Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Tariq Hossenbux - 1 week in Varadero


A Family Vacation in Varadero.... Sort Of! 

Tariq Hossenbux

So picking up from one of my last blogs somewhere or other on the web, I had just arrived at the Melia Marina in Varadero Cuba with my sister, her husband, and their 2 children. I had really been anticipating a quiet week of relaxation on my own but with my family members  suffering recently from winter colds, they joined my escape from the fearsome "Polar Vortex" covering North America. Our rooms are beside each other (I had my own  of course), despite the fact that I asked at check in for a room further away from them. Not being anti social or anything like i just wanted to get away from it all in a more complete way. Unfortunately the hotel was quite heavily booked with other escapees from the northern cold, and i was forced to settle for room 1480, right beside room 1481. My sister assured me that they could not hear anything through the walls. Knowing the screaming power of my 2 year old nephew, I hoped that would be true. It's amazing that such a small boy can make such painfully shrill and loud noise with such small lungs. The room was nice and clean with a little fridge and a balcony that overlooks the patio by the Marina that functions as the nightly entertainment area. You need to bring a transformer to use any electrical devices because they have a different voltage in Cuba. There is TV, but there are only about 4 channels in english. Those are CNN, CTV, and ESPN and the Weather Channel. There is a chinese news network channel that is sometimes in english, and various french, spanish, and german channels too. No matter i don't plan on watching a lot of TV on this 1 week trip.

Of course as soon as possible after lunch (all the buffet food is good at this hotel if a little bland), changing some dollars to Cubans money (mandatory to buy things in the hotel stores) and settling in my room a bit  I head down to check out the beach. Although the hotel is not adjacent to the beach, it's an easy 3 minute walk from the pool area or you can get on the golf cart shuttles go every few minutes. I prefer to enjoy the walk during this trip. I get the idea to put the grip GoPro Mount on my head like a snorkel and take it on a swim with me. Not all my ideas work out exactly as I would like, but this one did work out ok. 


The beach is a very nice one and the water is clear and warm. You can walk out very far in the water and the sea floor is sandy and smooth below. The advisories about this area that i read beforehand were that February was jellyfish month, and that sand fleas could give you bites. I did not see any jellyfish and didn't seem to have a lot of bug bites on my legs later. I had some but I think those were from the mosquitos at night so be sure to bring long sleeves to protect yourself if you come here.  What you do have to watch out for are the occasional stingrays underwater. They can be hard to spot as they are sand coloured and sometimes are hiding waiting for a fish lunch to cruise by. A guy called Byron I met one night commented that it seemed the Cubans had tried to create the perfect beach and went too far. By that he meant they had cleared away so much of the sea floor that the fish wern't coming back. There are no structures really to protect them in the water. There is also a nice fish restaurent overlooking the beach that you can eat at. Over the course of the week i also spent some time with my niece and nephew at the hotel pool. It's pretty nice and split in two fairly shallow pools. One side has a pool side bar, and the other side is a little shallower still so it's extra good for young kids. I gave my niece a few swimming pointers that came back to me from swimming lessons. Learning by holding on to the edge and kicking until you are good at that. Remember now? 

Youtube video of swimming pool

The pool is not heavily cholorinated so its quite pleasant
Very pleasant. Also very pleasant are the Cuban People. I was a little apprehensive that maybe they had been spoilt by the dollar but that was not the case at all. It's a good idea to buy some little presents at dollar stores for them before you come. People advised me to get pencil crayons for the kids of wait/room staff etc, and that worked out well. It's a communist country and most are very poor though the hotel staff likely make much more than others. Someone in one of my classes told me whether or not you leave a dollar tip they will be nice and it's true. 
The cubans i met on the trip were well mannered friendly people. And so talented at music and dance! Almost every night we managed to meet up for dinner. Most were at the buffet restaurent and as i said earlier everything was pretty good. There were various chefs stations where you could get fresh grilled fish, meats, or pasta. The spaghetthi was actually quite good i must say. It was a little short on the spice in most cases, but there were bottles of various sauces that you could use anyhow. Strangely enough fresh greens seemed to be in short supply I guess the cubans don't like their lettuce as much as I do. Then after dinner we enjoyed nice entertainment by the water or in the hotel lounge. Remember to have long sleeves or bug repellent though because the mosquitoes can be agressive. Here is a video of some of the musical entertainment we enjoyed.

