Friday, January 18, 2019

Cuba 2019 - Home to Beat the Kids

We are back home, and still have a little of the sunshine glow leftover from Cuba. Our tans did not immediately fall off at the airport, sprinkle down our pant legs and leave a trail of discarded skin dust in our wake, such as what happens when people from Saskatchewan return from vacation in January to the moisture-less air and polar bear friendly temperatures. That’s why they must constantly sweep the floors from November to April at the John G Diefenbaker airport in Saskatoon. And then again from May to October for all the prairie dust.

Upon returning home, I stacked my nice new Romeo & Julieta tubed cigars gently in my humidor and loaded up the sponges with water to keep them well nourished, just in case some of the tubes leak. The reason they package some cigars in tubes is because once they are sealed at the factory they do not have to be stored in a humidor right away, but it’s not a perfect seal so air can still leak in and out. There is some debate as to whether you should remove the tops of the tubes when you put them in a humidor, or just leave them sealed. I leave mine sealed, but do make sure my humidor is always at the correct humidity level so there is little chance of them drying out. That will keep them safely packed away until I start using them in the summer. Ah, summer.

Well, I’ve changed my mind on that Jordan Peterson book “12 Rules for Life”. I am about three-quarters of the way through it and it is not a great book. Yes, he has some interesting ideas, and two of the chapters are quite readable, but you need to wade and strain through a whole lot of academic wanking and religious dogma. The religious pieces are particularly surprising, as I’d expect a guy like this to be a card-carrying atheist. Saying that, he doesn’t ever really spell out his religious convictions, leaving one to wonder why banters on so incessantly about the bible, Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and Moses and the rest of the gang. The “Rules of Life” he builds each chapter around are actually sensible and good, but then within the chapters he goes on and on about things that may be interesting if you are a philosophy egghead or Old Testament aficionado, but seem completely unrelated to the suggested rule. It’s rather annoying. There are nuggets of gold here and there, but you really have to dig for them.

The one chapter I really enjoyed (and was much more accessible than the others) was the one entitled “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them”. I love this line! How many times are you out in public and see children behaving like wild animals with their parents standing by, doing nothing to correct their behavior? Peterson says that disciplining children is hard – very hard emotionally on the parents, but it is your absolute duty and responsibility to do this, because if you don’t do it, then somebody else will – and that other person just might be jail.

He thinks parents are basically wimping out by saying things like, “I don’t believe in punishment” or “Let the kids learn to behave on their own”. Children are natural monsters; young kids treat each other in ways that even the worst adults would consider unthinkable. Bullying, beating, ostracizing, humiliating, badgering, torturing, sabotaging – you name it, they will do it. Kids will push and push and test the limits as far as they will go, and if they learn from their parents that there are no limits, and no repercussions, then their parents have just set themselves up for a life of pain, and their kids a world of suffering. If you turn the responsibility for parenting your child to the world, then the world will do just that, but it is going to be a lot harsher and damaging than a responsible parent could have provided. 

Kids don’t learn to be responsible, social beings on their own – somebody has to teach them, and your kids are your pups, so the job is up to you. Only the parents are able to do it with the appropriate level of care, understanding, empathy, and severity because they know their child best. Discipline is necessary to create a properly socialized child, one who knows how to share, how to play, how to show kindness, and how to talk to others. Poorly socialized children have terrible lives. Peterson also says that if you don’t discipline your kids by the age of 4 (and preferably 2) then you are too late, because their bad habits and personality is set by that point. Will it sometimes feel like you are going into battle? Yes. But as the parent you are wiser, stronger, and smarter, so you have what it takes to win…but do you have the will?

Does he recommend punishment? Yes he does, unapologetically. But as a parent, you know what is appropriate for your child. For some children, an evil eye or stern glance is sufficient. For others, a time out. Some may require a flick of a finger or a squeeze on the arm. For others, or for something severe (like running out into a busy street without looking), it could be a spanking. The intention is to provide the maximum amount of learning with the minimum amount of pain.

The other idea Peterson brings up often is the value of tradition and history and that we discard, ignore or change these at our own peril. It’s taken us thousands and thousands of generations as humans to build a society that functions, and in most cases we really don’t know why things work, but they do. This is why doing what your parents or grandparents did is usually a pretty good starting point. Following the new and highly advanced parenting recommendations in a book is simply untested and risky.

Do I agree with these ideas? Yes, I do – all of them. I wish this chapter had been available to me when our kids were just born, because it would have validated the methods we chose to discipline our children, which were exactly how our parents disciplined us. I think every parent with young children could really benefit by reading this one chapter. Or, simply do what your parents or grandparents did.

