¿Cuba? Si!


Shortly after I moved to Canada, I was having a chat with a new friend, and we got to talking about the upcoming winter vacation.  She referred to it as “holidays”—here, people “go on holidays”, they don’t “take a vacation.”

Of course, I knew what she meant, but to me holidays meant actual specific days—like Thanksgiving or St. Patrick’s Day or New Year’s, and vacation was the thing you did that usually had a holiday in the middle of it.

Another one that use to get me was “going to the hospital” and “going to hospital”.  My interpretation of that one is that the former means a specific location—a physical building with a name, whereas the latter is a more generic term when you don’t know where the ambulance will take you.

Also “gone missing”, which I guess is more of a generic term when you don’t know if someone’s wandered off, been kidnapped, or just isn’t where they’re supposed to be.  I do hear the US news stations use this phrase now…but maybe those are the ones close to the border.

Last one: eh. Canadians say “eh” in place of “you know”…as in “It was really cold out there, eh?” Just replace the “you knows” with “ehs” and most times it works out.

But I digress. (Frequently, I know)  This week’s entry is about Cuba.

So my friend tells me her mom is going “on holidays” to Cuba, and I have two reactions, after my initial shock (remember this was 30 years ago and I was very new to Canada):

The first: You can’t do that.

The second: Why would you want to?

And then it hit me.  I couldn’t picture the country on the map.

Now, I’m a bit of a map geek.  If I won the lottery, I would probably buy old maps—Manhattan in the 1700’s, the U.S. west in 1850, older maps of the world as they knew it.

Pretty big,  isn’t it?  Makes for quite a hole.

But try as I might, I could not picture Cuba.  At all.


I had to get an atlas out and look it up, and its position still didn’t seem to make sense to me.

What had they taught us in school?  What hadn’t they taught us?

Keep in mind that this would have been just years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, but was it actually on our maps? Or were they designed and presented so that they cut off right at the tip of Florida? Or was it there, and did no one ever talk about it?

I really don’t know, but this revelation (not revolution-haha), really blew me away and for years I thought about how I couldn’t place Cuba on a map.

Fast forward a couple of decades and the opportunity to visit the island comes up.  It was just about to open to Americans in some limited capacities (and I know it has—maybe not  as freely as originally planned), but having a second passport with a country that was open to allowing its citizens to visit gave me access to check it out before it got crazy busy….or there was a conspicuous coffee shop or hamburger stand on every corner.

Here’s what I can tell you: just like with any resort in the Caribbean, if you don’t get out of the resort, you are destined to spend your vacation sunburned and overfed on a starchy, low-flavored diet of the endless feeding-at-the-trough buffet. You don’t see the real world.

Now I’m not sure how much of the real world we saw in Cuba, and how much they DSCN4452 (3)wanted us to see.  Yes, we stayed in a resort, quite a distance from Havana, so the one day we spent in the capital required some longish airplane flights (which also meant very early starts and late arrivals back at the DSCN4404 (2)hotel).DSCN4390 (2)

Sadly, it was raining, and so it was tough at times to tell just how much of what we were seeing appeared that way because of the weather and how much of it was of a country that was struggling.

It’s not very often, especially in the Caribbean, that you get to experience a large city and all that comes with that.  The roads were decent; there were high rises and the newly re-opened American Embassy, DSCN4377 (2)busy restaurants in the tourist areas, half-built projects down side streets and shadowy entryways to inner courtyards.  Fidel’s boat sits in a glass enclosed room, and there are posters and billboards everywhere, reminding you of where you are.

And the cars.  It’s like a step back to that time of the Bay of Pigs. Mid-century American cruisers—any model you and can think of in pretty much any color you can dream up—they’re there.  It’s amazing.  You can book a ride in one if you like, although our tour group did not have the chance—a single day isn’t very much to cram an entire missing history lesson in, much less find time to cruise around in an old car.

