Day 10: Aye, and 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 10: Adios to Cuba

Image: Photo of retired Cuban general.

The General

"La Revolución? Si."

December 23, Westjet Flight 2557, somewhere between Varadero and Toronto — The old man approached quietly from my left, I saw him only as he reached out to steady himself against the counter beside me. He was about my height and dressed in olive military fatigues. He held himself erect with obvious effort against the tide of his years.

I was waiting for my second set of coffees, watching an empty coffee shop while one member of the staff moved boxes in a tiny closet on my left, and the other had disappeared behind the tiny snack-stand.

Image: Photo of the author walking towards Amburguesses.com

Raven and I had arrived maybe 15 minutes earlier, after finding our chosen breakfast destination, Cafe de la Miel, closed. We'd risen at 07:15 and it was now pushing 08:45, with our taxi due to arrive at 09:00 to whisk us away to the Varadero airport and our flight back to Toronto.

We'd turned around in hungry disappointment, retraced our steps until we reached the intersection where Beach merges with Calle 1, and a hamburger joint stands sentry.

Amburguesses.com, is a small shack serving hamburgers, coffee and beer from early morning 'till late at night only steps from our casa particular. Its menu (pop-up) advertises three kinds of burgers, one type of ham sandwich and four or five kinds of coffee. Behind the counter are also the ubiquitous Bucanero and Cristal cervesas, along with two or three kinds of pop and a few brands of cigarettes (which seem to be knock-offs of American brands — presumably Lucky Strike isn't being legally exported to Cuba).

Image: Photo of Amburguesses behind the counter

We weren't eager to eat here, but we needed coffee, if nothing else.

The place was busy when I worked my way to the counter. Mostly locals on their way to work, judging by appearances and the distinct lack of any language but Spanish in the air. When one of the white women working the counter turned to me I ordered us a pair of espressos and cafes con leche. Canadians are used to big cups of coffee, so doubling up on a strong Cuban and one too heavy with milk sort of does the trick.

I brought our drinks to the patio table Raven had chosen and we quietly drank our drinks while keeping an eye on the time. I finished my drinks quickly and realized we had time for me to have another round while Raven nursed hers.

Image: Photo of a retired Cuban general standing next to the author.

I went back to the counter, now almost eerily free of people. The women who had been running the counter were shrugging into coats (coats! In this heat!) while a slow-moving and very heavy man slowly went about setting up for a less casual kind of service, bringing out porcelain cups to replace the clear plastic from which I had been drinking.

So I wasn't shocked that it became apparent that the man was unaware of my order. After what seemed like about 15 minutes I managed to get his attention and he soon served me the con leche, no espresso.

It was while I was waiting that the old man positioned himself at my left. He was slender and held himself erect, but he man with a hint of a tremor. (Raven told me later he had arrived by bicycle and that she had worried he might fall as he dismounted.)

After a minute or so, he turned to me and spoke. I smiled, shrugged and said, "No habla Espanol. Canadienne [sic: 'canadiense' is what I should have said]."

But that didn't stop him from talking, nor me from listening and even to attempt a reply, when I understood enough from context — general, for example — to make sense.

As he talked he pulled out his wallet and showed me pieces of military ID, photocopied newspaper clippings, and a photo of an airplane.

Image: Photo of a retired Cuban general speaking with the author.

I asked whether he had fought in la Revolutión. "Si," he answered with a serious nod. And then pulled aside his shirt to reveal a pistol holstered at his side.

"Ah ..." I said. I didn't have a clue whether he was trying to impress me, to threaten me or to just convince me that he really was a retired Cuban general.

He pulled his shirt back over the holster and continued to talk until (finally!) the server brought me half of my order. I paid and nodded farewell to the General, then returned to the table from which Raven had been watching the exchange.

We watched as the General waited for his coffee. I finished about half of my own, then Raven tapped her watched and we stood to leave. We walked back to our casa, only a couple of doors away while I regretted that I had come to a foreign country entirely ignorant of its language.

I'll never know what the General had told me.

Hola, la policía!

Image: Photo of taxi that brought us to Varadero airport.

There's not a whole lot left to tell.

Our taxi arrived at 09:00, as promised, and the driver tolerated our need to document our last Cuban ride, another ancient Lada, just as our first had been.

Once again the Cuban highway proved a strange mix of the more-or-less modern co-existing with the pre-industrial; bicycles and horse-drawn carts sharing the divided highway with motorized vehicles of every age, condition and description.

Image: Photo of a horse-drawn cart on the road to the highway leaving Varadero, Cuba.
A horse-drawn cart, not on the highway, but seen from our taxi on the way to the highway as we left Varadero.

Later, on the two-lane road to the airport itself, and almost as if it had been planned for our benefit, our driver spotted a police car parked on opposite side of the road. He slowed down (as one does, in Canada as in Cuba) but then (as one certainly doesn't in Canada!) he turned to the cops, grinned, and waved at them.

And the cops waved back.

There is widespread and visible poverty in Cuba, and foreigners here are permitted liberties denied Cuban citizens — such as access to the internet — but I saw no signs during our visit of the heavy hand of a dictatorship in the visible interactions between citizens and uniformed soldiers or police. Quite the opposite; again and again, I saw genuine friendliness.

Make of that what you will.

Image: Photo of part of the Departure lounge of the Varadero airport

What else is there to say? The airport was a decent, small international airport, albeit one that makes you feel you've stepped through a time-warp, or into an alternate universe. The place is clean and functional, but it is old. The departure lounge must have been designed in the 1960s, much like the miniskirts most state employees wear.

But that's what an embargo will do for you, isn't it?

What is harder to Excuse by Embargo is the state of the cafeteria, which rivalled that at the bus station in Santa Clara for ugliness and bested it in terms of the food on offer.

Behold! The Revolutionary Ham Sandwich! Almost as appetizing as it looks!

Image: Photo of sandwich and beer bought at Varadero airport

Well. At least the washrooms had stalls with doors that closed and toilets with seats! On the one hand, a taste of the Cuba that too often still is, while on the other, a hint of luxuries to come after we board our airplane.

To do that of course, we had to pass through a brief questioning and the usual security screening.

Well, not the usual security screening, in point of fact (see Security Theatre of the Absurd for a full report on that topic). The Cubans didn't bother with the ritual Removing of the Belt or the Revealing of the Laptops. We just had to empty our pockets and pass our bags through the scanner.

Also, we were not charged an exit fee, which we had been told would be $35 CUC. A pleasant surprise, but on the other hand ... what am I going to do with 35 CUCs?

Well, I could always go back to Cuba, I guess. God knows, I'd like to.

Image: Photo of sign reading 'Varadero Hasta pronto - See you soon ...' on road out of Varadero, Cuba

 

Day 9 – Tourist stuff

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