For now, it’s back to winter, and making it through the few months of cold that separate us from the big sailboat launch in May and the glorious summer season. But until then, I have a new project - the reggae band!  Stay tuned.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Cuba 2019 - Final Day

Our final day. Ana and I began it with a morning beach walk, enjoying the beautiful warmth, the sun, the sand and ocean water on our feet, the smells of the sea, and each other’s company. My wife is one of the smartest people I know and we can get into some pretty deep conversations about religion, politics, philosophy, history. Fortunately, we have enough differences of option to keep the conversation lively and interesting, but not so many that we want to murder each other. This morning we talked about another idea I read in Jordan Peterson’s book (I am beginning to think it’s a keeper), regarding order and chaos. It’s important to have a certain amount of order in your life, but not so much that you get bored and stop learning, so you need a good dose of chaos too, defined as the unplanned, unexpected, difficult, challenging and uncomfortable. That allows you to keep learning, keep challenged, and keep surprising yourself. It’s hard to get that balance right. It’s funny, both Ana and I tend to err on the side of order, but for different things. She is a real drill sergeant when it comes to cleaning the house, packing luggages for trips, grocery shopping, doing laundry and keeping us all well dressed. I care less about that stuff, but I focus on keeping our family finances in order, planning, purging junk from our house, and documenting things (like these travel blogs). And we both love a little chaos - impromptu weekend trips, backpacking in new places, and trying new things. I think our balance is pretty good, but I think we could always use a bit more chaos.

After our final magnificent buffet breakfast (where I’ve learned that omelettes must contain olives and jalapeño peppers), Ana and Magnus walked to the Pescador market to do some final shopping while Stella and I set up base camp at the beach. They returned after a while with some new treasures, and then we took a paddleboat out to the reef and spent a good long while snorkelling and soaking up the sunshine.

I took a short break at 11 to go for a reflexology session in a little oceanside hut. I’ve never tried it before, but who doesn’t love somebody playing with your feet for half an hour? At home, I’m constantly lobbying the rest of the family for back rubs, back scratches, foot rubs, leg massages, but (unsurprisingly) don’t often get any takers. Laying on a comfortable table, having somebody rub oil on your feet, while listening to the sound of the ocean waves and bird songs is sort of fantastic.

We enjoyed our last lunch at the seafood restaurant, and Ana got the recipe for the delicious seafood soup from the cook, who was happy to share, in rapid fire Spanish. Ana’s Spanish always comes back to her so quickly, and she is really good at it, while I struggle a lot more, but after a week it does comes back, and I start to feel fluent again, or least capable of achieving the fluency I once had when we worked in Spanish every day.

The pool was our base for the afternoon, but I did take a short break to go out windsurfing one final time. I took the board way out into the ocean to catch the much stronger winds and had a fantastic, fast ride, but by the time I got back to shore my arms felt like jelly. It’s funny how nobody in Canada windsurfs anymore - now it’s kite surfing. I really must try that sometime.

I enjoyed a final cigar on the patio and did some more planning for my reggae band. My friends are going to be so surprised and thrilled to find themselves in a band. I hope they like reggae music. While I did my scheming, the rest of the gang lounged around the room, reading, watching tv, chilling out.

Our final meal was at the Cuban a la carte restaurant, and once again it was delicious. Stella ordered four courses, but I think she met her match because she couldn't her main. She has been eating like a champ this trip, while Magnus has been sort of picking away at things. Ana moderates her meals while I eat like a pig, consuming everything in sight. That first day back at the gym is going to be a real killer.

We enjoyed our last evening drinks in the lobby and watched the Cuban fashion show on the outdoor stage. The models were quite good, and definitely not amateurs. Magnus and I kept our eyes open for the Blue Steel look, but we either missed it, or those Cubans hadn’t seen Zoolander yet. 

With that, our final day came to an end. And sadly, the trip came to an end as well as the next day we were up early, on the bus, on the plane, and back in the van, driving down the 403 highway heading for home.

Holguin, Cuba gets a quadruple thumbs up from the Olson family!

Friday, January 11, 2019

Cuba 2019 - Dive Day

Ahh, back to work Monday. For some people.

At 8:45 am the scuba diving bus arrived and several of us from the resort jumped on and were whisked to the dive centre, which services all the resorts in the area. There were 12 divers in total and everybody got fitted for gear and then went down to the marina. The dock and facilities were in excellent condition, as was the 48’ dive boat. Once everybody was on board, the captain fired up the boat and we were off. It was another hot and cloudless day, but there was enough wind to create some chop on the ocean. We reached the dive site in less than 15 minutes and after a very short briefing from the dive master, we were all in the water and descending to the ocean floor. Because I don’t have my own dive gear, each time I dive I use the gear provided, and sometimes it either doesn’t fit quite right, or is simply not comfortable, which never results in the best dive. Today, everything fit and felt great and I was completely comfortable in the water and able to focus on the surroundings instead of fiddling with gear.

