Cassandra’s Tears

Tears of joy, tears of pain, we are reflected in the salt-water pools we create. So let us build a fleet of paper boats and sail them on our ocean of indecision, laughing at the wind-whipped white-crested waves that would wash over us, drowning us in our own despair, yet somehow never vanquishing us in the end.

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Location: Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Cuba on my mind

Without the use of time machines, we are still capable of time travel, going from one season to another in the space of a few hours. On Sunday at 5 o’clock in the afternoon I was eating a grilled-cheese sandwich in my bathing suit, ruing not having worn sunscreen on the beach, enjoying cool ocean breezes, while a mere six hours later our plane was taxiing into P.E.Trudeau international airport where the local temperature was -1°C. Now I understand the reason for the sad faces we saw in the travel lounge when we exited our arrival gate a mere week earlier.

Cuba, my friends, is amazing, a subtropical island paradise. Our hotel was on Varadero Beach, a long key that is home to tons of beach resorts, and ours was especially luxurious, at least by Cuban standards. We were in what is called a standard room since part of the resort, including the junior suites, is under renovation, but this standard room was plenty large enough. It was at the end on the second floor of what I lovingly called “cell block D” and included a king-size bed with lots of room to get around it, something you don’t always find with that size of mattress, a TV nook with a desk and chair, a separate “coffee room” with a convertible daybed, and a balcony with two chairs and café table where I spent many a morning writing leisurely in my journal while my husband was out having a tennis lesson.

Wanting to find others to play tennis with, he checked in at the court and was informed by the pro that there were no other tennis players that week, but he would gladly work with him. It turned out that this pro was once the national champion for Cuba off and on for 22 years. No lucrative promotions or commercial endorsements for this player, instead he teaches tennis at the university in Matanzas, a nearby town, and at the hotel. Andrew felt honoured. They ended up having a lesson practically daily, sometimes twice.

The beach was fabulous, white sand, blue blue water, blue blue sky, lounging on beach chairs under royal palm-thatched umbrellas, nipping over to the nearby grill for a bite to eat or a freshly made mojito (recipe to follow) or cerveza fria. Truly a decadent lifestyle. Most of our meals were taken in the buffet, where the lavish spread was embarrassing in its excess. Although we tried not to overeat, it really is a temptation to heap your plate up with all the goodies provided. Many of our fellow vacationers did just that, and you can tell by their girths that it’s something they do often. My husband and I, even though the same age as many of the other hotel patrons (and younger than many as well) were among the thinnest, and that’s not counting the teenagers accompanying their parents or the few couples younger than us. Since booze flowed freely, people would sit by the bar and just drink all day, starting in the morning and continuing way into the night. I suppose I didn’t really take advantage of that part of the all-inclusive aspect of the package. There was always music playing by the swimming pool and piped down to the beach, this Carribbean salsa music that is so typical of that part of the world. I felt as though I were a character in the computer game Tropico that my son plays.

Three nights we dined à la carte in two of the different restaurants for which we had to make reservations. The first was a la fresca on a terrace protected by palm trees, but it was still brisk, that being the end of one of the two days where the weather was less than perfect, windy and overcast part of the day. The food was excellent (I had salmon, my husband had red snapper), grilled to perfection and served with charm and grace. As at every restaurant we visited, there were musicians serenading the patrons, a very beautiful young woman singer and her handsome guitar player. Andrew bought one of their CDs (that was just the beginning) and chatted with them about music.

The next two nights we dined at the Cuban restaurant, where the food was again fantastic, and we were entertained by two older musicians, both tenors (one a light high voice, the other more dramatic who could be an opera singer anywhere he was so good), the one on guitar, the other on maracas. Andrew got to talking to the guitarist and ended up buying one of their CDs as well.

We made two excursions, one to Havana where we toured the old city, wandered through the market, and lunched in a courtyard restaurant just off of a square with the only wooden street in all of Cuba. Again there was live music, this time a whole band, and the mandolin player picked Andrew out as a music lover and soloed right in his ear, picking up his empty water glass and using it as a slide. It was hilarious. Our waiter, a man in his 70s, asked if any of us were from Montreal (we’re close) and showed us the plasticized “passport” he carries in his wallet from when he was a waiter in the Cuban pavillion at Expo ’67, almost 40 years ago, showing a much younger Roberto. The food at this eatery was also excellent, and we shared a table for six with two other friendly couples, all Canadians.

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On the bus ride to Havana, our guide Ernesto talked nonstop, pointing out sights of interest along the way and also expounding at great lengths on how socialism in Cuba works and how the people live. To us as residents of the free market world, it seems rather horrific, but for the most part Cubans really believe in their system, and it seems to work for them. There are two currencies in Cuba, both pesos, one the m0nidad naci0nal (or MN), 25 of which make a c0nvertible peso (or CUC) which is almost the equivalent of a US dollar. At the airport, for example, we changed our Canadian money for CUCs. The minimum wage in Cuba is 250 MNs per month, which would come out to $10. This seems like a paltry amount; how could anyone live on $10 a month? However, there is no rent to pay, there are no taxes. Food can be obtained freely with government-issued coupons (a holdover from various times in Cuban history when rationing was necessary, and now just a courtesy), or extremely cheaply as can other necessities of life.

