Let's start this off by finding some good related images... it's too early for us to have pooled together our photos yet for this one but we did last November and they're all here. You can get the idea of the look of the place, not just the resort (Marea del Portillo) but Cuba itself. There's a few of a fatter me. Also, if you spot a Cuban gentleman in cowboy hat and blue t-shirt that has a Canadian flag and reads “I am Canadian”--that's Chichi. Let's just say we're very good friends.
So how did it go? To be completely honest, a lot of things went wrong. First whine-fodder was our flight there being delayed by two hours, ensuring we'd get to the resort (which is a two-hour bus ride from Manzanillo airport) at some ungodly hour in the morning. Second was when the luggage carousel at the airport stopped moving, and my luggage had not made an appearance upon it, along with the luggage of quite a few other people. We thought the official was kidding at first when he told us it was still in Canada. The old Engrish slogan "We send your luggage in all directions" was suddenly not so funny.
So what do you do? Get on the bus anyway, so that we did. How we survived sans toiletries, changes of clothes, etc., was by a) repeatedly washing the same items of unmentionables and b) raiding things we had actually brought to donate to Cubans. For instance, one guy had a whole bag of deodorant sticks, from which I borrowed one. Another person had an entire suitcase full of women's clothing, which took up residence in my cabana (Karen's All-Directions Boutique: a few of us dressed ourselves out of it.) Tell the truth I had a lot of fun seeing what outfits I could mix and match out of this collection, dressing up in styles and colours that were totally not my usual, etc. I got some compliments, actually.
We left Thursday night and the luggage didn't get to us until Sunday morning... very early Sunday morning. 2 a.m. (One thing weird about Cuba: being in a country so foreign that's in the same time zone. It seems unnatural somehow.) I told them I'd pick up my bags in the morning. They brought them at 2 a.m. anyway.
In good news, I was compensated 50 Cuban Convertible Pesos—roughly equivalent to Canadian dollars—per day per piece of luggage. That added up to $300, half of which I donated to trip organizer Jenny Cressman's Cuban humanitarian efforts, since one of the bags was full of donations and thus its lack not really an inconvenience to me. Incidentally I also stewarded a bicycle, the one piece of "my" luggage which was not left behind, and which some lucky Cuban is now riding.
Next thing that went wrong was getting the trots Tuesday morning. No details necessary, yes? I was okay by evening, fortunately.
The final thing that went wrong was returning to Toronto to find my car encased in a solid layer of ice, as what I hope will be the last winter storm licked its way across Ontario. “Can I just get back on the plane to Manzanillo?” I wanted to say.
Oh yes, my poor northern USA and Canadian and European and other wintery-nationed friends: it is hot in Cuba. Almost always. There are legends of a dusting of snow in Havana many years ago. That's all. Most of the week the daytime temperature was up around 30. As it's rainy season, you can expect evening showers, but they tend to be over quickly. The Cuban sun burns down otherwise unremittingly, mercilessly, rapidly turning insufficiently-sunblocked Canadians the colour of lobsters. Your green-deprived eyes are nourished by the sight of palm trees, leafy glades, green fields of sugar cane, vinyards and banana plantations. Mango trees rise high and round, the reddening fruit dangling from living green cords.
Everyone eats locally in Cuba, for the most part. Your typical farm feast, celebrating the visit of pale-skinned foreigners, consists of “Moors and Christians”—rice and beans—salad which is usually cucumbers and unripe tomatoes with an onion/lemon/garlic dressing, yucca cooked to tenderness (I know not how; I have tried), sometimes potatoes or fried plantain chips and: roast pig. The smallish swine is killed and gutted by the men, then wired onto a thick wooden spit and rotated ceaselessly by hand for 2-3 hours over embers. It is served perfectly plain, and the ears, tail and first bits of juice-dripping crackling are handed out to the kids. This whole spread is accompanied with generous portions of either red wine or rum or both.
Food at the resort was more varied. I ate more kinds of fish in that week than in the year before, and of course it was all deliciously fresh-caught. I happened into eating lobster at several places. They make this sauce... oh, for the recipe.
(Incidentally, if you're wondering how this interacted with the diet: I'm essentially off it at this point. I was planning to do Phase 3, but my IP snacks and supplement pills were, of course, in my suitcase, so I didn't even have the option until Sunday. By IP standards I ate like an absolute pig, nibbling varied desserts, gobbling meat, holding back only on carbs. And I managed to lose four pounds anyway, I think mostly because I was much more physically active than usual.)
The theme of the group trip was “Zumba in Cuba” and I did participate in quite a few workouts, including one in the square of the nearby town of Pilon with a bunch of kids who could wiggle their hips in a way that would put any Canadian but an exotic dancer to shame. Our theory is that they're born with it. I also swam, walked, rode horseback, hiked the boardwalk through the swamp where Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and company landed back on Cuba to start the revolution (the area I was in was a hotbed of revolutionary activity; along the side of the road into Pilon are memorial blocks to people from the town who gave their lives.)
But what I love, and always remember, most about Cuba is the people. They are all poor as church mice, but you never see a stained shirt or a tear in a pair of pants. They are supposedly living under an oppressive dictator, but they have freedoms we do not know, such as showing affection in public, drinking on buses, building what they want on their land if they can afford it, letting animals run all over the place, etc. They can live in a dirt-floor shack and say they need and lack for nothing. They laugh when they work. Family is everything to them. They are basically, essentially, enduringly happy.
When I got off the bus at the beginning of the previous trip and they welcomed us with music and trays full of rum punch, I couldn't help but move (Cuban music is like that), and heard one of the staff say “We've got one dancing already!” From this I realized that they consider much of their job to be teaching Canadians how to be happy.
I have to say that when you read pretty much anything about Cuba in the mainstream media here, you are only getting one side. The other I have only heard in Cuba.
Perhaps you remember the family I told you about in this post? Walking through Pilon, I suddenly realized I recognized the area. So I found the house and stopped by, and the 81-year-old lady who'd had the quadruple bypass was there. I said hi, she remembered me, and later when I was at a pig roast the mother, her granddaughter, came and found me. I think she was a bit baffled by my change in shape, but we hit it off again, I gave her a bunch of stuff and now she has my address and I have her name. (Her first name is Xiomara, the “x” pronounced “Sh”.) So I will get a letter one of these days, all in Spanish, and I'll have to figure out how to decipher it and then how to answer.
The family are all well, covered under Cuba's all-inclusive public health-care. The kids can all read. They get their water from a hose by the street and couldn't offer me anything, though I am sure it bothered them, because they didn't have so much as coffee, which grows there in abundance. Cuba can lift and break your heart almost at once, and make you question your assumptions about what quality of life really is, what rich and poor truly mean, and why some pale-skinned people find whine-fodder in the pettiest things. Of course I will go back.