The clarity was very good and we dove a wall down to a depth of just over a hundred feet. The coral formations were cool, but there were not a ton of fish, although I did see two pretty lion fish together, chilling out amongst some rocks. At the end of this dive we returned to the marina, dropped off some people, picked up new people, changed tanks, and went back out on the water to a different site for the second dive, which was equally good, and provided the yearly diving fix I was hoping for. On the way back to the hotel, I was looking at my dive card and realized that I did my very first dive over 22 years ago. Yikes! Back then I was a diving fanatic and racked up around 60 dives within a few years. Ana also has her diving certification, which she trained for in 1999, in an extinct volcano crater, in El Salvador, and we did quite a few dives together, but she had a really bad dive in the Azores one time and hasn’t enjoyed it much since. She does want to get back into it, so our plan (dream?) is to buy a catamaran and equip it with dive gear and an air compressor so we can dive ourselves, at our leisure, anytime whenever we like. Sounds nice, huh?

I returned to the resort just in time for a light hot dog lunch with the family at the snack bar, after which we spent the rest of the afternoon at the main pool. Magnus, Stella and I got in on a pool volleyball game which was a lot of fun, and then they held this ridiculous bull riding competition where they throw an empty beer keg in the water and you have to balance on it like a bull rider. As I had done this once before in Cuba I knew the trick for staying level and managed to hold on for 35 seconds, blowing away the completion, and was awarded a lovely Cohiba cigar keychain, which I will treasure forever.

The rest of the day proceeded as normal - late afternoon break in the room, kids played tennis, enjoyed a fantastic dinner, had drinks in the lobby, played dice, and watched a bit of the show. Stella and I found a patch of tiles in the lobby that were perfect for hopscotch so we kept ourselves amused for quite some time with that. Then we realized it had the same number of squares as a chessboard so all of us played a sort of checkers game with ourselves as the pieces. That’s the sort of thing that happens when there’s no internet and creativity-sucking devices around. I had so much fun.

Cuba 2019 - Do Your Friends Inspire You?

Before leaving on our trip, I found Jordan Peterson’s book “12 Rules for Life - An Antidote to Chaos” on sale so I bought it. These days I rarely, if ever, buy new books; we usually get them used or from one of the Little Free Libraries. Mostly, I borrow my books from the library in Brantford, and if I find one that I love and know will read again, or if I want the kids to read it in the future, I will buy it. I had a feeling this book may be worth owning, so I took a chance on it. I’m about a quarter of the way through it, but I’m not sure yet it if’s a keeper. Some of the writing is very dense, academic, and difficult to process, while other parts are at written at a much more accessible level. One thing the book does not do is pussyfoot around - he strikes out with bold statements, direct language and painful truths.

The chapter I’ve reached is “Make friends with people that want the best for you”. The idea is simple - don’t spend time with people who drag you down. I have been most fortunate in my life and I don’t ever recall spending significant amounts of time with anybody who I felt had the potential to drag me down. Peterson says it’s easy to surround yourself with people who are inferior to yourself, but much more difficult to be with people who are superior. But to keep growing and progressing in life, I think that is exactly what you need to do.

Late in the afternoon Ana and I left the kids in the room and went down to the lobby for a pre-dinner drink and cigar. And we talked about all the hundreds of people we’ve met over the years and how fortunate we’ve been to meet so many inspiring ones. We’ve lived together in nine countries, and have done our best to maintain long distance friendships with the people who most inspired us. We’ve been settled in Canada now for a long time and continue to try and meet new people and spend time as much time as we can with those that inspire us in some way. This idea is even more important to us now as we see our kids growing and approaching adulthood as we want them to find friends that can challenge them, support them, draw them in new directions, and expose them to their own good habits. So far I think they are doing well, but it is something we pay particular attention to, so this chapter in the book was particularly useful to me.

The day began with a blunder. I’ve been getting up at 6 am every morning to write and drink herbal tea down in the lobby. At that time of day those little no-see-ums are ravenous and love to chomp hungrily on exposed skin, so in my morning stupor I found the bug spray and liberally coated my feet and ankles, but then realized I had grabbed the bottle of sunscreen. But I put on so much I think it must have masked my human smell because I didn’t get any bites and will certainly not suffer any ankle sunburns today.

Ana and I went for a long, slow beach walk at 7 am, enjoying the still air and the glassy, unbroken ocean surface. This is the time of day when the beach keeners all march down to claim the best spots by draping their towels, bags, hats, and sometimes just flip flops, on top of the beach lounger chairs. Every time I see this I threaten to gather up all of these personal items from the chairs and put them into a giant pile, claim a prime spot for myself and then sit back and enjoy the frenzy as the beachgoers finally arrive hours later after their leisurely breakfasts and find their precious spots taken and have to root through the pile for their stuff. Am I evil? Yes I am. Am I too much of a chicken to try it? Yes I am.

The kids and us spent the morning at the beach (in a sub-prime location, but still perfect). Besides the regular swimming and beach combing (finding a gorgeous hermit crab whom we named “Champ”), we also got some sea kayaks and did a long paddle around the rocky shoreline and out beyond the resort. We also wanted to use one of the six-man paddleboats available, but it was extremely hot and we were getting too roasted so we decided to save that for another day.

