Saturday, January 11, 2020

January 8, 2020 - The Currency of Cuba

We were up at 5:30 am for a cold shower (hadn’t seen much in the way of hot water the past few mornings), did some final packing, checked-out, and were on the bus headed for the airport. Because the buffet wouldn’t be open before our departure time, Ana and her mom hatched a devious plan the evening before to secure us a breakfast. We all walked into the buffet, even though we knew we were going to eat at the a la carte restaurant, but we wanted to look genuine. Ana and Stella gathered up a bunch of buns, deli meat and cheese and sat down at a table right at the entrance, thinking the frenzy of activity would somehow disguise their deception. The rest of us were supposed to wander around the buffet, looking at the food to distract attention from our accomplices, but John and Maria forgot the plan and just followed Ana around, making suggestions on which chunks of deli meat to take, and which variety of cheese looked best. Magnus and I did what we were supposed to, and found a hell of a lot of good food on offer tonight, making me think we should give the a la carte a miss. I went and sat with Ana and Stella to help with sandwich construction and extraction. But since the Cuban staff outnumber the guests, there were already two servers on our table getting us water, asking if everything was okay and so on. I went and grabbed a plate of papaya, to make our little meal look authentic, then started eating it ever so slowly as I layered ham and havarti into buns and then Ana stuffed them into her bag whenever Stella’s shifty eyes spotted an opening when neither of the servers were looking at us, and gave her mom the nod. After five minutes of this all the buns had disappeared and we looked at the servers, rubbing our bellies, so happy after eating such a delicious meal but whoops, sorry folks, gotta run - late for a big meeting.

We returned to the buffet 10 minutes later because there were no more tables at the a la carte, and we snuck back in three separate groups, to avoid detection, and took a table in the back corner of the restaurant. We should have had Ana change hats or wear a false moustache or something because the servers nailed her as soon as she stepped in, but instead of taking her to the resort holding cell to await trial and sentencing by the local Communist magistrate, they gave her a pass, probably because we’d tipped them both at some point during the week and them Cubans have great memories.

The handling of currencies at the airport is a prefect representation of why the Cuban economy is so completely messed up. Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban Peso (CUP) which is the national currency and used by the locals, and the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) which is a parallel currency that was originally only to be used by tourists. For many years American dollars were used extensively throughout Cuba but about 15 years ago they completely banned them and US currency was useless. But recently the government has changed direction and they are now moving back towards the US currency.

You are not allowed to take CUC’s out of the Cuba, so you are directed to convert any CUC’s you have back into your home currency of Canadian dollars or Euro. So here’s where it gets fun. Ana took our remaining CUC’s to the currency exchange desk at the airport to get Canadian dollars. But all they had were Canadian twenty dollar bills and Ana had only enough CUCs for just under twenty bucks, so all they could do was give her regular local Cuban pesos, which she said could be used to buy things in the departure lounge. Once through immigration, we looked around in the shops and discovered the following. All prices are in US dollars, but if you pay in US dollars, they charge you a 10% tax. They will accept Canadian dollars, Euro, or local Cuban pesos, but any change is given in US dollars, unless they don’t have enough, in which case they will give it to you in Canadian or Euro. They do not accept the CUC currency, but obviously a lot of tourists weren’t told that because many of them only had CUC bills, but you could only convert it before going through immigration, making them worthless. The prices in duty free were probably 50% higher than the prices in the hotel shops or shops in the street, and unless you want to buy rum, coffee beans, honey, a Cuba hat, or a dry chicken sandwich at the pitifully stocked restaurant, there’s probably not much you would want anyway.

It’s no wonder the country is in such bad economic shape, and you certainly can’t blame it all on the US embargo when they refuse to abandon this horribly inefficient Communist system. The kids asked me to explain how Communism works, but I told them they’d be better off reading some Karl Marx to get the information directly from the source, but I did say that as far as economics goes, Communism is the great equalizer; it provides for everybody in the country to be equally poor. But it must be said that vacationing in Cuba gives you a refreshing break from the rampant consumerism that we are so used to and support unthinkingly.

Our trip back home was trouble-free, except that the “stolen sandwich” breakfast in the airport instead of our regular 3000 calorie buffet extravaganza just wasn’t cutting it for our stretched out tummies, so we bought meals on the plane which helped sooth the savage hunger beast. And before we knew it we were back in Toronto, through immigration and baggage collection in record time, and arrived home by 8pm. We never seem to have this much luck in airports – Ana’s folks must be our good luck charms!

