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Feasting in Cuba, Days 6 and 7

March 4, 2016

Day 6. February 11, 2016: No Traveling Mercies

Mike and I awoke early after a nice, sound sleep and strolled down to breakfast. No one in our group had showed up, so we lingered over it (oh, the joys of a good cup of tea!) for a while, but no one came along. We dawdled until we realized time was getting short before we had to board the bus for our departure. This would be the day we left Havana. We were eager to see what was next.

We packed up, got our luggage into the lobby, and waited. No one came. As time ticked by, began to  wonder, then we finally saw a few of our group straggling in. My attempt to give someone a morning hug was waved off. The problem? Nearly everyone had spent a miserable night suffering from the effects of either bad water or whatever they had enjoyed so much at dinner. Mike and I had escaped it, even though we had eaten the same things everyone else had. We couldn’t help but brag that we have exceptionally robust immune systems; living on a farm (and being a bit cavalier about hygiene), we have given our bodies the tools to combat all manner of horrible pathogens. Rick and Ruth, who had spent the day recovering from Ruth’s fall and had missed dinner also were spared, along with one other person whose hygiene I do not question. Even our bus driver was barely able to hold his head up.

I felt terrible for our poor group leaders! They were suffering on several levels. Not only were they sick, but they also were having to deal with the suffering of others. Fortunately, there was a doctor on call right there in the hotel. All the desperately ill were treated without charge, and the doctor assured us that the gift bestowed by Guarijito’s (aka “Hooter’s”) would be reported to the proper authorities. I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for the poor waitresses. It could be a long time before they got the chance to serve generously-tipping Americans. But then, perhaps not. Judging from the lax standards of the tourism bureau, maybe restaurants spreading food poisoning are not treated too severly. 

There was no question of waiting around until everyone had recovered before leaving the hotel. The Hotel Nacional is the premier hotel in Havana, and much in demand. Leyte, our travel agent, had moved heaven and earth to get us as many days there as we had, and no matter how bad everyone felt, we had to leave. Onto the bus we filed. Our usual chatty, laughing crew remained quiet for the whole trip, most of them curled into the fetal position. It was a long bus ride to our next destination, Varadero Beach resort, about 100 miles away.

On our way, we passed through Santa Cruz, a town that seemed to be built in the old Soviet style block buildings. It was surprising to see, and very out of place after all the grandly beautiful buildings of Havana and the neat, joyfully painted houses we had seen previously.

After a few stops to see some beautiful views, we finally pulled in to the hotel, an all-inclusive Caribbean beach resort, with an open-air lobby, and acres of luxurious pools, spas, restaurants, pavilions for bands and entertainment, and play areas. I had not dreamed that such a resort could belong in this third world country! Four open bars with accommodating bartenders stood in the corners of the lobby. In the event you felt the bartenders were not heavy-handed enough with the rum, there was a table by the reception desk loaded with all kinds of booze and mixers where you could serve yourself. All I could think of was, “Oh, Lord! Don’t let Spring Break bound college students find out about this one!” The open bar at the airport was just a little refreshment stand by comparison. This was an open invitation to kill two thirds of your brain cells.

FullSizeRender

Our Resort was far more than I expected

 

 

 

 

beach

The beach I didn’t have time to enjoy

 

It was past lunchtime, so I strolled over to the all-inclusive restaurant, where, lo and behold, I found PIZZA! Ha! Paradise! It turned out to be one of the blandest pizzas I had ever tasted, but it was such a welcome departure from grilled meat and black beans and rice that I pretty much cleaned out the buffet. After we unpacked, I explored the property, but Mike was beginning to feel a little off. By dinnertime, he had repented of his bragging that our farm living had protected us from Castro’s revenge, and I skipped off to dinner alone.

Dinner was a sad affair. A few people managed to drag themselves to the party that fizzled. The food was not great, but I chalked that up to the fact that the place obviously catered to Canadian tastes (Canadian flags hung from the rafters), which are somewhat different from American tastes, and very different from Southerners’. We were supposed to have gone down to the beach for music and karaoke after dinner, but I don’t think anybody made it. I went back to the room to read and feel sorry for Mike who occupied the bathroom the whole night.

Day 7. February  13, 2016: Roads, trails, and rivers.

This was the day of our jeep tour. Mike and several of the others were still feeling bad, so a small number of us boarded the van to go to our departure point. I was not sure what to expect, but I certainly was surprised when our guide informed us that the cars would be driven by anyone in the group with a passing familiarity with a stick shift. Never mind that I did not have my driver’s license with me; the fact that I could handle a clutch made me designated driver to three other trusting souls. With a sense of adventure and pride, I called for a posse, and was not surprised when three of the four Las Moras (the fourth was back at the resort, still dealing with her bad stomach) jumped right up to volunteer. Off we went across the back roads of Cuba, feeling like Thelma and Louise x 3—the car with the hottest chicks.