In the evening we walked down to the Plaza Pesquero for a game of bowling. There seems to be a bowling alley within walking range of every all-inclusive resort in Cuba, and here was no different. Along the way Ana spotted a gigantic, and I mean GIGANTIC, toad poking his head out of a hole in the curb. We tried to entice him out but he was predictably wary and retreated into the safety of the underground before we could take a photo of the magnificent beast. The road leading to the plaza was dark and deserted, which would set off cranial alarm bells and tingling Spidey senses anywhere else in the Caribbean (or perhaps world?), but not in Cuba. There is simply no safer country to visit as Cuba does not tolerate crime, and we know this from experience. One time in Varadero, we had the hubcaps stolen off our rental car, and were advised by our hotel to report it to the police. This resulted in a team of cops being sent to the hotel to perform an intensive investigation, which included sniffer dogs and interviews with hotel staff. That was for sixty bucks worth of hubcaps. On the flip side, do not ever, ever considering doing something illegal in Cuba, because they will catch you and the consequences will be severe. During that same trip, we drove to Havana and back and I was pulled over four times by police for minor traffic infractions. I was able to play the stupid tourist card, and didn’t get fined, but there’s no doubt there are eyes everywhere.

The bowling expedition took us much deeper into the night than usual, and by the time we returned the evening show was well underway. A seven piece a cappella band was ripping it up on the outdoor stage and creating the illusion of a full Cuban band with only their voices. One of them was doing the stand-up bass, one did guitar, one did the flute, another did the drums, another a trumpet, and the last two were the main singers. They were extraordinary musicians.

And then, out of nowhere, the MC shrieked, “It’s time for a Cuban foam party!” As the high volume dance music started pumping, a shiny foam cannon was revealed at the corner of the stage and white gobs of suds erupted from its mouth, spraying foam over everything and everyone nearby. The crowd went wild and people rushed the stage and began dancing uncontrollably. A crazy Cuban foam party ensued and yes, we joined in.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Cuba 2019 - Holguin

In a place where days have no meaning and time is an afterthought, Sunday arrived. Stella reluctantly joined me for my morning walk, but only because I had extracted a promise from her the night before after several days of trying to convince her. She was not disappointed, as we were rewarded with a beautiful, clear, warm day and we walked the expansive shoreline nearly as far as we could go, as we talked together about all sorts of things.

At 9 am, our new taxi-driving friend Osmany Ramirez picked us up and we took off for Holguin. Along the way we asked him all sorts of things about Cuba and he was happy to share his thoughts. During the last term of Obama’s presidency, the US government had begun loosening up the restrictions on Cuba, although didn’t go as far as fully ending the decades old economic embargo. But things looked promising, and filled people with hope on both sides of the dispute. Well, as soon as Trump arrived in office, one of the first thing he did was to stop it all and revert back to the senseless and cruel travel restrictions for no obvious reason besides perhaps bullying. So for now, Cuba will remain the lovely, unique, but economically crippled place that it is.

Holguin was interesting, and like all Cuban cities we’ve visited, quite run down. The roads were filled with cars, people, bicycle taxis and lots and lots of horses. We spent a couple of hours simply walking around downtown, exploring, popping into the many shops, and just poking around. Strangely, we seemed to be the only tourists around (at least the only obvious ones wearing tacky resort wristbands). We visited a library full of extremely beaten up books, an art gallery,  a cultural centre and found the museum of natural history but it was closed. Most interesting were the government shops, where the sparse inventory was displayed in antique wooden cabinets with glass tops so that you couldn’t touch any of the stuff. Some items were displayed behind the counters on old wooden shelving. What sort of things? A single pair of underwear, a few pairs of socks, a few sets of bedsheets, dish detergent, soap, various household items (but only one or two of each item), and even some plumbing supplies, but only a small number of fittings as opposed to the typical Home Depot shelf of fifty-thousand couplers, fittings, unions and pipes. It is all very strange, but the shops were packed full of people, and in some cases they were lined up outside, waiting to get in. Communism at its best.

We stopped for a cold drink at a lookout point called Loma de la Cruz, which sports a two-hundred-year old wooden Spanish cross and offers lovely vistas over Holguin and the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately the aggressive few vendors there were a pain in the ass so we didn’t stay long. The ride back to the hotel was nearly free of conversation as all four of us were bobbing heads and nodding off sporadically. This bit of activity clearly put too much of a strain on our weary bodies.

The rest of the day was great - beach, pool, hammocks (where Magnus nearly got brained by a falling coconut), tennis, an hour of internet in the lobby (first of the trip…and hopefully last), and then finally another great meal at a Cuban-themed a la carte restaurant.

Cuba 2019 - Windsurfing and Cuban Cigars

Magnus loves markets, and since we first learned of the existence of a market not too far from the hotel he has been lobbying constantly for us to go there. So after breakfast we did. It was a fifteen minute walk to Plaza Pesquero, and even at 9 am it was already scorching hot outside. Our weather thus far has been simply perfect and we were granted the heat and sunshine we were so hoping for.

