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Published: January 11th 2009
People always says that a visit to Cuba is similar to being transported back to another time period. This was most definitely true shortly after leaving the airport. As we made the one hour drive to our hotel, it was perfectly normal and common to see horse drawn buggies, individuals on horseback and many people waiting on the side of the road to hitchhike. Little did I know until this experience that oil is in short supply (much of it is imported from Venezuela) and individuals who do own cars (vintage Chevies and other American cars) are legally obligated to give passerbys a lift if there is space in their car. The newer air-conditioned buses (imported and made by the Chinese Yutong Corporation) were reserved for transporting tourists and the Peugots, Hyundais and Citroens were mostly kept as rental cars for adventurous tourists.
Our hotel resort was located in Guardalavaca. It was a mouthful to pronounce until it dawned on me that this translated literally into... guard/keep the cow! Its certainly an unusual name to associate with an area with palm trees, beautiful white beaches and crystal blue waters but this area was previously decent grazing land and subject to
thieving cow pirates (says Wikipedia).
Holguin is a city nearby and also the province we were in. Its best known for being the birth place of Castro, general landing area for Christopher Columbus and hit hard recently by hurricane Ike. Regretably, some buildings including the local university and an art school near the Central plaza were in desperate need of repair with broken windows and jagged chunks of concrete still evident. I had the opportunity of meeting a teacher at this art school who showed me around this grand building (but in need of repair & renovations). In a great conversation that ensued in mixed English-Spanish, he was amazed to discover that I had worked while attending school for both my degrees. Free education (and monthly stipends for students studying certain professions) is something Cubans are proud of. He was fascinated that the cost of my current degree was relatively cheap in comparison to an American equivalent but still an astounding amount. Pork and my black bean diet
While initially discouraged by the food selection at the resort, I quickly became fond of and attached to black beans which were plentiful and tasty (flavoured a bit
of bacon & bacon grease). So, for the remainder of the stay, I would eagerly seek out the Cuban Congris, rice & black beans. This incidentally, was a traditional Cuban food served up at New Years Eve celebrations along with a whole pig roasted over an open spit. Pork is much loved at this celebration that families have to plan ahead and buy the pig and maintain it months in advance. Those that do not and want some New Years pork pay some pretty hefty prices for the pleasure.
Over the years, I've been asked some interesting questions at Customs and understandably the officers are only doing their jobs to protect the integrity of their country's borders and sovereignty. To date, the best has been at the Calgary American Customs clearance, where I was asked if I have ever had a criminal record check done. I grinned, nodded yes and then told her where I worked. For some reason though, the questions asked at the Cuban customs in the Frank Pais airport were puzzling at best... especially as most travellers passing through are heading straight to all inclusive resorts and most definitely have no secret aspirations to
all 458 steps worth
defect or emigrate to Cuba. The questions included: Where did you learn Spanish? What are you studying in school now? How long have you lived in Canada for? Where do you work? What do you do there?
For a socialist country, there seem to be a lot of wrought iron bars covering all house windows and doorways. Metalworking must thrive in Cuba.
As a nice final parting thought from Cuba, the words 'Socialismo o muerte' were blazoned on a billboard on the airport tarmac. Unfortunately, as most Cubans are not able to leave the country and a good percentage of the all-inclusive package tourists using the Frank Pais airport don't speak Spanish, I believe the 'Socialism or death' belief is lost on most travelers.
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