Cuba: My All (Weather) Inclusive

Let me say from the start that this is not an artistic or cultural reflection on the South Socialists. In fact, when invited on junkets during the week, I would ask, “Is it going to be a cultural experience?” If the answer was yes, my answer was no. After an exhausting first year of teaching, I was up for sun and fun, plain and simple. No culture. No education. No introspection. Just lots and lots of drinking. Yaaaaay, rum!

We stayed at the Barcelo Solymar five-star resort. It was a first rate operation, but I have one word for the all-inclusive virgins: moderation. On the first night, by conservative estimates, I had 4 glasses of wine, followed by 24 Cuba Libres. While I didn’t puke, I probably should have, because I was very, very grumpy the next day. And still drunk, which is no way to eat breakfast.

By day 3, I discovered that I wasn’t ready to relax. I missed my timeline. I missed knowing how to get in touch with people. I missed a feeling of control. In a faux-laid-back mood, we had made no attempt at check-in to track each other’s room numbers, or what our plans for the week would be. In a group of 32 people, across 20 rooms, meeting up for lunch, beach volleyball, or even just adjacent lounge chairs by the pool was firmly in the hands of the Fates.

But by Tuesday, I was finally ready to let go. I did whatever: when I was hungry, I ate; when I was tired, I slept; when I was thirsty… you get the picture. It was an enlightening look at my own addiction to information and connection to other people.

Ed’s Note: This enlightenment was okay, of course, because it wasn’t culture.

As for activities, there was ping-pong, pool tables, oversized chess and checkers, tennis courts, beach soccer, and two courts of beach volleyball. Most of the time, it was too windy to play beach volleyball,

Ed’s Note: This is foreshadowing.

and when it wasn’t too windy, the courts were mostly full of volley-cationers who were wincingly uncoordinated. I had been hoping for a few good games of competitive ball, but even when the courts were empty, as soon as a few of us would hit the sand, we would be mobbed by people who wanted to join in “for fun.” I hate them. So… much….

Wednesday was the wedding, which was great, once it got started. The Justice of the Peace was on “Cuban time,” which meant we were baking in the noon-day sun for half an hour longer than we should have. We quickly got over this with cake, champagne, and a Cuban guitar trio that followed us right into the buffet for lunch. I MC’ed the reception that evening at a local restaurant that had all kinds of crazy crap hung up on the walls: upholstered chairs, huge couches, musical instruments, and more. It was like a classy version of our cheesy pubs with moose antlers and plastic toys from the 60’s masquerading as interior design. Anyhow, the food, the speeches, and the atmosphere were perfect. It was exactly the wedding experience the couple wanted. I know. I speak for them.

Thursday a friend and I went to the Varadero Golf Club for a 7am tee time. We had optimistcally brought our clubs, and were amazed to discover that we got such a great time without a problem, and at a discount. For the price of a midrange Canadian green fee, we golfed one of the most beautiful courses I’ve ever seen, with a cart, all by ourselves. I mean, COMPLETELY ALONE. There was nobody else on the entire course! All I can say is that if you are a golfer, bring your clubs, and tee off early, before the heat. If we’d had more time, we would have gone back for another round or two.

On Friday, the reality of Hurricane Dennis sunk in. Hotel staff were taping giant Xs on all the large glass windows,

Ed’s Note: There was much speculation as to the safety purpose or function of the Xs, but the best to date is that after the storm, you can quickly count how many windows you have to replace by counting the missing Xs.

and moving all the loose displays and tables into storage. At a local beach-side pub on Thursday night, the owner had said that the people, who were accustomed to the yearly hurricane season, were very nervous about this one. Yikes. By midday, the skies were gray and the palm trees were bent to 45 degrees. The wind was a high drone in your ears that you never quite got used to. By now Dennis had been upgraded to a level 4 hurricane.

If you pictured the resort as a person lying down, I had the misfortune of having a room located in the crotch of the shorts up which Dennis was blowing. All the wind power focused on the sliding glass doors of my balcony. Coincidentally, these were the only large panes of glass in the entire building that had not been X’ed over with tape, and they rattled often and ominously. The weatherstripping under the door was not sealed well, and by lunch, half my room was flooded with a centimetre of rainwater.