Many of the shops in the plaza were still closed, but the open-air craft market was in full operation and already had a few tourists browsing around. I found a table on the patio of one of the cafes and sat back with my thoughts while the others browsed the craftiness. Shopping while on holidays (or anytime, really) is not my bag; I prefer to sit back and watch the people instead. A Cuban fellow walked up onto the patio and shook everybody’s hand that was there, wishing us a good day. He then continued onto the market and went from stall to stall, hugging each of the vendors, wishing all well. What a great way to start the day!

Instead of walking back on the main road, we decided to try and sneak into the Playa Costa Verde resort across the street so that we could make the return journey via the beach. But as we stepped into the lobby, a guard immediately noticed we were wearing the wrong colour of wrist bracelets and kicked us out, but in a most friendly manner. So Ana and I walked back along the road, but the kids hitched a ride with one of the horse and buggy operators that trot tourists around the area. The horses are not just for tourists; the locals use horses as a primary mode of transportation and you see them everywhere.

We set up base at the beach and then all four of us went for a long snorkelling adventure. Our resort and two others are located within a large, sheltered bay with water that shallow for a long way out, making it perfect for children and people who aren’t comfortable in deeper water. Our resort is located at the north end of the bay, and the bay edge has fantastic snorkelling, which is surprising considering the massive numbers of people using it. Yes, there is plenty of dead coral, which is always sad to see, but much that was still alive including fan coral, elk horn coral, and those corals that look like giant brains. After the snorkelling the kids spent a long while finding and collecting hermit crabs amongst the rocks.

The resort had a large water sports centre so I decided to take out a windsurfer. I spent some time thinking about it, and I’m quite positive I have not been on a windsurfing board for 25 years, which seems simply impossible, as I used to spend my entire summers as a kid windsurfing on Fishing Lake in Saskatchewan. Our family friend Brian Ford was the first guy to have a windsurfer and he taught me how to use it, so my dad bought us one - a Bic 250 if I recall correctly. Well I spent hours on that thing and eventually got quite proficient, even at doing tricks. When I look back now, I see that windsurfing gave me a great base for sailing and is almost definitely what spurned my love affair with sailboats. Windsurfing taught me how the wind works; how it acts on sails, how to handle gusts, how close to the wind you are able to sail, and how the sail interacts with the craft. Damn, I think I owe Brian Ford a beer!

It turns out that windsurfing is like riding a bike - I was able to pick up right where I left off 25 years before, and it felt great. I sailed out way past the range that I was probably supposed to, but I just couldn’t stop. The water was very clear so I could see all the structure on the ocean floor as I cruised by on top of the water - this is something you don’t get on fresh water lakes as the water is rarely clear. The wind was steady, but not strong enough to get a real wild ride, so I’m hoping we get some higher winds in the coming day so I can take another shot at it.

For lunch we went to the resort’s oceanside seafood a la carte, something we’ve never seen in any other resorts we’ve visited in Cuba. The food was delicious. We had seafood soup, fish tacos, shrimp tacos, fried fish and ceviche. Pure luxury.

We spent the afternoon at the pool and then shifted back to the lobby area, where they were celebrating “Cuba Day” at the resort by serving up roasted pig and beans and rice while a traditional Cuban band played music and some staff members put on a fashion show with the clothes being sold by vendors. There always seems to be something fun going on at the resort.

The afternoon chill-out session in our room was extra good, as I cracked into my cigars and enjoyed an amazing smoke out on our balcony, all alone, while the rest of the family watched tv. I put on my reggae playlist, opened a Bucanero beer, and enjoyed that cigar right down to the final half inch. Cuban cigars are best enjoyed in Cuba - they never taste quite as good as when you get them home. That perfect combination of alcohol, nicotine, and heat allows your brain to go into creative overdrive, and I decided at that moment that I need to play bass in a reggae band. But since I’m not good enough to get hired by a band, nor do I want to put in the hours to make it big, then I’m going to have to start my own, and make our modest aspirations clear from the start. I put together a mental list of all the people I know who play instruments and assigned them each a new reggae name and role in my band. There are going to be very surprised to find themselves recruited into a reggae band, but they will get used to the idea. We’re doing to do covers of classic reggae songs, and maybe even an original or two if we can think of something to say. I’m thinking our first gig will be at a Glenhyrst Christmas party and if that goes well then maybe we will play a scorching set of reggae magic at the Port Dover marina pavilion, which is in the top echelon of playing venues in that region. Dare to dream, my friends.

Our dinner at the Italian a la carte restaurant was fabulous - the look, the smells, the flavour, and the hard work of the chefs and servers made it truly extraordinary. We all gobbled up our food, loving all of it. I’m still amazed at how much better the a la cartes are compared to the uninspiring buffet. It always takes a few days to figure out the ideal routine at a resort, but I think we’ve got a good system in place - buffet breakfast, seafood lunch, and then rotate through the three a la cartes for dinner.

