Cuba for beginners

Susan Flanagan
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What you should know before you go

Susan Flanagan, wearing a hat made of recycled Coke cans, sits in an old car from before Castro came to power in Cuba. — Submitted photo

In April, we packed up our family of seven, as well as a few neighbours, and left cold damp St. John’s for the sunnier skies of Cuba.

Why Cuba?

It’s simple. It’s warm, dry, historical and full of old American cars from the pre-Castro era. Cuba did not disappoint.

What did disappoint, however, was the five-hour, non-stop flight with CanJet that turned into a turbulent nightmare that took us through Montreal.

Thank God I’d packed changes of clothes in the carry-on. We had to tie up and dispose of my youngest’s vomit-spewn clothing.

We left Montreal when we were supposed to be arriving in Varadero. It meant we missed the first day at the beach and my sister and family waiting for us had no idea what had happened to us.

Enough of the CanJet screw-up and on to the vacation. A cloud of Cuban cigar smoke enveloped us as we stepped off the plane in Varadero. Hot-pink, winged cars were lined up next to charcoal blue tank-like coupes outside the airport, where we boarded an air-conditioned bus complete with an English-speaking tour guide named Elvis who explained the intricacies of Cuban licence plates. Yellow plates are private. Blue are government. Red are rental cars. Green are army. Orange are foreign workers (both China and Canada are partners on oil-drilling projects). Black or white are diplomatic plates.

Our drive to the resort took us past malnourished horses pulling carts, big white-capped waves and coconut palms and goats wandering aimlessly in sand pits. This was not the Florida Everglades. It felt more like Nevada.

The resort was spotless. The beach and ocean were the most magnificent I’ve ever seen. The temperature was a comfortable 30 C with a cooling breeze. There were two pools, a swim-up bar and exquisite flowers. The food was bland but served with a smile.

On our third day, 13 of us jammed into three taxis to drive the two hours from the resort to Havana. The taxis had a bit of trouble communicating with one another so for bouts we were separated.

On one occasion our driver urged us to walk from the Capitol Building down to El Floridita bar, Hemingway’s favourite while he lived in the country. Although the bar was closed for a social club meeting while we were there, I’ve heard stories of his favourite stool and his bronze bust, unveiled when he won the Nobel Prize for “The Old Man and The Sea.”

I was disappointed not to be able to try the bar’s signature daiquiri, but if that’s the biggest disappointment of the day, I figure I was doing pretty good. No one got lost, no one got stomach sick. No one got their pockets picked. And that’s something.

Except for the cigar-smoking ladies, the El Floridita neighbourhood reminded me of a European slum. Three-storey buildings with clothing draped over the rails and flapping in the wind. An old door on the street giving way to a courtyard where people used a bucket and rope to hoist things to the upper levels.

After our Floridita adventure, our driver took us to Old Havana where house fronts transformed into shops selling anything from baseball hats made out of recycled Coca-Cola tins to seashell necklaces and Che Guevara key chains.

We reunited with one of the other cars and went exploring Cathedral Square and alleyways and saw Hemingway’s other haunt — La Bodeguita del Medio.

It was here that I learned the most important Cuban philanthropy lesson: don’t open up the trunk of your rental car in Havana and start dispensing giveaways. We, and the car, were almost carried off and never seen again.

Our driver had to slam the trunk down, not taking care to see whose hands were in the clear, push us in the car and get us out of there. It’s safe to give out tips on the resort, but watch what you give out where.

On the beach, for example, I had a run in with the hat ladies. It was a sunny day like all the others when I arrived on the beach carrying a big — I’m talking 15-pound — bag of clothes. As soon as I appeared out of the trees, a hat lady came and said something like, “Thank you for bringing clothes for my children.” She gave me a kiss, hug and hat made of grass reeds complete with a green grass cricket poking out the brim.

Instead of giving her a fraction of the bag’s contents, I gave her the whole thing. Next thing I know, two other hat ladies are on me like pelicans to fish. Mario, the resort security guard, had to escort them away. Good thing I had supplied him with a bag of candy the day before. They were ripping because the first lady got all the loot.

To appease them so they wouldn’t come back when Mario wasn’t looking, I gave one my Bubba tub which was full of rum and Coke, otherwise known as a Cuba Libre. It was a loss, but worth it. Thank God I happened to have two pairs of sandals in my bag for the second one. Man, were they vicious.

I also learned that beach giveaways are not divvied up like tips on the resort. Another day, my neighbour, Heather, and I wandered over to the no-man’s land strip of beach between resorts where locals are allowed to go meet the vacationers to give away our sand toys.

I saw Antonio, who my sister had befriended, as well as another guy named Jesus, who asked if I could get him some soap or shampoo, which are extremely expensive for the average Cuban. I went back to the hotel and filled a green hiking backpack with clothes and a canvas bag full of toiletries I had brought. As I approached no-man’s land, Antonio made Jesus hang back and he came and I quickly regretted putting both bags into Antonio’s hands. Antonio is not a sharer and I felt terrible that Jesus was not going to get that soap and toothpaste for his daughter.