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Our other excursion, the first out of the compound, was a bit different.  Here’s a passage I wrote when it happened (better to pull on my diary than my memory, for sure):

Adventures in Cuba: Jeep Safari Adventure Tour  It was billed as an adventure tour, and boy, was it ever. There were six of us in our group plus our tour guide, Lore, who also went by “Flaco” (“skinny” in Spanish, which I guess he was). We drove with Flaco in older Chinese-built 4 x 4s, with the other four in a jeep following. We visited the lovely lake La DSCN4171 (2)Redonda and learned about mangroves; we visited the town of Moron (there should be an accent there on the second o, no jokes); we stopped for lunch at a small roadside place; we climbed a mountain for the view; and our final stop was a crocodile farm. A very full and crazy day for sure.

Off-roading on the mountain–really off-roading: OK, so when we stopped for lunch at the roadside place, as we were leaving, three shiny new black Suzuki 4 x 4s screeched into the parking lot–kicking up gravel and the whole thing. We learned that this was another guide from Flaco’s company–a pretty flashy guy, with black slacks, turned up collar, and some pretty nice shoes (not exactly safari adventure attire, but whatever). We went on our way–up the mountain on a single lane road–really only a single lane which was pretty steep (certainly posed a bit of a challenge for our little Chinese 4 x 4s–as I recall, we had to take a couple runs at getting up some of the more steeper inclines). We got to the top–lovely views, take a peek, take a picture–and then headed down. Flaco told us the guard at the entrance only let one direction of cars come at a time so we’d be fine going down…until his macho tour guide friend decided his entourage would head up before we got down.

DSCN4232So the flashy tour guide decides he’s coming up the mountain whether we’re off or not. We pull our 4 x 4 a safe distance off the single lane road (keep in mind we’re on a steep slope and we’re on the outside), and the guide tries to edge his Suzuki past us. Notice I say “he tries”? He doesn’t make it–just as he goes by, he goes a little too far off the road and ends up high centeringDSCN4238 (2) the jeep on the edge of the pavement–probably about two feet down on the right–not far enough to flip on the side, but enough that the left wheels are in the air. THEN he tells the other two jeeps to go by…and guess what happens next? Yup, the second on goes off the road, in the same way. Now we have two stuck jeeps (not ours mind you, but we learned that there are no tow trucks and you never leave someone out there in the middle of nowhere). So Flaco yells down the mountain (we can’t imagine who he’s yelling to, as there is no one around for miles), and a Rey 1few minutes later, up the mountain comes a man on horseback,  galloping bareback, shirt flapping open with his backwards baseball cap–like it’s what he does all the time. After an hour and a half, much thought, a quick run down the mountain for a big chain and some very heavy pulling, the jeeps are freed–but both have sustained some pretty heavy undercarriage damage and the third no longer has a clutch. That’s when we found out they were brand new–just three days on the road. Crazy. Anyway, job’s done, tourists are thoroughly mosquito-bitten, Mr, Flash is cowed, Rey, the caballero, mounts his steed and heads into the sunset and we creep back down the hill in our trusty little Chinese jeeps. I don’t think this is what they meant by an adventure tour, but it sure was interesting!

 An interesting point here, and one I didn’t mention in my narrative, was that when we stopped in Morón, they gave us some time to wander around.  So we did and got some pretty cool pix of this small town.

I was particularly taken by one of the old cars and snapped a couple shots of it.

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Imagine my surprise, when, as we were leaving the lunch place, walking past those brand-new-soon-to-be-destroyed Suzukis, I saw the same goldfish-colored Mercury parked at the end of the row.  By then, I couldn’t tell who it was as the guests were all mingling.

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And then it showed up again at the crocodile farm.

In another life, I was taught to look for these things.  But what it was, I wasn’t sure.  Were they checking up on the tour guides?  Making sure the tourists behaved themselves, or that we didn’t ask the wrong questions? What were the odds that I would take a picture of that exact same car in Colón?

I still don’t know, but it was certainly intriguing.

All this to say that Cuba is an interesting place, but it definitely still has a feel to it…a feel of another time, another era.

Would I go back? Yes, if I could spend more time in Havana and actually have a chance to talk to people, to see a home, to sit for a meal (which I understand is done fairly regularly).

So I guess I’ll just put it on my list—like I say, once to find out what you need to see and learn, and then to go back and do it.

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