January 7, 2020 – Ricardo the Cuban Salvavida

For our final day in Cuba, we thought of doing something crazy like renting a hot air balloon, chartering an airplane to Havana, building a raft and trying to float to Key West, wrestling crocodiles in the marshes, or going to breakfast as a group completely naked, but that all sounded too tiring so instead we stuck with the regular routine and just tried to eat and drink as much as possible in Free Land before having to return to Pay For Everything Land tomorrow.

Magnus and Stella joined me for the final day of Walking Club and we infiltrated a different resort this time - the Playa Costa Verde, but it wasn’t nearly as nice as ours and was quite a bit smaller so it was scratched from the list of resorts for future consideration. The weather was cloudy, but still warm, and we had a very satisfying walk.

After breakfast we broke for the beach and scored premium chairs in a premium spot, surely because it was cloudy and raining, but we had a feeling it would burn off soon and let the heavenly rays shine through, which it did. Ana, the kids and I did another snorkeling trip on the paddleboat, then went hermit crab hunting on the beach and Stella found hundreds of little ones, so we build a sand stadium for a hermit crab race. Sadly, they either didn’t move at all or moved so slowly that a race was not possible.

During the afternoon we met a local fellow named Ricardo who worked as a lifeguard (or as it’s called in Spanish “salvavida” – a fun word I just never tire of saying) and we chatted with him for over an hour about his life, his family, his job, and the situation in Cuba. He was happy to discuss all these things, until I asked him if he thought there would ever be a revolt or wholesale change in the political system. Then he stopped talking, uncomfortable, and simply said “Quien sabe?” which means “Who knows?”

Cuba has been in the grips of an authoritarian, communist regime for over 60 years. Signs with propaganda slogans appear everywhere in the country:

“Socialismo or muerte!” 

“Hasta la victoria, siempre!”

“Patria o muerte!”

Cubans cannot freely leave the country. Police and military presence is everywhere. Cubans earn an average state salary of around $30 per month. There is little concept of private ownership, although this is slowly changing, as is the ability to start a small business. People have very few possessions and many live in primitive housing. On the other hand, Cuba has a literacy rate of 99.8%, universal healthcare, no homelessness, and is one of the safest countries in the world (as long as you’re not a journalist or political reformer). It is a country of contrast that endures constant struggle, largely of its own doing, and the ruling party has an iron grip on power.

Will this ever change? Will the people ever rise up and demand change? Or will there be just slow, incremental changes, or no changes, for decades to come? Nobody knows. In the meantime we will continue to visit Cuba, support their economy, enjoy the warm hospitality of the Cuban people, and consider ourselves fortunate to visit such an interesting and unique country.

Friday, January 10, 2020

January 6, 2020 - Guardalavaca

The beach was surprisingly empty this morning, due to the high waves and overcast skies, but this made for a lovely beach walk, which I did on my own. I snuck into the Playa Pesquero resort to have a look around and it is a massive place, likely three times the size of ours, and seemed very nice. We’ll keep that one in mind for a future trip.

Our leisurely breakfast took us right past the 9:20 tourist double decker bus to the nearby town of Guardalavaca so instead we found a taxi driver with a 1952 powder blue Chevy that had room for all of us on the two rows of classy red leather seats. Amazingly the doors opened, the windows rolled up and down, and I didn’t see a single piece of duct tape holding things together. It was a real classic.

In Guardalavaca, we spent about 90 minutes browsing through the handicraft market, looking in the shops, walking around, and talking to the vendors to get their current feelings on the state of Cuba, which are as pessimistic as I ever remember hearing. The bankruptcy of the UK travel retailer Thomas Cooke had completely dried up all British vacationers. Venezuela’s continual meltdown has meant the end of cheap oil for Cuba, pushing up prices. The tyrant Trump’s severe and irrational tightening of the US’s economic embargo against Cuba has had predictable results. And I’m sure the resources required to repair the damage from recent hurricanes hasn’t helped. So for now, Cuba will remain hopeful, but continue to endure and economize as it always has.

