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Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Brian & Deya met in Vancouver Canada. After a few years together we were married and made choices. One was not to have children the other was not to take life for granted. The rest is yet to come.

January 19, 2012

Viva Cuba Libre – Learning Curve

(Due to slow and expensive Internet, pictures and video will be added once we are off the island, Thanks)

We arrived in Varadero the day before my parents were supposed to arrive. Varadero seems to be a Canadian hot spot which is more likely to do with the Canadian travel agencies than anything else. Since most Canadians don’t have more than a week or two vacation during winter they probably want to hang out on a nice beach and not worry about much. This sounds like an easy sell and from the folks we have talked to and the experience we have had this is a case of unfortunate tourism. I can just imagine that the options to explore Cuba are not even given to Canadians since there are much better and cheaper options available.

Our initial intention was to book ourselves into the resort so that we could spend the time with my parents, my brother and his wife. Originally we had quoted a price from Colombia but could not reserve because we simply didn’t know for sure when we would get there. Having spent the better part of a week in various Customs’ offices was a concern. Despite that, we were fairly diligent but by the time we got to Havana and contacted the travel agency the price had more than tripled to 360 CUC a night! NO WAY. We asked how much for a day pass, thinking that we could at least spend some days at the resort with the family. The quote was 25 CUC per person for 8 hours of hanging out. When we finally got to Varadero the price had doubled?! We talked to the Commercial manager and he said the best price to stay there he could get us was 139 CUC per night for the two of us.

We agreed with the manager since the purpose of trying to get to Varadero was to visit my family and it seemed to be slipping away. We were told to come back the next day to pay for the nights. The next day we came back at the prescribed time and were told they hadn’t got around to making up the bill and to come back the next day in the morning. We arrived the next day to settle the deal and were told that because we didn’t get it the day before it was now considered ‘peak season’ and the price had doubled! I wont go into the explicatives or the frustration and retarded conversations that we had to endure and overhear from the staff and management there, but you can imagine that an event that came to this conclusion after 6 days of significant effort was so frustrating.

The route to Varadero was pretty good as far as riding goes though when we got to the toll booth, which we didn’t know existed, we had no funds in CUC to pay. Despite having Cuban plates and not a tourist plate, one look at us assured that we had to pay extra. They went from 10 Cuban Pesos to 2 CUC each. It’s not a lot but we asked the cops nearby and they could not understand why we were getting the shaft but told us there was a way around the booth. We ended up taking the old route which was primitive and mostly dirt. Fantastic road, was better that the asphalt and put us right in front of the marina. We had already arranged a ‘Casa Particular’ and then engaged the resort to no avail.

Since there was no staying at the Arenas Blancas or Solymar resorts with my family we made a reservation at another Casa Particular for the second part of the holidays. Casas Particulares, as you might recall, are home owners who rent rooms out to people. Our reservation was a let down as the owner never honoured it. We ended up at another place that was under construction at the time but we accepted on the promise that the construction would be done the next day. This turned into a debacle and found ourselves strung along for four nights, until finally on our evening walk back we found we had been ejected in favour of others who were now enjoying a quiet place with no more construction, they had offered a higher price.

After some drama to which I hate to participate, we left; it was late and there would be almost no places available during this peak holiday season. The result was pitching the tent on the beautiful beaches of Varadero. As the story goes, “It was a long and stormy night…” but after the trauma Deya had slept like a baby and the next day turned everything around for us. We found a really nice place with super people and were able to enjoy the days and evenings with my family outside of the resort.

In the resort the service sucks, I’m not being bitter it just really does suck. Deya and I would go and sit near the reception desk waiting for my folks to come down to great us and we would hear no end of the customers complaining because of any number of easily fixable or resolvable situations. To which the response in most cases was, “It’s not my job; It’s the State’s problem not mine; etcetera.”

One example was getting Internet access; you have to buy a ticket which is similar to a calling card and its good for one hour intervals. The worker in charge of the Internet cafe at the resort didn’t have any available and when the worker was asked by a good many customers she would exclaim that she didn’t have any. Of course silly tourists would probe about when she would have more available and she would only say, “I don’t know when we get them it’s the manager’s responsibility and he’s not available”. Well it would seem he had been sold out as well. Further drilling reveals that the manager has to call the service provider for new inventory of cards and that since the staffer is not considered competent enough to do it herself that it’s the boss’ job. But since the boss doesn’t work at this station and the staffer is ‘not responsible’ then she never notifies the boss and he has to find out on his own when they are short in cards. Once Deya found the boss (about three minutes of looking) the cards were called in and delivered within an hour. Apathy, stupidity, complacency, incompetence and narrow mindedness; all behaviours we would see repeated over and over again without surrender or pause as we traveled Cuba.

