Cayo Santa Marian Road Trip

Four articles ago I was writing from the balcony of my hotel in Cayo Las Brujas, relaying the events of the previous two days and I never did get around to mentioning how I got there.

Car.  Rental car.  Licence to drive.

‘A1’ is a six lane highway connecting Havana to Santa Clara (and beyond).  You could say I was passing everything in sight, but that would be a misleading statement.  Most of the things I passed were trees, signs, and/or cheese salesmen.  Cars were a seldom seen thing.  A1 is perhaps the only six lane highway in the world that seems deserted most of the time.

The road from Santa Clara to Cayo Santa Maria was something different altogether.  The maximum safe speed on this ‘highway’ was about 60 km/h.  This drive was a twisting, winding, turning, strange alchemy of old cars, horse carts, bicyclists, pedestrians, trucks, motorbikes, vespas, goats, towns and villages.  I’d round the top of a hill at highway speed, only to slam the breaks to avoid smoking a bicyclist — in most cases, just peddling away down the centre of the road, without a care in the world.  Over and over again this happened.  Sandra didn’t seem to understand my aggravation because this is how life works in Cuba.

Still, the drive was breathtaking (not a reference to any potential bipedal road kill).  I found Cuba’s country side to be  beautiful, and the life of the towns and villages, vibrant.  The narrow winding road skirting a couple feet above the Caribbean Sea and into the Keys was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.

‘The Witches’ is actually more a string of self contained cabins than a hotel.  Each cabin features a balcony with a view to the Sea.  I could just sit there all day long, drink beer, and watch the horizon.  Sandra and I seemed to have the place to ourselves.  We only saw a handful of other guests.  At one point, while I wrote on the balcony, Sandra disappeared and took the opportunity to walk naked alone along the 2 km stretch of white sand beach, not another soul in sight.  Later, we drove 10km to the storied and historic town of Cayo Santa Maria.  It’s beginnings go all the way back to… December, when it first opened.  Once again, we literally had the place to ourselves.  We walked into the centre square and a band began playing upon seeing us.  We walked into a piano bar and the pianist started up, breaking the silence, happy for an audience.  The bar tender seemed desperate, almost grateful that we ordered drinks.

This whole tiny island might literally be one of Cuba’s best kept secrets.

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Trinidad and the Rental Deposit Too

On Tuesday afternoon we packed up and drove to the historic colonial city of Trinidad.  Once again the four hour drive proved amazing.  This time I was better prepared for everything the road had to throw at me.  In fact, I was even getting a little cocky.  In no time, I found myself navigating the city’s narrow packed cobblestone streets lined with humanity, colonial houses, and vehicles of every size.  We stopped, looked around, had a drink, and then decided to head back to Havana.  With a little luck, we could be home by 10pm.

Sandra suggested a route that seemed unnecessarily long to me.  I pointed out a road on our map that was much shorter, and therefore would put us back on A1 much sooner.  She looked at me skeptically and explained that my idea would take us straight through the mountains.  She also mentioned that she’d never heard of anyone who ever drove the full length of that highway before.

About 30 minutes into the drive I began to figure out why.  The road was diving and dashing in every direction.  There were no lines or highway markers.  Turns came up so fast and sharp, and the road was so pock marked with pot holes, I felt like I was driving a rally car through a goat path.  I couldn’t take my eyes off it for one second out of fear I might actually fly off a cliff.  There were foggy patches, and rain was imminent.  We had about an hour of daylight left with about 90 minutes of road ahead of us.  I didn’t want to be caught driving it in the dark through a torrential downpour.

We were like ‘Smoky and the Bandit’, with a long ways to go and a short time to get there.  We were trying to do what they said couldn’t be done.  Well… maybe ‘shouldn’t’ would be a better word.  I had to push hard, weaving through bad patches of road.  The car was shaking and vibrating with every pot hole we hit.  The engine was screaming as I tore though my gears.  Suddenly there was a loud ‘thud’ as I ran over a gynormous trench in the road.  I thought for sure the wheels were about to fly off.  “Thank God this is a rental car” and “I hope I can still get my deposit back,” were my predominate thoughts.  We stopped to check things out, and miraculously, the car was still in one piece.

A short time later I noticed the engine light was on.  We hit A1 in the dark just as the clouds opened up.  There was so much water, I could hardly see out the window.  The engine temperature was holding steady and we were back in Havana by 11:30pm.  As I turned the key to quiet the motor, I took a moment to reflect.  THAT was a motherfuckin’ breathtaking thrilling awesome drive!  We were home, safe and sound, and we had an amazing trip.