The kids picked up some trinkets, Ana bought some clothes, and I too accomplished my retail goal for the trip and purchased a full box of 25 Partagas cigars plus a 15 package of Vegueros robustos, which will probably fuel three years of my intermittent cigar smoking habit. The market was located right next to Club Amigo, but we didn’t have time to stop and see hi to our good friends there.

We made it back to the resort in time for lunch and had an excellent feast of grilled fish and langostinos, which look like giant sized prawns and were delicious. This was followed up with a long, quiet reading session on lounge chairs beside the pool then we returned to the our rooms for the afternoon chill-out. I sat on the balcony with the patio door tightly closed and cracked a beer then lit up one of my new robusto cigars and my god, was it amazing! You can smoke a Cuban cigar anywhere in the world, and it will always be good, but there’s just nothing better than smoking one in Cuba. And trust me, I’ve tried.

While I was smoking up my lungs, Ana was inside watching television, switching between CNN and its reports on Trump trying to provoke a senseless war in Iran and a show about a 750 pound girl named Liz in Texas who was trying to lose a few (hundred) pounds with the help of a doctor and a surgeon but not her mom who kept bringing her deluxe pizzas and double battered fried chicken wings. Both shows were horrifying so I remained sequestered out on the balcony with my smokes, my beer, my reggae music, and my thoughts.

John & Maria met us for happy hour at the bar then we returned to the buffet for dinner. As we sat down the server immediately appeared and took our drink orders. Now I am positive that I asked for “regular plonk” red wine, as I’ve been doing consistently since we arrived, but today I am damn sure he poured me “extra plonk” because it was just awful. Not so awful that I couldn’t drink it, mind you. In fact I can’t remember being served wine so bad I couldn’t drink it and I’ve come into contact with some pretty bad vino over the years. Ana didn’t eat a lot as her stomach had started to boil up and she wasn’t feeling well at all. What did make her feel better though was a post-dinner shopping trip to the hotel vendors where we bought an exceptionally beautiful woven basket for twenty bucks. All we need to do know is wait for picnic weather to return to Canada.

January 5, 2020 - Rotten Quebecois Kids

This is the point of a Cuban all-inclusive trip where you lose sense of all space, time and regular human behaviour. You feel like the Sultan of Brunei, where you have an army of servants who are bringing you food and drinks at all hours of the day, serving you compliments, and reminding you of your magnificence. There’s no hurry to do anything; you walk way slower, the thought of having to get up and go to the bathroom sort of irritates you, you’ve committed to never wearing underwear again, you’ve promised yourself to learn Spanish this year, the incessant reggaeton playing on the massive speakers by the pool is sounding pretty good, having regular bowel movements just seems like an oddity, the thought of walking all the way to the beach is simply exhausting, your BFF is the bartender at the lobby bar and you know the names of his wife and children, you’ve figured out why people sitting in the water at the swim up pool bar never get out to go for a leak, you go for lunch shirtless and in wet swimming trunks, and the mattress that felt awful on day one is now the most beautiful sleeping surface imaginable. You’ve also realized that trying to do a travel blog on your adventures in an all-inclusive resort is near impossible so you just make shit up and let the random thoughts spill out.

Walking Club was still alive and well and Ana and Stella join me for a big stroll around the resort then out to the far point of the bay where we did some shelling and crab spotting. Along the way we passed a fisherman whom I had spoken with yesterday, and he told me he made 20 pesos per month as a stone mason and was here to catch some fish to feed his family. I related this story to Stella and she decided she wanted to give him 15 pesos of her money, but first asked if we thought that would be a good idea. I told her that’s not something I would normally do, as directly giving people money for nothing can sometimes be counterproductive, but I said she was free to do whatever she wants. We talked together a bit about charity and how best to help people who need it and we all agreed that he would be able to make much better use of that 15 pesos than we would. We did find the fisherman, but by that time another man had joined him and Stella decided it would be awkward to give him money but not the other guy. I am always so impressed with Stella’s charitable and caring nature and she has been that way since she was a little girl. I think she is going to grow up to do a lot of good in this world.

After breakfast we got set up at the pool then went to the beach and took out a six-person paddleboat and cruised out to the nearby reef for some snorkeling. I tried to convince Maria to put on a mask and lay down at the back of the paddleboat to look down at the reef and fish, but the idea of getting her face anywhere near the water freaked her out. John donned a mask and snorkel and swam around with the kids on the reef, which was indeed teeming with fish, surprising for a spot so close to a resort. Ana loves snorkeling and spent a long while cruising the reef with the kids after John was done.

