I do not agree with the Categories or Genre I have placed this story in, really it should be classified under one of the following : First Person, Caribbean, Life, Experiences, Self Discovery or No...
Although the sun was finally shining, and spring was in the air, I was feeling a little bit down today. So, I headed over to where I can find comfort no matter how blue I am feeling - Chapters. Once there I went into my favorite section. A place that is always there for me tempting me with interesting reading, on a topic I adore. Cuban History. Although this may sound a bit odd - I adore Cuba. It is my home away from home, but this is me getting ahead of myself.
What was I doing there today? Looking for refuge from the raw emotions that I was feeling, seeking comfort in the words found between the pages, or searching for solace in my memories? Probably all of the above, but what I found was a million times better. I found someone who understands.
I was looking for a book that had just been released, and I couldn't remember what it was called. So I headed over to the nearest associate and asked him if he could help me out. He was very helpful, but explained to me that although I knew the date that it was published and the basic topic, he could not search by publication date. I was sad, but eventually found two books that captured my interest. One was on the relationship between Fidel Castro and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the other on Latin America and how its past affects its future.
As I was preparing to leave, Manuel - the sales associate, came over and asked if I had been able to find the book I was looking for. I gave a disappointed "No", but explained that I would be back next week with the title of the book. Now perhaps my disappointment at not finding the book I was looking for, or my enthusiasm at finding two that I had not been looking for, prompted Manuel to ask "Have you been to Cuba?".
"Have I been to Cuba?" A question those who know me need not ask. "Yes" I breathed, getting that glow in my eye that only comes when I think, dream, or talk about Cuba. "Yes, I have been to Cuba."
"How often?" Manuel then asked. I don't think he really knew what he was getting himself into, but I quickly and passionately informed him that I had been three times, once in March of last year, once at New Years and once this past February. "Wow", Manuel said, "You must really like it!"
Manuel you have no idea. I love Cuba, I basically live and breathe for Cuba. My life plans at this moment consist of becoming a teacher, and going back as often as I can. As I explained this to him, he seemed interested enough that I elaborated a little more on why I feel the way that I do.
When I was finished with my eulogy, he looked interested. We talked for a bit longer about the differences between Western and Latin American Societies, as well as the way people tend to interact in each. Manuel has also seen the differences in the two societies as he is from Chili, and has lived in both Italy and Canada.
Just as I was leaving he suggested I write a book. I asked him why, and he explained that he had never heard my opinion as "99.9% of people either do not particularly care to meet and interact with locals, or they dislike the island." He was interested in hearing more.
So here I am, desperately trying to express myself coherently so that you too can understand my passion for that Caribbean Island.
To Cuba, or Not To Cuba
Last February, a decision had to be made. Did I want to go to Quebec with everyone else in my graduating class, or did I want to go to somewhere warm with a couple friends. I chose a warm destination, and the search for the perfect hotel began. My friend, Anne, had been to both Cuba and the Dominican Republic and explained the ups and downs of both locales to me.
"Cuba", she said, "is beautiful and cheap. You won't really see anyone selling things or offering to braid your hair under an umbrella on the beach, because it's illegal. The government is strict, but the people are friendly. They're mostly Spanish and hot. The music at the hotels is what you'd hear on the radio here because tourists bring CDs of their favorite music, but off the resorts it's almost all Spanish music."
"The Dominican, on the other hand, is more Canadian-ized. They have all of the same music as we do, internet, msn, cell-phones etc. They aren't as poor as the Cubans, and the government is not as strict. There you will find people hassling you on the beach, trying to sell you anything."
In the end we looked at last minute deals to either island. It did not really matter to me, anywhere without snow was perfect. We found a beautiful hotel in the Dominican that Anne had been to before, but when we went to book it two days later, there were no seats left. We were depressed.
Four days later Anne found another hotel, this one in Cuba, that she had visited the year before. She explained to me that it was not your typical hotel with white sand and professional service. She told me that the beach was a dark volcanic sand and the people were friendly and warm. People that could easily become your friends.
I did not particularly care where I ended up, so long as there was sunshine, palm trees and somewhere to swim. However, the notion of going to a place where I could meet interesting people and learn about another way of life intrigued me. So, we booked it that night.
A Crash Course in Customs
Before departing for Cuba, the Hoods sat me down and gave me a crash course in what to expect in Cuba, and what the customs were. They told me about how it is customary to bring a variety of things that we take for granted here, there to give away. I learned that things like clothing, shoes, soap, pencils and toothpaste are popular choices among tourists.
I learned that the government provides each student with a pencil a month, and how grateful locals are just for a pencil or an eraser. This made me sad. I thought about how many pencils I go through in a month of school. The number is definitely more than one. This made me imagine the worst.
