Friday, April 25, 2008

I'm on vacation... please don't make me think of a title

Today I ate two lunches. The first, because I was hungry and the buffet wasn't open yet and the second because I wanted the buffet, including dessert. And I had more beer. I seem unfillable here in Cuba. Mmm... I can still smell the profiteroles.

We're back from Havana, and I'm so glad we went. For one, it made me appreciate the luxury of our resort far more than earlier in the week. It is a hot and busy city (I know, big surprise), and I loved every minute of it. I filled 3 GB of memory cards in the 24 hours (ish) we were there, probably at least 900 photos. I feel like I can just relax now. Coming back to the resort, I suddenly see the point of it, and we breathed audible sighs as we entered the relatively peaceful lobby. I'm so glad I followed my sister's good advice and didn't spend our entire week in Havana. (She lived in Havana for three years.)

Our taxi driver was a sweetie, pointing out all the oil fields on the way to Havana and other points of interest, like the Rum factory. He asked if we'd been to Cuba or Havana before and when we answered no, "Ohhh," he nearly sang, "Havana IS Cuba!" Which of course isn't really true but I can see his point. I definitely experienced the reported warmth and friendliness of Cuban people, and many of them DID like getting their photos taken (for the right price). I also loved how patient people were with our utter lack of Spanish. Even if they had no English at all, they would try to decipher my sign languge and the would take time to communicate back. I doubt I would do that with someone who didn't speak English... I'd just shrug helplessly and hope someone else would help them soon.

We stayed in a private house right on the Malecon, pretty much on the corner of the Prado with tons of ruined buildings all around it. When I had asked our taxi driver where he was taking us, he said he had an address on the Malecon. I figured he meant the Hotel Nacional, and felt both sad and relieved not to be staying in a private house. But we pulled up in front of a lone 50s high rise stuck between much older more colonial buildings and it had lots of Cuban kids hanging out on its steps. I shot a bunch of pictures, figuring we'd be moving on to the hotel, but no. This was our place for the night. Later, at dusk, boys played marbles in the alley beside it.

A series of old men run the rickety, slow and claustrophobic elevator, which we took up to the 11th floor. Sometimes they would turn the fan above on and off to amuse Swee'pea, but it just freaked me out. Apparently elevators are fragile and valuable things in Havana, so the casa owners pay people to run them so idiots like me don't break them. The apartment took up the entire floor, and its whole front wall was windows looking out to the sea. It was quite something. I'm not going to talk about the Cuban (read: seriously, seriously outdated but who can blame them?) decor.

Our guide was a young woman who graduated from university last year with a degree in translation and interpretation. She teaches there, officially, but unofficially, she makes far more as a tour guide. Our taxi driver was a mechanical engineer who also makes more as a cab driver. I used to feel a bit idealistic about conditions in Cuba. Sure, people don't have much material wealth, but they get free healthcare and education, so how bad could it be? Now I see that it's actually pretty bad. I guess it must be like receiving welfare-sized paycheques when you're working as an engineer or a doctor or professor (or a communications specialist like me). How much would that suck?!?

Anyways, our guide, D, had a cell phone, which was kept busy through much of our lunch. During a cell break, I asked her if she'd just gotten it since that's been on the news lately, and she said no, she's had it for a while because the line is in a foreigner's name. So some Cubans did have cell phones before, it's just that now they can actually have the line in their name. I thought she looked a little too well-versed with it. She was interested in our Lonely Planet guide because she finds the perspective of outsiders fascinating. She only had an outdated guidebook, so I gave her ours when we were done. She'll get far more use out of it than we will.

After lunch, Swee'pea fell asleep and Sugar D stayed with him at the apartment while D took me out shooting. On our walk through through narrow streets of crumbling buildings and people just hanging out outside (heaven!), she admitted that I'm like a hero to her. I was incredulous until she explained that a Cuban husband would never stay home with the baby while the wife went out. No way... he'd make them all stay home. She said she's going to start telling people, especially her fiance, about me, and we joked about me becoming some urban myth in Cuba, this amazing woman who left her baby with his father.