The kids got their own room this time and seem to be enjoying having a bit more independence. I’ve been encouraging them to get out and meet some other kids, especially since most of them are French speakers so it would give them a great opportunity to practice their speaking skills. During the afternoon the kids and I went to the games area to play pool and ping pong and found the space in utter disarray - the ping pong table net had been ripped off and was laying on the ground, along with the broken brackets. There was a plate of half eaten food on the playing surface and half-finished drinks balanced precariously on two of the chairs surrounding the table. The paddles were laying on the ground but the ball was nowhere to be seen. Over by the pool table, somebody had spilled an orange drink on the ground and the case for the balls was sitting in it, soaking up the sticky, sugary juice. Other half-finished drinks and one completely full one were on the ground and sitting on chairs. Worse, the two kids playing pool were having a light sabre battle with the pool cues, smashing them together, banging them on the tile, dropping them, and then spearing at the balls on the pool table, somehow not ripping the cloth to shreds. I gave them shit and told them not to break the cues because then nobody could play. The one kid looked at me blankly because he didn’t speak a word of English and the other kid understood and nodded, then called me some soft of awful French insult under his breath. Attack of the Quebecois. Maybe I shouldn’t be encouraging our kids to make Quebecois buddies.

I cleaned up all the drinks, fixed the ping pong net, then we played a game of doubles in pool and one of the rotten kids was Magnus’s partner. I was very impressed at how great Magnus’s French is as he sounded perfectly fluent and was able to understand the kid despite his rapid pace of speech. Stella has always been a little more reluctant to speak French, so didn’t say much, but it would be nice if she could meet some French speakers she could be friends with and get some real life practice.

John and Maria seem to be having a pretty good time. Ana tells me her mom really enjoys these trips as it gives her a week away from cooking and cleaning. I know she likes the food as she returns from the buffet with a plate piled high, eats every scrap, then returns for another plate full of sweets which she devours. I don’t know where she puts it all, but it’s great to see her enjoying the fruits of somebody else’s cooking efforts. John too is having fun and enjoying the abundance of food, drink, and sunshine. I am very happy they were able to join us on this trip.

We went for dinner at the Cuban a la carte and it was excellent, just like the first time. After dinner we went to the Cigar Bar, which is a smaller bar that used to be an actual place to smoke cigars, but they don’t allow indoor smoking here anymore so now it is a regular bar, but with a better selection of drinks. They have these big, comfy leather lounge chairs that are seasoned with decades of cigar smoke and make you feel like Ernest Hemingway, especially while drinking a gin martini, which is what I ordered. We played a couple games of Uno and chilled out for a while then returned to the lobby where the evening show had started and a magician was up on stage making doves disappear, then reappear, turning a cardboard goose into a real one, and making a lady somehow float in mid-air. This was followed up by a local acapella group, which we had seen here last year, but didn’t  seem to be quite as good - perhaps they were having an off night. We stayed for a few songs then head back to the room, putting the wraps on another great day in Cuba.

January 4, 2020 - Monkey Butlers and U-Shaped Driveways

The other day we dropped Stella off for a babysitting gig at our friends Allan and Jen’s place. They have a cool ranch style house with one of those awesome u-shaped driveways, in which you can drive in one end, proceed up to the house, then continue driving out the other side. And that reminded me of two dreams I’ve had since childhood that are yet to fulfilled. The first is living in a house with a u-shaped driveway, so I was simply insane with jealousy after seeing their place. The second dream is to have a monkey butler. As I kid I must have seen my first monkey butler on an episode of “I Love Lucy” or one of those other old black and white television series they made in the days when there were no crazy animal rights groups ruining everybody’s fun. The concept of a monkey butler immediately and permanently captured my imagination. If Ana and I retire to a catamaran then I guess I’ll have to give up on the first dream, as it really won’t make sense anymore, but I could still get that monkey butler, and in addition to his main task of pouring and serving gin & tonics, I will also instruct him on scrubbing the deck, keeping watch on the overnight runs, changing the masthead light when required (especially easy for a monkey), and maybe even docking if he’s a fast learner.