I recollected those images that are always on the television of the tiny, underfed, poor, African orphans, with swollen stomachs from malnourishment and applied that image to what I expected to see in Cuba. I thought of little mud-huts swarming with flies and the stench of urine invading my nostrils. But those images were quickly dashed from my mind as the Hoods described the living conditions to me.
They explained that "although the government may be strict, everyone has a roof over their head, and food in their stomachs. They may not have a variety on their table, but they have enough that they can always feel fullness. Their homes are made of cement so that they can survive the yearly tropical storms that whip through the island, and are something that they take immense pride in."
Although this put my mind at ease, I still imagined a gorgeous, immense, perfectly sparkling hotel, surrounded by small huts where the everyday people lived. I still felt like I would be just another tourist. A tourist who may bring things down for a few people, but was still resented by the general populace just for being a tourist. I hoped that there would be someone who noticed that I did not think of myself as better than anyone. Someone who could tell everyone that I was friend, not foe. For what I was afraid of was a clear distinction between tourist and Cuban, where there was just a superficial "I am doing this because it is my job" attitude. I am the kind of person who feels awkward when a sales person puts, something that I tried on, away because "it's their job".
So, I crammed gently used clothing, pencils and erasers, along with my bikinis, and other essentials into an oversized duffel bag. Crossed my fingers, hoped for the best, and the next thing I knew Anne, her mother and I were off to Cuba for a week of "Fun in the Sun".
In today's day and age we are always told that first impressions are very important because they mould your future interactions with a person or a place. I on the other hand disagree and say that everything should be given another chance, and flexibility is essential.
With Cuba, however, a second chance was not needed. We landed around 9:30 pm. Although it was dark outside, the air was still warm and had a sticky scent that is a mixture of dry and wet grass, oleander, palms and something that I cannot identify to this day. I suppose it is just a part of the magic that is Cuba.
We lined up in a small room waiting to be ushered into one of several narrow hallways where the customs officers were. The room was an off-white, with sage boarders and baseboards. The floor was a tiled in a cream colour, and the customs officers were hidden in white box like rooms made of wood and plexiglass. Along the center of the room were some brand new chairs where several of the older passengers rested, while sound of the air conditioner rattling in the background could be heard.
The customs officer I saw was a young man, he could not have been any older than 23, and looked 18. Although his name escapes me, I know it was something typically Cuban. He asked me if I had ever been to Cuba, and when I said that I had not, he just asked me about where I came from, wished me a pleasant stay and stamped my Tourist Visa.
A tourist visa is something that all people who visit Cuba must have, unless they are Cuban citizens. It is good for 30 days, after which it may be renewed for another 30. Customs stamps it, instead of your passport, because they realize that if you have a stamp in your passport from Cuba, you may have some problems when going into the United States. It is a square, colourful piece of paper, where you record your name, birth date, nationality, gender and passport number. If you lose it, there is a 25CUC charge to get it replaced.
Next our carry on luggage was scanned by inmigraciÃ³n, and we went through a metal detector. Nothing particularly different from what you go through at any international airport. Then we waited in that same room where the metal detector and xray machine are, while an old baggage carousel click-clacked and delivered our luggage. As we waited for our bags to appear, an old German Sheppard wandered amongst all of the tourists and the luggage that sat waiting to be claimed. His master was a young, tanned man who seemed friendly but distant, and kept a constant eye on his dog.
When our luggage finally showed up, we took it outside, where there were three big busses, and one smaller one. In the middle of the parking lot, in front of a row of trees, there was a table to which we were ushered. Mrs.Hood showed our hotel voucher, received an envelope and we were sent to the small bus. In the envelope we found three blue bracelets, key card, and a form which we were asked to fill in with our passport numbers and sign.
When the bus was full, we started the drive through the dark Cuban countryside, and through the Sierra Maestra Mountains. I remained awake for that two hour bus ride trying to catch glimpses of the towns we passed through and get an idea of what this mysterious country was all about.
Finally, we came over a hill, and there in the hillside were some soft, yellow lights. As we drove up to the main entrance of the hotel we were welcomed by a dancing, smiling staff who were happily singing along to "La Bamba".
"Para bailar la bamba
Para bailar la bamba se necesita una poca de gracia
Una poca de gracia y otra cosita
Y arriba y arriba
Y arriba y arriba y arriba ire
Yo no soy marinero
Yo no soy marinero, por ti sere
Por ti sere, por ti sere
Bam bam bamba"
I remember that night as though it were yesterday. All of these strange people, so welcoming and warm, with a few moths fluttering up towards the lights that illuminated the lobby and a soft, warm breeze.
