Beach bum

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Mar 01, 2007

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Flag of Cuba  ,
Thursday, February 15, 2007

Varadero fails to live up to my expectations for excess. This is a good thing. Perhaps the drunken hooligans are at other resorts. The Iberostar Tainos, named by a Spanish conglomerate (apparently without irony) after the original inhabitants of Cuba whom the Spaniards effectively decimated, is a kind and tranquil affair, where the friendly staff are still very much Cuban, the guests for the most part eat all the food on their plates, and profligate waste is not very apparent.

As for the other stereotype, about bad food, this resort offers palatable fare, although the bland juice makes me realize how much we've been spoiled by fresh-squeezed beverages in Cuban homes. Our hotel is about 2/3 of the way down Varadero's 20km white line of sand, and the further east you go the more expensive and inclusive resorts become. That said, I'm a bit surprised by what isn't included. Internet access, at $4 per half-hour, is expensive even by Cuban standards and laundry is the usual exorbitant hotel rate. But as everywhere in Cuba, a bit of Spanish opens doors. I manage to talk my way into the hotel's IT infrastructure room where a tech transfers my photos to a CD for free -- a service not offered officially by the hotel.

I work in IT, so the server room is a nice excursion for me. The hotel runs on pirated Windows 2003 server software. The network inside the hotel is solid enough, but the entire hotel, along with the $8 per hour tourist computers, connects to the Internet over a single 128 kbps modem. This is fast by Cuban standards. In most homes -- which are of course prohibited from having internet access -- the modems tend to be 14 or 28kbps.


An all-inclusive resort (at least this one) is like summer camp. Silly but fun games dot the day's proceedings, and the day staff running these also show up in the night's entertainment. Besides all the water and beach sports one would expect, like HobyCats, windsurfers, pedal boats and volleyball, you can try your hand at archery, dancing and target shooting. The kids' program at Lucy's Mini Club is excellent, and the whole staff from cooks to bellhops haul off Jonathan to jostle and show to their coworkers. The worst thing about the place is the music by the pool, which is almost exclusively a ten-year-old M People CD, on repeat.

Having my parents here really is a vacation in the middle of our trip. The whole family is happy to have some new blood around. Lucy wants Grandma to read her stories, get her lunch, watch her swim and even play Lucy`s version of The Little Mermaid with her. After having to relive the dialogue endless times, Julie and I were ready to stuff Ariel`s flippers down her throat.

Mom and Dad brought down a raft of supplies for us, including a whole new package of bigger diapers. Lucy quickly subsumes her new colouring books and toys, but the diapers may be unnecessary. Julie has mastered her toilet-sink technique for Jonathan. Every morning, she whisks him into the bathroom and dangles him over the sink. A few little coaxing pissing sounds, and voila, out comes pee. Add some faux fart sounds and a stream of inoffensive custard emerges from his butt. The pleasures of breast-milk-fed babies. The result of her technique is that my estimates on diaper usage are way over the mark. We may not even need the new package.

The resort is pleasantly free of Americans and so full of other nationalities. All the announcements for games (and MC'ing at the nightclub shows) are a demonstration in multilingual dexterity, normally delivered in Spanish, English, French, German, Italian and Russian. We find ourselves chatting with Brazilians, Swiss, Latvians, Poles.

Julie seeks out several families with young children... but it`s not for Lucy or Jonathan`s benefit. Instead, it's Compare My Physique to the New Moms. So far she's been a bit daunted by how fit all the new moms are, but pleasantly reassured that any in better shape have older kids ("She's had three months longer!"). For me, the greatest benefit of this place is long conversations with Cubans who speak English. The last month has been a case of so many questions, so little Spanish to pose them or understand responses.

Staff here have gone through 1-year training programs familiar to anyone in the tourism industry in Canada, and the hiring process is relatively parallel (ignoring the fact that everyone, from the employment agency to the hotel's HR rep, works for Fidel). Staff average about 60 hours per week, but if they miss any work, even with medical documentation, it's deducted from their pay. The Iberostar company pays all wages in convertibles to the government, where they are converted on a 1:1 rate and turned over to staff as 300 Cuban pesos. Average wage would be about CDN $15 per month.

Tipping is a hot topic at the moment, as the government recently made it illegal for staff to keep tips from foreigner. Everyone is supposed to put them into a big pot, which is skimmed by the government before being distributed among all staff. Although I've worked restaurants where a similar method applied, it really isn't the same in a big hotel, where you interact with someone for a week, not the duration of a meal.

And Cuba after Fidel? I never find anyone hypercritical of the revolution, but I don't find any cheerleaders either. I never have the feeling anyone is holding back (still, I ensure I don't name staff in my journal). Everyone is waiting to see what happens. I'm most surprised by the repeated worry that the US will invade the country -- a piece of propaganda I find almost inconceivable (although who knows what the Bush administration will think up). One thing that's clear to me is that staff at a resort like this, with excellent language skills and regular access to convertibles, are in a good position to better their lives when the inevitable change comes.
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mbgower on

Re: Inconceivable?
I'm more inclined to believe a full-blown economic invasion is more likely. Cuba isn't Panama. But yeah, maybe I'm a bit naive :) If you have a look at my final letter-to-the-editor entry, I link to some very alarming articles that ran in Canada's National Post on how ex-Cuban CIA-types in Miami are preparing for life after Castro.

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