Day 8: First night in Varadero

Cuba: Notes from behind the Coffee Curtain

Image: Photo of block tourist map of Cuba, logo for Notes from behind the Coffee Curtain

Day 8: A hovel in the lap of luxury

Image: Photo of Geoffrey Dow on a beach chair, on a beach in Varadero, Cuba.
The author at rest on a beach in Varadero.

December 21, Varadero, Cuba — If yesterday I was worried I sounded like some spoiled rich-country traveller nattering on at the state of the local toilets, tonight I have no choice but to cop to it: nevermind that I am a member of the working poor in Canada, in Cuba, I am very well-off indeed.

Maybe not rich, but I am typing these words on a beach chair, on a beach, in Varadero, a can of Bucanero Fuerte securely lodged in the fine white sand at my side, with a mickey of Havana Club in my knapsack as I digest a stupendous meal taken only a block from our room at a casa particular, which itself is located a mere 20 metres from the "sugar beach" which stretches along some 20 kilometres of mostly publicly-accessible sand and surf.

Image: Photo of Casa Dumont, our lodgings in Varadero.
Location, location, location! Our Varadero casa. Our room is in the corner at right, accessed via the door in white. But the beach is about 30 metres behind the camera.

Casa Dumont, our lodgings for the next two nights, is the very worst casa we've had in Cuba. It consists of one very small room, with a very old and sagging bed, in a building no bigger than a modest Northern Ontario cottage. Pull the bathroom door shut and your knees bump against the folds of the accordion door when you sit upon the throne (that flushes! and has a seat!). But at 35 CUCs a night, against 200 or 300 for a room at a resort, we ain't complainin'!

Image: Photo of Geoffrey Dow with laptop on bed in room at Casa Dumont, our lodgings in Varadero.
Yes, it was easier to type on the beach than in our "suite".

I have to confess to feeling a certain amount of smugness when considering the nature of our holiday in Cuba thus far. Not for us (O! no, not for us!) the five-star (or even three-star) hotels and carefully-chauffered group tours into town to purchase trinkets from carefully-vetted local "artisans" and view "charming" old buildings from the air conditioned comfort of a luxury coach.

Nossireee Bob! We walked our cities (walked hell out of 'em!) and we happened upon our artisans and street vendors, rather than have them chosen for us. And now we're going to take it easy for a day and a half.

But really, for us, it's been an awesome vacation. And "vacation" is the appropriate word.

Image: Photo of Geoffrey Dow taking a photo of a street in Santa Clara, Cuba on December 15, 2015.
Young Geoffrey, photographed while taking a photograph.

Sure, we have covered ground and smelled odours and most tourists never do, but there's no question that we've been tourists all the same. Any sense of accomplishment I feel about my way of being a tourist is only vanity disguised as moral superiority. (Nevertheless: I still do feel it, no matter that I'd rather I didn't. Should I apologize? And if so, to whom?)

Image: Photo of Salsa Suarez restaurant in Varadero.
Salsa Suarez in Varadero. Like so much else in Cuba, the distinction between inside and outside is delightfully ambiguous.

And that realization has been brought about by two things: the aforementioned meal at Salsa Suárez — another brilliant eatery only a couple of blocks from where we happened to lay our heads), and by the simple, quiet magnificence of the ocean's eternal and indifferent wash upon the shore.

Image: Photo of another brilliant Cuban meal: Salsa Suarez restaurant in Varadero.
Another brilliant Cuban meal: Salsa Suarez restaurant in Varadero.

We're in a tourist town now, east of the massive luxury resorts, on Avenida 1ra between Calles 30 and 31. A restaurant and government grocery store is directly across the street and behind that, the open ocean.

But my point! My point is, for the first time since we've arrived we feel no real obligation to explore much more than the recommendations in our copy of Lonely Planet's guide to Cuba (which, as with tonight's meal, has steered us right far more often than wrong). Our last two nights in Cuba are about nothing more than relaxing, than pampering ourselves.

Image: Photo of Geoffrey Dow on beach in Varadero, Cuba.
The author, on a beach at last.

For me, that means (weather permitting) spending a lot of time in the water tomorrow, daring to challenge Poseidon and (no doubt) being violently but effortlessly tossed around for my troubles, a warm-blooded bean-bag. For Raven (who sadly, doesn't swim, it means wading for a while, taking pictures of me, then taking pictures of surf and sky, than probably wandering off to inspect the local fleecers of tourists.