This morning, after running some errands, Sandra and I returned the car.  I had my fingers crossed as the guy gave the car a once over.  He called his buddy over and they popped the hood looking for the cause of the engine light.  I then I held my breath as he counted out my rental deposit and gave it back to me in cash.  It was all there.  A wave and a smile later I was out the door and really, the whole thing couldn’t have gone better.

Lily’s Birthday

It was Lily’s birthday on Wednesday night, and a celebration was afoot, Cuban style.  Sandra had been planning the party for her sister for some time.  She ordered steak and lobster from the Black Market and invited several of her friends over to partake.

My job was to get the bbq lit.  No small task.  I was told stories from years past, when igniting her coal fired bbq proved to be the most difficult part of the evening.  These tales of singed hair and machismo sucking defeats did not deter me.  I’m a former boy scout.  Give me wood, a knife, a match and I’ll light any fire.

The problems began to mount immediately.  Sandra’s bbq is actually not a bbq at all, but rather a basin from an old Russian washing machine.  I hacked away at three chunks of framing wood with an old rusty (and dull) hatchet, but couldn’t get the pieces as thin as I would have liked.  With fingers crossed, I laid the wood across a bed of coals in a log cabin type arrangement.  Everyone was looking at me… and had their doubts.  I was feeling the pressure.

When the fire didn’t light, Kinane, Lily’s Lebanese boyfriend, came by with some paper.  We rolled up the pages and stuck them in.  Still no luck.  Soon, Sandra came by with a couple cap fulls of alcohol and poof (literally), we had a fire burning on top the coals.  The wood caught fire first and eventually the coals followed suit.  My job was done, and my pride, though bruised, was still intact.

Most of the people at the party were, like Sandra, Cuban film creatures.  The rest were either long time friends of hers, or intellectuals.  I fell into so many conversations ranging from art to politics to politics to politics, my mind was spinning with ideas.  I was like a kid in a candy store, except the candy was free, and the store was a warehouse.

Conversations aside, the food and drink were also great.  We prepared skewers of meat and vegetables, taking care to keep the lobster and steak separate because they cook at different rates.  The rum was Seven Year Havana Club.  The beer was Bucanero.  The music was Latin.  Soon, the dining room became a dance floor as Sandra and her friends took over the room, dancing and filling the place up with atmosphere.  People came and went and came again.

I swapped emails with a number of folks and look forward to keeping the channel open on more thoughts and ideas as my mind simmers forward.  I’ll use alcohol to keep the fire burning.

La Vida Es Un Caraval

Well here I am… somewhere in the northern keys of Santa Clara Province, Cuba, sitting on a balcony overlooking the sea, and tapping my fingertips across my laptop.  It’s the middle of the afternoon and I’ve been feeling a burning sensation for some time.  Part of it is due to the splotchy crimson tan I’ve been working on and the rest of it bows to the fact that I haven’t been at my writing for a few days.

It’s been a whirlwind of experience beginning with my three American neighbours, Casey, Eric, and Jennifer.  Met ‘em at breakfast a couple of days ago.  Casey and Eric grew up together and live in LA.  Jennifer hangs her hat in San Francisco.  Three Americans in Cuba.  That makes ‘em kind of special in a not retarded way.  They were quick to laugh at themselves as well as at my jokes, so I liked them instantly.

As breakfast concluded, we sat on Marta’s balcony and undertook a painstakingly complicated operation called, ‘making plans to meet up later at 10pm’.  Fortunately we were all incredibly bright individuals and it only took us 37 minutes to figure out the best way to implement this operation.  It was elegant in its simplicity, yet complicated in its precision and we were all very proud of how well it all worked out.  We were to meet up at Marta’s sometime around 10pm and figure things out from there… and guess what?

We did.

But first came everything after ‘breakfast with my American neighbours’, but before, ‘making plans to meet up later at 10pm.’

Enter… the Australians.

I took the elevator down to Sandra’s and encountered a curious assemblage of Australians at breakfast, Daniel, Casey, Katie, and Lucy.  I drank coffee with them while they ate.  We all seemed to get along pretty well and we also talked about making vague plans to get together sometime before they left.  Soon we headed our separate ways.  I desperately needed to connect my laptop to the internet and they desperately needed to go be ‘Australian’ somewhere.

Getting on the internet is one thing in Cuba.  Being functional on it is quite another.  Dial-up is the best speed available.  Wireless is practically a myth.  Certain sites (such as the site that hosts my business email) are banned.  Publishing a blog requires world class hacking skills.  Not surprisingly, my cell phone doesn’t work here either (although Fido will work if you have it).