Today we again went for a lovely morning walk, but then did the unthinkable and played the Towel Game. What’s the Towel Game you ask? Well, at these resorts people will get up at the crack of dawn and run down to the beach to stake claim to the premium spots by laying towels and a bunch of other personal shit like books, flip flops, clothing, and Big Bubba cups down on lounge chairs. I absolutely hate this, because after gearing up the chairs, they usually go back to bed for a couple of hours, then have a leisurely breakfast, and don’t show up on the beach until 11am, by which time dummies like me have had to sit in the sand at the outer realm of the property because there’s no chairs left. One time at a resort, in my dreams, I went down to the beach at 7am and gathered up all the towels and claim items and threw all that junk all into a huge pile, then I made myself an amazing castle structure out of all those chairs and sat there on top like a king watching people come down to the beach and have synchronized heart attacks when they realize they had lost their spots and had to dig through a giant pile to find their stuff as I sat on my castle laughing. It was so much fun.

Anyway, today I decided (in my maturity) that the adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join 'em” was never truer than it is with the Towel Game. I was considering playing the Towel Game on my own, so imagine my surprise when there was a slight knock on our door at 6:30 and both kids were standing there ready for the walk, and I was still in my skivvies. I threw on some shorts and we walked to the beach, grabbed six chairs in a premium spot and covered them with our gear, went for a big walk, then went back for breakfast. It didn’t feel as bad as I thought it would. And it sure was nice coming down to the beach and having chairs in a great spot instead of getting mad at all the Towel Game participants (which is everybody on the resort except for us) and scowling our way down to the end of the beach.

Noon came and Magnus, Stella and I had tacos at the poolside taqueria, just a nice light lunch. Then I joined Ana at the buffet an hour later for second lunch. The way I see it, it’s good to abuse your body occasionally to keep it strong…and keep it guessing. Next week I’ll be back to sensible meals, controlled food quantities, daily exercise, and drinking only after 6 pm on the weekends. So I enjoyed my second lunch in peace with the full support of my wife. Besides, we were starving after the big kayak ride we did together in the morning.

For dinner we went to the Italian a la carte restaurant, which was a bit risky as John has always claimed to hate Italian food, but I’m not sure what he considers Italian food because he loves spaghetti and meat balls, pizza, and I think I’ve seen him eating pasta lots of times. I think what he actually doesn’t like is too much cheese on food. So when his meal arrived, in the form of a chicken breast enveloped in thick, white, Cuban cheese, his face turned into Angry John. Magnus offered to swap him his beef dish, which helped, but then the second part of the meal arrived and there was a bunch of cheese on that too so he was pissed. But ours was not the only table with aggravated people, as Ana was giving us the play by play of a family in the far corner of the restaurant having a full-on familial meltdown. First there was some yelling at the table between the 14 year old boy and the dad. Then the mom was fighting with the dad. The son and 11 year old daughter then ran out, crying. The mom went after them and the dad stayed and ordered a triple whiskey. He looked quite happy for a few minutes, and I could definitely understand that. Then the mom came back and they fought a bit, then they both left, but they all returned shortly thereafter, with tear streaked faces, but determined to finish their meals and enjoy it as a family, Ha! No such luck. Sometimes you just have to throw in the towel, say “my family’s fucked today!” and hope for better tidings tomorrow. Sadly, we sat near them for breakfast the next day and they were still throwing eye daggers at each other. I felt like going over and giving each of them a hug, but I was too busy eating fresh papaya.

January 3, 2020 - Predictions For The New Decade

Because this day was a most typical one for an all-inclusive Cuban resort (morning walk, massive breakfast, pool, beach, giant lunch, afternoon drinks, excellent dinner, drinks and games at lobby bar), I decided instead to put together a list of predictions for the 2020’s.

As far as I can remember, I have never before put together a list of predictions, because trying to predict anything in this complex world is a fool’s errand. And nothing I’m predicting is going to change anything I do in the present, right now. So why bother? Well, let’s just say that I have plenty of time on my hands at the moment, and in ten years I can say “I predicted that!” for the few that inevitably come true, but then ignore the majority that I didn’t get right. I will split these up into predictions for the world in general and a few specifically for Canada.

