Cuba in Two Parts

Cuba may be the only place in the world where you can be yourself and more than yourself at the same time.

Pedro Juan Gutierrez

Part One

MELIÁ INTERNACIONAL VARADERO
Varadero, Cuba

I’m going to do something a bit different this trip; I’m going to write about it in two parts. Part One will be while I am in Varadero and Part Two will be after I leave Havana.

Not many things give me more satisfaction than to rant, therefore, I will begin with one that will placate my soul.

Impressions Thus Far

I don’t like to fly east when I’m headed west. There are over 25,000 commercial airplanes and more than 5,000 airlines in the world and they couldn’t create a more direct route to Cuba? These days when you have to vaccinate, no triple vaccinate, test, inform governments of your whereabouts, spend hours and hours at the airport while airlines drag you through the tedious process of checking-in; making sure that every ridiculously random requirement is met , mask up for the entire duration of a flight (but no worries, the virus doesn’t show itself when 400 people are eating their much anticipated airline food), deal with angry people who resent having to go through this tedious process so that they can finally hug grandma after two years of waving on Facetime. After two flights and 12 hours suffocating in a petri dish in the sky, I arrived in Cuba. “They’ll be someone outside the baggage area holding up a sign with your name on it;” at least that’s what the travel agent told me. So after taking an Uber to the train in Faro, and then another train to the Lisbon station, followed by yet another train to the airport, a three hour wait for a flight to Madrid — chaotic and way out-of-the-way mind you, another long wait for a flight to Havana, the last thing I wanted to do at midnight in a different time zone, is look for my name among hundreds of frustrated tourists and thick tropical humidity I haven’t experienced in several years. Nope no Christopher Papagni or Chris Papigmy or Mr. Pagannini, C. Papa, Papadopolous, none of the above. I was delirious and asking random strangers if they knew that I was coming to Cuba. It was another one of those “he must be American” moments. After dozens of fruitless inquiries, I came upon a very relaxed gentleman holding up a “Travelplan” sign. I approached anticipating rejection and and rigorous head shaking . He asked me my name and then said, “Yes, I’ve been waiting for you.” How the fuck was I to know to look for a sign that read Travelplan. I took and deep breath and followed him. We walked for quite a bit. When you’re that tired your mind starts to come up with all sorts of possible scenarios. If I’m murdered in Cuba will the American government try to find my body? I am still American after all. Come on, I thought, the Cuban MIssile Crisis was a long, long time ago and Fidel Castro is no longer a threat. We arrive at a large transport bus and I ask if that’s how I’m being taken to Varadero — no reply. I’m handed over to two Cuban gentleman who inform me that I am the first of 18 passengers going to various hotels in Varadero. I said, no, no, no, I’m going to take a taxi. I was informed that Varadero was 2.5 hours away and that a taxi would run me quite a few pesos. The bus driver said, “No te preocupes, la tuya es la segunda parada.” (Don’t worry, yours is the second stop). In my deranged and irrational mind, my travel agent was, at that very moment, being roughed up by a thug or two in a dark alley in Warsaw. The bus driver told me to have a seat in the bus while we wait for the remaining 17 passengers. I could see in the distance that the hundreds of people waiting outside of the terminal, were gone. Holy shit, I thought, these people we are waiting for could be on an early morning flight. I boarded the bus and prayed that an early death would come and put me out of my misery. I dozed off and was awakened by Russians chatting all around me. Yes, the other passengers were Russian and they seemed to have a lot to say. One of the two Cubans I had originally encountered approached me and and informed me that if I wanted Cuban pesos, I had better get them from him. He pulled up the government’s exchange rate on his phone and told me that my hotel’s rate would be even less to my advantage. He could give me a 35 pesos to one euro rate and that my friend is one hell-of-a-deal! At that point I was happy to have something good come my way and I handed him forty euros; in return I received 1400 pesos in small bills. I’m going to momentarily take a detour and share that my bellman at the hotel offered me a 70 to one exchange rate only hours later. It was a minor con job, but my lifetime belief that I am a savvy traveller has forever been shattered. I digress a bit, but you see, I am jet lagged and broken. The bus ride to Varadero took an eternity and all I could think was that I paid for this night at the hotel and wouldn’t be using it; this is not some flea bag spot in an obscure location, this is a five star, all inclusive resort we’re talking about. Was it a late check-in or an early check-in? A question that will haunt me for the rest of my life.

