July 23, 2014
For two people who love to travel as much as Jody and I do, going a year and a half without so much as a camping trip was a long haul. Unfortunately we had one newly adopted dog who was too neurotic to board, and one elderly dog who was too sick to leave. When she broke our hearts in April, we knew we had to get away to do some mending.
Cuba never held much interest for me, as I thought it was just an inexpensive, resort-heavy party destination. However, we needed a cheap vacation after spending thousands of dollars on veterinary bills, and Jody’s research led her to the Breezes resort in Jibacoa.
It was perfect.
The journey there was a typical charter experience: crushing yourself into airplane seats designed for children under 12, or waifish supermodels. Supermodels do not fly charter. Upon arrival, a bus transfer from Varadero to Jibacoa took us through the town of Matanzas, where even brief glimpses of the ruined buildings in the darkness gave me photographer goosebumps. I desperately wanted to jump off the bus, but just had to hope we could find our way back another day.
Jody and I were the only two people to leave the bus in Jibacoa; the rest were travelling the extra hour to Havana. Another plus for our choice in resorts! Walking through the front doors, we entered an enormous space with cathedral ceilings and gorgeous wooden beams. The desk clerk pointed out the 24-hour bar just steps away, and the porter who helped us to our room showed us the small deli where we could get snacks made (part of the all-inclusive meal plan) until 1 a.m. Our vacation truly began at midnight, as we sank into comfortable chairs outdoors with piña coladas in hand.
In the light of day we were able to get a better sense of our surroundings, and took a leisurely stroll (the only reasonable pace in the stifling June heat) around the extensive grounds. What struck me as much as the beauty of the setting was how hard the staff worked to keep it clean: gardeners were grooming the rolling lawns, staff were washing exterior windows and sweeping pathways, and we could hear the (mer)maids singing through the open doors of rooms they were cleaning.
Small lizards scurried across my path every few feet on our walk, and I couldn’t resist stopping to photograph one that came particularly close.
As I stood up, I heard a man say behind me, “If you want to photograph a real dinosaur, take my picture!”
Perhaps he hadn’t thought I actually would, and broke into loud laughter while striking a pose. His name is Luis, but people call him Kiki to differentiate him from the other Luis who works there. His fabulous smile is often the first one you see upon arrival at the resort. A couple of days later I’d be dispensing hugs and kisses with his parents in nearby Santa Cruz, but more on that later.
We had lunch at the beach bar, where the grill offered basics like burgers and pizza, and a ringside view of an animated beach bocce ball game. Unfortunately it also involved the enforced view of a Speedo-clad gentleman who flopped down directly beside me and let it all hang out. Time to move on.
First-day decompression was easily achieved through alternating reading and napping, interspersed with liberal samples of Havana Club rum. We migrated to the very comfortable sofas beside the main bar/check-in area, where we could people watch between breaks in our reading.
It was here that our trip took a wonderfully unexpected turn at the end of our first day. A woman we’d never seen before, also carrying a book, walked over and sat down on the sofa across from us. “So where are you guys from?” she asked, beginning a conversation that would last the rest of the evening.
Aurora was so friendly and engaging that the time flew by as we chatted. We discovered she is a former Catholic school principal from Alberta; one of those revelations that makes us instinctively brace ourselves before sharing our relationship status – but the news that we were a married couple didn’t faze her. We talked about marriage, divorce, travel, kids, work, and all number of things over the next couple of hours. Aurora was vacationing with her friend Lorraine, who had been here dozens of times and was visiting friends whose house she often rented. When Lorraine returned and joined us on the sofa, the four of us continued to gab like old friends. We all went to dinner together, and they kindly asked whether Jody and I wanted to join them in renting a car a couple of days later for an adventure in nearby Santa Cruz. Absolutely!
We were well-rested by the time our tour day arrived, and keen to see something different. I had a pocket full of change to tip people who allowed me to take their photograph, and we encountered a willing first subject before we’d even left the resort. A fisherman was standing at the entrance gate with a large fish he’d just caught, and as soon as I said “wow, he’d make a great photo”, Lorraine slammed on the brakes and encouraged me to get out and do what I needed to do. I knew I liked these women.
Our first stop was at a seaside set of “campismos”; small huts where Cubans go to camp. No amenities, just a rocky coastline and a few cement buildings to call home for a fee. Apparently this is a typical vacation for local Cubans, many of whom have never ventured far from the towns where they were born and continue to live.
We walked through the camp to the shore, where we found a couple of men sitting on the rocks with handheld fishing lines who were happy to exchange photos for pesos.
Aurora and Lorraine travelled with small bags of gifts for locals at all times, which included clothing, toiletries, and other household items considered to be luxuries in Cuba. Lorraine wanted to stop at a nearby market to augment these offerings with something for the children of her friends we’d be visiting. Unfortunately it was not the main market day, and the rundown square was pretty bare. Rusty frames of rickety carts littered the parking lot, and hinted at the booming businesses we might see on another day.