The next morning we went looking for breakfast, which was a bit stressful because we had to be back to meet D by 9. So we stopped at the first open place (many places didn't open until noon). It looked like a bar so I asked in my pigeon sign language if they served food. Yes, she said, a nice ham sandwich. So I explained we didn't eat ham and she said how about tortillas, huevos frijos? That sounded great so we jumped on it and asked for three, along with a cold milk for Swee'pea. Well, they brought us the eggs and a basket of bread and three hot milks, all disgustingly sweet and sort of caramel coloured, maybe with coffee? I tried to ask for a cold one for Swee'pea, because he doesn't like the milk hot, and they brough a cooler version of the same sweet drink. I didn't worry too much because this was going to be the cheapest meal ever, of that I was certain. They brought us two espressos, unordered, but Sugar D hoovered them up, so whatever. Then they brought the bill. $25 CUC!!! When lunch and dinner the day before, far more substantial, had been under $20 CUC.

I wanted to perpetuate the friendly and polite Canadian persona, but there was no way I was paying so much for stuff we didn't even order. I told her we only ordered one milk so she brought the price down to $20, which we just paid, chalking it up to part of the Cuban experience. I vaguely recall the guideback saying to always see the price on a menu before you eat, and make sure you know if it's CUC or Cuban pesos. Oops.

Did you know that toilet paper can only be purchased in convertible pesos here so only people who work in tourism can buy it? I didn't ask what people use if they only have Cuban pesos. I used to always cheap out on toilet paper, or even not buy it, stealing it from bars and restaurants instead. But a few years back my friend pointed out that we earned pretty good wages so surely we could afford the nice soft stuff. Ever since, I get the nice stuff. Yesterday I gave our host, Miriam, a roll of that soft stuff, which I'd brought just in case we found ourselves in a public bathroom without any, but which I could be certain wouldn't happen from now on. I also gave her a bar of soap and two pens and her eyes lit up and she exclaimed over it. I pointed out that it was nice soft paper (i.e. not for her guests) and she said, "Oh, for me! Thank you! Thank you!"

I'm sorry, but when someone lights up like that over toilet paper, conditions are not good. And she's surely one of the rich ones since her plumbing still works (sort of) and her apartment is in good condition. It was also good (if humbling) to experience true Cuban plumbing. Apparently, you can't actually put the toilet paper down the toilet or it blocks, which we found out the hard way, after blocking the toilet. And the shower... well it didn't shower, at all, until the showerhead fell off in Sugar D's hand and then it was a weak stream of water, kind of like a garden hose with no fixture thingie on the end and barely any pressure. The kind of conditions that I never would have agreed to pay to stay in until now.

I was really glad that Jorge set it up for us. If we'd booked it ourselves, we probably wouldn't have stayed there. For one thing, the neighbourhood was daunting to say the least (and my photos, when I'm able to upload them, will say more than my words) and I would have worried we were putting ourselves, and more importantly Swee'pea, into a dangerous situation. But Jorge told us it was safe, and I truly trust him. In person, he is even more trustworthy than on the phone.

When we first arrived, Jorge exclaimed (like almost all the Cubans we've met) over Swee'pea's red hair. "I know many, many Cuban women who pay a lot of money to have hair like that." And sure enough, I saw A LOT of Cuban women with cranberry red hair. Even our hostess had a shower cap covering a new application of cranberry dye. I wondered if it was the only colour they could get.

I do have more to say but I'm running out of time... guess I'll have to leave the flat tire and corpulent taxi driver on the return trip for my return tomorrow. Until then...


Bon said...

oh friend, you are having a TRIP, the kind that actually makes you think. i think the balance of Havana and resort sounds wise - a bit of authenticity and perspective, a bit of vacation. i am drooling now to see the photos.

and the plumbing thing? true all over most of Asia as well. when i first moved back to Canada after years in Korea, i kept throwing my dirty toilet paper in the little garbage cans beside people's toilets, out of habit. until i clued in. :)

kgirl said...

lol re the two lunches. now THAT is vacation mode.
I hope I get to Cuba one day soon.

Mimi said...

cg, I love these travel diaries. I feel like I'm there with you. You tell really wonderful stories. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Oh, it all sounds exactly like the adventure you wanted.

I remember the toilet paper in our hotel as being painfully rough. It's been almost 20 years and I STILL remember it: pulped from sugar cane plants. OUCH!

And I would pay money for hair the colour of S.P., too.