As we passed the welcoming crowd and entered the lobby Anne was greeted by a dark, handsome man named Pedro. He remembered her from the last time she had been there. I was amazed. How did these people remember her, she had only been there once before, and yet he did. I thought of the number of people who pass through those lobby doors every season and was impressed. At the same time I wondered if I would be remembered if I were ever to comeback, or if Anne was remembered because she was so beautiful, in which case I did not think I would be remembered. That is not to say that I am an ugly or perhaps even unattractive person, there was just always something about Anne that made her stand out from a crowd.
That night I rolled into bed happy and exhausted.
Finding My Cuba
The next morning I woke up with the sunrise. It was absolutely gorgeous. Our room was on the fourth floor and overlooked Loquillo del Playa Bay, which opens into the Caribbean Ocean. On the other side of the Bay I could see the Sierra Maestra mountains. They were dark, and seemingly illuminated from behind by the pale pink sunrise. It was like picture or a painting that someone would proudly display in their living rooms.
Breakfast was served in the hotel's restaurant which was located directly above the lobby. There was the option of sitting inside, or outside on a covered patio. From the patio we could see a small lake with a large white boat sitting at the dock. And in the background were the mountains. A light brown from the lack of rain, but it was obvious that there was life in those mountains. From a car that would move along the edge of the mountain on an road that we could not see, or small dot moving around on the mountain side.
I felt like I was dreaming, and I was itching to explore and discover the secrets of this forbidden haven. So after breakfast Anne and I went to look around.
The hotel that we were at was the four-star Kulenta del Caribe. It has four stories, was built into the hillside, and blended beautifully with the natural landscape. It had a kidney shaped pool at the center of the U-shaped hotel, which was a crystal blue and had a small palm tree island on the one side of the pool. Attached to it was a pool bar, that had an ochre coloured, cone-like roof, and surrounding it were brightly coloured beach chairs.
We then went down the stairs toward the dark beach. It was beautiful, and although all those travel brochures only ever show you the beauty of pure white sand beaches, this was unique and beautiful in its own right. Right on the edge of the beach, where the path ends, there is a covered circular pavilion which acts as the nightly disco, and right beside it is another pavilion which is the Kulenta's Beach Bar.
As we were walking along the beach to the other hotel, the three star Loquillo del Playa, we met up with some Cubans who were retrieving a net out of the ocean. They waved to us and greeted us with a kind "іHola!". We watched as they got the fish out of the net and chased some crabs around on the beach, more than likely more for show than anything else. Finally two of them caught some and held them up for us to see. When they saw that we were a bit wary of these crabs and their pincers, they pretended to come after us with them. Shrieking we jumped back and they laughed in amusement. I can still remember how their amusement could be seen in their warm, chocolate coloured eyes.
The Loquillo is a two-story pleasant green, motel like structure. The main lobby is in the mid-section of the hotel, and the floors are a light brown, textured tile. Across from the lobby was the Loquillo restaurant, and a two second walk from the lobby was the Loquillo pool.
It has the typical rectangular pool shape. On one side is the hotel, at the other a bar, animacion office and bathrooms. Near the deep end of the pool was a stage where the nightly entertainment takes place, and by the shallow end there is a path that leads to the beach, and the beach bar.
Where the Addiction Began
That day we did not meet a lot of people, we met the entertainer Alfonso through Pedro, but mainly were left alone leaving me free to observe.
One of the first things that I noticed about the Cubans is how they greet each other. They do not simply say "Hey, How are you?" and keep going without really waiting for an answer. Instead they stop, and depending on who it is usually give each other a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Sometimes they just say hello and then keep going, but often they would talk, and then walk in a direction opposite of where both were headed and keep on talking. It seemed as though they always had something to say.
It never seemed to matter whether or not they had just seen each other five minutes earlier, an hour ago, or had not seen each other for a week. There was always something to be said, and news to catch up on.
It was refreshing to see, and yet at the same time hard to understand. I liked that they always greeted each other and were never too busy to talk. They never ignored each other, and kept walking as though they had not seen the other. There was always that warm greeting. They really did not mind taking that time out of their day to stop or slow down. Yet, from the western perspective I wondered about how in the world they have the time to spare and what on earth they find to talk about.
In the western world we always seem to be rushing about, never having time to spare to stop and have a real conversation with anyone. No matter if they are just an acquaintance or a really close friend. Either we rush by thinking /"Oh gosh, I hope they didn't see me"/, or we say a hurried, and out of breath
"Hey! How are you?"
"Good", and move along, to whatever meeting, class, event or place we are rushing to get to.