15.04.2016 - 20.04.2016
My last visit to Cuba was a decade ago; a lot can change in ten years – myself included. The last time I went there was no mention of amnesty with the Americans. Meanwhile, in April of 2016 there are open discussions between the two countries, including a recent visit from the U.S. president elect. My curiosity around the geopolitical impacts was offset by my personal curiosity around how differently this trip would play out given the context. Last time I went with one male friend, both in our late teenage/early adult years, and the purpose was entirely to let loose and be silly. We tried (and succeeded) to enjoy our trip to the utmost: from renting motor-scooters with no fuel gauges to befriending a group of rowdy Germans (one of whom entered into a beauty contest with me in front of hundreds of screaming onlookers). This time around I was going for a destination wedding at a family resort, and I knew no one from the groom’s side, and only one person on the bride’s...
Arriving in Cuba was exciting because it was the dead of night and it was still hot; I’m like a baby, all I need is warmth. The lobby of the Melia Peninsula Varadero was beautifully adorned, and had large open windows. It felt tropical, and it was exactly what I needed. The resort grounds were nicely manicured, but the rooms themselves were not as luxurious as I was expecting (aside from the towel artwork). They were perfectly adequate, but throughout the week it became apparent that five star meant something different to the resort than it did to most of the guests there.
The bride and groom’s family and friends were a good mix of personalities, and we all meshed really well. You know people get along when they can sit around in public playing truth or dare Jenga and laugh about having to “kiss the person beside you on the cheek” or “slow dance with a broom”. The families were francophone, and aside from the groom’s sister’s boyfriend I was the only Spanish speaker. I’m about 150% times as outgoing as him (or almost anyone else really), so I became the dedicated translator of the group. This ran the gamut from translating the maid stealing a coconut from the bride’s sister (because it was rotten and a disgrace to her nation) to trying to negotiate better fares for different services for the group. The highlight of my translation time on the trip came when I picked up a group of Turkish mayors and civil servants, along with a professional Cuban dancer and then proceeded to translate between English, Spanish, French, and Turkish for the purposes of all those who had coincidentally gathered in the same place at the same time. The fun was augmented because the Turks had chased after the bride and groom yelling congratulatory remarks at them in Turkish, while the bride and groom shuffled away giving them dirty looks. Finally, the Turks started yelling their names at which point the couple stopped and realized this was some kind of elaborate gag. You’re welcome, I deviously thought to myself. The Turks were the only group of people that I befriended at this resort, which was a stark contrast to my last time in Cuba at the regular resort (remember that this one was a family resort). A decade ago, I had made friends with Germans, Spaniards, Cubans, and even some fellow Canadians. I had also become particularly close with a certain Irish man who bore a striking resemblance to Damien Rice when playing his guitar for me on the moonlit beach. My last trip really was embodied by the motto: “viva la fiesta!” This time around the fun was definitely more PG... except for the bride and groom’s wedding night, I’m sure.
The resort took care of everything from the decorations to the live music, and at the end of the day (compared to at-home weddings) the stress and decision-making was probably about 99% lessened. This, of course, is aided by the fact that you can literally wander over to the beach for a photoshoot… which we did. The set-up was simple, but elegant and the intro speech was short which left more time for the bride and groom’s vows. The couple had already been together for a decade, so they had plenty of time to think about how they wanted to express their love – and it showed. The vows were both eloquent and thoughtful. He also made a few jokes, which gave some of the criers a brief reprieve. The bride had just finished taking a writing class prior to the wedding, so he poked fun at the timing and also at his tardiness in asking for her hand in marriage.
The strangest thing that happened on the resort was probably the beach party that happened the night before the wedding. It involved local dancers cheering foreigners on, who watched and attempted to mimic their moves with great delight. This would be fairly standard, except that at one point the MC announced that we had to split into pairs. I immediately backed away because I was there with a group who all had partners. To my surprise (and delight) a Cuban dancer came up to me, put his hands on my hips and told me to jump him… which I did. It turned out that the game was a raunchy version of Simon Says. We played. There were no winners, except him clearly. It seemed like it was just a gag to take some great photos, and I was fine with that. The groom’s sister was one of the stars of the wedding for me. She encouraged me to join her in the limbo competition – her skill far exceeded mine, so in the end only I fell short (literally).