Youtube video of the nightly entertainment

The energy of the Cubans dancers, musicians and entertainers was very impressive to me. The musicians played their pianos, violins and guitars with a true passion for the music. The dancers went on the scene with explosive energy bounding around the stage. One night there was even a magic show and the participants performed with the same zeal as the dancers. In the lounge the violin players were obviously very absorbed with playing professional quality music.
The only rude people i met on this trip were some other Canadians and that was a little sad. Most Canadians were friendly and talkative and I had a few interesting conversations that started during the nightly entertainment near the marina. Quite a few people had stories to tell from their lives. One 19 year old girl called Andrea told me some information from the Sammy Yatim saga that is going on in our news.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Sammy_Yatim
According to her Sammy Yatim was her best friend and had been kicked out by his father the night he died. She also told me that she had seen video where he had clearly dropped the knife before he was shot.  That changed my mind about whether there was any justification to what the officer had done. This girl also shared with me that she came from a family where cancer was common and that she had already had cancer at her young age. Fortunately it had been caught and treated in time. Another night there was a round table conversation with a mixed group of travellers. Life Coach Carol and her 20 yr old son Adrian were on a vacation, and then there were a couple of married 30 something greek women. Pat was one of those greek women and she was burdened by the accidental death of her mentally disturbed brother years before. Despite all the obviously artificial beauty work she had done like pearly whitened teeth and skin cleared of any flaws by lasers, this burden cast an ugly shadow on her. Carol tried to use her life coach skills to convince Pat to let go of  some of the memories but she was reluctant because she feared that would mean forgetting her brother and thus losing what she had left of him. Interesting night for me to learn about people's lives and thoughts. I don't think Carol was able to convince Pat that she needed to let something go to move forward in her life. One night i was hanging out with Adrian and we met some people from Montreal that seemed a little unfriendly and insular. Couldn't let go of whatever rat race they were in at home and just be friendly to everyone. Not outwardly unfriendly, but somehow stuck in a very narrow view of things. They might have been mafia but i forgot about them pretty quickly. Many of the Cuban were sincerely friendly and happy to talk to us. I remember many of their names like Yaney, Tony, and Edely. Yudelkris was a waiter who arranged a cab tour of Havana for us at a cost of 140 Cuban convertible pesos which was lower than some other tourists paid. We decided to go towards the end of our trip and met our driver at the hotel front door at around 9am. Yudelkris had advised us that the original driver was not able to go, but his friend was going to take us instead assuring us that this new person was very professional. The new car was a 1985 Mercedes that was actually more comfortable for our 5 persona party anyhow. As an extra bonus we got a short ride to start in a 1927 ford taxi!
Most Cubans seem to really appreciate children as you can see in this photo of the start of our cab tour. Taking a cab tour is also a really great way to see outside of the rather artificial area around the hotel complex. See a little more of the regular Cuban life and talk to the driver about how people live. During the cab journey I learned for example that most Cubans don't have internet access even though supposedly it's available according the driver. There is something a little strange about driving through towns that don't have the usual capitalist level of storefronts. there are little restaurants every so often on the highway but less activity than you would expect in a free market country. At times I commented about how it seemed that much of the land didn't seem to bet getting used by the highway. If it had been in another country I'm sure someone would have been trying an organic farm or something there. But our driver would just say that people don't like the hard of the country. What he really meant was that people need the motivation of money and personal success to go and innovate as the Israelis have learnt to farm in their desert. Instead of organic farms here there were thin horses and the odd herd of goats in that empty land. The route goes through some interesting highlands where once upon a time revolutionaries hid from the government. 145kms later and through Cubas only underwater tunnel  we were driving along Havana's Miami like waterfront. I was glad to have my GoPro along to take some video of the interesting architecture. Our driver gave us informative commentary throughout also.