Cubans are friendly, impeccably groomed and ever grateful for anything you can give them. Besides 100 $1 American bills (loonies cannot be cashed in in Cuba — only bills) for the children to give out as tips, we carried down more than 250 pounds of loot to give away and had no trouble finding recipients. The things that excited Cubans most were the 20 pairs of sneakers donated by Athletics NorthEAST  (ANE) Running Club.

One night we met the band members who played three nights a week at our cushy 4 1/2-star resort. Just because the resort is cushy does not translate into rich employees, although resort jobs are sought after because of the tips, with maids getting the lion’s share of the loot.

After giving each band member a bag with sneakers, a new T-shirt, baseball hat, toothpaste, toothbrush, pencils and toys, the sax player asked if I could round him up some No. 3 tenor sax reeds. I did not have any sax reeds in my bags so I offered to send him some. No dice. All incoming mail mysteriously disappears.

So now my mission is to find someone travelling to Varadero to deliver three one-inch sax reeds and a set of drumsticks.

My favourite part of the entire Cuban adventure was seeing the band again three nights after our first encounter. The biggest guy was wearing his polar bear T-shirt donated from my brother’s beer case and Adidas sneakers from ANE. It was then the band manager approached me and asked if I had any size 11 sneakers for him. We had given out about two dozen pairs of shoes and were out of sneakers. I thought of my son, Liam, who was just around the corner playing giant chess. Over he came and took off his size 11 Saloman shoes and presented them to the band manager, who rewarded him with a little dance.

So, if you’re travelling to Cuba I would advise you not to bring anything down you hope to bring back home with you. Once you see firsthand the determination of a people limited by embargoes, ecstatic to see Canadians who can make their lives brighter, you too will give them the shirt off your back and shoes off your feet.

On my last stroll across the resort to board the bus, I decided to unload my pockets for the gardeners, who I hadn’t given anything to at this point. I saw about seven sitting on a shaded wall having a break. As soon as that first bill came out of my pocket, at least 10 more gardeners materialized out of the bushes. They fashioned decorative flowers for my hair. They smiled big toothy smiles. They said, “Canada, gracias.”

Susan Flanagan is a freelance writer

and mother of five living in St. John’s.

Organizations: CanJet, Florida Everglades, Coca-Cola Cathedral Square Running Club Adidas

Geographic location: Cuba, Varadero, Montreal Havana Canada China Nevada

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Recent comments

  • ronnie
    May 12, 2011 - 10:04

    "Cuba for beginners" articles should be written by old hands ***for beginners*** not ***by beginners***. As someone who has been to Cuba 8 times I recognized many mistakes this well-intentioned woman made. (I would *never* give children money to distribute as tips!!! They are completely vulnerable if someone figures out they're carrying money around!) We tip and share with Cubans but the overwhelming emphasis here on giving things away is really over the top. She is lucky that the basically good Cuban people just took all her stuff and advantage of her naiveity..

  • wavy
    May 12, 2011 - 08:09

    I have as soft a heart as anyone I know, and please forgive me for saying so, but the "Cuban experience" described here sounds more like an humanitarian mission than a vacation. Sorry, there's a time and place for everything. I'm not out to save the world when I'm trying to relax, forget about the troubles of the world for a few days and enjoy myself. Such agresssive behaviour and expectations from the locals would only turn me off and inhibit me from ever returning or visiting in the first place. Thanks for the warning.

    • ronnie
      May 12, 2011 - 10:08

      Wavy, in our experience this kind of aggressive behavior is limited to the Varadero area and Havana. Varadero is very touristy and I am told (we avoid it) that the resort staff and the local people have come to view the tourists as targets for acquiring stuff. We have in no way experienced this level of aggresstion in any of the other places we've stayed (Guardalavaca, Holguin, Cayo Largo, Cayo Santa Maria, Jibacoa, etc.)

  • Alison Stoodley
    May 11, 2011 - 15:20

    Excellent article Susan. Another word of caution to tourists laden with hand-outs, most of the items are sold on the black market and not used for 'my children' or 'family' at all. Just another reason to give small amounts to everyone instead of large amounts to one. In any case, the fact that the best job in Cuba is a resort maid, is pretty sad and they do appreciate anything you can part with. I remember waiting for a connector to St.John's in Toronto one February with nothing more than pants, sandals and a T-shirt because everything else I had to wear , coat included, was left in Cuba.

  • Kent
    May 11, 2011 - 11:35

    The Helms-Burton act is archiac... It is no longer relelvant, yet the States continues to press this poor country based on Cold-War baggage.. Absolutely needlss.

  • jsb
    May 11, 2011 - 11:07

    The embargo does not prevent Cuba from importing tennis shoes. They can trade with any other country in the world. The reason why toothpaste, tennis shoes and soap are scarce is because of poverty that the socialist system is incapable of relieving.

  • Luis
    May 11, 2011 - 09:29

    I like your article, it reflects the real Cubans. Hope many other people will do the same (Note: I am a cuban living in US).