I can’t tell you when I first fell in love with Cuba. All I know is like fast tempo calypso, something about this secluded Caribbean island made my heart sing. Over the years, I have tried to recruit several friends to explore the defiantly communist country with me – they all declined. At my wits end, I was about to visit Cuba by myself when my friend Sparkle decided to join me.
We made a few enquiries and one weekend in November, we escaped the cold winds blasting through Toronto and flew into the sunny resort town of Varadero. Like Teletubbies, Sparkle and I bounced through customs and hopped onto the shuttle bus that was to transport us from the airport to our deluxe hotel. Eager to catch a glimpse of night life in this coastal town, we pressed our noses against the windows and peered through the darkness, but all we could see were palm trees and dimly lit bungalows. Our hotel, Arenas Blancas, was 30 minutes away from the bungalows, nestled in the middle of a cluster of other resorts. The yellow foyer bore tell-tale signs of renovations, but thankfully, it had a working elevator which transported us to suite C414.
As soon as Sparkle flipped the light switch, an over-fed brown cockroach darted from the underneath the bed into the bathroom.
“Cockroaccchhh” I squealed.
“Where, where, where did’t go?” demanded Sparkle, one of her blue slippers suddenly in her right hand ready to ambush the brown crustacean.
“In the bathroom, no, near the toilet. No, it’s in the bathtub, quick get it!” But the cockroach was faster. It bolted along the white porcelain and dove into the drain before Sparkle’s blue slipper could have a swing. Realizing that we had been outsmarted by an insect, we fell against the green walls and giggled till our breasts jiggled. Even as the sweet sound of laughter bubbled through the room, we knew we had to adjust our expectations.
Although Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean, due to its strong communist affiliations, for over fifty three years, it has experienced crushing commercial and financial restrictions from the US. The combination of the embargo and failed communist policies means everything is rationed. The people are gravely overworked and grossly underpaid. Essentials like cleaning materials and cooking supplies are scarce, as such; a deluxe four-star resort like Arenas Blancas is actually a glorified motel with a swimming pool. But what the island lacks in luxury, they make up for in the abundance of culture, well preserved history, arresting art and rich music. We dumped our suitcases onto the floor, flung the windows open and slept with the sound of the waves beating against the shore.
The next morning, we sauntered out of bed to experience the famed tourist attractions in Varadero. We played splash in the translucent blue sea and hitched a ride on a horse-drawn carriage to see life outside the westernized hotels. At the outdoor market, I was so taken by the wooden crafts and water paintings displayed in the sun that we almost lost each other. When dehydration and hunger mellowed our pace, we stopped by Waco’s club and indulged in fresh lobster and sweet champagne. The simple, yet joyous moments I spent with Sparkle reminded me that a key ingredient to a great trip is a great travel buddy.
This person makes everything funnier, brighter, better… and Sparkle with her melted coffee complexion and effervescent personality, encapsulated these traits in many ways. When a malnourished stray dog took a nip at my ankles she was rolling in the streets laughing. When the wind blew off my skirt and exposed my tush to the masses, she cackled in delight. And when an unpredictable rainfall threatened to shrivel my pressed hair into an afro, she was right there taking pictures with glee. By the time we finished touring Varadero, our appetites had been whetted to see the capital of Cuba. But we had a little surprise up our sleeves…
The following morning, we boarded a local bus, the Viazul, to Havana. The three hour bus ride across bridges and luxuriant landscapes ended at the historic old Havana. We made our way through the nooks and crannies of Havana, hopping alongside little children and passing tomatoes sellers and ice cream vendors. When we were a safe distance from the crowd, we paused and knocked on a wooden gate. A dark skinned woman with a wary smile came to the entrance. In broken Spanish, we told her that we stopped by her house to bring her gifts.
“Que?” She responded.
Sparkle opened one of the overstuffed ‘surprise’ we had carried from Varadero and handed her new clothes and toiletries. Her hand flew to her mouth in dismay. “Gracias, Gracias!” she gasped urging us to enter her home to meet her three children.
Knowing the depth of need in Cuba, prior to coming, Sparkle and I had filled suitcases with consumer goods to give away. Buoyed by the enthusiastic reaction from the young mother, we knocked on more doors in the ghettos of Havana and passed on gifts. When we saw children in the homes, we treated them with boxes of Crayola, school bags and stationary. We stopped strangers midstep, drew them into alleys and passed on bags of toiletries. In the middle of a cobbled street where shallot onions and peeled oranges were being sold, Sparkle spotted a street sweeper caressing the ground with her broom. We walked over to her and handed her a bag filled with bubble bath, tooth paste, deodorant and fresh clothes. She dropped her broom and swallowed us both in her embrace. We kept unloading the shopping bags hanging on our shoulders until we were no longer stooped over. Only then did we lock our empty hands into each others and set off to explore the city. We meandered through what can only be described as corridors of culture complete with majestic cathedrals, book markets and European styled bistros.
We followed a haphazard path through narrow back roads and courtyard to the core of the city where the dome-shaped National Capital building is located. I made a beeline towards the queue of brightly coloured antique cars. With permission from a guy standing next to startlingly beautiful orange Buick, I draped myself over the bonnet, posing like a vogue photo shoot was in session. When the stares of onlookers became overbearing, I gathered myself and walked over to the car owner.
“Dinero” he replied, rubbing his thumb and his index finger together.
“What! you mean I have to pay just for standing next to your car? Why did you not say that before?
“Si, 10 pesos.”
“10 pesos!!!” I responded in disbelief.
Now I know times are hard and Cubans have to scrape by to make ends meet. But in the last hour, I had paid the clown to smile at Plaza de Armas. I had to pay to take pictures next to the women in the vintage costumes. I even paid to feed the peacocks in the Arabic courtyard. And now I was to pay for posing next to a Buick taxi? I was being ripped off and I had had it!
“No dinero senor. Look at me, this beautiful African queen standing next to your car. Infact, you should be paying me.”
I took a step back so he could appraise me. But before his eyes could follow the flow of my hair or the colour on my toenails, I spun around and walked off.
“Aie, aie! Muchacha, dinero’ his voice trailing behind me. Sparkle and I were too busy laughing to stop. We dashed through the crowd and escaped him. But a few steps ahead, another voice was chasing us.
“Muchachas, muchachas!” We turned around and almost collided into a woman. It was the sweeper we had given the bags to. She was accompanied by a team of women, expectation beaming in their eyes. She explained that her friends also wanted some gifts.
Sparkle and I looked at each other, disappointed that we had nothing more to give. “Lo siento, finito, finished, gone.”
In that instant, I wished we had brought more to give. We could have traveled to the port city of Santiago de Cuba or gone scuba diving in Maria la Gorda, giving away thoughtful parcels to deserving people at each stop… That in itself is reason to return to Cuba. I have some unfinished business to take care of.