And for both of us, it means seeking out more good food, of which this trip has provided in abundance. If I've said it before, I'll say it again, if you think or have been told that Cuban food is boring or bland, then you've been misinformed or you haven't tried hard enough.

Notes and photos from near the end of our journey:

Image: Photo of an oil well, on route to Varadero from Havana, Cuba.
An oil well, one of many, seen somewhere between Havana and Varadero.

• Cuba produces oil. I don't know how much, or how long it's been going on, but one sees both oil wells and refineries far too close to the ocean for comfort en route from Havana to Varadero. But that doesn't preclude accompanying animal husbandry;

Image: Photo of a cow in foreground of oil tanks, on route to Varadero from Havana, Cuba.
A cow, oblivious to industry, somewhere between Havana and Varadero.

• There is something very wrong or very right about a country whose grocery stores sell mickeys of rum for about the same price as a bar of soap;

Image: Collage of items on sale at 'grocery store' in Varadero.
Question: You have 3 CUCs. Do you buy a package of crackers, a can of a coffee or a bottle of liquor?

• I feel very god damned sorry for people who dreamt as youths of becoming musicians and ended up, (only!) for example, playing "Guantanamera" 17 times a day for tourists outside a faux authentic "traditional" hacienda;

• I think (Fidel) Castro did a very smart thing when he encouraged the veneration of Che Guevara, rather than himself, as a state/revolutionary Hero. Like having the Queen or a Governor General as the Head of State, Che's beautification probably made it much easier to transition the country's presidency from Fidel to his brother Raul, and will ease the next one as well, whatever shape that probably more fundamental, transition takes;

• In nearly a week in this country, during which I have walked probably 40 kilometres of urban streets in two cities, I don't think I need all my fingers to count the number of beggars I've seen:

• I need no fingers at all to count the number of obvious street prostitutes (or any prostitutes) we've seen;

• With very few exceptions, every single young man who has accosted us in a "friendly" manner with an ulterior motive (cigars, most often; money exchange, occasionally; hyping a new private restaurant, geographically conditional; taxis, all the time) has been very quick to take "Gracias, no," for an answer;

Image: Photo of building near Havana's Old City.
An apartment building on the edge of Habana Vieja.

• A crumbling pile that looks to a Canadian as if it must be condemned building awaiting demolition can easily be a work-in-progress to a Cuban; it doesn't snow here;

• Cuba looks like a very poor country indeed, but I've seen none of the desperation that I had expected, nor that Raven has experienced in places like mainland China. The people here look well-fed, they seem proud and very far from desperate;

Image: Photo of Havana street near Neptuno.
A street in Havana, near Calle Neptuno.

• There is a hell of a lot to like about the Cuba I've seen, and I really, really hope they can find a way to engage with U.S. money and people if and when the embargo really comes to a close without losing their collective soul;

• The toilet on the Viazul bus from Havana was, no surprise, locked for the duration. On the other hand, the rest stop was more than long enough for Raven to make use of it (I, once again, had been frugal with my water, Just In Case);

• Police at the side of the highway wave at tourists when they notice someone pointing a camera at them. I wish one of those someones had been me; and

Image: Photo of police by side of highway en route from Havana to Varadero, Cuba.
Police chat with men by the side of the highway on route from Havana to Varadero. An instant after I took the photo, the officers waved at the bus.

• I have been completely out of touch with the news, with sports, with the internet, with email, for more than a full week now. The damnedest thing of it is, I don't miss any of it at all.

Tomorrow, I take to the ocean, and never mind the fact I've come down with a brutal sinus cold. I figure that will just make me more buoyant!

P.S. Literally in the moment I finished my spell-check, Mr. Wind took my near-empty can of beer and flung it from one side of my beach chair to the other. The poor bastard (my near-empty can of beer) ended up up-side down in the sand, my last two gulps of cerveza sacrificed to the greedy, thirsty sands of Varadero.

Image: Photo of beach in Varadero at night.
The sugar sands of Varadero, night view.


Next up: Day 9 – Tourist stuff

Previous: Day 7 – Cocotaxi, Habana Vieja & a '56 Ford Fairlane (sort of)

Return to Index


If you enjoyed this, please comment or take a moment to share the work via your social network of choice (there are easy links below).

To to be informed when new work appears at Edifice Rex Online, you can subscribe to my newsletter here.

And if you're moved to tangibly express your appreciation, you can do so via Paypal. Thank you!

Spread the word!

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.