The day of the wedding was overcast, which was a blessing in disguise as it kept the temperatures more manageable and also made for some gorgeous contrast in the wedding photos. It also meant that I was so comfortable strolling along the beach that I ended up lost. I’m so good with directions that I managed to get lost on a straight beach path. Essentially, I left my roommate Erin happily sipping coconut water on the beach, strolled upwind, turned around and then realized that I didn’t recognize the resorts to the right. I had overshot my own Cuban home. I eventually wandered back and found the resort. Erin and I hurriedly walked back to the hotel room and prepared to go meet the girls. There was a minor emergency as the electrical outlets weren’t working for the hair straighteners, curlers, etc. but the bride had hired a hairdresser for herself and she did a gorgeous job. The bride emerged from the washroom with her make-up and hair done looking like a Grecian goddess. The wedding outfit came together perfectly – as did the wedding.
The bride had asked me to negotiate pricing for the convoy taxis to Varadero; however, after the wedding dinner no one wanted to do anything. I was set on leaving the resort because my trip was so short this time that I really wanted to make sure I got as much local culture in as possible, i.e. not just resort living. Given my past trip to Varadero, I also wanted to compare how the city itself may have developed in the past decade. Fortunately, Erin was open to exploration and we set off together in the most pimped out taxi I’ve ever seen. It was probably a 1950s Chevy, painted, with a video screen and more lights than a rave. We arrived at the Beatles Bar, which was the originally intended destination post-wedding party, only to meet a throng of other foreigners. We then set off to find a more authentic party destination. Along the way we passed a hotel so luxurious that we couldn’t help but trespass. We, of course, got caught, and the security guard inquired (rightfully so) why we thought we could enter their private premises. I explained that we were drawn to its beauty. He was pleased and gave us a private tour, culminating in his asking very vehemently for my email address. I suddenly forgot my Spanish, and needed to disappear. Erin and I went in search of “La Fondue” – a bar that locals had recommended. It turns out that it's a fondue restaurant. There was, however, a happening dance club right beside it. The party was so real that it spilled into the streets, which the cops had shut off. Keep in mind that this was a Sunday night. Locals and foreigners alike were dancing salsa, and grinding on every square inch of cement possible. I managed to chat with a professional baseball player, and be horribly harassed by a German pensioner. We left shortly after the latter, and headed back to the hotel where we were greeted by a cockroach in the washroom. This resulted in us using bandaids to clog every possible hole in the walls.
One of the internal conflicts I faced in Cuba was trying to connect with the foreign groups, while also respecting the local culture. Having the linguistic capacity to straddle both worlds allowed me more insight into the dichotomies that emerged. I realized while haggling for taxi prices that morally I couldn’t continue to question prices in a Socialist country. Foreigners are all hugely entitled in order to fly to a country like Cuba for a vacation. The notion of vacation itself is a luxury, combined with an ability to pay for endless drinks and food in a land where salaries and resources are next-to-nothing. This became more apparent for me on Monday, when I spent the afternoon chatting with my Cuban dancer. He informed me that apparently the workers (including entertainment staff like him) aren’t allowed to even walk through the lobby that the foreigners use, or eat the same food. There’s something about staying in an all-inclusive resort that makes me feel like I’m living in a Pleasantville of oppression.
That being said, there is undeniable value in the tourism industry. In fact, many Cubans are concerned that the improved relationships with America will kill off the number of Canadian tourists that visit Cuba – something concerning given the strong relationship between the nations. Tourism has granted many Cubans an opportunity to experience the world outside their island, when they wouldn’t normally have the permission or means to leave. This has also enabled higher living standards in the wake of the Soviet collapse, which of course had huge implications for smaller communist nations at the time.