I should tell you tell two things: 1) I normally do not do travel agencies; I love the process of doing research and finding bargains and gems, and, 2) I don’t do all inclusives.

But this trip was different. I couldn’t just book a trip to Cuba when I lived in the United States. The government made it difficult to go and my one solid opportunity fell through when I was volunteering with the James Beard Foundation. The owner of The French Culinary Institute informed me that she needed me more than I needed Cuba. So for years, this journey has been calling my name in the wee hours of the night. By being a Portuguese National, I could get a visa and finally go. I started searching on the internet; where to stay and how much it would cost me, however, I quickly learned that the information was convoluted and confusing; I’m pretty sure that’s on purpose. A travel agent who could navigate the confusion was the only way to go.

So yes, I finally made it to the resort close to sunrise. I entered my very beautiful room on the straits of Florida (the body of water outside my window). I was told that breakfast would be available in two hours, but I figured sleep was more important than food; I drew the curtains and closed my eyes for 45 minutes. Despite my comatose state, I was too excited to sleep.

First Impressions

I need to begin with a disclaimer:

As a result of my position at The French Culinary Institute in New York City, I have travelled extensively and wined and dined at some of the most famous restaurants in the world. This has made me a food snob and I make no apologies. I also had a father whom I still consider to be one of the finest cooks I’ve ever known. Hence, the reason I despise all-inclusives. I prefer dishes prepared for one person or a small group of people, to those prepared for the masses. I also live in Portugal where hospitality standards are high and the people who provide services are exceptionally nice. And the food in New York City where I was born, is hard to beat as well.

In addition to all of this snobbery, I also like what I like and I prefer to sleep on a good mattress and not have to worry about bed bugs. Judge me as you wish.

And . . . people always say take lots of pictures. Let it be known that I am practicing living in the moment; that usually does not include picture taking — I will try my best.

Keep in mind that I booked this trip over two years ago and it’s been postponed three times. Getting to Cuba has been more difficult than running in the New York City marathon and that was painful, emotionally trying, and mentally exhausting.

I’ll start with the negatives I have experienced thus far:

The coffee in the dining room (breakfast and lunch) at this resort is like subterranean mud served with watered down milk. I am seriously addicted to caffeine, therefore, I have no other option but to suffer in silence. Starbucks would be a good option and I hate Starbucks. The pastries taste like cardboard covered in way too sweet cream. Savory dishes have very little seasoning and the bread is . . . let’s just say, an imposter — looks can be deceiving.

There are small children everywhere. I was pretty certain I would be in Cuba while school was in session all over the work, on-line or in-person. Aren’t these people at all concerned about COVID and/or the attainment of knowledge?

The hotel does not take Cuban pesos. I know. I’m in Cuba and I was conned into a shady exchange, but nobody told me I couldn’t pay with the countries currency. I asked the receptionist who checked me in and her reply was: “This is Cuba.” I have since heard the same words uttered 63 times and it’s only my second day in the country. Fortunately, they prefer euros and I did bring some of those.

As promised, the resort does have “free” WiFi. It’s setup so that you can only be connected on one device at a time. The username is 18 characters and the password another ten. If you move 15 feet, you are disconnected and you have to sign in again. I’ve signed in so many times in 48 hours, I know all 28 characters by heart and my memory is not one of my strong suits. I can’t get into many of my accounts or go onto secure sites; I can only guess why that is. Life without Spotify is meaningless.

One more gripe and then I will share some good stuff. I have come to an all inclusive high-end resort. But . . . you know how it feels when you’re sitting in the first row after first class on a plane? You see things through the crack of the curtain, the curtain designed to protect you from the reality of your economic status. Lest not my hotel remind me that I am middle class and on a retiree budget; you see, they have this thing called “the level.” If your wealthy enough to afford it, you stay in an “adults only” section of the hotel, dine in separate spaces with elevated cuisine (I think the food is better), and enjoy other amenities I have chosen to block out. I have seen several guests go there; not to be seen or heard from again. To this I say, let them eat cake.