Same goes for plugging in your electronics.  Cuba uses both North American and European style electrical outlets.  There’s no rhyme or reason as to why one outlet style is used in one building, and another style is used in a different building.  ‘Inconvenience’ is the only possible answer.  When you’re forced to scramble around, spending time hunting for adapters or compatible plug-ins, you’re left with no time to think about the politics in this country.  Add ‘getting on the internet’ coupled with, ‘finding wireless’, and the government effectively kills all dissenting voices in the Cuban blogosphere.

I took a taxi to the Melia Havana Hotel in West Havana, wrote another blog article and set about getting online.  I heard that this hotel had wireless and the rumours turned out to be true!  As expected, I couldn’t publish my blog, but I was able to cut and paste my articles onto Facebook.  That’s something at least.  Photos will have to wait until I’m back in Toronto because dial-up is too slow to upload a few MBs of content.  Same goes for my blog.  I’ll continue writing but I won’t be able to publish it until I land in Toronto.

My thoughts now turn to my mother.  I believe the last thing I wrote read something like, ‘If you haven’t heard from me in 14 days, come looking.’  I guess I could send her an email, but mystery is better methinks.  Maybe she’ll worry about me, imagining the worst case scenarios, and then she’d wish she fed me more free suppers before I left so I’d know just how much she cared.

I’m hoping this way I’ll be bombarded with steak suppers upon my return.

La Vida Es Dos Carnaveles

I got home from the Melia Havana Hotel at around 8pm.  Given the long taxi ride, wifi internet, and excellent nooks to write about in, I figured there’d be no better place to spend the day getting things done.  To date I’ve lined up meetings in Toronto with HiFi HDTV, Canwest Global, and Bravo.  There’s a few others pending as well.

Sandra and I had supper on the 33rd floor of the Focxa, one of the tallest buildings in Havana.  There were windows, floor to ceiling that provided incredible views of the city at night.  I sat next to one of those windows and made the mistake of looking straight down.  But for one thin layer of glass, I was sitting exactly on the edge of this very tall building.  I felt my scrotum retreat, as if hanging on tighter might somehow ensure its own survival should something bad happen to me.  Sandra and I enjoyed two sandwiches, two beers, and a desert for less than $20.

Later, outside her building, we met some of Sandra’s friends.  Liz just won a literary award, providing her with enough income to focus exclusively on writing her novel for a year.  She’ll also be giving a lecture in the United States.  I congratulated her and mentioned a small piece of me died with jealousy upon hearing the news.

A few minutes later I met the Americans at Marta’s and we headed back downstairs to hang out with Sandra and her friends.  The night offered endless possibilities, from music to dancing to break & entry.  We settled on drinking beer at a nearby bar.  It was a perfect night for alcohol fuelled conversations.  We laughed, we got to know each other even more, and we closed the place down.  I covered our $10 bar bill (unbelievable) and Eric bought another 15 beers to go ($15).  From there we headed back to Sandra’s to keep the evening going.  On the walk home I looked up to her 13th story balcony and saw the Australians were home.

Sandra’s balcony wraps around two sides of her building.  It is dotted with bits of patio furniture and offers panoramic views of Havana, life bustling below, and the sea beyond.  Two sets of wooden shuttered patio doors open to the living room inside and a warm gentle breeze keeps the air fresh.  There really is no better place to have an intimately international medley of party proportions.

Add one part Cuban, one part American, one part Australian, a pinch of Canadian, a dash of Lebanese, sprinkled generously with music, ambience and beer… and you have a perfect beverage.

We drank it until very late.

La Vida Es Tres Carnavales

The next morning I had breakfast with the Australians back at the bar I helped close down the previous night.  I had a toasted ham & cheese sandwich, coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice for $4.  It took 45 minutes for them to serve the sandwich.

The plan was for us to meet the Americans in front of Sandra’s building at noon, and from there, head off to the beach in cabs.  Actually, it wasn’t a plan so much as it was an understanding.  The difference being that ‘plans’ take 37 minutes to come together and ‘understandings’ simply happen, almost by fate.

This was indeed fated to be a great day.  Ten of us fit into three cabs and the drive lasted about 25 minutes.  I was in the third cab with Casey and Casey.  American Casey had to get money for the trip.  We stopped at a couple of places before winding up at the National Hotel where he was able to get money.  Conveniently, American Casey had an Australian bank account (as did Australian Casey coincidentally).  American credit cards do not work in Cuba, hence the need for an international one.