In any case, Havana became a great study in contrasts. When Dan and I did a day trip there I remember many beggars asking for anything we could possibly give: from pencils to cash. This time I was stunned by the huge number of tourists in the historical core. They’ve clearly increased the number of tourists buses travelling in and out; visiting similar stops for short periods of time. Our tour guide and bus driver were spectacular – not only were they hilarious, but they were also knowledgeable and transparent. The only unfortunate aspect of our day trip to Havana was that the bride and groom ended up on a French tour instead, which they found highly disappointing. It was a shame that we couldn’t all share the day together (in English).
The trip to Havana involved a significant amount of historical (anthropological) background. Many of the names of valleys and towns are quite morbid given the number of massacres that occurred in the region. One town is itself named “Matanzas” which means massacres. If the deaths weren’t caused by the people, then they were as a result of the weather. There is some extreme wind, rain, and waves in areas of the Cuban coastline. One of the rest stops had even been destroyed – fortunately, not while we were present. We visited a number of castles/fortresses built in the 1500s and 1700s. Complementary to the historical component, the tour guide also informed us of current living standards. One of the facts that stood out to me was that milk is fortified with buffalo milk and subsidized till the age of 7. The question of what other types of milk were offered in Cuban stores came up, to which the guide replied that unlike in Canada where we have too many choices like 1% or 2%, Cuban milk is all 100% milk. He’s either hilarious, or very confused. I became very confused while wandering through historical Havana when I realized that there were legitimately museums for everything from firearms to firefighting within a ten minute walk of each other. Naturally, I chose to visit only one museum: chocolate.
Drama emerged at one point in the trip when we were told to meet at a certain location at a certain time and three people didn’t show up. In order to not lose our reservation at La Floridita (the bar where dacquiris were created, and Hemingway often sat), we decided to leave and hope that the three lost souls would find their way. The tour guide had repeatedly mentioned all of the details of where and when to meet, as well as where our next stop was. The three showed up about an hour into our meal, looking furious and grungy. I don’t want to know what they had to do to get where we were.
Once the group was happily reunited, we set off for Revolution Square. Along the way our tour guide gave us an explanation of the American coup, the subsequent revolution and all that has transpired since. Obama had visited fairly recently, which was a momentous occasion. Apparently there is still a fair amount of anti-American propaganda. Given that I spoke Spanish and sat in the front seat, I was able to generate a lot more discussion with the tour guide – which worked to the benefit of my friends sitting around me too. One of the questions I asked was why there are billboards across the country that read: “Blockade: the Longest Genocide in History”. Apparently these billboards target the American embargo. Some Cubans believe that that lack of access to medicine has resulted in numerous deaths thus constituting genocide. Clearly this is a strong statement. IP laws are complicated, and accusations of the mass murder of a nation even more so.
On a lighter note, we ended our Havana trip at a cabaret performance in the jungle. The Tropicana Show was launched in 1939, and has (allegedly) been open every night since then. It was quite possibly one of the most surreal experiences I’ve had. We sat around with 1000 other people watching individuals dance on stage in virtually no clothing, but decorated with massive headpieces like pineapples on their heads. Some performance involved significant amounts of gyrating hips, while others sang the sorrows of the slaughter of native peoples in Cuba. Once again, my speaking Spanish put me in a strange position. There were times when they sang of slaughter, rape, genocide, and the gap between what the lyrics sang and the dances demonstrated was huge. People were sitting there smiling, because all they saw were the beautiful movements without understanding the heavy lyrics. It was the perfect juxtaposition of the confusion in a society that caters to well-off foreigners, while extolling the need to live simply to locals. Appearances are as they need to be for the audiences that the message is delivered to. There is no notion of being as you seem, or seeming as you are.
Overall, the trip was very loaded for such a short period. The wedding itself went off without a hitch, but the Cuban experience has changed and I expect it to be drastically different the next time I visit.