Day 9: The Sands of 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 9: Tourist stuff

A touch of sand, a drop of salt (water) and a ham steak the size of my head

Image: Photo of a couple walking on the beach in Varadero, Cuba.

December 22, Varadero — Jesus, what's there to say? We walked along the beach, we took pictures, I swam, twice striking far out to sea, until I was certain no one else was bobbing in that warm, thick water, farther from land than I was.

Here, have a picture!

Image: Photo of a the author swimming off Varadero, Cuba.

I grew up swimming in small northern Ontario lakes, and so decided early on that swimming pools are. Going round and round and round has has never been my thing, in water or on land.

But as I grew older, even lakes lost their appeal. It was nice to hit the water and cool down and a hot day, but to just frolic for the sake of it? Meh ...

But the ocean? A different beast! Warm, and salty, and with a hint of danger. Get out too far and you literally wouldn't be able to see which way you have to go to return to shore!

But I'm a strong swimmer (if not a sophisticated one), so I wasn't in any significant danger. In fact, my only complain about the waters off Varadero was that the sea was a little too calm. When I challenged the sea, the incoming surf only knocked me about a bit, it didn't batter me or hurl me back to the shore.

Well, you can't have everything, as they say. And so I say, we had enough.

Besides lounging and swimming, naturally, we ate. We breakfasted at a small pizza restaurant called Cafe de la Miel, where the pizza was, if not quite good, at least flavourful, and a damned sight better than the one we had in at that world-famous Hotel Nacional in Havana.

Image: Photo of the author confronting a pizza.

It was at Cafe Miel that we encountered our first beggar since we've been in Cuba. A white man with the bearing and brutalized features of a long-term alcoholic, he wandered onto the restaurant's patio and more or less demanded a peso. I regret now that I said "No," but Raven's training — hard-earned in countries where begging is an aggressive and never-ending ordeal — stuck with me and I said "No," until he went away. (Which wasn't that long; no more than three or four denials at the most.)

After breakfast, we walked down the main drag, Calle 1, looking for a post office and a bank, whichever came first. So, the bank it was.

Image: Photo of the facade of the Banco Financiero Internacional s.a. in Varadero, Cuba.

By appearance, the Banco Financiero Internacional is like a piece of an Ottawa suburb dropped into Cuba tourist town. Modern building, clean and bright interior. I thought for a moment we would be able to exchange a few more Canadian dollars for CUCs in a few short minutes, instead of a quarter hour or more.

Once inside, though, we might have well have returned to its sister institution in Havana.

Image: Photo of people lined up to use the ATM outside the bank in the FOCSA Mall in Havana, Cuba.

Cleanliness, modernity and good lighting aside, both featured long line-ups for Cubans and (relatively) quick VIP service for foreigners. Both had doorwards controlling access and other guards both monitoring and guiding people to their proper places.

But where Havana's busy bank was just brutal utilitarianism, Varadero's was comical in its cheerful inefficiency.

There's an old joke that was supposed to have been a common-place in the Soviet Union: "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us."

I don't know if the same joke is told in Cuba or by Cubans, but to a North American, there is something at once enraging and admirable at Cubans' attitudes towards work, at least in service industries.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Cubans don't seem to work very hard, nor do they seem to feel any need to pretend they do.

Here there were two guards at the door — both men, both white, both dressed in suit and tie. One managed the door, the other directed people to their proper place. In our case, a black leather couch facing the tellers. Raven pulled out her phone but the guard hustled up fast to let her know picture-taking is strictly verboten.

So we sat and we waited. And watched, while behind the counter a young woman with long hair dyed a shocking blonde seemed to be giving a veritable seminar about her hair, nail and make-up regimen to a colleague in full, unembarrassed, view of those of us waiting to be helped.

As a customer it can be a small bit of hell or, as with the restaurant below, of heaven; but either way, from an employee's point of view, there is something to be said for a system in which having a job does not mean being expected to work yourself into a state of permanent anxiety just to keep it.