The average worker in Cuba earns 20 CUC per month (1 CUC = $1 USD), and essential items such as a bar of soap or bottle of shampoo are no cheaper there than here. Store shelves are sparsely stocked and infrequently replenished, meaning that even if you have the money, sometimes you simply cannot get what you need. The government controls the flow of all goods; there are no independent store “owners”. This is why the locals who approach tourists often beg for goods instead of money: they literally want the shirt off your back.
We stopped at a bake stand (essentially a counter in someone’s back yard) to pick up some sweets for the children Lorraine knew. We walked away with a homemade cake and a dozen cookies for the princely sum of $3.
The first people we were introduced to in Santa Cruz were a man who works in the kitchen at our resort, and his wife. They bought their house a year ago, and have worked hard to clear the grounds of overgrowth and make it a home. One step involved installing a DIY security feature on top of the walls lining their property:
We were given a quick tour of the small interior–where they had organized and economized every square foot of space–then headed out back to the garage where a classic car was in the process of being restored, hopefully for a future business opportunity. Cars often figure in people’s dreams in Cuba.
Making our way through the town, it became clear to me that a great deal of Cubans are self-employed. Owning your own business means everything from driving tourists around in a restored classic American car (or bicycle cart), selling handmade goods on street stands, or in one fellow’s case, carrying a tray of knives through the city on foot and asking passers-by to buy them. Which Lorraine did, because good sharp knives are also apparently hard to come by as a renter.
Another short car ride took us to the town of Hershey (known as Camilo Cienfuegos post-revolution, but no one calls it that), where Milton Hershey built his sugar mill in 1917. To transport workers to his factory and sugar to the port, he built an electric railroad between Havana and Matanzas. It remains the only working electric train in all of Cuba, unreliable though it is.
Hershey sold the outfit to a Cuban sugar company in the 1940s, and the mill closed down over a decade ago. The community that Hershey created has fallen on very hard times.
I hopped out of the car and wandered down a street to photograph a few of the buildings, surprised by the sound of squeals coming from a derelict house. To my amazement, two gorgeous, fat little puppies came bursting out of the bushes, and tumbled around my feet.
Anyone who has been to Cuba knows dogs in this condition are the exception. They were perfect, they were clean, and when I scooped them up and let them cover my chin in kisses, I’m telling you they smelled good. Some mother dog was taking exceptional care of these girls, so I reluctantly returned them to their hiding spot, and hoofed it quickly back to the car to discourage them following me.
A few minutes later and a few streets away, a man approached our car at a stop sign. I could scarcely believe what he proudly held in his outstretched hand.
I asked if I could take his photo, and paid him a couple of pesos for his trouble, at which point he handed one of the puppies to Aurora through the window. She was under the impression it was a simple invitation to hold the dog, but the man walked away from us, confident that a transaction had taken place. Aurora chased after him to return the puppy as I fought back tears, knowing the life that was likely in store for these two.
The images of sick stray dogs and bony, underfed horses stick with me more than the human poverty we witnessed. I guess because even the poorest of people usually have someone looking out for them, and these creatures do not. There is no humane society. The feeling of helplessness kept me silent in the car for a while.
On the way out of town we passed by the abandoned Hershey plant, which nature is in the process of reclaiming.
I found my last willing subject in Hershey walking down the street wearing painter’s pants, and carrying a fistful of bright yellow flowers. “This must be my lucky day,” he said when I pressed two pesos into his hand. I bet the recipient of the flowers felt the same way.
After a short walk around the Jardines de Hershey, we returned to Santa Cruz to meet the owners of the house Lorraine usually rents. The party-pink hue of her home away from home was easy to spot from the main road, and once we had a tour we understood completely why she loves it there.
Nelsy and Pedro (who works in the nautical centre at Breezes) own the property that includes the rental unit and their own home. They greeted us with hugs and kisses, introduced us to their family, and we visited with them over a terrific cup of espresso. I took note of a secondary entrance to the rental unit at the rear – you wouldn’t want to try scaling those steps after more than one drink!
As we headed out in the car to return to our resort, Lorraine greeted the elderly neighbours working in their yard across the street, Louisa and Lionel. The parents of Kiki (Luis), they were only too happy to hug us all and speak proudly of “both of their handsome sons”. Family is everything to Cubans.
When we planned this trip, I imagined days spent with little to see but sand and surf, and my nose buried in my cache of books. I also imagined it would be stressful to have no Wifi access, no cell phones, and no social media…but it was liberating. People walked around the resort and the towns with their heads up, making eye contact with one another like the good old days. Had Jody and I both been glued to smartphone screens, I don’t know whether Aurora would have approached us and set this entire experience in motion.
And Havana and Matanzas were still to come…