In the hotel, non-critical services (like cigar sales) were shut down. At meal times, people tried to remain calm at the buffet,

Ed’s Note: Let’s give credit where it’s due here: there was a hurricane coming, but the resort staff kept the buffet open.

but there was much blatant (and strictly verboten) pocket-stuffing of bread and bananas. I’m not sure what we expected to happen, but if our behaviour was any indicator, we were confident that small portions of bread and bananas would separate the survivors from the herds of dead, buffet-rule-following sheep.

Meanwhile, on the non-crotch side of the building (the rear end?), the storm was relatively quiet. It sounded like a severe gale you might get in Southern Ontario. Something that would make the news, and maybe blow down a tree or a power pole. It was tolerable, so I spent most of my day with friends in a room over there. But at night, when the worst of Dennis had supposedly passed us by, I returned to my room to hunker down and fight for sleep.

It might’ve been the fact that I was by myself, in a dark room, with a howling wind outside, but Dennis seemed to be getting stronger. The doors hammered in the frame for longer and longer periods of time, and I thought I could hear tiny splintering sounds of glass cracking. At this time I was in the bed closest to the balcony, but after 15 minutes of imagining the cleaning lady coming in to find my lacerated and dismembered body scattered about the room, I moved to the far bed. As a final measure, I flipped the mattress from the other bed up so that it would act as a barrier between me and the near-certain flying shards of death.

By the next day, most services (except cigar sales) were back to normal, despite the still furious winds outside. Staffers poured Pina Coladas behind the bars, maids tried to clean our rooms, and front desk staff politely encouraged us to check out at the regular time. To this last request, we mostly raised our middle fingers. We had no idea if the airport was open, and if we couldn’t fly out, we had no intention of lingering in the hallway couches like the stranded Germans the night before. Besides, with the airport closed, who could be arriving to take our rooms?

By mid-afternoon, new tourists began arriving to their devastated vacation spot. Dirt, water, and greenery stripped from the elaborate indoor plants carpeted the floor of the lobby. The pool was full of lounge chairs. Everywhere were groups of frantic, grumpy capitalists, demanding information. This information (like flight changes, tour group insurance, etc.) was held by local tour group operators, most of whom were busy keeping their own homes from blowing out into the Atlantic ocean. It was mayhem. But the good news was that new tourists were arriving. This meant that the airport was functioning.

Later that night, our airport shuttle arrived. We drove silently through the pitch, unable to measure the effect of Dennis on the average citizen of Varadero. We didn’t know it at the time, but 10 Cubans were dead. And we had endured the storm eating swordfish, drinking pineapple juice, playing Texas Hold ‘Em and bitching about how there was no satellite TV reception.

The wait at the Varadero airport was long, but we got checked in, boarded our flight, and arrived in Calgary without incident. It was good to be home. If I ever go on an all-inclusive again, I think I will opt for two weeks, though; I spent most of the first week acclimatizing to the pace of life, and learning the tricks and timing of the resort. If anyone would like to recommend other destinations, I’m all ears.

The only useful information I can relate is about rum. I bought two bottles of the famous Havana Club at the Duty Free: one is simple white rum, which cost about $5 CAD; the other is a 3 year aged rum, which cost about $8 CAD. There were many more expensive rums, including a “reserve” rum that was roughly $18 CAD, and said to be so tasty it should be consumed as a liqueur. At the local liquor store here in Calgary, I found both the white rum and the reserve rum on sale. The white rum is an outlandish $24.50, but the reserve rum is only $24.95! The only reason I can imagine for this difference is that maybe North Americans don’t really appreciate aged rum, and just use it to mix with coke and get pissed. If that’s the case, I’d recommend just getting the cheapest bottle on the shelf. But if you’d like to try tasting rum, give that reserve bottle a shot (pun intended).

An interesting rum anecdote has to do with the opening of a fresh bottle of rum. The toast “a los Santos” means “to the Saints,” and any Cuban tarbender worth his salt will spill the first drops of rum from a new bottle for the Orishas, the saints that watch over him. So there’s a good luck ritual to try with your next bottle. Just don’t spill too much.

  1. #1 by John - March 8th, 2008 at 22:47

    great story Josh! Nice to relive the experience.

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