And things don't seem so different in the private sector, either. Most of the restaurants we've been to would be considered shockingly over-staffed here in Canada.

At dinner tonight, for instance, at a private restaurant where the food, while not as delicious as last night's happy feast, was frankly (and comically) obscene in its quantities. If anything, the picture Raven took of my ham steak makes it look much smaller than it actually was.

Image: Photo of the author contemplating a Giant Ham Steak.
The Battle of Young Geoffrey and the Giant Ham Steak: In truth, it was no contest. Our hero put forth a noble effort, but could not eat more than a half of that decadent repast. (He did, though, manage to gobble down the tiny silo of rice, seen at about 1 o'clock.

At least six or eight servers worked the floor, dealing with no more than twice that many customers. There were besides, two men at the door and an unknown number of people working the kitchen. At any given moment, half the staff were standing around chatting, there being nothing that needed doing in the moment. And it's been like that nearly everywhere we've gone, at least in terms of the "excess" number of people. In some places, of course, the service has been terrible, despite the people available (in theory) to do it.

But I digress. This is supposed to be a travel-blog, not a Disquisition on the State of the Cuban Revolución in 2015.

Later that afternoon, we found the Post Office and mailed a few post-cards. But what thrilled was the discovery of a species of tiny, adorable lizards that inhabited the grass next to that small building — elsewhere, now we knew to look for them!

Image: Photo of a lizard in Varadero, Cuba.

Who knew that lizards could be cute and almost cuddly, like scaly kittens in their insectivorous ferocity? Certainly not this life-long reptilophobe!

But in truth, I had already begun to weaken. The lizard that clung to the walls of our hostal in Santa Clara was also a looker.

Image: Photo of a lizard on the wall of Hostal Oasis in Santa Clara, Cuba.

I digress.

Later, we went back to the bus station and made arrangements with a taxi driver for a ride to the airport tomorrow morning. After that, in full hot afternoon, we lunched at a leaf-roofed government restaurant, Esquina Cuba, where the atmosphere was tropically decadent and the food actually pretty good.

Image: Photo of the front of Restaurant Esquina in Varadero, Cuba.

So good, and so decadent that I dared the crushed ice and had a mojito. Without abdominal repercussion!

So, yes: I swam and we sat and we walked and we ate; we looked and we took pictures, along streets with little history or character and with no real goals in mind. Tourist stuff indeed, but without the chambermaids or trays of drinks included I am led to understand could have been ours had we taken an all-inclusive option instead of the trip we made.

Image: Photo of a sunset in Varadero, Cuba.

Needless to say (I think it's needless after all these words), I have no regrets about our choices except, maybe, that we didn't spend one more day in Santa Clara and one fewer in Havana.

But Varadero? Self-indulgence is kind of the point, isn't it? I'm off to bed, muscles aching from the unfamiliar exercises in salt water and belly aching from an immoral quantity of meat.

And speaking of immoral, even in the lap of luxury there are reminders of what isn't working in Cuba. To wit, you daren't drink the tap water, and there seem to be no consumer recycling programs to deal with for the mountains of plastic bottles everyone must use, at least some of the time. (Our hosts in Santa Clara boiled tap water and we were happy enough to drink that; Cuba isn't Flynt, Michigan, at least.) [[Note: It seems that efforts are being made.]

Image: Photo of three plastic water bottles, purchased for a day and a half of living without potable water.

Tomorrow, we fly home. Perhaps then I'll have something to say about the sheer strangeness of being completely out-of-touch with the outside world for more than nine straight days. That's right, I haven't read a paper, listened to a newscast or checked my email (nevermind Facebook or Livejournal) in all that time.

If that isn't a capital aitch Holiday, I don't know what is.


Next up: Day 10 – The General (adios to Cuba)

Previous: Day 8 – A hovel in the lap of luxury

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