Predictions - World

  • The world will be hit with a crippling economic recession, fueled by government overspending and massive consumer debt
  • Interest rates will remain low, sometimes negative
  • There will be a massive cyber attack on global financial institutions which will bring into question the concept of money
  • Life will continue to improve across all economic classes and mostly all countries, despite mass media reports to the contrary
  • China will be the world’s undisputed economic global power and mostly hated
  • China will also lead the world in renewal energy technology and production as it chokes on its own emissions and pollution
  • The rest of the world will finally follow Europe in taking climate change seriously after massive youth protests and devastating weather events across the globe
  • Nuclear power will make a surprising comeback and small-scale reactors will be deployed worldwide with few adverse effects
  • The US will realize the stupidity of its economic embargo against Cuba and remove nearly all restrictions; the ever crafty Cubans will figure out a way to not be overrun by American franchises, however there will be a McDonald’s in Havana
  • Countries will come together to implement a significant global carbon tax on airplane fuel, which will prompt airline makers to find a better way of getting people around as global travel sags
  • Self-driving electric cars will be commonplace but the highways will still be clogged with traffic
  • High speed internet will be available in every location on Earth, and it will be cheap or free
  • Donald Trump will lose in 2020 but will not go down gracefully
  • The US will have a female president
  • The US will continue to be a global power, but its significance and influence will wane as it struggles with domestic issues
  • There will be a breakthrough international agreement to preserve and restore global fish stocks
  • Somebody will figure out an environmentally sustainable replacement for single use plastics…and get very rich
  • Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter will be relics, as information will be shared online in a very different way
  • People will realize the internet really was in its infancy in the early 2000’s
  • There will be an illegally cloned human
  • We’ll still be talking about AI and no computer will consistently pass the Turing test
  • We still won’t have figured out a good replacement for the keyboard
  • Lots of that stuff we saw on Black Mirror will be real
  • The concept of gender will continue to change and develop
  • The Middle East will be a continual source of global anxiety and conflict with no clear path to peace
  • Russia will continue its slow, steady decline
  • South American countries will not realize their potential
  • Asia and it’s youthful and educated populations will continue its economic takeover of the world
  • Young leaders will emerge in many African countries and start to reform their awful systems
  • We will realize that global population growth projections were far too high
  • We will realize that the expected impact of carbon emissions and global warming on the oceans was far too low
  • Humans will visit Mars
  • Permanent tattoos will be passé
  • A “new” form of African music will take the world by storm
  • There will be an internet billionaire under the age of 15
  • An entirely new beverage will capture the world’s attention
  • There will be a major incident at a particle accelerator…that will lead to a fascinating discovery
  • Robotics will continue to revolutionize the world - in particular, the medical field
  • Hundreds of millions of people will realize they can live happily without meat
  • We will be eating a lot more seaweed and vegetables produced by ocean farming

Predictions - Canada

  • Canada’s economy will sputter, hampered by the aging population, continued decline of the oil industry, and led by weak politicians unable to make the tough decisions
  • Canada’s right leaning Conservative parties will finally turn the corner on their resistance to fighting climate change…when they realize they are no longer getting elected
  • Canada’s fresh water resources will become very, very important
  • Hard drugs will be decriminalized and addictions will be treated properly as medical conditions
  • There will be a female Prime Minister who will start to reinvent the country
  • We will continue to welcome immigrants from all parts of the world
  • There will be a massive, unprecedented forest fire that will burn an unimaginable amount of forest
  • Mark Carney will become the most influential and important Canadian in living memory
  • Canada and the US will do away with Daylight Savings Time
  • Quebec will become poorer, weaker, and a less significant part of Canadian politics
  • Canada will still be an amazing place to live

I will check back in ten years to see what’s happened!

January 2, 2020 - Settling In

The one thing I had been looking forward to the most in Cuba was the early morning walk. I am always up dawn and looking for buddies to join me for “Walking Club” as I call it. Ana and I strolled the full length of the Playa Pescero beach, enjoying the sun rays reflecting off the calm water, the flat and moist sand, the lightning fast ocean birds running back and forth where the water meets the sand, and mostly the beautifully warm and moist Caribbean air, rehydrating our winterized and parched skin.

