Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cuban Adventures – 5 days, 7 nights in Cuba Part Five: Highlights, Lowlights, and Stuff In Between.

There are two things we noticed immediately about the Cuban people that we came into contact with.

First was their unfailing friendliness. It seemed that nearly everyone we dealt with was friendly, courteous, and helpful.

Perhaps that is in part because they were the lucky ones. No matter how bad we thought their job was, at least they had jobs. And maybe it was in part because of their culture, a culture dependent on us vacationers and our tips. Despite having to take the often unreasonable and undeserved abuse of a bunch of overtired and cranky vacationers, they still managed to turn around with a polite smile to help the next cranky vacationer.

The second thing we noticed goes hand in hand with the first. Everybody wants a tip. While we’re used to certain service positions coming with the assumption that tipping is their due (like waitresses, waiters, and hairdressers to name a few); that tip culture in Cuba seemed to involve everyone.

Imagine going on a local sight-seeing trip with multiple stops, a bus ride, boat ride, a meal, and a show – all inclusive – where every stage of the trip involves the people passing around the tip hat and cheerfully letting you know what is considered a proper tip. And then as you get back on the bus to go home, your tour guide reminds you to tip the driver too. By the time it’s all done, you’ve likely doubled the cost of that already pricey sight-seeing trip.

The big difference was that, unlike our local waitresses, these people were still friendly on the occasions when you didn’t tip. And let’s face it, when you spend a week at an all inclusive resort where everyone from the cleaning lady who makes your beds to the lifeguard at the beach are looking for tips every time they rush to do something for you – it’s not easy to always be tip-ready on your first inclusive vacation.

We struck it pretty lucky with our room by all accounts. Our room was huge for a single room, with not two but three double beds. It was nice and clean and in decent shape.

We had a bit of a trek to get to the main hotel and the beach, but it was a nice walk and we had only ourselves and a bag of sunscreen to carry. So, instead of a two minute walk, it may take us anywhere between ten and twenty minutes, all depending on how much the kids dawdle to look for the little lizards that come out in the afternoon.

Pool with "Snack Bar" in the background
The extra walk also meant we were in the nice quiet area where the kids were asleep within moments of going to bed, while their movie prattled on quietly to deaf ears. All the loud partiers were in the main hotel building close to the beach. But we still had a pool close by and a 24 hour “snack bar”, which turned out to be loosely translated from a bar that serves bar food like hamburgers, pizza, and hot dogs.

Some of the people from our plane that we talked to weren’t so lucky. One guy on his own was put in a small basement room of the main building. Some begging, pleading, and a tip got him moved to better accommodations.

A woman and her husband were put in a room she was completely unhappy about. But then this woman seemed to be completely unhappy about a lot of things every time we saw her. She said their room was full of mold that was painted over, peeling paint, and that she couldn’t breathe. All valid complaints, but despite her angry words, demands, and complaints, the hotel staff couldn’t find them another room. Oddly enough, it was about that same time that her husband got drunk and went AWOL. My guess is that he’d had enough of her complaining. This same woman had also been loud, obnoxious, and rude to the hotel staff on our first day, making sure everyone in the area knew she was tough enough to kick in the locked door keeping everyone’s baggage safe while we were all waiting for rooms to be ready.

On our way to the "family" buildings
Another family that was in the cluster of family buildings where we were had a room like ours, but poolside. We were envious until we found out they had no hot water (and that lasted for days). Being on the ground floor, they also found they were sharing their room halfway through the week with the large cockroaches common to tropical areas.

We did get our turn to rough it without hot water, but luckily it was repaired that same afternoon.

Of course, you also get what you paid for and we were in one of the cheapest low end resorts.

Ah, there's the beach ...
Most of the vacation was spent at the beach and visiting the two swimming pools.

Unfortunately, Sidney didn’t have a whole lot of fun, but all that lounge-time gave her lots of time to just sleep and get lots of fresh air. What better place to be sick than in a relaxing tropical paradise? The poor girl started running a high fever the night we arrived and was sick the whole vacation. Luckily we were prepared for it with all the medicines a sick kid might need.

I spent most of the week by Sidney’s side, sitting pool or beachside watching the other two have fun.

Let's go Dad!

Steve and Robyn, of course, were having a blast. Robyn discovered the coconut slushy (Pina Colada mix without the alcohol), and they both spent a lot of time playing in the water together.

Going in to ride the waves
Robyn couldn’t get enough of riding the large rolling waves of sea water, and thus our Robynism for today:

With the large rolling waves of the beach in Cuba, you wait and watch for the wave and turn away just as it hits, jumping so you ride the wave. Otherwise you’ll just end up with a face (and mouth) full of salty sea water and knocked off your feet.

Being all of about 3 ½ feet tall, Robyn couldn’t reach the bottom and happily rode the waves up and down in her life jacket. One day the waves were higher and even more fun for her.

With great delight she squealed, “This is AWSOME!!! It’s like riding a roller coaster from Evil Heaven!”

Of course, it’s not hard to figure out that at six years old she’s just coming up with the best way she can to describe that other place (Hell) – she just couldn’t remember the name of it.

