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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tales from Cuba

I spent the last two weeks of January in Cuba, on a continuing education tour with the University of Saskatchewan. The group (16 of us in all) was primarily birders, and despite the fact that I am not a birder (or wasn't, previously)—and that I was approximately 30 years younger than everyone else except my sister—it was unequivocally the best experience of my life yet (far surpassing National Youth Choir, which had until now been the best—I guess great things come in two-week chunks). We were guided by the fabulous Juan Carlos (one of my most favourite people in the world) through cities and countryside.


As always, my first concern was migraines. I had been weaning off my daily medication so that by the time the trip came around, I would be finished with it. I worried that the withdrawal would trigger headaches while I was away, but I packed a lot of Maxalt along with regular tylenol and advil. If there was one thing I was prepared for, it was headaches!

I didn't actually get any headaches the whole trip until the second last day. Instead, somehow a fair number of us got sick about a week into the trip (not pointing any fingers, but perhaps next time *someone* might consider not traveling with untreated viral pneumonia). This I was not prepared for. Going through my scrawled notes, a particular theme becomes apparent: "Things to bring next time: cough syrup, lozenges, cold medicine ..." During a lunch stop in Cienfuegos City, I went into a pharmacy but they said they had nothing resembling an antihistamine.

In addition to the virus, I reacted unexpectedly strongly to the mold (and every single place we stayed—except the military resort at Topes de Collantes, which was immaculate—was so saturated with mold that it seeped from the curtains and out of the air conditioner). I only have allergy problems during the spring cherry blossom season here at home, so I didn't take along any allergy medication at all. Amy miraculously didn't have a mold-reaction, and kindly shared her medication wealth with me. We referred to the whole rotten virus-mold deal as "plague."

Eventually, my coughing became worse than the time a couple winters ago when the doctor gave me narcotics in an effort to spare my lungs. Using every single antihistamine-type pill that my entire family had brought along (very good thing that none of them needed the pills), I was able to ration it out so as to last until the departure day. There wasn't enough to be comfortable or allow for a proper night's sleep, but it was far better than nothing.

That last week was more miserable and unpleasant than I can really explain. One evening I skipped supper and stayed in my hut coughing, until a terribly sharp pain started in my abdomen. For the rest of the night, it felt like something might burst with every cough, but that was about the worst. We went on a 6-hour catamaran ride while at Cayo Las Brujas, which I mostly spent in a fit of unstoppable coughing; since I couldn't even breathe above water, I didn't dare try snorkeling, though the corals and fish were reportedly spectacular. I did enjoy the delightful dolphins on that catamaran trip, though; one of them wouldn't stop kissing me.

The last couple nights were in Havana, in Hotel Ambos Mundas ("where Ernest Hemingway stayed" is its claim to fame). Piano music drifted up through the lacy wooden shutters from the lobby below at most hours of the day/night, but the mold was worse there than anywhere previously. Between that and too much sun during a city stroll, my head gave in and I had to spend an afternoon/evening writhing in bed. Maxalt to the rescue! By the time we had to leave for the airport the next morning, I was able to stand without throwing up. Anyway, I think that just about satisfies my need to wallow about the plague aspect of the trip.