We all met up shortly after 8 am for a gigantic breakfast at the buffet and it was delicious - eggs, ham, croquettes, fresh juice, yogurt, pastries and very good coffee. Say what you will about the food in Cuba, but the breakfasts are always fantastic. We recognized many of the staff from our visit at this time last year, and it seems that once a Cuban gets a job at a resort, they have no reason to leave, as these are some of the best jobs in the country, giving them access to tips and goodies from the wealthy foreigners.

After breakfast we went down to the beach and set ourselves up under some shade near the beach volleyball courts. The beach was packed full of people and it was already hot and sunny. It seems that the majority of visitors here are Quebecois as nearly everybody was speaking French. Fortunately, this is a very family oriented resort so there aren’t a lot of young, crazy Quebecers drinking everything in sight and smashing up the place (which we’ve seen at resorts in Varadero).

To pass the time we snorkel, look for hermit crabs, walk up and down the beach, and laze sleepily in the beach chairs. The hours go by very fast at these resorts and soon it’s time for lunch so we go to the small seafood restaurant near the beach for seafood soup, fish tacos, octopus, and shrimp cocktails, washed down with a glasses of beer. The kids remembered this place from last year because it has a self-service ice cream machine, so they self-serve and walk out with mile-high cones. Magnus reckons himself to be the ice cream expert as he worked in an ice cream shop this summer, but the first one he makes is thin, lopsided, and quite ugly so we tell him he’s lost his touch, which he protests.

We made a big move over to the main pool and set up base camp then went for a swim and enjoyed a couple of Cuba Libres at the swim-up bar. Stella had a small toy turtle which worked well as a projectile so we played a riotous game of turtle tag, which would have gone on all day if Stella hadn’t whipped it and hit a nice Quebecois lady right in the chest. We called off the game.

The afternoon chill-out session back in the room was interrupted (in a good way) by John and Maria who must have gotten bored on their room, so we all packed onto our balcony and enjoyed some rum and cokes (the maid had left us a 26 ouncer of local rum), while I smoked a fine Cuban cigar. Once night fell and the no-see-ums started gnawing at our ankles, we left for the buffet and had a nice meal accompanied by moderately plonky red and white wine. During dinner the distorted, shrieking, wonderful laments of an electric guitar erupted from the lobby area, and I just had to leave the gang to go and investigate. What I found was a fifty-year-old Cuban guitar monster shredding on his axe to the recorded sounds of popular guitar tunes like Sultan of Swing, Panama, Summer of ’69 and some other songs which weren’t even guitar solo tunes, but he greased them up and laid down deep, powerful licks just like Gene Simmons’ tongue. Man, was this guy amazing! His solos lasted far too long (in a good way) and his fingers skipped up and down the fretboard so fast I could barely make them out, so instead of trying to figure out what he was doing I just sat back and enjoyed the tapping, bending, sliding and wailing of this guitar god.

The lobby bar was our hangout for a while, and we played cards and dice waiting for the evening show to begin. John and Maria bailed immediately after we learned it was going to be a fashion show, but we held on and made it through the first 20 minutes of the show, which featured four models showing off strange, all white clothing, but mainly their finely tuned, young Cuban bodies.

And with that, I proved once again that anybody can stay up late drinking free all-inclusive booze, partying hard, and getting rowdy, but it takes a real champ to call it a night at 9:30 with no apologies.

January 1, 2020 - Arrival. Departure. Arrival

To me, we broke through to the new decade in the best way possible - in bed by 10 pm then up at 1:30 am to be at the airport for our 6 am flight to Holguin, Cuba. Our original plan was to vacation in the Camaguey region of Cuba, but the charter company called a week before our departure day to tell us all flights to that destination had been cancelled and that we had to choose between a few other options. Ana had scrutinized the available resorts and chosen the one in Camaguey based on its location and excellent traveler reviews. The alternate option we took was the Club Amigo resort in Holguin but had to decide on very short notice so couldn’t research it at thoroughly as we normally do.

After an effortless check-in in Toronto, breezy flight, and the fastest and easiest entry through Cuban immigration in the ten years we’ve been coming here, we arrived at Club Amigo and were immediately struck by the busted up facade, shabby entrance, cracked concrete, and hornet nest of frenzied activity going on in the cigarette smoke filled lobby. Strangely, the guests were almost entirely Cuban locals instead of the typical Quebecois, Russians, French and English Canadians.

