Our man in Havana: Cuba, cigars, rum and waiting for the Yanks
[Author's note: I hate most travel writing. I've crossed Russia on a train, gotten drunk in Mongolia, lived in Italy, been held at the Laos-Vietnam border for a number of hours and not a word of those misadventures is published on the Interwebs. But this is almost newsworthy … almost.]
To escape the wrath of another hellish winter, my partner and I fled the west coast of Newfoundland for a break in Cuba. Having never been, I wanted to take it all in before the Americans return.
As officials in both the United States and Cuba work out the details on ending the embargo, keeping folks living in the Home of the Brave out of the little Caribbean country for now, a million Canadians a year flock to the home of Castro, cigars and Cuban rum.
From the moment you get on the bus that takes you to your piece of purchased paradise, the love of Cubans for Canadians is real.
Having been to four different continents, I've gotten used to Canadian money not being the currency of choice when landing in a foreign land.
Exit the airport through the gift shop and any number of vendors in Varadero happily take bills featuring faces of Laurier, Macdonald and the Queen. Two cans of Cristal brew for five bucks in 30-degree heat is a deal for anyone coming from a winter-ravished Canadian city or town.
With cold beer in hand, the bus begins the journey from Juan G. Gomez Airport to your all-inclusive resort of choice.
A local Sunwing worker gives you the lowdown on Cuba, old hat for many of the Newfoundlanders on our bus who can boast multiple trips to Cuba — including a few fine folks we've met who have been here seven times before.
It's clear from the tour guide's speech, which he gives three to four times a day, that he loves his homeland and has a great knowledge of ours.
References of Canadian kindness, hockey and snow mixed with the harsh realities of Cuba. Raul is stepping down in 2018, ending the nearly 60 years reign of the Castro's in Cuba. Guantanamo Bay is brought up, but only to point out where it is on the map hanging in the front of the bus.
Our guide doesn't shy away from the possibility that Americans may soon occupy the seats of their beloved Canadians.
Americans coming back to Cuba is a hot topic on the hot island. We've been in town for less than an hour and it's already a talking point.
Our Cuban friend offers up his opinion on the matter. (I'm paraphrasing here, as I may have had one too many Cristal delights.) "The Americans coming to Cuba is like your mother-in-law coming to your house," he said.
"The first time, she is very nice and lets you do things your way without comment. The second visit, she offers some advice on how you can do things better. By the third visit, she's telling you how to run your house."
A brief history of Cuban timelines gets cut short as we arrive to our selected resort destination. The end of the embargo is a distant memory for many once you ditch 16 feet of snow for white sand beaches, 32 degrees and Havana Club rum.
One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Cuba was to see Havana.
For a little more cash than the price of a group tour, my partner and I hired a car — a well-maintained early 1950s Chevy.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say I am sure it probably had a Korean or Japanese engine, but sometimes it's what's on the outside that matters most when the sun is hot and the rum is cooled with ice.
Our tour guide did these smaller tours on his days off from taking tourists to and from Varadero's airport. Well-spoken and well-educated, the young man chatted with me about all things Cuba on the two-hour drive to Havana.
He educated me on the constant struggles of the Caribbean's largest island in search of independence. You didn't have to search for signs of independence — pictures of Fidel's good buddy Che Guevara are everywhere. Literally, everywhere.
The local Cuban peso, which only locals use, has Che's face on the three-dollar bill. He's quick to point out Pierre Trudeau's relationship with Castro as a selling point to the love affair between his country and mine. He knows hockey and Canadian geography.
Conversation moved seamlessly from his iPhone plan (coverage is shoddy and expensive) to his love of baseball, the Bay of Pigs and the end of the American embargo. Like many Cubans, he's never met an American. Hundreds, if not thousands of Canadians, but never anyone living south of the 49th parallel.
He tells me it's what everyone is talking about; it's on the lips and minds of many of his countrymen and women.
They don't know what to expect, but they know what happened the last time Americans came to Cuba.
A stop on our tour, and every single tour ever taken to Havana, is the famous National Hotel of Cuba. In the '30s and '40s, it was a hot spot for America's mafia and entertainment elite. It houses a museum, of sorts, with photos of the famous Yanks who hung out there: Nat King Cole, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway (among many other Americans and folks well-known worldwide).
When the revolution took hold on Jan. 1, 1959, the American company running the hotel got pushed out and all the gambling stopped. The make-shift museum still houses a craps table from those days, as well as pictures of an aging Meyer Lansky in the hotel. My tour guide hasn't ever heard of Boardwalk Empire, so my knowledge of Lansky makes me come across a lot smarter than I really am.
Another stop on the tour includes two of the many watering holes of one of America's greatest exports. Not an over-the-top Hemingway lover, but I, like most grade-schoolers, read The Old Man and The Sea. As an adult, I have run my eyes over many more of his works and I wanted to see where the literary legend drank. Maybe even over-indulge myself.
Americans in Cuba being a hot topic these days, it felt fitting to see the most famous American in the Republic of Cuba. Ernest is a big draw to tourists. You can sit at one of his (remaining) haunts: La Floridita.
Refreshing drinks for $8 US, and the chance to gaze upon a bronze statue of the American writer, chained off to keep out the riff-raff (a useless security measure in a bar where the average age towers over Hemingway's when he died). I turned down tourist-trap-priced mojitos, but not before posing for a pic with the man himself.
We walked the streets through Havana, just as my partner and I have walked through many streets around the world. They're safe and comfortable, and the only thing the Cubans are pushing is under-the-table cigars and Che T-shirts. Street vendors sell $2 Cristal cans; tour guides and drivers sit in the shade waiting to drive guests back to resorts and then on to their own homes.
I've eaten Subway in Seoul, seen KFC in Ulaanbaatar and multiple McDonald's in Moscow, but there are no illuminated logos of American franchises along the Havana skyline.
That recent handshake between Barack Obama and Raul Castro is a big step forward, which could mean that could all change.
In Havana, not many are thinking about that as they sit near manicured lawns and a swimming pool, while a waiter brings them a few frozen margaritas.