There was so much so see and experience in Cuba, but I don't feel that I could do it justice. The unique warbly call of the Cuban crow. The 60-km causeway to the cayos that looks like an endless highway stretching into the sea with no particular destination. The young boys who want to sell you their pesos (which have Che Guevara's face on them) for your more valuable convertible pesos (which don't). Scattered flamingos wading through the swamp as far as the eye can see. Fossilized corals all along the path to a series of caves. Narrow cobblestone city streets filled with people and a few carts drawn by a thin horse. People napping inside their old-fashioned automobiles at the seaside resorts (automobiles which are always bright and completely rust-free, despite the salty humidity). A man with a chicken tethered to his straw hat, as a means to make money off photo-taking tourists. Throngs of Cubans milling around at highway junctions, holding pesos in the air and trying to hitch a ride to work (days in advance). The ceremonial parade of colonial-attired soldiers performing the nightly cannon shoot in La Cabana castle. Beachcombing Cubans trying to sell you conch shells (which we were advised were illegal to bring back to Canada), and striking up conversations in broken English ("Which province you from? Quebec? Saskatchewan? Winnipeg?"). The fading sunset over Zapata swamp, and the lengthy bus wait inside its closed iron gate as our guide walked to the gatekeeper's home so we could escape. Weather-worn apartment buildings streaked with black from the humidity, always with clothing hanging on the balconies in an attempt to dry. Seashores of sharp limestone pocked by centuries of erosion. Warm salty waves lapping around your ankles as the clear blue sea crawls up the limitless white sand beach (and not a single person is suntanning). Palm trees growing on sheer cliff faces. Lone, tethered livestock grazing by the roadsides. The flash of bat wings as they silently flit in and out of lamplight as dusk sets in, drawn by the mosquitos hovering around a table of tourists (drawn by the mojitos). Hotel towels and blankets folded each morning to resemble animals, complete with flower petal facial features. Cubans standing in the meridian of the highway (or right in one of the lanes) holding up blocks of cheese for sale, miles and miles away from anywhere. The unapologetic bump of a Soviet truck's bare metal seats up a windy mountain trail. The sinus-clearing sting of jincila, a concoction made of ginger, honey, water, lemon, rum (mine without), and pure fire. Guava jam and cheese.

Blue-headed quail dove, Cuban trogon, parakeet, Cuban parrot, Cuban crow, bee hummingbird, flamingo, Cuban pygmy owl, strigid owl, screech owl, roseate spoonbill, wood stork, cattle egret, great blue heron, Cuban tody, ovenbird, Zenaida dove, great lizard cuckoo, brown pelican, Cuban bullfinch, Cuban green woodpecker, pied-billed grebe, stripe-headed tanager, American coot, yellow-headed warbler, nutcatcher, caracara, emerald hummingbird, turkey vulture, black hawk, ibis, reddish egret, frigatebird, kingfisher, peregrine falcon, cormorant.

What impressed me most about Cuba was the complete lack of Americanization. And although Cubans would undoubtedly like to do things like use the internet, have more than the bare minimum of amenities, or listen to non-80s pop music (or maybe that's me)—still, there's a purity to Cuba now that I'm very glad I got to experience. I have no doubt that all that will change, and Starbucks will drop down its spreading roots into that beautiful country (much like its native mangroves). I realize that it's easy for a tourist to say that it's a shame Cuba will have to succumb to capitalism, since at the end of the day I got to go home to simple luxuries like ballpoint pens and flushable toilet paper, but there you have it.

Things I will remember most from Cuba:
  • the unspoiled natural beauty: being a nature-oriented tour, we got to see a lot of it. Nobody documents Cuba's nature better than Juan Carlos—his photos are amazing.
  • the food: they served us the most fantastic soups imaginable. We were warned that we would find the food bland and repetitive; I didn't find it at all bland, but it was basically always the same meal (vegetables, an unreasonable amount of rice, and your choice of fish/chicken/pork/beef).
  • the dogs: there were stray dogs everywhere, really dainty little things that quietly and hungrily watched you eat, or lay baking in the sun in the city squares. Sometimes they're wearing clothes.
  • the music: every day a new group of musicians would set up in whatever restaurant we were eating at, play music, and gather tips. There were at least a couple particular songs that every group played.
Victoria. Saskatoon. Varadero. Havana. Vinales Valley. Zapata Swamp; Playa Larga, Las Salinas, Bermejas. Guajimico. Cienfuegos City. Trinidad. Topes de Collantes. Hanabanilla dam; Rio Negro. Cayo Las Brujas. Jardines del Rey Archipelago. Havana. Varadero. Saskatoon. Victoria.

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