The check-in process was slow and awful because of the all the noise and yelling and people budding into the line, but primarily because their ancient photocopier broke down as our passports were being scanned, so the staff had no option but to hand write all the passport information on scraps of paper. We asked about upgrading our rooms to a bungalow, but were told they were completely full, and all they had available were rooms near the lobby and pool area. Finally, we broke through the finish line and were awarded wrist bracelets and keys for one room, where we could store all our bags until the other rooms were available. We piled into the room, sweaty and hangry, and found a barebones layout with awful beds and blaring noise coming from the masses of people and thumping reggaeton just outside the full-sized window overlooking the pool. This is going to be awful, I thought. Ana’s dad is a very light sleeper and I had no doubt there was going to be an epic 3am party happening here every night.

Sometimes hanger can cloud your judgement and impressions, so we dumped the bags, put on shorts, and headed over to the buffet to find a lineup of 50 people waiting to get in. So we waited. And waited. And 45 minutes later we were finally let in. How was the lunch? Well, the big platter of shrimp Magnus thought he had spotted through the glass was, in fact, a plate of underripe watermelon covered in fruit flies. The main course was big tray of greyish shredded fish, but if you didn’t like that then there was the secondary main - a tray of charred hot dog pieces splattered with a suspicious white sauce, accompanied by a big bowl of foul smelling, melted cheese. There was a small salad section but it was totally ripped apart with only shreds of saucy, limp lettuce and cabbage remaining. In the far corner there was a man cooking chunks of pork on a grill, but you had to fist fight fit young Cuban men to get anywhere close to it. We did find a small section of bread and I grabbed a piece, but it was stale, grey and tasted even worse when the rank butter was applied. The whole scene was awful, everybody in our group looked miserable and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that this was going to be a very bad week.

We picked up the additional room keys from the front desk and sent the gang there while Ana and I went to see the Suning representative to see if there was anything we could do. We told him our story, and how we had booked a different resort but were sent here instead. “Last year,” I began, “we stayed at a resort near here called the Fiesta Americana Costa Verde Playa Pesquera…or something like that.”

“OK, just now you said the name of at least three different hotels,“ the Sunwing rep said, laughing.

“It definitely had Fiesta in the name.”

“Let me call Fiesta Americana to see if they have rooms and what the differential will be.”

It seems to me that the Cuban government has a random name generator they use when naming these resorts. It works like this: they take fifty nice words that have a real summertime vibe, like Costa, Playa, Bonita, Bahia, Fiesta, Verde, Sol, Azul and write them on scraps on paper, put them in a military hat, then the Minister of Tourism picks out four or five words and strings them together to name each new hotel. It’s a system that produces names that are not just impressively lackluster, but also exceedingly difficult to remember.

In less than 20 minutes the Sunwing man (our new best friend) had moved our reservation to the Fiesta Americana, which cost only $600 for the six of us - much cheaper than it would have been booking that hotel from Canada. I ran back to the rooms and told the gang to grab their bags because we were getting the hell out of here, and I’ve never seen Stella so happy. We grabbed two taxis and arrived at the new hotel just after 4 pm, which was enough time to get checked in, throw on the swimsuits and go for a swim in the beautiful, warm ocean, washing off all that nasty travel funk and even partaking in an epic seaweed fight. Our moods were greatly improved.

We dined at the Cuban-themed a la carte and it was simply delicious. My four courses included a fish starter, a bowl of tasty and creamy Cuban soup, a main pork dish with fragrant rice and vegetables, followed by mango pie, all served with a bottomless glass of red house plonk, which tasted just fine. With full bellies, we wandered over to the main lobby for a coffee then retired to our respective rooms. Ours and the kids’ rooms were next to each other while John and Maria had been given a gigantic suite at the quiet end of the hall - perfect.

As we were getting settled in after a very busy day there was a frantic knock on our door and we opened it to find Stella standing there saying a cat had infiltrated their room and they couldn’t get it out. Sure enough, their feline friend had squeezed in through the slightly ajar door and encamped itself under the bed and was not looking to leave. The cat looked surprisingly healthy, quite unlike most of the nasty feral cats we’d previously seen in Cuba. After 30 minutes, two tennis rackets, a box of crackers, and the coordinated efforts of all four of us, we managed to kindly evict the cat which put the wraps on our first day in Cuba.