In general, it’s best to come to Cuba with all the cash you’ll ever need for the duration of the trip.  There are no ATMs here, and even the currency exchanges are sketchy.  The system only works intermittently, and definitely not in any emergency (another fate).  Soon we were off and met up with the others, who were already starting on their first round of Mojitos.

My first swim in the Caribbean Sea was memorable.  As with the Black Sea last summer, the sensation of swimming uphill was something that took some getting used to.  The waves were waaaaaay bigger than anything a prairie lake could ever offer, and of course, the water was salty.  Actually, that’s not quite an accurate statement.  Waves do get that big on the prairies, but if you’re on the water when that happens, you’re probably about to have a really bad day.

Mojitos and Bucaneros (beer) assaulted us from every angle and the sun hit us even harder.  Laughs came in bunches.  Memories blurred.  Soon we were stupid drunk.  At one point Eric was overheard saying, “I think the English ‘Office’ is funny, but the British one is even better.”  We got to be pretty tight as a group and started talking about meeting up somewhere in the world a year from now.  Maybe it was the booze talking, but that still seems like a pretty good idea to me.

Later that evening, I woke up from an afternoon siesta.  I felt like I was stuck walking through molasses in slow motion while the world whizzed by me.  I think I might even have still been drunk.  Sandra and I made our way over to Habana Libre, looking to meet up with the others.  We had something to eat, but we couldn’t find anyone.  Just as well, I really wasn’t up for another night of intoxicating international relations.  Someone stole my second wind and its best not to argue with the body when it screams rest.

Typical Thursday Night

The music was so good, I caught myself forgetting to breathe at times.  Roberto Foncesca danced his fingertips across the keyboard and cast his spell, drawing me in so deep from the world outside, the room shrunk down to the size of me inside my own consciousness.  His saxophone man tickled the melodies, yielding and driving at just the right moments, in just the right ways.  So too with the percussion and bass.  They all took turns taking over, keeping us moving, keeping us tapping, casting us spellbound, and sending us diving into our drinks for just long enough to sip before the next wave overtook us.

Mojitos gave way to seven year old Havana Club rum straight, no ice.  It seemed more real this way.  More real like this city, more real like the music, more real like this club.  For decades the legendary Fox & Troll played host to all the legends.  Photographs of all the greats graced the walls and you could feel the history dripping off its walls.

The room itself wasn’t even that big.  Maybe a dozen tables crammed tightly together.  The band was playing no more than a couple of feet away from me.  All that intimacy slammed up against all that Jazz to create an experience that was perhaps one of the greatest things I’d ever seen.

And it was only a typical Thursday night in Havana.

Covert Suppertime Missions

Sandra and I had supper at a private restaurant last night in West Havana.  In the 1950‘s, West Havana used to be home to all the embassies, diplomatic mansions, and other wealthy citizens.  Today it is still home to a few embassies, but its primary residents tend to be government VIPs and other army officials.  No tourists populate this area of the city.

Before arriving at the restaurant, Sandra had to make a reservation because private restaurants (aka non-government restaurants) are only allowed to seat up to 12 people at a time.  The restaurant itself was located in a quiet neighbourhood side street.  There were high walls and no signage of any kind.  The doorman was there to keep surprise visitors out, as much as he was there to greet you and let you in.

As with any private enterprise in Cuba, certain things are not permitted.  Beef is forbidden to be served and can only be found on the black market.  It’s the same for other things like butter, spices, fancy lighting and other atmospheric touches.  Government inspectors, if they scratch beyond the surface of any such enterprise, will most likely find all sorts of violations.  Palms are greased, taxes paid, and doormen are made alert to keep things running smoothly.

My first impression of the place was that it had great atmosphere with a superb sound system.  A few steps later I realized that the sound system was actually a group of five musicians playing Son versions of popular Latin American songs.  They played without any electrical accompaniment and their voices blended together in perfect harmony.

The prices were great.  No meal cost more than $13.  We both ordered rabbit with some side dishes of vegetables.  About half way through our first Corona’s, Arturo Soto, a famous Cuban director walked in with two others.  Sandra recognized him from a workshop the two attended together.  It was the second time in one day that I found myself dinning amidst film creatures.

I replaced my Corona with a Mojito and turned towards my plate of rabbit.  Images of Bugs Bunny ran through my mind as I sampled the first few bites.  Everything was delicious.  The service was great.