The lobby bar featured a piano player tonight, so we enjoyed his music while playing a game of dice, which Stella won again, easily. By 9:30 we were beat so we returned to our room and called it a night.

Cuba 2019 - Guard the Cow

I awoke at 5:45 am, got up, went to the bathroom, and then stood there trying to figure out what to do next. I could go for a walk, but it was still pitch black outside. I could go to the lobby bar with the laptop to do some writing, but I didn’t want to get bitten by the no-see-ums which are ravenous at that time of day. I could read, but didn’t want to wake up everybody else with the light. I decided to lay down for a second to reconsider my options, knowing there’s no way I’d be able to get back to sleep, and then immediately fell asleep, and woke up again at 7:30. Problem solved.

The breakfast buffet was amazing, like they always are in Cuba. Fresh fruit, eggs to order, pancakes, bacon, many varieties of cheese, fresh juices, and even great coffee. But strangely, the bread was dry and tasteless - shocking, considering the last time we were in Cuba three years ago at the Starfish resort at Cayo Santa Maria, the bread was plentiful, amazing and delicious. Ana told me that last week she read that Cuba had been having some sort of flour importation issues, and supplies were low, so perhaps that’s the reason. Or maybe they just don’t have a good baker here.

We were looking for a good day trip so I spoke with a porter at the front of the hotel who arranged a taxi to take us to the nearby town of Guardalavaca for a small adventure. As all of you Spanish-speaking folkistos know, “Guardalavaca” translates into “guard the cow” which makes perfect sense to us omnivores out there who love our Brie, prime rib, chocolate milk, sour cream, leather couches, prairie oysters, ribeyes, tenderloins, grilled cheese sandwiches, Yorkshire puddings, and, most importantly, rock and roll leather pants with the string-up leather cord fasteners which we all aspire to wear on stage, but so preciously few of us do.

Our taxi man Osmany Ramirez drove us the 20 kilometres or so to the town and dropped us off at the market. Now I’m not big on tourist markets, but the rest of the family go bat-shit crazy for them, so it was a great starting point. Stella bought a huge bag of trinkets and souvenirs for about seven bucks and Magnus found a fancy, leather wallet he liked for less then ten. Ana may or may not have picked up some silver jewelry, but I held off until the next stop - La Casa del Habano, where I purchased a box of Romeo and Julieta #2 cigars for less then half of what they sell for at home. This took care of the only Cuban shopping aspiration I had for the week. 

Osmany then took us to the Boulevard where we had a quick look at the shops and then continued onto the beach, which was expansive, clean, floury and wonderful. We took some fashion photos overlooking the beach, enjoyed some cold drinks at a cafe, and then taxi’d back to home base as it was getting blistering hot and we were aching for the water.

The beach was calling, so we began walking there but got sidetracked by the ice cream counter at the seafood restaurant. Ana suffered some humiliation when her splendid, tall, flavourful ice cream fell right off the cone and splattered on the restaurant floor. Of course, the Cubans brushed it off like it was no big deal, but the replacement cone was only half the magnificent height of the first one. She got the message.

After setting up home base on the beach under a canopy of thatch, Magnus and I went for a snorkelling adventure while the girls hit the lounge chairs and went for intermittent swims. The snorkelling was surprisingly good, considering we could swim out to the coral patches from the beach, and we saw many types of coral and fish, including four squid, which are not that easy to spot while snorkelling, especially since they are not in a circular, ringed and fried format with tartar sauce and lemon on the side, which is their most common form in Canada.

Back at the beach base, I surveyed our surroundings. As always, there was an abundance of hideous tattoos, which are more often than not, overrepresented on Canadian bodies. Look, probably 80% of our family and friends have tattoos, so I’m not trying to insult anybody, but I struggle to understand why anybody would get “FAMILY HONOUR SACRIFICE” tattooed in giant blue letters on their chest when it’s so bloody obvious that those are important things. Maybe it’s just there for you to see in the mirror as you’re shaving in the morning to remind you why you get up and go to work every day. But then, shouldn’t you get it tattooed in reverse so you could read it easier? Or maybe it’s meant to be a message to everybody else on the beach that you are a real stand-up guy. I don’t know. Maybe I’m getting too old and just don’t get it. But if I ever get a tattoo, it’s probably going to be a Motley Crue tattoo, because at least that makes a real statement.