However, if a citizen wants a C0lgate smile, that toothpaste is very expensive to buy. Anything not provided in government stores is paid for in CUCs. Clothing is extremely expensive, and yet we saw Cubans everywhere wearing designer jeans. This is where most people have a second income, one that helps them buy those things they would otherwise not be able to afford. Usually this second income is based on what we would consider theft. For instance, a cook at the hotel would have two boxes of fish to put out for the buffet, but instead only puts out one and sells the second one on the black market. A truck driver might be rationed enough gas to make four trips carrying goods from point A to B. Instead he hooks up a trailer and overloads his truck, managing to complete his task in only two trips. He then siphons off the unused gas and sells it on the black market. When asked if people get caught, Ernesto answered that there is a whole way of life fueled by this. For instance, the cook leaves the hotel with the pilfered fish and slips the guard some money so he looks the other way. Everyone gains, everyone is happy. No one considers it stealing, since in a socialist country, eveything is owned by everyone anyway. How can you steal from yourself?

I left many toiletry items for the room maid, for which she thanked us when we passed her one day as she was cleaning our neighbour’s apartment, including toothpaste, toothbrushes, soaps, bath cubes, body lotion, shampoo and conditioner, lipsticks and nailpolishes. I also left a pile of clothing, all new, that Ilana and I will never (all stuff given to us by my mother-in-law) wear ourselves, and I know that what the maid can’t use herself will end up on the black market. That’s fine with me.

In Havana we were constantly accosted by people with their hands out, not for money, but asking for soap, Ivory specifically. I don’t know any Spanish, unfortunately, and I was starting to get rather upset with this harrassment. I am going to have to learn to say “Please go away” before we return. But now I also know what to bring in quantity when I come back, a Costo quantity of Ivory soap.

We also took the bus around the newer part of the city, visiting a huge cemetary with extravagant mausoleums and memorials, passing the American embassy with the forest of black-draped flagpoles hiding it from view (the Cubans really hate Americans because of the US embargo and their naval base at Guantanamo Bay), and all the hotels that were once owned by the famous gangsters of the past, Al Capone, Meyer Lanski, et alia, which once housed casinos. Everywhere in the city is evidence of restoration, former mansions that were totally falling apart have been renewed and made into beautiful multi-residence buildings.

The other outing we took was to go snorkling in a coral reef, something Andrew did when we were in Tobago last year and thoroughly enjoyed, but which I eschewed because I have a fear of smothering and would not put the mask on over my nose, especially since I was already suffering from boat-induced motion sickness. This time I was determined I would do this thing, since it meant so much to him, and donned the flippers and the mask and the snorkle. At the beginning it was horrible. I felt like I was suffocating with the mask on, and I kept getting a gagging reflex with the mouthpiece between my lips and teeth. Finally, after forcing myself to follow the guide’s directions (breath slowly through your mouth), I was able to tip my mask into the water, inhaling and exhaling, and watch the beautiful sea life beneath me. It truly was spectacular. I still had to yank the mouthpiece out every few minutes when the gagging thing would get to me, but otherwise I managed admirably. Andrew was the one with problems: his mask leaked and his snorkle had a crack in it. I saw beautiful fish of all sizes and colours and markings. Something with teeth even nibbled my elbow once. The guide opened a plastic bottle filled with mashed banana and the fish just made a beeline for him like flies to honey.

This was followed by a dip in a freshwater-filled cave, probably originally hollowed out by sea action, but then over the æons decorated by limestone stalactites and stalagmites, the walls covered with limestone “draperies”. We wore our masks and snorkes, able to see right down to the bottom quite a distance away (the guide warned us to hold on tightly to our masks as one dropped could not be recovered). I love caves anyway, and this was just so beautiful. It turned out to be a very good experience for me, and I won’t shy away from it again. I just have to figure out some way of controlling that gagging reflex.

In the evenings after dinner there was always a show at the buffet, sometimes music, sometimes magic or dancing, but afterwards Andrew and I would adjourn to the piano bar adjacent to the hotel lobby, wherein we found a grand piano with a counter built around it where people could sit sipping their drinks and requesting tunes from supplied lyrics book which they would then sing into a karaoke microphone, accompanied by the pianist in residence. Andrew goaded me into singing something, and the pianist suddenly came alive, a gleam came into his eyes, and he started to enjoy himself. We exhausted the jazz standards he had in his book (most of the songs were more popular, the kinds of things I have heard but never learned), and then Andrew started writing out chord charts for him for other tunes. We went back night after night, and by the last night (Guillermo came in special, even though it was technically his night off) we were hot. The other patrons were also enthralled, and the few other good singers who came in all wanted to do duets with me. I never thought that I would end up “working” on my vacation. Afterwards Guillermo gave us his coordinates and we promised that we would send him jazz charts in the mail so he could learn more tunes. He was very appreciative.

When we arrived in Montreal, after waiting what seemed an age for our luggage (our plane was jam packed), we found our automobile in long-term parking, the battery totally dead as my husband had accidentally left an inside light on the previous week. Luckily our cell phone was still in the car, with enough of a charge that I was able to call CAA, which sent a truck around within 10 minutes (CAA has its own truck at the airport, fancy that), the driver boosting us, and we were on our way.


1 tsp. sugar
lime juice
generous sprig of peppermint
ice cubes
jigger of white rum
soda water
dash of Angostura bitters