May (pt. 1: Cuba Libre)

As previously noted, I’ve had a work-reprieve this month. I cannot remember (outside of a slightly scary 3-month spat of unemployment in late 2001) when I’ve had more than a week off. So, fittingly, I wanted to do as much as possible with May as I could.

It started with my wife and I taking a well-deserved week’s trip to Cuba. I was extremely nervous leading up to it, as the film I’d completed had some last-minute snags (“What’s that? The print that went to Cannes has the wrong shot in it? [pause] Oh.”) and I had nightmares of me having to check my email and cellphone messages from the Caribbean. Thankfully – and I must make this clear because someone deserves it – everyone has left me alone. It’s as if I had a guardian angel come down from heaven and lift someone off the floor by their shirt in some office in L.A., saying to them “You mess with Cahill, and you’re messing with Jesus, pal.”. Or something like that.

It was my second time in Cuba, and my second at the same resort – a place on the outskirts of Havana province, about an hour’s drive from Varadero. It was my wife’s first trip, however. Her first trip, as well, to a country that inherently spoke neither English nor French. Of course, on the resort they do (even German – in fact, one of our guides was fluent in Czech). I’m not necessarily a “resort” person (though I will reflexively take the free drinks and snorkeling any day of the week), however I knew that the location of the place was central enough to allow us the latitude of taking day trips to Havana city and other areas. In other words: beach, drinks, sun, snorkeling, and the freedom to escape.

Our first outing was a morning hike, led by a guide, up the hill (250 ft.) that was directly south of the resort. A steep climb that claimed many. However, at the top, we were able to walk through some local farms where they processed sugar cane, fruits, and whatever crops were possible in the bone-dry soil (it being just prior to their rainy season).

Our second outing was Havana. I love Havana. It’s hard not to love it there. Yes, it’s dirty, sometimes smelly, and some of the locals like to prey on turistas. That said, in many respects, it’s a world frozen in time (like much of the country). Beautiful architecture, friendly people.

Our third outing was in a small port city, called Matanzas. It only recently opened itself up to tours and at times we found ourselves being stared at like aliens. As luck would have it, we were there for The World’s Longest Rumba. Apparently, a group of people were going across the country, from town to town, performing live rumba. It was amazing, which brings me to another thing I love about Cuba: the music. Even the potentially corny mariachi bands are amazing. Even if you’ve heard Guantanamera (trans: “girl from Guant√°namo”) ten thousand times and feel as if you can retire it from your memory, you’ll still find your foot tapping under the table when it’s played there. Matanzas was a treat. Our guide – the one who was fluent in Czech – took us a local farmers’ market; a narrow maze of shacks where vendors sold fresh indigenous vegetables and grains, not to mention cuts of pork. Someone there handed us “ladies fingers” bananas (or “mini bananas”) – de-lish-ous.

I love Cuba. It’s a country of strange proportions; slightly surreal in the fashion of Latin American “fantastic reality” fiction. There are overpasses on the highway which remain unfinished after decades, old Soviet-era electricity generators which look like rust-bitten sci-fi nuclear reactors, short street dogs which roam the cities in curious packs. Unlike other countries I’ve been to, I must say that there are very few which can match Cuba for national pride. The people love their country – politics right or politics wrong – and this pride is immediately noticeable, regardless that the average monthly income is 350 Cuban pesos (roughly 15 Canadian dollars).

I wasn’t there to investigate politics. No one there knows what to expect from Raul Castro, short of taking his word that he requires a year to generate ideas to take Cuba forward (though tempting, I thought it pretentious to put quotes around “ideas” and “forward”; I’ve decided to keep it all verbatim). The Cuban people have come out of a very, very dark time. After the fall of the Soviet Union, they were essentially abandoned by their largest trading partner in the early 90s, which meant disaster for a country who’s main export was sugar cane; in other words, they were left to fend for themselves – another Haiti, albeit with a better music scene.

In the last decade they’ve managed to get back onto their feet economically, but it wasn’t without a number of years of extreme hardship. We were told stories of what people subsisted on and it reminded me of what I’d read about the siege of Leningrad: people eating leather for nourishment, cat becoming an ingredient in restaurant food…fun stuff. Canada has become a welcome trading partner since, helping with the development of their oil resources. They now trade their abundance of skilled doctors for petrol with Venezuela. Their greatest export now (aside from educated/skilled workers) is nickel, which they trade extensively with China. Running third is tourism.

I was happy to contribute, as I certainly (and always) learn much in return.

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