Since the kids didn’t love the buffet lunch offering the day before, we hit the Snack Bar for burgers and fries - always reliable, predictable, delicious, and open 24 hours per day (in a row). And that’s where we met the Hamburger Family. They were seated at the table next to us, and were comprised of a Mom and a Dad and four Kids. Now normally we don’t really notice, nor care what other people are eating, but in this case we couldn’t help it. The Hamburger Family members each ordered a full meal, consisting of a big hamburger and loads of French fries, and then as soon as the lovely Cuban server delivered the food, they stood up and left the restaurant, leaving all of their food either untouched or barely touched. And this is the problem with all-inclusive resorts; they give license for people to act like total assholes. The same Cuban server returned minutes later to a deserted table, and piled up all that good food in preparation for the waste bin, to the horror and utter embarrassment of everybody else in the restaurant, who could hardly help but notice what was going on. I don’t know if they were Canadians, but if they were then I hope those people never leave the country again as this behaviour was utterly shameful. The worst part was that we found the food to be delicious, as did everybody else in the restaurant, whom all cleaned their plates and surely left the restaurant embarrassed and shocked just like us. And the Cuban server hardly batted an eye, so I guess it happens all the time.

We spend the rest of the scorching hot afternoon at the pool swimming, lounging, playing games and making underwater videos with Stella’s Go Pro-like camera. At the right point of epidural crispiness, we shuffled over to the games area and played billiards, air hockey and ping pong. I was surprised how well maintained the equipment was as this is often not the case as resorts in Cuba. I was also surprised how good the kids were at ping pong; particularly Stella, who managed to beat everybody at least once.

After a short chill-out session in the room, we went to the Mexican a la carte restaurant and had a spectacular meal that made the buffet pale in comparison. We had soup and beef appetizers and then fish, jalapeño shrimp, and steak for mains, finished up with chocolate cake baked in banana leaves and churros with a honey sauce for dessert. Tipping has become much more commonplace at the Cuban resorts - much more so than when we first started coming here, which it seemed to be almost discouraged. You generally leave a one peso tip (CDN $1.35) for a round of drinks and for dinners we’ve been leaving between three and five pesos, which isn’t a lot, but I’m sure is appreciated by the staff.

Magnus is the family scavenger and constantly scans the ground looking for items of interest. He found a little crab that was missing all of its front legs. We’re not sure if they were picked off by a person, or maybe a bird, but he was having real trouble getting around. Magnus was a little shaken up by this and wasn’t sure what to do with the creature, but decided to put him close to this hole where we’ve seen a giant crab. He thought perhaps the larger crab would tend to this little guy and nurse him back to health. But I felt compelled to tell him it’s more likely the wounded crab ended up as a nice meal for the big one. Sure enough the next morning a fresh and empty crab shell appeared in the vicinity. Circle of life, kids.

Over near the lobby, there was all sorts of action. A bride in a full wedding dress was scurrying around from place to place, appearing to be looking for something or someone. The groom was wearing this crazy, blue checkered suit and pounding rum with his best men at the bar. A group of Cubans were getting prepped for the big fashion show scheduled to start within the hour. But best of all was the game of hot potato, being curated by a fast talking MC, involving at least 30 young kids gathered in a large circle. As music blared loudly from the speakers the kids passed a bowling pin around the circle as fast as possible, and when the music stopped, whoever was holding the pin was eliminated. The MC walked over to the unfortunate player, directed the crowd to say, “Bye, bye!” and then escorted the young lad or lassie out of the circle. Sounds like a fun game, right? Well, some of the kids immediately burst into tears upon learning they were out of the game and didn’t get to be the winner. I guess they had to make a trip to Cuba to learn that sometimes you win, but most of the time you lose. It was oddly satisfying seeing these lessons in progress, and makes me wonder how well we’re preparing our kids for life when they can’t handle losing hot potato.

Cuba 2019 - Arrival

I get strangely overcome with joy when airplane passengers break out in applause after a successful landing. I’ve never really known precisely what the clapping is for, but nor do (I suspect) the majority of the clappers - I think many just join by force of social pressure. Is it applauding the pilots (or more likely the onboard avionics computers) that successfully landed the airplane? Is it the pure relief of being hurled through the air at 39,000 feet for hours and miraculously surviving? Is it an expression of thanks to the flight attendants, or perhaps the onboard entertainment? In any case, when the clapping begins, I always join in and find it immensely satisfying. Even though I don’t know what I’m clapping for, I feel incredibly happy, and applaud with gusto. Today, I wasn’t sure which way it was going to go, because moments after the rubber tires smoked the pavement of the Holguin runway, there was no clapping; just people looking expectantly at each other, waiting for somebody else to kick it off. I looked over to Magnus. He looked over to me, raised an eyebrow, and then did a single, soft clap. Then a second. And that was all it took for the passengers to burst out in a hearty round of applause, spreading love and happiness, all smiling, enjoying the ruckus. This was a fine start for our trip to Cuba.

As we stepped off the airplane, the moist tropical air enveloped me like a favourite blanket, welcoming me back to this fine Caribbean nation. The immigration process was predictably slow, and as we waited in line a drug sniffing dog weaved in and out of the white, wintry legs.

“Magnus,” I said, “I hope that dog doesn’t smell those bacon and Havarti sandwiches I put into your bag.”

“Hey, we’re not supposed to be bringing food in, I don’t want them in my bag! You take them.”

