Well it’s back to the dreary Toronto area after being away in the sun and the ocean in a world away.
Elaine and I spent a glorious week in Cuba from March 29 to April 5. We arrived on the evening of March 29th at Valadero and went straight to our resort, the Blau Marina. We spent the rest of the night unpacking and relaxing. I did not take any photos, because it was dark and frankly, when you’ve seen one resort, you’ve seen them all.
The next day, we hired a cab to venture out to the town of Cárdenas to meet with up Elaine’s good friend, Judy Wallace Santos and her Cuban husband, Carlos Santos. We had to hire a cab and I wanted to ride in a classic car. Cuba is legendary for preserving countless classic cars from the 1950’s, but what struck me is just how plentiful they are. One can see them in various conditions from bondo smeared jalopies to showroom condition. Finding a 1950’s taxi to drive you around is easy, you just go to the end of the resort driveway and they are there. In this case it was a 1957 Chevy that was retrofitted with a diesel engine.
I do not know the type and model of this car, so it’s best left for the car buffs to enlighten me. We also spotted another ancient vehicle right next to our cab. This one was not quite so mint and I love how the jerry rigged battery sticks out from the naked front.
Riding in a vintage cab was just plain fun… the car hummed, bounced and creaked with the sounds of a world long since vanished from North America. Images of the cold war, malt shops and greasers raced through my head. The cab driver barely spoke English and we had a hell of a time trying to find Carlos’ place in Cárdenas. For starters, there are no street signs and to make matters worse, we were given the wrong street name. Our driver was determined to get us there come hell or high water. At each street corner he asked people for directions, like the terminator, he would not stop until he found his target. However, instead of trying to locate the house by street name, he would first ask if they knew Carlos Santos and then ask for the street. What amazes me is how helpful everyone was, there not a drop of resentment or rudeness. Alas, there was more good will than good advice. We must have done this at least a dozen times. Eventually, we made it there.
We had already a wasted a fair bit of time and had to get moving to see Carlos play baseball. There was just enough time to grab lunch and then walk to the ball park. Before departing, Carlos wanted to show me his pride and joy: a 120cc MZ motorcycle that is around 30 years old. It is a make and model I’ve never seen before, but it seems to be the most dominant motorcycle in Cuba. If I had to fathom a guess, it’s probably an old East German design.
Cárdenas is a different world, it is one that’s frozen in time and quite poor. It is also devoid of tourists, except for the three of us. If you want to see people living green, just go to there. Forget about a lot of luxury or convenience, it’s basic as you can get without going hungry. They aren’t trying to save the planet, they are just trying to survive. Everything is simpler and slower there. Something my fast paced and restless mind needs.
Cárdenas is called the “City of the Bicycle”. According to the locals, it has more bikes per capita than another city in Cuba. That’s not for me to dispute and frankly I do not care if it is true or not. They built a town monument to that effect and are proud of their claim to fame.
Another thing I learned is Cárdenas is the home of Elián González. Back in 2000, The Elián González Affair was at the center of a heated controversy between the governments of Cuba and America. This surreal debacle, concerned the return a young boy back to his father in Cuba, whereas his exiled Cuban uncle wanted him to stay in the Miama, FL. A debate raged on: is the boy better off in Communist Cuba with his father or better off with his anti-Castro Uncle in Miama? Eventually, Elián was forcibly returned to Cuba back to his father by order of US Government. Ironically, since 2000, the USA is less free and Cuba is more free. Politics aside, the way I see it, a boy needs his father and a father has every right and the moral imperative to have his son returned to him. Elián is now 21 years old and serves in the Cuban militia. As we walked by his home and I took some photos. I was warned not to do so, for some reason, this is still a sensitive matter with the Cuban officials. After taking this photo a soldier appeared and gestured “No!!!”.
After my brief encounter with the law, we had some lunch at local Ma and Pa restaurant. We ordered pizzas and it’s different from what we get back in Canada. Think of it as a Cuban take on pizza with unpasteurized cheese and chopped up chorizo on a thin crust. Actually it was quite tasty, not like the over processed crap we eat in North America. It was now time to make our way to the ball park. I also bought a few small cigars and later on, it proved to be a comedy of errors as we could not find someone to sell us a lighter! Seems the town had just run out of them. Eventually, Judy bought one for me and it busted the next day.
On the way to the ball park, we walked by a broken down amusement park. It has probably not been used since the 1970’s, yet kids still play there. Unlike our bubble wrapped kids in North America, the kids in Cárdenas are out an about unsupervised. These kids play with other kids, not their parents. They make games from sticks, stones, marbles, balls and whatever else they can find. No iPods, no helmets, no fancy clothes and no bullshit play dates organized by idiotic yuppie parents. It’s just like how my generation grew up and every other generation in history prior to it.
The mid-day sun had kicked in full blast and it was time for the Cubans to play baseball. I was ill prepared for the heat after months of winter and pale white skin. I paid the price for it later on and got burned, furthermore, the sunblock we got was shit. None of that mattered, the game was fun to watch, even if it lasted 6 hours. They are passionate about their game and it shows. One of the players came up to me and said “Baseball is the Cuban Soul”.
For a bunch of middle aged guys, they were actually quite good. As they played their lengthy 9 innings, I drank beer after beer. Sadly, I never caught a buzz, that Cuban Cristal beer is weak stuff. On the plus side, it’s cheaper than water and it refreshes. I knew that eventually I needed to source a stronger brew, a darker beer bursting with flavor and one that would kill brain cells like angry North Koreans.
Carlos’ team won, but I don’t recall the score. After a long day of standing in the sun I was ready for some dinner, some more beers, a good cigar and a cooler night. It was a great day for Carlos too, he got a baseball “diploma” for having the most hits at bat that day.
After a walk back to Carlos’ house, we rested for a bit, drank those weak Cristal beers and showed it who is boss with some rum. I also lit up a choice cigar, at least while the “town lighter” still worked. We met his stepfather, Roberto, a kind, spritely old man who lives next door. Like many Cubans, Roberto keeps chickens and pigs in his backyard, all the table scraps from both households go to feed the animals, very little is wasted. Roberto does not speak a word of English, but wanted me to see his animals and show me his house. The Cubans do not have much, but they are proud of what they have. Even if their houses are crumbling, they take care of it and keep their places clean.
From Carlos’ balcony, I watched life in Cardenas go by. It was wonderful, everyone just seems at ease there. My brain slows down, my body relaxes and I am just enjoying life second by second. It’s a world of people, not possessions. Once the sun had set, we walked to a local restaurant. We all had some fish, rice and beans and washed it down with a cheap Spanish wine.
There’s way more to tell about that day, enough to write a chapter for a book. I won’t, well….at least for now 🙂 Until then, please enjoy the rest of the photos.