brochure. The sand was immaculate. The water was turquoise, clear as glass and warm as a bath. It was crazy. The next few days, we threw all our plans of doing anything out of the window and sat on the beach reading and swimming. I was sad to leave. But...I have literally nothing else to say about it.
So, I think Varadero is probably all that most visitors to Cuba will ever see. That's unfortunate. It's beautiful and a good place to unwind, but you may as well just sit on a beach someplace closer to home. Many people take a day trip into Havana, but I don't think you can get an accurate feel of a city with a 4 hour visit. When you spend a bit of time in the city it's difficult to understand the US policy towards Cuba. Part of the reason I wanted to go on this trip was that I wanted to see Cuba before it underwent drastic changes due to US policy. I'd heard about the old cars and how crazy and backwards everything is. This is true, but it's not exactly a happy thing to see. It reminds me a bit of Hungary, or at least Hungary in the 90's. There's something special about a country in the midst of (or freshly out of) a communist government. There's no real way to fathom the complete lack of...initiative is the wrong word. It's more just a coping mechanism where it makes sense to have 14 people doing a job that a couple could do. It's sad to see people with not much food, money or prospects through no fault of their own. Yet, it's enlightening to see how happy they can be and how friendly they are towards jack-ass tourists gawking at their misfortune.

2 comments:

Jeremy Ralph said...

Nice pics and write-up, Dave. Glad you had a good time.

ethanmoro said...

No beer at a baseball game! That embargo's gotta end. Poor souls.