Then the first stop on our tour was the Jose Marti Memorial in Revolution Square. The main thing quickly became finding a washroom for the kids though. My niece really needed to go and they wouldn't let us use the washroom at the government library. So we had to hurry up to the Jose Marti memorial before we caused an international incident by letting a child pee on Revolution Square. The Jose Marti Memorial is a pretty impressive building actually and it houses a museum of the revolution inside which cost 3 Cubans to enter. Must have cost a lot of money to build this towering structure. For some reason only one of us was allowed to use the washroom at a time. While i was waiting i read some pretty inspiring revolutionary sayings from a pamphlet like "It's a sin to not do what you are capable of doing"

Next stop was the Cigar Factory outlet store. I wasn't too keen on this but I'm sure the driver gets a little kickback from this because it was pretty clear he would not be dissuaded from taking us there. Along the way we got to see some of  the nice old houses of Havana which have now largely been turned into Museums. The driver told us that in times before the revolution the city had become a sort of Las Vegas of vice and corruption. Interesting to imagine how different it must have been in Havana in the days that the gangsters had moved in to control a lot of things here. The sold construction of these old stone houses is impressive too. Along the way to the factory store the driver explains to me that in Cuba cars are often handed down through the family. All the old 1950s cars driving around are passed down that way too and obviously can't be sold to outsiders. Because parts are not available for these antiques the local people must find ways to adapt other parts for them. Weren't the designs so interesting and unique in the 50s though?

Finally we arrive at the Cigar Factory. Obviously not a great place for kids as people smoke inside, but my sister's husband buys 10 cigars for $61.50, plus a couple of bottles of rum. I get a $7.50 bottle of this sweet type called Legendario that i will give as a gift later. Might as well i figured at that price, but i realized later that the liquid  meant i would have to check that piece of baggage instead of taking it carry on and avoiding the baggage carousel. I'm sure our driver got a little cut of this too but that is good as well! Next we took a drive through the downtown area which was fascinating. This city is so solidly build! In the old city it's the gold of south america that built it! Fascinating things to think about. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6OodLvyTYY4Youtube Havana Grand Capitolio Building

Cuban pedestrians are very bold walking out to the middle of the street seeming to not even look at oncoming cars. Makes for some tense moments in the car actually. Living in Cuba is desired by many here, but many dwellings don't have running water according our driver. We make a stop to see the famous old city but it's going to be a short one because the kids are getting tired. Being a World UNESCO Heritage site our trip would not be complete without a few footsteps on the centuries old cobblestones. They aren't what I thought though. I imagined irregular stones but these cobblestones are almost uniform brick shapes. We went for a short walk and visited the Cathedral which dates from 1777 and was described by one write as music set in stone. Quite a lot of interesting religious artwork inside. It struck me that the dramatically solid construction of the city came from the gold of the Incas and Mayans that passed through this point in the distant past.

We did not eat lunch here and there was not much of interest in the shops to me. Some small galleries and handicrafts but nothing too exciting there so we returned to the cab and went on to the flea market near the harbour. I was getting really hungry at this point and had to buy a snack at the snack bar there. My sister being a shopaholic spent a lot of time in this huge flea market. I think the place is about the size of a soccer field but most of the stalls are selling the same things. I got bored pretty quickly and went outside to wait near the water. Some Cuban kids asked for some money so i gave them a couple of coins. We returned back to the hotel after this and through our conversations learnt more about life for ordinary Cubans. It struck me that maybe the reason they were so friendly, and well socialized is that they spend more time with each other. Here in North America people spend a lot of time on non social activities like watching television and using the internet! I actually conscientiously decided not to use the internet for the whole week. It will probably be a while before that happens again! We tipped the driver $20 which seemed decent on a $140 trip. He was very patient and professional throughout.
After this it was just one more day to have a couple more swims in the ocean and at the pool, then a 730am bus pickup to the airport. Once again there, we were confronted with a huge check in lineup. Fortunately i bought some chicken flavoured Malaysian chips to keep the kids happy. After checking in we got in another large lineup for customs. Upon finally reaching the customs officer, she told us we had to go and pay our departure $25 tax at another counter next to the check in ! We had just assumed that we would be paying that at customs so it was a dismaying surprise. There were multiple opportunities for check in or tour personell to point this out but nobody did. We were getting close to departure time so we rushed back to the front of the customs lineup had our photos taken, and went through security. As we arrived at our gate the plane was just boarding. The flight home was completely smooth and uneventful.

All in all, the Melia Marina is a good place to spend a week. Not the place to see local culture, but it's a good value for the nice sandy beach, decent quality food, and excellent nightly entertainment!

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