What I Love So Far

The Cuban people I have had the pleasure to meet, are gracious, proud, lovely and they appreciate that you have come to their country to enjoy yourself and spend money; money they badly need. They cannot do enough to make you happy. It’s genuine and sincere. This alone was reason enough to come.

My mattress is unbelievable. My bed is firm and cushiony at the same time and the linen on my bed is buttery soft. The pillows are equally as comfortable and numerous. My room is spacious; the ocean can be viewed from my bed or the large balcony. When I close the door to the room or balcony, I hear nothing; open and the waves soothe any thoughts of the outside world.

To my pleasant surprise all beverages were included in the price I paid. Gratuities are welcome, but that I am happy to oblige. The wine is Chilean and actually quite good. Cuban rum flows like water and you don’t have to wait long for anything. There are numerous beautiful and tasteful places to enjoy the sun, a cocktail, and a good book. The beach is directly in front of the resort; the sand is powdery soft, and the turquoise sea is warm and calm.

I was not told the following when I booked the resort or when I checked in, but I get to eat at two of the four restaurants onsite (an alternative to all-you-can-eat) for dinner. I have already talked my way into a third. They do this sort of thing on cruises; it’s designed to make you feel special and that you have an abundance of marvelous choices. I admit it’s nice to have options. There is also a 24 hour snack bar just in case you become peckish between. You know how much energy it takes to sit by a pool or walk to and from the dining hall. I would have preferred quality over quantity, but my opinion doesn’t matter, I am alone in this world.

The weather is close to perfection; you get an abundance of sun and then a fantastic downpour at the end of the day (the case so far). The Algarve doesn’t get much rain, therefore, when the sky opens here, I rejoice. The warmest part of the day goes up to about 85 degrees and the nights are pleasant. There is a bit of humidity, but I tell myself it’s better for my skin.

The resort has live music day and night. The gym is excellent. They fill your mini bar twice a day — also included in the price I paid.

I found a beautiful painted tile by Manuel Hernandez, a well-known Cuban artist (see photo in my next blog; it’s all wrapped up for travel). I will cherish it and it will always remind me of this journey.

No excursions until I get to Havana. This part of the trip is about resting my mind. Swimming with dolphins and party boats have their time and place, not now.

Prologue: I had dinner at Casa Nostra, the Italian option, last night. It may be considered Italian in Littlerock, but I expected better from a five star resort.

Reading

I am reading The Every by Dave Eggers. It takes place about twenty years into the future; it’s foreboding and way too realistic. Social media, government intervention, political correctness; it will scare the shit out of you and you will laugh your ass off, but only because we are headed in the direction Eggers writes about. I highly recommend this read.

Side note: Today I tried the snack bar as an alternative to the buffet lunch. Unless it were 3:00 a.m. and you couldn’t pick yourself out in a line-up, you’ll want to stay away.

One of the many reasons I wanted to come to Cuba

Forgive any typos or unkind remarks, I have awful jet lag.

By CP

I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1959. I've lived in several different places, but this is the first time I have resided overseas. My career has gone in multiple directions; however, education is my passion. My Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration from New York University has opened many doors and for that I am grateful. Writing has become a pastime I enjoy and hope to further pursue. The future holds no limitations and I am keeping all of my options open. I have landed in Portugal and there is a vast and beautiful world to explore.

9 comments

  1. Loved, loved this post, Chris. Going to Cuba is on my bucket list, too. Your vivid descriptions, right down to the quality of pillows, made me chuckle. I hope the rest of your trip is full of all that you need and exceed your expectations including a few five star meals.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Like you so much Anne, writing about the last couple of days was a catharsis and I didn’t even need to embellish! I’m looking forward to Havana; Varadero was my forced initiation.

      Like

  2. Wow Chris! A roller coaster of emotions as I read this – from strong empathy to intense envy to laughing out loud. A great read yet again. Thanks 🙏😊

    Liked by 1 person

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