That SPF 60 lotion sure did its job. With all those hours spent on the beach, we surprisingly weren’t all that more tanned by the end of the week.

Sleeping the bug away
It wasn’t all boredom sitting beachside with a sick kid, though. It was somewhat entertaining watching the people who were so determined to get deep enough to ride the waves, but just didn’t have the timing right. They would get just so far only to be tossed over on their heads (or arses) and out of the water by the waves.

I even managed to ride the waves myself once for a short time. I held on to Steve for dear life, of course. I’m not exactly a good swimmer. It was the day of bigger waves, but no yellow warning flag and we’d made it out past the knock-you-on-your-butt zone with no problem. We were a little further than most of the people in the water when three big waves came in, rolling in one right behind the other. When we looked after the third wave, we were suddenly two of the very few people left in the water. Anyone closer to shore had been dumped unceremoniously out of the water by the waves.

This was also when we had our third casualty of the week – my new bathing suit top and the first bikini I’ve bought since I was twenty (and I’m not even going to say how many years that’s been!). Apparently George bathing suits with plastic fasteners just aren’t meant to actually be worn swimming. Luckily for all the other beach goers, nobody saw a thing. The saggy boobs of a middle-aged housewife with two kids and a few pounds to lose is not something anyone is going to want to see.

And who doesn’t go on vacation without making at least one friend? Not my kid!

It didn’t take long before our usually outgoing six year old had bartenders giving her high-fives on sight, waitresses stopping her to give her a hug and a kiss on the head, and was amusing French foreigners sharing our lunch table in the packed cafeteria with her complaints the food wasn’t spicy enough.

Robyn and Steve even managed to make themselves a couple of friends very quickly in a single mom there with her daughters, one of them just the right age for our girls to play with. They played in the water at the beach and the pools, and even had lunch together when Sidney was feeling too sick to go for lunch and spent the afternoon sleeping in bed. The girls played in the sand at the beach and sat together on the bus for the catamaran and dolphins tour.

Hanging out on the catamaran
 We managed our one and only outing at almost the end of the week - a full day excursion on the catamaran. This was a boat ride with a stop for snorkelling, lunch on the beach of a small island, and swimming with the dolphins. With a sick kid all week and tips eating up most of our spending money, we were lucky to manage that trip. Unfortunately for Robyn, their friends ended up on another catamaran boat and, except for waving at them in the water during the snorkelling stop, we didn’t see them again until the bus trip back to the resort. Sidney and Robyn were too nervous to try swimming with the fishes.



Swimming with the dolphins

And some other stuff too – While most of the food was just different enough to make it not always very palatable, we always managed to find something to eat.

Well, all of us except for Sidney who was by far the fussiest person on the entire Island of Cuba. The rest of us ate well enough, especially when we ate at the “snack bar” and for our turn in the Italian restaurant. Sidney pretty much lived the week on not much more than bananas and water. We got her to eat pizza one day, one of her usual staples of life, and tried every meal to get her to eat something more than bananas. Apparently even the bread was inedible – she didn’t like the butter. The coffee was very different than we have here. And the pork chops they had at lunch one day were possibly the best pork chops I’ve ever had. Or maybe it was because we’d grown accustomed to the food there. Despite the lack of seasonings, we only broke out the salt, pepper, and garlic salt for our last two days of our vacation.

Another thing to get used to is the lack of toilet seats in Cuba. Finding a toilet the kids would use that had both a toilet seat and toilet paper available was a challenge. If you were lucky there was even soap too. But don’t count on anything but your pants to dry your hands on.

We must not forget what was probably the best part of the vacation for the kids – the day the clowns came!

And when at last our vacation was over, it was time for one more lesson in vacationing overseas.

Our flight home wasn’t as crazy early as the flight to Cuba. We were up early, rushed to pack every last thing and give the room a once over, and rushed off to put some breakfast in everyone’s tummy and double-check the time for the bus one last time.

We waited around a little, trying to find the bellhop to help with the luggage and, watching the clock closely, gave up and headed back to our room to haul it all for the long trek to the main building.

Now here’s where the lesson comes in. We got there, thinking we would still have time to wait for the bus, only to learn they’ve been waiting (and desperately looking) for us! We were half an hour late for the bus! I’m not sure if we would have been able to scrounge enough for the tax fare with tip to get us to the airport. Yep, we could have missed the plane, the only plane, and would have had to catch the next one – in a week.

The time on my watch had been changed!

I’m pretty sure I know exactly what happened.

Paranoid about not hearing the little watch beep alarm, worried about not waking up on time, stressing over what if we don’t make the bus – I couldn’t sleep. Most of the night was a groggy blur of fitful dozing and waking, checking to make sure it’s not daylight (remember, it was full light out well before six a.m.), and fumbling around in the dark for the watch on the night stand and trying (usually more than once unsuccessfully) to find the right button for the light to check the time before dozing off for a few more minutes.

Next time I’m bringing a backup clock!

But we made it, and after a very long wait and many lines followed by a much longer wait at the airport – we were on our way home to icy post-blizzard roads.


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