Afterwards Sandra and I walked along 5th Ave towards 14th street and sat at the seaside for a spell.  We could see the lights of two fishing boats off in the distance.  There were other couples scattered around us as the music of their Spanish language bounced off the waves.  A short time later we flagged down a car and caught a ride home.

I’m still getting a feel for this place.  I look around and I see a lot of dysfunction.  Dilapidated buildings, broken infrastructure, and poverty is everywhere.  But I also see a lot of… I don’t know what the word would be.  It’s a manner of being I suppose.  Whatever it is, Cuba has it… tons of it.

And the world could stand to learn from it.

Havana

I woke up this morning and had breakfast with my neighbours, a British couple named Charlie and Michelle.  I ran into them briefly last night, but was on my way out to see Sandra and they were just walking in.  I regretted afterwards not taking a moment to talk to them, however breakfast was my chance to be sociable.  It turns out they’ve been stranded in Havana due to the Icelandic volcano.  They think they might be able to fly out tonight.  It’s too bad in a way… we seemed to be getting along quite well.

About half way through breakfast I asked them what they did for a living.  My jaw hit the floor.  Michelle is a free lance producer who just finished working on a British celebrity reality show, and Charlie is a director for a daytime TV drama.  After that, the conversation turned into shop talk.  I showed them my Dracula demo and they were impressed.  They were asking questions about some of the techniques we used and other behind the scenes stuff.  Michelle has close ties to a UK production company that’s been producing a ton of 3D content.  Since I’m already in the process of trying to land a UK broadcaster with a 3D version of the series, this breakfast might turn out to be quite fortuitous indeed.

Afterwards I headed out to spend some me time with the city.  Havana strongly reminds me of Bucharest.  It too is a city of extremes.  Extreme beauty and extreme ugliness share the stage.  Extreme poverty and extreme prosperity play together.  The biggest difference between the two is that the role of prosperity is played by tourists and the role of  poverty is played by Cuban citizens.

It takes some getting used to… Cuba is a communist country and poverty is shared more or less equally by everyone.  There are two economies here, one run by the government and one run by the black market.  Almost every restaurant, hotel, shop and service is government run.  Participating as a citizen in the government run economy is a dead end street.  You make a few dollars a month and have no hope of ever doing much more than that.

The black market is the only chance you have for getting ahead.  Everything from bathroom tiles to labour to other goods and services can be found.  Of course, there’s no easy way to buy or sell any of those things.  Lots of phone calls to lots of different people are the norm.

People still seem to find pleasure in the simplest of things here.  I’m writing this from an old broken down stadium by the seaside.  A group of children are playing baseball while traffic whizzes by.  There’s lots of sun and the pace here moves gingerly.  Cuba’s health care is universal and its mortality rates are comparable to those of other first world countries.  University education is free.  Culture is everywhere and I’m looking forward to experiencing more of it as the days tick by.

Last night Sandra and I happened upon a plaza in Old Havana when a carnival came by.  Clowns and stilt walkers, and musicians, and actors, and a whole mass of humanity made it’s way through.  Flocks of people followed them where ever they went.  Nothing about it seemed out of place.

After Midnight

It’s after midnight and there’s an eleven hour layover I have to endure before my flight to Havana kicks in.  I knew that when I bought my ticket and I thought I’d be smart by buying a $55 pass into Air Canada’s ‘Maple Leaf’ lounge instead of springing for a hotel room.  I figured I could hang out in some plush comfy chair whilst sipping beer and eating sandwiches (all included with the price of admission).  I’d sleep decently well and I’d get to pretend that I’m elite.

So now I’m sitting at a bar in my Toronto hotel.  The Maple Leaf Lounge closed at 11pm.  Now I have to wake up stupidly early and take the shuttle to the airport… not so much to get through security and all that, but to utilize the lounge while there’s still time.  I paid for it dammit and I’m gonna use it!

It’s been a pretty interesting couple of days.  Coffee with Chantel at Atlantis on Saturday got my imagination churning about drama and such.  I’m not spilling any secrets, but I will say that Chantel and her closest friends could fuel the imaginations of a thousand sitcom writers.  Afterwards I dropped in on another friend whom I hadn’t seen in months, and then I headed home to conclude the long standing ‘Firefly’ marathon with Shy.

And so now I sit here about twenty minutes after I started.  Got a plane to catch, some sleep to fetch, and a tab to pay.  I plan to write everyday, but I’m not sure what my internet situation will be in Cuba.  Sketchy at best methinks.  I’ll publish as many updates as I can on my blog, along with pictures.  But if you haven’t heard from me in fourteen days or so, come looking!