We arrived in Cuba after a seemingly impossibly short flight… well, an impossibly short flight preceded by a classic Josh and Sara route involving a 16 hour road trip with our roommates to the Traverse City Film Festival, a Real Madrid vs. Chelsea football match in Ann Arbor, Michigan, some intense archery and cake auctions and Gravitron shenanigans with Josh’s siblings at the Alma County Fair, and a quick road trip to Toronto with my wonderful mother in law.
With our only direct flight option being to fly into Varadero, our plan was to arrive there at 1:30PM and get out of there as fast as possible. As previously mentioned, there are a lot of opinions surrounding Cuba, and we were no exception. We had placed Varadero firmly into the category of tourist kitsch, brimming with resorts, overpriced key chains, and restaurants proudly advertising English-speaking servers. However, the vagaries of buying Cuban bus tickets online meant that the only bus that would bring us directly to Santiago de Cuba had us spending the next nine hours in Kitschityville Horror.
Resigned to our fate, we found a friendly Swiss guy to share a cab to the bus station from the airport (he was actually on his way to visit a friend in Vancouver, but as a flight with a 12 hour layover in Cuba was the same price, he had decided to hang out in Cuba for the day), found a guarda-equipaje for our bags (in other words, for $2CUC, we stood them behind the chair of friendly cleaning lady in the bus station), and then we ventured onto the streets of Varadero…
…And two blocks behind the bus station, found the most glorious white sand beach, sprinkled with only a few sunbathing bodies and a generous serving of reggaeton. Up the street from the water was a neighbourhood dotted with restaurants, where we received our inauguration to Cuba’s frustratingly charming habit of handing you a hefty menu while rapidly reciting the few choices that are actually available. (Side note: My favourite game while dining is now witnessing Josh’s unfailing optimism/denial* as he asks about a different dish that the waiter didn’t mention but perhaps may still be available, and then watching both the waiter’s and Josh’s faces fall into bemusement as the available menu options are repeated.)
While “No hay!” (We don’t have it!) is indeed ubiquitous in Cuban restaurants, the promises of apathetic service and bland food simply do not deliver. Avocados, spiced tomatoes, tender beef, fresh seafood, tropical fruit, and of course, the classic (and classically named) rice-and-bean dish “Cristianos y Moros” — literally Christians and Muslims — are served in huge quantities by generally smiling waitstaff
So what have we gathered so far? That some sections of Varadero are undeniably kitschy and removed from Cuban reality, while others are definitely not. That some food and certain sabores are lacking in Cuban restaurants, while others are most definitely not. And that some Cubans work in jobs they are not suited for and could care less about, while others (…following me yet?) definitely do not.
When there is a single and controversial political ideal that unites a country, it can be tempting to assign all responsibility for the small faults and annoyances in a country to that ideal. But with excruciating honesty, we admit that in our own country there is merchandise that is occasionally unavailable (I worked at Blockbuster on Friday nights, I saw the madness that ensued when we were out of Little Man!) and service that is occasionally the absolute worst (anyone else remember the terrifying Sub Zero lady?)
Yes, la Revolución has caused some difficulties, as further days of travel and future blog posts will uncover. But in our first few hours in Cuba, we happily discovered that first impressions can make a big impression on unfounded opinions.
*Editor’s note: While Sara has indeed derived much entertainment from my interaction with waitstaff, optimism/denial are not entirely accurate. Example 1: when you order pizza on the side of the road and the guy asks “cheese?”, it is not unreasonable to ask “oh, what else is there?” If he had simply said “cheese” — full stop — I would have accepted that that was the singular option and that, for some reason, he felt the need to state that. Example 2: when the waitress takes your order for pork, then asks if you want rice with a side of pork, I can not be alone in thinking that clarification is needed, amiright??**
**(Turns out no clarification was needed. I was, in fact, being offered pork with a side of rice and pork.)