Outsider In Cuba: In Varadero – reluctantly

In October and November 2016 I spent three weeks travelling around Cuba.  I returned home just days before Fidel Castro died.  These posts are written from the scribblings I made in my notebook throughout the trip.

So I’m on a three week whistle-stop guided tour of Cuba. I usually don’t travel in such an organised way but I’d made the decision to go away at the last minute, alone. I’d also been made aware of some of the complexities that could be added to ‘winging it’ alone in Cuba. For one, access to the internet is that much more tricky. For another, card payments and ATMs aren’t terribly reliable. I didn’t really fancy the idea of walking around with a couple of grand stuffed about my person like some kind of lone skinny white cash cow.

I arrived in Cuba just after a hurricane – Matthew – had torn through the eastern most province, devastating Baracoa.  Baracoa had been an intended destination on our trip and one that I had been particularly excited about. With the inhabitants still trying to build their lives back up from the rubble, it was both impossible and inappropriate for us to swing through on our shiny tourist bus. Our itinerary had had to be adapted accordingly and the alternative was now giving us two nights in a beach resort. On hearing about the beach resort, I was a little whiney. “I haven’t come to a Caribbean island to spend time on the beach”, was my ridiculous protest.

Ten days of almost solid travel later, however… We’d had no more than two nights in a single spot, bus journeys of 4-7 hours, a flight, late nights and breakfasts before 8am every day. I found that I was actually ready for some relaxation time. I put my boho pretensions of trying to make my touristy guided tour of Cuba into something authentic to one side and settled into the idea of something a little mindless – take me to the beach!

We arrive in Varadero, THE beach resort capital of Cuba, late in the afternoon. It is pissing with rain. I laugh inwardly – of course it’s raining!

It is hard to believe that just a couple of hours earlier I had spent a serene and contented forty minutes with flippers, mask and snorkel (hired – not to be thought too much about) absorbing visions of tropical fish and coral off a rocky beach under the beating sun. This was in Playa Giron, otherwise known as the Bay of Pigs. It is less well known for its crystal clear waters than it is for a US sponsored invasion that took place in 1961. The intention had been to overthrow the recent revolution led by Fidel Castro et al. It failed miserably and was put a stop to within 72h. I’m sure it has acted as some sort of source of Cuban pride and fuel for propaganda ever since.

The morning after arriving in Varadero, the weather, though windy, is on our side. Despite my desire for relaxation, I know a whole day on the beach is out of the question for my lily white limbs (and natural restlessness). A travel buddy and I decide to hop on the hop-on/hop-off bus to ride along the peninsula. Varadero draws thousands upon thousands of visitors every year – it is to Canadians what the Costa del Sol has been to many a Brit. I want to see if there’s anything more to this place than sun, sea and sand.

Straight to the upper deck of the bus for what I expect will afford me spectacular views – and cos the top deck is just better. Effing hell! This is like being on some horrendously perilous fairground ride! My hat instantly comes flying off, thankfully caught by more experienced open top bus riders behind. There then follows many a moment of ducking and flattening myself horizontally to the seats to avoid having my face wiped off by overhanging tree branches. By the time we reach the coast road, I am sure my contact lenses are going to get blown behind my eyeballs and I fear for the integrity of my eardrums. When I finally decide I can no longer hack it, removing myself from my plastic seat feels like having sellotape ripped off the back of my legs.

The top deck views, by the way, have been entirely unworthy of my malaise.  They are predominantly of the back end of how the other half lives – or, rather, holidays. We sweep past giant four and five star hotels and resorts that block all sight of the beach and sea beyond. They have cheesy aspirational names like “Memories” and, even better, “Grand Memories”. Disappointingly for the “Four Palms” one of their trees must have died because there are only three palms outside the entrance. These all-inclusive luxurious monstrosities all but quarantine their guests from local Cuba(ns). They starve the rest of the town of the life and wealth that the vast number of tourists should confer as, quite frankly, Varadero town itself is a dive.

We sweep into the fancy pants marina at the tip of the peninsula. It has recently been renovated big style and we feel too shabby to be there. As our bus clearly starts making its way back from whence it came, we decide to jump off at the surprisingly placed ecological reserve; a chunk of preserved nature amidst all this grotesque-feeling luxury.

We wind our way along a shady trail over jaggedy limestone rock, identifying flora and fauna thanks to the help of a mini guide sheet. Highlights include a bat cave where bats swoop almost but not quite at our heads, trees which look to have been infected by cactus giving a gigantic hybrid tree/cactus mutation and little lizards that look like they move in stop motion. There is also some rather eggy smelling stagnant water where mangroves grow, that even luxury developments can’t escape from! The reserve is perfect to wile away an hour or two out of the midday heat and away from the characterless over-developed surroundings.

Back on the bus we head back to town for a late lunch and then finally, finally, it is beach time. Far away from the giant resorts, we weave between smaller more discreet and run down hotels. It is still not yet high season so there is a semi-deserted feel in this part of Varadero.

The beach, after everything, does not disappoint. The so soft, almost white sands are fringed by palm trees. The water is every bit the clear turquoise of every Caribbean island dream that’s ever been had. I step and then swim into the never ending shallows, where I experience pure joy at floating, splashing and marvelling at this wonder of nature…

That is until a couple of very small transparent jelly fish float by me! They abruptly put an end to my carefree cliched frolicking as I’m now paranoid that more of these little menaces are going to cut a stingy path straight through me to get to wherever they’re going. Fine, you can have the sea, you tiny jellied fiends!

I dry off in the late afternoon sun and then end the day walking along the foamy waters’ edge for about a kilometre back to that night’s casa. The sun is near to setting, sending colours into a surreal spin… the beach and sea are photo negatives whilst the sky is filled with intense pastels. I feel relaxed and content. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve enjoyed my one day Caribbean beach holiday much more than I was expecting.

