I didn’t plan on going to Varadero. I imagined it to be Cubas version of Playa Del Carmen with crowded beaches and people selling coconut shell necklaces and green Fidel hats every 2 feet.
My daughter and her boyfriend were staying in an all inclusive on the peninsula and invited me to spend a night in their hotel: a comfortable bed, hot shower, and free food as well as the prospect of spending time with my girl sounded good to me.
I was surprised to find more Cubans than tourists on the public beach I landed on when I first arrived. There wasn’t a vendor in sight and no-one paid attention to me as I stripped out of my sweaty cloths into a bathing suit. I left my pack under a palm tree and jumped into the crystal waters. I’m not a beach person, but the water was about as perfect as it gets.
While Varadero is a tourist town and seems to offer the usual tourist activitie and the largest port in Cuba is under construction, the same Cuban hospitality and openness that I found in Havana still permeates the made just for tourists feeling.
early morning at the beach
near the Canimar river outside Varadero
I arrived at my casa in centro Havana after my first day exploring, sweaty, tired, hungry and ready to purchase a ticket to the countryside.
Fortunately rum in Cuba is cheap . I knocked on my roommates door , bottle in hand, and a couple of shots later I was ready to give Havana a second chance.
It didn’t disappoint .
The post-apocalyptic look of the buildings that you think no one could possibly live in, the heat and grime, the regular fumigations that force you to seek shelter through the closest open door or force you out of your home into the street, the challenge of finding good vegetarian food, the 6 different answers you get when you ask for directions, are part of Havanas charms. Or rather, the life that not only survives but thrives amid what looks like chaos and the warmth of the Cuban people takes you under its wing and makes you feel right at home.
If you visit havana, you will discover that friendliness and the ability to dance are highly useful skills.
You might strike up a conversation with a soldier who can speak 5 languages while waiting for the smoke from a fumigation to clear . You will learn that a taxi ride can mean stopping on the highway several times to chat with friends who your driver knows. If someone spots you swaying to a bachata beat, you will find yourself in the arms of a skilled lead . Walking down the street, you might hear the hottest live salsa music ever and be invited into a gutted basement to hang out with a group of youth practicing for a tour of Cuba. You will probably be offered a Cuban boyfriend or husband many times, but I never found the flirtation overly aggressive or over persistent. You will feel as though you have stepped back in time and and into the future at once as vintage cars speed along avenida Carlos 111 and galleries host vibrant modern art in crumbling colonial buildings.
And if you ask a local what they think about the Americans having more access to Cuba, chances are they will tell you that the extra business might be good, but they have no interest in becoming American. Sure there are restrictions to living in a communist system and the embargo made life even more challenging, but as one man told me ” we can all go to school and get medical care and we don’t worry about gun violence or homelessness over here.” The Cuban people have good reason to be proud.
strolling on avenida Reina
view from a taxi
reading Granma after Obama’s visit