“No man, just leave them in there, these guys don’t care about that. If they do ask you about them, I’ll just say they are mine…unless the situation looks dicey, then I’ll say I’ve never met you before in my life.”

Well, they didn’t care about the bacon sandwiches, and soon we were on the bus headed for our resort - the Fiesta Americana Costa Verde. The ride took less than an hour, during which we had a quick nap to try and shake off the 2am start.

The queue at the check-in desk upon arrival was manageable, but sadly they did not have our room ready yet, so we were directed to leave our bags there and go for lunch, which we did, but with some grumbling as we seemed to be the only ones whom were not given a room immediately. This is the point on a Cuba vacation where you need to toss your Canadian expectations and hair trigger sense of irritability out the window, because time now has little meaning. Quick must be replaced with slow, precise must be replaced by approximate, and obstacles must be faced with a smile and surrender instead of fierce determination.

We received our room key and embarked on what I call the “Victory Walk’, which happens at the start of your trip and is when you cross the resort in your winter clothes, dragging your bags behind you, sweating in the heat, but with a joyful smile plastered on your face for all to see, as this is Day 1 of your holiday and there’s nothing but sand, sun, and free Pina Coladas in your future. The reverse journey on the final day of your trip is called the “Walk of Shame” for obvious reasons..

Ana shoved the key card into the door, and we pushed in, but found the room to be very occupied, with open bags, clothes and other junk flung all around the space. Fortunately, there was nobody on the bed doing the Hokey-Pokey, which would have been quite uncomfortable (but outrageously funny), so we just backed away, returned to reception, got another room, and performed our second Victory Walk to our new room, which was unoccupied, clean and very nice.

After some frantic unpacking and room organization, we left to spend the afternoon on the beach and at the pool, soaking up that beautiful hot sun, watching our ghostly white legs and arms sizzle as we sipped tropical drinks. This is what we came for; this is why we are here.

The buffet dinner was good (better than lunch), but the kids weren’t loving it. We told them the trick is to try little bits of everything to find what you like, and then you can stick with that. I tried talking them into having some of the delicious, fresh papaya that was in plentiful supply, and took up about a third of my own plate. They opted out, but did promise me that they would each try it twice during the week. We have a policy at home for foods you don’t like; you need to try it at least ten times before you can decide if you truly do not like it. Usually by the tenth time trying any food, you start to like (or at least tolerate) it. Stella has this game called Bean Boozled in which you eat colourful jelly beans, but beans of the same colour can have one of two flavours; a delicious one or a disgusting one. For example, the green ones either taste like juicy pear or snot. The red ones taste like strawberry or smelly socks. The blue ones taste like blueberry or vomit. Stella suggested adding a trick bean, which would taste like either papaya or smelly ass. But the taste would be identical! She’s so clever.

One thing we always notice when returning to Cuba is how kind the Cuban people are, and even how kind they look. In most countries, if you scan a group of people, say in a shopping mall or a market, or even just on the street, you will see a variety of faces. Some will look happy, but many will not. That guy looks irritated. The other one looks angry. This one over here looks like he’s going to rob me. That lady looks sad. Her friend looks mean. In Cuba you rarely see such an assortment of unhappy faces. Most Cubans simply look very kind, and you can see it in their eyes. Of course, the majority of exposure we’ve had to Cubans has been in tourist areas, but we have also been through several small towns and spent a fair bit of time in Havana. There seems to be a national sense of optimism, despite decades of enduring a senseless and cruel US trade blockade. The Cubans know how to have fun, and to make the most of their situation, something that cannot easily be said for many of us that live in supposedly richer countries.

After dinner we strolled over to the lobby bar, grabbed some drinks, and listened to a wonderful four piece orchestra play a set of songs. This was followed up by some terrible karaoke sung by drunken tourists who were pounding Havana Club rum all day long at the swim-up bar. It was so bad that one bystander actually covered his ears with his hands and ran out of the lobby.

Magnus had brought along a set of dice so we played a game that’s called simply “Dice”. During the game we got into a discussion about public toilets, as Ana and Stella had gone to the washroom, but none of the stalls had any paper. Fortunately, they found a roll laying on the ground in the corner.

“I never poo in public toilets,” Magnus announced.

“You never use public toilet stalls? I find that hard to believe,” said Ana.

“Nope, never.”

“It’s because he doesn’t have servants to bring him toilet paper when he notices the roll is empty, which is what happens all the time at home,” I said.

“What about the ones at school?” Ana asked him.

“Are you kidding? Do you know how many things could go wrong?”

We all burst out laughing.

“Seriously. The hinges are all rusted so the door could fall off. There could be no toilet paper. Somebody could turn the lights off. Somebody could look in over the top of the next stall. It’s way too risky.”

“What if you have a Code Brown emergency at school?” I asked.

“I hold it.”

Considering our early morning start, we stayed out until a surprisingly late 9:30 pm and then retired to the room, but along the way met the bravest crab in Cuba. He was wandering around the front entrance to the buffet kitchen. Risky, my friend, very risky.