Thelma

What an adventure! The roads were terrible: rutted, rough, and muddy. I soon had to make a difficult decision: Do I run straight over the 12 inch deep ruts and holes (resulting in the shortening of everyone’s spine), or do I try to avoid the holes and ruts by swinging wildly from one side of the road to the other? (this might not be welcomed by the ladies in the back seat who were still recovering from upset stomach) After a brief consult, everyone decided that swinging wildly from side to side was preferable to shortening our spines and rattling our teeth out.

We drove into the rough countryside, by farms that were not as prosperous-looking as the ones we had seen on the earlier part of our trip. However, they all had the same enviable dirt and tidy rows of vegetables, and although the people seemed very poor, they were clean and proud. Children ran out to see us pass by. A few held out bunches of flowers they were hoping we would buy, but there was no time to stop or even slow down. It had not crossed our leader’s mind that the road needed to be negotiated carefully. Every time I slowed for a series of deep ruts, I was left in the dust, and I had to floor it to get back up to the line. By the time we made it to our first destination, we had driven through a few muddy rivers, across chasms, over fields of stubble, our car was missing a few nuts and bolts, and it looked as if it had been wallowing in a pig sty. We hot chicks who were still up for anything were hoarse from shrieking.

Our first stop was at a small farm in the middle of nowhere. Like every other farm we had seen, it was marvelously tidy, although the homestead did not look nearly as nice. 

 

outback farmhouse

 

The farmer had left his turning fork stuck in one of the rows, and, lured by that beautiful, black dirt, I gave it a try.

Dear friends, that soil is heavy, dark, and impossible for an old lady to turn. I came away with a deep respect for the farmers in Cuba, who do every bit of the work by hand, by ox, and by horse. The whole time we were on the island, I saw exactly two plowing machines. I don’t know what happened to all the heavy equipment used at the big plantations before the Revolution, but I am sure they are missed by the average yeoman farmer today.

Roberto and the good dirt

Roberto turning the soil I couldn’t lift. Note the handle to the turning fork made from a crooked tree branch. Also notice that beautiful dirt.

 

Leaving the central farming areas, we made our way to a cave containing a deep-water pool of clear fresh, sparkling water. After half a century of swimming in Tennessee and North Carolina rivers and creeks, which are cold enough to set jello (not an overstatement), I have, in my old age, declared that I no longer do cold water. I say this so you will know how extremely brave and adventuresome of me it was to actually get in said pool. I’m glad I did. The water was not nearly as cold as I expected it to be, but refreshing and invigorating. The only hard part about the experience was trying to get dressed again after the swim. Shucking a wet swimsuit behind the bushes under the cover of a skirt pulled up around my neck is harder than I remembered it to be.

pool

The adventure continued. We next made our way to an odd touristy kind of marina where some native Cubans, dressed in loincloths and a bit of body paint danced for us. I didn’t understand the context, and observed the ceremonious dance in a very perplexed state.

native dancers

From there, we took a boat trip. By then, we were seasoned road warriors, and were not in the least fazed when it was revealed that we also were responsible for driving the boats. I relinquished my Thelma position to Vedia, who admitted to a familiarity with motorboats and took the helm. I got in the right boat. Wendell, the young Cuban who had been our guide for most of the week, had never even been in a boat before, but that did not stop him from boldly stepping into the Captain’s chair. During the trip upriver, the extent of his inexperience became very evident, but he never stopped smiling, even when he nearly rammed another boat.

captain Vedia

Captain Vedia

 

river

We made it to our lunch destination with only a few tiny mishaps to a riverside open-air restaurant where we had our usual choice of fresh fish and seafood, roasted pork or chicken, and—you guessed it, all the black beans and rice you wanted. Not to sound like a broken record, I had pork, black beans and rice, papaya, pineapple, and cabbage. I wanted to tell my cohorts to shut up about how good the fish was. Apparently, there are many different types of fish in the seas and the rivers, and they all taste different, unlike the different types of chicken and pork.

But the live music and the lovely spot down by the river which invited a restful moment and a nice conversation with a Chinese woman who had settled in Toronto made the lunch a happy experience indeed.

other river pic

I got behind the wheel again for the trip home, and was more than a little glad that my driving did not cause anyone in the back seat to lose her lunch. I, however, was beginning to realize that I was going to lose mine before the night was over. Mike and I switched places. I spent the evening and night throwing up in the bathroom while he went out to enjoy a good slab of beef at the dining room.

 

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