We had a good time with my family in Varadero and had a couple side trips to Havana with them. We like Havana ourselves and were able to at least show some of the good things about Cuba and its people. Though the resorts can’t seem to prove it, Cubans can actually produce very nice food and the rum is fantastic but you have to stay with a family to know this. On one occasion when we went to the market to get some beans we saw another BMW painted in the Cuban colours. We stopped to find a Swiss guy named Thomas and his cohort Tony from Canada. We had a nice chat and collected a bit of information from him. We also spent a bit of time with two other Canadians (Varadero is full of them) named Terry and Twila, also motorcycle riders. We had a great time with them and hope to see them again either here or back home.

Once we departed from Varadero our route would be zigzagging West towards the tip of Cuba. The roads were a mix from poor to good and the scenery was not dissimilar. Farm land always seem nice to me and the short mountains with their twisty roads are a nice reprise from the hot flat coastal roads. We stayed a night in a non touristic town of Artemisa and rented a room. Since there are no tourists here the room was for locals and amount to what I like to call a boom-boom room evidenced by the room next door and all the uh-huhs and oh-yahs going on in repetition for precisely 3 minutes 18 seconds ;-). Turns out that the family homes all have lots of family around and if a couple want some privacy they have to pay for it. It’s a small island after all and it seems everyone knows what everyone else is doing. The spy network here are the busybodies hanging around gossiping.

It’s an interesting thing that Cubans don’t seem to ask too many questions but if you’ll listen, or just stand there, they’ll tell you everything. Some are, I’m sure, able to breathe in through their noses whilst speaking at length. I jest but with the taint of sarcasm for the situation. The irony here is that it seems nearly impossible to make a Cuban friend. I’ll explain shortly.

The route to the West end of the island was long and somehow boring, though the scenery was nice. At one point the road is blocked by a checkpoint. Authorization is required but easily had by the main office near the shore. A Tourist Info Centre has a nice and helpful group to guide you to what you may need. We journeyed to the end and found a marina and a hotel (75 CUC per night). We enquired about shipping the bikes to Mexico but it didn’t seem feasible so we left our info and carried on. It was late enough and a long enough route that we needed to camp. The route would be perilous at night with animals and who knows what else.

We stayed on a beautiful virgin (National Park) beach, just us and plethora of bugs. We now have more numerous bites on us than even in Costa Rica. Despite that, imagine sitting on a white sand beach, aqua blue water lapping against the beach leading into deep blue. A few stars are visible as the sun sets over the water, red, orange and warm; a cup of 7 Year Old Havana Club and a beautiful spouse sitting quietly next to you absorbing the scene, all alone… wonderful. The night however would be full of disturbances, bug bites and wild pigs all digging in for what food they could find.

At some point we made it to a town called Viñales and met a family of farmers. They were of the most interesting sort we had met and had intelligent questions and opinions of all kinds. I wish we had had more time to really converse about such political and cultural topics as they were bringing them up. It happened that their daughter was having a fifteen years birthday party, coming of age kind of thing. We were invited and got to be present for the slaughter of the pigs. (Video) The food and party was primitive and fantastic, the kind of event that I enjoy.

I want to give my state of mind right now, considering all that we’ve been through and the simple duration of our travel. I’m feeling a little tired and impatient with Cuban people. I’ve heard it said that it’s a country of contradictions and it certainly is. You meet fantastic people then step two paces and find a bunch of vultures. Not that vultures are bad but maybe you don’t feel just yet like you are dead carrion. It seems, and every foreigner we’ve met has stated clearly the same, that people here don’t seem friendly only as in so much that they think they’re about to get something from you.

One more aggressive example is that knowing a fellow for less than two hours, in that time we were invited to his place where he utterly disrespected our personal property as though it was his, he made requests that were insensitive to our standards and began arranging a christening of his children so that we could be the God Parents to his kids. While there are too many details to mention these constant kind of attempts to get anything from you occur persistently and it’s tiring to me. The constant question of ‘how much did you pay for the bikes’ is not new to us but the question in Cuba comes from people who live a comfortable life and make 30 bucks a month. If you tell them that personal answer, they usually come with looks and stupid questions about if you have any money lying around, because you must be a stupid rich person and I’m simply tired of it. They have Zero frame of reference for cash and don’t know how to handle it, as can be seen in most homes were a 45” flat screen TV sits but the toilet has been non functional for two years, so to ask ‘how much’ is complicated and ridiculous.

To rant any further is depressing and tiring and while this is surely a decent place with a government that makes a notable effort for its people the complicated problem of extremely poor productivity, seen in a couple of factories and plantations so far plus a general attitude, means a very unsustainable future for Cubans. If you were to ask me right now if I would return again to Cuba I would say, “No.” Other than being very safe, there is for me right now, not another thing in Cuba that you cannot find elsewhere for better value and service. Sorry Cuba, this is your doing nobody else’s. 

Deya and I are currently talking about trying to change our somewhat defeated mindset, it may be our only choice at this point, I hope it works.

1 comment:

  1. "To take from one, because it is thought his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to everyone the free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it." --Thomas Jefferson