The next morning and it’s time to leave Varadero. We’ve just heard the news that Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States of America… The paradise beach holiday is well and truly over.

Outsider In Cuba: A glimpse of Santiago de Cuba

In October and November 2016 I spent three weeks travelling around Cuba.  I returned home just days before Fidel Castro died.  These posts are written from the scribblings I made in my notebook throughout the trip.

I’m suddenly in Santiago de Cuba, just 24 hours after landing in Havana. A one hour flight with Cuba Air got me here – thankfully. The other end of the country (east) and the second city of Cuba, it feels completely different to Havana: quieter, cleaner, better kept and, to my delight, with far fewer tourists.

In Santiago, it’s less about the cars and more about the motorbikes. Classic, of course, from the 50s. I wonder what foreign collectors would give for some of these models. Here they serve an entirely practical purpose as motor-taxis, getting Santiagans(?) from A to B. Everyone riding them wears, frankly, very cool little peaked helmets – black, often with a thick red or blue band going over the top of the head.

A wander down to the quayside and beautiful young Afro-Cuban boys are hurling themselves energetically and joyously into the sea. They all look under 13. A few have their noses pierced. They ask for things but don’t pester, and I give them the water bottle I’m carrying. They clearly want to talk and I hear one boy quietly practising English phrases but is too shy to use them. In Spanish, one tells me that they don’t have running water and so that’s why they are bathing here. I know that they’re actually having a great time in the sea but I also think there’s a high chance what he’s telling me is true.

I fulfil my Santiago tourist obligations by being bussed around to various ‘must see’ spots on the outskirts of the city. In fact, here there was a real must see for me, inspired by my Fidel Castro interviews preparatory readings*, and that was the Moncada Barracks. For, in the otherwise somewhat dry first few chapters, it’s Fidel’s account of the failed attack on these military barracks in 1953 – and so failed start to the revolution – where things really get going.

Startlingly mustard coloured, the building is now a school, with mock bullet holes decorating the facades in reminder of what took place here. After the attack, the original bullet holes were quickly filled in by the then president, Fulgencio Batista.  When Fidel was finally successful in his revolution in 1959, he ordered them to be re-gouged…

In each town or city in Cuba there is a Plaza de la Revolucion – ‘Revolution Square’. More of a gigantic roundabout in a nondescript part of the city, Santiago de Cuba’s revolution plaza is a slightly strange monument of humungous machetes, a giant man on a horse and a small memorial area. Impressive, in a slightly frightening Soviet sort of way, it feels stark and bleak as opposed to inspirational.

One of the tourist ‘highlights’ in Santiago is the city cemetery, Cementerio Santa Ifigenia. It is packed to the gills with some of the most important figures in Cuban history, including 50s revolutionary martyrs, family members of the Bacardí rum dynasty and, since my visit, the ashes of Fidel Castro. Of central importance is the mausoleum of José Martí, the father of Cuban independence.

My real high point is watching the changing of the guard in front of this tomb. Taking place (an excessive) every 30 minutes, I would say it’s 90% engineered for tourists.

Performed by the young men somewhere in their two year compulsory military service, they high-kick march to a tune that makes me feel like I’m watching a musical. Their choreographed moves only add to the effect – pauses, slow motion elements, slightly comical gun and elbow waggling… I want to applaud at the end!

I enjoy their lack of real discipline as the boys in uniform can not help but wander their eyes over to our small group of tourists and crack a smile of gleaming white teeth. It seems that Cubans can’t help but flirt, even when they’re on military duty.

Another trait revealing itself, is the curious and talkative nature of many Cubans. Thirsty, it seems, for knowledge, a foreigner is the next best thing to costly internet and hard to come by international newspapers. In just two days in the country, I’ve had conversations on streets, in plazas and casas and on planes, with intelligent Cubans who seem well-informed and hold strong political opinions. They have been keen to share and open up their way of life and confirm if what they know of the rest of the world is accurate – and maybe prove that they’re not so isolated after all.

Enjoying a conversation in the main plaza of Santiago, I notice a police officer from afar gently discouraging my friendly and polite interlocutor, attempting to break up our interaction. Tourist bothering is something that the police are obviously made to crack down on, but I don’t feel bothered at all. I do realise that it may work both ways, and the Cubans are being ‘protected’ from me just as much as I am from them… It’s a shame because I crave these exchanges in the hope of obtaining some real insight into Cuba.

Finally, food must always get a mention, and one pleasant food discovery I make in Santiago is a sapote when I am given a half one at breakfast to be eaten with a spoon. It is like a giant avocado with a large stone in the middle but with a harder brown shell. The flesh is similar in texture but rust coloured and has a pure sweetness in flavour, in a way that a date is so very very sweet.

My other food adventure in Santiago is when a travelling buddy and I make a Cuban’s day by buying his nuts. I have been noticing little conical twists of paper littering the streets in many places and so, when we come across someone selling them, evidently with edible goods inside, I want to know just what they are.

Our Cuban salesman is quick to open up one of the little cones and pour roasted, salted peanuts into our hands. We know we have to pay, of course, and his response is as for everything Cubans sell on the street to tourists: “1CUC”, equivalent to $1. Our smallest denomination is 5CUC. Spotting an opportunity, he gives us six more twists for our $5 and trots off smiling ear to ear whilst the Cubans in the shop in front of which we are standing look on in bemusement tinged with horror.

To put it into context, in one transaction we’d just given him the equivalent of nearly half a month’s salary for the average Cuban in a menial state paid job. Well, lucky for him coming across us pair of wallies that day – I hope he enjoyed spending his mini-jackpot!

*Fidel Castro: My Life, Ignacio Ramonet